What we call ‘Buddhism‘ today was known in ancient times as the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya‘. The word ‘Dhamma’ (in Sanskrit Dharma) has many meanings.
It encompasses the ultimate phenomena of which the universe is composed, but it also means truth or reality and is synonymous with the teaching of the Buddha (the Awakened One).
Vinaya is the ethical code of the Buddha, the rules for monks and the moral advice to lay people.
The fact that the term Vinaya is placed next to Dhamma in the description of the teachings of the Buddha shows how important morality is on the path to liberation.
In essence, the Buddha taught that life is characterized by dukkha, which means unsatisfactoriness, suffering or stress.
Fortunately, he also taught that liberation from dukkha is possible for anyone who is willing to make the necessary effort.
The path to this liberation is what is meant by “Buddhism,” and those who walk on that path could call themselves “Buddhists.”
The term “Buddhism” is a bit misleading however. In fact, due to historical and cultural differences diverse Buddhist schools have emerged over the centuries which, while sharing a common core, may differ to a lesser or greater extent in their ethical, philosophical and practical dimensions.
But there is a common core that all Buddhist schools share.
The Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination
This common core of all Buddhist schools is formed by the four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni) and dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).
The four Noble Truths are:
- The truth of the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha sacca)
- The truth of the cause of the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha-samudāya sacca)
- The truth of the cessation the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha-nirodha sacca)
- The truth of the way leading to the cessation of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha-nirodha-gamini-paṭipadā sacca)
Dependent origination is often summarized by the Buddha as (e.g. Ud 1:3):
“When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.”
Because these two aspects of the doctrine are deeply intertwined, we will place dependent origination within the framework of the second Noble Truth, the cause of unsatisfactoriness.
Because of the interrelationship however, it is inevitable that terms such as ‘conditions’, ‘conditionality’, ‘arising and passing away’, etc. will occur earlier. In that case it is always a reference to the principle of dependent origination.
We will now continue with an in-depth look at the four Noble Truths.
- The First Noble Truth: Unsatisfactoriness
- The Second Noble Truth: The Cause
- The Third Noble Truth: Liberation
- The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path
The five aggregates are impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees this thus as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by nonclinging.Buddha, SN 22:45
The First Noble Truth: Unsatisfactoriness
In his first teaching the Buddha says (SN 56:11):
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”
The Five Aggregates
Above the statment is made ‘in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering’.
The five aggregates (khandha’s) are matter (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhāra’s) and consciousness (viññāṇa).
At the time of the Buddha everything in the world was divided into these five groups. Another possible but perhaps slightly more cumbersome translation of khandha’s is the five ‘groups of existence’.
Matter includes the different kinds of elements. Feeling includes pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feeling. Perception includes the marking or labeling of an object. Mental formations include the intentions (cetanā) aimed at forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and mental objects. Consciousness includes eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness and mind-consciousness.
The Buddha almost always mentions the aggregates (khandha’s) as “aggregates subject to clinging” (upādānakkhandha).
The words of the Buddha are therefore far-reaching, for he says nothing less than that, as long as you cling to something in the world or yourself, there will be suffering.
To further clarify this we will take a closer look at the word dukkha.
dukkha is often translated as suffering. In everyday life, dukkha is most easily perceived as suffering, and that is why that translation appeals more to the imagination. Dukkha has a much broader meaning however, which threatens to be lost with ‘suffering’.
Actually dukkha could best be translated as ‘the fricion of the wheel on the wagon-axis’. We experience a similar friction during our life’s journey.
Things don’t go as desired, whether the wheel is stationary or rolling. Even if the wheel is temporarily released from friction as a result of an accidental movement on the road, the wheel will simply continue to cause friction one revolution later.
dukkha has three different forms which are inherently related to one another.
First there is dhukkha-dukkhata which means as much as suffering that is directly experienced.
This can be mental as well as physical. Physical pain, for example, means something as simple as bumping your toe or maybe on a deeper level the continuous discomfort of your body which makes you move all the time. Mental pain is, for example, grief or despair, perhaps caused by the loss of a loved one.
The second variation is viparimana dukkha or suffering as a result of change.
This is a bit more complicated than the first variation. It is not, as is often thought, the suffering that arises after something has changed. As said before, this is part of the first variation, e.g. suffering through loss.
This form of suffering is the suffering that is irrevocably present in a pleasurable experience itself, at the time of that pleasurable experience. The reason is that, because everything that arises will eventually pass away again, any form of happiness or pleasure will perish. It is this potential suffering arising from the conditioned nature of existence that is meant by this form of suffering.
The last form is saṅkhāra dukkha.
This refers to the suffering inherent in all conditioned states. Saṅkhāra is a difficult term to translate. It refers to formations in the sense that everything stems from conditions.
This form of dukkha is the inherent continuous underlying unsatisfaction witihn existence at the deepest level.
As long as there are conditions, existence continues, and so does the enldess wandering in samsāra.
Only Nibbāna is free from conditions, and only the one who has seen Nibbāna from one’s own personal experience can see through saṅkhāra dukkha completely. For us ordinary mortals this remains a concept up to that point.
The different forms of dukkha are therefore nothing but increasingly subtle levels on which dukkha can be seen.
First the immediately perceptible, then the realization that this also applies to pleasant moments, then that this is completely interwoven into existence as a totallity.
You may wonder why it is good to develop an increasing awareness of dukkha. Won’t that just increase your suffering? Isn’t it better to just ignore it, act as if nothing is wrong?
Ostrichism is always an option, of course, but that doesn’t change reality.
Those who are increasingly aware of the reality of dukkha can derive tremendous energy and motivation from this to make the effort necessary to put an end to it, because ending suffering is possible!
Just keep putting forth patient effort. Then sooner or later you will be able to step out of the endless circle of samsāra and attain the indescribable peace of Nibbāna.
Before we began our story of the life of the Buddha, we briefly touched upon samsāra. In a good overview of dukkha, a little more explanation about this term, which is usually misused in the West, is not to be missed. Samsāra can be translated as ‘the endless wandering’. First, a few words from the Buddha himself (SN 15:3 and 15:13):
“What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—or the water in the four great oceans?
“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.”
“What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, or the water in the four great oceans?”
“This is the greater: the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans.”
“Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.”
Samsāra is the overarching problem. It denotes the endless aspect of dukkha.
There is no beginning, no matter how far back you look, and even death, the Buddha teaches, is not an end.
There is no heavenly existence, no matter how beautiful, that offers a permanent solution.
Sooner or later things change.
Ahba teaches that it is important to recognize that we are trapped in this continuous cycle of life and death, constantly subject to suffering, as a result of desire.
At first, this may be just a postulate to reflect on from time to time, but through sustained contemplation combined with experience and insight from concentration meditation, this cycle can become a source of energy and determination, culminating in the thought (AN 2:5):
“Gladly would we let the flesh & blood in our bodies dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if we have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing our persistence.”
Dukkha is inherent in all existence. Only the end of the conditioned, of becoming, i.e. Nibbāna, is permanent.
Three Characteristics of Existence
The Buddha taught three characteristics (ti-lakkhaṇa) that apply to all existence in Samsāra, namely impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-self or selflessness (anatta).
Nibbāna, on the other hand, is permanent and free from unsatisfactoriness, but even Nibbāna has no self, is selfless.
Thus, the attainment of Nibbāna is not the joining with a greater whole or merging a universal power or principle, with Brahma, the divine or something similar. For all these examples are based on a concept of ‘I’ or the merging of the ‘I’ with ‘something’.
The three characteristics are of great importance because direct experiential insight into one of these characteristics opens the gate to Nibbāna.
By understanding that everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory and without an identifiable self, the mind can be released and become completely free from desire, hatred and ignorance.
Impermanence (anicca) is often summed up in the Pali Canon with the expression ‘all that has arisen will pass away’.
So important is the rise and fall of things that the Buddha devoted his very last words to this (DN 16):
“Perishable, subject to change, are all formations. Aim relentlessly [for liberation]!”
And even after the death of the Buddha, Sakkha, king of the gods, emphasizes its importance with the words (DN 16):
“Conditions are impermanent, their nature is to rise and fall; having arisen, they cease; their stilling is true bliss.”
At first glance this seems a simple and in everyday life very recognizable statement in the sense of ‘everything comes to an end’, but the words of the Buddha have a more far-reaching meaning than that.
The rising and passing away happens from moment to moment, with such an enormous speed that to everyday perception these moment seem to be a continuous stream.
It can be compared to a movie in which the fast playback of separate images creates the illusion that there is actually movement.
It is the same for mental processes and matter. If concentration is high enough, insight and wisdom can be developed by looking at this instantaneous rise and fall.
With high concentration, you can see that the total of mental processes and matter (nāma-rūpa) is distorted.
It is not the simple observation that a thought comes and goes or the body changes from day to day, for that is a very gross observation.
It is about experiencing at the most subtle level that both the matter of the body and its environment and the mental continuum consist of separate moments that are in continuous flux.
And if impermanence is seen, the other two characteristics follow naturally.
If we cling to that which is impermanent with the misconception that it is permanent, dukkha arises, the second characteristic of existence that we have looked at before.
After the explanation of impermanence and the earlier explanation of dukkha, we will now dwell on non-self (anattā), one of the most crucial terms in Dhamma.
In our daily lives we constantly look at and experience ourselves and the world from an ‘I’ perspective. ‘I’ look into the world, ‘I’ want this, ‘I’ don’t want this, this is ‘mine’, etc.
And irrevocably the differentiation and comparison between ‘me’ and ‘the other’ follows. This discernment lies at the root of all the conflicts in the world.
The Buddha repeatedly indicates that the ‘I’ view is a wrong one, not in accordance with reality.
This wrong view is an illusion maintained by desire, hatred and ignorance, and can be seen through concentration and insight. This is what the Buddha taught (SN 22:95):
“Suppose a man of good sight would see the foam on the river Ganges as he rides past, and he would look at it and examine it thoroughly; then, having thoroughly examined it, he would see the foam as empty, volatile, and without substance. In exactly the same way, the monk looks at all material phenomena, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and states of consciousness – whether in the past, the present or the future, far away or near. And when he sees them, and examines them thoroughly, he sees them as empty, vacant, without a self.”
In the standard formula, the Buddha makes the connection with the other two characteristics.
If things are impermanent, then clinging causes suffering. If there were a self, then that self would be able to decide just to be happy and content, but we know from expirience that this is not possible.
We do not have full control over our happiness (or other aspects of consciousness for that matter), any more than we do over the change of our bodies. How, then, can you speak of a self?
We can’t, says the Buddha. Of course, this is just a cognitive theorem to get a first hairline crack in the image of the self through reasoning.
Another cognitive example is thinking about the reality of the concepts we tend use.
Take a house for example. What is a house? If we remove the roof, the doors and windows, is it still a house? Is the house the walls, the foundation, the land it stands on? Soon you will come to the conclusion that a house is nothing more than an agreement.
It is very important, of course, to be able to talk to each other, but it has no real existence, no intrinsic value.
The problem is that we still value these agreements, these concepts. We cling to them as if they do have value.
However, just as with impermanence and suffering, so non-self can ultimately be expirienced by seeing the rise and fall of nāma-rūpa.
Whoever sees this can only conclude that there is no permanent entity, that there are only separate moments that are conditioned and conditioning among themselves.
This conclusion is consistent with everyday life, for although at some point we cannot choose to feel a certain way, we can work on the conditions for a certain mental attribute to emerge more often and more solidly.
If we don’t make an effort, these will be unwholesome traits, nourished by desire, hatred and ignorance. If we do make an effort, we can slowly but surely, very patiently replace these with their positive counterparts and thus purify our mind and make it receptive to liberating insight.
It might be good to put some extra nuance to this in order to prevent people from thinking that such an insight comes abruptly.
After all, unnoticed, we have often created an opinion about the self.
That is, we think ‘I am this’ and can reason this out for ourselves. With the first hairline cracks that arise from meditation and contemplating non-self it is possible that this view diminishes in strength and stops at some point.
The next step is when we notice that we still have the ‘I am’ thought. We may no longer have a comprehensive view about it, but still experience our ‘personal’ existence as a real entity.
By continuing to develop concentration and insight, this too can be transcended at some point.
But even then we are not finished.
Even for those who have made the superhuman effort to transcend the ‘I am’ level, the perception ‘I’ remains. By this we mean that as soon as we open our eyes and look into the world we do this from an ‘I’.
Only at the very last step towards liberation can this ‘I’ be given up.
So do not think too easily about giving up the self, for it is not easy. And do not rejoice too much (maybe only a little) when you have taken a first small step, for the road is long and it takes a lot of patience and effort to really get to the deepest level through one’s own experience of the rising and passing away of phenomena, the suffering that arises by clinging to them, and the non-self that is inherent in them, and thus put an end to the unsatisfactoriness of existence.
Desire is the root of suffering.Boeddha, MN 105
The Second Noble Truth: The Cause
We continue with a passage from the first teaching of the Buddha, this time about the second Noble Truth, the cause of unsatisfaction (SN 56:11):
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”
The Buddha also taught (DN 22):
“And where does this desire come from and take root? Wherever in the world there are pleasurable and enjoyable things, this desire arises and takes root. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and consciousness are pleasurable and enjoyable, that is where this desire comes from and takes root.”
“Visual objects, sounds, smells, taste, touch and mental objects are pleasurable and enjoyable, that’s where this desire comes from and takes root.”
“Consciousness, sensory impressions, feelings arising from the sensory impressions, perception, intention, craving, thinking and reflecting are pleasurable and enjoyable, that’s where this desire comes in and takes root.”
“This is the second noble truth.”
Desire in all its forms, nourished by ignorance about the true nature of things, is the great cause of all the suffering in the world.
Although we tend to think that desire always has something to do with wanting something, it is important to realize that desire also manifests itself in the form of not wanting something.
The most basic form of desire is sensory desire (kāma-taṇhā).
This is not just sensual or erotic desire, but all the forms of wanting or not wanting that arise from the contact our senses make with objects. Whether it is something beautiful or unpleasant we see, hear, smell, taste, feel or think about.
The latter deserves extra attention because Buddhism defines the mind and mental objects as the sixth sense in addition to the five senses we know in the west. Therefore, this desire also includes the desire arising from ideas, opinions, concepts and the like.
The longing for eternal existence (bhava-taṇhā), is more subtle than the above.
It is, in a superficial sense, the longing for an afterlife, rebirth or, for example, becoming one with Brahma.
In a deeper sense it is all the longing for ‘being’, right down to the most subtle level.
This last longing is only destroyed during the last step towards liberation, that is how persistent it is. It is an expression of an eternalistic view, the belief in an eternal and permanent self.
The last form of longing is the longing for self-destruction or not becoming, not being anymore (vibhava-taṇhā).
It stems from an annihilistic view, the belief that after death there is nothing left. This includes materialism as a view.
This longing can, for example, be a reason for suicide with the underlying idea that this is the way to put an end to suffering, now and in the future.
This form of desire should absolutely not be confused with the desire to put an end to rebirth in samsāra.
Indeed, the latter can only take place through the destruction of desire itself by seeing the true nature of things.
As long as there is desire, in whatever form, existence will continue, from moment to moment, from life to life.
Underlying this cyclic energy is the doctrine of dependent creation.
Dependent Origination – the Chain of Causal Relations
If we look at the cause of unsatisfactoriness, the second Noble Truth, we see that the Buddha mentions desire as the big problem.
Desire stems from ignorance. But how can this desire cause all the suffering and rebirth?
The answer is the teaching of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).
Together with the Four Noble Truths it forms the foundation of the Dhamma. Together they form the liberating insight the Buddha attained during the night of his enlightenment.
The Buddha emphasized this with the words (MN 28):
“He who sees the Dhamma, sees dependend origination. He who sees dependend origination sees the Dhamma.”
We will start with a detour, namely by taking our everyday expirience as a starting point.
Both mind and matter become distorted during our perception.
In our daily experience, for example, seeing something, knowing what it is, forming an opinion about it, wanting or not wanting it all seem to happen at the same time. In fact, this seems to happen simultaneously with hearing, smelling, tasting, touch and thinking.
When looking at matter, a rock for example, you see a permanent form that perhaps only slowly changes through wind and weather.
But this is a distorted perception of mental processes and matter as a result of ignorance, the result of not (yet) being able to look sharp enough.
It is comparable to a movie. If you have ever been to the cinema, you know that you can get completely absorbed in the story, the beautiful images and the moving music.
In reality, however, the movie consists of seperate images that appear to our eye at a speed of at least 24 frames a second. That’s enough for the image to appear fluid. The sound is nothing more than loose tones that only form a whole when put together. And the story isn’t real but thought up, and we’re not really in the middle of it, although that’s what it feels like.
If you look at mental processes and matter with a high level of concentration, you can see that they consist of distinct moments that arise and perish.
These mental moments follow each other with an increadible speed, creating the illusion that perception is a continuous process.
These separate moments each have an object and it always concerns one of the six senses. The senses do not work all at the same time, you see or hear or taste or smell or feel or think, one after the other, never at the same time.
And matter is not as permanent as it appears but is in a continuous flux of rising and perishing as well.
With high concentration it can therefore be concluded from your own experience that our normal day consciousness completely distorts reality.
The process that appears to be continuous actually consists of separate fragments that arise and perish in every respect.
This can be called the ‘analysis’ of reality, the division of reality, of mental processes and matter, into the smallest possible building blocks.
What dependent orignation shows us is that these moments, although separate from each other, are nevertheless interconnected.
Dependent origination can therefore be seen as the ‘synthesis’, describing the mutual relationships of the separate building blocks.
This is an important point with which the Buddha distances himself from nihilism. It means that intentions and subsequent actions do have consequences.
If there would be seperate moments without interconnection, then any behavior could be justified.
This is the most important thing about dependent origination, the hope it gives. For it is the condtional relationship between moments that you can slowly but surely work with, with intention as the driving force of free will.
Before we go any further, let’s take a closer look at what the Buddha himself taught about dependent arising (SN 12:1):
“And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? With ignorance (avijjā) as condition, volitional formations (saṅkhāra’s) come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness (viññāṇa); with consciousness as condition, mentality-materiality (nāma-rūpa); with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases (salāyatana); with the six sense bases as condition, contact (phassa); with contact as condition, feeling (vedanā); with feeling as condition, craving (taṇhā); with craving as condition, clinging (upādāna); with clinging as condition, existence (bhava); with existence as condition, birth (jāti); with birth as condition, aging-and-death (jaramaranam), sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, bhikkhus, is called dependent origination. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling; with the cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence; with the cessation of existence, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”
Here dependend originition is explained as the chain of causal relations.
It is a chain because it keeps us bound to samsāra. It is a circle from existence to existence driven by ignorance and desire.
To emphasize this, the twelve links of the chain are usually spread over three lives. The past, present and future life.
Ignorance and volitional formations are placed together in the previous life. They form the conditions for the arising of the present life, namely by serving as a condition for the linking of the results of consciousness, mentality-materiality, the six sensory bases, contact and feeling.
As a result of feeling we have craving, clinging and existence in this life, which in turn is a condition for the next life with birth, old age and death.
Although the three lives are often given as examples, this conditioning takes place from moment to moment in this present life as well. In daily life these conditions are not sequentially but intertwined.
To make it simpler just look at the chain in this life.
Because we are now ignorant of the true nature of mental processes and matter, we take the feeling that arises from the contact we make with objects through our senses very seriously.
As a result of this feeling, which can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, we want something or we don’t want it. Craving arises.
Driven by craving and clinging we perform good and bad deeds, we have wholesome and unwholsome mental states.
The attentive reader will have immediately seen that ignorance in the chain is followed by volitional-formations. Volitional-formations, which can also be translated as intention, is nothing less than karma (Pali: kamma) which we will consider later.
Through craving and clinging we have new intentions and so we make new karma, and on and on the round goes.
If the previously given formula in the form of “when this is, that is” causes the suspicion that the Buddha teaches a random dependency then consider (SN 12:20):
“And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? ‘With birth as condition, aging-and-death comes to be’: whether there is an arising of Tathagatas or no arising of Tathagatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality. A Tathagata awakens to this and breaks through to it. Having done so, he explains it, teaches it, proclaims it, establishes it, discloses it, analyses it, elucidates it. And he says: ‘See! With birth as condition, bhikkhus, aging-and-death.’”
Note the words ‘specific conditionality’.
With this teaching the Buddha does not describe a general principle but an absolute law. A circular force that binds us.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the chain goes on and on, from moment to moment, day to day, year to year, from this life to the next.
Birth followed by sickness, old age and death, followed by birth, sickness old age and death, again and again and again.
Thus we are trapped in samsāra, we wander around, resulting in ‘sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair, the unsatisfaction of existence’.
Momentary temporary pleasure, though tempting, offers no solution, no safe haven.
The only way to step out of the circle is to see the true nature of things by committing oneself to the way indicated by the Buddha and thus completely destroying the chain.
This is the hopeful message of the Buddha.
Because these are specific conditions, an end is possible. When ignorance is seen as it really is, the light of the Dhamma shines and the chain falls apart.
Liberation is possible.
Karma and Rebirth
The doctrine of karma (in Pali: kamma) and rebirth is often misunderstood.
You sometimes hear people say fatalistically “it’s my karma” or with the desire to give meaning to their suffering “it’s probably good for something”.
When talking about karma like this it seems like an inescapable destiny or a greater power at play, a judge who assigns karma to punish or teach.
The essence of rebirth is often buried under the image of reincarnation, the (according to the Buddha wrong) idea that there is a soul that migrates from one life to the next. Sometimes it is even said that a person has an old soul or one soul is older than another.
In addition, it is striking that Western Buddhist writers regularly reject the teachings of karma and rebirth altogether.
They argue that this teaching is not appropriate in the otherwise so logical and experience-based teaching of the Buddha, nor would it be necessary to think about this at all for progress on the path.
In the light of such images and claims, it is very important to reflect on the teachings of karma and rebirth.
First, let us consider the meaning of the word karma.
Contrary to how the word karma is often used in the West, it does not mean ‘consequence’. The Buddha said (AN 6:63):
“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one makes kamma by way of body, speech and mind.”
So Karma is much more of a driving force.
The Pali word for consequence or reaction is vipāka. Kamma-vipāka therefore means as much as action-reaction, but a nicer translation is ‘intention and its fruit’. Fruit because vipāka also has the meaning of ‘ripening’.
We know the expression “you reap what you sow”, this is a description of kamma-vipāka.
Just as the ripening of what is sown depends on water, sun and nutrients among other things, the ripening of karma also depends on several factors.
Karma is not always expressed proportionally in a neat one-to-one relationship with the result. There are different degrees, different strengths of karma that each interact with other karma from the near or distant past and it also depends on current effort.
For example, the fruit of karma can sometimes be stronger due to other supporting karma, weakened by opposing karma, or held back by destructive karma.
Furthermore, just as with the ripening of a fruit, which requires not only the growth of the fruit tree through sun, rain and nutrients, but also the right season for bearing the fruit, karma must have the right conditions for it to ripen.
For example, certain karma might not be able to cause results because the right conditions are not in place, so there is more time for other karma to be generated that might oppose it if it is unwholesome or strengthen if it is wholsome.
This is important because it gives just enough space to make spiritual growth possible.
In a strict one-to-one relationship, the inexhaustible karma from the infinite past would bring about infinite results in the future.
Precisely because this is not the case influence can be exerted by directing intention and liberation is possible.
Karma can be classified into ethical quality, i.e. wholesome karma or unwholesome karma.
Wholesome karma are the intentions that result in the expansion of consciousness, rebirth into higher worlds and ultimately Nibbāna.
Unwholesome karma are the intentions which result in the narrowing of consciousness, rebirth into lower worlds and turning away from Nibbāna.
When we speak of rebirth, two points are important. The first is that there is no “I”, no “person” or “soul” that passes from one existence to another.
Rebirth is the result of conditions.
An example that is often given to clarify this is the flame from a candle that is used to light another candle. The flame of the second candle is not the same, but also not completely different from that of the first candle. The flame of the second candle is there because of, depending on, the first candle.
A more modern example is the billiard ball that has its direction and strength as a result of the ball that touches it, which in turn gives strength and direction to the next ball. The balls are not the same, but their movement cannot be seen as separately from each other.
Likewise, rebirth is not a transmigration of the soul but the continuation of mind-moments based on conditions.
The teachings of kamma-vipāka and rebirth are deeply interwoven with paṭiccasamuppāda, dependend origination which we explained in the previous chapter.
When speeking about depend origination the Buddha said that it is equivalent to the Dhamma itself.
Therefore, the choice of some Western writers to completely ignore karma and rebirth appears to be a very selective personal choice that does not correspond to the words of the Buddha.
Of course, it is not necessary to believe blindly in karma and rebirth, but it is advisable to keep an open and inquiring mind.
Do not immediately reject karma but recognize the limitations of your own undeveloped mind and only dare to draw conclusions slowly, after gaining your own insights from the steady training of the mind through morality, concentration and wisdom.
Ahba repeats it over and over again, not only when speaking about things like karma, but also in other situations where something is beyond our Western frame of mind:
“Now your mind isn’t powerful enough, that’s why you don’t see it. If you develop concentration and your mind becomes more powerful, you’ll see it by itself.”
Just as a blue, red, or white lotus flower, though born in the water and grown up in the water, rises above the water and stands unsoiled by the water, even so, though born in the world and grown up in the world, I have overcome the world and dwell unsoiled by the world. Remember me, brahmin, as a Buddha.Buddha, AN 4:36
The Third Noble Truth: Liberation
Let us start again with a passage from the Buddha’s first teaching, this time about the third Noble Truth, the cessation of unsatisfactoriness (SN 56:11):
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.”
The liberation from the deepest unsatisfaction by the irrevocable destruction of desire, hatred and ignorance – the liberation from the endless wandering that is samsāra – that is what in Buddhism is called the attainment of Nibbāna.
Nibbāna can be translated as extinction, the extinction of the fire of desire, hatred and ignorance.
When one then considers that in ancient India the extinction of burning wood was also seen as a away of liberating the fire, it is not strange that Nibbāna means both extinction and liberation.
Nibbāna is the ultimate goal of the Dhamma and although, as said, it equals liberation and extinction of something, it is also a reality in itself, as the Buddha said:
“Of all Dhamma’s, whether conditioned or unconditioned, the most excellent Dhamma, the highest Dhamma, is Nibbāna.”
Dhamma in this context means ‘ultimate phenomenon’, an existing reality that can be expirienced as an object by the mind.
The Buddha himself never said what Nibbāna is.
If you had to explain to someone who has never eaten a mango what a mango tastes like, you would soon fall short.
You would make comparisons with what is known to describe the texture, the sweetness, the acidity, and so on. Still, the only way to find out what a mango tastes like is to taste it yourself.
If it is already almost impossible to explain the taste of a mango, a worldly object and to some extent comparable with things around us, to make comparisons then for the supernatural Nibbāna which lies beyond any experience is impossible.
What we do know is that Nibbāna, unlike all other phenomena in the world, is unconditioned (not conditioned and not creating new conditions) and permanent, but like everything else, Nibbāna is without a self (anattā).
It cannot be repeated enough, the attainment of Nibbāna is not the merging of a self with something higher, Nibbāna is anattā, without self.
If we look in the Pali Canon for what the Buddha does say about Nibbāna, we find for example (AN 3:32):
“This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all activities, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.”
The Four Stages of Liberation
Achieving the ultimate complete liberation from unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is a gradual process consisting of four stages.
In the time of the Buddha there were people who had such good paramis (specific mental qualities) that after hearing a single verse from the Buddha they went through all the stages at once, but today, because of the decline of the mental state of humanity, we don’t have to harbor the illusion that this will happen to us, we wil just have to work really hard.
Before embarking on the path that leads to liberation, one is a anda-puttujana, which means as much as a blind world citizen.
When the blind world citizen listens to Dhamma, gets inspired and sets forth on the path by practicing morality, concentration and wisdom, he slowly but surely becomes a kalyāṇa-puttujana, a noble world citizen, one who walks on the path to liberation.
After prolonged, patient and persistent effort, the path eventually leads to Nibbāna in four stages.
Until one reaches the first stage one is not safe, not sure. That one is safe and certain is the first characteristic of entering the four stages.
At the moment that Nibbāna is first taken as an object by the mind one reaches the first stage, that of stream-enterer (Sotāpanna).
This means that one enters the stream which leads irrevocably within seven lifetimes to complete liberation, and one is certain of a rebirth in the human realm or one of the higher realms. From that point on there wil be no more big suffering, like being reborn in a hell-world or the like.
This stage is characterized by an unshakeable faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha resulting from one’s own experience, and the persistent inability to violate the moral precepts of the Buddha.
Through further and deeper experience with Nibbāna the next stage follows, that of the once-returner (Sakadāgāmī) who, as the name suggests, has only one future life remaining before complete liberation will be achieved. At this stage, desire and hatred are severely weakened.
Next comes the stage of the non-returner (Anāgāmī) who, after death, will be reborn in a very high realm where he or she resides until Nibbāna is attained. At this stage, desire and hatred are completely and permanently destroyed.
The final stage is that of the Arahant (Arahat), who in this very life has achieved complete liberation by eradicating at the root the very last mental corruptions, especially the extremely stubborn and very subtle view that there is an ‘I’.
After death, the Arahant enters into Parinibbāna, that is to say, ‘Nibbāna without there being another body’.
Questions like where is this? Is this a place? Or in the same context, where is the Buddha? Are erroneous questions arising from the view that there is an ‘I’ going ‘somewhere’ when the very giving up of this is a defining characteristic of complete liberation.
From the above it can be concluded that it is of great importance to strive for the first stage, that of the stream-enterer, in order to reach the safe haven in which there will be no more great future suffering and liberation will follow with certainty.
In the words of Ahba:
“Now you are not sure about your future, but if you keep practicing, keep trying, then you will reach certainty, then there will be no more great suffering.”
Whatever is not yours, abandon it; when you have abandoned it, that will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time.Buddha, MN 22
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path
The passage from the Buddha’s first teaching about the fourth Noble Truth, the way to liberation from unsatisfaction, reads (SN 56:11):
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of unsatisfactoriness: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view (sammā diṭṭhi), right intention (sammā saṅkappa), right speech (sammā vācā), right action (sammā kammanta), right livelihood (sammā ājīva), right effort (sammā vāyāma), right mindfulness (sammā sati) and right concentration (sammā samādhi).”
This Eightfold Path can be summed up with the threefold practice of morality, concentration and wisdom.
Morality includes right speech, right action, and right living. Concentration includes right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. And wisdom includes right view and right intention.
In order to provide a basis of the meaning of these path factors within the structure of the threefold practice through passages from the sutta’s. Then we will dwell on the threefold practisce as whole.
Wisdom: Right View and Right Intention
Let’s start with right view.
In summary, seeing through personal experience everything we have written about until now is right view, namely insight into the Four Noble Truths (DN 22):
“Now what, monks, is right view (sammā-diṭṭhi)? That, monks, which is knowledge about suffering knowledge about the origination of suffering knowledge about the cessation of suffering knowledge about the practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This, monks, is called right view.”
Of course, this includes dependent origination, karma and its fruit, knowing what is wholesome and what is unwholsome, the three characteristics and so on.
There are different stages of right view, or understanding.
The first stage is understanding by reading and studying of texts, the second stage is understandig by repeated contemplation and reflection of what has been read and studies and the third (most important) stage is the liberating understandig that can only arise through one’s own experience by the practice of morality and concentration.
About right intention, the second path-factor that is part of wisdom, the Buddha says (DN 22):
“Now what, monks, is right intention (sammā-saṅkappa)? Intention on renunciation (nekkhamma-saṅkappa), intention free from ill-willl (abyāpāda-saṅkappa), intention on harmlesness (avihiṃsā-saṅkappa). This is right intention.”
Earlier we already discussed that when the Buddha speaks about intention he speaks about karma and that intentions are thus the driving force of free will. Correct intentions can be said to be those thoughts that focus our mind on what is pure.
We wrote more extensively about right intention in our text Daily Meditation: How to Keep It Up.
Morality: Right Speech, Right Act and Right Livelihood
It is always good to dwell longer on morality than on insight.
We are inclined to desire insight and to focus al our attention on it, forgetting that morality is an indispensable foundation that has much depth in everyday practice.
To start with correct speech in the words of the Buddha (DN 22):
“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech and from idle chatter: This is called right speech (sammā vācā)?”
And further (AN 10:176):
“And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.”
And also this short passage from the instruction to Rahula deserves attention (MN 61):
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha, at the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels’ Feeding Ground.
At that time Ven. Rahula was staying at the Mango Stone. Then the Blessed One, arising from his seclusion in the late afternoon, went to where Ven. Rahula was staying at the Mango Stone. Ven. Rahula saw him coming from afar and, on seeing him, set out a seat & water for washing the feet. The Blessed One sat down on the seat set out and, having sat down, washed his feet. Ven. Rahula, bowing down to the Blessed One, sat to one side.
Then the Blessed One, having left a little bit of water in the water dipper, said to Ven. Rahula, “Rahula, do you see this little bit of left-over water remaining in the water dipper?”
“That’s how little spiritual progress there is in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie.” Having tossed away the little bit of left-over water, the Blessed One said to Ven. Rahula, “Rahula, do you see how this little bit of left-over water is tossed away?”
“Rahula, whatever spiritual progress there is in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is tossed away just like that.”Having turned the water dipper upside down, the Blessed One said to Ven. Rahula, “Rahula, do you see how this water dipper is turned upside down?”
“Rahula, whatever spiritual progress there is in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is turned upside down just like that.” Having turned the water dipper right-side up, the Blessed One said to Ven. Rahula, “Rahula, do you see how empty & hollow this water dipper is?”
“Rahula, whatever there is of a contemplative in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is empty & hollow just like that.”
The following is about right action (DN 22):
“And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, & from illicit sex. This is called right action.”
And further (AN 10:176):
“And how is one made impure in three ways by bodily action (sammā sammatta)? There is the case where a certain person takes life, is a hunter, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He takes what is not given. He takes, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. He engages in sensual misconduct. He gets sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made impure in three ways by bodily action..”
Last but not least, right livelihood (DN 22):
“And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood.”
Because this piece of text remains rather cryptic, another passage for a more practical handhold (AN 5:177):
“Five professions should be avoided by the disciple: dealing in weapons, in living beings, in flesh, in intoxicants and in poison”
You can read more about five precepts that the Buddha advices for practitioners in order to develop morality in our text The 5 Precepts: Buddhism and Morality.
Concentration: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration
The Buddha said about right effort (DN 22):
“And what is right effort (sammā vāyāma)? There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen… for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen… (and) for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This is called right effort.”
The words of the Buddha about right mindfulness are (DN 22):
“And what is right mindfulness (sammā sati)? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness.”
Finally the words of the Buddha about correct concentration (DN 22):
“And what is right concentration (sammā samādhi)? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration.”
We have written more about right effort in Daily Meditation: How to Keep It Up, about right mindfulness according to the Buddha in Mindfulness According to the Buddha, and about the development of concentration in Samatha Meditation: Foundation for Insight.
The Threefold Practice Combined: Morality, Concentration and Wisdom
As indicated, the Eightfold Path can be summarized in the threefold practice of morality, concentration and wisdom.
This summary is taught regularly by the Buddha, take for example this passage from the last days of the Buddha, the maha-Parinibbāna sutta (DN 16):.
“Such and such is virtue; such and such is concentration; and such and such is wisdom. Great becomes the fruit, great is the gain of concentration when it is fully developed by virtuous conduct; great becomes the fruit, great is the gain of wisdom when it is fully developed by concentration; utterly freed from the taints of lust, becoming, and ignorance is the mind that is fully developed in wisdom.”
The words “such and such is” in this sutta refer to everything that the Buddha has taught earlier in his life regarding morality, concentration and wisdom respectively.
For example, these teachings can be seen in their totality in the Samañaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life.
However, the second part is so important that it has been written out, namely the great good of developing all three domains, and their interdependence.
Thus the path of morality, concentration and wisdom leads to liberation from all the unsatisfactoriness of existence.
Here ends our text about the Buddha and his Dhamma. May all beings be happy and take steps towards liberation!