Essential points of the Buddhist teachings
The Buddha refused to have any dealings with those things which don’t lead to the extinction of Dukkha. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its kammic (karmic) inheritance? [kamma (karma) is volitional action by means of body, speech or mind.] These questions are not aimed at the extinction of Dukkha. That being so, they are not Buddhist teaching and they are not connected with it. They do not lie in the sphere of Buddhism. Also, one who asks about such matters has no choice but to indiscriminately believe the answer he is given, because the one who answers is not going to be able to produce any proofs, he’s just going to speak according to his memory and feeling. The listener can’t see for himself and so has to blindly believe the other’s words. Little by little the matter strays from Dhamma (Dharma) until it’s something else altogether, unconnected with the extinction of Dukkha.
Now, if one doesn’t raise those sort of problems, one can ask instead, “Is there Dukkha?” and “How can Dukkha be extinguished?” To these questions the Buddha agreed to answer, and the listener can see the truth of every word of his answer without having to blindly believe them, see more and more clearly until he understands. And if one understands to the extent of being able to extinguish Dukkha, then that is the ultimate understanding. One knows that, even at this moment, there is no person living; one sees without a doubt that there is no self or anything belonging to a self. There is just a feeling of “I” and “mine” arising due to the foolishness whereby one is deluded by the beguiling nature of sense—experience. Therefore, there being no one born here, there is no one who dies and is reborn. So, the whole question of rebirth is utterly foolish and nothing to do with Buddhism at all.
The Buddhist teachings aim to inform us that there is no self and nothing belonging to a self, there is only the false understanding of the ignorant mind. There is merely body and mind, which are nothing but natural processes. They function like a mechanism that can process and transform data. If they do so by the wrong method, it gives rise to foolishness and delusion, so that one feels that there is a self and things which belong to a self. If they do so by the correct method, those feelings do not arise; there is the primal truth-discerning awareness (satipanna), the fundamental true knowing and clear seeing that there is no self and nothing belonging to a self.
The matter of “I” and “mine” is the single essential point of the Buddhist teachings. It is the one thing which must be completely purged. It follows that here lies the knowing, understanding, and practice of all the Buddhist teachings without exception. So please pay full attention.
In regards to the foundations or root principles of Dhamma, there aren’t a great deal. The Buddha said that there was a single handful. A sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya makes this clear. While walking through the forest, the Buddha picked up a handful of fallen leaves and asked the monks who were present, which was the greater amount — the leaves in his hand or all the leave in the forest. They all said that the leaves in the forest were much more, so much that it was beyond comparison. Even now, try to imagine the scene and see the truth of this, how much more they are. The Buddha then said that, similarly, those things which he had realized and which he knew were a great amount, equal to all the leaves in the forest — but that which was necessary to know, those things which should be taught and practiced, were equal to the number of leaves in his hand.
So from this it can be taken that, compared to all the myriad things that are to be found in the world, the root principles to be practiced to completely extinguish Dukkha amount to a single handful. We should appreciate that this “single handful” is not a huge amount, it’s not something beyond our capabilities to reach and understand. This is the first important point that we must grasp if we want to lay the foundations for a correct understanding of the Buddhist teachings.
Here we reach the phrase, “the Buddhist Teachings”. Please understand the phrase correctly. These days, that which is labeled as the “Buddhist Teachings” is a very nebulous thing — that is to say it is extensive without much definition. In the Buddha’s time, a different word was used, the word “dhamma” (Dharma); it referred specifically to the dhamma which extinguishes Dukkha. The dhamma of the Buddha was called Samana Gotama’s dhamma. If it was the dhamma of another sect — say that of Nigantha Nataputta (contemporary of the Buddha and founder of the Jain religion) — it would be called Nigantha Nataputta’s dhamma. One who liked a particular dhamma would try to study it until he understood it and then practiced accordingly. It was called dhamma and that is what it was, real pure dhamma without any of the numerous things which have come to be associated with it in later times. Now we call those appendages “Buddhist Teachings”. Due to our carelessness the “Buddhist Teachings” have become so nebulous that they include within them many things foreign to them.
The real Buddhist Teachings alone are already abundant — as many as all the leaves in the forest — but that which has to be studied and practiced is merely a handful, and that’s already plenty. But nowadays we go and include those things which are associated with the teachings, such as the history of the religion and an expanded psychology. Take Abhidhamma (the third of the three “baskets” of the Buddhist scriptures. Compiled after the Buddha’s death, they are a complete analysis of mind and matter into their constituent parts), some parts of it have become psychology, some parts philosophy, it’s continually expanding to fulfill the requirement of those disciplines. And there are many more offshoots, so that things which are associated with the Teachings have become exceedingly numerous. They have all been swept in together under one term, so that there have become to be a large number of “Buddhist Teachings”.
If we don’t know how to take hold of the essential points, then it will seem that there’s a great amount and we won’t be able to choose between them. It will be like going into a shop selling a great variety of goods, and being completely at a loss what to take. So we will just follow our common sense — a bit of this, a bit of that, as we see fit. And mostly we will take those things which agree with defilements (kilesa) rather than let ourselves be guided by truth — discerning awareness. Spiritual life becomes a matter of rites and rituals, of making merit by rote or to ensure against some fear or other. There is no contact with the real Buddhist Teachings.
Let us know how to separate the Buddhist Teachings from those things which have merely come to be associated with them and included under the same name. Even in the Teachings themselves, we must still know how to distinguish the root principles, the essential points, and it is of these things that I have resolved to talk.
The spiritual disease of our time is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of “we” and “ours”, “I” and “mine” that is regularly present in the mind. The germ that is already in the mind develops first into the feeling of “I” and “mine” and “then, acting through the influence of self-centeredness, becomes greed, hate and delusion, causing upset for both oneself and others. These are the symptoms of the spiritual disease that lies within us. To remember it easily, it may be called the disease of “I” and “mine.”
Every one of us has the disease of “I’ and “mine”, and we absorb more germs every time we see a form, smell an odor, touch a tangible object, tastes a flavor, or think in the manner of an ignorant person. In other words, there is a reception of the germ, those things surrounding us that are infected and cause the disease, every time there is sense contact.
We must recognize that the germ is clinging (upadana) and that it is of two kinds: clinging to an “I” and clinging to “mine”. Clinging to “I” and feeling that “I” is an entity, that I am like this or like that, that I am the equal of any man. Anything of this sort is called “I”. “Mine” is taking that as belonging to me, that which I love, that which I like. Even that which we hate, we consider to be “my” enemy. This is called “mine.”
In Pali, “I” is atta and mine is attaniya: or, if one uses the terms in the general use of Indian philosophy, ahamkara meaning to have the feeling of “I” (stemming from the word aham, “I”), and mamamakara, meaning to have the feeling of “mine” (stemming from the word mam, which means “mine.”)
The feelings of ahamkara and mamamkara are so very dangerous that they are called the spiritual disease, and every branch of philosophy or dhamma in the Buddha’s time wanted to wipe them out. Even though they were followers of other teachings, they all had the same aim of wiping out ahamkara and mamamkara. The difference lay in that when they eradicated those feelings, they called what remained the True Self, the Pure Atman, the Desired. As for our Buddhist Teaching, it refused to use those names because it did not want to give rise to any new clinging to a self or things belonging to a self. It was just left a perfect emptiness, which was called Nibbana, as in the phrase, “Nibbanam paramam sunnam” — “Nibbana is supreme emptiness” — that is to say, absolutely empty of “I” and empty of “mine” in every respect, without remainder. That is Nibbana, the end of spiritual disease.
This matter of “I” and “mine” is very hard to see. If you don’t really concentrate, you won’t be able to understand that it is the force behind Dukkha, the force behind spiritual disease.
That which is called “atta” or “self” corresponds to the latin word “ego”. If the feeling of self-consciousness arises, we call it egoism because once the feeling of “I” arises it naturally and inevitably gives rise to the feeling “mine”. Therefore, the feeling of self and the feeling of things belonging to self, taken together is egoism. Ego can be said to be natural to living beings and, moreover, to be their center. If the word “ego” is translated into English, it must be rendered as soul, a word corresponding to the Greek “kentricon” which in English means center. Ego and kentricon being the same thing, the soul (atta) can be regarded as the center of living beings, as their necessary nucleus, and therefore is something that the ordinary person cannot rid themselves of or refrain from.
So it follows that all unenlightened people must experience this feeling of egoism arising continually. Although it’s true that it doesn’t express itself all the time, it manifests whenever one sees a form, hears a sound, smells an odor, touches a tactile object or has a thought arising in the mind. On every occasion that the feeling of “I” and “mine” arises, we can take it to be the disease fully developed, regardless of whether it’s dependent upon seeing a form, hearing a sound, smelling an odor, or whatever. When at the moment of contact, the feeling “I” and “mine” arises, it is the disease fully developed. The feeling of selfishness has strongly arisen.
At this point we no longer call it egoism but selfishness, because it is an agitated egoism that leads one into low, false ways, into a state of thinking only of oneself without consideration for others, so that everything one does is selfish. One is completely ruled by greed, hatred and delusion. The disease expresses itself as selfishness and then harms both oneself and others. It is the greatest danger to the world. That the world is currently so troubled and in such turmoil is due to nothing other than the selfishness of each person, of each of the factions forming into competing groups. That they are fighting each other without desire to fight, but through compulsion, is because they can’t control this thing; they can’t withstand its force, and so the disease takes root. That the world has taken in this “germ” which has then caused the disease, is because no one is aware of that which can resist the disease, namely, the heart of the Buddhist Teachings.
I would like you to understand this phrase, “the heart of the Buddhist Teachings”. Whenever we ask what the heart of the Buddhist teachings is, there are so many contending replies that it’s like a sea of mouths — everyone’s got an answer! But whether they are correct or not is another matter, for people just answer according to what they have remembered or what they have worked out for themselves. Please, look and see for yourselves how it is these days. Who truly knows the heart of the Buddhist teachings? Who has truly reached it?
Whenever we ask what the heart of the Buddhist Teachings is, someone will probably say the Four Noble Truths (Dukkha, its cause, its extinction, and the path leading to its extinction) others will say aniccam—dukkham—anatta (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness), other may recite the verse:
“Sabba papassa akaranam
“Refraining from doing evil,
doing only good,
and purifying the mind,
that is the heart of the Buddhist Teachings.”
That’s correct, but only very slightly so because it is still something repeated by rote; it’s not something that has truly been seen for oneself.
As to what is the heart of Buddhist Teachings, I would like to suggest the short saying, “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to”. There is a section in the Majjhima Nikaya where someone approached the Buddha and asked him whether he could summarize his teachings in one phrase and, if he could, what it would be. The Buddha replied that he could: “Sabba dhamma nalam abhinivesaya”. “Sabbe dhamm” means “all things”, “nalam” means “should not be”, “abhinivesaya” means “to be clung to”. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to. Then the Buddha emphasized this point by saying that whoever had heard this core phrase had heard all the Teachings, who ever put it into practice had practiced all the Teachings, and whoever had received the fruits of practicing this point had received all of the fruits of the Buddhist Teachings.
Now, if anyone realizes the truth of this point that there is not a single thing to be clung to, it means that there is no “germ” to cause the disease of greed, hatred and delusion, or of wrong actions of any kind, whether of body, speech or mind. So, whatever forms, sounds, odors, flavors, tangible objects and mental phenomena crowd in, the antibody “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to” will resist the disease. The “germ” will not enter, or, if it is allowed to do so, it will be only in order to be completely destroyed. The “germ” will not spread and cause the disease because of the antibody continually destroying it. There will be absolute and perpetual immunity. This then is the heart of the Buddhist Teachings, of all Dhamma. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to — ‘Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya.’
A person who realizes this truth is like someone who has an antibody that can resist and destroy disease. It is impossible for him or her to suffer from the spiritual disease. But, for the ordinary person who doesn’t know the heart of the Buddhist teachings, it’s just the opposite, like someone who hasn’t the slightest immunity.
You probably understand by now the meaning of the “spiritual disease” and who the doctor is that heals it. But it’s only when we see that we ourselves have the disease that we become really serious about healing ourselves, and in the right way, too. Before we know, we just enjoy ourselves as we please. It’s like someone unaware that they have some serious illness, such as cancer or TB, just indulging in pleasure-seeking without bothering to seek treatment until it’s too late, and then dying of their disease.
We won’t be that foolish. We will follow the Buddha’s instruction, “Don’t be heedless. Be well-filled with heedfulness.” Being heedful people, we should take a look at the way in which we are suffering from the spiritual disease and examine the “germ” that is its cause. If you do this correctly and unremittingly, you will certainly receive in this life the best thing a human being can receive.”
We must look more closely into the point that clinging is the “germ”, as well as the way that it spreads and develops into the disease. If you’ve observed even to a small degree, you will have seen that it’s this clinging to “I” or “mine” that is the chief of all the defilements.
We can divide the defilements up into lobha, dosa and moha (or raga, krodha and moha) or group them into sixteen or as many catagories as we want — in the end they are all greed, hatred and delusion. But these three, too, can be collected into one — the feeling of “I” and “mine”. The feeling of “I” and “mine” is the inner nucleus which gives birth to greed, hatred and delusion. When it emerges as greed, as desire and craving, it attracts the sense-object that has come into contact. If at another moment it repels the object, then it’s hate or dosha. On those occasions when it’s stupefied and doesn’t know what it wants, hovering around the object, unsure whether to attract or repel, that is moha.
Defilement behaves in one of these ways towards sense-objects, i.e. forms, sounds, odors, flavors, tangible objects, mental phenomena, depending on what form the objects takes — whether it is clearly apprehensible’ or hidden, and whether it encourages attraction, repulsion, or confusion. But, though they differ, all three are defilements because they have their roots in the inner feeling of “I” and “mine”. Therefore, it can be said that the feeling of “I” and “mine” is the chief of all defilements and the root cause of all Dukkha, of all disease.
Having not fully appreciated the Buddha’s teaching regarding Dukkha, we have misunderstood it. We have taken it to mean that birth, old age, and so on are themselves Dukkha, but in fact those are just its characteristic vehicles. The Buddha summarized his teachings as, “Sankhittena panucupadanakkhandadukkha” which translates as, “In short, Dukkha is the five clung to “khandas” (the five ‘groups’ or ‘aggregates’ of existence: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness). This means that anything which clings or is clung to as “I” or “mine” is Dukkha. Anything which has no clinging to “I” and “mine” has no Dukkha. Therefore, birth, old age, sickness, death or whatever, if they are not clung to as “I” or “mine” has no Dukkha. Therefore, birth, old age, sickness, death and whatever, if they are not clung to as “I” or “mine” cannot be Dukkha. Only when they are clung to as “I” or “mine” are they Dukkha. The body and mind are the same. It’s not that Dukkha is inherent in body and mind. It is only when there is clinging to “I” and “mine” that they are Dukkha. With the pure and undefiled mind, that of the arahant (one freed from all greed, aversion and delusion), there is no Dukkha at all.
We must see that this “I” and “mine” is the root cause of all forms of Dukkha. Whenever there is clinging, then there is the darkness of ignorance. There is no clarity because the mind is not empty; it is shaken up, frothing and foaming with the feeling of “I” and “mine”. In direct contrast, the mind that is free of clinging to “I” and “mine” is serene, filled full of truth-discerning awareness.
So, we must firmly grasp the fact that there are two kinds of feeling: that of “I” and “mine”, and that of truth-discerning awareness, and that they are totally antagonistic. If one enters the mind, the other springs out. Only one can be present at a time. If the mind is brimful of “I” and “mine”, truth-discerning awareness cannot enter: if there is truth-discerning awareness, the “I” and “mine” disappears, freedom from “I” and “mine” is truth-discerning awareness.
Thus if one speaks intelligently — which is to say, concisely, although it is somewhat frightening, one says along with Huang Po, along with the Zen sect, that Emptiness is the Dhamma, Emptiness is the Buddha and Emptiness is the Primal Mind. Confusion, the absence of Emptiness, is not the Buddha, is not the Dhamma, and not the Primal Mind. There are these two opposing feelings that arise. Once we have understood them, we will understand all Dhamma easily.
Right now, you who are sitting here listening are empty, you are not confecting the feeling “I” and “mine”. You are listening, and you have truth-discerning awareness; the feeling “I” and “mine” cannot enter. But if on another occasion something impinges and gives rise to the feeling of “I” and “mine”, the emptiness or truth-discerning awareness you feel here will disappear.
If we are empty of egoism, there is no consciousness of “I” and “mine”. We have truth-discerning awareness that can extinguish Dukkha and is the cure for the spiritual disease. At that moment the disease cannot be born, and the disease that has already arisen will disappear as if picked up and thrown away. At that moment, the mind will be completely filled with Dhamma. This accords with the remark that emptiness is the Buddha, because in that moment of being empty of “I” and “mine”, there will be present every desirable virtue of the whole Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures)
To put it simply, there will be perfect satisampajanna (mindfulness and self-awareness); perfect hiri (sense of shame); perfect ottappa (fear of evil); perfect khanti (patience and endurance); and perfect soracca (gentleness). There will be perfect katannukatavedi (gratitude) and perfect honesty right up to yathabhutananadassa (the knowledge and vision according to reality) that is the cause for the attainment of Nibbana.
I’ve come down to the basics, saying that there must be satisampajanna, hiri, ottappa, khanti, soracca, and katannukata vedi, because these things are also Dhamma, they too can be a refuge for the world. Even hiri and otappa alone, the aversion and shame towards doing evil and the fear of doing evil, with just these the world would be tranquil with lasting peace.
Every one of the many methods for wiping out the disease of “I” and “mine” works. It depends on how you wish to practice. One of the many ways is to constantly contemplate “I” and “mine” as maya, an illusion or hallucination. This will enable you to see the feeling of self, a seemingly solid entity that we are familiar with as “I” and “mine”, is in fact a mere illusion. This is achieved by contemplating self in terms of Paticcasamuppada (the process of dependent origination).
To explain the Paticcasamuppada theoretically or technically takes a long time. It could take one or two months for just this single matter, because in the field of theory it’s been expounded more and more as a subject of psychology and philosophy until it has reached a state of excessive complexity. But in the field of practice, the Paticcasamuppada is, as the Buddha said, just a handful. When there is contact with forms, sounds, odors, flavors, or whatever at one of the sense doors, that contact is called, in Pali, phassa. This phassa develops into vedana (feeling). Vedana develops into tanha (craving). Tanha develops into upadana (clinging). Upadana develops into bhava (becoming). Bhava develops into jati, which is “birth”, and following on from birth there is the suffering of old age, sickness and death, which are Dukkha.
Please see that as soon as there is contact with a sense object there is phassa, and that the subsequent development of phassa into vedana, tanha and so on is called Paticcasamuppada i.e. the process by which various things, existing in dependence on one thing, condition the arising of another thing, which in turn conditions the development of a further thing, and so on. This process or state is called Paticcasamuppada. It is dependent arising with no self or “me” found, merely dependence followed by arising.
[Phassa, contact, sense experience: the meeting and working together of inner sense media + outer sense media + sense-consciousness, e.g. eye + form + eye consciousness. There are six kinds of phassa corresponding to the six senses.]
[Vedana, feeling, sensation: the mental reaction to or coloring of sense experiences (phassa). There are three kinds of vedana: pleasant, nice, agreeable feeling; unpleasant, disagreeable, painful feeling; and neither painful or pleasant, indeterminate feeling. Vedana is not ’emotion” If vedana arises through ignorance or lack of truth-discerning awareness in the moment, it will condition craving as it then next arises.]
The way of making use of it is not to allow dependent arising to take place; cutting it off right at the moment of sense-contact, not allowing the development of vedana, not allowing feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction to arise. When there is no production of vedana, then there is no birth of the craving and clinging that is the “I” and “mine”. The “I” and “mine” lie right there at the birth of the craving and clinging; illusion lies right there. If at the moment of sense-contact, when there is nothing but phassa, it is stopped just there, there is no way for “I” and “mine” to arise in truth-discerning awareness.
Another method: For the average person, it is extremely difficult to prevent phassa from developing into vedana. As soon as there is sense-contact, the feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction always follow immediately. It doesn’t stop at phassa because there has never been any training in Dhamma. But, when vedana has already developed, when there are already feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, stop it right there. Let feeling remain as merely feeling and let it pass away. Don’t allow the reaction to go on and become tanha, wanting this and that in response to the satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Because, if there is satisfaction, then there will be desire, craving, indulgence, possessiveness, envy etc. in consequence. Once there is dissatisfaction, then there is the desire to beat to death, to devastate, and kill. If there are these sorts of desires on the mind, it means that vedana has already developed into tanha. If so, then you must suffer the spiritual disease of Dukkha and nobody can help. All the gods together cannot help. The Buddha said that even he could not help. He has no power over the laws of nature, he is merely one who reveals them so that others can practice in accordance with them. If one practices wrongly one must have Dukkha. If one practices correctly, one has no Dukkha. Thus it is said that if vedana has developed into tanha then nobody can help. As soon as any form of craving has arisen then nobody can help and there will inevitably be Dukkha.
In that turbulent wanting that arises in the mind, see how to distinguish the feeling of the desirer “I”, of the self that wants this or wants that, wants to do it like this or like that, or who has acted in this way or that way, or has received the results of those actions. That one who desires is “I”; wanting things, it grasps them as “mine” in one way or another — as “my” status, “my” property, “my” victory, “my” ideas and opinions — and in all of those feelings the “I” is present.
The feeling of “I” and “mine” is called upadana, and arises from tanha. tanha develops into upadana. If the Paticcasamuppada has progressed as far as tanha and upadana, the germ that enters through the ear, eye, nose, tongue or body has matured to the extent that it can express itself as the symptoms of the disease, because upadana is followed by bhava. Bhava means “having and being”. The having and being of what? The having and being of “I” and “mine”. Kammabhava is the action that conditions the arising of “I” and “mine”. If it is simply “bhava”, it means the condition of “I” and “mine” full-blown, the disease full-blown.
In our practice we must stop it right at the point of preventing phassa from developing into vedana, or if we fail there, by preventing vedana from developing into tanha. After that, it’s hopeless. We try to have Dhamma right there at the meeting of eye and forms, ear and sounds, of tongue and flavors, etc. by continually training in the point that nothing whatsoever should be clung to. With ordinary people, once phassa takes place, then vedana arises followed by tanha, upadana, bhava and jati. This is a path that is so well worn that it is extremely easy to follow. But we don’t take that path. As soon as there is sense-contact, we turn around and take the form of truth-discerning awareness. We don’t take the path of “I” and “mine” or, even if we do follow it as far as vedana, we will turn back there to the path of truth-discerning awareness. We don’t just float along with the stream of “I” and “mine”. In this way, there is never any dukkha. If we can do it well, and follow the correct method perfectly, we can realize Arahantship.
If we wish to go by the Buddha’s words, there is an easy principle that the Buddha taught to a disciple called Bahiya.
“O Bahiya, whenever you see a form, let there be just the seeing; whenever you hear a sound, let there be just the hearing; when you smell an odor, let there be just the smelling, when you taste a flavor, let there be just the tasting; when you experience a physical sensation, let it merely be sensation; and when a thought arises, let it be just a natural phenomenon (feeling) arising in the mind. When it’s like this there will be no self, no “I”. When there is no self, there will be no moving about here and there, and no stopping anywhere. And that is the end of Dukkha. That is Nibbana.” Whenever it’s like that, then it is Nibbana. If it is lasting, then it is lasting Nibbana; if it is temporary, then it’s temporary Nibbana. In other words, it is just one principle.
With deep gratitude to the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa
From: “Heart—Wood From The Bo Tree”, Suan Mok, Thailand, 1984