The Buddha, His Life and Teachings

Salient Features of the Dhamma

There are no dark corners of ignorance, no cobwebs of mystery, no smoky chambers of secrecy; there are no “secret doctrines,” no hidden dogmas in the teaching of the Buddha, which is open as daylight and as clear as crystal. “The doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Buddha shine when open and not when covered, even as the sun and moon shine when open and not when covered” (A.I,283).

The Master disapproved of those who professed to have “secret doctrines,” saying, “Secrecy is the hallmark of false doctrines.” Addressing the disciple Ânanda, the Master said: “I have taught the Dhamma, Ânanda, without making any distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrine; for in respect of the truths, Ânanda, the Tathâgata has no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher who hides some essential knowledge from the pupil.”n35

A Buddha is an extreme rarity, but is no freak in human history. He would not preserve his supreme knowledge for himself alone. Such an idea would be completely ridiculous and abhorrent from the Buddhist point of view, and to the Buddha such a wish is utterly inconceivable. Driven by universal love and compassion, the Buddha expounded his teaching without keeping back anything that was essential for man’s deliverance from the shackles of samsâra, repeated wandering.

The Buddha’s teaching from beginning to end is open to all those who have eyes to see and a mind to understand. Buddhism was never forced upon anyone at the point of the gun or the bayonet. Conversion by compulsion was unknown among Buddhists and repugnant to the Buddha.

Of the Buddha’s creed of compassion, H. Fielding Hall writes in The Soul of a People: “There can never be a war of Buddhism. No ravished country has ever borne witness to the prowess of the followers of the Buddha; no murdered men have poured out their blood on their hearth-stones, killed in his name; no ruined women have cursed his name to high heaven. He and his faith are clean of the stain of blood. He was the preacher of the Great Peace, of love of charity, of compassion, and so clear is his teaching that it can never be misunderstood.”

When communicating the Dhamma to his disciples, the Master made no distinctions whatsoever among them; for there were no specially chosen favourite disciples. Among his disciples, all those who were arahats, who were passion-free and had shed the fetters binding to renewed existence, had equally perfected themselves in purity. But there were some outstanding ones who were skilled in different branches of knowledge and practice, and because of their mental endowments, they gained positions of distinction; but special favours were never granted to anyone by the Master. Upâli, for instance, who came from a barber’s family, was made the chief in matters of discipline (vinaya) in preference to many arahats who belonged to the class of the nobles and warriors (kshatriya). Såriputta and Moggallâna, brahmins by birth, because of their longstanding aspirations in former lives, became the chief disciples of the Buddha. The former excelled in wisdom (pañña) and the latter in supernormal powers (iddhi).

The Buddha never wished to extract from his disciples blind and submissive faith in him or his teachings. He always insisted on discriminative examination and intelligent inquiry. In no uncertain terms he urged critical investigation when he addressed the inquiring Kâlâmas in a discourse that has been rightly called the first charter of free thought:

“Come, Kâlâmas. Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them. And when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should engage in them.”

To take anything on trust is not in the spirit of Buddhism, so we find this dialogue between the Master and the disciples: “If now, knowing this and preserving this, would you say: ‘We honour our Master and through respect for him we respect what he teaches’?” – “No, Lord.” – “That which you affirm, O disciples, is it not only that which you yourselves have recognized, seen, and grasped?” -“Yes, Lord.”n36

The Buddha faced facts and refused to acknowledge or yield to anything that did not accord with truth. He does not want us to recognize anything indiscriminately and without reason. He wants us to comprehend things as they really are, to put forth the necessary effort and work out our own deliverance with mindfulness.

“You should make the effort The Tathâgatas point out the way.”n37 “Bestir yourselves, rise up, And yield your hearts unto the Buddha’s teaching. Shake off the armies of the king of death, As does the elephant a reed-thatched shed.”n38

The Buddha, for the first time in the world’s history, taught that deliverance should be sought independent of a saviour, be he human or divine.

The idea that another raises a man from lower to higher levels of life, and ultimately rescues him, tends to make man indolent and weak, supine and foolish. This kind of belief degrades a man and smothers every spark of dignity from his moral being.

The Enlightened One exhorts his followers to acquire self-reliance. Others may lend us a helping hand indirectly, but deliverance from suffering must be wrought out and fashioned by each one for himself upon the anvil of his own actions.