Basic Doctrines
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
Tri-Pitaka (or Tipitaka) 1
Sutra Pitaka 1.1
Abhidharma Pitaka 1.2
What is Abhidharma? 2
Mind and Matter (Nama-Rupa) 3
Four Noble Truths 4
The Danger of Selfish Desire 4.1
The Noble Eightfold Path — The Middle Way 5
Gradual Development 5.1
Righteous Life 5.2
Everything is Changeable 6
What is Karma? 7
Misconceptions Regarding Karma 7.1
Our Own Experience 7.2
Other Factors which Support Karma 7.3
Can Karma be Changed? 7.4
Impartial Energy 7.5
Classification of Karma 7.6
Is Everything Due to Karma? 7.7
Why Some Wicked People Enjoy While Some Good People Suffer 7.8
Rebirth 8
How Does Rebirth Take Place? 8.1
Is Rebirth Simultaneous? 8.2
Dying Moment 8.3
Nirvana 9
Nirvana and Samsara 9.1
Law of Dependent Origination 10
Eternalism and Nihilism 11
Can the First Cause be Known? 12
Is there an Eternal Soul? 13
Soul-Theories 13.1
Anatta: The Teaching of No-Soul 13.2
Tripitaka is the collection of the teachings of the Buddha taught
over 45 years and recorded in the Pali language.
It consists of Sutra—conventional teaching, Vinaya—disciplinary
code, and Abhidharma—moral psychology.

THE Tripitaka was compiled and arranged in its present form by those Arahants who had immediate contact with the Master Himself. The Buddha has passed away, but the sublime Dharma which He unreservedly bequeathed to humanity still exists in its pristine purity.

Although the Master left no written records of His Teachings, His distinguished disciples preserved them faithfully by committing to memory and transmitting them orally from generation to generation.

Immediately after the passing away of the Buddha, 500 distinguished Arahants held a convention known as the First Buddhist Council to rehearse the Doctrine taught by the Buddha. Venerable Ananda, the faithful attendant of the Buddha who had the special privilege of hearing all the discourses the Buddha uttered recited the Dharma, whilst the Venerable Upali recited the Vinaya, the rules of conduct for the Sangha.

One hundred years after the First Buddhist Council, during the time of King Kalasoka, some disciples saw the need to change certain minor rules. The orthodox monks said that nothing should be changed while the others insisted on modifying some disciplinary rules (Vinaya). Finally, the formation of different schools of Buddhism germinated after this council. And in the Second Council, only matters pertaining to the Vinaya were discussed and no controversy about the Dharma was reported.

In the 3rd Century B.C. during the time of Emperor Asoka, the Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion held by the Sangha community. At this Council the differences were not confined to the Vinaya but were also connected with the Dharma. At the end of this Council, the President of the Council, Ven. Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called K ATHAVATTHU refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some disciples. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as Theravada or ‘The Way of The Elders'. The A BHIDHARMA P ITAKA was discussed and included at this Council. The Fourth Council was held in Sri Lanka in 80 B.C. under the patronage of the pious King Vattagamini Abhaya. It was at this time in Sri Lanka that the Tripitaka was committed to writing for the first time in the world.

It must be emphasised that while the writings were continued, the basic tradition has always remained oral. Every aspect of the teaching was maintained and venerated in the memory rather than in the written record. That is why the disciples were known as Sravaka listeners. By reciting and listening they maintained the teaching in the oral tradition for over 2500 years.

The Tripitaka consists of three sections of the Buddha's Teachings. They are the Discipline (VINAYA PITAKA), the Discourse (SUTRA PITAKA), and Absolute Doctrine (ABHIDHARMA PITAKA ).

The Vinaya Pitaka mainly deals with the disciplinary code of the Order of monks (Bhikkhus) and nuns (Bhikkhunis). It describes in detail the gradual development of the Sasana (Dispensation). It also gives an account of the life and ministry of the Buddha. Indirectly it reveals some useful information about ancient history, Indian customs, arts, sciences, etc.

For nearly twenty-years since His Enlightenment, the Buddha did not lay down rules for the control of the Sangha. Later, as the occasion arose and the number of monks increased, the Buddha promulgated rules for the future discipline of the Sangha.

This Pitaka consists of the five following books:

1. PARAJIKA PALI (Major Offences)
2. PACITTIYA PALI (Minor Offences)
3. MAHAVAGGA PALI (Greater Section)
4. CULLAVAGGA PALI (Smaller Section)
5. PARIVARA PALI (Epitome of the Vinaya)

Sutra Pitaka

The SUTRA PITAKA consists chiefly of discourses delivered by the Buddha Himself on various occasions. There are also a few discourses delivered by some of His distinguished disciples, such as the Venerables Sariputta, Ananda, Moggallana, and famous female Venerables like Khema, Uttara, Visakha, etc., included in it. It is like a book of prescriptions, as the sermons embodied therein were expounded to suit the different occasions and the temperaments of various persons. There may be seemingly contradictory statements, but they should not be misconstrued as they were opportunely uttered by the Buddha to suit a particular purpose. Therefore morals, ethics, discipline, duties, responsibilities, obligations and humane qualities can be found in the sutra pitaka.

This Pitaka is divided into five Nikayas or collections, viz:

1. DIGHA NIKAYA (Collection of Long Discourses)
2. MAJJHIMA NIKAYA (Collection of Middle-length Discourses)
3. SAMYUTTA NIKAYA (Collection of Kindred Sayings)
4. ANGUTTARA NIKAYA (Collection of Discourses arranged in accordance with number)
5. KHUDDAKA NIKAYA (Smaller Collection)

The fifth is subdivided into fifteen books:

1. KHUDDAKA P ATHA (Shorter Texts)
2. DHAMMAPADA (The Way of Truth)
3. UDANA (Heartfelt sayings or Paeans of Joy)
4. ITI V UTTAKA (‘Thus said' Discourses)
5. SUTRA NIPATA (Collected Discourses)
6. VIMANA VATTHU (Stories of Celestial Mansions)
7. PETA VATTHU (Stories of Petas)
8. THERAGATHA (Psalms of the Brethren)
9. THERIGATHA (Psalms of the Sisters)
10. JATAKA (Birth Stories)
11. NIDDESA (Expositions)
12. PATISAMBHIDA (Analytical Knowledge)
13. APADANA (Lives of Saints)
14. BUDDHAVAMSA (The History of Buddha)
15. Cariya Pitaka (Modes of Conduct)

Abhidharma Pitaka

The Abhidharma is, to a deep thinker, the most important and interesting collection, as it contains the profound philosophy and psychology of the Buddha's teaching in contrast to the illuminating but conventional discourses in the SUTRA PITAKA .

In the SUTRA PITAKA one often finds references to individual, being, etc., but in the Abhidharma, instead of such conventional terms, we meet with ultimate terms, such as aggregates, mind, matter, etc.

In the Sutra is found the Vohara Desana (Conventional Teaching), whilst in the ABHIDHARMA is found the Paramattha Desana (Ultimate Doctrine). In the ABHIDHARMA everything is analysed and explained in detail, and as such it is called analytical doctrine (Vibhajja Vada).

Four ultimate, supramundane subjects (Paramattha) are enumerated in the ABHIDHARMA . They are Citta, (Consciousness), Cetasika (Mental concomitants), Rupa (Matter) and Nirvana.

The so-called being is microscopically analysed and its component parts are minutely described. Finally the ultimate goal and the method to achieve it is explained with all necessary details.

The ABHIDHARMA PITAKA is composed of the following works:

1. DHAMMA -SANGANI (Enumeration of Phenomena)
2. VIBHANGA (The Book of the Treatises)
3. KATHA VATTHU (Point of Controversy)
4. PUGGALA PANNATTI (Description of Individuals)
5. DHATU KATHA (Discussion with reference to Elements)
6. YAMAKA (The Book of Pairs)
7. PATTHANA (The Book of Relations)

According to another classification, mentioned by the Buddha Himself, the whole Teaching is ninefold, namely—1. Sutra, 2. Geyya, 3. Yeyyakarama, 4. Gatha, 5. Udana, 6. Itivuttaka, 7. Jataka, 8. Abbhutadhamma, 9. Vedalla.

1. Sutra — These are the short, medium, and long discourses expounded by the Buddha on various occasions, such as M ANGALA S UTRA (Discourse on Blessings), R ATANA SUTRA (The Jewel Discourse), M ETTA S UTRA (Discourse on Goodwill), etc. According to the Commentary the Vinaya is also included in this division.
2. Geyya — These are discourses mixed with Gathas or verses, such as the S AGATHAVAGGA of the S AMYUTTA N IKAYA .
3. VEYYAKARANA Lit. exposition. The whole ABHIDHARMA PITAKA , discourses without verses, and everything that is not included in the remaining eight divisions belong to this class.
4. GATHA These include verses found in the DHAMMAPADA (Way of Truth), THERAGATHA (Psalms of the Brethren), THERIGATHA (Psalms of the Sisters), and those isolated verses which are not classed amongst the Sutra.
5. UDANA These are the ‘Paeans of Joy' found in the UDANA , one of the divisions of the KHUDDAKA N IKAYA .
6. ITIVUTTAKA These are the 112 discourses which commence with the phrase ‘Thus the Blessed One has said'. ITIVUTTAKA is one of the fifteen books that comprise the KHUDDAKA N IKAYA .
7. JATAKA These are the 547 birth-stories related by the Buddha in connection with His previous births.
8. ABBHUTA DHAMMA These are the few discourses that deal with wonderful and marvellous things, as for example the ACCHARIYA -ABBHUTA DHAMMA SUTRA of the MAJJHIMA NIKAYA (No. 123)
9. VEDALLA These are the pleasurable discourses, such as CHULLA VEDALLA , MAHA VEDALLA (M.N. Nos 43, 44), SAMMA DITTHI SUTRA (M.N. No. 9), etc. In some of these discourses, the answers given to certain questions were put with a feeling of joy.
Abhidharma is the analytical doctrine of mental faculties and elements.

THE ABHIDHARMA PITAKA contains the profound moral psychology and philosophy of the Buddha's teaching in contrast to the moral discourses in the SUTRA PITAKA . The knowledge gained from the Sutra can certainly help us in overcoming our difficulties, as well as in developing our moral conduct and training the mind. Having such knowledge will enable one to lead a life which is peaceful, respectable, harmless and noble. By listening to the discourses, we develop understanding of the Dharma and can mould our daily lives accordingly. The concepts behind certain words and terms used in the SUTRA PITAKA are, however, subject to changes and should be interpreted within the context of the social environment prevailing at the Buddha's time. The concepts used in the Sutra are like the conventional words and terms lay people use to express scientific subjects. While concepts in the Sutra are to be understood in the conventional sense, those used in the Abhidharma must be understood in the ultimate sense. The concepts expressed in the Abhidharma are like the precise scientific or technical words and terms used by scientists to prevent misinterpretations.

It is only in the Abhidharma that explanations are given on how and at which mental beats a person can create good and bad karmic thoughts, according to his or her desires and other mental states. Clear explanations of the nature of the different mental faculties and precise analytical interpretations of the elements can be found in this important collection of discourses.

Understanding the Dharma through the knowledge gained from the Sutra is like the knowledge acquired from studying the prescriptions for different types of sicknesses. Such knowledge when applied can certainly help to cure certain types of sicknesses. On the other hand, a qualified physician, with precise knowledge, can diagnose a wider range of sicknesses and discover their causes. This specialized knowledge provides a better position to prescribe more effective remedies. Similarly, a person who has studied the Abhidharma can better understand the nature of the mind and analyse the mental attitudes which cause a human being to commit mistakes and develop the will to avoid evil.

The Abhidharma teaches that the egoistic beliefs and other concepts such as ‘I', ‘you', ‘person' and ‘the world' , which we use in daily conversation, do not adequately describe the real nature of existence. The conventional concepts do not reflect the fleeting nature of pleasures, uncertainties, impermanence of every component thing, and the conflict among the elements and energies intrinsic in all animate or inanimate things. The Abhidharma doctrine gives a clear exposition of the ultimate nature of human beings and brings the analysis of the human condition further than other studies known to them.

The Abhidharma deals with realities existing in the ultimate sense, or paramattha dhamma in Pali. There are four such realities:

1. Citta, mind or consciousness, defined as ‘that which knows or experiences' an object. Citta occurs as distinct momentary states of consciousness.
2. Cetasika, the mental factors that arise and occur along with the citta.
3. Rupa, physical phenomenon or material form.
4. Nirvana, the unconditioned state of bliss which is the final goal.

Citta, the cetasika, and rupa are conditioned realities. They arise because of conditions, and will disappear when the conditions sustaining them cease to continue to do so. They are impermanent states. Nirvana, on the other hand, is an unconditioned reality. It does not arise and, therefore, does not fall away. These four realities can be experienced regardless of the names we may choose to give them. Other than these realities, everything—be they within ourselves or without, whether in the past, present or future, whether coarse or subtle, low or lofty, far or near—is a concept and not the ultimate reality.

Citta, cetasika, and Nirvana are also called nama. Nirvana is an unconditioned nama. The two conditioned nama, that is, citta and cetasika, together with rupa (form), make up psychophysical organisms, including human beings. Both mind and matter, or nama-rupa, are analysed in Abhidharma as though under a microscope. Events connected with the process of birth and death are explained in detail. The Abhidharma clarifies intricate points of the Dharma and enables the arising of an understanding of reality, thereby setting forth in clear terms the Path of Emancipation. The realization we gain from the Abhidharma with regard to our lives and the world is not to be understood in a conventional sense, but is an absolute reality.

The clear exposition of thought processes found in the Abhidharma cannot be found in any other psychological treatise either in the east or west. Consciousness is defined, while thoughts are analysed and classified mainly from an ethical standpoint. The composition of each type of consciousness is set forth in detail. The fact that consciousness flows like a stream, a view propounded by psychologists like William James, becomes extremely clear to one who understands the Abhidharma. In addition, a student of Abhidharma can fully comprehend the Anatta (No-soul) doctrine, which is important both from a philosophical as well as ethical standpoint.

The Abhidharma explains the process of rebirth in various planes after the occurrence of death without anything to pass from one life to another. This explanation provides support to the doctrine of Karma and Rebirth. It also gives a wealth of details about the mind, as well as the units of mental and material forces, properties of matter, sources of matter, relationship of mind and matter.

In the ABHIDHAMMATTHA SANGAHA , a manual of Abhidharma, there is a brief exposition of the ‘Law of Dependent Origination', followed by a descriptive account of the Causal Relations which finds no parallel in any other study of the human condition anywhere else in the world. Because of its analytics and profound expositions, the Abhidharma is not a subject of fleeting interest designed for the superficial reader.

To what extent can we compare modern psychology with the analysis provided in the Abhidharma? Modern psychology, limited as it is, comes within the scope of Abhidharma in so far as it deals with the mind—with thoughts, thought processes, and mental states. The difference lies in the fact that Abhidharma does not accept the concept of a psyche or a soul.

The analysis of the nature of the mind given in the Abhidharma is not available through any other source. Even modern psychologists are very much in the dark with regards to subjects like mental impulses or mental beats (Javana Citta) as discussed in the Abhidharma. Dr. Graham Howe, an eminent Harley Street psychologist, wrote in his book, THE INVISIBLE ANATOMY :

In the course of their work many psychologists have found, as the pioneer work of C.G. Jung has shown, that ‘we are near to [the] Buddha. To read a little Buddhism is to realise that the Buddhists knew two thousand five hundred years ago far more about our modern problems of psychology than they have yet been given credit for. They studied these problems long ago, and found the answers too. We are now rediscovering the Ancient Wisdom of the East.'

Some scholars assert that the Abhidharma is not the teaching of the Buddha, but it grew out of the commentaries on the basic teachings of the Buddha. These commentaries are said to be the work of great scholar monks. Tradition, however, attributes the nucleus of the Abhidharma to the Buddha Himself.

Commentators state that the Buddha, as a mark of gratitude to His mother who was born as a deva in a celestial plane, preached the Abhidharma to her together with other devas continuously for three months. The principal topics (matika) of the advanced teaching, such as moral states (kusala dharma) and immoral states (akusala dharma), were then repeated by the Buddha to Venerable Sariputta Thera, who subsequently elaborated them and later compiled them into six books.

From ancient times there were controversies as to whether the Abhidharma was really taught by the Buddha. While this discussion may be interesting for academic purposes, what is important is for us to experience and understand the realities described in the Abhidharma. One will realize for oneself that such profound and consistently verifiable truths can only emanate from a supremely enlightened source—from a Buddha. Much of what is contained in the Abhidharma is also found in the SUTRA PITAKA , and such sermons had never been heard until they were first uttered by the Buddha. Therefore, those who claim that the Buddha was not the source of the Abhidharma would have to say the same thing about the Sutra. Such a statement, of course, cannot be supported by evidence.

According to the Theravada tradition, the essence, fundamentals and framework of the Abhidharma are ascribed to the Buddha although the tabulations and classifications may have been the work of later disciples. What is important is the essence. It is this that we would try to experience for ourselves. The Buddha Himself clearly took this stand of using the knowledge of the Abhidharma to clarify many existing psychological, metaphysical and philosophical problems. Mere intellectual quibbling about whether the Buddha taught the Abhidharma or not will not help us to understand reality.

The question is also raised whether the Abhidharma is essential for Dharma practice. The answer to this will depend on the individual who undertakes the practice. People vary in their levels of under­standing, their temperaments and spiritual development. Ideally, all the different spiritual faculties should be harmonized, but some people are quite contented with devotional practices based on faith, while others are keen on developing penetrative insight. The Abhidharma is most useful to those who want to understand the Dharma in greater depth and detail. It aids the development of insight into the three characteristics of existence—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. It is useful not only for the periods devoted to formal meditation, but also during the rest of the day when we are engaged in various mundane chores. We derive great benefit from the study of the Abhidharma when we experience absolute reality. In addition, a comprehensive knowledge of the Abhidharma is useful for those engaged in teaching and explaining the Dharma. In fact the real meaning of the most important Buddhist terminologies such as Dharma, Karma, Samsara, Sankhara, Paticca Samuppada and Nirvana cannot be understood without a knowledge of Abhidharma.

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‘What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.'

ACCORDING to Buddhism, life is a combination of mind (nama) and matter (rupa). Mind consists of the combination of sensations, perceptions, volitional activities and consciousness. Matter consists of the combination of the four elements of solidity, fluidity, motion and heat.

Life is the co-existence of mind and matter. Decay is the lack of co-ordination of mind and matter. Death is the separation of mind and matter. Rebirth is the recombination of mind and matter. After the passing away of the physical body (matter), the mental forces (mind) recombine and assume a new combination in a different material form and condition another existence.

The relation of mind to matter is like the relation of a battery to an engine of a motor car. The battery helps to start the engine. The engine helps to charge the battery. The combination helps to run the motor car. In the same manner, matter helps the mind to function and the mind helps to set matter in motion.

Buddhism teaches that life is not the property of matter alone, and that the life-process continues or flows as a result of cause and effect. The mental and material elements that compose sentient beings from amoeba to elephant and also to man, existed previously in other forms.

Although some people hold the view that life originates in matter alone, the greatest scientists have accepted that mind precedes matter in order for life to originate. In Buddhism, this concept is called ‘relinking consciousness'.

Each of us, in the ultimate sense, is mind and matter, a compound of mental and material phenomena, and nothing more. Apart from these realities that go to form the nama-rupa compound, there is no self, or soul. The mind part of the compound is what experiences an object. The matter part does not experience anything. When the body is injured, it is not the body that feels the pain, but the mental side. When we are hungry it is not the stomach that feels the hunger but the mind. However, mind cannot eat the food to ease the hunger. The mind and its factors, make the body digest the food. Thus neither the nama nor the rupa has any efficient power of its own. One is dependent on the other; one supports the other. Both mind and matter arise because of conditions and perish immediately, and this is happening every moment of our lives. By studying and experiencing these realities we will get insight into: (1) what we truly are; (2) what we find around us; (3) how and why we react to what is within and around us; and (4) what we should aspire to reach as a spiritual goal.

To gain insight into the nature of the psycho-physical life is to realise that life is an illusion, a mirage or a bubble, a mere process of becoming and dissolving, or arising and passing away. Whatever exists, arises from causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions cease to be, the thing will cease to exist.

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Why are we here? Why are we not happy with our lives?
What is the cause of our unsatisfactoriness?
How can we see the end of unsatisfactoriness and
experience eternal peace?

THE Buddha's Teaching is based on the Four Noble Truths. To realise these Truths is to realise and penetrate into the true nature of existence, including the full knowledge of oneself. When we recognise that all phenomenal things are transitory, are subject to suffering and are void of any essential reality, we will be convinced that true and enduring happiness cannot be found in material possessions and worldly achievement, that true happiness

must be sought only through mental purity and the cultivation of wisdom.

The Four Noble Truths are a very important aspect of the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha has said that it is because we fail to understand the Four Noble Truths that we continue to go round in the cycle of birth and death. The very first sermon of the Buddha, the D HARMACHAKRA S UTRA , which He gave to the five monks at the Deer Park in Sarnath was on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are:

  The Noble Truth of Dukkha
  The Noble Truth of the Cause of Dukkha
  The Noble Truth of the End of Dukkha
  The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the End of Dukkha

There are many ways of understanding the Pali word ‘ Dukkha'. It has generally been translated as ‘suffering' or ‘unsatisfactoriness', but this term as used in the Four Noble Truths has a deeper and wider meaning. Dukkha contains not only the ordinary meaning of suffering, but also includes deeper ideas such as imperfection, pain, impermanence, disharmony, discomfort, irritation, or awareness of incompleteness and insufficiency. By all means, Dukkha includes physical and mental suffering: birth, decay, disease, death, to be united with the unpleasant, to be separated from the pleasant, not to get what one desires. However, many people do not realise that even during the moments of joy and happiness, there is Dukkha because these moments are all impermanent states and will pass away when conditions change. Therefore, the truth of Dukkha encompasses the whole of existence, in our happiness and sorrow, in every aspect of our lives. As long as we live, we are very profoundly subjected to this truth.

Some people may have the impression that viewing life in terms of Dukkha is a rather pessimistic or negative way of looking at life. This is not a pessimistic but a realistic way. If one is suffering from a disease and refuses to recognise the fact that one is ill, and as a result, refuses to seek treatment, we will not consider such a mental attitude as being optimistic, but merely as being foolish. Therefore, by being either optimistic or pessimistic, one does not really understand the nature of life, and is therefore unable to tackle life's problems in the right perspective. The Four Noble Truths begin with the recognition of the prevalence of Dukkha and then proceed to analyse its cause and find its cure. Had the Buddha stopped at the Truth of Dukkha, then one may say Buddhism has identified the problem but has not given the cure; if such is the case, then the human situation is hopeless. However, not only is the Truth of Dukkha recognised, the Buddha proceeded to analyse its cause and the way to cure it. How can Buddhism be considered to be pessimistic if the cure to the problem is known? In fact, it is a teaching which is filled with hope.

In addition, even though Dukkha is a noble truth, it does not mean that there is no happiness, enjoyment and pleasure in life. There is, and the Buddha has taught various methods with which we can gain more happiness in our daily life. However, in the final analysis, the fact remains that the pleasure or happiness that we experience in life is impermanent. We may enjoy a happy situation, or the good company of someone we love, or we enjoy youth and health. Sooner or later, when these states change we experience suffering. Therefore, while there is every reason to feel glad when one experiences happiness, one should not cling to these happy states or be side-tracked and forget about working one's way to complete Liberation.

If we wish to cure ourselves of suffering, we must first identify its cause. According to the Buddha, craving or desire (tanha or raga) is the cause of suffering. This is the Second Noble Truth. People crave for pleasant experiences, crave for material things, crave for eternal life, and when disappointed, crave for eternal death. They are not only attached to sensual pleasures, wealth and power, but also to ideas, views, opinions, concepts, beliefs. And craving is linked to ignorance, that is, not seeing things as they really are, or failing to understand the reality of experience and life. Under the delusion of Self and not realising that personality is Anatta (non-Self), a person clings to things which are impermanent, changeable, perishable. The failure to satisfy one's desires through these things causes disappointments and suffering.

The Danger of Selfish Desire

Craving is a fire which burns in all beings: every activity is motivated by desire. They range from the simple physical desire of animals to the complex and often artificially stimulated desires of civilised people. To satisfy desire, animals prey upon one another, and human beings fight, kill, cheat, lie and perform various forms of unwholesome deeds. Craving is a powerful mental force present in all forms of life, and is the chief cause of the ills in life. It is this craving that leads to repeated births in the cycle of existence.

Once we have realised the cause of suffering, we are in a position to put an end to suffering. So, how do we put an end to suffering? Eliminate it at its root by the removal of craving in the mind. This is the Third Noble Truth. The state where craving ceases is known as Nirvana. The word Nirvana is composed of ‘ ni' and ‘vana ', meaning the departure from or end of craving. This is a state which is free from suffering and rounds of rebirth. This is a state which is not subjected to the laws of birth, decay and death. This state is so sublime that no human language can express it. Nirvana is Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If there were not this Unborn, this Unoriginated, this Uncreated, this Unformed, then escape from the conditioned world is not possible.

Nirvana is beyond logic and reasoning. We may engage in highly speculative discussions regarding Nirvana or ultimate reality, but this is not the way to really understand it. To understand and realise the truth of Nirvana, it is necessary for us to walk the Eightfold Path, and to train and purify ourselves with diligence and patience. Through spiritual development and maturity, we will be able to realise the Third Noble Truth. But first we must begin with sraddha , the confidence or faith that the Buddha is truly competent to lead the way.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the Fourth Noble Truth which leads to Nirvana. It is a way of life consisting of eight factors. By walking on this Path, it will be possible for us to see an end to suffering. Because Buddhism is a logical and consistent teaching embracing every aspect of life, this noble Path also serves as the finest possible code for leading a happy life. Its practice brings benefits to oneself and others, and it is not a Path to be practised by those who call themselves Buddhists alone, but by each and every understanding person, irrespective of his or her religious beliefs.

This is the Path for leading a pure religious life without going to extremes

AN outstanding aspect of the Buddha's Teaching is the Eightfold Path, which is to be adopted as a noble way of life. Another name for the Eightfold Path is the Middle Path. The Buddha advised His followers to follow this Path so as to avoid the extremes of sensual pleasures and self-mortification. The Middle Path is a right­eous way of life that does not advocate the acceptance of decrees given by someone outside oneself. A person practises the Middle Path, the guide for moral conduct, not out of fear of any supernatural agency, but out of recognising the intrinsic value in following such an action. He or she chooses this self-imposed discipline with a definite end in view: self-purification.

The Middle Path is a planned course of inward culture and progress. A person can make real progress in righteousness and insight by following this Path even without engaging in external worship and prayers. According to the Buddha, anyone who lives in accordance with the Dharma will be guided and protected by that very universal Law. When a person lives according to Dharma, he or she will also be living in harmony with the universal law.

Every Buddhist is encouraged to mould his or her life according to the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha. One who adjusts one's life according to this noble way of living will be free from miseries and calamities both in this life-time and hereafter. One will also be able to develop the mind by restraining from evil and observing morality.

The Eightfold Path can be compared to a road map. Just as a traveller will need a map to reach a destination, we all need the Eightfold Path which shows us how to attain Nirvana, the final goal of human life. To attain the final goal, there are three aspects of the Eightfold Path to be developed by the devotee. One has to develop Sila (Morality), Samadhi (Mental Culture) and Pañña (Wisdom). While the three must be developed simultaneously, the intensity with which any one area is to be practised varies according to a person's own spiritual development. A devotee must first develop morality, that is, his or her actions should bring good to other living beings. One does this by faithfully adhering to the precepts of abstaining from killing, slandering, stealing, becoming intoxicated or being lustful. As one develops one's morality, the mind will become more easily controlled, enabling one to develop one's powers of concentration. Finally, with the development of concentration, wisdom will arise.

Gradual Development

With His infinite wisdom, the Buddha knew that not all humans have the same ability to reach spiritual maturity at once. So He expounded the Noble Eightfold Path for the gradual development of the spiritual way of life in a practical way. He knew that not all people can become perfect in one lifetime. He said that Sila, Samadhi, and Pañña, must and can be developed over many lifetimes with diligent effort. This Path finally leads to the attainment of ultimate peace where there is no more unsatisfactoriness.

Righteous Life

The Eightfold Path consists of the following eight factors:

----------Sila -------Right Speech ----------Morality
-------Right Action
-------Right Livelihood
----------Samadhi -------Right Effort ----------Mental culture
-------Right Mindfulness
-------Right Concentration
----------Pañña -------Right Understanding ----------Wisdom
-------Right Thoughts

What is Right Understanding? It is explained as having the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. In other words, it is the understanding of things as they really are. Right Understanding also means that one understands the nature of what are wholesome karma (merits) and unwholesome karma (demerits)* , and how they may be performed with the body, speech and mind. By understanding karma, a person will learn to avoid evil and do good, thereby creating favourable outcomes in life. When a person has Right Understanding, he or she also understands the Three Characteristics of Life (that all compounded things are transient, subject to suffering, and without a Self) and understands the Law of Dependent Origination. A person with complete Right Understanding is one who is free from ignorance, and by the nature of that enlightenment removes the roots of evil from the mind and becomes liberated. The lofty aim of a practising Buddhist is to develop the mind to gain Right Understanding about the self, life and all phenomena.

When a person has Right Understanding, he or she develops Right Thought as well. This factor is sometimes known as ‘Right Resolution', ‘Right Aspirations' and ‘Right Ideas'. It refers to the mental state which eliminates wrong ideas or notions and promotes the other moral factors to be directed to Nirvana. This factor serves a double purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts. Right Thought is important because it is one's thoughts which either purify or defile the mind.

There are three aspects to Right Thought. First, a person should maintain an attitude of detachment from worldly pleasures rather than being selfishly attached to them. One should be selfless and think of the welfare of others. Second, the person should maintain loving-kindness, goodwill and benevolence in the mind, which is opposed to hatred, ill-will or aversion. Third, one should act with thoughts of harmlessness or compassion to all beings, which is opposed to cruelty and lack of consideration for others. As a person progresses along the spiritual path, one's thoughts will become increasingly benevolent, harmless, selfless, and filled with love and compassion.

Right Understanding and Right Thought, which are Wisdom factors, will lead to good, moral conduct. There are three factors under moral conduct: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Right Speech involves respect for truth and respect for the welfare for others. It means to avoid lying, to avoid back biting or slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk. We have often underestimated the power of speech and tend to use little control over our speech faculty. But we have all been hurt by someone's words at some time of our lives, and similarly we have been encouraged by the words of another. It is said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than weapons, whereas a gentle word can change the heart and mind of the most hardened criminal. So to develop a harmonious society, we should control, cultivate and use our speech positively. We speak words which are truthful, bring harmony, and are kind and meaningful. The Buddha once said ‘pleasant speech is sweet as honey, truthful speech is beautiful like a flower, and wrong speech is unwholesome like filth'.

The next factor under good, moral conduct is Right Action. Right Action entails respect for life, respect for property, and respect for personal relationships. It corresponds to the first three of the Five Precepts to be practised by every Buddhist, that is, abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Life is dear to all, and all tremble at punishment, all fear death and value life. Hence, we should abstain from taking a life which we ourselves cannot give and we should not harm other sentient beings. Respect for property means that we should not take what is not given, by stealing, cheating, or force. Respect for personal relationships means that we should not commit adultery and should avoid sexual misconduct, which is important for maintaining self respect and the trust of those we love as well as making our society a better place to live in.

Right Livelihood is a factor under moral conduct which refers to how we earn our living in society. It is an extension of the two other factors of Right Speech and Right Action. Right Livelihood means that we should earn a living without violating these principles of moral conduct. Buddhists are discouraged from being engaged in the following five kinds of livelihood: trading in other living beings for slaughtering, trading in weapons, trading in flesh by causing the slaughter of animals, trading in intoxicating drinks and drugs, and trading in poison. Some people may say that they have to follow such an occupation for their living and, therefore, it is not wrong for them to do so. But this argument is entirely baseless. If it were valid, then thieves, murderers, gangsters, thugs, smugglers and swindlers can also just as easily say that they are also doing such unrighteous acts only for their living and, therefore, there is nothing wrong with their way of life.

Some people believe that fishing and hunting animals for pleasure and slaughtering animals for food are not against the Buddhist precepts. This is another misconception that arises owing to a lack of knowledge in Dharma. All these are not decent actions and bring suffering to other beings. But in all these actions, the one who is harmed most of all is the one who commits these unwholesome actions. Maintaining a life through wrong means is not in accordance with the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha once said, ‘Though one should live a hundred years immorally and unrestrained, yet it would indeed be better to live one day virtuously and meditatively' (DHAMMAPADA 103). It is better to die as a cultured and respected person than to live as a wicked person.

The remaining three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are factors for the development of wisdom through the purification of the mind. They are Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These factors, when practised, enable a person to strengthen and gain control over the mind, thereby ensuring that his or her actions will continue to be good and that the mind is being prepared to realise the Truth, which will open the door to Freedom, to Enlightenment.

Right Effort means that we cultivate a positive attitude and have enthusiasm in the things we do, whether in our career, in our study, or in our practice of the Dharma. With such a sustained enthusiasm and cheerful determination, we can succeed in the things we do. There are four aspects of Right Effort, two of which refer to evil and the other two to good. First, is the effort to reject evil that has already arisen; and second, the effort to prevent the arising of evil. Third, is the effort to develop good which has not arisen, and fourth, the effort to maintain the good which has arisen. By applying Right Effort in our lives, we can reduce and eventually eliminate the number of unwholesome mental states and increase and firmly establish wholesome thoughts as a natural part of our mind.

Right Effort is closely associated with Right Mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is important in Buddhism. The Buddha said that mindfulness is the one way to achieve the end of suffering. Mindfulness can be developed by being constantly aware of four particular aspects. These are the application of mindfulness with regard to the body (body postures, breathing and so forth), feelings (whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral); mind (whether the mind is greedy or not, angry, dispersed or deluded or not); and mind objects (whether there are mental hindrances to concentration, the Four Noble Truths, and so on). Mindfulness is essential even in our daily life during which we act in full awareness of our actions, feelings and thoughts, as well as of our environment. The mind should always be clear and attentive rather than distracted and clouded.

Whereas Right Mindfulness is directing our attention to our body, feelings, mind, or mental object or being sensitive to others, in other words, putting our attention to where we choose Right Concentration is the sustained application of that attention on the object without being distracted. Concentration is the practice of developing one-pointedness of the mind on one single object, either physical or mental. The mind is totally absorbed in the object without distractions, wavering, anxiety or drowsiness. Through practice under an experienced teacher, Right Concentration brings two benefits. Firstly, it leads to mental and physical well-being, comfort, joy, calm, tranquility. Secondly, it turns the mind into an instrument capable of seeing things as they truly are, and prepares the mind to attain wisdom.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the most important truth taught by the Buddha. As a competent spiritual physician, the Buddha has identified the disease that afflicts all forms of life, and this is Dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. He then diagnosed the cause of the unsatis­factoriness which is selfish greed and craving. He discovered that there is a cure for the disease, Nirvana, the state where all unsatisfactoriness ceases. And the prescription is the Noble Eightfold Path. When a competent doctor treats a patient for a serious illness, the prescription is not only for physical treatment, but it is also psychological. The Noble Eightfold Path, the path leading to the end of suffering, is an integrated therapy designed to cure the disease of Samsara through the cultivation of moral speech and action, the development of the mind, and the complete transformation of one's level of understanding and quality of thought. It shows the way to gain spiritual maturity and be released completely from suffering.

  ‘For the good to do what is good is easy,  
  For the bad to do what is bad is easy,  
  For the bad to do what is good is difficult,  
  For the Noble to do what is bad is difficult.'  
*Merits and demerits are elaborated upon in Chapter 8.
What exists is changeable and what is not changeable does not exist.

WE notice how life changes and how it continually moves between extremes and contrasts. We notice rise and fall, success and failure, loss and gain; we experience honour and contempt, praise and blame; and we feel how our hearts respond to happiness and sorrow, delight and despair, disappointment and satisfaction, fear and hope. These mighty waves of emotion carry us up, fling us down, and no sooner do we find some rest, than we are carried by the power of a new wave again. How can we expect a footing on the crest of the waves? Where shall we erect the building of our life in the midst of this ever-restless ocean of existence?

This is a world where any little joy that is allotted to beings is secured only after many disappointments, failures and defeats. This is a world where scanty joy grows amidst sickness, desperation and death. This is a world where beings who a short while ago were connected with us by sympathetic joy are at the next moment in want of our compassion. Such a world as this needs equanimity. It is the nature of the world that we live with our intimate friends who the next day can become our enemies to harm us.

The Buddha described the world as an unending flux of becoming. All is changeable, continuous transformation, ceaseless mutation, and a moving stream. Everything exists from moment to moment. Everything is a recurring rotation of coming into being and then passing out of existence. Everything is moving from birth to death. Life is a continuous movement of change towards death. The matter or material forms in which life does or does not express itself, are also a continuous movement or change towards decay. This teaching of the impermanent nature of everything is one of the main pivots of Buddhism. Nothing on earth partakes of the character of absolute reality. That there will be no death of what is born is impossible. Whatever is subject to origination is subject also to destruction. Change is the very constituent of reality.

The Buddha reminded us that all existing component things are impermanent. With birth, there is death; with arising, there is dissolving; with coming together, there is separation. How can there be birth without death? How can there be arising without dissolving? How can there be coming together without separation?

In declaring the Law of Impermanence or change, the Buddha denies the existence of eternal substances. Matter and spirit are false abstractions that, in reality, are only changing factors (Dharma) which are connected and which arise in functional dependence on each other.

Today, scientists have accepted the law of change that was discovered by the Buddha. Scientists postulate that there is nothing substantial, solid and tangible in the world. Everything is a vortex of energy, never remaining the same for two consecutive moments. The whole wide world is caught up in this whirl and vortex of change. One of the theories postulated by scientists is the prospect of the ultimate coldness following upon the death or destruction of the sun. Buddhists are not dismayed by this prospect. The Buddha taught that universes or world cycles arise and pass away in endless succession, just as the lives of individuals do. Our world will most certainly come to an end before other worlds come into existence. It has happened before with previous worlds and it will happen again. It is simply a matter of time.

‘The world is a passing phenomenon. We all belong to the world of time. Every written word, every carved stone, every painted picture, the structure of civilisation, every generation of human beings, will vanish away like the leaves and flowers of forgotten summers. What exists is changeable and what is not changeable does not exist.'

Thus all gods and human beings and animals and material forms— everything in this universe—is subject to the law of impermanency. Buddhism teaches us that the mind seeks a permanent existence but life creates an impermanent physical body. We take this as life, and then unsatisfactoriness disturbs the mind. This is the source of suffering.

  ‘The body like a lump of foam:
The feelings like a water bubble;
Perception like a mirage;
Volitional activities like a banana tree;
And Consciousness like jaggery* .'
Karma is an impersonal, natural law that operates in accordance with our actions. It is a law in itself and does not have any law-giver. Karma operates in its own field without the intervention of an external, independent, ruling agent.

KARMA can be put in the simple language of the child: do good and good will come to you, now, and hereafter. Do bad and bad will come to you, now, or hereafter. In the language of the harvest, karma can be explained in this way: if you sow good seeds, you will reap a good harvest. If you sow bad seeds, you will reap a bad harvest.

In the language of science, karma is called the law of cause and effect: every cause has an effect. Another name for this is the law of moral causation. Moral causation works in the moral realm just as the physical law of action and reaction works in the physical realm.

In the DHAMMAPADA , karma is explained in this manner: the mind is the chief (forerunner) of all good and bad states. If you speak or act with a bad mind, then unhappiness follows you just as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox. If you speak or act with a good mind, then happiness follows you like the shadow that never leaves you.

Karma is simply action. Within animate organisms there is a power or force which is given different names such as instinctive tendencies, consciousness, etc. This innate propensity forces every conscious being to move. A person moves mentally or physically. His motion is action. The repetition of actions is habit and habit becomes one's character. In Buddhism, this process is called karma.

In its ultimate sense, karma means both good and bad, mental action or volition. ‘ Karma is volition,' says the Buddha. Thus karma is not an entity but a process, action, energy and force. Some interpret this force as ‘action-influence'. It is our own doings reacting on ourselves. The pain and happiness a person experiences are the results of his or her own deeds, words and thoughts reacting on themselves. Our deeds, words and thoughts produce our prosperity and failure, our happiness and misery.

Karma is an impersonal, natural law that operates strictly in accordance with our actions. It is a law in itself and does not have any lawgiver. Karma operates in its own field without the intervention of an external, independent ruling agency. Since there is no hidden agent directing or administering rewards and punishments, Buddhists do not rely on prayer to some supernatural forces to influence karmic results. According to the Buddha, karma is neither predestination nor determinism imposed on us by some mysterious, unknown powers or forces to which we must helplessly submit ourselves.

Buddhists believe that one will reap what one has sown; we are the result of what we were, and we will be the result of what we are. In other words, we are not absolutely what we were, and we will not continue to remain as what we are. This simply means that karma is not complete determinism. The Buddha pointed out that if everything is fixed and determined, then there would be no free will and no moral or spiritual life. We would merely be the slaves of our past. On the other hand, if everything is undetermined, then there can be no cultivation of moral and spiritual growth. The Buddha again declared the truth of the Middle Path: that karma is to be understood as neither strict determinism nor absolute indeterminism but as an interaction of both.

Misconceptions Regarding Karma

The misinterpretations or irrational views on karma are stated in the ANGUTTARA NIKAYA which suggests that the wise will investigate and abandon the following views:

1. the belief that everything is a result of acts in previous lives;
2. the belief that everything is the result of what is willed by a Supreme Creator; and
3. the belief that everything arises without reason or cause.

If a person becomes a murderer, a thief, or an adulterer, and, if his or her actions are due to past actions, or are caused by the whim of a Supreme Being, or if it happened by mere chance, then this person could not be held responsible for his or her evil action as everything was predetermined.

Yet another misconception about karma is that it operates only for certain people according to their faiths. But the destiny of a person in the next life does not in the least depend on what particular religion he or she chooses. Whatever one's religion may be, one's fate depends entirely on deeds committed by body, speech and thought. It does not matter what religious label one holds, one is bound to be in a happy world in the next life so long as one does good deeds and leads an unblemished life. One is bound to be born to lead a wretched life if one commits evil and harbours wicked thoughts in the mind. Therefore, Buddhists do not proclaim that they are the only blessed people who can go to heaven after their death. Whatever religion is professed or without any religious label, karmic thoughts alone determine a person's destiny both in this life and in the next. The teaching of karma does not indicate a post-mortem justice. The Buddha did not teach this law of karma to protect the rich and to comfort the poor by promising illusory happiness in an after life.

According to Buddhism karma explains the inequalities that exist among mankind. These inequalities are due not only to heredity, environment and nature but also to karma or the results of our own actions. Indeed karma is one of the factors which are responsible for the success and the failure of our lives.

Since karma is an invisible force, we cannot see it working with our physical eyes. To understand how karma works, we can compare it to seeds: the results of karma are stored in the subconscious mind in the same way as the leaves, flowers, fruits and trunk of a tree are stored in its seed. Under favourable conditions, the fruits of karma will be produced just as with moisture and light, the leaves and trunk of a tree will sprout from its tiny seed. The taste of the fruits also carry forward just like karmic energy creates the effect.

The working of karma can also be compared to a bank account: a person who is virtuous, charitable and benevolent in this present life is like a person who is adding to his or her “good karma” account . This accumulated good karma can be used to ensure a trouble free life. But the person must replace what is taken or else one day, the account will be depleted and that person will be bankrupt. Then who can be blamed for one's miserable state? One can blame neither others nor fate. One alone is responsible. Thus a good Buddhist cannot be an escapist but must confront life as it is and not run away from it. The karmic force cannot be controlled by inactivity. Vigorous activity for good is indispensable for one's own happiness. Escapism is the resort of the weak, and an escapist cannot run away from the effects of karmic law.

The Buddha says, ‘There is no place to hide in order to escape from karmic results' (DHAMMAPADA 127).

Our own Experience

To understand the law of karma is to realise that we ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and our own misery. We are the architects of our karma. Buddhism explains that we have every opportunity to mould our own karma and thereby influence the direction of our lives. On the other hand, we are not complete prisoners of our own actions; we are not slaves to our karma. Nor are we mere machines that automatically release instinctive forces that enslave us. Nor are we mere products of nature. We have within ourselves the strength and the ability to change our karma . Our minds are mightier than our karma and so the law of karma can be made to serve us. We do not have to give up our hope and effort in order to surrender ourselves to our own karmic force. To off-set the reaction of our bad karma that we have accumulated previously, we have to do more meritorious deeds; and purify our minds rather than simply rely on worshipping, performing rites or torturing our physical bodies in order to overcome our karmic effects. Therefore, a person can overcome the effect of his or her evil deeds if he or she acts wisely by leading a noble life.

We must use the qualities with which we are endowed to promote our ideal. The cards in the game of life are within us. We do not select them. They are traced to our past karma; but we can call as we please, do what suits us and as we play, we either gain or lose, depending on our skill or lack of it.

Karma is equated to the action of a person. This action also creates some karmic results. But each and every action carried out without any purposeful intention, cannot become a kusala-karma (skilful action) or akusala-karma (unskilful action). That is why the Buddha describes karma as volitional activities. That means, whatever good and bad deeds we commit without any purposeful intention, are not strong enough to be carried forward to our next life. However, ignorance of the nature of the good and bad effect of the karma is not an excuse to justify or avoid the karmic results if they were committed intentionally. A small child or an ignorant man may commit many evil deeds. Since they commit such deeds with intention to harm or injure, it is difficult to say that they are free from the karmic results. If that child touches a burning iron-rod, the heat element does not spare the child of pain. The karmic energy also works exactly in the same manner. Karmic energy is unbiased; like gravity it is impartial.

The radical transformations in the characters of Angulimala and Asoka illustrate human beings' potential to gain control over karmic forces.

Angulimala was a highway robber who murdered more than a thousand of his fellow men. Can we judge him by his external actions? For within his lifetime through sheer self -effort, he became an Arahanta and thus redeemed his past misdeeds.

Asoka, the Emperor of India, killed thousands and thousands to fight his wars and to expand his empire. Yet after winning the battle, he completely reformed himself and changed his career to such an extent that today, ‘Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines and shines almost alone, as a star,' says the historian, H.G. Wells.

Other Factors which Support Karma

Although Buddhism says that a person can eventually control his or her karmic force, it does not state that everything is due to karma. Buddhism does not ignore the role played by other forces of nature. According to Buddhism there are five orders or processes of natural laws (niyama) which operate in the physical and mental worlds:

  utu niyama (seasonal laws) relating to the physical inorganic order e.g., seasonal phenomena of winds and rains, etc.,
  bija niyama (biological laws) relating to the order of germs and seeds,
  karma niyama (karmic law) relating to moral causation or the order of act and result,
  dharma niyama (natural phenomena) relating to electrical forces, movement of tides etc., and
  citta niyama (psychological laws) which govern the processes of consciousness.

Thus karma is considered only as one of the five natural laws that account for the diversity in this world.

Can Karma be Changed?

Karma is often influenced by circumstances: beneficent and malevolent forces act to counter and to support this self-operating law. The other forces that either aid or hinder this karma are birth, time or conditions, appearances, and effort.

A favourable birth (gati sampatti) or an unfavourable birth (vipatti) can develop or hinder the fruition of karma. For instance, if a person is born to a noble family or in a state of happiness, his fortunate birth will provide an easy opportunity for his good karma to operate. An unintelligent person who, by some good karma, is born in a royal family, will, on account of his noble parentage be honoured by the people. If the same person were to have a less fortunate birth, he would not be similarly treated.

Good appearance (upadhi sampatti) and poor appearance (upadhi vipatti) are two other factors that hinder or favour the working of karma. If by some good karma, a person obtains a good birth, but is born deformed by some bad karma, then he or she will not be able to fully enjoy the beneficial results of good karma. Even a legitimate heir to a throne may not perhaps be raised to that high position if he happens to be physically or mentally deformed. Beauty, on the other hand, will be an asset to the possessor. A good-looking son of poor parents may attract the attention of others and may be able to distinguish himself through their influence. Also, we can find cases of people from poor, obscure family backgrounds who rise to fame and popularity as film actors or actresses or beauty queens.

Time and occasion are other factors that influence the working of karma. In the time of famine or during the time of war, all people without exception are forced to suffer the same fate. Here the unfavourable conditions open up possibilities for evil karma to operate. The favourable conditions, on the other hand, will prevent the operation of bad karma.

Effort or intelligence is perhaps the most important of all the factors that affect the working of karma. Without effort, both worldly and spiritual progress is impossible. If we do not make the effort to cure our disease, or to save ourselves from difficulties, or to strive with diligence for progress, then evil karma will find a suitable opportunity to manifest its due effects. However, if we endeavour to surmount difficulties and problems, our good karma will come to help. When shipwrecked in a deep sea, the Bodhisatva during one of his previous births, made an effort to save himself and his old mother, while the others prayed to the gods and left their fate in the hands of these gods. The result was that the Bodhisatva escaped while the others were drowned.

Thus the working of karma is aided or obstructed by birth, beauty and ugliness, time and personal effort or intelligence. However, people can overcome immediate karmic effects by adopting certain methods. Yet, they are not completely free from such karmic effects if they remain within this Samsara- cycle of birth and death. Whenever opportunities arise, the same karmic effects that were suppressed, can affect them again. This is the uncertainty of worldly life. Even the Buddha and Arahantas were affected by certain karmas, although they were in their final life.

The time factor is another important aspect of the karmic energy for people to experience the good and bad effects of previous actions. People experience certain karmic effects only within this lifetime while certain karmic effects become effective immediately hereafter in the next birth. And certain other karmic effects follow the doers as long as they remain in this wheel of existence until they stop their rebirth after attaining Nirvana. The main reason for this difference is owing to mental impulsion (Javana Citta) at the time when a thought arises in the mind to do good or bad.

Impartial Energy

Those who do not believe that there is an energy known as karma should understand that this karmic energy is not a byproduct of any particular religion although Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism recognize and explain the nature of this energy. This is an existing universal law which has no religious label. All those who violate this law, have to face the consequences irrespective of their religious beliefs, and those who live in accordance with this law experience peace and happiness in their life. Therefore, this karmic law is unbiased towards each and every person, whether they believe it or not; whether they have a religion or not. It is like any other existing universal law. Karma is not the exclusive property of Buddhism.

If we understand karma as a force or a form of energy, then we can discern no beginning. To ask where is the beginning of karma is like asking where is the beginning of electricity. Karma like electricity does not begin. It comes into being under certain conditions. Conventionally we say that the origin of karma is volition but this is as much conventional as saying that the origin of a river is a mountain top.

Like the waves of the ocean that flow into one another, one unit of consciousness flows into another and this merging of one thought consciousness into another is called the working of karma. In short, every living being, according to Buddhism, is an electric current of life that operates on the automatic switch of karma.

Karma being a form of energy is not found anywhere in this fleeting consciousness or body. Just as mangoes are not stored anywhere in the mango tree but, dependent on certain conditions, they spring into being, so does karma. Karma is like wind or fire. It is not stored up anywhere in the Universe but comes into being under certain conditions.

Classification of Karma

Karma is classified in four ways according to:

1. the time in which effects are worked out;
2. function— Kicca ;
3. the priority of effect; and
4. the place in which the karmic effects transpire.

There are moral and immoral actions which may produce their due effects in this very life. They are called “Immediately Effective— Dittha Dharma Vediniya Karma ”. If they do not operate in this life, they become “ineffective— Ahosi” .

There are some actions which may produce their effects in a subsequent life. They are termed “Subsequently Effective— Upapajja Vedaniya Karma ”. They too become ineffective if they do not operate in the second birth.

Those actions which may produce their effects in any life in the course of one's wondering in Samsara, are known as “Indefinitely Effective— Aparapariya Vedaniya Karma .”

This classification of karma is with reference to the time in which effects are worked out.

There are four classes of karma according to Function— Kicca.

Every birth is conditioned by past good and bad karma that predominates at the moment of death. The karma that conditions the future birth is called “Reproductive— Janaka Karma ”.

Now another karma may step forward to assist or maintain the action of this Reproductive Karma. Just as this karma has the tendency to strengthen the Reproductive Karma, some other action which tends to weaken, interrupt, the fruition of the Reproductive Karma may step in. Such actions are respectively termed “Supportive- Upattham­bhaka Karma ” and “Counteractive- Upapidaka Karma ”.

According to the law of karma, the potential energy of the Reproductive Karma could be nullified by a more powerful opposing karma of the past, which, seeking an opportunity, may quite unexpectedly operate, just as a powerful opposing force can check the path of the flying arrow and bring it down to the ground. Such an action is called “Destructive— Upaghataka Karma ” which is more effective than Supportive and Counteractive Karma in that it not only obstructs but also destroys the whole force.

There are four classes of karma according to the priority of effect.

The first is Garuka , which means weighty or serious. This karma, which is either good or bad, produces results in this life, or in the next for certain. If good, it is purely mental as in the case of Jhanas – Ecstacies . Otherwise it is verbal or bodily.

The five kinds of Weighty Karma are:

1. matricide;
2. patricide;
3. the Murder of an Arahant;
4. the Wounding of a Buddha; and
5. the Creation of a Schism in the Sangha.

Permanent Scepticism— Niyata Micchaditthi is also termed one of the Weighty Karmas.

In the absence of a Weighty Karma to condition the next birth, a death-proximate karma—Asanna might operate. This is the karma one does immediately before the dying moment.

Habitual— Acinna Karma is the next in priority of effect. It is the Karma that one habitually performs and recollects and for which one has a great liking.

The fourth is the “Cumulative— Katatta Karma ” which embraces all that cannot be included in the above three. This is as it were the reserve fund of a particular being.

The last classification is according to the place in which the karma effects transpire, namely:

  Evil Karma— Akusala , which may ripen in the Sentient Plane— Kamaloka.
  Good Karma— Kusala , which may ripen in the Sentient Plane.
  Good Karma, which may ripen in the realm of Form— Rupaloka.
  Good Karma, which may ripen in the formless realms— Arupaloka.

Is Everything Due to Karma?

Although Buddhism attributes the inequality of mankind as one of the chief effects amongst many, yet it does not assert that everything is due to karma .

If everything is due to karma, a person would always be bad if it was his or her karma to be bad. One would not need to consult a physician to be cured of a disease; for if one's karma were such, one would be cured.

Why Some Wicked People Enjoy While Some Good People Suffer

Some people ask, ‘If good begets good and bad begets bad why should many good people suffer and some wicked people prosper in this world?' The answer to this question, according to the Buddhist point of view, is that although some are good by nature, they have not accumulated enough good merits in their previous birth to compensate for the bad effects of unwholesome karma in this present life; somewhere in their past there must have been some defect. On the other hand, some are wicked by nature and yet are able to enjoy this life for a short period due to some strong good karma that they accumulated in their previous birth.

For example, there are certain people who by nature have inherited a strong constitution and as a result enjoy perfect health. Their physical power of resistance is strong and hence they are not prone to illnesses. Although they do not take special precautions to lead a hygienic life, they are able to remain strong and healthy. On the other hand, there are others who take various tonics and vitamins—enriched foods to fortify themselves, but in spite of their efforts to become strong and healthy, their health does not show any improvement.

Generally speaking, whatever good and bad deeds people commit within this life-time, they will definitely experience the reaction within this life or hereafter. It is impossible to escape from their results simply by praying, but only by cultivating the mind and leading a noble life.

This is not to say that everything that we suffer or enjoy today is completely controlled by our past actions, which we call Karma . The Buddha says that if this was so, then there would be no purpose in living a moral life, as we would then be simply victims of the past. Buddhists assert that while our lives were conditioned in the past, it is entirely within ourselves to change that condition and to create our future and present well being. Buddhists do not subscribe to predestination or fatalism as the only possible explanations for the human condition.

Buddhists are encouraged to do good deeds not for the sake of gaining a place in heaven. They are expected to do good in order to eradicate their selfishness and to experience peace and happiness at each present moment. When each present moment is carefully controlled the future well being is assured.

  ‘He for whom there is neither this shore nor the other shore, nor yet  
  both, He who is free of cares and is unfettered. Him do I call a holyman'.  
Unsatisfied desire for existence and sensual pleasures is the cause of rebirth.

BUDDHISTS regard the doctrine of rebirth not as a mere theory but as a verifiable fact. The acceptance of the truth about rebirth forms a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. However, the belief in rebirth is not confined to Buddhists; it is also found in other countries, in other religions, and even among free thinkers. Pythagoras could remember his previous birth. Plato could remember a number of his previous lives. According to Plato, human beings can be reborn only up to ten times. Plato also believed in the possibility of rebirth in the animal kingdom. Among the ancient people in Egypt and China , a common belief was that only well-known personalities like emperors and kings have rebirths. A Christian authority named Origen, who lived in 185-254 C.E., believed in rebirth. According to him, there is no eternal suffering in hell. Gorana Bruno, who lived in the sixteenth century, believed that the soul of every man and animal transmigrates from one being to another. In 1788, the philosopher Kant criticized the teaching on eternal punishment. Kant also believed in the possibility of rebirth in other celestial bodies. Schopenhauer (1788-1860), another great philosopher, said that where the will to live existed there must be continuity of life. The will to live manifests itself successively in ever new forms. The Buddha explained this ‘will to exist' as the craving for existence. And of course the ancient sages of India taught about the transmigration of a soul from the earliest times.

It is possible but not very easy for us to actually verify our past lives. The nature of mind is such that it does not allow most people the recollection of their previous lives. Our minds are overpowered by the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill-will, sloth, restlessness and doubt. Because of these hindrances, our vision is earth-bound and hence we cannot visualise rebirths. Just as a mirror does not reflect an image when it is covered with dirt, so the mind does not allow most people the recollection of previous lives. We cannot see the stars during daytime, not because they are not there in the sky, but because they are outshone by the sunlight. Similarly, we cannot remember our past lives because our mind at present is always over­burdened with many thoughts in the present day-to-day events and mundane circumstances.

A consideration of the shortness of our life span on earth will help us to reflect on rebirth. If we consider life and its ultimate meaning and goal, and all the varied experience possible for a human being, we must conclude that in a single life there is not enough time for a person to carry out all that he or she can do or desires to do. The scale of experience and desire is infinite. There is a vast range of powers latent in human beings which we see and can even develop if the opportunity is presented to us. This is especially true today if special investigation is made. We find ourselves with high aspirations but with no time to attain them. Meanwhile, the great troop of passions and desires, selfish motives and ambitions, make war within us and with others. These forces pursue each other to the time of our death. All these forces must be tried, conquered, subdued and used. One life is just not enough for all this. To say that we must have but one life here with such possibilities put before us and impossible to develop is to make the universe and life a huge and cruel joke.

The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth should be differentiated from the teachings of transmigration and reincarnation of other religions. Buddhism unlike Hinduism does not subscribe to the existence of a permanent, god-created soul or an unchanging entity that transmigrates from one life to another.

Just as relative identity is made possible by causal continuity without a Self or Soul, so death can issue in rebirth without a transmigrating Soul. In a single life, each thought-moment flashes in and out of being, giving rise to its successor with its perishing. Strictly speaking, this momentary rise and fall of every thought is a birth and a death. Thus even in a single life we undergo countless births and deaths every second. But because the mental process continues with the support of a single physical body, we regard the mind-body continuum as constituting a single life.

What we ordinarily mean by death is the cessation of the body's vital functions. When the physical body loses its vitality it can no longer support the current of consciousness, the mental side of the process. But as long as there is a clinging to life, a desire to go on existing, the current of consciousness does not come to a stop with the body's loss of life. Rather, when death takes place, when the body dies away, the mental current, driven by the thirst for more existence, will spring up again with the support of a new physical body, one which comes into being through the meeting of sperm and egg. Thus, conception takes place immediately after death without a break. The stream of memory may be interrupted and the sense of identity transferred to the new situation, but the entire accumulation of experience and disposition has been transmitted to the new being, and the cycle of becoming begins to revolve for still another term.

For Buddhism, therefore, death does not spell either the entrance to eternal life or complete annihilation. It is, rather, the portal to a new rebirth which will be followed by more growth, decay, and then another death.

While there is a mental continuum, however, at the last moment, no renewed physical functioning occurs in a dying person's mind. This is just like a motorist releasing the accelerator before stopping, so that no more pulling power is given to the engine. Similarly, no more material qualities of Karma arise.

Buddhists do not maintain that the present life is the only life between two eternities of misery and happiness; nor do they believe angels will carry them to heaven and leave them there for all eternity. They believe that this present life is only one of the indefinite numbers of states of being and that this earthly life is but one episode among many others. They believe that all beings will be reborn somewhere in some form for a limited period of time as long as their good and bad Karma remains in the subconscious mind as mental energy. Although many eminent psychologists, like Carl Jung for example, have recognised the Buddha's teaching on the subject, the interpretation of the subconscious mind in the Buddhist context should not be confused with that given by modern psychologists, since the concepts are not exactly synonymous.

What is the cause of rebirth? The Buddha taught that ignorance of the real nature of existence produces desires. Unsatisfied desire is the cause of rebirth. When all unsatisfied desire is extinguished, then rebirth ceases. To stop rebirth is to extinguish all desires. To extinguish desire, it is necessary to destroy ignorance. When ignorance is destroyed, the worthlessness of every such rebirth is perceived, as well as the paramount need to adopt a course of life by which the desire for such repeated births can be abolished.

Ignorance also begets the illusory and illogical idea that there is only one existence for human beings, and the other illusion that this one life is followed by permanent states of eternal pleasure or torment.

The Buddha taught that ignorance can be dispelled and sorrow removed by realisation of the Four Noble Truths, and not through any other source. To eradicate all ignorance, one must persevere diligently in the practice of an all-embracing altruism in conduct, intelligence and wisdom. One must also destroy all desire for the lower, personal pleasures and selfish craving.

How Does Rebirth Take Place?

When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. The karmic force manifesting itself in the form of a human being can also manifest itself in the form of an animal. This can happen if a person has no chance to develop his or her positive karmic forces. This force, called craving, desire, volition, thirst to live, does not end with the non-functioning of the body but continues to manifest itself in another form, producing re-existence. This is called rebirth or re-becoming. Buddhists do not call it “reincarnation” because no permanent entity or soul moves from one life to the next.

Today, there are people in various countries who have spontaneously developed the memory of their past births. The experiences of these people have been well-documented in newspapers and periodicals. Some of these people never accepted that there was such a thing as rebirth until memory fragments of their previous lives came to them. Much of the information they revealed about their past lives has been investigated and found to be valid.

Through hypnotism, some people have managed to reveal information of previous lives. Certain hypnotic states that penetrate into the subconscious mind make the recalling of past lives possible.

Rebirth or becoming again and again is a natural occurrence not created by any particular religion or god. Belief in rebirth or disbelief does not make any difference to the process of rebirth or avoiding rebirth. Rebirth takes place as long as craving for existence and craving for sensual pleasures or attachment exist in the mind. Those strong mental forces prevail in each and every living being in this universe. Those who hope and pray that they be not born again must understand that their wishes will not materialise until they make earnest efforts to eradicate their craving and attachment from their minds. Having seen and experienced the uncertainty and unsatisfactoriness of life under worldly conditions, wise people try to rid themselves of these repeated births and deaths by following the correct path of mental purification. Those who cannot reduce their craving and attachment must be prepared to face all unsatisfactory and uncertain situations associated with rebirth and becoming again and again.

Is Rebirth Simultaneous?

Another difficult thing to understand about rebirth is whether rebirth occurs immediately upon the ending of the present life. This has been a controversial issue even amongst prominent Buddhist scholars. According to Abhidharma, rebirth (conception) takes place imme­diately after the death of a being without any intermediate state. At the same time, some others believe that a person, after death, would evolve into a spirit form for a certain number of days before rebirth takes place. Another interpretation regarding the same belief is that it is not the spirit, but the deceased person's consciousness or mental energy remaining in space, supported by its own mental energies of craving and attachment waiting until sooner or later rebirth takes place. The spirits ( petas ), who are beings born in spirit forms, are unfortunate living beings and their lives in the spirit form is not permanent. It is also a form of rebirth which is temporary.

Another concept which many people cannot understand is that in the process of rebirth a person can be reborn as an animal and an animal can be reborn as a human. The animal nature of a person's mind and the animal way of life adopted by him or her can condition that person to be born as an animal. The condition and behaviour of the mind is responsible for the next existence. On the other hand, a person who is born in animal form, owing to certain mental abuses during a previous birth, could be reborn as a human being, depending on the force of karma accumulated in a previous existence. It is a well-known fact that some animals are very intelligent and understanding, showing very human characteristics. A person who is born as an animal can again be born as a human being when the bad karma which conditioned his or her birth as an animal is expended and the dormant good karma which was stored in the consciousness has an opportunity to take effect.

Dying Moment

There are three types of consciousness (Viññana) functioning at the moment of death in a person: rebirth-linking consciousness (patisandhi­citta), the current of passive consciousness or the current of life-continuum (bhavanga) and consciousness disconnecting the present life (cuti-citta). At the last moment of a person's present life the patisandhi-citta or rebirth-linking consciousness arises, having the three signs as its objects. The patisandhi-citta remains in the course of cognition for five faint thought-moments or Javana and then sinks down into bhavanga. At the end of bhavanga the cuti-citta arises, disconnecting the present life and sinks down into bhavanga. At this very moment comes the end of the present life. At the end of that bhavanga another patisandhi-citta rises up in the next life and from this very moment the new life begins. This is the process of death and rebirth according to Buddhism, and only in Buddhism is the process of these natural phenomena found explained in minute and exact detail.

A Buddhist faces death not as a crisis in life but as a normal event, for he or she knows that whoever is born must suffer, ‘decay', and ultimately die. Or, as someone so aptly puts it, ‘Everyone is born with the certificate of death at birth.' If we could all look at death in such an intelligent and rational way, we would not cling to life so tenaciously.

After He was released from Samsara at the moment of Enligh­tenment, the Buddha declared:

  ‘Ayamantima jati natthidani punabbhavo'  
  This is my final birth and there is no more rebirth for me. (DHARMA CAKKA SUTTA)  
  * To get further information on this subject, read ‘Do You Believe In Rebirth?' by the same author and the book ‘31 Planes Of Existence' by Egerton Baptist.
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Nirvana is the highest bliss, a supra-mundane state of eternal happiness. The happiness of Nirvana cannot be experienced by indulging the senses but by calming them.

NIRVANA is the final goal of Buddhism. What is Nirvana then? It is not easy to know what Nirvana really is; it is easier to know what Nirvana is not. Nirvana is not nothingness or extinction. Would the Buddha have left His family and kingdom and preached for 45 years—all for nothingness?

Nirvana is not a paradise. Several centuries after the Buddha, some of the Buddhist sects began to describe Nirvana as a paradise. Their purpose of equating Nirvana with a heavenly world was to convince the ‘less-intellectually-gifted' and to attract them to the teachings of the sect. Striving for Nirvana came to mean looking for a nice place where everything is beautiful and where everyone is eternally happy. This might be a very comfortable folktale, but it is not the Nirvana that the Buddha experienced and described. During His time the Buddha did not deny the idea of paradise or heaven as it was presented in the early Indian religions. But the Buddha knew that this paradise was within Samsara and the final liberation was beyond it. The Buddha could see that the Path to Nirvana led beyond the heavens.

If Nirvana is not a place, where is Nirvana then? Strictly speaking we cannot ask where Nirvana is. Nirvana exists just as fire exists. There is no storage place for fire or for Nirvana . But when you rub pieces of wood together, then the friction and heat are the proper conditions for fire to arise. Likewise, when the nature of a person's mind is such that he or she is free from all defilements, then Nirvanic bliss will arise.

Anyone can experience Nirvana but until one experiences the supreme state of Nirvanic bliss, one can only speculate as to what it really is, although we can get glimpses of it in everyday life. For those who insist on the theory, the texts offer some help. The texts suggest that Nirvana is a supra-mundane state of unalloyed happiness.

By itself, Nirvana is quite unexplainable and quite undefinable. As darkness can be explained only by its opposite, light, and as calm can only be explained by its opposite, motion, so likewise Nirvana, as a state equated to the extinction of all suffering can be explained by its opposite—the suffering that is being endured in Samsara. As darkness prevails wherever there is no light, as calm prevails wherever there is no motion, so likewise Nirvana is everywhere where suffering and change and impurity do not prevail.

A sufferer who scratches his sores can experience a temporary relief. But this temporary relief will only aggravate the wounds and cause the disease to worsen. The joy of the final cure can hardly be compared to the fleeting relief obtained from the scratching. Likewise, satisfying the craving for sense-desires brings only temporary gratification or happiness which prolongs the journey in Samsara. The cure for the samsaric disease is Nirvana. Nirvana is an end of the cravings which cause all the sufferings of birth, old age, disease, death, grief, lamentation and despair. The joy of Nirvanic cure can hardly be compared to the temporary Samsaric pleasure gained through fulfilling the sense desires.

It is not advisable to speculate on what Nirvana is ; it is better to know how to prepare the conditions necessary for Nirvana, how to attain the inner peace and clarity of vision that leads to Nirvana. Follow the Buddha's advice: put His Teachings into practice. Get rid of all defilements which are rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion. Purify yourself of all desires and realise absolute selflessness. Lead a life of right moral conduct and constantly practise meditation. By active exertion, free yourself from all selfishness and illusion. Then, Nirvana is gained and experienced.

Nirvana and Samsara

A great Mahayana Buddhist scholar, Nagarjuna, says that Samsara and Nirvana are one. This interpretation can easily be misunderstood by others. However to state that the concept of Samsara and Nirvana are the same is to say that there is no difference in voidness of component things and the unconditioned state of Nirvana. In accordance with the Pali Tipitaka, Samsara is described as the unbroken continuation of the five aggregates, four elements and twelve bases or sources of mental processes whereas Nirvana is described as the extinction of those relative physical and mental sources.

Those who gain Nirvanic bliss, can experience it during the remainder of their lives as human beings. After their death, however, the link with those elements will be eliminated, for the simple reason that Nirvana is unconditioned, not relative or interdependent. If there is to be anything at all after Nirvana, it would have to be ‘Absolute Truth'.

Nirvana is attainable in this present life. Buddhism does not state that its ultimate goal could be reached only in the life beyond. When Nirvana is realised in this life with the body remaining it is called Sopadisesa Nirvana. When an Arahant attains Pari Nirvana, after the dissolution of the body, without any remainder of physical existence, it is called Anupadisesa Pari Nirvana.

One must learn to be detached from all worldly things. If there is any attachment to anyone or to anything or if there is any aversion to anyone or anything, one will never attain Nirvana, for Nirvana is beyond all opposites of attachment and aversion, likes and dislikes.

When that ultimate state is attained, one will fully understand this worldly life for which one now craves. This world will cease to be an object of desire. One will realise the sorrow and impermanence and impersonality of all that lives and that does not live. By depending on teachers or holy books without using one's own effort in the right manner, it is difficult to gain realisation of Nirvana. Dreams will vanish. No castles will be built in the air. The tempest will be ended.

Struggles to avoid problems will be over. Nature's processes will have ceased. All worries, miseries, responsibilities, disturbances, burdens, physical and mental ailments and emotions will vanish after attaining this most blissful state of Nirvana.

To say that Nirvana is nothingness simply because one cannot perceive it with the five senses, is as illogical as to say that light does not exist simply because the blind do not see it.

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‘ No God, no Brahma can be found
No matter of this wheel of life
Just bare phenomena roll
Depending on conditions all.'

THE Law of Dependent Origination is one of the most important teachings of the Buddha, and it is also very profound. The Buddha has often expressed His experience of Enlightenment in one of two ways, either in terms of having understood the Four Noble Truths, or in terms of having understood the nature of Dependent Origination. However, more people have heard about the Four Noble Truths and can discuss it than the Law of Dependent Origination, which is just as important.

*Read an exposition of the Law of Independent Origination in Egerton C. Baptist's book, “The Buddha: His Birth, Life and Teachings”.

Although the actual insight into dependent origination arises with spiritual maturity, it is still possible for us to understand the principle involved. The basis of Dependent Origination is that life or the world is built on a set of relations, in which the arising and cessation of factors depend on some other factors which condition them. This principle can be given in a short formula of four lines:

  When this is, that is  
  This arising, that arises  
  When this is not, that is not  
  This ceasing, that ceases.  

On this principle of interdependence and relativity rests the arising, continuity and cessation of existence. This principle is known as the Law of Dependent Origination or in Pali, Paticca-samuppada. This law emphasises an important principle that all phenomena in this universe are relative, conditioned states which cannot arise independently of supportive conditions. A phenomenon arises because of a combination of conditions which are present to support its arising. And the phenomenon will cease when the conditions and components supporting its arising change and no longer sustain it. The presence of these supportive conditions, in turn, depend on other factors for their arising, sustenance and disappearance.

The Law of Dependent Origination is a realistic way of understanding the universe and is the Buddhist equivalent of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The fact that everything is nothing more than a set of relations is consistent with the modern scientific view of the material world. Since everything is conditioned, relative, and interdependent, there is nothing in this world which could be regarded as a permanent or unique entity, variously regarded as an ego or an eternal soul, which many people believe in.

The phenomenal world is built on a set of relations, but is this the way we normally understand the world to be? We create fictions of its permanency in our minds because of our desires. It is natural for human beings to cling to what they consider as beautiful or desirable, and to reject what is ugly or undesirable. Being subjected to the forces of greed and hatred, they are misled by delusion, clouded by the illusion of the permanency of the object they cling to or reject. Therefore, it is hard for us to realise that the world is like a bubble or mirage, and is not the kind of reality we believe it to be. We do not realise that it is unreal in actuality. It is like a ball of fire, which when whirled around rapidly, can for a time, create the illusion of a circle.

The fundamental principle at work in Dependent Origination is that of cause and effect. In Dependent Origination, what actually takes place in the causal process is described in detail. To illustrate the nature of Dependent Origination of the things around us, let us consider an oil lamp. The flame in an oil lamp burns dependent upon the oil and the wick. When the oil and the wick are present, the flame in an oil lamp burns. If either of these is absent, the flame will cease to burn. This example illustrates the principle of Dependent Origination with respect to a flame in an oil lamp. Or in an example of a plant, it is dependent upon the seed, earth, moisture, air and sunlight for the plant to grow. All these phenomena themselves arise dependent upon a number of other causal factors, and not independently. Therefore it is impossible to conceive of a first cause. This is the principle of Dependent Origination.

In the Dharma, we are interested to know how the principle of Dependent Origination is applied to the problem of suffering and rebirth. The issue is how Dependent Origination can explain why we are still going round in Samsara, or explain the problem of suffering and how we can be free from suffering. It is not meant to be a description of the origin or evolution of the universe. Therefore, one must not be mistaken into assuming that Ignorance, the first factor mentioned in the Dependent Origination, is the first cause. Since everything arises because of some preceeding causes, there can be no first cause.

According to the Law of Dependent Origination, there are twelve factors which account for the continuity of existence birth after birth. They are:

1. Through ignorance are conditioned volitional actions or karma-formations.
2. Through volitional actions is conditioned consciousness.
3. Through consciousness are conditioned mental and physical phenomena.
4. Through mental and physical phenomena are conditioned the six faculties (i.e., five physical sense-
  organs and mind).
5. Through the six faculties is conditioned (sensorial and mental) contact.
6. Through (sensorial and mental) contact is conditioned sensation.
7. Through sensation is conditioned desire, ‘thirst' .
8. Through desire (‘thirst') is conditioned clinging.
9. Through clinging is conditioned the process of becoming.
10. Through the process of becoming is conditioned birth.
11. Through birth are conditioned decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.

This is how life arises, exists and continues, and how suffering arises. These factors may be understood as sequentially spanning a period of three lifetimes: the past life, the present life, and the future life. In the Dependent Origination, ignorance and mental formation belong to the past life, and represent the conditions that are responsible for the occurrence of this life. The following factors, namely, consciousness, mental and physical phenomena, the six senses, contact, sensation, desire, clinging and becoming, are factors involved in the present life. The last two factors, birth and decay and death, belong to the future life.

In this law, the first factor of Ignorance gives rise to Volitional Activities (or karma). Ignorance means not knowing or understanding the true nature of our existence. Through Ignorance, good or evil deeds are performed which will lead a person to be reborn. Rebirth can occur in various planes of existence: the human world, the celestial or higher planes, or even suffering planes depending of the quality of a person's karma. When a person dies, his or her Volitional Activities will condition the arising of Consciousness, in this case to mean the re-linking Consciousness which arises as the first spark of a new life in the process of re-becoming.

Once the re-linking Consciousness has taken place, life starts once again. Dependent on the Consciousness, there arise Mind and Matter, that is, a new ‘being' is born. Because there are Mind and Matter, there arise the six Sense-organs (the sixth sense is the mind itself). With the arising of the Sense-organs, there arises Contact. Contact with what? Contact with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental objects.

These sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and mental objects can be beautiful, pleasing and enticing. On the other hand, they can be ugly and distasteful. Therefore, dependent on Contact arises Sensations: feelings that are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Because of these feelings, the laws of attraction (greed) and repulsion (aversion) are now set in motion. Beings are naturally attracted to pleasant objects and repelled by unpleasant objects. As a result of Sensation, Desire arises. A person desires and thirsts for forms that are beautiful and enticing; sounds that are beautiful and enticing; tastes, smells, touch, and objects which the mind regards as beautiful and enticing. From these Desires, he or she develops very strong Clinging to the desirable object (or strongly rejects the repulsive object). Now because of this Clinging and attachment, the next life is conditioned and there arises Becoming. In other words, the processes of Becoming are set in motion by Clinging.

The next link in this chain of Dependent Origination is that Becoming conditions the arising of Birth. And finally, dependent on Birth arise Decay and Death, followed by Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair.

The process can be ceased if the formula is taken in the reverse order: Through the complete cessation of ignorance (through the cultivation of Insight and seeing the true nature of all phenomena), volitional activities or karma-formations cease; through the cessation of volitional activities, consciousness ceases;… through the cessation of birth, the other factors of decay, death, sorrow, etc., cease. Therefore, one can be free from the rounds of rebirth through the eradication of ignorance.

To re-iterate what was mentioned earlier, this doctrine of Dependent Origination merely explains the processes of Birth and Death, and is not a theory of the evolution of the world. It deals with the Cause of Re-birth and Suffering, but in no way attempts to show the absolute Origin of Life. Ignorance in Dependent Origination is the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths. It is very important for us to understand the Four Noble Truths because it is the ignorance of these Truths that has trapped us all in the endless cycle of birth and death.

According to the Buddha, while He was speaking to Ananda: “It is by their not being able to comprehend the Dependent Origination, that people are entangled like a ball of cotton, and not being able to see the Truth, are always afflicted by Sorrow,—born often into conditions that are dismal and dreary, where confusion and prolonged suffering prevail. And, they do not know how to disentangle themselves to get out.”

The Buddha rejected both extremes of eternalism and nihilism.

To develop Right View or Perfect View, we must first be aware of two views which are considered imperfect or wrong. The first view is eternalism. This doctrine or belief is concerned with eternal life or with eternal things. Before the Buddha's time, it was thought that there is an abiding entity which could exist forever, and that human beings can live the eternal life by preserving the eternal soul in order to be in union with a Supreme Being. In Bud­dhism, this teaching is called sassata ditthi— the erroneous view of eternalists. Such views still exist even in the modern world owing to human beings' craving for eternal life.

Why did the Buddha refute the teaching of eternalism? Because when we understand the things of this world as they truly are, we cannot find anything which is permanent or which exists forever. Things change and continue to do so according to the changing conditions on which they depend. When we analyse things into their elements or into reality, we cannot find any abiding entity, any everlasting thing. This is why the eternalist view is considered wrong or false.

The second false view is nihilism or the view held by the nihilists who claim that there is no life after death. This view belongs to a materialistic philosophy which refuses to accept knowledge of mental conditionality. To subscribe to a philosophy of materialism is to understand life only partially. Nihilism ignores the side of life which is concerned with mental conditionality. If one claims that after the passing away or ceasing of a life, it does not come to be again, the continuity of mental conditions is denied. To understand life, we must consider all conditions, both mental and material. When we understand mental and material conditions, we cannot say that there is no life after death and that there is no further becoming after passing away. This nihilist view of existence is considered false because it is based on incomplete understanding of reality. That is why nihilism was also rejected by the Buddha. The teaching of karma proves that the Buddha did not teach annihilation after death; Buddhism accepts ‘survival ' not in the sense of an eternal soul, but in the sense of a renewed becoming or mental continuum.

Throughout the Buddha's long period of teaching the Dharma to His followers, He actively discouraged speculative arguments. During the 5th century B.C. India was a veritable hive of intellectual activity where scholars, yogis, philosophers, kings and even ordinary householders were constantly engaged in the philosophical arguments pertaining to human existence. Some of these were either ridiculously trivial or totally irrelevant. Some people wasted valuable time arguing at great length about all manner of subjects. They were far more concerned about proving their powers in mental gymnastics than seeking genuine solutions to the problems that beset humanity. (In the 18th century Jonathan Swift satirized a similar pastime in England when he showed the Lilliputians in ‘ Gulliver's Travels ' waging a war to decide whether an egg should be broken on its sharp end or its broad end).

The Buddha also refused to get involved in speculations regarding the universe. He stated very clearly that the problem facing human beings is not in their past or future but in the immediate present. Knowledge about Eternalism or Nihilism can in no way help them to break the present fetters which bind them to existence and which are the source of all their feelings of discontent which arise from their inability to completely satisfy their cravings. The Buddha stated that before one can begin to tread the path which leads to Nirvana one must have Right View. Only when one knows clearly what one is seeking will one be able to attain it.

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It is rather difficult for us to understand how the world came into existence without a first cause. But it is very much more difficult to understand how that first cause came into existence at the beginning.

ACCORDING to the Buddha, it is inconceivable to find a first cause for life or anything else. For in common experience, the cause becomes the effect and the effect becomes the cause. In the circle of cause and effect, a first cause is incomprehensible. With regard to the origin of life, the Buddha declares, ‘ Without cognizable end is this recurrent wandering in Samsara (cycle of birth and death). Beings are obstructed by ignorance and fettered by craving. A first beginning of these beings is not to be perceived .' (ANAMATAGGA SAMYUTTA in SAMYUTTA NIKAYA ). This life-stream flows on ad infinitum, as long as it is fed by the muddy waters of ignorance and craving. When these two

are cut off, only then does the life-stream cease to flow, only then does rebirth come to an end.

It is difficult to conceive an end of space. It is difficult to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time. But it is more difficult to conceive time when there is no time. Likewise it is rather difficult for us to understand how this world came into existence with a first cause. And it is more difficult to understand how that first cause came into existence at the beginning. For if the first cause can exist though uncreated, there is no reason why the other phenomena of the universe must not exist without having also been created.

As to the question how all beings came into existence without a first cause, the Buddhist's reply is that there is no answer* because the question itself is merely a product of human beings' limited compre­hension. If we can understand the nature of time and relativity; we must see that there could not have been any first beginning. It can only be pointed out that all the usual answers to the question are fundamentally defective. If it is assumed that for a thing to exist, it must have had a creator who existed before it, it follows logically that the creator himself must have had a creator, and so on back to infinity. On the other hand, if the creator could exist without a prior cause in the form of another creator, the whole argument falls to the ground. The theory of a creator does not solve any problems, it only complicates the existing ones.

Thus Buddhism does not pay much attention to theories and beliefs about the origin of the world. Whether the world was created by a god or it came into existence by itself makes little difference to Buddhists. Whether the world is finite or infinite also makes little difference. Instead of following this line of theoretical speculations, the Buddha advises people to grasp the fact that their present existence is suffering and to work hard to find their own salvation.

Scientists have discovered many causes which are responsible for the existence of life, plants, planets, elements and other energies. But it is impossible for human beings to find out any particular first cause for their existence. If they go on searching for the first cause of any existing life or thing, they point certain causes as the main cause but that never becomes the first cause. In the process of searching for the first cause one after the other, they will come back to the place where they were. This is because, cause becomes the effect and the next moment that effect becomes the cause to produce another effect. That is why the Buddha says, ‘a first cause is incomprehensible and the universe is beginningless'.

* See the section on “The Buddha's Silence”

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Belief in an eternal soul is a misconception of the human consciousness.


WITH regard to the soul theory, there are three kinds of teachers in the world: The first teacher teaches the existence of an eternal ego-entity that outlasts death: He is the eternalist.

The second teacher teaches a temporary ego-entity which becomes annihilated at death: He is the materialist.

The third teacher teaches neither an eternal nor a temporary ego-entity: He is the Buddha.

The Buddha teaches that what we call ego, self, soul, personality, etc., are merely conventional terms that do not refer to any real, independent entity. According to Buddhism there is no reason to believe that there is an eternal soul that comes from heaven or is created by itself or that it will transmigrate or proceed straight away either to heaven or hell after death. Buddhists cannot accept that there is anything either in this world or any other world that is eternal or unchangeable. We only cling to ourselves and hope to find something immortal. We are like children who wish to grasp a rainbow. To children, a rainbow is something vivid and real; but grown-ups know that it is merely an illusion caused by certain rays of light and drops of water. The colours are only a series of waves or undulations that have no more reality than the rainbow itself.

We have done well without discovering the soul. We show no signs of fatigue or degeneration for not having encountered any soul. No one has produced anything to promote the human race by postulating a soul and its imaginary working. Searching for a soul in man is like searching for something in a dark empty room. But the poor person will never realise that what is being sought for is not in that room. It is very difficult to make such a person understand the futility of the search.

Those who believe in the existence of a soul are not in a position to explain what and where it is. The Buddha's advice is not to waste our time over this unnecessary speculation and devote our time to understand reality. When we have attained perfection then we will be able to realise whether there is a soul or not. A wandering ascetic named Vacchagotta asked the Buddha whether there was an Atman (self/soul) or not. The story is as follows:

  Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha and asks:
‘Venerable Gotama, is there an Atman ?'
The Buddha is silent.
“Then Venerable Gotama, is there no Atman ?”
Again the Buddha is silent.
Vacchagotta gets up and goes away.
After the ascetic has left, Ananda asks the Buddha why He did not answer Vacchagotta's question. The Buddha explains His position:
  ‘Ananda, when asked by Vacchagotta, the Wanderer: “Is there a Self?”, if I had answered: “There is a Self”, then, Ananda, that would be siding with those recluses and brahmanas who hold the eternalist theory (sassata-vada).'  

‘And Ananda, when asked by the Wanderer: “Is there no Self?”, if I had answered: “There is no Self”, then that would be siding with those recluses and brahmanas who hold the annihilationist theory (uccedavada).'

  ‘Again, Ananda, when asked by Vacchagotta: “Is there a Self?”, if I had answered: “There is a Self ”, would that be in accordance with my knowledge that all Dharmas are without Self?'  
  ‘Surely not, Sir.' ‘And again, Ananda, when asked by the Wanderer: “Is there no Self?”, if I had answered: “There is no Self”, then that would have created a greater confusion in the already confused Vacchagotta. For he would have thought: Formerly indeed I had an Atman (Self), but now I haven't got one'  

The Buddha regarded soul-speculation as illusory. He once said, ‘Only through ignorance and delusion do human beings indulge in the dream that their souls are separate and self-existing entities. Their heart still clings to Self. They are anxious about heaven and they seek the pleasure of Self in heaven. Thus they cannot see the bliss of righteousness and the immortality of truth.' Selfish ideas appear in human beings' minds due to their conception of Self and craving for existence.

Anatta: The Teaching of No-Soul

The Buddha countered all soul-theory and soul-speculation with His Anatta doctrine. Anatta is translated under various labels: No-Soul, No-Self, No-Ego.

To understand the Anatta doctrine, one must understand that the eternal soul theory—‘I have a soul'—and the material theory—‘I have no soul'—are both obstacles to self-realisation or salvation. They arise from the misconception ‘I AM' . Hence, to understand the Anatta doctrine, one must not cling to any opinion or views on soul-theory; rather, one must try to see things objectively as they are and without any mental projections. One must learn to see the so-called ‘I' or Soul or Self for what it really is: merely a combination of changing forces. This requires some analytical explanation.

The Buddha taught that what we conceive as something eternal within us, is merely a combination of physical and mental aggregates or forces (pancakkhandha), made up of body or matter (rupakkhandha), sensation (vedanakkhandha), perception (sannakkhandha), mental formations (samkharakkhandha) and consciousness (viññanak­khandha). These forces are working together in a flux of momentary change; they are never the same for two consecutive moments. They are the component forces of the psycho-physical life. When the Buddha analyzed the psycho-physical life, He found only these five aggregates or forces. He did not find any eternal soul. However, many people still have the misconception that the soul is the consciousness. The Buddha declared in unequivocal terms that consciousness arises dependent on matter, sensation, perception and mental formations and that it cannot exist independently of them.

The Buddha said, ‘The body, O monks, is not the Self. Sensation is not the Self. Perception is not the Self. The mental constructions are not the Self. And neither is consciousness the Self. Perceiving this, O monks, the disciple sets no value on the body, or on sensation, or on perception, or on mental constructions, or on consciousness. Setting no value on them, he becomes free of passions and he is liberated. The knowledge of liberation arises there within him. And then he knows that he has done what has to be done, that he has lived the holy life, that he is no longer becoming this or that, that his rebirth is destroyed.' (ANATTA -LAKKHANA SUTRA )

The Anatta doctrine of the Buddha is over 2500 years old. Today the thought current of the modern scientific world is flowing towards the Buddha's Teaching of Anatta or No-Soul. In the eyes of modern scientists, a human being is merely a bundle of ever-changing sensations. Modern physicists say that the apparently solid universe is not, in reality, composed of solid substance at all, but is actually a flux of energy. The modern physicist sees the whole universe as a process of transformation of various forces which include the processes which constitute a human being. The Buddha was the first to realize this.

W.S. Wily, an author, once said, ‘The existence of the immortal in human beings is becoming increasingly discredited under the influence of the dominant schools of modern thought.' The belief in the immortality of the soul is a dogma that is contradicted by the most clear, empirical investigation.

The mere belief in an immortal soul, or the conviction that something in us survives death, does not make us immortal unless we know what it is that survives and that we are capable of identifying ourselves with it. Most human beings choose death instead of immortality by identifying themselves with that which is perishable and impermanent by clinging stubbornly to the body or the momentary elements of the present personality, which they mistake for the soul or the essential form of life.

In reference to those researches of modern scientists who are now more inclined to assert that the so-called ‘Soul' is no more than a bundle of sensations, emotions, sentiments, all relating to the physical experiences, Prof. William James says that the term ‘Soul' is a mere figure of speech to which no reality corresponds.

It is the same Anatta doctrine of the Buddha that was introduced in the Mahayana school of Buddhism as Sunyata or voidness. Although this concept was elaborated by a great Mahayana scholar, Nagarjuna, by giving various interpretations, there is no extraordinary concept in Sunyata that is far different from the Buddha's original doctrine of Anatta.

The belief in Soul or Self and the Creator God, is so strongly rooted in the minds of many people that they cannot imagine why the Buddha did not accept these two concepts which are indispensable to many religions. In fact some people get a shock or become nervous and emotional when they hear that the Buddha rejected these two concepts. That is the main reason why to many unbiased scholars and psychologists Buddhism stands unique when compared to all the other religions. At the same time, some other scholars who appreciate the various other aspects of Buddhism are convinced that Buddhism would be enriched by deliberately re-interpreting the Buddha word ‘ Atta' in order to introduce the concept of Soul and Self into Buddhism. The Buddha was aware of this unsatisfactoriness of humanity and the conceptual upheaval regarding this belief.

  All conditioned things are impermanent,  
  All conditioned things are Dukkha-Suffering,  
  All conditioned or unconditioned things (Dharma)  
  are soulless or selfless.  
(DHAMMAPADA 277, 278, 279)

There is a parable in our Buddhist texts with regard to the belief in an eternal soul. A man, who mistook a moving rope for a snake, became terrified by that fear in his mind. Upon discovery that it was only a piece of rope, his fear subsided and his mind became peaceful. The belief in an eternal soul is equated to the rope—man's imagination.

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