Handbook for Mankind

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu


The word “religion” has a broader meaning than the word “morality.” Morality has to do with behavior and happiness, and is basically the same the world over. A religion is a system of practice of a high order. The ways of practice advocated by the various religions differ greatly.

Morality made us good people, behaving in accordance with the general principles of community life and in such a way as to cause no distress to ourselves or others. But though a person may be thoroughly moral, he may still be far from free of the suffering attendant on birth, ageing, pain and death, still not free from oppression by the mental defilements. Morality stops well short of the elimination of craving, aversion and delusion, so cannot do away with suffering. Religion, particularly Buddhism, goes much further than this. It aims directly at the complete elimination of the defilements, that is, it aims at extinguishing the various kinds of suffering attendant on birth, ageing, pain and death. This indicates how religion differs from mere morality, and how much further Buddhism goes than the moral systems of the world in general. Having understood this, we can now turn our attention to Buddhism itself.

Buddhism is a system designed to bring a technical knowledge inseparable from its technique of practice, an organized practical understanding of the true nature of things or what is what. If you keep this definition in mind, you should have no difficulty understanding Buddhism.

Examine yourself and see whether or not you know what is what. Even if you know what you are yourself, what life is, what work, duty, livelihood, money, possessions, honour and fame are, would you dare to claim that you know everything? If we really knew what is what, we would never act inappropriately; and if we always acted appropriately, it is a certainty that we would never be subject to suffering. As it is, we are ignorant of the true nature of things, so we behave more or less inappropriately, and suffering results accordingly. Buddhist practice is designed to teach us how things really are. To know this in all clarity is to attain the Fruit of the Path, perhaps even the final Fruit, Nirvana, because this very knowledge is what destroys the defilements. When we come to know what is what, or the true nature of things, disenchantment with things takes the place of fascination, and deliverance from suffering comes about automatically. At the moment, we are practising at a stage where we still do not know what things are really like, in particular, at the stage of not yet realizing that all things are impermanent and not selves. We don’t as yet realize that life, all the things that we become infatuated with, like, desire and rejoice over, is impermanent, unsatisfactory and not self. It is for this reason that we become infatuated with those things, liking them, desiring them, rejoicing over them, grasping at them and clinging to them. When, by following the Buddhist method, we come to know things aright, to see clearly that they are all impermanent, unsatisfactory and not selves, that there is really nothing about things that might make it worth attaching our selves to them, then there will immediately come about a slipping free from the controlling power of those things.

Essentially the Buddha’s teaching as we have it in the Tipitaka is nothing but the knowledge of what is what or the true nature of things–just that. Do keep to this definition. It is an adequate one and it is well to bear it in mind while one is in the course of practising We shall now demonstrate the validity of this definition by considering as an example the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth, which points out that all things are suffering, tells us precisely what things are like. But we fail to realize that all things are a source of suffering and so we desire those things. If we recognized them as a source of suffering, not worth desiring, not worth grasping at and clinging to, not worth attaching ourselves to, we would be sure not to desire them. The Second Noble Truth points out that desire is the cause of suffering. People still don’t know, don’t see, don’t understand, that desires are the cause of suffering. They all desire this, that and the other, simply because they don’t understand the nature of desire. The Third Noble Truth points out that deliverance, freedom from suffering, Nirvana, consists in the complete extinguishing of desire. People don’t realize at all that nirvana is something that may be attained at any time or place, that it can be arrived at just as soon as desire has been completely extinguished. So, not knowing the facts of life, people are not interested in extinguishing desire. They are not interested in nirvana because they don’t know what it is.

The Fourth Noble Truth is called the Path and constitutes the method for extinguishing desire. No one understands it as a method for extinguishing desire. No one is interested in the desire extinguishing Noble Eightfold Path. People don’t recognize it as their very point of support, their foothold, something which they ought to be most actively reinforcing. They are not interested in the Buddha’s Noble Path, which happens to be the most excellent and precious things in the entire mass of human knowledge, in this world or any other. This is a most horrifying piece of ignorance. We can see, then, that the Four Noble Truths are information telling us clearly just what is what. We are told that if we play with desire, it will give rise to suffering, and yet we insist on playing with it until we are brim full of suffering. This is foolishness. Not really knowing what is what or the true nature of things, we act in every way inappropriately. Our actions are appropriate all too rarely. They are usually “appropriate” only in terms of the values of people subject to craving, who would say that if one gets what one wants, the action must have been justified. But spiritually speaking, that action is unjustifiable. Now we shall have a look at a stanza from the texts which sums up the essence of Buddhism, namely the words spoken by the bhikkhu Assaji when he met Sariputta before the latter’s ordination. Sariputta asked to be told the essence of Buddhism in as few words as possible. Assaji answered: “All phenomena that arise do so as a result of causes. The Perfected One has shown what the causes are, and also how all phenomena may be brought to an end by eliminating those causes. This is what the Great Master teaches.” He said in effect: Every thing has causes that combine to produce it. It cannot be eliminated unless those causes have been eliminated first. This is a word of guidance warning us not to regard anything as a permanent self. There is nothing permanent. There are only effects arising out of causes, developing by virtue of causes, and due to cease with the cessation of those causes. All phenomena are merely products of causes. The world is just a perpetual flux of natural forces incessantly interacting and changing. Buddhism points out to us that all things are devoid of any self entity. They are just a perpetual flux of change, which is inherently unsatisfactory because of the lack of freedom, the subjection to causality. This unsatisfactoriness will be brought to an end as soon as the process stops; and the process will stop as soon as the causes are eliminated so that there is no more interacting. This is a most profound account of “what is what” or the nature of things, such as only an enlightened individual could give. It is the heart of Buddhism. It tells us that all things are just appearances and that we should not be fooled into liking or disliking them. Rendering the mind truly free involves escaping completely from the causal chain by utterly eliminating the causes. In this way, the unsatisfactory condition which results from liking and disliking will be brought to an end. Let us now examine the Buddha’s intention in becoming an ascetic. What motivated him to become a bhikkhu? This is clearly indicated in one of his discourses, in which he says that he left home and became a bhikkhu in order to answer the question: “What is the Good?” The word “good”(Kusala), as used here by the Buddha, refers to skilfulness, to absolutely right knowledge. He wanted to know in particular what is suffering, what is the cause of suffering, what is freedom from suffering, and what is the method that will lead to freedom from suffering. To attain perfect and right knowledge is the ultimate in skill. The aim of Buddhism is nothing other this perfection of knowledge of what is what or the true nature of things. Another important Buddhist teaching is that of the Three Characteristics, namely impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha) and non – selfhood (anatta). Not to know this teaching is not to know Buddhism. It points out to us that all things are impermanent (anicca), all things are unsatisfactory(dukkha), and all things are not selves (anatta). In saying that all things are impermanent we mean that things change perpetually, there being no entity or self remains unchanged for even an instant. That all things are unsatisfactory means that all things have inherent in them the property of conducing to suffering and torment. They are inherently unlikable and disenchanting. That they are not selves is to say that in no thing whatsoever is there any entity which we might have a right to regard as its “self” or to call “mine.” If we grasp at things and cling to things, the result is bound to be suffering. Things are more dangerous than fire because we can at least see a fire blazing away and so don’t go too close to it, whereas all things are a fire we can’t see. Consequently we go about voluntarily picking up handfuls of fire which is invariably painful. This teaching tells us what things are like in terms of the Three Characteristics. Clearly Buddhism is simply an organized practical system designed to show what is what.

We have seen that we have to know the nature of things. We also have to know how to practice in order to fit in with the nature of things. There is another teaching in the texts, known as the Chief of all Teachings. It consists of three brief points: “Avoid evil, do good, purify the mind!” This is the principle of the practice. Knowing all things as impermanent, worthless and not our property, and so not worth clinging to, not worth becoming infatuated with, we have to act appropriately and cautiously with respect to them, and that is to avoid evil. It implies not to break with accepted moral standards and to give up excessive craving and attachment. On the other hand, one is to do good, good as has come to be understood by wise people. These two are simply stages in morality. The third, which tells us to make the mind completely pure of every kind of contaminating element, is straight Buddhism. It tells us to make the mind free. As long as the mind is not yet free from domination by things, it cannot be a clean, pure mind. Mental freedom must come from the most profound knowledge of the what is what. As long as one lacks this knowledge, one is bound to go on mindlessly liking or disliking things in one way or another. As long as one cannot remain unmoved by things, one can hardly be called free. Basically we human beings are subject to just two kinds of emotional states: liking and disliking (which correspond to pleasant and unpleasant mental feeling). We fall slaves to our moods and have no real freedom simply because we don’t know the true nature of moods or what is what. Liking has the characteristic of seizing on things and taking them over; disliking has the characteristic of pushing things away and getting rid of them. As long as these two kinds of emotional states exist, the mind is not yet free. As long as it is still carelessly liking and disliking this, that the other, there is no way it can be purified and freed from the tyranny of things. For this very reason, this highest teaching of Buddhism condemns grasping and clinging to things attractive and repulsive, ultimately condemning even attachment good and evil. When the mind has been purified of these two emotional reactions, it will become independent of things.

Other religions would have us simply avoid evil and grasp at goodness. They have us grasp at and become attached to goodness, even including the epitome of goodness, namely God. Buddhism goes much further, condemning attachment to anything at all. This attachment to goodness is right practice at the intermediate level, but it just can’t take us to the high level no matter what we do. At the lowest level we avoid evil, at the intermediate level we do our utmost to do good, while at the highest level we make the mind float high above the domination of both good and evil. The condition of attachment to the fruits of goodness is not yet complete liberation from suffering, because, while an evil person suffers in a way befitting evil persons, a good person suffers also, in a way befitting good persons. Being good, one experiences the kind of suffering appropriate to good human beings. A good celestial being experiences the suffering appropriate to celestial beings, and even a god or Brahma experiences the suffering appropriate to gods. But complete freedom from all suffering will come only when one has broken free and transcended even that which we call goodness to become an Aryian, one who has transcended the worldly condition, and ultimately to become a fully perfected individual, an Arahant.

Now as we have seen, Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and a Buddhist is one who practices according to the teaching of the Enlightened One. With regard to what was he enlightened? He simply knew the nature of all things. Buddhism, then, is the teaching that tells us the truth about what things are really like or what is what. It is up to us to practice until we have come to know that truth for ourselves. We may be sure that once that perfect knowledge has been attained, craving will be completely destroyed by it, because ignorance will cease to be in the very same moment that knowledge arises. Every aspect of Buddhist practice is designed to bring knowledge. Your whole purpose in setting your mind on the way of practice that will penetrate to Buddha-Dhamma is simply to gain knowledge. Only, do let it be right knowledge, knowledge attained through clear insight, not worldly knowledge, partial knowledge, halfway knowledge, which for example clumsily mistakes bad for good, and a source of suffering for a source of happiness. Do try your utmost to look at things in terms of suffering, and so come to know, gradually, step by step. Knowledge so gained will be Buddhist knowledge based on sound Buddhist principles. Studying by this method, even a woodcutter without book learning will be able to penetrate to the essence of Buddhism, while a religious scholar with several degrees, who is completely absorbed in studying the Tipitaka but doesn’t look at things from this point of view, may not penetrate the teaching at all. Those of us who have some intelligence should be capable of investigating and examining things and coming to know their true nature. Each thing we come across we must study, in order to understand clearly its true nature. And we must understand the nature and the source of the suffering which produces, and which sets us alight and scorches us. To establish mindfulness, to watch and wait, to examine in the manner described the suffering that comes to one– this is very best way to penetrate to Buddha-Dhamma. It is infinitely better than learning it from the Tipitaka. Busily studying Dhamma in the Tipitaka from the linguistic or literary viewpoint is no way to come to know the true nature of things. Of course the Tipitaka is full of explanations as to the nature of things; but the trouble is that people listen to it in the manner of parrots or talking myna birds, repeating later what they have been able to memorize. They themselves are incapable of penetrating to the true nature of things. If instead they would do some introspection and discover for themselves the facts of mental life, find out firsthand the properties of the mental defilements, of suffering, of nature, in other words of all the things in which they are involved, they would then be able to penetrate to the real Buddha- Dhamma. Though a person may never have seen or even heard of the Tipitaka, if he carries out detailed investigation every time suffering arises and scorches his mind he can be said to be studying the Tipitaka directly, and far more correctly than people actually in the process of reading it. These may be just caressing the books of the Tipitaka everyday without having any knowledge of the immortal Dhamma, the teaching contained within them. Likewise, we have ourselves, we make use of ourselves, we train ourselves, and we do things connected with ourselves every day, without knowing anything about ourselves, without being able to handle adequately problems concerning ourselves. We are still very definitely subject to suffering, and craving is still present to produce more and more suffering every day as we grow older, all simply because we don’t know ourselves. We still don’t know the mental life we live. To get to know the Tipitaka and the profound things hidden within it is most difficult. Let us rather set about studying Buddha-Dhamma by getting to know our own true nature. Let us get to know all the things which make up this very body and mind. Let us learn from this life: life which is spinning on in the cycle of desiring, acting on the desires, and reaping the results of the action, which then nourish the will to desire again, and so on, over and over incessantly; life which is obliged to go spinning on in the circle of samsara, that sea of suffering, purely and simply because of ignorance as to the true nature of things or what is what.

Summing up, Buddhism is an organized practical system designed to reveal to us the “what is what.” Once we have seen things as they really are, we no longer need anyone to teach or guide us. We can carry on practising by ourselves. One progresses along the Aryian Path just as rapidly as one eliminates the defilements and gives up inappropriate action. Ultimately one will attain to the best thing possible for a human being, what we call the Fruit of the Path, Nirvana. This one can do by oneself simply by means of coming to know the ultimate sense of the “what is what.”

How can we get away from and become completely independent of things, all of which are transient, unsatisfactory and devoid of selfhood? The answer is that we have to find out what is the cause of our desiring those things and clinging to them. Knowing that cause, we shall be in a position to eliminate clinging completely. Buddhists recognize four different kinds of clinging or attachment. 1) Sensual attachment (Kamupanana) is clinging to attractive and desirable sense objects. It is the attachment that we naturally develop for things we like and find satisfaction in: colors and shapes, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile objects, or mental images, objects past, present, or future that arise in the mind, and either correspond to material objects in the world outside or within the body, or are just imaginings. We instinctively find pleasure, enchantment, delight in these six kinds of sense objects. They induce delight and enchantment in the mind perceiving them.

As soon as an individual is born, he comes to know the taste of these six sense objects, and clings to them; and as time passes he becomes more and more firmly attached to them. Ordinary people are incapable of withdrawing from them again, so they present a major problem. It is necessary to have a proper knowledge and understanding of these sense objects and to act appropriately with respect to them, otherwise clinging to them may lead to complete and utter dereliction. If we examine the case history of any person who has sunk into dereliction, we always find that it has come about through his clinging fast to some desirable sense object. Actually every single thing a human being does has its origin in sensuality. Whether we love, become angry, hate, feel envious, murder, or commit suicide, the ultimate cause must be some sense object. If we investigate what is it that drives human beings to work energetically, or to do anything at all for that matter, we find it is desire, desire to get things of one kind or another. People strive, study, and earn what money they can, and then go off in search of pleasure-in the form of colors and shapes, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile objects-which is what keeps them going. Even merit making in order to go to heaven has its origins simply in a wish based on sensuality. Taken together, all the trouble and chaos in the world has its origin in sensuality. The danger of sensuality lies in the power of sensual attachment. For this reason the Buddha reckoned clinging to sensuality as the primary form of attachment. It is a real world problem. Whether the world is to be completely destroyed, or whatever is to happen, is bound to depend on this very sensual clinging. It behooves us to examine ourselves to find out in what ways we are attached to sensuality and how firmly, and whether it is not perhaps within our power to give it up. Speaking in worldly terms, attachment to sensuality is a very good thing. It conduces to family love, to diligence and energy in the search for wealth and fame, and so on. But if looked at from the spiritual point of view, it is seen to be the secret en trance for suffering and torment. Spiritually speaking, attachment to sensuality is something to be kept under control. And if all suffering is to be eliminated, sensual attachment has to be done away with completely. 2) Attachment to opinions (Ditthupadana). Clinging to views and opinions is not difficult to detect and identify once we do a little introspection. Ever since we were born into the world, we have been receiving instruction and training, which has given rise to ideas and opinions. In speaking here of opinions, what we have in mind is the kind of ideas one hangs on to and refuses to let go of. To cling to one’s own ideas and opinions is quite natural and is not normally condemned or disapproved of. But it is no less grave a danger than attachment to attractive and desirable objects. It can happen that preconceived ideas and opinions to which we had always clung obstinately come to be destroyed. For this reason it is necessary that we continually amend our views, making them progressively more correct, better, higher, changing false views into views that are closer and closer to the truth, and ultimately into the kind of views that incorporate the Four Noble Truths.

Obstinate and stubborn opinions have various origins, but in the main they are bound up with customs, traditions, ceremonies and religious doctrines. Stubborn personal convictions are not a matter of great importance. They are far less numerous than convictions stemming from long held popular traditions and ceremonies. Adherence to views is based on ignorance. Lacking knowledge, we develop our own personal views on things, based on our own original stupidity. For instance, we are convinced that things are desirable and worth clinging to, that they really endure, are worthwhile and are selves, instead of perceiving that they are just a delusion and a deception, transient, worthless and devoid of selfhood. Once we have come to have certain ideas about something, we naturally don’t like to admit later on that we were mistaken. Even though we may occasionally see that we are wrong, we simply refuse to admit it. Obstinacy of this sort is to be considered a major obstacle to progress, rendering us incapable of changing for the better, incapable of modifying false religious convictions and other longstanding beliefs. This is likely to be a problem for people who hold to naive doctrines. Even though they may later come to see them as naive, they refuse to change on the grounds that their parents, grandparents and ancestors all held those same views. Or if they are not really interested in correcting and improving themselves, they may simply brush away any arguments against their old ideas with the remark that this is what they have always believed. For these very reasons, attachment to opinions is to be considered a dangerous defilement, a major danger, which, if we are to better ourselves at all, we ought to make all efforts to eliminate. 3) Attachment to rites and rituals (Silabbatupadana). This refers to clinging to meaningless traditional practices that have been thoughtlessly handed down, practices which people choose to regard as sacred and not to be changed under any circumstances. In Thailand there is no less of this sort of thing than in other places. There are beliefs involving amulets, magical artifacts and all manner of secret procedures. There exist, for instance, the beliefs that on rising from sleep one must pronounce a mystical formula over water and then wash one’s face in it, that before relieving nature one must turn and face this and that point of the compass, and that before one partakes of food or goes to sleep there have to be other rituals. There are beliefs in spirits and celestial beings, in sacred trees and all manner of magical objects. This sort of thing is completely irrational. People just don’t think rationally; they simply cling to the established pattern. They have always done it that way and they just refuse to change. Many people professing to be Buddhists cling to these beliefs as well and so have it both ways; and this even includes some who call themselves bhikkhus, disciples of the Buddha. Religious doctrines based on belief in God, angels and sacred objects are particularly prone to these kinds of views; there is no reason why we Buddhists should not be completely free of this sort of thing.

The reason we have to be free of such views is that if we practice any aspect of Dhamma unaware of its original purpose, unconscious of the rationale of it, the result is bound to be the foolish, naive assumption that it is something magical. Thus we find people taking upon themselves the moral precepts or practicing Dhamma, purely and simply to conform with the accepted pattern, the traditional ceremonial, just to follow the example that has been handed down. They know nothing of the rationale of these things, doing them just out of force of habit. Such firmly established clinging is hard to correct. This is what is meant by thoughtless attachment to traditional practices. Insight meditation or tranquillity meditation as practiced nowadays, if carried out without any knowledge of rhyme and reason and the real objectives of it, is bound to motivated by grasping and clinging, misdirected, and just some kind of foolishness. And even the taking of the Precepts, five, eight, or ten, or however many, if done in the belief that one will thereby become a magical, supernatural, holy individual possessing psychic or other powers, becomes just misdirected routine, motivated simply by attachment to rite and ritual.

It is necessary, then, that we be very cautious. Buddhist practice must have a sound foundation in thought and understanding and desire to destroy the defilements. Otherwise it will be just foolishness; it will be misdirected, irrational a just a waste of time. 4) Attachment to the idea of selfhood (Attavadupadana). The belief in selfhood is something important and also something extremely well concealed. Any living creature is always bound to have the wrong idea of “me and mine.” This is the primal instinct of living things and is the basis of all other instincts. For example, the instinct to seek food and eat it, the instinct to avoid danger, the instinct to procreate, and many others consist simply in the creature’s instinctive awareness of a belief in its own selfhood. Convinced first of all of its own selfhood, it will naturally desire to avoid death, to search for food and nourish its body, to seek safety, and to propagate the species. A belief in selfhood is, then, universally present in all living things. If it were not so, they could not continue to survive. At the same time, however, it is what causes suffering in the search for food and shelter, in the propagation of the species, or in any activity whatsoever. This is one reason why the Buddha taught that attachment to the self-idea is the root cause of all suffering. He summed it up very briefly by saying: “Things, if clung to, are suffering, or are a source of suffering.” This attachment is the source and basis of life; at the same time it is the source and basis of suffering in all its forms. It was this very fact that the Buddha was referring to when he said that life is suffering; suffering is life. This means the body and mind (five aggregates) which are clung to are suffering. Knowledge of the source and basis of life and of suffering is to be considered the most profound and most penetrating knowledge, since it puts us in a position to eliminate suffering completely. This piece of knowledge can be claimed to be unique to Buddhism. It is not to be found in any other religion in the world. The most efficacious way of dealing with attachment is to recognize it whenever it is present. This applies most particularly to attachment to the idea of selfhood, which is the very basis of life. It is something that comes into existence of its own accord, establishing itself in us without our needing to be taught it. It is present as an instinct in children and the small offspring of animals right from birth. Baby animals such as kittens know how to assume a defensive attitude, as we can see when we try to approach them. There is always that something, the “self” present in the mind, and consequently this attachment is bound to manifest. The only thing to do is to rein it in as much as possible until such time as one is well advanced in spiritual knowledge; in other words, to employ Buddhist principles until this instinct has been overcome and completely eliminated. As long as one is still an ordinary person, a worldling, this instinct remains unconquered. Only the highest of the Aryians, the Arahant, has succeeded in defeating it. We must recognize this as a matter of no small importance; it is a major problem common to all living creatures. If we are to be real Buddhists, if we are to derive the full benefits from the teaching, it is up to us to set about overcoming this misconception. The suffering to which we are subject will diminish accordingly.

To know the truth about these things, which are of everyday concern to us, is to be regarded as one of the greatest boons, one of the greatest skills. Do give some thought to this matter of the four attachments, bearing in mind that nothing whatever is worth clinging to, that by the nature of things, nothing is worth getting or being. That we are completely enslaved by things is simply a result of these four kinds of attachment. It rests with us to examine and become thoroughly familiar with the highly dangerous and toxic nature of things. Their harmful nature is not immediately evident as is the case with a blazing fire, weapons, or poison. They are well disguised as sweet, tasty, fragrant, alluring things, beautiful things, melodious things. Coming in these forms they are bound to be difficult to recognize and deal with. Consequently we have to make use of this knowledge the Buddha has equipped us with. We have to control this unskillful grasping and subdue it by the power of insight. Doing this, we shall be in a position to organize our life in such a way that it becomes free of suffering, free of even the smallest trace of suffering. We shall be capable of working and living peacefully in the world, of being undefiled, enlightened and tranquil.

Let us sum up. These four forms of attachment are the only problem that Buddhists or people who wish to know about Buddhism have to understand. The objective of living a holy life (Brahmacariya) in Buddhism is to enable the mind to give up unskillful grasping. You can find this teaching in every discourse in the texts which treats of the attainment of arahantship. The expression used is “the mind freed from attachment.” That is the ultimate. When the mind is free from attachment, there is nothing to bind it and make it a slave of the world. There is nothing to keep it spinning on in the cycle of birth and death, so the whole process comes to a stop, or rather, becomes world transcending, free from the world. The giving up of unskillful clinging is, then, the key to Buddhist practice.