THE ESSENTIALS OF BUDDHISM
THE NECESSITY OF RIGHT UNDERSTANDING
U Hla Maung, B.A.., B.E.S. (Retd).
Vol. IV, No.4 , 1957
For, my friend, in this very body, six feet in length, with its sense impressions and its thoughts and ideas, I do declare to you, are the world, and the origin of the world, the ceasing of the world, and likewise the Way that leads to the ceasing thereof.
(Anguttara-Nikaya, Catukka-pathama Pannasaka, Rohita-vagga.)
In the profound words of this declaration lie the essentials of Buddhist philosophy. A right approach and a right understanding is required to see the truth in and behind these essentials. Buddhism is a regulated way of life grounded on a sane and mellow philosophy which keeps itself within the bounds of reason and probability and which leaves certain subjects as unprofitable, since they are not conducive to the realisation of Nibbana.
It insists on starting with Right Views. One should not get into the wrong train if one wants to reach one's destination. If Truth— man's final goal and good—be the destination we should sit in the carriage of Morality. Then, through continuous progress from station to station our train should carry us to our destination. To all reasoning people life must appear as a journey, the end of which must depend on how we set about it, theoretically and practically.
If we regard Truth and Wisdom as our highest good and goal, then we ought to assume that our starting point is something opposite, that is to say, our starting point is ignorance. Yes, ignorance or non-appreciation of the Four Noble Truths. Also an unawareness of the need for following the Eightfold Noble Path. To get out of the mesh of Ignorance and misleading worldly knowledge, Right Views are essential. Of course, Right Views will be strangers to people without moral steadfastness, and Wisdom will not come to those who are not sobered down by morality and tranquilised by integration of thought or mind.
To taste the full flavour of Buddhist wisdom, one should convince oneself of Rebirth as a view which is not only within, the bounds of probability and reason but also as a views right and sound.
As against Rebirth there is the belief in only a single terrestrial life without any repetition. Whether this belief flows from a belief in God as arbiter or in pure chance as an alternative, it is a case of arbitrariness. It offends the sense of evolution, and we can see no redeemable reason in either of the alternatives. All the great religions of the world preach of a life hereafter, either in bliss or in misery. But of a life "before", these religions, except Buddhism, conveniently, fancifully and egoistically place it in the "breath" of a Creator. Buddhism takes a midway position and says there is for each life a kind of natural and formative beginning provided by a discernible cause, and also that there is a very long, but indefinable, period of continuity of life influx and change. It refuses to fix the duration in definite terms and says there have been countless worlds and existences for each life. Therein it sees life's enormity of flux and change—an enormity spelling sorrow.
We shall not go into the undeniable fact that the tradition of life after life or rebirth formed a part of the long-standing beliefs of all ancient races until the one life theory, somehow or other, was grafted upon the believers of Western theology or of Mechanical Materialism. The two great Eastern religions have nurtured the tradition of rebirth, which is as old as the human race itself. There is nothing unnatural or unscientific about rebirth. It is not a mere superstition with us but a belief founded on conviction. Our Arahats, whose minds can reach and abide in the higher planes of consciousness, can recall their many previous births distinctly. Our system of mental development which enables Arahats to visualize their rebirths is nearly a closed book to the Western mind which fights shy of giving up the mundane or of renouncing false and flattering views of "culture" and "progress."
Buddhism stands or falls on the actuality of rebirth. In fact the very first utterance made by the Buddha at the supreme moment of gaining Enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree was a paean of triumph over rebirth. Sir Edwin Arnold in "The Light of Asia" has expressed this memorable utterance in beautiful poetic language, which, owing to its ornamentation, is not a literal translation. But the main ingredients are there.
The Buddha's discourse was to a group of five ascetic truth-seekers from whom He had parted some time before He had attained to Buddhahood. The first discourse was on the Four Noble Truths,
After expounding these truths the Buddha again declared His joy of deliverance from rebirth in these words
From these if is evident that rebirth and its cessation are the beginning and end of the Buddha's teaching. Cessation from rebirth depends upon taking the Right View that life, by the very nature of its repetition is suffering. It also depends upon treading the Noble Eightfold Path towards mental equanimity, tranquillity and the ultimate peace of no more birth.
Rebirth may take place in any one of thirty-one planes according to the quality and value of one's previous existences, that is to say, on the quality of thoughts and deeds in the preceding series of persons' life.
The following stanza from "Theragatha" will be helpful to the understanding of the nature and course of rebirth in the various planes and the attendant joy felt by an Arahat on his release from the field of Becoming or Samsara.
How strikingly the stanza brings out the truth that this universe subsists and maintains itself as a process of continuous Becoming. As each little atom is a miniature solar-system each life is also the mirror of the universe of Becoming. Such thought and insight may be staggering but that which is of the truth of nature must be holy.
The Buddhist's fear of Becoming is the greater in degree as the greater grows his mature realisation of life's tribulation in the ocean of Samsara. Is such fear to be lightly dismissed as pessimism ? On the contrary it represents the most courageous facing of a staring and staggering truth. Equally courageous and high-minded is the optimistic conviction that one by one's own effort, along the way pointed out by the Buddha, will be able to declare "there will be no more birth for me". Well, this of course, is possible because, as the Arahat in the closing lines of the above stanza has said:
All Becoming is well seen to be without substance, a putting together, which is unstable and changeable.
The Buddhist belief in the formation and existence of life on 31 planes should not be regarded as merely mythical or mystical. We are more and more frequently hearing talk of life on Mars and other planets in scientific circles. Physicists of the present day have been preoccupied with pursuing the atom, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, and they have now discovered, in addition to the electron and all its associates, what they call "the Ghost of the atom." On the other hand, Buddhism has been pursuing the 'mental' atom, as it were at the expense of the 'material' atom for 2,500 years, and has thus attained the highest degree of knowledge of life and mind.
Take also into consideration the ancient Greek theory of the atom, slightly different from ours. For example, the teaching of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) He taught that atoms in perpetual motion were always giving rise to new worlds and these were always tending towards dissolution and towards a series of creations. Epicurus did not accept the doctrine of inevitable fate and he did not also believe in divine intervention in the universe. What is remarkable is that he rejected fatalism (as we Buddhists do), while accepting the atomic views of his predecessors. He was able to explain that fatalism (which he believed to be as deadly to man's true welfare as current superstition) was not a necessary consequence of his atomic theory. In the movements of the atoms he introduced a sudden change in direction which rendered their aggregation easier and thus the law of destiny was broken. This theory of the "free" action of electrons in certain cases (accepted in modern physics) is on a par—it must be emphasised—with our Buddhist Doctrine that the course of Kamma can be changed and broken.
Our Buddhist views and the almost contemporaneous views of the great Greek minds are not so crude as they may seem on a superficial examination and some of these ancient views show a remarkable similarity to the theories of a number of physicists and astronomers, as admitted by those who have made a comparative study of the subject.
More than one scientist has deplored the fact that the atomic theory of the ancients did not receive general acceptance. This was due to the influence of Aristotle, whose philosophy was largely responsible for influencing European thought for more than a thousand years, and whose dominance delayed the progress of science in many ways. The atom in fact remained almost forgotten in Europe until the 19th century when the theory came back to life, and the atomic theory, which now fixes our horizons, was placed on a sound basis. Much earlier than Epicurus, Democritus maintained that the atom was divisible this squares with the splitting of the atom at the present day. Buddhism, in its turn, maintains that the atom is divisible until the atom is no more conceivable as atom but as a principle of Energy (Dhatu) expressing itself in the form or guise of solid-heat-gas-liquid. These four "Dhatu" constituents are always present in every form of matter. This represents a difference of idiom between the ancient Buddhist and the modern view of matter.
Had not Aristotle shut out the atom from the European mind for so long and had Europe given study to the mental atomism of India a thousand years ago or earlier, the belief in rebirth on thirty-one planes might now be as strong in the West as in the East.
By way of an analogy I should like to point out how two eminent British scientists have been thinking and speaking of the universe in terms of forty-one shelves. This is what Professor Blackett, F.R.S., has to say about it in his talk about different worlds in continuation of the talk given by Sir William Bragg, O.M., F.R.S.
"Many speakers in this series of talks have referred to the admirable idea of the late Sir William Bragg of demonstrating the different orders of size in the world by means of a row of shelves, each shelf representing a magnitude of ten times smaller than the next above. It has been left to me in this talk to raise the question 'Is there a lowest shelf, or do the shelves continue downwards to smaller and smaller sizes indefinitely ? ' And if one asks this question, one can hardly avoid asking the closely related one 'Is there a top shelf or do the shelves go on upward, representing larger and larger things indefinitely? No one is quite sure of the answer to these two questions, but I will risk being wrong by saying that there probably is both a top and a bottom shelf
"What are the objects on the lowest shelf? You have already heard about most of them from Professor Cockroft and Dr. Allibone. The fundamental particles—electrons, protons, neutrons—out of which the physical world around us is made, all seem to be rather less than one millionth of a millionth of a centimeter in size. They thus belong to the thirteenth shelf down. Still smaller particles may perhaps some day be discovered. But at the present time it looks as if the size of these electrons and protons is the smallest size that can exist at all. In some obscure way, when one gets down to the size of an electron, one has got down to the smallest size that has any meaning.
Now comes the question of 'How large is the Universe ?' The upper shelf (if it exists) can contain only one object, the largest object that it is possible to imagine, and that is the Universe itself ! We are not sure how large the Universe is. But it is clearly larger than the distance of the farthest things we can see. Some nebulae, clusters of many millions of stars, have been proved to be about one hundred million light years, that is, one hundred million million, million, million centimeters distance from the earth. It is possible that the Universe is at least ten times larger than this.
Hence we have twenty-seven shelves up, which with the thirteen down and the one in the middle makes forty-one shelves."
The lesson of the analogy is that the Buddhist view of life on thirty-one planes, according to grades of mind, is a discernible and accepted fact when mental science is developed in the Eastern way.
We feel that, at this stage, we should make a pause in our exposition of "Right Views", We have discussed rebirth in the Universe of "Becoming" and shown that rebirth goes on in thirty-one planes. Rebirth has been presented as Sorrow and the cessation of rebirth as Bliss. The cessation of rebirth depends upon the right understanding of the Four Noble Truths which become clearer and clearer as we make the right effort to tread the Eightfold Noble Path until it be comes complete realisation. A clear understanding of Kamma and the causal laws of origination of birth will comprise, with other Right Views, the Essentials of Buddhism.
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