California Literary Review

What The Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

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April 24th, 2007 at 6:58 am

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What The Buddha Taught
by Walpola Rahula
Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 192 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Buddhism 101

What The Buddha Taught accurately describes itself as a reliable introduction to Buddhism. As a religion with an unrivaled track record for living up to its ideals, Buddhism will certainly be tested as it is absorbed more and more by the West. From Zen cooking to Zen tennis to Richard Gere philosophizing on the Oprah Winfrey show, Buddhism is certainly a part of modern America’s zeitgeist. But I doubt there is a basic understanding of what Buddism is and what it is not, even among many of its proponents. Throughout the world there are currently over 200 distinct variations of Buddhism. Dr. Rahula returns to the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha to provide us with a solid foundation into a fascinating religion.

To begin with, it might be difficult to even classify Buddhism as a religion. The Buddha was simply a human being and never claimed to be more than that. He was not the incarnation of God or a prophet of God. All of his insight he attributed to his own effort and intelligence. He believed that all doctrine should be questioned, even the Buddha’s. Buddhism is more of a path for the individual to travel, than a faith or belief.

The central tenants of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths. The first is often translated as “The Noble Truth of Suffering.” Dr. Rahula finds this a bad translation and prefers the Pali word dukkha instead of “suffering.” Dukkha connotes not just suffering, but also “impermanence”, “emptiness”, and “insubstantiality.” Happiness is a part of life, a part of dukkha, but like everything else it has no permanence.

The Second Noble Truth is the arising of dukkha – man’s desire or craving. This ‘thirst’ or attachment is not only for wealth, power, and sense-pleasures, but can also manifest itself in attachment to ideas, opinions, theories and beliefs. This arises from an organism’s “desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more.”

The Third Noble Truth is “The Cessation of Dukkha” – that if one eliminates the root cause of dukkha, which is thirst, there ensues a liberation or emancipation which is known as Nirvana. A description of this supramundane state of Nirvana is simply impossible. It is most frequently expressed in terms of what it is not – thirst, craving, etc.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the way or path that leads to Nirvana. It rejects the two extremes of sense pleasure and asceticism to follow a Middle Path. The path can be categorized as follows:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

The most radical concept found in Buddhism is the denial of a soul or distinct self. A spirit or consciousness that is separate from matter does not exist. It is the attachment to our own ego (me, mine, pride, conceit, etc.) that causes all of the world’s miseries. Man has created the concept of an immortal soul as a deluded means of self-preservation, and has created the notion of a loving God for his own protection in a dangerous world.

Meditation is an important aspect of Buddhism, but meditation for the purpose of spiritual power is considered a perversion. Meditation in Buddhism has two purposes. The first is to develop mental concentration. The second is to gain ‘Insight’ into the nature of things through “mindfulness, awareness, vigilance and observation.”

The Buddha taught for 45 years – up until the day he died. He discussed the loftiest spiritual ideas as well as more mundane topics concerning everyday problems that one may encounter. Dr. Rahula’s book provides a terrific introduction to the Buddha’s teachings.

But let me see if I understand this – excuse me, if “I” understand this. There is no separate consciousness, no “thinker of the thoughts.” The concept of free will is incompatible with a Buddhist worldview of complete interdependence. There are merely actions and reactions. All well and good, but it brings up a whole host of questions. If it’s all simply cause and effect, how can we “know” anything? What distinguishes Buddhism from pure scientific materialism? Who or what is becoming aware? A re-read of Dr. Rahula’s book will probably help, but the search is on for a book that explains how Buddhism answers these kinds of questions.

  • Paul van Bellen

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your review.

    In answer to your questions;

    Q. A re-read of Dr. Rahula’s book will probably help, but the search is on for a book that explains how Buddhism answers these kinds of questions.

    A. “MINDFULNESS, BLISS & BEYOND” – Ajahn Brahm (Wisdom Publications)

    Cheers…Paul.

  • notself

    Dr. Rahula’s book was the first book on Buddhism that I read. It was the reason I follow the Path to this day. There are other excellent books on Buddhism and many of them are offered free on line as a form of Dana or giving.

    A good portion of the Tipitaka, the Theravada Canon, is on line through Access to Insight. The site has an very helpful index by topic, sutta, name, and subject. It also has a list of on line books.

  • Ken Lee

    “If it’s all simply cause and effect, how can we “know” anything? What distinguishes Buddhism from pure scientific materialism? ”

    Contrary to popular opinion, the Buddha never said there there is no self. Instead, he pointed out that a separately existing self can never be found.

    Buddha (and later Nagarjuna) suggested that Nihilism (there is no self) and Eternalism (there is a separate self which lives forever) are two extremes, both of which are to be avoided. The truth, he suggested, lies between those two extremes. Hence the notion of the Middle Way, or “Madhyamika”.

    While this may sound baffling, many things in nature are baffling. Is an electron a wave or a particle ? The answer is that it depends on how we view it. It isn’t a wave. It isn’t a particle. To say that it is neither a wave nor a particle, is false. To say that is both a wave and a particle is also false. Then what is an electron ?

    The same can be said of so-called individuals. They are neither completely separate, nor are they completely independent… etc.

    The Buddha tried to describe this 2500 years ago.

  • http://www.yogianurada.com Yogi Anurada

    Ken Lee commented,
    “While this may sound baffling, many things in nature are baffling. Is an electron a wave or a particle ? The answer is that it depends on how we view it. It isn’t a wave. It isn’t a particle. To say that it is neither a wave nor a particle, is false. To say that is both a wave and a particle is also false. Then what is an electron ? ”

    I think this idea of a self or no self has to be understood trough meditation. Both the concept of ” a self ” and “no self” is a perception. When we sleep we do not perceive our self. Are we to suppose this situation as true or false?
    In meditation we can arrive to a mental state, that we would not perceive “ego” or “I”, while the awareness is there.
    Then if we conclude there is “no self”, it is wrong view.
    then if we conclude there is “a self”, it is wrong view.
    It means all our perceptions leads us to “wrong views”
    Get rid off all views. That is freedom.
    is

  • Sonear Khorn

    It is as simple as the saying. All is one and one is all.
    Yeah I know, the deeper you go the more difficult it is to understand these state of thought.

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