The Buddha (the awakened one) taught that life is characterized by dukkha, which means as much as unsatisfaction, suffering or stress. Fortunately, he also taught that liberation from dukkha is possible for anyone who is willing to make the necessary effort.

The path to this liberation is what is meant by ‘Buddhism’, and those who walk on that path could call themselves ‘Buddhists’.

The term “Buddhism” is a bit misleading however. In fact due to historical and cultural differences diverse Buddhist schools have emerged over the centuries which, while sharing a common core, may differ in ethical, philosophical and practical aspects.

Theravāda-buddhism

Samatha meditation on buddho has its origins in Theravāda Buddhism, which can nowadays be found in Southeast Asia, and especially in Sri-Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar.

Theravāda can be translated as ‘the ancient teaching’, a reference to the unchanging and universal nature of the truths that the Buddha rediscovered. Truths that have been preserved in their most original form in this orthodox Buddhist school.

From a practical perspective, Theravāda Buddhism is very traditional with great emphasis on the importance of one’s own effort, namely the patient practice of morality and concentration (samādhi) to slowly but surely develop wisdom.

Often the rational and logical approach of Buddhist practice within Theravāda is pointed out, as for example can be seen in the accurate exposition of reality in the Abhidhamma.

But devotion plays an important role in Theravāda Buddhism as well. This devotion should not originate from blind faith, but should be a natural expression of a deep trust that is grounded in one’s own experience.

Do you want to know more about the Buddha and Buddhism?

Then read on for a detailed explanation about the life of the Buddha and his path to liberation:

How we know what the Buddha taught


When we talk about Buddhism, we are talking about the teachings of the Buddha, but the Buddha himself did not write anything down.
You might wonder how we know what the Buddha taught.

Theravāda Buddhism relies on the Pali Canon when it comes to the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. The word “Pali” means as much as “line” or “text.

In ancient Buddhist commentaries it was often used in the sense of ‘the line or tenor of the original texts’.

Nowadays the word ‘Pali’ denotes the language of the original texts.

The Pali Canon is the collection of Buddhist teachings as it was recited during the first council meeting of 500 Arahants (enlightened disciples of the Buddha) immediately after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, i.e. the final complete liberation after the death of his body, around 500 BC.

The teachings or discourses in the Pali Canon are called sutta, which means as much as ‘thread’ or ‘yarn’ and may indicate the interconnection between subjects and explanations.

The sutta’s were learned by heart during the first centuries and passed on orally from generation to generation.

During two subsequent council meetings, it was checked whether the various monks were still reciting the same version and differences were corrected.

After the fourth council meeting in Sri Lanka around 30 BC the texts were written down for the first time. The Pali Canon together with the para-canonic texts (such as commentaries, chronicles, etc.) forms the complete classical Theravādic literature and contains many thousands of pages.

Another name of the Pali Canon is Tipiṭaka (Pali: ti, ‘three’, + pitaka, ‘baskets’) because there are three groups of texts, namely the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma.

The Vinaya Piṭaka contains the texts on rules or precepts for the Sangha, the order of Buddhist monks and nuns, and gives a detailed explanation and the reason for the creation of each of these rules.

The Vinaya thus constitutes the moral code of the Buddha and thus the basis for sīla-bhāvanā, the practice of moral conduct.

In the Sutta Piṭaka one finds the teachings about Dhamma given by the Buddha and some of his prominent disciples.

All subjects central to Theravāda Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination, are covered extensively and from different angles in the sutta’s.
The difficult thing about the sutta’s is that they are always given to an individual or group and the Buddha always attunes his teaching to his listeners. That is why a lot of extra inforamtion, from the Commentaries for example, is needed to interpret the sutta’s correctly.

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka contains the texts that deal with the Buddhist doctrine from an unpersonal perspective (Pali: Abhi, ‘high’ or ‘highest’, dhamma, ‘doctrine’ or ‘truth’), which could als be translated as ultimate reality.

In the seven books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka all phenomena in the world are first analyzed in the the smallest possible phenomena, followed by the synthesis of these phenomena, describing the conditional relationships between them.

Unlike the sutta, the Abhidhamma is not attuned to specific students, but is the abstract form of the Dhamma in the ultimate sense, i.e. separate from an I or a person.
The difficult thing about the Abhidhamma is to relate this abstract teaching to one’s own experience in order for it to serve as a useful blueprint.

Ahba gives as an example a pond with fish. Suppose the water is cloudy and muddy. Then you can’t see the fish, but the fish can’t see you either. If you just move your hand back and forth in the water long enough you have a very small chance that you will catch a fish at some point.

It’s the same with reading the sutta’s. You have to study for a long time in order to get some insights out of it here and there.

When the pond is clear you can see the fish very well, but they can also see you. You can try to catch the fish in a very targeted way, but chances are they are too fast for you every time.

It is the same with studying the Abhidhamma. Every time you think you can grasp it, understand it, it slips through your fingers again.

Ahba doesn’t say that reading the Sutta or Abhidhamma isn’t good, because he says it is. It can serve as inspiration and it is also very useful to acquire a certain basic knowledge to help with meditation.

But the emphasis should be on meditation, on practicing oneself.

When studying texts it is also important to have people around you with more overview, both on a theoretical basis and on an experiential level, to test the knowledge gained.

Oral Teaching

You may now wonder if things were not lost or altered during the oral transfers prior to writing.

Of course this is difficult to answer, but there are some reasons that may reassure the heart.

For example, it is noticeable that during the first council meeting after the death of the Buddha, the texts were put in a form that is very suitable for recitation. Repetitions, standard formulations and enumerations are frequently used throughout the various texts.

In antiquity there were monasteries that only focus on a Nikaya, that is to say, focus on a specific group of sutta’s.

When the monks from the various monasteries came together it was therefore quite possible to check whether categories and enumerations still matched each other.

Furthermore, an enormous internal consistency is noticeable in the doctrine itself. There are no contradictions to be found, no strange texts that do not match with the rest.

This internal consistency makes an equal initial origin very likely.

After being written down, copies were kept at various locations in Southeast Asia, so that mutual control was always possible afterwards.

The last council meeting to check and establish the current version took place in Burma in 1956.

A nice detail is that Ahba was present during that council and emphasized the importance of concentration.

For those who do the buddho meditation, in addition to the above, it can also be given as reassurance that Ahba himself emphasizes the authority of the Pali Canon over and over again when it comes to the Dhamma.

In contrast to works of modern writers, of which Ahba says that you should always ask yourself whether their teaching is true or not, he is crystal clear about the Pali Canon, what it says there is good to study.

The Life of the Buddha


The story of the Buddha begins with his first intention during his life as Sumedha, continues with his quest as Siddharta and reaches its climax in his final liberation.
If you want to appreciate the Buddha’s effort in its fullest, it is good to get a little more sense of some basic Buddhist cosmology first so that things can be put into perspective, especially when it comes to the sense of time.

Time in Perspective

The Buddha sometimes used the word kalpa, here translated as ‘eon’ as an indication of time.

There are different kinds of eons, but for now only the kalpa in the sense of the maha-kalpa, or great-eon, is important.

During such an eon the universe as we know it arises, living beings can slowly but surely thrive, until finally a period comes in which the universe decays again and is followed by a period of emptiness.

After the period of emptiness the next eon ‘just’ begins and with it a new cycle of creation and decay of a universe, followed by a next cycle, and so on and so forth.
The Buddha gave the following example to get a feeling for the length of a single eon:

“Imagine a large granite block at the beginning of the eon, about 25km by 25km by 25km, many times larger than the highest mountain in the Himalayas, and every 100 years a man wipes this block once with a silk cloth. Sooner will the granite block be weathered down than that an eon will be over.”

According to the Buddha, there is no first beginning, no moment of time to which there was no previous ignorance.

When some monks asked him how many eons, how many cycles from one universe to another, have passed, the Buddha gave the following equation:

“If you take the total number of grains of sand in the depths of the Ganges River, from where it begins to where it ends, even that number will be less than the number of eons that have already passed.”

The endless wandering of beings in this beginningless, unsatisfactory cycle of coming and going, is samsāra.

Next to some specific skills of the Buddha, his position in time is especially unique. He was the first to rediscovered the truth that leads to the liberation from samsāra, and thus the attainment of Nibbāna (Nirvana).

The truth discovered by the Buddha is universal and can be understood by anyone following his example with patience and energy.

Like a guide who shows travelers the way through dangerous and difficult terrain, or like a lamp that illuminates the darkness in the night, the Buddha only shows the way to this truth and liberation, you walk the path yourself.

The truth, the Dhamma, always existed and will always exist, one can only determine whether or not the path leading to it has been pointed out by a Buddha in a period of time.

Those who have followed the Dhamma, the Buddha’s way to final liberation, the noble Sangha, can themselves serve as a guide for others. After all, only someone who sees can lead a blind person; only if you are healthy can you take care of the sick.

The Buddha, with his first exposition of the Dhamma, initiated the current Buddha-sāsana, i.e. the period in which the Dhamma, the truth, can be heard and the path to liberation can be practiced. Just like everything this time too will come to an end, after which a dark period will dawn. During that period the Dhamma cannot be heard, there are no enlightened beings on earth and there is no light to guide beings in the darkness.

If we combine this with the knowledge of the eons it will not be surprising that in the infinity of the past there have been countless Buddhas followed by countless dark periods and also in the future there will continue to be Buddha’s in the world who will point the way to liberation from suffering.

With this in mind we can begin the story of the Buddha of our time.

The intention of Sumedha

Many will have heard of the life of Prince Siddharta Gautama and his quest for enlightenment over 2500 years ago.

According to the Buddhavamsa (chronicles of Buddhas) however, the story begins earlier, many, many world cycles ago, many, many thousands of eons ago, at the time of an earlier Buddha, the Buddha Dipankara.

At the time of the Buddha Dipankara, a young man from a wealthy family called Sumedha lived in the same area.

Throughout his life, Sumedha was increasingly reluctant to accept the insubstantiality of existence. Seeking liberation from the suffering resulting from life and death, he decided to give away all his wealth away and live in the mountains as an ascetic.

There he practiced meditation full of energy and dedication and successfully developed high concentration.

At one point Sumedha heard of the existence of the Buddha Dipankara and that this Buddha would soon visit a nearby village.

The ascetic experienced a feeling of bliss upon hearing the word ‘Buddha’ and exclaimed “Buddha, Buddha!” full of joy. The thought came to him:

“[Extremely rare is it to hear the word Buddha, much rarer is it to meet a Buddha.] Here I will plant my seeds, verily, don’t let this opportunity pass!”

And he went to the village. He arrived early and got permission to help repair the path the Buddha would walk on during his visit.

While working hard, he kept thinking “Buddha, Buddha!” However, before his part of the path was finished, the Buddha appeared with his retinue of monks.

When Sumedha saw the Buddha, he was immediately deeply impressed by his calm and wise appearance.

Then he saw, on the part of the road he was tending to, a pool of mud through which the Buddha would inevitably have to walk in order to continue on his way.

Inspired by respect Sumedha threw herself inthe mud pool to serve as a human bridge and thought:

“Let the Buddha and his disciples walk over me, don’t let them walk through the mud pool – this act will contribute to my well-being.”

As the Buddha approached Sumeda became more and more inspired and the thought came to him:

“I have the mental ability to become an Arahant, an enlightened one, today if I want to, but it does not feel right for me to let others wander around in samsāra while I could develop the energy to help all beings. What if I were to make an effort to become a Buddha just like Buddha Dipankara?”

When Buddha Dipankara arrived at Sumedha he stopped, looked at Sumedha and made the following prediction:

“See here, this young ascetic, lying in the mud at the risk of his own life. In countless eons, he will be a Buddha in the world, just as I am now.”

Thus, Sumedha’s intention was affirmed by the Buddha, and he and his disciples did not continue on their way, but walked respectfully around Sumedha.

Reflecting on what had happened and what it would take to become a Buddha, Sumedha saw ten paramis (mental qualities) that he would have to develop to the utmost perfection, namely generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, effort, loving kindness and equanimity.

And so Sumedha became a Bodhisatta, a Buddha-to-be.

Throughout all the subsequent lives in all those long eons, the Bodhisatta worked on his paramis, culminating in the attainment of the highest perfection of each of these qualities in his last birth 2500 years ago during his life as prince Siddharta Gautama.

Siddharta Gautama becomes Buddha

About 2500 years ago, Siddharta Gautama was born as the son of Queen Maya and King Suddhodana, leader of the Sakya clan in the kingdom of Kapilavastu in Kosala, in modernd dat northern India.

Seven days after his birth his mother queen Maya died and her sister, Pajapati, takes care of the young child.

The seer Asita comes to the king’s court and gives the following prophecy:

“The son of the king of Sakya will become world ruler or, if he turns away from the courteous life, a fully liberated one, a Buddha.”

To prevent Siddharta from turning away from his royal life, he was raised protected and married at the age of 16 to Princess Yasodhara. Together they had a son, Rahula.

Siddharta however, realizes despite his father’s frantic efforts to protect him in luxury and pleasure, that everyone is subject to old age, sickness and death and to all the suffering that accompanies life. He himself later says (AN 3:39):

“Bhikkhus, I was delicately nurtured, most delicately nurtured, extremely delicately nurtured. At my father’s residence lotus ponds were made just for my enjoyment: in one of them blue lotuses bloomed, in another red lotuses, and in a third white lotuses. I used no sandalwood unless it came from Kāsi and my headdress, jacket, lower garment, and upper garment were made of cloth from Kāsi. By day and by night a white canopy was held over me so that cold and heat, dust, grass, and dew would not settle on me.”

“I had three mansions: one for the winter, one for the summer, and one for the rainy season. I spent the four months of the rains in the rainy-season mansion, being entertained by musicians, none of whom were male, and I did not leave the mansion. While in other people’s homes slaves, workers, and servants are given broken rice together with sour gruel for their meals, in my father’s residence they were given choice hill rice, meat, and boiled rice.”

“Amid such splendor and a delicate life, it occurred to me: ‘An uninstructed worldling, though himself subject to old age, not exempt from old age, feels repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when he sees another who is old, overlooking his own situation. Now I too am subject to old age and am not exempt from old age. Such being the case, if I were to feel repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when seeing another who is old, that would not be proper for me.’ When I reflected thus, my intoxication with youth was completely abandoned.”

Again, it occurred to me: ‘An uninstructed worldling, though himself subject to illness, not exempt from illness, feels repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when he sees another who is ill, overlooking his own situation. Now I too am subject to illness and am not exempt from illness. Such being the case, if I were to feel repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when seeing another who is ill, that would not be proper for me.’ When I reflected thus, my intoxication with health was completely abandoned.”

Again, it occurred to me: ‘An uninstructed worldling, though himself subject to death, not exempt from death, feels repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when he sees another who has died, overlooking his own situation. Now I too am subject to death and am not exempt from death. Such being the case, if I were to feel repelled, humiliated, and disgusted when seeing another who has died, that would not be proper for me.’ When I reflected thus, my intoxication with life was completely abandoned.”

As a result of this realisation, Siddharta decided at the age of 29 to leave the rich life of a prince behind and to go forth into homelessness as a wandering ascetic, in order to find a solution for the suffering in the world (MN 26, 36, 85, 100):

“Later, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”

At first he went to the great meditation teachers of his time, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, but although he quickly reached the highest meditation level taught by these teachers, and was asked by both to continue to guide their students as the highest teacher, he found only the temporary cessation of suffering and not the definitive end of birth, old age, illness and death he was looking for.

So Siddharta decided to continue his search and moved into the jungle to spend years in extreme ascetic practices.

He subjects himself to violent practices such as barely eating, enduring extreme pains, breathing as little as possible and more, everything in order to control his body and mind.

Five ascetics, Kondanna, Bhadduya, Wappa, Mahanama, and Assaji, who also left behind riches and a household life in search of liberation from suffering, were deeply impressed by Siddharta’s effort and followed him closely.

After six years of intense asceticism, Siddharta’s body was completelte emaciated and his death was near, without having reached liberation from suffering.

Legend has it that at that moment a minstrel passes by the place where Siddharta sits with his travelling companion, and Siddharta hears the minstrel telling him how to get the strings of his lute right:

“The strings shouldn’t be too slack, but certainly not too hard. If they are too slack, you don’t get a sound, too tight and they snap, but if you tension them exactly in the middle of these two extremes, you get the most beautiful tones.”

At that moment Siddharta remembers a moment as a young boy when he was sitting in the cooling shade of a rose apple tree while his father was working in the fields.

As he sat there, without torment, cool and pleasant, in complete peace, his mind became silent. And he reached, immersed in a meditation that was natural to him, a high concentration.

Thinking about this Siddharta realized that not the violent asceticism with self-flagellation and not the courteous life full of sensory longing but precisely this middle of meditation and letting go is the way to liberation (MN 36, 85, 100):

“I thought: ‘Whatever recluses or brahmins in the past have experienced painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this. And whatever recluses and brahmins in the future will experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this. And whatever recluses and brahmins at present experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this. But by this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment?’”

“I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realisation: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment.’”

“I thought: ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states?’ I thought: ‘I am not afraid of that pleasure since it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states.’”

“I considered: ‘It is not easy to attain that pleasure with a body so excessively emaciated. Suppose I ate some solid food—some boiled rice and porridge.’ And I ate some solid food—some boiled rice and porridge. Now at that time five bhikkhus were waiting upon me, thinking: ‘If our recluse Gotama achieves some higher state, he will inform us.’ But when I ate the boiled rice and porridge, the five bhikkhus were disgusted and left me, thinking: ‘The recluse Gotama now lives luxuriously; he has given up his striving and reverted to luxury.’”

This is how Siddharta traveld on the middle road, rediscovered by him.

The five ascetics that follow him left him, they know nothing of Siddharta’s new insight and think that Siddharta has given up the search for liberation and turned back to the worldly life. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Siddharta strenghtens his body and, free from sensory desire and self-flagellation, sits under a Bodhi tree (MN 36):

“Now when I had eaten solid food and regained my strength, then quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain. With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, I entered upon and abided in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, I abided in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, I entered upon and abided in the third jhāna, on account of which noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, I entered upon and abided in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity.”

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion: ‘There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.’ Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives. This was the first true knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute.”

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. With the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate. I understood how beings pass on according to their actions thus: ‘These worthy beings who were ill conducted in body, speech, and mind, revilers of noble ones, wrong in their views, giving effect to wrong view in their actions, on the dissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a state of deprivation, in a bad destination, in perdition, even in hell; but these worthy beings who were well conducted in body, speech, and mind, not revilers of noble ones, right in their views, giving effect to right view in their actions, on the dissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a good destination, even in the heavenly world.’ Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings pass on according to their actions. This was the second true knowledge attained by me in the middle watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute.”

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ I directly knew as it actually is: ‘These are the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the origin of the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the cessation of the taints’; I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of the taints.’ When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’ This was the third true knowledge attained by me in the last watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.”

According to legend, Mara, the evil one, the seducer, the personification of death, challenges Siddharta during this last night.

First he sends his army to Siddharta to frighten him. Mara’s horrible and terrifying forces scream and roar and fire arrows at Siddharta, but Siddharta’s infinite loving kindness turns the arrows into flowers upon reaching him.

Then Mara sends his three beautiful daughters (desire, aversion and attachment) to Siddharta to seduce him and bind him to the world. They dance and sing with their voluptuous bodies and beautiful voices, but Siddharta remains completely untouched due to his concentration, separated from sensory desires and unwholesome mental qualities.

Finally, Mara, despairing that Siddharta will escape from his chains, asks why Siddharta thinks he has the right to free herself from all suffering.

Siddharta touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand and calls upon the universe as a witness to the effort he has made in all his countless livetimes, during all those endless eons, with the sole goal of attaining liberation.

The universe trembles in achknowledgement and Mara is defeated.

Thus Siddharta Gautama, meditating under the Bodhi Tree, attains the complete, universal enlightenment of a Buddha.

Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma

After his enlightenment, the Buddha stays in retreat for a while. At a certain point the thought arises in him (MN 26):

“This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in attachment. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.”

Out of compassion for the world, he decides to look into the world in search of beings who could understand his path (MN 26):

“I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and with much dust in their eyes, with keen faculties and with dull faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who dwelt seeing fear and blame in the other world. “

The Buddha wonders to whom he should point out his way first and thinks of his earlier meditation teachers Alara Kalaman and Uddaka Ramaputta, but the knowledge arises in him that these teachers have now died.

Then he thinks of the five ascetics that followed him for so long during his asceticism and sees that they are close by and receptive to his teachings.

Later, having arrived at the five ascetics in the deer park in Sarnath, near present day Varanasi, the Buddha gives his first teaching with which sets in motion the wheel of Dhamma, after which the path to liberation can again be heard and followed in the world. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is thus the Buddha’s first sermon (SN 56.11):

thus have i heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Baraṇasi in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five thus:

“Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.

“And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision … which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view … right concentration.

“‘This is the noble truth of suffering’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of suffering has been fully understood’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of the origin of suffering has been abandoned’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of the cessation of suffering has been realized’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“‘This noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering has been developed’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.

“So long, bhikkhus, as my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was not thoroughly purified in this way, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans. But when my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was thoroughly purified in this way, then I claimed to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans. The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. Now there is no more renewed existence.’”

This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, the bhikkhus of the group of five delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in the Venerable Kondañña the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”

And when the Wheel of the Dhamma had been set in motion by the Blessed One, the earth-dwelling devas raised a cry: “At Baraṇasi, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, this unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or brahmin or deva or Mara or Brahma or by anyone in the world.” Having heard the cry of the earth-dwelling devas, the devas of the realm of the Four Great Kings raised a cry: “At Baraṇasi … this unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped … by anyone in the world.” Having heard the cry of the devas of the realm of the Four Great Kings, the Tavatiṃsa devas … the Yama devas … the Tusita devas … the Nimmanarati devas … the Paranimmitavasavatti devas … the devas of Brahma’s company raised a cry: “At Baraṇasi, in the Deer Park at Isipatana, this unsurpassed Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion by the Blessed One, which cannot be stopped by any ascetic or brahmin or deva or Mara or Brahma or by anyone in the world.”

Thus at that moment, at that instant, at that second, the cry spread as far as the brahma world, and this ten thousandfold world system shook, quaked, and trembled, and an immeasurable glorious radiance appeared in the world surpassing the divine majesty of the devas.

Then the Blessed One uttered this inspired utterance: “Koṇḍañña has indeed understood! Koṇḍañña has indeed understood!” In this way the Venerable Koṇḍañña acquired the name “Añña Koṇḍañña—Koṇḍañña Who Has Understood.”

Koṇḍañña was thus the first disciple of the Buddha who understood the true nature of things from his own experience.

This is a very important moment and good to think about.

It emphasizes that the path the Buddha taught can actually be realized by others, that the Buddha only points out the path.

It is sometimes said that the Buddha’s path is a selfish path because it is about liberating yourself. But this is not true. It is out of love and compassion for all beings that the Buddha shared his way with us.

When he had 60 disciples who were all completely liberated from suffering, enlightened, Arahant, he commanded them to go forth into the world and share the path to liberation (Vin I:20):

“Go, bhikkhu’s, for the good of many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and men. Don’t let two of you go the same way.”

2500 years ago, out of love and compassion for the world, the Buddha left his home and made an unimaginable effort to find a way to the end of suffering, to liberation, enlightenment, Nibbāna.

Having found this way, this truth, the Dhamma, he fathomed and realized it out of love and compassion for the world.

And for the past 2500 years, his enlightened disciples have followed his example and patiently worked to keep the path to deliverance in the world out of love and compassion and to share it with all who have the ability to listen to it.

Buddhism: the Dhamma


What we call ‘Buddhism’ today was known in ancient times as the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya’.

The word ‘Dhamma’ (in Sanskrit Dharma) has many meanings.

It encompasses the ultimate phenomena of which the universe is composed, but it also means truth or reality and is synonymous with the teaching of the Buddha.

Vinaya is the ethical code of the Buddha, the rules for monks and the moral advice to lay people.

The fact that the term Vinaya is placed next to Dhamma in the description of the teachings of the Buddha shows how important morality is as for liberation.

The foundation of the Dhamma are the four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni) and dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).

The four Noble Truths are:

  1. The truth of the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha sacca)
  2. The truth of the cause of the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha-samudāya sacca)
  3. The truth of the cessation the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha-nirodha sacca)
  4. The truth of the way leading to the cessation of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha-nirodha-gamini-paṭipadā sacca)

Dependt origination is often summarized by the Buddha as (e.g. Ud 1:3):

“When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.”

Because these two aspects of the doctrine are deeply intertwined, we will classify the explanation of the foundation of the Dhamma on the basis of the four Noble Truths, and place dependent origination within the framework of the second Noble Truth, the cause of unsatisfactoriness.

Because of the interrelationship however, it is inevitable that terms such as ‘conditions’, ‘conditionality’, ‘arising and passing away’, etc. will occur earlier. In that case it is always a reference to the principle of dependent origination.

The Truth of Unsatisfactoriness


In his first teaching the Buddha says (SN 56:11):

“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

The Five Aggregates

Above the statment is made ‘in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering’.

The five aggregates (khandha’s) are matter (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhāra’s) and consciousness (viññāṇa).

At the time of the Buddha everything in the world was divided into these five groups. Another possible but perhaps slightly more cumbersome translation of khandha’s is the five ‘groups of existence’.

Matter includes the different kinds of elements. Feeling includes pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feeling. Mental formations include the intentions (cetanā) aimed at forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and mental objects. Consciousness includes eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness and mind-consciousness.

The Buddha almost always mentions the aggregates (khandha’s) as “aggregates subject to clinging” (upādānakkhandha).

The words of the Buddha are therefore far-reaching, for he says nothing less than that, as long as you cling to something in the world or yourself, there will be suffering.

Dukkha

To further clarify this we will take a closer look at the word dukkha.

dukkha is often translated as suffering. In everyday life, dukkha is most easily perceived as suffering, and that is why that translation appeals more to the imagination. Dukkha has a much broader meaning however, which threatens to be lost with ‘suffering’.

Actually dukkha could best be translated as ‘the rubbing of the wheel on the wagon-axis’. When a wheel This conveys the continuous friction that is continuously present.

Thinks don’t go as desired, whether the wheel is stationary or rolling. Even if the wheel is temporarily released from friction as a result of an accidental movement on the road, the wheel will simply continue to cause friction one revolution later.

dukkha has three different variations which all have to do with each other.

First there is dhukkha-dukkhata which means as much as suffering that is directly experienced.

This can be mental as well as physical. Physical pain, for example, means something as simple as bumping your toe or maybe on a deeper level the continuous discomfort of your body which makes you move all the time. Mental pain is, for example, grief or despair, perhaps caused by the loss of a loved one.

The second variation is viparimana dukkha or suffering as a result of change.

This is a bit more complicated than the first variation. It is not, as is often thought, the suffering that arises after something has changed. As said before, this is part of the first variation, e.g. suffering through loss.

This form of suffering is the suffering that is irrevocably present in a pleasurable experience itself, at the time of that pleasurable experience. The reason is that, because everything that arises will eventually pass away again, any form of happiness or pleasure will perish. It is this potential suffering arising from the conditioned nature of existence that is meant by this form of suffering.

The last variation is saṅkhāra dukkha.

This refers to the suffering inherent in all conditioned states. Saṅkhāra is a difficult term to translate. It refers to formations in the sense that everything stems from conditions.

This form of dukkha is the inherent continuous underlying unsatisfaction witihn existence at the deepest level.

As long as there are conditions, existence continues, and so does the enldess wandering in samsāra.

Only Nibbāna is free from conditions, and only the one who has seen Nibbāna from one’s own personal experience can see through saṅkhāra dukkha completely. For us ordinary mortals this remains a concept up to that point.

The different variations of dukkha are therefore nothing but increasingly subtle levels on which dukkha can be seen.

First the immediately perceptible, then the realization that this also applies to pleasant moments, then that this is completely interwoven into existence as a totallity.

Samsāra

Before we began our story of the life of the Buddha, we briefly touched upon samsāra. In a good overview of dukkha, a little more explanation about this term, which is usually misused in the West, is not to be missed. Samsāra can be translated as ‘the endless wandering’. First, a few words from the Buddha himself (SN 15:3 and 15:13):

“What do you think, monks: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—or the water in the four great oceans?

“This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time—crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing—not the water in the four great oceans.”

“What do you think, monks? Which is greater, the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, or the water in the four great oceans?”

“This is the greater: the blood you have shed from having your heads cut off while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time, not the water in the four great oceans.”

“Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabrications, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released.”

Samsāra is the overarching problem. It denotes the endless aspect of dukkha.

There is no beginning, no matter how far back you look, and even death, the Buddha teaches, is not an end.

There is no heavenly existence, no matter how beautiful, that offers a permanent solution.

Sooner or later things change.

Ahba teaches that it is important to recognize that we are trapped in this continuous cycle of life and death, constantly subject to suffering, as a result of desire.

At first, this may be just a postulate to reflect on from time to time, but through sustained contemplation combined with experience and insight from concentration meditation, this cycle can become a source of energy and determination, culminating in the thought (AN 2:5):

“Gladly would we let the flesh & blood in our bodies dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if we have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing our persistence.”

Dukkha is inherent in all existence. Only the end of the conditioned, of becoming, i.e. Nibbāna, is permanent.

Three Characteristics of Existence

The Buddha taught three characteristics (ti-lakkhaṇa) that apply to all existence in Samsāra, namely impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and non-self or selflessness (anatta).

Nibbāna, on the other hand, is permanent and free from unsatisfactoriness, but even Nibbāna has no self, is selfless.

Thus, the attainment of Nibbāna is not the joining with a greater whole or merging a universal power or principle, with Brahma, the divine or something similar. For all these examples are based on a concept of ‘I’ or the merging of the ‘I’ with ‘something’.

The three characteristics are of great importance because direct experiential insight into one of these characteristics opens the gate to Nibbāna.

By understanding that everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory and without an identifiable self, the mind can be released and become completely free from desire, hatred and ignorance.

Impermanence (anicca) is often summed up in the Pali Canon with the expression ‘all that has arisen will pass away’.

So important is the rise and fall of things that the Buddha devoted his very last words to this (DN 16):

“Perishable, subject to change, are all formations. Aim relentlessly [for liberation]!”

And even after the death of the Buddha, Sakkha, king of the gods, emphasizes its importance with the words (DN 16):

“Conditions are impermanent, their nature is to rise and fall; having arisen, they cease; their stilling is true bliss.”

At first glance this seems a simple and in everyday life very recognizable statement in the sense of ‘everything comes to an end’, but the words of the Buddha have a more far-reaching meaning than that.

The rising and passing away happens from moment to moment, with such an enormous speed that to everyday perception these moment seem to be a continuous stream.

It can be compared to a movie in which the fast playback of separate images creates the illusion that there is actually movement.

It is the same for mental processes and matter. If concentration is high enough, insight and wisdom can be developed by looking at this instantaneous rise and fall.

With high concentration, you can see that the total of mental processes and matter (nāma-rūpa) is distorted.

It is not the simple observation that a thought comes and goes or the body changes from day to day, for that is a very gross observation.

It is about experiencing at the most subtle level that both the matter of the body and its environment and the mental continuum consist of separate moments that are in continuous flux.

And if impermanence is seen, the other two characteristics follow naturally.

If we cling to that which is impermanent with the misconception that it is permanent, dukkha arises, the second characteristic of existence that we have looked at before.

After the explanation of impermanence and the earlier explanation of dukkha, we will now dwell on non-self (anattā), one of the most crucial terms in Dhamma.

In our daily lives we constantly look at and experience ourselves and the world from an ‘I’ perspective. ‘I’ look into the world, ‘I’ want this, ‘I’ don’t want this, this is ‘mine’, etc.

And irrevocably the differentiation and comparison between ‘me’ and ‘the other’ follows. This discernment lies at the root of all the conflicts in the world.

The Buddha repeatedly indicates that the ‘I’ view is a wrong one, not in accordance with reality.

This wrong view is an illusion maintained by desire, hatred and ignorance, and can be seen through concentration and insight. This is what the Buddha taught (SN 22:95):

“Suppose a man of good sight would see the foam on the river Ganges as he rides past, and he would look at it and examine it thoroughly; then, having thoroughly examined it, he would see the foam as empty, volatile, and without substance. In exactly the same way, the monk looks at all material phenomena, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and states of consciousness – whether in the past, the present or the future, far away or near. And when he sees them, and examines them thoroughly, he sees them as empty, vacant, without a self.”

In the standard formula, the Buddha makes the connection with the other two characteristics.

If things are impermanent, then clinging causes suffering. If there were a self, then that self would be able to decide just to be happy and content, but we know from expirience that this is not possible.

We do not have full control over our happiness (or other aspects of consciousness for that matter), any more than we do over the change of our bodies. How, then, can you speak of a self?

We can’t, says the Buddha. Of course, this is just a cognitive theorem to get a first hairline crack in the image of the self through reasoning.

Another cognitive example is thinking about the reality of the concepts we tend use.

Take a house for example. What is a house? If we remove the roof, the doors and windows, is it still a house? Is the house the walls, the foundation, the land it stands on? Soon you will come to the conclusion that a house is nothing more than an agreement.

It is very important, of course, to be able to talk to each other, but it has no real existence, no intrinsic value.

The problem is that we still value these agreements, these concepts. We cling to them as if they do have value.

However, just as with impermanence and suffering, so non-self can ultimately be expirienced by seeing the rise and fall of nāma-rūpa.

Whoever sees this can only conclude that there is no permanent entity, that there are only separate moments that are conditioned and conditioning among themselves.

This conclusion is consistent with everyday life, for although at some point we cannot choose to feel a certain way, we can work on the conditions for a certain mental attribute to emerge more often and more solidly.

If we don’t make an effort, these will be unwholesome traits, nourished by desire, hatred and ignorance. If we do make an effort, we can slowly but surely, very patiently replace these with their positive counterparts and thus purify our mind and make it receptive to liberating insight.

It might be good to put some extra nuance to this in order to prevent people from thinking that such an insight comes abruptly.

After all, unnoticed, we have often created an opinion about the self.

That is, we think ‘I am this’ and can reason this out for ourselves. With the first hairline cracks that arise from meditation and contemplating non-self it is possible that this view diminishes in strength and stops at some point.

The next step is when we notice that we still have the ‘I am’ thought. We may no longer have a comprehensive view about it, but still experience our ‘personal’ existence as a real entity.

By continuing to develop concentration and insight, this too can be transcended at some point.

But even then we are not finished.

Even for those who have made the superhuman effort to transcend the ‘I am’ level, the perception ‘I’ remains. By this we mean that as soon as we open our eyes and look into the world we do this from an ‘I’.

Only at the very last step towards liberation can this ‘I’ be given up.

So do not think too easily about giving up the self, for it is not easy. And do not rejoice too much (maybe only a little) when you have taken a first small step, for the road is long and it takes a lot of patience and effort to really get to the deepest level through one’s own experience of the rising and passing away of phenomena, the suffering that arises by clinging to them,  and the non-self that is inherent in them, and thus put an end to the unsatisfactoriness of existence.

TO BE CONTINUED…