Theravada Buddhism

A note on Theravada Buddhism
Written by Dr Senarath Perera   
The biography of the Buddha is well known.  However, a resume is topical in a discussion of his teachings.  It is important to remember that he was a man and claimed to be none other than a man.  He was not born as Buddha but a human baby.  His parents were Suddodhana and Maya, the ruler of the ancient Sakyan kingdom and his queen.  Living the life of a prince he married young, as was the custom of the day and had a child.  He was an extraordinary person and thought deeply about everyday life.  Seeing its unacceptable vicissitudes he decided to do something about it.  So, one day, while his relatives wept, this black-haired young man in the prime of his youth left home on his noble quest.

Six long years later, sitting under a fig tree in a wood beside a river, contemplating with a deeply concentrated mind, the goal was realized.  This is what we call enlightenment.  From that moment onwards he was referred to as the Buddha.

What then is enlightenment?  It is the realization of the truth – the true nature of existence.  Even the Buddha found it difficult to put it into words.  In describing it to his former colleagues, he said ‘vision arose, knowledge arose, science arose, light arose to things never known before’.  This is a milestone in the history of man for the Buddha declared that everybody striving adequately could achieve this realization and be liberated.  Although the realization of the truth is beyond words and to be realized individually by the wise, the Buddha divided it into four sections for teaching purposes.  The first, generally called the First Noble Truth, is the true nature of existence which is dukkha.  There is no equivalent word for it in English.  Dukkha stands for the unsatisfactoriness of existence.  Discomfort, dis-ease, ill, suffering and many more words convey part of its meaning.  However, they do not convey the real deep meaning which is the reality of existence.  We think an individual is existing.  The physical form we call an individual is nothing but a complex sensory apparatus experiencing the environment by way of sight, sounds, smells, tastes and touch.  The sensory organs coming into contact with the external objects become conscious of them.  Simultaneously feelings, recognition and intentions regarding them happen.  So the ‘existing individual’ is a physical form (rupa), reacting with the environment resulting in feelings (vedena), recognitions (sanna) and intentions (sankhara) in the consciousness (vinnana).  In Buddha’s analysis, what is called an ‘individual’ or ‘I’ is just a combination of these five: rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara and vinnana.  They are called the five aggregates, panchaskandha, and it is this that really is dukkha.

Some take this analysis by the Buddha as pessimistic.  This would be a justifiable view if the Buddha stopped at that.  However, the Buddha’s analysis went much further.  He found the cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha and the way to achieve the cessation of dukkha.  He made these known and declared that anyone striving with dedication and determination can achieve this liberation from dukkha.  So, there is no pessimism in Buddhism – it is optimistic.

The second noble truth, cause of suffering (dukkha samudaya) is craving, (thanha).  Intense desire, greed, ‘thirst’ are synonyms.  Craving arises because of a false idea of self based on ignorance and is always associated with other defilements (kilesa) and impurities (asava).  All these associated factors are included when thanha is spoken as the cause of dukkha.  Craving is not limited to material things and sensual pleasures but also include attachment to ideas, views, opinions, beliefs etc.  It is easy to see how all these things is the cause of much suffering in the world – individually, nationally and internationally.  However the meaning of craving as the cause of dukkha lies deep in the individual.  The individual exist dependent on four types of food (ahara): ordinary material food (kablinkara ahara), contact of sense organs with the external world (phassa ahara), consciousness (vinnana ahara) and mental volition or will (manosancetana ahara). Of these, the last, mental volition is the will to live, exist, re-exist and continue.  This is the condition for continued existence and re-becoming.  This is none other than sankhara of the five aggregates.  Hence the cause of dukkha is a component of the five aggregates.  In other words the cause of dukkha is a component of the individual.

The third noble truth is the cessation of dukkha.  Here there is complete elimination of the cause of dukkha which is thanha.  It has to be realized personally by the wise and is a supramundane state beyond description.  Words describe things we experience by our senses but the destruction of thanha is not such a mundane experience.  Hence is beyond description; just like a fish not having a word to describe walking on land.  Many negatives of mundane words are used to give some hint of it: tanhakkaya (extinction of craving), viraga (absence of desire), nirodha(cessation), nibbana (blowing out) etc.The way to eradication of dukkha, the fourth noble truth, is a gradual training consisting of three components containing eight factors.  They are as follows:1. SILA (ethical conduct)   

i.  samma vaca (right speech)   
ii. samma kammantha (right action)
iii. samma ajiva (right livelihood)2. SAMADHI (mental discipline)
iv. samma vayama (right effort)
v.  samma sati (right mindfulness)
vi. samma Samadhi (right concentration)3.PANNA (wisdom)
vii. samma sankalpa (right thought)
viii. samma ditthi (right understanding)

In Buddhism wisdom is supreme.  The gradual process of enlightenment starts with rudimentary wisdom and ends with fully developed wisdom.  Hence in describing the eight factors of the path (The Noble Eightfold Path), the wisdom group of factors, samma ditti and samma sankappa, are mentioned first.

The ethical conduct (Sila) in Buddhism is based on love and compassion.  We harm others by actions of our body and speech. In sila one not only abstains from such actions but also develops the opposites.  Three path factors, right speech (samma vaca), right action (samma kammantha) and right livelihood (sanna ajiva) comes under sila.  Right speech is abstention (1) from telling lies, (2) from malicious talk that can bring disunity, disharmony and hatred among people, (3) from harsh, abusive talk and (4) from idle chatter and gossip.  This is complemented with speaking the truth, use of words that are gentle, benevolent and bring happiness, harmony and unity among people.   Gentle and benevolent talk which is useful and timely. 
Right action is abstention from doing harm by way of bodily action – namely abstention from destroying life, harming living beings, steeling and dishonest dealings and illegitimate sex.  This is to be complemented by leading an  honourable life and helping others to do the same.  

Right livelihood is abstention from earning a living by undertaking things that bring harm to others.  Selling intoxicants, lethal weapons, poisons, selling animals for slaughter and many more come under this category.

Mental discipline (Samadhi) also consists of three factors: right effort (samma vayama), right mindfulness (smma sati) and right concentration (samma Samadhi).  Right effort is energetic effort to (a) prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising, (b) get rid of such states of mind already arisen, (c) cause wholesome states of mind to arise and (d) bring to perfection the wholesome states of mind already arisen. Right mindfulness is to be diligently aware, mindful and attentive to (a) activities of the body (kaya), (b) feelings (vedana), (c) activities of the mind (citta) and (d) ideas, thoughts, concepts and things (dhamma).  These four categories of mindfulness, referred to as the four foundations of mindfulness (satara satipattana) are the ways of developing mindfulness.  They along with right concentration (samma samadhi), are included when one speaks of meditation (bhavana) which is treated in a separate section.  The ultimate aim of the mental discipline is to calm the mind and suppress the impurities in it so that wisdom can work without impedance.

Wisdom consists of two path factors: right thought (samma sankappa) and right understanding (samma ditti).  Right thought is thoughts of renunciation (nekkamma sankappa) thoughts of loving-kindness (metta sankappa) and thoughts of non-violence (avihimsa sankappa).  One may be surprised to find thoughts of selfless renunciation, loving-kindness and non-violence as components of wisdom.  This clearly shows that the Buddha saw the opposites – selfish greed, hatred and violence as results of the lack of wisdom.

Right understanding is the understanding of things as they really are.  The Four Noble Truths explain the things as they really are.  Hence right understanding is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths.  There are two degrees of understanding: superficial knowing of things according to learned data (anuboda panna) and deep understanding called penetrative understanding (pativedha panna) which seeing things as they are.  Seeing things as they are means seeing things without name and labels.  This is possible only when the mind is calm and freed of impurities by meditation.

As seen in the above brief description, the wise disciple of the Buddha has his work cut out on the path to freedom from dukkha.  He has to understand dukkha as dukkha (parineyya), then he has to eradicate the cause of dukkha (pahatabba) and realize the cessation of dukkha(sacchikiriya) by following (bhavetabba) the Noble Eightfold Path.  It is clear that what is popularly practised as Buddhism has hardly anything to do with the teachings of the Buddha.  They satisfy the religious feelings of the masses and help them to stay closer to The Path.

Buddha’s teachings have to be learned, properly understood and practised diligently.  Ideally, they should be studied from their original Pali language as preserved in the Tipitaka.  However, most cannot do so.  The next best thing is to study the English translations, perhaps with the guidance of learned bhikkhus (monks) if available.  English translations Majjima Nikaya, Diga Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya are available from Wisdom Publications and Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Walpola Rahula’s book ‘What the Buddha Taught’ is an excellent introduction to Buddhism.  Bhikkhu Bodhi’s ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’ gives a good account on the subject.