Fundamentals of Buddhism


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.

> copyright © Buddha Dharma Education Association > home > search > sitemap > back