The Buddhasāsana deals with “seeing”. With “looking.” With ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ (janami passami). Not with the ordinary, everyday, sensory gaze of a ‘worldling’ (puthujjana). But with the eyes of a Buddha. With Dhamma-eyes (dhammacakku).

“Seeing” as it is recommended in the Pārāyanavagga – one of the oldest suttas of the Pali Canon: “Try to see the Buddha in your mind as if it were with your eye.” [1]

See the Buddha in all phenomena, in all things, in all dhammas. Meet him everywhere: in the unsuspecting eyes of a child, in the incoming waves of the sea, in the change of seasons and – above all – in the emptiness of your selfless self. In this way, enter the stream (sotāpatti).

See the Buddha. See the Dhamma. See the Sangha. See the process of arising and passing away, the process of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda). See the unity of this process.

The Buddha says: “Ehipassiko”. Come and look at the Dhamma – the law of nature. Observe things as they really are. Do this with equanimity (upekkhā). Not as you want or desire them to be. Not as you don’t want or desire them to be. See with equanimity the real reality that unfolds at every moment – and from moment to moment – before your eyes (yathābhūta).

The Buddha invites everyone to come and see. To see his timeless truth. To realize this truth, i.e. to recognize, acknowledge and become one with the Dhamma.

In the Kalama Sutta[2], the Buddha describes how we should ‘see’, what our basic attitude should be when we ‘see’. This sutta is an unseen ode to the free investigation.

The Buddha speaks as follows:

Now, Kalamas,
don’t go by reports (itikirā),
by legends (anussava),
by traditions (paramparā),
by scripture (piṭaka -sampadāna),
by logical conjecture (takka-hetu),
by inference (naya-hetu),
by analogies (ākāra-parivitakka),
by agreement through pondering views (diṭṭhi-nijjhān-akkh-antiyā),
by probability (bhabba-rūpatāya),
or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher’ (samano no garo).

When you know for yourselves that,
‘These qualities are skillful;
these qualities are blameless;
these qualities are praised by the wise;
these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha clearly says to his followers here: Investigate. Verify. Experiment. Let yourself be guided by free empirical research. With meticulous precision. With trial & error. To assess the path (magga). To taste the fruit, its result (phala). Free of ritual. Free of dogma. Without theology. Without philosophy. Without bias. With dhammavicaya (analysis of all phenomena). Dhammavicaya is one of the seven awakening factors.

And in the Dhammapada[3], the Buddha explains why you have to look for yourself, why you have to see with your own eyes.

Because you – and you alone – are your own protector (Attā hi attanō nāthō). This is an extremely important verse. A verse and an insight that every practitioner, every yogi, every dhammanuvatti, every follower of the Dhamma should be aware of. From early age to the last breath.

“Each is his own protector!”

In this verse, the Buddha emphasizes that the best teacher is inside each of us. Within ourselves. That teacher is the spiritual light we all carry inside us. Let this spiritual spark be our teacher. Everything we need is hidden within ourselves. We just have to bring it up. discover. mine. excavate. We can never realize the truth through anyone else. There is no authority that can reveal the truth to us. Even the Buddhas can only point to the truth. Point towards the direction we need to look. Where we need to “see”. To see for ourselves. To see with our own eyes. Not through the eyes of others.

And whether we receive praise or criticism in our quest is not at all important. All that matters is that, with a pure intention (sammā saṅkappa), we let the law of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda) be our witness.

This ‘seeing’ is a personal assignment, a personal point of concern. It’s a verb. No one else can do this for us.

We must therefore personally peel off the thick shells that permanently envelop, conceal, obscure, hide the truth. Every moment we have to prune like a gardener, as an accomplished gardener, like a hortulanus, in the thickets that surround and proliferate us. When we don’t, we lose ourselves in the jungle of our thoughts, feelings and conditioning.

And how to peel that onion, the Buddha clarifies in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta. In this lecture he provides us with a ‘technique’.

And what is this technique?

He asks us to draw our attention (Satipaṭṭhāna sati + upaṭṭhāna)[4] towards four places, towards four fields (gocara), namely attention to our body (kāyānupassanā); to our feelings/sensations (vedanānupassanā); to our mind (cittānupassanā), and finally to the objects of mind, on all phenomena (dhammānupassanā).

The Buddha called this ‘technique’ a ‘direct path’ (ekāyano maggo) to liberation:

Monks, this is a (unique = exceptional/direct/unparalleled) road[5]
which leads to purification of the beings;
to transcend sorrow and worry; [6]
to end dukkha and fear;
and to obtain the right method
for the realization of Nibbāna.

We have to work diligently on these four ‘fields’. With perseverance (adhiṭṭhāna). This hard work, this effort, will not only bring us to the stream, but will allow us to enter the stream and bring us to the other bank of the river.

So, we have to focus our attention on those four fields. Special attention. An attention in an extraordinary, glorified way – with ātāpī, satimā, sampajañña and vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassa. According to the keywords of the chorus of the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta.

  • ātāpī: meticulous, diligent, fiery, with great effort.
  • satimā: with penetrating attention. A perceptiveness that penetrates like an arrow to the depths of one’s inner reality. It’s a special, penetrating attention that hurts. A pain that hurts, that touches us. It is a pain that finally leads us to the conclusion ‘this is not who I am; this is not ‘me’; This isn’t “mine.”
  • sampajañña: with clear understanding and deep insight into the impermanence of things.
  • vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassa: free and detached from worldly desire and aversion.

In concrete terms, we will enter the stream through attention and equanimity. Because of the unique combination of sati and upekkhā. This is vipassanā. This is seeing things as they really are.

And how are things? What do they actually look like? What is their real nature?

All experiences, phenomena, things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty of any fixed existence (tilakkhaṇa). In his first lecture[7], the Buddha says to the five companions:

Everything that is subject to arising, is subject to passing away.

In these 11 words, the teaching of the Buddha is summarized. Here the Buddha clearly says: nothing is certain; everything is impermanent; everything will come to an end.

So: recognize, acknowledge and realize this process of arising and passing away. And accept this process with equanimity.

That’s the nature of how things really are. Not the way they are sold to us – artfully packaged – all our lives. And accept them with equanimity when you’ve seen how things really are.

So, we have to “see” to know what truth is. Perception versus authenticity. We need to see what’s true. Sacca. But also, we need to see what fabrication or misinterpretation is. Ignorance (avijjā).

Spiritual transformation is to reduce what is false, what is not right, what is conditioned, to be able to establish and accept what is true, what is right, what is unconditioned, afterwards.

What is true?

A correct definition of truth certainly looks like this: Truth is what was true in the past, what is true in the present and what will be true in the future. If we apply this definition, illusion will be left out. It includes no perception or fabrication. This will uproot a lot of mischief and blindness. In this way, all gods and religions immediately will be left out. No god carries a core of eternity in it: all the gods that have ever been created in the past have perished. This is also the fate of all present gods. And will be the fate of all future gods. Mutatis mutandis, this also applies to all religions.

What is fabrication?

Fabrication = ignorance. Ignorance (moha, avijjā)[8] refers to the illusion, the deception, the wrong idea (micchā diṭṭhi) that there is an “I” or a “self” (attā). An ‘I’ that exists separately from the whole. The illusion that there is a unique, fixed, stable core in each of us that is separate from everything else (a ‘soul’, ‘something’ fixed, however minimal, a blade of grass to cling to us cramped and helplessly). That’s Edvard Munch’s scream of desperation. It is the primal scream of Gilgamesh in the eponymous Mesopotamian epic. It is the deep pain that bubbles up from the oldest verse of Middle Dutch literature: “Egidius, waer bestu remained? Mi lanct na di, gheselle mine. Du coors die doot, du liets mi tleven.” It is this illusory “I” that creates gods as the supposed means of countering his transience. But gods are not an antidote. Gods are just placebos. They’re not even band-aids for the bleeding.

If we look closely, if we work our four fields diligently, we discover that the ‘self’, the ‘sense of self’ or the ‘I’ does not contain a small particle, not even a blade of grass that remains stable. This ‘I’ is just a stream, a flow of thoughts and feelings that arise and pass away at any moment, and from moment to moment.

This “I” illusion is the root of all evil. Fabrication – ignorance – is the most important poison that causes our suffering, for it results in desire (lobha, taṇhā) and aversion (dosa, vyāpāda).

When the sense of a permanent and imperishable personal core is gone, attachment and desire automatically come to an end. As a result, the chain of persistent ‘becoming’ (bhava) stops, i.e., the cycle of samsāra ends.

Ignorance, desire and aversion are poisons (kilesas) which blind us – which prevent us from seeing the ‘world of forms’ as it really is, namely: impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty (the tilakkhaṇa).

‘Fabrication’ occurs in all kinds of degrees and capacities. Fabrication is a peculiar beast: at best, fabrication is ‘decorum’ (making something more beautiful than it really is), sometimes it is something that is (by interpretation) manifestly incorrect; At worst, it’s a blatant lie.

History and hagiography/legends are incredibly malleable. I give a few examples of this ‘malleability’ and leave it to each of you to form an opinion about them.

First example: incorrect (but in this case harmless) information.

The Buddha never uttered the words ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Buddhist’. Even more explicit: throughout the Pali Canon there is no trace of both concepts.

The word ‘Buddhism’ is a concept of recent date. It is an umbrella term that the British colonizers in the 19th century used for the multitude of traditions they encountered in the various colonized countries which had their roots in the teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha called his teachings ‘Buddhadhamma’ or ‘Buddhasasana’ (→ the teachings of the Buddha); Buddhavacana (→ the word of the Buddha); or ‘Dhamma’ for short.

He did not call his followers ‘Buddhists’ but Dhammi; Dham-mattho; Dhammanuvatti; Dhammiko; Dhammacari and Dhamma-vihari.

Second example: downright false, deliberately misleading information and representations.

You all know the historic city of Ghent, with its beautiful old medieval core, the city centre, with its three towers (St. Bavon Cathedral, the belfry and the St. Niklaas church), the Gravensteen and the historic harbour with the Graslei and Korenlei.

How would you feel if I told you in all seriousness that this historic center is for the most part a romantic reconstruction of a medieval city, a ‘décor’, a Disneyland avant la lettre, which was built by the industrious Ghent ancestors following the Ghent World’s Fair in 1913.

In other words, much of what became and is presented as authentic to the unsuspecting spectators is not. It’s not even a historically responsible reconstruction. It is a reconstruction of just over a century old that does not even approach reality. It is just an interpretation of romantic architect-dreamers who have built and adapted a city décor as they imagined it without a commitment to historical documents.

The same metamorphosis that took place in Ghent 100 years ago, has taken place in the birthplace of the Buddha for the last 50 years. Lumbini, located in the Therai Plain at the foot of the Himalayas, is a modern creation. And if we look critically, at the moment it is mainly an important part of tourism for Nepal. Which, by the way, is – in itself – not to be criticized, as long as it benefits the people who need it most. The place where the Buddha was once born was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century, after it remained a hidden and meaningless plain for centuries.

Today’s Lumbini is nothing more than a carefully created perception: the beauty and harmony of a distant past exist only in the fantasized Buddhist stories and in the imagination of inspired pilgrims. [9] The same applies to the historical sites of Kapilavatthu (the capital of the Sakya Republic), Bodhgaya (where the Buddha came to awakening), Savatthi (the Jetavana) and Kusinara (the place where the Buddha died). [10]

Decor and decorum are more the rule than the exception. We humans are masters at creating dream worlds.

2,600 years lie between the period when the Buddha lived and our current time. Almost an eternity. Not only of time, but also of deep differences in culture, of interpretations and transmission.

Although the Pali Canon is the oldest surviving writing of Indian literature, we should not forget that the lectures (suttas) were not written down immediately after they were pronounced by the Buddha, but were transmitted orally for 500 years ‘from ear to ear’, by special groups of specially trained monks (banaka). The written Pali Canon was created in the year 32 before our regular calendar. The chances that the Pali Canon is the original reflection (as a copy compliant) of what the Buddha has said are therefore nil.

In other words, the Buddha’s message has not come directly to us. Before the texts of the Pali Canon were written down, they went through a long, complicated – and in some places not always clear – oral evolution.

How do we deal with this discrepancy between what the Buddha actually said and what was ultimately handed to us?

The answer is simple: due to the large number of suttas that have survived in the Pali Canon, it is possible to clearly indicate the general meaning of Buddha’s teachings.

Practically, it comes down to always being aware of the general tenor of the Pali Canon on a certain theme.

Consistency and coherence are the key to separating the wheat from the chaff. By doing this we walk the path of the Buddha: the Buddha presented consistency as a criterion for truth in his teaching. When we take the first two discourses of the Buddha in Sarnath and his last lecture as a touchstone, we will not end up far from the original teaching.

Better than focusing on isolated passages in the Pali Canon, which are usually the result of later developments or adaptations to changing circumstances, consistency and coherence should be the criterion for interpreting the buddha’s original teachings.

Another point of attention are the metaphors and allegories. The suttas are full of imagery. Caution should be exercised in its interpretation, especially since the Buddha redefined many of the vedic metaphors to integrate them into his Dhamma message after this redrawing.

In the last chapter of the Dhammapada, for example, the Buddha redefined the concept of ‘brahmin’ in a brilliant way. This is an excellent example of the rhetorical talent of the Bhagavat (blessed one) to reorient a teaching from a well-known concept.

Let me return to the imagery that is often used in the suttas and the caution that must be exercised in their interpretation.

A subtle example: in several places in the suttas, the Buddha refers to his personal odyssey that is opposite to knowledge of others and wisdom that stems from ‘hearsay’. He urges his followers to walk this personal path themselves. He does this with a metaphor and says, “Monks, follow my example and make the same (spiritual) journey I made”.

One can also interpret this recommendation of the Buddha literally. And then a spiritual recommendation suddenly becomes a material, formal, almost mercantile affair, in the sense of ‘visit the important places that played a major role in my life’.

Both interpretations are plausible. It is up to us to see the Buddha’s intention.

This is an easy example, but this is less the case for other concepts, such as (e.g.) rebirth (bhava).

Another point I would like to bring to your attention concerns the translations of the Pali Canon. First of all: nuances are lost with every translation. This implies that when you read (can read) a text in the original Pali language, it brings you closer to the Buddha. You can’t get any closer. I feel and experience every word from the suttas as a meditation. Secondly: when you read a translation from Pali, it is extremely important to know the capacity and intention of the translator. In concrete terms, the bottom line is that if the translator is a ‘scientist’ without Buddhist practice, he cannot possibly convey the original message of the Buddha. Then he will translate the texts as a ‘translation machine’ without any sense of experience. Then the teaching will not come to life. Then the concept will remain abstract. And not transform into a spiritual path. When the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha is not experienced, there is only knowledge left. Words and concepts.

The fundamental difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’:

“Knowledge” and “wisdom” are not synonyms. Both concepts do not overlap. One does not need to have knowledge to be wise. Although it does help. But in many cases, ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ are diametrically opposed.

Let me give you some examples:

Knowledge is a thing of the past, while wisdom always manifests itself in the present.

Knowledge satisfies the ego, while wisdom destroys this ego.

Knowledge is handed down, comes from others, is second-hand, while wisdom comes from yourself, is original.

Knowledge points to measuring and knowing, to IQ. Wisdom points to insight and compassion. To paññā and karunā.

Knowledge points to the sensory, to the conditioned. Wisdom to the transcendent, the unconditioned.

Self-realization is not obtained by borrowed, received knowledge from others (suta-mayā paññā); nor by logical and rational [but conditioned] thinking (cintā-mayā paññā). Only through direct empirical experience – experiential wisdom through self-insight (bhāvanā-mayā paññā) can the practitioner achieve self-realization.

If we want to gain insight into the essence of the Dhamma, it is crucial to strip both the representation of the historical Buddha as well as his teachings, of unnecessary decoration, of the décor and of the decorum by which both the Buddha and his teachings were and are surrounded by.

Both elements are inseparable. The teaching cannot be separated from the Buddha. The Buddha said, “He who sees me sees the Dhamma. Anyone who sees the Dhamma will see me.”

Who was Siddhattha Gotama, the One who was called the Buddha (The Enlightened One) after his Awakening?

Together we know the life story of the Buddha as it is described in the suttas. Currently, the devotee decorum can be found everywhere around us.

The Buddha, by his followers, likes to be portrayed as an extremely amiable person who, for everyone and for everything, was completely accommodating and understanding. A friendly grandpa, as it were. In other places – especially in the Mahāyāna suttas – he is presented as a kind of ‘Übermensch’ while in some Vajrayāna traditions, he is almost presented as devine.

But this is in stark contrast to reality.

The Buddha never claimed that his awakening was a moment when all kinds of divine mysteries were revealed to him. Describing his awakening to the five ascetes in Sarnath, he said that he had discovered a great freedom of heart and spirit: the complete liberation of the suffering (dukkha) that desire (taṇhā) entails. And this liberation he called the taste of Dhamma”.

He did not claim to have had an experience in which he had a privileged esoteric knowledge of the essence of the universe.

It was only when Buddhism became more and more like a religion that these kinds of enormous pretensions were linked to his awakening. And, not surprisingly, this esoteric character turns more intense as more time passes between us and the historical Buddha.

Who was this Siddhattha Gotama who was born in Lumbini 2,600 years ago?

The suttas of the Pali Canon differ substantially from the historical context.

If we summarize it briefly, we can say that Siddattha belonged to the administrative elite of the (relatively small) Sakya tribe (with 20,000 to 25,000 tribe members), that he (as ksathriya ) was excellently trained and knew the administrative system of the Sangha well. But claiming he was a ‘king’s child’ seems a few bridges too far.

Much more important and much more magnificent than his origin is the life journey Siddhattha made. He broke free from his learned conditioning, personally searched for truth and freed himself from suffering, from dukkha.

The historical Buddha must be seen as a free man, a libertine researcher, a provo, a samana, who radically rejected the existing social, religious and philosophical ideas of the Brahmin society and envisioned a liberated New Man, as well as a new culture. In his own words, he says that his path – and anyone who wants to follow that path – must be patisotagāmi.Patisotagāmi has been literally translated to (and interpreted exclusively in this way): ‘against the current’. Against the tide of ignorance, greed and hatred. [11][12]

It should come as no surprise that he has been going against the grain:

  • he denied faith in God as a creator and as a guiding principle;
  • he put people first by showing a path to liberation, to personal liberation. A path of a free thinker who is not constrained by any dogmatic power;
  • he rejected the existing caste system;
  • he rejected any discrimination, especially women’s discrimination;

Because of his teachings and tenacity, he has therefore provoked heavy reactions both within and outside of the Sangha. For example, the suttas of the Pali Canon mention four assassination attempts on the Buddha: three by his nephew Devadatta and one of Angulamala.

The Buddha was a researcher who pragmatically sought what could free mankind from his permanent dissatisfaction (dukkha). He was looking for the ways that would help to bring a human being to self-realization, to awakening, to inner peace. What was useful to free mankind from his ignorance, his desire and his loathing.

If we want to judge the Buddha, we should not look at the décor and decorum in the first place, but at his real greatness, namely his wisdom and his compassion. Paññā and karunā. And then no god appears. But a human being. A great man. A mahāpurisa.

What did the Buddha teach?

Regarding to the practice, the Buddha transparently tells anyone who wants to hear his message: if you want to free yourself from dukkha, you must follow my example. He says: come and see how I did it (ehipassiko). But don’t limit yourself to ‘hear’ alone (suta-mayā paññā). Nor limit yourself to intellectually understanding what I have done and said (cintā-mayā paññā), but realize within yourself how my teaching leads to liberation and inner peace.

The Buddhadhamma – the teachings of the Buddha – does not stand for blind faith. Nor for sectarianism. His teachings are not built on commandments, prohibitions and rules. Not on an obscure, menacing, idiosyncratic, tyrannical god who expels and punishes.

The Buddhasāsana is the teaching of a human being. The teaching of a noble, awakened man. It’s a human teaching. For people. For all those who want to see things as they really are. This is a teaching for those who want to achieve self-realization by ‘looking’ at the phenomena with equanimity.

If we want to get to the essence, it will certainly help if we manage to find the greatest common denominator amongst the largest existing Buddhist movements. And that common ground does exist. This is the Rahula Walpola declaration (December 1981):

  1. Whatever our sects, denominations or systems, as Buddhists we all accept the Buddha as our Master who gave us the Teaching.
  2. We all take refuge in the Triple Jewel: the Buddha, our Teacher; the Dhamma, his teaching; and the Sangha, the Community of holy ones. In other words, we take refuge in the Teacher, the Teaching and the Taught.
  3. Whether Theravada or Mahayana, we do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a god at his will.
  4. Following the example of the Buddha, our Teacher, who is embodiment of Great Compassion (maha-karuna) and Great Wisdom (maha-prajna), we consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth.
  5. We accept the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha, namely, Dukkha, the fact that our existence in this world is in predicament, is impermanent, imperfect, unsatisfactory, full of conflict; Samudaya, the fact that this state of affairs is due to our egoistic selfishness based on the false idea of self; Nirodha, the fact that there is definitely the possibility of deliverance, liberation, freedom from this predicament by the total eradication of the egoistic selfishness; and Magga, the fact that this liberation can be achieved through the Middle Path which is eight- fold, leading to the perfection of ethical conduct (sila), mental discipline (samadhi) and wisdom (panna).
  6. We accept the universal law of cause and effect taught in the Paticcasamuppada (Skt. pratityasamutpada; Conditioned Genesis or Dependent Origination), and accordingly we accept that everything is relative, interdependent and interrelated and nothing is absolute, permanent and everlasting in this universe.
  7. We understand, according to the teaching of the Buddha, that all conditioned things (samkhara) are impermanent (anicca) and imperfect and unsatisfactory (dukkha), and all conditioned and unconditioned things (dhamma) are without self (anatta).
  8. We accept the Thirty-seven Qualities conducive to Enlightenment (bodhipakkhiyadhamma) as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment, namely:
  • Four Forms of Presence of Mindfulness (Pali: satipatthana; Skt. smrtyupasthana);
  • Four Right Efforts (Pali. sammappadhana; Skt. samyakpradhana);
  • Four Bases of Supernatural Powers (Pali. iddhipada; Skt. rddhipada);
  • Five Faculties (indriya: Pali. saddha, viriya, sati, samadhi, panna; Skt. sraddha, virya, smrti, samadhi, prajna);
  • Five Powers (bala, same five qualities as above);
  • Seven Factors of Enlightenment (Pali. bojjhanga; Skt. bobhyanga);
  • Eight-fold Noble Path (Pali. ariyamagga; Skt. aryamarga).
  1. There are three ways of attaining Bodhi or Enlightenment according to the ability and capacity of each individual: namely, as a Sravaka (disciple) [13], as a Pratyekabuddha (Individual Buddha) and as a Samyaksambuddha (Perfectly and Fully Enlightened Buddha). We accept if as the highest, noblest and most heroic to follow the career of a Boddhisattva and to become a Samyksambuddha in order to save others. But these three states are on the same Path, not on different paths. In fact, the Sandhinirmocana-sutra, a well-known important Mahayana sutra, clearly and emphatically says that those who follow the line of Sravaka-yana (Vehicle of Disciples) or the line of Pratyekabuddha-yana (Vehicle of Individual Buddhas) or the line of Tathagatas (Mahayana) attain the supreme Nirvana by the same Path, and that for all of them there is only one Path of Purification (visuddhi-marga) and only one Purification (visuddhi) and no second one, and that they are not different paths and different purifications, and that Sravakayana and Mahayana constitute One Vehicle One Yana (eka-yana) and not distinct and different vehicles or yanas.
  2. We admit that in different countries there are differences with regard to the ways of life of Buddhist monks, popular Buddhist beliefs and practices, rites and rituals, ceremonies, customs and habits. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

If this is the essence, the greatest common denominator of what the Buddha taught (and which is fully reflected in the buddha’s first two readings at the Deer Camp in Sarnath), the question arises of how we should consider the decorum that shapes the everyday “Buddhism”?

As the Buddha’s teachings spread around the world, she adapted to the culture of those countries. With external forms that are numerous and very different: varieties in art and architecture, varieties in statues of the Buddha, varieties in the robe of the members of the Sangha, varieties in celebrations and ceremonies – from Tibet in the north to Sri Lanka in the south, from India in the west to Japan in the east.

But no matter how big these differences are, they are only ‘formal’ differences (Buddharūpa). It doesn’t touch the core of the teaching. In terms of content, the Dhamma remains completely the same as the original experience that the Buddha received in Bodhgaya. And which is simillarly experienced by all stream-enterers (sotāpanna). The experiential experience of the Dhamma, the truth (paccanubhoti), is one and the same.

The fact remains that for the mass of less instructed and less advanced Buddhists, superficial beliefs, outward forms, practices and observance are a central part of their religion.

Without looking down on these forms of devotional worship that can certainly be an emotional comfort to many people, we should be aware that this was not the original teaching as preached by the Buddha.

I give a striking example: the first Buddha statues only appeared 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. When one wanted to depict the Buddha, they did so by using symbols: by depicting the bodhi tree, or of a stupa, or a fleeting footprint in the sand, or by the image of an empty throne.

For us, it must be clear that every attachment to external observances and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa) is an impurity, a bond, a chain (saṃyojana) from which the advanced practitioner automatically frees himself as he progresses on the buddha’s path leading to the realization of ultimate truth, to Nibbāna.

We must also be aware that not only attachment to observations, rites and rituals, but also attachment to ideas, concepts, beliefs, theories (dhamma-taṇhā) hinders one’s mind from seeing things as they are (yathābhūta).

We must be aware that every attachment to popular Buddhist ceremonies, to rites and rituals, to ‘formal expressions of devotion’ (Buddharūpa) is an obstacle to flow, to self-realization. But also – and this is equally important – for achieving harmony and peace among all people.

Dhamma transcends any distinction. Every divergence. Dhamma does not possess ethnic customs, habits or customs that differ from one country to another. The Dhamma experience is not understood in formality, not in Buddharūpa. Not in décor. Not in decorum.

To be concrete:

When we ‘look’ carefully, our ignorance will automatically disappear, we will recognize the phenomena as they really are. When we realize the true nature of the phenomena within ourselves (recognize, acknowledge and become one with them), the phenomena will no longer delight us, on the contrary they will bore us, disappoint us because they completely escape our control. Thus, all phenomena will lose their importance (nibbidā). Nibbidā leads to virāga, the extinction of things; to be without desire. Virāga leads to upasama, an inner state of silence, calmness and inner peace. Upasama finally leads to Nibbāna. Thus the road to Nibbāna can be summarized in four words: nibbidā virāga upasama Nibbāna.

According to the early Buddhist suttas[14], ‘awakening’ (‘waking up’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘self-realization’…) is a step-by-step, gradual process of mental cleansing with a profound and sudden spiritual transformation as an apotheosis. The Buddha metaphorically called this experiential experience the ‘stream-entry’ (sotāpatti). The point of no return. It is the moment (gotrabhū) when the ‘worldling’ (puthujjana) transfers to become a ‘noble follower’ (ariya-puggala).

When the dhammanuvatti destroys the illusion of the “I” (the belief in a personal essence) (sakkāya-ditthi) there is no birth anymore. And no death. All that remains is the process of arising and passing away (paticcasamuppāda).

When there is no more “I”, all rituals, rites, rules lose their importance (sīlabbata-parāmāsa). The dhammanuvatti realizes that these are only worldly conventions.

All his skeptical doubts (vicikicchā) about the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha are lost. And what’s that doubt? Did the Buddha explain it correctly? Did the Sangha hear right? And did I get it right?

Furthermore, his sensory desires (kāma-rāga), anger and aversion (vyāpāda) are gradually diminished and ultimately destroyed.

Then his desire for fine-material (rūpa-rāga) and fine intangible (arūpa-rāga) existence disappears.

Because of vanity (māna) and restlessness about the past (uddhacca) dissolve, he experiences inner peace.

Finally, through the destruction of ignorance (avijjā), he establishes himself in truth (dhammapadhāna): he realizes the tilakkhaṇa in himself, the truth of Dhamma: “Everything that is subject to arising is subject to pass away”.

Awakening doesn’t have to be postponed to the next life. Waking up, entering the stream, is accessible in this life. In every meditation. In every moment. With every breath. With every exhalation. It happens to you when the causes (hetu) and conditions (paccaya) are present for it.

Awakening does not happen with décor and decorum. Not with baroque grandeur. Awakening is not an esoteric matter. No secret initiation. And the road to awakening is not the same for everyone. Each has its own path and its own pace to achieve enlightenment. Awakening is a sudden,[15] spontaneous, total, manifest, irreversible experience without bells or whistles. Awakening represents spiritual transformation by gaining insight into reality. Awakening stands for re-creation. By the realization of sīla, samādhi and paññā. [16] In this life. In the here-and-now. NOW.

NOW is the only place where the dhammanuvatti can awaken. The here-and-now is the place where the practitioner frees himself from dukkha. There’s only this current moment. This moment. Everything else is deception, desire and aversion. Decor and decorum. Don’t fall for that sensory trap. Meditate attentively and equanimously. You will walk with the Buddha in wisdom and compassion.

Footnotes

[1] Pārāyanavagga Sutta, Gatha #167

[2] Kalama Sutta, Anguttara-Nikaya, 3.65.

[3] Dhammapada, Gatha #160

[4]Satipatthāna sati+upatthāna: sati = attention; upatthāna = establishing, foundation, fundamentals.

[5]‘the (only/direct/unrivalled) way ‘ translation of ‘ekāyano maggo’.

[6]“transcending sadness and worry” translation of “vitasoka” vita+soka: vita = being free from; transcending; soka = sadness, worry.

[7] Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta

[8]Avijjā is closely linked to the teaching of dependent origination, one of the central teachings of the Buddha. This doctrine makes it clear how avijjā gives rise to continuous rebirth. Paticcasamuppāda refers on the one hand to the basic principle, namely the law of cause and effect; and on the other hand to its explanation through the chain of mutually dependent origination (the 12 links – nidana). The chain is the logical explanation of the basic principle.

[9]Interested readers I refer to my book: Dubois Guy, (2019), Yatra to Majjhimadesa. A Pilgrimage to the Middle Country p. 105 et seq.

[10] Singh, Rana & Rana Pravin, (2011), The Mythic Landscape of Buddhist Places of Pilgrimages in India, Banaras Hindu University, Shubhi Publications, New Delhi

[11] Vajiragnana, Medagama, (2013), The Daily News, Sri Lanka, dd. 15 May 2003 — ‘How the Buddha’s Enlightenment changed the world’s thinking: ‘The Buddha discarding theology adopted psychology; instead of being theocentric, he was anthropocentric. Through this non-traditional approach, he understood the problems of man, how they are caused, how they could be solved and the way leading to their solution in a way never heard of before. His analysis enlightened him with regard to the truth that dukkha is not something thrust upon us by some external force, but our own creation and therefore lying within our-selves. From this, he concludes that the solution too has to be sought within ourselves. Man was declared to be his own master, responsible both for his purity and impurity. The Buddha’s thus enlightened knowledge went against the accepted pattern of thinking in the world about spiritual life. The Buddha himself said that Dhamma is a teaching that is going against the current (patisotagami).

[12]Schumann, Hans, Wolfgang, (1998),The Historical Buddha p. 46 — ‘… these freethinkers, these samanas and paribbajakas, who sought the mystical experience outside of tradition.

[13] Sravaka (Sanskrit): a listener, a follower, a disciple. A Sāvaka (Pali) Buddha (Syn.: arahant) is a follower who has eradicated all his taints, including the 10 chains (saṃyojana), by following the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya atthagika magga) of the Buddha.

[14] EBT’s—Early Buddhist Texts.

[15] ‘sudden’: a flash of insight, in which the truth (= what is true: reality as it is) is experienced suddenly, the sudden sight of reality, usually after prolonged practice. It happens ‘suddenly’; ‘spontaneous’; “total” and it is “manifest.” Any event can lead to Self-Realization. To self-ignition.

‘spontaneous’: it is basically accessible to everyone at any time. Life offers an unimaginable range of opportunities to awaken to.

‘total’: the yogi cannot partially awaken. Nor can he be born partially.

‘manifest’: it is clearly identifiable. This experience is self-realization through attentive observation. Self-realization through self-observation. Bhāvanā-maya-paññā: the wisdom that results from the experiential experience that everything is connected.

See my book: Dubois, Guy, (2020), Sotapattimagga. The Path of the Stream enterer.

[16] These Three Purifications correspond to the Three Trainings (tisikkhā): training in morality (sīla sikkhā); training in concentration (samādhi sikkhā) and training in wisdom (paññā sikkhā).

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About Guy E. Dubois

Guy E. Dubois (1947) has translated various parts of the early Buddhist texts into Dutch, provided them with commentary and makes them available for free on  SuttaCentral. He is also the author of several works on the teachings of the Buddha. These can be read online, for those who prefer to hold a real book in their hands, they can be ordered at bol.com. The author himself wants to remain true to his initial objective: he does not wish to earn anything from Dhamma. Guy: "Whenever any 'profit' is generated it will go to dana." As a yogi, he is completely unbound with respect to any Buddhist tradition. Thus, he interprets the Dhamma in a free-spirited manner. As such, he is - in the literal sense of the word - a "homeless person," a bhikkhu, a mendicant, who gives his dhutanga (practice) substance in a very personal way. In his books he combines a virulently liberal attitude to life with a great affection for the deep insights of the Buddha.

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