Timeless Truth of the Buddha
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
The Lion’s Roar 1
What is Buddhism? 2
Impact of Buddhism on Civilization 3
Buddhist Contribution to Humanity 4
The Ultimate Truth 5
Two Main Schools of Buddhism 6
After hearing the Buddha, many decided to give up the wrong views they previously held regarding their religious way of life.

BUDDHISM is a beautiful gem of many facets, attracting people of diverse personalities. Every facet in this gem has time tested methods and approaches that can benefit the Truth seekers with their various levels of understanding and spiritual maturity.

The Buddha Dharma is the fruit resulting from a most intensive search conducted over a long period of time by a compassionate noble man whose mission was to help suffering humanity. Despite being surrounded by all the wealth and luxuries normally showered on a crown prince, He renounced His luxurious life and voluntarily embarked on a tough journey to seek the Truth and to find a panacea to cure the sickness of the worldly life with its attendant suffering and unsatisfactoriness. He was bent on finding a solution to alleviate all suffering. In His long search, the prince did not rely on or resort to divine guidance or traditional beliefs as was fashionable in the past. He did an intensive search with a free and open mind, guided solely by His sincerity of purpose, noble resolution, inexhaustible patience, and a truly compassionate heart with the ardent wish to relieve suffering. After six long years of intensive experiment, of trial and error, the noble prince achieved His aim—He gained Enlightenment and gave the world His pristine teachings known as Dharma or Buddhism.

The Buddha once said, ‘Monks, the lion, king of beasts, at eventide comes forth from his lair. He stretches himself. Having done so, he surveys the four quarters in all directions. Having done that, he utters thrice his lion's roar. Having thrice uttered his lion's roar, he sallies forth in search of prey.'

‘Now, monks, whatever animals hear the sound of the roaring of the lion, king of beasts, for the most part, they are afraid; they fall to quaking and trembling. Those that dwell in holes seek them; water-dwellers make for the water; forest-dwellers enter the forest; birds mount into the air.'

‘Then whatsoever ruler's elephants in village, town or palace are tethered with stout leather bonds, they burst out and rend those bonds asunder and in panic run to and fro. Thus potent is the lion, king of beasts, over animals. Of such mighty power and majesty is he.'

‘Just so, monks, is it when a Buddha arises in the world, an Arahant, a Perfectly Enlightened One, perfect in wisdom and in conduct, wayfarer, Knower of the worlds, the unsurpassed trainer of those who can be trained, teacher of gods and men, a Buddha, an Exalted One. He teaches the Dharma: “Such is the nature of concept of Self; this is the way leading to the ending of such a Self.”'

‘Whatsoever gods there be, they too, on hearing the Dharma of the Tathagata, for the most part are afraid: they fall to quaking and trembling, saying: ‘We who thought ourselves permanent are after all impermanent: that we who thought ourselves stable are after all unstable: not to last, though lasting we thought ourselves. So it seems that we are impermanent, unstable, not to last, compassed about with a Self.' Thus potent is a Tathagata over the world of gods and men.'

All the other religions claim to have originated in heaven and descended to earth. Buddhism originated from an Enlightened mind on this earth and transcended the heavens.

WHAT is Buddhism? This question has puzzled many people who often enquire if Buddhism is a philosophy, a religion, or a way of life. The simple answer is that Buddhism is too vast and too profound to be neatly placed in any single mundane category. Of course, Buddhism includes philosophy and religion and a way of life. But Buddhism goes beyond these categories.

The categories or labels given to Buddhism are like signboards that indicate the contents of what is available. If we compare Buddhism to a medicine shop, it will be clear that the signboard on the medicine shop does not cure a person of sickness. You take the medicine to heal yourself without being attached to the label for the medicine. Likewise, if the Teaching of the Buddha is effective, then use it and do not be attached to the label or signboard. Buddhism cannot be forced into any single category or limited under any signboard.

People living at different times and in different places have given various labels and interpretations to Buddhism. To some people, Buddhism might appear to be only a mass of superstitious practices. To another group of people, Buddhism might be a convenient label to be used for temporal gains. To another group, it is old fashioned.

To yet another group, Buddhism is a significant system of thought appealing to intellectuals only. To some others, it is a scientific discovery. To the pious and devout Buddhist, Buddhism encompasses his or her entire life, the fulfillment of all material and spiritual aspirations. In this sense we can say that Buddhism is a noble way of life.

Some intellectuals see Buddhism as a product of its Indian environment or as an outgrowth of another kind of Indian religious teaching. This assessment is not wholly accurate. Buddhism is nothing but the Absolute Noble Truth. It is an intellectual approach to reality. However, the Buddha's realisation of universal problems did not come through a purely intellectual or rational process but through mental development and purification. The intellectual stance reminiscent of the scientific attitude, surely makes the Buddha absolutely unique among religious teachers of all time. Of course, the high standard of intellectual inquiry and ethical endeavour prevailing at the time in India were prime conditions for the re-emergence of the light of the Dharma from the darkness of oblivion. Thousands of years of religious and philosophical develop­ment had left on the intellectual soil of India a rich and fertile deposit of ideas and ideals which formed the best possible environ­ment from which the seed of the Dharma could sprout and flourish. Greece , China , Egypt and Babylonia, for all their loftiness of thought, had not attained the same quality of vision as the forest and mountain-dwelling sages of India . The germ of Enlightenment which had been borne, like a winged seed from distant fields, from worlds in space and time infinitely remote from ours—this very germ of Enlightenment found growth and development in the north-eastern corner of India . This very germ of Enlightenment found its full expression in the experience of the man, Gautama Buddha. The fountainhead of all Buddhism is this experience which is called ‘Enlightenment'. With this experience of Enlightenment, the Buddha began His Teaching not with any dogmatic beliefs or mysteries, but with a valid, universal experience, which He gave to the world as universal truth. Therefore, the closest definition of Buddhism is NOBLE TRUTH. Remember that the Buddha did not teach from theories. He always taught from a practical standpoint based on His understanding, His Enlightenment, and His realisation of the Truth. He constantly urged His followers to see ‘things-as-they-really-are'.

Buddhism began with the right understanding embodied over 2500 years ago in the person of Siddharta Gautama. When the Buddha introduced His teachings, His intention was not to develop the concept of self in people's minds and create more craving for eternal life and sense pleasure. Rather, His intention was to point out the futility of the worldly life and to show the correct, practical Path to salvation that He discovered.

The original Teachings of the Buddha revealed with sharp accuracy the true nature of life and the world. However, a distinction must be made between the Buddha's original Teaching (often called the Dharma or the Buddha Word) and the religion that developed based on His Teachings, which is popularly called ‘Buddhism'.

The Teachings of the Buddha not only started a religion, but inspired the blossoming of a whole civilisation. These Teachings became a great civilizing force that moved through the history of many a culture and nation. Indeed, Buddhism inspired some of the greatest civilisations that the world has ever known. It has a wonderful history of achievement in the fields of literature, art, philosophy, psychology, ethics, architecture and culture. In the course of centuries, countless social educational institutions were established in the various nations that were dedicated to the Buddha's Teaching. The history of Buddhism was written in golden letters of brotherhood and goodwill. The Buddhist way of life and practices turned into a rational, scientific and practical religious way of life for spiritual development from the day the Buddha preached His Teaching and showed the real purpose and meaning of life and religion. All this is because people had the opportunity to open their minds freely.

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Today Buddhism remains as a great civilizing force in the modern world. As a civilizing force, Buddhism awakens the self-respect and feeling of self-responsibility of countless people and stirs up the energy of many a nation. It fosters spiritual progress by appealing to the thinking powers of human beings. It promotes in people the sense of tolerance by remaining free from religious and national narrowness and fanaticism. It tames the wild and refines the citizens to be clear and sober in mind. In short, Buddhism produces the feeling of self-reliance by teaching that the whole destiny of humanity lies in their own hands, and that they themselves possess the faculty of developing their own energy and insight in order to reach the highest goal.

For over two thousand years, Buddhism has satisfied the spiritual needs of nearly one-fifth of mankind. Today the appeal of Buddhism is as strong as ever. The Teachings of the Buddha remain among the richest spiritual resources of mankind because they lift the horizon of human effort to a higher level beyond a mere dedication to man's insatiable needs and appetites. Owing to its breadth of per­spective, the Buddha's vision of life has a tendency to attract intellectuals who have exhausted their individual quest for meaning. However, the fruit of the Buddha's vision is something more than intellectual gymnastics or solace for the intellectually effete. Buddhism does not encourage verbal speculation and argument for its own sake.

Buddhism is practical, rational and offers a realistic view of life and of the world. It does not entice people into living in a fool's paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize people with all kinds of imaginary fears and guilt-feelings. It does not create religious fanatics to disturb the followers of other religions. The Buddhist attitude to other religions is remarkable. Instead of converting the followers of other religions into Buddhism, Buddhists can encourage them to practise their own religions because Buddhists never think the followers of other religions are bad people. Buddhism tells us exactly and objectively what we are and what the world around us is, and shows us the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness.

If humanity today is to be saved from reacting against the moral standards taught by religions, Buddhism is a most effective vehicle. Buddhism is the religion of humanity, whose founder was a human being who sought no divine revelation or intervention in the formulation of His Teachings. In an age when human beings are overwhelmed by their success in the control of the material universe, they might like to look back and take stock of the achievements they have made in controlling the most difficult of all phenomena: their own selves. It is in this quest that the modern human beings will find in Buddhism an answer to their numerous problems and doubts.

Today, Buddhism appeals to the West because it has no dogmas, and it satisfies both the reason and the heart alike. It insists on self-reliance coupled with tolerance for others. It embraces modern scientific discoveries if they are for constructive purposes. Buddhism points to man alone as the creator of his present life and as the sole designer of his own destiny. Such is the nature of Buddhism. This is why many modern thinkers who are not themselves Buddhist have described Buddhism as a religion of freedom and reason.

The Buddha's message of peace and compassion radiated in all directions and the millions who came under its influence adopted it very readily as a new way of religious life.


Buddhism as a religion has served the hopes and aspirations of humanity well; it has fostered within the social organism a commendable way of life and a communal spirit marked by endeavours towards peace and contentment. It has been in the forefront of human welfare.

Even in politics it was acknowledged on many occasions as a significant break-through in fair treatment, democratic procedures and regard for basic, moral values. Buddhism has given a distinct flavour to the cultures of the Orient. Buddhism has supplied fine and ethical basic attitudes amongst the people who adopted it in one form or another.

Indeed, the immense potential of Buddhism has not been realised by many people who have adopted it only to a limited extent. The capacity of the Buddha's teaching to enhance an individual's personal and general potential has been overshadowed by the contributions of Buddhism to art and literature. But one aspect of Buddhism which has remained of paramount importance throughout its history is its clear Rationalism. Reason, though often overruled to everyone's regret, is something that belongs to humanity, to civilize them, no matter how obscured it may be by the other facets of human nature such as emotions. Buddhism will continue to exhort man to be a rational being, ruled by the head, but giving due consideration to the heart as well.

The Buddha's contribution to the social and spiritual progress of mankind was so remarkable that His message which spread all over the world won the love and affection of the people with a devotion that was unprecedented. It is well worth considering that Buddhism does not choose people by following them to convert them with promises of heaven. It is the people who choose Buddhism.

The unconventional Truth discovered by the Buddha is called the Ultimate Truth.

BUDDHISM recognises two kinds of Truth, the apparent conventional truth concerning mundane matters and the real or ultimate Truth concerning the supramundane. The ultimate Truth can be realized only by developing the mind through meditation, and not by theorising or speculation.

The Buddha's Teaching is about the Ultimate Truth regarding the world. Buddhism, however, is not a revealed or an organised religion. It is the first example of the purely scientific approach applied to questions concerning the ultimate nature of existence. This timeless Teaching was discovered by the Buddha Himself without the help of any divine agency. This same teaching is strong enough to face any challenge without changing the basic principles of the doctrine. Any religion that is forced to change or adjust its original Teachings to suit the modern world, is a religion that has no firm foundation and no ultimate truth in it. Buddhism can maintain the Truth of the original Teaching of the Master even under the difficult conditions prevailing in the modern world. It can face any challenge posed by the most rigorous method of scientific inquiry. The Buddha did not introduce certain personal or worldly practices which have no connection with morality or religious observances. To the Buddha, such practices have no religious value. We must make the distinction between what the Buddha taught and what people preach and practise in the name of Buddhism.

Every religion consists of not only the teachings of the founder of that religion but also the rites and ceremonies which have grown up around the basic core of the teachings. These rituals and ceremonies have their origins in the cultural practices of the people who accepted the religion. Usually the founders of the great religions do not lay down precise rules about the rituals to be observed. But religious leaders who come after them formalize the religion and set up exacting codes of behaviour which the followers are not allowed to deviate from. As we discussed earlier, this is one of the reasons why the Buddha did not appoint a successor.

Even the religion which we call ‘Buddhism' today is very different in its external practices from what the Buddha and His early followers carried out. Centuries of cultural and environmental influence have made the Myanmar , Thai, Chinese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Japanese and Korean Buddhist way of life different. But these practices are not in conflict, because the Buddha taught that while the Truth remains absolute, the physical manifestation of this truth can differ according to the way of life of those who profess it.

Thus the modern religion we see in many countries is the product of normal human beings living in a country and adjusting to various social and cultural environments. However, Buddhism as a religion did not begin as a super-worldly system that came down from heaven. Rather it was born and evolved through a long historical process. In its process of evolution, many people slowly moved away from the original Teachings of the founder and started different new schools or sects. All the other existing religions also face the same situation.

A few hundred years after His passing away, the disciples of the Buddha organized a religion around the Teachings of the Master. While organising the religion, they incorporated, among other concepts and beliefs, various types of miracles, mysticism, fortune-telling, charms, talismans, mantras, prayers and many rites and rituals that were not found in the original Teaching. When these extraneous religious beliefs and practices were introduced, many people neglected to develop the most important practices found in the original Teaching: self-discipline, self-restraint, cultivation of morality and spiritual development. Instead of practising the original Teaching, they gave more of their attention and effort to protection from evil spirits and became more interested in discovering ways and means of getting rid of the so-called misfortunes or bad influences of stars, black magic, and sickness. In this manner, through time the religious practices and beliefs degenerated, being confined to worldly pursuits. Even today, many people believe that they can get rid of their difficulties through the influence of external powers. People still cling to these beliefs. Hence they neglect to cultivate the strength of their will-power, intelligence, understanding and other related humane qualities. In other words, people started to abuse their human intelligence by following those beliefs and practices in the name of Buddhism. They also polluted the purity of the sublime teaching of the Buddha.

One should therefore not come to a hasty conclusion either to judge the validity of a religion or to condemn it simply by observing what people perform in the name of that religion. To understand and evaluate the real nature of a religion one must study and investigate the original Teachings of the founder of that religion.

In the face of the profusion of ideas and practices which were later developments, it is useful for us to return to the positive and timeless Dharma taught by the Buddha. Whatever people believe and practise in the name of Buddhism, the basic Teachings of the Buddha still exist in the original Buddhist texts.

The real followers of the Buddha can practise this religion without adhering to any school or sect.

A few hundred years after the Buddha's passing away, there arose eighteen different schools or sects all of which claimed to represent the original Teachings of the Buddha. The differences between these schools were basically due to various interpretations of the Teachings of the Buddha. Over a period of time, these schools gradually merged into two main schools: Theravada and Mahayana. Today, the majority of the followers of Buddhism are divided into these two schools.

Basically Mahayana Buddhism grew out of the Buddha's teaching that each individual carries within himself the potential for Buddhahood.* Theravadins say that this potential can be realised through individual effort. Mahayanists, on the other hand, believe that they can seek salvation through the intervention of other superior beings called Bodhisatvas. According to them, Bodhisatvas are future Buddhas who, out of compassion for their fellow human beings, have delayed their own attainment of Buddhahood until they have helped others towards liberation. In spite of this basic difference, however, it must be stressed that doctrinally there is absolutely no disagreement concerning the Dharma as contained in the sacred Tripitaka texts. Because Buddhists have been encouraged by the Master to carefully inquire after the truth, they have been free to interpret the scriptures according to their understanding. But above all, both Mahayana and Theravada are one in their acceptance of the Buddha and His teachings as the only method to attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

The areas of agreement between the two schools are as follows:

1. Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
2. The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
3. The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
4. The Pattica-Samuppada or teaching on Dependent Origination is the same in both schools.
5. Both reject the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.
6. Both accept karma as taught by the Buddha.
7. Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Pañña without any difference.
8. Both reject the belief in an eternal soul.
9. Both accept rebirth after death.
10. Both accept Devaloka and Brahmaloka.
11. Both accept Nirvana is the final goal or salvation.

Some people are of the view that Theravada is selfish because it teaches that people should seek their own salvation. But how can a selfish person gain Enlightenment? Both schools accept the three Yana or Bodhi and consider the Bodhisatva Ideal as the highest. The Mahayana has created many mystical Bodhisatvas, while the Theravada believes that a Bodhisatva is not a supernatural living being but a person amongst us who devotes his or her entire life for the attainment of perfection, and ultimately becomes a fully Enlightened Buddha for the well-being and happiness of the world.

The terms Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and Mahayana (Great Vehicle) are not known in the Theravada Pali literature. They are not found in the Pali Canon (Tripitaka) or in the Commentaries on the Tripitaka.

Theravada Buddhists generally follow orthodox religious traditions that prevailed in India two thousand five hundred years ago. They perform their religious services in the Pali language. They also expect to attain the final goal (Nirvana) by becoming a Supreme Enlightened Buddha, a Pacceka Buddha, or an Arahant. The majority of them prefer the Arahantahood. Buddhists in Sri Lanka , Myammar, and Thailand belong to this school. Their practices are in accordance with the customs and traditions of the countries where they live. Mahayanists perform their religious services in their mother tongue. They expect to attain the final goal (Nirvana) by becoming Buddhas. Hence, they honour both the Buddha and Bodhisatva (one who is destined to be a Buddha) with the same respect. Buddhists in China , Japan and Korea belong to this school.

Most of those in Tibet and Mongolia follow another school of Buddhism which is known as Vajrayana. According to Buddhist scholars this school inclines more towards the Mahayana sect.

It is universally accepted by scholars that the terms Hinayana and Mahayana are later innovations. Historically speaking, the Theravada already existed long before these terms came into being. That Theravada, considered to include the original teaching of the Buddha, was introduced to Sri Lanka and established there in the 3rd century B.C., during the time of Emperor Asoka of India . At that time there was nothing called Mahayana . Mahayana as such appeared much later, about the beginning of the Christian Era. Buddhism that was introduced to Sri Lanka, with its Tripitaka and Commentaries, in the 3rd Century B.C., remained there intact as Theravada, and did not become involved in the Hinayana Mahayana dispute that developed later in India. It seems therefore not legitimate to include Theravada in either of these two categories. However, after the inauguration of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950, well-informed people, both in the East and in the West, use the term Theravada, and not the term Hinayana, with reference to Buddhism prevalent in South-east Asian countries. There are still outmoded people who use the term Hinayana. In fact, the Samadhi Nirmorcana Sutra (a Mahayana Sutra) clearly says that it is Sravakayana Theravada and the Mahayana constitute one Yana ( ekayana ) and that they are not two different and distinct ‘vehicles'.

It must be emphasised here that although different schools of Buddhism held different opinions on the teaching of the Buddha, they never had any violence or bloodshed and have co-existed peacefully for more than two thousand years. Certainly neither party conducted a religious war or any other kind of aggression against the other throughout history. This is the uniqueness of Buddhist tolerance.

* For a short, excellent exposition on this topic, read Dr. W. Rahula, ‘ Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism' published by The Buddhist Missionary Society.

*Also refer to the sections entitled “Salvation through Arahantahood” and “Bodhisatva” in Chapter 1 of this book.

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