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

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 "optimism".

(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 wisdom.

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 Life

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 death.


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 inquiry.


Updated: 1-2-2001

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