WHAT IS BUDDHISM?
Prime Minister of the Union of Burma
( Speech delivered at New York University on July 6, 1955 )
Vol. III, No. 2, 1956
I think that Buddhism is not properly understood in the West. Some believe that Buddhism merely teaches the avoidance of such evil things as taking life, theft, seduction, falsehood, taking liquor and drugs, and so forth. Others understand Buddhism merely as a Body of Doctrine teaching people to cast off hatred and disseminate love towards all humanity.
But these aspects of Buddhism are merely partial aspects. They are only part of Buddhism and do not represent all that it stands for. Metaphorically speaking, they are just one of the many legs of a centipede. After all, the doctrine of avoidance of evil practices and of love for all living beings were doctrines that appeared at certain periods of human history even before the rise of Buddhism.
Then what is it that distinguishes Buddhism from other religions and from other codes of moral and ethical conduct ? The answer lies in the practice of Buddhist Doctrine, which involves an exercise of a rigid personal discipline, so as to attain a serenity of mind, which in turn will lead to a way of escape from suffering and distress.
It is not easy to explain this to those who are not initiated in the teachings of the Buddha. It is particularly difficult to do so in another language because frequently, as in English for example, there are simply no words which can convey the exact and full meaning of certain Buddhist concepts. If you will bear with me, however, I will attempt this difficult task.
Perhaps I should first explain that there is no state religion under the Constitution of the Union of Burma. We believe in, and also practise, full freedom of religious belief. Eighty-five per cent of our people, however, are Buddhists, and since Buddhism is part and parcel of our national life, I am taking this opportunity to explain Buddhism to you.
Now back to the question What is the essence of Buddhism ? In answering this question, let me hasten to say that I do not intend to give a full discourse or a detailed discussion of Buddhist Philosophy. I shall attempt merely to give you the essential principles of our religion.
The first principle of Buddhist Philosophy is a belief in and an understanding of the thirty-one planes of existence, which may also be called the wheel or cycle of existence.
These thirty-one planes are as follows
You will see from the list that there are twenty-six planes above the plane of human existence, and four planes below. If we take the human plane as our criterion, the beings in the higher planes of existence have much pleasure and enjoyment, whereas the beings in the four lower planes are in pain and torment. If I may borrow terms from other religions, the upper twenty-six planes of spiritual existence are the planes of" Paradise" and the four nether planes are the planes of "Purgatory"
The second principle of Buddhism is a recognition of a realization of the following three cardinal facts. They are
The third principle is this Buddhism is a way of life which will lead to complete freedom from all these sufferings. What then is this way of life ?
The Buddha has clearly said that there is but one way which will lead to freedom from suffering. This way is no other than the way of complete awareness. The nature of this awareness will be understood better if one practises contemplation, but I will attempt to explain its nature in very general terms.
All human beings have the same sense organs. One of these sense organs is constantly in contact with some kind of sensation. As a result of these sensations we experience, roughly speaking, either a pleasant or an unpleasant reaction. Close on the heels of this sensation, there arises in us a mental state of liking the sensation or disliking the sensation. And with this liking or disliking, there arises a mental state of attachment or revulsion.
Pleasant sensations breed attachment, and unpleasant sensations breed revulsion. These mental states of attachment or revulsion recur continuously in us, and just as we cannot see when our eyes are covered with cataracts, so we cannot get a true perception of ourselves when our minds are occupied with either attachment or revulsion. We also fail to get true perception of the things around us, both animate beings and inanimate objects.
Let us illustrate this point with a personal experience. One night, in my youth, I was walking alone. It was past midnight. The wind was blowing rather heavily and a loose zinc sheet in the roof of a building was fluttering in the wind. At first I was terribly frightened at the sight of what I thought to be a huge monster rising and bending to frighten me. I stood still and looked at the phenomenon., After some time, when I had completely recovered from the fright, realized to my relief that it was not a monster but a loose zinc sheet fluttering in the wind.
In the same way, as we are letting in a free flow of sensations through our sense organs, mental states of either attachment or revulsion are occurring in us every day, every hour, every minute and every second. So long as we allow ourselves to be victims of these states of mind, we will have an incorrect perception of ourselves and of things around us, both animate beings and inanimate objects, in the same way as I had the incorrect perception of the fluttering zinc sheet so long as I was overcome with fright.
What is therefore required, is the sense of awareness about the first impact of sight, sound, scent, taste, touch and thought. If you open the door, all visitors waiting outside the door will enter the room. But if you close the door after the entry of the first per son the rest of the visitors will be kept outside. In the same way, if you apply a sense of awareness every time you see or hear or eat or smell or touch or think, mental states of attachment or revulsion will not occur in you so long as that awareness lasts. An angry man, at the instant application of "awareness" of his anger, will find that his anger subsides. I believe many of you must have had such an experience of "awareness" at one time or another, but I think there are only a very few people who have attempted to strengthen this ability to be "aware".
This awareness of mind can be strengthened if it is continuously applied in the correct manner on all occasions. It will certainly be difficult at first, but a constant application of this awareness of mind to all your senses will preclude the possibility of the encroachment of attachment or revulsion. After a sufficient practice, awareness will become firm and constant. When it becomes " firm and constant ",
This is the end of the long road of existence for you will now obtain serenity and tranquillity of mind. From this point onwards, what ever you see or hear or smell or eat or come in touch with or think of, there will not arise in you attachment or revulsion. You will no longer have an incorrect perception of yourselves or of all things around you. You will now have the right perspective and you will see all things in their truth.
What I have said so far is an attempt on my part to answer the question " What is Buddhism" in the shortest, simplest manner possible. But immediately after giving this answer to the question, to the best of my ability, allow me to tell you a little story about what happened in one of our villages when I was a young boy.
There was a village in my country where cholera was rampant every year. And every time cholera occurred, the villagers, instead of taking such measures as inoculation, boiling drinking water and clearing the village of rubbish and dirt, would make a great din in the village by beating on tins, brass trays and all sorts of noisy utensils. This was their custom, because they thought cholera was due to evil and powerful spirits entering the village, and by making a huge noise they thought they were frightening the spirits away and driving them out.
One day a health officer came to this village. This official in public health service told the villagers in a lecture that the occurrence of cholera was not due to evil and powerful spirits, but to the drinking of impure water containing cholera germs. He said that if cholera was to be prevented, it was not necessary to make a noisy din in the village, but it was necessary to drink boiled water. The villagers were too polite to say anything in the presence of the health official, but as soon as he went away they all laughed at him and made him a butt of their jokes. They said to one another "This health official must be crazy Everyone knows that cholera is due to evil and powerful spirits, and he said it is due to germs in the water. How ridiculous! How naive !"
The next year, in the same season, there was again a cholera epidemic in the village. This time, the health official brought a microscope to the village. This time he did not give a long lecture as previously. He asked for a sample of their drinking water, and made the villagers look at it through the microscope. Only then were the villagers surprised and alarmed. They started to drink only boiled water, and from that time onwards there was no cholera in this village.
Just as those villagers laughed, you may laugh and say " We cannot see those higher planes of existence of the spiritual beings, or the lower planes of existence. This man talks about such strange things as Brahmas and Devas and beings-in-torment. Has he seen them himself? How ridiculous and naive to believe that we after our death will endlessly be reborn in one or the other of the thirty-one planes of existence. And there is nothing wonderful in the doctrine that a man can come to the end of the road of existence merely by an application of awareness to all sensations. " Perhaps such thoughts are now passing through the minds of my gentle audience, and only politeness and courtesy restrain them from showing disbelief and disagreement, or breaking out into laughter.
In telling you this little story, I do not mean to suggest in any way that the members of this learned audience are ignorant and superstitious as those simple villagers. I merely want to emphasize two points. First, without the right vision, you cannot see the truth; the villagers could see the microbes only when they attained the right vision, namely through the microscope, and I will say that you can see the truth regarding human existence only through the microscope of "mental serenity"; secondly, truth can be discovered only through personal experience. No amount of explanation could make the villagers understand what a microbe was and in the same way, no amount of explanation on my part can make you understand exactly what "awareness " is. But just as practical experience with the microscope opened to the villagers a new field of vision, in the same way a personal experience of mental exercises of contemplation as practised by Buddhists will open for your eyes new fields of vision.
Therefore, I should like the members of my audience to try and test whether the doctrine of the Dhamma I have outlined is true or not. The Buddha said that the Dhamma or doctrine of Buddhism has the following six qualities:-
Thus, I would like the members of my patient audience to find out and prove for themselves the truth or falsehood of what I have said. Man, until and unless he gets insight, is sceptical whatever the religion he professes. Even a man who is a devout Buddhist, who has donned the yellow robe from boyhood, and who may have become the Buddhist equivalent of an Abbot, after acquiring great learning in buddhist doctrine, will some time be assailed by doubts within him as to the truth or otherwise of the teaching of Buddhism. And because of these doubts, he may be converted to other religions or he may give up all religions ; but as soon as a person has reached the first stage of "awareness" of spiritual development called the Sotapatti stage, the characteristic tendency of the human mind to doubt will become completely annihilated. At this stage, he can no longer have doubts regarding the endless chain of suffering or cause of that endless chain of suffering, or the state of complete freedom from the endless chain of suffering, or the way to achieve a complete escape from the endless chain. If such a man has been a very bad man before he reaches this first stage of awareness, he will himself recognize and realize a great transformation as soon as he reaches that stage. Other people who know him well will also see the transformation clearly. If, for example, this man has been a great drunkard or robber or murderer, the transformation in him will be more clearly manifest than in the case of other ordinary people. The reason is that it becomes absolutely impossible for a man who has reached this stage to kill or to take other's property not given to him or to utter falsehood or to drink alcohol or take drugs. In short, he will never again make evil utterances, perform bad actions, or have bad thoughts.
When the second stage is reached the experience is still similar to the first although of course there is a further development.
But when the third stage is reached a greater development is met with. A person who reaches this third stage will have shed revulsion entirely. There will be no one anywhere who can cause the slightest anger to appear in him whatever the provocation. This is indeed a great mental achievement. However, the person at this third stage of spiritual development still has one desire remaining in him, namely to reach the plane of existence of the higher spiritual beings.
But, when the fourth stage, or Arahatta Magga, is reached, there is no more any kind of anger or any kind of desire in him. He has become serene and tranquil.
These stages are the four great stages that can surely and certainly be achieved in this life-time by those who test and prove the truth of Buddhism. They will not have to wait till after death for the proof. And, even before the first stage or Sotapatti Magga is reached, a person, practising awareness, will experience eleven kinds of mental realization or Nana so that he will be convinced that he is on the right track. I will not attempt to explain beyond this the meaning of the various mental states of " awareness ". Let those who embark on the spiritual exercises of contemplation find out the truth for them selves. For however hard I try to explain, the members of my very patient audience will only faintly grasp their significance, whereas after they have completed the course of spiritual exercises they will not need my explanations any more, but will understand these various mental states clearly and fully by themselves.
I know full well that Americans can only be convinced by " scientific proof ", that is, by practical experiment and practical demonstration. And owing to this belief in practical and tangible proof, they have made experiments in the field of science at great expenditure of money and manpower and have attained such success that the world stands astounded at their scientific achievements.
Therefore, I earnestly plead with the people of the United States of America, through this distinguished and representative audience, to put the truth of Buddhism to the test in the same way as a scientific theory is put to the test.
I would like to make a suggestion in regard to this practical experimentation with the truth of Buddhist doctrine. I suggest that ten persons, chosen and selected by a competent body, should come to Burma for the purpose of personally putting the doctrine to proof by actual practice of the spiritual exercises. When they reach Burma they will be my guests. These ten persons will come back to the United States of America after they have practised the required course of spiritual exercise and will relate to the American people their experiences and their findings.
May I conclude by urging earnestly that Buddhism may be put to a practical test and personal experiment. Thank you.
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