What is Buddhism? It is different from what most people believe: an Oriental religion full of rituals and ceremonies, which teaches meditation leading to mystical experiences. Buddhism is most practical and matter of fact. The Buddha taught all that is real, all mental phenomena and physical phenomena of our life. By the study of his teachings one learns to investigate one’s different mental states which change very rapidly. One comes to know one’s faults and vices, even the more subtle ones which are not easily noticeable. One learns what is good and wholesome and how to develop wholesome deeds, speech and thoughts. The Buddha taught on life and death, on the conditions for all phenomena which arise and which are impermanent. He pointed out the suffering and dissatisfaction inherent in the phenomena of life. He explained the true nature of man: a composition of elements which arise and then fall away immediately and which are devoid of an abiding substance, of a "self". The Buddha taught the eightfold Path which, if it is developed in the right way, leads to direct understanding of the true nature of all the phenomena of life. It is by direct understanding that defilements can eventually be eradicated.
In this book I try to explain the message, the basic contents and some details of the Buddha’s teachings. What is the use of learning details? The Buddha’s teachings are subtle and deep and therefore it is necessary to go into details. If one does not know that there are many different aspects to each reality the Buddha taught one will read the scriptures with wrong understanding. There will be an over-simplification in the interpretation of the texts. Patience is needed to grasp the complexity of the teachings in order to avoid a superficial understanding of them. Wrong interpretation of the texts leads to wrong practice of the Buddha’s Path, and as a consequence there will not be right understanding of the phenomena within ourselves and around ourselves. The development of the eightfold Path is the development of direct understanding of the true nature of realities. When the way of its development is correctly understood, the truth of what the Buddha taught can be verified through one’s own experience. Although theoretical understanding is the foundation for the development of the Path, it is not sufficient to grasp the deep meaning of the teachings. One should know that it takes time and patience to understand what this Path is and how one can begin to develop it.
What is the origin of the Buddhist texts of the Theravāda tradition as they have come to us today? These texts date from the Buddha’s time, about 2500 years ago. Shortly after the Buddha’s passing away a Council was held in Rājagaha, were the teachings were examined and scrutinized as to their orthodoxy. Under the leadership of the Buddha ’s eminent disciple Mahā Kassapa five hundred monks who had reached the state of perfection recited all the texts of the Vinaya, the Book of Discipline for the monks, the Suttanta, Discourses, and the Abhidhamma, the higher teaching on ultimate realities. A second Council was held one century later at Vesāli. This was necessary because of wrong interpretations of the monks’s rules by heretical monks. A third Council was held in 268 B.C. in Pātalīputta. On this occasion the canon of the Theravāda tradition in the Pāli language as it exists today was finally redacted. During all this time the teachings were handed down by oral tradition. About 89 B.C. they were committed to writing in Sri Lanka.
In this book I have used a few Pāli terms which can be of use to those who intend to deepen their knowledge of Buddhism. The English equivalents of the Pāli terms are frequently unsatisfactory since they stem from Western philosophy and therefore give an association of meaning which is different from the meaning intended by the Buddhist teachings.
I want to acknowledge my deep gratitude to Ms. Sujin Boriharnwanaket in Thailand, who gave me great assistance in the understanding of the Buddhist teachings and in particular in their application. I also wish to express my gratitude to the "Dhamma Study and Propagation Foundation", to the publisher Alan Weller and to my husband. Without their help the writing and the printing of this book would not have been possible.
Finally I want to give information on the sources of my quotations from the texts in the English language. I quoted mainly from the Dialogues of the Buddha, the Middle Length Sayings, the Kindred Sayings and the Gradual Sayings. I also quoted from the Path of Purification which is an Encyclopedia on Buddhism written by the commentator Buddhaghosa in the fifth century A.D. This is only a selection of the texts I used. They are available at the Pāli Text Society, 73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford OX3 7AD, England.
With this book I intend to give an introduction to the Buddhist teachings. I hope that I can encourage readers to explore the scriptures themselves in order to deepen their own understanding.
Nina van Gorkom