The following essay is the third 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 in 1995. 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
Pali Canon >
Lotus Sutra >
The Human Condition
After teaching the four noble truths, the Buddha saw that the minds of the five ascetics still harbored attachment to the idea of self, the most
fundamental delusion. In order to remedy this, the Buddha taught them how
to finally relinquish the attachment to self by discussing the five
aggregates in terms of the three marks of existence.
Monks, form is nonself. For if, monks, form were self, this form
would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form:
Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus. But because form
is nonself, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of
form: Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.
The four noble truths taught that passionate craving is the source of
suffering in this world and must be eradicated through the practice of the
Middle Way. This sermon, however, focuses upon the fundamental source of
craving, the false idea of a self. The four noble truths do mention the
five aggregates in passing, but they do not conclusively reveal the vanity
and perniciousness of the idea of a permanently abiding and happy self.
Feeling is nonself...Perception is nonself...Volitional formations
are nonself...Consiousness is nonself. For it, monks, consciousness were
self, this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and it would be
possible to have it of consciousness: Let my consciousness be thus;
let my consciousness not be thus. But because consciousness is
nonself, consciousness leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have
it of consciousness: Let my consciousness be thus; let my
consciousness not be thus.
What do you think, monks, is form permanent or impermanent? -
Impermanent, venerable sir. - Is what is impermanent
suffering or happiness? - Suffering, venerable sir. -
Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change to be
regarded thus: This is mine, this I am, this is my self?
- No, venerable sir.
Is feeling permanent or impermanent?...Is perception permanent or
impermanent?...Are volitional formations permanent or impermanent?...Is
consciousness permanent or impermanent? - Impermanent,
venerable sir. - Is what is impermanent suffering or
happiness? - Suffering, venerable sir. - Is what
is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus:
This is mine, this I am, this is my self? - No,
Therefore, monks, any kind of form, whatsoever, whether past,
future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or
superior, far or near, all form should be seen as it really is with correct
wisdom thus: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.
Any kind of feeling whatsoever...Any kind of perception
whatsoever...Any kind of volitional formations whatsoever...Any kind of
consciousness whatsoever, whether past, future, or present, internal or
external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all
consciousness should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus:
This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.
Seeing thus, monks, the instructed noble disciple experiences
revulsion towards form, revulsion towards feeling, revulsion towards
perception, revulsion towards volitional formations, revulsion towards
consciousness. Experiencing revulsion, he becomes dispassionate. Through
dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the
knowledge: Its liberated. He understands: Destroyed
is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done,
there is no more for this state of being.
(The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 901-903)
People have a tendency to be self-interested and self-concerned, but if
questioned as to what this self is they can only answer in terms of the
five aggregates. The body, its sense organs and the world it interacts with
are all part of form. Likewise, all of our mental and emotional functions
(including joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, hatred, desire, memory and
self-consciousness) can be grouped under the other four aggregates of
sensation, perception, volition and consciousness. The Buddha has pointed
out, however, that none of these five aggregates has any permanence, they
all function in a constant state of flux. Additionally, they must all
function in tandem. Any one of the five aggregates would be unable to exist
without the other four. This lack of a stable basis for existence precludes
any kind of peace or security which depends on something substantial and
abiding. The life of the five aggregates is a dynamic interrelational
process, and for one who seeks some uninterrupted satisfaction this process
can only be perceived as suffering. Because the five aggregates are
impermanent and lead to suffering they are said to be without a self.
Specifically, this means that one can not attribute to them the permanently
abiding and happy self that was the goal of the religious sages and mystics
of the Upanisads. A provisional self can be attributed in an
abstract way to the life process, but an actual thing or substance called a
self can not be found within the process. Nor can one meaningfully talk
about a self apart from the five aggregates because such a self would be a
mere abstraction with no substance or empirical reality to back it up. So,
the conclusion is that the five aggregates of form, sensation, perception,
volition and consciousness are characterized by the three marks of
impermanence, suffering and selflessness. In this way, the Buddha revealed
the vanity of the idea of a permanently abiding happy self. Once one ceases
to think in terms of such a self, then one is free from all the
compulsions, fears and desires which go along with the assumption that
there is such a self to find, protect or appease. One then becomes an
arhat, or "worthy one", who will no longer suffer from the cycle
of birth and death.
Not too long after teaching the five ascetics, now the five arhats, the
Buddha travelled to the banks of the Neranjara River in the country of
Magadha and there met the three Kashyapa brothers who were priests of the
fire god Agni with hundreds of followers. The eldest brother was named
Uruvilva Kashyapa and the Buddha requested of him that he be allowed to
stay overnight in the hall where the sacred fire was kept. Uruvilva was
dominated by superstition and arrogance and believed the Buddha was simply
a presumptuous ascetic who would be destroyed by the fire serpent which
lived in the hall, but he allowed him to stay there anyway. When the Buddha
emerged unscathed from the sacred hall the next morning, Uruvilva was very
surprised, but would not admit that the Buddha's wisdom and holiness was
any greater than his own. He was also afraid that the Buddha would try to
steal away his disciples. Finally, the Buddha pointed out that Uruvilva
would be unable to live a truly holy life until he discarded the envy which
lurked in his heart. Upon hearing this, Uruvilva was so impressed with the
Buddha's insight that he foreswore his fire worship and along with all of
his followers became disciples of Shakyamuni. The two younger Kashyapa
brothers and their followers soon did likewise. At this point, the Buddha
preached the Fire Sermon to them, so that they could elevate their minds
from the superstitious worship of fire to a true understanding of life and
the path to liberation.
Monks, all is burning. And what, monks, is the all that is burning?
The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning,
eye-contact is burning, and whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as
condition - whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant -
that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with
the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion; burning with birth, aging,
and death; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.
The first thing to notice about the Fire Sermon is that it encompasses the
basic Buddhist categories of the six roots, the twelve fields, and the
eighteen elements which are used to analyse the components of human
existence. The six roots consist of the five physical sensory organs and
the mind, which perceives ideas and emotions. These six are called roots
because they are what keep us rooted in the world. We are constantly fed
sensory impressions which demand our attention and which feed the passions
like wood feeding a fire. The twelve sense fields are the six senses and
the six kinds of objects which correspond to them: forms, sounds, odors,
tastes, bodily sensations, and mental objects. The eighteen elements
consists of the six senses, their six objects, and the various forms of
conscious awareness which arise based on the contact between the senses and
their objects. For instance, when an eye sees a form there is a corresponding eye-consciusness.
The ear is burning...the nose is burning...the tongue is
burning...the body is burning...the mind is burning...and whatever feeling
arises with mind-contact as condition - whether pleasant or painful or
neither-painful-nor-pleasant - that too is burning. Burning with what?
Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of
delusion; burning with birth, aging, and death; with sorrow, lamentation,
pain, displeasure, and despair, I say.
Seeing thus, monks, the instructed noble disciple experiences
revulsion towards the eye, towards forms, towards eye-consciousness,
towards eye-contact, towards whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as
condition - whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant;
experiences revulsion towards the ear...towards the nose...towards the
tongue...towards the body...towards the mind...towards whatever feeling
arises with mind-contact as condition...Experiencing revulsion he becomes
dispassionate. Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is
liberated there comes the knowledge: Its liberated. He
understands: Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what
had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of
(The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1143)
The Fire Sermon also lists the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance
(though Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them in this passage as lust, hatred, and
delusion) which arise in reaction to the impressions derived from the six
roots, twelve fields, and the eighteen elements. The three poisons are the
fundamental internal source of suffering.
The sermon then lists the sufferings of birth, old age (or aging), and
death which represent the universal fluctuation of life which will always
thwart the aims of the three poisons. The four sufferings which are
commonly referred to consist of these three with the addition of sickness.
This, in turn, leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and
despair. All of this is what constitutes the burning which the Buddha
uses as a metaphor for dukkha, the state of suffering or
dissatisfaction which characterizes life. The Fire Sermon teaches that this
constant burning can be extinguished (the etymological meaning of Nirvana)
when one ceases to seek satisfaction through sensory experience and
practices detachment instead.
The Fire Sermon is important for many reasons. It not only clearly lays
out the case for detachment, but it also introduces the six roots, twelve
fields, and eighteen elements, and the three poisons, which will appear
again and again in other Buddhist teachings. Together they compromise the
fundamental sources of worldly suffering in Buddhism. Looking at them from
a scientific angle, we can see why the six roots and the three poisons are
not conducive to happiness. The six roots are the products of biological
necessity; they developed to assist survival not happiness. The three
poisons are the biological imperatives which demand that we use our minds
and bodies to seek food, avoid danger and ignore anything that does not
pertain to survival and the perpetuation of the species. One could say that
trying to find happiness or blissful repose through the six roots and the
three poisons is like trying to cool off on a hot day by swimming in a
bonfire. In some ways, Buddhist liberation is an attempt to free humanity
from mere biological necessity.
There is yet another way of understanding the vicissitudes of life in the
Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism, all sentient beings share the same life
process. Sometimes the phrase "four forms of birth" is used to
indicate all life which comes from wombs (mammals), eggs (birds, flies and
reptiles), moisture (bacteria) or metamorphosis (butterflies or spiritual
beings). The Buddha spoke of these in the Mahasihanada (The Greater
Discourse on the Lions Roar) Sutta of the Middle Length
Sariputta, there are these four kinds of generation. What are the
four? Egg-born generation, womb-born generation, moisture born generation,
and spontaneous generation.
All life which arises from these four forms of birth can be said to follow
five different conditions or paths: the path of hell, of hungry ghosts, of
animals, of humanity, and of heaven. Sometimes the fighting demons would be
considered a part of the heavenly realm, but later tradition would view
them as a sixth path and would place them even lower than the human realm.
The early tradition also considered life as a ghost to be marginally better
than life an an animal. Presumably this was because one could retain a
sense of self-identity and rational thought. Later tradition would consider
the ghost realm to be more akin to the hell realm, though a little less
severe. These six paths are borrowed from the Vedic cosmology and refer to
the six realms through which living beings are said to transmigrate. They
are also indicative of the states of mind and ways of viewing and
interacting with the world based on one's habits, tendencies and
assumptions. All of these states or potential destinations of rebirth are
transcended through the realization of Nirvana. Following his review of the
four kinds of generation in the Mahasihanada Sutta, the Buddha also
spoke of the five realms and Nirvana:
What is egg-born generation? There are these beings born by breaking
out of the shell of an egg; this is called egg-born generation. What is
womb-born generation? There are these beings born by breaking out from the
caul; this is called womb-born generation. What is moisture-born
generation? There are these beings born in a rotten fish, in a rotten
corpse, in rotten dough, in a cesspit, or in a sewer; this is called
moisture-born generation. What is spontaneous generation? There are gods
and denizens of hell and certain human beings and some beings in the lower
worlds; this is called spontaneous-generation. These are the four kinds of
(The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 168-169)
Sariputta, there are these five destinations. What are the five?
Hell, the animal realm, the realm of ghosts, human beings, and gods.
The lowest of the six is the path of hell, which comprises eight hot hells
and eight cold hells. This state is reserved for those who are so consumed
with hatred and bitterness that their only wish is to destroy themselves
and others out of spite and the desire for non-existence.
I understand hell, and the path and way leading to hell. And I also
understand how one who has entered this path will, on the dissolution of
the body, after death, reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy
destination, in perdition, in hell.
I understand the animal realm, and the path and way leading to the
animal realm. And I also understand how one who has entered this path will,
on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in the animal realm.
I understand the realm of ghosts, and the path and way leading to
the realm of ghosts. And I also understand how one who has entered this
path will, on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in the
realm of ghosts.
I understand human beings, and the path and way leading to the human
world. And I also understand how one who has entered this path will, on the
dissolution of the body, after death, reappear among human beings.
I understand the gods, and the path and way leading to the world of
the gods. And I also understand how one who has entered this path will, on
the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in a happy destination,
in the heavenly world.
I understand Nibbana, and the path and way leading to Nibbana. And I
also understand how one who has entered this path will, by realising for
himself with direct knowledge, here and now enter upon and abide in the
deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the
destruction of the taints.
(The Middle Length Discourses of the
Buddha, pp. 169-170)
The path of the hungry ghost is only slightly better. The hungry ghost is
said to have a large mouth and belly, but only a tiny throat. Hungry ghosts
can never be satisfied and they are consumed by craving. This is the state
of those who suffer from various forms of addictions which control and
dominate their lives. One's addiction can be for drugs, alcohol, sex,
gambling, power, work, entertainment or even religion; all these
addictions, however, are an attempt to cover up the fundamental sense that
life is suffering.
The path of animals is the state of cunning, primitive aggression and
instinctive desires. It is a state of mind that does not look beyond
immediate gratification and pays no heed to consequences or long term
benefit. Here, pleasure and pain reign supreme over reason and there is no
sense of morality. Though not as inherently painful as the first two
states, those who are in this state will inevitably meet with frustration
and confusion if not outright pain and suffering.
The path of the fighting demon originally referred to the arrogant demons
who tried to overthrow the Vedic gods in their arrogance. Those in this
state are full of pride and arrogance and extremely competitive. They can
never rest or feel secure because they must constantly strive to maintain
and improve their position and prestige.
The path of humanity is the state where suffering is recognized for what
it is, and morality and reason are called upon to ameliorate the human
condition. At this point, civilized life can truly begin. The human state
is considered a very fortunate one because reason is not dominated by the
sufferings and strivings of the four lower paths nor is it distracted by
the pleasures of the heavenly path. If reason remains strong and
unobscured, then one will be able to cultivate insight and attain the path of liberation.
The highest of the six paths is the path of heaven where the gods make
their abode. Unlike the Western concept of heaven, however, the Buddhist
heavens do not refer to a realm of eternal salvation. Rather, they are
temporary realms of bliss wherein all of one's desires are satisfied.
Though the highest of the twenty-eight heavens are indeed attained through
the cultivation of advanced states of meditative concentration or virtue or
devotion to the heavenly deities; these heavenly rewards for phenomenal
activities remain merely phenomenal states characterized by the three marks
of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness.
There are several important points which should be kept in mind in regard
to the six paths. The first, is that these are states of mind which all
people experience constantly throughout everyday life. They are all
interrelated and mixed; though each person tends to have certain states
which predominate. Next, the states of suffering from hell to anger lead
one to believe that suffering is inevitable or can be escaped through the
very things which cause it; while the state of heaven misleads one into
disregarding suffering as no great concern. Only in the human state is
there an equal tension between happiness and suffering. For this reason,
the human state is the most conducive to the cultivation of the path to
liberation. Finally, all of these are states wherein external phenomena are
allowed to determine whether one is happy or sad. However, the Buddha
teaches that through insight into the true nature of the five aggregates,
the three marks, the six roots, the twelve sense fields, the eighteen
elements, the four sufferings, and the three poisons one can cultivate
detachment and achieve liberation from the phenomenal world of the six
paths. In addition, this liberation, or realization of Nirvana, is
something that can be accomplished in this very lifetime.
The Wheel of Becoming (Skt. Bhavachakra; view enlargement)