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What Buddhism Is

'Thray Sithu' U Ba Khin

Lecture No.1

Vol. X, No. 2, 1963

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          (The following are a series of lectures given by Thray Sithu U Ba Khin, President of the Vipassana Association which founded the International Meditation Centre. He was then the Accountant-General of Burma and the lectures were given in the premises of the Methodist Church, Signal Pagoda Pond, Rangoon, at the request of a religious study Group headed by Messrser Gerald F. Winfield, Information Officer and Roger C. Thorpe, Economic & Finance Officer of the Special Technical and Economic Division of the United States of America—Editor.)

23rd September 1951. Lecture No.1

          I consider it a great privilege to be in your midst to-day and to have this opportunity of addressing you on the subject of "What Buddhism Is." At the outset, I must be very frank with you. I have not been to a University and I have no knowledge of science except as a man in the street. Nor am I a scholar in the theory of Buddhism with any knowledge of Pali, the language in which the Tipitakas (literally known as the Three Baskets of Buddha Dhamma) are maintained. I may say, however, that I have read in Burmese to some extent the treatises of Buddhism by well-known and learned Buddhist Monks. As my approach to Buddhism is more by practical than by theoretical means, I hope to be able to give you something of Buddhism which is not easily available elsewhere. I must admit, however, that for the time being I am just a student of practical Buddhism as also an experimentalist trying to learn through Buddhism the truth of the nature of forces. As this has to be done as a house-holder and within a limited time available in between the multifarious duties of a responsible officer of Government, the progress is rather slow and I do not claim for a moment that what I am going to say is absolutely correct. I may be right or wrong. But when I say a thing, I assure you that it is with a sincerity of purpose, with the best of intentions and with conviction.

          Lord Buddha said in "Kalama Sutta":

      "Do not believe in what ye have heard; do not believe in traditions, because they had been handed down for many generations; do not believe in anything, because it is rumoured and spoken by many; do not believe merely because a written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe in conjectures; do not believe in that as truth to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe merely the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and gain of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

         Pray, do not , therefore, believe me when I come to the philosophical issues until and unless you are convinced of what I say either as a sequel to proper reasoning or by means of a practical approach.

"To abstain from evil
To do good
To purify the Mind
These are the teachings of all the Buddhas"

          This extract taken from "Dhammapada," gives in brief the essence of Buddhism. It sounds simple but is so difficult to practise. One cannot be a true Buddhist unless he puts the doctrines of Buddha to practice. Buddha had said:

       "Ye, to whom the truths I have perceived have been made known by me, make them surely your own, practise them, meditate upon them, spread them abroad: in order that the pure religion may last long and be perpetuated for the good and the gain and the weal of gods and men."

          2. Before I take up the teachings of Buddha which form the basic foundation of Buddhism I propose to acquaint you, first of all, with the life story of Gotama Buddha. For this purpose, I feel it my duty to give you a back ground of certain Buddhist concepts which may be foreign to most of you. I propose, therefore, to give you a short and descriptive explanation of such concepts in Buddhism, as to the Universe, the World system, the planes of existence, etc. These will, no doubt give you some food for thought. I would however, appeal to you to give a patient hearing and to pass over these matters for the time being i.e., until we come to the question time for discussion.


          3. The Buddhist concepts of the Universe may be summed up as follows:

          There is the Okasa Loka (the Universe of Space which accommodate, Nama & Rupa (Mind & 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 a mental plane arising out of the creative energies of Mind through the medium of bodily actions, words and thoughts. The third and the last is the Satta Loka (the Universe of sentient beings) visible or invisible which are the products of these mental forces; We may rather call these three as 'Three in One' universe, because one is inseparable from another. They are, so to say, interwoven and interpenetrating.

          What will interest you most are the Cakkavalas or World-systems, each with its thirty-one planes of existence. Each World-system corresponds to the Human World with its solar system and other planes of existence. There are millions and millions of such World-systems, simply innumerable. Ten thousand such World-system closest to us are within the Jati-Khetta (or the field of Origin) of a Buddha. In fact when the renowned Sutta (or Sermon) "Maha Samaya" meaning the "Great Occasion" was preached by Buddha in the Mahavana (Forest) near the town of Kapila Vatthu, not only the Brahmas and Devas of our World-system but all of the Ten thousand World systems were present to listen to the teachings of Buddha. Lord Buddha can also send his thought waves charged with boundless love and compassion to the sentient beings of a hundred crores of such World systems Within the Anakhetta ( or the field of Influence). The remainder of the World-systems are in the Visaya Khetta ( or Infinite space) beyond the reach of Buddha's effective thought waves. You can very well imagine from these concepts of Buddhism the size of the Universe as a whole. The material insignificance of our World in the Okasa Loka (the Universe of Space) is simply terrifying. The Human World, as a whole, must be just a speck in space.

          Now I will give you an idea of the thirty-one planes of existence in our World system which, of course is the same as in any of the other World systems. Broadly they are:

  1. (i) Arupa Loka .. Immaterial World of Brahmas
  2. (ii) Rupa Loka .. Fine Material World of Brahmas
  3. (iii) Kama Loka .. Sensuous World of Devas, Mankind and Lower beings.

         The Arupa Loka comprises of four BrahmaWorlds of immaterial state, i.e., without Rupa or Matter. The Rupa Loka comprises of sixteen Brahma Worlds of fine material state. The Kama Loka comprises of

(a) Six Deva Lokas (or Celestial Worlds) viz:

(i) Catumaharajika

(ii) Tavatimsa

(iii) Yama

(iv) Tusita

(v) Nimmanarati

(vi) Paranimmita-vasavatti

(b) The Human World

(c) The four Lower Worlds, viz

(i) Niraya (Hell)

(ii) Tiriccihna (Animal World)

(iii) Peta (Ghost World)

(iv) Asura (Demon World)

          These planes of existence are pure or impure, cool or hit, luminous or dark, light or heavy, pleasant or wretched - according to the character of the mental forces generated by the Mind on the volition (cetana) of series of actions, words and thoughts. For example, take the case of a religious man who suffuses the whole universe of beings with boundless love and compassion. He must be generating such mental forces as are pure, cooling, luminous, light and pleasant, forces which normally settle down in the Brahma Worlds. Let us now take the reverse case of a man who is dissatisfied or angry.

          As the saying "Face is the indication of mind" goes impurity, heat, darkness, heaviness and wretchedness of his mind are immediately reflected in that person - visible even to the naked eye. This is due, I may say, to the generation of the evil mental forces of Dosa (Anger) which go down to the lower World of Existence. So also is the case with the mental forces arising out of Lobha (Greed) or Moha (Delusion). In the case of meritorious deeds such as devotion, morality and charity which have, at their base attachment to future well-being, the mental forces generated are such as will normally be located in the sensuous planes of Devas (Celestial beings) and of Mankind. These, Ladies and Gentleman, are some of the concepts in Buddhism relevant to the life story of Gotama Buddha which I will presently begin.


          4. Gotama Buddha is the fourth of the five Buddhas to rise in the World cycle which is known as Bhadda Kappa. His predecessors were Buddhas Kakusanda, Konagamana and Kassapa. There were also innumerable Buddhas who had arisen in earlier Kappas and who had preached the self same Dhamma which gives deliverance from suffering and death to all matured beings. Buddhas are all compassionate, glorious and enlightened.

          A hermit by the name of Sumeda was inspired by Buddha Dipankara, so much so, that he, took the vow to make all the necessary preparations to become a Buddha in course of time. Buddha Dipankara gave him His blessings and prophesied that he would become a Buddha by the name of Gotama after a Lapse of four Asanchyeyas and a lac Kappas. From then onwards, existence after existence, the Bodhisatta (i.e., would-be-Buddha) conserved mental energies of the highest order through the practices of ten Paramitas (or Virtues towards Perfection) viz:

 (i) Dana Parami

 Virtue in Alms-giving

 (ii) Sila


 (iii) Nekkhamma


 (iv) Panna


 (v) Viriya


 (vi) Khanti


 (vii) Sacca


 (viii) Addhitthana


 (ix) Metta

 All-embracing Love

 (x) Upekkha


          It is, therefore, a most enduring task to become a Buddha. Utmost strength of Will Power is necessary even to think of it. The Bodhisatta's preparatory period came to an end with the life of King Vesantara who excelled any living being in Alms-giving. He gave away his kingdom, his wife and his children and all his worldly possessions, for the consummation of his solemn vow taken before the Dipankara Buddha. The next existence was in Tusita (of the celestial Planes) as glorious Setaketu Deva, until he got his release from that plane and took conception in the womb of Maya Devi, the Queen of King Suddhodana of Kapilavatthu, a place near modern Nepal. When time was drawing nigh for confinement, the Queen expressed her desire to go to the place of her own parents for the event. King Suddhodana accordingly sent her there with befitting retinues and guards. On the way, a halt was made at the Lumbani Sal forest. She got down from the palanquin and enjoyed the cool breeze and fragrance of Sal flowers. While holding out her right hand to a branch of the nearby Sal tree for a flower, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, she gave birth to a son who was to become the All-Enlightened Buddha. Simultaneously, the natural order of things in the Cosmos was revolutionised in many respects and 32 wonderful phenomena were vivified. All material worlds were shaken from the foundation. There were unusual illuminations in the Solar system. All the beings of material planes could see each other. Deaf and dumb were cured. Celestial music was heard everywhere and so on. At that moment, Kala Devila, the hermit teacher of King Suddhodana, was having a discourse with celestial beings of Tavatimsa. He was a hermit of fame who had in mastery over the eight Samapattis which gave him super-normal powers. Knowing the birth of a son to the King in the midst of rejoicing in all Rupa and Kama Worlds, he hurried back to the palace and desired the baby to be brought before him For blessings. As the King was about to place the baby before his teacher for the occasion, a miracle happened. The baby rose into the air and got himself rested with his tiny feet on the head of Devila who at once understood that the baby was no other than the Embryo Buddha. He smiled at this knowledge but cried almost immediately thereafter, because he foresaw that he would not live to hear his teachings and that even after his death he would be in Arupa Brahma Loka (Immaterial plane of Brahmas) whence he would have no relationship with any of the material planes. He missed the Buddha and his teachings miserably.

          On the fifth day, the child was named Siddhattha in the presence of renowned Astrologer - Palmists who agreed that the child has all the characteristics of a Buddha to come. The mother Queen, however, died a week after confinement and the child was taken care of by his maternal aunt, Pajapati Gotami.

          Siddhattha spent his earlier years of life in ease, luxury and culture. He was acclaimed to be a prodigy both in intellect and strength. The King spared no pains to make the course of his life smooth. Three separate palaces were built to suit three seasons with all the necessities that would make the Prince sink in sensuality. That was because the King, out of paternal affection, desired his son to remain in worldly life as a King rather than as an Enlightened Buddha. The King Suddhodana was over watchful that his son should be in such environment as will give him no chance of higher philosophical ideas. In order to make sure that the thought of the Prince would never turn into this direction, he ordered that nobody serving him or in his association was ever to speak a single word about such things as old age, sickness or death. They were to act as if there were no unpleasant things in this world. Servants and attendants who showed the least sign of getting old, weak or sickly were replaced. On the other hand, there wore dancing, music and enjoyable parties right through, to keep him under a complete shade of sensuality.

The Great Renunciation

          5. As days, months and years passed, however, the monotony of the sensual surroundings gradually lost hold of the mind of Prince Siddhatta. The mental energies of virtue conserved in all his earlier innumerable lives for the great goal of Buddha-hood were automatically aroused. At times, when the world of sensuality lost control over his mind, his inner-self worked its way up and raised his mind to a state of purity and tranquility with the strength of Samadhi such as had raised his baby form into space and on to the head of Kala Devila. The war of nerves began. An escape from sensuality and passion was his first consideration. He wanted to know what existed outside the walls of the palace beyond which he had not visited even once. He wished to see Nature as it is and not as Man has made it. Accordingly he decided to see the Royal Park, outside the Palace walls. On the way to the Park, inspite of precautions taken by the King to get the roads clear of unpleasant sights, he saw an old man bent with age in the very first visit. Next he saw a sick person in agony of a fatal malady. Thereafter he met with a human corpse. On the last trip he came across a monk. All these set his mind into serious thinking. His mental attitude was changed. The mind got clear of impurities and tuned up with the forces of his own virtues conserved in the Sankhara Loka (plane of mental forces). By then his mind had become freed from hindrances, was tranquil, pure and strong. It all happened on the night when a son was born to his queen, a new fetter to bind him down. He was, however, immune from anything which would tend to upset the equilibrium of his Mind. The virtues of Determination worked their way for a strong resolve and he made up his mind to seek the way of escape from birth, old age, suffering and death. It was midnight when the solemn Determination was made. He asked his attendant Channa to keep his Stallion Khandhika ready. After a parting look at his wife and the newly born babe, Prince Siddhattha broke away from all the ties of family and of the world and made the Great Renunciation. He rode across the town to the river Anoma which he crosssed, never to return until his Mission had been achieved.

The Search for Truth

          6. After this Great Renunciation, Prince Siddhattha went around in search of possible teachers in the garb of a wandering ascetic with a begging bowl in his hand. He placed himself under the spiritual guidance of two renowned Brahmin Teachers, Alara and Udaka. Alara laid stress on the belief in Atman (soul) and taught that the soul attained perfect release when freed from material limitations. This did not satisfy the Prince. He next went to Udaka who emphasised too much on the effect of Kamma and the transmigration of soul. Both could not get out of the conception of "Soul" and the Prince ascetic felt that there is something else to learn. He, therefore, left both of them to work out the way for emancipation on his own. By that time, of course, he had learned the eight samapattis and had become an adept in the exercise of all supernormal powers including the ability to read events of many Kappas to come and a similar period of the past. These were all in the mundane field and they did not much concern the Prince Ascetic, whose ambition had been an escape from this mundane field of birth, suffering and death.

          He was joined later by 5 ascetics, one of whom Kodanna by name was the Astrologer- Palmist who definitely foretold on the fifth day of his birth that he would surely become a Buddha. These ascetics served him well throughout the six years, during which he was engaged in fastings and meditation, subjecting himself to various forms of rigorous austeriries and discipline till he was reduced to almost a skeleton. In fact, one day, he fell down in a swoon through exhaustion. When he survived this condition, he changed his method followed a middle course and found that the way for his Enlightenment was clearer.

Attainment of Buddha-Hood

          7. It was on the eve of Wesak (Full moon of Kason) just 2540 years ago, that Prince Siddhattha, wandering Ascetic, sat cross-legged beneath a Bodhi tree on the bank of river Nerinjara in the forust of Uruvela (near present Buddha Gaya)—with the strongest of determinations - not to rise from that posture on any account until he gained the Truth and Enlightenment, the Buddha-hood, even if the attempt might mean the loss of his very life.

         The great Event was approaching. The Prince Ascetic mustered up all his strength of mind to secure that one-pointedness of mind which is so essential for the discovery of the Truth. The balancing of the mind, the Prince found on this occasion, was not so easy as hitherto. There was not only the combination of the mental forces of the Lower Planes with those of the Higher Planes all around him but also interferences strong enough to upset, off and on, the equilibrium of his mind. The resistance of the impenetrable masses of forces against the radiation of the light normally secured by him was unusual. Perhaps, because it was a final bid for Buddha-hood; and Mara, the supreme controller of evil forces, was behind the scene. The Prince, however, worked his way through slowly but surely, backed up by the mental forces of virtues which must inevitably come back to him at the right moment. He made a vow and called upon all the Brahmas and Devas who had witnessed the fulfilment of his ten great Perfections to join hands with him in the struggle for supremacy. This done, the association with the transcendingly pure mental forces of the Brahmas and Devas had salutary effect. The thick masses of forces, which seemed impenetrable at a time, broke away and with a steady improvement in the control over the Mind, they were wiped out once and for all. All the hindrances having been overcome, the Prince was able to raise his power of concentration and put the Mind to a state of complete purity, tranquillity and equanimity. Gradually the consciousness of true insight possessed him. The solution of the vital problems which confronted him made its appearance in his consciousness as an inspiration. By introspective meditation on the realities of nature in his own self, it came vividly to him that there is no substantiality, as it seems to be, in the human body and that it is nothing but the sum total of innumerable millions of Kalapas each about 1/46656 th part of a particle of dust from the wheel of a chariot in Summer. On further investigation, he realised that this Kalapa also is matter in constant change or flux. So also with the mind which is a representation of the mental forces (creative) going out and the mental forces (created) coming into the system of an individual continually and throughout eternity.

          Buddha then proclaimed that his eye of Wisdow had arisen when he got over the substantiality of his own-self: and he saw by means of the lens of Samadhi, the Kalapas on which he next applied the law of Anicca (impermanence) and reduced them to non-entity or behaviour, doing away with what, we, in Buddhism, call "Pannatti" and coming to a state of "Paramattha" or nature of forces or in other words "Ultimate reality."

          Accordingly he came to a realisation of the perpetual change of Mind and Matter in him-self (Anicca) and as a sequel thereto the Truth of Suffering (Dukkha). It was then that the ego- centralism in him broke down into the void and he got over to a stage beyond "Suffering", i-e. (Dukkha Nirodha) with no more traces of" Atta" or attachment to Self left behind. "Mind and Matter" were to him but empty phenomena which roll on forever, within the range of the law of Cause and Effect and the law of Dependent Origination. The Truth was realised. The inherent qualities of Embryo Buddha then developed and complete Enlightenment came to him by the dawn of the Wesak Day. "Verily, Prince Siddhatta attained Samma Sambodhi and became the Buddha, the Awakened One, the Enlightened One—the All Knowing One. He was awake in away compared with which all others were asleep and dreaming. He was enlightened in a way compared with which all other men were stumbling and groping in the dark. He knew with the knowledge compared with which all what other men knew was but a kind of Ignorance

          Ladies & Gentlemen,

          I have taken so much of your time today. I thank you all for the patient hearing. I must also thank the Clergy of the Church for the kind permission given me for this address.


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First posted on 23 December1999

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