Ethics and the non-religious essence of Buddhism – III
Posted on December 24th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

If one understands what the Buddha dhamma is saying, and if one is convinced that the spiritual path explained therein is the right one to follow, and commits oneself to do so, then one is a Buddhist. As Rev W. Rahula points out, though the label ‘Buddhist’ is of little significance from a Buddhist’s unique point of view, there is a long established tradition in this regard in Buddhist countries, which is that for a person to be considered a Buddhist they must ‘take refuge’ in the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) and undertake to observe the Five Precepts (the Pancasila – the five minimum moral obligations of a Buddhist: not to kill, steal, commit adultery, utter falsehoods, or take intoxicating drinks). These are rules of moral conduct that a Buddhist voluntarily undertakes to follow. The average Buddhists may, more often than not, be remiss in the strict observance of these rules in the daily struggle of normal living; but it does impart a sense of self-discipline to them and encourages them on the path to morality. The ritual of ‘taking refuge’ in the Triple Gem is both reassuring and restorative for the practitioner, like prayer in other systems of faith.

However, taking refuge in the Triple Gem  is only a mental tonic for the person embarked on the path leading to the ultimate goal, which is the realization of final release from suffering. The Buddhist teaching is about realizing that the world is suffering, that this suffering has an arising, that there is a cessation of suffering, and that there is a way to bring about an end to suffering. These are termed the Four Noble Truths. The fourth one is called the Noble Eightfold Path (right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration). The eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path can be categorized into three groups which are sila (ethical conduct), samadhi (mental discipline) and panna (wisdom). Ethical conduct consists in right speech, right action, and right livelihood; mental discipline is to be achieved through right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration; wisdom comes from right understanding and right thought. The student of Buddhism needs to learn what all these terms actually mean. This can be done in various ways such as by consulting a teacher, reading Buddhist literature, listening to lectures, but all these must be accompanied by independent inquisitive thinking.

‘(A) perfect understanding of the nature and structure of reality’ is what the Buddha claimed to have achieved, in the words of Robert A.F. Thurman, a Western Buddhist scholar. Having declared that the universe is unknowable (a fact that even scientific common sense convinces us of), the Buddha narrowed his area of search for truth to the psychological spiritual sphere, which is what really matters in human existence. He stated: Within this fathom-long sentient body itself, I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world”. The ‘world’ here is ‘suffering’ (dukkha) according to Rev. Walpola Rahula, author of ‘What the Buddha Taught’ from which I have quoted the Buddha’s statement. Rev. Rahula further explains that the Buddha’s words imply that the Four Noble Truths are  within the Five Aggregates, i.e., within ourselves and that there is no external power that produces the arising and the cessation of dukkha.

The truth that Buddhism teaches is not presented as divine revelation, but as truth to be experienced or realized by the individual through their own effort. The Four Noble Truths that constitute the central essence of the Buddha Dhamma are so called because they are cardinal truths realized by the great savants who have followed the Buddha’s teaching and have attained to the highest spiritual state. They have been called ‘Aryans’ in the Buddhist teaching.

The practicality of the Buddha Dhamma which is focused on mental training and self-discipline is revealed in its structure. The Dhamma is divided into two branches: textual and experiential (the teaching and its practice, respectively). The textual is further divided into three types of verbal teaching: discipline (vinaya), discourses (sutta), and philosophy and psychology (abhidhamma). The experiential is subdivided into three types of mental training: ethical (sila), meditational (Samadhi), and wisdom (panna) as we have already seen above.

It is true that Buddhism teaches the reality of suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the way leading to the end of suffering. But its concern with the truth of suffering does not make it a pessimistic doctrine, because it, with equal zest, teaches the possibility of total release from suffering. Realizing that life is suffering is actually seeing the truth, which leads one to try to put an end to suffering. It is like diagnosing a state of ill health and finding an appropriate cure, all of which is something positive. Buddha’s core discovery was the immediacy of perfect freedom from this suffering (dukkha), from enslavement to craving  or ‘thirst’ (tanha), from ignorance (avidya).

To the ordinary householders the Buddha’s ethical system recommends four Sublime States (brahma-vihara): 1) extending loving-kindness (metta) towards all living beings, 2) compassion (karuna) for all living beings who are suffering, who are in distress, 3) sympathetic joy (muditha) in others’ success, welfare, and happiness, and 4) equanimity (upekkha) in all vicissitudes of life. Preoccupation with self makes it difficult to practice these cardinal virtues taught in Buddhism. Therefore selfishness is to be avoided.

Free from self, and full of compassion for all beings, and disdainful of all forms of attachment, those who truly follow the Buddha’s teaching cannot be a threat to others who hold different views. The parable of the raft suggests that at a certain stage of spiritual development, even the Dhamma has to be abandoned as a used aid. Here, the Dhamma is likened to a raft. Once the wayfarer has crossed a stream in flood using a raft hastily fashioned in the absence of a bridge or a serviceable ferry, it is clearly wrong for them to carry it on their back saying that it helped them to cross a dangerous stream safely.

Buddha’s compassionate disposition towards other belief systems is unequivocal. He advised his disciples thus: ‘ It is not proper for a wise man who maintains (lit. protects) truth to come to the conclusion: This alone is Truth, and everything else is false”……… To be attached to one thing (to a certain view) and to look upon other things (views) as inferior – this the wise men call a fetter” ’ (a hindrance to realizing Nibbana, the Ultimate Reality, the end of all suffering. This state is human mind’s deepest, and most true condition).

Rock Edict XII of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka of India of the third century BCE was inspired by this tolerant, accommodative attitude of the Buddha Dhamma towards other religions. It declares:

 ‘One should not honour only one’s own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honour others’ religions for this or that reason. So doing, one helps one’s own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too. In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one’s own religion and also does harm to other religions. Whosoever honours his own religion and condemns other religions, does so indeed through devotion to his own religion, thinking I will glorify my own religion”. But on the contrary, in so doing he injures his own religion more gravely. So concord is good: Let all listen, and be willing to listen to the doctrines professed by others’.

Followers of Buddhism are expected to extend the same tolerant attitude of sympathetic understanding not only in the moral spiritual sphere, but elsewhere as well.

 In writing this essay in three parts I consulted the following books:

What the Buddha Taught – Rev. Walpola Rahula (1959, 2006)

The Footprint of the Buddha – Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyk  (1956, 2000)

The Tibetan Book of the Dead – Padma Sambhava (8th or 9th century CE), (Eng. Trans.) – Robert A.F. Thurman  (1994,2011)

(Note: The English title is a complete misnomer. The book is actually a compendium of  instructions a la the Tibetan Buddhist tradition about how to help a dying person to face death with a confident, positive frame of mind without fear and anxiety.)


One Response to “Ethics and the non-religious essence of Buddhism – III”

  1. Arcadius Says:

    You have presented a complex doctrine in simple English. Even though it is Christmas Day, not Wesak, let me congratulate you for doing so.

    Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka do not understand the interconnection between the Four Noble Truths, the crux of Buddhism, and the ti-lakkhana–dukkha, anatta and anicca. Nor do they know the interconection between the Five Aggregates (pancakhanda) and the FIve Noble Truths, let alone their relationship to dependent co-origination (paticcasamuppada.

    Walpola Rahula goofs when he says that the components of the Five Aggregates — rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, and vinnana — operate independently to tempt a ‘being” toward unwholesome craving. He thereby contradicts the assertion elsewhere that everything in the universe is interconnected, interdependent and interactive with one another.

    Mr. Wasala, keep on presenting the phenomenology of the Buddha to the entire world. Encourage Sri Lankans to live in harmony with all peoples of the Earth, not just the Tamils and the Muslims by correctly following the magga or the Middle Path.

    I also call on you to read the 2015 book titled “Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (published by Routledge) and written and edited by Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath.

    Review the book for the edification of newspaper readers in all three national languages. I hope you can become an effective promoter of mindful journalism.

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