English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


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


1. The earliest Indian Buddhist texts were maintained in the Pali language, and these now constitute the authoritative texts of the Theravada school of Buddhism. Subsequently Buddhist texts were composed in the Sanskrit language, these being favoured by the non-Theravada schools of Buddhism. Most Buddhist terms thus have a Pali and a Sanskrit form. In this work the Pali form will be used unless the Sanskrit form is better known. A glossary of the principal Pali terms used is given in Appendix F. The Sanskrit term dharma is also used to denote Hindu and Jain scriptures. The Pali term dhamma is used only in Theravada Buddhist teachings.

2. Note that "scientific view" does not necessarily mean the view of people generally considered to be scientists. There is a tendency now current for certain scientists to propagate metaphysical views which are contrary to the methodology of classical science.

3. No Buddhist has been killed, tortured, or imprisoned by another on account of his interpretation of Buddhism. This tolerance has been extended to other religions and philosophical system as well.

4. The Common Era is the era now in general use. Dates before its commencement will be referred to as B.C.E. (Before the Common Era. The terms B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini) are specific to Christianity and should not be used to refer to historical dates generally.

5. The Hinayāna term is now used only by some unrepentant Mahayanists and by some Buddhist scholars who want to refer to the early schools. There were many non-Mahayana schools (such as Sarvāstivāda, Dharmaguptikas, etc) in the early centuries of the Buddhist era. Their scriptures were composed in the Sanskrit language and are now lost in their original form. Some of these were translated into Chinese and Tibetan and some of it is still available. But these schools are distinctly later than the Theravāda school. In fact they dissented in some areas from the Theravāda position and composed their scriptures in Sanskrit translating the parts of the Pali Canon they agreed with and introducing their own innovations.

6. This is because some Theravadins regard not only the Pali Canon as authoritative but also later works composed in the Pali Language like the Commentaries and work of the great medieval scholar Buddhaghosa. We shall use the term Pali Buddhism to refer to the Buddhism contained in the Pali Canon.

7. The classic Mahayāna text extolling the position of the layman vis-a-vis the Bhikkhu is the Vimalakirthinirdesha Sutra. Here a layman Vimalakirthi is seen as expounding the Dhamma even to Sāriputta the famous arahant who in Theravāda is considered a foremost exponent of the doctrine.

8. There is considerable debate on the actual dates of the Buddha. It is generally accepted that the Buddha's death occurred some 180 years before the coronation of King Asoka. The traditional dates, based on the Sri Lankan chronicles dates Asoka's coronation at 363 BCE and therefore the Buddha's death at 543 BCE, which is 60 years earlier than the date given in the text. However modern historians place the coronation at 303 BCE, and the dates given in the text are based on this. There are some Western scholars that puts the dates about a century later. However the evidence for this is not convincing, and we shall use the dates given in the text as the approximate dates of the Buddha.

9. The other cities where the Buddha is recorded to have spent the rains retreat include Vesāli, Kosambī, Pārileyya, Nālā, Verańja, Kapitalvatthu, and Alāvi. He also spent rains retreats in mountainous areas such as Cālika and Mankula.

10. Some early writers, mainly Christian, have cast doubt on the historicity of the Buddha. They were no doubt trying to extend to the Buddha the doubts that have been raised about the historicity of Jesus. It is well-known that contemporary records are silent about Jesus, and some references have been shown to be later forgeries. But while we have only details of a only a couple of years of the life of Jesus there is much fuller information on the career of the Buddha. While it may be possible to manufacture what would have occurred on a couple of years of a person's life it is more difficult to do so where an extended period of time is involved.

11. Most other religious teachers (including Jesus and Mohammad) gave teachings which were substantially similar to what others had given, validating them by claiming that they had a special relationship with God. The charge that the Buddha merely reformed the Vedic religion of his day cannot be maintained because of the fundamental differences with the Vedic religion.

12. The three gems or jewels are the Buddha (the discoverer), the Doctrine (the content of the discovery) and the Sangha (the community of followers). A formal affirmation of "going for refuge" is generally taken as a formal mark of adherence to Buddhism.

13. The so-called "proof" of the existence of God based on the first cause runs as follows: everything must have a cause, therefore there must be a cause for the origin of the world, and this cause is God. However if everything must have a cause then God also must have a cause. The question immediately arises: Who created God? Naturally theists are incapable of answering this question; in effect they abandon their own premise that "everything" must have a cause. This is not the case with the Buddhist theory or causation.

14. These are usually detailed in the "precepts" of Buddhism. See the Appendix B for the layman's code of ethics.

15. The term jhāna is often translated as "trance", and might indicate some kind of hypnotic state. While accomplished meditators may be able to reach such psychic stages they are neither necessary nor sufficient to reach enlightenment.

16. Our comments will be confined to meditation related to the Pali Buddhism. In Mahayana too some schools have laid a great deal of emphasis on it. The best known of these are Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. We shall not be considering these forms of Mahayana meditation here.

17. Alternative terms that could be used are "ritualised meditation" and even "meditationism". None of these is suitable, including the one used in the text. But at the same time there is a need to distinguish this practice from what we shall refer to as Buddhist meditation.

18. Amongst contemporary teachers of these Asian meditation traditions in the West we may mention, for the Sri Lankan tradition, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana in America; for the Burmese tradition Goenka who has established centres in many countries; and for the Thai tradition the pupils of Ajahn Chah and others who established centres in the U.K. (Chithurst, Amarawati) and later in other countries. Of all these the present writer considers Bhante Gunaratana to be the most suited to a Western audience. He has written an excellent monograph on his technique Mindfulness in Daily Practice.

19. The "exclusive meditation" school of Theravāda belongs to the so-called "forest tradition". This may suit the temperament of a small number of recluses, but it is not the normal way to practice the Dhamma which could be adequately done by lay persons living ordinary lives in the real world. The personal example of the Buddha is very relevant here; he was no mere forest recluse but lived and taught in the great urban environments of his day. The real author of the forest tradition with its associated austerities (dhutāngas) was Devadatta, the Buddha's schismatic cousin, whose views were rejected by the Buddha.

20. See his work What the Buddha Really Taught. Maurice was a westerner who developed a profound understanding of Buddhism, and the work mentioned here is a very good resume of Buddhism for Westerners (and indeed others).

21. The stock answer to this is that man's "free will" leads him to disobey God and bring down disaster. But if man is complete creature of God then the grant of free will too is the responsibility of God, as his "omniscience" would have told him that free-will would be abused.

22. The Hindu notion of the soul going through several incarnations inhabiting different kinds of bodies until it finally reaches Moksha is actually a later development in Hinduism and is not seen in the early Vedic texts.

23. In Buddhism we can distinguish two meanings of the term "enlightenment". The lower one is replacing ignorance (in the more prosaic sense) with knowledge. The higher one is the supreme enlightenment associated with the realisation of nibbāna through the extinction of craving and other roots of unwholesome action. It is possible to be enlightened in the second sense without being enlightened in the first sense. A supreme Buddha (sammā-sambuddha) of course is enlightened in both senses of the term. In this section the word is used sometimes in the one and sometimes in the other sense.

24. Harmful views are called miccā-dii ("wrong view") in contrast to which the correct Dhamma view is called sammā-dii ("right view"). In the modern world the fundamentals of the mono-theistic religions, as well as extreme forms of materialism would fall into the wrong category.

25. The enlightenment resulting from the elimination of the fetters is the enlightenment in the higher sense identified in the previous note. The Pali terms for the 10 fetters and a brief description of them are as follows: (1) sakkāya-dii, elimination of the ego-belief and realisation of the third law of anatta; (2) vicikiccā, development of total confidence in the accuracy of the Buddhist analysis of reality; (3) sīlabbata-parāmāsa, not performing ritual and rite and a method of spiritual activity; (4) kāma-rāga, liberating oneself from sensuality; (5) vyāpāda, elimination of animosity towards others, (6) rūpa rāga, not seeking rebirth material realms; (7) arūpa-rāga, not seeking rebirth in "immaterial" realms; (8) māna, elimination of conceit in oneself, (9) uddhacca, developing full control over one's actions, and (10) avijjā, the final elimination of residual ignorance.

26. Strictly speaking the Buddha claims that knowledge of the working of kamma can only be got by an enlightened person. Hence all opinions expressed on this subject will have to be tentative.

27. This is the interpretation which most Buddhists in the West will be comfortable with. It takes the problem of cosmology out of the concern of the religionist and places it on the lap of the scientist where it should properly rest. Also the view that suffering is the creation of our own mind is well established in some schools of modern psychology.

28. Care must be taken in interpreting Buddhism in terms of Buddhist cosmology. The dominant theory amongst cosmologists today is the "Big Bang" theory. Against this are ranged the theories of the oscillating universe (Hubble, James-Jeans) and the steady-state universe (Hoyle). The support for the Big Bang theory comes from those who are biased towards the Christian theory of creation (e.g. Paul Davies). Buddhists should contest this interpretation of the Big Bang theory which asserts a definite beginning to the universe, a proposition which the Buddha contested.

29. The best way of interpreting devas in modern terms is to view them as extra-terrestrial beings. While this is a common view especially in science fiction the current scientific views of the formation of life on the planet is that it is not a unique process (as religions like Christianity would have it) by a physical process that could go on in the billions of stellar systems which comprise the universe. Furthermore life need follow the same evolutionary pattern that has taken place on the earth. Thus beings in these other planets could be considered devas, having a different physical appearance to humans. The Buddhist theory of karma would add a further dimension that might give them different psycho-physical powers to humans. But such speculations are not really necessary because of the inconsequence of the devas to human existence even if they exist at all.

30. These terms are new but the idea is quite old. There is a tradition that the Buddha spoke in terms of heavens and hells when preaching to ordinary people (who in the Buddha's time would have had little education) and spoke in the more abstract terminology of nibbāna only in discourse with more learned persons.

31. The Encyclopaedia Britannica claims that about half of the world's 5 billion people adhere to the main religions. Of this 40% are Christians and 20% are Muslims. Buddhists number about 247 million (9.6%) almost all of them in Asia.

32. "Refuge" in this context means with respect to the Buddha the acceptance of the Buddha as a supremely enlightened teacher, with respect to the Dhamma that the teaching is fundamentally correct, and with respect to the Sangha the recognition that one is a part of a wider community seeking to practice the Buddha's teaching.

33. The word "Sangha" has different connotations. In its original meaning, and the one used in this formula, it means those persons who have made some progress on the Buddhist path (at least to the level of sōtapanna or "stream winner"). It is also used in two other meanings: (1) the body of ordained persons and (2) the body of Buddhist disciples both monk and lay irrespective of actual level of accomplishment.


Updated: 1-2-2001

Return to "The Buddha and His Teachings"

Top of Page