Buddhism for Students Part I

Buddha-Dhamma For Students: answers to questions a non-Buddhist is likely to ask about the fundamentals of Buddhism

Talks by BUDDHADĀSA BHIKKHU of Suan Mokh, Suratthani, Thailand. Jan 1966

Translated from the Thai by Ariyananda Bhikkhu (Roderick S. Bucknell) and edited by Sunnataram Forest Monastery, Bundanoon, Australia.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906- 1993) was the most famous and influential ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Known as an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist teachings, Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional Buddhist perceptions. He rejected specific religious rituals and ceremony and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought brings back the pure teachings of the Buddha alive.




1) “What subject did the Buddha teach?


THE BEST WAY of answering this is to quote the Buddha himself, “Know this, O Monks: Now, as formerly, I teach of only dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and the elimination of dukkha.”

Whether or not this answer agrees with what you had thought, please take good note of it. There are many other ways we may answer, but this one saying of the Buddha sums up his teaching very briefly.

The Buddha taught only dukkha and the quenching of it. This renders irrelevant any questions without a direct bearing on the elimination of dukkha. Don’t consider such questions as “Is there rebirth after death?” or “How does rebirth take place?” These can be considered later.




2) “What did he teach in particular?”


A) AS YOU CAN see, this is a big subject which can be answered from many different points of view. If asked this, we can say first of all that he taught us to tread the Middle Way, to be neither too strict nor too slack, to go to neither the one extreme nor the other. On the one hand, we are to avoid the very harsh self-mortification practised in certain yoga schools, which simply creates difficulties and trouble. On the other hand, we must keep away from that way of practice which allows us sensual pleasures, which amounts to saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” This is an extremely cynical expression appropriate for people interested only in sensual pleasures.


By contrast, the Middle Way consists, on one hand, in not creating hardships for yourself and, on the other hand, not indulging to your heart’s content in sensual pleasures. Walking the Middle Way brings about conditions which are in every way conducive to study and practice, and to success in putting an end to dukkha (suffering / unsatisfactoriness). The expression “Middle Way” can be applied generally in many varied situations. It can’t lead you astray.


The Middle Way consists in striking the golden mean. Knowing causes, knowing effects, knowing oneself, knowing how much is enough,  knowing the proper time, knowing individuals, knowing groups of people: these Seven Noble Virtues constitute walking the Middle Way. This is one way of answering the question.


B) WE COULD ANSWER it equally well by saying that he taught self help.  To put it briefly, we are not to rely on fortune and fate.

We are not to rely on celestial beings, nor even, finally, on what is called “God”. We must help ourselves. To quote the Buddha, “Self is the refuge of self.” Even in theistic religions it is said that God helps only those who help themselves. In other religions this matter of self-help may be stated more or less definitely, but in Buddhism it is all important. When one is miserable and, deluded, suffering pain and anguish, then one must turn to the way of self-help. The Buddha said, “Buddhas merely point out the way. Making the effort is something that each individual must do for himself.” In other words, Buddhism teaches self-help. Let us bear this in mind.


C) ANOTHER WAY OF answering is to say the Buddha taught that everything is caused and conditioned. Everything happens in consequence of causes and conditions, and in accordance with law. This statement is like the answer received by Venerable Sariputta when, prior to his entering the Order, he questioned a Bhikkhu (monk) and was told,

“The Buddha teaches thus: Each thing arises from a cause. We must know the cause of that thing and the ceasing of the cause of that thing.”

This principle of Dhamma is scientific in nature, and we can say that the principles of Buddhism agree with the principles of science. The Buddha did not use individuals or subjective things as criteria; that is to say, Buddhism is a religion of reason.


D) TO ANSWER YET another way, as a rule of practice, the Buddha taught, “Avoid evil, do good, purify the mind.” Those three together are called the “Ovāda pāṭimokkha”, meaning the “summary of all exhortations”. Avoid evil, do good, purify the mind. Avoiding evil and doing good need no explaining, but making the mind pure isn’t as obvious. If one goes about grasping and clinging, even to goodness, the mind develops impurities: fear of not receiving good, fear of being deprived of existing good, anxiety, worry, and attaching to this and that as “mine”. All of these produce suffering. Even though we may have successfully avoided evil and done good, we still must know how to render the mind free. Do not grasp at or cling to anything as being a self or as belonging to a self. Otherwise it will be misery, it will be a heavy burden and it will be unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). In other words, grasping and clinging, like carrying something along with one all the time, is a heavy weight and a burden of suffering. Even a load of precious gems carried on the shoulders or head is just as heavy as a load of rocks. So don’t carry rocks or gems (dukkha). Put them aside. Don’t let there be any weight on your head (which here means the mind). This is what is meant by “purify the mind”. So then, to purify the mind is the third thing. The first thing is to avoid evil, the second is to do good, and the third is to make the mind pure. This is what he taught.


E) HERE IS ANOTHER important teaching, a worthwhile reminder. He taught, “All compounded things (all things and all beings in this world) are perpetually flowing, forever breaking up (they are impermanent). Let all be well-equipped with heedfulness!” Please listen very carefully to these words: everything in this world is perpetually flowing, forever breaking up, that is, all is impermanent. So we have to equip ourselves well with heedfulness. Don’t go playing with these things! They will bite you. They will slap your face. They will bind and hold you fast. You will be made to sit and weep, or perhaps even to commit suicide.


Now let us bring together these various ways of answering this one question. If asked just what the Buddha taught, answer with one of the following:

He taught us to walk the Middle Way;

He taught self-help;

He taught us to be familiar with the law off causality and to adjust the causes appropriately for the desired results to follow;

He taught as the principle of practice “Avoid evil, do good, purify the mind”;

And he reminded us that all compounded things are impermanent and perpetually flowing, and that we must be well-equipped with heedfulness.

There are several different ways of answering this question. If asked what the Buddha taught, then answer in any one of these ways.


3) “Put as briefly as possible, what is the basic message of Buddhism?”


THIS CAN BE answered in one short sentence, a saying of the

Buddha himself: “Nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to.”
That nothing should be grasped at or clung to is a handy maxim from the mouth of the Buddha himself. We don’t need to waste time in searching through the Tripiṭaka (the three baskets/the recorded Teaching), because this one short statement puts it all quite clearly. In all the discourses, in the entire teaching, there are as many as eighty-four thousand Dhamma topics, all of which may be summed up in the single sentence, “nothing should be grasped at.” This tells us that to grasp at things and cling to them is unsatisfactoriness / suffering (dukkha). When we have come to know this, we can be said to know all the utterances of the Buddha, the entire eighty-four thousand Dhamma topics. And to have put this into practice is to have practised Dhamma completely, in its every phase and aspect.
The reason a person fails to keep to the rules of conduct is that he grasps at and clings to things. If he refrains from grasping at and clinging to anything whatever, and puts aside craving and aversion, he cannot fail to keep the rules of conduct. The reason a person’s mind is distracted and unable to concentrate is that he is grasping at and clinging to something. The reason a person lacks insight is the same. When he is finally able to practise non-grasping, then simultaneously he attains the Noble Paths, their Fruits, and ultimately Nibbāna-the End of Unsatisfactory. (Sanskrit, Nirvāna).
The Buddha was a man who grasped at absolutely nothing. The Dhamma teaches the practice and the fruit of the practice of nongrasping. The Sangha (Community of Noble Disciples) consists of people who practise non-grasping, some who are in the process of practising, and some who have completed the practice. This is what the Sangha is.
When people asked the Buddha whether his entire teaching could be summarized in a single sentence, he answered that it could, and said, “Nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to.”


4) “How is this non-grasping and non-clinging to be put into practice?”


IF YOU MEET a person from another country who asks by what means one may practise the essence of Buddhism, you can once again answer by quoting the Buddha. We don’t have to answer with our own ideas. The Buddha explained how to practise in succinct and complete terms. When seeing a visual object, just see it. When hearing a sound with the ear, just hear it. When smelling an odour with the nose, just smell it. When tasting something by way of the tongue, just taste it. When experiencing a tactile sensation by way of the general skin and body sense, just experience that sensation. And when a mental object, such as some defiling thought, arises in the mind, just know it; know that defiling mental object.
Let us go over it again for those of you who have never heard this before. When seeing, just see! If at all possible, in seeing, just see. When listening, just hear; when smelling an odour, just smell the odour; in tasting, just taste; in detecting a tactile sensation by the way of skin and body, just experience that sensation; and on the arising of a mental object in the mind, just be aware of it. This means that these are not to be added to by the arising of the self idea. The Buddha taught that if one can practise like this, the “self” will cease to exist; and the non-existence of the “self” is the cessation of suffering/unsatisfactoriness (dukkha).



“Viewing an object by way of the eye, just see it.” This needs explaining. When objects make contact with the eye, observe and identify them; know what action has to be taken with whatever is seen. But don’t permit liking or disliking to arise. If you permit the arising of liking, you will desire; if you permit the arising of disliking, you will want to destroy. Thus it is that there are likers and haters. This is what is called “the self”. To go the way of the self is suffering and deception.


If an object is seen, let there be intelligence and awareness. Don’t allow your mental defilements to compel you to grasp and cling. Cultivate enough intelligence to know which line of action is right and appropriate. And if no action is required, ignore the object. If some sort of result is wanted from this thing, then proceed, with full awareness and intelligence, not giving birth to the self-idea. In this way you get the results you wanted and no suffering arises. This is a very concise principle of practice, and it should be regarded as a most excellent one.


The Buddha taught: When seeing, just see. When hearing, just hear. When smelling an odour, just smell it. When tasting, just taste. When experiencing a tactile sensation, just experience it. When sensing a mental object, just sense it. Let things stop right there and insight will function automatically. Take the course that is right and fitting. Don’t give birth to “the liker” or “the hater”, and so to the desire to act in accordance with that liking or disliking, which is the arising of selfhood. Such a mind is turbulent, it is not free, it functions without any insight at all. This is what the Buddha taught.


Why, then, didn’t we mention morality, concentration, insight, merit-making, or alms-giving in connection with the most fruitful practice? These are helpful conditions, but they are not the heart of Dhamma, not the essential matter. We make merit, give alms, observe morality, develop concentration, and gain insight in order to become stable persons. When seeing, just to see; when hearing, just to hear. Achieving this, we become stable people. We have stability and equilibrium. Although objects of every kind make contact with us in every way and by every sensory route, self does not arise. Merit-making and alms-giving are means for getting rid of self.


Observing morality is a process by which we gain mastery over self, as is concentration practice. Acquiring insight serves to destroy self. Here we are not speaking of several different matters; we are speaking of one urgent everyday matter. Our eyes see this and that, our ears hear this and that, our nose smells odours, and so on for all six sense channels. We have to stand on guard, keeping a constant watch at the entrances of the six channels. This single practice covers all practices. It is the very essence of Dhamma practice. If you meet a person from another country who asks how to practise, answer in this way.

5) “Where can one learn, where can one study?”


WE ANSWER THIS by quoting the Buddha once again, “In this very fathom-long body together with the perceptions and the mental activities.” Learn in the human body together with perception and mental activity. This fathom-long body, being alive, is accompanied by perceptions and mental activities, all of which make up “the person”. The presence of consciousness implies the presence of perceptions, and the presence of mental activities that of knowledge and thought.

In this fathom-long body together with perceptions and mental activities the Tathāgata (the Buddha) made known the world, the origin of the world, the complete extinction of the world, and the way to practise in order to achieve the complete extinction of the world. When he spoke of the origin of the world, the complete extinction of the world, and the way of practice leading to complete extinction of the world, he meant that the whole Dhamma is to be found within the body and the mind. Learn here. Don’t learn in a school, in a cave, in a forest, on a mountain, or in a monastery. Those places are outside us. Build a school inside, build a university within the body. Then examine, study, investigate, research, scout around, find out the truth about how the world arises, how it comes to be a source of suffering, how there may be complete extinction of the world (that is, extinction of suffering), and how to work towards attaining that complete extinction. That is, rediscover the Four Noble Truths yourself. The Enlightened One sometimes used the word “world” and sometimes the word “suffering/unsatisfactoriness” (dukkha). The nature of the world, of suffering; the nature of its arising, its origin and source; the nature of its complete extinction, the cessation of suffering and the turbulent world; and the nature of the practice which leads to dukkha’s end: these can be searched for and found in this body and nowhere else. If one appears to have found it elsewhere, it can only be as an account in some book, hearsay, just words, and not the Truth itself. However, when it is looked for and found in this fathom-long body, together with this mind, then it will be the Truth.

So if asked where to learn, say, “We learn in this fathom-long body, together with perception and the mental activities.”


6) “To what may the Dhamma be compared?”


THE BUDDHA SAID, “The Dhamma may be compared to a raft.” He used the word “raft” because in those days rafts were commonly used for crossing rivers, and this explanation of the Dhamma as a raft could be readily understood. This has a very important meaning. One should not become so attached to the Dhamma that one forgets oneself, that one becomes proud of being a teacher, a scholar, or a man of learning. If one forgets that the Dhamma is just a raft, this danger will arise. The Dhamma is a raft, a vehicle that will carry us across to the other bank. Having reached the further shore and gone up on land, we should not be so foolish as to carry the raft along with us.

This is meant to teach us to recognize and use the Dhamma as merely a means to an end, not to grasp at and cling to it to the point of forgetting ourselves. If we don’t recognize the true function of this raft, we may find ourselves keeping it for show or as something to quarrel over. Sometimes it is regarded as a race to be run, which is wasteful and useless. It should be used as intended, for crossing over, for crossing the stream. Knowledge of Dhamma should be used to cross over beyond suffering. It should not be retained for detrimental purposes, for fighting with that sharp-edged weapon the tongue, for arguing, or as an object of ceremonial obeisance. Finally, don’t grasp at and cling to it so that, even after having reached the shore, having landed, you are not willing to leave the raft behind but want to carry it along with you.



7) “What should a lay person study?”


WE SHOULD NOT waste time thinking out our own answer. If anyone wants to have his own ideas, well and good, there is nothing to stop him. But if we are to answer in accordance with what the Buddha taught, then we must say, “Lay people should study all the suttantas (discourses of the Buddha), that is, the discourses of the Tathāgata (the Buddha) about suññatā(emptiness).”

These suttantas are a well-organized exposition of the teaching. They constitute a good system forming the pithy substance or heart of the teaching. This is why they are called suttanta. A sutta is a “discourse” and anta means “end”. Hence, a suttanta is a discourse that is well set out, well ordered, and the sound kernel of the subject. It is like the word vedanta. Veda is “knowledge”; vedanta is knowledge that is the pure substance of the matter, well set out and systematically arranged.

Remember this word suttanta. All the suttantas are utterances of the Tathāgata. They are what the Buddha taught and they all refer to suññatā(emptiness). In this connection, lay people ask how they are to practise Dhamma in order to achieve the most enduring benefits and happiness. The Buddha said, “The suttantas are utterances of the Tathāgata, are of great profundity, have deep significance, are the means of transcending the world, and refer to suññatā.”

This word suññatā may seem strange to you, but don’t lose heart just yet, because it happens to be the most important word in Buddhism. Please listen carefully. The word suññatā may be translated as “emptiness”. But the word “empty” has several usages and meanings. The suññatā of the Buddha does not mean physical emptiness, it is not a physical vacuum devoid of material substance. No! Here it is a case of emptiness in the sense of essential nature, because all sorts of things are still present. There can be as many objects as would fill up the whole world, but the Buddha taught that they are empty, or have the property of emptiness, because there is nothing in any of them that either is a self or belongs to a self. The aim of this is, once again, non-clinging to any thing at all. Lay people should study in particular those sayings of the Buddha that deal with suññatā. Generally, this subject has been misunderstood as too lofty for lay people. The reason for this is simply that too few people wish to practise according to these sayings of the Buddha. So please keep clearly in mind that even a lay person must study about, practise, and then discover suññatā. It is not only for bhikkhus.

I hope, then, that you lay people will no longer be afraid of the word “suññatā” or of the subject of suññatā. Take steps to increase your knowledge and understanding of it. Suññatā is a subject requiring intricate and delicate explanation; it takes a long time. For the reason, we have discussed only the actual core of the matter, just the real essence of it and that is enough, namely, emptiness of the idea of being a self or belonging to a self. If the mind realizes that there is nothing that is a self and that there is nothing that belongs to a self, the mind is “empty” and free. “This world is empty” means just this.




9) “What is the Dhamma that is highest and most profound, that transcends the world and death in all their forms?

THE BUDDHA CALLED it suññatāppaṭisaṃyuttā which means “Dhamma that treats of suññatā”, or even “suññatā” itself. Dhamma that treats of suññatā is Dhamma at its highest and most profound. It transcends the world, transcends death, and is none other than the amatadhamma (the immortal dhamma).

Now, the newer, later versions of Dhamma — what are they like?
The Buddha said,“A discourse of any kind, of any class; though produced by a poet or a learned man; though versified, poetical, splendid, and melodious in sound and syllable; is not in keeping with the teaching if it is not connected with suññatā.”Please remember the important words “not connected with suññatā”. Therefore, if a discourse is not concerned with suññatā, it must be an utterance of a later disciple, an innovation, new Dhamma, not an utterance of the Accomplished One, and as such inferior. If it is a saying of a disciple and does not treat of suññatā, it is outside the Teaching.
If we wish to find out Dhamma which is true to the original highest teaching of the Buddha, there is no possible way other than through those accounts that refer to suññatā (emptiness).


10) “Which aspect of the teaching, as recorded in the Pali Texts, did the Buddha stress most of all?”


ANSWER ONCE AGAIN by quoting the Buddha. “The five khandhas are impermanent and not-self (anattā).” These five khandhas are the five aggregates into which an “individual” is divisible.

  1. The body aggregate is called Rupa;
  2. the aggregate of feeling, both pleasurable and painful, is called vedanā;
  3. the memory and perception is called saññā;
  4. the active thinking is called sankhāra;
  5. the consciousness that can know this or that object by way of the six senses is viññāṇa.

Rūpa, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāṇa:these five are called the five aggregates or khandhas. These five aggregates are impermanent and devoid of selfhood. This is the aspect of the doctrine that the Buddha stressed most of all. These five aggregates are impermanent, continually flowing, and continually changing.

They are devoid of selfhood; because they are perpetually flowing, no one can consider them to be “me” or “mine”.

The Buddha stressed more than any other the teaching that all things are impermanent and that nothing can be considered to be “me” or “mine”.

Please click here to continue to Part II