The Noble Eightfold Blog


What Did the Buddha Teach?

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2018 Eric K. Van Horn

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Those of you who have delved into the topic of what the Buddha taught may be aware that there is some controversy over just what Buddhism is. Is it a religion? Is it a philosophy? Just what is it?

To answer that question, I am going to start with a different way of thinking about belief systems, and that is to use a word from India. That word is “dharma.”

The word “dharma” has come to be associated with Buddhism. But in India it is a more general term. The idea of dharma has two aspects to it. The first aspect is an understanding of how things are, of the basic nature of life. The second aspect of dharma is that given a certain understanding of how things are, there is a way to act and behave that is in accord with that understanding. As Rupert Gethin put it:

The notion of dharma in Indian thought thus has both a descriptive and a prescriptive aspect: it is the way things are and the way to act.

- [Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism]

This is different from the way we think in the West. We make a distinction between religion and philosophy. We make a distinction between atheism and theism. We make the distinction between what is religious and what is spiritual. But in India, these are all dharmas. They are a) what do you believe and b) how do act as a result of what you believe?

If you think about it, everyone has a dharma. Let’s take an extreme example, white supremacy. White supremacists have a certain world view, and they behave in accordance with that view. That is an example of a very destructive dharma, but I think it makes the point. And in fact, the Buddha felt that what you believe is very important because it determines so much of how we behave.

I also want to make a distinction between “Buddhism” and the “Buddha’s Dharma.” (Note that when using the generic term “dharma,” the convention is not to capitalize it. When referring specifically to the Buddha’s Dharma,” the convention is to capitalize it.) “Buddhism” is a very general term. It includes a whole range of activity, some of which is in the letter and spirit of what the Buddha taught, and most of it is not. “Buddhism” includes everything from the different schools of Buddhism to the laughing Buddha at the nail salon. Brushing up against some aspect of Buddhism is relatively trivial.

Understanding what the Buddha really taught is much more challenging. To do that, we have to go back to the Buddha’s original discourses and to dig deeply into them. Fortunately, that is possible. We have good translations of his teachings in English, most notably from Bhikkhu Bodhi, Maurice Walsh, and Ṭhānnisaro Bhikkhu. It requires some diligence, but the Buddha’s entire instruction manual is available.

Most fundamentally the Buddha taught a system of training. If followed properly, this system of training will make you a more skillful person. “Skillful,” in the Buddha’s terms, means a) that your actions are of benefit to yourself and others, and b) they are not harmful to yourself or others. You will probably notice that using this definition, white supremacy is a very un-skillful dharma.

Being of benefit and abstaining from harm has a very important side effect, and that is that they are directly related to your own personal happiness. In the Buddha’s teaching, being of benefit, refraining from doing harm, and your own happiness are joined at the hip. They are inseparable.

You may have heard that the Buddha talked a lot about suffering. The Pāli word is “dukkha.” (In Sanskrit, it is spelled “duḥkha.”) While it is usually translated as “suffering,” it has a somewhat broader meaning that includes everything from “stress” to “suffering” to “un-satisfactoriness.” It just means that in life, things don’t always go well, and even when they do, inevitably, well, they don’t. This should not exactly be news.

But it is important to say that the Buddha never said that life is suffering. That would be quite a leap from the simple statement that in life, inevitably there is dukkha. It is just a statement of fact.

What the Buddha did say was that not only is there dukkha in life, but that the way in which we go about trying to be happy is misguided and doomed to failure. It can even be dangerous because we can do a lot of harm in the process. We are always chasing after things: money, sex, food, luxury, and so on. It isn’t that those things cannot bring a certain kind of happiness. Of course, they can. But inevitably that happiness is conditioned and temporary, thus the use of “un-satisfactoriness” as a meaning for “dukkha.” When the conditions no longer exist, this conditioned happiness goes away as well. And as for the danger, sometimes our happiness depends on making someone else unhappy.

When the Buddha went off on his spiritual quest, he asked a fundamental question. Is there a happiness that is not conditioned? Is there a kind of happiness that is permanent?

Fortunately, the Buddha found that the answer to this question is “Yes.” The Buddhist professor at Columbia University, Robert Thurman, puts it this way: “Wouldn’t it have been a bummer if after all that effort the Buddha found out that ultimately life really is just hopeless?”

“...when the Buddha attained enlightenment, [it] means ... that he came to understand the nature of reality precisely, exactly, and thoroughly.

“...[he could have] come to the exact understanding of reality and [gone], Oh no, what a bummer! Oh, that’s really awful! I mean, that’s what we might suspect reality is: a bummer. We’re all scared of that.

“So the discovery on which Buddhism is based is that the nature of reality itself is bliss: it is happiness. The world is made of happiness. It is the fabric of the world.”

- [Robert Thurman, “Aurora Forum at Stanford University, 24 April 2008”]

So you can see, the Buddha’s message is not that life is suffering and that we are all doomed. It is a message about how to be happier, and ultimately really, really permanently blissfully happy.

And to reiterate an important point, this happiness is inseparable from our ability to be of benefit in the world. The Buddha’s training helps us to develop skills, and in developing those skills, we do less harm and more good. It’s a win-win-win.

So what is that system of training? It consists of three parts. The first is the practice of virtue/ethics/morality. The second is the practice of meditation, and the third is studying the teachings of the Buddha.

Let me start with the last one first. As noted, the word “dharma” acknowledges that what we believe determines a great deal of how we behave. So one of the things that we have to do is to examine what we believe, and in particular to see how what we believe leads us to act. If we believe something, does that result in our behaving skillfully or not? In the Buddha’s teaching, the behavior that results from a belief is almost more important than the fact that it is true. (Note that I said “almost.”)

Let me tell you a story about this. In China there was a famous Buddhist monk named “Hotei.” He’s the fat, smiling one you see in nail salons.

There was an American Buddhist scholar who was traveling in China, and he was talking to a peasant farmer. The farmer told him the following story. Now Hotei is, among other things, the patron saint of children. Hotei loved children. One day he was playing hide and seek with the children in the village. In order to play a prank on him, when Hotei went off to hide, all the children left and went home. But because Hotei did not want to spoil their game, he stayed outside in the cold and the rain all night long, hiding.

So the farmer told the scholar this story, and when he was finished, the scholar asked the farmer if he thought this story was really true. The farmer shrugged and said something like, “Well, it hardly matters. What matters is that Hotei had the sort of character that would lead to telling a story like this.” It is like George Washington and the cherry tree.

This is a story that teaches a lesson about love, kindness, and selflessness. The Buddhist literature is full of them. In one collection, the Jātaka Tales, there are 547 fables like this. They are morality stories, and their purpose is to show how and how not to behave skillfully.

The Buddha’s discourses, then, provide a road map. We are going to take a journey, and we need to know where we are going and how to get there.

Now let me go back to the first part of the training, and that is virtue. This is a real problem for Westerners. There are two reasons why the Buddha’s teachings on virtue cause problems for Westerners. The first comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage. We are afraid that if we do something unskillful we are going to go to hell. That is a stark way to put it, but that cultural conditioning is usually lurking in the background.

But that is not the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings on morality. Again, this is a training. The trainee is an apprentice. We are going to make mistakes. When we do, we reflect on our actions and see if we can do better the next time. We contemplate how to do that. We come up with a strategy. We turn it into a problem-solving exercise.

There is a lovely conversation between the Buddha and his son Rāhula that illustrates this point. Rāhula was only seven years old at the time, which makes it particularly endearing. In this discourse, the Buddha tells Rāhula that if he does something, and upon reflection realizes that it did harm to himself or to someone else, then he should try to not do that again. It is very clinical. He never says that Rāhula should rack himself with guilt over his mistake. He simply uses reflection and contemplation as a learning tool.

This process can even take a very extreme form. One of the iconic stories of the Buddha’s time is about the serial killer Aṇgulimāla. According to the story, Aṇgulimāla had killed 999 people. And yet, he was still able to become a monk and to attain awakening.

Another problem Westerners tend to have is guilt about what they have done in the past. Misunderstandings about karma can feed that. But what has happened has happened. There is no point in feeling guilty about the past. In fact, guilt can keep us from moving forward. What matters are the choices we make now and in the future. We want to nurture our mental development in a certain way, a way that is more skillful. We have decided to run a marathon, but we have never run more than a hundred feet. So we have some work to do. But if you spend all your time lamenting that you have never run in the past, it is a complete waste of time.

Further, the Buddha points out that as we become more skillful, we do not have to suffer from guilt, shame, or remorse. In fact, remembering the times when we felt badly about something we did can be a useful tool. It is an incentive not to do that again. This is a healthy use of those feelings.

Virtue is the foundation of the Buddha’s system. For most of the life of the Buddha Dharma in Asia, lay people did not practice meditation or study the discourses. But they did practice virtue.

Finally, we come to the topic that most people are interested in, and that is meditation.

The Pāli word for “meditation” is “bhavana.” It literally means to “develop” or “cultivate.” “Cultivate” is a very good word to use because meditation is like gardening. In gardening, you can’t make tomatoes grow. You till the soil, add nutrients to it, plant the seeds, keep it clear of weeds, water it, and so on, and if all goes well, after a fashion, you will have your tomatoes.

This is how meditation works. You put into place the conditions in which the mind can evolve. How that happens and how quickly it happens will differ from one person to the next. We all have different temperaments and situations in life.

These three aspects of the training feed one another. They are interdependent. Practicing virtue provides fertile soil in which the mind can develop. It is very difficult to develop the mind if you are causing harm.

Reading and studying the teachings of the Buddha plants seeds in that fertile ground. If you meditate without knowing the Buddha’s teachings, when something happens in your meditation, you may not understand it. It would be like driving through a country that had no road signs. You would not know where you are. You would be – as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it – wasting your time on the cushion.

And I strongly suggest that when you study the Buddha’s teachings, that you read the original discourses, starting with the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha). There is a lot of distortion in second-hand accounts of the Buddha’s teachings. To be sure, it will take some time to get used to the language and rhythm of the discourses, but I think if you are patient and persistent, you will soon have a comfort level with this literature.

As for the meditation, there are many kinds of meditation. But the one that is emphasized most often and most strongly in the Buddha’s teaching is breath meditation.

In breath meditation, the objective is to keep the attention focused on the breath. This is done by cultivating two factors, mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness leads to better concentration, and better concentration leads to more mindfulness.

We hear a lot about mindfulness. “Mindfulness,” in the Buddha’s system of training, is the seventh factor in what is called the “noble eightfold path.” “Mindfulness” is also the first of the “seven factors of awakening.” Clearly this is an important quality to develop.

But what is missing in this formula is the eighth path factor, and that is “concentration.” To be sure, to develop the type of concentration that the Buddha taught is not easy, and I think that is why it is often left out of many meditation systems. Many schools of Buddhism are openly hostile to it. But as Bhante Gunaratana says, people who practice mindfulness without practicing concentration are following the “noble sevenfold path.”

There are two qualities that develop in breath meditation: serenity and insight. They are the fruits of mindfulness and concentration.

For those of you who have heard these terms, the Pāli word for concentration is “samadhi”; the word for serenity is “samatha,” and the Pāli word for insight is “vipassanā.” (In Sanskrit it is “vipaśyanā.”) The Buddha’s method of breath meditation is called “samatha-vipassanā.”

The Buddha taught that serenity and insight should be developed together. [MN 73.18] The better your concentration is, the more serenity and calm you will have. From this stillness, primed by the Buddha’s road map, insights into the transcendent nature of reality will naturally arise. It is like getting a pool of water to settle so that you can see what is at the bottom.

The meaning of insight in a Buddhist context is quite a complex topic, but most fundamentally, transcendent insight means seeing into the causal nature of existence. This is sometimes characterized as impermanence. It is also expressed as non-self, meaning that all beings are constantly changing processes that lack a permanent, substantial existence. There is also the Buddha’s most complex teaching, and that is the one on dependent co-arising. But all of these doorways into insight are expressing some form of cause and effect, an existence made of processes like weather systems rather than objects like rocks.

Eventually these insights will lead to the first stage of awakening, what is called “stream entry.”

The process of meditation has these three stages:

  1. The cultivation of a sense of well-being. This becomes a safe harbor for us, a place in which we can experience some measure of peace and calm.
  2. The attainment of meditative absorption, what in Pāli is called “jhāna.” The four “material” jhānas each has a primary factor. These are – for the first jhāna - joy or bliss, for the second jhāna - happiness, for the third jhāna - contentment, and for the fourth jhāna - equanimity. The Buddha specifically defined right concentration (samadhi) as jhāna.
  3. The attainment of stream entry. As noted this is the first of the four stages of awakening. Once you have attained stream entry, it is only a matter of time before attaining a full awaking.

Those of you who are familiar with Zen are probably cringing at the use of the word “attainment.” And of course, there is some validity to that. This introduces one of the subtleties of meditation. You develop the mind while letting go of the notion of attainment. You put in place the causes and conditions under which the mind can naturally develop.

When the Buddha described the jhānas, he listed certain factors that are causal. They are qualities that you cultivate and develop. Then he also listed factors that are results. And you cannot make the results happen. What you do is put into place the causes that will lead to the results. It is a bit of a fine point.

In practice what happens is that you study the Buddha’s teachings so you can understand the map as much as possible. Then as the mind settles and becomes more concentrated, the insights arise naturally. This may be a bit of an oversimplification, but fundamentally that is how it works.

It is worth making one final point about the first stage in meditation, establishing a sense of well-being. This is very important. Of course, meditation is a skill, and at times things won’t go well, and that can be frustrating.

But one of my main objections to how meditation is often taught is that meditation becomes something people feel they have to do rather than it being something they want to do. You often hear people talking about how hard it is to establish a daily meditation practice. Of course, that can be true, but I think it is also the result of how meditation is taught. This shouldn’t be – as the saying goes – “concentration camp.” And it isn’t just “being with whatever arises,” which is another common teaching. If all you ever do is to “be with whatever arises,” that is all you will be able to do. You will never learn how to abandon unwholesome mind states and to cultivate wholesome ones.

Just to be clear, nothing that I am telling you is something that I made up. I wouldn’t have been able to do that in a million years. This is simply how I understand what the Buddha taught from his own teachings. And in the way that I share his teachings, I try as much as I can to check and double check what I am saying against his discourses.

The Buddha did not tell us everything he found when he awakened. He famously compared the difference between what he taught to what he knew as being like the difference between a handful of leaves and all of the leaves in a forest. What he did tell us was that if we follow his path, we can discover it for ourselves. Then we do not have to take his word for it. He is like a mountain guide who is showing us the way to a beautiful valley.

So that, I hope, gives you a better understanding of the Buddha’s Dharma. What he taught is a training. This training helps us to become more skillful, to do more good and less harm, and at the same time to make us much happier people. This training consists of three aspects: 1) the cultivation of virtue, 2) studying the discourses, and 3) meditation. And that meditation consists of three stages: 1) the cultivation of well-being, 2) the attainment of meditative absorption, and 3) the attainment of stream entry. And the final punch line is that when we attain a full awakening, we are free from dukkha. Whenever you see a depiction of the Buddha, he is always smiling.

Smiling Buddha