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-Dharma 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-Dharma. It is infinitely better than learning it from the Tipitaka. Busily studying Dharma 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-Dharma.
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 Dharma, 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-Dharma 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”.
Extract from “Handbook for Mankind” by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa.