- Basic Buddhism
- A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
- by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara
- CHAPTER 3
- The Basic Teaching of the Buddha
Buddhism recognises no creeds whose uncritical acceptance is expected
of its followers. Instead the Buddha enunciated certain basic laws and truths whose
veracity he invited his followers to test for themselves. One of the traditional epithets
of the Dhamma is "ehipassiko" (meaning literally "come and see") which
is an appeal to the empirical verification of the Dhamma.
In his very first discourse the Buddha identified Four Noble Truths as
forming the core of the Dhamma. These four Truths have since become a convenient way of
stating the fundamentals of the Dhamma. They are often regarded as the most basic teaching
of the Buddha. The Buddha also identified three fundamental characteristics (tilakkhana)
of the Dhamma. These basic tenets the Buddha presented in several ways. Two such
presentations have become well known. These are the Three Signata (tilakkhana), perhaps
better rendered as the three basic laws, and the Four Noble Truths. The acceptance of the
validity of these laws and truths, if only in the first instance as a working hypothesis,
is the sin qua non of a Buddhist. In addition the Buddha proclaimed several other
doctrines, the most important being those of karma and re-birth. The validity of such
doctrines is more difficult for an ordinary person to verify, but their dogmatic
acceptance is not expected as a fundamental requirement of those who go for refuge to the
"Three Gems" of Buddhism (12).
The three signata and the four truths form the core of the Dhamma. They
are at the same time both alternatives and complements to each other. It may however be
appropriate to consider them separately.
The Three Fundamental Laws of the Buddha
The three signata refer to the three essential marks or characteristics
of all "compounded" things, animate or inanimate, microscopic or macroscopic.
Because of the universality of their applicability they could be considered as having the
force of universal laws. These characteristics are impermanence (anicca),
unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and insubstantiality (anatta). As these translations of the
basic Pâli terms are only approximate, a further elaboration of these basic concepts of
the Dhamma is necessary.
(1) Anicca. The law of impermanence asserts that all
phenomena are subject to constant change, to rise and fall, and no permanent states,
either physical or animate, exists. The dynamic nature of phenomena is today a commonplace
of science. But until quite recently many physical features of the universe were
considered immutable, and in the human plane the belief in enduring states or
characteristics is still an article of faith in many religious systems. The law of anicca
establishes impermanence as the basic universal law.
(2) Dukkha. The law of dukkha states that all
complexes of phenomena, are in the final analysis unsatisfactory. It means that no
compounded thing or state could be considered as a universal norm of goodness or beauty.
It imparts the normative dimension into the consideration of objective reality which is
the hallmark of the Dhamma. The law of dukkha is usually considered in relation to the
human situation, and here unsatisfactoriness manifests itself as "suffering",
which is the popular rendition of the term. It is in this sense that it constitutes the
first of the four Noble Truths.
(3) Anatta. The third law states that there is no
permanent essence, "self", ego, or soul in phenomena. The term originates as the
negation of the concept of atta (âtman) which was the equivalent in the old
Brahmanical religion of the Buddha's day to what other religions have called the
"soul". The Buddha advanced psycho-physical explanation of the individual which
leaves no room for a soul. The Buddha recognised that the delusion of self or ego was one
of the most powerful of human instincts, and at the same time one of the most potent
sources of ignorance and wrong action. In applying the anatta doctrine to the phenomena of
the external world some care mush be exercised. Early Buddhism did not deny the reality of
the external world. It argued that the phenomena of the external world could be broken
down into its constituent components, and that nothing else other than these components
existed. It was only in this sense that the phenomena of the external world were declared
to be empty (suńńa). Some schools of Mahayâna Buddhism have taken the doctrine of
emptiness (suńńâtâ) to imply a denial of the reality of the external world. This
interpretation is foreign to early Buddhism. Early Buddhism only asserts that there is no
fixed essence or being in phenomena, but only a process of becoming (bhâva).
The Four Noble Truths
The four noble truths result from the application of the three basic
laws to the human condition. The Buddha frequently asserted that he was interested in the
problem of the alleviation of human suffering: "Only one thing do I teach, suffering,
and how to end it". His approach to the problem of suffering was similar to that of
the physician to his patient. He first diagnoses the malady, then seeks the cause of the
malady, next finds out whether a cure is possible. Finally he prescribes the medicine. The
four truths correspond to the four steps of this diagnostic-curative procedure.
(1) The Truth of Suffering.
This truth affirms that the law of dukkha is applicable to the human condition:
"Birth is suffering, decay is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation,
pain, grief, and despair are suffering. To be separated from the pleasant is suffering; to
be in contact with the unpleasant is suffering; in short the five aggregates of existence
connected with attachment are all suffering".
The validity of the truth of suffering need not be belaboured here; it is essentially a
matter for personal verification. The truth of dukkha refers not to the on-existence of
the pleasurable and the joyful, but to the very incompleteness and finitude of that
enjoyment. The imputation of pessimism sometimes made of early Buddhism is without
foundation; suffering in the Buddhist sense encompasses what is usually termed
"evil" in other religo-philosophical systems, and the existence of evil, caused
either by chance events or by deliberate ill-will is not seriously denied.
(2) The Truth of the Cause of Suffering.
The proximate cause of suffering is craving (tanhâ), but the root cause of ignorance
(avijjâ). The objects of craving are manifold: sensual pleasure, material possessions,
glory, power, fame, ego, craving for re-birth, even craving for nibbâna (nirvâna). There
are various degrees of craving from a mild wish to an acute grasping (upâdâna). Craving
is the proximate cause of suffering and is itself caused by other conditioning factors.
The full formula of causation is contained in the Buddhist formula of dependent
origination, where the causes for existence and suffering are traced back through a chain
of twelve links, back to ignorance.
(3) The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.
This growth constitutes the "good news" of Buddhism. The cause of suffering
could be counteracted. This truth affirms that a way out of suffering exists, which if
followed will lead the individual to a state of non-suffering called nibbâna, perhaps
better known by the Sanskrit form of the term, Nirvâna. If the first truth could be
considered to have a taint of "pessimism", this truth has the full flavour of
(4) The Truth of the Path to Enlightenment.
The Buddhist path to enlightenment is that discovered by the Buddha through his own
personal effort and practice. It has been called the Middle Path (majjima paipadâ)
because it is a via media between the extremes of self-indulgence and
self-mortification. Both extremes of practice were common in the Buddha's day (as indeed
they are in out own). The Buddha calls such extremes vain, profitless and ignoble. The
path of the Buddha avoids two kinds of activity usually considered essential for salvation
by many religious systems. These are: (1) prayer to supra human powers and agencies, and
(2) elaborate rites and rituals. On the contrary these are considered as being positive
impediments on the path to the cessation of suffering and the gaining of insight and
While the Four Noble Truths and the Three Laws of Existence contain the
kernel of the Buddha's teaching, and were proclaimed by the Buddha in his very first
discourse, there are many other doctrines that are central to a philosophical system which
is as deep as that of Buddhism. A few of these aspects of the teaching will be mentioned
here and a few of these will be considered in detail elsewhere.
The Goal of Buddhism and the Meaning of
The Buddhist goal is the achievement of human perfection, which should
be the real purpose of life. It is in this sense that life has meaning, and which should
inform the most salient aspects of human activity. A person who has made good progress
along the Buddhist path would have reached a high degree of happiness, contentment and
freedom from fear. Sometimes material affluence is seen as the goal of many persons, but
these do not necessarily bring about the happiness which the Buddha sought to promote.
Many religions look upon the present life as a ground for laying the
foundation in a future life after physical death. Some Buddhists also adopt this attitude
and try to secure a good rebirth or even Nibbâna without residue. Exhortations from the
Buddha could be produced to this effect. But the Buddha also affirms that we must make use
of the present life, of which we are sure, and that the pursuit of the Noble Eightfold
Path is the best way of doing so regardless of any consequences that may happen after
The Theory of Causality
One of the central doctrines of Buddhism is that all phenomena owe
their origin and existence to pre-conditioning factors. Everything is the result of a some
cause or other working on the thing concerned. This is a view that is also shared by
modern science, for without the operation of systematic causes much of the achievement of
modern science may not be possible. But whereas science generally restricts this principle
to physical phenomena and events, in Buddhism the theory of causation considers causation
as a central characteristic of all phenomena, even non-physical ones which do not form the
subject matter of scientific enquiry.
The Buddhist theory of causation should be distinguished from the
theory of the "First Cause" which is often used by theists to prove the
existence of God. The theory of the first cause asserts that since God is identified as
the first cause (all others being "created" by God) there is no need to explain
the existence of God. Buddhism does not agree with this position and considers it as
another instance of sophistry ("eel-wriggling") to which theists resort to
sustain their absurd views. (13)
The Doctrine of Dependent Origination
This is one of the cardinal discoveries of the Buddha during his
enlightenment. It is presented as a list of twelve bases which are causally linked to each
other. Since the links from a closed circle we can break into the chain at any point. The
order in the traditional list is as follows: (1) Ignorance, (2) Volitional formations (sankhâra),
(3) consciousness, (4) mind-and-form, (5) sense-bases, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8)
craving, (9) clinging, (10) becoming, (11) birth, (12) old-age-and-death.
There are various ways of interpreting this chain, but we shall not
deal with they here. The traditional interpretation of this is that it represents three
phases often interpreted as lifetimes. The first phase (the past) is comprised of links 1
and 2; the second (the present) of links 3 to 10, and the third (the future) of links 11
and 12. In the ongoing process what if the present becomes and past and what is the future
becomes the present. A detailed explication of this famous formula is not attempted here.
Emptiness and non-Self
The doctrine of "emptiness" (unyâtâ) is more associated
with Mahayana than with Theravada. If it represents another term for the anatta doctrine
described earlier it presents no new problem. However some Mahayana interpretations tend
towards philosophical idealism and towards the Hindu notion that the world is an illusion
(mâyâ) but such an interpretation cannot be entertained by Basic Buddhism.
Humanism and Rationalism
Basic Buddhism has some affinity with Western notions of humanism and
rationalism. However these terms are used in a variety of contexts, with humanism
associated with theistic notions on the one hand and extreme secular-materialist notions
on the other. But if humanism means what it should mean, that is the primacy of the human
as against the Divine, then it conforms to the Buddhist approach.
With rationalism as the application of reason and the scientific method to
investigation there is much in common. One of the basic sutta of the Buddha, the Kâlâma
Sutta given in the Anguttara Nikâya is rightly regarded as the Buddhist charter for free