I recently finished reading three publications: Buddhist Teaching in India by Johannes Bronkhorst (2009, Wisdom Publications), What the Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich (2009, Equinox), and Why Buddhism by Ven. Dr. Dhammananda (a small booklet). The books are eloquent, intellectually engaging, and very inspirational, which means a wonderful read for any student of spirituality.
There is a difference of purpose between the first two books and Ven. Dhammananda’s. Bronkhorst and Gombrich are concerned with philosophical and historical criticism while Ven. Dhammananda wrote his booklet for the Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia. Bronkhorst cautions that we need to be very careful when trying to flesh out the Buddha’s original teachings, whilst Gombrich passionately argues that the Buddha was a much more original thinker and satirist than most assume. And Ven. Dhammananda is concerned with outlining why Buddhism is a sound way of life for sentient beings.
It is very interesting, then, to see all three authors come to similar conclusions about the fundamental teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha that is revered as the historical founder of Buddhism. There are seven of these “basics”:
· The Four Noble Truths
1. That suffering is an intrinsic, pervasive element of existence;
2. That the origin of suffering is craving for sensuality, craving for acquisition of identity, and craving for annihilation;
3. That suffering can be ended (implicitly meaning that it should be ended, since talking about suffering would be meaningless unless it was actually a problem that “is not meant to be”);
4. And that following the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to accomplish this.
· The Noble Eightfold Path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
· Dependent Origination (or causality): the mind creates suffering as a natural product of a complex process, beginning with ignorance.
· Moralization of the universe: It is almost certain that the Buddha believed in karma, samsara, and rebirth. Bhikkhu Bodhi has an excellent essay on the centrality of these ideas to the Buddha’s Dharma (link here). But there was a crucial innovation in the Buddha’s re-interpretation: these realities were all ethicized and given a moral dimension. “By karma I mean intention” is perhaps the most dramatic example. Rather than volition being strictly action, the Buddha taught that volition was of the mind and its thoughts. For the Brahmins, the Buddha was saying something along the lines of “By black I mean white”!
· “Beyond existence and non-existence”: The Buddha was a pragmatic teacher who emphasized ethics and understanding over rituals and metaphysics (the famous Unanswered Questions are the best example). Note, however, that the Discourse on the Lion’s Roar (one of the earliest and most historically reliable sutras) makes it clear that to disbelieve in the Buddha’s transcendent nature is incorrect.
· Three Marks of Existence:
1. Anicca: That all conditioned things have an end.
2. Anatta: That nothing in the experiential world is inherently I, me, mine, my, or myself.
3. Dukkha: That no conditioned phenomena or thing is ultimately satisfying.
· Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana): It is possible for sentient beings to realize a dimension of awareness which is totally unconditioned, wordless, and cannot be understood fully except by experiencing it. Attaining Nirvana ends all suffering and leads to liberation from the conditioned universe.
Of course, the Buddha spoke of many other things, and according to the Mahayana tradition, he would continue to teach long afterwards. But it is on these 7 points that almost everyone agrees. And that is encouraging. It is another step for human beings – be they Buddhist or not – to come closer to the face of the Buddha.