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Elementary Practical Buddhism


U Thein Nyunt

Vol. X, No. 2, 1963

          I hope you will agree with me—that the elementary portions of a subject must be well-mastered in order to attain proficiency in it. For it is here that the fundamental principles of the subject are to be found, and which must be well grasped, before the advanced portions are taken up for study. Although this is the normal procedure for the propel study of a subject we are always in a hurry—especially in this satellite age—to learn about as many subjects as possible in the shortest period of time and to be up- to-date on them. Human nature, being what it is, we are eager and greedy to learn, or possess as many things as we can, all at once, and in the quickest time. For instance, we want to be rich tomorrow. We don't want to start from the bottom, strive hard, make sacrifices to save part of our earnings and wait patiently to become rich, it is the same with practical Buddhism. We are too eager to practise the advanced portions in order to become Ariyas as quickly as possible. I compare this to the running up of a very steep ladder. Owing to the disturbance of the ladder, it topples over and we fall back to earth, the place from where we started. It would be preferable to start slowly rung by rung. This is the safe and sure method for there is no possibility of the ladder toppling over. We remain safe at the particular rung and from which we can gradually rise, higher and higher, till the top is reached. It is just like a fifth standard boy who is very keen to get to college as soon as possible. He takes private tuition for a year and sits for the Matriculation Examination. Without the proper foundation, however, he does not succeed in passing even after several attempts are made. Thus he loses hope of ever getting to college. Another boy of the same standard gradually works his way up, standard by standard, and passes the Matriculation at the first attempt. So he succeeds in getting to college and, of course, earlier than the first boy. It is the case of the slow and steady winning the race.

         Thus a man of knowledge bides his time. He works on the causes, slowly works his way up, and does not bother about results for he knows they will come in time. The ignorant man only bothers about results, rushes to get results but never gets them.

          A subject is studied with one of these two objectives namely:- (1) to gather as much information as we can about it from books, i.e., just to know what it is all about. This is the only objective in the case of theoretical subjects such as history (2) to achieve practical results. This is possible only with practical subjects such as chemistry and Buddhism and this should be the objective. But the theorist takes up a practical subject with the first objective, i.e., just gathering information about it. It is only the one, who is gifted with the trait for practical application, who will look out for practical instructions, follow them and acquire practical knowledge of the subject. Here we must be clear as to what is meant by a practical person or a person who is practically minded or one who has the trait for practical application. A practical man is not one who is ready to work with his hands mechanically i.e., to saw, to carry out experiments and so on. A practical person or a practically-minded person is one who knows 1 how to apply facts in order to make them his own. He also carries out physical work but this forms only part of the procedure for realisation of facts. For example, a scientist thinks out a theory, and then proves the theory is correct by his experiments. The theory then becomes a fact which is his own. In passing, it may be mentioned that every scientist is not a practical person. He has only been trained, in the methods of practical application in his particular field of science but if he does not adopt the same methods in other fields of study, he is not practically minded.

          In the case of a practical subject it is most essential to know whether the facts that a person speaks about are his own or not. A theorist has no means of judging this. For he mistakenly believes that the facts he learns from books are his own. This is "Just theoretical acceptance of facts and conclusions that were arrived at in a practical way by someone else. So he has to place sole reliance on books in support of his arguments. On the other hand, the practically-minded person knows that the facts he learns from books are borrowed facts and that he has to make them his own. He can distinguish a theorist from a practical man. For he will not be led away by all that the theorist says. Since it is not what a person speaks that counts but his actions, attention will be paid to the character of the person and not to the fine words that anybody can utter. A practical man, therefore, makes it a point to preach what he has practised or is practising.

          If one is not gifted with this trait for practical application is there any way of acquiring this trait? This brings me to the principles about practical application, i.e., to the method that must be followed for making another's practical knowledge one's own or the practical realisation of facts. These are general principles which are applicable to all practical subjects though their subject matter may be poles apart. For instance, it can be applied to games, the practical arts and sciences, and Buddhism. One must be well-versed with these principles before going on to the actual practice. It is for this reason that I will deal with these principles first before showing how they are to be applied to Buddhism. It is my belief that if a person is ignorant of these principles he will not be in a position to judge which is the correct method or practice. Since he will be reluctant to take up any kind of practice for fear that it might be wrong, he will end up by not practising at all. But if a person is acquainted with these principles he is sure to get practical results because the facts to be realized by himself, facts which he has to make his own, are all available in the books. And what I have been stressing all along is that we have all the facts in the Buddhist Texts. it is the method of practical application to make the essential facts our own that, somehow or other, has been overlooked, lost sight of, and so far nobody has pointed it out to us. For I am sure that if this method becomes generally known and applied there would be a far larger number achieving results in Buddhism. These results may just be the intermediate results but it would still be beneficial to mankind and the world. It may be compared to reaching the middle rung of the ladder.

          The principles of practical application consist of these 4 stages:—

  1. Why is it necessary to achieve practical result? (One has to come to a personal decision so that action will be taken to achieve the result.)
  2. What has to be done to achieve the result., (Know what to do, i.e., the theory of the practice—one comes to know the practical knowledge of another—sutamaya nana.)
  3. How it has to be done. (Learn how to do, i.e., reasoning or reflection and experimental practice to carry out the method in the right way— cintamaya nana)
  4. Repeatedly doing it (Practise to know how to do. The right method is practised till one comes to know how to do it, i.e.,, this is one's practical knowledge—bhavana maya Nana).

         Before going into details about these stages, let me briefly illustrate in a general way what I mean, taking a worldly subject like soap making and Buddhism as examples.

Soap making

          (1)A person must have deeply reflected upon the usefulness of knowing how to make soap in order to arrive at a personal decision.

          (2) He will then find out about the method of soap-making from books or a soap-maker. The knowledge that he has now gained is not his. it is the practical knowledge of another that he has come to know.

          (3) He then carries out the instructions for making soap. He reflects on what he has to do, the ways of remedying faults and so on, till he gets a good soap.

          (4) Now that he has got the right method he will go on practising till he gains experience. Only now comes to have a practical knowledge of soap-making. The facts about soap-making are his own,


         (1) A person will not seriously take up the practice of Buddhism unless he has come to a personal decision, i.e., he is thoroughly convinced that the worldly happiness he enjoys is not the true happiness and that there is a better kind; that he theoretically accepts the fact that existence is suffering and desires to attain release from suffering, from the rounds of existence.

         (2) He will find out what are the practices to be carried out to achieve this objective of deliverance. He will seek explanations for what he has to do and the results that he should attain.

         (3) He will learn to carry out the elementary practice of Buddhism. He will know for himself the purpose of the practice and the right method of carrying it out.

         (4) Once the method of practice is known, he will go on practising mechanically since he has already acquired knowledge about the ~practice in the third stage.

          It will be seen that these are the stages which must be followed in succession. None of these stages must be skipped over or neglected. In my opinion, it is at the end of the 4th stage that one becomes Sotapanna. He has a right view of things which includes right view of the practice to be carried out to attain Nibbana. He has attained the right result, i.e., taking Nibbana as object, for the first time. Although the Sotapanna has right views his actions do not correspond with his views fully and therefore he has to practise towards that end. It is just like having the right view of a bad habit and then the continual practice to overcome entirely that bad habit. The Sotapanna has only found the Truth to the extent of his stage and has to practise to attain Truth fully. It is just like first finding a treasure and then taking entire possession of it.

          I will now go on to the details about the 4 successive stages for acquiring practical knowledge.

(1) Why is it necessary to achieve a practical result?

          We must get a personal answer to this so that we will make our own decision to take action in the matter. Although others may coax us to do a thing we seldom do it unless we, ourselves, are personally convinced that the result will bring us some reward. As a matter of fact, in this revolutionary age, we do just opposite of what we are told to do. How, then, can we arrive at a personal decision? It comes through meditation. We reflect on the pros and cons of the matter and when we are convinced of the great advantages that will be gained from a practical result we make a decision which leads to action. Meditation is thinking round a subject, i.e., dwelling on the ideas related to that subject. In this case it is a debate, with oneself speaking both for and against. But unless this is done earnestly and repeatedly no decision is made and the matter is forgotten. But if it is done properly a decision is reached and we have a clear objective before us. This objective should then be in the forefront of our minds till it is achieved.

          We do meditate and make personal decisions which lead to actions with regard to worldly things such as pleasures, wealth, fame and honour, the results that we constantly crave for. But we seldom, if ever, meditate on what are called dry subjects which lead to actions for the acquisition of knowledge and other abstract results. It is said (1) that if we repeatedly meditate on an idea we come to understand it and (2) that the subject of meditation distinguishes the saint from the sinner. When meditation is first practised it takes a long time before an original idea occurs to us. But when experience is gained by steady practice, such ideas arise in a very short time.

         In many cases we have to make efforts at meditation. For instance, when an intelligent student is about to join the university he makes efforts to reflect on the purpose of going there. We comes to the personal decision that it is for the acquisition of knowledge. So he keeps this objective in mind very often. No one has to ask him to study for he does it by himself seriously and steadily. And he is not easily led astray by others. On the other hand, the ordinary student makes no such efforts and so he has no clear objective before him. Therefore he does not take interest in his studies even if he is forced to do so.

         There are times, however, when external circumstances force us to meditate and lead us to action. Advertisements are good examples. A boy, who has sufficient freedom to do as he likes, comes across a news paper advertisement of a film to be shown in the local' cinema. At the first time he does not pay much attention to it. But seeing the advertisement daily he comes to reflect upon it and finally decides to see the film. Once this personal decision is made, no one can prevent him from going to that particular cinema. As another example, boy and girl meet for the first time and they are attracted to each other. Somehow or other they have many opportunities for seeing each other. The boy begins to think of the girl in her absence, takes a fancy to the girls's image which is recalled many times. The girl does likewise. Then as time goes by, each desires to be with the other ad the time and so they decide to marry. No one can prevent them from changing their minds and if the parents are not agreeable they find other means. We can recall many such instances these days because boys and girls see each other so often either in the house, office, as neighbours and so on. I have given these examples just to show that when the mind dwells repeatedly on an idea for a long time, some definite action always results.

          Sometimes we are compelled to meditate by force of circumstances and arrive at personal decisions which result in good or evil actions. For example, when a person is down and out he is compelled to come to a personal decision to earn a living. If he honestly tries and fails in his attempts he is compelled to meditate again and arrive at other decisions which would lead to stealing and murder. Ordinarily, the majority of us are mentally lazy and so we do not meditate deeply and repeatedly on any idea. The kind of thinking we do is very superficial. No decisions are made and therefore no action is taken to bring about practical results. For instance, everybody -wants to be rich and we occasionally think about the ways to get rich and what we will do with all that money. But since we do not reflect deeply enough in order to arrive at personal decisions the objective is not strong enough to lead to action. This is what is wrong with most of us. We have no fixed objectives at all and so we wander aimlessly through life.

         It is true, however, that the kind of life we have to lead gives us very little time for sober reflection. There are so many things to be done, so many social calls to make, etc., that we can seldom spare the time. We are now so used to this kind of life that we are not accustomed to be alone with ourselves. As a matter of fact we dislike solitude. We must he doing something all the time, either talking to someone, reading some book or carrying out some physical deed. We now fight shy of solitude which is essential for proper meditation. To sum up:- We must repeatedly meditate on the advantages of a practical objective we wish to achieve and do it long enough in order to arrive at a personal decision, one way or the other. Persuasion and coaxing by others generally fail. For a Buddhist whose primary duty is to take action so that he will never come back to a worldly existence. he has to meditate and convince himself of the unsatisfactory nature of worldly existence. I shall deal more fully with this when I come to its application in practical Buddhism.

(2) What has to be done to achieve the result.

          After a personal decision has been made to achieve a practical result, the next step is to find out what has to be done to achieve that result. In other words we must know what to do, i.e., the theory regarding~ the practice. Here we have to learn the basic principles concerning the practice, the directions that have to be followed, the reasons for carrying out these directions and the result that is to be explained. This means that we must have a theoretical knowledge of the practical knowledge acquired by the discoverer or rediscoverer. For instance, take the case of the discoverer of a gas. He has a practical knowledge of the preparation and properties of the gas. He then makes known his discovery so that others may rediscover the gas themselves. It will include the substances used in the preparation, the method of preparation, the precautions to be taken, the chemical reaction that takes place, the proper collection, testing and properties of the gas. It will be noted that the properties of the gas are given, properties which age found by testing the result, which is the gas. And why are they given? Because anyone who prepares the gas will know that he has employed the correct method when it is found that the results of testing the gas he prepared are in entire agreement with those profiles. Of course, the person who is going to carry Out the experiment must have acquired a knowledge of elementary chemistry and the ways of carrying out chemical experiments. The same applies to all practical subjects. So we see how essential it is to learn the elementary principles and practice of a subject.

          Since the objective is to achieve practical results, we will have to concentrate on those theories which relate to practice. From where can we get these theories? We can seek for them, alone and unaided, from books. This is what is generally done. However, this takes up a lot of time in order lo grasp the essential ideas of practice. Moreover, there is always the chance that some of these may be overlooked. The result will be that we gradually come to lose interest in it and later give it up for good. The best course to adopt is to seek a practical teacher, i.e., one who has a good practical knowledge of the subject. We know of scientific discoverers who adopted the same course and served their apprenticeships under eminent scientists of their time. But it is important that we avoid the teacher who only knows the theoretical aspects of he subject. For we will be asked to carry out some practice without telling us what the result should be. Of course it must be admitted that some sort of result must come from a practice but whether it is the desired result or not is an entirely different matter.

          It is, indeed, most difficult to know who is the true teacher. In my opinion he is one who does not care for rewards, followers and fame. He looks solely to the benefit of the pupils he has accepted. And why select pupils? Because he is not going to waste his time and effort on those who will not carry out his instructions and who start arguing and contradicting him. At the present time there are no proper selections of pupils— besides the examination marks gained by them—who are really fitted for the professions especially school teachers and doctors who look after the nations' education and health. Recently it came out in the papers that a tennis coach for the Davis cup players refused to accompany them unless they promised to do as they were told. Incidentally, the value of having coaches and experts to train people, instead of learning by trial and error, has come to be realised. The true teacher would be able to explain matters in detail as I have mentioned above. To stress my point by an analogy it wouldn't be right for a teacher to ask a person to ride a bicycle when that person has never seen one and does not know the use of it. If a teacher asks a pupil to do a thing without explaining and giving instructions and the pupil does not carry it out, the teacher blames the pupil. But the latter is not at fault. If a teacher first explains and gives instructions and asks a pupil to do it and the pupil does not carry it out, it is now the pupil's fault, not the teacher's.

          We now come to consider the pupil. We must be pupil-minded. This does not mean that we must overdo our respects or flatter the teacher. This is not what the true teacher wants. The main thing is to do exactly as we are told. We will have to leave aside all our old beliefs, prejudices etc. for the time being and have implicit confidence in the teacher. If we don't understand or cannot accept what he tells us we should not argue with him but humbly ask for explanations so as to clear up all doubts and be quite sure what we have rightly interpreted them. For the teacher has to express his ideas in words which can easily be misinterpreted. This will result in reflection on wrong ideas and carrying out wrong practices and we will fail to achieve the proper result. Therefore it is necessary to let the teacher know how we have interpreted his words. This is the real purpose of discussion with the teacher. It is not meant for the purpose of arguing or contradicting him or for showing off our knowledge. But you will find that there are very few who are pupil-minded. We stick to our own views and beliefs and can never leave them aside for a while. In fact we try to force our views on others, instead of simply presenting them for consideration. Others have the freedom to hold views and beliefs of their own and if these are wrong, it's their concern, not ours. There is the pride in us from giving up our views and condescending to learn from others whoever they may be. There is an account of two persons each of whom had been carrying a bundle of rags for a long distance. Then they came to a village where they found some cloth which was better than the rags. One, of course, gave up the rags and took the cloth. But the other would not, saying that he had expended so much effort carrying it for such a long distance he was not prepared to give up the rags. They went on from village to village, one always exchanging his goods for a better one each time and the other sticking to his old rags. Who has profited? It is the same with our views and beliefs. The pupil-minded discards old ones for better ones. We always think in terms of superiority over, or equality with others, and so we try to learn about things by ourselves without assistance from others. Even in such worldly matters as seeking wealth, we go our own way about it. The wise thing would be to serve as a pupil to one who has acquired riches (honestly, of course), learn from him and consult him in such matters. And this is most important in practical Buddhism. The great difficulty is that there are no concrete ways, such as in the case of the wealthy man, to judge who is the true teacher. The next best thing, therefore, is to select a teacher, serve under him for several years, then do the same with other teachers that are selected. To sum up:- We don't need to know a practical subject entirely but only that relevant portion concerning the theory and instructions that are needed to achieve practical results. This is the practical knowledge acquired by others. We now go on to the next two stages by which that practical knowledge is made our own.

(3) How it has to be done:

          This requires meditation or reflection on the instructions and on how to carry them out. Then comes experimental practice and meditation to remedy defects in the practice so as to get the right result. For in practical work we seldom succeed at the first attempt. Of course, the information in books or those given by the practical teacher is always correct but when we get down to the practice, we make mistakes in the practical details which we ourselves have to overcome. The practical man knows he is liable to make mistakes, he is not afraid of making mistakes and when he does, he overcomes them and gets his practice right. The theorist, on the other hand, gets his information from authoritative books which are always right. He is afraid of making mistakes and he thereby loses truth.

          Here more time is spent on meditation on practice. We must remember, however, that the meditation is done with a practical result in view. We have to rely on ourselves alone from now on. We can get advice and guidance from the teacher and from books but to get our own result we have to carry out the meditation and the experimental practices by ourselves. We can not get the right view of the method of practice simply by accepting that the teacher> and the books tell us. This is just theoretical acceptance of the practical conclusions arrived at by others. We have to carry out trial experiments and arrive at the practical conclusions ourselves. As an example to illustrate my point, we Buddhist learn from the Texts that everything in this world is Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta and this view is accepted by us. If this were sufficient then all Buddhists would be Ariyas. But we are not, simply because we have not found this out practically for ourselves. The view has not been confirmed by experiment.

          The things that have to be done at this stage are

  1. to meditate over what we have to do
  2. to clearly comprehend why they have to be done,
  3. to recall results that are to be obtained at the different stages and
  4. to draw up a procedure for trying out the experiment or method of practice.

After that we carry out the practical work. It will be found that the result expected at intermediate stage is not obtained. We then reflect and find out where we went wrong and the ways of putting it right. Then the method must be repeated from the beginning and carried on till we again find that the result at another intermediate stage is wrong. Again we must reflect to find means to overcome the defects. These practical mistakes can only be remedied by ourselves to get the right result. When, in the above manner, we find that the final result is correct, we have a right view of the experiment. But if we do not get the right ideas of the practice or make no attempts to find solutions to the practical problems that we come across, we lose interest and give up the experiment. It is therefore very necessary that we proceed steadily and with perseverance so as to grasp the essential ideas in order to create interest. Because it is only when we become interested that we find time to continue with the trials till success is achieved.

          To sum up:- At this stage we have to get a good grasp of the essential ideas of the experimental practice and this comes only by steady and persistent efforts at meditation and practice. It becomes very interesting because we have to find solutions for the practical problems that are encountered. We become active in mind—and therefore active in body—when we know we have some problem to solve and we try to find the solution. We now clearly comprehend, in a practical way, how the practice has to be carried out, why we have to carry out the various steps and the result attained from practice. So this is a right view which has been confirmed by practice, i.e., a practically realised right view of our own.

(4) Repeatedly doing it.

          Since we have clearly comprehended every thing about the method of practice in the preceding stage, the method is now repeated just consciously till it can be carried out mechanically. We can now say that we know how to carry out the practices because the right result is obtained everytime. There is nothing more to do about it for we have acquired practical knowledge of the method. i.e., it is our own method. The practical knowledge of another has been made one's own.

          To sum up:- It is only at the end of this final stage that we practically realise the facts found in books or given by the teacher. The conclusions that we arrive at are our very own and are based on practical experiments. Our objective to achieve a practical result has been realised.

          We often go through these successive stages in order to achieve some practical objective although we are never conscious of these stages. If therefore, a person clearly understands the principles explained above and repeatedly applied them he will acquire the trait for practical application of facts and so make them his own. He will never forget the facts although he makes no effort to memorize them. The reason is that he had meditated on them so often in the various stages and applied them in practice. One seldom forgets things that one comes to know in a practical way. Off-hand answers can be given on it at any time.

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First posted on 17 Nov 1999


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