Why study the Buddha's teaching?

Buddhism originated with an Indian prince known as the Buddha, who taught in Northeast India in the fifth century B.C. Two centuries later, with the support of the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhism spread over the greater part of India and from there traveled the full breadth of the Asian continent. In several tidal waves it rose up from its Indian homeland and inundated other regions, offering the peoples among whom it took root a solid foundation of faith and wisdom upon which to build their lives and a source of inspiration towards which to direct their hopes.

At different points in history Buddhism has commanded followings in countries as diverse geographically, ethnically, and culturally as Afghanistan and Japan, Siberia and Cambodia, Korea and Sri Lanka;yet all have looked towards the same Indian sage as their master.

In our own time Indian thinkers as different as Swami Vivekananda,Tagore, Gandhi, and Nehru have looked upon the Buddha as a model, as have Western thinkers such as Thoreau.... In the twentieth century, Buddhism has begun to have a growing impact on an increasing number of people in the West, and in its own quiet way it is sending down firm roots in several countries of the Western hemisphere.

Why the Buddha's teaching proved so attractive and gained such a large following among diverse cultures over 2500 years? The remarkable success of Buddhism, as well as its contemporary appeal, can be understood principally in terms of two factors: the aim of the teaching and its methodology.

The Aim of the Teaching

Unlike the so-called revealed religions, which rest upon faith in unverifiable doctrines, the Buddha formulated his teaching in a way that directly addresses the critical problem at the heart of human existence — the problem of suffering — and he promises that those who follow his teaching to its end will realize here and now the highest happiness and peace. All other concerns apart from this, such as theological dogmas, metaphysical subtleties, rituals and rules of worship, the Buddha waves aside as irrelevant to the task at hand, the unraveling of the problem of suffering.

This pragmatic thrust of the Dhamma is clearly illustrated by an incident related in the texts. Once a monk was pondering the great metaphysical questions — whether the world is eternal or non-eternal, infinite or finite, etc. — and he felt unhappy because the Buddha had refused to answer them. The spiritual life, the Buddha told him, does not depend on answers to these questions, which are mere distractions from the real challenge of following the path. He then compared the metaphysician to a man struck by a poisoned arrow. When his relatives bring a surgeon, the man tells him, " I won't let you remove the arrow until you let me know the name of the man who struck me, the type of bow he used, the material from which the arrow was made, and the kind of poison he used." That man would die, the Buddha said, before the arrow was removed, and so too the metaphysician, struck with the arrow of suffering, will die without ever finding the path to freedom.

Not only does the Buddha make suffering and release from suffering the focus of his teaching, but he deals with the problem of suffering in a way that reveals an extraordinary degree of psychological insight. Like a psychoanalyst, the Buddha traces suffering to its roots within our minds, to our craving and clinging, and he holds that the cure, the solution to the problem of suffering, must also be achieved within our minds. To gain freedom from suffering it is futile to pray to the gods, to worship holy objects, to attach ourselves to rituals and ceremonies. Since suffering arises from our own mental defilements, we have to purify our minds of these defilements, from our greed, hatred, and ignorance, and this requires profound inner honesty.

While other religions lead us outward, Buddhism leads us back to ourselves, always keeping the teaching attuned to the hard facts of experience. The Buddha places the mind at the forefront of his analysis and says that it is the mind which fashions our actions, the mind which shapes our destiny, the mind which leads us towards misery or happiness. The beginning point of the teaching is the ordinary mind, in bondage and subject to suffering; the end point is the enlightened mind, completely purified and liberated from suffering.

The whole teaching unfolds between these two points, taking the most direct route.

Characteristic Features of the Teaching

For the Buddha, the key to liberation is mental purity and correct understanding, and for this reason he rejects the notion that we can gain salvation by leaning on any external authority. He says:

This stress on human effort, on our capacity to liberate ourselves, is a distinctive feature of early Buddhism and offers a remarkable affirmation of the human potential. The Buddha does not claim any divine status for himself, nor does he assert that he is an agent of human salvation. He claims to be, not a personal savior, but a guide and teacher:

He urged his disciples to:

Emphasis on experience
Since wisdom or insight is the chief instrument of enlightenment, the Buddha always asked his disciples to follow him on the basis of their own understanding, not from obedience or unquestioning trust. He calls his Dhamma "ehipassiko," which means "Come and see for yourself." He invites inquirers to investigate his teaching, to examine it in the light of their own reason and intelligence, and to gain confirmation of its truth for themselves.

Because the Buddha's teaching deals with the most universal of all human problems, the problem of suffering, he made his teaching a universal message, one which was addressed to all human beings solely by reason of their humanity. He held that what made a person noble was his personal character and conduct, not his family and caste status. Thus he opened the doors of liberation to people of all social classes. Brahmins, kings and princes, merchants, farmers, workers, even outcasts - all were welcome to hear the Dhamma without discrimination, and many from the lower classes attained the highest stage of enlightenment.

A Code of Ethics
One aspect of the Buddha's universalism deserves special mention: this is his conception of a universal code of ethics. It is probably fair to day that the Buddha was one of the very first teachers to separate out true moral principles from the complex fabric of social norms and communal customs with which they were generally interwoven.

With astute sophistication of thought, the Buddha provides for us an abstract principle to use as a guideline in determining the basic precepts of morality. This is the rule of "using oneself as a standard" for deciding how to treat others.

The Buddha did not regard morality merely as a set of rules based on reasoning. He taught that there is a universal law which connects our conduct with our personal destinies, ensuring that moral justice ultimately prevails in the world. This is the law of kamma and its fruit, which holds that our intentional actions determine the type of rebirth we take and the diverse experiences we undergo in the course of our lives. This law is utterly impersonal in its operation. It gives no one preferential treatment; it recognizes no VIPs or favorites, but works with absolute uniformity towards all. Those who violate the laws of morality - whether they be high class or low class, rich or poor - acquire unwholesome karma and must suffer the consequences: a bad rebirth and future misery. Those who adhere to the moral rules, who engage in virtuous conduct, acquire wholesome karma leading to future benefits: a good rebirth, a happy life, and progress on the way to final liberation.

In conformity with the psychological orientation of his teaching, the Buddha gave special attention to the subjective springs of morality. He traces immoral behavior to three mental factors called the "three unwholesome roots" - greed, hatred, and delusion; and he traces ethical behavior to their opposites, the three wholesome roots - non-greed or generosity, non-hate or kindness, and non-delusion or wisdom. He also directs us to a more refined interior level of ethical purity to be achieved by developing, in meditation, four lofty attitudes called the "divine abodes" (brahma-viharas): loving-kindness, the wish for the happiness and welfare of all beings; compassion, the wish that all afflicted with suffering be freed from their suffering; altruistic joy, rejoicing in the happiness and success of others; and equanimity, impartiality of mind. These four attitudes are to be developed universally, towards all beings without distinctions or discrimination.

Before I close there is one further feature of the Buddha's method that I want to mention. This is what might be called his "skill in means." Through his deep meditative attainments and his enlightened wisdom, the Buddha had the special ability to discover the precise way to teach the people who came to him for guidance. He could read deep into the hidden recesses of a person's heart, perceive that person's aptitudes and interests, and frame his teaching in the exact way needed to transform that person and lead him or her on to the path of freedom. The texts abound in many examples of this supreme pedagogic skill of the Buddha. Here we relate just one famous instance.

There was a poor woman who had married into a wealthy family, but she did not bear children and was thus scorned by her in-laws. This made her very miserable. But after some time she conceived and gave birth to a son, who became for her the source of boundless joy. Now that she had brought forth an heir to their wealth, everyone else in her husband's family too accepted her. But a few months after his birth the child died, and Kisågotami became distraught. She refused to believe the boy was dead, but convinced herself he was only ill. Thus she went around everywhere asking people to give her medicine for her son.

The townsfolk ridiculed her and abused her, calling her a mad woman, until she finally came into the presence of the Buddha. When she asked him for medicine, he did not give her an eloquent sermon on impermanence. He told her that he could indeed make some medicine for her son, but first she would have to bring him one ingredient: mustard seeds from a home where no one had ever died. Quite optimistic, she went from house to house, asking for mustard seeds. At each door people readily gave her seeds, but when she asked the donor whether anyone in that home had ever died, she was told, "Here a father has died, here a mother, here a wife, here a husband, a brother, a sister," and so on.

She thus came to see that death is the universal fate of all living beings, not a unique calamity that befell her own son. So she returned to the Buddha, aware now of the universal law of impermanence. When the Master saw her coming he asked her, "Did you bring the mustard seeds, Gotami?" And she replied: "Done, sir, is this business of the mustard seeds. Grant me a refuge." The Buddha had her ordained as a nun, and after some time she realized the highest goal and became one of the most eminent nuns in the Bhikkhuni Sangha or Order of Nuns.

To sum up, the Buddha's mission was to establish a path to spiritual perfection,

to full enlightenment and Nibbåna, liberation from suffering. He did this by

propounding a teaching that acknowledged our capacity for attaining spiritual

perfection yet which also remained fully respectful of the intelligence and

autonomy of human beings. His approach was psychological in orientation, non-

dogmatic, pragmatic, and open to investigation. He emphasized self-effort, moral

rectitude, and personal responsibility, and he proclaimed his message

universally, holding that the potential for spiritual growth and even for the

highest enlightenment was accessible to anyone who makes the appropriate effort.

It is these factors that give to the ancient teaching of the Buddha such a

distinctly modern flavor, making it so relevant to us in these times of

shifting ideas and changing values.



The Buddha's Teaching as It Is

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Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha