Fundamentals of Buddhism 04 06 Nyanatiloka Mahāthera

Fundamentals of Buddhism    04 06 Nyanatiloka Mahāthera


Fundamentals of Buddhism – A BuddhaNet Production
FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS (PART I) This is the third in the series of lectures
and we are getting into the real heart of Buddhism with today’s lecture because in
the next hour or so I would like to say a few words regarding
the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are a very important
aspect of the teachings of the Buddha. Their importance has been stated in no uncertain
terms by the Buddha. He has said that it is because we fail to
understand the Four Noble Truths that we have run on so long in this cycle of birth and
death. This indicates how important the Four Noble
Truths are to the understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and to the realization of the goal
of His teachings. Similarly, it is no coincidence that in the
Buddha’s first sermon the Dhammachakkappavattana Sutra to the five monks at the deer park near
Benares, the Buddha spoke primarily about the Four
Noble Truths and the Middle Path. Here we have two very significant indications
of the importance of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths in a sense are a summary
of the Buddha’s teachings both from the point of view of doctrine or theory and also
from the point of view of practice. So here in the Four Noble Truths which are
the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering,
the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path that leads to the end of
suffering, we have the foundation of the teachings of
the Buddha for understanding and practice. Before we consider the Four Noble Truths individually,
I would like to say a few words about the nature of the scheme that the Four Noble Truths
represent and in this context we can perhaps remember
that medical science had enjoyed a certain amount of development in ancient India. One of the structures that had been developed
by medical science in ancient India was the four fold structure of disease, diagnosis,
cure and treatment. Now if you think carefully about these four
steps in the practice of medicine, the practice of the art of healing,
you will see that they correspond quite closely to the Four Noble Truths. In other words, suffering corresponds to the
illness; the cause of suffering corresponds to the
diagnosis, in other words identifying the cause of the illness; the end of suffering
corresponds to the cure; and the path to the end of suffering corresponds
to the treatment whereby one is cured of the illness. Now having said this about the therapeutic
nature of the Four Noble Truths and the stages that they represent,
I would like to say something slightly more conceptual but nonetheless very important
for the correct understanding of the Four Noble Truths. When Shariputra, one of the foremost disciples
of the Buddha came upon Ashvajit (who was one of the first five monks to whom the Buddha
delivered the first sermon) and spoke to Ashvajit about the Buddha’s
teachings, Ashvajit said, “I cannot tell you in great detail as I am relatively new to
the teachings, but I will tell you briefly.” So Shariputra said, “Very well, tell me briefly
then,” and Ashvajit replied with a very brief summary of the Buddha’s teachings which
is as follows Of things that proceed from a cause, their
cause the Tathagata has told, and also their cessation:
Thus teaches the Great Ascetic. Shariputra was greatly impressed by this summary
and he went to find his friend Maudgalyayana and the two of them soon joined the Order
and became prominent disciples of the Buddha. This summary of the Buddha’s teachings tells
us something about the central concept that lies behind the Four Noble Truths. It indicates the importance of the relationship
between cause and effect. The idea of cause and effect is at the heart
of the Buddha’s teachings and is at the heart of the Four Noble Truths. Now in what sense? Specifically there is a starting point, the
problem of suffering. This problem arises from causes. Finally just as there is suffering and the
causes of suffering, so too there is an end of suffering and a cause for the end of suffering. In this case it is a negative process. In other words, when the causes of suffering
are removed then suffering ends. If you look at the Four Noble Truths you can
see that they divide quite naturally into two groups. The first two, suffering and the cause of
suffering belong to the realm of birth and death. Symbolically they can be represented as a
circle, in the sense that they are circular. The causes of suffering lead to suffering,
suffering produces the causes of suffering which again produce suffering. They are circular. They belong to samsara. The second two, the end of suffering and the
path to the end of suffering can be symbolized in terms of a spiral. Movement is no longer circular. It is now directed upwards. If we keep this structure, the idea of cause
and effect at the back of our mind when we look at the Four Noble Truths, I think we
can find them easier to understand. Similarly, if we remember the principle of
cause and effect it will be of great value to us as we continue to study the Buddha’s
teachings when we come to consider karma and rebirth
or when we come to consider dependent origination. In short, throughout all the Buddha’s teachings
we will see that the principle of cause and effect runs like a thread. Let us now look at the first of the Four Noble
Truths, the truth of suffering (Duhkha). Many non-Buddhists and even some Buddhists
have felt disturbed by the choice of suffering as the first of the Four Noble Truths and
many have said that this is an indication of pessimism. I often find non-Buddhists saying to me “Why
is Buddhism so pessimistic? Why does it begin with and emphasize suffering?” There are a number of answers to this question. Some of you may be familiar with the distinction
between pessimism, optimism and realism. Let us put it this way. If one is suffering from a disease and one
refuses to recognize the fact that one is ill this is not being optimistic,
this is merely being foolish. It is analogous to the ostrich burying its
head in the sand. If there is a problem the only sensible thing
to do is to recognize the problem and see what can be done to eliminate it. Secondly, if the Buddha had taught only the
truth of suffering and had stopped at that, then there might be some truth in the charge
that the teachings of the Buddha are pessimistic. But the teachings of the Buddha do not end
with the truth of suffering because the Buddha taught not only the truth of suffering
but also the truth of its cause and more importantly in this context the truth of its cessation. All of us, I am quite sure, if we are honest
with ourselves, will admit that there is a fundamental problem with life. Things are not as they should be. Something somewhere is not quite right. And no matter how much we may try to run away
from it, at some time or other, perhaps in the middle of the night,
or perhaps in the middle of a crowd, or perhaps in the moment during one’s work,
we do come face to face with ourselves, the realization that things are not all as they
should be, that something is wrong somewhere. This is what in fact impels people to seek
solutions. They may seek solutions in more material things
or they may seek solutions in various therapies. In Buddhism, specifically the truth of suffering
can be divided into two categories, broadly speaking, physical and mental. Here the physical sufferings are the sufferings
of birth, old age, sickness and death. You can recall that last week we touched upon
the Buddha’s encounter with sickness, old age and death in the form of the three sights
— the sick man, old man and the corpse. Here we find a fourth suffering, the suffering
of birth. Birth is suffering because of the physical
pain suffered by the infant and because birth impels all the other sufferings. Birth in a sense is the gateway to the other
sufferings of sickness, old age and death which follow inevitably upon birth. I think one need hardly spend much time on
the suffering of sickness, old age and death. Most of us have experience of suffering from
sickness and we have also observed the suffering of sickness in our friends and relatives. We have all observed the suffering of old
age, the inability to work, to function and to think coherently. We have all observed the suffering of death,
the pain, and the fear experienced by the dying. These sufferings are an inevitable part of
life. No matter how happy and contented our lives
may be, the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death are absolutely unavoidable. In addition to these physical sufferings there
are mental sufferings. There is the suffering of separation from
our loved ones, separation either due to reasons of work or because those whom we love die
or because those whom we love have to go away, or because we have to leave them. Then there is the suffering of contact with
those whom we dislike or those who dislike us. It can take very mild forms such as a colleague
at work who is antagonistic to us and we dread to go to work
because we know that this person whom we dislike somehow always wants to find fault with us. It can take more radical forms such as persecution,
torture and so forth. Finally there is the suffering of frustrated
desire, when we cannot get what we want,
when we cannot get that job, the position that we want,
when we cannot win over this or that person. These physical and mental sufferings are woven
into the fabric of our existence. But what about happiness? Is there no happiness or enjoyment in life? Of course there is. But the pleasure or happiness which we experience
in life is impermanent. We may enjoy a happy situation, we may enjoy
the company of someone we love, we may enjoy youth and health and yet all these forms of
happiness are impermanent. Sooner or later we will experience suffering. If we really want to do something about suffering,
to solve the problem of suffering, we must identify its cause. If the lights go out and we want to set it
right we have to identify its cause. We have to find out whether it is a short
circuit or whether a fuse has blown or whether perhaps the power supply has been cut off. Similarly, when we recognize the problem of
suffering we have to look for the cause. It is by understanding the cause of suffering
that we can do something to solve the problem. What is the cause of suffering according to
the Buddha? The Buddha has taught that craving or desire
(Trishna or Raga) is a great cause of suffering craving for pleasant experiences,
craving for material things, craving for eternal life and craving for eternal death. We all enjoy good food, we all enjoy fine
music, pleasant company. We enjoy all these things and we want more
and more of these things. We try to prolong these pleasant experiences. We try to get more and more of these pleasures. And yet somehow we are never completely satisfied. We may find that we are fond of a particular
kind of food and yet if we eat it again and again we get bored with it. We try another kind of food. We like it, enjoy it and again we get bored
with it. We go on to look for something else, we get
tired of our favourite piece of music. We get tired of our friends. We look for more and more. Sometimes this chase after pleasant experiences
leads one to extremely negative forms of behaviour such as alcoholism and drug addiction. All of these are the cravings for satisfaction
of our desires for pleasant experiences. It is said that trying to satisfy one’s
desire for pleasant experiences is like drinking salt water when one is thirsty. If one drinks salt water to satisfy one’s
thirst, one’s thirst, rather than being quenched, is only increased. Not only do we crave for pleasant experiences
but we also crave for material things. You can see this clearly in children. I have a five year old son. Take him into a toy shop and he will want
every toy in the shop. And perhaps he will buy a toy. Almost as soon as he has bought the toy he
begins to lose interest in it, and without fail, within a few days the toy
will be neglected in the corner of the room and he will want another toy. While this can be seen very clearly in young
children, are we any different? After we have bought that new car don’t
we want another one? After we have got a new house don’t we think
“Well, this house is quite nice, but it will be even nicer if I can get a better
one, one with a little garden or one with four rooms, or a point block, or a condominium.” And it goes on and on, whether it is a train
set or a bicycle or a video recorder or a Mercedes Benz. It is said that the desire for acquiring wealth
or possession is involved with three major sufferings, or problems. The first one is the problem of getting it. You have to work, and save enough to buy that
car or that house. Secondly, there is the suffering of protecting
it. You worry that someone might bang your car,
you worry that your house may burn down or be damaged by the rain. Finally there is the suffering of losing them,
because sooner or later they will fall apart. Craving for existence or eternal life is a
cause of suffering. We all crave for existence, we all crave for
life. Despite all the suffering and frustration
of life we all crave for life. And it is this craving which causes us to
be born again and again. Then there is the desire for annihilation,
the desire for non-existence, what we might call the desire for eternal death. This expresses itself in nihilism and in suicide. Craving for existence is one extreme. Craving for non-existence is another extreme. You may ask, “Is craving alone a sufficient
cause of suffering? Is craving alone enough to explain suffering? Is the answer as simple as that?” The answer is no. There is something that goes deeper than craving. There is something which in a sense is the
foundation of craving. And that something is ignorance (Avidya). Ignorance is not seeing things as they really
are, or failing to understand the reality of experience or the reality of life. All those who are well educated may feel uneasy
about being told that they are ignorant. I can recall what Professor Lancaster who
visited Singapore a few months ago said regarding this. He said this is one of the most difficult
things to explain to university students in the United States when they begin a course
in Buddhist studies because they are all very happy and proud
to be in the university. Here you have to tell them that they are ignorant. He says always the hands shoot up immediately,
“How are we ignorant? In what sense are we ignorant?” Let me say this. Without the right conditions, without the
right training and without the right instruments we are unable to see things as they really
are. None of us would be aware of radio waves if
it were not for the radio receiver. None of us would be aware of bacteria in a
drop of water if it were not for microscopes, and none of us would be aware of molecular
structure if it were not for the latest techniques of electron microscopy. All these facts about the world in which we
live in are known and observed only because of special training, special conditions and
special instruments. When we say that ignorance is failure to see
things as they really are, what we mean is that so long as one has not
developed one’s ability to concentrate one’s mind and insight so one is ignorant of the
true nature of things. We are familiar with the fear that we experience
when we see a shape in the darkness by the side of the road while walking home alone
late at night. That shape by the side of the road may be
a tree stump. Yet it is our ignorance that causes us to
quicken our steps, perhaps our palms may begin to perspire, we may reach home in a panic. If there were a light there would be no fear
and no suffering because there would be no ignorance. We would have seen the tree stump for what
it is. Specifically in Buddhism, we are speaking
about ignorance regarding the self, taking the self as real. This is the fundamental cause of suffering. We take our body or ideas or feelings as a
self, as a real independent ego just as we take the tree stump for a potential assailant. Once we have this idea of self we have an
idea of something that is apart from or different from ourselves. Once we have this idea of something that is
apart or different from ourselves, then it is either helpful or hostile. It is either pleasant or unpleasant to ourselves. From this notion of self we have craving and
ill-will. Once we believe in the real existence of ourselves,
that “we” exist in reality, independently, apart from all others, apart from all the
physical objects that surround us, we crave and desire and want those things
which benefit us and we are averse towards those things which do not benefit us, which
damage us or which are unhelpful to us. Because of this failure to see that in this
body and mind there is no independent, permanent self, desire and ill-will inevitably thrive. Out of the root and the trunk of ignorance
grow the branches of craving desire, greed, ill-will, anger, hatred, envy, jealousy, pride
and the whole lot. All these branches grow out of the root and
trunk of ignorance and these branches bear the fruits of suffering. So here, ignorance is the underlying cause,
and craving, ill-will, greed and anger are the secondary or subsequent causes. After having identified the causes of suffering
one is in a position to put an end to suffering. Just as when one might identify the cause
of that pain in one’s lower abdomen on the left side as appendicitis, one would then
be in a position to remove the cause of the pain. One can put an end to suffering by eliminating
the cause of suffering, by eliminating craving, ill-will and ignorance. Here we come to the Third Noble Truth, the
truth of the end of suffering. In dealing with the truth of the end of suffering,
the first obstacle that we have to overcome is the doubt that exists in some minds of
whether an end of suffering is really possible. Whether one can really end suffering, or whether
one can really be cured. It is in this context that confidence or faith
plays an important role in Buddhism. When we speak of confidence or faith we do
not speak of faith in the sense of blind acceptance. We speak of faith in the sense of recognizing
or admitting the possibility of achieving the goal of the end of suffering. If you do not believe that a doctor can cure
you of that pain in your abdomen you will never go to a doctor,
you will never take the medicine or have the operation and as a result you may die of that
illness which could be cured. So confidence, belief in the possibility of
being cured is an indispensable pre-requisite. Here too, as in other cases, people may say,
“How can I believe in the possibility of Nirvana? How can I believe that the end of suffering
is really possible when I have never experienced it?” Well, as I said a moment ago, none of us would
have experienced radio waves were it not for the development of radio receivers,
and none of us would have experienced microscopic life were it not for the invention of the
microscope. Even now none of us here, unless there is
any physicist in this room, have actually observed electrons and yet we accept them
because there are those among us with the special training,
and special instruments who have observed electrons. So here too as regards the possibility of
the end of suffering and the possibility of attaining Nirvana,
we ought not to reject the possibility of attaining Nirvana outright simply because
we have not experienced it, simply because we have not seen it for ourselves. Many of you may be familiar with the old story
of the turtle and the fish. One day the turtle left the pond and spent
a few hours on the bank. When he returned to the water he told the
fish of his experiences on the bank. The fish would not believe him. The fish would not believe that there existed
a place known as dry land because it was totally unlike what the fish knew, what the fish was
familiar with. The fish would not believe that there was
a place where creatures walked rather than swam,
where one breathed air rather than water, and so forth. There are many historical examples of this
tendency to reject information that does not tally with what we already believe, or what
we are already familiar with. When Marco Polo returned to Italy from his
travels to the Far East, he was imprisoned because his account did
not tally with what was then believed about the nature of the universe. When Copernicus advanced the theory that the
sun did not circle the earth but in fact that the case was the opposite, he was disbelieved
and ridiculed. We ought to be on guard against dismissing
the possibility of the complete end of suffering or the possibility of attaining Nirvana simply
because we have not experienced it ourselves. Once we accept that the end of suffering is
possible, that we can be cured of an illness, then we can proceed with the steps that are
necessary in order to achieve that cure. But unless and until we believe that that
cure is possible there is no question of successfully completing the treatment. In order therefore to realize progress on
the path, to realize eventually the end of suffering
one has to have at least confidence in the possibility of achieving the goal,
in the possibility of attaining Nirvana. FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS (PART II) When we speak of the end of suffering, the
truth of the cessation of suffering, we are speaking of the goal of the Buddhist path. In one place the Buddha says that just as
the ocean, though vast, is of one taste – the taste of salt, so it is in His teachings. Although there are many items, all these teachings
as vast as the ocean have only one taste, and that is the taste of Nirvana. As you will see, although there are many items
of Buddhist teachings the Four Noble Truths, the three ways of practice, dependent origination,
the three characteristics and so on all these teachings have one goal in view
and that goal is the cessation of suffering. It is the goal that gives all the various
teachings that we find in Buddhism their directions and purposes. The end of suffering is the goal of Buddhist
practice and yet this end of suffering is not something which is only transcendental,
which is only ultimate. This is interesting because yesterday I was
asked to speak on the origin and development of the Semitic religions
and at the end of the session one of the questions raised was
“What is the final goal of the Semitic religions and what is the distinction between the spiritual
goal offered by the Semitic religions and the goal offered by Buddhism?” In the case of the Semitic religions, I think
it is fair to say that there are two goals. One refers to this life, and is expressed
in the sense of building a kingdom of love, prosperity and justice in this world. The other higher goal refers to attaining
heaven in the after-life. But in Buddhism we have a much more comprehensive
treatment. In other words, this goal of the end of suffering
that the Buddha speaks of is very broad and comprehensive in its meaning. Because when we speak of the end of suffering,
we can mean the end of suffering here and now, either temporarily or permanently. Let us see whether we can explain this in
greater detail. Suppose we happen to be in dire poverty – insufficient
food, medicine, schools and so forth. There are sufferings such as birth, sickness,
disease and old age, separation from one’s loved ones, contact with those whom we do
not like to have contact. When we remedy the situation here and now
through achieving prosperity, through developing our medical and educational systems, our sufferings
are reduced. Buddhism teaches that the particular happiness
or suffering that is experienced in this life is the result of our actions done in the past. In other words, if we are in fortunate conditions,
these conditions are the results of good or wholesome actions done in the past. Similarly, those who find themselves in less
fortunate conditions, those conditions are the results of unwholesome actions done in
the past. What does Buddhism offer in the way of the
end of suffering? Practising Buddhism results in the short term
in relative happiness in this life. This happiness can be of a material variety
in the sense of better material conditions or it can be of a spiritual variety in the
sense of greater peace or happiness of mind. All of these are achievable in this very life
here and now. This is one dimension of the end of suffering
in this life. And this is equivalent to what the Semitic
religions call the kingdom on earth. In addition to this, the end of suffering
means happiness and good fortune in the next life,
in the sense of rebirth in fortunate circumstances, in circumstances of happiness, prosperity,
health, well-being, success and so on. And this can be as a human being on this earth
or it can be in the heavens. We can liken it to the heaven that the Semitic
religions speak of. The goal of Buddhism initially means happiness
and prosperity in this life and next. But the goal of Buddhism is more than just
that and it is here that Buddhism differs from the Semitic religions because not only
does Buddhism promise happiness and prosperity in this life and next,
Buddhism also offers liberation – Nirvana, the total, absolute and permanent cessation
of suffering. This is the ultimate and final goal of Buddhism. When we speak of Nirvana, we encounter certain
problems of expression because when we are speaking of an experience,
the exact nature of that experience cannot be communicated. It has to be experienced directly. This is true of all experiences whether they
be the experiences of the taste of salt, sugar, chocolate or whatever. All these experiences cannot be exactly described. I often ask people here in Singapore in order
to make this point. Imagine I have just recently arrived in Singapore
and I have not eaten a durian. How would you describe to me the taste of
a durian? Would it be possible to describe accurately
the taste of a durian if I have not eaten one myself? We can describe it by means of comparison
or simile or by means of negation. So, for instance, you might say that a durian
is slightly sour, that it has a mealy texture. You might say a durian is something like a
jackfruit or you might say a durian is not like a banana. So we have a similar kind of problem when
we come to try to describe Nirvana. We find that the Buddha and Buddhist teachers
have used these kinds of devices to describe Nirvana. The Buddha described Nirvana as supreme happiness,
as peace, as immortal. Similarly, He has described Nirvana as uncreated,
unformed, as beyond the earth, as beyond water, fire, air, beyond the sun and moon, unfathomable,
unmeasurable. So we have two approaches to the description
of Nirvana. One is the positive approach where we liken
Nirvana to something which we experience in this world where,
say, when one experiences intense happiness accompanied by profound peace of mind one
can imagine that one is experiencing a faint glimpse of Nirvana. But a jackfruit is not really like a durian. Similarly, we can say that Nirvana is not
like anything in this world, is not like any experience that we have from day to day. It is uncreated. It is beyond the sun and the moon. It is beyond all these names and forms which
we are used to thinking in terms of, through which we experience the world. The point of all these is that to understand
what Nirvana is really like one has to experience it for oneself. To know what a durian is really like, one
has to eat it. No amount of essays, no amount of descriptions
of durians will even approach the experience of eating one. One has to experience the end of suffering
for oneself and the way that one does it is through eliminating
the causes of suffering the defilements of desire (Raga) ill-will (Dosha) and ignorance
(Avidya). When one has totally eliminated these causes
of suffering, then one will experience for oneself Nirvana. How does one remove these causes of suffering? What are the means through which one can remove
the defilements that lead to suffering? This is the path taught by the Buddha. It is the Middle Path, the path of moderation. You will recall that the life of the Buddha
before His Enlightenment falls into two quite distinct periods. The period before renunciation was a period
when He enjoyed all the luxury possible. For instance, we are told that He had three
palaces, one for each season. He experienced luxury to an extent which we
can scarcely imagine. This period of luxury was superseded by six
years of extreme asceticism and self-mortification when He abandoned the essential amenities
of life, a period in which He lived in the open, wore
the poorest garments and fasted for lengthy periods. In addition to these privations,
He experienced the suffering of torturing His body through various practices of self-mortification
sleeping on beds of thorns and sitting in the midst of fires in the heat
of the noon-day sun. Having experienced the extremes of luxury
and privation, having reached the limits of these extremes,
He saw their futility and He discovered the Middle Way that avoids the extremes of indulgence
in pleasures of the senses and self-mortification. It was through realizing the nature of the
extremes in His own experience that He was able to arrive at the Middle Path,
the path that avoids the two extremes. As we shall see in the subsequent weeks, the
Middle Path is capable of many profound and significant interpretations,
but most importantly and most essentially, it means moderation in one’s approach to
life, in one’s attitude, in all things. We use the example of the three strings of
the lute to illustrate the Middle Path. The Buddha once had a disciple by the name
of Sona who practised meditation so intensely that he could not progress in his meditation. He began to think of abandoning his life as
a monk. The Buddha, who understood his problem, said
to him, “Sona, before you became a monk you were a musician”. Sona said that was true. So the Buddha said, “As a musician which string
of the lute produces a pleasant and harmonious sound. The over-tight string?” “No,” said Sona, “The over-tight string produces
an unpleasant sound and is moreover likely to break at any moment.” “The string that is too loose?” Again, “No, the string that is too loose does
not produce a tuneful sound. The string that produces a tuneful sound is
the string that is not too tight and not too loose.” So here the life of luxury is too loose, without
discipline. The life of mortification is too tight, too
tense, too likely to cause the breakdown of the mind
and body just as the over-tight string is likely to break at any moment. Specifically, the path to the Buddhist goal
is like a medical prescription. When a competent doctor treats a patient for
a serious illness, his prescription is not only physical, it is also psychological. If one is suffering, for instance, from heart
disease, one is not only given medication. One is also asked to control one’s diet
and to avoid stressful situations. Here too when we look at the specific instructions
with regard to following the path to the end of suffering,
we can see that the instructions refer not only to one’s body – actions and words but
also to one’s thoughts. In other words, the Noble Eightfold Path,
the path to the end of suffering is a comprehensive path, an integrated therapy. It is designed to cure the disease through
eliminating the causes, through treatment that applies not only to the body but also
to the mind. Right understanding is the first step of the
Noble Eightfold Path and it is followed by Right Thought,
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right
Concentration. Why do we begin with Right Understanding? It is because in order to climb a mountain
we have to have the summit clearly in view. In this sense, the first step depends on the
last. We have to have our goal in view if we are
to travel a path to reach that goal. In this sense, Right Understanding gives direction
and an orientation to the other steps of the path. We see here that the first two steps of the
path, Right Understanding and Right Thought refer to the mind. Through Right Understanding and Right Thought
we eliminate ignorance, greed and anger. But it is not enough to say that through Right
Understanding and Right Thought we eliminate ignorance,
greed and anger because in order to achieve Right Understanding and Right Thought we also
need to cultivate, to purify our mind and our body. The way that this is done is through the other
six steps of the path. We purify our physical existence so that it
will be easier to purify our mind, and we purify our mind so that it will be
easier to attain Right Understanding. For convenience’ sake, the Noble Eightfold
Path has been traditionally divided into the three groups of training
or the three ways of practice and they are morality or good conduct (Shila),
meditation or mental development (Samadhi), and wisdom or insight (Prajna). The eight steps of the path are divided into
these three ways of practice as follows Right Speech,
Right Action and Right Livelihood belong to the way of good conduct;
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration belong to the way of mental
development; and Right Understanding and Right Thought
belong to the way of wisdom. Because it is necessary to purify our words
and actions before we can purify our mind, we begin our progress along the path with
good conduct. As the Noble Eightfold Path is the means of
arriving at the goal of Buddhism, we will be spending the next three weeks dealing
with these three ways of practice. MORALITY Last week we completed our survey of the Four
Noble Truths and in so doing the last topic that we dealt with was the Noble Eightfold
Path to the end of suffering. We used the analogy of mountain climbing when
we talked about treading the Eightfold Path to the end of suffering. We have said that just as when one climbs
a mountain the first step depends on the last, the last depends on the first because we have
to have our eyes firmly fixed on the summit of the mountain
and yet we also have to be careful not to stumble while taking the first few steps up
to the mountain path. So here in climbing a mountain, each portion
of the path depends on the other portions. In this sense, regarding the Noble Eightfold
Path, all the steps of the path are interrelated, are dependent on one another. We cannot do away with any one step. Nonetheless, for practical purposes the eight
steps of the path have been divided into three ways of practice, or three divisions of training. These three divisions are good conduct or
morality (Shila), mental development or meditation (Samadhi) and finally wisdom or insight (Prajna). Although conceptually and structurally, the
first step depends upon the last and the last depends upon the first;
although they are dependent on one another, still in practical terms when one climbs a
mountain one has to climb the lowest slope first. One may be attracted to the summit, but in
order to get there one has to cover the lower slope first. It is for this very practical reason that
we find the eight steps of the Eightfold Path grouped into these three ways of practice. The first of these three ways is good conduct. Good conduct forms a foundation for further
progress on the path, for further personal development. It is said that just as the earth is the base
of all animate and inanimate things, so is morality the foundation of all qualities. When we look around us we can see that everything
rests upon the earth, whether it be the building, whether it be
the tree and bush, or whether it be the animal. The earth is the foundation, and in the same
manner morality is the foundation of all qualities, all virtues, all attainments ranging from
the mundane to the supra-mundane, ranging from success,
good fortune all the way up to skill in meditation, wisdom and enlightenment. Through this metaphor, we can under-stand
the importance of good conduct as a foundation for following the path,
as a basis for achieving results on the path. Why do we take time to stress the importance
of good conduct as a foundation for progress on the path? The reason is that there is a tendency to
think of good conduct as rather boring, rather dull. Meditation sounds more exciting and interesting. Philosophy has a kind of fascination about
it. There is a dangerous tendency to neglect the
importance of good conduct and to go to the more exciting parts of the path. But if we do not create this foundation of
good conduct, we will not succeed in treading the other parts of the path. We have to understand the way in which the
precepts or the rules of good conduct are established within Buddhism
because there are various ways in which moral or ethical codes are established. If you look at the moral codes of the major
religions, you will find that there is a surprising correspondence. If you look at the moral teachings of Confucius,
of Lao Tzu, of the Buddha, of Hindu teachers, Christians, Muslims, and Jews,
you will find that regarding the basic rules of morality, there is a large degree of correspondence. But while the rules in many cases correspond,
the attitude, the ways in which the rules are presented,
understood and interpreted differ considerably from religion to religion. Essentially, to generalize, there are two
ways in which moral codes can be established. One way we might call the authoritarian way,
and the other we might call the democratic way. And a good example of the first is God’s
handing down the Ten Commandments to Moses on the mountain. On the other hand in Buddhism, I think what
we have here might be called a democratic way of establishing the rules of good conduct. You might wonder why I say that. After all we do have the rules of good conduct
laid down in scriptures. So you might ask is this not similar to God’s
handing down the tablets to Moses? But I think this is not really so because
if we look closely at the scriptures, we do find what lies behind the rules of good
conduct, and the principles that lie behind that are the foundation of the rules of good
conduct, are the principles of equality and reciprocity. What equality means is that all living beings
are equal in their essential attitudes. In other words, all living beings want to
be happy. They fear pain, death and suffering. All want to live, to enjoy happiness and security. And this is also true to all living beings
just as it is true to ourselves. We can call this equality the great universality
of the Buddhist vision in which all living beings are equal. On the basis of this equality, we are encouraged
to act with the awareness of reciprocity. Reciprocity means that just as we would not
like to be killed, robbed, abused and so forth, so would all other living beings not like
to have these things happen to them. One can put this principle of reciprocity
quite simply by saying “do not act towards others in a way which you would not want them
to act towards you”. Given these principles of equality and reciprocity,
it is not hard to see how they stand behind, how they create the foundation for the rules
of good conduct. Let us now look specifically at the contents
of good conduct in Buddhism. The way of practice of good conduct includes
three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path, and these three parts are Right Speech, Right
Action, and Right Livelihood. Speech is an extremely important part of our
life. We often tend to underestimate the power of
speech. We often tend to exercise very little control
over our faculty of speech. This should not be so. We have all been very greatly hurt by someone’s
words at some time of our life. And similarly, we have been encouraged by
the words of another. In the sphere of politics, we can see how
those who are able to communicate effectively are able to influence people tremendously
for better or for worse. Hitler, Churchill, Martin Luther King were
all accomplished speakers who were able to influence millions of people with their words. It is said that a harsh word can wound more
deeply than weapons. A gentle word can change the heart and mind
of the most hardened criminal. Probably more than anything else, the faculty
of speech differentiates man from animals. So if one is to develop a society in which
harmony, well-being, communication and cooperation are goals which
are to be realized, one must control, cultivate and utilize one’s faculty of speech
positively. All the rules of good conduct involve respect
that is founded upon the understanding of equality and reciprocity. In this context, right speech involves respect
for truth and respect for the welfare of others. If one speaks with these criteria in mind,
one will be cultivating right speech and through this one will achieve greater harmony within
society. Traditionally we speak of four aspects of
right speech. Right speech means to avoid lying, to avoid
back biting or slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk. Some of you may recall the Buddha’s instruction
to Rahula regarding the importance of avoiding lying. He used the example of a vessel. The vessel had a tiny bit of water in the
bottom and He asked, “Rahula, see the small amount of water in the bottom of the vessel. Those who are not ashamed of lying, their
virtue is small, their renunciation is small like the small amount of water in the vessel.” Then the Buddha threw away the water and said,
“those who are not ashamed of lying throw away their virtue just as this water is thrown
away.” Then the Buddha showed Rahula the empty vessel
and said, “just so empty is the virtue, the renunciation
of those who habitually tell lies.” Thus He used the vessel as a means to illustrate
the point that lying is intimately associated with one’s practice of wholesome actions,
with one’s good conduct, with one’s character. Once we are confident that we can act in one
way and speak in another, then we will not be afraid to act badly,
because we will be confident that we can cover up our bad actions by lying. Lying therefore opens the door to all kinds
of unwholesome actions. Slander is divisive. It creates quarrels between friends. It creates pain and discord. So just as one would not want to be divided
from one’s friend by slander, so ought one not to slander another. So also one ought not to abuse others with
harsh words, but on the contrary should speak courteously
to others as one would like to be spoken to oneself. Regarding idle talk, often you hear of people
saying that we cannot even indulge in a bit of idle talk. It is not quite that bad. Here the kind of idle talk that is particularly
indicated refers to malicious gossips, diverting oneself,
entertaining oneself, recounting the faults and failings of others. Rather than use this faculty of speech which
is so powerful for deception, for dividing others, for abusing others, for
idling away time at the expense of others, why not use it constructively, to communicate
meaningfully, to unite others, to encourage understanding between neighbours and friends,
and to communicate helpful, meaningful advice. The Buddha once said, “Pleasant speech is
as sweet as honey, truthful speech is as beautiful as a flower, and wrong speech is unwholesome
and filthy”. So let us try for our own good and that of
others to cultivate Right Speech, respect for truth, and respect for the welfare of
others. The next part of the path that falls under
good conduct is Right Action. Right Action entails respect for life, respect
for property, and respect for personal relationships. We will recall what was said a moment ago
about life being dear to all. It is said in the Dharmapada that all tremble
at punishment, all fear death, and that all living beings love life. So again, keeping in mind the principles of
equality and reciprocity, we ought not to kill living beings. One might be ready to accept this in regard
to human beings, but we might demur with regard to other living creatures. Some of the developments that we have seen
taking place in the world of science and technology in recent years ought to give
the most skeptical free-thinker food for thought. When one destroys a certain strain of insects,
is one absolutely sure of accomplishing the greatest good, the long-term good of the environment? Or do we more often than not contribute unwittingly
to an imbalance which creates even greater problems in the future? Respect for property – not to steal from or
cheat others. This is important because those who take what
is not given, by stealth, by treachery, are as guilty of
breaking this precept as those who steal by force. In other words, the employer who does not
pay his employee an honest wage that is commensurate with his work is guilty of taking what is
not given. Similarly, the employee who collects a salary
and shirks his duties is guilty of lack of respect for property. Finally respect for personal relationships
means to avoid adultery, to avoid sexual misconduct. You can see how, if these guidelines are sincerely
cultivated within a society, such a society will be a better place to live in. The third step of the Noble Eightfold Path
included in the way of good conduct is Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is an extension of the rules
of Right Action to one’s role as a breadwinner in a society. We have seen that with regard to Right Speech
and Right Action the underlying principles behind the rules are respect for truth,
life, property and personal relationships. Right Livelihood means that one ought not
to earn a living in such a way as to violate these principles which are underlying principles
of good conduct. Specifically, there are five kinds of livelihood
that are discouraged for Buddhists. These are trading in animals for slaughter,
dealing in slaves, dealing in weapons, dealing in poisons,
and dealing in intoxicants, those are drugs and alcoholic drinks. These five kinds of livelihood are discouraged
because they contribute to the ills of society and because they violate the principles of
respect for life and so forth. Dealing in the slaughter of animals violates
respect for life. Dealing in slaves violates respect for life
and personal relationships. Dealing in deadly weapons violates the principle
of respect for life. Dealing in poisons violates the principle
of respect for life. Dealing in intoxicants violates the principle
of respect for the welfare of others. All these trades contribute to the insecurity,
to the suffering and discord in society. How does good conduct function? We have said that, in regard to society,
following the rules of good conduct creates a society characterized by harmony and peace. All social goals can be achieved through the
principles and rules of good conduct based upon the fundamental recognition of equality
and reciprocity. In addition, the individual also benefits
through the practice of good conduct. In one Sutra, the Buddha said,
“he who has practised respect for life and so forth, he feels as a king duly crowned
and his enemies subdued. He feels at peace, at ease.” The practice of good conduct creates within
the individual an inner sense of peace, of stability,
of security and of strength. Once he has created that inner peace, he can
then fruitfully and successfully practise the other steps of the path. He can cultivate and develop meditation. He can achieve wisdom only when he has created
both inwardly and outwardly in his relationships with others
and in himself the necessary foundation of good conduct. Very briefly, these are the origin, contents
and goal of good conduct? I would like to touch on one point before
I stop today, and that is when people look at the rules of good conduct,
they often say how can they possibly follow the rules of good conduct. It is terribly difficult to observe the precepts. For instance, even the precept against taking
life can sometimes seem awfully difficult to follow. When you clean up your kitchen, you quite
likely may kill some ants. Again, it may seem difficult to always observe
the precept of Right Speech. How are we to deal with this problem which
is a genuine one? It is not the point whether we can observe
all the rules of good conduct all the time. The point is, if the rules of good conduct
are well founded, if we can accept that equality and reciprocity
are principles we believe in, if we acknowledge that the rules are appropriate
to implementing those principles, then it is our duty to practise, to follow
the rules of good conduct as much as we can. That is not to say that we will be able to
follow the rules absolutely all the time. But it is to say that if we accept that in
order to live at peace with ourselves and others,
we ought to respect the life of other living beings, respect their property and so forth. And if a situation arises in which we find
ourselves unable to apply a particular rule in a particular situation,
then that is not the fault of the rule. That simply is the gap between our own practice
and the ideal. When a navigator steers his ship across the
ocean by the stars, he is not able to follow precisely the course indicated by the stars. Yet the stars are his guide and by following
the stars however inaccurately or approximately, he reaches his destination. In the same way, when we follow the rules
of good conduct we do not pretend that we can observe them all the time. This is why for instance the five precepts
are called the training precepts and that is why we take them again and again. What we have in the rules of good conduct
is a framework through which we can try to live in accord with the fundamental principles
that illuminate the Buddhist teachings, the principle of the equality of all living beings
and the principle of respect for others.

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