Why are we in this life? Why do we have to suffer? Men of all times conceived philosophical systems which could explain the reason for their existence and give a solution to the problem of suffering. Religions also try to give an answer to the problem of suffering in teaching that people should have faith in God and live according to His commandments; consequently one can, after death, enjoy eternal bliss in heaven. The Buddha gave his own, unique answer to the problem of suffering. He taught that the cause of suffering is within man, namely his own faults and defilements, and not in the external situation. He explained that only profound knowledge of his own mind and of all phenomena of his life can lead to the end of suffering. We read in the Buddhist scriptures (Kindred Sayings I, Chapter III, Kosala, Part 3, §3, The World) that King Pasenadi had a conversation with the Buddha at Sāvatthī about the cause of suffering. We read:
"How many kinds of things, lord, that happen in the world, make for trouble, for suffering, for distress?"
"Three things, sire, happen of that nature. What are the three? Greed, hate, and delusion-these three make for trouble, for suffering, for distress"
The outward circumstances cannot be changed, but the inward attitude towards the vicissitudes of life can be changed. Wisdom can be developed and this can eventually eradicate completely greed, hate and delusion. This wisdom is not developed by speculation about the truth of life, it is developed through the direct experience of the phenomena of life as they really are, including one’s own mental states. That is the Path the Buddha taught, but it takes time to understand how it is to be developed.
The Buddha was not a God, not a saviour, who wanted people to follow him without questioning the truth of his teaching. He showed the Path to the understanding of the truth, but people had to investigate the truth and develop the Path themselves. We read in the scriptures (Dialogues of the Buddha, II, 16, the Book of the Great Decease) that the Buddha said to his disciple Ānanda:
Therefore, Ānanda, be an island to yourselves, a refuge to yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Teaching as your island, the Teaching as your refuge, seeking no other refuge"
The Buddha explained that in developing the Path one is one’s own refuge.
The Buddha had found the Path to understanding of the truth all by himself, without help from a teacher. However, he was not the only Buddha. Aeons and aeons ago there were other Buddhas who also found the Path all by themselves and who taught the development of the Path to others. The Buddha whose teaching we know in this time was called the Buddha Gotama. His personal name was Siddhattha and his family name Gotama. He lived in the sixth century B.C. in Northern India. He was born in Lumbini (now in Nepal) as the son of Suddhodana, King of the Sākyas. His mother was Queen Māyā. He married Princess Yasodharā and he lived in great luxury. However, when he drove out to the park with his charioteer he was confronted with suffering. We read in the Dialogues of the Buddha (II, 14, The Sublime Story) that the Buddha related the story of a former Buddha, the Buddha Vipassi, and explained that all Bodhisattas, beings destined to become Enlightened Ones, Buddhas, have such experiences. We read that the Bodhisatta, after he saw in the park someone who was aged, asked the charioteer the meaning of what he saw. The charioteer explained to him that the person he saw was aged and that all beings are subject to old age. On a following occasion there was an encounter with a sick person and the charioteer explained that all beings are subject to illness. At another occasion the Bodhisatta saw a corpse. The charioteer explained that that was the corpse of someone who had ended his days. We read:
And Vipassi saw the corpse of him who had ended his days and asked "What, good charioteer, is ending one's days?"
"It means, my lord, that neither mother, nor father, nor other kinsfolk will see him any more, nor will he ever again see them."
"But am I too then subject to death, have I not got beyond the reach of death? Will neither the King, nor the Queen, nor any other of my relatives see me any more, or I ever again see them?"
"You, my lord, and we too, we all are subject to death, we have not passed beyond the reach of death. Neither the King, nor the Queen, nor any other of your relatives would see you any more, nor would you ever again see them."
"Why then, good charioteer, enough of the park for today! Drive me back from here to my rooms."
"Yes, my lord," replied the charioteer, and drove him back.
And he, monks, going to his rooms, sat brooding sorrowful and depressed, thinking "Shame then verily be upon this thing called birth, since to one born the decay of life, since disease, since death shows itself like that!"
After the Bodhisatta had been confronted with an old man, a sick man and a corpse, his fourth encounter was with a monk. The Bodhisatta asked the meaning of being a monk and the charioteer answered that it was being thorough in the religious life, in the peaceful life, in good actions, in meritorious conduct, in harmlessness, and in kindness to all creatures. The Bodhisatta decided to leave his worldly life and to become a monk.
The Buddha Gotama, when he was still a Bodhisatta, had the same encounters as the Bodhisatta Vipassi. He also became a monk after his fourth encounter in order to seek the solution to the problem of suffering. He first practised severe austerity, but he saw that that was not the way to find the truth. He decided to discontinue such severe practices and to stop fasting. On the day he was to attain enlightenment he took rice gruel which was offered to him by the girl Sujātā. Seated under the Bodhi-tree he attained enlightenment. He realized the four noble Truths: the truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the ceasing of suffering and of the Path leading to the ceasing of suffering. He had attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five years and he taught the Path to others for forty-five years. At the age of eighty he passed away at Kusinārā.
His teachings have been preserved in the Buddhist scriptures of the Vinaya (Book of Discipline for the monks), the Suttas (the Discourses), and the Abhidhamma (the "Higher Teachings"). These scriptures which have been written in the Pāli language are of the Theravāda tradition. The term "Theravāda" (Hīnayāna or "Small vehicle" is no longer used) could be translated as "the School of the Elders". There is also the Mahāyāna tradition which developed later on. The two traditions are in agreement with several points of the Buddha’s teachings, but they are different as regards the practice, the development of the Buddha’s Path leading to the realization of the truth. The Theravāda tradition is followed in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh. The Mahāyāna tradition is followed in China, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia.
The Buddha, at his enlightenment, understood that the cause of suffering is craving. He saw that when there is the cessation of craving there will be an end to suffering. What the Buddha teaches is contrary to what people generally are seeking in life. Every being has craving for the experience of pleasant things and therefore wishes to continue to obtain such objects. The Buddha was, after his enlightenment, for a moment not inclined to teach the truth he had realized under the Bodhi-tree. He knew that the "Dhamma", his teaching of the truth, would be difficult to understand by those who delighted in sense pleasures. We read in the Middle Length Sayings (I, number 26, The Ariyan Quest), that the Buddha related to the monks his quest for the truth when he was still a Bodhisatta, his enlightenment and his disinclination to teaching. We read that the Buddha said:
This that through many toils I've wonEnough! Why should I make it known?By folk with lust and hate consumedThis Dhamma is not understood.Leading on against the streamDeep, subtle, difficult to see, delicate,Unseen it will be by passion's slavesCloaked in the murk of ignorance.
We then read that the Brahmā Sahampati, a heavenly being, implored the Buddha to teach the truth. The Buddha surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One, and he saw beings with different dispositions, some of whom were not capable to accept his teaching, and some who were capable to be taught. We read that the Buddha used a simile of different kinds of lotuses in a pond:
Even as in a pond of blue lotuses or in a pond of red lotuses or in a pond of white lotuses, a few red and blue and white lotuses are born in the water, grow in the water, do not rise above the water but thrive while altogether immersed; a few blue or red or white lotuses are born in the water, grow in the water and reach the surface of the water; a few blue or red or white lotuses are born in the water, grow in the water, and stand rising out of the water, undefiled by the water; even so did I, monks, surveying the world with the eye of an Awakened One, see beings with little dust in their eyes, with much dust in their eyes, with acute faculties, with dull faculties, of good dispositions, of bad dispositions, docile, indocile, few seeing fear in sins and the world beyond.
Out of compassion the Buddha decided to teach Dhamma. His teaching goes "against the stream", it is deep and it can only be understood by studying it thoroughly and by carefully considering it. Generally, people expect something else from the Buddhist teachings. They believe that the Buddha taught a method of meditation to reach tranquillity, or even extraordinary experiences such as a mystical trance. It is understandable that one looks for a way of escape from a life full of tension and troubles. Extraordinary experiences, however, cannot give the real solution to one’s problems. It is a wrong conception of Buddhism to think that the goal of the Buddha’s Path are mystical experiences to be reached by concentration. The Buddha’s Path has nothing to do with unworldly mysticism, it is very concrete and matter of fact. Understanding should be developed of all that is real, also of our faults and vices as they naturally appear during our daily activities. We have to know ourselves when we laugh, when we cry, when we are greedy or angry, we have to know all our different moods. All troubles in life are caused by our defilements. It is through the development of understanding that defilements can be completely eradicated. Comprehending, knowing and seeing are stressed time and again in the Buddhist teachings.
It is felt by some people that, in order to develop understanding of one’s mind, one should retire from daily life and sit still in quiet surroundings. It may seem that, when one is in isolation, there is no anger or aversion and that it is easier to analyse one’s mental states. However, at such moments there is bound to be clinging to quietness and when there is clinging there is no development of understanding. We read in the scriptures about people who could develop calm in concentrating on a meditation subject. They were very skilled, they knew the right method to attain calm, which is a wholesome mental state. However, through the development of calm defilements are not eradicated, they are merely temporarily suppressed. The Buddha taught the way to develop the understanding leading to the complete and final eradication of all that is impure, of all defilements. In order to reach the goal there is no other way but developing understanding naturally in one’s daily life.
It cannot be expected that there will be the eradication of defilements soon since they are so deeply rooted. The Buddha had, during countless lives when he was still a Bodhisatta, developed understanding of all phenomena of life. Only in his last life, at the moment he attained enlightenment, all defilements were eradicated. How could we expect to reach the final goal within a short time?
The Buddha taught the way to the eradication of all defilements. Defilements are not eradicated by rituals or by sacraments. The way to eradicate them is an inner way, namely the understanding of all mental and physical phenomena of one’s life. The Buddha taught very precisely what defilements are. They are not exactly the same as what is generally meant by "sin". By sin is usually meant an evil deed, evil speech or evil thought which has a high degree of impurity. According to the Buddhist teachings defilements include all degrees, even slight degrees, of what is impure. Even slight degrees of defilements are unhelpful, not beneficial. The term "unwholesomeness", that which is unhelpful, not beneficial, includes all degrees of defilements^["Unwholesome" and "wholesome" are terms which usually stand for the Pāli terms "akusala" and "kusala".]. If one thinks in terms of sin one will not understand that ignorance of the phenomena of life is unwholesome, that ignorance is harmful since it blinds one to see the truth. Or one will not understand that even a slight degree of attachment is unwholesome, even harmful, because it is accumulated and it will arise again and again.
The Buddha, when he was sitting under the Bodhi-tree, realized the four noble Truths: the Truth of suffering, the Truth of the origin of suffering, the Truth of the ceasing of suffering, and the Truth of the Path leading to the ceasing of suffering. As to the Truth of suffering, this is not merely suffering caused by bodily and mental pain. The Truth of suffering pertains to all phenomena of life which are impermanent. They arise and then fall away immediately, and thus they cannot be our refuge. Suffering in this sense is the unsatisfactoriness inherent in all phenomena of life. Only when the arising and falling away of physical phenomena and mental phenomena can be directly experienced, can one begin to grasp the Truth of suffering.
The Truth of the origin of suffering is craving. Craving in this sense is not only strong attachment or greed, it includes many shades and degrees of attachment. There is craving for pleasant colours, sounds, odours, flavours and tangible objects, for all that can be experienced through the senses. There is craving for the continuation of life. It is craving which conditions rebirth in new existences, again and again. Craving pushes beings on in the cycle of life, the continuation of rebirth and death. There is not only this present life, there were also past lives and there will be future lives. I will deal with this subject later on. So long as there are ignorance and clinging there are conditions for being in the cycle of birth and death. Through wisdom, understanding, there can be liberation from it. When there are no more conditions for rebirth, there is the end of old age, sickness and death, the end of all suffering.
The third noble Truth, the cessation of suffering, is nibbāna. The Buddha experienced at his enlightenment nibbāna. It is difficult to understand what nibbāna, is. Nibbāna (more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of nirvāṇa) is not a place such as heaven or a paradise where one enjoys eternal bliss. There are heavenly planes, according to the Buddhist teachings, where one can be reborn as a result of a good deed, but existence in such planes is not forever. After one’s lifespan in such a plane is ended there will be rebirth in other planes, and thus there is no end to suffering. Nibbāna is only an object of speculation so long as it has not been realized. It can be realized when there is full understanding of all phenomena of life which arise because of their own conditions and then fall away. The conditioned phenomena of life are, because of their impermanence, unsatisfactory or suffering. Nibbāna is the unconditioned reality, it does not arise and fall away and therefore it is not suffering, it is the end of suffering. Nibbāna is real, it is a reality which can be experienced, but we cannot grasp what an unconditioned reality is when we have not realized the truth of conditioned realities. Nibbāna is not a God, it is not a person or a self. Since negative terms are used to express what nibbāna is, such as the end of rebirth, it may be felt that Buddhism propagates a negative attitude towards life. However, this is not the case. It has to be understood that rebirth is suffering and that nibbāna is the end of suffering. Nibbāna is freedom from all defilements, and since defilements are the cause of all unhappiness nibbāna should be called the highest goal. We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Kindred Sayings on Sense, Part IV, Chapter 38, §1, Nibbāna) that the wanderer Rose-apple-eater came to see the Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta and asked him what nibbāna was. Sāriputta answered:
The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of illusion, friend, is called nibbāna.
"Extinction" and "freedom from desire" are meanings of the word nibbāna. Nibbāna means the end of clinging to existence and thus it is deliverance from all future birth, old age, sickness and death, from all suffering which is inherent in the conditioned realities of life. The Buddha experienced at his enlightenment the unconditioned reality which is nibbāna. His passing away was the absolute extinguishment of conditions for the continuation of the life process. When the Buddha was still alive people asked him what would happen to him after his passing away. He explained that this belongs to the questions which cannot be answered, questions which are merely speculative and do not lead to the goal. The Buddha’s passing away cannot be called the annihilation of life, and there cannot be rebirth for him in another plane, either. If there would be rebirth he would not have reached the end of all suffering.
The fourth noble Truth, the way leading to the ceasing of suffering, is the development of the eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. I will deal with the eightfold Path more extensively later on in this book. The eightfold Path is the development of understanding of all physical phenomena and mental phenomena which occur in daily life. Very gradually these phenomena can be realized as impermanent, suffering and "not self". The Buddha taught that there is in the absolute sense no abiding person or self. What is generally understood as a person is merely a temporary combination of mental phenomena and physical phenomena which arise and fall away. The Buddha’s teaching of the truth of "non self" is deep and difficult to grasp. This teaching is unique and cannot be found in other philosophical systems or religions. I will deal with the truth of "non self" later on in this book. So long as there is still clinging to the concept of a self defilements cannot be eradicated. There has to be first the eradication of the wrong view of self and then other defilements can be eradicated stage by stage.
There were many monks, nuns and laypeople who developed the Path and realized the goal, each in their own situation. The development of the eightfold Path does not mean that one should try to be detached immediately from all pleasant objects and from existence. All realities, including attachment, should be known and understood. So long as there are conditions for attachment it arises. The development of understanding cannot be forced, it must be done in a natural way. Only thus can understanding, knowing and seeing, very gradually lead to detachment. When one is a layfollower one enjoys all the pleasant things of life, but understanding of realities can be developed. The monk who observes the rules of monkhood leads a different kind of life, but this does not mean that he already is without attachment to pleasant objects. He too should develop understanding naturally, in his own situation, and come to know his own defilements.
The development of the Buddha’s Path is very gradual, it is a difficult and long way. It may take many lives before there can be the attainment of enlightenment. Since the development of the Path is so difficult there may be doubt whether it makes sense to start on this Path. It is complicated to understand all phenomena of life, including our own mental states, and it seems impossible to eradicate defilements. It is useless to expect results soon, but it is beneficial to start to investigate what our life really is: phenomena which are impermanent and thus unsatisfactory. When we start on the Buddha’s Path we begin to see our many faults and vices, not only the coarse ones but also the more subtle ones which may not have been so obvious. Before studying the Buddhist teachings, selfish motives when performing deeds of generosity were unnoticed. When the deep, underlying, impure motives for one’s deeds are realized is that not a gain? A sudden change of character cannot be expected soon as a result of the Buddhist teachings, but what is unwholesome can be realized as unwholesome, and what is wholesome can be realized as wholesome. In that way there will be more truthfulness, more sincerity in our actions, speech and thoughts. The disadvantage and danger of unwholesomeness and the benefit of wholesomeness will be seen more and more clearly.
The Buddha taught about everything which is real and which can be experienced in daily life. He taught about seeing and hearing, about all that can be experienced through the senses. He taught that on account of what is experienced through the senses there is attachment, aversion and ignorance. We are ignorant most of the time of the phenomena occurring in daily life. However, even when we only begin to develop understanding we can verify the truth of what the Buddha taught. Seeing, hearing, attachment, anger, generosity and kindness are real for everybody. There is no need to label what is true for everybody as "Buddhism". When we begin to investigate what the Buddha taught there will gradually be the elimination of ignorance about ourselves and the world around us.
We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Kindred Sayings on Sense, The Third Fifty, Chapter I, §111, Understanding):
By not comprehending, by not understanding, without detaching himself from, without abandoning the eye, one is incapable of the destruction of suffering. By not comprehending... the ear... nose... tongue... body... mind... one is incapable of the destruction of suffering.
But by comprehending, by understanding, by detaching himself from, by abandoning the eye... nose... tongue... body... mind... one is capable of the destruction of suffering.
In the following sutta we read that, for the destruction of suffering colours, sounds, scents, savours, tangible objects and mind-states have to be understood. This is the way leading to the end of suffering. The Buddha taught about realities for the sake of our welfare and happiness.