Why are we still studying the Buddha's teaching?

Two centuries after the Buddha's death, 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 and Emerson. 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 methodological features.

The Aim of the Teaching

The Buddha’s teaching speaks directly to the central problem at the core of human existence – the problem  of suffering - and it offers to show a way out of suffering, to perfect peace, to unconditioned happiness. He traces suffering to its roots right in our own mind, in our own hatred and delusion, and he holds that the cure, the solution, also is found in our minds, in purifying our minds from all of these defilements.

As a result of this diagnosis, the Buddha rejects all extraneous religious forms which involve all external reliances -  the performance of rituals and sacrifices,  the appeal to authoritative books, reliance on priests and saviors, the reliance of divine figures to grant us salvation.  The Buddha emphasizes self-reliance is the key to deliverance. He says to his disciples:

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.

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.

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.

He had no esotericism — there was nothing secret, hidden or concealed, nothing reserved only for the initiated. Just as the sun and moon become beautiful when they shine forth openly, the Buddha says, so does his doctrine reveal its beauty when it’s taught openly, not when it’s hidden and kept secret.


The Buddha

5 of 5

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