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What is Theravada Buddhism?


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Vol. 1, No. 1, 1952


Two thousand five hundred and seventy six years ago there were in India only four castes and these were but loosely separated, though all were separated from the outcast aborigines. The leading caste at the time was the Khattiya or "Warrior" caste and at such a period of development it was natural for the warriors to form the ruling houses of each clan. Next was the Brahmin caste or caste of "Priests" , the educated or preacher class which was struggling for the caste or social superiority it was even then claiming and was later to win. The third caste was the Vaisyas or traders and the fourth the Sudras or menials and workers.

At this time was born to the Khattiya-caste ruler of the Sakya clan, whose family name was Gotama, a son to whom was given the name Siddattha, and who was reared in quite a degree of luxury and comfort ; perhaps a greater degree of comfort than is possible in the modern world. On attaining young manhood, Siddattha Gotama realised "the fleeting nature of all earthly joys" and renounced his sheltered life and all the luxury of his world to become a homeless wanderer and ascetic, spurred on by a burning desire to penetrate finally to Real Truth.

Studying successively under the two great masters of philosophy in India of that time, he did not yet find any satisfactory answer to his questions and with a band of five followers retired to the comparative solitude of the country where they gave themselves up to practices tending to " mortify the flesh ". The young Gotama, in the prime of life, of powerful physique and of great tenacity of purpose, excelled in these, to the great admiration of his companions, until finally he fell fainting by the roadside, at the point of death. He then realised how life could be lost by a continuation of such practices and yet Truth might not be won, and he considered afresh the whole matter and remembered that he had had "a moment of cosmic consciousness" when as a lad he had sat in meditation under a Rose-apple tree, while his royal father was, according to custom, ploughing the first field in his performing of the fertility rite to ensure rich crops. He wondered then if this Peaceful Meditation were not the real way to Wisdom, decided that it was and determined to live accordingly. This was later formulated in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta "There are two paths of error which he who is striving for salvation should equally avoid. The one, of sensual enjoyment and the gratification of passion ; is base, vulgar, degrading and ruinous ; it is the way of the children of the world. The other, of self-torture and mortification, is sad, painful and useless. The Middle Way alone, which the Perfect One has found, avoids these two paths of errors, opens the eyes, endows with discernment, and leads to deliverance, to wisdom, to perfection, to Nibbana."

His somewhat hidebound fellows whose clinging to customs and conventions held them still to their over-ascetic course, were very horrified and determined not to have anything to do with one who had abandoned the strict ascetic life of self torture.

Leaving then his five companions, Gotama decided to make a determined effort to pierce the veil of illusion, using all his strength of body and mind, and spent forty nine days sitting in various places under a huge spreading Banyan tree, during which time he took his great mind to the very peak of intellect, until at last the Way became clear and he became Perfected Man, the Buddha, Teacher of Gods and men.

He realised then how difficult it was to make plain to mankind the simple yet subtle Teaching of Truth but saw that there were "beings whose eyes are but lightly covered with dust" and who would respond to and understand the Teaching, and for the sake of these He began His mission which was to last for forty years of his lifetime and has lasted for the 25 centuries since His attainment to Mahaparinibbana.

In the "Cullavagga" the Buddha pointed out "As the great ocean, disciples, is penetrated throughout by the savour of salt, so is my Doctrine in all its parts permeated by the spirit of deliverance", and while there are those who derive emotional inspiration and intuition from the moral Teaching of the Verses of the Law and those who by the sermons of the Suttas, come to perceive Truth, there have always been those who by the more detailed and logical exposition of the great laws of Being, given in the Abhidhamma, more easily find a practical way out of the morass of existence.

In the Abhidhamma it is shown very conclusively that neither Ego nor "Soul" exists, but that neither can it be said : "The end then is annihilation ". The Doctrine or Dhamma is very deep and subtle, necessarily so, and requires for elucidation and under standing both the mental training and practice of Meditation for Insight.

A study of the Abhidhamma, that practical analysis of mind, mental concomitants and matter which make up the whole "whirlpool of existence ", conditions one in a conditioning brought about by one self, to perceive and understand the Doctrine in a way acceptable to the logical mind.

The Buddha taught (more than 2500 years ago) that the universe was composed of millions of world-systems such as we know as our solar System, each with its various planes of existence, and to this modern science now subscribes. The Buddhist concept of "Universe" has been summed up as follows by U Ba Khin, Accountant-General, Burma, in his booklet: "What Buddhism is" : "There is the Okasa Loka (The Universe of Space) which accommodates Nama and Rupa (Mind and Matter). In this mundane world it is Nama Rupa (Mind Matter) which predominates under the influence of the Law of cause and effect. The next is the Sankhara Loka (The Universe of Mental Forces), creative or created. This is the mental plane arising out of the creative energies of mind through the medium of bodily actions, words and thoughts. The third is the Satta Loka (The Universe of Sentient Beings) visible or invisible which are the products of these mental forces. We may term this a "Three-in-one" Universe, since one is inseparable from the other They are, so to say, interwoven and interpenetrating.


As compared with religions of revelation and dogma, the Teaching of the Buddha is the Supreme Teaching of Reason and of sheer, matter-of-fact common sense, and it is one of the most reasonable points of the Religion of Reason that the Buddha exhorted us to test each step for ourselves, to take nothing on trust through mere blind faith. Since He had to teach relativity, a concept of almost countless world-systems and an Atomic Theory, all of which the modern Western world prides itself on having "discovered" quite recently, He had to use the words of the masses in commonsense combinations to elucidate and teach the most abstruse scientific and philosophic concepts, and in an age when there were no machines, microscopes or telescopes. This was done without any "airy-fairy" nonsense so that the Teaching is fresh and true to-day, since Truth does not alter. Meanings of common words had to be extended, so that Pathavi, Apo, Tejo and Vayo ; Earth, Water, Heat & Cold and Air had to become, Extension, Cohesion, Radiation and Motion, for instance, and, to describe an atom ; the smallest physical particle ; the word "Kalapa" was defined as "one-forty-six-thousandth part of a particle of dust raised by a chariot-wheel in Summer ". To the average modern this is an extremely picturesque definition, and to the mind of the men in those days, who saw in the fine dry Indian summer-weather the impalpable dust raised by a chariot-wheel, of which one grain could not be divided out, and to be told how the smallest imaginable division of this tiniest of all particles could exist separately, etched the concept "atom" on the brain more distinctly than most of our modern definitions.

The Buddha's Teaching went further than this and showed that the atom was not "Being" but "Becoming ". But even in the Buddha's day there were those who thought that they knew better than the Teacher, and the Buddha was constrained to say : "It may well be, monks, that some vain man, out of ignorance, plunged in ignorance, overpowered in mind with thirst, thinks himself bound to go beyond the message of the Master" and since then there have been many who have tried to introduce fantastic accretions to His Teaching, and as will be seen by consideration of the necessity to use existent words and phrases, as pointed out above, this was sometimes the more possible by reason of mis-translations of the Pali by those who had not caught the spirit of the Teaching. Nevertheless the only sure guide to the Teaching is the word of the Buddha, as handed down by the Sangha, the unbroken succession of Buddhist Bhikkhus (monks). Immediately after the demise of the Buddha a Council was called at Rajagaha in order to fix the various Discourses and sayings that had been handed down. Thus was laid the ground-plan of the Pali Canon and successive Councils have met to compare and classify and arrange the Teachings of the Buddha. The" Bhanakas" or " Reciters " of the Text were specially chosen until the Texts were committed to writing in Ceylon in about the year 20 B.C.. There have been several Councils since then and the Pali Canon is thus regarded as the pure form of the Teaching. The Ti-pitaka or "Three Baskets of Wisdom" is, as the name implies, divided into three sections. There is the Vinaya, the rules for Bhikkhus, together with stories showing how the main rules came to be introduced ; then there is the Suttanta being sermons and Teachings to laymen and Bhikkhus, and finally the Abhidhamma or "Further Teaching" which is the philosophical Teaching. The Teaching has thus been handed down in the Pali Canon and is known as the Theravada, or "The Way of the Elders ".


The Teaching of the Buddha is a Teaching stern reality, and there are in the world those who just cannot face stern reality and can thus truly be termed " escapists" since all their endeavour is to escape from Reality, usually behind some barrage of words ; but the Theravada Buddhist, though he is intent on escaping permanently from this world where everything is so plainly subject to Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta (to impermanence, sorrow and insubstantiality) and where Lobha, Dosa and Moha (Craving, Anger and Illusion) are of the process, is not in the position of one who pulls the sheet of fantasy over the head of fear but, undertaking a stern and strict discipline, in the pure dawn of Reason, sees clearly and more clearly the shining light of Truth.

"Tot homines tot sententiae" said the old Romans: "So many men, so many opinions", and it is natural that in the course of 2500 years much of the Teaching of the Buddha should be distorted and misrepresented in parts of the East as well as the West. We believe, with the best of all possible reasons, that from the time of the election of the Members of the First Council, just after the Maha Parinibbana of the Buddha, that the Teaching has been preserved as close as possible to its pristine purity by the comparisons and discussions and majority agreement of so many learned Elders, drawn, be it noted, from all parts of the Buddhist countries, and from men of all previous "walks of life" who were not economically or politically dependent on any central dominating figure or group and therefore free to give unbiased evidence and opinions.

It is not the part of Theravada Buddhists either to praise or condemn the so-called Buddhist " sects" but some mention must be made of these. Largely they have classified themselves as " Mahayana" Buddhists, intimating as a dogma that they have received a special "intuitional" teaching and an "esoteric" teaching handed down by word of mouth. They have split up into what must now number many hundreds of divisions holding all sorts of diverse "views including the "Zen" Buddhists, mainly in Japan who claim to be a "reformed Mahayanist group ". Some of these groups are closer to the Teaching of the Buddha than others.

The Hebrew Psalmist sang of "the heathen" who "rage and imagine a vain thing" and it is unfortunately too easy for the mind of man, even educated man, to do this when there is no guide. For "types of religious experience , cosmic consciousness " , " manifestation of spiritual attainment ", even " miracles" are not so difficult as the correct interpretation of the experiences and phenomena so referred to. The Sublime states of Meditative Consciousness are still without " Ego " or " soul " but those trained in the " Soul Theory quite readily accept the phenomena of supramundane intellectual states as evidence of what they have consciously or unconsciously been seeking of a "Soul" or "God" of some sort.

The Word of the Buddha and the system of training given in the Suttanta as well as in the Vinaya and Abhidhamma is a guide and indeed that is the metier of the Buddhas, to "point out the Way."

Elsewhere in this magazine we try to give you as full as possible a picture of "The Word of the Buddha" and it shall be our endeavour to continue this in future issues.