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Some Characteristics of the Buddha's Teachings
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

1. The Buddha's teachings (Buddha-dhamma) is a morally philosophical system (dhammaniyaama), which expounds a unique path of enlightenment (bodhidhamma) or emancipation (mokkhadhamma). This moral doctrine (dhammavadaa / kammavaada) is, certainly, to be studied, more to be practiced and above all, to be realized by every one. The pragmatism is a remarkable characteristic of the Buddha's teachings [Dhp. 19, 20]. This characteristic is, however, of twofold aspect, notably, empirical aspect of inquiring or answering a question and the practice of dhamma or morality (dhammaanudhammapa.tipatti) in accordance with knowledge. So far as the latter is concerned, the Buddha states that in his moral system, knowledge and practice should be parallel hand-in-hand in bringing about supreme happiness (nibbaana). According to Buddhist ethical system, mere learning is of no use in terms of its consequence (vipaaka). The learned man (bahussuta) who does not practice morality (siila) is just like a beautiful flower without scent. To put it in another way, the mere knowledge of something, for example, nibbaana does not amount to that something, here to nibbaana. What one can learn from the above passage is that to attain the spiritual enlightenment one is advised to practice meditation in order to experience it in your own person. As to the knowledge not pertaining to ethical practicality, there are some questions, the Buddha is remained unanswered (avyaakata / avyaak.rta) [M. I. 426-32; 483 ff; M. II. 228-38; S. III. 213-24; 257ff.; S. IV. 374-403]. In the Pali canon, there are ten unanswered questions in number consisting of four sets of questions, the first three having only two alternatives each and the last one, four. The first two sets deal with the metaphysical nature of the world, the third set with soul-body and the last set with the Tathaagata. These ten questions are: 

(1-4) a. Is the world eternal? (sassato loko), b. Is the world not eternal? (asassato loko), c. Is the world finite? (antavaa loko), d. Is the world infinite? (anantavaa loko),

(5-6) e. Is the soul identical with the body? (taa jiicaa tam sariiraa), f. Is the soul not identical with the body? (a~n~naa jiivaa a~n~naa sariiraa), 

(7-10) g. Does Tathaagata exists after death? (hoti tathaagato paraa nara"naa), h. Does Tathaagata not exist after death? (na hoti tathaagato paraa mara"naa), k. Does Tathaagata both exist and not exist after death? (hoti ca na ca hoti tathaagatho paraa mara"naa), and m. Does Tathaagata neither exist nor not exist after death? (neva hoti na na hoti, tathaagato paraa mara"naa) [at D. I. 191; D. II. 68; D. III. 135-7; M. I. 484-5; M. II. 233; S. III. 257; S. IV. 393; A. II. 41]. 

The reasons for not answering these questions are that they are outside the pragmatic framework and worthless or irrelevant from its ethically immediate concern, commitment and purpose, as the Buddha says in the Cuu.la-Maalu"nkyasattu of the Majjhima-Nikaaya: "because these questions are not profitable, not basically conductive to holy life, nor leading to aversion, to detachment, to cessation, to tranquillity, to supernatural knowledge, to perfect enlightenment, to nibbaana." [M. I. 43]. The Buddha's teachings are attempting to work out with human suffering and its cessation, wherein answering these questions would have simply added to endless and fierce controversy, which is void of ethical significance. The Buddhist ethics is repeatedly emphasized by the Buddha as being preoccupied with the problem of human suffering and the way leading its utter cessation: "O, monks, what I have revealed is that this is suffering, this is arising of suffering, this is the ceasing of suffering and this is the practice leading to the ceasing of suffering" [S. V. 437]. The parable of Poisoned Arrow [M. I. 429; MLS. II. 99-100] and the parable of Sim'sapa-Leave [S. V. 437; GS. V. 370] sufficiently prove that the Buddha's teachings are of great practicality. The Buddha is interested only in those questions, whose answers are somehow helpful in eradicating human suffering. The ethical meaningfulness of the questions is the principal parameter of its answers. Empirical validity of the questions is another parameter to consider whether questions are worth answering or not. These are interrelated criteria for the practicality of Buddhist ethics. In brief, the Buddha only teaches "the ethical teachings or the truth which are profitable, basically conductive to holy life, leading to aversion, to detachment, to cessation, to tranquillity, to supernatural knowledge, to perfect enlightenment, to nibbaana" [M. I. 431].

2. The Buddha's teachings are human-based orientation. It has autonomous criterion as its moral principle. Here, one has to strive for one’s own enlightenment individually through personal effort without any help from God. The struggle for moral perfection and spiritual enlightenment is possible only on the basis of one’s own energy or performance. The Buddhist is one who is responsible for whatever good or bad done by him. Strive on kusala with diligence is the constant advice of the Buddha (Buddhaana saasana"m). No purification or emancipation can be possible without personal training of morality. This purification is of threefold practice [Dhp. 183; D. II. 39]. "Not to do evil" (Sabbapaapassa akara.na"m) is the first negative performance of Buddhist ethics, in terms of perfecting oneself. This is followed by "performing what is morally good" (kusalassa upasampadaa) as the second positive performance of kusala in terms of benefiting others. "Purifying one’s mind" (sacittapariyodapana"m) is the final advice as the most important factor leading to doing good and abandoning evil. In other words, the Buddha's teachings not only advise one to refrain from committing physical, vocal and mental misdeeds, but also, at the same time, instruct one to perform certain physical, verbal and mental moral conduct as well. And this individual and social direction of morality is based on the basis of purification of one’s own mind, the forerunner of every kamma [Dhp. 1-2]. Such a scheme of moral trinity is aimed at bringing about happiness and benefit for all human beings in this very life and the hereafter.

3. The Buddha's teachings can be considered as an ethical rationalism. All kinds of dogmatism and moral authorities without one’s own rational justification are unacceptable to the Buddhist ethics. The Buddha bases his teaching of morality (dhamma) on empirical knowledge instead of being known and realized intuitively [M. I. 520; D. I. 16]. The Buddha's teachings are a "come-and-see ethics" (ehipassika dhamma) [M. I. 37], which rejects all external authorities as a means for the attainment of the summum bonum and recommends the use of one’s own reason and personal exertion. The Buddha's teachings reject both animism and ritualism and emphasize rationalism. The most distinctive feature of the Buddha's teachings are its freedom from theism, which leaves room for rationalism and rules out submission to some super-human power controlling the world-process. It should be noted here that Buddhist ethical rationalism should not be confused with mere rationalism in the sense that the latter is based only on logic or power of argumentation. 

4. The Buddha's teachings are based on the moral law of kamma, which altogether condemns accidentalism (ahetu-apaccayavaada), theistic determinism (assarakara.navaada / issaranimmaanavaada) and past-action determinism (pubbekatavaada / pubbekatahetu). Accidentalism (ahetu-apaccayavaada or ahetuvaada) is an indeterminist theory, which holds whatever is experienced is uncaused and unconditioned. Theistic determinism (assarakara.navaada / issaranimmaanavaada) is a determinist theory, which held whatever is experienced is due to the creation of a Supreme Being. Past-action determinism (pubbekatavaada / pubbekatahetu) is a determinist theory, which holds whatever is experienced, whether pleasure or painful or indifferent is due to past actions [A. I. 173-9]. These erroneous theories are believed to conduce to moral and cultural degeneration. These views are harmful and, therefore, bound human beings to the bondage of a discouraged passives and blind acceptance. Buddhist ethics is based on the law of moral retribution (kamma). Accordingly, moral improvement or degeneration, ascent to heaven or descent to hell, happiness or suffering etc. are the result of our intentional deeds (kamma vipaaka). In an important text, the Buddha convincingly refutes these erroneous views (dii.t.thi) as follows:

If these were so, then, owing to accidentalism . . . theistic determinism . . . and past-action determinism, men will become murderers, thieves, unchaste, liars, slanderers, covetous, malicious. Thus for those who fall back on these three erroneous views as essential reason, there is neither the will to do what is ought to be done, or not to do what is ought not to be done, nor necessity to do this deed or abstain from that deed. For them, no moral improvement or intellectual culture can be expected from them [A. I. 173; GS. I. 157].

This passage of the sutta quoted here is to show clearly that Buddhist moral law of retribution springs and bases on one’s own intention (cetanaa) at the present rather than the past or dependent on God’s will or accidentals. The Buddha lays tress on the nature of whatever is done is received by human beings in order to enable man to observe and take care his deeds consciously. Although the Buddha teaches "living beings are owner of their own kamma, heirs of their kamma, have kamma as the wombs from which they spring, having kamma as their refuge; kamma marks of living being, making them become depraved and excellent," he further clarifies that kamma, as an intentional deed done by man, is subject to change according to one’s thinking, acting and improvement of whatever has been done by him earlier [Dhp. 172]. Buddhist law of kamma denies the heretical determinism and accidentalism, whether theistic or past-action, since one is free to act for better or for worse and for more goodness or for more badness within situation, which his kamma has produced. This is to say one can make oneself better through good counteractive kamma or destructive kamma or supplanting kamma (upaghaataka-kamma / upacchedaka-kamma), which can destroy the already produced bad kamma [ibid]. 

5. Altruism is another characteristic of the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha taught his ethics (dhamma) for the sake of something specific (yassa ca khvaassa atthaaya), leading onwards (niyyaati) the doer of it to the complete destruction of suffering (dukkha pamocana"m) [M. I. 69]. The Buddha is described as ‘concerned for the welfare of his fellow-man’ (bahujana hitaanukampii) [Sn. 693; A. III. 355] and as ‘sympathetic to all creatures’ (sabbabhuutuunukampii) [A. II. 9]. His ethico-philosophical teaching (Buddhadhamma) is the end-maker of anguish [M. I. 129] and ‘his teaching morality (dhamma) is not from duty, but out of compassion and sympathy.’ [S. I. 206]. It is also believed as ethical system, "that sets upright what had been upset, discloses what was covered, shows the way to the one who had gone to astray, brings an lamp into the darkness so that those with vision might see material shapes" [M. I. 24]. The altruistic nature of the Buddha's teachings can be seen clearly in his first missionary massage to the first sixty enlightened disciples, exhorting them to teach the morality (dhamma) to human beings: 

Go forth, O bhikkhu, for the welfare of the manyfolk, for the happiness of the manyfolk, out of compassion for the world, for the good, the welfare, the happiness of devas and human beings. Let not two go by one way. O bhikkhu, preach the dhamma, excellent in beginning, excellent in the middle and excellent in the end, both in spirit and in language. Proclaim the holy life, perfect and pure morally. 

I, too, O bhikkhu, will go to Uruvela in Senaanigaama, in order teach the dhamma. Hoist the flag to the Sage. Proclaim and teach the sublime dhamma. Work for the good of others, you have done your duties [M. I. 22]. 

Accordingly, the Buddha himself and his disciples, with no permanent residence, wandered from place to place to teach the perfect morality (paramattha dhamma) out of compassion for others. Being freed from all sensual bonds, their main purpose was to proclaim the moral life and to work for moral upliftment of the human beings, both by physical example and verbal teaching. The Buddha further teaches that one should intentionally perform any behavior (kamma) yielding happiness (sukhadraya) and resulting in happiness (sukhavipaaka), whereas avoiding volitional deeds (kamma), which does lead to the harm of oneself, of others, or of both [M. I. 417]. This altruistic feature of Buddhist moral law (dhammaniyaama) can be considered as criterion of establishing and promoting a ‘desired society.’

6. Egalitarianism is said to be one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Buddha's teachings. Considering caste system (va.n.naa/va.rnaa) as a moral bar against personal freedom, and a perpetual bar against social advancement, the Buddha stresses on the equality and universal fraternity of all individuals. Pre-Buddhist theory of ethics (dharma) was based the division of four-caste society (va.rnaa), namely, rulers (k.satriya), priests (braahm.na), merchants and cultivators (vai'sya), and the servants ('suudra). The first two were considered as superior, while the last two have to serve them. Such an ethical theory is antagonistic to the Buddha, who bases on his dhamma/dharma on ethical equality. All claims based on the basic of distinction of birth, caste, sex and social position for supremacy in society are, therefore, condemned strongly by the Buddha. According to the Buddha, it is one’s intentional deeds (kamma) that make him noble or ignoble: "By birth, one is not a braahmin or an out-caste (vasala). It is his kamma that makes one a braahmin or an out-caste (vasala)" [Sn. p. 23]. In another important passage of Diighanikaaya, the Buddha further says that being a virtuous person (braahmin) [cf. Dhp. 383-423] is possible only when one attempts in promoting his moral conduct and wisdom: "Not by matted hair, nor by family, nor by birth does one become a br hmaÏ . He who is perfect in knowledge and conduct is the foremost among the men and deva" [Dhp. 393; D. II. 86]. The Order of monks, founded by the Buddha, is a remarked example of moral theory of equality amongst human beings. The Buddha boldly claims that: 

All persons, notwithstanding whatever family they come, when entering the Buddhist Order, would give up their former distinction of name and clan (jahanti purimaani naamagottaani) and be equally known as the recluses of the son of Saakyaa (sama.naa Saakyaputtiyaa tveva sa"nkha"m gacchati), just like the waters of various rivers, such as Gangaa, Yamunaa, Aciravatii, once entering the ocean, will become one with the ocean, known as ocean-water" [A. IV. 202; Vin. II. 239].

The only ‘distinction between individuals’ (puggala-vemattataa) is biologically sex-difference [Sn. vv. 600-11]. Thus, the equality among human beings (cattaaro va.n.naa samasamaa) being in accordance with the universal law and its contrary (dhammeneva no adhammena) is considered as the basic moral doctrine of equality in terms of psycho-ethical law of kamma. This ethical equality among sentient beings, whether human or animal, shows that all are capable of doing both good (kusala) and evil (akusala) according to their volitional action (kamma), irrespective of their background, leading to the morally spiritual advancement or amorality (akiriyavaada) respectively. Ethical endeavor leading ethical advancement is, therefore, equally possible for all. In Buddhist ethics, the path of moral perfection is open to all those who wish to attain the summum bonum of life (nibbaana).

7. Buddhist ethics is Middle-Path (majjhimaa pa.tipadaa) ethics. It lays great emphasis on avoidance of twofold extreme (antaa) of practice, namely, (i) the extreme of sensual indulgence or extreme hedonism (kaamasukhallikaanuyoga) and (ii) the extreme of self-mortification or extreme asceticism (attakilamathaanuyoga). The former, as a form of gross materialism, disturbing the peace and purity of the mind (citta), will conduce to amoralism (akiriyavaada), while the latter, as self-torture, resulted in weak physical body, leading to a poor spiritualism, which can not be considered as steps to attain highest enlightenment (vimutti) [KS. II. 52; DB. I. 223-40]. Buddhist ethics is called the middle doctrine (majjhena dha"mma"m deseti) [S. II. 61; S. V. 421; Vin. I. 10], because it goes far beyond the twofold extreme as mentioned above. The Buddha considers self-mortification (attakilamathaanuyoga) as painful, fruitless, unprofitable and ignoble [M. I. 77, 238, 342; MLS. I. 103-4; A. I. 295; II. 206; D. I. 166]. It may result in emancipating the body and filling the mind with evil thoughts. With regard to sensual indulgence or extreme hedonism (kaamasukhallikaanuyoga), the Buddha says that it will lead to moral degeneration. It bounds one to egoism and involves in samsaaric rebirth [M. I. 77, 238, 342; MLS. I. 103-4; A. I. 295; II. 206]. The Middle Way (majjhimaa pa.tipadaa) discovered by the Buddha is an unique path (ekamagga), "which opens the eyes, bestows wisdom, insight, leads to peace, and conduces to nibbaana" [D. II. 312; M. I. 61; M. III. 251]. Buddhist ethics also seeks to reject the extreme theories of eternalism (sassatavaada) and annihilationism (ucchedavaada) while advocating the theory of becoming (pratiityasamutpaada) in the realm of ethico-spiritual practice. Eternalism (sassatavaada) is eternalist theory that everything exists absolutely (sabba"m atthi). Annihilationism (ucchedavaada) is opposite theory that absolutely nothing exists (sabba"m natthi). It also avoids not only the monistic view, which reduces existence to a common ground, to some sort of self-existing substance (sabba"m ekatta"m) but also the opposite pluralistic view, which reduces existence to a concatenation of discrete elements (sabba"m puthutta"m) [S. II. 17; 77]. Avoiding these extremes, moral teaching of the middle way of the Buddha explains that phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena, without assuming, however, a persistent substance behind the phenomena. According to Buddhism, moral perfection lies in the Middle Path (majjhimaa pa.tipadaa), which aims at improving human moralism for the attainment of the highest enlightenment: Buddhahood. In this very teaching (idheva) of the Buddha, Sama.naship or Braahma.naship [Dhp. 19, 20, 383-423], the attainment of human perfection or sainthood, is exclusively possible while that of other systems is void [M. I. 64; MLS, I.85]. 

8. I would claim that the teachings of the Buddha could be considered as ethical empiricism. It moves from facts, psychological and empirical, to ethics. The Four Noble Truths (ariyasacca/catvaari-aarya-satyaani) are started with an empirical fact or a psychological fact and then goes on to work out its application in two levels: one in terms of suffering causation or samsaric cycle, and the other in its solution to human suffering for perfect morality. This moral procedure is aimed at bringing about the destruction of the empirical or psychological fact in question by following the path leading to the eradication of suffering (dukkha-nirdhagaaminii). There is suffering (dukkha/du,hkha) is a statement of fact, which should be realized in order to overcoming it. Dukkha may be in the form of a feeling of sorrowfulness, dissatisfactoriness, or anguishÑ a psychological fact. It also may be in the form of physical pain or an empirically observable phenomenon. Every suffering (dukkha/du.hkha) has its origin (dukkha-samudaya/du.hkha-samudaya). This is another statement of empirical fact. From the recognition of dukkha as an empirical or psychological fact, the Buddha proceeds to prescribe the path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirdhagaaminii-pa.tipadaa / du.hkha-maarga), through the observance of which it could be removed (dukkha-nirodha/du.hkha-nirodha) [A. I. 158]. This is also an empirical statement of fact, which the Buddha himself has undergone and realized at the time of his enlightenment. Such a fact-based ethics is a creative contribution of the Buddha to solve the problem of human suffering.

9. Finally, Buddhist ethics can be considered as moral soteriology. In Buddhism, the concept of soteriology is expressed differently in Pali as mutti, vimutti. mokkha and vimokka. It is the freedom from bondage (sa"msaara) or release from the cycle of suffering (dukkha). The entire teaching of the Buddha (Budhasaasana) is believed as a path to emancipation (mokkha-magga). The Buddha himself repeatedly emphasizes that his teaching: "As the vast ocean, O disciples, is impregnated with one taste, the taste of salt, even so this doctrine and discipline [of morality] is impregnated with one taste, the taste of emancipation." The second statement reflected his moral soteriology is found in a famous passage of the Samyuttanikaaya as follows: "Both formerly and now, O Anuruudha, I declare only suffering and its cessation" [Vin. II. 235]. This has been explained in details in his first sermon after enlightenment that the Dhamma is aiming at bringing about emancipation. The Buddha emphatically says that if ignorance (avidyaa) is the root cause (hetu paccaya) of bondage in sa"msaaric existence then its destroying and freeing the mind from defiling traits (aasavas) are the path to release from sa"msaara. The Noble Eightfold Path (ariya a.t.tha"ngika magga) also called Middle Path (majjhimaa pa.tipadaa) consisting of perfecting one’s own morality (siila), improving mental culture (samaadhi) and sharpening enlightened wisdom (pa~n~naa) is the only way out of sa"msaara. This clearly shows that the teachings of the Buddha are not negative in terms of pessimism but bringing about the cessation of suffering (dukkha pamocana"m). Moreover, Buddhist ethics is, in its very nature, positivistic in the sense that it recognizes the absolute possibility of conducting moral, being good and cultivating perfection of all sentient beings: "Put aside what is morally unwholesome. It is possible to do so. If it were not impossible I would not ask you" [A. I. 158]. "Just as there is suffering there is also cessation of suffering" [M. I. 140] is the starting-point but also the purpose of the Buddha's teachings. Because, according to the Buddha, freedom always means ‘emancipation from suffering’ (dukkha pamocana"m), from bondage (mokkhanti maara bandhanaa) [Dhp. 37] and burdens of existence (vimutto upadhisa"mkhaye) [A. II. 24]. This is, in fact, the raison detre of Buddhism. 


References to Pali Texts and their translations are to the standard Pali Text Society editions.

A. A"nguttara-Nikaaya, I-V, ed. R. Morris, E. Hardy, C. A. F. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1885-1900) 

D. Diighanikaaya, I-III, ed. T. W. Rhys David and J. E. Carpenter, (London: PTS, 1889-1910) 

DB. Dialogues of the Buddha (PTS translation of the Diigha Nikaaya)

Dhp. Dhammapada, ed. K. R. Norman and O. von Hinuber. (London: PTS, 1931) 

GS. Gradual Sayings (PTS translation of the A.nguttara Nikaaya)

KS. Kindred Sayings (PTS translation of the Sa"myutta Nikaaya)

M. Majjhimanikaaya, I-IV, ed. V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers, Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1888-1902) 

MLS. Middle Length Sayings (PTS translation of the Majjhima Nikaaya) 

PTS. Pali Text Society

S. Sa"myuttanikaaya, I-V, ed. L. Feer and Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1884-1898) 

Sn. Suttanipaata, ed. D. Andersen and H. Smith. (London: PTS, 1913)

Vin. Vinayapi.taka, I-V, ed. H. Oldenberg. (London: PTS, 1879-83) .


Updated: 3-5-2000

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