What Buddhism Is
'Thray Sithu' U Ba Khin
Vol. X, No. 2, 1963
(This is the second of three 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, Nibbana.com)
30th September 1951. Lecture No.2
Last Sunday I gave you a brief outline - a very brief one too - of the life of our Lord Buddha, up to the moment of his attainment of Buddhahood. I am going to tell you today what his teachings are. Buddhist teachings are preserved in what we call the Tipitakas, consisting of the Suttas (Discourses), the Vinaya (Laws of discipline for Sanghas, or monks ) and the Abhidhamma ( Philosophical Teachings). We have the Tipitakas in Pali in several volumes which will require an intelligent Pali scholar some months just to read through. I propose, therefore, to confine myself today only to essentials, that is to say, the fundamental Truths of Buddhism. Before Lord Buddha took upon himself the task of spreading his Dhamma (Teachings), he remained in silent meditation for a continuous period of 49 days, viz;, seven days under the Bo tree and seven days each in six other spots nearby, enjoying at times the peace of Supreme Nibbana and at another going deeper in investigation into the most delicate problems of Paramattha-Dhamma (Ultimate Realities). On his complete mastery of the law of Patthana (the Law of Relations), in which the infinite modes of relations between thought moments are also dealt with, there emerged from his body brilliant rays of six colours, which eventually settled down as a halo of six-coloured rays around his head. He passed through this seven times seven days meditation without food. It is all beyond us to be without food for 49 days. The fact remains that he was throughout the period on a mental plane as distinct from a physical plane, in which mankind normally is. It is not material food that maintains the fine-material existence and life-continuum of beings in the Fine-material Worlds of the Brahmas, but the Jhanic Piti, which in itself is a nutriment. So also was the case with the Buddha, whose existence during this long period was on a mental rather than physical plane. Our experiments in this line of research have firmly convinced us that for a man of such high intellectual and mental development as the Buddha, this is a possibility.
It was the day break of the 50th day of his Buddhahood when he arose from this long spell of meditation. Not that he was tired or exhausted, but, as he was no longer in the mental plane, he felt a longing for food. At that time, two traders of a foreign land were travelling in several carts loaded with merchandise through the Uruvela forest. A Deva of the forest who was their relative in one of their previous existences advised them to take the opportunity of paying homage to the All-Enlightened Buddha who had just arisen from his meditation. They accordingly went to the place where the Buddha was seated, illumined by the halo of six coloured rays. They could not resist their feelings. They lay prostrate in worship and adoration before the Buddha and later offered preserved rice cakes with honey for the first meal of the Buddha. They were accepted as His lay disciples. On their request that they might be given some tokens for their worship, the Buddha presented them with eight strands of hair from His head. You will be surprised to know that these two traders were Taphussa and Bhallika of Okkalapa, which today is known as Rangoon, where you are at this moment. And the renowned Shwedagon, which you all probably have visited, is the Pagoda in which were enshrined all the eight hair-relics of the Buddha under the personal direction of the then ruler of Okkalapa, 2540 years ago. It has been preserved and renovated till now by successive Buddhist kings and devout laymen. Unfortunately, however, these two traders of Okkalapa, who had the privilege of becoming the first lay disciples of the Buddha, were disciples only by faith, without a taste of the Buddha-Dhamma in actual practice, which alone would give them deliverance from suffering and death. Faith is, no doubt, a preliminary requisite, but it is the practice of the Teachings which really counts. The Buddha therefore said, "The Path must be trodden by each individual; Buddhas do but point the Way."
The Teachings of the Buddha
2. "Buddhism is not a religion according to its dictionary meaning because it has no centre in God, as is the case in all other religions. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is a system of philosophy coordinated with a code of morality, physical and mental. The goal in view is the extinction of suffering and death."
The Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha in his first sermon, known as the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta (viz. the Discourse to set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma) form the basis on which is founded this system of philosophy. In fact, the first three of the Four Noble Truths expound the philosophy of the Buddha, while the fourth (the Eightfold Noble Path which is a code of morality-cum-philosophy) serves as a means for the end. This first sermon was given to the five ascetics led by Kondanna, who were his early companions in search of the Truth. Kondanna was the first disciple of the Buddha in practice to become an Arahat (i.e Holy One who got beyond the limitations of all fetters).
Now we come to the Four Noble Truths. They are:
To come to a complete understanding of the fundamental concepts in the philosophy of the Buddha, emphasis is laid on the need for the realisation of the Truth of Suffering. To bring home this point, Lord Buddha tackled the problem from two different angles.
Firstly, by a process of reasoning. He made his disciples feel that life is a struggle, life is suffering; birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering. The influence of sensuality is, however, so strong in mankind that they are normally apt to forget this themselves, to forget what they have to pay therefor. Just think for a moment how life exists in the pre-natal period; how from the moment of birth the child has to struggle for existence; what preparations he has to make to face life; what, as a man , he has to be struggling till he breathes his last. You can very well imagine what life is. Life is indeed suffering. The more one is attached to self, the greater is the suffering. In fact, what pains and sufferings a man has to undergo are suppressed in favour of momentary sensual pleasures which are but occasional spotlights in the darkness. But for the Moha (delusion) which keeps him away from the Truth, he would surely have worked out his way to emancipation from the rounds of "Life, Suffering and Death."
Secondly, the Buddha made it known to his disciples that the human body is composed of Kalapas (atomic units), each dying out simultaneously as it becomes. Each Kalapa is a mass formed of the following nature elements:
The first four are called Maha-Bhutas, i.e., essential material qualities which are predominant in a Kalapa. The other four are merely subsidiaries which are dependent upon and born out of the former. A Kalapa is the minutest particle noticeable in the physical plane. It is only when the eight nature elements (which have merely the characteristic of behaviour) are together that the entity of a Kalapa is formed. In other words, the coexistence of these eight nature elements of behaviour makes a mass which, in Buddhism, is known as a Kalapa. These Kalapas, according to the Buddha, are in a state of perpetual change or flux. They are nothing but a stream of energies, just like the light of a candle or an electric bulb. The body, as we call it, is not an entity as it seems to be, but a continuum of matter with life force coexisting.
To a casual observer, a piece of iron is motionless. The scientist knows that it is composed of electrons, etc., all in a state of perpetual change or flux. If it is so with a piece of iron, what will be the case for a living organism, say a human being? The changes that are taking place inside the human body must be more violent. Does man feel the rocking vibrations within himself? Does the scientist who knows that all is in a state of change or flux ever feel that his own body is but energy and vibration? What will be the repercussion on the mental attitude of the man who introspectively sees that his own body is mere energy and vibration? To quench thirst one may just easily drink a glass of water from a village well. Supposing his eyes are as powerful as microscopes, he would surely hesitate to drink the very same water in which he must see the magnified microbes. So also, when one comes to a realization of the perpetual change within himself (i.e., Anicca or Impermanence), he must necessarily come to the understanding as a sequel thereto of the Truth of Suffering in consequence of the sharp sense of feeling of the radiation, vibration and friction of the atomic units within. Indeed, Life is Suffering, both within and without, to all appearances and in ultimate reality.
When I say, Life is Suffering, as the Buddha taught, please be so good as not to run away with the idea that, if that is so, life is miserable, life is not worth living, and that the Buddhist concept of suffering is a terrible concept which will give you no chance of a reasonably happy life. What is happiness? For all that science has achieved in the field of materialism, are the peoples of the world happy? They may find sensual pleasure off and on, but in their heart of hearts they are not happy concerning what has happened, what is happening and what may happen next. Why? This is because, while man has mastery over matter, he is still lacking in mastery over his mind.
Pleasure born of sensuality is nothing compared with the Piti (or rapture) born of the inner peace of mind which can be secured through a process of Buddhist meditation. Sense pleasures are preceded and followed by troubles and pains, as in the case of a rustic who finds pleasure in cautiously scratching the itches over his body, whereas Piti is free from such troubles and pains either way. It will be difficult for you, looking from a sensuous field, to appreciate what that Piti is like. But I know you can enjoy it and have a taste of it for comparative evaluation. There is therefore nothing to the supposition that Buddhism teaches something that will make you feel miserable with the nightmare of suffering. But please take it from me that it will give you an escape from the normal conditions of life, a lotus as it were in a pond of crystal water immune from its fiery surroundings. It will give you that "Peace Within" which will satisfy you that you are getting not only beyond the day-to-day troubles of life, but slowly and surely beyond the limitation of "Life, Suffering and Death."
What then is the Origin of Suffering? The origin of it, the Buddha said, is Tanha or Craving. Once the seed of desire is sown, it grows into greed and multiplies into craving or lust, either for power or for material gains. The man in whom this seed is sown becomes a slave to these cravings and he is automatically driven to strenuous labours of mind and body to keep pace with them till the end comes. The final result must surely be the accumulation of the evil mental forces generated by his own actions, words and thoughts which are motivated by Loba (desire) and Dosa (anger) inherent in him.
Philosophically again, it is the mental forces of actions (Sankhara) which react in the course of time on the person originating them, and which are responsible for this stream of mind and matter, the origin of suffering within.
The Path Leading to the Extinction of Suffering
What then is the Path leading to the Extinction of Suffering? The Path is none other than the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha in his first sermon. This Eightfold Path is divided into three main stages, namely, Sila, Samadhi and Panna.
Sila (The Precept)
Samadhi (Tranquillity of Mind)
Panna (Wisdom, Insight)
(1) Sila. The three characteristic aspects of Sila are:
By Right Speech is
meant: Speech which must be true, beneficial and neither foul nor
These represent generally the Code of Morality as initially pronounced by the Buddha in his very first sermon. Later, however, he amplified it and introduced separate Codes for the Monks and Lay disciples.
I need not worry you with what has been prescribed for monks. I will just let you know what the code of morality, or the precepts, for a Buddhist Lay Disciple is. This is called Panca Sila, or the Five Precepts, which are:
(i) Panatipata: Abstaining from killing any sentient being. (Life is the most precious thing for all beings and in prescribing this precept the Buddha's compassion extends to all beings.)
(ii) Adinnadana: Abstaining from taking what is not given. (This serves as a check against improper desires for possessions.)
(iii) Kamesu-micchacara: Abstaining from sexual misconduct. (Sexual desire is latent in man. This is irresistible to almost all. Unlawful sexual indulgence is therefore something which the Buddha prohibited.)
(iv) Musavada: Abstaining from telling lies. (This precept is included to fulfil by way of speech the essence of Truth.)
(v) Surameraya: Abstaining from intoxication. (Intoxication causes a man to lose his steadfastness of mind and the reasoning power so essential for the realization of Truth.)
The Panca Sila therefore is intended to control actions and words and to serve as a foundation for Samadhi (Equanimity of Mind).
(2) Samadhi. Ladies and gentlemen, we now come to the mental aspect of Buddhism, which I am sure will greatly interest you. In the second stage of the Eightfold Noble Path, viz., (Samadhi) are included:
Right Exertion is, of course, a prerequisite for Right Attentiveness. Unless one makes a determined effort to narrow down the range of thoughts of one's wavering and unsteady mind, one cannot expect to secure that attentiveness of mind which in turn helps one to bring the mind by Right Concentration to a state of One-pointedness and Tranquillity (or Samadhi). It is here that the mind becomes freed from hindrances - pure and tranquil, illumined within and without. The mind in such a state becomes powerful and bright. Outside, it is represented by light which is just a mental reflex, with the light varying in degrees from that of a star to that of the sun. To be plain, this light which is reflected before the mind's eye in complete darkness is a manifestation of the purity, tranquillity and serenity of the mind.
The Hindus work for it. To go from light into the void and to come back to light is truly Brahmanic. The New Testament, in Matthew, speaks of "a body full of light." We hear also of Roman Catholic priests meditating regularly for this very miraculous light. The Koran, too, gives prominence to the "Manifestation of Divine Light."
This mental reflex of light denotes the purity of mind within, and the purity of mind forms the essence of a religious life, whether he be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Indeed, Purity of Mind is the greatest common denominator of all religions. Love, which alone is a means for the unity of mankind, must be supreme, and it cannot be so unless the mind is transcendentally pure. A balanced mind is necessary to balance the unbalanced minds of others. "As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought, which is difficult to guard, difficult to hold back."
So said the Buddha. Exercise of the mind is just as necessary as exercise of the physical body. Why not, then, give exercise to the mind and make it pure and strong so that you may enjoy the "Jhanic Peace Within."
When Inner Peace begins to permeate the mind, you will surely progress in the knowledge of Truth.
Believe it or not, it is our experience that under a proper guide, this Inner Peace and Purity of Mind with light can be secured by one and all irrespective of their religion or creed, provided they have sincerity of purpose and are prepared to submit to the guide for the period of trial.
When by continued practice one has complete mastery over one's mind, one can enter into Jhanic states (trances) and gradually develop himself to acquire the attainments (Samapattis) which will give one supernormal powers like those exercised by Kala-Devila, the hermit teacher of King Suddhodana. This, of course, must be tried in penance and away from human habitations, but it is rather dangerous for those who still have traces of passion in them. Anyway, such a practice, which gives supernormal powers in this mundane field, was not encouraged by the Buddha, whose sole object of developing Samadhi was to have the purity and strength of mind essential for the realization of Truth.
We have in Buddhism forty methods of concentration, of which the most outstanding is Anapana, that is, concentration on the incoming and outgoing breath, the method followed by all the Buddhas.
(3) Panna. Ladies and gentlemen, I will now take up the philosophical aspect of Buddhism in the third stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, - viz.,Panna or Insight. The two characteristic aspects of Panna are:
Right Understanding of the Truth is the aim and object of Buddhism, and Right Aspiration (or Right Thought) is the analytical study of mind and matter, both within and without, in order to come to a realization of Truth.
You have heard of Nama and Rupa (mind and matter) so many times. I owe you a further explanation.
Nama is so called because of its tendency to incline towards an object of sense. Rupa is so called because of its impermanence due to perpetual change. The nearest terms in English to Nama and Rupa therefore are mind and matter. I say "nearest" because the meaning is not exact.
Nama, strictly speaking, is the term applied to the following:
These, together with Rupa in the material state, make what we call the Panca-kkhanda or Five Aggregates. It is in these five aggregates that the Buddha has summed up all the mental and physical phenomena of existence, which in reality is a continuum of mind and matter coexisting, but which to a layman is his personality or ego.
In Samma-sankappa (Right Aspiration), the disciple, who by then has developed the powerful lens of Samadhi, focuses his attention into his own self and by introspective meditation makes an analytical study of the nature, first of Rupa (Matter) and then of Nama (mind and the mental properties). He feels - and at times he also sees - the Kalapas in their true state. He begins to realize that both Rupa and Nama are in constant change - impermanent and fleeting. As his power of concentration increases, the nature of the forces in him becomes more and more vivid. He can no longer get out of the impression that the Panca-kkhandha, or Five Aggregates, are suffering, within the law of Cause and Effect. He is now convinced that, in reality, all is suffering within and without and there is no such thing as an ego. He longs for a state beyond suffering. So eventually going beyond the bounds of suffering, he moves from the mundane to the supramundane state and enters the stream of Sotapanna, the first of the four stages of the Ariyas (Noble Ones). Then he becomes free from (i) ego, (ii) doubts and (iii) attachment to rules and rituals. The second stage is Sakadagami (Once-Returner), on coming to which sensuous craving and ill-will become attenuated. He ceases to have any passion or anger when he attains the third stage of Anagami (Non-Returner). Arahatship is the final goal. Each of the Ariyas can feel what Nibbana is like, even as a man, as often as he may choose by going into the fruition stage of Sotapanna, etc., which gives him the Nibbanic Peace Within.
This "Peace Within", which is identified with Nibbana, has no parallel because it is supramundane. Compared to this, the Jhanic Peace Within , which I mentioned earlier in dealing with Samadhi, is negligible because while the Nibbanic Peace Within takes one beyond the limits of the thirty-one planes of existence, the Jhanic Peace Within will still keep one within these planes - that is to say, in the fine-material world of the Brahmas.
Ladies and gentlemen, just a word more. What I have said includes only some of the fundamental aspects of Buddhism. With the time at my disposal, I hope I have given you my best:
These are all within your reach.
Why not, then, try for the first two at least, which are within the confines of your own religion? I am prepared to give you any help that you may require.
May I again express my gratitude to you all for your patient listening. My thanks are also due to the Clergy of the Church for their kind permission.
This page at Nibbana.com was last modified: