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Basic Buddhism
A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara

Introduction to Basic Buddhism

The term Buddhism is now used to denote the teaching of the Buddha, a historical person who flourished some 25 centuries ago on the Indian subcontinent. This eaching has been described variously as a religion, a philosophy, a psychological system, an ethico-moral code, a socio-economic blue-print, and so on. No doubt all these aspects could be discerned in different parts of the Buddha's teaching, but the teaching is itself something more than all these combined. The term which Buddhists use to designate the teaching is Dhamma or Dharma(1) . This term comes from a root term meaning "to uphold", and means the basic law which "upholds" the universe. It is therefore sometimes translated simply as Law or Norm. It conveys some idea of the unity that informs the whole body of the Buddha's teaching. We shall use the words dhamma and Buddhism as synonyms.

The term "Basic Buddhism" is used in this work to denote those elements of Buddhism as currently propagated which could be attributed fairly unambiguously to the Buddha himself. It is a basic argument here that this teaching can not only be practised effectively in the modern world but also conforms to the modern scientific view of the world(2) . In seeking to establish the content of Basic Buddhism we have to start with a consideration of the different schools of Buddhism that have arisen in the course of history. The Buddha did not leave written records, and his disciples transmitted his teaching initially as an oral tradition. Quite early in its history several distinct schools of Buddhism arose based partly on the interpretation of common discourses, and partly on differing texts of the discourses themselves. There is a substantial degree of agreement between these diverse schools, and they have never exhibited an animosity towards each other comparable to the schisms that have characterised many other religions.(3) It is from the scriptures of these various schools of Buddhism, particularly from the Pali Canon, that the original message of the Buddha, which we term Basic Buddhism, has to be reconstructed.

About three centuries after the death of the Buddha several different schools of Buddhism emerged, but the differences between them were slight and related to minor points. However towards the beginning of the Common Era (CE)(4) some of these groups gave a new interpretation to the Buddha's teaching and called themselves the Mah‚y‚na ("Greater Vehicle") School. They called the earlier schools the "Hinay‚na" (Lesser Vehicle) school. However this term was never accepted by the schools who were designated by it. Of these schools only one survives today(5) . This is the Therav‚da ("Doctrine of the Elders") school which claims to carry on the Buddhism of the early followers of the Buddha. This view is now generally accepted and the Mah‚y‚na is seen as a new innovation in Buddhism but still containing some of the essence of the original teaching. These two traditions have also been termed the Southern and Northern schools of Buddhism because of the geographical areas in which each prevailed. Each of these traditions has its own versions of the Buddhist scriptures. All Theravada groups subscribe to a common set of basic books (called the Pali Canon after the language, Pali, in which it is recorded). We shall however refer to the original Buddhism as Pali Buddhism rather than Theravada Buddhism. (6) Amongst the Mah‚y‚na there is a much greater diversity of schools, doctrines, languages and texts. Initially Sanskrit was the language of the Indian Mahay‚na schools, but many of these were later translated to Chinese and China soon became the centre of Mahay‚na Buddhism. From there it spread to many other countries including Korea, Japan (where the best known school of Buddhism is Zen) and Tibet (where a distinct variety of Mah‚y‚na Buddhism called the Vajray‚na or the "Diamond Vehicle" developed).

In its fundamental doctrines basic Buddhism is closer to Pali Buddhism than to the Mah‚y‚na schools. This is because the Pali Canon is the oldest compilation of the Buddha's teaching, and closest to the actual words of the Buddha. Its present form was settled at the Third Council of Buddhists held during the reign of King Asoka of Ancient India about 250 BCE. The Pali Canon was thus systemised quite early, and has changed very little, indeed if at all, since then. It was committed to writing in the first century BCE, and this preserved the texts from possible further verbal corruption. The Pali Canon (like some other Buddhist canons) consists of three sections (called Piakas or baskets) dealing with the Vinaya (monastic discipline), Sutta (doctrines) and the Abhidhamma (the analysis of the Dhamma).

While the principles and practice of basic Buddhism has to be sought in the Pali Canon (especially in the Vinaya and the Sutta piakas), actual Therav‚da theory shows some development from early Buddhism. This took three directions:

  1. Some of the material in the third section of the Canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, was composed at a later date, and employed a didactic and taxonomic method in analysing the psychological and philosophical concepts introduced by the Buddha. The empirical method it employed to verify the Buddha's teaching was meditative contemplation (especially insight meditation), and it excluded the use of other empirical methods such as those employed by modern science.
  2. The commentatorial efforts of the great medieval scholastics like Buddhaghosa and Dharmap‚la tended to ossify the meaning and interpretation of the Buddha's discourses, which was taken to be authoritative interpretations of the Dhamma.
  3. Some contemporary developments in the Mahay‚na came to influence not only the practices of Therav‚da, but also some aspects of Therav‚da doctrine as well. These developments must be taken into account in the reconstruction of the original message of the Buddha.

It must not be thought that Basic Buddhism should exclude everything found in the Mahayana teachings. While Mahayana has little to contribute to the reconstruction of the theory of early Buddhism, it did retain some early Buddhist practices which play a subordinate role in Pali Buddhism but could play a useful role in modern Buddhist practice. Mahayana Buddhism shifted the Buddhist ideal from the Arahant of Theravada Buddhism to the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva was seen as a being who while being capable of enlightenment and release from sams‚ra, wilfully postpones becoming fully liberated in order to help others. A natural consequence of this view was that the primary Buddhist virtue was compassion (karun‚). In contrast to this Theravada had regarded mett‚ (loving-kindness) as the dominant virtue. There is a need to reinstate compassion in Buddhist practice at least to an extent equal to that given to mett‚.

Another aspect of Mah‚y‚na that is important is the greater role given to the lay community in contrast to that of monks. Early Buddhism had denoted by the Sangha the community of all Buddhists who had made some progress in the Dhamma. This Sangha included both monks and lay persons, but Theravada Buddhism tended to be excessively centred on the monastic orders, and included in the Sangha only ordained monks, and sometimes reserved for them the exclusive role as teachers of the Dhamma. Mah‚y‚na took a more flexible attitude. While the role of monks in Buddhism cannot be underrated, and they will continue to play an important part in contemporary Buddhism, it is clear that basic Buddhism should reinstate the role of the lay community(7) .

Basic Buddhism should not be seen as an innovation in Buddhism but rather as an attempt to go back to the roots of Buddhism, to what would have been the actual doctrines preached originally by the Buddha.


Updated: 1-2-2001

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