- A Method of Mind Training
- Leonard Bullen
- Buddhist Publication Society
Bodhi Leaves BL 42
When you hear something about Buddhism in the daily news you usually think of it having
a background of huge idols and yellow-robed monks, with a thick atmosphere of incense
fumes. You never feel that there is anything in it for you, except, maybe, an exotic
But is that all there is in Buddhism? Do the news photographers take pictures of the
real Buddhism? Do the glossy magazines show you the fundamentals, or only the externals?
Let us see, then, what Buddhism really is, Buddhism as it was originally expounded and
as it still exists underneath the external trappings and trimmings.
Although generally regarded as a religion, Buddhism is basically a method of
cultivating the mind. It is true that, with its monastic tradition and its emphasis on
ethical factors, it possesses many of the surface characteristics that Westerners
associate with religion. However, it is not theistic, since it affirms that the universe
is governed by impersonal laws and not by any creator-god; it has no use for prayer, for
the Buddha was a teacher and not a god; and it regards devotion not as a religious
obligation but as a means of expressing gratitude to its founder and as a means of
self-development. Thus it is not a religion at all from these points of view.
Again, Buddhism knows faith only in the sense of confidence in the way recommended by
the Buddha. A Buddhist is not expected to have faith or to believe in anything merely
because the Buddha said it, or because it is written in the ancient books, or because it
has been handed down by tradition, or because others believe it. He may, of course, agree
with himself to take the Buddha-doctrine as a working hypothesis and to have confidence in
it; but he is not expected to accept anything unless his reason accepts it. This does not
mean that everything can be demonstrated rationally, for many points lie beyond the scope
of the intellect and can be cognized only by the development of higher faculties. But the
fact remains that there is no need for blind acceptance of anything in the
Buddhism is a way of life based on the training of the mind. Its one ultimate aim is to
show the way to complete liberation from suffering by the attainment of the Unconditioned,
a state beyond the range of the normal untrained mind. Its immediate aim is to strike at
the roots of suffering in everyday life.
All human activity is directed, either immediately or remotely, towards the attainment
of happiness in some form or other; or, to express the same thing in negative terms, all
human activity is directed towards liberation from some kind of unsatisfactoriness or
dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, then, can be regarded as the starting point in human
activity, with happiness as its ultimate goal.
Dissatisfaction, the starting point in human activity, is also the starting point in
Buddhism; and this point is expressed in the formula of the Four Basic Statements, which
set out the fact of dissatisfaction, its cause, its cure, and the method of its cure.
The First Basic Statement can be stated thus:
Dissatisfaction is Inescapable in En-self-ed Life
In its original meaning, the word which is here rendered as "dissatisfaction"
and which is often translated as "suffering" embraces the meanings not only of
pain, sorrow, and displeasure, but also of everything that is unsatisfactory, ranging from
acute physical pain and severe mental anguish to slight tiredness, boredom, or mild
Sometimes the term is rendered as "dissatisfaction" or
"unsatisfactoriness"; in some contexts these are perhaps more accurate, while at
other times the word "suffering" is more expressive. For this reason we shall
use both "suffering" and "dissatisfaction" or
"unsatisfactoriness" according to context.
In some translations of the original texts it is stated that birth is suffering,
sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, and pleasure is suffering. In English, this
last statement fails to make sense; but if we restate it as "pleasure is
unsatisfactory" it becomes more readily understandable, for all pleasure is
impermanent and is eventually succeeded by its opposite, and from this point of view at
least it is unsatisfactory.
Now the Buddha-doctrine teaches that dissatisfaction or suffering is inescapable in
en-self-ed life; and the term "en-self-ed life" needs some explanation. In
brief, the doctrine teaches that the self, considered as a fixed, unchanging eternal soul,
has no reality.
The central core of every being is not an unchanging soul but a life-current, an
ever-changing stream of energy which is never the same for two consecutive seconds. The
self, considered as an eternal soul, therefore, is a delusion, and when regarded from the
ultimate standpoint it has no reality; and it is only within this delusion of selfhood
that ultimate suffering can exist. When the self-delusion is finally transcended and the
final enlightenment is attained, the ultimate state which lies beyond the relative
universe is reached. In this ultimate state, the Unconditioned, suffering is extinguished;
but while any element of selfhood remains, even though it is a delusion, suffering remains
potentially within it.
We must understand, then, that the First Basic Statement does not mean that suffering
is inescapable; it means that suffering is inescapable in enselfed life, or while the
delusion of selfhood remains.
We can now move on to the Second Basic Statement, which says:
The Origin of Dissatisfaction is Craving
If you fall on a slippery floor and suffer from bruises, you say that the cause of your
suffering is the slippery floor. In an immediate sense you are right, of course, and to
say that the cause of your bruises is craving fails to make sense.
But the Second Statement does not refer to individual cases or to immediate causes. It
means that the integrating force that holds together the life-current is self-centered
craving; for this life-current -- this self-delusion -- contains in itself the conditions
for suffering, while the slippery floor is merely an occasion for suffering.
It is obviously impossible, by the nature of the world we live in, to cure suffering by
the removal of all the occasions for suffering; whereas it is possible in Buddhism to
strike at its prime or fundamental cause. Therefore the Third Basic Statement states:
Liberation May Be Achieved by Destroying Craving
It is self-centered craving that holds together the forces which comprise the
life-current, the stream of existence which we call the self; and it is only with
self-delusion that unsatisfactoriness or suffering can exist. By the destruction of that
which holds together the delusion of the self, the root cause of suffering is also
The ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, then, is to annihilate the self. This is where a
great deal of misunderstanding arises, and naturally so; but once it is realized that to
annihilate the self is to annihilate a delusion, this misunderstanding disappears. When
the delusion is removed, the reality appears; so that to destroy delusion is to reveal the
reality. The reality cannot be discovered while the delusion of self continues to obscure
Now what is this reality which appears when the delusion is removed? The ultimate
reality is the Unconditioned, called also the Unborn, the Unoriginated, the Uncreated, and
the Uncompounded. We can, inadequately and not very accurately, describe it as a positive
state of being. It is characterized by supreme bliss and complete freedom from suffering
and is so utterly different from ordinary existence that no real description of it can be
given. The Unconditioned can be indicated -- up to a point -- only by stating what it is
not; for it is beyond words and beyond thought.
Hence, in the Buddhist texts, the Unconditioned is often explained as the final
elimination' from one's own mind, of greed, hatred and delusion. This, of course, also
implies the perfection of the opposite positive qualities of selflessness,
loving-kindness, and wisdom.
The attainment of the Unconditioned is the ultimate aim of all Buddhist practice, and
is the same as complete liberation from dissatisfaction or suffering. This brings us to
the last of the Four Basic Statements:
The Way of Liberation Is the Noble Eightfold Path
The eight factors of the path are these:
1. Right understanding, a knowledge of the true nature of existence.
2. Right thought, thought free from sensuality, ill-will and cruelty.
3. Right speech, speech without falsity, gossip, harshness, and idle babble.
4. Right action, or the avoidance of killing, stealing and adultery.
5. Right livelihood, an occupation that harms no conscious living being.
6. Right effort, or the effort to destroy the defilements of the mind and to
cultivate wholesome qualities.
7. Right mindfulness, the perfection of the normal faculty of attention.
8. Right concentration, the cultivation of a collected, focussed mind through
Now you will see that in this Noble Eightfold Path there is nothing of an essentially
religious nature; it is more a sort of moral psychology.
But in the East as well as in the West people as a whole demand external show of some
sort, and -- on the outside at least -- the non-essentials have assumed more importance
than the essentials.
While some external features in the practice of Buddhism must of necessity vary
according to environment, the essential and constant characteristics of that practice are
summed up in the following outline of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Middle Way between
harmful extremes, as taught by the Buddha.
Although it is convenient to speak of the various aspects of the eightfold path as
eight steps, they are not to be regarded as separate steps, taken one after another. On
the contrary, each one must be practiced along with the others, and it might perhaps be
better to think of them as if they were eight parallel lanes within the one road rather
than eight successive steps.
The first step of this path, right understanding, is primarily a matter of seeing
things as they really are -- or at least trying to do so without self-deceit or evasion.
In another sense, right understanding commences as an intellectual appreciation of the
nature of existence, and as such it can be regarded as the beginning of the path; but,
when the path has been followed to the end, this merely intellectual appreciation is
supplanted by a direct and penetrating discernment of the principles of the teaching first
While right understanding can be regarded as the complete understanding of the Buddha
doctrine, it is based on the recognition of three dominating characteristics of the
relative universe, of the universe of time, form and matter. These three characteristics
can briefly be set out in this way:
1. Impermanence: All things in the relative universe are unceasingly changing.
2. Dissatisfaction: Some degree of suffering or dissatisfaction is inherent in
en-selfed life, or in life within the limitations of the relative universe and personal
3. Egolessness: No being -- no human being or any other sort of being --
possesses a fixed, unchanging, eternal soul or self. Instead, every being consists of an
ever-changing current of forces, an ever-changing flux of material and mental phenomena,
like a river which is always moving and is never still for a single second.
The self, then, is not a static entity but an ever-changing flux. This dynamic concept
of existence is typical of deeper Buddhist thought; there is nothing static in life, and
since it is ever-flowing you must learn to flow with it.
Another aspect of right understanding is the recognition that the universe runs its
course on the basis of a strict sequence of cause and effect, or of action and reaction, a
sequence just as invariable and just as exact in the mental or moral realm as in the
physical. In accordance with this law of moral action and reaction all morally good or
wholesome will actions eventually bring to the doer happiness at some time, while
unwholesome or morally bad will-actions bring suffering to the doer.
The effects of wholesome and unwholesome will-actions -- that is to say, the happiness
and suffering that result from them -- do not generally follow immediately; there is often
a considerable time-lag, for the resultant happiness and suffering can arise only when
appropriate conditions are present. The results may not appear within the present
lifetime. Thus at death there is normally a balance of "merit" which has not yet
brought about its experience of happiness; and at the same time there is also a balance of
"demerit" which has not yet given rise to the suffering which is to be its
After death, the body disintegrates, of course, but the life-current continues, not in
the form of an unchanging soul, but in the form of an ever-changing stream of energy.
Immediately after death a new being commences life to carry on this life current; but the
new being is not necessarily a human being, and the instantaneous rebirth may take place
on another plane of existence. But in any case, the new being is a direct sequel to the
being that has just died.
Thus the new being becomes an uninterrupted continuation of the old being, and the
life-current is unbroken. The new being inherits the balance of merit built up by the old
being, and this balance of merit will inevitably bring happiness at some future time. At
the same time, the new being inherits the old being's balance of demerit, which will bring
suffering at some time in the future.
In effect, in the sense of continuity, the new being is the same as the old being. In
just the same way -- that is, in the sense of continuity only -- an old man is the same as
the young man he once was, the young man is the same as the boy he once was, and the boy
is the same as the baby he once was. But the identity of the old man with the young man,
and with the boy, and with the baby, is due only to continuity; there is no other
Everything in the universe changes from day to day and from moment to moment, so that
every being at this moment is a slightly different being from that of the moment before;
the only identity is due to continuity. In the same way, the being that is reborn is
different from the previous one that died; but the identity due to continuity remains as
These teachings are basic to the Buddha-doctrine -- the illusory nature of the self,
the law of action and reaction in the moral sphere, and the rebirth of the life-forces --
but there is no need for anyone to accept anything that does not appeal to his reason.
Acceptance of any particular teaching is unimportant; what is important is the continual
effort to see things as they really are, without self-deceit or evasion.
So much for a brief outline of the doctrine under the heading of right understanding.
The second step, right thought or aim, is a matter of freeing the intellectual faculties
from adverse emotional factors, such as sensuality, ill-will, and cruelty, which render
wise and unbiased decisions impossible.
Right speech, right action, and right livelihood together make up the moral section of
the path, their function being to keep the defilements of the mind under control and to
prevent them from reaching adverse expression. These defilements, however, cannot be
completely eradicated by morality alone, and the other steps of the path must be applied
to cleanse the mind completely of its defilements.
Now in the next step -- right effort -- we enter the sphere of practical psychology,
for right effort in this context means effort of will. In other words, the sixth step of
the path is self-discipline, the training of the will in order to prevent and overcome
those states of mind that retard development, and to arouse and cultivate those that bring
about mental progress.
The seventh step of the path is also one of practical psychology; this is the step
called right mindfulness, and it consists of the fullest possible development of the
ordinary faculty of attention. It is largely by the development of attention -- expanded
and intensified awareness -- that the mind can eventually become capable of discerning
things as they really are.
The primary function of the, seventh step, right mindfulness, is to develop an
increasing awareness of the unreality of the self. However, it functions also by
continually improving the normal faculty of attention, thus equipping the mind better to
meet the problems and stresses of the workaday world.
In the Buddha-way, mindfulness consists of developing the faculty of attention so as to
produce a constant awareness of all thoughts that arise, all words that are spoken, and
all actions that are done, with a view to keeping them free from self-interest, from
emotional bias, and from self-delusion.
Right mindfulness has many applications in the sphere of everyday activities. For
example, it can be employed to bring about a sharpened awareness, a clear comprehension,
of the motives of these activities, and this clear comprehension of motive is extremely
In right concentration, the last of the eight steps, the cultivation of higher
mind-states -- up to the meditative absorptions -- is undertaken, and these higher
mind-states serve to unify, purity, and strengthen the mind for the achievement of
In this ultimate achievement the delusion of selfhood, with its craving and suffering,
is transcended and extinguished.
This penetrating insight is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practices, and with it
comes a direct insight into the true nature of life, culminating in realization of the
Unconditioned. While the Unconditioned is the extinction of self, it is nevertheless not
mere non-existence or annihilation, for the extinction of self is nothing but the
extinction of a delusion. Every description of the Unconditioned must fail, for it lies
not only beyond words but beyond even thought; and the only way to know it is to follow
the Noble Eightfold Path to its end.
This, then, is the original Buddhism; this is the Buddhism of the Noble Eightfold Path,
of the path that leads from the bondage of self to liberating insight into reality.
About the Author
Leonard A. Bullen was one of the pioneers of the Buddhist movement in Australia. He was
the first president of the Buddhist Society of Victoria when it was established in 1953
and one of the first office-bearers of the executive committee of the Buddhist Federation
of Australia. He was also a co-editors of the Buddhist journal Metta. He passed
away in 1984 at the age of 76.
His other publications issued by BPS are A Technique of Living (Wheel No.
226/230) and "Action and Reaction in Buddhist Teaching" in Kamma and Its
Fruit (Wheel No. 221/224).