What is the Buddha Dharma?

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

The following essay is a chapter of a book on the life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha according to the Pali Canon and/or the Agamas that I have been writing since college. This particular part was written around 1996. I am restricting myself to the Pali Canon and the Agamas in an effort to present only what is likely to have been taught by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. While this essay and the others which constitute this work in progress are informed by Mahayana and Theravada teachings, my main purpose was just to present what I perceive to be the most straightforward meaning of the canon. In the future, I hope to cover the Mahayana canon in the same way. Ultimately, I hope to take all this material and show how it does or does not relate to the faith, teaching, and practice of Nichiren Buddhism as a source of common sense and spiritual guidance.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

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What is the Buddha Dharma?

One thing that needs to be made clear in the very beginning is that Buddhism is not a religion or a philosophy and, in fact, is not really an "ism" either. Unlike religion, at least in the way that it is commonly understood, Buddhism does not rest upon revelation from a transcendent being or beings, nor does it put stock in miracles or other supernatural displays, nor does it direct the attention of its adherents to their possible status in the afterlife and finally, it assigns all supernatural beings to the role of fellow students and disciples of the Buddha. Unlike philosophy or metaphysics, which are often the same thing, Buddhism does not concern itself with fruitless speculation about the origins or structure of the universe (indeed it tends to take the Vedic cosmology of ancient India for granted), nor are its teachings the result of mere logic and reasoning, though the Buddha is always very logical and reasonable in his presentation of his teachings. Buddhism does not qualify as an "ism" either, if an "ism" is understood to be an institution which promotes the adoption of a system of beliefs or an ideology. It would be more accurate to refer to Buddhism as the "Buddha Dharma," meaning the Truth pointed out by the Buddha so that we can discover it for ourselves. Buddhism, then, is really a way of life designed to help people see things as they really are, free of delusion, projections, paranoia and false assumptions. This way of life is composed of a doctrine and a discipline which both serve to help the one who takes them up see for him or herself if what the Buddha taught was true. In the beginning, it is true, these things may need to be taken on faith; but the expectation is that these things will prove themselves to the Buddhist who endeavors to live in accordance with the Buddha Dharma. So, unlike an "ism" which demands that one put one's faith in something which can not be verified, Buddha Dharma is more like an experiment in seeing the Truth directly for oneself by utilizing the same methods that enabled Siddhartha Gautama to become Shakyamuni Buddha.

Knowing Truth and Falsehood for Oneself

The Kalama Sutta, in particular, makes the Buddha's common sense and non-dogmatic approach clear. At one time the Buddha came to a town called Kesaputta which was the home of the Kalama people. Apparently, the Kalamas had been afflicted with all manner of dogmatic preachers and pretentious philosophers of the variety that people usually associate with "isms." It seems, however, that the good reputation of the Buddha had proceeded him, and so the Kalamas decided to ask the Buddha about all the conflicting truth claims which they had been subjected to:

"There are, Lord, some ascetics and brahmins who come to Kesaputta. They explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others. But then some other ascetics and brahmins come to Kesaputta, and they too explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others. For us, Lord, there is perplexity and doubt as to which of these good ascetics speak truth and which speak falsehood?"

"It is fitting for you to be perplexed, O Kalamas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter. Come, Kalamas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by a reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: 'The ascetic is our teacher.' But when you know for yourselves, 'These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things if undertaken and practiced lead to harm and suffering', then you should abandon them." (Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, p. 65)

What is remarkable about this passage is that the Buddha comes right to the point and denies all the usual sources which people use as a basis for establishing truth claims. He does not spare anything or anyone, not religion (scriptures & tradition), not philosophy (logic, inference, reflection &pondering), nor the opinions of experts (the ascetic-teacher & those with seeming competence as speakers) nor unproven assumptions (hearsay & reliance on lineages). Having cleared the field, the Buddha then questions the Kalamas in such a way that it leads them back to the clear foundations of direct observation and common sense, the genuine starting points for any serious inquiry.

"What do you think, Kalamas? When greed, hatred and delusion rise in a person, is it for his welfare or harm?" - "For his harm, Lord." - "Kalamas, a person who is greedy, hating and deluded, overpowered by greed, hatred, and delusion, his thoughts controlled by them, will destroy life, take what is not given, engage in sexual misconduct and tell lies; he will also prompt others to do likewise. Will that conduce to his harm and suffering for a long time?" - "Yes, Lord."

"What do you think, Kalamas? Are these things wholesome or unwholesome?" - "Unwholesome, Lord" - "Blamable or blameless?" - "Blamable, Lord." - "Censured or praised by the wise?" - "Censured, Lord."

"Undertaken and practiced, do they lead to harm and suffering or not, or how is it in this case?" - "Undertaken and practiced, these things lead to harm and suffering. So it appears to us in this case." (Ibid, pp. 65 - 66)

There are two things about the last passage which should be reflected upon. The first is the reference to the "the wise." Who are considered to be the wise, if this discourse itself is concerned with the fact that the claims of all the self-proclaimed wise men are in doubt? It seems likely that the reference to "the wise" refers to those who are commonly recognized as virtuous and admirable. They are not even necessarily teachers, ascetics or priests in any formal sense. This is good to know, for even in our culture there are those who are almost universally recognized as "good people," and this recognition seems to transcend all sectarian boundaries and disagreements. So, it seems as though there may be standards or criteria that go beyond the mere conceptual confusion of truth claims after all. One of the obvious examples would be Jesus, who is recognized by almost everyone in the world as one who "went about doing good," even if not everyone believes that he is the Messiah or the Son of God.

The final remark of the Kalamas, "So it appears to us in this case." has also been translated as: "Thus it strikes us here." Going by the latter translation, their comment is no mere assent to the observations which the Buddha elicited from them with his questions. This statement expresses an acknowledgement from the core of their being. It is an acknowledgement of the Dharma which they knew all along but are now certain of, the Dharma which lay at the periphery of their conscious ruminations about life, but which has now taken center stage due to the prompting of the Buddha. What is wholesome? What is unwholesome? What is Truth? These are things which we can forever talk circles around, but which we can only really know from the preconscious core of our lives out of which we live and move and have our being. Along these lines, Frank Herbert's classic Dune contains the following remark which seems to beautifully express the experience of the Kalamas:

All men must see that the teaching of religion by rules and rote is largely a hoax. The proper teaching is recognized with ease. You can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you've always known. (Dune, p.505)

In the following passages, the Buddha turns the attention of the Kalamas to the benefits of being free of the negative qualities which have just been discussed. He then repeats the theme that Truth is something that the Kalamas can verify for themselves, it does not need to come from some privileged source.

"What do you think, Kalamas? When non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion arise in a person, is it for his welfare or harm?" -- "For his welfare, Lord." -- "Kalamas, a person who is without greed, without hatred, without delusion, not overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, his thoughts not controlled by them, will abstain from the destruction of life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct and from false speech; he will also prompt others to do likewise. Will that conduce to his welfare and happiness for a long time?" -- "Yes, Lord."

"What do you think, Kalamas? Are these things wholesome or unwholesome?" -- "Wholesome, Lord." -- "Blamable or blameless?" -- "Blameless, Lord." -- "Censured or praised by the wise?" -- "Praised, Lord." -- "Undertaken and practiced, do they lead to welfare and happiness or not, or how is it in this case?" -- "Undertaken and practiced, these things lead to welfare and happiness. So it appears to us in this case."

"It was for this reason, Kalamas, that we said: Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by a reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: 'The ascetic is our teacher.' But when you know for yourselves, 'These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced lead to welfare and happiness', then you should engage in them. (Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, p. 66)

The Four Divine Abodes

At this point the Buddha segues into a discussion of the four brahma-viharas, the four divine abodes. These are four meditations involving loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity that are brought up in many different discourses, and together they constitute the way to union with Brahma (the Vedic name of the supreme lord and creator) in the Brahma Heavens. The Buddha taught this series of meditations to those who needed to overcome feelings of aversion, hatred and contempt for others and for those who firmly believed that the highest aim in life is to seek union with God as they imagined Him [sic] to be and who would have been put off by the Buddha's teaching of nirvana, which defies all images and concepts whether personal or impersonal. The idea behind the four divine abodes is that these are the qualities of Brahma himself, and if one were to cultivate them and make them a part of one's life then one would naturally gravitate towards the Brahma Heavens after death. With the Kalamas, however, the Buddha's intention was to show that the development of these qualities of relating to the world were good-in-and-of-themselves and did not need to rely on any metaphysical presuppositions or guesswork.

"Then, Kalamas, that noble disciple -- devoid of covetousness, devoid of ill will, unconfused, clearly comprehending, ever mindful -- dwells pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, likewise the second quarter, the third and the fourth. Thus above, below, across and everywhere, and to all as to himself, he dwells pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, vast, exalted, measureless, without hostility and without ill will. (Ibid, p. 66)

This exercise is then repeated three more times with the qualities of compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity following upon the development of loving-kindness and upon one another. Once again, none of this requires that one believe in anything. Not once has the Buddha gone beyond the basic sanity of common sense.

The Buddha's Wager Concerning the Afterlife

Having discussed with the Kalamas those things that can be known directly for themselves in this lifetime, the Buddha then begins a discussion of the four assurances, which do touch upon the possibility of rewards and punishments in the afterlife; but even here the appeal is made to common sense and not to blind faith.

"When, Kalamas, this noble disciple has thus made his mind free of enmity, free of ill will, uncorrupted and pure, he has won four assurances in this very life.

"The first assurance he has won is this: 'If there is another world, and if good and bad deeds bear fruit and yield results, it is possible that with the breakup of the body, after death, I shall arise in a good destination, in a heavenly world.'

"The second assurance he has won is this: 'If there is no other world, and if good and bad deeds do not bear fruit and yield results, still right here, in this very life, I live happily, free of enmity and ill will.'

"The third assurance he has won is this: 'Suppose evil befalls the evil-doer. Then, as I do not intend evil for anyone, how can suffering afflict me, one who does no evil deed?'

"The fourth assurance he has won is this: 'Suppose evil does not befall the evil-doer. Then right here I see myself purified in both respects.' [In that he does no evil and no evil will befall him.]

"When, Kalamas, this noble disciple has thus made his mind free of enmity, free of ill will, uncorrupted and pure, he has won these four assurances in this very life." (Ibid, p. 67)

The Kalamas were very impressed with this reasoning and immediately expressed their agreement and delight at having their confusion cleared up. They then took refuge in the three jewels and became lay-disciples of the Buddha.

In the Apannaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya this argument is expanded in a discussion with the brahmin householders of Sala to include whether or not: "There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed," which refers to the belief that it is meritorious to be generous, especially when it promotes the general welfare, supports the virtuous or is in the service of religious tradition. "There is fruit and result of good and bad actions," in other words, the belief that actions have consequences that will even follow us from lifetime to lifetime, and in recognition of this we should take responsibility for ourselves as the makers of our own destiny. This law of cause-and-effect or karma is actually the lynchpin upon which everything else depends. "There is this world and the other world," which refers to the reality of this world and the afterlife. "There is mother and father," in the sense that we should look upon our parents with gratitude and respect, for at the very least they brought us into the world and were an important part of our formative process. If we can not even feel grateful for that, for whatever reasons, then at the very least we should recognize the causal links between ourselves and our parents that will constantly bring us together until they are resolved. "There are beings who are reborn spontaneously," this recognizes the belief in forms of existence which do not undergo the physical process of birth, infancy and childhood, especially those in the myriad heavens and hells of the Vedic cosmology.

"There are good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realized by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world," this refers to the existence of those wise and virtuous people who can testify to the deeper dimensions of reality that transcend the mundane world. None of these things can be proven, except perhaps through the direct knowledge provided by meditation and even that can be doubted as mere subjective delusion. However, these were beliefs which were the foundation for the morality and ethics of the society in which Shakyamuni Buddha was living. The law of cause-and-effect and its ability to operate from one lifetime to another was especially important, as noted above, because it was what gave force to the other beliefs. By subscribing to this law of cause-and-effect or karma, the Buddha and those of his contemporaries who also accepted it could insist that we are indeed held accountable for our actions for better or worse, and that morality is not just a human invention but the recognition of the very structure of life itself.

Though these beliefs were not specifically the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddha did not wish to see them denied either, for the reason that his own teachings took them for granted as part of the structure of reality. In fact, the Buddha claimed to have directly realized the truth of these things through his own enlightenment, wherein he saw for himself the workings of the law of karma. He did not, however, expect those who had doubts about these things to simply take his word for it, so he spoke about the possible consequences of rejecting or accepting these beliefs in terms of a betting game. For those who chose to disbelieve and act without regard for morality he said:

"About this a wise man considers thus: 'If there is no other world, then on the dissolution of the body this good person will have made himself safe enough. But if there is another world, then on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. Now, whether or not the word of those recluses and brahmins is true, let me assume that there is no other world: still this good person is here and now censured by the wise as an immoral person, one of wrong view who holds the doctrine of nihilism. But on the other hand, if there is another world, then this good person has made an unlucky throw on both counts: since he is censured by the wise here and now, and since on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. He has wrongly accepted and undertaken this incontrovertible teaching in such a way that it extends only to one side, and excludes the wholesome alternative.'" (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 508)

Hopefully it is obvious from the context that the term "good person" does not indicate any moral quality. Instead, it is used in the sense of "a gentleman." The last part about extending only to one side and excluding the wholesome alternative means that by not believing we only stand to gain in this life but will be denied a happy afterlife no matter what the outcome. The Buddha then discusses those who choose to believe:

"About this a wise man considers thus: 'If there is another world, then on the dissolution of the body, after death, this good person will reappear in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. Now whether or not the word of those good recluses and brahmins is true, let me assume that there is no other world: still this good person is here and now praised by the wise as a virtuous person, one with right view who holds the doctrine of affirmation. And on the other hand, if there is another world, then this good person has made a lucky throw on both counts: since he is praised by the wise here and now, and since on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will reappear in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. He has rightly accepted and undertaken the incontrovertible teaching in such a way that it extends to both sides and excludes the unwholesome alternative.'" (Ibid, p. 509)

So, by believing, we can gain in this lifetime as well as the next and we will not risk ending up in an unhappy afterlife. The point of course is that even if we can't prove them, those who live as though these beliefs were true stand to gain much more, no matter what may be the case, than those who live as though those beliefs were not true. For this reason, the Buddha referred to those items of belief and the value of living in accord with them as the "incontrovertible teaching". Roughly 2,200 years later, Blaise Pascal would make an equivalent argument for believing in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Here is what Blaise had to say about choosing to believe in God:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great a certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing. (p. 68 Pascal's Pensees)

The Remedial Teaching

The Buddha does not, as we shall see in more detail later, teach that one should believe in any kind of God or in the immortality of the soul. In fact, dwelling on such things is considered to lead only to a spiritual dead-end. Instead, the Buddha wished to impress upon those he taught the basic causal structure of life and the need to be responsible for one's own actions. Without these basic presuppositions, nothing else that the Buddha taught would make any sense. In fact, it seems that the Buddha even had a standard remedial talk on basic Vedic cosmology to insure that his listeners were ready for the Buddha Dharma itself. One example of the Buddha using this standard remedial formula can be found in the Upali Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya:

Then the Blessed One gave the householder Upali progressive instruction, that is, talk on giving, talk on virtue, talk on the heavens; he explained the danger, degradation, and defilement in sensual pleasures and the blessing of renunciation. When he knew that the householder Upali's mind was ready, receptive, free from hindrances, elated, and confident, he expounded to him the teaching special to the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. (Ibid, p. 485)

When correlated with his discourse to the brahmins householders of Sala and with the discourse to the Kalamas, this progressive instruction that prepares people for the teaching special to the Buddhas can be seen as a condensed version of the incontrovertible teaching and the four solaces. So, the talk on giving, would cover the merit to be gained from giving donations, offerings and sacrifices, especially to support the needy or virtuous. The talk on virtue would cover the belief in the fruit of good and bad actions, and the gratitude and respect due to one's parents as well as the discussion with the Kalamas on the harmfulness of greed, hate and delusion. The talk on the heavens would cover the rewards of the next world for actions done in this one, the spontaneous births in the heavens, the testimony of the virtuous recluses and brahmins with direct knowledge to their existence and also instruction on the four divine abodes. The explanation of the defilements of the sensual pleasures and the blessing of renunciation could also be a reference to teachings like the four solaces. So, in each case, the Buddha instructs people so that they may recognize the value of charity, self-control and freedom from the poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The importance of this progressive instruction of the Buddha becomes apparent in the Dhammapada, where in Chapter 14, verse 5, it is stated in a slightly different way and asserted to be the teaching of all Buddhas. The verse reads:

Avoid all evil,
Cultivate the good,
Purify your mind:
This sums up the teaching of the Buddhas.
(The Dhammapada, p. 132)

This teaching might seem too obvious to bother stating, but the Buddha knew that very few people truly take these things seriously enough to make them a priority in their lives. In a sense, the Buddha was simply trying to reawaken the basic values which people already hold but neglect, and by doing that he was preparing them for the deeper insights to come.

But What About God?

When most people hear the word "religion", they immediately think of revelation, miracles, the immortality of the soul and of course, God. Buddhism, however, sees these things as fruitless at best or pernicious delusions at worst. For instance, in the case of miracles, the Buddha on many occasions taught that while it was possible to attain miraculous powers through the practice of meditation, these were to be viewed as mere side effects and were certainly not to be cultivated as ends in and of themselves, nor were they to be used to attract others to the Dharma. In the Kevaddha Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, for instance, a householder named Kevaddha came to the Buddha and suggested that if some of the monks would display miracles, then the people who lived in the area would have even more faith in the Buddha. "The Lord replied: 'Kevaddha, this is not the way I teach Dhamma to the monks, by saying: "Go, monks, and perform superhuman feats and miracles for the white-clothed lay-people!"'" (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 175) The Buddha went on to explain that the display of miracles such as bodily transformations like flying or becoming invisible or mental powers like telepathy would only impress those who already believed while at the same time causing skeptics to dismiss the Dharma as a collection of cheap magic tricks. For that reason the Buddha says, "And that is why, Kevaddha, seeing the danger of such miracles, I dislike, reject and despise them." (Ibid, p. 176) The Buddha then teaches Kavaddha that the only legitimate form of miracle is the miracle of instruction. "And what is the miracle of instruction? Here, Kevaddha, a monk gives instruction as follows: 'Consider in this way, don't consider in that, direct your mind this way, not that way, give up that, gain this and persevere in it.' That, Kevaddha, is called the miracle of instruction." (Ibid, p. 176) In the Patika Sutta of the Digha Nikaya a monk named Sunakkhatta comes to the Buddha and announces that he is going to leave the Sangha. When asked why he is choosing to quit the following discourse occurs:

"Well, Lord, you have not performed any miracles." "And did I ever say to you: 'Come under my rule, Sunakkatta, and I will perform miracles for you?'" "No, Lord." "Or did you ever say to me: 'Lord, I will be under your rule if you will perform miracles for me?'" "No, Lord." "Then it appears, Sunakkhatta, that I made no such promises, and you made no such conditions. Such being the case, you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up? What do you think, Sunakkhatta? Whether miracles are performed or not - is it the purpose of my teaching Dhamma to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering?" "It is, Lord." "So, Sunakkhatta, whether miracles are performed or not, the purpose of my teaching Dhamma is to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering. Then what purpose would the performance of miracles serve? Consider, you foolish man, how the fault is yours." (Ibid, pp. 371-372)

In his book, Buddhism: It's Essence and Development, Edward Conze sums up the Buddhist teaching in regard to miracles and psychic powers and then recounts the following unattributed story:

Although psychic abilities are inseparable from a certain stage of spiritual development, they are not in all cases beneficial to the character or the spirituality of the person in whom they manifest themselves. There is much danger in psychic manifestations: conceit may be further increased; one may search for the power and lose the kingdom and the glory; one may expose oneself to contact with forces which demoralize. On the whole, the attitude of the Buddhist Church during the first millennium of its existence seems to have been that the occult and the psychic are all right as long as one does not take too much notice of them, and exhibits them as a kind of cheap stunt to the populace. One day the Buddha came across an ascetic who sat by the bank of a river, and who had practices austerities for 25 years. The Buddha asked him what he had got out of all his labor. The ascetic proudly replied that now at last he could cross the river by walking on the water. The Buddha tried to point out that this was little gain for so much labor, since for one penny the ferry would take him across. (pp. 104-5)

As for belief in an immortal soul or in God, these are also criticized as part of the problem and not part of the solution from the Buddhist point of view. The modern Theravadin scholar-monk, Dr. Walpola Rahula, states the Buddhist position in regard to God and the soul in the following blunt manner:

Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in man: self-protection and self-preservation. For self-protection man has created God, on whom he depends for his own protection, safety and security, just as a child depends on its parent. For self-preservation man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally. In his ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, man needs these two things to console himself. Hence, he clings to them deeply and fanatically. (What the Buddha Taught, p. 51)

Dr. Rahula's approach may, in part, be a reaction to the arrogance of Western missionaries who assume that authentic religion must of necessity deal with the worship of God and the salvation of one's immortal soul. His statement certainly makes it clear that from the Buddhist point of view these two concepts are actually forms of selfish clinging which must be discarded if one is to authentically practice the Buddha Dharma.

Shakyamuni Buddha, however, was more tactful in his approach to the theistic brahmins of his day. Furthermore, it should be made clear that the Buddha did not dogmatically deny the existence of the soul or of God. The Buddha's real concern was to liberate people from attachment and clinging, including the subtle forms of clinging that are involved in any kind of conceptual belief system.

A detailed discussion of the Buddhist teaching of selflessness will appear later under the heading of the Human Condition. At this point, suffice it to say that the Buddha's critique was against the Upanishadic concept of the Atman, the idea that there is a permanent True Self hidden beneath the appearance of the phenomenal self. The Buddha would show that not only was this illogical, it actually led to even greater self-concern and self-preoccupation, while at the same time leading people away from the reality of the true nature of phenomena and into the abstractions of an other-worldly transcendence. The Buddha is careful, however, to point out that there is a provisional or conventional self, which arises and ceases in accordance with causes and conditions. It is this "self" which will suffer or enjoy the effects of its own deeds. It is this "self" which alone can take responsibility for its actions. Finally, it is this "self" which must take up the eightfold path in order to gain insight into its own conditioned nature and thereby become free of selfhood.

God is treated a little better by the Buddha. Whereas the concept of the self or of an immortal soul is specifically denied by the doctrine of anatman, union with God is treated as a legitimate though lesser goal for those who are unable to transcend their theistic assumptions about the goal of the religious life. Once again, the God that is being referred to is the Vedic Brahma, who is viewed as eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, the creator of the world and morally perfect. Shakyamuni Buddha, however, teaches that this understanding of the nature of God may merely be a matter of perspective. He explains this in connection with his critique of those who believe that Brahma is eternal while all else is only transitory in the Brahmajala Sutta:

"There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are partly Eternalists and partly Non-Eternalists, who proclaim the partial eternity and the partial non-eternity of the self and the world in four ways. On what grounds?

"There comes a time, monks, sooner or later after a long period when this world contracts. At the time of contraction, beings are mostly born in the Abhassara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious - and they stay like that for a very long time.

"But the time comes, sooner or later after a long period, when this world begins to expand. In this expanding world an empty palace of Brahma appears. And then one being, from exhaustion of his life-span or of his merits, falls from the Abhassara world and arises in the empty Brahma-palace. And there he dwells, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious - and he stays like that for a very long time.

"Then in this being who has been alone for so long there arises unrest, discontent and worry, and he thinks: 'Oh, if only some other beings would come here!' And other beings, from exhaustion of their life-span or of their merits, fall from the Abhassara world and arise in the Brahma-palace as companions for this being. And there they dwell, mind-made,...and they stay like that for a very long time.

"And then, monks, that being who first arose there thinks: 'I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. These beings were created by me. How so? Because I first had this thought: 'Oh, if only some other beings would come here!' That was my wish, and then these beings came into existence!' But those beings who arose subsequently think: 'This, friends, is Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. How so? We have seen that he was here first, and that we arose after him.'

"And this being that arose first is longer lived, more beautiful and more powerful than they are. And it may happen that some being falls from that realm and arises in this world. Having arisen in this world, he goes forth from the household life into homelessness. Having gone forth, he by means of effort, exertion, application, earnestness and right attention attains to such a degree of mental concentration that he thereby recalls his last existence, but recalls none before that. And he thinks:

"That Brahma,...he made us, and he is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, the same for ever and ever. But we who were created by that Brahma, we are impermanent, unstable, short-lived, fated to fall away, and we have come to this world." This is the first case whereby some ascetics and Brahmins are partly Eternalists and partly Non-Eternalists. (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 75 - 77)

Now the Buddha may not actually have intended for this story to be taken literally. It may be that some of the Buddha's teachings were actually good humored ways of making an important point, and in this case the joke is on Brahma. The point here, is that if Brahma or God is conceived as a being among beings then he will be subject to the same law of causation as all other beings. Even as the preeminent or first being among beings, God is still a part of the process and can not be apart from it. All of God's transcendent qualities, then, are simply ironic. They are simply false assumptions based upon a limited point of view. Of course, there are far subtler concepts of God that are not addressed by this story. What of God's omnipresence, what of the God who is conceived of as the cosmic process itself or what of the God who is Being itself and not any particular being? These issues are addressed in the Upanishads, which discuss Brahman, the impersonal Godhead, rather than the straw-God who appears throughout the Buddha's teachings as the haughty but deluded ruler of the heavens and creator of the world who in the end is simply a fellow disciple of the Buddha along with all mankind. However, even in the case of those subtler and more sophisticated concepts, one is still left clinging to concepts and the idea of some kind of entity who can be distinguished in some manner from ordinary phenomena. So, once again, one finds that God has been reduced to a being among beings.

As a being among beings who is also caught up in the round of birth and death, Brahma also must be considered in need of the Buddha's instruction despite his pretensions. The Buddha illustrates this point in the Kevaddha Sutta to the aforementioned miracle seeking layman Kavaddha by telling the story of a monk who wished to know where the four great elements of earth, air, fire and water cease without remainder. In the story the monk uses his power of mental concentration to travel to the various heavens in order to find someone who can answer his question. Eventually he is referred to the Great Brahma, who mysteriously appears preceded by a radiant light. Instead of answering the question, the Great Brahma tries to awe the monk into silence saying, "Monk, I am Brahma, Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be." (Ibid, p. 178) The monk, undaunted, calls his bluff and insists on receiving an answer to his question. At that point, Brahma literally pulls the monk aside so that the other celestials will not overhear and admits the following:

"Monk, these devas believe that there is nothing Brahma does not see, there is nothing he does not know, there is nothing he is unaware of. That is why I did not speak in front of them. But, monk, I don't know where the four great elements cease without remainder. And therefore, monk, you have acted wrongly, you have acted incorrectly by going beyond the Blessed Lord and going in search of an answer to the question elsewhere. Now, monk, you just go to the Blessed Lord and put this question to him, and whatever answer he gives, accept it." (Ibid, pp. 178-179)

Upon taking his inquiry to the Buddha, the Buddha gently chides the monk for wasting his time by seeking answers in the heavenly realms and then informs him that there is a better way of asking his question.

"Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find?
Where are long and short, small and great, fair and foul -
Where are 'name-and-form' wholly destroyed?

And the answer is:

"Where consciousness is signless, boundless, all-luminous,
That's where earth, water, fire and air find no footing,
There both long and short, small and great, fair and foul -
There 'name-and-form' are wholly destroyed.
With the cessation of consciousness this is all destroyed." (Ibid, pp. 179-180)

Brahma, then, is not merely the victim of delusion in this story but is actually portrayed as a deliberate charlatan who is aware of, but hides his limitations. Once again, the conclusion is that miracles, heavenly journeys and dealings with God are all fruitless and can not compare with the insight of the Buddha. Once again, one wonders if this story were intended to poke fun at an actually existing God, or merely at the popular conception of God and those who claim to represent him. In any case, the Buddha was also sharply critical of the brahmins and their Vedic learning who claimed to teach the way to union with Brahma.

In the Tevijja Sutta the Buddha meets two young brahmins who are confused by the conflicting opinions in regard to the way to achieve union with Brahma. To resolve their doubts the brahmin Vasettha asks the Buddha his opinion in regard to the conflicting truth claims. The Buddha, however, gets Vasettha to admit that none of the supposed authorities or founders of the various traditions had any real knowledge of what they were talking about. Now it could be objected, both by Vedantists and other theists that the founders of the various God centered religions did, in fact, have personal contact with God. In the end, however, it must be admitted that even this is a matter of faith. In the final analysis, the theistic teachings are based on hearsay and are not themselves able to give direct knowledge of God.

"So, Vasettha, not one of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas has seen Brahma face to face, nor has one of their teachers, or teacher's teachers, nor even the ancestor seven generations back of one of their teachers. Nor could any of the early sages say: 'We know and see when, how and where Brahma appears.' So what these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas are saying is: 'We teach this path to union with Brahma that we do not know or see, this is the only straight path, this is the direct path, the path of salvation that leads one who follows it to union with Brahma.' What do you think, Vasettha? Such being the case, does not what these Brahmins declare turn out to be ill-founded?" "Yes indeed, Reverend Gautama."

"Well, Vasettha, when these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas teach a path that they do not know or see, saying: 'This is the only straight path...,' this cannot possibly be right. Just as a file of blind men go on, clinging to each other, and the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, and the last one sees nothing - so it is with the talk of the Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas; the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, the last one sees nothing. The talk of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas turns out to be laughable, mere words, empty and vain." (Ibid, pp. 188-189)

The Buddha then compares the learned brahmins to those who fall in love with a woman they have never seen, or to those who build a stairway for a palace that has not been built or to those who try to cross a river by calling out to the other bank in the hope that it will come over to them. With these similes, the Buddha points out to the young brahmins the foolishness of trying to achieve union with a God that no one has ever known or seen for themselves, or of trying to teach methods to attain something whose existence is only speculation or of trying to achieve transcendence through the mere chanting of mantras and supplications without trying to transform themselves so as to be worthy of the goal. The Buddha then teaches the young brahmins the value of purifying their minds, renouncing the householder's life and the practice of the four divine abodes that were taught to the Kalamas. In this way, one may be united with Brahma at death by embodying the qualities of Brahma while living and thus becoming worthy of the goal.

The Buddha Dharma itself, however, is able to take those who follow it far beyond even the divine realms. For the Buddha had realized that even the divine states of being were phenomenal and subject to the same shortcomings as all other forms of phenomenal existence as we shall see in the following chapters. So, while union with God is looked upon as a worthy and attainable goal, it is not the final goal, for only the peace of nirvana can provide true peace according to the Buddha.

The Dead End of Philosophy

The theistic traditions, however, were not alone in being discredited by the Buddha. Philosophy and speculation was even harder hit. The Buddha taught that not only was metaphysical speculation and philosophical debate fruitless, it was actually a pernicious waste of time. Those who engaged in it would be much better off cultivating the means to attain direct knowledge for themselves. The most famous example of the Buddha's teaching in regard to philosophical speculation is of course the parable of the poisoned arrow in the Culamalunkya Sutta. In the sutta, the monk Malunkyaputta decides that he will leave the Sangha if the Buddha does not give his opinion in regard to the following speculative views: Whether the world is eternal or not, whether it is infinite or not, whether the soul and the body are the same or different, whether the Tathagata exists or does not exist after death, or perhaps both exists and does not exist or neither exists nor does not exist. The Buddha, however, replies:

"If anyone should say thus: 'I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me "the world is eternal"... or "after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,"' that would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata and meanwhile that person would die. Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: 'I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a brahmin or a merchant or a worker.' And he would say: 'I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me;...until I know whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of middle height;...until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark or brown or golden-skinned;...until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in such a village or town or city;...until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow;...until I know whether the bowstring that wounded me was fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark;...until I know whether the shaft that wounded me was wild or cultivated;...until I know with what kind of sinew the shaft that wounded me was bound - whether of an ox or a buffalo or a lion or a monkey;...until I know what kind of arrow it was that wounded me - whether it was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander.'

"All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say thus: 'I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me: "The world is eternal"...or "after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,"' that would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata and meanwhile that person would die." (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 534-535)

The Buddha then drives home the point by stating that what really matters is living the holy life in accordance with the four noble truths, since the question of suffering, its origin, its cessation and the eightfold path to its cessation are of primary importance. The resolution of metaphysical questions can wait until after the most pressing issues addressed by the four noble truths have been resolved, and at that point, one may be well beyond the need to know such things. It should be recalled at this point that all of the Buddha's teachings are based upon his direct experience of the true nature of reality, and that these teachings are for the purpose of enabling his disciples to have the same insight themselves. The Buddha's enlightenment was not a matter of esoteric knowledge which could be communicated in words, rather it was an insight into the true nature of reality which every one must arrive at for themselves. The Buddha's teachings are simply ways of helping people to mature morally, intellectually and spiritually to the point where they can do this for themselves. They point to the insight, but they can not provide the insight which leads to liberation. So, the Buddha Dharma is not a philosophy. It's purpose is not to satisfy mere intellectual curiosity. It is a way of life, a training program that can lead to the living experience of liberation from suffering that no philosophy can ever provide.

Non-Attachment All-Around

Just as the Buddha Dharma avoids the pitfalls of theism and metaphysical speculation, it is also non-dogmatic. All of the Buddha's teachings are for the sake of realization, and not for the purpose of mere belief. The value of the Dharma lies in its ability to help people liberate themselves. The greatest mistake would be to enshrine a teaching for its own sake, rather than putting it into practice and realizing the meaning of it for oneself. Unfortunately, it seems that many people chose to do exactly that, worshiping and exalting what they should be practicing and internalizing. Even worse, some even use their knowledge as a club which they use to intellectually beat others into submission. The very teachings which could have pointed them in the direction of selflessness are instead used to reinforce the very worst kind of egotism and chauvinism. Cleverness and erudition become the goals, rather than liberation from the bonds of selfishness. In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha speaks directly to this kind of misappropriation of his teachings:

"Here, bhikkhus, some misguided men learn the Dhamma - discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, exclamations, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and answers to questions - but having learned the Dhamma, they do not examine the meaning of those teachings with wisdom. Not examining the meaning of those teachings with wisdom, they do not gain a reflective acceptance of them. Instead they learn the Dhamma only for the sake of criticizing others and for winning in debates, and they do not experience the good for the sake of which they learned the Dhamma. Those teachings, being wrongly grasped by them, conduce to their harm and suffering for a long time." (Ibid, p. 227)

The Buddha then explains the proper attitude to take to the Buddha Dharma through the famous parable of the raft:

"Bhikkhus, I shall show you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping. Listen and attend closely to what I shall say." - "Yes, venerable sir," the bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:

"Bhikkhus, suppose a man in the course of a journey saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge going to the far shore. Then he thought: 'There is this great expanse of water, whose near shore is dangerous and fearful and whose further shore is safe and free from fear, but there is no ferryboat or bridge going to the far shore. Suppose I collect grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and bind them together into a raft, and supported by the raft and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore.' And then the man collected grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and bound them together into a raft, and supported by the raft and making an effort with my hands and feet, he got safely across to the far shore. Then, when he had got across and had arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: 'This raft has been very helpful to me, since supported by it and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore. Suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, and then go wherever I want.' Now, bhikkhus, what do you think? By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with that raft?"

"No, venerable sir."

"By doing what would that man be doing what should be done with that raft? Here, bhikkhus, when that man got across and had arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: 'This raft has been very helpful to me, since supported by it and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore. Suppose I were to haul it onto dry land or set it adrift in the water, and then go wherever I want.' Now, bhikkhus, it is by so doing that that man would be doing what should be done with that raft. So I have shown you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.

"Bhikkhus, when you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even good states, how much more so bad states." (Ibid, pp. 228-229)

This statement that "you should abandon even good states, how much more so bad states" could almost be a summary of the Buddha Dharma itself insofar as our subjective attitude is concerned. If the Buddha's teachings are to make people realize that clinging is the source of suffering, wouldn't clinging to these teachings defeat the very purpose of them? This does not mean that we should disregard the teachings or hold them lightly. It does mean, however, that they are useless to us if we don't put them into practice and that when we have gotten the point we no longer need to make an issue of them.

Another point at issue here is the fact that the realization of the Buddha goes beyond the many metaphors and analogies that the Buddha used to convey it. It is commonly observed that all analogies eventually break down, and yet when it comes to religion, people seem to forget that the Ultimate Truth cannot be fully expressed in terms of conventional ideas and concepts. The Buddha, however, used his analogy of the raft to underline the merely metaphorical nature of his own teachings. He wanted to be sure that his disciples did not fall into the common trap of mistaking the map for the territory or the menu for the meal. The four noble truths, the eightfold path, the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination, even nirvana itself are all very helpful teachings in that they can point the way to the same experience of awakening that Shakyamuni Buddha himself had, but the realization itself is organic and alive and can not be so rigidly contained. In the end, the Dharma is something that one can not take anyone else's word for. This is something that Shakyamuni Buddha knew very well, and so he never presumed to replace the individual's own insight with any kind of fixed revelation, he merely showed the way so that each person could cross the stream, reach the other shore and see the truth for themselves.

Sources

Conze, Edward. Buddhism: It's Essence and Development.

Herbert, Frank. Dune.

Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans.The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Botson: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Nyanaponika, Thera and Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans. & ed., Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1999.

Pascal, Blaise. Pascal's Pensees. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958.

Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1996, 2002.

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