The Principal Teachings of Buddhism Part 1

'Heart-wood from the Bo Tree' is a collection of three talks given by Ven. Buddhadasa to the Dhamma study group of doctors and nurses at Siriraj Hospital of Mahidol University in Bangkok in 1961. In these talks the Ven. Buddhadasa proposes that the 'heart-wood' or the pith or essence of the Buddhist Teachings is the practice of non-clinging, the dwelling with a mind empty of the feeling of 'I' and 'mine'. He masterfully shows how this practice may be developed and how taking emptiness as the fundamental principle one has a wonderful tool to understand and make use of every one of the many concepts and skilful means that lie within the Buddhist tradition, and also how to distinguish those things that are alien to it. Drawing fluently from material in both the Pall canon and the teaching of the Chinese Zen Masters he makes terms and concepts that often seem dauntingly abstract, immediate and practical.

On this occasion of giving a special talk, I feel I should deal with these important subjects which most adequately sum up the principles of Dhamma [1]. So I have resolved to speak on "The Essential Points of the Buddhist Teachings" in a hope that a grasp of them will greatly facilitate a wide ranging advance in your studies. If the points are not grasped, it will be confusing. You will feel that there are a great number of things to be known and that they keep increasing until there are too many to remember or understand or practice. This is the root cause of failure, for it results in discouragement and an interest that becomes more and more unfocussed and imprecise. In the end, it's as if one is carrying a great load of knowledge around on one's back without being capable of studying or practising so as to make use of it.


So please set your mind on some revision, in order to grasp the
essential points of the Buddhist Teachings, so as to realize the knowledge that is the foundation for a correct understanding of Dhamma. I emphasize that it is the foundation, because there is knowledge which is not a foundation, just as there is incorrect understanding - understanding of the sort that deviates little by, little until it's no longer Buddhist teaching. Or if it is still Buddhist teaching, it is an offshoot of it that is continually branching away from the trunk.      


To call something a foundation of the Buddhist Teachings is only correct if firstly, it is a principle which aims at the extinction of Dukkha/unsatisfactoriness [2] and, secondly, it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others. These are the important constituents of a foundation.


The Buddha refused to have any dealing with those things which don't lead to the extinction of Dukkha. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its kammic inheritance [3] ? These questions are not aimed at the extinction of Dukkha. That being so they are not Buddhist teaching and they are not connected with it. They do not lie in the sphere of Buddhism. Also, the one who asks about such matters has no choice but to indiscriminately believe the answer he's given, because the one who answers is not going to be able to produce any proofs, he's just going to speak according to his memory and feeling. The listener can't see for himself and so has to blindly believe "the other's words. Little by little the matter strays from Dhamma until it's something else altogether, unconnected with the extinction of Dukkha.


Now, if one doesn't raise those sort of problems, one can ask instead, "Is there Dukkha?" and "How can Dukkha be extinguished ?". To these questions the Buddha agreed to answer and the listener can see the truth of every word of his answer without having to blindly believe them, see more and more clearly until he understands. And if one understands to the extent of being able to extinguish Dukkha, then that is the ultimate understanding. One knows that, even at this moment, there is no person living; one sees without doubt that there is no self or anything belonging to a self. There is just a feeling of "I" and "mine" arising due to the foolishness whereby one is deluded by the beguiling nature of sense - experience. 

Therefore, there being no one born here, there is no one who dies and is reborn. So, the whole question of rebirth is nothing to do with Buddhism at all.


The Buddhist teachings aim to inform us that there is no self and nothing belonging to a self, there is only the false understanding of the ignorant mind. There is merely body and mind, which are nothing but natural processes. They function like a mechanism that can process and transform data. If they do so by the wrong method, it gives rise to foolishness and delusion, so that one feels that there is a self and things which belong to a self. If they do so by the correct method, those feelings do not arise; there is the primal truth-discerning awareness (satipanna), the fundamental true knowing and clear seeing that there is no self and nothing belonging to a self.


This being so, it follows that in the sphere of the Buddhist teachings there is no question of rebirth or anything of that nature. Rather, there is the question "Is there Dukkha?" and "How can it be extinguished?". Knowing the root cause of Dukkha, one will be able to extinguish it, and that root cause of Dukkha is delusion, the wrong understanding that there is a self and things belonging to a self.


The matter of "I" and "mine" is the single essential point of the Buddhist teachings. It is the one thing which must be completely purged. It follows that here lies the knowing, understanding, and practice of all the Buddhist Teachings without exception. So please pay full attention.


 In regards to the foundations or the root principles of Dhamma, there aren't a great deal. The Buddha said that there was a single handful. A sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya makes this clear.


While walking through the forest, the Buddha picked up a handful of fallen leaves, and asked the monks who were present, which was the greater amount - the leaves in his hand or all the leaves in the forest. They all said that the leaves in the forest were much more, so much so that it was beyond comparison. Even now, try to imagine the scene and see the truth of this, how much more they are. The Buddha then said that, similarly, those things which he had realized and which he knew were great amount, equal to all the leaves in the forest - but that which was necessary to know, those things which should be taught and practiced, were equal to the number of leaves in his hand.


So from this it can be taken that, compared to all the myriad things that are to be found in the world, the root principles to be practiced to completely extinguish Dukkha amount to a single handful. We must appreciate that this "single handful" is not a huge amount, it's not something beyond our capabilities to reach and understand. This is the first important point that we must grasp if we want to lay the foundations for a correct understanding of the Buddhist teachings.


 Here we reach the phrase, "the Buddhist Teachings". Please understand this phrase correctly. These days, that which is labelled as the, "Buddhist Teachings" is a very nebulous thing - ­that is to say it is extensive without much definition. In the Buddha's time, a different word was used, the word "dhamma", it referred specifically to the dhamma which extinguishes Dukkha. The dhamma of the Buddha was called Samana Gotama's dhamma. If it was the dhamma of another sect - say, that of Nigantha Nataputta [4] - it would be called Nigantha Nataputta's dhamma. One who liked a particular dhamma would try to study it until he understood it and then, practice accordingly. 


It was called dhamma and that is what it was, real pure dhamma without trappings, without any of the numerous things which have come to be associated with it in later times. Now we call those appendages "Buddhist Teachings". Due to our carelessness the "Buddhist Teachings" have become so nebulous that they include within them many things foreign to them.


The real Buddhist Teachings alone are already abundant - as many as all the leaves in the forest - but that which has to be studied and practised is merely a handful, and that's already plenty. But nowadays we go and include those things which are associated with the Teachings, such as the history of the religion and an expanded psychology. Take Abhidhamma [5] - some parts of it have become psychology, some parts philosophy, it's continually expanding to fulfil tile requirement of those disciplines. And there are many more offshoots, so that the things which are associated with the teachings have become exceedingly numerous. They have all been swept in together under the one term, so that there have come to be a large number of "Buddhist Teachings".


If we don't know how to take hold of the essential points, then it will seem like there's a great amount and we won't be able to choose between them. It will be like going into a shop selling a great variety of goods, 'and being completely at a loss what to take.’ So we will just follow our common sense-a bit of this, a bit of that, as we see fit. And mostly we will take those things which agree with defilement (kilesa) rather than let ourselves be guided by truth-discerning awareness. Spiritual life becomes a matter of rites and rituals, of making merit by rote or to insure against some fear or other. There is no contact with the real Buddhist Teachings.



Let us know how to separate the Buddhist Teachings from those things which have merely come to be associated with them and included under the same name. Even in the Teachings themselves, we must still know how to distinguish the root principles, the essential points, and it is of these things that I have resolved to talk.


Coming into this hospital has inspired me to think of a feature of the commentaries, namely that of calling the Buddha the "Spiritual Doctor". Following the meaning of some of the Buddha's teachings and their subsequent explanation in the commentaries, there arose a principle that recognized two kinds of disease - physical disease and mental disease. In the texts, the term "mental disease" is used, but there it does not have the same meaning that it does today. In the time of the Buddha, "mental disease" referred to an illness of view or desire. These days, however, it refers to ordinary mental ailments that have their base in the body and are mixed up with physical disease. To prevent this hindering our understanding of the term illness of the spirit, I would like to establish a third term. Let us consider physical and mental diseases as both being physical, and use the term "spiritual disease (unsatisfactoriness)" as an equivalent of the term "mental disease" used in the Buddha's time.


The words "spiritual" and "mental" have widely divergent meanings. "Mental" refers to the mental factors that are connected to and associated with the body. If we suffer from mental illnesses, we go to a psychiatric hospital or an asylum not – it’s not a spiritual matter. The word "spirit" here doesn't mean spirit in the sense of a ghost or a being that takes possession of people or anything like that, but it refers to the subtle aspects of the mind that are ill through the power of defilement, in particular through ignorance or wrong view. The mind composed of ignorance or wrong view suffers from the "spiritual disease"; it sees falsely. Seeing falsely causes it to think falsely, speak falsely, and act falsely, and the disease lies right there in the false thought, false speech, and false action.


You will see immediately that everyone, without exception, has the spiritual disease (unsatisfactoriness). As for physical and mental diseases, they only occur in some people at some times. They are not so terrible. They don't give people the constant suffering with every inhalation and exhalation that spiritual disease does. Thus, physical and mental diseases are not dealt with by the Buddhist Teachings, which are the cure for the "spiritual disease", or with the Buddha who is the "Doctor of the Spirit". Thus there remains only that which the commentators called "mental disease" and which we have decided to call "spiritual disease".

Remembering this point, that the commentators called the Buddha the "Spiritual Doctor", I feel that taking up this term as a way of exposition will make the matter easier to understand, for everyone suffers from the spiritual disease and everyone has to cure it spiritually. It is Dhamma which is the cure, the "single handful" of the Buddhist Teachings that must be realized, used, and digested so as to overcome the disease.


What you must pay further attention to is the point that, these days, mankind pays no heed to spiritual disease and so it is getting worse, both in terms of the individual and for the whole. For when everyone has the spiritual disease (unsatisfactoriness), then the whole world has it. It's a diseased world, both mentally and spiritually and rather than lasting peace we have permanent crisis. However we strive and struggle, we can't find peace even for a moment. It's a waste of breath talking of lasting peace because all sides have the spiritual disease - all sides say that they are in the right and that the others are wrong. All sides have the spiritual disease, so it's all just a matter of creating Dukkha for themselves and others. It's as if a machine manufacturing Dukkha has appeared in the world. How then can the word find peace?


The solution lies in ending 'the spiritual disease in all the people of the world. What can cure it? There must be an antidote for this disease. It is the one handful of Dhamma of the Buddhist Teachings that must be used.


This then is the answer to the question of why, today, the Teachings are not as  much of a  refuge for people as the monks intend, even though it is held that Buddhism is developing and spreading much more than previously, and that those who have a correct understanding of it are more numerous than before. It's true that there is much study of the Teachings and a greater understanding of them, but if we don't realize that we have the spiritual disease (unsatisfactoriness), how will we take them and make use of them? If we don't realize, that we are ill, we won't go to see the doctor and we won't take any medicine; anyone can see that. For the most part people don't see their illness (unsatisfactoriness), so that there has developed a mere fad for medicine. We go and listen to Dhamma and study it as a medicine, without feeling that we are ill. We just take it in order to store it away and clutter up the place, or else we use it as a subject for discussion, or in some cases for argument and dispute. This then, is why Dhamma is not yet an effective means to cure the world.


If we are going to establish a Buddhist society here and now, we should know its ultimate aims, so that the work can proceed decisively: that is, in a way that Dhamma can help to treat spiritual diseases directly and speedily. Don't leave the aims so undefined that you don't know in which direction to go. Let there be one handful of "sacred nectar" used correctly and used decisively. Let’s make it really beneficial, not a subject of ridicule even to the slightest extent.


Now, the point as to what is spiritual disease and how it can be treated with a single handful of Dhamma will be explained. Spiritual disease is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of "we" and' "ours", "I" and "mine" that "is regularly present in the mind. The germ that is already in the mind develops first into the feeling of "I" and "mine" and then, acting through the influence of self-centeredness, becomes greed, hate, and delusion, causing upset for both oneself and others. These are the symptoms of the spiritual disease that lies within us. To remember it easily it may be called the disease of "I" and "mine".

Every one of us has the disease of "I" and "mine", and we absorb more germs every time we see a form, smell an odour, touch a tangible object, taste a flavour, or think in the manner of an ignorant person. In other words, there is the reception of the germ, those things surrounding us that are infected and cause the disease, every time there is sense contact.


We must recognize that the germ is clinging (upadana) and that it is of "two kinds: clinging to "I" and clinging to "mine". Clinging to "I" is the feeling that "I" is an entity, that I am like this or like that, that I am the equal of any man. Anything of this sort 'is called 'I". "Mine" is taking that as belonging to me, that which I love, that which I like. Even that which we hate we consider to be "my" enemy. This is called "mine".

(continue to Part 2)


1. Ultimate truth; the truth of nature; the duty of all that lives; the teachings of the Buddha.  

 2. The suffering, unsatisfactoriness or imperfection of every experience or state clung to as being "I" or "Mine". 

 3. Kamma is Volitional action by means of body speech or mind.  

 4. A contemporary of the Buddha and founder of the Jain religion. 

 5. The third of  the three 'baskets' of the Buddhist scriptures. Compiled after the Buddha's death, they are a complex analysis of mind and matter into their constituent parts.