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Let us know what Buddhism is

By Ven. Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa (Thailand)

If we open any recent book on the origins of religion, we find that there is one point of which all authors are in agreement. They agree that religion arose in the world out of fear. Primitive man feared thunder and lightning, darkness and storm, and various things about him that he was unable to understand or control. His method of avoiding the danger he saw in these phenomena was to demonstrate either humility and submission or homage and reverence, depending on which he felt most appropriate.


Later, as man's knowledge and understanding developed, this fear of the forces of nature changed into a fear of phenomena more difficult to apprehend. Religions based on deference to objects of fear such as natural phenomena, spirits and celestial beings, came to be looked down upon as unreasonable and ridiculous. And then man's fear became still more refined into a fear of suffering, suffering of the sort that cannot be alleviated by any material means. Here came death, the disappointment and hopelessness which arise out of desire, anger and stupidity, which no amount country well provided with thinkers and investigators, intelligent people dispensed with all paying of homage to supernatural beings. They started seeking instead the means of eliminating greed, hatred and delusion. Out of this search Buddhism, a higher religion based on insight, a means of conquering birth, aging, pain and death, a method for destroying the mental defilements. Buddhism has its origins in fear of this last kind, just as do all religions based on intelligence. The Buddha discovered a practical method, now called Buddhism, for eliminating suffering.

"Buddhism" means "the Teaching of the Enlightened one". A Buddha is an enlightened individual, one who knows the truth about all things, one who knows just "what is what", (knows things just as they are) and so is capable of behaving appropriately with respect to all things. Buddhism is a religion based on intelligence, science and knowledge, whose purpose is the destruction of suffering and the source of suffering.

All paying of homage to sacred objects by means of performing rites and rituals, making offerings, or praying is not Buddhism. The Buddha rejected the celestial beings then considered by certain groups to be the creators of things and the deities supposed to dwell, one in each star, in the sky. Thus we find that the Buddha made such statements as these:

"Knowledge, skill and ability are conducive to success and benefit and are auspicious omens, good in their own right, regardless of the movements of the qualities, one will completely outstrip those foolish people who just silt making their astrological calculations." and: "If the water in rivers (such as the Ganges) could really wash away sins and suffering, then the turtles, crabs, fish, and shellfish living in those sacred rivers ought by now to be freed of their sins and sufferings too." And: "If a man could eliminate suffering there would be no one subject to suffering left in the world, because anyone at all can pay homage and pray. But since people are still subject to suffering while in the very act of making obeisances, paying homage and performing rites, their is clearly not the way to gain liberation."

To attain liberation, we first have to examine things closely in order to come to know and understand their true nature. Then we have to behave in a way appropriate to that true nature. This is the Buddhist teaching; this we must know and bear in mind. Buddhism has nothing to do with prostrating oneself and deferring to awesome things. It sets no store by rites and ceremonies such as making libation of holy water, or any externals whatsoever, spirits and celestial beings included. On the contrary, it depends on reason and insight. Buddhism does not demand conjecture or supposition; it demands that we act in accordance with what our own insight reveals and not take anyone else's word for anything. If someone comes and tells us something, we must listen to his statement and examine it. Then if we find it reasonable, we may accept it provisionally and set about trying to verify for our selves. This is a key feature of Buddhism, which distinguishes it sharply from other world religions.

Now a religion is a many sided thing. Seen from one angle it has a certain appearance; seen from another angle, it has another. Many people look at Buddha with different mental attitudes are bound to get different views of it. Because each of us naturally has confidence in his own opinions. The truth for each of us coincides with our own particular understanding and point of view. "The truth" is not quite the same thing for different people. They all penetrate questions to varying depths, by varying methods and with varying degrees of intelligence.

A person does not recognize as true, according to his own ideas of the Truth, anything that lies beyond his own intelligence, knowledge and understanding. And even though he may outwardly go along with other people's ideas as to what is the truth, he knows in himself that it is not the truth as he himself see it. Each person's conception of the truth may change and develop with the day by day increase in his degree of intelligence, knowledge and understanding, until such time as he arrives at the ultimate truth; and each of us has different ways of examining and testing before believing. So if Buddhism is viewed with differing degrees of intelligence differing of it will be seen simply because it can viewed from any aspect.

As we have said, Buddhism is a practical method for liberating oneself from suffering by means of coming to realize, as did the Buddha himself, the true nature of things. Now any religious text is bound to contain material which later people have found occasion to add to it, and our Tripitaka is no exception. People in later ages have added sections based on then current ideas, either in order to boost people's confidence, or out of excessive religious zeal. Regrettably even the rites and rituals which have developed and become mixed in with the religion are now accepted and recognized as Buddhism proper. Ceremonies, such as setting up trays of sweets and fruits as offerings to the "soul of the Buddha" in the same way as almsfood is offered to a monk just to do not fit in with Buddhist principles. Yet some groups consider this to be genuine Buddhist practice, teaching it as such and keeping to it very strictly.

Rites and ceremonies of this kind have become so numerous that they now completely obscure the real Buddhism and its original propose. Take for example the procedure of becoming ordained a monk. There has come into existence the ceremony of making gifts to the newly ordained bhikkhu. Guests are invited to bring food and to watch proceedings and as a result, there is much drunkenness and noise. Ceremonies are performed both at the temple and in the home. The new bhikkhu leaves the order only a few days after having been ordained. And may become an even stronger temple hater than he was before. It must be born in mind that there was none of this at the time of the Buddha.

It is a later development. Ordination at the time of the Buddha meant simply at that some individual, who had obtained his parent's consent, renounced home and family. He was a person who was able to close accounts at home and go off join the Buddha and the Order of bhikkhus. On some convenient occasion he would go and be ordained, and perhaps not see his parents or family again for the rest of his life. Though some bhikkhus might go back to visit their parents again on suitable occasions, this was rare. There does exist a rule permitting a bhikkhu to go home when there is a good reason for doing so, but at the time of Buddha this was not observed. Bhikkhus did not receive ordination with their parents in attendance, nor did they celebrate the event as a great occasion, only to leave the Sangha after just a few days, no better off than before, as commonly happens in the present day.

All this presenting of gifts to newly ordained bhikkhus, this performing of ceremonies, including all sorts of celebration, these we are foolish enough to call Buddhism! Furthermore we choose to make much of them, thinking nothing of spending all our own money. Or other people's on account of them. This "non-Buddhism" is so widespread as to be almost universal. The dhamma, the genuine teaching that once was paramount, has become so overlaid by ceremony that the whole objective of Buddhism has been obscured, falsified and changed. Ordination, for instance, has become a face saving gambit for young men whom people have been pointing at for never having been ordained, or a prerequisite to finding a wife (as having been a monk is considered a sign of maturity), or is done with some other kind of ulterior motive. In some places an ordination is regarded as an opportunity for collecting money, for which job there are always people on hand to help. It is one way of getting rich. Even this they call Buddhism and anyone who goes and criticizes this is considered to be ignorant of Buddhism or opposed to it.

Another example is the presentation of Kathina-cloth. The Buddha's original intention was to have cloth for robes given to all the bhikkhus simultaneously so that they could sew it together themselves with a minimum loss of time. Of there was only one robe, it was allocated to some bhikkhus, not necessarily the most senior one, whom the group considered worthy of using that robe or in need of it, and was presented to him in the name of the entire order. The Buddha's intention was to avoid any bhikkhu having a high opinion to himself. On that day everyone regardless of seniority, had to humble himself and be one of the crowd. Everyone had to lend a hand cutting and sewing the cloth, boiling tree pith to make the dye, and doing whatever else was involved in getting the robes ready and finished the same day. Making the cloth into robes was a co-operative effort. That is how the Buddha intended it to be, and event not necessarily involving lay people at all. But nowadays it has become an affair involving ceremony, fun and games, loud laughter and money seeking. It is just a picnic and is devoid of all the desirable results originally intended.

This sort of things is a tumour which has developed in Buddhism and thrived. The tumour takes hundreds of different forms too numerous to name. It is dangerous, malignant growth which by degrees has completely overlaid and obscured the good material, the real pith of Buddhism and quite disfigured it. One result of this has been the arising of many sects, some large, some insignificant, as offshoots from the original religion. Some sects have even become involved in unduality it is essential that we should discriminate in order to recognize what is the real, original Buddhism. We must not foolishly grasp at the outer shell, or become so attached to the various rituals and ceremonies that the real objective becomes quite lost to view.

The real practice of Buddhism is based on purification of conduct by way of body and speech, followed by purification of the mind, which in its turn leads to insight and right understanding.

Don't go thinking that such and such is Buddhism just because everyone says it is. The tumour has been spreading constantly since the day the Buddha passed away, expanding in all directions right up to the present day, so that it is also a wrong for people of other religions to come and point at these shameful and disgraceful growths as being Buddhism. It is unjust because these things are not Buddhism at all; they are excrescences. Those of us interested in furthering Buddhism, whatever as a foothold for all people, or for our own private well being, must know how to get hold of the true essence of Buddhism and not just grab at some worthless outgrowth.

Now even the genuine Buddhism is many sided, a fact which may lead to a false grasp of true meaning. For instance, if looked at from the point of view of a moral philosopher, Buddhism is seen to be a religion of morality. There is talk of merit and demerit, good and evil, honesty, gratitude, harmony, openheartedness, and much more besides. The Tipitaka is full of moral teachings. Many newcomers to Buddhism approach it from this angle and are attracted to it on this account.

A more profound aspect is Buddhism as Truth, as the deep hidden truth, as the deep hidden truth lying below the surface and invisible to the ordinary man. To see this truth is to know intellectually the emptiness of all things, the transcendence, unsatisfactioness, and non-selfhood of all things; to know intellectually the nature of suffering, of attain the complete elimination of suffering; to perceive these in terms of absolute truth, the kind that never changes and which everyone ought to know. This is Buddhism as truth.

Buddhism as Religion is Buddhism as a system of practise based on morality, concentration, and insight and culminating in liberating insight; a system which when practised to completion enables one to break free from suffering. This is Buddhism as Religion.

Then there is Buddhism as Psychology, as it is presented to us in third section of the Tipitaka, where the nature of the mind is described in remarkable detail. Buddhist psychology is a source of interest and astonishment to students of the mind even in the present day. It is far more detailed and profound than present day psychological knowledge.

Another aspect is Buddhism as Philosophy. Philosophical knowledge can be clearly seen by means of reasoned logical proofs but can not be demonstrated experimentally. It contrasts with science, which is knowledge resulting from seeing something clearly, which our eyes, or through physical experimentation and proof, or even with the "inner eye" of intuition. Profound knowledge such as that of "emptiness" (impermanence) is just philosophy for a person who has not yet penetrated to the truth, and science for another who has done so, such as a fully enlightened individual, or arahant, who has seen it clearly, intuitively. Many aspects of Buddhism, in particular the Four Noble Truths, are scientific in so far as they can be verified by clear experimental proof using introspection. For anyone equipped with awareness and interested in studying and carrying our research the cause-effect relationship are there just as in science. Buddhism is not just something obscure and vague, not just philosophy, as man made subjects are.

Some look on Buddhism as Culture. Anyone with a high regard for culture finds many aspects of Buddhist practice which are common to all cultures and also many that are characteristically Buddhist and far better and higher than anything in other cultures.

Of all these various aspects, the one a real Buddhist ought to take most interest in is Buddhism as religion. We ought to look on Buddhism as direct practical method for gaining knowledge of the true nature of things, knowledge which makes it possible to give up every form of grasping and clinging, of stupidity and infatuation, and become completely independent of things. To do this is to penetrate to the essence of Buddhism. Buddhism considered as mere morality, or as truth which is simply profound knowledge and not really practical; and more useful than Buddhism considered as philosophy, as something to be enjoyed as an object of speculation and agreement, but of no value in the giving up of the mental defilements; and certainly more useful than Buddhism considered simply as culture, as attractive behaviour, noteworthy from the sociological viewpoint.

At the very least, everyone ought to consider Buddhism as Art, as the "Art of Living" - in other words, as skill and competence in being a human being, living in a way that is exemplary and praiseworthy, which so impresses others that they automatically wish to emulate it. What we have to do is to cultivate the "Three Lustres", firstly developing moral purity, then training the mind to be tranquil and steady and fit to do its job, and finally developing such an abundance of wisdom and clear in insight into the nature of all things that those things are no longer able to give rise of suffering. When anyone's life has these "Three Lustres", he can be considered to have fully mastered the art of living. Westerners are extremely interested in Buddhism as the "Art of Living", and discuss this aspect more than any other. Penetrating so far into the real essence of Buddhism that we are able to take it as our guide to living, induces spiritual good sheer and joy, dispersing depression and disillusionment. It also disputes fears such as the fear that the complete giving up of spiritual defilements would make all thought and action impossible, whereas in reality a person who organizes his life in accordance with the Buddhist "Art of Living" is the victor over all the things about him.

Regardless of whether these things be animals, people, possession, or anything else, and regardless of whether they enter that person's consciousness by way or eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind they will enter as loosers unable to be cloud, defile or perturb him. The victory over all these things is genuine bliss.

Buddha- Dhamma will enrapture a mind that has developed a taste for it. It can be considered an indispensable form or nourishment too. True a person still controlled by the defilements continues to desire nourishment by way of the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body and goes in search of it as suits his nature. But there is another part in him, something deeper, that does not demand that sort of nourishment. It is the free or pure element in him mind. It wishes the joy and delight of spiritual nourishment, starting with the delight that results from moral purity. It is the source of contentment for fully enlightened individuals, who possess such tranquillity of mind that defilements cannot disturb them, who possess clear insight in to the true nature of all things and have no ambitions with regard to any of them. They are, so to speak, able to sit down without being obliged to run here and there like those people to whom the Buddha applied the simile "smoke by night, fire by day".

"Smoke by night" refers to sleeplessness, restlessness. A sufferer from this complaint lies all night with hand on brow, planning on going after this and that, working out how to get money, how to get rich quickly and get the various things he desires. His mind is full of "smoke". All he can do is lie there until morning, when he can get up and go running off in obedience to the wishes of "smoke" he has been holding back all night. This fervent activity is what the Buddha referred to as "fire by day". These are the symptoms of a mind that has not achieved tranquillity, a mind that has been deprived of spiritual nourishment. It is a pathological hunger and thirst induced by the defilement called craving. All night long the victim represses the smoke and heat, which in the morning becomes fire and then blazes hot inside him all day. If a person is obliged, throughout his entire life, to suppress the "smoke by night", which then becomes "fire by day", how can he ever find peace and coolness? Just visualize his condition. He endures suffering and torment all his life, from birth up until he is placed in the coffin, simply for lack of the insight that could completely extinguish that fire and smoke. To treat such a complaint one has to make use of the knowledge provided by the Buddha. The smoke and fire diminish in proportion to one's degree of understanding of the true nature of things.

As we have said, Buddhism has a number of different aspects or sides. Just as the same mountain when viewed from a different direction presents a different appearance, so different benefits are derived from Buddhism according to how one looks at it. Even Buddhism has its origins in fear. Not the foolish fear of an ignorant person who kneels and makes obeisance to idols or strange phenomena, but a higher kind of fear, the fear of perhaps never attaining liberation from the oppression of birth, aging, pain and death, from the various forms of suffering we experience.

The real Buddhism is not book, not manuals, not word for word repetition from the Tipitaka, not is it rites and rituals. These are not the real Buddhism. The real Buddhism is the practice by way of body, speech and mind that will destroy the defilements, in part or completely. One need not have anything to do with books or manuals. One ought not to rely on rites and rituals, nor anything else external, including spirits and celestial beings. Rather one must be directly concerned with bodily action, speech and thought. That is, one must persevere in one's efforts to control and eliminate the defilements so that clear insight can arise. One will then be automatically capable of acting appropriately, and will be free from suffering from that moment right up to end. This is the real Buddhism. This is what we have to understand. Let us not go foolishly grasping at the tumour that is obscuring Buddhism, taking it for the real thing.

[this article is quoted from: "World of Buddhism" Nos. 1&2 2000 - 2001]

Sri Lanka