Information to help your study of Buddhism

4-7 years

Stories from the Buddhist tradition

8-11 years

4 quizzes to test your knowledge

12-14 years

Some good introductory material

15-16 years

Lots of valuable material here

17-18 years

Greater depth on many topics

STORIES from the BUDDHIST TRADITION - aged 4 to 7

Stories from the Buddhist tradition

Siddhartha and the Swan

Siddhartha and the Swan

(Easier to read pdf)

Long ago in far-away India, near the great Himalayan mountains, there lived King Sudhodana and his wife, Queen Maya. One day, the Queen gave birth to a baby boy, their first child. They called the baby Siddhartha.

Naturally, the King and Queen wanted their family and friends to see their new baby so, at their invitation, people came from far and wide. Among the visitors was a wise old fortune-teller who had come down from his home in the mountains.
“Tell me,” said the king, “what future do you see for my son?”
“Well, your majesty,” replied the old man, “your son could become a great king one day…”
“I knew it!” exclaimed the king excitedly. “He will rule the kingdom after me.”
“On the other hand,” continued the old man, “he may choose to leave the palace and lead a simple life, devoting himself to helping others instead.”
“He’ll do no such thing!” retorted the king. “He’s going to be a king, like me!”

So the young prince Siddhartha grew up surrounded by luxury. The King watched over him and made sure that he had the best of everything. He was proud of his son and wanted him to be happy and enjoy the royal life.

One day, when the prince was seven years old, his father sent for him.
“Siddhartha,” he said, “when you grow up you will be king and rule our kingdom. It is now time for you to begin your training.” And so Siddhartha began his education. He was taught how to ride a horse, how to shoot an arrow; how to wrestle and use a sword: all the skills that a warrior king would need.

Siddhartha learned his lessons well, as did his cousin, Devadatta. The two boys were about the same age and the king thought that they would be good company for one another. Every day, when his lessons were over, Prince Siddhartha would go and play in the palace grounds where all sorts of animals lived. He particularly liked to walk near the lake in the evening. Every year since he was a baby, a pair of beautiful white swans had nested there and he liked to sit and watch them.

Then, one evening, he saw three more beautiful wild swans flying overhead. Suddenly, as he watched, one of the swans faltered and fell to the ground.
“Oh no!” cried Siddhartha. “What can have happened?” So as not to frighten it any more, Siddhartha went very quietly up to where the swan lay and began to stroke it gently. An arrow was sticking out of its wing.
“Now I understand,” said Siddhartha. “Someone has shot you.” Taking great care, he removed the arrow and took off his shirt and wrapped it around the swan.
“I’ll look after you until your wing is better,” he said.

Just then, he heard a voice. “Where is it? I know it must be around here somewhere; I saw it fall!” It was Devadatta, Prince Siddhartha’s cousin, who came running up carrying his bow and arrow.
“Hey, that’s my swan! I shot it. Give it to me,” he demanded.
“You can’t have it,” replied Siddhartha. “It’s a wild swan. It doesn’t belong to you.”
“I shot it so it’s mine; everyone in this kingdom knows that,” said Devadatta, getting angry.
“You’re right, that is the law of our kingdom,” replied Siddhartha, “but this swan isn’t dead.She is injured and I want to help her get well again.” The two boys began to argue.
“Stop,” said Siddhartha. “This isn’t helping. Let’s go and ask the king and his wise ministers to help us settle this.”When they got to the meeting hall, everyone looked very busy.
“We’ve come to ask you to help us settle a disagreement,” said Siddhartha. And the ministers listened as Siddhartha and Devadatta told them what had happened.
“…and I shot the swan, so it rightfully belongs to me,” concluded Devadatta. The ministers nodded their heads. It was indeed the law of the kingdom that an animal or bird belonged to whoever shot it.
“That would be so if it were dead,” argued Siddhartha, “but I saved it. It is wounded but it is still alive.”
Now the ministers shook their heads. They were puzzled. Who did the swan belong to?

“I think I can help,” a voice said. Looking up, they saw an old man standing in the doorway. He approached and looked at the wounded animal in Siddhartha’s arms.
“If this swan could talk,” said the old man, “it would tell us that it wanted to be well again and be free to fly and swim with the other wild swans. None of us wants to feel pain or die and it is the same for the swan. It wants to live, so it should go to whoever wants to give it life.”
“Let it be so,” said the king. “Siddhartha shall keep the swan. Thank you, old man, for your wise advice.”
But the old man had already disappeared, as quietly as he had come.

All this time, Devadatta had stood silent. He remembered how kind his mother had been when he had once fallen and cut his leg badly. She had bandaged the cut and looked after him. He had never before stopped to think that animals had feelings – that they too felt pain and appreciated kindness.

And so the two boys cared for the swan until it was well again and, one evening, when its wing was completely healed, they led it down to the palace lake. Just then, the familiar sound of beating wings could be heard overhead.“Look,” said Devadatta. “The others have come back for her.”
Soon, the swan rose into the air to join her friends. She circled the lake one last time, as if to say goodbye before flying off towards the mountains in the North.

Angulimala meets the Buddha

Angulimala meets the Buddha

cartoon picture of Angulimala

(Easier to read pdf)

One hot day, the Buddha set off as usual to collect gifts of food from a nearby village. But as he approached the village, he realised that something was wrong. There was silence and the streets were deserted. “What is going on?” he wondered. “Where is everyone?”

The Buddha carried on towards the nearby city to see if he could find out what had happened. The road to the city was full of people hurrying past him.“Why is everyone in such a rush?” asked the Buddha.“It’s that terrible robber, Angulimala,” said a woman. “He’s roaming the countryside around here. Even the King and his soldiers are afraid to try and catch him! We’re going to the city for safety.”“Who is this robber, Angulimala, who makes everyone so afraid and unhappy?” wondered the Buddha. “I must go and meet him.”

Meanwhile, Angulimala was sitting outside his den, planning the day’s work.He was a fierce-looking character. He had huge, wild, staring eyes, and his face was covered in scars. Around his neck was the terrible necklace of fingers which had given him his name. So far there were ninety-nine fingers, chopped off the hands of the people he had robbed.“One more finger and my necklace will be complete!” he gloated. “I wonder who will be my next victim.”

At that moment, the Buddha appeared, walking slowly and calmly.“How dare he walk past my den?” thought Angulimala. “I’ll have one of his fingers to finish my necklace! That will teach him a lesson.” Down he jumped and began to run after the Buddha. But, run as he might, he couldn’t catch up with him.“Stop!” shouted Angulimala. “Stand still!”The Buddha turned and looked Angulimala in the eye.“I have stopped; I am still, Angulimala. It’s you who needs to stop.”“Don’t try to fool me!” shouted Angulimala, waving his sword. “I could see you were moving.”“Ah,” said the Buddha. “But I meant something else.”“Something else?” roared Angulimala, getting angry.“I have stopped,” repeated the Buddha. “I am still, because I never harm, I never kill. You can’t stop; you’ll never be still, as long as you harm, as long as you kill.”

No one had ever spoken to Angulimala like this before. He began to get a bit worried. This man clearly wasn’t afraid of him. He became even more furious.“Don’t you know who I am?” he screamed. “I am Angulimala, the robber with the necklace of fingers. I am the terrible adventurer.”“What you need, my friend, is a real adventure,” replied the Buddha.“‘Friend?’” asked Angulimala. “Did you say ‘friend’?”Angulimala was very surprised. No one had called him “friend” for a very long time. In fact, he didn’t have any friends. Everyone was afraid of him.He remembered how, when he was little, he used to have friends. Then he had started to bully the smaller boys and girls until, in the end, no one wanted to be his friend. Then things had got worse and he had begun to steal from people’s houses. Now he was the terrible robber from whom everyone ran away.“What have I been doing?” he exclaimed. “No wonder no one wants to be my friend.”“Angulimala,” asked the Buddha kindly, “why don’t you come and live with me and my friends? If you were very brave you could make a fresh start. Now that would be a real adventure!”Angulimala walked to the edge of the cliff and threw his sword and shield over.“Are you sure this will be an adventure?” he asked.“Oh yes,” replied the Buddha. “The greatest adventure of your life!”

That night, Angulimala stayed with the Buddha and his friends under the stars. These people were kind. They shared their food and talked to him. No one was afraid.Perhaps he could be different, he thought. Deep down, he was tired of his old life; all that robbing and hurting other people had never really made him feel happy. Although he knew it might be difficult to change, he decided to stay with the Buddha and his new-found friends.

In the morning, he threw away his terrible necklace of fingers. Then he cut off his long hair and beard and put on the same simple robes that the others wore. He was already feeling better.

One morning a week or two later, as Angulimala sat talking with the Buddha, the king suddenly appeared in the clearing.“Good morning, your majesty,” said the Buddha, smiling. “Where are your guards and attendants? Have you come alone?”“I didn’t want to bring them with me,” answered the king. “It might have attracted the attention of that robber, Angulimala. My people are terrified of him; even my soldiers refuse to go and search for him. What am I to do? It can’t go on like this!”“What would you say if I told you that Angulimala was no longer a robber?” asked the Buddha.The king smiled. “I wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “That cut-throat!”“That cut-throat”, said the Buddha, “is now as kind and gentle as any of my followers…”“Impossible!” interrupted the king.“…and he’s sitting next to you!” continued the Buddha.The king turned to look at Angulimala, who sat looking at him, smiling.“You? Angulimala?” exclaimed the king, jumping up.“Have no fear,” said the Buddha. “Angulimala is now a changed man.”The king smiled nervously. “I’m very pleased. What a relief! You’re going to stay with the Buddha? Good, good … I must go now – such a busy day ahead.” The king hastily said goodbye and hurried away as quickly as possible.

The Buddha smiled at Angulimala, who smiled back. Then he got up and went off to help his new friends collect their food for the day.

The Lion and the Jackal

The Lion and the Jackal

(Easier to read pdf)

One day, a young lion was hunting in the hills when he found a cave. “This cave would make a perfect home for our family,” he thought. “It will shelter us at night, and each morning we can go down to the river to catch some food. In fact, I think I’ll catch some now,” and he bounded down the hillside towards the river.

The young lion raced along the muddy bank and hurled himself over a bush in an attempt to catch a deer. He missed and landed instead right in the middle of a patch of deep mud. He struggled to get free, but the more he struggled, the deeper he sank.
“Oh no! I’m stuck!” he gasped. “What can I do now? Perhaps, if I roar loud enough, one of the other lions may hear me.”
All day long, the young lion roared, but no one came. He remained stuck in the mud, which had begun to dry, making it even harder for him to move.
“Who can possibly help me?” he groaned. “My friends don’t know where I am, and all the other animals are afraid of me. I’m going to die here. ”For a whole week, he lay trapped in the mud.
“I’m done for,” he thought. But suddenly he heard a sniffing noise.
“Please help!” he gasped.
A grey head peered cautiously around the bush. It was a jackal.
“Don’t run away, jackal,” said the lion. “Please save me.”
“Why should I save you?” replied the jackal. “You’d just eat me as soon as you were out of that mud.”
“If you help me now, I will always be your friend,” said the lion. “Everything I catch I will share with you and your family.”

The jackal knew that if she did not help him, he would slowly starve to death. “Do you promise?” she asked. “As the king of the beasts, I give you my word,” said the lion.

Very cautiously, she crept across the dried mud towards the lion. Then she began to dig.
“It would help if we had some water to soften the mud,” she said. So she found a coconut shell and started to carry water to pour round the lion’s legs.
“You loosen the mud around your paws and I’ll push from under your stomach,” said the jackal.“One last effort and you’ll be free.” And she stood back, hoping that she had been right to trust him.
“Thank you, jackal,” said the lion. “Thank you for trusting me; thank you for helping me. From now on, I will always be your friend.” With that, the lion went off and caught some food for them both. And so it was that the lion and the jackal became good friends.

One day, the lion and the jackal sat together on the ledge by the the river.
“Why don’t we all live here?” said the lion. “We could shelter in these caves and even take turns to look after the little ones.”
“What a great idea!” replied the jackal. The next day, the lions and the jackals all moved into their new home. Within a few hours, the lion cubs and the little jackal pups were making friends, playing together and chasing each other over the rocks.

As the dry months passed, the river dwindled and the lush green grass became brown and shrivelled. Each day the lion and the jackal hunted together but food became hard to find. The lion kept to his word and they shared out the catch, even when there was not really enough to go around. All the animals began to feel rather grumpy and bad-tempered.

One day, two of the older lions sat on the ledge watching the hunt.
“Just look at our young lion down there wasting his time. There’s not enough food to go around, and our catch is still shared with all those jackals.”
“Yes,” agreed the other. “It’s time we got rid of them and all their noisy pups.” And so they went on.
Unfortunately, one of the sharp-eared jackals playing nearby overheard the old lions moaning and immediately went off and told his friends.
“Those smelly old lions do nothing but sleep all day,” he complained. “And that young lion wouldn’t catch anything without the help of our cunning mother jackal.”

Before long, other rumours and tales were being told. The lion cubs and jackal pups began to squabble and fight when they played together.When anything went wrong, the lions would blame the jackals, and the jackals would blame the lions!

Then, one day when food was so scarce that no one had eaten for several days, one of the old lions spotted a jackal pup carrying a bone in its jaws.
“Those good-for-nothing jackals must becatching food and keeping it all for themselves,”he growled, and roughly snatched the bone fromthe puppy.
“Just look at this,” he said to the young lion, dropping the bone in front of him. “As well as sharing our food, those sly jackals are catching meat and keeping it for themselves. It’s time we drove them out of here.”
“It is a puzzle,” said the young lion, “but the mother jackal is my friend. I will ask her about this.”
So he took the bone over to where she sat. One of the jackal puppies was crying.
“..and then that old lion took my bone away,” whimpered the little pup.
The jackal shook her head as the young lion approached.
“This is no good,” she said. “If we cannot live happily together we shall have to leave this ledge. How can we trust the lions when they steal from our pups?”
“Where did the pup get this food from?” asked the young lion.
“This isn’t fresh food,” said the mother jackal.“He’s saved this bone from the catch we made last week.”
“Of course; now I understand,” said the lion. “I knew that we could trust each other. Spreading rumours and telling tales has undermined our friendship.”
That night, he called the lion family together. He told them all about how the jackal had saved his life, and about the promise he had made to share his catch with the jackals and not harm them.The other lions hung their heads in shame.
“We are sorry,” they said. “We had no idea. If that jackal had not trusted you and helped you, you would have died. Our unkind words have caused a lot of trouble and unhappiness. We must go and apologise at once.”
And so they did – and from that day on, the two families lived as friends.

Kisa and the Mustard Seed

Kisa and the Mustard Seed

(Easier to read pdf)

Kisa grew up in an Indian village a long time ago. When she was quite young, she got married and went to live with her husband’s family in a town called Kapilavattu. When she first moved in with them, things were difficult. She missed her village, her family and her friends. She felt that no one liked her and that everything she did was wrong. Then, when her son was born, everyone was very pleased and her life improved. But when the baby was still tiny, her husband died. Kisa was very upset. “At least I still have my little son,” she thought.

One sad day, the baby also became very ill and died. Kisa was so unhappy that she just couldn’t believe that her baby was dead. She thought he must be asleep. She wanted to find some special medicine that would make him better and began asking everyone. First she asked her neighbour.
“Please, can you help me?” she asked. “I need some special medicine for my baby.”
“I’m sorry, Kisa,” said the woman, “I’m too busy to stop now. Why don’t you ask the shopkeeper?” Sadly, Kisa thanked her and went to find the shopkeeper. But the shopkeeper only told her to ask the doctor.

“Please, can you help me?” Kisa asked the doctor. “I need some special medicine for my baby.”
The doctor looked at the baby in Kisa’s arms. He could see that it was dead. “I’m sorry, Kisa,” he said. “I haven’t got the medicine you need.”
Was there anyone who could help Kisa, he wondered? Then he remembered that the Buddha was staying nearby. He was wise and very kind. Maybe he would know how to help.“Kisa,” he suggested, “why don’t you go and ask the Buddha?”

The Buddha was sitting in the shade of a tree talking to his friends when Kisa ran up to him. He could see straight away that she was very upset. “How can I help you?” he asked.
“My name is Kisa,” she replied. “I have been looking everywhere for medicine for my son.”
The Buddha looked at the little bundle in Kisa’s arms. How could Kisa be helped to accept the truth that her little boy had really died?
“Kisa, if you want to make some medicine, you must have some mustard seeds,” said the Buddha. “Go into town and ask at each house, but you must only accept seeds from a house in which no one has died.”

Quickly, Kisa set off into town to get the mustard seeds. At the first house a young woman answered the door.
“Could I have some mustard seeds to make some medicine?” Kisa asked.
The woman went back inside and soon returned with some seeds.“Here you are,” said the woman, smiling.Kisa was just about to take the seeds when she remembered the Buddha’s words.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” said Kisa. “Has anyone died in this house?”
“Ah, yes,” replied the young woman. “A few months ago my grandmother died, very peacefully. She was a lovely old lady and we remember her very fondly. But why do you ask?”
“Thank you for getting me the seeds,” said Kisa, “but I can only take them from a house in which no one has died.”

Kisa said goodbye and went on to the next house. An old man was sitting outside.
“Please, have you got some mustard seeds to spare?” she asked him. Slowly, the old man got up and went into the house. Soon he emerged with some seeds.
“Here you are,” he said, holding out his hand.Again, just as Kisa was about to take the seeds, she remembered what the Buddha had said.
“Has anyone died in this house recently?” she asked.
“Ah,” replied the old man sadly, “just last year the lady of the house, my daughter, passed on. We all still miss her.”
“I am sorry to hear your sad news,” said Kisa.
“Thank you for getting me the seeds, but I’m afraid I can’t take them after all.”
At the next house she came to, a young boy answered the door.“Please, have you got some mustard seeds to spare?” she asked.“I’m sure we have,” said the boy. “Wait there and I’ll ask my mum.” Soon the boy came back with the seeds. “Here you are.”
This time, Kisa remembered! “Can you tell me please if anyone has ever died in this house?” she asked.
“Yes,” replied the boy quietly. “When I was still a little baby, my dad died. I can’t even remember him.”
“I’m sorry about your dad,” said Kisa, “and thank you for getting me the seeds, but I can’t use them after all.”

As Kisa went from door to door, the answer was the same. Everyone had lost a loved one; if not last year, then a long time ago. Kisa had no mustard seeds but now she understood why she would not be able to find any. She looked at the little bundle in her arms. “I am sorry, my little one, you have gone to another life and I did not want to let you go. Let us find a resting place for you.”

In the evening, she returned to the Buddha. She was no longer carrying the little bundle. Her face was now much calmer.
“Have you been able to find the mustard seeds, Kisa?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, “but now I understand that everyone loses people they love. I have laid my baby to rest, and am now at peace. Thank you.”
“You have done well, Kisa,” said the Buddha, “for there is nothing stronger in all the world than a mother’s love. Would you like to stay with me for a while?”

As the sun went down over Kapilavattu, Kisa and the Buddha talked. She told him about her life and her baby. He listened kindly. The Buddha reminded Kisa that plants grow in the spring, flower in the summer, and die in the winter – and that new plants grow the following year. Similarly, people are born and eventually die. Kisa now understood that was just how things are.

Talking to the Buddha and listening to his kind words helped Kisa a lot. That very evening she decided to become one of his followers.

The King's Elephant

The King’s Elephant

(Easier to read pdf)

Once upon a time there was a King of Benares who was very rich. He had many servants and a beautiful palace with wonderful gardens; he had chariots and a stable full of horses. But his most prized possession was a magnificent elephant called Mahaghiri. She was as tall as two men, and her skin was the colour of thunder clouds. She had large flapping ears and small, bright eyes and she was very clever.

Mahaghiri lived in her own special elephant house and had her own keeper, Rajinder. The King would often visit Mahaghiri to take her some special tit-bit to eat and check that Rajinder was looking after her properly. But Rajinder needed no reminding, for he also loved the elephant dearly, and trusted her completely. Every morning, he would take her down to the river for her bath. Then he would bring her freshly cut grass, leaves and the finest fruits he could find in the market for her breakfast. During the day, he would talk to her and, in the evening, he would play his flute to send her to sleep.

One morning, Rajinder arrived as usual with fruit for Mahaghiri’s breakfast. Suddenly, before he knew what was happening, she picked him up with her trunk and threw him out of the stall, breaking his arm. She began to stamp on the ground and trumpet so loudly that it took several strong men all morning to bind her with ropes and chains.

When the king heard about what had happened, he was very upset and sent for the doctor to help Rajinder. Then he called for his chief minister.
“You must go and see Mahaghiri at once,” he said. “She used to be so kind and gentle, but this morning she threw her keeper out of her stall. I can’t understand it. She must be ill or in pain. Spare no expense in finding a cure.”

So the chief minister went to see Mahaghiri, who was still bound firmly with ropes. First he looked at her eyes – they were as clear and bright as usual. Then he felt behind her ears – her temperature was normal. Next he listened to her heart – that was fine too – and checked all over for cuts or sores. He could find nothing wrong with her.
“Strange,” he thought. “I can find no explanation for her bad behaviour.”But then his eye was caught by something gleaming in the straw. It was a sharp, curved knife, like the ones used by robbers. Could there be a connection?

That night, when everyone else had gone to bed, the chief minister returned to the elephant house. There, in the stall next to Mahaghiri’s, sat a band of robbers. “Tonight we’ll burgle the palace,” said the chief. “First, we’ll make a hole in the wall, then we’ll steal the treasure.
“But what about the guards?” someone asked.
“Don’t tell me you’re still afraid to kill! When will you learn to be a real robber?”
From the shadows, the minister could see the elephant, her ears pinned back, listening to every hateful and violent word.“Just as I suspected,” thought the minister.
Then he slipped out, bolted the door on the outside so the robbers could not escape, and went immediately to the king.“Your majesty,” he said, “I think I have found the cause of your elephant’s bad behaviour.”

As soon as the king heard what the minister had to say, he sent for his guards and had the robbers arrested. “But what about the elephant? How can she be cured?’ he asked.
“Well, your majesty, if Mahaghiri became dangerous through being in the company of those wicked robbers, perhaps she could be cured by being in the company of good people.”
“What a brilliant idea!” exclaimed the king. “Let us invite the friendliest, happiest and kindest people in the city to meet in the stall next to the elephant.”

“Mahaghiri, the king’s most prized elephant, has been in bad company and has become violent and dangerous,” the minister told his friends. “Will you help her to become her old self again?”“Of course,” they replied. “What do you want us to do?”
“Just meet in the elephant house every day for the next week. Let her hear how kindly and thoughtfully you speak to each other, and how helpful you are.”

So the minister’s friends met in the elephant house as planned. They talked together and enjoyed each other’s company. Sometimes they brought cakes and sweets to share; sometimes their children came and played happily in the straw. All the while, Mahaghiri watched and listened. Gradually, she became calmer.
“I think it’s working,” said the minister. “Soon we’ll be able to remove the ropes.”

Everyone felt a bit nervous when the day came for Mahaghiri to be untied. The king ordered everyone to wait outside as, very carefully, brave Rajinder began to undo the ropes around her ears and trunk. Next he removed the ropes holding her head. Finally, he loosened the thick chains holding her great feet. Everyone held their breath. What if she was still wild?Mahaghiri looked round shuffling her feet to stretch them. Then she slowly curled her trunk around her keeper’s waist and lifted him high into the air before placing him gently on her back. A great cheer went up. The king was delighted.
“Let’s have a picnic to celebrate,” he announced. “Mahaghiri can come too.”

What a great afternoon they all had! Mahaghiri bathed in the lake and gave the children rides. It seemed as though she had now become kinder, gentler and even more trustworthy than ever. But Rajinder never forgot what had happened and was always careful to set Mahaghiri a good example by being kind and friendly himself.

The Monkey King

The Monkey King

(Easier to read pdf)

Far away in the East, high among the mountain forests, there once lived a band of monkeys. One day, when some of the younger monkeys were exploring, they spotted a tree growing on the banks of a river. Its branches were full of the most delicious-looking fruit. It was a mango tree.
“Look,” called the smallest monkey. “A fruit tree.”
“Stop,” said his big sister. “Don’t eat the fruit; it might be poisonous. Let’s take one back to our king. He’ll know if it’s good for us.”
The monkey king took the golden fruit, sniffed it and then tasted it.
“Umm-HMMHH! Absolutely delicious!” he exclaimed. “Are there any more where this came from?”
“Oh yes, hundreds of them,” replied the little one excitedly.

Before long, they found the tree again.
“What a beautiful tree!” said the monkey king. “We could all live here, but we must be careful not to let any fruit drop into the water. If one were carried away down the river to the towns where the humans live, someone might taste it and come looking for this tree. Let us first pick all the fruit that hangs over the river. That way we will be safe.”

For many months, the monkey band lived happily in the fruit tree. Everyone took great care not to drop any fruit into the water. But no one had noticed one last mango hanging over the river. One night, while everyone slept, a breeze stirred the branches and, unseen by anyone, the mango fell into the water and drifted downstream.

Some days later, the king of the humans was bathing in the river when one of his men spotted the mango. The king picked up the fruit and wondered what it was.
“Here, taste that!” he ordered one of his guards.
“It’s very good, your majesty,” replied the guard, taking a bite.No sooner had the king tasted the fruit himself than he wanted more.“I want to find that fruit tree,” he said greedily. “It must be somewhere upriver. We will make a raft and find it.”

In the mountain forest, the monkeys rested in the shade of the mango tree. Suddenly, the little monkey called out; he had seen the raft approaching with the king and his soldiers on board.

The king ordered his men to pick all the fruit while he rested in the shade of the tree. Hidden among the leaves above, the monkeys watched silently, waiting for the humans to go.
“It’s been a long day,” said the king. “Prepare a bed for me. We’ll stay here tonight.”
“Oh no!” whispered the monkey king. “We’ll have to stay hidden. You little ones must try very hard to be still and quiet.”

Then, just as the human king settled down to sleep, he looked up and spotted a tail hanging down.
“There are monkeys in MY tree!” he shouted. “They’ll eat all my fruit! Quickly! Light some fires. Tomorrow, we can have some roast monkey with our fruit.”
Hidden in the leaves above, the monkeys were very frightened.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the monkey king. “I have a plan.”

He raced along the branch which hung over the river and, with one mighty bound, sailed through the air, landing on the other side. Quickly he pulled at a very long creeper and tied one end around his waist and the other to the nearest tree. Then the monkey king bounded back towards the mango tree. But the creeper wasn’t quite long enough, and he could only just catch the tip of the branch in his hands.

The other monkeys watched in horror as their king hung in mid-air over the river.“Come quickly !” he whispered. “I shall be your bridge to safety. Silently, the monkeys crept along the branch and across their king’s back. Just as the last monkey crossed to safety, a soldier spotted the monkey king hanging over the river. The monkey king was unable to move; his back was now broken.

“Aha! Roast monkey for breakfast!” said the soldier, taking aim with his bow and arrow.
“STOP! DON’T SHOOT!” called the king. From his bed under the tree, he had seen everything. He had seen how the brave monkey king had risked his life to save his people. Jumping up, he got onto the raft and paddled out to the middle of the river. He lifted the monkey king down, holding him gently in his arms.

“Why did you make a bridge out of your own body, knowing that you might be caught?” asked the king.
The monkey king smiled. “My monkeys are safe now. That is all that matters. If you want to be a good king, you must resolve to help other people.”
With these words, the monkey king closed his eyes and died. The king’s eyes filled with tears as he turned to speak to his soldiers.

“This monkey has shown me how to be a real king,” he said. “Let us give him a fine burial.”
And so it was that a great monument was built to commemorate the monkey king’s selflessness and courage.

QUIZZES about BUDDHISM - aged 8 to 11

Try a quiz!

The Buddha

The Buddha


The Dharma

The Dharma


The Sangha

The Sangha


Meditation and Worship

Meditation and Worship


INFO about BUDDHISM - aged 12 to 14

The Three Jewels

Here is a symbol for theThree Jewels.

The top jewel stands for the Buddha. When shown in colour, it is yellow, like the Buddha’s robe.

The left-hand jewel is blue, representing the vast, ocean-like freedom of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings.

The right-hand jewel is red and stands for the Sangha, the community of Buddhists.

At his Enlightenment, the Buddha understood How Things Really Are. He also realised that anyone could reach this same understanding and become Enlightened, if they made the effort to understand and to change for the better.

The Dharma describes How Things Really Are, and the method by which anyone can gradually change themselves and come to understand it.

The Sangha is a fellowship of people learning to understand How Things Really Are, by following the Buddha’s teachings and encouraging each other to change.

Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right vision, or understanding: understanding that life always involves change and suffering; realising that following the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to overcome suffering and be really happy.
  2. Right emotion: commiting oneself to wholeheartedly following the path.
  3. Right speech: speaking in a positive and helpful way; speaking the truth.
  4. Right action: living an ethical life acording to the precepts.
  5. Right livelihood: doing work that doesn’t harm others and is helpful to them.
  6. Right effort: thinking in a kindly and positive way.
  7. Right mindfulness: being fully aware of oneself, other people, and the world around you.
  8. Right meditation, or concentration: training the mind to be calm and positive in order to develop Wisdom.

The Dharmachakra is a Buddhist symbol for the Dharma. It usually has eight spokes to represent the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Although the ‘Path’ has eight separate steps, they are not intended to be followed one after another. The Buddhist way of life involves all of them and enables Buddhists to train themselves in every aspect of their lives.

All Buddhists should strive to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, whether they live in a remote monastery in Tibet or in a flat in the middle of a city. How do Buddhists follow the Eightfold Path?

Here are some quotes from Buddhists who are trying to follow this ancient Buddhist teaching in a modern setting.


Before I can practise Buddhism at all, I have to have some idea that there’s something to work towards. When I look at the Buddha image I remember that I, too, can be like that. I can become happier, wiser and more compassionate. I too want to gain Enlightenment. That’s my goal, my vision.


It’s no good wanting Enlightenment in my head, if, in my heart, I can’t be bothered. One way I can motivate myself is by meditating. I can also inspire myself by reading some Dharma books.


We have a strong effect on others through our speech and communication. I need to speak kindly and truthfully. If I tell the truth, especially when it isn’t easy, I can develop honesty and fearlessness. By being truthful I do myself honour….What a challenge it is to be really honest and always kind.


We’re engaged in actions all day. Buddhism says that the key to Right Action is intention. Behind every action is a state of mind. If I catch myself in a negative state of mind, I can choose to act differently and so practise Right Action.


We try to avoid any kind of work that might increase suffering in the world. We don’t want to harm the environment, animals or humans. So we avoid work involving weapons, tobacco or alcohol. Instead, I want to find work that can help the world. I like to work with other Buddhists because it keeps me on my toes. It’s not easy to forget the Noble Eightfold path when your mates are practising it too.


I can find myself in different states of mind from one moment to the next. What can I do about this? My states of mind can affect what I do. So I need to ask myself through the day: ‘What state am I in?’ Then I can change that by making more effort – I can change how I think and feel .With Right Effort I can develop a more positive and brighter outlook.


Often we are not aware of how we are feeling or what we are doing. If we can become more aware we can live in the present moment and transform our lives. Staying aware is a practice that can lead to happier states of mind. Instead of rushing through a job, I can slow down and even enjoy what I am doing. Right mindfulness makes the most of the present moment.


I begin my day with meditation. Why do I meditate? I can only transform myself in all the other steps of the path, if I know myself well. Meditation helps me to develop calm and peaceful states of mind. Then I can begin to see myself more clearly. With the help of meditation, I can gradually progress through ever higher states of mind along the path. I can get nearer and nearer to Enlightenment, even if takes much effort and many lifetimes.


Girl doing a stilling exerciseBuddhists meditate in order to become kinder and wiser. With regular meditation they can become calmer and more relaxed and more aware of themselves, other people and the world around them. They can think more clearly, concentrate for longer and understand their feelings better. Greater awareness helps them to practise the Five Precepts: they can make wiser and kinder choices about how to behave. Knowing that they have acted kindly and wisely helps them relax when they meditate.

With stiller minds, they find they understand the Buddha’s teachings more, have a better effect on others and suffer less. Eventually, Buddhists hope they will have perfectly still and clear minds, like that of a Buddha.

It is traditional to sit on cushions on the floor to meditate. This is the custom in many eastern countries, and it gives a feeling of balance so that when you relax, you do not fall over! If the floor is hard, they may put a mat under them. Some meditators feel more comfortable on upright chairs.

In the teachers’ section of this website there are some non-religious ‘stilling exercises’ you can do with your class or at home. They will give you an idea of what meditation is like for Buddhists.

Four Noble Truths

Part of the Enlightenment experience of the Buddha was the direct ‘Knowledge and Vision of Things as they Really Are’; he realised the Truth, or the Dharma.

He decided that it was possible to help others to realise the Truth for themselves and gain Enlightenment and began to formulate the Dharma, the teaching that leads to Enlightenment. So he put his realisation, which is essentially beyond words, into the conceptual form of the Law of Conditionality.

The Four Noble Truths are an application of the Law of Conditionality to the problem of human suffering. This teaching follows an ancient Indian medical formula:-
illness, cause, cure, remedy.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth Noble Truth – the remedy for human suffering.

The Four Noble Truths Buddhism begins by addressing suffering because no-one can deny the existence of pain. Simply put, the Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Dukkha – PAIN – physical suffering, psychological pain and existential dissatisfaction.
  2. Samudaya – The ORIGIN of Pain, which is craving.
  3. Nirodha – The CESSATION of Pain, which is achieved by overcoming craving. The Third Noble Truth asserts that man can achieve Enlightenment through his own efforts.
  4. Magga – The WAY to the Cessation of Pain, which is the following of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths are a fundamental Buddhist teaching. Despite their concise and simple format, they are a profound teaching that can be understood on deeper and deeper levels.

So, does that mean that cancer is the result of craving? It might be. Lung cancer could be caused by craving for cigarettes, for example. It is also dependent on a number of other conditions: nuclear fallout, genetic predisposition, etc.

However we must distinguish between physical suffering and psychological suffering.

Buddhists who believe in the teaching of rebirth might say (without any sense of blame) that a person’s cancer was partly the result of their being born in a physical body, yet again, as a result of their endless craving for physical existence, when they could have chosen to practise the Dharma more, leading to a rebirth in a different, non-physical state.

Other Buddhists might just say that cancer is one of the many difficult things we may have to face in life, which are hard to explain. What matters is how we respond to it.

One person with cancer may be eaten up with bitterness: “Why me? It’s not fair” etc. This is the kind of suffering which comes with aversion – craving for things to be other than the way they are. This person now has two kinds of suffering. Another person with cancer could choose to see their illness as an opportunity for changing lifestyle, making the most of the time they have left, making sure their friendships are in good repair etc. Because they don’t resist the reality of their situation by craving for things to be different, they suffer less emotional and psychological pain.

Of course, many people with any kind of suffering will experience a mixture of these two attitudes.


Actions have consequences

Buddhism teaches that all things inevitably change. Because of this it is possible to change things for the better.

We can see evidence of this all around us: a seed changes to become a flower; if we exercise we become fitter; our thinking can improve through study. Buddhism says that we can even do the same with our hearts and minds. By choosing how we act now, we create our future happiness.

The Dhammapada, one of the best-known Buddhist texts, begins with these verses:

Our life is shaped by our mind: we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.
Our life is shaped by our mind: we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.

Buddhism says that such change is possible because of the Law of Karma.

The word karma means “action”.

The Law of Karma states that actions have consequences: positive actions have positive consequences; negative actions have negative consequences.

Everything we do, think or say has an effect on the world around us and on us. Change will happen to us anyway, but through the choices we make about how to behave, we can change ourselves, and the world around us, for the better.

The Five Precepts

Behaviour to avoid

  1. harming living beings
  2. taking the not-given
  3. sexual misconduct
  4. false speech
  5. taking intoxicants that cloud the mind

Behaviour to develop

  1. loving-kindness
  2. generosity
  3. stillness and contentment
  4. truthful speech
  5. mindfulness, or awareness

They come in pairs, so the first precept is to avoid harming living things and to develop loving-kindness. The precepts are training guidelines which Buddhists follow. They are not commandments to be obeyed. Some Western Buddhists explain how and why they follow the precepts:

1. To abstain from harming living beings

“Some Buddhists are vegetarian. They don’t want to harm animals. The greatest harm you can do to another living being is to kill it. Anything we do to someone without their agreement is an act of violence.
The non-violent path is not a path for cowards.”

2 To abstain from taking the not given

“Pinching money will have a bad effect on me, even if no-one finds out – I’ll know that I’ve acted badly. Making an effort to give whenever I have the idea has a big effect on me, never mind the other person!”

3. To abstain from sexual misconduct

“If I’m in a relationship with someone, then I try to be happy and content with them, rather than looking over my shoulder all the time for someone more interesting. If I’m not in a relationship, I try to be happy and content with that state too. Sex isn’t the most important thing in my life.”

4. To abstain from false speech

“Lying has a bad effect on us. We’re not able to become happier and friendlier if we lie and have secrets. Telling the truth doesn’t always mean saying just what you think.”

5. To abstain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind

“One of the reasons why I meditate every day is to develop a clear mind. If I was to take alcohol or drugs they’d only make my mind cloudy and dull. It’s not that anyone says to me ‘don’t drink’ – the precepts don’t work like that. I’ve decided for myself.”

Delving deeper into BUDDHISM - aged 15 to 16

Beliefs and Values

Conditionality or Dependent Origination

Wheel of Life posterThe Principle of Conditionality, The Law of Causation and Conditioned Co-production are all translations of the Pali term paticcasamupada.

Buddhists believe that as part of his Enlightenment experience, the Buddha understood the nature of existence. He put his realisation, which is essentially beyond words, into the conceptual form of paticcasamupada, or The Principle of Conditionality.

This principle teaches that

  • everything comes into being and is maintained by a complex web of conditions
  • everything is part of the network of conditions maintaining something else
  • nothing exists completely independent of anything else
  • everything ceases when the conditions that maintain it cease
  • the whole of existence is a ceaseless process of flux and change
  • conditionality applies on all levels of existence from the physical environment to the human mind

Check out this interactive wheel of life and this BBC resource.

If this is, that comes to be;
from the arising of this, that arises;
if this is not, that does not come to be;
from the stopping of this, that is stopped.

Majjhima-Nikaya 11; Collection of Middle Length Sayings

The Four Noble Truths

Four Noble TruthsPart of the Enlightenment experience of the Buddha was the direct ‘Knowledge and Vision of Things as they Really Are’; he realised the Truth, or the Dharma.

He decided that it was possible to help others to realise the Truth for themselves and gain Enlightenment and began to formulate the Dharma, the teaching that leads to Enlightenment. So he put his realisation, which is essentially beyond words, into the conceptual form of the Law of Conditionality.

The Four Noble Truths are an application of the Law of Conditionality to the problem of human suffering. This teaching follows an ancient Indian medical formula:-
illness, cause, cure, remedy.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth Noble Truth – the remedy for human suffering.

The Four Noble Truths Buddhism begins by addressing suffering because no-one can deny the existence of pain. Simply put, the Four Noble Truths are:

1. Dukkha – PAIN – physical suffering, psychological pain and existential dissatisfaction.
2. Samudaya – The ORIGIN of Pain, which is craving.
3. Nirodha – The CESSATION of Pain, which is achieved by overcoming craving. The Third Noble Truth asserts that man can achieve Enlightenment through his own efforts.
4. Magga – The WAY to the Cessation of Pain, which is the following of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths are a fundamental Buddhist teaching. Despite their concise and simple format, they are a profound teaching that can be understood on deeper and deeper levels.

So, does that mean that cancer is the result of craving? It might be. Lung cancer could be caused by craving for cigarettes, for example. It is also dependent on a number of other conditions: nuclear fallout, genetic predisposition, etc.

However we must distinguish between physical suffering and psychological suffering.

Buddhists who believe in the teaching of rebirth might say (without any sense of blame) that a person’s cancer was partly the result of their being born in a physical body, yet again, as a result of their endless craving for physical existence, when they could have chosen to practise the Dharma more, leading to a rebirth in a different, non-physical state.

Other Buddhists might just say that cancer is one of the many difficult things we may have to face in life, which are hard to explain. What matters is how we respond to it.

One person with cancer may be eaten up with bitterness: “Why me? It’s not fair” etc. This is the kind of suffering which comes with aversion – craving for things to be other than the way they are. This person now has two kinds of suffering. Another person with cancer could choose to see their illness as an opportunity for changing lifestyle, making the most of the time they have left, making sure their friendships are in good repair etc. Because they don’t resist the reality of their situation by craving for things to be different, they suffer less emotional and psychological pain.

Of course, many people with any kind of suffering will experience a mixture of these two attitudes.

See also these resources from the BBC on the Four Noble Truths.

Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right vision, or understanding: understanding that life always involves change and suffering; realising that following the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to overcome suffering and be really happy.
  2. Right emotion: commiting oneself to wholeheartedly following the path.
  3. Right speech: speaking in a positive and helpful way; speaking the truth.
  4. Right action: living an ethical life acording to the precepts.
  5. Right livelihood: doing work that doesn’t harm others and is helpful to them.
  6. Right effort: thinking in a kindly and positive way.
  7. Right mindfulness: being fully aware of oneself, other people, and the world around you.
  8. Right meditation, or concentration: training the mind to be calm and positive in order to develop Wisdom.

The Dharmachakra is a Buddhist symbol for the Dharma. It usually has eight spokes to represent the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Although the ‘Path’ has eight separate steps, they are not intended to be followed one after another. The Buddhist way of life involves all of them and enables Buddhists to train themselves in every aspect of their lives.

All Buddhists should strive to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, whether they live in a remote monastery in Tibet or in a flat in the middle of a city. How do Buddhists follow the Eightfold Path?

Here are some quotes from Buddhists who are trying to follow this ancient Buddhist teaching in a modern setting.


Before I can practise Buddhism at all, I have to have some idea that there’s something to work towards. When I look at the Buddha image I remember that I, too, can be like that. I can become happier, wiser and more compassionate. I too want to gain Enlightenment. That’s my goal, my vision.


It’s no good wanting Enlightenment in my head, if, in my heart, I can’t be bothered. One way I can motivate myself is by meditating. I can also inspire myself by reading some Dharma books.


We have a strong effect on others through our speech and communication. I need to speak kindly and truthfully. If I tell the truth, especially when it isn’t easy, I can develop honesty and fearlessness. By being truthful I do myself honour….What a challenge it is to be really honest and always kind.


We’re engaged in actions all day. Buddhism says that the key to Right Action is intention. Behind every action is a state of mind. If I catch myself in a negative state of mind, I can choose to act differently and so practise Right Action.


We try to avoid any kind of work that might increase suffering in the world. We don’t want to harm the environment, animals or humans. So we avoid work involving weapons, tobacco or alcohol. Instead, I want to find work that can help the world. I like to work with other Buddhists because it keeps me on my toes. It’s not easy to forget the Noble Eightfold path when your mates are practising it too.


I can find myself in different states of mind from one moment to the next. What can I do about this? My states of mind can affect what I do. So I need to ask myself through the day: ‘What state am I in?’ Then I can change that by making more effort – I can change how I think and feel .With Right Effort I can develop a more positive and brighter outlook.


Often we are not aware of how we are feeling or what we are doing. If we can become more aware we can live in the present moment and transform our lives. Staying aware is a practice that can lead to happier states of mind. Instead of rushing through a job, I can slow down and even enjoy what I am doing. Right mindfulness makes the most of the present moment.


I begin my day with meditation. Why do I meditate? I can only transform myself in all the other steps of the path, if I know myself well. Meditation helps me to develop calm and peaceful states of mind. Then I can begin to see myself more clearly. With the help of meditation, I can gradually progress through ever higher states of mind along the path. I can get nearer and nearer to Enlightenment, even if takes much effort and many lifetimes.

The Threefold Way

The Threefold Way is another way of describing the Buddhist path. Its stages are:

  • ethics
  • meditation
  • wisdom

Many people in the West come to Buddhism first through meditation classes. Traditionally, however, ethical behaviour is regarded as the start of the Buddhist journey towards the perfect wisdom of Enlightenment. Anyone can learn meditation, but without the clear conscience which comes with knowing that they have acted ‘skilfully’ (kusala), they will not progress all that far.

Ethical action in Buddhism is described by the Precepts, and motivated by kindness and awareness of karma – that our actions will have consequences.

The Threefold Way is circular rather than linear: as we act more and more ethically, including making the effort to meditate regularly, we will increase in our understanding of the Dharma, the Way Things Are. This makes it easier to act ethically and meditate, and thus our wisdom grows yet further.

Can you arrange the stages of the Noble Eightfold Path under the headings of the Threefold Way?

The Middle Way

The Middle Way is the path between extremes.

We can see how it emerges from the Buddha’s own experience: having grown up in luxury and found that unsatisfying, he tried asceticism: the life of a wandering holy man, fasting and subjecting his body to various physical experiences intended to subdue craving and bring about wisdom. Finding this did not lead to an understanding of the truth, he came to advocate a simple and dignified life, providing just what was necessary to support a life devoted to spiritual practice.

At a more sophisticated level, the Middle Way represents the path between extreme views. Reality is ultimately indefinable, nothing can be pinned down to This or That. Most importantly, it applies to the question of nihilism and eternalism.

Buddhism says everything in life is dependent on other things, which keep changing. (See Conditionality/Dependent origination and the Three Marks.) This means that nothing is completely independent. Nothing has any fixed self. Nothing is permanent.

It would be tempting to say that nothing really exists at all. This is nihilism.

The opposite of this would be to say that everything, though mostly changeable, has something about it which lasts forever – a soul or essence. This is eternalism.

What the Buddha saw at his Enlightenment was that Reality was neither of these. The Way Things Really Are is somewhere in between. You can’t say that what we call ‘a tree’ exists or does not exist. It isn’t really a thing. It’s a process; it appears more or less the same for periods of time, but it is constantly changing.


The Law of Karma states that actions have consequences.The word karma simply means action.

The Law of Karma

  • is an important Buddhist teaching; some appreciation of this law is essential to an understanding of Buddhism.
  • springs from the Buddha’s teaching of the Principle of Conditionality. The Buddha understood that everything which exists is subject to change, dependent on conditions.
  • is the application of the Principle of Conditionality to the process of life and death.
  • is like a scientific law; it merely explains how things happen. It does not indicate the existence of a law-giver. There is no one who rewards or punishes us.
  • does not mean that everything that happens to us is the result of Karma. In a complex web of conditions, there can be many reasons why something happens.
  • applies only to deliberate, or ‘willed’, actions.
  • asserts that skilful actions, based on compassionate, generous and clear states of mind, will have positive consequences and
  • unskilful actions, driven by negative states of greed, hatred and ignorance, will have negative consequences.

Greed, hatred and ignorance are know as the Three Root Poisons. They can be seen represented by the cock, snake and pig at the hub of the Wheel of Life.

All actions of body, speech and mind have an effect. Change will happen anyway, but because of the Law of Karma, it is possible to change for the better.

Our life is shaped by our mind,
we become what we think.
Suffering follows an evil thought
like the wheels of a cart follow
the oxen that draw it.
Our life is shaped by our mind;
we become what we think.
Joy follows a pure thought
like a shadow that never leaves.


For another presentation of karma, see Access to Insight website.


Enlightenment is beyond words.Nevertheless, people do need to know something about it in order to move towards it!Traditionally, Enlightenment is described in four ways; negatively, positively, paradoxically and symbolically.

Negatively, as Cessation.An Enlightened being is free of the unhealthy mental states of greed, hatred and ignorance. These are sometimes known as the three poisons or the three fires. Nirvana is known as the extinguishing of these fires.(Nirvana = blowing out)

Positively, in terms of the characteristicsof an Enlightened being, which are:-

  • supreme bliss
  • profound wisdom (seeing into the nature of reality)
  • infinite compassion (springing from a love for all life)
  • a radiant, unlimited consciousness
  • boundless energy

The Mahayana texts (from the second great phase in Buddhist thought) employ paradox to describe Enlightenment in order to emphasise that it is beyond words and concepts.e.g. a Buddha abides in a state of non-abiding…or
Nirvana is attained by means of non-attainment…

Enlightenment is also represented through metaphor, poetic description, or symbol.e.g.

  • the Cool Cave
  • the Island in the Flood
  • the Further Shore
  • the Holy City
  • there are elaborate Mahayana accounts of the happy land or the Pure Land
  • the stupa, and symbolic images of the Buddha and other Enlightened beings
The Three Marks

The Buddha taught that all existence has three fundamental characteristics or marks. These are known as the Three Lakshanas.

Dukkha – suffering or unsatisfactoriness

  • is an inescapable aspect of life – we will all suffer old age, sickness and death
  • includes emotional and psychological suffering – frequently one gets what one doesn’t want and doesn’t get what one does want!

Dukkha literally means an ill-fitting chariot wheel – like a ride in a chariotwith an ill-fitting wheel, life is often bumpy and uncomfortable.

Anicca – impermanence

  • all things come into existence dependent on conditions
  • nothing stands still or lasts forever
  • nowhere is there anything fixed, permanent or eternal

Anatta – no self.
Because nothing is permanent there is

  • no fixed unchanging essence or soul
  • no unchanging creator God
  • unlimited potential to change and grow

Buddhists recognise that in order to achieve wisdom they need to develop for themselves a deep understanding of these truths, through meditating and reflecting upon them.

Community and Tradition

The Buddha in 60 seconds!

  • The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama around the year 560 BCE. He was a member of a wealthy aristocratic family of the Shakyan clan in what is now Nepal.
  • For twenty-nine years he lived a protected and luxurious existence but found a life devoted to material pleasures empty and unfulfilling.
  • Disobeying his father’s orders he went out into the nearby city and saw The Four Sights – old age, sickness, death and a wandering holy man.
  • These sights heightened his sense of dissatisfaction and his desire to find meaning in life. He decided to leave his privileged existence and Go Forth.
  • He spent six years as a wandering Truth-seeker, learning from religious teachers and undertaking harsh ascetic practices as a path to the Truth.
  • Following The Middle Way between the extremes of denial and self- indulgence he gained Enlightenment while meditating under a tree (afterwards known as the Bodhi Tree).
  • Buddhists believe that at his Enlightenment the Buddha understood the nature of existence and discerned the cause of suffering.
  • After his Enlightenment he was known as the Buddha, which means ‘One who is awake [to the Truth about the way things are]’.

Sangha has several meanings.

  • It refers to the spiritual community of Buddhists worldwide and throughout time.
  • In the Theravada tradition it refers generally to the monks only. (A more detailed description here.)
  • Most importantly, it refers to all those who have gained Enlightenment – the aryasangha, or noble sangha. It is mainly this that is meant by the third ‘refuge’ or ‘jewel’. Buddhists ‘take refuge’ in the sangha; they are able to place their trust in the effectiveness of the Buddha’s teaching, because they see that many have done this before them and reached Enlightenment.
Buddhist Schools

1. Theravada Buddhism

The Elders
The Theravada school of Buddhism traces its history back to the Great Council about 100 years after the time of the Buddha, when a split occurred between two schools of monks. While most monks asserted that they were following all the rules given to them by the Buddha, others, who identified themselves as the followers of the senior monks, insisted that there were further rules to be followed. Of these, the Theravada is the one school still in existence. The word theravada means the way of the elders.

Sri Lanka
Some 150 years later, Theravadin monks sailed to the island of Sri Lanka with Mahinda, son of the famous Indian emperor Ashoka. They took with them a cutting of the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha had gained Enlightenment at Bodhgaya, and the memorised teachings of the Buddha.

The Pali Canon
Over 100 years later, upheavals in Sri Lanka threatened the survival of the monastic sangha, and therefore of the 500 year-old oral transmission of the teaching. This threat prompted the writing down of the Buddha’s teaching. The Pali Canon, the Theravada collection of scriptures, comprises these earliest texts, written down in Sri Lanka 30 years before the beginning of the Common Era, about 500 years after the death of the Buddha.

The Pali Canon is the oldest complete collection of Buddhist scriptures and is divided into three collections: The Vinaya Pitaka or collection of monastic rules, The Sutta Pitaka or collection of the Buddha’s discourses, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the collection of ‘further teachings’. The Theravada school reveres its sacred texts as an accurate record of the original and true teaching of the Buddha.

The Arhat
Theravada Buddhism emphasises the quest to become a perfectly Enlightened One, or arhat. An arhat is one who has eradicated the poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance. The path to arhatship consists of the practice of ethics, meditation and wisdom. The Theravada tradition holds that it is through living as a monk or nun that one is most likely to achieve that goal.

The Buddhapadipa Temple (Theravada) in London was the first Buddhist temple in the United Kingdom.

2. The Bodhisattva Path

The Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism emphasise that

  • the principle of Enlightenment pervades the whole of existence
  • all beings have within them the potential to become Enlightened
  • the highest goal is to seek Enlightenment not for oneself alone, but for the sake of all beings; this is known as the Bodhisattva Ideal

The word Bodhisattva literally means Enlightenment Being. A Bodhisattva vows to free all beings from suffering and to help them gain Enlightenment for themselves.

Avalokiteshvara – the Bodhisattva of Compassion

  • represents supreme compassion
  • views the suffering of the world with the wisdom and compassion of Enlightenment
  • is very popular in Mahayana Buddhist countries
  • is known as Chenrezig in Tibet, Kuan Yin in China and Kannon in Japan
  • in one of his many manifestations, Avalokiteshvara has 11 heads and 1,000 arms, enabling him to see and help all suffering beings

Following the Bodhisattva Path means practising the Six Perfections (Paramitas).

  • Dana – giving or generosity. An attitude of generosity, in thought, word and deed; ultimately extended to all beings without expecting anything in return
  • Shila – morality or ethics. The practice of the Precepts, based on the principle of ahimsa, or non-harm, and a deep respect for all life
  • Virya – energy. A natural, persistent effort to work for the benefit of all beings
  • Kshanti – patience or forbearance. The confidence and composure to acknowledge people and things as they are
  • Samadhi – meditation. The development of constant awareness, concentration and clarity of mind
  • Prajna – Wisdom. Insight into the true nature of reality, and deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all things

3. Tibetan Buddhism

Vajrayana – the Diamond Way
Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, was built in the 7th century. It was modelled on the great Indian university monasteries, but its construction met with so much opposition that the king had to send for the great Indian saint-magician Padmasambhava. He introduced into Tibet a magical-ritual form of Buddhism from India, known as Tantric Buddhism or the Vajrayana (the Diamond Way). Practitioners of this form of Buddhism believe that full engagement in ritual Tantric practices incorporates all their energies, helping them achieve their quest for Enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhism draws on all three yanas, or forms of Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana.

Monastic universities
In Tibet’s great monastic universities, monks and nuns spend many years studying Mahayana texts. As part of their training they undergo rigorous oral exams and debates. They also take the Bodhisattva Vow – a vow to pursue Enlightenment not just for themselves but for the sake of all beings. Many Tibetan Buddhists, monastic or lay, take the Bodhisattva Vow. The word bodhisattva means a being dedicated to Enlightenment.

A key feature of Tibetan Buddhism is an emphasis on the transmission of the teaching from the master, or guru, to the disciple, as part of a carefully preserved lineage. The differences between the schools in Tibetan Buddhism are not primarily based on differences of rule or doctrine, but on lineage.

The four main Tibetan schools are

  • The Nyingmapa School (‘the old ones’) who trace their origins back to Padmasambhava
  • The Shakyapa School
  • The Gelugpa school is headed by the Dalai Lama
  • The Kagyupa school begins its lineage with Naropa, the Indian sage, followed by the Tibetan yogi and mystic poet Milarepa, and his follower, Gampopa. It was this school that introduced the practice of finding the reincarnations of deceased lineage holders to train from childhood. The Karmapa Order, based at Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre, is a particular lineage within the Kagyupa School. Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland was the first Tibetan Buddhist centre established in the West.

One of the Tibetan schools most active in the West is the The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), a Tibetan school devoted to promoting Mahayana Buddhism. Founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, it is based at The Manjushri Centre, Cumbria. The NKT has about 80 Centres in the UK.

4. Zen Buddhism

The Golden Flower
Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana tradition which developed from Ch’an, which is the Chinese pronunciation of the Pali and Sanskrit word dhyana. Dhyana refers to states of deep concentration in meditation.

The Zen tradition tells how the Buddha, while seated before a large assembly of monks, silently held aloft a golden flower. The monk Mahakashyapa looked at the flower and smiled in understanding. The Buddha smiled too; he had communicated his teaching directly to Mahakashyapa, from mind to mind, beyond the use of words or concepts.

This, say the legends, was the start of the Ch’an, or Zen, lineage of teachers, a lineage which continued to be handed down personally from master to disciple. The records describe how the monk Bodhidharma took this form of Buddhism to China in the 5th century of the Common Era. Ch’an emphasises direct experience in sitting meditation, supported by the practice of mindfulness in daily life, as a means of breaking through to Enlightenment.

Ch’an combines the twin disciplines of meditation and challenging an over-reliance on conceptual thought. When Ch’an arrived in Japan the word ch’an became zen and two schools developed:

Rinzai Zen bases its practice on highly paradoxical dialogues with an Enlightened master as a means to gaining a sudden breakthrough to Enlightenment. The well known koans, such as ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’, or ‘what was your face before you were born?’, are records of these riddle-like exchanges between an Enlightened Ch’an or Zen master and disciples. (Koan means public record.)

Soto Zen pursues a gradual Awakening through the practice of the Precepts, zazen or ‘Just Sitting’ meditation, and the practice of mindfulness in daily life. Through these practices, one realizes one’s true unlimited potential – one’s Buddha Nature.

5. Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism is a Mahayana tradition which started in Japan.

The Pure Land Sutras
The sacred texts of Pure Land Buddhism describe how the Buddha taught his disciples about the existence of a Buddha called Amida, or Amitabha. Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light, lives beyond time in a Pure Land.

In the famine-struck, war-torn Japan of the 12th century, this highly devotional form of Buddhism came to full flowering as a separate school, known as True Pure Land, or Jodo Shin Shu. Its founder, Shinran, taught that reliance on simple faith, and recitation of the name of Amida leads to rebirth in his Pure Land, where Enlightenment is not only assured but easy to pursue. For Pure Land Buddhists, the key is to let go of the illusion of self and give oneself up to the saving power of Amida’s vow.

Amida’s Vow
The whole of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism rests on the vow of Amida. The texts describe how, as a monk countless ages ago, Amida took the Bodhisattva Vow and promised not to enter Enlightenment and become a Buddha until he had established a Pure Land. Merely calling his name in great faith and devotion assures entry into this Pure Land at the moment of death. All that is needed is to abandon an egocentric reliance on self and to rely instead on the power of Amida.

True Pure Land Buddhism has been handed down through a hereditary married priesthood.

6. Triratna (formerly FWBO)

Venerable Urgyen Sangharakshita became a Buddhist in his teens. After the Second World War he spent twenty years in India, where he was ordained as a Theravadin monk in 1950 and studied with eminent Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist teachers. Returning to Britain in 1966, and recognising a growing interest in Buddhism, he sought to communicate the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in a manner relevant to life in the modern industrialised West.

Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order)
Sangharakshita founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now known as Triratna Buddhist Community) in 1967, drawing on the whole of the Buddhist tradition rather than just one school. He also sought to draw on positive aspects of modern Western culture, such as art, poetry and literature, to support and inspire Buddhist practice.

The Triratna Buddhist Order
The Order itself was founded the following year, in 1968. Members of the TBO are neither monastic nor lay; in being ordained, these women and men commit themselves to following the teachings of the Buddha. Whatever their lifestyle – whether celibate, single or married, living alone, with a family, a partner or in a Buddhist residential community – their commitment to Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels – the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – is primary.

Triratna Centres
There are about 30 Triratna centres in the UK, engaged in teaching meditation and Buddhism as well as providing a focus for other Sangha activities. They are run by members of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

Close by many Triratna centres there are also communities for men and women. These single-sex communities offer a supportive enviroment for spiritual practice and the chance to deepen friendships with others who share the same ideals and interests.

Team-Based Right Livelihood Businesses
These Buddhist businesses provide an opportunity for members of the Sangha to practise with fellow Buddhists whilst working and earning a living.

Scripture and Authority

The Pali Canon (Tipitaka)

The Pali Canon is also known as the Tipitaka (ti = three; pitaka = basket), meaning the Three Baskets, or Collections, of teachings. These are:

The Vinaya Pitaka, the document recording the code of discipline by which early monks and nuns were to live. A fixed set of rules was agreed at the First Sangha Council (see below) but not set down as a written code until the 1st century BCE. Monastics of the Theravada tradition still live by the Pali vinaya; other monastic traditions live by slightly varying vinayas.

The Sutta Pitaka, the discourses or sermons of the Buddha, given to disciples in all walks of life, both lay and monastic. The term sutta (sutra in Sanskrit) means ‘thread’ and is related to the English term ‘suture’; thus, a sutta is a threaded, or connected, series of teachings on a given theme.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka, an intricate analysis and classification of mental states, phenomena, character-types, major Dharma-topics, and paticcasamuppada, as well as a definition of Dharma-terms. This pitaka is later than the first two, most of it having been compiled between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE.

The Pali Canon as a source of authority

The Pali Canon is the central source of authority for Buddhist belief and practice; the textual source for the earliest, commonest and most central Buddhist teachings. Such formulations as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Threefold Way are repeatedly to be found woven into the narrative of various suttas.

The suttas also include descriptions of the religious experience of the Buddha and his followers or other listeners: there are those who describe extremely refined and elevated states of mind achieved in meditation; and those who gain Enlightenment on hearing the Buddha, having sought him out, inspired by the possibility of the very existence of an Enlightened being.

Of the three Pitakas of the Pali Canon, the Sutta Pitaka has the most universal significance to Buddhists, in that it is addressed to listeners both lay and monastic. However, running to many times the length of the Bible, it is most commonly found in monasteries and libraries; and very rarely in a lay household. Individual lay Buddhists are much more likely to have edited collections, or small sections such as the Dhammapada. Many may have no scriptures at all.

Though regular Dharma study is considered of great benefit, it is not necessary to have studied great quantities of Buddhist scripture to be able to practise the Buddha’s teachings: many of the world’s Buddhists may be unable to read; hundreds of scriptures have yet to be translated into any Western languages; and meditation and ethical practice are also central means of self-transformation. In many Asian Buddhist countries, lay people may not have heard much scripture, their role being largely that of supporting the monks and nuns. With the arrival of Buddhism in the West, however, the divide between monastic and lay practice seems to be becoming less distinct, with many very committed and educated lay people studying the scriptures in translation.


The Dhammapada is probably the best-known section of the Pali Canon. A small collection of 423 verses concerned with the ‘way’ or ‘footsteps’ (pada), of the truth (Dhamma), its first two verses sum up the teaching of karma.

1. What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.
If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

2. What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.
If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.

Translated by Juan Mascaro, Penguin Modern Classics

A section from the Pali Canon: the Buddhavagga

The text is translated by Urgyen Sangharakshita.

Buddhavagga (The Section of the Enlightened One)

Background: A vagga is a section. The Dhammapada comprises 26 sections of which the Buddhavagga is a collection of verses about the nature and actions of an Enlightened Being and his/her effect on others. This teaching is addressed to all, lay or monastic.

1 That Enlightened one whose sphere is endless, whose victory is irreversible, and after whose victory no (defilements) remain (to be conquered), by what track will you lead him (astray), the Trackless One?

2 That Enlightened One in whom there is not that ensnaring, entangling craving to lead anywhere (in conditioned existence), and whose sphere is endless, by what track will you lead him (astray), the Trackless One?

3 Those wise ones who are intent on absorption (in higher meditative states) and who delight in the calm of renunciation, even the gods love them, those thoroughly Enlightened and mindful ones.

4 Difficult is the attainment of the human state. Difficult is the life of mortals. Difficult is the hearing of the Real Truth (saddhama). Difficult is the appearance of the Enlightened Ones.

5 The not doing of anything evil, undertaking to do what is (ethically) skilful (kusala), (and) complete purification of the mind – this is the ordinance (sasana) of the Enlightened Ones.

6 Patient endurance is the best form of penance. ‘Nirvana is the Highest,’ say the Enlightened Ones. No (true) goer forth (from the household life) is he who injures another, nor is he a true ascetic who persecutes others.

7 Not to speak evil, not to injure, to exercise restraint through the observance of the (almsman’s) code of conduct, to be moderate in diet, and to occupy oneself with higher mental states – this is the ordinance (sasana) of the Buddhas.

8 Not (even) in a shower of money is satisfaction of desires to be found. ‘Worldly pleasures are of little relish, (indeed) painful.’ Thus understanding, the spiritually mature person

9 takes no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Fully, Perfectly Enlightened One takes delight (only) in the destruction of craving.

10 Many people, out of fear, flee for refuge to (sacred) hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines.

11 In reality this is not a safe refuge. In reality this is not the best refuge. Fleeing to such a refuge one is not released from all suffering.

12 He who goes for refuge to the Enlightened One, to the Truth, and to the Spiritual Community, – and who sees with perfect wisdom the Four Ariyan Truths, –

13 namely, suffering, the origin of suffering, the passing beyond suffering, and the Ariyan Eightfold Way leading to the pacification of suffering, –

14 (for him) this is a safe refuge, (for him) this is the best refuge. Having gone to such a refuge, one is released from all suffering.

15 Hard to come by is the Ideal Man (purisajanna). He is not born everywhere. Where such a wise one is born, that family grows happy.

16 Happy is the appearance of the Enlightened Ones. Happy is the teaching of the Real Truth (saddhama). Happy is the unity of the Spiritual Community. Happy is the spiritual effort of the united.

17 He who reverences those worthy of reverence, whether Enlightened Ones or (their) disciples, (men) who have transcended illusion (papanca), and passed beyond grief and lamentation,

18 he who reverences those who are of such a nature, who (moreover) are at peace and without cause for fear, his merit is not to be reckoned as such and such.

Metta Sutta (sermon on Loving-Kindness)

This is what should be done
By those skilled in goodness
Who know the place of peace:

Let them be able and upright,
Sraightforward and gentle in speech;
Humble and not conceited;
Contented and easily satisfied;
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways;
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later reprove.

Wishing, in gladness and in safety,
may all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
And whether they be weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born –
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world;
Spreading upward to the skies
And downward to the depth,
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted, having clarity of vision
Being freed from all sense desires, is not born again to this world.

Kalama Sutta

from the Anguttara Nikaya.
The text is translated by Urgyen Sangharakshita.

In the town of Kesaputta, in Kosala, northern India, a group from the Kalama tribe seek the Buddha’s advice. Confused by teachers proclaiming contradictory ideas, they wonder how to decide whose teaching to follow. Respecting the fact that they are not his followers and that their views may differ from his, the Buddha advocates testing teachings against experience.

The Kalamas are so impressed with his teaching that they become his lay followers; they go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as the only true sources of security in this life.

Thus have I heard: On a certain occasion the Exalted One, while going his rounds among the Kosalans with a great company of monks, cam to Kesaputta, a district of the Kosalans.

Now the Kalamas of Kesaputta heard it said that Gotama the recluse, the Sakyans’ son who went forth as a wanderer from the Sakyan clan, had reached Kesaputta.

And this good report was noised abroad about Gotama, that Exalted One, thus: “He it is, the Exalted One, Arahant, a Fully Enlightened One, perfect in knowledge and practice, and so forth. It were indeed a good thing to get sight of such arahants!”

So the Kalamas of Kesaputta came to see the Exalted One. On reaching him, some saluted the Exalted One and sat down at one side; some greeted the Exalted One courteously, and after the exchange of greetings and courtesies sat down at one side; some raising their joined palms to the Exalted One sat down at one side; some proclaimed their name and clan and did likewise; while others without saying anything just sat down at one side. Then as they sat thus the Kalamas of Kesaputta said this to the Exalted One:

“Sir, certain recluses and brahmins come to Kesaputta. As to their own view, they proclaim and expound it in full; but as to the view of others, they abuse it, revile it, depreciate and cripple it. Moreover, sir, other recluses and brahmins, on coming to Kesaputta, do likewise. When we listen to them, sir, we have doubt and wavering as to which of these worthies is speaking truth and which speaks falsehood.”

“Yes, Kalamas, you may well doubt, you may well waver. In a doubtful matter wavering does arise. Now look you, Kalamas, be not misled by report or tradition or hearsay; be not misled by proficiency in the collections, nor by mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming, nor out of respect for a recluse who holds it. But, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves, these things are unprofitable, these things are blameworthy, these things are censure by the intelligent; these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrow, then indeed do ye reject them, Kalamas.

Now what think ye, Kalamas? When greed arises within a man, does it arise to his profit or to his loss?
“To his loss, sir.”
Now Kalamas, does not this man, thus become greedy, being overcome by greed and losing control of his mind, does he not kill a living creature, take what is not given, go after another’s wife, tell lies and lead another into such a state as cause his loss and sorrow for a long time?”
“He does, sir.”
“Now what think ye, Kalamas? When malice arises within a man, does it arise to his profit or two his loss?”
“To his loss, sir.”
“Now, Kalamas, does not this man, thus become malicious, being overcome by malice and losing control of his mind, does he not kill a living creature, take what is not given, go after another’s wife, tell lies and lea another into such a state as cause his loss and sorrow for a long time?”
“He does indeed, sir.”
“Now what think ye, Kalamas? When illusion arise within a man, does it arise to his profit or to his loss?”
“To his loss, sir.”
“Now, Kalamas, does not this man, thus deluded likewise lead another to his loss and sorrow for a long time?”
“He does, sir.”
“Well then, Kalamas, what think ye? Are these things profitable or unprofitable?”
“Unprofitable, sir.”
“Are they blameworthy or not?”
“Blameworthy, sir.”
“Are they censured by the intelligent or not?”
“They are censured, sir.”
“If performed and undertaken, do the conduce to loss and sorrow or not?”
“They conduce to loss and sorrow, sir. It is just so, methinks.”
“So, then, Kalamas, as to my words to you just now: ‘Be not misled by proficiency in the collections, nor by mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming, nor out of respect for a recluse who holds it. But, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves: these things are unprofitable, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the intelligent; these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to loss and sorrow, then indeed do ye reject them, such was my reason for uttering those words.

Come now, Kalamas, be ye not so misled. But if at any time ye know of yourselves: these things are profitable, they are blameless, they are praised by the intelligent; these things when performed and undertaken, conduce to profit and happiness, then, Kalamas, do ye, having undertaken them, abide therein.

Now what think ye, Kalamas? When freedom from greed arises within a man, does it arise to his profit or his loss?”
“To his profit, sir.”
“Does not this man, not being greedy, not overcome by greed, having his mind under control, does he not cease to slay and so forth; does he not cease to mislead another into a state that shall be to his loss and sorrow for a long time?”
“He does, sir.”
“Now what think ye, Kalamas? When freedom from malice arises within a man, does it arise to his profit or his loss?”
“To his profit, sir.”
“Does not this man, not being malicious, not being overcome by malice, but having his mind under control, does he not cease to slay and so forth? Does he not lead another into such a state as causes his profit and happiness for a long time?”
“He does, sir.”
“And is this not the same with regard to freedom from illusion?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Then, Kalamas, what think ye? Are these things profitable or unprofitable?”
“Profitable, sir.”
“Are they blameworthy or not?”
“They are not, sir.”
“Are they censure or praised by the intelligent?”
“They are praised, sir.”
“When performed and undertaken, do they conduce to happiness or not?”
“They do conduce to happiness, sir. It is just so, methinks.”

“So, then Kalamas, as to my words to you just now: ‘Be ye not misled, but when ye know for yourselves: these things are profitable and conduce to happiness, do ye undertake them and abide therein.’ such was my reason for uttering them.

Now Kalamas, he who is an Ariyan disciple freed from coveting and malevolence, who is not bewildered but self-controlled and mindful, with a heart possessed by goodwill, by compassion, possessed by sympathy, by equanimity that is widespread, grown great and boundless, free from enmity and oppression, such a one abides suffusing one quarter of the world therewith, likewise the second, third and fourth quarter of the world. And in like manner above, below, across, everywhere, for all sorts and conditions, he abides suffusing the whole world with a heart possessed by equanimity that is widespread, grown great and boundless, free from enmity and oppression. By that Ariyan disciple whose heart is thus free from enmity, free from oppression, untainted and made pure, by such in this very life four comforts are attained, thus:

‘If there be a world beyond, if there be fruit and ripening of deeds done well or ill, then when body breaks up after death, I shall be reborn in the Happy Lot, in the Heaven World.’ This is the first comfort he attains.

‘If, however, there be no world beyond, no fruit and ripening of deeds done well or ill, yet in this very life do I hold myself free from enmity and oppression, sorrowless and well.’ This is the second comfort he attains.

‘Though as a result of action, ill be done by me, yet do I plan no ill to anyone. And if I do no ill, how can sorrow touch me?’ This is the third comfort he attains.

‘But if, as a result of action, no ill be done by me, then in both ways do I behold myself utterly pure.’ This is the fourth comfort he attains.

Thus, Kalamas, that Ariyan disciple whose heart is free from enmity, free from oppression, untainted and made pure, in this very life attains these four comforts.”

“So it is, Exalted One, So it is, Welfarer. That Ariyan disciple in this very life attains these four comforts…” And they repeated all that had been said.

“Excellent, sir! We here do go for refuge to the Exalted One, to Dhamma and to the Order of monks. May the Exalted One accept us as lay-followers from this day forth so long as life shall last, who have so taken refuge.”

Worship and Celebration

Worship in Buddhism

Bowing to the BuddhaBuddhism doesn’t have God at its centre but people still worship. Buddhists recite devotional verses called puja (pronouced poo-ja). These are directed to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Puja simply means worship, and worship is what we can do when we recognise something is of value, of worth (worth-ship). Obviously a Buddhist sees great value in the Three Jewels and what they represent.

Buddhists around the world recite the Refuges and Precepts. They might recite these in the morning before they begin work, and at other times as a way of reminding themselves of their buddhist values.

In a Triratna centre people may get together and recite a Sevenfold Puja, as a way to more poetically remind themselves of the value of the three jewels. They recite verses to the three jewels, chant mantras and make offerings. They may hear a reading about the life of the Buddha, or a teaching to inspire them. People often feel peaceful at the end of a puja having voiced appreciation of what is important to them. But in Buddhism people have a choice. Not everybody responds to chanting verses, and may use other methods to bring what’s important to mind.

The chanting of mantras

A mantra is a series of sounds that put together make a kind of sound picture. An example is the famous mantra OM MANI PADME HUM pictured on the right. Perhaps you can see the 6 syllabuses in the Tibetan script for Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum?

Each mantra is a kind of sound symbol for an enlightened Buddhist figure. This one represents Avalokitesvara (pronounced Avalo-kit-esh-vara), the bodhisattva of compassion, who wants to help people who are suffering. When we chant his mantra, we are reminded of how important it is to help people. Man-tra means mind-protector. Chanting his mantra protects us from being too wrapped up with ourselves which isn’t too good for us in the long run.

Lots more information on the meaning of this mantra.

Why do Buddhists bow?

Like so many aspects of Buddhist practice, there are as many answers to this as there Buddhists – it is an individual affair. However, most Buddhists put their hands together and bow when they see a buddhist shrine as a sign of respect. It is like saying they feel OK with the Buddha and are open to learning from him. A disciple bows to a master for this reason. In the same way, karate students bow to their sensei (teacher) when they enter the dojo (training space). By lowering their heads they are doing a ritual action that symbolises accepting the guidance and discipline of a teacher. When we do a ritual action like this it can be more powerful than just thinking, because it is a bodily action and that gives it more weight, has more influence on our minds.

A bow could be little more than a slight nod of the head, or could be a full-length prostration, where the front of one’s body is against the floor, with one’s nose pressed against the ground! You can imagine the effect that could have on one’s ego or pride! It is actually a sign of maturity to acknowledge that someone is greater than oneself – not putting oneself down but recognising that objectively they are better in certain respects. If one doesn’t have a sense of reverence, receptive to something higher, then we won’t aspire to become greater than we already are.

What do you think about this?

Living the Buddhist Life

Ahimsa and the Precepts

Ahimsa: non-harm

The Pali word himsa means force.Ahimsa means no-force, or non-violence.

The Five Precepts form the basis of Buddhist ethics.
The first Precept expresses the principle of non-harm, or ahimsa.

The principle of ahimsa

  • is based on an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life
  • extends to all living beings
  • covers any deliberate action of thought, word or deed
  • involves avoiding deliberate harm and striving to bring about the greatest good

The other Precepts apply this principle to specific areas of behaviour, such as speech and sexual activity.

The Five Precepts

I undertake to abstain from taking life.With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.

I undertake to abstain from taking what has not been given.With open handed generosity I purify my body.

I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.

I undertake to abstain from false speech.With truthful communication I purify my speech.

I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind.With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

Guidelines for Living

For Buddhists, the Five Precepts provide guidelines for leading an ethical life.The Precepts

  • apply to all relationships including marriage, family life and sexual relationships
  • express the principle of ahimsa or non-harm
  • are based on an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life
  • extend to all beings
  • cover any deliberate action of thought, word or deed
  • indicate harmful behaviour to avoid and positive behaviour to develop
  • are not commandments, but a set of principles taken on voluntarily – in Buddhism there is no God to lay down commandments

Lists of Precepts occur in several places in the Buddhist scriptures. The following is taken from the Anguttara-Nikaya (The Book of Gradual Sayings) in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon.

When a lay follower possesses five things,
he lives with confidence in his house,
and he will find himself in heaven
as sure as if he had been carried off and put there.
What are the five?
He abstains from:
killing breathing things,
from taking what is not given,
from misconduct in sensual desires,
from speaking falsehood,
and from indulging in liquor, wine, and fermented brews.

Anguttara-Nikaya (The Book of Gradual Sayings) Sutta Pitaka

The basic Precepts are the same for all Buddhists, but at their ordination monks and nuns take on a vinaya, or set of rules of conduct. These rules of conduct differ from one tradition or school to another.

Metta and Karuna

Metta (Sk, maitri), karuna, mudita and upekkha (Sk. upeksha) are the Four Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abodes. Mudita is the quality of rejoicing in the happiness of others. Upekkha is the quality of equanimity, a calm, even joy unruffled by life’s events

Metta: Universal Loving Kindness

Metta is

  • based on a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things
  • an attitude of the heart and mind that unconditionally seeks the well being of all
  • the antidote to hatred or ill will

If you know your own good
and know where peace dwells
then this is the task:

Lead a simple and a frugal life
uncorrupted, capable and just;
be mild, speak soft, eradicate conceit,
keep appetites and senses calm.

Be discreet and unassuming;
do not seek rewards.
Do not have to be ashamed
in the presence of the wise.

May everything that lives be well!
Weak or strong, large or small,seen or unseen, here or elsewhere,
present or to come, in heights or depths,
may all be well.

Have that mind for all the world –
get rid of lies and pride –
a mother’s mind for her baby,
her love, but now unbounded.

Secure this mind of love,
no enemies, no obstructions,
wherever or however you may be!

It is sublime, this,
it escapes birth and death,
losing lust and delusion,
and living in the truth!

Karaniya Metta Sutta

The Metta Bhavana meditation is a practice which helps develop an attitude of well-wishing towards all living beings. There are five stages to the meditation:

  1. First one develops an attitude of kindness, appreciation and well-wishing towards oneself, then one extends this to include:
  2. a good friend
  3. a person one doesn’t feel much connection with
  4. a person one dislikes
  5. all living beings

Bhavana means cultivation of, or bringing into being.

Work and money

Gelongma Lhamo is a nun at Samye Ling monastery and Tibetan Centre, Scotland.


As a fully ordained nun I have a vow not to handle money or objects of great value. But these vows were designed in the time of the Buddha, two and a half thousand years ago. Never to handle money would be wonderful, but a bit impractical, so I have a very small allowance, for trips to see family, or essentials such as toothpaste and soap.


I’ve been a nun for just over ten years. Before that I lived in a city and worked as a computer programmer. When I was first a Buddhist, I thought I needed to give up my work and spend all my time practising but it gradually dawned on me that there was a wealth of opportunity for training my mind in everyday life: getting on well with the people I worked with rather than giving in to anger, ambition or greed.

These opportunities also present themselves at Samye Ling. One of the main reasons we place so much emphasis on work is that we can learn so much through it. Though most of us think that it is an excellent thing to do to spend all our time meditating, most of us find that we are not really capable of it. We can daydream. Whereas if we are working with somebody who’s telling us that really we’re doing things wrongly we’ve got no choice but to look at the situation and try and come up with some kind of solution. It’s a very useful method of spiritual development.

So in order to provide as many people as possible with a way of accessing the Dharma and benefiting from it, we spend large amounts of every day working. There are people who do building work, people who do office work, people who clean or cook: everything that needs to be done. And I work in the office mostly.

Brian Gay is a lay minister associated with the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives (Soto Zen) at Throssel Hole Abbey, Northumberland.


I don’t think money is a problem. I think it’s what you do with it that’s the interesting thing!


What’s great about the Zen system is that we have a range of great stories of old Zen Masters. There’s the classic one about an 80 year-old Zen Master who refused food because he’d been ill and he hadn’t worked in the gardens and when they hammered on his door and said “Come on! You’ve got to have your food”, he said, “A day without work is a day without food.”

I’ve been coming to Throssel Hole since 1988 and I became a lay minister within the Order in 1993. The work I do is as a management consultant: some of my work is in London; some is local with voluntary organisations and it’s around the area of management development, organisational development and one-to-one personal development.

Although the monks have in a sense renounced the world they do an awful lot of hard work. They actually built this place. OK, the lay people helped them, but they built it, they work in the gardens, they do the stonemasonry. They repair the tractor; they planted the trees. All this is work. So I see nothing strange in having a different form of practice as a lay person, which is centred upon work.

Right Livelihood is actually part of the practice and part of my work. That’s because the practice is about helping individuals to realise who they really are and what their true nature is; and the work I’m involved with, at the individual level, is about helping individuals realise their true potential, to see situations differently, to find solutions to the problems that face them.

Family values and sexual ethics

The Third Precept

The Third Precept – abstaining from misconduct in sensual desires – applies the principle of ahimsa, non-harm, to sexual behaviour.

  • sensual misconduct is sexual behaviour that causes harm, to oneself or others
  • its cause is craving or greed, hatred and ignorance
  • traditionally rape and abduction were cited as examples of sexual misconduct
  • the opposite of sexual craving is the cultivation of stillness, simplicity and contentment

The goal of Buddhism is the attainment of Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali), or Enlightenment. The word nirvana literally means a blowing out – of the fires of craving or greed, hatred and ignorance.


The Buddha lived a celibate life and encouraged those of his followers who were able to do likewise. The third Precept for monks and nuns is to observe celibacy; i.e. not to engage in any sexual activity of body, speech or mind. Celibacy enabled monks and nuns to remain free from family responsibilities and to work to overcome the craving associated with sexual activity.

Marriage and Divorce

Within Buddhism

  • marriage is a secular arrangement, not a sacrament or holy rite
  • monks do not conduct the marriage ceremony, but often bless the couple
  • it is recognised that divorce may be necessary if the two people concerned cannot live together happily
  • a variety of marriage laws and customs and patterns of family life exist in different traditions

Delving even deeper into BUDDHISM - aged 17 to 18

Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic biography of Buddha, Light of Asia (pdf)

The Buddha

Buddhology and the Trikaya Doctrine

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The term ‘Buddhology’ has been constructed by some scholars of Buddhism by analogy with the Christian term ‘Christology’. Christology is the study of the nature and attributes of Christ, and likewise ‘Buddhology’ refers to the study of the nature and attributes of the Buddha. Theories about the nature of the Buddha developed increasing philosophical sophistication in the Mahayana, culminating in the Trikaya or ‘Three Bodies’ doctrine of the Yogacara School. Before we look at this, though, we will have to put the whole question of the nature of the Buddha into context.

The Buddha in Early Buddhism and Theravada

As you may already know, the Buddha can be seen either historically or symbolically. Historically, the Buddha was an individual who lived in a certain time and place, who is revered by Buddhists because he showed how it is possible to achieve enlightenment. Symbolically, though, the Buddha represents the potentiality in all of us to achieve enlightenment. The symbolic Buddha is a timeless figure who could still represent that potential even if it turned out not to be true that Siddhartha Gautama had achieved enlightenment historically.

After the death of the historical Buddha, the figure of the Buddha rapidly gained both these kinds of significance. The Buddha-figure of the Theravada still has both of these kinds of significance: however, the Theravada figure is still rooted in the idea of the historical Buddha, and the symbolic Buddha could be said to be subsidiary to it. It is possible for us to gain enlightenment because the Buddha showed the way to do so historically at a certain time and place.

This view of the Buddha is emphasised by the Theravada attitude to scriptures. The Pali Canon is believed to contain documents which record the Buddhavacana, the Word of the Buddha which shows the way to enlightenment.

The Pali Canon only gains its authority and legitimacy from this origin, and the belief that it has been transmitted uncorrupted (or at least largely so) from the time of the Buddha to the present. In reading the Buddha’s words in the Pali Canon, for the Theravadins we have a hotline to enlightenment. Any other useful texts in the Buddhist tradition gain their authority from the extent to which they reflect the truths uttered by the historical Buddha.

The Buddha in the Mahayana

However, as we have already seen, in the Mahayana the idea developed that all Buddhists should aim to become Buddhas. This means that in theory, any one of us could become a historical Buddha amongst a throng of such radiant beings. The significance of Siddhartha Gautama then changes profoundly: instead of being the single source of knowledge of enlightenment, and the single model of a fully enlightened being, Siddhartha now becomes merely one instance of many possible ones. It is now no longer the historical Buddha that decides the nature of the symbolic Buddha, but the symbolic Buddha, representing the potential of all beings to gain enlightenment, which provides the model for the historical Buddha.

This should not give the impression that the Mahayanists have ceased to revere the historical Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha (the sage of the Shakya Clan), as he is known in the Mahayana, is still an important figure who is widely depicted in art, discussed and visualised. The story of the life of the Buddha is also still widely used in the Mahayana. However, it would also be fair to say that he is now one Buddha among many. The five symbolic Buddhas of the Five-Buddha Mandala: Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Vairocana are equally widely represented in the Mahayana to show enlightened qualities, each associated with a particular colour and direction and a host of other symbolic associations. Above the Buddha Mandala there is also Vajrasattva (illustrated here), the white Buddha representing the absolute purity of enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhists make widespread use of visualisation practices, but they are much more likely to visualise one of these symbolic Buddhas, or a Bodhisattva, or a Tara, or some other symbolic deity, than Shakyamuni.

This attitude to the Buddha figure is also reflected in the Mahayana attitude to scriptures. Although Mahayanists sometimes pay lip-service to the idea that their Sutras have come from the historical Buddha, and each one begins with a reference to a historical setting resembling those in the Pali Canon, this is not really a very credible claim, given the Mahayana Sutras were composed at least 500 years after the death of the Buddha, and neither is it the basis of their authority. Buddhavacana to a Mahayanist means whatever is helpful in leading beings towards enlightenment, and the Mahayana Sutras and other Mahayana scriptures ultimately base their authority on this usefulness (though tradition also plays a large role in deciding this practical value). Although translations of the same material as is found in the Pali Canon are also found in the Mahayana canons, the criterion for their inclusion is the same one of usefulness as that applied to the later Mahayana scriptures.

Not all the Mahayana Sutras even feature Shakyamuni, but where they do (for example, the Lotus Sutra), he is soon found to be in a fantastic, mythic and symbolic setting where anything can happen. Lotuses and jewels rain down from the sky, stupas erupt from the earth, and millions of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from across the universe appear and disappear. Historical realism is obviously not the basis of judgement here, but rather whether a true point is being made and whether it is also made in a way that inspires the imagination.

However, the development of this timeless symbolic Buddha raised questions in the Mahayana which the philosophers needed to settle. Which was the real Buddha, the historical one or the symbolic one? If the historical one was unreal, did this mean Siddhartha Gautama was now false, or at best completely irrelevant? And what exactly did this symbolic Buddha represent? How could he be outside time and space but still represented as sitting in a fantastic setting making it rain jewels: surely this was just a different kind of time and space?

Question for discussion
Given the Mahayana view that the historical Buddha depends on the symbolic one, do you think this makes the historical Buddha irrelevant? Should the Mahayana simply have forgotten about the historical Buddha?

First Answer: Two bodies

The first answer to these kinds of questions was found in Early Buddhism even before the Mahayana, and was based on a distinction between two different ‘bodies’ or ‘persons’ (kaya) of the Buddha. These two ‘bodies’ were really completely different ways of thinking about the Buddha’s existence: the Rupakaya or Form-body and the Dharmakaya or Truth-body. On the one hand, the Buddha had a particular form and personality, limited in time and space, but on the other, he could be thought of simply as the ultimate truth of the potentiality for enlightenment, existing beyond time and space and therefore having no form of any kind. According to the anatta doctrine, form does not really exist, at least in the way we tend to think about it, so from the enlightened point of view of ultimate truth the Buddha is simply timeless, abstract truth.

On this account, the Rupakaya does not ultimately exist, but then nor does any other form. It is the Dharmakaya that is ultimately real. However, this simple model of different ways of seeing the Buddha did not suit the Mahayana, as it offered no distinction between the symbolic and historical Buddhas, both of which were as ultimately unreal as each other. So it was that the Mahayana evolved a teaching which actually distinguished between three bodies of the Buddha.

Further answer: three bodies

The Mahayana answer was to split the Rupakaya into two bodies: the Nirmanakaya (‘Transformation body’) and the Sambhogakaya (‘Enjoyment Body’). The Buddha can exist not only as a historical individual limited in time and space (the Nirmanakaya), and as a pure ultimate existence-but-not-as-we-know-it (Dharmakaya), but also as a symbolic form of enlightenment, beyond any particular time and place but still taking particular forms in the imagination. The Sambhogakaya was the Buddha as he is encountered in the Mahayana Sutras: in a particular imaginative form where he preaches the Dharma to an imagined assembly of arhats and bodhisattvas, but absolutely universal rather than situated in India in the 6th Century BCE.

Each of these bodies of the Buddha emanates from the one above it. The Nirmanakaya emanates from the Sambhogakaya, and the Sambhogakaya in turn emanates from the Dharmakaya. Particular existence depends on universal existence, and universal existence depends on ultimate existence (or non-existence).

The teaching of the three bodies, or Trikaya, is particularly associated with the Yogacara (‘Practice of Meditation’) School of the Mahayana. The Yogacara School was a philosophical school which took an idealist view that reality was mind-only. In other words, when we have overcome illusion and reached enlightenment, what we will discover behind it all is simply mind: not our mind specifically, but mind in general. The material universe beyond our minds is thus part of the illusion from a Yogacara perspective. It needs to be stressed that this is not the only possible interpretation of Buddhism, but it is an influential one.

From this standpoint the Yogacara thinkers (of whom the greatest were Asanga and Vasubandhu) considered the nature of the Buddha. It seemed clear to them that ultimately, only the Dharmakaya exists. However, within the imagined realm of samsara there are different degrees of illusion. If we can be aware of the fact that we are creating images of things, we are at least taking the first step towards the removal of illusion. For example, if I can see a mirage and be aware that it is a mirage, this is much better than being deceived by it, even though I am still seeing it. The same thought applies to the Buddha: if we can be aware of the fact that the historical Buddha is just a representation of the universal potentiality for enlightenment, and not fall into the trap of thinking that the historical Buddha is the Buddha, then we will be able to overcome the illusions we might otherwise fall into about the Buddha.

Explained in relation to a similar position in Christian Christology, this doctrine has been explained by some scholars as docetism: that is, the view that the historical Buddha does not really exist, but is a mere appearance created for the purpose of teaching. However, this is misleading if it gives you the idea of the Buddha’s disciples somehow being taken in by a hologram. The whole of the rest of samsara is just as much mere appearance from the standpoint of the Yogacara, and the Buddha is no more and no less so than everything else around him.

However, if we are able to step back from this illusion, understanding the Buddha as the Sambhogakaya is preferable. In a visualisation practice, for example, the meditator will start with a blue sky, then in that blue sky create an image of the Buddha for himself. He or she does this whilst reflecting on the fact that the image of the Buddha is his own creation, a product of the imagination which subsequently dissolves back into that blue sky. In this way the Yogacara doctrine of the three bodies gives philosophical justification to the Mahayana practice of depicting the Buddha as the Sambhogakaya, both in its scriptures and its art, in the very many and varied forms in which imagination may present the universal Buddha principle.

Read and take notes on Sangharakshita’s account of the Five Buddha Mandala and its significance in A Guide to the Buddhist Path p.51-59. You don’t need to cover the consorts and wrathful forms on p.59-65 unless you are particularly interested in doing so. Sangharakshita is basically describing the development of ideas of the Sambhogakaya here.

Discussion questions
1. Edward Conze on the Trikaya Doctrine: ‘The Buddha’s humanity, always more or less unimportant, has become a mere figment or phantom.’ Do you agree?
2. What criticisms do you think a Theravadin would make of the Trikaya doctrine? Would they be justified?

Further Reading
Cush p.113-4
Williams Buddhist Thought p.167-191
Williams Mahayana Buddhism ch.8

Past questions
Examine Mahayana teachings about Tri-kaya, and assess the claim that Mahayana Buddhism completes the teaching of the historical Buddha.

Who is the Buddha?

By now we know a good deal about the Buddha. We know that he was born in the Lumbini garden, we know how he was educated, we know how he left home, how he gained Enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, how he communicated his teaching, how he founded his Sangha, and how, finally, he passed away. And there is a good deal more we could find out. The traditional biographies give us all the facts. We could find out the names of the Buddha’s half-brothers and cousins, the name of the town where he was brought up, the name of the astrologer who came to see him as a baby. But although his life is fully documented, although we’ve got the whole story, does his biography really tell us who the Buddha was? Do we know the Buddha from a description of the life of Gautama the Buddha?

What do we mean by ‘knowing’ the Buddha anyway? In what sense, really, do we know anybody? Suppose you are told all about someone: where they live, what they do – the sort of things people always want to know about a person – how old they are, and so on. In some sense you have an answer to the question, ‘Who is this person?’ You know their social identity, their position in society. Gradually you can fill in any number of details – how tall they are, their accent, their background, their taste in food and music, their political affiliations and their religious beliefs. You can then say you know about this person. But however much you know about someone, you would not claim to know them until you’d met them, until you’d met them a few times, probably. You’d then know them personally. This deeper knowledge would, in fact, be based on a relationship, on communication: you know someone, properly speaking, when they also know you. Eventually you may claim to know this person very well.

But is it really so? Do you really know them? After all, it sometimes happens that we have to correct our evaluation of someone. Sometimes we are taken completely by surprise. They do something quite unexpected, quite ‘out of character’, and we say to ourselves, rather surprised and sometimes a little hurt, ‘Well, I never would have expected them to do that. They’re the last person I’d have thought would do that.’ But they did it, and this shows how little we really know other people. We are not truly able to fathom the deepest springs of their action, their fundamental motivation. This happens even with those who are supposedly nearest and dearest to us. It’s a wise child that knows its own father, as the saying goes – and it’s a wise father or mother that knows his or her own child.

Particularly, perhaps, it is a wise husband that knows his own wife, and a wise wife that knows her own husband. Sometimes I’ve had the experience of meeting – separately – a husband and wife, each having come to talk to me about the other. And usually what happens is that each gives a picture of the other that I would never have recognized. The impression I’ve had is that neither really knows the other. It’s as though the so-called closeness gets in the way, and what we know is not the other person to whom we are supposed to be so close, but only our own projected mental state, our own quite subjective reaction to that person. In other words, our ego gets in the way.

In order really to know another person we have to go much deeper than the ordinary level of communication – which means, in effect, that ordinary communication is not real communication at all. It’s just the same when it comes to knowing the Buddha. We may know all the biographical facts about his life, but are we thereby any nearer really knowing the Buddha? Well, no. The question continues to arise: Who was the Buddha? This question has been asked since the very dawn of Buddhism. In fact, the first question that was put to the Buddha after his Enlightenment was, ‘Who are you?’

Walking along the road one day, the Buddha met a brahmin called Dona. As he saw the Buddha in the distance, coming towards him, there was something about the approaching figure that stopped Dona dead in his tracks. There were plenty of singular-looking individuals walking about India at that time – Dona himself was one of them – but Dona could see that this individual coming towards him was somehow utterly different from anyone he had ever seen. The Buddha, after all, was just fresh from his Enlightenment. He was happy, serene, and joyful; there was a radiance about his whole being, as though a light were shining from his face.

As the Buddha drew near, Dona asked him, ‘Who are you?’ Not ‘Lovely weather we’re having,’ or ‘Where are you from?’ but ‘Who are you?’ If you were standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus into town and someone came up and said, ‘Who are you?’ you’d probably think they were being rather impertinent, but in India, of course, it’s different, and Dona could put this question without fear of giving offence. The point is that Dona was not asking who the Buddha was in social terms; he was not asking what sort of a human being the Buddha was. Dona was, in fact, wondering if this was really a human being at all that he was seeing.

The ancient Indians believed that the universe was stratified into various levels of existence. There were not just human beings and animals, as we tend to think. There were also gods and ghosts and yakshas and gandharvas – all sorts of mythological beings – inhabiting a sort of multi-storey universe. The human plane was just one out of scores of planes of existence. Dona’s first thought, therefore, impressed as he was by the appearance of the Buddha, was, ‘This isn’t a human being. He must be from – or on his way to – some other realm. Perhaps he’s a sort of spirit.’ So he asked the Buddha, ‘Who are you? Would you be a deva?’ – a deva being a god, a divine being, a sort of archangel. The Buddha simply said, ‘No.’ So Dona tried again. ‘Are you a gandharva?’ This creature is like a kind of celestial musician, a beautiful, singing, angelic figure. The Buddha again said, ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ said Dona, ‘Are you a yaksha?’ A yaksha is a sort of sublime spirit, rather a terrifying one, who lives in the jungle. But the Buddha rejected this designation as well. Then Dona thought, ‘He must be a human being after all. That’s strange.’ So he asked, ‘Are you a human being?’ (the kind of question you could only ask in ancient India) and once again the Buddha said, ‘No.’ ‘Well, that is odd,’ Dona thought. ‘If he isn’t a deva, or a gandharva, or a yaksha, or a human being, what on earth is he?’ ‘Who are you?’ he asked, now even more wonderingly. ‘If you are none of these things, who are you? What are you?’

The Buddha said, ‘Those conditions (or, perhaps better, those psychological conditionings) on account of which I might have been described as a deva or a gandharva or a yaksha or a human being have been destroyed. Therefore am I a Buddha.’ It is, as we have seen, these conditioned mental attitudes, volitions, or karma formations as they are sometimes called, which according to Buddhism (and Indian belief in general) determine our rebirth, as well as our human condition here and now. The Buddha was free from all this, free from all conditioning, so there was nothing to cause him to be reborn as a god or a gandharva, or even a human being. Even as he stood before this Brahmin, therefore, he was not any of these things. His body might appear to be that of a man, but his mind, his consciousness, was unconditioned, and therefore he was a Buddha. As a Buddha he was a personification, so to speak – even, if you like, an incarnation – of the Unconditioned mind.

What Dona tried to do is what we all try to do when we meet something new. The human mind proceeds slowly, by degrees, from the known to the unknown, and we try to describe the unknown in terms of the known; which is fair enough so long as one is aware of the limitations of this procedure. And we may say that the limitations of this procedure are most pronounced when it comes to trying to know other human beings.

There always seems to be a basic tendency to want to put people in categories and think that we have thereby got them neatly pigeon-holed. In India I have often been stopped in the road by someone just passing, who has said, ‘What is your caste?’ – without any sort of preamble. If they can’t classify you according to caste, they don’t know what to do with you. They don’t know how to treat you. They don’t know whether they can take water from your hand or not, whether they can get to know you or not, whether you might marry their daughter or not. All these things are very important, especially in southern India. In Britain people are much more indirect in their approach, but they try to worm out of you the same sort of information. They want to know what sort of job you’ve got (and perhaps from that they try to work out your income), they want to know where you were born, where you were educated, where you live now, and by taking these various sociological readings, they gradually narrow down the field, and think they’ve got you nicely pinned down.

So likewise, when Dona saw this majestic, radiant figure, and wanted to know who – or what – it was, he had at his disposal various labels – gandharvayakshadeva, human being – and he tried to stick these labels on what he saw. But the Buddha wouldn’t have it. His reply said, in effect, ‘None of these labels fit. None of them apply. I’m a Buddha. I transcend all conditionings. I am above and beyond all this.’

Dona may have been one of the first to puzzle over the Buddha’s nature, but he was certainly not the last. We have already come across four of the Fourteen Inexpressibles: whether the Buddha would exist after death, or not, or both, or neither. Although the Buddha was constantly being asked about this – the ancient Indians had a real thing about it – he would always say that it was inappropriate to apply any of those four statements to a Buddha. And he would go on to say, ‘Even during his lifetime, even when he sits there in a physical body, the Buddha is beyond all your classifications. You can’t say anything about him.'(footnote 29)

This point is easily made, of course, but actually very difficult to accept, and it evidently needed to be constantly hammered home. The most suggestive and evocative repudiation of any attempt to grasp the nature of the Buddha is found in the Dhammapada: ‘Whose conquest is not to be undone, whom not even a bit of those conquered passions follows, that Enlightened One whose sphere is endless, by what path will you trace him, the pathless one?'(footnote 30) According to this well-known verse, therefore, there is absolutely nothing by which a Buddha can be identified or tracked down or classified or categorized. You cannot trace the path of a bird’s flight by looking for signs of its passage in the sky – and you cannot track a Buddha either.

If this is clear, however, it has not really been understood. It is somehow the nature of the human mind to keep on trying, and to imagine that, having understood what is being said, it understands what it is that is being spoken of. So if we turn to the Sutta Nipata, we find the Buddha saying:

There is no measuring of man,
Won to the goal, whereby they’d say
His measure’s so: that’s not for him.
When all conditions are removed,
All ways of telling are removed.(footnote 31)

When all psychological conditions are removed in a person, you have no way of accounting for that person. You can’t say anything about the Buddha because he doesn’t have anything. In a sense, he isn’t anything. In fact, we are introduced in this sutta to an epithet for an Enlightened being which says just this. Akincana, usually translated as ‘man of nought’, is one who has nothing because he is nothing. And of nothing, nothing can be said.

Although many of the Buddha’s disciples gained Enlightenment, and themselves went through the world leaving no trace, as it were, they still worshipped the Buddha. They still felt there was something about him, about the man who discovered the Way for himself with no one to guide him, that was mysteriously beyond them and unfathomable. Even his chief disciple, Sariputra, floundered when it came to estimating the Buddha’s stature. He was once in the presence of the Buddha when, out of an excess of faith and devotion, he exclaimed, ‘Lord, I think you are the greatest of all the Enlightened Ones who have ever existed, or will exist, or exist now. I think you are the greatest of them all.’ The Buddha was neither pleased nor displeased by this. He didn’t say, ‘What a marvellous disciple you are, and how wonderfully well you understand me!’ He just asked a question: ‘Sariputra, have you known all the Buddhas of the past?’ Sariputra said, ‘No, Lord.’ Then he said, ‘Have you known all the Buddhas of the future?’ ‘No, Lord.’ ‘Do you know all the Buddhas that now are?’ ‘No, Lord.’ Finally, the Buddha asked ‘Do you even know me?’ And Sariputra said, ‘No, Lord.’ Then the Buddha said, ‘That being the case, Sariputra, how is it that your words are so bold and so grand?'(footnote 32)

So even the closest of his disciples didn’t really know who the Buddha was. To try to make sense of this attitude, they put together, after his death, a list of ten powers and eighteen special qualities which they attributed to the Buddha just to distinguish him from his Enlightened disciples. But in a way this was just an expression of the fact that they simply could not understand who or what he was at all.

This fact that the Enlightened disciples of the Buddha, enjoying personal contact with him, did not understand who he really was does not say much for our own chances in the matter. However, at a certain level, we can build up a collection of hints and clues, and the episode with Dona offers an important lead. What it is suggesting is that we have to step back and bring in a whole new dimension to our search for the Buddha. He is untraceable because he belongs to a different dimension, the transcendental dimension, the dimension of eternity.

So far we have seen him very much in terms of time – his birth, his Enlightenment, his death – his historical existence. We have, in fact, been looking at him according to the evolutionary model we introduced in the first chapter, which model is, of course, one of progress through space and time. This, however, is only one way of looking at things. As well as looking at the Buddha from the standpoint of time, we can also look at him from the standpoint of eternity.

The problem with any biographical account of the Buddha is that in a sense it deals with two quite different people: Siddhartha and the Buddha – divided by the central event of the Enlightenment. But one tends to come away from the biographical facts with the view that his early life simply built up to this point, and that after it he was more or less the same as he was before – apart from being Enlightened, of course. If we had been around at the time we should probably have been none the wiser. If we had known the Buddha a few months before he was Enlightened and a few months after, we should almost certainly not have been able to perceive any difference in him at all. We would have seen the same physical body, probably the same clothes. He spoke the same language and had the same general characteristics. This being so, we tend to regard the Buddha’s Enlightenment as a finishing touch to a process which had been going on for a long time, the feather that turned the scale, the final piece of the jigsaw, that little difference that made all the difference. But really it isn’t like that at all – not in the least like that.

Enlightenment – the Buddha’s or anybody else’s – represents ‘the intersection of the timeless moment.’ We need to modify T.S. Eliot’s analogy a little, because strictly speaking only a line can intersect another line, and although we can represent time as a line, the whole point of the timeless – eternity – is that it isn’t a line. Perhaps we should think rather in terms of time as a line which at a given point just stops, just disappears into another dimension. It’s rather like – to use a hackneyed but (if we don’t take it too literally) rather useful simile – the flowing of a river into the ocean, where the river is time and the ocean is eternity. Perhaps, indeed, we can improve on the simile to some extent. Suppose we imagine that the ocean into which our river is flowing is just over the horizon. From where we are, we can see the river flowing to the horizon, but we can’t see the ocean into which the river is flowing, so it seems as though the river is flowing into nothingness, flowing into a void. It just stops at the horizon because that is the point at which it enters the new dimension which we cannot see.

The point of intersection is what we call Enlightenment. Time just stops at eternity; time is succeeded, so to speak, by eternity. Siddhartha disappears, like the river disappearing at the horizon, and the Buddha takes his place. This is, of course, from the standpoint of eternity. Whereas from the standpoint of time Siddhartha becomes, evolves into, the Buddha, from the standpoint of eternity Siddhartha just ceases to exist, and there is the Buddha, who has been there all the time.

This difference of approach – in terms of time and in terms of eternity – is at the bottom of the whole controversy between the two schools of Zen, the gradual school and the abrupt school. In the early days of Zen (or rather Ch’an) in China, there were two apparently opposing viewpoints: there were those who believed that Enlightenment was attained in a sudden flash of illumination; and there were those who believed that it was attained gradually, step by step, by patient effort and practice. In the Platform Sutra Hui Neng tries to clear up the whole controversy: he says it isn’t that there are two paths, a gradual one and a sudden one; it is merely that some people gain Enlightenment more quickly than others, presumably because they make a greater effort.

This is true, but you can go deeper than this. The abrupt attainment of Enlightenment, you may say, has nothing to do with speed within time. It doesn’t mean that you begin the usual process of attaining Enlightenment and get through it more quickly. It doesn’t mean that whereas you might normally spend fifteen or fifty years on the gradual path, you are somehow able to speed it up and compress it into a year, or even a month, or a week, or a weekend. The abrupt path is outside time altogether. Sudden Enlightenment is simply the point at which this new dimension of eternity outside time is entered. You can never get closer to eternity by speeding up your approach to it within time. Within time you just have to stop. At the same time, of course, you can’t stop without first having speeded up. So Enlightenment can be looked at from two points of view, both of which are valid. It can be regarded as the culmination of the evolutionary process, a culmination which is reached through personal effort. But Enlightenment can also be regarded as being a sort of breakthrough into a new dimension beyond time and space.

There is a rather picturesque story which vividly illustrates the paradoxical meeting of these two dimensions. It concerns a famous bandit, called Angulimala, who lived in a great forest somewhere in northern India. Angulimala’s speciality was to ambush travellers on their way through the forest, murder them, and chop off one of their fingers as a trophy. These fingers he strung into a garland which he wore round his neck; hence his name, Angulimala, meaning ‘garland of fingers’. It was his ambition to have one hundred fingers on his garland, and he had got to ninety-eight when the Buddha happened to pass through that forest. The village folk had tried to dissuade him from entering it, warning him that he was in danger of losing a finger – and his life – to the notorious Angulimala, but the Buddha had carried on regardless. The sight of him just about made Angulimala’s day, because he had been getting a bit desperate to find the last two fingers for his garland. His mother, a devoted old soul, was living with him in the forest and cooking for him, and he had got so fed up with waiting he had finally decided there was nothing for it but to add one of her fingers to his collection (maybe she used to nag him a bit). That would make ninety-nine, so he would just need one more. He had been on his way to find his poor old mother when he saw the Buddha coming through the forest. He thought, ‘Well, I can always deal with mother later. But first, ‘Finger number ninety-nine coming up!’

It was a beautiful afternoon, a gentle breeze stirring the tree-tops and the birds singing, when the Buddha came walking along the little trail that wound through the forest. He walked meditatively, slowly, thinking to himself or, perhaps, not thinking at all. Angulimala emerged from the forest, and stealthily began to tail the Buddha, creeping up on him from behind. He had his sword drawn ready, so he could make very quick work of his prey when he got close to him. He loped along smoothly and rapidly to cut down the distance between them before he was seen. The last thing he wanted was a long messy struggle.

After he had followed the Buddha for a while, however, he noticed that something rather odd was happening. Although he seemed to be moving much more quickly than the Buddha, he didn’t seem to be getting any closer to him. There was the Buddha way in front, pacing slowly, and there was Angulimala shadowing him and trying to catch up, but not getting any nearer. Angulimala quickened his pace, and then he was running, but he still got no nearer to the Buddha. When Angulimala realised what was happening, he apparently broke into a cold sweat of terror and astonishment and bewilderment. But he was not a man to give up easily – or to stop and think about things either. He just lengthened his stride till he was sprinting along in the wake of the Buddha. The Buddha, however, stayed just the same distance ahead, and if anything he seemed to be going even more slowly. It was like a bad dream.

In desperation, Angulimala called out to the Buddha: ‘Stand still!’ The Buddha turned round and said, ‘I am standing still. It is you who are moving.’ So Angulimala, who had considerable presence of mind despite his fear – for he was a bold fellow – said, ‘You are supposed to be a shramana, a holy man. How can you tell such a lie? Here am I running like mad, and I can’t catch up with you. What do you mean, you are standing still?’ The Buddha said, ‘I am standing still because I am standing in nirvana. I have come to rest. You are moving because you are going round and round in samsara.’

Of course, Angulimala becomes the Buddha’s disciple, but that, and what happens afterwards, is another story. What this particular adventure illustrates is that Angulimala could not catch up with the Buddha because the Buddha was moving – or standing still, it is the same thing here – in another dimension. Angulimala, representing time, couldn’t catch up with the Buddha, representing eternity. However long time goes on, it never comes to a point where it catches up with eternity. Time doesn’t find eternity within the temporal process. Angulimala couldn’t have caught up with the Buddha even if the Buddha had come to a dead halt. He could still be running now, after 2,500 years, but he still wouldn’t have caught up with the Buddha.

When the Buddha attained Enlightenment, he entered a new dimension of being. There was no continuity, essentially, from the person who was there before. He was not just the old Siddhartha slightly improved, or even considerably improved, but a new person. This is actually a very difficult thing to grasp, it needs reflecting on, because we naturally think of the Buddha’s Enlightenment in terms of our own experience of life. In the course of our lives we may add to our knowledge, learn different things, do different things, go to different places, meet different people, life teaches us things – but underneath we remain fundamentally and recognizably the same person. Whatever changes take place don’t go that deep. ‘The child is father to the man’ – that is, what one is now is determined to a remarkable degree by what one was as a child. One remains much the same person as one was then. The conditions for one’s fundamental attitude to life were set up a long time ago, and any change that takes place subsequently is comparatively superficial. This even applies to our commitment to a spiritual path. We may take to Buddhism, we may ‘go for Refuge’ to the Buddha, but the change isn’t usually very deep.

But the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment wasn’t like that. In reality it wasn’t an experience at all, because the person to have the experience wasn’t there any more. The ‘experience’ of Enlightenment is therefore more like death. It is more like the change that takes place between two lives, when you die to one life and are reborn in another. In some Buddhist traditions Enlightenment is called ‘the great death’, because everything of the past dies, everything, in a way, is annihilated, and you are completely reborn. In the case of the Buddha, it is not that he was a smartened up version of Siddhartha, Siddhartha tinkered about with a bit, Siddhartha reissued in a new edition. Siddhartha was finished. At the foot of the bodhi tree Siddhartha died and the Buddha was born – or we should say, rather, that he ‘appeared’. At that moment, when Siddhartha dies, the Buddha is seen as having been alive all the time – by which we really mean above and beyond time, out of time altogether.

Even to talk in this way is again misleading, because it is not as if, being outside time, you are really outside anything. Time and space are not things in themselves. We usually think of space as a sort of box within which things move about, and time as a sort of tunnel along which things move – but they are not really like that. Space and time are really forms of our perception. We see things through the spectacles, as it were, of space and time. And we speak of these things that we see as phenomena – which are, of course, what make up the world of relative, conditioned existence, or samsara. So what we call phenomena are only realities as seen under the forms of space and time. But when we enter the dimension of eternity, we go beyond space and time, and therefore we go beyond the world, we go beyond samsara, and, in the Buddhist idiom, we enter nirvana.

Enlightenment is often described as awakening to the truth of things, seeing things as they really are, not as they appear to be. The Enlightened person sees things free from any veils or obscurations, sees them without being influenced or affected by any assumptions or psychological conditionings, sees them with perfect objectivity – not only sees them, but becomes one with them, one with the reality of things. So the Buddha, the one who has awoken to the Truth, the one who exists out of time in the dimension of eternity, may be regarded as Reality itself in human form. This is what is meant by saying that the Buddha is an Enlightened human being: the form is human, but in the place, so to speak, of the conditioned human mind, with all its prejudices and preconceptions and limitations, there is Reality itself, there is an experience or awareness which is not separate from Reality.

In the Buddhist tradition this crystallized eventually into a very important distinction which came to be established with regard to the Buddha. On the one hand there was his rupakaya (literally ‘form body’), his physical phenomenal appearance; on the other, there was, or rather is, his dharmakaya (literally ‘body of Truth’ or ‘body of Reality’), his true, his essential, form. The rupakaya is the Buddha as existing in time, but the dharmakaya is the Buddha as existing out of time in the dimension of eternity. Wherein lies the true nature of the Buddha, in his rupakaya or his dharmakaya, is declared definitively in a chapter from one of the great Perfection of Wisdom texts, the Diamond Sutra. In it the Buddha says to his disciple, Subhuti:

Those who followed me by voice,
Wrong the effort they engaged in.
Me those people will not see.
From the Dharma should one see the Buddhas,
From the Dharma-bodies comes their guidance.
Yet Dharma’s true nature cannot be discerned,
And no one can be conscious of it as an object.

The Buddha is found to be equally emphatic on this point in the Pali canon. Apparently there was a monk called Vakkali who was very devoted to the Buddha, but his devotion had got stuck at a superficial level. He was so fascinated by the appearance and the personality of the Buddha that he used to spend all his time sitting and looking at him, or following him around. He didn’t want any teaching. He didn’t have any questions to ask. He just wanted to look at the Buddha. So one day the Buddha called him and said, ‘Vakkali, this physical body is not me. If you want to see me, you must see the Dharma, you must see the dharmakaya, my true form.’ So Vakkali meditated on this, and he gained liberation by meditating in this way very shortly before he died.

Vakkali’s problem is actually one that most of us have. It’s not that we should ignore the physical body, but we should take it as a symbol of the dharmakaya, the Buddha as he is in his ultimate essence. That said, it must be admitted that the word Buddha is ambiguous. When, for instance, we say, ‘The Buddha spoke the language of Magadha,’ we are obviously referring to Gautama the Buddha, the historical figure. On other occasions, however, ‘Buddha’ means the transcendental Reality, as when we say, ‘Look for the Buddha within yourself.’ Here we don’t mean Gautama the Buddha; we mean the eternal, time-transcending Buddha-nature within ourselves. Broadly speaking, the Theravada School today uses the word Buddha more in the historical sense, whereas the Mahayana, especially Zen, tends to use it more in the spiritual, trans-historical sense.

The shifting usage of this word only adds to the confusion Westerners are liable to feel when it comes to identifying the Buddha. Like Dona, we want to know who the Buddha is, we want to slap a label on him. But with our Western, dualistic, Christian background we have only two labels available to us: God and Man. Some people tend to say that the Buddha was just a man – a very good man, a very holy man, very decent, but just a man, no more than that. He’s someone rather like Socrates. This is the view taken, for instance, by Catholic writers about Buddhism. It’s a rather subtle, insidious approach. They praise the Buddha for his wonderful piety, wonderful charity, great love, compassion, wisdom – yes, he’s a very great man. Then, on the last page of their book about Buddhism, they carefully add that of course the Buddha was just a man, and not to be compared with Christ, who was, or is, the son of God. This is one way in which the Buddha gets misplaced. The other way people fail to see him is by saying, ‘No, the Buddha is a sort of god for the Buddhists. Of course, he was originally a man, but then, hundreds of years after his death, those misguided Buddhists went and made him into a god, because they wanted to have something to worship.’

Both these views are wrong, and the source of this misconception probably lies in a general misunderstanding of what religion is necessarily about. People for whom the idea of a non-theistic religion is a contradiction in terms will always want to resolve the question of how the Buddha stands in relation to God. Christ is said by his followers to be the son of God. Muhammad is supposed to be the messenger of God. The Jewish prophets claim to be inspired by God. And Krishna and Rama are claimed to be incarnations of God. Indeed, many Hindus think of the Buddha as one as well. They look upon him as the ninth incarnation, the ninth avatar, of the god Vishnu. This is how they see him because the category of avatar is a familiar one to them. But neither the Buddha nor his followers make any such claim, because Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. Like some other religions – Taoism, Jainism, and certain forms of philosophical Hinduism – in Buddhism there is no place for God at all. There is no supreme being, no creator of the universe, and there never has been. So Buddhists can worship as much as they like, but they will never be worshipping their creator or any conception of a personal God.

The Buddha is neither man nor God, nor even a god. He was a human being in the sense that he started off as every other human being starts off, but he didn’t remain an ordinary human being. He became an Enlightened human being, and according to Buddhism that makes a great deal of difference – in fact, all the difference. He was an Unconditioned mind in a conditioned body. According to the Buddhist tradition, a Buddha is the highest being in all the universe, higher even than the so-called gods (whom in Western terms we would call angels, archangels, and so on). Traditionally the Buddha is called the teacher of gods and men, and in Buddhist art the gods are represented in a very humble position, saluting the Buddha and listening to his teaching. Therefore there is no possibility, whether on a philosophical or a popular level, of confusing the Buddha with any kind of god.

For those of us brought up to imagine that if anyone is the highest being in the universe that person is God, it is not so easy to really discern the Buddha in that position. Even if we don’t believe in God, we see a God-shaped empty space, and the Buddha simply does not measure up to it. After all, he has not created the universe. We see the Buddha in this way because there’s a category missing, we may say, from Western thought. If, therefore, we are to perceive who the Buddha is we have to dispel the ghost of God, the creator of the universe that looms over him, by substituting for God something completely different.

After all this, are we any nearer to answering the question, ‘Who is the Buddha?’ We’ve seen that Buddha means Unconditioned mind, Enlightened mind. Knowing the Buddha therefore means knowing the mind in its Unconditioned state. So the answer to the question ‘Who is the Buddha?’ is really that we ourselves are the Buddha – potentially. We really, truly come to know the Buddha only in the course of our spiritual life, in the course of our meditation, in the course of actualizing our own potential Buddhahood. It is only then that we can really say, from knowledge and experience, who the Buddha is.

We can’t do this all at once. It certainly can’t be done in a day. First of all we have to establish a living contact with the Buddha. We have to arrive at something intermediate between mere factual knowledge about Gautama the Buddha – the details of his career – and on the other hand, the experience of Unconditioned mind. This intermediate stage is what we call Going for Refuge to the Buddha. And it means not just reciting ‘Buddham saranam gacchami’ (‘to the Buddha for Refuge I go’), though it doesn’t exclude that. It means committing ourselves to the goal of Enlightenment as a living ideal, as our ultimate objective, and striving to realise it. It is only by Going for Refuge to the Buddha, with all that this implies, with all that this means, that we can answer from the heart and the mind and the whole of our spiritual life the question: ‘Who is the Buddha?’

The Evolution of a Buddha

from Who is the Buddha? by Sangharakshita

‘Who is the Buddha?’ This question has always been crucial to the Buddhist quest. Through it, Buddhists determine their ideal, their goal in life, and their whole spiritual path. It is as an essentially practical question in this sense that it appears as the title of this book. We shall be examining, through the following chapters, some of the significant events in the Buddha’s life, as it occurred 2,500 years ago. However, the question ‘Who is the Buddha?’ is not answered by a simple biography – at least not in a very helpful sense. Besides, matters of historical fact are not fundamental issues to Buddhists. Scholars continue to dispute over whether certain details in the various traditional records may or may not be regarded as true statements of what actually happened. But for those who follow in the Buddha’s footsteps the facts of his life, such as they are, are secondary to their significance as a guide to the spiritual path. Many biographies of the Buddha, both popular and scholarly, have appeared before now, and some of these are both informative and inspiring. But our approach here is different. Our aim is the specific one of reflecting on the Buddhist conception of who the Buddha is.

We are therefore taking each of the major elements in the Buddha’s career as the starting point for a consideration of the ideal and goal of Buddhism as he exemplifies it, and as we also can strive after it. To begin with, however, it will be useful to get an idea of the spiritual context within which the man, Siddhartha Gautama, became the Buddha. That is, the Buddha cannot be recognized for what he is except from within the context of Buddhism itself. From the Buddhist point of view the Buddha did not arise from nowhere. It is true that Buddhism as we know it starts with the Buddha. But he did not invent or create the Dharma, the truth around which Buddhism developed. He discovered it – or rather he rediscovered it. The Buddha takes his place at the centre – or at the culmination – of a vast pattern or system of spiritual hierarchies. To know who he is we also have to know, in a manner of speaking, where he is. If we cannot get some measure of the scale of the Buddha’s achievement against our own human experience, the question ‘Who is the Buddha?’ cannot realistically be addressed at all. Therefore, not only do we need to take in as comprehensive a view as we can of the Buddhist ‘scheme of things’, but we should also try to see Buddhism itself in the most far-reaching perspective. ‘Who is the Buddha?’ is another way of saying ‘Where does Buddhism propose to lead us?’ To answer it we need to have some idea of where we are now – and even of how we came to be here. Before we look at where the human quest ends, we should also, perhaps, look back at its origins, where it begins.

In the beginning, we may say, life was a mystery. That, at least, was how it seemed to primitive humanity. Without formulating it as such, people felt, as though in the blood, that life was strange, incomprehensible: a mystery. Then later on, though still during humankind’s unrecorded past, people began consciously, explicitly, to think about life. Our ancestors apprehended that they were – without knowing how or why – in the midst of what seemed to be a strange and even hostile world, surrounded by all sorts of things which they could not understand or control. In the morning they saw the sun rise, and in the evening they saw it set. But why the sun rose and why it set, and what happened to it when darkness fell, they just did not know. Sometimes there were great storms – the world grew dark, rain fell, thunder seemed to crack open the earth and the sky would be lit up by an intermittent and terrible glare. But what caused these disturbances no one could tell. The days might be long and warm, or they might be short and freezing, but why they should be so was, again, a mystery. Eventually, they discovered that they could strike two stones together to make fire – and here was another mystery.

Sometimes people felt acutely miserable, and their bodies were racked with terrible pains. Why? They didn’t know. And sometimes something even stranger happened. Someone would be found lying on the ground, quite still. Usually it would be an old person, but not always; and sometimes it would be a child. When you called them they did not answer. You saw that their eyes were fixed and staring, but they did not recognize you. When you drew near, when you placed your fingers near their nostrils, you discovered that they no longer breathed. When you touched them you found that their flesh was cold and hard. If you left them where they were then sooner or later you noticed a dreadful smell coming from them. And this was the greatest mystery of all.

Almost as soon as these mysteries arose, it seems, they would have been named and given a place in a larger pattern of meaning whereby people could make some sense of their lives. And this world view – the particular view of the world held in any one society or social group – would satisfy people for perhaps a very long time indeed. But eventually some inconsistencies would appear, some aspects of the world or of themselves would be discovered that could not be explained within that system, that would not fit into it. Some people would then simply choose to muddle along with the old system, making a few adjustments here and there, while others would dismantle the whole apparatus and start again from a completely different governing principle.

What has changed today is that people have now, in most places in the world, a very considerable range of world views – of beliefs, myths, and philosophies – to choose from and learn from. This can only be a good thing. As Kipling shrewdly demanded of an earlier, nationalistic age, ‘What should they know of England who only England know?'(‘The English Flag’) You can hardly be said to know your own culture if you have nothing to compare it with, and the same goes for anything else one wants to know: knowledge is essentially comparison. You cannot really understand even your own religion except in relation to other religions. Of course, one hasn’t always had the information one needed to make these comparisons. Fifty years ago you hardly ever heard another religion apart from Christianity even mentioned – you were not given to understand such religions existed at all. But today all this has changed. Kipling’s apercu now seems almost a truism, and one finds one can learn a great deal about one’s own faith from studying other systems of belief. Things we would have taken for granted in the past we can now see for what they are by comparison with different things of the same nature. And one appreciates and understands them all the better for it.

Side by side with this development, however, and linked with it, we have seen a break-up of the old unified culture in which there was a commonly accepted overall view of things. We live in an era of the specialist, of the person who knows more and more about less and less. Although we have developed areas of densely cultivated knowledge, they just don’t link up into any kind of network of ideas. The central split is of course between science and the humanities, but the fissures extend and proliferate within these ‘two cultures’ to produce a seriously fragmented system of knowledge. This very modern problem of isolated specialization presents us with the acute difficulty of having to try to make sense of our knowledge piecemeal. It’s as though we have just four or five pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and we can’t make out what the whole picture is supposed to be.

There is, therefore, for anyone who is at all reflective, a pressing need – as much as there was for our primitive ancestors – to find the other bits of the jigsaw. There are, of course, many people willing to supply the missing pieces. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, is an ancient and venerable institution, and in the course of 2,000 years it has worked out all the answers. You only have to buy a copy of the latest catechism to find all the questions and all the answers neatly set out. Should any fresh questions arise, these will be swiftly answered by an encyclical from the Vatican. Many people find that this system deals with the mystery of life very satisfactorily. The same goes for Islam, which also lays down a conclusive and thoroughgoing context of meaning for human life. Marxism too, in its various forms, provided – at least until recently – a comparatively all-embracing world view that explained everything in terms of economic evolution leading to a political and social utopia.

Those whom the more established systems of thought fail to satisfy can turn to any number of ‘cults’ or fringe religious groups, even psychological and political movements, for something that will validate their aspirations and make them feel positive and progressive. And it is possible to go from one to another, to change your direction, as often as you like. I knew an Englishwoman in India who claimed to have changed her religion seventeen times. She had started off as a Roman Catholic and had worked her way through the Vedanta and the Swedenborgian Church and the Ramakrishna Mission and many others. By the time I knew her, when she was middle-aged, she was a Seventh Day Adventist, and even then thinking of moving on to something else, because this religion prohibited the consumption of tea. I remember visiting her once (this was in Kalimpong), and while we were having a nice cup of tea together there was a knock on the door and she turned pale. ‘My God,’ she whispered, ‘That’s the minister’, and quickly hid the teapot. I believe she went on to Australia, but whether or not she found something that suited her better I don’t know. One may laugh or one may cry at the sort of predicament she was in – but she was at least searching for the truth in her own way.

The fact is that, whether one is making a point of searching for the truth or not, it is simply not possible to avoid the practice of philosophy altogether. Everybody has a philosophy of some kind. It is just that some people are good at philosophizing and others are not. You can meet all sorts of people who have developed, without any academic training of any kind, an articulated philosophy of their own that is consistent and integrated. But whereas these individuals may have worked out a clear conceptualized version of their own attitude towards life as a whole, others may have only a very rudimentary or embryonic idea of what they take to be the central reality and purpose of life. Like it or not, we all begin as our remote ancestors did in a state of confusion and bewilderment, but it is up to us where we go from there.

It is as if you woke up one day to find yourself in a strange bed in some kind of inn. You don’t know how you got there and you don’t know where you are – except that it’s somehow a temporary place to stay, with people coming and people going. All you know is that it’s not your own place and you don’t recognize the road it’s on. You’ve just woken up and you’re bewildered and confused and wondering what’s going on. This is surely more or less how we feel about finding ourselves in the world at all. Here we are with a body, two eyes, two ears, a mouth, a nose, thoughts … dropped off in the middle of England or wherever, dumped down in the tail-end of the twentieth century. What brought us here, we just don’t know. We just wake up and here we are.

So when you wake up in this imaginary inn all you want to know is where you go from here. You need someone to give you a map showing the surrounding country, so that you can see the route you have come by so far and the direction you need to take to reach your destination. And this, as one might expect by now, is where Buddhism comes in. It is when the human condition is looked at in these quite elementary, even existential, terms that the teaching of the Buddha seems to come into its own.

Encountering Buddhism, what we discover, essentially, is a very comprehensive system of thought. (The word ‘thought’ is not ideal, but it must do for the time being.) This is not to say that the different forms of Buddhism that have arisen over more than 2,000 years all necessarily hang together neatly. But as well as being used as a blanket term covering the whole range of different approaches to the teaching, ‘Buddhism’ needs also to be appreciated in essential terms as representing a consistent and complete philosophical scheme.

Encountering Buddhism concretely, however, coming into contact with actual Buddhist groups, meeting flesh-and-blood Buddhist individuals, we find only too often the same sort of piecemeal approach that characterises modern knowledge as a whole. There are a lot of schools in Buddhism (and they are ‘schools’ rather than ‘sects’) – Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, T’ien-t’ai, Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and so on. But it is rare to find followers of one school of Buddhism knowing anything much about the teachings of any other school. I have had a good deal of contact with Theravada Buddhists, for example (admittedly, in most cases, a very long time ago), and my experience was that – whether they came from Sri Lanka, Burma, or Thailand – they knew absolutely nothing about Zen. In the vast majority of cases they had not even heard of it. Conversely, one can meet Zen monks – even Zen masters – who haven’t a clue about what the Theravada might be. As the world becomes a smaller place this is gradually changing, but one has to be careful when picking up a book on Buddhism, or listening to someone talk about Buddhism, that one isn’t just getting the version of Buddhism put forward by one particular school.

Within Buddhism there is also a tendency to present a partial and unbalanced account of the teaching. A particular set of doctrines may be set out very clearly, but they are not related to other doctrines that perhaps look at the same issue from a different angle. For instance, there is the teaching of duhkha, that human existence is inherently unsatisfactory, that it can never be quite as we would like, that, indeed, even if we got everything we wanted, life would still be unsatisfactory. It is a fundamental doctrine, without which the whole of Buddhism rather loses its point. However, if it is not always firmly located within the context of the Four Noble Truths which go on to summarize the way to transcend it, the teaching of duhkha will seem just a rather sour fact of life.

Take another doctrine, that of the tathagata-garbha – literally the ‘womb of Enlightenment’ – according to which all sentient existence carries within it the ‘seed’ of Buddhahood, of supreme and perfect Enlightenment. If this doctrine of universal potential Buddhahood is not related to the Noble Eightfold Path which adumbrates the necessary steps to be taken in order to realize Enlightenment, we can come away with the notion that we actually have Buddhahood in the palm of our hand, as it were, and that all we have to do is wake up to the fact. Such teachings, if not put in their proper context and related to an overall framework, can be quite misleading.

This goes for meditation too. We can no doubt very usefully take up meditation as a purely psychological exercise. But as soon as we begin to see it as more than just a ‘profane’ training, as soon as we begin to acknowledge that it is some sort of ‘sacred’ or spiritual practice, we need to acquire some understanding of the general spiritual framework or context within which its practical spiritual purpose is defined. In the East it doesn’t matter so much, because there the whole culture, the whole society, provides that framework, and if one has close personal contact with a good teacher then one doesn’t need to know very much about the doctrine intellectually. But that situation does not obtain in the West, and if we are to take up Buddhist meditation we must have some knowledge of the general principles of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a vast subject. Therefore, putting it in a context which is familiar to the modern Western mind is not to be taken too literally – it is not like finding a big box into which we can fit a smaller box. It is a matter rather of laying out the Buddhist system of thought as a whole in terms that should be sufficiently familiar to all of us – as a way of looking at the world – not to require much explanation. And the idea that functions most comprehensively in this way is the principle of evolution, derived from the biological sciences. The fact that the Christian faith in particular has become reconciled to this principle only with the greatest difficulty makes it also a useful tool in highlighting some of the more distinctive features of the Buddhist vision. Nothing like the kind of tour de force we meet with in the works of the Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin is required to bring Buddhism and modern evolutionary ideas together.

We now know that the theory of evolution was anticipated by a number of thinkers, by Kant, Hegel, and others – and even, according to some, by Aristotle himself. But Darwin was the first to trace the operation of evolution in detail within the field of biology. To attempt to refute the principle of evolution in that field today would be like saying the earth is flat. It is the given basis for all the biological sciences. If anything, the idea has invaded all sorts of other disciplines, from politics to astronomy, so that one could fairly say that just as the Elizabethan age was dominated by the concepts of order and hierarchy, so the modern world is dominated by the concept of evolution.

In taking up an idea that is generally understood in scientific or at least academic applications and applying it in a spiritual context, we have, of course, to draw some precise boundaries. Scientific knowledge depends on the evidence of the senses – but, just because Buddhism has never tried to resist the evidence of the senses, that does not make it a ‘scientific religion’. It is certainly true that Buddhism’s appeal in the West owes much to the spirit of empirical, open-minded inquiry which the Buddha laid down as axiomatic to the spiritual quest – and this lack of dogmatism does align Buddhism in some important respects with the Greek scientific spirit rather than with the dominant religious traditions in the modern West. Equally axiomatic to the Buddhist notion of the spiritual quest, however, is the recognition of a transcendental Reality – which is not, of course, a provable scientific hypothesis. As a practising Buddhist one starts from the evidence of one’s own experience, which will tend to support more and more the idea of a spiritual order of evolution, and it is on the basis of this evidence that biological evolution carries conviction – not the other way round. Therefore, if we look at ourselves as in any way constituting some kind of key to the universe, then on the basis of our own experience of progression we may fairly conclude that progression is in some way inherent in the universe.

In this respect, at least, Buddhism inclines more towards a traditional, pre-scientific viewpoint. If we look at a traditional civilization, we find that everything, every activity, every piece of knowledge, is linked in with ideas of a metaphysical order. Ordinary things, ordinary events, accepted ideas, are not just of practical use. They have a symbolic value, they point beyond themselves, they have meaning. Amidst our own fragmented, ‘specialist’, economically defined culture we may find it difficult to appreciate this attitude, but it is the basis for the Tantra, and it was the world view of our own society until comparatively recently. According to this view everything is interconnected and nothing can ever really be ordinary – in the sense of being without a deeper meaning – at all. Rather than look for scientific proof of spiritual realities, we may say, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, that it is because we no longer believe in the gods that we no longer believe in ourselves. Our project as Buddhists must be to replace a mechanistic universe with one that has meaning, that carries throughout its fabric intimations of spiritual values.

Buddhism therefore looks at the rational knowledge derived from the senses in the light of a knowledge that is derived not from the senses and reason alone, but from a fusion of reason with emotion in a higher faculty of archetypal knowledge which we may call ‘vision’, ‘insight’, or ‘imagination’. It is not a question of justifying Buddhism in scientific terms, but rather of understanding sense-derived knowledge by means of knowledge that is not sense-based. In other words, the knowledge that is derived from the senses fits into a much larger pattern of knowledge that is not derived from the senses. From a Buddhist point of view, there is a hierarchy of levels of being and consciousness, a hierarchy of degrees of spiritual attainment, which seems to be reflected in, or as it were anticipated by, the whole process of biological evolution. It seems to make sense, therefore, to regard both biological evolution and the hierarchies of spiritual development as being – from the Buddhist point of view – in their separate spheres, exemplifications of a single law or principle.

It is clear that according to the principle of evolution life is not just existence. It is a process – a process of becoming – and humankind is not something apart from the rest of nature, as the theistic religions usually teach. Humankind itself also comes under the operation of this great process of becoming. It too is evolving and developing, not just towards new forms of existence and organization, but towards new and higher levels of being.

There are two different ways of looking at any evolving phenomenon: in terms of its past or in terms of its future; in terms of what it was or in terms of what it may come to be. The first of these ways of looking at phenomena – in terms of its origins – is traditionally called the genetic approach; the second – in terms of its destination or purpose – is the teleological method. So if we take an example of humankind at its best – someone who is intelligent, self-aware, morally responsible, sensitive to others and to the world around them – we should be able to look at them from each of these two perspectives. From a genetic perspective, we can look back at the complex evolutionary process described by Darwin, including that critical point at which self-consciousness – or more precisely, reflexive consciousness, which is roughly identifiable with specifically human consciousness – emerges from simple animal sense-consciousness. This whole process we can characterize, from the Buddhist point of view, as the ‘lower evolution’. But there is also the teleological perspective: we can also look at what an aware human being may develop into, what they are in process of developing into, and this development we may distinguish as the ‘higher evolution’. We have got so far in evolutionary terms propelled by the unconscious urge to grow and develop which fuels the origin of species, but to enter into the higher evolution takes conscious effort, or what we call spiritual practice. The lower evolution is the province of the biological sciences, leaving the higher evolution to be mapped out by the religions of the world, especially, of course, by Buddhism.

This sort of model of Buddhism is crucial to an understanding of who the Buddha is and what our own relationship to him might be. By means of it we can locate our own situation, which is probably a little short of our central figure of the fully integrated human being, and thus somewhere in the upper reaches of the lower evolution. We can also see the evolutionary process stretching ahead of us as far as Buddhahood – and beyond, inasmuch as Buddhahood is not a terminal point, but is by its very ‘nature’ limitless. And somewhere in the midst of this continuum we can envisage another critical point, where Insight into the nature of Reality – Insight with a capital I – replaces our faint, confused, and intermittent apprehensions of something that transcends our common perception of things. In this way, we know where we stand, we know the direction we must take, and we have something to aim for.

Before focusing on those stages in the evolutionary process that concern us as individual human beings we can restate what has been said so far in traditional Buddhist terminology. According to Buddhism the nature of existence consists in change or ‘becoming’. It is not simply some ‘thing’ that is subject to change – existence itself is change. And the specific manner of that change was expressed by the Buddha in a formula known in Sanskrit as pratitya-samutpada and translated as ‘conditioned co-production’ or ‘dependent origination’. This formula or law goes as follows: ‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.’ So if existence is change, change is conditionality. Existence is seen as an infinitely complex and shifting pattern of physical and mental phenomena, all coming into being in dependence on certain conditions, and disappearing when those conditions disappear.

Pratitya-samutpada is not traditionally invoked as a cosmological principle, but there is no reason why it should not be. In the Digha Nikaya of the Pali canon there is a very long discourse delivered by the Buddha, the Agganna Sutta, which deals with the evolution of the universe and the origin of humankind. But for our present purposes we may say simply that in dependence upon the lower evolution arises the higher evolution.

What this does not mean is that the higher evolution is entirely the product of the lower evolution. Pratitya-samutpadaexpresses the middle way between seeing the lower evolution as essentially the same process as the higher evolution and seeing them as completely different processes. The basic Buddhist approach is in this sense scientific – it describes what happens without necessarily committing itself to an interpretation of those facts.

Within this universal framework of conditionality, however, there are two types of conditionality. On the one hand there is a ‘cyclic’ mode of conditionality, a process of reaction between opposite factors: death arising in dependence on birth, good in dependence on evil, happiness in dependence on suffering – and vice versa. It is a characteristic of human experience that is all too familiar – as Keats puts it: ‘Ay, in the very temple of delight / Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine’.(‘Ode to Melancholy’) This is samsara or the round of existence, as depicted in the Tibetan version of the Wheel of Life.

On the other hand there is a cumulative development of positive factors progressively augmenting each other, and this ‘spiral’ mode of conditionality provides the basis for the spiritual life. Thus in dependence on the arising of faith, joy arises, and so on in an ascending series of mental states all the way up to Enlightenment itself. The essential characteristic of a positive mental state is that it does not produce a negative reaction but instead produces a further positive factor. An act of true generosity, for example, is not succeeded by a niggling resentment when your gift does not seem to be appreciated. You simply derive joy from giving. It hardly needs saying that the cyclical principle governs the lower evolution, while the spiral mode of conditionality comprises the higher evolution.

The Buddha’s working out, in his first discourse after his Enlightenment, of the principle of pratitya-samutpada as the Four Noble Truths can be correlated with the evolution model equally simply. The first and second Noble Truths, which are that pain is inherent in sentient existence and that this pain arises in dependence – ultimately – upon craving, are concerned with the lower evolution. The third and fourth Noble Truths, which are, respectively, that this pain ceases with the ceasing of craving, and that the way to bring about an end to craving is by undertaking the Noble Eightfold Path, take us into the higher evolution.

By taking an evolutionary perspective we can discern some absolutely fundamental practical principles of the spiritual life. Within the lower evolution forms of life develop as a group – evolution works as a collective process – whereas the higher evolution is necessarily individual, which means that one individual can outstrip the rest. It is for this reason that self-awareness, mindfulness, is the starting point – the growing point – of the higher evolution. It is as though self-awareness generates a degree of energy sufficient to carry you through the whole process of the higher evolution in a single lifetime. Buddhist practice is concerned solely and exclusively with the development of the individual, that is, with the higher evolution. Once this is clear we can bring the whole range of Buddhist teachings into focus.

The Buddha lays down a path of practice leading to Enlightenment, but then he says very emphatically, ‘You must walk the path yourselves. I’ve walked it for myself, but I can’t walk it for you. No one can save another. No one can purify another. It’s up to you to do it for yourselves.’ In this sense Buddhism is a do-it-yourself religion. The corollary of this is that anyone who makes the effort can obtain the same results. There aren’t some chosen few who can do it and others who can’t. If no one is going to do it for you, this also means that if you make the effort, you can attain. You don’t even have to call yourself a Buddhist. If you accept the principles and follow the path, you will infallibly get the right results.

This is one reason why Buddhism is, by its very nature, a tolerant religion. Buddhists are not tolerant out of sheer indifference or apathy. They are tolerant because everybody has to find out the Truth for themselves. This is the nature of the Buddhist path. You have to allow others the same freedom that you claim for yourself – freedom to grow, to develop spiritually, in their own way. Therefore there is no conception of religious war or religious persecution in Buddhism. You find, for example, that the king of Thailand, who is the Buddhist king of a largely but not wholly Buddhist country, has as one of his titles ‘Protector of all Religions’.

So there is no compulsion. The Buddha’s teaching, the Dharma, is called, in Pali – the ancient language in which much of it was first written down – ehipassiko dhamma, that is, ‘the teaching (dhamma) of come (ehi) and see (passiko)’. It is the teaching that says come and see for yourself. Don’t accept just on trust. Believe because you understand, experience and verify for yourself. Don’t believe just because the Buddha tells you. This is what the Buddha himself said: ‘Monks, don’t accept what I say just out of respect for me. Just as gold is tested in the fire, so test my words in the fire of spiritual experience.’

When the Buddha’s aunt and foster-mother, Mahaprajapati Gautami, confused by the conflicting versions of his teaching given even in his own lifetime by his disciples, asked him straight, ‘What do you really teach?’ the Buddha replied that she could work it out for herself: ‘Whatever teachings you can be sure conduce to tranquillity and not to greed and hatred; to freedom and not to enslavement; to decrease of worldly ties and not to increase of them; to contentment and not to covetousness; to solitude and not to social distractions; to energy and not to sluggishness; to delight in good and not to delight in evil; of these teachings you can be sure that they constitute my Dharma.'(Shakespeare ‘The Tempest’ act I, sceneii)

One of the most prevalent ways in which some Buddhists take a one-sided view of the Dharma is in thinking of it in an exclusively negative manner, as just a matter of rooting out the whole of the lower evolution and leaving it at that. But it is evident from passages like those quoted above that the Buddha’s own conception of it was one of positive growth, of a conscious effort to evolve and progress as an individual. As well as leaving the lower evolution behind, we need also to take some positive steps in the direction of the higher evolution. As well as giving up meanness we want to cultivate generosity. As well as avoiding being harsh and callous we want to develop kindness. And there is a set of four meditation practices which are specifically concerned with developing the whole range of positive emotion. These meditations are called the four brahma viharas, ‘the abodes of the gods’. The first consists in the development of metta or love towards all living beings – a desire for the well-being of others, a wish that they may grow and develop. The second brahma vihara is karuna or compassion for those who are stuck, whose growth is stunted. Thirdly there is mudita or ‘sympathetic joy’ in the happiness of others – which is like when you go out into the garden in early summer and see the flowers all springing up and blooming. And the fourth is upeksha, equanimity or peace, an experience not of sitting back and putting your feet up, but of a vibrant spiritual equilibrium.

The four brahma viharas do not come naturally; they are not endowments of the lower evolution. They have to be consciously developed, for, as we have seen, spiritual development is the development of consciousness. Whereas the lower evolution is an unconscious development on the material level, the higher evolution is a conscious development on the mental level. At the same time the whole of evolution, lower and higher, is a continuous process. Of the two general scientific theories of evolution, that it is a mechanistic, random process, and the opposite view, that it could not have taken place without some kind of purpose or direction, the Buddhist approach would go with the second view. It is very broadly ‘vitalist’ in that it recognizes a will to Enlightenment somehow present in all forms of life and manifesting in any gesture of consideration or act of intelligent good will. With the beginning of the evolutionary process you get the impression of a sort of fumbling, with a lot of false starts – it seems a bit hit-or-miss. But then as you follow it further, whatever it is that stands behind the evolutionary process seems to become surer of itself, as it were, and to define itself more clearly as time goes by. And with the emergence of the aware individual human being undertaking the spiritual path it becomes fully conscious of itself, thereby speeding up the whole process.

The Buddhist has to tread very lightly in this area to avoid misunderstanding. Evolution is just a metaphor or model for Buddhism, a temporal model. In speaking of some ‘thing’, some reality behind the evolutionary process, we are simply using a different model, a spatial model. If we speak in terms of developing from one stage to another, that is to look at reality in temporal terms. But if we speak of what is there all the time, the absolute reality which is always here and now, that is to speak in spatial terms. So this is the function of the ‘Will to Enlightenment’ or bodhicitta, in this context – to transcend these spatio-temporal models. It is not a sort of cosmic life principle – not the life-force of the universe, or any kind of causative first principle – but rather a liberation principle, a will to transcend the universe or samsara.

We may say, in fact, that transcendence, self-transcendence, is what the whole of evolution, from the amoeba upwards, is about. We can say further that this evolutionary principle of self-transcendence is expressed in its highest and most fully self-conscious form in the figure of the Bodhisattva, the one who, according to Mahayana Buddhism, dedicates himself or herself to the cause of helping all sentient existence to Enlightenment. The Will to Enlightenment of a Bodhisattva is a fully committed volition to perpetual self-transcendence. And from the Bodhisattva to the Buddha there is only, as it were, a step.

It is from this perspective, seeing spiritual development in terms of perpetual self-transcendence, that we can best appreciate the often half-understood Buddhist concept of anatman, or ‘no-self’. This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that we don’t really exist, that there’s a sort of hole where one imagines one’s self to be. In fact, the point of this teaching is that we have no substantial unchanging self, no soul. Indeed, putting it more dynamically and experientially, we can say that for radical change, radical development, to take place – for a fully conscious self-transcendence to be possible – there can be no unchanging self.

We may look at Buddhism from a purely academic perspective as just an activity or philosophical position of a number of individuals calling themselves Buddhists. On the other hand, we can take the vast and awe-inspiring perspective of the Buddha’s teaching itself. From this latter perspective, we are all frail, impermanent beings, born into the world and passing out of it with apparently little to show for our trouble – but at the same time we embody the universal possibility of Enlightenment. Just as the scientific concept of evolution involves a progression towards new biological organisms through periods of time that are practically unimaginable, so, according to Buddhism, our own lives take their place in a context of literally unimaginable temporal duration, in which, however, they are of literally cosmic importance. For among all the life-forms in the universe, from the amoeba to the highest realms of the gods, it is only the kind of sentient life to which human beings conform that can be, in the words of Lama Govinda, ‘the vehicle for the rediscovery of the transcendental and inconceivable nature of mind or consciousness’ – that can become, in short, a Buddha.

The Nature of Reality

Samsara and conditionality

Samsara, Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination) and the Wheel of Life

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Whilst the three laksanas provide the basic Buddhist thought behind the First Noble Truth, the teaching behind the Second can be explained through the teaching of Paticcasamuppada (variously translated as ‘Dependent Origination’, ‘Conditioned Genesis’ and ‘Conditioned Co-production’ – Paticcasamuppada is the Pali term (stress on the second syllable), Sanskrit is Pratityasamutpada). This teaching provides an explanation for how the three laksanas come into being, and how samsara (unenlightened existence) is continually re-created.

Some of the basic principles of Paticcasamuppada and views around it are as follows:

  • Paticcasamuppada is most basically a principle of conditionality in the universe, stating that all unenlightened things are conditioned by previous events.
  • The twelve nidanas (twelve links around the outside of the Wheel of Life) are a specific application of this broad principle of conditionality.
  • Traditionally, the twelve nidanas are seen as an inevitable process which follows from the choice made at only one possible point in the cycle, the junction between feeling and craving.
  • Ñanavira Thera, an English Theravada monk, has disputed this and claimed that choice is possible at any point during the cycle.
  • Joanna Macy, a modern American Buddhist writer, suggests that paticcasamuppada should be understood as mutual causality between all the systems in the universe. All systems are mutually interdependent and mutually conditioning.

Look in more detail at each of the twelve links and look at the debate about the relationship between paticcasamuppada and karma.

The twelve nidanas

Look again at the Wheel of Life, especially at the twelve links which make up the outer circle. Going clockwise from the top, you should be able to identify the following twelve pictures:

  1. Blind man
  2. Potter making pots
  3. Monkey
  4. Boat containing four people
  5. House with five windows and one door
  6. Embracing couple
  7. Man with arrow in his eye
  8. Woman offering man a drink
  9. Woman picking fruit
  10. Pregnant woman
  11. Woman giving birth
  12. Corpse

Each of these pictures symbolises a stage in the process of conditioning whereby craving gives rise to karmic effects, which in turn set up the conditions for craving again. These twelve links are not the only possible way of representing the process (there are also alternative sets of nine and ten links in the Pali Canon), however, they have become established by tradition in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as the accepted way of explaining the process of samsara.

Each symbol represents a stage in three successive cycles of conditioning (which the twelve links are divided up into). These three cycles are usually understood as ‘Past Life’, ‘Current Life’ and ‘Future Life’. Generally the twelve links are divided up and interpreted as shown below this image.

Past Life: the first five pictures represent the way in which past ignorance has led to the current situation

Blind man :
Ignorance. The blind man doesn’t see ahead just as people in samsara don’t.
After death (previous picture) we are reborn without understanding of our situation.

Potter making pots:
Karmic formations. We make our karma just as a potter makes pots.
Due to our ignorance we make continuing choices based on greed and hatred, building up future effects that keep us in samsara.

Monkey :
Sentience or consciousness. The monkey moves restlessly from tree to tree just as our mind moves between objects.
In dependence on our karmic formations or choices we build up a habitual awareness moving from object to object.

Four people in a boat :
The five skandhas.The boat here represents the body and the passengers sensations, perceptions, karmic formations and consciousness:
In dependence on our karmic formations and consciousness we seek out a new body with further sensations and perceptions

House with five windows and one door:
The six senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell and mind. Each window or door represents a sense.
In dependence on the five skandhas arise the six senses, which all interact with each other.

Present life: once the conditions for new craving have been set up by past actions, the next four pictures show how this results in karmic formations

Couple embracing :
Sensation. The couple are having particularly strong sensations in their embrace!
Having five senses sets up the conditions for sensations of new things.

Man with arrow in his eye :
Feeling. This man is having a particularly strong (and painful) feeling!
Sensations set up the conditions for pleasant, painful or neutral feelings.

Woman offering man a drink :
Craving (tanha). The man craves the drink, and perhaps the woman as well. Tanha literally means ‘thirst’.
This is the point of control and responsibility, where we respond to a pleasant feeling with craving or a painful one with hatred.

Woman picking fruit :
Grasping (upadana): the woman reaches out to grasp the tempting fruit and collect it.
Once we have given way to craving, this is likely to lead to the physical action of taking or using the thing we crave.

Future life: the final three pictures show the effects of karmic activity in the form of death and rebirth

Pregnant woman :
Becoming: in traditional Buddhist belief rebirth begins at fertilisation following entry of the karmic formations.
Grasping leads to rebirth as we continue the habit of relating to the things we want. We grasp at a new rebirth after death.

Woman giving birth :
Birth :Re-becoming (rebirth into one’s mother’s womb) leads inevitably to birth into the world again.

Corpse :
Birth leads inevitably to the further suffering associated with death, and thus back to ignorance.

As you will see, each of the three ‘lives’ is a complete craving-karma cycle in itself, so each could be taken by itself as a complete representation of samsara. However, the twelve links together show the relationship between different ways of seeing the same basic cycle:

  • Firstly as maintaining the interrelationship between the different parts of our assumed selves (past life)
  • Secondly in close focus, as the cycle of sensation-feeling-craving-grasping which could happen every few seconds (present life)
  • Thirdly panning out into the biggest perspective, as a cycle of births and deaths (future life).

There are various different ways of explaining the twelve links used by different Buddhist teachers, but one way might be to see them as different TV monitors linked to cameras trained on the same thing from different angles.

Paticcasamuppada and karma

The twelve nidanas give the impression that the whole of our experience is formed by karma. For example in the ‘past life’ phase, consciousness, the six senses and the five skandhas all arise in dependence on karmic formations (the potter). The belief that karma creates all our experience is widely accepted in traditional Buddhism, including most Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism. In Western philosophical terms this would make Buddhism a type of idealism, in which the world is constructed by the activity of our minds and there is nothing real beyond the mind and independent of its karma.

However, this interpretation is a matter of dispute within Buddhism, for it raises many difficulties by implying that we must in some way deserve everything that happens to us. If you get run over by a dangerous drunk driver, is this really your fault? If you get killed by an earthquake, is it anybody’s fault? Another problem is that of how we make progress towards enlightenment. How do we ever wriggle free of karma if all our experience is constantly formed by karma?

The alternative is to see the effects of our actions as contributing to our subsequent experience, but not being entirely responsible for it. On this alternative interpretation we could account for the way we contribute to our future lives through our actions, but also explain how things happen to us which we did not bring about ourselves. One strand of Buddhist tradition allows for this possibility by identifying four other forms of conditionality apart from karma. This analysis of different forms of conditionality is found in a commentary by Buddhaghosha, the great second-century monk-scholar who lived in Sri Lanka.

Buddhaghosha identifies five niyamas, or forms of conditionality:

  • Inorganic, where non-living things affect one another and affect living things.
  • Biological, where living organisms affect each other and non-living things.
  • Psychological, where areas of the mind not subject to choice create effects.
  • Karmic, where our ignorant choices motivated by greed and hatred create effects.
  • Dharmic, where our choices free of greed and hatred help to move us and others towards enlightenment.

The use of Buddhaghosha’s scheme allows us to account for movement towards enlightenment as well as undeserved experiences (whether these are pleasant or unpleasant). For example, a sudden generous impulse may be due to the dharmic order of conditionality, and an earthquake which destroys your house may simply be due to an inorganic level of conditionality, not to your previoius actions at all (unless you built it badly).

Supposing you have a headache. There are many possible causes for this at the different levels of conditionality using Buddhaghosha’s account. See if you can find an explanation at each level.

  • Inorganic
  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Karmic
  • Dharmic

Only a minority of Buddhists use Buddhaghosha’s account: one reason for this may be that it is not found in a canonical scripture. Another difficulty it raises is that of how it can be reconciled with rebirth: for if rebirth occurs then the whole life you are reborn into is karmically selected for karmic reasons. You do deserve the life you are born into, whatever other kinds of conditionality may be working in it. It’s like the question of whether you are responsible for the climate at your holiday destination: you didn’t choose the climate or make it occur, but you did choose the holiday, making the whole experience in some ways your responsibility.

Do you think Buddhaghosha’s view or the mainstream Buddhist view makes more sense?

The positive nidanas

If the idea of a dharmic order of conditionality gives one hint of how we can get out of the cycle of karmic conditionality, another is provided by the idea of an alternative, positive set of twelve nidanas which show the way in which progress towards enlightenment can gradually build up through a series of dependencies. Unlike the twelve nidanas of the Wheel of Life, the positive nidanas are not cyclic, but rather work up gradually towards enlightenment in a spiral.

The positive nidanas are found at several points in the Pali Canon, but are not emphasised much in the Theravada or Mahayana. In modern times their use has been revived by Sangharakshita, who is responsible for the idea of representing them in a Spiral. The twelve positive links are as follows:

  1. Dukkha: we have to realise imperfection to begin progress on the path. Without realising there is anything wrong, we have no motivation to improve.
  2. Faith: realising imperfection can give rise to faith that there is a positive alternative. This doesn’t always happen, for often when people feel discontented they do not see any possibility of improvement. However, when they see the possibility of improvement they are more firmly on the Path.
  3. Delight: practising with confidence allows a sense of well-being and happiness to arise.
  4. Ecstasy: this happiness becomes more acute and exciting as we make further progress.
  5. Peace: this is the deeper contentment which is found by progressing beyond the initial excitement.
  6. Bliss: this peace allows a still deeper contentment to arise, creating a supremely calm and happy experience.
  7. Absorption: all this positive emotion creates a supreme level of concentration. One is now ready for a breakthrough in wisdom.
  8. Knowledge and vision of things as they really are: overcoming illusion one has attained the stage known as stream-entry, where progress towards nirvana has become irreversible.
  9. Disentanglement: because of this new wisdom, attachments to things in samsara simply fall away.
  10. Dispassion: one then gains an equal love for all things.
  11. Liberation: all the most subtle remnants of greed, hatred, and ignorance are now lost.
  12. Recognition of destruction of the poisons: finally, the basic craving for sense-experience and for existence dries up, with the last vestiges of ignorance. One is now fully enlightened and aware of this fact.

Like the Noble Eightfold Path, these twelve positive nidanas are often presented as sequential, but are only roughly so. Although the Path always starts with recognition of dukkha and arising of faith, and ends with the destruction of the poisons, in between, one naturally does not follow the steps given quite as neatly as this. Morality, meditation, and wisdom are developed alongside each other, even if stages 3-7 concentrate on meditation and 8-12 on wisdom.

Progress on the Path up to stage 8 is also not at all inevitable, at any point up to that one may fall back. This means that the positive emotional states described in stages 3-6 may arise in meditation, or temporarily in other circumstances, but will quickly disappear again when the conditions which allowed them to appear are gone. Only wisdom can make these changes permanent and help one stay in these positive states continually.

So, the karmic order of conditionality continues to exert its influence until stage 8, when one finally pulls free. Sangharakshita compares this to a journey from the earth to the sun. There will come a point when one gets beyond the gravitational pull of the earth and ceases to need to make a continual effort to pull away from it. One can then coast in towards nirvana, the sun, increasingly attracted by its gravity.

Draw a spiral illustrating these twelve positive nidanas, and including the point of no return in the middle.

Past exam questions
Explain Buddhist teachings about samsara and paticcasamuppada

Further Reading
Cush p.29-31
Kulananda The Wheel of Life chs. 11 & 12
Williams Buddhist Thought p.62-72

The Three Marks of Conditioned Existence

painting of the BuddhaWritten for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The teaching of the three characteristics of conditioned existence (the three lakshanas or ‘marks’) is a teaching of early Buddhism which is accepted by all Buddhist schools. It is an analysis of the First Noble Truth, the doctrine of dukkha. The three characteristics simply provide a more detailed explanation of what is meant by dukkha, and in what sense our unenlightened experience of the world is one of suffering, frustration, or unsatisfactoriness.

The three characteristics are as follows:

  • Impermanence (anicca)
  • Insubstantiality or “not-self” (anatta)
  • Frustration or suffering (dukkha)

They are all interlinked and interdependent. Samsaric existence is frustrating because we experience not only suffering, but pleasures which are impermanent and insubstantial. We, the experiencers of the pleasures, are also ourselves impermanent and insubstantial. It is our continual failure to take this into account which makes us unenlightened.

Recognition of the three characteristics, like awareness of the rest of the Four Noble Truths, is part of wisdom. To gain wisdom we have to fully realise the reality of these characteristics in the whole of our experience, not just abstractly or intellectually accept them.

As an introduction, watch the Clear Vision DVD Buddhism Today sections on the Three Marks.

a) Impermanence (anicca)

Impermanence is simply the fact that everything that is conditioned changes. Everything is conditioned (except nirvana itself), because it is dependent on other things for its continued existence in a given form, and conditions keep changing. Hence everything is constantly changing form, and is made up of smaller parts which are constantly changing in relation to each other. Although we like to think of objects as stably existent things, when we look a little closer we find that they are not so stable.

Impermanent things
This is easy to comprehend first in relation to material things. Some things, like waves in the sea, are constantly changing before us. A sandwich, say, left in the open air for a week in warm conditions, will become a mass of mould. Even something we think is relatively safe like a house, will start to deteriorate if left un-maintained for ten years, and in a few hundred years (if not destroyed, rebuilt or renovated) will probably be a pile of ruins. Even the least changeable object in the world, a diamond, can be cut by a skilled person, and will eventually wear away, even if it takes millions of years.

Then if we think of our own bodies, change is constant. Nearly every cell in our body dies out and is replaced every few years. We are also constantly changing physically in dependence on things like what we have eaten, how well we have slept, and how healthy we are. This is even more obvious in relation to our minds, as mental states keep changing from minute to minute. One moment we are happy, another sad; one moment concentrated, another distracted and forgetful: all in accordance with conditions. The Buddha claimed that it was even more of a mistake to think of the mind as unchanging than the body, since at least the body has a certain degree of consistency and stability over time, but more than that of the mind.

Acceptance of impermanence
It is relatively easy to accept this impermanence abstractly and in general, but much harder to really bear in mind that things are impermanent when we make decisions in our lives. For example, people who buy the latest piece of hardware or software for their computer rarely reflect on how quickly it will become obsolete, and people starting love affairs rarely think about how the other person is bound to change from the one they fell in love with. Being aware of impermanence in these situations doesn’t necessarily mean not buying software or not falling in love (though it might), but it will at least add a tinge of realism to our decisions in these situations, and help to put things in their real perspective. The effect of this should be to make everyone happier in the long run.

We not only need to be aware of impermanence to gain wisdom in the Buddhist understanding, but to accept it. For example, parents may be acutely aware of the fact that their children are growing up, but it is still often difficult for them to adjust to this fact emotionally by giving up their attachment to having control over their children’s lives. Bereavement is another effect of impermanence which it is very difficult for many people to adjust to, but accepting that a death has in fact occurred and that the world is no longer the same seems to be the key to it.

Impermanence forms an important component of dukkha, either because things changing is directly painful to us (dukkha-dukkha), or because things we enjoy come to an end (viparinama-dukkha). Impermanence may also contribute to a sense that life is meaningless or to existential suffering (sankhara-dukkha), if we think that the only things that can give life meaning must be permanent. Ultimately, then, the only solution to impermanence is to find meaning and purpose in what is permanent, that is nirvana. This is expressed in a famous (though philosophically rather controversial) passage in the Udana in the Pali Canon:

There is an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, and were it not for this unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, there could be shown here no escape for what is born, has become, is made, and is compounded.

Udana ch. 8

(The controversy is over whether the Buddha is talking metaphysically: i.e. talking about ‘something’ that really exists, or to think of nirvana as permanent in the same way that we think of other things as permanent is a misunderstanding.)

The basic mistake we make as regards impermanence, then, is not simply to put our faith in things that are impermanent, but to put our faith in impermanent things even when there is a permanent alternative. This ‘permanence’ may just consist in a different attitude to what is impermanent, though exactly how it should be interpreted is a matter of debate.

Criticisms of the doctrine of impermanence from non-Buddhists tend to come from two directions. On the one hand there are those who deny that all things except nirvana are impermanent. On the other are those who accept this point but deny that the recognition of impermanence is a positive move.

Those who would disagree that all things are impermanent would include most theists. They would claim that God is permanent and that there may also be other spiritual things that are permanent, such as the soul.

Those with a materialist view are more likely to accept that all material things constantly change, but they may see the point of life as consisting in struggling against this rather than accepting it. For example, human ingenuity may be able to design more durable objects or even cheat human death. Too much acceptance of death may be seen as passive or morbid. This point of view may be expressed by the poet Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
But rage, rage against the dying of the light!

DiscussionDoes there seem to be anything at all that is permanent?
Do you agree with the Buddhist teaching that it is positive to understand and accept impermanence?

b) Insubstantiality or No-self (anatta)

Denial of the atman

Anatta is the denial of the teaching that there is an atta (Pali) or atman (Sanskrit), which roughly translated means a soul. Atman is the word given in Hinduism to the true self which continues to exist eternally, and which travels from one body to another in the process of reincarnation (as opposed to rebirth in Buddhism). One of the ways in which the Buddha challenged the teaching of the Brahmins of his day was by challenging this orthodox Hindu belief in the self. For this reason anatta is often translated as ‘no self’.

However, the Buddha does not claim that there is definitely not a self, only that the self we tend to identify with is not fixed. Instead, we consist in a process. The teaching of impermanence which we have already examined points out that we are always changing, and this also implies that there is no fixed part of ourselves which remains unchanged. If nothing remains unchanged, there is nothing which can contain a fixed or final identity.

There are various aspects of our bodies and minds which we may identify with and believe to be our true selves, but the Buddhist teaching is that we should avoid attachment to the idea of any of these as really ourselves. It is this which has led to the teaching of the five skandhas, which provides an analysis of what we might suppose to be ourselves in order to show that it is all merely process.

The Five Skandhas

The five skandhas are the five aspects of being which make up (which are) dukkha in its most basic form (sankhara dukkha). The word ‘skandha’ is sometimes translated as ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’, but as these translations do not really help us in understanding what the term means, it is probably best to leave it untranslated.

‘Aspects of being’ may be the best short explanation: they are the five things which, put together, give us the impression of ‘I’: of a being. According to Buddhism, there is no self or soul I can point to when I want to show what ‘I’ means, because it is the result of all five skandhas together. Remove one of the skandhas and I would not have any sense of being a self or an individual. Not only are the skandhas interdependent, but they are impermanent and constantly changing. But we constantly try to make a fixed identity out of this shifting flux. This is why we are fundamentally deluded – because we are constantly trying to make something permanent out of what is impermanent. The mismatch between our identity and reality is the cause of sankhara dukkha.

These are the Five Skandhas:

1. Matter (Rupa)
Matter means all the physical material in the universe, including all the elements, our bodies, our sense-organs (eye, ear, nose, etc.) and the objects which they sense. Everything, in short, which seems to be beyond ourselves or which we can see, hear, feel, touch or taste. Ancient Buddhists described this objective world as the sphere of the dharmas, that is, of the many different types of impersonal event or experience.

The anatta teaching will address our assumption that we are our bodies by pointing out the impermanence and insubstantiality of our bodies. It is therefore a mistake to identify too much with the body, which is simply a useful tool for life.

2. Sensations (Vedana)
Sensations are what arises from the contact of our sense-organs with the material world. In traditional Buddhism there are 6 senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste and thought. Hence thoughts and ideas are as much objects of sense as things that can be seen or touched: they did not draw the same line that Western thought tends to draw between internal and external experiences. Sensations are the raw data given to us by the eye, ear, mind etc., which have not yet been sorted or identified.

Buddhist teaching will point out that our sensations are constantly changing as the things around us change, and as our sense-organs change. We cannot claim to be our sensations.

3. Perceptions (Sañña)
Perception is the recognition of forms provided by the six senses. We compare our sensations with our previous experience and by doing so give them some order. Sensation does not have any meaning without this additional step of perception. Someone who is said to be ‘observant’ has a good faculty of perception – it may not necessarily be that he/she can actually see better than others.

Our perceptions, like our sensations, are changing. We can also only identify things by comparing them with other things, and never penetrate to what a thing is in itself. We identify things because of their usefulness to us rather than because of what they ‘really’ are, or because of what we ‘really’ are.

4. Mental Formations (Sankhara)
This is the crucial stage where we produce some kind of response to our perception. Our will becomes involved so that mental formations are said to include volition. There are 50 different types of mental formation, but they all involve some kind of deliberate response to the results of our perceptions.

It is these mental formations which give rise to karma (the mechanism which leads from our action to some kind of moral effect which rebounds back on us). We are responsible for our mental formations, so if we react in the best way (“skilfully”) to what we perceive, good moral effects will follow, which will move us towards enlightenment. If we react ‘unskilfully’, bad moral effects will follow, which will keep us bound to the cycle of samsara.

Our mental formations are what are believed to create the causal connection between one birth and another in Buddhist rebirth. However, since they are always changing, created by new actions or ‘expended’ by new effects, they can’t possibly be the basis of a fixed self.

5. Consciousness (Viññana)
This is the state of mind brought about by our successive mental formations, providing us with a tendency to react in certain ways. Consciousness is dependent on the other skandhas in the same way as a fire is dependent on its fuel, but the other skandhas are also dependent on it: without the awareness which consciousness provides there can be no perception or mental formations. Consciousness is not thought of as the seat of a soul (unlike in other religions), and it is just as impermanent and fluctuating as all the other skandhas. Not only the objects of consciousness, but the level of our consciousness, fluctuates continually in response to changing conditions.

Work out an example of each of the three laksanas (characteristics of existence) found in each of the five skandhas. You could put these in the form of a table. eg. For anicca in the skandha of sensations, you could put ‘The sensations of eating nice food end when the meal does.’

Insubstantiality of all objects

Although anatta is often thought of primarily in relation to the absence of a soul in our experience, it can also be applied to any other object. We tend to think about things as having fixed identities, but these identities have been constructed out of what we perceive according to our needs.

Impermanence provides one reason for insubstantiality. Things are not what we usually take them to be, because they are constantly changing and we don’t usually take this into account. For example, if we fall in love with someone else, we rarely have a realistic idea of the way they are liable to change, but rather tend to see them as fixed as they are now.

However, there is more to insubstantiality than impermanence. Another thing we tend not to take into account is the fact that each thing we identify could be described in many other ways than the way we choose to describe them. A ‘car’ for example, we take to be a distinct object, but it could be described as a collection of metal and other parts, as a collection of atoms, as part of a traffic system, or as part of the earth. When we drive a car we also tend to see ourselves as something separate from the car although we are inside it: but an alien landing on earth for the first time might well see things quite differently, seeing the car as the basic ‘thing’ and us as a part of it. In The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an alien guide-book researcher, Ford Prefect, makes precisely this mistake, thinking that cars are the dominant life-form on earth and almost getting run over for his pains!

There is also the problem of what is the essential part of an object and what is not. You could remove all the parts of a car bit by bit and it would not be very clear exactly when you ceased to have a car there. For example, would it be a car if it had no engine, or no wheels? Whoever you asked would probably disagree about what the essential features of a car are. From a Buddhist point of view, this all goes to show that there are no essential features, and the labels we give to things are just a matter of convention.

Read the analogy of the chariot from the Questions of King Milinda (Penguin ‘Buddhist Scriptures’ p.147-149) and make notes. Would you agree with Nagasena’s claims here?

The ship of Theseus (an old philosophical riddle)
Theseus has a ship which he puts in dry dock. He gets his men to remove the parts of the ship one by one, and with those parts they gradually reconstruct the ship in a different dry dock nearby. However, as the parts are removed, they are replaced, so that when all the old parts have been removed there is still a ship in the original dry dock too. There are now two ships, one constructed out of the parts of the original one, but the other continuous with the original ship in the same place. Which of them is Theseus’ original ship?
What would be a Buddhist solution to this riddle?

Anatta and rebirth

There is a traditional problem in reconciling no-self with rebirth. If there is no self, how can you be reborn in a different body? This is a problem if you think of rebirth along the lines of reincarnation, or if you identify with your ‘self’ in a future life or in a past life. Some Buddhist scriptures appear to do this and thus be contradictory. However, the traditional answer is that rebirth is not the rebirth of a soul or any kind of fixed thing, but merely the continuation of a process whereby karmic formations cause future effects. The reborn self is ‘you’ in the same sense that a mango tree is the same as the mango it came from, but in no stronger sense.

Read the passage from The Questions of King Milinda on this (Buddhist Scriptures p.149-151). Are you convinced by Nagasena’s explanation of this problem?

c) Dukkha

You will have already studied dukkha as the First Noble Truth, so little needs to be added here. However, greater depth can be added to your understanding of dukkha by considering the implications of impermanence and no-self. Dukkha can be analysed into three types according to their relationship with dukkha alone, anicca or anatta.

Dukkha-dukkha is suffering in its straightforward form. It consists of pain and directly unpleasant experience generally. We do not need to appeal to impermanence or insubstantiality to appreciate the presence of dukkha-dukkha, but it does not usually account for our whole experience because we also experience happiness and pleasure.

Viparinama-dukkha is the frustration which arises due to the fact that pleasant experiences are impermanent. When the pleasant experiences end, we continue to want more of them, and thus experience disappointment and mortification. This type of dukkha has a necessary condition in tanha or craving, which continues to operate even when the source of the pleasure does not.

Sankhara-dukkha is the unsatisfactoriness that we experience due to insubstantiality. Even apart from the fact that they are impermanent, things in samsara are not quite satisfying because they don’t fulfil our expectations completely. A new computer doesn’t work as we expect, a holiday isn’t quite as blissful as the brochure led us to expect, and a person has vices that we didn’t take into account at first. This term can also be applied to a sense of dissatisfaction about our whole lives, sometimes called ‘existential dukkha’, when life as a whole seems meaningless.

Questions for discussion
1. How do you think the three laksanas and the three types of dukkha relate to the three poisons (greed, hatred and ignorance)?
2. Some early Western commentators on Buddhism (such as Mrs Rhys-Davids ) rejected the anatta doctrine and claimed that the Buddha could not possibly have taught it because it was so contrary to common sense. There was also an early Buddhist school, the Pudgalavadins (‘Personalists’) who rejected the doctrine . Why do you think the doctrine caused so much trouble, and do you think the rejection was justified?
3. Non-Buddhist critics tend to argue that the three laksanas make Buddhist doctrine pessimistic. Buddhists would claim it is simply realistic. Which side would you most agree with and why?

Further Reading
Cush p.28-9, 35-8 & 65-8
Sangharakshita Guide to the Buddhist Path p.191-196
Williams Buddhist Thought p.56-62

Past questions from AQA syllabus
1. Outline Buddhist teachings about the three characteristics of existence
2. Explain Buddhist teachings about anatta.

The Texture of Reality

Reality is a very big word, but it is not really a Buddhist word. We have shunyata or emptiness, we have tathata or suchness, and we have dharmakaya, the ‘truth-body’, but there is no true semantic equivalent in traditional Buddhist terminology of the word ‘reality’.

Reality is not only a big word; it is also an abstract word (which often means a vague word) and on the whole Buddhists have never been fond of abstract terminology. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, takes a very concrete, and even – if one wanted to be paradoxical – materialistic approach to the spiritual life. And Zen Buddhism goes even further: any indulgence in abstractions or vague generalities is met with a piercing shriek or thirty blows or some other such discommendation.

So when we use this word ‘reality’ in speaking about Buddhism, we use it in a makeshift and provisional sort of way. It isn’t to be taken too literally. Certainly, the connotations that attach to it in general Western philosophical and religious usage cannot be said to apply in a Buddhist context.

It is for these reasons that – while the word ‘reality’ may be almost unavoidable for an English-speaking Buddhist – I am introducing the idea of its texture. This word is almost palpably concrete. Texture is felt, it is handled, it is experienced directly, by touch. Because we have so many nerve-endings in the tips of our fingers, we are able to make very subtle distinctions amongst an enormous range of different textures. We can distinguish between cotton, silk, and wool, or between granite, slate, and marble. And it is possible to discern far more subtle gradations of texture. Chinese experts on jade used to be able to distinguish between hundreds of kinds and qualities of jade – white, black, red, or green jade, ‘mutton-fat jade’ or ‘dragon’s-blood jade’, or whatever it was – with their eyes closed, simply by feeling their texture under water.

Reality too, in Buddhism, is something to be felt, touched, even handled – because Buddhism is above all else practical. So, continuing to use the word in a provisional sense, we may say that reality in Buddhism is broadly speaking of two kinds: there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.

The Two Realities

‘The Unconditioned’ is the usual translation of the Sanskrit asamskritaSam means ‘together’, krita is ‘made’ or ‘put’, and a-is a negative prefix, so asamskrita literally means ‘ not put together’ or ‘uncompounded’. ‘The conditioned’ is therefore samskrita, which is a word of particular interest in Sanskrit as it is the name of the language itself – ‘Sanskrit’ being an Anglicized version of it. According to the Brahmin pundits it is so called because it is the language which has been properly put together, beautifully put together, perfected. It is so designated to set it in contradistinction to the rough, crude, and unpolished ‘Prakrit’ – including Pali – spoken by the common people (i.e. especially by the non-Brahmins). In modern Indian languages like Hindi, Bengali, and Marathi, samskriti means ‘culture’. In this way the idea has developed that samskrita, the conditioned, is also the artificial, whereas asamskrita, the Unconditioned, is the natural, the simple, that which has not been artificially put together.

This connotation to the term ‘Unconditioned’ receives explicit recognition in Tantric Buddhism. The Tantrics have an interesting word for reality: sahajaSaha is ‘together’, and ja is ‘born’ (as in jati, ‘birth’); so the literal meaning of sahaja is ‘born with’ or ‘co-nascent’. And so reality is said to be that with which one is born, that which is innate, that which does not have to be acquired.

The distinction between the conditioned and the Unconditioned, between the artificial and the natural, is fundamental to Buddhist thought, even though, as we shall see, there is some disagreement amongst various Buddhist schools as to whether it is an absolute distinction or not. And it would appear to go back a long way, even to predate the Buddha’s own Enlightenment.

In the Majjhima-Nikaya, the medium-length discourses of the Pali Canon, there is one discourse that is of rather special interest on account of its autobiographical content. This is the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, in which the Buddha describes how he left home, how he became a wandering monk, how he strove for Enlightenment, and, as we have seen, how he deliberated about whether or not to try to teach the Dharma.

What surprises some readers of this sutta is that there is no mention in it of the famous ‘four sights’, of how Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, sallied forth one fine morning in his chariot with his charioteer, and saw a sick man, and then – on successive occasions – an old man, a corpse, and finally a wandering ascetic; and thus came alive to the existence of sickness, old age, and death, and the possibility of becoming a truth-seeking wanderer.

Instead, this particular account gives a comparatively naturalistic, even humanistic, description of how Siddhartha came to the decision to give up the household life. It is, so far as this account is concerned, a purely internal process, not connected with anything in particular that he saw or heard. Here he is represented – in his own words – as simply reflecting.

The Buddha relates how one day he was sitting at home in the palace, reflecting alone. We should imagine him perhaps under a tree in the compound; it is probably the early evening, when a cool, calm quiet descends over the Indian scene. He is there simply reflecting, ‘What am I? What am I doing with my life? I am mortal, subject to old age, sickness, and death. And yet, being such, what do I do? Being myself subject to birth, I pursue that which is also subject to birth. Being myself subject to old age I pursue that which likewise will grow old. Being myself subject to sickness, to decay, I pursue that which is subject to the same decay. And being myself subject to death, I pursue that which also must die.'(footnote 38)

Then – as the Buddha goes on to relate to his interlocutor in this sutta, who is a Jain ascetic – there arose in his mind a different, almost a contrary train of reflection. It occurred to him: ‘Suppose now I were to do otherwise? Suppose now, being myself subject to birth, I were to go in search of that which is not subject to birth, which has no origin, which is timeless? Suppose, being myself subject to old age, I were to go in search of that which is immutable? Suppose, being myself subject to sickness, to decay, I were to go in search of that in whose perfection there is no diminution? Or suppose, finally, being myself subject to death, I were to go in search of the deathless, the everlasting, the eternal?’

As a result of these reflections, shortly afterwards he left home. There is no great drama in this sutta, no stealing out of the palace by moonlight on muffled hooves. It simply says that although his father and his foster-mother wept and wailed, he put on the yellow robe, shaved his head, cut off his beard, and went forth from home into the homeless life.

This is the story, in brief, of the Buddha’s conversion – conversion in the literal sense of a ‘turning round’, though in Siddhartha’s case it was not an external turning round, from one religion to another, but an internal one, from the conditioned to the Unconditioned. Siddhartha realized that he was a conditioned being, and that he was spending all his time and energy in pursuit of conditioned things – that is, in the anariyapariyesana or ‘ignoble quest’. He realized, in other words, that he was binding himself to the endless round of existence, the wheel of life on which we all turn, passing from one life to the next indefinitely.

So he decided simply to turn round completely and go in search of the Unconditioned instead, to take up the ariyapariyesana, the ‘noble quest’. In time, he would realize this quest as the spiral path leading from the endless round to the goal of Enlightenment or nirvana. But at this point he identified the course before him with this simple but strong, pre-Buddhistic expression, found in the oldest Upanishads: esana, urge, desire, will, search, aspiration, quest, pursuit. He could continue with the ‘ignoble quest’, or he could undertake the ‘noble quest’ instead.

The Buddha’s conversion was not easy, we can be sure of that, because here and there, in other places in the scriptures, we get indications that a terrible struggle went on in his mind before he made his final decision. But stripped of all the legends and myths that have accumulated around it over the centuries, it was as simple – almost classically simple – as this. And it is in this most simple description of the first great insight of the Buddha-to-be that the essence of the spiritual life is to be found. Here we put our finger on the spring that works the whole mechanism.

This spring is the conditioned in pursuit of the Unconditioned, the mortal seeking the immortal: seeking, that is, not immortality of the self, but a self-transcending immortality. What Siddhartha was looking for was basically the answer to a question, one that we find asked (in the Majjhima-Nikaya) by a young monk, Govinda, who spends a rainy season retreat – i.e. of about three months – meditating on metta or universal loving kindness, and as a result has a vision of the ‘eternal youth’ Brahma Sanatkumara. The question Govinda asks Sanatkumara in this sutta is ‘How may the mortal obtain the immortal Brahma world?'(footnote 39)

This is the essential religious question. How may the conditioned become the Unconditioned; how may the mortal become immortal? How may I conquer death? Now of course it all sounds very fine put like that, but if one is going to take seriously the question of how to leave the conditioned and go in search of the Unconditioned, one will want a further question answered. What exactly does one mean by the conditioned? How do we identify the conditioned?

According to Buddhist tradition, that which is conditioned invariably bears three characteristics, or lakshanas, by which it may be recognized as such. These three characteristics are sometimes called the ‘three signs of being’, but more properly this should be the ‘three signs of becoming’, as the nature of the conditioned is nothing as static as a ‘state of being’.

The three lakshanas, the three inseparable characteristics of all conditioned existence, are: duhkha, the unsatisfactory, or painful; anitya, the impermanent; and anatman, the emptiness of self, of essential being.(footnote 40) All conditioned ‘things’ or ‘beings’ whatsoever in this universe possess all these three characteristics. They are all unsatisfactory, all impermanent, all devoid of self. Of these three lakshanas the first is in some ways the most difficult for most people to come to terms with, emotionally, so we shall look at it in rather more depth and detail than at the other two.


The Sanskrit word here is duhkha, and the usual translation is ‘suffering’, but a better one – if a bit cumbersome – is ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Best of all, perhaps, is to attend to its etymology: though the traditional account of the origin of the word duhkha is no longer universally accepted, it still leaves us with a true and precise image.

Duh- as a prefix means anything that is not good – bad, ill, wrong, or out of place; and kha, the main part of the word, is supposed to be connected with the Sanskrit chakra, meaning ‘wheel’. So duhkha is said to have meant originally the ill-fitting wheel of a chariot, thus suggesting a bumpy, jarring ride, a journey on which one could never be comfortable, never at one’s ease.

So much for a general picture of duhkha. As we look closer, though, we see that unease or suffering comes in many different forms – and the Buddha usually speaks of seven.(footnote 41) First, he says, birth is suffering: human life starts with suffering. In the more poetical words of Oscar Wilde, ‘At the birth of a child or a star there is pain.’ In whatever way it is expressed, this is a great spiritual truth; it is significant that our life begins with suffering.

Birth is certainly physically painful for the mother, and consequently it is often emotionally painful for the father, while for the infant it is, we are told, a traumatic experience. It is very unpleasant to be suddenly thrust forth from a world of total harmony in the womb out into a cold, strange world, to which one is very likely to be welcomed with a slap on the bottom.

Secondly, the Buddha says, old age is suffering. One of the discomforts of old age is physical weakness: you cannot get about in the relaxed, agile way you used to. Then there is loss of memory: you can’t remember names, or where you put things; you are not as agile and flexible intellectually as you were. Where this degeneration becomes senility it is a tragic thing to observe, most especially in once eminent individuals. Perhaps most painful of all, when you are very old you are dependent upon others: you cannot do much for yourself, and you may even need constant looking after by a nurse or by your relations. Despite all modern comforts and amenities – and often as a result of modern advances in medicine – many of us will experience this suffering, especially if we survive to an extreme old age.

Thirdly, sickness is suffering. Whether it is a toothache or an incurable disease like cancer, no sickness is pleasant. It is not just the physical pain that is suffering: there is also the helplessness, the fear, and the frustration of it. Medical science may sometimes palliate the suffering of sickness, but there is no sign at all that we will ever banish it entirely. It seems that no sooner do we get rid of one disease than another comes along. As soon as one virus is defeated, a new, stronger strain of virus arises. And as soon as we feel physically quite healthy, we start to develop all sorts of mental ailments, more and more complex neuroses and mysterious syndromes, all of which involve suffering. Almost any sense of imperfection in our lives can develop into an illness of some sort: stress turns into heart attacks, fatigue turns into syndromes, habit turns into addictions. So it seems that sickness may change its appearance, but it doesn’t go away.

Fourthly, death is suffering. We suffer when those dear to us die; we suffer as we watch the life ebbing from a physical body that we have long associated with the life of a loved one. We suffer in the knowledge that our loved ones will die, and we suffer in the knowledge of our own dissolution. Much of our suffering with regard to death, of course, is simply fear. Most of us will put up with a great deal of suffering before we will choose to die, such is our terror of the inevitable conclusion to our own existence:

The weariest and most loathed worldly life,
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.(footnote 42)

People do not always feel ready to die. They are sorry to leave the scene of their labours and pleasures and achievements. Even if they do want to go, even if they are quite happy to pass on to a new life, or into they know not what, there is still the pain involved in the physical process of dissolution. And with this goes, sometimes, a great deal of mental suffering. Sometimes on their death-beds, people are stricken with remorse: they remember terrible wrongs they have done, dreadful harm and pain they have visited on certain individuals; and they may have, in consequence, fears and apprehensions for the future. All this makes death a horrifying experience for many people, and one which, before it comes, they do their best not to think about.

Fifthly, contact with what one dislikes is suffering. We all know this. It may be that even in our own family there are people with whom we just don’t get on. This is very tragic, especially when it is our own parents or children whom we dislike. Because the tie – even the attachment – of blood is there, well, we have to put up with a certain amount of contact, and this can be painful.

The work we do can also be a source of suffering, if we do it just because we need to earn a living and it is the only work we can get. Again, we may feel that we have to put up with what we dislike, and perhaps work with people we find uncongenial, for periods of time anyway, even though we would rather do something else.

There are, as well, all sorts of environmental conditions which are unpleasant: pollution, noise, weather. It is obviously not possible for everyone to go off and live in a Greek villa. So there seems to be no way of escape – certainly no way of escaping entirely. You just have to live with people, places, things, and conditions that you don’t altogether like.

Sixthly, separation from what one likes is suffering. This can be a very harrowing form of suffering indeed. There are people we would like to be with, to meet more often – relations, friends – but circumstances interpose and it becomes simply impossible. This happens often in time of war, when families are broken up – men conscripted and taken to far-off battlefields, children sent away to places of safety, and people simply disappearing as refugees.

I myself can remember how, when I was in India during the war as a signals operator, many of my friends used to get letters from home regularly every week or so; and then a day might come when the letters would stop. They wouldn’t know what had happened, but they would know that there were bombs falling in England, so after a while they would start suspecting the worst. Eventually, perhaps, they would get the news, either from another relation or officially, that their wife and children, or their parents, or their brothers and sisters, had been killed in an aerial bombardment. This is the most terrible suffering – permanent separation from those we love. Some people never get over such suffering, and brood over their loss for the rest of their lives.

Seventhly, not to get what one wants is suffering. There is little need to elaborate upon this. When you have set your heart on something (or someone) and you fail to achieve your goal, when the prize does not fall to you, then you feel disappointed and frustrated, even bitter. We have all known short-lived experiences of this kind, when we fail to get a job we particularly wanted, or fail to be selected for something, or find that someone else has got to something (or someone) before us.

Some people experience a lifetime of disappointment, frustration, and bitterness if they feel that life has short-changed them in some way – and of course the stronger the desire, the more the suffering. But even just in small ways, it is something with which we are acquainted almost every day, if not every hour – for example, when we find that all the cake has gone.

So these are the seven different aspects of duhkha identified by the Buddha. The Buddha once declared, ‘One thing only do I teach – suffering and the cessation of suffering'(footnote 43) – and emancipation from the bondage of suffering is indeed the keynote of his teaching. In the Pali scriptures he compares himself to a physician who attempts to relieve his patient of a tormenting disease – the disease of conditioned existence with which we are all afflicted.(footnote 44) Of course, we are not always willing patients, as the Buddha clearly found. But on the many occasions when he spoke about suffering, and tried to get people to see it in perspective, he would apparently sum up his discourse by saying that existence as a whole is painful, that the totality of conditioned sentient experience, comprising form, feeling, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, is unsatisfactory.

Now most people would say that this is going a bit far, that it is a pessimistic, if not morbid view of life. They would say that human existence can by no means be said to be unsatisfactory and painful all the way through. They will admit to birth being painful, they will agree that sickness, old age, and yes, death, are indeed painful. But at the same time they are reluctant to accept the conclusion which follows from all this, which is that conditioned existence itself is suffering. It is as though they admit all the individual digits in the sum, but they won’t accept the total to which those digits add up. They say that yes, there is a certain amount of suffering in the world, but on the whole it’s not such a bad place. Why be so negative? There’s plenty to smile about. While there’s life, there’s hope.

And there is, of course. We have pleasant experiences as well as painful ones. But the Buddhist view is that even the pleasant experiences are at bottom painful. They are really only suffering concealed, glossed over, deferred – a whistling in the dark. And the extent to which we can see this, see the suffering behind the gilding of pleasure, ‘the skull beneath the skin’, depends on our spiritual maturity.

Edward Conze has identified four different aspects of concealed suffering.(footnote 45) Firstly, something that is pleasant for oneself may involve suffering for other people, for other beings. We don’t tend to consider this, of course. If we are all right, if we’re having a good time, we don’t worry too much or too often about others: ‘I’m all right, Jack’ more or less sums up this attitude. The most common example of this is the frank enjoyment with which people eat the flesh of slaughtered animals. They go on merrily plying knife and fork without consciously thinking about the suffering of the animals.

But the unconscious mind is not so easily fooled. You can shut out some unpleasant fact from the conscious mind, but unconsciously you notice everything and you forget nothing. You may never be consciously aware of that unpleasant fact, but it will exert an influence on your mental state that is all the more powerful for being unseen. In this way we develop an ‘irrational’ feeling of guilt, because in the depths of ourselves we know that our own pleasure has been bought at the expense of the suffering of other living beings. This guilt is the source of a great deal of uneasiness and anxiety.

Conze gives the example of wealthy people, who are nearly always afraid of becoming poor. This is, he says, because unconsciously they feel that they don’t deserve to have their money. Unconsciously they feel that it ought to be taken away from them, and consciously they worry that perhaps it will be taken away from them. By contrast, you notice that poor people who may not know where next week’s food is coming from are rarely racked with anxiety over it. They are generally much more relaxed and cheerful than the rich.

Wealthy people may suffer from unconscious guilt feelings because they know, however much they may deny it consciously, that their wealth is ‘tainted’: its acquisition has brought suffering to other people, directly or indirectly. Consequently, they feel a constant need to justify themselves. They say, ‘I earn my money, I contribute to the well-being of the community, I offer a service that people want, I provide employment….’ Or else they say, ‘Well, if I’m rich and other people are poor, it’s because I work harder, I take risks – at least I don’t ask to be spoon-fed….’

If the feeling of guilt gets too much then drastic measures are required to relieve it, and the most drastic measure of all is to give away some of that wealth – to the church, or to a hospital or whatever. Hospitals are a favourite option because you can compensate for the suffering you have caused in acquiring the wealth by giving some of it to alleviate suffering. It is called ‘conscience money’. If one has anything to do with religious organizations, one soon learns to recognize this sort of donation. Sometimes it is just put through the letter box in an envelope inscribed ‘from an anonymous donor’. Then you know that someone’s conscience is really biting.

Conze’s second kind of concealed suffering is a pleasant experience which has a flavour of anxiety to it because you are afraid of losing it. Political power is like this: it is a very sweet thing to exercise power over other people, but you always have to watch your back, not knowing if you can trust even your best friend, or the very guardsmen at your door. All the time you are afraid of losing that power, especially if you have seized it by force, and others are waiting for their own chance to get their hands on it. In such a position you do not sleep easily.

The traditional Buddhist illustration of this kind of experience is that of a hawk flying off with a piece of meat in its talons. What happens, of course, is that dozens of other hawks fly after it to try and seize that piece of meat for themselves, and the way they accomplish this is to tear and stab not at the meat itself but at the possessor of the meat, pecking at its body, its wings, its head, its eyes.(footnote 46) The highly competitive world of finance and business and entertainment is like this. Any pleasure that involves any element of power or status is contaminated by an element of anxiety, by the sense that others would like to be able to replace you at the top of your own particular dunghill.

The third concealed suffering indicated by Dr Conze is something which is pleasant but which binds us to something else that brings about suffering. The example he gives is the human body. Through it we experience all sorts of pleasurable sensations that make us very attached to it; but we experience all sorts of unpleasant sensations through it as well. So our attachment to that which provides us with pleasant sensations binds us also to that which provides us with unpleasant sensations. We can’t have the one without the other.

Lastly, Conze suggests that concealed suffering is to be found in the fact that pleasures derived from the experience of conditioned things cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the heart. In each one of us there is something that is Unconditioned, something that is not of this world, something transcendental, the Buddha-nature – call it what you like. Whatever you call it, you can recognize it by the fact that it cannot be satisfied by anything conditioned. It can be satisfied only by the Unconditioned.

So whatever conditioned things you may enjoy there is always a lack, a void, which only the Unconditioned can fill. Ultimately, it is for this reason that – to come back to the Buddha’s conclusion – all conditioned things, whether actually or potentially, are unsatisfactory, painful. It is in the light of the Unconditioned that suffering, duhkha, is clearly seen as characteristic of all forms of conditioned existence, and of sentient conditioned existence especially.


The second fundamental characteristic of conditioned existence, anitya, is quite easily translated. Nitya is ‘permanent’, ‘eternal’, so with the addition of the negative prefix you get ‘impermanent’, ‘non-eternal’. It is also quite easily understood – intellectually at least. It can hardly be denied that all conditioned things, all compounded things, are constantly changing. They are by definition made up of parts – that is, compounded. And that which is compounded, made up of parts, can also be uncompounded, can be reduced to its parts again – which is what happens, of course, all the time.

It should really be easier to understand this truth nowadays than it was in the Buddha’s day. We now have the authority of science to assure us that there’s no such thing as matter in the sense of actual lumps of hard solid matter scattered throughout space. We know that what we think of as matter is in reality only various forms of energy.

But the same great truth applies to the mind. There is nothing unchanging in our internal experience of ourselves, nothing permanent or immortal. There is only a constant succession of mental states, feelings, perceptions, volitions, acts of consciousness. In fact, the mind changes even more quickly than the physical body. We cannot usually see the physical body changing, but if we are observant we can see our mental states changing from moment to moment.

This is the reason for the Buddha’s (at first sight) rather strange assertion that it is a bigger mistake to identify yourself (as a stable entity) with the mind than with the body.(footnote 47) But this is the Buddhist position. Belief in the reality of the ‘self’ is a bigger spiritual mistake than belief in the reality of the body. This is because the body at least possesses a certain relative stability; but there is no stability to the mind at all. It is constantly, perceptibly changing.

Broadly speaking, the lakshana of anitya points to the fact that the whole universe from top to bottom, in all its grandeur, in all its immensity, is just one vast congeries of processes of different types, taking place at different levels – and all interrelated. Nothing ever stands still, not even for an instant, not even for a fraction of a second.

We do not see this, though. When we look up we see the everlasting hills, and in the night sky we descry the same stars as were mapped by our ancestors at the dawn of history. Houses stand from generation to generation, and the old oak furniture within them seems to become more solid with the passing of the years. Even our own bodies seem much the same from one year to the next. It is only when the increments of change add up to something notable, when a great house is burnt down, when we realize that the star we are looking at is already extinct, or when we ourselves take to our deathbed, that we realize the truth of impermanence or non-eternity, that all conditioned things – from the minutest particles to the most massive stars – begin, continue, and then cease.

Emptiness of Self

The third lakshana, anatman, encapsulates the truth that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. So what does this mean exactly? When the Buddha denied the reality of the idea of the atman, what was he actually denying? What was the belief or doctrine of atman held by the Buddha’s contemporaries, the Hindus of his day?

Actually, in the Upanishads alone there are many different conceptions of atman mentioned.(footnote 48) In some it is said that the atman, the self – or the soul, if you like – is the physical body. Elsewhere the view is propounded that the atman is just as big as the thumb, is material, and abides in the heart. But the most common view in the Buddha’s day, the one with which he appears to have been most concerned, asserted that the atman was individual – in the sense that I am I and you are you – incorporeal or immaterial, conscious, unchanging, blissful, and sovereign – in the sense of exercising complete control over its own destiny.

The Buddha maintained that there was no such entity – and he did so by appealing to experience. He said that if you look within, at yourself, at your own mental life, you can account for everything you observe under just five headings: form, feeling, perception, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing discovered in these categories can be observed to be permanent. There is nothing sovereign or ultimately blissful amongst them. Everything in them arises in dependence on conditions, and is unsatisfactory in one way or another. These five categories or aggregates are anatman. They don’t constitute any such self as the Hindus of the Buddha’s day asserted. Such a self exists neither in them nor outside of them nor associated with them in any other way.

The Three Liberations

Seeing conditioned existence, seeing life, in this way, as invariably subject to suffering, to impermanence, to emptiness of self, is called vipashyana (Sanskrit) or vipassana (Pali), which translates into English as ‘insight’.

Insight is not just intellectual understanding. It can be developed only on the basis of a controlled, purified, elevated, concentrated, integrated mind – in other words, through meditative practice. Insight is a direct intuitive perception that takes place in the depths of meditation when the ordinary mental processes have fallen into abeyance. A preliminary intellectual understanding of these three characteristics is certainly helpful, but ultimately, insight is something that transcends the intellectual workings of the mind.

So in meditation, through insight, you see that without exception everything you experience through the five senses and through the mind – everything you can feel and touch and smell and taste and see and think about – is conditioned, is subject to suffering, is impermanent, is empty of self. When you see things in this way then you experience what is technically called revulsion or disgust, and you turn away from the conditioned. It is important to note that this is a spiritual experience, not just a psychological reaction; you turn away not because you are personally repelled by things as such, but because you see that the conditioned is not, on its own terms, worth having. When that turning away from the conditioned to the Unconditioned takes place decisively, it is said that you enter the ‘stream’ leading to nirvana.

At this point we have to guard against a misunderstanding. Some schools of Buddhism think of the conditioned and the Unconditioned as though they were two quite different entities, two ultimate principles in a kind of philosophical dualism. But it isn’t like that. It isn’t that on the one hand you have the conditioned and on the other you have the Unconditioned, with a sort of vast gap between them. They are more like two poles. Some Buddhist schools even say that the Unconditioned is the conditioned itself when the conditioned is seen in its ultimate depths, or in a new, higher dimension, as it were.(footnote 49) The Unconditioned is reached by knowing the conditioned deeply enough, by going right to the bottom of the conditioned and coming out the other side (so to speak). In other words, the conditioned and the Unconditioned are, in a way, the two sides of the same coin.

This perspective, which is a very important one to take in, is brought into focus by a teaching – common to all schools – called the three vimokshas, or ‘liberations’.(footnote 50) They are also sometimes called the three samadhis, or the three ‘doors’: the three doors through which we can approach Enlightenment.

The first of these liberations is apranihita, the ‘unaiming’ or ‘unbiased’. It is a mental state without any inclination in any direction, without likes or dislikes, perfectly still, perfectly poised. Thus it is an ‘approach’ to the Unconditioned, but it’s an approach which is by way of not going in any particular direction. You only want to go in a particular direction when you have a concept of that direction and a desire to go in it. If there’s no particular direction in which you want to go, then you just, as it were, stay at rest. This state can be compared to a perfectly round sphere on a perfectly flat plane. Because the plane is absolutely level, the perfect sphere doesn’t roll in any particular direction. The vimoksha of directionlessness is rather like this. It’s a state of absolute equanimity in which one has no egoistic motive for doing – or not doing, even – anything. So this is an avenue of approach to reality, to Enlightenment.

The second liberation, the second door to the Unconditioned, is animitta, the ‘signless’. Nimitta literally means a sign, but it can also mean a word or a concept; so the animitta is the approach to the Unconditioned by bypassing all words and all thoughts. This is a very distinctive experience. When you have it, you realize that all words, all concepts, are totally inadequate. Not that they’re not very adequate, but that actually they don’t mean anything at all. This is another door through which one approaches the absolute, the Unconditioned. The animitta is a state in which one prescinds all concepts of reality. In other words, one doesn’t think about reality. I don’t mean that one ‘doesn’t think about it’ in the ordinary way in which one doesn’t think about reality. After all, we could say that most of us, most of the time, don’t give much thought to reality at all. But on the attainment of this vimoksha one has, as it were, reached the level of reality but one doesn’t think about reality. One realizes that no words, no concepts, can possibly apply; indeed, one doesn’t even have the concept of non-applicability. This is the vimoksha or samadhi of signlessness or imagelessness.

And the third liberation is shunyata, the voidness or emptiness. In this state you see that everything is, as it were, completely transparent. Nothing has any own-being, nothing has any self-identity. In the language of the Perfection of Wisdom, the ‘Prajnaparamita’, things are what they are because they are not what they are – one can only express it paradoxically. This is the vimoksha of emptiness.

The three liberations represent different aspects of the Unconditioned; that is, they show the Unconditioned from different points of view, which are also different ways of realizing it. You can penetrate into the Unconditioned through the unbiased, through the signless, and through voidness. However, as we have already said, you attain the Unconditioned by knowing the conditioned in its depths. Thus we can also say that you penetrate to the three liberations through attention to the three lakshanas. That is, each of the three liberations can be reached through understanding deeply enough its corresponding lakshana. In this way the three lakshanas themselves can be seen as doors to liberation.

If you look deeply enough at the essentially unsatisfactory nature of conditioned existence, then you will realize the Unconditioned as being without bias. This is because when you see the suffering inherent in conditioned things, you lose interest in the goals and aims and purposes of conditioned existence. You are quite still and poised, without inclination towards this or that, without any desire or direction for yourself. Hence when you go into the conditioned through the aspect of suffering you go into the Unconditioned through the aspect of the unbiased.

Alternatively, when you concentrate on the conditioned as being impermanent, transitory, without fixed identity, then going to the bottom of that – and coming out the other side, so to speak – you realize the Unconditioned as the signless. Your realization is of the emptiness of all concepts, you transcend all thought; you realize, if you like, ‘the eternal’ – though not the eternal that continues through time, but the eternal which transcends time.

And thirdly, if you concentrate on the conditioned as devoid of self, devoid of individuality, devoid of I, devoid of you, devoid of me, devoid of mine, then you approach, you realize, the Unconditioned as shunyata, as the voidness. What ‘the voidness’ is, we shall be going on to consider.

As for the present chapter, however, our aim has been to throw some light on the subject of the three lakshanas, the three characteristics of conditioned existence. They are of central importance not just in Buddhist philosophy but in the Buddhist spiritual life. According to the Buddha, we don’t really see conditioned existence until we learn to see it in these terms. If we see anything else, that’s just an illusion, just a projection. And once we start seeing the conditioned as essentially unsatisfactory, impermanent, and empty of self, then little by little we begin to get a glimpse of the Unconditioned, a glimpse that is our essential guide on the Buddhist path.

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38: Nanamoli p.10 (Majjhima-Nikaya 26).
39: See Mahagovinda Sutta (Majjhima-Nikaya 19), verse 45.
40: The three lakshanas are enumerated in many places in the Pali Canon – see, for example, Samyutta-Nikaya xxxv.1; xxii.46; Udana iii.10; Anguttara-Nikaya iii.47. The locus classicus is Dhammapada 277-9.
41: See Nanamoli p.43 for a brief reference. Of the many canonical references, perhaps the reflections of the Buddha in section 18 of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha-Nikaya 22) are especially worth consulting.
42: Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, III.i.128-31.
43: Majjhima-Nikaya, i.135.
44: See, for example, Itivuttaka section 100.
45: See Edward Conze, Buddhism, Cassirer, Oxford 1957, pp.46-48.
46: See Vinaya Pitaka, Culavagga i.
47: Nanamoli p.230; Samyutta-Nikaya xii.61.
48: Of the many texts which bear the name Upanishad, there are thirteen principal ones. They originate from the period 8th to 4th century bce, and form the basis of the school of Hindu philosophy known as the Vedanta. The atman is one of their main themes.
49: The Tantra in particular sees things in this way, with its teaching of the sahaja or innate nature of reality; see page 54.
50: These three liberations are referred to in one of the texts of the Abhidhamma Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the Patisambhidhamagga ii.58. Buddhaghosa goes into them in some detail in his Visuddhimagga xxi.66-71.

What is Nirvana?

Buddha from Manchester Buddhist Centre

Nirvana (Nibbana in Pali)

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Buddhists are often careful about saying too much about nirvana. It is discussed as the final goal, but also understood to be a state we cannot fully comprehend. So, it is important to keep it in mind as a source of inspiration, but at the same time to avoid reducing it to a mere ‘thing’, an object in samsara like our other, more immediate goals.

The primary way in which Buddhists relate to the ideal of nirvana is naturally through the Buddha. The Buddha personally embodies and symbolises nirvana. The Buddha reminds us that nirvana is not a place, but the state reached by a person. The qualities of ultimate wisdom and compassion possessed by the Buddha are also the ones we would expect to possess ourselves if we attained nirvana. The Buddha as a person also gives nirvana its mystery, since he attained that state during his lifetime but then, according to the traditional stories, passed on to a state known as parinirvana, where there is no rebirth. The Buddha refused to state whether he existed or did not exist in the state of parinirvana.

Descriptions of nirvana can be divided into four categories: the negative. the positive, the paradoxical and the symbolic.

Negative descriptions

Negative descriptions are likely to be the most accurate, since language is unable to decribe nirvana, and any positive descriptions are likely to give a partial or even misleading impression of it. Negative descriptions have a philosophical flavour.

An important negative description is attributed to the Buddha in the Udana:

There is, monks, that plane where there is neither extension, nor motion, nor the plane of infinite ether…. nor that of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, neither this world nor another, neither the moon nor the sun. here, monks, I say that there is no coming or going or remaining or deceasing or uprising, for this is itself without support, without continuance in samsara, without mental object – this is itself the end of suffering.
There is, monks, an unborn, not become, unmade, uncompounded, and were it not, monks, for this unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, no escape could be shown here for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded. But because there is, monks, an unborn, not become, unmade, uncompounded, therefore an escape can be shown, for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.

The Buddha here continually describes nirvana in terms of what it is not, simply on the grounds that this is the only way the unenlightened can relate to it with any accuracy. Nevertheless, he seems to be affirming its existence. Whether the Buddha here just stating what he believes from his own experience, or whether he also thinks that his followers must believe it, is more debatable: for it seems that anything that we may believe in about nirvana is likely to be misleading.

Positive Descriptions

Attempts to describe enlightenment in a positive way can be sub-divided according to the terms in which they describe it: as feeling or emotion, as knowledge, as will, as consciousness, and as a form (rupa).

As Feeling or Emotion nirvana is described as the supreme bliss or enjoyment, a peace which is beyond all earthly turmoil, as love (maitri/metta) or as compassion (Karuna). The description of enlightenment as an outward-flowing energy of love and compassion is particularly stressed in the Mahayana. But what is the difference between the love experienced by the enlightened and by the unenlightened? Whilst we only love beings whom we mistakenly think of as individuals, an enlightened being loves beings even whilst recognising that they are impermanent, without self, and ultimately empty of form.

As Knowledge (Vidya) nirvana is described as perfect wisdom or insight, as knowledge of things as they really are. This really becomes less a matter of knowing but of seeing, of being without illusions. This does not mean the Buddha is omniscient in the sense of knowing all facts, or that he can never make mistakes because of facts that he does not know. A famous story of a mistake by the Buddha is when he recommended meditation on death to a group of monks who subsequently committed suicide: he seems not to have realised that they were not positive enough to cope with that type of meditation.

As Will, nirvana is described as absolute freedom from all bonds and restrictions. Even things which we might perceive as done under a sense of duty and responsibility to others are done absolutely freely. The enlightened person is normally described as still subject to normal physical restrictions (such as gravity) and freed only in a mental sense: although the reports of miracles performed by the Buddha and of the siddhas (magical powers) attained by great meditators seem to contradict this.

As Consciousness. Enlightened beings are said to experience a pure, blissful, radiant and infinite state of consciousness, free of the defiling habits and tendencies produced by karma. One puzzle in relation to this is that the Buddha still meditated, so perhaps even in a state of enlightenment he needed to renew his mental energies from time to time.

As Form (Rupa) The ideal of enlightenment is expressed by Buddhists in many symbolic forms, including the stupa and the mandala. However the most common is the Buddha-figure or rupa. This makes it possible to relate to the incomprehensible ideas of enlightenment and to inspire oneself to seek it through devotion.

Paradoxical Descriptions

A paradox is an attempt to describe the indescribable by the use of contradictory ideas brought forcibly together. This throws the intellect off the scent, leaving the intuition with a better chance of understanding what is meant. This kind of description of Enlightenment is favoured by the Mahayana, especially the Prajñaparamita and Zen traditions: its aim is to make us more aware that there is in fact no satisfactory verbal description. Nirvana should be attained by means of non-attainment. One should abide in a state of non-abiding. Nirvana is in fact no different from samsara, and samsara the same as nirvana. There is no path and no goal.

Symbolical Descriptions

Symbolical descriptions of nirvana avoid the drawback of leading us into thinking that nirvana is only an abstract idea: they fill it with colour and allow it to speak to the unconscious as well as the conscious mind, though they may be a trap for those who take them too literally. At their simplest these are just metaphors: Nirvana is a Cool Cave, the Island in the Floods, the Farther Shore, the Holy City.

A more complex symbolical description of enlightenment is found in two Mahayana scriptures called the Greater and Lesser Sukhavati-Vyuha Sutras, these describe the ‘Happy Land’ or Sukhavati, which is said to be a land in which enlightenment can be easily achieved in one lifetime. For this reason, followers of the Pure Land Schools of Japanese and Chinese Buddhism think of their goal as being reborn in the Pure land rather than as attaining enlightenment directly. The descriptions of the Pure Land can be interpreted as an attempt to describe enlightenment in images which will inspire the unenlightened. Sangharakshita provides a summary of it:

Nirvana is expressed not abstractly but in terms of a harmonious disposition of images aglow with supernatural life and movement. Though music and perfumes are not absent, the impression is predominantly one of light and colour. Against a background of radiance millions of rays and beams spring up, intersect, and weave themselves into incredibly beautiful patterns. Rainbows appear and disappear. There is a shining forth as of silver and gold and everything flashes as though with strings and nets of multicoloured gems. Flowers fall like rain. At the centre of this blaze of splendour, its focal point and its crown, sits as Lord of the Happy land the Buddha of the Mahayana, the rays converging into a canopy above his head, the flowers at his feet, and his unnumbered auditors ranged in attitudes of expectancy and devotion on all sides.

Questions to Consider
1. What is unsatisfactory about each of the types of description? Make a list of the difficulties associated with each.
2. What are the advantages of each type of description? Are there any which appeal to you more than the others?

Problems relating to nirvana

In the Questions of King Milinda, a number of traditional difficulties associated with nirvana are explored, in response to questions from the sceptical Greek king. These include how we know nirvana to be good, how it can be caused when it is unconditioned, and whether the enlightened feel pleasure.

Read Buddhist Scriptures p.155-162, making notes on the problems and the solutions Nagasena provides. Also discuss whether or not you are convinced by the solutions he offers.

Further Reading
Cush p.29-33 & 68-9
Sangharakshita Guide p.202-210
Williams Buddhist Thought p.47-52

Past questions
Outline the understanding of nibbana found in Theravada Buddhism, and assess the claim that nibbana cannot be defined with any degree of accuracy.


Buddha statue face

Madhyamika Teachings and Sunyata

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The teachings of the Madhyamika School developed from about the 2nd Century CE, and are chiefly associated with the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. There are many legends about Nagarjuna, including one that he gained his profound philosophy from the nagas: a serpent-like intelligent race who live under the sea, after whom he is named. This can be taken as a metaphor for the profound depths of meditation he needed to reach in order to create his philosophy.

In some ways, though, the philosophy of Nagarjuna is a philosophical explanation of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamita) tradition that was central to the development of the Mahayana. It will be helpful to get some idea of this first.

The Perfection of Wisdom

You will recall that amongst the Six (or Ten) Perfections of the Bodhisattva is the Perfection of Wisdom. It is in order to guide the aspiring bodhisattva in the Perfection of Wisdom that a number of ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ texts developed in the early Mahayana. These included The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses, The Diamond Sutra, and the very short and concise Heart Sutra. All of these have one central message, which is that wisdom is found by no longer being attached to concepts and ceasing to believe that words map onto reality. A lot of the Perfection of Wisdom literature is sceptical in the best sense of the word, in that it is continually trying to make us aware of what we do not know and get us to question our most basic assumptions.

The Heart Sutra is so short it can be reproduced in full below. From it you can see many of the characteristics of a Mahayana Sutra, as well as the central paragraph of Perfection of Wisdom teaching. Notice how it is apparently set in a real place in India, although there are no further realistic details. In this case the teaching is summarised in a mantra (the Perfection of Wisdom Mantra) which summarises the teaching and helps Buddhists to remember and venerate it through frequent repetition.

Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas.
At that time the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called “profound illumination,” and at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.
Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?”Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra, “O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas, no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment. Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:
Thus, Shariputra, the bodhisattva mahasattva should train in the profound prajnaparamita.
Then the Blessed One arose from that samadhi and praised noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, saying, “Good, good, O son of noble family; thus it is, O son of noble family, thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught and all the tathagatas will rejoice.”When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Shariputra and noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, that whole assembly and the world with its gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.

Samadhi – Highly concentrated and inspired state gained through meditation, including both jhana and insight
Mahasattva – Great being (a title)
Shariputra – one of the best known disciples of the Buddha
Dharmas – Phenomena or things as they appear to us. We will be discussing this term more shortly
Dhatu – realm or sphere
Gate – (Pronounced “gartay”) gone (from samsara)
Paragate – Gone beyond
Parasamgate – Utterly gone beyond
Asuras – Titans or jealous gods, as in the realm on the Wheel of Life
Gandharvas – Legendary spirit-beings

See if you can identify the core Buddhist teachings which are referred to in the long central paragraph.
What is being said about these teachings, and what is its significance?

What it is most important to remember when looking at Perfection of Wisdom literature is that it was all originally used in a context of positive practice. Thus, although it seems to just consist in a series of negative statements, these had a positive purpose in helping people to overcome attachments: even attachments to Buddhist teachings. Overcoming these attachments is obviously not a priority if you don’t have them in the first place, and Buddhists will first cultivate a reverence for the teachings before making use of this kind of critique of them, in order to reach a balanced and positive view in the end.

Madhyamika Philosophy

It is against this background that the Madhyamika philosophy developed, to give a more detailed conceptual understanding of the ideas that lie behind texts like the Heart Sutra. The term ‘Madhyamika’ just means ‘Middle Way’, and the teachings follow the Middle Way not just practically, but philosophically in accepting neither positive nor negative teachings in words of any sort as completely true. If we cannot put the truth in concepts, the alternative is the acceptance of Shunyata, a term usually translated as ‘Emptiness’ (though ‘Insubstantiality’ might be better).

The Madhyamika developed in the context of a philosophical debate about the status of dharmas, which is vital for understanding Madhyamika philosophy. Dharmas (not to be confused with Dharma, the Buddhist teaching or religious truth) are phenomena, the smallest possible building blocks of our experience. Examples of dharmas might be an experience of red, the experience of making a choice, or a feeling of sadness: both internal experiences (such as thoughts and feelings) and external ones from the senses (colours, sounds, smells etc) are included, but to be a dharma it an experience must be impossible to break down or analyse into anything simpler. The experience of seeing a delicious pastry, for example, can be broken down into the many different colours I perceive in the pastry, plus the internal dharma of my desire to eat it which affects my whole experience of it.

[Note to those who have studied Philosophy: the idea of a dharma here bears a close resemblance to the simple impressions of Hume, which could be either internal or external. However, the purpose and use of the concept is entirely different.]
Which of these experiences is a dharma, and which could be further analysed into dharmas?
1. A thought about what I might have for lunch
2. Hearing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
3. Seeing the yellowness of a banana
4. A feeling of dislike for someone
5. Pain in the knees after falling over
6. Hearing a dog bark
7. Feeling the hard metal of a coin as I pay for something in a shop

The Hinayana interpretation of the dharmas

The third and more technical basket of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, is concerned with the analysis of these dharmas. It offered an extremely detailed analysis of all the elements of human experience, in doing so creating the world’s first psychology. It did this with one main aim, to aid non-attachment to these dharmas. If we know about the ways in which experiences can be analysed, this can aid our mindfulness of them. This is particularly obvious in the case of a feeling of desire or hatred: if I think “Oh, that’s just an experience of hatred type 37b”, I am much less likely to get carried away by it.

In the Hinayana schools by the time of the rise of the Mahayana, however, there developed an interpretation of this analysis which the Mahayana objected to. This was the view that all dharmas have own-being (svabhava). This means that you can gain non-attachment simply through the process of analysing experiences into dharmas. Each of these dharmas then exists in its own right. The Hinayana schools believed that to go any further would be nihilistic, because if the dharmas did not exist then nothing could exist. The basis of the Buddha’s message for them (including the anatta teaching), is that all these complex experiences that we get attached to are just made up of dharmas, but of course the dharmas exist themselves. The Theravada still hold to this view.

Mahayana objections to this view

However, the Mahayana schools took a very different view of the dharmas. To them, to claim that the dharmas ultimately existed is in direct contradiction to the Buddha’s teaching of anatta, or insubstantiality. The Mahayana took this to mean that all phenomena are insubstantial, even the simplest possible ones. This general view was in turn interpreted in two different ways by the two main philosophical schools in the Mahayana. In the Yogacara, all dharmas are mind-only, but in the Madhyamika, all dharmas are Shunyata, empty or hollow.

To claim that all dharmas are Shunyata means that they neither exist, nor do they not exist. We simply cannot say anything about their existence because we have no way of knowing for sure whether they exist or not based on our own perceptions. We simply have to come to terms with our ignorance and dwell in the Middle Way of uncertainty. This position can also be described as non-dualism, i.e. accepting neither side of the duality of things existing or not existing.

For philosophers like Nagarjuna, this way of thinking about dharmas was the natural implication of Early Buddhist teachings on insubstantiality, the Middle Way, and dependent origination. One could also point to the Buddha’s refusal to give answers to any other metaphysical questions (questions that cannot be answered on the basis of experience) such as whether or not he continued to exist after Parinirvana, or whether the universe is infinite or not. From the Madhyamika perspective, either to affirm these things or to deny them leads into one kind of error or another. If we were to claim that all dharmas exist, this would be to get attached to the idea of their existence, whereas to deny that they exist might lead to a negative denial of the world.

Madhyamika Arguments

Nagarjuna supported his position by a number of arguments. Most of these attack the idea that dharmas could be independently existent, which an implication of having own-being:

  • Following the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are dependent on other phenomena, and do not exist independently. If all phenomena are dependent, they cannot ultimately exist separately.
  • The fact that we conventionally recognise things around as existing does not mean that they really do exist. We must make a distinction between conventional and absolute truth.
  • Following the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, all dharmas are constantly changing. Yet if they were independently existent, they would never change. Independently existing dharmas would be eternal
  • If all dharmas existed independently, then they could not cause or condition each other. But experience tells us that causes and conditions are possible, so dharmas must be constantly interrelated and interdependent.

Are you convinced by these arguments? How do you think Hinayanists would reply?

The Shunyata Practice

The practical background to the teachings on Shunyata was a continuing practice of the Eightfold Path in its different elements. The teaching on Shunyata was particularly applied in meditation, so as to create a form of vipassana meditation systematically reflecting on it and overcoming successive layers of attachment. The same format can also be used for a set-piece debate, of a kind which is still used in the training of Tibetan monks. The meditation falls into several set stages:

  1. 1. The independent or inherent existence of dharmas is systematically refuted by going through set stages of reasoning. Terms are clarified and the value of the conventional is also recalled. For example:
    The inherent existence of the self is empty.
    If the self was inherently existent, it would be the same as the five skandhas or different
    Since the five skandhas are empty, if the self is the same as the five skandhas then it is empty.
    If it is different from the five skandhas, the inherent self is different from our experience of it. Since the self is an experience, this would be contradictory.
  2. 2. The meditator then gains concentration through samatha practice until jhana is gained, then returns to the reflection. Reflection is then alternated with samatha practice. Eventually the two fuse and insight is gained, because the emotional and physical resistance to the truth of Shunyata has been overcome.
  3. 3. All the remaining conceptual elements of this insight are then gradually removed. This will include attachment to the idea of Shunyata itself, which can be overcome by reflecting on the emptiness of emptiness. Direct, non-dual understanding of Shunyata is then achieved. ‘When he arises from his meditation, the meditator still sees inherent existence, but knows this is not how things are, and he is like a magician viewing his own creations.’ (Paul Williams)

Read and take notes from the article on ‘Dhamma and Non-Duality’ from the Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter. This is by a Theravadin, Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is pointing out the disadvantages of the Madhyamika Philosophy from his point of view. He uses the Threefold Path as his structure, and points out disadvantages in the Madhyamika view in the practice of all three elements of the Threefold Path: make sure you note these arguments down clearly. When you have done this, discuss whether you agree with his arguments against the Madhyamika view.

Further Reading
Especially recommended extension activity: take notes on one or both of these*:
*Cush p. 106-110
*Williams Buddhist Thought p.140-152
Harvey An introduction to Buddhism p.95-104
Williams Mahayana Buddhism ch.3

Past questions in AQA syllabus
1. Explain the main teachings on Sunyata as presented by Nagarjuna in the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism
2. Outline Nagarjuna’s teaching on samsara and nirvana, and assess the view that ‘Nagarjuna’s teachings are a radical departure from the traditional teachings of Gotama.’
3. Outline Madhyamika teachings on Sunyata (emptiness), and assess the claim that Nagarjuna taught nothing on Sunyata that the Buddha himself had not already taught.

Buddhist Teachings

What is a karma?

Some people say that the principle of Karma can be summed up in the phrase ‘actions have consequences’, but it says a lot more than this. As the teaching of the five niyamas illustrates, Karma is not a general law of causation. It is not even a general law of action. It is a practical teaching that underpins Buddhist ethics. It accounts for how our deliberate behaviour leads not only to the transformation of our moral character – for better or worse – but our relationships with other people, and even the world that we live in. So what exactly makes an act a karma?

The Importance of Intention

Remember that in Brahmanism, a karma was a ritual act – its effectiveness depended on the proper execution of a specified ritual. Karmas had prescribed values, which generated a certain quantity of merit (or demerit) irrespective of the individual actor’s state of mind. But the Buddha understood Karma in quite a different way. He saw that the intention (cetana) or volition that motivates an action is what is most important.(footnote 45) Any overt physical or verbal behaviour is secondary (though not insignificant).(This point is debated in the Upali Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya)

So the karmic value of an action cannot be known by observing just its surface form; it requires an understanding of the motivation that gave rise to it. This motivation is not always obvious, since two actions may seem superficially similar but be inspired by contrary motives. For example, let’s say two people give me presents, even the same present. The first does so because he wants to suck up to me in order that he may later borrow my car whereas the second has noticed that I am a bit down and wants to cheer me up. The two actions will have different karmic values because they are driven by different intentions, so they will have different consequences (even if I am taken in by the bribery).

Intentions can broadly be classified into two kinds or modes: skilful (kusala) and unskilful (akusala). Skilful intentions are born from generosity, compassion, and understanding; unskilful intentions are rooted in craving, aversion, and spiritual ignorance, collectively known as the three unwholesome roots (lobha, dvesa, and moha). Skilful actions are said to lead to desirable consequences and unskilful actions to undesirable ones. Learning to discriminate between skilful and unskilful desires, and acting on the skilful, is the foundation of Buddhist ethics. In practice, though, our motives are usually mixed – some skilful, some unskilful – and this will have a bearing on the resulting consequences.

But what is an intention? It is a deliberately willed action carried out by a being capable of moral judgement. This means that only beings able to deliberate about their moral choices and consciously direct their behaviour can perform karmas. So Karma does not apply to animals, babies, or severely mentally impaired people (in so far as they are unable to make moral distinctions and reflective decisions). But willed action has to be understood here broadly.

There are many actions which we will, but of which we are not particularly conscious while they are happening. For instance, when we drive a car we are willing the gear changes, braking, acceleration, and so on, but our mind may be on ‘automatic’. Despite not always being conscious of our willing from moment to moment, we are still making a choice – to drive the car – so we must bear responsibility for the consequences of this. How our actions will modify our own future, the world around us, and the responses of others will be influenced by the degree to which there is ‘intentional weight’ behind our conduct. While our habitual, semi-conscious behaviour probably makes up the bulk of our karmic activity, some singular acts may be decisive in determining our karmic future.

Sometimes people are coerced into doing things that they would not normally do, things they even believe are wrong. And yet, through fear, they still do them. Are these intentional acts? Rather than pursue a legal definition of intention, let’s look at an example. As a result of the ‘Great Escape’ of Allied aircrew from Stalag Luft III in the Second World War, Hitler ordered the execution of fifty of the recaptured escapees. One German soldier was ordered to shoot two of these men, an act that went against his own conscience and the conventions of war, yet he went ahead and shot them anyway – perhaps out of fear of reprisals from the SS. After the event the soldier felt deep remorse for his action but was still arrested and hanged by the Allies.

Despite his moral misgivings, the soldier chose to obey a wicked order and so must bear responsibility for this. This is a tragic story and probably few of us are likely to face such difficult choices – perhaps we would all act in the same way in the same circumstances – but, importantly, where there is choice there is moral responsibility and so karma. The soldier felt remorse because he knew that he had had a choice; he had chosen to value his own life above that of the airmen. While we must surely sympathize with his situation, it is nevertheless choices of this kind that enable dictators to remain in power.

It is worth noticing that spiritual ignorance is classed as unskilful. This means that we could act from seemingly positive motives and still behave unskilfully. A well-known proverb declares that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and this holds good in relation to karma. The fact that ‘I meant well’ will not absolve me from the consequences of my lack of forethought. It is our responsibility to think through the potential consequences of what we do. For Buddhism, ignorance is a disposition; lack of awareness is a bad habit rather than an inevitable – and therefore excusable – condition of our being. To perpetuate our state of ignorance rather than overcome it is volitional and therefore has karmic implications.

Crucially, in Buddhism ‘action’ includes acts not only of the body but also of speech and mind. So even the thoughts that we don’t act upon have karmic weight – not least because they play a significant role in the way that we colour our experience. More profoundly, we become what we think. Once we have learned to behave in a reasonably civilized way, thoughts, rather than overt actions, are likely to become our most influential karmas. Somewhat paradoxically, an overt action discharged on the basis of a fairly weak volition may, in some cases, be of less karmic significance than a constantly cherished thought that does not find physical expression. For instance, let’s say that I go to my housemate’s room and borrow some of his books, forgetting that he likes to be asked. This is called, in Buddhism, taking the not-given. But the karmic effect of this act may be less decisive than my daily practice of metta, or loving-kindness, through which I deliberately cultivate positive emotions towards him. For Buddhism, thoughts are acts and have their own consequences, not least because sooner or later they are likely to be expressed verbally or physically.

While a karma is fundamentally an intention or volition, overt behaviour is also very important. It is, for instance, quite different to think vaguely about taking my friend a bunch of flowers when I go to visit him than actually to do so. Both the fantasy and the overt action are no doubt skilful karmas, but the latter demands more commitment and determination and will have more significant consequences in all sorts of ways.

‘Action’ can also include ‘omission’, particularly when I have made a promise to act or have a duty to do so. All parents, for instance, have a duty to protect, feed, and clothe their children. If they do not fulfil their obligations and harm comes to their children, they must bear the moral responsibility (and may also be held legally accountable). But moral duties of this kind are not always clear-cut. How far does our duty to help the starving in the developing countries extend, for instance? If we didn’t contribute to a famine appeal, would we be implicated in the consequent deaths of those who received no food? Looked at from this point of view, our duty to assist others becomes an impossible burden, as there are so many beings in need. But let’s say that when we hear about the appeal on the news, we stifle our urge to give, at the very least we will be starving the impulse within us that seeks to reach out and respond to the suffering of others. This itself is a karmic consequence that will transform the kind of person we become. The more we ignore the positive ethical impulses that spark within us, the more we erode our moral sensibility.

Another way of talking about Karma is to say that it is about choice, but choice as understood in a broader sense than usual. Let me explain. A significant choice – and one that we were very much behind at the time – might lead us to embark on a series of actions. When we make the first choice we are, as it were, also choosing the possible consequences of that choice. Understanding this point is crucial in deepening our ethical sensitivity. If we reflect on it, our understanding of the gravity of the present moment may well intensify, because we will realize that what we are about to do may set in train a series of events that will have repurcussions far into the future. We usually think very little about the choices we make, but just a little imagination can enable us to realize how even quite casual decisions can significantly determine our destiny.

For example, some years ago, a young merchant banker called Nick Leeson, who worked for Barings Bank, decided to speculate on the stock market using bank funds. He thought he would make some money, replace the funds, and no one would be any the wiser. But he lost money. To win it back and cover up his deceit, he invested still more of Barings’ funds, but he lost more money. He then began cooking the books in order to cover up his mistakes, lost more money, and eventually brought about the collapse of the bank. He was later arrested and imprisoned. At first he had no thought about bringing down the bank, or even defrauding it, but his first gamble led him into a series of further gambles which resulted in consequences that he neither foresaw nor welcomed. This nightmarish scenario of life spiralling out of control could happen to anyone.

So we make choices at different levels. While in principle we are completely free, in practice we can only exercise our freedom by committing ourselves to a particular course of action. By definition, we cannot then follow others, so any choice involves a narrowing of subsequent choices and this can leave us with an undesirable choice – one we would rather not make, but we are obliged to. Any major life decision is likely to bind us to other decisions that we hadn’t foreseen and might not want to go along with. In making the first choice, we are choosing these too. Learning to imagine the consequences of our decisions can lead us to act in a more reflective, intelligent, and conscious way. This heightens our awareness of the gravity of the present moment; what we do will change the world, however imperceptibly. We will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

Spiritually evolving individuals are not only more able to take responsibility for their choices but also, as they grow, recover more choice. How is this so? The relatively unaware person stumbles through life making decisions with huge implications, but often without recognizing that they have done so. Because they don’t recognize they have made choices, they cannot review or change them, so they experience life as though it is directed by forces outside their control. As a result, they may end up blaming other people – usually an authority such as the government – because they are in a situation that they don’t like and they feel unable to change it. But as soon as we discard the belief that we can determine our own lives, we disenfranchise ourselves, we become victims, and spiritual progress becomes a matter of accident rather than personal responsibility.

Choice in the karmic sense is not always obvious. Just because we fail to consider doing things differently, or are unaware that we could do so, doesn’t mean that we have no choice. Lack of awareness is itself a choice, a habit, that we perpetuate moment by moment as long as we do nothing about it. In the course of our daily activities we don’t consciously register many of our choices, which may partly explain why we sometimes feel resentful at some of their implications. The spiritual life involves becoming more and more aware of the choices we make, how we make those choices, moment by moment, and changing them in the light of our best values.

Not all the choices we make have the same karmic weight. Buddhist scholastic philosophy, for instance, identifies four grades of karma ranked according to their supposed order of priority. These are (1) weighty (garuka) karmas, (2) death-proximate (maranasanna) karmas, (3) habitual (acinna) karmas, and (4) residual (katatta) karmas.

A weighty karma is likely to have a decisive impact on the evolution of our being. Traditionally, unskilful weighty karmas comprise the five ‘heinous crimes’: killing one’s mother, killing one’s father, killing a saint (arhant), wounding a Buddha (apparently a Buddha cannot be killed), and causing schism in the spiritual community (sangha). Committing any of these acts leads to a rebirth in hell. (See, for example, the Parikuppa Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya.) The only skilful weighty karma mentioned in the tradition is the entering of states of superconsciousness (dhyana) through meditation. But we needn’t stick rigidly to this schema. The general point is clear: if we do unskilful things, this will have a negative effect on our future lives, but acting skilfully will have a positive effect. Interpreting the notion of weighty karmas in a more contemporary way, we could say that a weighty karma is a decision or action that critically directs – or redirects – our lives. For instance, undergoing a religious conversion could be a weighty karma in this sense.

In the absence of a weighty karma, death-proximate karma comes into play. Most religions place importance on one’s dying wishes and Buddhism is no exception. The intentions and aspirations that one exhales with one’s last breath can have a powerful transforming effect, and – traditionally – improves one’s chances of a good rebirth. Even if we don’t believe in rebirth, what we dwell on at death is probably a reliable gauge as to the kind of life we have lived and the values we hold most dear.

The third grade of karma is ‘habitual’. This is ‘bread-and- butter karma’: what we are doing most of the time. The precise effects of a single habitual karma may not be easy to see, but each time we act out a habit the more likely we are to act it out again. Slowly, over months and years, we sculpt our character just as a potter gradually moulds the clay.

The final grade of karma is ‘residual’, which accounts for anything not covered by the other three categories. It would, for example, cover ordinary, everyday karmas that were neither weighty nor committed habitually. For instance, in a moment of recklessness we might go shop-lifting, but if we only do it once it does not become a habit. Clearly this will have some sort of effect on our life but it might not be easy to determine what exactly the effect is; it might simply be that we would feel some remorse the following day and want to make amends.

So karmas are not all of the same kind – some are more influential and decisive than others. A weighty karma may, for instance, override the influence of a habitual karma, while a habitual karma may ‘cancel out’ a residual karma.

Two Important Assumptions

Karma rests upon two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified. Looking at these claims will help to clarify how Karma works.

1. Human Character is Malleable

The common-sense view of human personality is that it is fairly static. This view is often associated with a belief in an eternal, unchanging soul, such as that of Christian doctrine. Many people, not only Christians, believe there is an essence to the person – there is something about each individual that is substantial and permanent. This belief seems to be borne out by our experience: people have recognizable personalities, behave in habitual ways, and don’t usually change very much. But according to Buddhism this view is wrong: it arises from existential insecurity, a need to feel substantial, real, permanent. Without denying the obvious way in which people do have distinct personalities, Buddhism rejects the claim that there is anything fixed and unchanging in an absolute sense. If this were the case, the principle of dependent origination would be fatally flawed and spiritual evolution would be impossible. While recognizing the continuity of human personality, Buddhism says that this personality is malleable. There are no limits to the possibilities for individual transformation: a timid person may become confident, a Scrooge benevolent, an angry person tranquil, a clumsy person mindful. Like everything else, our personalities and character traits are dependent upon conditions and, should those conditions cease, they will change.

This malleability of character, and especially of one’s moral relations with others, is beautifully illustrated in George Eliot’s story, Silas Marner. Silas, a respected elder in a small religious sect, is falsely accused of theft. He is ‘convicted’ through the drawing of lots. Thus begins his first moral transformation. With his faith shattered, he leaves his home village to settle in Raveloe. Taking refuge in his work, and shunning fickle humanity, Silas starts to accumulate a horde of gold. Embittered by his unfair treatment, he ceases to care for anyone or anything except his growing wealth. Day by day, he becomes more miserly, and more misanthropic.

Some time later, Dunstan, a wayward son of the local squire, steals Silas Marner’s gold. Silas is again crushed by the way life has treated him, but the thief is not unmasked and Silas is plunged into poverty. Some months later, Silas finds a young girl who has wandered into his house. By following her tracks in the snow, he discovers her mother, who has tragically died. Silas interprets the girl, whom he names Eppie, as a blessing that has come to replace his gold. He learns to love her – and she him – and, in this way, his spirit is transformed; his hatred for humanity resolves. This is his second moral transformation.

Many years later, Silas and Eppie go to visit Silas’s old home, which has been torn down to make way for a factory. This experience frees him from his cursed past and enables him to return home in peace. The miracle of Eppie has caused him to trust in life and to overcome his resentment of the injustices he has suffered. This story, initially tragic but ultimately uplifting, shows how our character can not only deteriorate but also rejuvenate during the course of our lives.

2. Volitional Actions Modify Character

Karma not only says that human character is malleable but that our character is modified by the volitional actions we carry out. Looking at a traditional Buddhist analysis of the human being will help explain this. Buddhist teaching divides the human being into five aspects (skandhas, literally ‘heaps’): form, feeling, perception, volitional dispositions, and consciousness (rupa, vedana, samjna, samskaras & vijnana).Rather than give a full account of these aspects, we will concentrate on just one of them: volitional dispositions (samskaras). What makes each individual recognizable and unique is the sum total of his or her volitional dispositions. Our volitional dispositions are our tendencies to act, speak, and think in a particular way. They are what determine our habits and thus what make us distinctive. They constitute those aspects of our character which others are constantly praising or complaining about. Depending on our particular moral make-up, some of these habits will be skilful, others unskilful. Owing to their relative continuity, we tend to think that these habits are enduring and unchanging, but this is a mistake that prevents us reforming them and realizing our potential.

Our ‘essence’, to the extent that this term means anything, is that we are a constantly changing bundle of habits. Every time we undertake a volitional act, a particular tendency is re- inforced, and every time we resist the temptation of another course of action, we undermine the strength of the volition that would carry it out. In this way, we change from moment to moment. But in the short term that change is usually imperceptible; it becomes significant only after many years. Sudden, cataclysmic personal changes are rare, although not unknown. Understanding the dynamic of personal change can help us to take on board the slow, painstaking, even laborious nature of personal transformation. We can’t completely change ourselves overnight because our more deeply ingrained patterns of thinking, feeling, speaking, and behaving require consistent attention over a prolonged period if they are to be changed. There is no quick fix. At the same time, while progress may be slow and difficult, it is possible. It is because we have no fixed, unchanging self that we can become spiritually liberated.

The fruits of karma

A karma consists fundamentally in a choice, though this choice will not necessarily lead to overt action or speech. But if a choice is not acted out what kind of effect could it have? The consequences that arise from karmas are technically known as vipakas (effects) or phalas (fruits). So what kinds of effect do karmas bring about? What is the nature of karmic fruit? It is often said that we ‘reap what we sow’, as though a karma automatically led to a specific result. But just as a good harvest depends not only on sowing but also on many other factors (such as the weather), so karmas take effect in accordance with the general principle of conditionality.

We have already established that Karma is a principle of moral agency and not a general causal principle. It follows that only those consequences informed by the moral impetus behind an action are results of karma. Many of the consequences resulting from what we do are better explained by other factors. For instance, if I throw a ball from a window it falls to the ground not because I am good, bad, or indifferent; it falls because that is what bodies do. This particular fruit, or consequence, will not be significantly affected by my moral condition; whether I am good, bad, or indifferent the result will almost certainly be the same, because it is governed by the utu-niyama, the physical inorganic order, and not the karma-niyama.

According to Brahmanism, the fruits of karma ripen only from lifetime to lifetime and not within the current life. So in our next life we will reap the fruit of the karmic seeds we sow in this one and, at the same time, sow further karma for our subsequent life. This means we have no hope of changing the pattern of our present life, but must trust that we will experience the ‘rewards’ of our good karma in the life to come. There is a considerable leap of faith involved in adopting this point of view. Buddhism expanded the range of options as to when karmas could ripen to include four possibilities: (1) Karma that has consequences in this life, (2) Karma that has consequences in the next life, (3) Karma that has consequences in some future life, and (4) Karma that becomes exhausted before taking effect.

The Culakammavibhangga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya) describes how the relationship between karma and its consequences was understood in early Buddhism. It examines seven different actions and their opposites, and charts the consequences that follow from each in one’s next life (see table below). It claims, for instance, that if we kill living beings, then, in our next life, we will be short-lived. It also claims that if we are of an angry disposition we will be reborn ugly. A direct correlation is made between karma and consequence in a ‘punishment-to-fit-the-crime’ sort of way. It is certainly all very neat. The kinds of consequences attributed to karma here are very diverse, embracing lifespan, physical health, appearance, social importance, economic situation, caste or class, and level of intelligence. Interestingly, apart from intelligence, none of the supposed consequences of one’s karma relate to one’s future character. To me this suggests a way in which Buddhist thinking about Karma was still deeply influenced by Brahmanical thinking. Not only is the psychological dimension of Karma not fully appreciated, but Karma is seen as the main (if not sole) explanation for the differences between people – why, for instance, some people suffer and others don’t. In looking at the five niyamas, we have already seen that this is not always the case.

There are many stories in the early Buddhist tradition that superficially teach a rather literal relationship between karma and vipaka. For instance, the Udana (‘Verses of Inspiration’) records the story of Suppabuddha, a leper, who stumbles upon the Buddha delivering a discourse while out begging for scraps of food (from Udana). He instantaneously gains transcendental insight, but is killed by a mad cow immediately afterwards. Later, the Buddha is approached by some of his followers who ask why it was that Suppabuddha became a leper. The Buddha’s reported answer is that in a previous life Suppabuddha had insulted a saint (arahant) by calling him a leper and spitting in his face. For this evil deed he suffered in hell for many hundreds of thousands of years and, as a residual result, was reborn as a leper.

While the ‘poetic justice’ suggested here may have a certain emotional, even aesthetic appeal, such a symmetrical understanding of the relationship between a particular karma and its experienced effect oversimplifies the complex and often messy nature of real events. We could see this model of Karma as a ‘folk model’ that worked in the sense that it discouraged people from acting unskilfully and spurred them to good deeds. Philosophically, though, it seems to ignore the different orders of conditionality. Such rather literal correlations between karmas and their effects may be better understood as illustrating the general truth that unskilful actions will have undesirable consequences and skilful actions will have desirable consequences, rather than being taken as exact descriptions of what actually happens.

Levels of Karmic Consequence

We have already noted that not all the consequences resulting from a morally informed action are vipakas. An action may have all sorts of consequences that have very little to do with the ethical condition of the agent who performed them. More than this, a karma can have a range of possible consequences that may or may not come about depending upon whether other conditions are also present. Following this reasoning, we can identify ‘direct’ results of karmas and more ‘indirect’ ones.

The most direct results of a karma are mental. In other words, through performing karmas (which are ultimately intentions), we change our minds and, bit by bit, reform our character. To understand this more fully, we need to return to the concept of samskaras or volitional tendencies. Because there is no fixed soul, no essential person, only a jumble of habits and tendencies, we identify our ‘self’ with those dominant habits and tendencies. If we have a tendency to become angry, we think of ourselves as an angry person; if we tend to be very quiet, we may think of ourselves as a timid person. In this way, we define ourselves in terms of the particular character traits and habits we experience most strongly. We could even say that what we are is no more than a habit.

Well, not quite. Since Karma is essentially about choice, we always have the option of not going along with our habits, and taking a different turning at the crossroads. The chances are that our karmic momentum will lead us to reinforce our present habits unless we consciously and deliberately work against them

This is why it can prove very difficult to change. The weight of our previous choices seems to push us in a particular direction and it might take a lot of effort to resist this. But this is the workplace of spiritual life: in recognizing our habitual tendencies, realizing it is possible to resist them, and in making new choices about who we want to be. If we make a new choice, the possibility of a new habit arises and, ultimately, the possibility of a new self. However enmeshed we are in a particular set of habits, however unskilful we have become, there is always the possibility of change. Thus Buddhism expresses a supremely optimistic vision of human nature; it never gives up on anyone, but recognizes that, even in the most evil of characters, there is always the potential for redemption.

Not only does our previous karma have implications for our character, it also has implications for the kind of world we live in, or at least the way we experience that world. For instance, someone who experiences a lot of fear sees the world as dangerous and threatening, whereas for someone who is very confident the world seems mild and compliant. Neither of these perspectives can be fully ‘objective’, but we tend to believe that our way of experiencing the world is the way the world really is. Fundamentally, we create our own world and don’t realize how much our own prejudices, desires, and habits distort our experience of it; we see the world in terms of our selves. Learning to disentangle what is the given in experience and what is our evaluation is a subtle and complex process requiring ever-increasing levels of awareness, honesty, and perceptiveness.

But our actions also have ramifications beyond ourselves. They may have all sorts of consequences for the physical world and for other people too. While these also arise partly in dependence upon the initial intention, their precise outcome is not determined by it. For instance, if Green murders Blue the most direct outcome is likely to be a fear of being caught, and perhaps a sense of isolation from society, even a sense of guilt. After all, Green is now a murderer. Given that our society has laws against murder, a further outcome might be that he is arrested, tried, and convicted. Depending on where he lives, he might even be executed. But this will not necessarily happen, and even if it does it is not simply the result of Green’s karma. It may be that the police lack expertise in following up clues, so they never discover the murderer. Perhaps the prosecution makes a mistake in its preparation and Green is acquitted. All sorts of conditions could come into play such that Green does not end up getting caught or convicted, but this is not necessarily because Green has performed good karmas in the past. The world is not as neat and tidy as that. Instead, there is a complex interaction of karmic streams and other non-karmic factors which collectively produce a unique scenario. The karmas of the police have an important bearing on the outcome, as do the karmas of the barristers and the jury. Someone might be falsely acquitted or even falsely convicted, and these eventualities might say nothing about their moral condition.

This process is shown in fig. 3.

We can see that the chain of consequences can stop at a number of points and what keeps the chain intact may have more to do with the actions of others than it does with the primary agent. At the same time, without the initial act no chain would be formed. So in contemplating a particular course of action, the ethically responsible person must not only examine their present moral state but also consider the potential consequences of their conduct. This act of imagination can bring greater moral weight to our deliberations, otherwise we may find that our past actions return to haunt us. This is the theme of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. At the beginning of the story, Henchard, a poor journeyman labourer, sells his wife in order to make some money. This enables him to begin a new life and he eventually works his way up to become an important man – the mayor of Casterbridge. Everything seems to be going swimmingly until his wife re- appears and his dark secret is disclosed. This leads ultimately to his downfall.

While it is true that consequences that no one could have foreseen sometimes result from our actions, it is usually the case that a little thought could enable us to predict the likely outcome of our actions. Crucially, we need to take responsibility for our contribution to any state of affairs.

Do We Always Get What We Deserve?

According to the Dhammapada,”Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea, nor yet in the clefts of the mountains, nowhere in the world (in fact) is there any place to be found where, having entered, one can abide free from (the consequences of) one’s evil deeds.” (verse 240)

But it seems that many people commit evil deeds and don’t suffer as a result. How can Karma account for this? Another sutta, the Mahakammavibhanga (‘Greater Discourse on Karma’ from Majjhima Nikaya 136), goes some way towards providing an explanation. Here the Buddha identifies four kinds of person: (1) someone who acts evilly and is reborn in an unfavourable realm (even in hell), (2) someone who acts evilly and is reborn in a favourable realm (even in heaven), (3) someone who acts skilfully and is reborn in a favourable realm (even in heaven), and (4) someone who acts skilfully and is reborn in an unfavourable realm (even in hell).

We need not accept the principle of rebirth to understand the problem being tackled here. It could be rephrased along the following lines: (1) someone who acts evilly and seems to suffer later on, (2) someone who acts evilly who seems to have a good life later on, (3) someone who acts skilfully and who seems to have a good life later on, and (4) someone acts skilfully and who seems to suffer later on.

The question at issue here is how someone could act skilfully and yet suffer as a consequence (even being reborn in hell), and, conversely, how could someone act unskilfully and seem to benefit (even being reborn in heaven)? These outcomes seem to contradict the principle of Karma: the claim that actions give rise to commensurate consequences. Not so, says the Buddha. It would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion before looking further into the matter. The Buddha further points out that the evil-doer who goes to heaven must have acted skilfully in order to do so, but at some time in the future will reap the consequences of their evil conduct. Similarly, the person who acts skilfully but goes to hell must have acted evilly at some time in the past but will later reap the positive consequences of their good conduct.

This sutta is valuable because it demonstrates awareness of the apparent contradiction between what we sometimes see around us – and even experience – and the doctrine of Karma. People who act well sometimes suffer, whereas people who act badly sometimes don’t. The relationship between karma and vipaka is not a simple, linear one; we might not be able to trace the precise connection between a given karma and its vipaka, unless the karma is weighty. Our current experience is informed by our past actions, but precisely how each of those actions shapes the present might be indiscernible because the vipaka resulting from each distinct karma will often be quite subtle. It is more like baking a cake: we combine all sorts of ingredients and cook them, but when we taste the finished product we don’t experience the ingredients separately. In the same way, our life has a particular flavour determined by the ingredients (past karmas) we have put into it. For the purposes of exposition, we single out a particular action and its consequence, but we don’t normally experience life like this. Rather than imagining a one-to-one correspondence between a particular karma and its vipaka, we can think instead of experiencing an overall karmic momentum that has been set in motion by a large cluster of actions.

But the defence of Karma attributed to the Buddha in the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta only fully works if we accept rebirth. Let’s say someone acts badly throughout their life but does not seem to suffer as a consequence – they are not burned by a fire from heaven, they don’t lose their relatives, they don’t lose their wealth, nor are they persecuted in any way (Dhammapada verses 137-40). Without the prospect of rebirth in an undesirable realm (duggati), they seem to have ‘got away with it’. There is nothing more repugnant to the conventionally moral person than to see this happen, and it can be quite undermining. Let’s say I act morally all my life yet I experience all sorts of suffering, calamity, and difficulty while my evil neighbour seems to live an easy existence. There seems to be something inherently unjust about this. It seems unnatural. In such circumstances, why should I bother being ethical? If I can comfort myself with the prospect that he will roast in hell as a consequence of his conduct and that I will soon be in heaven, I can perhaps be persuaded to put up with the present injustice. But if we don’t accept rebirth – and many Westerners will not – does this sort of scenario undermine the rationale for living ethically?

It need not. The way of thinking just described is rather narrow in that it looks for specific rewards for good conduct and punishments for bad. This is to miss the point. It is a clich<@233> that ‘virtue is its own reward’ but it is nevertheless still true. We should not see our ethical conduct as a contract or an investment, but aim to forget ourselves, at least for a moment, in going beyond our own needs and desires in order to respond to somebody else. This self-forgetting can be a tremendous relief from self-preoccupation. It can be liberating.

Through our morally positive conduct, we can not only benefit other people but also transform ourselves. The moment-by- moment decisions that we make slowly mould our character. If we always act from our best motives we will develop a clear conscience, perhaps one of the greatest boons one could hope for. The sense of guilt, of wrongdoing, that hangs over many people’s lives crushes the spirit and can even lead to madness. Just as water corrodes iron, so our evil actions corrode our spirit and eventually destroy it (Dhammapada verse 240). Accordingly, simply because an evildoer is not punished in some tangible way does not mean that person does not suffer as a result of his or her actions.

But there do seem to be some contrary individuals who don’t appear to suffer – even psychologically – as a result of their evil conduct. Don’t they undermine the notion of Karma? Here I want to introduce an unusual way of seeing what suffering is. It may be true that such people don’t consciously experience suffering – they don’t feel remorse or guilt for what they have done and seem to lead an enjoyable life. However, someone who is insensitive to their own evil is, to that extent, inhuman. They are cut off from the world of ordinary human beings and from their spiritual potential. They are condemned to an impoverished existence in which they are no longer able to feel, because to feel deeply would also mean recognizing their own evil. This impoverishment is itself a form of suffering.

Let me use an analogy. In recent years, there has been a move within the Christian church to redefine Hell as the absence of God. Transposing this way of thinking, we could say that at least one form of suffering is being cut off from feeling deeply for other human beings and from one’s spiritual possibilities. In other words, limitation is itself a form of suffering even though it may not be consciously experienced as such.

We may be able to accept that others do not always reward virtue, we may even be able to accept that evil is not always punished, but what about when virtue seems to get punished? This would seem the last straw for the notion of Karma. It is a perverse fact that many ethical people, even saints, suffer terribly at the hands of others. Yet, if Karma is true, this should not be so. Of course, we can always speculate that they are only suffering as a consequence of their evil conduct in a previous life, but this presupposes a belief in rebirth which for many people is counter-intuitive. So is it possible to hold to a belief in Karma and accept the persecution of saints?

I think it is. A fact that the basic account of Karma usually leaves out is that we live in a world of other people who themselves make choices, act out habits, and follow through their karmic momentum in various ways. They impinge on our lives. We do not live in a world where we simply act and then experience the consequences of that action. Instead, our world is a swirling dance of karmic streams interacting with each other; other people influence our lives and we influence theirs. Since we do not live in a cocoon protected from the effects of others’ behaviour, unwarranted suffering becomes possible. The fact that we suffer at the hands of an evil person need not necessarily mean that we acted evilly in a previous life – or even in this one – it is just one of the hazards of living in a world in which there are evil people. It may even be that an evil person wants to hurt us precisely because of our moral integrity. This may be hard to accept. We generally need some explanation, even justification, for why we are suffering, and the possibility that it is somewhat arbitrary is cold comfort. But there are some events that seem hard to explain in any other way, such as natural disasters or the atrocities of psychopathic killers.

Having said this, we usually contribute to the situation so we need to take responsibility for this. For instance, the journalist Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Lebanon and held hostage for several years in appalling conditions (Brian Keenan, ‘An Evil Cradling’, Vintage, 1993). He did not necessarily ‘deserve’ that experience of suffering, it need not have been a punishment for his previous evil conduct, but he did choose to be in Lebanon at a time when he knew that Westerners were regularly kidnapped. So Keenan played a role, he was one of the conditions that gave rise to his capture, but his karma did not make it happen. The unscrupulous terrorists who kidnapped him played their part too.

The way in which our karmic stream is intertwined with others is brilliantly illustrated in J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls (J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls and Other Plays, Penguin, 2001). An Inspector Goole turns up unexpectedly at a family dinner party and announces that a young pregnant woman, Eva Smith, has just died in hospital after drinking disinfectant. Rather drunk and dismissive, the family can’t see what all this has to do with them. By a sequence of moves, Goole shows how each member of the family has played his or her part in leading Eva to the point of suicide. Birling, the father, her one-time employer, sacked her for asking for a pay rise. Sheila, his daughter, then had Eva dismissed from her post at a draper’s for apparently laughing at a dress that Sheila had tried on. Gerald, Sheila’s fiance, then took Eva as his mistress and eventually deserted her. Then Birling’s son, Eric, after throwing himself at Eva one night while drunk, got her pregnant and then abandoned her. Finally, Birling’s wife Sybil refused to offer help when Eva asked her charitable organization for assistance.

The whole family is implicated in the tragedy. One of the questions the play invites is: who is responsible? The family members are divided between those who see the implications of their own conduct and experience a moral awakening (Sheila, Eric, and initially Gerald) and those who refuse to accept any moral responsibility (Birling, his wife, and later Gerald). It’s clear that the young woman chose to take her own life, yet it is also clear that the conduct of the Birling family was a significant factor in leading her to this point. Sheila and Eric see deeply into the situation and become morally transformed by their awareness. They are able to understand how their conduct formed important links in a chain that resulted in a terrible tragedy. The others seek to evade any responsibility. Goole concludes his interrogation in the following way:

“But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.”

After Goole leaves, doubts are raised as to whether he was a real police inspector. Birling phones the police and discovers there is no such person. Along with Mrs Birling and Gerald, Mr Birling concludes that the whole thing was a hoax: there was no suicide, and the hospital confirms this. They begin to treat the whole affair as a magnificent joke. But Sheila can’t.

“But you’re forgetting one thing I still can’t forget. Everything we said had happened really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done.”

The play ends with Mr Birling receiving a telephone call from the police. He is told that a young woman has died on her way to hospital after swallowing disinfectant…

Does rebirth matter?

Karma and rebirth were part of the cultural baggage of the ancient Indian Buddhist. For many contemporary Westerners – and even some Easterners – these ideas will not sit comfortably with their understanding of how the universe works, at least in their traditional guises.

Early Buddhism tended to speak of Karma and rebirth in two voices. First, it offered a fairly crude, simplistic model that was able both to account for suffering and to spur people into living a good life through fear of a nasty rebirth and the promise of a pleasant one. It offered a rather neat, even symmetrical, vision of life in which good was always rewarded, and evil was always punished. But like the traditional Christian vocabulary of heaven and hell, this was rather a blunt instrument. As we have seen, this model owes a great deal to pre-existing ideas and its limitations betray these origins.

Secondly, Buddhism talked about Karma in a subtler, more psychological way. This understanding embodies a genuine spiritual advance on what had gone before. With every choice we make, whether overtly expressed or not, we modify our character. Through skilful choices we develop creative habits, whereas through unskilful choices we not only starve our positive impulses but also encourage destructive ones. For better or worse, we are constantly renewing ourselves, even with every passing thought.

But more than this, in modifying our character we also modify our way of relating to the world, which means our experience of the world changes. In an important sense, our world is a creation of our mind. Part of this is the way we influence how others respond to us. But we have seen that this second voice speaks less dogmatically than the first; it allows for many variations, exceptions, and even anomalies. This might be unsatisfactory for some people, but perhaps this reflects the true complexity of experience.

It is fairly easy to accept the doctrine of Karma, at least as expressed in the second voice. We can see how people change because of what they do and the decisions they make. We can also see how this informs their outlook on the world and how others respond to them. But the same is not true of rebirth. We have to stretch our imagination a lot further if we are to take this on. Not only is it not immediately verifiable but it also raises a number of questions that traditional Buddhism has not decisively answered.

Do We Need Rebirth?

Given the cultural origins of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth, is it relevant to the modern world? Had it emerged from a different cultural background, would Buddhism have taught rebirth at all? Such questions invite us to re-examine the status of Buddhist teachings. Do they aim to provide accurate descriptions of reality or are they simply pragmatic? The Buddha’s declared aim was to lead people to spiritual liberation, freedom from all limiting beliefs and habits, the transcendence of suffering. He aimed to help others to reproduce in themselves the spiritual awakening that he himself enjoyed, not to indoctrinate them with a system of ideas. Possibly the Buddha talked in terms of rebirth because that is how people then conceived of themselves and their future; he needed to communicate his message in a way they could understand.

Because rebirth was taken to be self-evident, traditional Buddhism did little to argue in its favour. But we live within a very different cultural paradigm, one which does not generally accept rebirth. This means that either the case for rebirth needs to be convincing or the whole area should be left open. But is a belief in rebirth necessary in order to practise Buddhism effectively? While some traditional Buddhists would respond with an emphatic ‘yes’, it seems to me that the answer is ‘no’. Looking at the notion of rebirth pragmatically will help to clarify this.

Buddhism is a practical religion; progress does not consist in a happy consent to holy dogmas but in spiritual evolution, which means transcending selfishness, hatred, and unawareness. Beliefs are relevant in so far as they encourage this process; if they don’t, it is not that they are necessarily untrue, just beside the point. So how does a belief in rebirth help us to evolve? Historically, fear of rebirth has functioned not only as a spur to spiritual practice but also as a means of social control; people really believed they would be reborn, and that if they acted badly they would suffer. Buddhist tradition describes in great detail the appalling conditions that will be one’s lot if one lives an immoral life. Thus rebirth functioned as a kind of stick that goaded people to change their lives. More subtly, rebirth vividly expresses how our actions have implications beyond ourselves, even beyond our own deaths. Our conduct does matter, it will influence the future whether we are there to see it or not. Rebirth therefore enables us to recognize the importance of our actions. We cannot contract out of life; whether for better or for worse we are going to make a difference.

Despite the Buddha’s radical insight that a karma is a volition (cetana) and that one may reap the consequences of one’s actions within one’s current lifetime, the tendency of early Buddhist scriptures is to understand karmic consequences in terms of what will happen after death. So if one lives a skilful life one will be reborn in a happy realm, if one lives an unskilful life one will be reborn in a realm of suffering. It is clear that the early Buddhists believed that, without fear of retribution after death, people would have no positive motives for acting skilfully, because they would not see the danger in unwholesome motivations.(footnote 104) The doctrine of nihilism (natthikavada), as criticized in the Buddhist scriptures, not only denies rebirth but also rejects Karma altogether. It would seem that acceptance of an afterlife was integral to the early Buddhist conception of how Karma worked. The two were seen as inseparable, but they need not be.

If we don’t believe in punishment or reward after death, can we really have no motivation to live skilfully? The main issue seems to be finding another means by which to spur us to amend our lives. If we are able to develop a strong volition to live skilfully and strive for spiritual insight, then rebirth may be irrelevant. But in the absence of the ‘fear factor’ of punishment after death we will need to find another emotional fuel to propel us forward. We will need to see how spiritual practice will lead us to break free from suffering within this life and lead us to a happier, more fulfilled existence. We also need to understand how not taking care of our spiritual life will lead to painful consequences. This requires a more subtle and positive basis for spiritual practice than fear of punishment.

Such a foundation is embodied in the Pali term samvega, a word that is quite difficult to translate but which indicates an experience that includes, firstly, a realization that life as normally lived is futile and meaningless, and secondly, that we have been foolish and complacent in having let ourselves live so blindly. Finally, it suggests a vivid sense of urgency to find a way out of the meaningless cycle of mundane life. This final dimension of the experience of samvega is particularly crucial because it is the fuel that propels us to search for a way forward. The fact that there is a way out of our predicament, and that we can respond creatively to it, is what leads us towards the experience of spiritual commitment and saves us from existential despair.

It may be that it is only on the basis of a deep experience of samvega that spiritual life becomes a possibility. Until we recognize that our lives are lacking, a spiritual path is unnecessary; until we realize we are imprisoned, we are unlikely to want to escape. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed this very well:

“It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.” (footnote 106)

Some people have said to me that if rebirth wasn’t true, and it wasn’t possible that we could be reborn in hell or as an animal, they would have no motivation to act ethically and spiritually develop themselves. I find this attitude difficult to understand because, for my own part, the suffering I experience in this very life, the sense of futility and emptiness that sometimes washes through me, are quite enough to motivate me to take care of my existence. At a time when institutions for social regulation were much less developed than they are now, ‘cosmic threats’ of hell may have been essential in order to keep human beings on the straight and narrow (though they weren’t universally successful). But do we still need the fear of hell to spur us to amend our ways? We can enter hell now, in this very lifetime. If we consider for a moment what some human beings have had to endure – the Holocaust, for example – could there be anything much worse? Heaven and hell are accessible to us right now; we don’t need to think of them as places we might go to after death.

As long as we can motivate ourselves to develop skilful mental states and eradicate unskilful ones, we can embark on the path of spiritual transformation. Beliefs about rebirth may be beside the point. And this is surely one of the most wonderful things about Buddhism: there is no need to accept a whole range of unverifiable dogmas before we can practise spiritually. This is a crucial point, because there is a danger of evaluating how ‘good’ a Buddhist one is in terms of how closely one’s beliefs accord with traditional doctrines. However, we don’t become better Buddhists through the uncritical acceptance of traditional Buddhist dogmas, but by developing wisdom and compassion.

A specious argument sometimes used to defend rebirth is that to reject it would undermine the principle of dependent origination. We have a certain ‘conscious momentum’; surely that momentum can’t just disappear? How can nothing come from something? This is quite a feeble line of reasoning because it assumes that our consciousness is independent of our physical body and can survive without it. But this is the very question at issue. The principle of dependent origination states that all things arise in dependence upon conditions, and when those conditions cease the thing itself ceases. If individualized consciousness is dependent on the body for its survival, it will disintegrate when the body dies. No one would insist that it contradicts conditionality to say that a rainbow disappears when the rains stops. We do not need to think that the rainbow ‘carries on’ in some way.

What if Rebirth is False?

Are there significant implications for Buddhism as a whole if rebirth is no more than an ancient Indian superstition? What I have said so far might suggest not, but I think there are. First, if rebirth does not take place then the content and scope of the Buddhist goal must be re-presented. For instance, one of the most common ways of describing the Buddha’s spiritual insight in the early scriptures is known as the three knowledges (tevijja) (footnote 107).According to this formula, three things were integral to the Buddha’s realization: the ability to recollect his manifold past lives, the ability, with his Divine Eye, to see the passing away and reappearance of beings and an understanding of how beings pass on according to their actions, and, finally, the seeing with direct knowledge (abhinna) that he has destroyed all negative inner drives.

So it would seem that, at least for the early Buddhist tradition, an understanding of rebirth was a critical dimension of the awakening experience. What is puzzling about the formula of the three knowledges is that the first two are not the sole preserve of spiritually awakened beings but are, rather, said to be supernormal powers that can be gained through meditative concentration. In other words, it is only the third knowledge – destruction of negative inner drives – that is uniquely characteristic of the Buddhist goal. This makes me wonder why the other two are so emphasized. It is clear that the formulation of a threefold knowledge is an ironic reference to the Brahmanical ideal, which itself focused on three knowledges. These were the Vedas, the orally-transmitted sacred texts. In emphasizing a personal spiritual insight above textual authority, the Buddhist tradition reconceived the meaning of knowledge: it was something the individual realized, not something learned by heart from the elders. This may explain why the first two of the Buddhist three knowledges appear so prominently in early texts: the formula became shorthand for a spiritual experience that to many may already have seemed rather remote. Given that only the destruction of all negative inner drives is a knowledge unique to spiritual awakening, it would seem likely that this particular property discloses the fundamental nature of that experience more than the other two.

Another possibility is that the three knowledges, though seemingly presented as literal realizations, could be understood more metaphorically. On such a reading, the first knowledge could indicate how the Buddha achieved deep insight into his own character. He sees how his past conduct has formed the person he is now, so his habit patterns have become completely transparent to him. The second knowledge shows how the Buddha understood the way in which others condition themselves and their futures. It enables him to read the characters of others, to understand not only where they come from but also where they are heading. The third knowledge illustrates the Buddha’s self mastery: he is in control of himself because he is fully conscious, not driven by unconscious desires or habits.

If we discard rebirth as conventionally understood, the traditional Buddhist way of describing our human predicament and the nature of the spiritual enterprise must be re-envisaged. No longer are we aiming to break free from the wheel of birth and death but rather to shake off our spiritual fetters in this very life. This is not an alarming adjustment, but many traditional texts talk about the Buddhist goal in cosmic terms, something to be worked towards over many thousands of lifetimes. If we have just one life, we will have to get a move on: we don’t have much time. This could have very positive consequences by generating a sense of urgency and an appreciation of the preciousness of the present moment. If we have thousands of lifetimes before us, we might be tempted into complacency and so slacken our spiritual efforts. By withdrawing attention from the possibility of future lives we can concentrate our attention more keenly on the present. The Buddhist saint becomes a human exemplar, not a cosmic superman: we really can emulate him or her, rather than just stand back in awe.

But a rejection of rebirth also calls into question the range of the Buddha’s spiritual insight. While some scholars have argued that the Buddha didn’t really teach rebirth at all, this charge could be made against all the teachings of early Buddhism: no one knows for certain what the Buddha actually taught. It is at least reasonable to assume that the Buddha not only taught rebirth but was convinced that such a belief was useful in the process of spiritual transformation. If the Buddha thought it was useful, who are we to argue?

I have already drawn attention to the provisional and instrumental nature of beliefs within Buddhism. A ‘wrong view’ (micchaditthi), according to Buddhism, is not a factually inaccurate one (such as a belief that the moon is made of green cheese) but a perspective that prevents us making spiritual progress. The form and style of the cultural universe in which the Buddha taught inevitably influenced how he communicated his insights. So, for instance, the Buddha made use of traditional Indian cosmology, a cosmology that appears quaintly primitive to today’s scientist. Few Buddhists would demand we adopt the ancient Indian view of the universe in its entirety. Rather, we must seek to understand the spiritual message it was used to express. Some of the ways that the Buddha thought and communicated about the world might seem from a modern point of view to be just plain wrong, but this would be to misunderstand their status. We must remember that the Buddha’s teachings were a raft, and their measure, therefore, is in how successfully they fulfilled their function. Crucially, the views that foster spiritual transformation need re-evaluation in the light of changing cultural and personal circumstances. This means that had he been around today the Buddha would probably have used different – perhaps even radically different – images and concepts to communicate his message.

Any practitioner of Buddhism must be wary of dogmatic acceptance or rejection of rebirth, and an examination of the motives for taking any particular view will be very instructive. We are often attracted or repelled by certain teachings for psychological reasons. For instance, we might want to live for ever, so we find rebirth comforting, or we might hate ourselves and find the notion of oblivion after death seductive. At the same time, we shouldn’t feel obliged to conform with a dogma simply because it has been a historical part of the spiritual tradition we have adopted, neither should we pretend to be convinced by a doctrine we think is culturally redundant. Following a spiritual path is not about subscribing to rigid dogmas but about overcoming selfishness and hatred and seeing our lives with complete clarity.

A pragmatic approach to Karma and rebirth I have found quite reassuring is the one found in the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65). In this text, the Buddha points out that a man who lives a committed ethical life can be assured of four things: (1) if Karma and rebirth are true, then, owing to his skilful life he will be reborn after death in a good destination, even in a heaven world, (2) if rebirth is not true he will have lived a joyful life anyway, happy and free from ill will, (3) if evil conduct reaps suffering, the ethical person has nothing to fear because he has not acted evilly, (4) if evil conduct does not lead to painful consequences, then the ethical person has nothing to fear anyway.

The most important thing, then, is to live a skilful, compassionate life. If we do this, we need not worry about what may or may not happen after death, since if there is rebirth we will have established a wholesome foundation for our next existence, and if there is no rebirth it won’t concern us. We need not rely on the possibility of some ‘reward’ after death because there are great benefits to be gained here and now through spiritual practice.

104: See, for example, Apannaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 60.5-9)
106: Anthony Kenny (ed.), The Wittgenstein Reader,Blackwell, 1994, p.302
107: Maha-Assapura Suttafrom (Majjhima Nikaya 39.19-21)

The Interconnected Self

The traditional Buddhist teachings of Karma and rebirth express how our actions of body, speech, and mind have implications not only for ourselves but also for others, and even the world in general. Moment by moment we create and recreate ourselves through what we think, say, and do. Over time, we develop distinctive habits:a recognisable ‘self’ that makes us more likely to perpetuate those habits rather than adopt others. We get stuck in a rut. This is how most of us experience our lives most of the time: trapped in patterns of thought and behaviour that we can neither break out of nor see beyond. Our habits become the limit of our world and our range of choices becomes very narrow. Like blinkered cart-horses ploughing the same old furrow, we cut deeper and deeper gashes into the earth of life.

But our lives are also intimately connected to others. We are not detached selves isolated from everything and everyone but interconnected selves whose actions influence, and are influenced by, those around us. To be human is to relate to other human beings. Not only do our actions have implications for others in the present but they can also affect people who have not yet been born. Recognising this helps us to understand that how we conduct our lives is a serious matter. Our conduct can add to the sum total of goodness in the world or it can eat away at that goodness by adding to what is base. It may often seem as though our lives have no lasting value, and this can encourage us to cling to some consolatory hope of a life yet to come, but it is difficult to see our own life in perspective, difficult to recognise exactly the impact we have had – for better or worse. It is difficult to see what our life might have been like if we hadn’t performed good deeds (or bad). It might be a useful thought experiment to imagine what life would have been like had we never been born: would the world be a better or a worse place?

This device underlies the film It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra, 1947). The film tells the story of George Bailey. In many ways, George is very ordinary; he lives in the same small town all his life (though he has aspirations to travel and do something ‘big’), works in a finance company, has a wife and children. In many ways his life is quite humdrum. Towards the end of the film, owing to his uncle misplacing a large sum of money, George stands to lose his whole business and might even end up in jail. He becomes so desperate that he wishes he had never been born and decides to kill himself; a somewhat sad end to an unremarkable life, perhaps.

But George’s life is really rather remarkable. He cherishes personal ambitions but situations arise that seem to demand that he renounce his own desires in order to respond to the needs of those around him. His whole life is a continual struggle between personal desire and objective need, and he always chooses to respond to the need. But where has this got him? George thinks it has got him nowhere and he becomes a poor, wretched man on the brink of ruin and suicide.

Just as George is about to throw himself from a bridge, an angel arrives and throws himself into the icy water. George dives into the river to save him. Later, unconsoled, George still wishes he had never been born. The angel grants his wish by showing him how life in the town would have progressed without him. For example, George’s brother is dead (since George would not have saved him from drowning as a child), so he never grew up to be a war hero who saved many people’s lives. The town as a whole is dramatically different. It is characterised by harsh, selfish behaviour and is in the grip of a heartless property tycoon who keeps many of the residents in poverty by charging exorbitant rents.

George begins to realise that, while thwarting his personal ambition, the many sacrifices he made throughout his life have benefited the town immeasurably, adding to the quantum of decency, kindness, and solidarity of its citizens. While caught up in the whirl of daily life, George is unable to recognise his positive impact on the lives of others. Through stepping back and contemplating a world in which none of his little acts of kindness had happened he sees the true value of his contribution. He sees how seemingly small kindnesses snowball into the future to set up dramatically positive chains of events. He appreciates how rich he has become as an individual through his compassionate action and is finally able to lay to rest his regret at his unfulfilled ambitions.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of everyday kindnesses and cruelties. It is often only with time that the true character and influence of such actions can be seen. While the traditional Buddhist doctrines of Karma and rebirth may present themselves in a somewhat archaic, even naive, guise, they nevertheless communicate timeless truths about what it means to be human. We bear a responsibility to our future self and to other human beings through what we do. We have the power to transform the world for good or ill. It is through the compassionate exercise of this power that we fulfil our responsibility to life and transcend the confines of our ordinary mind. We place a feather on the scales of life that tips them towards goodness.

Is Buddhism atheistic?

Extract from Conze’s Buddhism: Its Essence and Development

It has often been suggested that Buddhism is an atheistic system of thought, and this assumption has given rise to quite a number of discussions. Some have claimed that since Buddhism knew no God, it could not be a religion; others that since Buddhism obviously was a religion which knew no God, the belief in God was not essential to religion. These discussions assume that ‘God’ is an unambiguous term, which is by no means the case. We can distinguish in this context at least three meanings of the term. There is firstly a personal God who created the universe; there is secondly the Godhead, either conceived as impersonal or as supra-personal; there are thirdly a number of gods, or of angels not clearly distinguished from gods.

(1) As for the first, Buddhist tradition does not exactly deny the existence of a creator, but it is not really interested to know who created the universe. The purpose of Buddhist doctrine is to release beings from suffering, and speculations concerning the origin of the universe are held to be immaterial to that task. They are not merely a waste of time but they may also postpone deliverance from suffering by engendering ill will in oneself and in others. While thus the Buddhists adopt an attitude of agnosticism to the question of a personal creator, they have not hesitated to stress the superiority of the Buddha over Brahma, the god who, according to Brahminic theology, created the universe. They represent the god Brahma as seized by pride when he thought to himself: ‘I am Brahma, I am the great Brahma, the King of the Gods; I am uncreated, I have created the world, I am the sovereign of the world, I can create, alter, and give birth; I am the Father of all things.'(from Dirghagama T1.xxii, T24.i; Vibhasa T1545.iic)The scriptures are not slow in pointing out that the Tathagata is free from such childish conceit. If indifference to a personal creator of the universe is atheism, then Buddhism is indeed atheistic.

(2) We are, however, nowadays, if only through the writings of Aldous Huxley, familiar with the difference between God and Godhead as an essential feature of the Perennial Philosophy. When we compare the attributes of the Godhead as they are understood by the more mystical tradition of Christian thought with those of Nirvana, we find almost no difference at all. It is indeed true that Nirvana has no cosmological functions, that this is not God’s world but a world made by our own greed and stupidity. It is indeed true that through their attitude the Buddhists express a more radical rejection of the world in all its aspects than we find among many Christians. At the same time, they are spared a number of awkward theological riddles and have not been under the necessity to combine, for instance, the assumption of an omnipotent and all-loving God with the existence of a great deal of suffering and muddle in this world. Buddhists also have never stated that God is Love, but that may be due to their preoccupation with intellectual precision, which must have perceived that the word ‘Love’ is one of the most unsatisfactory and ambiguous terms one could possibly use.

But, on the other hand, we are told that Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality, that it is the Good, the supreme goal, and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden, and incomprehensible Peace.

Similarly, the Buddha who is, as it were, the personal embodiment of Nirvana, becomes the object of all those emotions that we are wont to call religious.

There has existed throughout Buddhist history a tension between the bhaktic and the gnostic approach to religion, such as we find also in Christianity. There is, however, the difference that in Buddhism the gnostic vision has always been regarded as the more true one, while the bhaktic, devotion, type was regarded more or less as a concession to the common people. It is generally found in philosophical thought that even philosophical abstractions are clothed with some kind of emotional warmth when they concern the Absolute. We have only to think of Aristotle’s description of the Prime Mover. In Buddhism, however, in addition, a whole system of ritual, and of religious elevation, is associated with an intellectually conceived Absolute in a manner which is not logically very plausible, but which stood the test of life for a long time.

(3) We now come to the thorny subject of polytheism. The Christian teaching which has to some extent pervaded our education, has made us believe that polytheism belongs to a past period of the human race, that it has been superseded by monotheism, and that it finds no response in the contemporary mind. In order to appreciate the Buddhists’ toleration of polytheism, we must first of all understand that polytheism is very much alive even among us. But where formerly Athene, Baal, Astarte, Isis, Sarasvati, Kuan-Yin, etc., excited the popular imagination, it is nowadays inflamed by such words as democracy, progress, civilization, equality, liberty, reason, science, etc. A multitude of personal beings has given way to a multitude of abstract nouns. In Europe, the turning point came when the French deposed the Virgin Mary and transferred their affections to the Goddess of Reason. The reason for this change is not far to seek. Personal deities grow on the soil of a rural culture in which the majority of the population are illiterate, while abstract nouns find favour with the literate populations of modern towns. Medieval men went to war for Jesus Christ, Saint George, and San Jose. Modern crusades are in aid of such abstractions as Christianity, the Christian Way of Life, Democracy, and the Rights of Man.

Literacy, however, is not the only factor which differentiates our modern polytheism from that of ancient times. Another factor is our separation from the forces of Nature. Every tree, every well, lake, or river, almost every type of animal, could once bring forth a deity. We are now too remote from Nature to think that. In addition, our democratic predilections make us less inclined to deify great men. In India, kings were held to be gods and, ever since the days of Egypt, the despotism of a divine ruler has been a most efficient way of keeping vast empires together – in Rome, in China, in Iran, and in Japan. However much people may think of Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill, they are disinclined to grant them full divinity. The deification of great men is not confined to political figures. The inveterate polytheism of the human mind broke out in Islam and Christianity, through the crust of an official monotheism, in the form of the worship of saints. In Islam again the saints fused with the spirits which since ancient times had inhabited different localities. Finally, we must realize that religious people everywhere expect also immediate advantages from their religion. I saw, recently, in an Anglican shop window in Oxford, that at present Saint Christopher seems to be the only saint who appeals to those circles. His medals protect from car accidents. Similarly, the Buddhist expected from his religion that it would protect him from illnesses and fire, that it would give him children and other benefits. It is quite obvious that the one God, who soars above the stars and has the entire universe to look after, cannot really be bothered with such trifles. Special needs, therefore, engender special deities to provide for them. At present, we have developed a kind of confidence that science and industry will provide those needs, and our more superstitious inclinations are reserved for those activities which contain a large element of chance.

Among the populations which adopted Buddhism almost all activities contained a large element of chance, and a great number of deities were invoked for protection and help. The Buddhists would find no objection whatsoever in the cult of many gods because the idea of a jealous god is quite alien to them; and also because they are imbued with the conviction that everyone’s intellectual insight is very limited, so that it is very difficult for us to know when we are right, but practically impossible to be sure that someone else is wrong. Like the Catholics, the Buddhists believe that a faith can be kept alive only if it can be adapted to the mental habits of the average person. In consequence, we find that, in the earlier scriptures, the deities of Brahmanism are taken for granted and that, later on, the Buddhists adopted the local gods of any district to which they came.

If atheism is the denial of the existence of a God, it would be quite misleading to describe Buddhism as atheistic. On the other hand, monotheism has never appealed to the Buddhist mind. There has never been any interest in the origin of the universe – with only one exception. About 1000ad Buddhists in the north-west of India came into contact with the victorious forces of Islam. In their desire to be all things to all men, some Buddhists in that district rounded off their theology with the notion of an Adi-Buddha, a kind of omnipotent and omniscient primeval Buddha, who through his meditation originated the universe. This notion was adopted by a few sects in Nepal and Tibet.

Gods in Buddhism

The gods

(extract from The Wheel of Life by Kulananda)

This is a world of light and colour. Its beautiful inhabitants are endowed with the highest graces. Whatever they wish for simply appears: they have no need to work. Sweet sounds fill the air and everything sparkles with a scintillating luminosity.

The word deva, which is usually translated as ‘god’, derives from a root meaning ‘to shine’. The gods are the ‘shining ones’, radiant beings who live lives of unblemished happiness.

There are gods on earth, people to whom everything comes effortlessly and who enjoy highly refined states of mind. Some artists seem to live like this, and we can all think of people who seem somehow to be particularly favoured in their lives. They are good-looking, though not necessarily in the conventional sense, and there is something about them that just shines out. Everyone enjoys their company and they are always good to be with. Light-hearted and carefree, people like this have an aura of brightness about them that affects everyone with whom they come into contact.

In all likelihood, we ourselves have some experience of this world. Perhaps we remember times when we consistently enjoyed clearer, brighter, and more carefree mental states, or perhaps moments when we were absorbed in the appreciation of great works of art. Touching the fringes of the penetrating, refined consciousness of their creators, perhaps we entered – for a while – into their world.

The ‘human’ god-realm also contains those beings who, through their own spiritual efforts, have made substantial spiritual progress. They shine from within with a happiness that comes from spiritual practice. Having, through their transcendental insight, broken the fetters of habit, of a certain vagueness that always keeps all options open, and of superficiality, such beings live lives dedicated to spiritual practice – both for themselves and for others. According to the Pali tradition, such beings will be reborn on the Wheel no more than seven times.

There are also gods who are not in any sense human. Above our human world, according to the scriptural tradition, there exist plane after plane of increasingly refined states of being, all occupied by different kinds of gods. The first six of these levels, since the beings in them are still subject to subtle forms of sense desire, belong to the Wheel of Life.

Each god is embodied within a subtle physical form that is not perceivable by the usual human senses. Beautiful and noble, they experience continuous sense pleasure and satisfaction. The higher the realm, the more refined its pleasures. Each of the god worlds is traditionally shown as a kind of royal court, presided over by the chief god of that realm. Here, the gods pass their time at ease, fully absorbed in the enjoyment of beauty.

Because these gods inhabit the world of sense desire, they are able, to some extent at least, to interact with the human world. They like to visit places of natural beauty and are attracted to people who are happy and positive. They are particularly attracted to people who are practising spiritually, especially the spiritually developed, over whom they are sometimes said to cast a beneficial influence.

All the gods, however, are impermanent. Their lives are immeasurably long, and the higher the realm the longer the life, but like all other living beings the gods will die. This happens when the karma that made them gods in the first place is exhausted. None of the gods made the world and none of them presides over it indefinitely. In the Brahmajala Sutta of the Pali Digha-Nikaya the Buddha treats with gentle irony the notion of a creator god. There is a being who thinks he is the creator of all, the Buddha tells us, but he is deluded. He just happened to appear in his realm, through the force of previous karma, before any other beings. And when they in turn appear there, through the force of their past karma, he believes that he made them – and so do they.

Rather than being the centre of a god-made universe, the god realm for Buddhism is that world we inhabit as a result of previous skilful acts of body, speech, and mind. Skilful acts have positive consequences. Traditionally speaking, all our skilful acts create a stock of ‘merit’ which in time comes to fruition as a positive consequence. Gods are gods because they have accrued a great deal of merit.

The merit we generate through skilful acts may, if we have not previously created too much countervailing demerit, give rise in this life to greater ease and pleasure, or we may experience it in future heavenly rebirths. But however and wherever we experience the fruits of our skilful actions, the enjoyment and the pleasure they bring is always accompanied by the danger of intoxication. Living a life of unalloyed sensory delight, the gods are prone to forget themselves and they also lose sight of others. The existence they now enjoy is the result of their past mindfulness and ethical striving. Unless they continue to make an effort to preserve their awareness and to generate further positive karma through skilful acts, they will gradually sink to lower and lower levels of being. Eventually, it is sometimes said, intensely anguished at the loss of their former pleasures, such gods take rebirth in the hells.

As we make spiritual progress through our own efforts, we will naturally come to experience more and more pleasure as well as greater ease and confidence. Under such circumstances it is easy to forget that the fruits of the spiritual life are only ever the results of striving. Complacency easily sets in, and when it does we slowly begin to fall. The realm of the gods is a place of great danger for spiritual aspirants. For that reason, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears in the world of the gods as a white Buddha, playing the melody of impermanence upon a lute. Only in this beautiful form can the message of universal impermanence come home to the intoxicated gods.

The Noble Eightfold Path

(this is a very long section!)

The Noble Eightfold Path in general

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the most common formulation of the Path, the Fourth Noble Truth. (For a detailed exploration of the Four Noble Truths, see Access to Insight website.) It provides a breakdown of the different developments needed to make progress towards enlightenment. It consists of eight ‘limbs’ (anga).

Some important overall features of the Eightfold Path

1. Its limbs are interdependent. Progress on one part of the Path is supported by progress on other parts. To some extent, then, a Buddhist needs to work on all elements of the Path simultaneously. But they are also likely to concentrate on some elements more than others at certain points. Traditionally, a Buddhist starts more with the elements relating to ethics, goes on to those concerned with meditation, then concludes with wisdom. However, he/she will also need to have some concern with wisdom and meditation whilst focussing on ethics, and so on.

2. It is gradual. Progress on all the elements of the Path is made gradually. All the limbs of the path can be practised at a great variety of levels, from the most superficial to the most in-depth. Hence it is a path for both lay people and monks. Even those who are enlightened or nearly enlightened are said to practise it (in the form of the Transcendental Eightfold Path), though for them it is a spontaneous expression of their nature rather than an effort.

3. It is overlaps with other formulations. There are other formulations of the Path (e.g. the Middle Way, the Threefold Path, The Ten Perfections), but the Path itself is the same. In the different formulations it is simply being described and analysed differently.

4. The formulation is believed to originate with the Buddha. In the Pali Canon it is found in the Sutta on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dhamma (Dhammacakkapavattanasutta), where the Buddha’s First Sermon to the Five Ascetics at Sarnath is described. In this sermon he gives a brief overall account of the Four Noble Truths, and in explaining the Fourth Noble Truth he gives an account of the Noble Eightfold Path. All schools of Buddhism accept these basic formulations, though they may interpret and apply them differently.

The limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path

  • 1. Right View     (see below)
  • 2. Right Aspiration (1 & 2 correspond with Wisdom in the Three-Fold Way)
  • 3. Right Speech
  • 4. Right Action
  • 5. Right Livelihood (3, 4 & 5 correspond with Morality)
  • 6. Right Effort
  • 7. Right Mindfulness
  • 8. Right Concentration (6, 7 & 8 correspond with Meditation)

Before you move on, see if you can define each of the limbs in the space next to it above. Also see if you can define each element of the Threefold Path.

Past questions on AXA syllabus include:

  • Explain the meaning of the eightfold path, and assess the claim that the eightfold path is the most important teaching for Buddhists in their quest for enlightenment.
  • Examine the importance of the eightfold path as a means to enlightenment.
  • Explain and assess the claim that Buddhism is simply a humanistic moral philosophy.
  • With reference to vipassana and samatha meditation explain the nature and purpose of meditation in Buddhism.
  • “Meditation is a way of escaping from the problems of everyday life.” Explain and evaluate this view.

For a detailed exploration of the Eightfold Path from a Theravadin scholar-monk, go to Access to Insight website.

1. Right View (samma-ditthi)

The Importance of Views

The following was written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Right View (alternatively, ‘right understanding’ or ‘right vision’) consists partly of the beliefs which will help one towards enlightenment, but also of a full understanding of those beliefs and realisation of their full implications. Right view is thus central to wisdom in Buddhism.

Right View is also often described as the forerunner of the other limbs of the Eightfold Path: this is because it enables one to understand how the other limbs are helpful and to judge what is correct practice. For example, it would be impossible to practise right action without an understanding of what are right or wrong actions. It provides an initial view according to which we then orientate ourselves.

Although in many ways we need some Right View in order to practise Buddhism at all, it’s also true that some initial practice may be needed to get a vision of what lies ahead. Sangharakshita, founder of the FWBO, explains this in terms of a metaphor:

Imagine we want to climb to some lofty mountain peak. What do we do? First we study a map of the terrain, of the surrounding foothills, and of the mountain itself. This study of the map corresponds to the theoretica; study of Buddhist doctrine….But we have to actually start our journey, to get going – we have at least to get to base camp. This corresponds to our preliminary practice of the Buddha’s teaching. Eventually, after several days, weeks, or months of travelling, we catch a glimpse of the distant mountain peak which is the object of our journey. We have come only a little way, and we are still far from the foot of the mountain, but there in the distance we see the shining snow peak. We have a direct perception – a vision – of it, although from a very great distance.

This glimpse of the peak corresponds to Perfect Vision, and it gives us inspiration and encouragement to continue our journey. We can go on from there, keeping our eyes on the peak, never losing sight of it, at least not for more than a few minutes at a time. We may not care how long the journey, how many nights we spend on the way, how difficult the terrain, how hot or cold it is. We may not even care if we are starving, so long as we have our eyes firmly fixed on the peak. We are happy in the knowledge that we are getting nearer day by day, and that one day we shall find ourselves at the foot of the peak – This process of travelling with the peak in view corresponds to traversing the remaining stages of the Noble Eightfold Path. Eventually we may find ourselves on the virgin snows of the peak itself – may find that we have attained Enlightenment, or Buddhahood.

Sangharakshita: Vision and Transformation p.32, Windhorse


Why do you think there are three different translation of samma-ditthi? Note the limitations of each translation below (what does each imply that the others don’t? What does it not tell you?)
Right View
Right Understanding
Right Vision

Extract from the Pali Canon on Right View (with notes in square brackets)

Of those [the other limbs of the Eightfold Path] , Right View is the forerunner. And how is Right View the forerunner? One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and Right View as Right View. This is one’s Right View. And what is wrong view? ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions.[i.e. kamma] There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings [i.e. rebirth] ; no priests or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves [i.e. [possibility of working towards Enlightenment].’ This is wrong view.

And what is Right View? Right View, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is Right View with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [i.e. Right View which still produces kamma]; and there is noble Right View, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path [Right View at a higher stage of the Path, which no longer produces kamma].And what is the Right View that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions? ‘There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed [i.e. our good actions do matter]. There are fruits and results of good and bad actions [these actions have kammic results]. There is this world and the next world. There is mother and father. There are spontaneously reborn beings [i.e. there is rebirth]; there are priests and contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves [i.e. spiritual progress is possible].’ This is the Right View that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions.

And what is the right view that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The discernment [wisdom], the faculty of discernment, the strength of discernment, analysis of qualities as a factor of Awakening, the path factor of right view in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is free from effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right view that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path. [i.e. one who practises right view spontaneously at a high level will have gained wisdom and will no longer produce kamma as a result of action]One tries to abandon wrong view and to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view and to enter and remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities-right view, right effort, and right mindfulness-run and circle around right view.

Middle-Length Sayings Sutta 117

So, in summary, the Pali Canon stresses that Right View consists in a complete understanding of the workings of kamma and rebirth, creating responsibility for our actions, which it is claimed will always lead to results for which we will be accountable. It also includes understanding of the possibility of spiritual progress, for without this there would be no positive effect from recognition of kamma and rebirth. An alternative way of putting this same point is in terms of understanding and awareness of the Four Noble Truths.

Awareness of the Four Noble TruthsAn important part of Right View consists in the understanding of key Buddhist formulations. These would begin with the Four Noble Truths. A practising Buddhist needs to not only know in theory, but to understand in experience how suffering and frustration is a feature of the human relationship to the world (the First Truth), to understand the causes of that suffering and frustration (the Second Truth), to believe that there is an alternative (the Third Truth) and to appreciate exactly what changes in attitude and behaviour will lead him/her towards that alternative (the Fourth Truth).

To have a full awareness of the Four Noble Truths in one’s life means being able to break down the general idea into what it means in specific practical terms, and remain continuously aware of the Four Noble Truths in one’s life.


To get some idea of what is involved in understanding the Four Noble Truths, try
(1) saying what you think the Truth means and
(2) think of examples from your own experience which relate to each Truth. A Buddhist reflecting on the truths might well go through such examples slowly and carefully in meditation, preferably after achieving a state of jhana or deep concentration.

  • 1st Noble Truth: Suffering or Frustration
  • 2nd Noble Truth: Arising of Suffering or Frustration (i.e. craving and its result in kamma)
  • 3rd Noble Truth: The possibility of Enlightenment
  • 4th Noble Truth: The Path to Enlightenment


2. Right Aspiration

Right Aspiration (sometimes translated as ‘Right Attitude’, ‘Right Resolve’, ‘Right Emotion’, or much less precisely as ‘Right Thoughts’) is a further aspect of wisdom developed in the Noble Eightfold Path alongside Right View. Whilst Right View is concerned with complete understanding and acceptance, Right Aspiration is concerned with the motivation to develop towards Enlightenment. It consists in faith and a desire to progress.

Extract from the Pali Canon on Right Aspiration (with notes in square brackets)

Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong resolve as wrong resolve, and right resolve as right resolve. And what is wrong resolve? Being resolved on sensuality, on ill will, on harmfulness. This is wrong resolve.And what is right resolve? Right resolve, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right resolve with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [i.e. creating kamma]; and there is noble right resolve, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path [i.e. without kamma].And what is the right resolve that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness. This is the right resolve that has effluents, sides with merit, and results in acquisitions.And what is the right resolve that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The thinking, directed thinking, resolve, mental absorption, mental fixity, focused awareness, and verbal fabrications in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right resolve that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.One tries to abandon wrong resolve and to enter into right resolve: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve and to enter and remain in right resolve: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities-right view, right effort, and right mindfulness-run and circle around right resolve.

Middle-Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikaya) Sutta 117, Pali Text Society

Summarise what this passage is saying about right aspiration/resolve

Jack Kornfield on Right Aspiration

The American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has an interesting practical account of Right Aspiration, which he calls Right Attitude. He says that there are three aspects to it: openness, renunciation and love. Read his account in chapter 2 of the e-book and take notes on what he says about each of these three aspects.


3. Right Speech

Right Speech is traditionally distinguished from Right Action because of the traditional Indian distinction between body, speech and mind. This does not mean that speech is not an action, but that it is a type of action which should be given special emphasis. We often talk about our actions before doing them, so speech has an intermediate status between body and mind. A passing thought has less weight of kamma attached than one which is strong or habitual enough to result in speech, but it needs to be even stronger to result in further action.

The requirements of Right Speech can be analysed using the Ten Root Precepts (a basic ethical formulation applying to all Buddhists, as opposed to the Five Precepts which are directed at lay people). The Ten Root Precepts include no less than four which are concerned with speech, and specify the avoidance of false, harsh, useless and slanderous speech. In the Pali Canon these four precepts are explained thus:

Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.

Abandoning divisive speech [or slanderous speech] he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord [i.e. harmony], delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.

Abandoning abusive speech [or harsh speech], he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.

Abandoning idle chatter [useless speech], he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.

Gradual Sayings (Anguttara Nikaya) X.99, Pali Text Society

Later in the same passage more details are given on false speech:

Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come and tell, good man, what you know’. If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward.

Read these passages and note in your own words what you think is meant by each of the root speech precepts, with examples from everyday life:

  • Avoidance of false speech
  • Avoidance of harsh speech
  • Avoidance of useless speech
  • Avoidance of slanderous speech

Having these four areas of speech naturally raises the question of priority between them. Those who say negative things about other people behind their back (slanderous speech) might well defend this by saying it is true, and what if one says something that is true but likely to seem harsh to others because they don’t want to hear it?

In the Buddha’s discourse to Prince Abhaya the Buddha clarifies the priorities between the different speech precepts with reference to his own (the Tathagata’s) practice.

Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, but which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others, such speech the Tathagata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has compassion for beings.

Middle-Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikaya) 58, Pali Text Society)

So, to summarise: Right Speech demands that we always speak both the truth and what is beneficial (i.e. not useless or slanderous). Both of these are non-negotiable: you shouldn’t say something true that’s not useful, or something useful that’s not true. However, with sufficient thought, awareness and wisdom (such as the Buddha possesses) we may be justified in saying things which may seem harsh but are true and beneficial, as well as things which are true and beneficial and also welcome.

Write an example of each of the following combinations and say if you think each one would constitute Right Speech :

  • True, beneficial and agreeable
  • True, beneficial and disagreeable
  • True, not beneficial and agreeable
  • True, not beneficial and disagreeable
  • False, beneficial and agreeable
  • False, beneficial and disagreeable
  • False, not beneficial and agreeable
  • False, not beneficial and disagreeable

Reflection/ Discussion
Do you agree with the Buddha’s advice about speech? Does it raise any problems?


4. Right Action

Three of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path are concerned with Morality: Action, Speech and Livelihood – below shows how they relate to the Five Lay Moral Precepts and the Ten Root Precepts, (with the positive counterparts in brackets). Right Action traditionally focuses on actions of the body rather than of speech or of the mind, but is concerned with what we do generally rather than just in our work (which is the specific concern of Right Livelihood.)

Right Action/ Right Livelihood

  • Abstaining from harming/killing living beings (loving-kindness)[1st of 5 precepts; 1st of 10 precepts]
  • Abstaining from taking the not-given (generosity) [2nd of 5; 2nd of 10]
  • Abstaining from sexual misconduct (stillness, simplicity & contentment) [3rd of 5; 3rd of 10]

Right Speech

  • Abstaining from false speech (truthful speech)[4th of 5; 4th of 10]
  • Abstaining from harsh speech (kindly speech) [5th of 10]
  • Abstaining from useless speech (helpful speech) [6th of 10]
  • Abstaining from slanderous speech (harmonious speech) [7th of 10]

Right Mindfulness/ Right Concentration/ Right Effort

  • Abstaining from intoxicants (mindfulness) [5th of 5 precepts]
  • Abstaining from covetousness (tranquillity) [8th of 10]
  • Abstaining from animosity (compassion) [9th of 10]
  • Abstaining from false views (wisdom) [10th of 10]

The Ten Root Precepts can be found in………..scriptural ref from 10 pillars

How to judge right and wrong action

The basis of judgement for right action in Buddhism is that of mental state. A wrong action is rooted in a mental state dominated by greed, hatred and ignorance, a right action in enlightened wisdom which has overcome these three tendencies. However, as we can’t overcome all traces of greed, hatred and ignorance all at once, we have to work gradually towards this goal. A good place to start is with our physical actions, because these have a strong effect on our whole situation in life. So the three lay precepts concerned with Right Action, forbidding violence, taking the not-given and sexual misconduct, recommend avoiding some types of behaviour which are generally deeply rooted in greed, hatred and ignorance, and which make that state worse.

Sangharakshita, founder of Triratna, illustrates the way following a moral precept can help overcome greed like this:

We say that an enlightened person, one who is a Buddha, is free from (let us say) craving or selfish desire. We ourselves are full of craving. We crave, for example, food of various kinds; we have a special liking for this or that. Suppose, as an experiment, we stop eating one of our favourite foodstuffs, whatever it may be. We give it up. We decide not to take it any more. Very regretfully, very sorrowfully, we close the larder door. We resist the temptation, whatever it may be – say plum cake. (I once knew a Buddhist monk who was wonderfully addicted to plum cake. It was said you could get anything out of him if you offered him sufficient plum cake!). What happens is that we may suffer for a while, and may not have an easy time at all. In fact, it may be quite hard going. But if we stick it out, if we banish those visions of plum cake, craving is gradually reduced and eventually we shall reach a happy state where there is no craving at all, and where we never even think of that particular thing. Our abstention from plum-cake is now no longer a disciplinary measure, but has become a genuine expression of the state of non-craving to which we have attained.

Sangharakshita Vision and Transformation p.84, Windhorse

Work out your own example of how following a precept to stop violent behaviour could influence habitual attitudes and mental states.


5. Right Livelihood

Right Livelihood applies morality specifically to the question of how one earns one’s living. This is an aspect of action, but a particularly important one. We have to put a lot of energy into our work, and the type of work we choose has a big effect both on us and on the world. Buddhism does not allow a big distinction between a job that we are “forced” to do and leisure time that we have control over, but rather stresses our responsibility for the work we choose to do and the economic processes we choose to support through that means.

The most obvious wrong livelihoods are those which directly involve breaking the Five Precepts: for example working in a slaughterhouse, being a fisherman or soldier (first precept), being a thief or swindler (second precept), being an astrologer or being a journalist on the Sunday Sport (fourth precept).

One important aspect of Buddhist ethics is the recognition that our actions may also indirectly contribute to others’ suffering. It is our intention rather than the directness of the effects of our actions which has the karmic effect. Indirect effects are often important in economic life. For example, by making or selling things that are harmful, we can indirectly contribute to harm even if we don’t actually directly apply that harmful thing. This is why Buddhism traditionally considers trading in poisons, weapons or alcohol to be wrong livelihood.

Even if violence, theft, sexual misconduct, lies and intoxication are things people choose to do for themselves, you are also partly responsible if you encourage them or provide them with the necessary facilities: so acting in violent films, receiving stolen goods, prostitution, advertising and working in a pub might all be considered more or less questionable when judged in terms of Right Livelihood. However, it’s obviously impossible to have no indirect connection at all with conditions which support breaking any precepts: do you refuse to sell apples because they could be made into cider, or a kitchen knife because it could be used violently? Obviously there are relative judgements to be made about how far to go in ensuring Right Livelihood.

Some occupations are also not obviously unethical, but how far they are Right Livelihood depends on how much effort is put into them. Working in a shop selling genuinely useful and non-harmful goods, for example, might be seen as Right Livelihood provided that one relates positively to the customers.

The supreme example of Right Livelihood is traditionally that of the monk or nun. Having renounced both possession of money and the responsibilities which require lay-people to earn money, the monk or nun relies only on gifts to meet their basic needs. No harm is done or even supported through this, but instead the opportunity is given for lay people to earn merit. Traditionally this is seen as an entirely blameless vocation.


Would these be examples of right or wrong livelihood? To what extent? Why? (NB this is often a matter of interpretation rather than having an absolutely right answer.)

  • Bingo caller
  • Diamond miner
  • Worker in a fish finger factory
  • Journalist working for Vogue
  • Merchant sailor
  • History teacher
  • Tree surgeon


6. Right Effort

With Right Effort we come to that part of the Noble Eightfold Path which is concerned with the mind and mental states. Effort can sometimes mean physical exertion, but more often (and especially here), exerting the will constantly towards a particular goal. This needs to be done in a way which can be sustained, rather than subjecting ourselves to a level of stress we cannot keep up. But nevertheless, progress towards Enlightenment can only be made by constantly trying.

The Four Exertions

Traditionally Right Effort is analysed into The Four Exertions : preventing, eradicating, developing and maintaining.
1. Preventing the arising of unskilful thoughts
2. Eradicating unskilful thoughts that have already arisen
3. Cultivating skilful thoughts
4. Maintaining skilful thoughts which have already arisen

‘Skilful’ and ‘unskilful’ are terms often used by Buddhists to translate the Pali kusala and akusala: that is, helpful in working towards Enlightenment and unhelpful in working towards Enlightenment (avoiding some of the assumptions we might make when talking of good or evil, but roughly equivalent). By working in these four ways we can produce the overall result of having more skilful thoughts and fewer unskilful ones.

1. Preventing the arising of unskilful thoughts involves the attempt to remain aware of ways in which we might be influenced by what we experience, and how this might give rise to greed, hatred, or ignorance. For example, if you know that if you spend an evening with a certain unhelpful friend you’re likely to end up drunk and strongly influenced by their prejudices, you decide not to expose yourself to these conditions and refuse the invitation. After you’ve exposed yourself to temptation to a certain extent, habit is likely to take over: so the best way to change your habits is to avoid the situation which produces the temptation to begin with.

2. Eradicating unskilful thoughts which have already arisen -supposing you haven’t avoided the situation. You have exposed yourself to the sense-experiences which give rise to unskilful mental states, and those unskilful mental states have arisen. You can still do something about this, according to Buddhism. Exactly what you can do depends on the type of unskilful mental state: unskilful mental states correspond to the Five Hindrances which prevent concentration in meditation: greed, hatred, doubt, restlessness & anxiety, and sloth & torpor. There are four common techniques which can be used for dealing with any of these types of unskilful mental state:

  • Considering the consequences: Reflect on what will happen if you carry on in this mental state. The more strongly you can envisage this the better, because you may then look beyond the current situation enough to change your attitude. E.g. if you’re trying to give up smoking and reach for that cigarette, feeling that nicotine-craving, you can visualise pictures of lungs full of tar or imagine yourself undergoing premature death.
  • Cultivating the opposite: Some of the hindrances are opposed to another hindrance: so greed is opposed to hatred and sloth is opposed to anxiety (whereas doubt is opposed by faith, a positive quality). So if you’re in a greedy state you can think about what’s hateful about the object of your greed, or if you’re in a state of anxiety you can try and calm down by measured breathing and concentrating lower in your body. E.g. If you’re attracted to someone ill-advised, you can think about all their unattractive features, such as their bodily excretions (there’s a tradition of this in Buddhist texts!)
  • Detachment: You can just let the unskilful thoughts pass like clouds in the sky. You just witness them as an impartial observer and detach yourself from them. E.g. if you have a feeling of resentment about what someone said to you, you can just let it go by, or alternatively analyse it psychologically.
  • Suppression: A last resort is to simply exert strength of will to force yourself not to think in this way. This is not really advisable (because there will be a backlash from the suppressed feeling later) unless you have to act in this way to avoid acting immorally. E.g. If your hatred means you’re about to do someone else an injury, it may be better to just stop yourself!

3. Cultivating skilful thoughts involves the converse of number 1. Rather than just negatively avoiding putting yourself in situations where unskilful thoughts are likely to arise, you positively put yourself in situations where skilful thoughts are likely to arise. This might mean spending time with friends who are wise and compassionate, or doing some activity (e.g. yoga) which one knows to be liable to produce wholesome thoughts, or deliberately dwelling on positive thoughts in meditation. Some forms of visualisation practice in Mahayana Buddhism involve visualising a Buddha or bodhisattva who is associated with skilful thoughts: so by using the symbol one constantly puts oneself back into a skilful frame of mind through association.

4. Maintaining skilful thoughts which have already arisen: once skilful mental states have been developed, it is very easy to slip out of them, so it is necessary to stay on one’s guard. So again, this exertion may mean avoiding unhelpful influences, as well as practices such as regular meditation which help to keep up skilful mental states.

Task: work out your own example of how the Four Exertions might be applied


7. Right Mindfulness

The Pali word usually translated as ‘mindfulness’ (sati) literally means something like ‘recollection’ or ‘memory’. This is memory in the specific sense of recalling our long-term intentions from moment to moment, rather than being able to recall specific facts or events (though mindfulness may help with this as well). Someone who is ‘forgetful’ is usually unmindful in this sense. Sati also involves having a broad awareness of what is going on in ourselves and our environment, so that, even if you are concentrating on one thing, a sense of the overall picture will still be there in the background. The more mindful you are the less likely you are to be distracted by stray thoughts, feelings, or desires, because you are more aware of the different parts of yourself and are less likely to be surprised by some new development.

The most important explanation of mindfulness in the Pali Canon is the Satipatthana Sutta, found in the Digha Nikaya (Long Discourses). There’s also another similar version in the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle-Length Discourses). In this text there is a helpful analysis of mindfulness into four types, depending on its object. Traditional sources have these as body, feelings, mind and mental qualities. Sangharakshita covers the same ground but uses a slightly different interpretation: awareness of things, awareness of oneself, awareness of others, and awareness of reality.

Awareness of things

The most basic (and foundational) aspect of mindfulness is awareness of our material environment, and the things we find in it. This means that we are interested enough in our environment to observe it, and to really look at and appreciate what we see (similarly with the other senses). This kind of awareness does not just mean being on the alert for particular things (like a hunter going through the forest looking for prey), but having a general open receptivity to what we sense; not just thinking about how useful things may be to us, but appreciating them for what they are. This is a type of awareness sometimes cultivated by artists, and especially in the Chinese and Japanese art influenced by Zen. The Zen artist might simply look at an object for hours, then when enough awareness has been developed, simply take up a brush and produce a brilliant (but simple) picture in a few strokes, which somehow captures what is most basic about that object.

Awareness of oneself

This involves awareness of the body and its movements, awareness of feelings, and awareness of thoughts. Body-awareness is the most basic of these, for without a certain amount of awareness of one’s physical nature and changing bodily states, it is very difficult to be mindful of one’s mind. It is very common for meditators to begin a session of any kind of meditation practice by cultivating awareness of the body: this means simply being aware of the fact that one is sitting, where and how one is sitting, and how that physically feels in all the parts of the body.

Another practice which cultivates body awareness is walking meditation. This is regularly done both in the Theravada and Zen traditions (in Zen it is called kinhin). It involves being fully aware of what each of the parts of the body is doing when one is walking (usually very slowly and deliberately). One may start with observation of the specific sensations in the soles of the feet, then gradually broaden that awareness to the movements and sensations occurring in the whole body.

Awareness of the feelings means being aware of how one is feeling, and what emotions one is subject to. Meditation practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness always begin with the recollection of what one’s feelings actually are. Our feelings can come out as a stream of thoughts and/or as feelings in the body, and it is important to acknowledge to oneself, as a starting point, than one is experiencing (for example) anger, disappointment, excitement or desire. If such feelings remain unacknowledged, they are likely to disrupt whatever else we try to do.

Awareness of thoughts means being aware of the direction that one’s thoughts are taking. This means not just having a thought, but also being aware of the fact that one is having that kind of thought. Thoughts can be a sign of feelings, and can also show what kind of beliefs we hold. One aspect of the practice of cultivating wisdom in Buddhism involves examining one’s beliefs to see whether or not they are in accordance with reality and leading towards enlightenment. It is impossible to do this unless one first recognises what sorts of belief one has.

Awareness of others

Awareness of others means trying to avoid immediate and unthinking emotional responses to others, instead trying to work out what they are really like. We have a natural tendency to immediately pigeonhole others according to our likes and dislikes: for example as an attractive person, as a boring person, or as a person we dislike. We also apply social expectations, especially to people of a different sex, age or nationality. But the reality is likely to be much more complex than we usually allow for, and people can often defeat our initial expectations as new aspects of them are revealed. For example, a brisk, authoritative manager probably has a more caring and human side, even if at first all you can see is someone in the role of an authority. Similarly, an attractive person of the opposite sex probably has weaknesses and limitations which we fail to recognise at first, blinded by the attraction.

The cultivation of positive emotions (such as metta or loving–kindness) in Buddhism begins with recognising our likes and dislikes, and making the effort to compensate for them. This will also involve observing the person and reflecting on what they actually are like as far as we can tell, rather than just following our initial responses.

Awareness of reality

This is the highest and most difficult of the fours types of awareness, and is really another way of talking about wisdom. Awareness of what is ultimately real (rather than what is distorted by our greed, hatred, or ignorance) is one way of talking about enlightenment itself. Initially we can try to gain more awareness of reality through the other three types, by gaining awareness of things, of ourselves and of others. Awareness of reality also means awareness of the Four Noble Truths, particularly starting with the first.

All vipassana meditation practices involve cultivating awareness of reality in one way or another, either by developing awareness of dukkha, impermanence or insubstantiality or by positively visualising a state of enlightenment in the form of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Meditating on the ten stages of the decomposition of a corpse, for example, brings one face to face with the reality of death. Meditating on the Buddha, on the other hand, brings one face-to-face with the reality of enlightenment. Whether one concentrates on facing up to dukkha or dwelling positively on positive images will be a matter for judgement in each individual case, depending on what sort of temperament one has.

Research a meditation practice.
Find out more details on any one meditation practice used in any school of Buddhism to develop any of the types of awareness. Make notes on the following ready to report back:
a) What exactly is done in the practice? e.g. what stages are there in it?
b) What sort of person would do this practice and in what circumstances?
c) What school of Buddhism it is associated with, and how it reflects the particular approach in that school?
d) What sort of awareness it cultivates and exactly how it does this?

Further Reading
Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics esp. p.37-46


Right Concentration

Right concentration consists in one-pointedness or focus of mind on a particular object. It is clearly needed for right effort – you can’t make an effort at something without concentrating on it – and also for all the other limbs of the Eightfold Path. This is suggested by the Pali Canon (Majjhima Nikaya 117):

And what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors – right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness – is called noble right concentration with its supports and requisite conditions.

Concentration is a necessary condition for any practice of ethics, because you need to remain constantly aware of the moral change you have decided upon in order to put it into effect and avoid being swept away by other feelings in different circumstances. It’s also required for any kind of wisdom, because you can only break through illusions and come to terms with reality by concentrating on the alternative view you have discovered and recalling it at times when your old habitual view comes back.

Concentration and mindfulness

Concentration relates closely to the final limb, mindfulness. Both are different forms of awareness, but of the two concentration is more deliberate and narrow, mindfulness broader, more spontaneous and more open and receptive. A good example to illustrate the difference would be an exam: in an exam you are likely to be very concentrated, because you are forced to be (or at least strongly influenced) by the conditions and the thought of the bad consequences of failing if you don’t concentrate. But you are not likely to be very mindful: you won’t be very aware of the different sensations of your body, or different feelings, or of other people. Indeed, you are likely to be so concentrated that you exclude awareness of things going on around you. During an exam invigilators or other candidates can have minor crises and many candidates completely fail to notice.

But the ideal in Buddhist practice is to combine concentration and mindfulness and balance the two. There may be times when you need to exclude other things to focus on one thing, but generally you need to be open to the whole breadth of things that you may need to become aware of, not simply focussed single-mindedly on one thing. Thus there are many people in the world who have developed remarkable powers of concentration (think of surgeons performing complex and delicate operations, or concert pianists remembering a whole concerto), but these are not necessarily following right concentration as a limb of the Eightfold Path, for this must link with the other limbs.

Practices to develop concentration

There are some meditation practices which focus primarily on concentration. The kasina practice used in the Theravada, for example, is almost entirely just a concentration exercise. In this practice the meditator looks at a coloured disc and then recreates clearly in the mind’s eye. Some other forms of samatha meditation combine the cultivation of concentration with that of mindfulness, positive emotion and other skilful qualities of mind. An example of such a broader practice would be the mindfulness of breathing: here the meditator concentrates on the breath, but not in the kind of narrow way one would concentrate in an exam: instead the meditator will often move between a narrow focus of awareness (on the breath) and a broad one (on the whole state of the body and mind).

Concentration and integration

At a higher level ‘Right Concentration’ (which translates the Pali samma-samadhi) means much more than concentration in the everyday sense. Everyday concentration can only be sustained for a relatively short time, because it involves the suppression of other interests, feelings and desires which will break out again after a while. Longer term and fuller concentration can only be gained by integrating these other interests, desires and feelings. This means that unhelpful desires need to be tamed and brought into harmony with the others in the long term, so that our feelings about things become consistent over longer periods of time.

A higher level of concentration, then, means, not just ability to concentrate fully at one time, but greater consistency over time. This kind of consistency, again, is greatly assisted by mindfulness, and the higher the level of concentration, the more interdependent it becomes with mindfulness.

Task:Work out your own examples of the following aspects of right concentration:

  • Concentration without mindfulness
  • A higher level of concentration (Samadhi)
  • A practice to cultivate higher levels of concentration
  • A difference in emphasis between different types of Buddhism in cultivating concentration
The Bodhisattva concept

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Revision of the Mahayana

We will now move on to consider aspects of Buddhist thought that are specific to the Mahayana. It will be helpful to revise your work from last year about the features of the Mahayana before going on. See if you can answer these questions at least briefly:

1. When and how did the Mahayana begin to be separated from the Hinayana?
2. What are the differences between the terms Hinayana, Theravada and Early Buddhism to describe non-Mahayana types of Buddhism?
3. What emphases are distinctive of Mahayana teaching?
4. What are the Mahayana scriptures, and what attitude do Mahayanists take to them?
5. What similarities and differences are there broadly between Theravada and Mahayana monasticism?

We will now be focussing particularly on three areas: the Mahayana doctrines concerning the Bodhisattva (which apply to nearly all schools of the Mahayana), The Mahayana view of the status of the Buddha (particularly that of the Yogacara School) and the Doctrine of Emptiness (which is specific to the Madhyamika School but widely influential across the Mahayana).

What is a bodhisattva?

The term ‘bodhisattva’ literally means ‘one who has enlightenment as his/her essence’, from bodhi (awakening or enlightenment) and sattva (essence). It is not simply another term for a Buddha, though: a bodhisattva is a being who is destined for enlightenment rather than one who has gained it already. A bodhisattva is also normally thought of as consciously working towards enlightenment: you can’t call someone a bodhisattva just because they might be enlightened in the future if they haven’t started making an effort yet. For this reason, the earliest use of the term ‘bodhisattva’ refers to Siddhartha Gautama before he gained enlightenment, and also in his previous lives.

In the Theravada, as in Early Buddhism, though, this is the only use of the term. There is only one Buddha per age, who is the trailblazer who discovers the Dharma. So for each age, at any rate, there is only one bodhisattva.

One of the difficulties this created in Early Buddhism was that there seemed to be two classes of enlightenment: the trailblazer’s enlightenment of the Buddha and the follower’s enlightenment of the arhat. At the same time, by about 500 years after the death of the Buddha, a reaction was developing against a narrowness that it was thought was developing in the tradition. To become an arhat, it seemed, all one needed to do was to become a monk or nun, follow the rules, get on with your practice of the Eightfold Path and you’d get there. To the early Mahayanists, this seemed a bit over-focussed on self-fulfilment to the exclusion of the Enlightenment of others. Mixed in with this there may have been some lay resentment of over-sheltered monks. After all, the Buddha had devoted fifty years of his life after enlightenment to helping others.

So, as an alternative two interlinked new ideas developed:
Firstly, that the arhat had not gained full enlightenment, and that everyone could go on to gain the full enlightenment of the Buddha. To become a full Buddha, not just an arhat, was the ideal for everyone, whether monks or lay-people. This was the ideal expressed particularly in the Lotus Sutra.
Secondly, that until such time as we all reach Buddhahood, we should become bodhisattvas. This meant that there was no longer only one bodhisattva per age, but potentially any number. The bodhisattva is striving for enlightenment for all sentient beings from the start.

The bodhisattva vow

The mark of a bodhisattva in the Mahayana is that he/she has taken the bodhisattva vow. The bodhisattva vow is solemnly made before one’s master in a special ritual, and involves four pledges:

  1. To save all beings from difficulties.
  2. To destroy all evil passions.
  3. To learn the truth and teach others.
  4. To lead all beings to Buddhahood.

This is obviously a mind-bogglingly immense undertaking, but the bodhisattva vows to do it nevertheless. However many beings there may be, the bodhisattva will save them from samsara and lead them not just to arhatship, but to Buddhahood. What’s more, the bodhisattva will not ‘cross the threshold’ into enlightenment him/herself, until this goal is achieved. If the bodhisattva were to do this, they would pass into parinirvana and no longer be reborn, and so would no longer be able to help other beings, so the bodhisattva is traditionally envisaged as pausing on the brink, turning back, and voluntarily taking rebirth to help others.

However, the bodhisattva does not work for himself or herself alone until he/she reaches this exalted point: rather he/she sets out from the start to save all sentient (i.e. conscious) beings and is as much concerned with their progress as his/her own. Related to this is the doctrine of anatta (insubstantiality) and the implications the Mahayana believe this to have: that we are not in fact ultimately distinct from others, but actually our interests are at one with theirs. If the idea that we exist separately from others is ultimately one of the illusions of samsara, it would seem contradictory that we should gain enlightenment for ourselves. The Mahayana doctrine of the bodhisattva faces this difficulty head-on.

For this reason it may be helpful not to take the idea of the bodhisattva pausing at the threshold of enlightenment too literally. This may simply be a way of expressing the insight that our enlightenment is ultimately one with that of others. To follow the bodhisattva ideal, then, we may need to give up the idea of ‘gaining enlightenment’ (as though enlightenment was a sort of thing one gains), and simply think of making progress alongside others.

Preparation for the vow

Naturally, such an enormous vow is not to be undertaken lightly, and in the Mahayana tradition it is only taken as the culmination of a period of intense preparation. This preparation attempts to bring about the arising of the Bodhicitta (the aspiration towards enlightenment), the desire to bring about the enlightenment of all sentient beings which should accompany a sincerely-made bodhisattva vow. The vow should only be made as the external sign of this internal opening, which involves a shift in perspective rather like that of a religious conversion. Sangharakshita describes the arising of the bodhicitta as ‘the most important event that can occur in the life of a human being’.

The period of preparation preceding the vow is thus devotional in nature, attempting to open the heart to the spark of enlightenment which arises from the development of wisdom and compassion. This devotional practice is known as the Supreme Worship. One of the most important texts in the Mahayana, the Bodhicaryavatara, was written in the eighth century by Shantideva to be used as a liturgy in this supreme worship.

Look at the Bodhicaryavatara on the web. Take brief notes on anything you find which helps to illustrate the nature of the bodhisattva or the bodhisattva vow (there are various details you can skip here).

Bodhisattvas of the Path

A person who has taken the vow then becomes a Bodhisattva of the Path. This person will have a genuine aspiration to bring all beings to enlightenment, but may still have a long way to go themselves. According to Mahayana tradition, the bodhisattva needs to practise the 6 or the 10 Perfections and ascend through the Ten Bhumis, which are levels of attainment of a bodhisattva.

Take notes from Cush p. 102-104 on the 6 or 10 Perfections and the 10 Bhumis. Alternative sources are Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.122-4, or (for more detail) Paul Williams Mahayana Buddhism p.204-214.

Life as a bodhisattva is tough. According to Mahayana tradition, a bodhisattva needs to be able to give up absolutely anything for the sake of other beings, including his own life over and over again. If the bodhisattva is not yet generous enough to do this, he/she still has a way to go. The bodhisattva also needs infinite reserves of patience, because it will take a countless number of lifetimes to reach his/her goal, and humble: he/she can’t even take pride in saving sentient beings who really ultimately exist (see following section on Emptiness). The bodhisattva should even be willing to save others from bad karma by doing necessary deeds for which they would subsequently suffer (such as murder), on the occasional extreme occasion when this would be helpful to leading all beings to enlightenment.

In one Mahayana text, the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 verses, the bodhisattva is compared to a hero who is lost in a terrible forest with his family. Here the forest represents samsara and his family is all other beings. The hero wouldn’t think of abandoning his family there to save himself. Instead he would do his utmost to reassure them and save them from peril.

Advanced and symbolic bodhisattvas

Bodhisattvas who have got close to the brink of enlightenment, beyond the sixth bhumi, are sometimes known as transcendental bodhisattvas. It is these bodhisattvas that are really in a position to start saving all sentient beings using their skilful means without making mistakes. It is these advanced bodhisattvas which are believed in the Tibetan tradition to take voluntary rebirth as incarnate lamas (tulkus), and to have control over the point of their new birth. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists and former political leader of Tibet, is believed to be one such bodhisattva.

Advanced bodhisattvas are also widely represented symbolically in the Mahayana, both in visualisation practices and in art. These figures represent enlightenment generally, as do Buddha figures of various types, but in particular the qualities of the bodhisattva, of endless dedication to bringing all beings to Buddhahood. Some of the most widely known of these are Avalokiteshvara (“Lord who looks down”), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. Avalokiteshvara is often represented with 1000 arms, each of which is reaching out to help all sentient beings. In Chinese Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara became the widely revered female bodhisattva Kwan-Yin, and in Japanese Buddhism Kannon (after which the electronics company Canon is named!).

Read more about Avalokiteshvara in Cushp.105-6

Questions for discussion
1. What do you think would be the Theravada defence against the charge that the arhat ideal is too self-absorbed?
2. Does the bodhisattva ideal seem impracticable, or merely ambitious?
3. Does the bodhisattva ideal provide enough of an answer to critics of Buddhism (e.g. Christians) who claim that it has too little emphasis on love?

Further Reading
Cush p.99-106
Sangharakshita Guide p.197-201
Williams Buddhist Thought p.136-140
Williams Mahayana Buddhism ch.9

Past questions in AQA syllabus
Examine the main features of the Bodhisattva concept in Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddhism in the Modern World

The Middle Way and Ethics

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

The Middle Way provides a more basic guide to the whole Buddhist path, or to ethics ‘in the broad sense’ than do the Five Precepts. As such it is an alternative way of understanding the whole Path, alongside the Noble Eightfold Path and the Threefold Path. It must always be remembered that these are not different paths, but different ways of conceptualising the same path.

The Middle Way of views and of behaviour

The Middle Way can be seen as a guide to right view, avoiding the extremes of belief in eternalism and nihilism, and it can also be seen as a guide to moral behaviour. The extremes to be avoided in the ethical Middle Way are those of asceticism (denying yourself and subjecting yourself to hardship) and self-indulgence. Traditionally it is believed that eternalist beliefs (believing in an eternal soul or self) tend to lead to asceticism and nihilist beliefs (denying an eternal soul or self) led to self-indulgence the idea here is that if you believe you will exist eternally, you will believe in an afterlife and thus have a motive to deny yourself in this life so as to gain merit for future lives. On the other side, denying an eternal soul meant that you denied the afterlife, and thus had no motive to do anything but enjoy yourself in the present. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ as the saying has it .

The Middle Way in morality

The Middle Way in morality, between denying your desires and indulging them, immediately sounds just like moderation. However, there’s a bit more to it than this. The Buddha’s claim is that the extremes of eternalism/asceticism on the one hand and nihilism/self-indulgence on the other will be more likely to trap you in greed, hatred and ignorance, the three forces which turn the Wheel of Life. Both asceticism and self-indulgence are based on greed of one type or another: either greed for a future pleasant experience or greed for a present one. In Buddhism it makes no difference whether your greed is for pleasure now or in heaven, it is just as much greed. Both are also likely to involve hatred of anything that stands in your way from getting that pleasure. Also, both asceticism and self-indulgence are based on ignorance, since in reality both the belief that we continue after death and are rewarded for our merits, and the belief that we are not, are just massive assumptions.

The Middle Way involves trying to avoid these assumptions and examine our experience with an open mind. We can look at our experience of ourselves, trying not to be attached to a fixed idea of who we are. On the other hand we can look at others and the world around us and maintain an open mind about what they are like, not being too attached to fixed ideas of people and things which lead us either to desire or hate them. If you want something very much, you probably have a fixed idea about what it is like and what it would be like to have it, and when you finally get it, for that reason you are likely to be disappointed because the thing is not exactly how you thought it would be. Buddhism suggests not just that you shouldn’t indulge or deny yourself too much, but that you examine the ideas about things that lead you to want to do so. You are more likely to be able to do so if you’re not too involved in constantly grasping things or pushing them away.

Practical application of the Middle Way

Practically speaking, then, applying the Middle Way to ethics means avoiding the extremes of indulging your desires and of totally denying them, in order to overcome the illusions you have and find a middle position of calm and content between two types of greed. Since moral issues are usually about how far we should follow our desires or deny them, the Middle Way can often be applied to moral issues in this way. For example, if the issue is whether it’s right to tell someone an uncomfortable or painful truth, you might examine how far your desire not to do so is due to the discomfort that you will feel yourself in telling it, or whether you’re really concerned about how the other person feels. The Middle Way might suggest that you should tell them the truth in as considerate a way as possible, overcoming your reluctance to do so but also not just blurting it out inconsiderately.

This means that the Middle Way may be especially useful in Buddhism in helping to interpret the Five Precepts or to judge conflicts between them. On moral issues like abortion, war or the exploitation of the environment there are often two opposed camps, one in favour of the indulgence of a desire (to have an abortion, to wage war, to exploit the environment) and the other against it. There will also be hatred of the other side. Each will have a case which probably has elements of truth in it. Even if a Precept seems to give you a definite moral line on one of these issues, the practice of the Middle Way will mean not leaping in on one side or the other too readily, and neither indulging not denying that desire. Rather a calm mental state will be cultivated in which the truth of the matter can be more easily investigated. On the basis of this a commitment to a position (on either side or in-between) might then be reached, but on the basis of which position is least subject to distorting assumptions rather than which is absolutely correct.


  1. Extreme views are expressions of greed and hatred.
  2. Extreme views do not reflect the truth very well because the truth is obscured by that greed and hatred.
  3. Following the Middle Way thus means trying to avoid getting caught up in that greed and hatred, but examining the truth of the matter carefully.
  4. Usually (but not always) a calm examination of the issues without any prior assumptions will find truth and falsity on both sides, and the truth lying somewhere in between.
  5. The Middle Way is thus not necessarily an in-between position, but this is often the outcome.

Identify the extreme positions on these issues, and the desires or hatreds that might interfere with an understanding of the truth of the matter from a Buddhist point of view.
1. The right of firemen to strike
2. Fox-hunting
3. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism
4. Vegetarianism
5. Equality of employment opportunities for women
6. The superiority of classical music over popular music
7. Car use
8. Dumping of nuclear waste

A quick checklist giving an easy way to apply Buddhism to a moral issue
1. Check whether any of the five precepts can be applied to the issue. Remember that there may be a variety of interpretations.
2. Check whether there are any other Buddhist teachings which have an impact on the issue (e.g. Right Livelihood on arms dealing, rebirth on abortion)
3. Where there are a variety of interpretations, or a conflict between different priorities, think about the assumptions made by each side and whether the Middle Way can be applied to give an answer lying between them.

Buddhist Ethics

If you have studied Buddhist ethics before see if you can answer the following questions from memory:

  • Define the meaning of a ‘precept’.
  • What is the difference between a precept and a rule?
  • What is the difference between lay precepts and monastic rules?
  • What is the difference between the five precepts and the ten (root) precepts?
  • What sources of authority might a Buddhist consult to help interpret the precepts?
  • Summarise your own understanding of the meaning each of the five precepts (from memory!).

The Five Precepts are the most common basic expression of ethics in Buddhism, and are recited by Buddhist lay people throughout the Buddhist world.

Past questions on AQA syllabus include:
1. Explain the meaning of the Five Moral Precepts for Buddhists
2. Examine the Five Moral Precepts and their application to daily life.

The 1st Precept: Non-Violence

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from killing living beings.

How far does this precept extend?

Buddhists have always interpreted this precept to mean, not merely a prohibition of murder, but of all kinds of violence against human beings and animals. Whilst killing animals is considered less unskilful than killing human beings (because animals have a less developed consciousness and because killing a person requires more deliberate will and effort), we still have a responsibility to limit the killing and other violence inflicted on animals as far as possible. Buddhists should also avoid actions which indirectly support violence, in arms. An important aspect of Right Livelihood (one of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path) is that one’s job should not cause suffering as far as possible.

Why is killing wrong?

Killing is the expression of a mental state rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion. It is an unskilful act because it brings suffering on the doer and on the victim, holding both back from Enlightenment.

“To kill a living being means to inflict upon him the greatest of all sufferings or evils, for inasmuch as life is the greatest good, so the greatest suffering, or the greatest evil, that can befall one, is to be deprived of life.”

Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism.

Himsa and Ahimsa

Killing is also considered wrong because it is the expression of himsa : force or violence. This violence can be mental or physical, and really means doing to another being something which that being does not want. Ahimsa (non-violence) is the opposite of himsa, and means actively trying to promote reconciliation and love between beings as well as refraining from acts of violence oneself. Ahimsa is described as the highest dharma, because violence is the unskilful action which does most damage and contributes most to suffering.

Violence and the self

Violence is the most extreme form of assertion of one self over another. In doing damage to another, one actually does damage to oneself: one only fails to understand this because of delusion. Non-violence thus follows from the doctrine of no-self.

There are two practices one can cultivate in Buddhism to try to prevent the arising of the self-view and its accompanying violence: 1. The equality of oneself with others, reflecting that one suffers from the same effects of samsara as other beings. 2. Putting oneself in the place of others, imagining that one experiences exactly the same pains and pleasures. The Dhammapada (v.129-130) mentions this practice:

All living beings are terrified of punishment; all fear death.
Putting oneself in the place of others one should neither kill nor cause to kill.

All living beings are terrified of punishment; all love life.
Putting oneself in the place of others one should neither kill nor cause to kill.

Can Violence never be justified?

Violence can only be justified if its aim is actually to help the living being towards whom it is aimed, to save it from its own ignorance. For example, one could justifiably use force to restrain a child from harming itself. In the Mahayana doctrine of Skilful Means the idea of the end justifying the means in this way is elaborated.

What do you think a Buddhist view is or should be on the following issues? How should the first precept be interpreted and what other points should be taken into account?

  • 1.War
  • 1. War
  • 2. Use of violence in self-defence
  • 3. Abortion
  • 4. Self-immolation as a form of protest (used by Vietnamese monks during the Vietnam War)

Further Reading
Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.55-63
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.202-5
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.69
Tricycle Winter 2003 p.38-9

The second precept: avoiding taking the not-given

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from taking the not-given

The second precept involves undertaking not to take things that belong to others, unless these have been freely given. This is seen as a form of violence.

Stealing vs. generosity

Why is this so important? After all, Buddhist monks and nuns give up all individual property apart from a bowl and robe, all in a spirit of renunciation. If you steal someone else’s brand new Mercedes-Benz, isn’t this helping them to renounce possessions? It becomes obvious that the answer to this is “no” if you then think through what the average Mercedes-Benz owner would do once their car was stolen. First of all they’d be very angry, then go to the police, try to get the car back and the thief punished, and so on. These are not the actions of someone who has renounced attachment to their property! The fact is that you cannot force someone into renouncing their property. They have to do it freely for themselves. Stealing someone’s property generally has the opposite effect, of making them realize how much they are attached to it.

Instead, Buddhism puts forward the positive ideal of generosity. Generosity is an application of anatta, the doctrine of no-self that you will be studying in the next section. Through generosity, the boundaries of the self can gradually begin to be dissolved, as we no longer think of the thing we are giving (whether this is an object, a favour, time etc) as “mine”. Stealing and having things stolen, however, reinforce these ego-boundaries.

Generosity also leads to further good effects as other people respond to it. Gratitude is a natural effect of generosity, and has a similarly opening effect on our states of mind. Expressions of gratitude are encouraged in Buddhism for this reason. For example, disciples may formally express gratitude to a spiritual teacher.

Issues relating to taking the not-given

As with the other precepts, the interpretation of this precept raises problems about where you draw the line. A burglar who picks a lock, creeps into a house when the owner is away, and steals a computer is obviously stealing. But what about the starving person who steals a loaf of bread? What about the pocketing of corporate property at work? What if you fail to repay a loan made to you by a friend?

One basic principle in Buddhist ethics is that the motive behind the moral offence should be considered. If a man steals a loaf of bread so as to feed his starving family and save their lives, he has a good motive for his action. The Mahayana would stress this point more than the Theravada. The Theravadins, who tend more towards a deontological interpretation, would be more likely to say that a Buddha could not act in this way because of the nature of the act, regardless of the motive, so that even if we can easily understand why the loaf of bread was stolen, that doesn’t make it right.

Stealing indirectly, then, may also be a breach of the precept, depending on how deliberately this is done. Failing to repay a loan would be a form of taking the not-given, though it would be more blameworthy if it was deliberate than if one simply forgot to do so (though one is also responsible for one’s lack of mindfulness in Buddhism). It would also be more blameworthy depending on the size of the loan, as it requires a more deliberate action to fail to repay a larger loan, just as it it requires more deliberate effort to decide to steal a more important or more valuable thing.

Issues relating to generosity

Generosity is a very important positive emotion in Buddhism, and it is said that giving (dana) is a practice that anyone can engage in, however difficult they find other Buddhist practices. Generosity contributes to awareness as we become more aware of those we are giving to. Giving should also be made with good intentions, not out of self-interest or because one wants something back.

Any kind of giving is said to produce good karma because it reduces attachment and increases awareness. The Buddhist tradition particularly stresses the value of giving to monks, who are seen as a “field of merit”, i.e. providing an opportunity for others to create good karma, because of the way in which they are using the gift to help them directly in spiritual development.

There is no limit to how far generosity can be developed. There are some Jataka stories (stories of the Buddha’s previous births, found in the Pali Canon) that give examples of the ultimate gift: of one’s life. For example, there is the story of a prince who fed himself to a starving tigress (see Buddhist Scriptures p.24-6), and the story of Prince Vessantara, who gave away all his possessions, then his family, and finally himself. These examples might be considered extreme and questioned from the point of view of wisdom: it may be very generous to give away your body to a starving tigress, but is it the best use of your life, when you could do other greater things? It may be that they should be treated as exaggerated ways of making a basic point about the importance of generosity.

Reflection and discussion

How do you think the second precept should be applied in these situations, and why?

  • 1. A beggar on the street asks for some money. You suspect he is an alcoholic.
  • 2. You are considering taking out a loan to buy a newer and more expensive car.
  • 3. You are considering taking out a mortgage to buy a small house.
  • 4. You have removed several paper-clips from college for home use.
  • 5. You are unemployed and have been receiving income support from the state. One week you are overpaid by accident. Should you own up?

Further Reading

Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.64-70
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.205
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.69-71

The third precept: avoiding sexual misconduct

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from sexual misconduct

The third precept could be literally translated as avoiding sensual misconduct (Pali: kamesu micchacara “in the (sensual) desires bad actions”). This means that some Buddhists (e.g. Sangharakshita) claim that it is not only concerned with sexual desire, but also other kinds of sensual desire. On this interpretation the third precept would involve avoiding eating too much chocolate as well as sexual misconduct. Others (e.g. the early Theravada commentator Buddhaghosa1) insist that it is only concerned with sexual misconduct, and certainly sexual misconduct is always the main focus of discussion of this precept.

The ultimate ideal in Buddhism is to go beyond sexual differentiation, because our attachment to being male or female, and the specific feelings this brings with it, is part of what holds us back from developing towards enlightenment. This is best achieved by avoiding sexual activity altogether, so the best practice (for those in a position to follow it) is celibacy, as practiced by monks and nuns. Sometimes temporary celibacy for a limited period is also followed by lay people, and in the Theravada this is one of the eight precepts that lay people sometimes take2 temporarily. However, if one is an adult lay person, the expectation in a traditional society is that one will be married, and thus not in a position to practice celibacy. The best alternative is to keep one’s sexual activity within certain moral bounds by avoiding sexual misconduct.

Interpretations of the precept

Minimally this means the avoidance of rape, abduction and adultery. So if one is married (and in the modern West, this is often taken to mean in any kind of settled sexual relationship) it would be a breach of the precept to have sex outside that relationship, or to have sex which involved violence (which would also be a breach of the first precept). There is more controversy over fornication (casual sex before marriage) and over homosexuality. Here there is a great gulf in attitudes between traditional Theravadins, who tend to be very conservative on sexual morality, and modern Western Buddhists, who tend to be liberal. Tibetan Buddhists are probably in between, as traditional Tibetan culture is relatively liberal about sex.

Buddhaghosha, in his commentary written in Sri Lanka about 400 C.E.(see Buddhist Scriptures p.71-72), provides a very conservative interpretation of the precept (entirely oriented towards men) forbidding homosexuality and sex with twenty categories of women, which seems to effectively rule out most possible sex outside marriage.

Sangharakshita, giving a modern interpretation for Western Buddhists, sees the third precept as being about avoiding sexual activity which is exploitative in any way or hurts others. This means it would be unethical to have sex with someone else’s wife or husband if this is likely to upset them, just as it would be unethical to have sex with someone else’s boyfriend/girlfriend where this would have bad effects. Sangharakshita has no problem with homosexuality, and indeed at times has been accused of favouring homosexuality over other forms of sexuality.

In practice attitudes to sex vary enormously between different Buddhist cultures. For example, in some parts of Tibet polyandry (one woman having several husbands) has been freely tolerated. In others Buddhism is used to support a strong condemnation of homosexuality that seems to be largely cultural. In the Tantra (Vajrayana form of Buddhism) in ancient India, there were some advanced meditation practices that involved sexual coupling whilst in a deeply absorbed meditation state, visualising one’s partner as a dakini (a symbolic deity). Again this has been tolerated within certain very restricted circumstances.


The positive counterpart of the negative form of the third precept is the cultivation of stillness, simplicity and contentment. This shows the close relationship between the underlying values of the third precept and meditation. It is one’s mental state that might drive one into unskilful sexual relationships, for example. Meditation practice can help in cultivating contentment with whatever one’s position is, whether celibate, single, or married. It also suggests that a lack of contentedness with other things (e.g. with one’s possessions) may have similar roots to sexual craving.

Discussion and evaluation

Do you agree with the view (a widespread Buddhist view) that sex is always the result of unskilful mental activity rooted in greed?
If so, how is it best to respond to this: through practising celibacy, through the institution of marriage, or by just trying to avoid the most obvious forms of sexual misconduct?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.71-74 (& 89-90)
Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.71-75

The fourth precept: avoiding false speech

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from false speech

The fourth of the five precepts focuses on avoiding false speech of all kinds, with the positive counterpart of truthfulness. We have already discussed this precept, and the four of the ten precepts relating to speech, under the heading of Right Speech in the Noble Eightfold Path in 1.e. It only needs to be noted that much of this material can also be used in discussion of the Fourth Precept. Have a look at the further reading below for material focussing specifically on the fourth precept.

Some key points to emphasise here about the focus on truth in the Fourth precept are that:

  • Truth is not only emphasised because lies can be harmful, but because Enlightenment is seen as a state in which truth is understood. The whole Buddhist Path is thus a quest for the truth (in a sense in which factual and moral truth come together).
  • Subtler forms of truth-telling involve not distorting the truth by exaggeration, selection, or evasion.
  • As with the other precepts, breaches can be indirect. One can undermine truth, not just by lying, but for example by not listening to or not believing someone else who is speaking the truth. Working for a newspaper that regularly lies or distorts the truth might also be seen as indirectly breaking the fourth precept, as well as being wrong livelihood.
  • As with other precepts, the motive is important, but this does not prevent us from being responsible for our lack of awareness. So we are not responsible for passing on others’ lies when we genuinely believe them to be true, but if more careful observation of others to detect lying could have avoided this situation, then we are at least partially responsible.


How do you think the Fourth Precept would apply to these situations, and why?(Think about the relationship of the Fourth Precept to the other speech precept here, as well as the points immediately above).

  • 1. You’re 30 minutes late for a job interview because you didn’t think carefully enough about how long it would take to get there. What do you tell the panel when you arrive?
  • 2. You’ve already lied to your teacher three times about a late essay, saying that your computer ate the work you had done. On the fourth occasion, you feel so guilty that you really do do the homework on time, but this time the computer really does eat it. What do you tell your teacher?
  • 3. Now imagine you’re the teacher in no.2 above, being told for the fourth time that the student’s homework was eaten by the computer. Do you believe him/her?
  • 4. Your friend tells you a story about the dancing abilities of his/her pet guinea pig, which you suspect to be false, or at least exaggerated. What do you say?
  • 5. You’re a journalist and are offered an excellent job at the Daily Mail. Do you accept?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.74-77
Sangharakshita The Ten Pillars of Buddhism p.75-80

The fifth precept: avoiding intoxicants

I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from drink and drugs that cloud the mind

This precept is generally seen as an aid to mindfulness. Intoxicants are to be avoided partly because of their effects on one’s state of mind, but also because in an intoxicated state one is more likely to break the other precepts. Intoxicants may also have psychologically (or sometimes physically) addictive effects, leading to a cycle of craving illustrated at its extreme by the hungry ghosts in the Wheel of Life.

The precept particularly refers to alcoholic drink, but is often interpreted to refer to recreational drugs as well, or most broadly to the taking of any substance which can have an intoxicating effect. Some Buddhists have taken it to include smoking as well.

As with the other precepts, interpretations of this precept vary greatly within the Buddhist world. Some Buddhists interpret it to mean complete abstention from any alcoholic drink, others only to excessive consumption, or consumption with a desire to become intoxicated. According to Peter Harvey, very strict avoidance of alcohol is rare in traditional Buddhist countries, and many Buddhist monks and lay-people take a relaxed view of this precept, only really disapproving of excessive drunkenness. There is certainly much more flexibility in the way it is generally interpreted than in the Muslim prohibition on alcohol, which is often seen as an absolute rule.

This may be seen as lax, given the variety of ways in which alcohol can adversely affect the mind. Even in small quantities it can take the edge off a mindful state gained through meditation, and affect the sharpness of one’s memory. On the other hand, in some circumstances refusing alcohol may make it harder to have a friendly relationship with those who regularly consume it. It is also possible to get over-attached to teetotalism (as with any other moral stance) and use it too rigidly. Since all the precepts are to be applied to our motivations, it can also be argued that we should be thinking much more about why we drink and how much we crave intoxication than about whether a drop of alcohol passes our lips.

So, there is a continuing debate within Buddhism about how strictly the Fifth Precept should be interpreted in relation to alcohol. There is also a debate about the status of mind-altering drugs such as LSD. Some of the earliest Western Buddhists got involved in Buddhism through the experimental “hippy” scene of the sixties and seventies, a strong feature of which was the use of drugs which change perception and which were believed to give mystical insights. For this reason some Western Buddhists will defend the use of such drugs, at least in a careful and controlled way, to experience more profound mental states and in some cases provide an initial inspiration for meditation. Others argue that the use of such drugs is not compatible with the Buddhist path,. Not only are they against the fifth precept (not to mention being illegal in most countries), but there is no quick-fix route to enlightenment through a pill. They emphasise that real spiritual insight can only be gained through effort over a long period of time.

There is also a debate about where to draw the line in applying the precepts. Should we give up anything that can adversely affect our mental state? This might include sugar, tea, coffee, food additives, chilli and other spices, ruling a lot of foods widely eaten! Those who argue that the precept should mean moderation argue that although excessive alcohol is bad for your mental state, so is an excess of virtually anything!

Reflection/ Discussion

  • How important do you think it is for Buddhists to avoid all alcohol?
  • Do you think that mind-altering drugs should also be avoided under the Fifth Precept?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.77-79

Matters of Life and Death

1. Buddhism and Abortion

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Spiritual Instrumentalism and rebirth

To begin with it is important to clarify an aspect of the Buddhist attitude to human life. Human life, as in other religions, is often seen as vitally important, even sacred. However, the reason for this is not that God has created it, but because a human birth provides a precious opportunity to gain enlightenment (which is very much more difficult if you are not human, e.g. an animal, a god, or a hungry ghost). So human life is valuable, but instrumentally valuable, i.e. as a means to an end. That end is enlightenment, not an ordinary worldly end, so this view could be called spiritual instrumentalism.

When you apply this to abortion and put it together with traditional Buddhist belief in rebirth, this means that abortion is generally wrong, for the reason that it interferes with a human rebirth and thus prevents that being seeking enlightenment. Rebirth is usually believed to begin at conception, when the consciousness from the previous life (known as the garbha), craving a new rebirth, attaches itself to the fertilised egg [In the Theravada, this is seen as an instantaneous transfer from the previous body, but the Mahayana sees the transfer as occurring via an intermediate state (in Tibetan Buddhism known as the bardo) between death and rebirth, in which the consciousness wanders, eventually seeking new rebirth because of its fear of the apparent non-existence it encounters. [See The Tibetan Book of the Dead]. So there is no doubt in traditional Buddhism that abortion is the killing of a person.

The First Precept

The killing of a person is obviously against the First Precept. Abortion thus appears to be murder according to most traditional Buddhism. The Vinaya rules view a monk who has deliberately assisted a woman in having an abortion as having committed a very grave offence requiring him to leave the monastic sangha.

Nevertheless, in practice how bad the offence of abortion is does seem to depend upon the age of the foetus. Just as killing a more developed animal is taken to be worse than killing an insect, an early abortion, although still the killing of a person, is not as bad as a late abortion. This reflects the spiritual instrumentalism of Buddhism, where a human life is seen as very valuable, but this does not necessarily mean that all human life is equally valuable. Buddhism has strong reasons for avoiding killing of any sort, and clearly recognises abortion as killing, but these reasons are not based on a single special status for all human beings like the idea of the Image of God in Christianity.

The Middle Way

If you apply the Middle Way to abortion a more flexible position is likely to emerge. On one side of the debate is the appeal to the rights of the foetus alone, on the other the rights of the woman over her own body. Both of these positions are strongly defended, and each side refuses to accept the basic assumptions of the other. A calm look at the issues probably involves not just accepting either set of assumptions completely, but trying to take into account both the position of a pregnant woman with an unwanted child, and the status of the foetus. Probably neither the idea that the foetus is just part of the woman’s body, nor that it is a completely separate person, are totally correct.

If the desire to have an abortion is powerful in some circumstances, due to the need, say, for a woman to avoid her life’s ambitions being thwarted by an unwanted child, then it may not be appropriate to simply repress that desire in the name of duty. However, there are also many implications of having an abortion which might not be appreciated by a woman who simply justifies her desire for an abortion by saying she has a right over her own body: for example, the unfulfilled potential life of the foetus, and her own possible sense of loss and guilt.

So, one cannot rule out the possibility that someone giving the Middle Way priority in their interpretation of Buddhism might support abortion in some cases, but this would probably be after considering all the alternatives and ruling out other possibilities such as adoption. But this would probably mean also giving the Middle Way priority over traditional rebirth beliefs as well as the First Precept. Only a small number of radical Western Buddhists would be likely to take this line, with most Buddhists even in the West more likely to rely on traditional deontological principles and teachings.

Find out about the Japanese practice of mizuko kuyo and make brief notes. Use at least one of the following sources:
Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ed. Keown p.154-161
An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Harvey p.332-341
Internet (search “mizuko kuyo”. Avoid sites with numerous question marks in the initial search results, which will be largely in Japanese!)
Make brief notes on the main points (not more than one side).
Discuss what this tells you about attitudes to abortion in Buddhism.
Overall discussion
What do you think a Buddhist attitude to abortion should generally be?

Further reading
Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ed. Keown ch.6
An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Harvey ch.8

2. Buddhism and Euthanasia

The Buddhist case against suicide and euthanasia

The First Precept

The first ground for thinking suicide wrong according to Buddhist standards is found in the Five Precepts, in the first of which the Buddhist undertakes to refrain from taking life. In Buddhaghosha’s commentary, ‘taking life’ is defined as ‘the will to kill anything one perceives as having life’ (See Conze Buddhist Scriptures p.70). Killing oneself, or killing another out of mercy, is not explicitly included or excluded from this, so of course it may still be argued that there is an unwritten assumed addition ‘…except with the consent of the being killed’ which would justify suicide or voluntary euthanasia.

The Patimokkha

Slightly more explicit evidence for Buddhist opposition to suicide can be found in the Patimokkha, the summary of monastic rules. Here killing is one of the first-grade offences punishable with expulsion from the sangha, and added to this is

…and this applies also to a monk who incites others to self-destruction, and who speaks to them in praise of death, with such words as “O man, what is the use to you of this miserable life? It is better for you to die than to be alive!

Buddhist Scriptures p.74, Conze

Although this does not say explicitly that a monk who attempts suicide or seeks euthanasia should be expelled, it does seem to show a moral disapproval of suicide by discouraging the propagation of despair or the aiding of suicide. However, it does seem to be motives of despair behind suicide or euthanasia rather than the deed itself which the Patimokkha attacks. Peter Harvey comments that the recognition of dukkha in Buddhism means that suffering and impermanence are to be expected and are thus not an appropriate ground for despair. A Buddhist should accept and work with whatever suffering they find in their lives.

The value of a human birth

Although the Patimokkha is only concerned with monastic ethics, this general argument can be extended further to consider the backward step one takes in voluntarily giving up life as a human being. Buddhist Scriptures stress how rare it is to gain a human rebirth, which offers the better conditions for making progress on the path than any other states within samsara (even those of the gods). The Bodhicharyavatara (the Mahayana text used for devotion by those preparing to take the Bodhisattva vow) compares the chances of gaining a human rebirth to those that a turtle, surfacing from the depths of a great ocean, will happen to rise at the point where a yoke is floating on the surface so as to put its head through that yoke. In the light of this rarity, it is very foolish to voluntarily throw away a human life. To live a human life where the dharma is available is also a great fortune in a world of immense ignorance, so if one has made even the slightest progress on the path this is sufficient to avoid suicide or any other voluntary renunciation of life at all costs.

Applying the Middle Way

The Buddhist view of euthanasia seems to fall midway between the Eternalist Christian view that euthanasia is never justified and the Materialist secular view that it can be justified simply to avoid pain. The Eternalist believes that there is an afterlife which he/she will progress to as an immortal soul. This is the ground on which some Christians argue that euthanasia devalues the process of natural dying and prevents spiritual preparation for the afterlife (which may involve suffering, but this suffering may fulfil a spiritual purpose). Together with this view goes the idea that only God should determine life and death through the processes of nature, so we should not intervene to end our own lives.

On the other hand, the materialist Utilitarian does not believe in any existence beyond death, leading to the (in Buddhist terms) nihilist view that pleasure and pain in this life are all that matter morally. In this case, it seems that all that is required to justify euthanasia is that the person concerned desires it and judges that less pain will result from choosing it than otherwise.

The art of dying well

A traditional Buddhist view, incorporating belief in rebirth, takes the Middle Way between these extremes. On the one hand, there is some agreement with the Christian argument that we should prepare ourselves for death; on the other, it is not agreed that we are not responsible for our own deaths. In the Theravadin tradition, death-proximate karma is most important and will determine the next rebirth, therefore it is important to die calmly, positively and mindfully. In the Tibetan tradition, as recorded in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, death and the interval between death and rebirth (the bardo) provides the opportunity to gain enlightenment, which should be carefully prepared for. The lama is supposed to whisper the text of the book into the person’s ear at the time of death and after. This process certainly seems to be ruled out by suicide arising from a depressed or passionate mental state, and it is perhaps for this reason that the Buddha particularly tells monks not to encourage anyone into such a state. On the other hand, it could be argued that voluntary euthanasia, calmly decided upon by a person in a lucid mental state during a terminal illness, may be far preferable to hanging onto life longer with increasing confusion.

The value of suffering

The Buddhist is likely to agree with the Utilitarian, however, that suffering in itself has no value, and disagree with the Christian who argues that it must have value because God has sent it. Facing up to suffering can bring about spiritual progress, as is shown by realisation of dukkha being the first stage on the Spiral Path: however, it must be coupled with faith to be of any practical use, otherwise it merely leads to frustration and the perpetuation of samsara.

Hence the pain of a terminal illness can only be of value if the sufferer has a positive attitude towards coping with it, and judges that he/she will benefit from doing so. In other cases there seems to be no justification for prolonging life unnecessarily. If the dying person lacks faith and confidence, or has them but sees no value in continuing, there is no possibility of further spiritual progress in that life.

The Buddhist case for euthanasia

Ronald Nakasone, a Californian Pure Land Buddhist, provides an argument in favour of some voluntary euthanasia from a Mahayana perspective (see Nakasone Ethics of Enlightenment p.66-81). First he establishes that Buddhist ethics are not based purely on rules, appealing to the account given in the Vinaya of the best way to deal with disputes. This is not just to rely on the letter of rules or even the spirit of rules, but to refer to ones teachers and ones own judgement. Hence, it seems, from the outset, ones judgement on suicide and euthanasia should be made situationally, allowing exceptions to the norm. He then goes on to draw on the Samantapasadika, a Mahayana scripture which gives two examples of the Buddha’s attitude to monks contemplating suicide because of a painful disease. In the first, the Buddha stressed that his fellow monks should encourage him to be positive and regard his illness as an opportunity for spiritual practice. In the second, however, he suggests that a monk who decides to die because he is a drain on others may be acting rightly.

Here it is the consequences to others which clearly justify the suicide. However, Nakasone also stresses the principle of autonomy, meaning that in this case it must be the monk himself who decides to end his life. Hence voluntary euthanasia and suicide seem to be justifiable where the motive is the welfare of others rather than simply avoiding pain.

Protest deaths

Nakasone also focusses on the suicides of a number of Buddhist monks in Vietnam who burned themselves to death during the 1960’s in protest against the war, and particularly on Chi Mai, a young student who did the same thing (Ethics of Enlightenment p.111-114) . These deaths are also justified in his eyes because they are the actions of Bodhisattvas, showing dauntless compassion in sacrificing themselves for the good of all. Thus, although their actions go against the letter of the first precept, they are justified by the ideal behind that same precept. Nakasone also quotes the Jataka story (given in the Penguin Buddhist Scriptures p.24-6) of the Bodhisattva who fed himself to a hungry tigress in dramatic demonstration of the same selflessness.

The case for euthanasia

If one takes into account the Middle Way and Nakasone’s argument, then, one can make a Buddhist case for euthanasia. Euthanasia can only be justified when it is voluntary, due to the importance of autonomy in Buddhism. With non-voluntary euthanasia we enter a similar debate as for abortion, with the main tradition being firmly against but with some possible arguments on the grounds of compassionately-motivated skilful means. There is no moral difference between suicide and euthanasia on the grounds of who does the action, or between active and passive, natural or unnatural euthanasia, provided the person consents fully and consistently. Euthanasia or suicide, however, is not justified solely as a means of fleeing pain while there is still some real possibility of spiritual progress. Spiritual progress towards nirvana is the highest good and overrules any rules or precepts against suicide, but anyone using this as a justification for suicide or euthanasia needs to do so on the basis of spiritual practice and take great care lest they be deluding themselves. The best justifications for suicide or euthanasia seem to be to avoid being a drain on others and to avoid pain where there is no more possibility of spiritual progress.

How far do you think a Buddhist could justify euthanasia in the following cases?

  1. An elderly man in great pain, in the final stages of cancer and in a state of great agitation.
  2. A Buddhist monk who is likely to die of a terminal disease during the next month, who wishes to die whilst he is still calm and mindful.
  3. A woman who has developed Alzheimer’s Disease, who in a Living Will has specified that she wishes to be killed before she reaches the advanced stages of dementia.
  4. A man almost completely paralysed by motor neurone disease who believes there is no longer any reason to live and wishes to die.
  5. A woman in a persistent vegetative state, with no higher brain functions, from which recovery would be miraculous.
  6. A baby who has been born with Tay-Sachs disease and is likely to live only a few days of intense suffering.
  7. A man suffering from cancer, who is afraid of further pain and wishes to end his life. Doctors estimate that he will probably live for several months longer and has a 10% chance of complete recovery.

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.292-310
Damien Keown (ed.) Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ch.7

3. Buddhism and Embryo Research

Objections to embryo research

More conservative and traditional (especially Theravada) Buddhists are very likely to object to embryo research.

1. Embryos are persons
The Buddhist attitude to embryo research depends very much on Buddhist attitudes to the status of the embryo. Following the traditional Buddhist belief that human personhood begins at conception, when the garbha from the previous life joins the fertilised egg, there is no difference between the moral status of the embryo during the first two weeks after fertilisation and its status later on after further development. The destruction of “spare” embryos in IVF would thus be killing of persons, which clearly goes against the first precept.

2. Indirect killing is no defence
Nor would it be accepted as a defence in Buddhism to say that embryo research aims mainly to preserve life, but involves the destruction of embryos as a side effect, so that the violence is indirect. Indirect violence is still treated as blameworthy in Buddhism, for example in the advice given about Right Livelihood: selling arms or poisons are seen as wrong livelihoods because these things are used to take life, and blame will attaches to the seller even though his/her role in the violence was indirect. Similarly, whilst embryo research only indirectly destroys human life, the scientist is still to blame for this.

3. The goals of embryo research may reflect greed
The idea that the killing of embryos is justified in order to save or improve other lives in the long run may also be questioned from a traditional Buddhist point of view, on the grounds that the goals of embryo research are themselves questionable. Stem cell research, for example, aims to be able to grow cloned organs in a tank as spare parts ready for transplantation. But if the price of this is the destruction of human life, it may be argued that the desire for such organs reflects greed and a lack of acceptance of the impermanence of the human body.

How strong do you think these arguments are against embryo research?(think what assumptions they make and how acceptable these assumptions are)

Defences of embryo research

Only a few radical, and most likely Western, Buddhists are likely to support embryo research on Buddhist grounds, by emphasising other aspects of Buddhist ethics

1. Personhood cannot be precisely identified
Some Western Buddhists may doubt traditional accounts of the rebirth process, either because they are doubtful, or at least agnostic, about rebirth itself, or because they accept rebirth but would not accept the traditional account of when and how it occurs. It might be argued that it is more in accordance with the findings of modern science to suggest that rebirth occurs gradually, and that karmic residues from a previous life are merged gradually with a developing foetus in the womb. They might also appeal to the Buddhist doctrine of insubstantiality (anatta) as pointing out that there is really no such category as “personhood” in Buddhism. According to this teaching, a ‘person’ is really just a set of processes to which we attach a label ‘person’. When we should attach that label for moral purposes, then, is not very clear cut.

2. Killing varies in blameworthiness
Whether or not the embryo has the status of a ‘person’, to kill it would still be blameworthy under the first precept. However, there is a also a traditional recognition in Buddhism that the killing of a larger animal is a more serious matter than that of a smaller animal, as it requires more effort and deliberate action. For this reason, late abortion is still considered more blameworthy than early abortion, and research on embryos would thus be killing, but not such blameworthy killing as that involved in abortion or other types of killing of humans.

3. The Middle Way
Finally, the Middle Way may be invoked to support a more moderate approach to embryo research. More traditional and conservative forms of Buddhist ethics simply exclude any serious consideration of the advantages of embryo research, or of the desires that lead to it, but the more basic Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way would suggest that these advantages, and the desire to help others which lies behind embryo research, should be recognised and taken into account. Simply holding onto the fixed idea that we should not kill involves eternalism, whilst abandoning our responsibility towards embryos involves nihilism. Perhaps a moderate position avoiding both extremes would involve trying to recognise ways in which embryos are not in fact persons whilst acknowledging our responsibility towards them as potential persons. This might lead to trying to minimise any unnecessary experimentation on embryos, but supporting experimentation which stands a good chance of relieving suffering, such as much stem cell research.

  • What reasons might more conservative Buddhists have for rejecting these arguments? (try to respond to ideas in the arguments themselves rather than just giving a contrary position)
  • What conclusion do you think Buddhists should draw about embryo research, and why?
  • How well do you think a Buddhist approach to embryo research compares to a Kantian approach?
  • How well do you think a Buddhist approach to embryo research compares to a Utilitarian approach?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.318-9

4. Buddhism and Organ Donation (1)

Attitude to death and afterlife

Unlike the theistic religions, Buddhism does not have any belief that the human body was created by God. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with organ transplantation because of its interference in the human body, whether living or dead, although obviously an organ should only be taken from a live donor with their consent. There are also no beliefs in bodily resurrection. Karmic processes move from one body to another, and there is no sense in which a body can continue to exist after death in Buddhist tradition. So there are no particular religious objections to organ donation from a corpse. Traditionally in Buddhism, funerals are an opportunity to reflect on impermanence, and the dead body is cremated rather than buried.

What is important for a person at the time of death for a Buddhist is not the condition of their body but of their mind. A state of non-attachment to the body is desirable at this time, and this could be aided by the generosity involved in deciding that one’s body could be used to help others after death.

There are a number of Buddhist doctrines which might be used to give positive reasons for supporting organ donation.

Second precept

The main precept of the five which may be seen as having a bearing on organ donation is the second precept in its positive form. The giving of an organ is an opportunity for generosity. The giving of part of one’s body to a person in need is an example of a very high level of generosity, in which the distinction between one’s own interests and those of others (a result of unenlightened ignorance) becomes much weaker. This would obviously be particularly the case with donation from a live donor, but donation from a corpse is also an instance of worthwhile generosity. So there seem to be no good reasons why a Buddhist could not carry a donor card.

There are examples from Buddhist scriptures which illustrate an extreme version of the kind of generosity which might be called for here. In the Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives) in the Pali Canon, there are some where the Buddha is an animal who gives him/herself voluntarily for food to a starving person. This theme is also found in the Sutra of Golden Light, a Mahayana Sutra, where the Buddha in a previous lifetime (as a young prince) is said to have encountered a starving tigress and her cubs and killed himself in front of her to provide her with food (See Buddhist Scriptures p.24-6). Obviously this sacrifice goes further than most organ donors would need to go! It can also perhaps be read as an exaggerated popular story to make a point, for the wisdom of sacrificing one’s life in this way could be questioned from a Buddhist point of view, given the other good things one might achieve with a human birth.

The negative form of the second precept also suggests that the consent of those giving organs, whether living or dead, is important, for taking an organ without consent is taking the not-given. For this reason more conservative Buddhists might be inclined to reject any proposal to introduce an objector’s card system.

Impermanence and insubstantiality

The doctrines of impermanence (anicca) and no-self or insubstantiality (anatta) are part of the First Noble Truth, of the existence of dukkha (frustration or suffering). These doctrines will be studied in more detail in the A2 Buddhism course, but in brief it can be said that dukkha occurs because, although we have both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, the pleasant experiences will be impermanent (they will always come to an end) and insubstantial (they will not be exactly as we think them to be, and thus be disappointing). Impermanence and insubstantiality thus have a close supportive relationship with dukkha.

Impermanence and insubstantiality also apply very much to our bodies. Our bodies are constantly changing, and will eventually die. So although they may enable us to have pleasant experiences, those experiences will soon come to an end because our body does, as well as because the source of the pleasant experience (e.g. the bar of chocolate) will end. Even if life consisted of one non-stop pleasant experience, it would still be impermanent. Are bodies are also insubstantial because they are not always what we take them to be. We tend to assume they are reliable but then we have illnesses and injuries. We also often take the body to be beautiful, but Buddhist texts often stress that this involves a very selective view of the body, not taking much account of all the unpleasant substances our bodies contain and frequently excrete. We should also not identify ourselves with our bodies: for we do not have a self, either in our bodies or in our minds, the self being ultimately an illusion.

So, if the body is impermanent and insubstantial, this provides a further reason for not getting too attached to it. An organ of the type we might donate is not in any sense ‘ours’ other than due to the fact that the being I conveniently call ‘me’ for the time being happens to be temporarily using this organ. If it’s not really ‘mine’ to begin with, and it’s impermanent anyway, there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t give it away when someone else needs it, especially if I definitely don’t need it any more because I’m dead.

Some Buddhist views

Organ donation is an extremely positive action. As long as it is truly thewish of the dying person, it will not harm in any way the consciousness thatis leaving the body. On the contrary, this final act of generosity accumulatesgood karma.

Sogyal Rinpoche – The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying, published byRider.

I would be happy if I was able to help someone else live after my own death.

Dhammarati, Triratna Buddhist Order

Non-attachment to the body can be seen in the context of non-attachmentto self and Buddhist teachings on impermanence. Compassion is apre-eminent quality. Giving one’s body for the good of others is seenas a virtue.

The Amida Trust

Organ donation is acceptable in Theravada Buddhism. It is a Buddhistvirtue to generously extend help to other sentient beings and this covers thecase of organ donation.

Phramaha Laow Panyasiri, Abbot, The Buddhavihara Temple

Resources issues and the Middle Way

In general then, organ donation seems a good action for Buddhists. However, wherever a gift is given there can always be questions about the wisdom of that gift. Obviously some gifts can be unwise compared to others. If you have a moderate amount of money to give away, it is better to give it to someone in great need than someone who is already rich. In the case of organ donation, some have argued that these expensive and risky operations are not justified by their results, given that both money and the time and skills of doctors could be more effectively applied to simpler treatments which might save more lives in the long run.

In Buddhist terms, this may be an obvious case where it is useful to apply the Middle Way. The Precepts tell one only to save lives and be generous, but not how to judge between conflicting ways of doing this. The Middle Way might suggest that both the suffering of those needing transplants and those of others need to be taken into account. It may be that more money and doctors could be provided for both, but if not then a fair allocation needs to be made which meets the long-term needs of all as far as possible. But anyone making decisions about the allocation of medical resources in this way needs to carefully check how far they might be motivated by greed or hatred in relation to either rich or poor.

Questions for discussion
1. Do you think Buddhists should support a switch to an objector’s card system for organ donation? Why/ why not?
2. How far do you think Buddhists should support particularly expensive and risky transplant operations such as heart transplants?

Organ transplantation (2)

by Munisha, Clear Vision’s former education officer.

In 2004, the UK Network of Buddhist Organisations (NBO) was asked by the UK Transplant Authority to come up with a statement outlining Buddhist attitudes to transplantation. NBO members thought it would be simple. However, it was not to be.

Though many people followed the line of Robert Ellis’s piece here, there were dissenting voices. In particular there were concerns from some UK Tibetan Buddhist organisations, which may be summarised as follows:

  • The manner in which the departing consciousness leaves the body will affect the rebirth it chooses. Removal of organs is necessarily soon, speedy and invasive and will compromise the tranquillity of the psycho-physical organism around the time of death.
  • Consciousness leaving an undisturbed body has a greater chance of a good rebirth – leading to a contented and ethical life, beneficial to other living beings. This is, in the long run, of greater benefit to the world than the short-term benefit to the single recipient of the donated organ. (Contrast this with the view of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rimpoche, quoted in Upeksacitta’s article.)
  • There is a danger that the need of the would-be recipient will be put before the need of the dying person. Click here to see the NBO’s final statement.

5. Buddhism and the allocation of medical resources

Very little has been written by Buddhists on this. However, there are certainly some specific teachings in Buddhism which could be used to help determine an order of priorities in resource allocation.

The First Precept and Four Noble Truths

The First Precept (particularly in its positive form) and Buddhist ideals of compassion provide a strong reason for providing medical care. Medicine of different types has been practised in Buddhist countries through the ages, although the type has depended more on culture than religion (e.g. Ayurvedic medicine in India, Chinese medicine in China, Tibetan medicine in Tibet).

Another basic justification lies in the Four Noble Truths, which start with the recognition of suffering and set out to overcome it through a process of identifying the cause, the cure, and the prescription. The similarity of the Four Noble Truths to the activities of a doctor has often been noted, and there is even a figure known as the Medicine Buddha who symbolically represents this.

This does not take us much further, though, than the general idea that medical treatment to relieve suffering and to save life is good. It doesn’t help in deciding priorities between different forms of medical treatment.

Holistic medicine

Holism is the idea that we should think about things as a whole rather than just isolating specific parts and taking them out of context. The tradition of Western medicine tends not to be very holistic, but rather to concentrate on finding a ‘magic bullet’: a specific cure for each specific ailment. Confronted by a patient with, say, appendicitis, a Western-trained doctor is quite likely to start thinking immediately about how to cure the appendicitis, rather than other aspects of the patient’s health and well-being, whether they are happy in their job or whether their lifestyle is sustainable for them. This contrasts with the traditions of Indian and Chinese medicine, which tend to be more holistic, i.e. they treat the whole person rather than just the disease. Chinese doctors are traditionally paid for keeping their patients in health rather than for curing them of diseases.

Indian and Chinese forms of medicine have come out of complex cultural background, but Buddhism is certainly one important influence on them. Holistic views of health care can certainly be defended using Buddhist teachings about the interdependency of all conditions. The doctrine of dependent origination, symbolised by the outer ring of the Wheel of life, suggests most basically that all aspects of our existence are interrelated and interdependent, particularly our nature with our desires. A lot of traditional Buddhist practice reflects this by working with all parts of the body and mind on the assumption that they affect each other: meditating one loving-kindness could help relax your body, doing Tai-Chi could help you concentrate, and increased awareness through meditation can help you develop wisdom. For this reason many modern Western Buddhists use or even practise alternative (and usually more holistic) forms of health care such as homeopathy, acupuncture, massage and reflexology.

If you take this tendency towards holism into account it would suggest that Buddhist ethics would favour long-term solutions to health problems over short-term ‘magic bullets’, so that stress might be given to preventative medicine and health education. When an illness does occur, it might be seen not simply as the responsibility of the NHS to cure it, but of the person to change their lifestyle in a way that could allow their health to improve and remain improved.

Saving lives vs quality of life

There would probably be much more disagreement between Buddhists on the issue of saving lives vs. quality of life. Traditionalists who stress the importance of the First precept are more likely to prioritise saving lives. However, the idea of spiritual instrumentalism (see abortion) might lead other Buddhists to put more emphasis on the quality of life.

1. Do you think doctors should be paid for curing people or for keeping them healthy?
2. What do you think are the advantages of a holistic approach to medicine?
3. What might be the disadvantages?
4. How well do you think a Buddhist approach to the prioritisation of medical resources compares to a utilitarian approach?

Buddhism in business relationships


(extract from What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita)

The principle of non-exploitation should ideally hold good in all the relationships of life. It should be possible for us to take what we need, whether food, clothing, education, or anything else, and give whatever we can. There is no need for there to be any connection between what we give and what we receive. Unfortunately, however, the way things usually work is that each person involved in any transaction, whether as the giver or as the receiver, thinks only of himself or herself, giving as little as possible in exchange for as much as possible. This is how ordinary life generally works: we negotiate transactions in which what we give is determined by what we can get for it, not by any regard for the consequences of the transaction for other people.

Beyond a certain point, any commercial profit made is necessarily at the expense of someone else; but the plight of the losers in the game does not generally bother the winners. A particularly brazen form of this universal phenomenon is to be found in poor places like India, where hugely wealthy dealers in grain, especially rice, hoard their stocks, refusing to admit that they have anything to sell, so as to force prices up. This may go on for weeks at a time, especially in remote parts of the country, to the point where people are actually starving, yet the merchants will hold on to those stocks as long as they possibly can, before slowly releasing them at extortionate prices on the black market. The poor have then to scrape together every penny in order to buy enough food to live on. Such exploitation happens – albeit usually in more subtle ways – in all walks of life, in all parts of the world.

The idea of non-exploitation is clearly related to the second of the five precepts (the precepts which form the basis for the ethical life of all Buddhists). In trying to live in accordance with the second precept, one undertakes not to take what is not given.(footnote 96) This is more than simply a roundabout way of saying ‘not to steal’. Not stealing isn’t enough. It leaves too many loopholes. Someone may be a perfectly honest person according to the letter of the law, but they may still build up their business in all sorts of irregular, dubious, or downright shady ways. Thus a great deal of wealth is amassed through highly unethical means without the breaking of any conventional ethical codes.

But the Buddhist precept is an undertaking not to take something unless those who are its present owners, whether individuals or the community as a whole, are willing and ready to give it to you. If it has not been given to you, you do not take it. I mentioned that there should be no connection between what we give and what we take. However, what we take must at the same time be given – in this respect giving and taking are two aspects of the same action. In some Buddhist countries monks are supposed to be so strict in the observance of this precept that when food is given to them on formal occasions, they are not allowed to eat it unless the plate containing the food is lifted up and actually placed in their hands.

The same principle finds application in the fifth stage of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: right or perfect livelihood.(footnote 97) The very fact that right livelihood is included in the list gives an idea of the importance given within Buddhism to the way one earns one’s living. People may talk of getting the perfect job, but we can guess that this is not what is meant by ‘perfect livelihood’. But how does something so apparently mundane as employment find a place in this august collection of ideals?

We all have to earn a living – those who are not monks, anyway – but however we do it, no harm should come either to others or to ourselves through the work we do. The early scriptures even offer a rough and ready guide to right livelihood in the form of a list of occupations which are prohibited for those following the spiritual path.(footnote 98) The first of these concerns any commercial activity that involves trading in living beings, whether humans or animals. Slavery is and always has been condemned and prohibited in Buddhist countries – Buddhists did not have to wait until the eighteenth or nineteenth century for a clear line on this issue. Of course, trading in human beings still goes on in the world today, but even more widespread is trading in animals for slaughter, also prohibited in Buddhist societies: you will never find a Buddhist butcher or slaughterman. This form of livelihood is harmful not only to – of course – the animals being slaughtered, but also to those doing the slaughtering. To spend eight hours a day killing pigs, cows, sheep, or chickens will necessarily bring about some degree of mental or emotional damage to the slaughterman, as a result of stifling his natural feelings of compassion for other living beings.

Another early Buddhist prohibition was placed upon trade in poisons – not of course medicinal poisons, but poisons used to take life. Before the days of autopsies, this was an almost foolproof way to dispose of someone; a dealer in poisons would give you a phial of the requisite potion – whether fast or slow working, painful or painless – and you would then dose that inconvenient person’s curry with it. Like slavers, dealers in poisons are, in a sense, found less frequently today than they used to be. But, of course, the modern equivalent – the widespread dealing in what are called class A drugs (like heroin and cocaine) – is just as harmful. Also, many people are involved in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes and other indisputably harmful drugs, including advertising them and dealing in shares in them.

The third prohibition was against making or trading in weapons. For the early Buddhists this meant bows and arrows, spears and swords. From these primitive beginnings of the arms trade, however, our more advanced cultures have made considerable progress – so they would say – in the development of wonderfully safe and refined methods of ensuring victory over the enemies of civilized values. But any involvement in making these means of destruction, however ‘intelligent’ they may be, is to be condemned as wrong livelihood. There is no question of justifying any war, any idea that weapons are a deterrent, any bombs, however ‘smart’.

These prohibitions are of course directed at the laity, but there are also certain ways of earning a living which are forbidden specifically to monks. For example, various forms of fortune-telling, of which there were very many in the Buddha’s day, are enumerated and roundly condemned in the scriptures. However, all over the Buddhist world monks to this day are relied on by the laity to foretell the future, and unfortunately many monks take advantage of this trust in their powers of prognostication.

Monks are also prohibited from earning a living through the display of psychic powers, or by promising psychic powers to others. The reason for this is obvious, really. People are naturally very interested in psychic phenomena, supernormal powers, and so on. Such things are generally taken more seriously on an everyday level in the East, but in certain circles in the West there is also an intense – and unhealthy – fascination with the idea of acquiring mysterious and occult powers that other people don’t possess. If you dangle psychic powers in front of someone’s nose, you can, if they are easily led, lead them almost anywhere.

I was once presented with the opportunity of doing this myself. When I lived in Kalimpong in the 1950s, an Englishman arrived on my doorstep one evening in the midst of the rainy season. I was quite accustomed to unexpected visitors, so I invited him in and he introduced himself. He was a medical man who had trained in Dublin. Quite soon I got round to asking him what had brought him to Kalimpong. He said straight out, ‘I want to develop psychic powers.’ This was not the first time someone had expressed to me this kind of interest, so I just said, ‘What sort of psychic powers do you want to develop?’ He said, ‘I want to be able to read other people’s thoughts, and to see the future.’ He was not at all coy about it; he was quite open about what he wanted. I then asked him, ‘Why do you want to develop these powers?’ He simply said, ‘It will help me in my work.’ What that work turned out to be is not germane to this specific issue; I will mention only that he was a disciple – or had been a disciple – of Lobsang Rampa, who wrote a lot of books about the more fabulous and fanciful aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Inspired by one of the most successful of these books, The Third Eye, my visitor was searching for a Tibetan lama who could perform an operation to open his third eye. It involved, he believed, drilling a little hole in the middle of his forehead and thereby endowing him with the clairvoyant vision he wanted.

One can see the temptation that this kind of person puts in the way of monks and lamas. He could have been milked by any unscrupulous teacher who was ready to pander to his desire for developing psychic powers. What he said to me made this very clear: ‘If anyone can teach me these things I’m quite prepared to place at their disposal a very large sum of money.’ He came to an untimely end, unfortunately, but before he did so, several people got quite a lot of money out of him in one way or another.

So much for general prohibitions as regards earning a living. However, the Buddha did not leave it at that, for, as we know, the economic relationship is one of the commonest fields of exploitation in the whole range of human life. Employers exploit employees if they can, and employees exploit their employers whenever they get the chance. We tend to think that problems of suspicion and exploitation between management and workforce, capital and labour, boardroom and factory floor, are peculiarly modern. But the Buddha gave considerable attention to this issue, in his advice to Sigalaka as recorded in the Sigalaka Sutta. In the section of the discourse devoted to the employer-employee relationship the Buddha enumerates five duties of the employer towards the employee, and five duties of the employee towards the employer.(footnote 99) Together, these amount to a general guide to capital and labour relationships, and a business code of economic ethics for Buddhists.

Taking the duties of the employer first, the Buddha says that the employer must give the employee work according to his bodily and mental strength – that is, work he or she can do without injury. Unfortunately, 2,500 years later, this principle is still not being observed – certainly not in India. In India today, thousands of men and women earn their living as coolies, that is, as unskilled labourers. They are treated as beasts of burden, carrying heavy loads on their backs, or more usually on their heads, and anybody who ever goes to India will see them at work. Coolies are at the very bottom of the economic ladder, and they have virtually no hope of rising above that level, even though they may have to support a growing family as well as themselves.

The problem from the point of view of the merchant hiring a number of coolies to carry, say, sacks of rice is that some coolies cannot carry as much as others, and they do not move as fast, particularly if they are old or unwell. It is shocking to say that the solution for a great many well-to-do merchants is to make sure they get their money’s-worth out of all their coolies equally. This is a pitiable sight indeed – some old man, old before his time, staggering along, his veins standing out, muscles stretched like whipcord, and the perspiration streaming down, under loads which he has no business to be carrying at all. It’s the same with the rickshaw pullers that you used to find all over Asia (though not any more, I am glad to say). Their life-expectancy was no more than a few years. They used to start pulling rickshaws when they were fifteen or sixteen; by the time they were twenty-five they usually had tuberculosis, and that would be the end of them within a few months. Their inadequate diet and the huge physical stress of their work quite literally killed them.

But for a very long time it was not an issue that bothered anyone. I remember vividly the first time I was in Sri Lanka, taking a ride in a rickshaw – rather against my will. As we moved smartly through the streets I kept telling the coolie to go slower, but he didn’t understand me – he thought I was telling him, as most of his fares must have done, to go faster. The more I expostulated with him, the faster he went, until I had to tell him to stop altogether. Thereafter I used a rickshaw only in an emergency; and even then I would pick someone who was fairly strong and sturdy, and insist that he went at a reasonably leisurely pace. In retrospect, I should not, probably, have used them at all, but at the time it seemed there was no other work for them to do. However, the Buddha was quite clear that no human being should be hired to work beyond his natural capacity.

Secondly, the Buddha said that the employer should give the employee sufficient food and pay. This is still the custom in certain parts of India. If you employ someone you give them food and clothes, plus some cash, rather than a salary. But the operative principle is to give food and pay that is sufficient in terms of enabling the employee to live a full and decent human existence, not simply sufficient in relation to the work done. There shouldn’t be any correlation between the amount of work done and the amount of pay received. Even if the employee is strong and healthy, and his output is prodigious, he should not get paid more than his weaker or even lazier fellows; he should just get what he needs by way of remuneration. We have become accustomed to thinking in terms of rewarding hard work and penalizing those who underperform: so much work done, so much pay received. But while this is an effective incentive to invention and enterprise, a Buddhist should ideally find that incentive somewhere else. If the incentive is greed, you are feeding that mental poison.

The employee is enjoined by the Buddha to work as faithfully as he can, and the employer is enjoined to provide for the employee’s needs. These needs constitute not just a bare subsistence, but the means to live a richly human existence. We no longer have a society that divides quite so rigidly into employer and employee as the society of the Buddha’s day, but the Buddha was not of course recommending the particular social structure of his day, he was simply pointing out the essential principle by which the people in his society could make an economic relationship an essentially human one.

We have to try to do the same within our own society. One radical plan that used to get an airing from time to time, and did seem to express the principle of non-exploitation very effectively, is the idea that on the attainment of their majority everyone should be given by the government a basic stipend to cover the cost of food, clothing, and shelter, regardless of whether they work or not. If they want more than this – if they want to travel, buy expensive electronic equipment, go out to cinemas and restaurants, have the luxury lifestyle that most people see as a virtual necessity – they will have to work. But in a luxury culture people should work because they want to – because they want to make a creative contribution to their society, or because they want a few extras, or both – not simply in order to live. In this way the state would support the spiritual community, enabling individuals who wanted to devote themselves to creative but financially unremunerative activity – to meditation, study, even the arts – to do so, if they were prepared to live a very simple, even monastic life.

Thirdly, the Buddha says that the employer should provide the employee with medical treatment and support after retirement. This we do have nowadays, with pensions, insurance, and so on, but it has taken two millennia for us to get round to this scheme of the Buddha’s. Fourthly, the Buddha says that the employer should share with the employee any extra profit he makes. That is, you don’t take the profits for your own purposes while telling your employees that they must make do with a basic level of support. Once again, we have caught up with this idea rather late in the day, in the form of bonus schemes. Fifthly and lastly, it is the duty of the employer, according to the Buddha, to grant the employee holidays and special allowances – and this, too, has something of a modern ring to it. However, we should not lose sight of the essential principle expressed in the Buddha’s advice – that of establishing the human dimension of the economic relationship – which is not always what bonus schemes, holiday allowances, and pension schemes are about.

So much for the five points made by the Buddha for the guidance of the employer in relationship to the employee. The employee also has certain duties. The first of these is that he or she should be punctual. Indians are of course notorious for their lack of punctuality. Trains can be two or three hours late. Someone may say, ‘I’m coming to see you at three o’clock,’ and you’ll see them the following week. A public meeting may be advertised to begin at eight o’clock sharp, but if you are nai>ve enough to turn up at that time, you may find the place deserted. The meeting has not been cancelled: if you wait until nine o’clock the organizers will arrive; by ten o’clock the platform is being erected. At eleven o’clock the audience is beginning to arrive, and at half past eleven you will be invited to begin your talk. In the West we are a lot more punctual than this; but the Buddha’s principle is not just about clocking in on time, but of not needing to clock in at all. Indeed, the Buddha suggests that you try to be already working before your employer arrives: you are not coming to work simply to be seen to be working.

Secondly, the employee should finish work after the employer. You should try to become free of the whole clock-watching mentality. You don’t fling down your tools as soon as the clock strikes. Thirdly, the employee should be sincere and trustworthy. This is quite obvious, as is the fourth point, which is that the employee should perform his or her duties to the satisfaction of the employer. Fifthly, the employee should speak in praise of his employer. The Buddha must have been aware of how readily workers abuse the boss behind his or her back, then as now. They may be dutiful and respectful during working hours, but what you hear outside the company gates can tell a different story.

The Buddha is reminding us that, as with any relationship, the economic relationship should not be one of antagonism, in which all you feel you can express is impotent frustration. Ideally, it is a happy, harmonious relationship, in which there is no exploitation on either side. Each takes from the other what he or she needs, without causing harm, and gives what he or she can. If you are an employer, you make use of the labour and skills of your workers, and also take responsibility for seeing that their needs are met. And if you are an employee, you work to the best of your ability and take what you need from that work situation. There is then no need for a grim, protracted bargaining between employers and unions, as though they were in opposite camps, arranging a truce between opposing armies. As the Buddha says to Sigalaka, ‘In this way the nadir is covered,’ (the nadir being the direction which denotes the relationship between ‘master and servant’) ‘making it at peace and free from fear.’


96: See Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Birmingham 1996, p.68

97: For more on Right Livelihood as a limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, see Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation,Windhorse, Birmingham 1999, chapter 5: ‘The Ideal Society’.

98: This list is to be found in the Anguttara Nikaya (v.177), and is quoted in Nanamoli, op. cit., p.239.


(extract from What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita)

As the bee takes honey from the flower,
Leaving its colour and fragrance unharmed,
So let the monk go about the village.

Dhammapada 49

This verse comes from the Dhammapada, an ancient and deeply loved anthology of verses which was the first Buddhist text to be translated from the original Pali into a European language (in this case Latin). It is characteristic of Buddhist scriptures to draw all sorts of beautiful illustrations, metaphors, similes, and parables from day-to-day life in India, and so it is with this verse from the Dhammapada, which is taken from the chapter called ‘Flowers’, so-called because each verse mentions a flower of some kind, or flowers in general, by way of illustration.

Anyone who has lived in India or in any of the Buddhist countries of South-east Asia will be familiar with the timeless scene evoked in these lines – the monk going for alms in the village. It was a scene I participated in myself in my own wandering days as a monk, when I went around on foot from place to place. But I have seen it as an observer often enough, and will describe it here from that viewpoint. Usually the monks go out for alms very early in the morning, because in India there is no such thing traditionally as a midday meal. People eat what we would call lunch at about nine o’clock in the morning; it is a huge meal, consisting mainly of rice. After that – in the villages at least – people go off to work in the fields and don’t come back home again to eat until five or six in the evening. So if the monk wants to fill his bowl, he has to be off at the crack of dawn, leaving the monastery and moving silently along the deserted streets, stopping briefly at each house.

The Buddhist custom is that throughout his alms collection tour, as it is called, the monk should stand silently at each door with his begging-bowl, not asking for anything. But people are usually on the lookout for monks at this time, so it may be that a child runs inside and says, ‘Mummy, the monk is here,’ and the mother says, ‘All right, ask him to wait.’ Then she quickly ladles out some rice and curry, and takes it outside to put in the monk’s bowl. The monk then recites a verse of blessing in Pali, and moves on to stand at the door of the next hut.

The idea is not to get the whole meal from any one house, but to take a little here and a little there. In India even today Hindu sadhus follow this custom. It is called madhukari bhiksa, which means collecting alms just like the bee collects honey. Just as the bee collects a little pollen from each flower it visits, in the same way the monk accepts a little food from one house, a little food from another, until he has enough to sustain him for the day.

Food is just one of four things that the monk is traditionally entitled to expect from lay supporters. These four requisites or essentials are: firstly, food; secondly, clothing, especially in the form of the saffron robe; thirdly, shelter, whether a temporary hut, a monastery, or some arrangement in between; and fourthly, medicine. When the monk is ordained he is told that this is all he should expect from the lay people, and all he can accept from them.

The idea is that the monk or nun – that is, the person devoted to the religious life – should accept from lay supporters only what is necessary to keep him or her going, so that he or she can practise meditation, study, and teach the Dharma, and make progress towards Enlightenment. Inevitably, after 2,500 years of Buddhist history, a few things have been added to the list of requisites. The most significant addition is perhaps books; in modern times a collection of a few books tends to count as a fundamental requisite.

But Buddhist monks still generally lead an exceedingly simple life, making do with one or at most two meals a day, quite basic accommodation in cottages or huts, the minimum of clothing (easy enough in a tropical country), and very simple medicines. Incidentally, this medicine is supposed to be made of gallnuts and cow’s urine. This is less bizarre than it sounds; you can make a sort of ammonia out of cow’s urine which is efficacious in a number of ways. Many Buddhist monks take cow’s urine religiously, so to speak, and swear by its curative powers. Indeed, a very orthodox Sri Lankan monk with whom I was in regular correspondence wrote to me while I was once lying ill, in Benares, and advised me in the strongest terms to take cow’s urine, assuring me that if I did so I would never be sick again in my life. (Not having heeded his advice, I cannot vouch for this.)

But people in the West often say, ‘Well, that’s all very well. It’s a great arrangement from the monk’s point of view: he gets his food, he gets his clothing, he gets housed, perhaps in a beautiful monastery, he gets medicine when he is sick. Everything is provided for him, so that he can quietly get on with his studies, his meditation, his literary work, or his preaching, as he thinks fit. But what does he give in return?’

The traditional answer to this question is: nothing. He gets all he needs and he does absolutely nothing in return. Nobody even expects anything in return, and it does not occur to the monk that he should give anything in return. Anything you give to monks or nuns is given for the support of the sangha, not as payment for teaching. Correspondingly, teaching is not given in return for that support. The monk accepts what he needs, and he gives what he can, but there is no relationship between the two, no equivalence between what you give and what you get, no reciprocal relationship at all. You don’t think of translating what you give into so many equivalent units of what you ought to receive. You keep the two things quite separate. When you can give, you give. When you need, you accept. There is no question of a bargain being struck. Just as the bee accepts the pollen it needs from the flower to make its honey, without injuring the flower in any way, in the same way, the monk quietly and gently accepts what he needs without doing any harm to the village. In both cases, there is no exploitation.

This, then, is ideally the nature of the relationship between the layperson and ‘ascetics and brahmins’ which the Buddha lists as the last of the six relationships to which Sigalaka (and all of us) should pay attention. But perhaps this relationship is more obscure to us than the others; Western Buddhists do not generally think along the traditional lines of monastic and lay, although we may find it easier to relate to the full-timer/part-timer distinction we considered in an earlier chapter. But there is a further aspect of this verse of the Dhammapada that most translations fail to draw out clearly, but which broadens out what is being said beyond the monastic-lay relationship. It concerns the term ‘monk’.

The first problem with this word is that in Buddhism there is nothing resembling the Western conception of a monk. This problem is further compounded by the fact that ‘monk’ is the standard rendering of the term bhiksu, whereas the word in this verse is not bhiksu but muni. In some contexts muni means monk in the sense of bhiksu, but not always. A muni, essentially, is a wise man, or holy man, or sage. The Buddha was not only called ‘Buddha’; he was given many other titles, including Shakyamuni, ‘sage of the Shakya tribe’. Muni is also related to the term mauna, which in Sanskrit, as well as in the modern languages of northern India, means ‘silence’. So a muni is one who is silent, or even one who observes a vow of silence. In order to bring out this double meaning, some translators render muni as ‘the silent sage’.

This combination of meanings reflects an interesting association of ideas: it suggests that silence and wisdom go together, that the wise man doesn’t talk too much. Whether he is wise because he is silent or silent because he is wise, or both, it may be difficult to say. In any case, it is clear that we are talking about more than just monks here. It becomes clearer what muni means once we consider that this verse is very ancient, one of the earliest (along with some passages of the Sutta Nipata) of all Buddhist scriptures. Some scholars believe that muni was the original term used by Buddhists for the disciple of the Buddha who is himself Enlightened. According to this theory, the word arhant – the term for this ideal which has become so familiar – came later.

We can therefore get a much broader, more universal meaning from this verse by replacing the line ‘so let the monk move about the village’ with ‘so let the wise person live in the world’. In this way, what appears to be an injunction restricted to those who are at least technically monks becomes applicable to everybody who lives in the world. It is important that it does so because it establishes a fundamental principle of the ethical and spiritual life, which is that the wise person does not exploit anyone or anything. This may seem very simple to understand, but if it were to be thoroughly and systematically put into practice, the effects would be far-reaching indeed.

If we are wise, we take from society, from others, from our environment, what we objectively need in order to sustain life, to work, and to progress spiritually. But we do no harm to individuals, to society at large, or to the environment. And we give what we can. However unrealistic this ideal may seem, one does occasionally come across reflections of it in real working relationships, and there is no reason why it cannot be held up in the context of any working environment. Moreover, the principle of non-exploitation extends far beyond the field of economics. It has psychological and even spiritual implications which can be extended to cover the whole field of personal relationships, especially our more intimate relationships.

We don’t just decide to like someone on a whim. We like them because they fulfil a certain need we have – a need of which we are not usually conscious, although we can become conscious of it if we try. If we don’t try to become conscious of what our own needs are, we tend to rationalize our liking for someone: we say we like them because they are considerate and kind, or because they love animals as we do, or because they are interested in Buddhism as we are. But behind these rational appraisals there is often something quite different at work. Perhaps that person satisfies our need for attention, our psychological need to be at the very centre of things. As long as that need continues, we shall continue to want it to be satisfied. And if we get from someone the attention we need, then obviously we will want that relationship to continue.

But how are we going to ensure that it does continue? Most of us, whether we realize it or not, find that the best way of doing this is to find out what the other person needs, and make sure that we are the person who satisfies that need. They may have, say, a deep lack of self-worth that manifests as a craving to be appreciated. Latching on to this, we start saying, ‘What a wonderful writer you are – I wish I had such a way with words!’ or ‘Did you really paint this yourself? How do you manage to achieve such magical effects?’ We give them what we sense they need, so that they become dependent on us for the satisfaction we give them, just as we have become dependent on them for the satisfaction of our own needs. In short, together we create a relationship of mutual dependence and exploitation. An unconscious bargain is struck; this is the basis of most human relationships. Because the whole process is more or less unconscious, neither party to the bargain questions whether the need is valid, or whether it is an artificial and unhealthy need which it would be better not to encourage. In this situation, the relationship is likely either to terminate catastrophically or to settle down into an increasingly boring routine.

Does this mean that we should never look to another person to fulfil our needs? Do we not have some valid psychological needs? The answer to this question lies in this same verse from the Dhammapada. Yes, we do have valid needs – material needs, psychological needs, and spiritual needs – but we should fulfil them as the bee takes pollen from the flower, without exploiting the person who fulfils those needs.

There are two kinds of need. Under the influence of one kind, we unconsciously negotiate a situation of mutual exploitation. The other kind of need is one of which we are more conscious, more aware. It is not bargain-hunting, but an ever-deepening spirit of mutual giving, without any thought of return. It happens between parents and children at their best. The parents give freely to the children without thinking that the children are going to reward them later for their efforts. The children, likewise, give what they can to their parents, not thinking about everything their parents have done for them, but simply giving to them because they love them.

This principle of non-exploitation and mutual generosity is the key to the Buddha’s philosophy of personal relations, whether in political, religious, economic, or more intimate personal relationships. It is a principle the Buddha himself exemplified. He spent forty-five years going around north-eastern India on foot, teaching. All that he took from people was one meal a day, a few yards of yellow cloth, a little hut somewhere – perhaps in somebody’s garden – which he borrowed from time to time, and occasional supplies of medicine.

What he took was infinitesimal. But what he gave was – is – incalculable: indeed its nature is that it cannot be measured out and bartered. The gifts he gave – compassion, understanding, sympathy, wisdom, guidance, love – by their very nature can only be given with no thought of return. His was the perfect example of his philosophy of personal relationships. He took only what he needed; he gave everything he had to give. Ranged against this philosophy is a sort of shopkeeper’s mentality, which is the bane of the human race. And in all our relationships we can choose between these two attitudes.


(extract from What is the Sangha? by Sangharakshita)

Usually, influenced by books or even Buddhist scriptures, we think of the Buddha’s Enlightenment as having taken place at a particular time, roughly 2,500 years ago – which, of course, in a sense, it did. We also tend to think of it as having taken place on a particular day, at a particular hour, even at a particular minute, at the instant when the Buddha broke through from the conditioned to the Unconditioned.

But a little reflection, and a little further study of the scriptures, will show us that it didn’t happen quite like that. Here we can consider the distinction between the path of vision and the path of transformation – a distinction usually made in connection with the Noble Eightfold Path. On the path of vision one has an experience of the transcendental, a profound insight into the true nature of Reality which goes far beyond any merely intellectual understanding. This insight comes gradually to pervade and transform every aspect of one’s being – one’s body, speech, and mind, to use the traditional Buddhist classification. It transforms all our activities. It transforms one, in fact, into a very different kind of person – a wiser and more compassionate person. This process is known as the path of transformation.(footnote 101)

Something like this takes place in the spiritual life of each and every one of us. And we see the same sort of thing happening, on a much more exalted plane, in the case of the Buddha. The Buddha’s vision is unlimited, absolute, and all-embracing, and his transformation of body, speech, and mind can therefore be described as total, even infinite. But all the same, it did take a little time for this final transformation to take place. Buddhist tradition speaks of the Buddha as spending seven – or nine – weeks (accounts vary) in the vicinity of the bodhi tree, the tree beneath which he attained Enlightenment. In the course of each of those weeks something of importance happened. We could say that the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment started percolating through his being, until by the end of the last week (whether the seventh or the ninth) the process of transformation was at last complete.

One week a great storm arose, and the Buddha was sheltered from the rain, so the story goes, by the serpent king Mucalinda, who spread his sevenfold hood over the Buddha’s head as he meditated. Another week, Brahma Sahampati, the ruler of a thousand worlds, requested the Buddha to teach the Dharma, saying that at least some of the beings in the world would be capable of understanding it, their eyes being covered with only a little dust. And the Buddha, out of compassion, agreed to teach.

But here I want to focus on another episode, one that occurred quite early in the period after the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment – during the second week, according to one source. According to this tradition, the Buddha stood at a distance to the north-east of the bodhi tree and remained for one week gazing at the tree with unblinking eyes.(footnote 102)

Centuries later, a stupa was erected on that very spot, to mark the place where the Buddha had gazed at the bodhi tree. It was known as ‘the stupa of unblinking eyes’, and Hsuan Tsang, the great Chinese pilgrim, saw it when he visited India in the seventh century ce. In the memoirs he dictated to his disciples in his old age back in China, he described it thus: ‘On the left side of the road, to the north of the place where the Buddha walked, is a large stone on the top of which, as it stands in a great vihara, is a figure of the Buddha with his eyes raised and looking up. Here in former times the Buddha sat [he says ‘sat’ but the source text says ‘stood’] for seven days contemplating the bodhi tree.'(footnote 103)

Perhaps the Buddha didn’t literally stand or sit there for a whole week, but we may take it that he gazed at the bodhi tree for a very long time. And the source text makes it clear why. He did it because he was grateful to the tree for having sheltered him at the time of his attainment of Enlightenment. According to the scriptures, the Buddha demonstrated gratitude in other ways too. After Brahma Sahampati had made his request that the Buddha should teach the Dharma, and the Buddha had decided to do so, he then wondered to whom he should teach it. He thought first of his two old teachers, from whom he had learned to meditate not long after he left home. Finding their teaching insufficient, he had left them, but they had been helpful to him at a particular stage of his career, and after his Enlightenment he remembered that. It’s as though he had a spiritual debt to them that he wanted to repay. But he quickly realized that his old teachers were dead.

He then thought of his five former companions. They too were people he knew from an earlier period of his spiritual quest, from the time of his experiments in asceticism. After leaving his first two teachers, he started practising extreme self-mortification, in the company of five friends who became disciples of his and admired him greatly because he had gone further in his self-mortification than anybody else at that time. But eventually the Buddha-to-be saw the futility of asceticism, realized that that was not the way to Enlightenment, and gave it up. When he started taking solid food again, just a few handfuls of rice to sustain himself, the five ascetics left him in disgust, saying, ‘The sramana Gautama has returned to luxurious living.’ But this parting was not what remained in the Buddha’s mind. Having realized that his two old teachers were dead, he reflected, ‘The five ascetics were of great help to me when I was practising the penances. I would like to preach the Dharma to them.’ So this is what he did. He went to them, he taught them, and eventually they too realized the Truth that he had realized. And he did this out of gratitude.

So the newly Enlightened Buddha was a grateful Buddha, an idea which is perhaps unfamiliar to us. We think of the all-wise Buddha, the compassionate Buddha, the resourceful Buddha, but we don’t usually think of the grateful Buddha. But one of the very first things the Buddha did after his attainment of Enlightenment was to show his gratitude to those who had helped him. He was even grateful to a tree.

This incident alone gives us food for thought. The Buddhist scriptures contain a number of references that show that the Buddha and his disciples didn’t regard trees and stones as inanimate dead matter. They regarded them as living things. They would even have a relationship with them; they would talk to a tree or a flower, or rather to the spirit – the devata, as they called it – inhabiting it. It is surely much better to have this attitude, to be an animist, than to think that trees and flowers and rocks and stones are just dead matter. The Buddha certainly didn’t think in that way, and it was therefore possible for him to be grateful even to a tree.

It is not surprising, given that this was the Buddha’s attitude, that gratitude finds a place in his ethical and spiritual teaching. It is found, for example, in the Mangala Sutta, the ‘Sutta of Blessings or Auspicious Signs’. This sutta, which is very short and is found in the Pali Canon, is often regarded as summarizing the whole duty, as we may call it, of the serious-minded Buddhist, and it enumerates gratitude as one of the auspicious signs. According to the Mangala Sutta, it is a sign that you are making spiritual progress.(footnote 104)

But what is gratitude? What do we mean when we use this term? To find this out, we can turn to the dictionaries – and, of course, we should be very grateful to the makers of dictionaries. I am personally very grateful to Samuel Johnson. His historic dictionary is always at my elbow in my study, and when I am writing I sometimes consult it several times a day. Johnson defines gratitude as ‘duty to benefactors’ and as ‘desire to return benefits’. Coming to more modern dictionaries the Concise Oxford says, ‘being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness’, and Collins has ‘a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation, as for gifts or favours’.

Such are the definitions of the English word, and they do give us some understanding of what gratitude is. But from a Buddhist point of view we need to go further, and look at the Pali word being translated as gratitude: katannutaKatameans that which has been done, especially that which has been done to oneself; and annuta means knowing or recognizing; so katannuta means knowing and recognizing what has been done to one for one’s benefit. These definitions indicate that the connotation of the Pali word is rather different from that of its English translation. The connotation of the English word gratitude is emotional – we speak of feeling grateful. But the connotation of katannuta is rather more intellectual, more cognitive. It makes it clear that what we call gratitude involves an element of knowledge: knowledge of what has been done to us or for us for our benefit. If we do not know that something has benefited us, we will not feel grateful.

The Buddha knew that the bodhi tree had sheltered him, and he knew that his five former companions had been helpful to him, so he felt gratitude towards them. Not only that: he gave expression to that feeling. He acted upon it by spending a whole week simply gazing at the bodhi tree, and then by going in search of his five former companions so that he could communicate to them the truth that he had discovered. The important implication is that it is a perfectly natural thing to feel grateful for benefits we have received.

But the benefit has to be recognized as a benefit. If we don’t feel that someone or something actually has benefited us, we won’t feel grateful to them or to it. This suggests that we have to understand what is truly beneficial, what has really helped us to grow and develop as human beings. We also have to know who or what has benefited us, and remember that they have done so – otherwise no feeling of gratitude is possible.

In Buddhism there are traditionally three principal objects of gratitude: our parents, our teachers, and our spiritual friends. We have already considered some aspects of each of these relationships. Here I want to reflect a little on gratitude in relation to each of them.

I came back to England after spending twenty years uninterruptedly in the East studying, practising and teaching the Dharma. When I came back, I found that much had changed. Quite a few things struck me as unusual – I hadn’t encountered them in India, or at least not to the same extent. One thing that definitely surprised me was finding out how many people, at least among those I knew, were on bad terms with their parents. Perhaps I noticed this especially because I was in contact with people who were concerned about their spiritual development, and wanted to straighten themselves out psychologically and emotionally.

If one is on bad terms with one’s parents, something is quite seriously wrong. Perhaps it wouldn’t even be an exaggeration to say that one’s whole emotional life is likely to be affected, indirectly at least, by this state of affairs. I therefore used to encourage people to get back into positive contact with their parents, if it happened that they were estranged from them for any reason. I encouraged people to be more open with their parents and to develop positive feelings towards them. This was especially necessary in connection with the practice of the metta bhavana, the development of loving kindness. People had to learn to develop metta even towards their parents, and for those who had had difficult childhoods, or had even suffered at the hands of their parents in some way, this was not easy. But even so, it was necessary in the interests of their own emotional, psychological, and spiritual development to get over whatever feelings of bitterness or resentment they were harbouring.

Some people, I discovered, blamed their parents in all sorts of ways for all sorts of things – an attitude which is reflected in a well-known little poem by Philip Larkin called ‘This Be The Verse’. In this poem, Larkin gives expression in rather crude language to what he thinks your mum and dad have done to you, and he draws a rather depressing conclusion from that. The last verse of the poem reads:

Man hands on misery to man,
It deepens like a coastal shelf;
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

What a grim, nasty little poem! In 1995, however, it was voted one of Britain’s favourite poems, coming in between Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember, I remember’ and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Snake’. The fact that Larkin’s poem should be so popular among intelligent poetry readers gives food for thought, suggesting as it does that negative attitudes towards parents are fairly widespread in our society.

The Buddha himself had quite a lot to say about our relation to our parents. In the Sigalaka Sutta he is represented as saying that there are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father as the eastern direction. He should think, ‘Having been supported by them, I will support them, I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parents’ deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.'(footnote 105) The same applies, of course, to a daughter. She too should minister to her mother and father as the eastern direction, she too should think in this manner.

There is a lot that could be said about the five ways in which one should minister to one’s parents. Here, though, I want to touch on something even more fundamental – so fundamental that in this sutta the Buddha seems to take it for granted. It is hinted at, however, in the imagery of the sutta. The Buddha explains to Sigala that one pays homage to the east by ministering to one’s parents in five ways. But why the east?

The reason is perhaps obvious. The sun rises in the east, it has its origin in the east, so to speak, and similarly we owe our origin to our parents – leaving aside questions of karma, of which perhaps parents are only instruments. If it were not for our parents, we would not be here now. They have given us life, they have given us a human body, and in Buddhism the human body is regarded as a very precious thing. It is precious because it is only in a human body (whether male or female) that one is able to attain Enlightenment. In giving us a human body, our parents are therefore giving us the possibility of attaining Enlightenment and we should be intensely grateful to them for that, especially if we are actually practising the Dharma.

Not only do our parents give us a human body; despite Larkin, they bring us up as best they can. They enable us to survive, they educate us. They may not always be able to send us to university and all that, but they teach us to speak, and this is the basis of most of the things we subsequently learn. Usually it’s our mother who teaches us our first words, and this gives us the expression ‘mother tongue’. It is through our mother tongue that we have access to all the literature that has been written in the language we learn in our earliest days, and we can enjoy that literature fully because it is in our mother tongue, rather than in a language we learn in later life.

Not everybody cares to acknowledge their debt to their parents. The classic example in English literature is the character Mr Bounderby in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, which happens to be one of my favourite Dickens novels. Mr Bounderby is a successful industrialist, and he is very fond of telling everybody that he is a self-made man. He tells them this on every possible occasion and at great length. He describes in vivid detail how he was abandoned by his mother, how he was beaten by a drunken grandmother, how he lived in the gutter as a child and had to fend for himself, how nobody had ever helped him and how he had made his own way in the world and become a rich man entirely by his own efforts. In the course of the novel, however, it transpires that all this is completely false. In truth he had a loving mother who brought him up carefully and educated him and helped him as much as she possibly could. In fact, his mother is still alive, but he keeps her at a distance in the country somewhere and won’t allow her to visit him. In other words, Mr Bounderby is a monster of ingratitude.

We will consider the question of why people are so ungrateful later on. First, though, let us turn to the second of the principal objects of gratitude in Buddhism: our teachers. By teachers here I mean not Dharma teachers, but all those from whom we derive our secular education and culture. Here our school teachers obviously have an important place. From them we derive the rudiments of such learning as we have, and we therefore have to be grateful to them. The fact is that we have found out very little of what we know, or what we think we know, as a result of our own efforts. Practically everything we know has been taught to us in one way or another. If we think of our knowledge of science or history, for example, few of us have even performed a single scientific experiment, or discovered a single historical fact, which no one else had performed, or discovered, before. All our work in this field has been done for us by others. We have benefited from their efforts, and our knowledge is little more than the echo of theirs.

As well as learning from living teachers, we also learn from people who have been dead for hundreds of years, from the writings they have left and the records of the words they spoke. It is not just a question of learning from them in a purely intellectual sense, acquiring information. Among those books are great works of the imagination – great poems, great novels, great dramas – and these works are a source of infinite enrichment, without which we would be immeasurably poorer. They help us deepen and enlarge our vision. We should therefore be grateful to the great men and women who have produced them. We should be grateful to Homer and Virgil, Dante and Milton, Aeschylus and Kalidasa, Shakespeare and Goethe. We should be grateful to Murasaki Shikibu, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and hundreds of others, who have influenced us more than we can possibly realize. The American critic Harold Bloom has gone so far as to claim that Shakespeare is the creator of human nature as we know it, which is a very big claim indeed (though he gives his reasons for it).

Of course, our experience is also deepened, and our vision enlarged, by the visual arts and by music. The great painters, sculptors, and composers are also among our teachers. They too have enriched our lives, and to them too we should be grateful. I won’t mention any names in this connection because there are simply too many to choose from – both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western – certainly not because I think that the great artists and composers are any less important than the great poets, novelists, and dramatists.

Thus by ‘teachers’ I mean all those who between them have created our collective cultural heritage, without which we would not be fully human. Remembering what we owe them, and feeling grateful to the great artists, poets, and composers, we should not only enjoy their work but also celebrate their memory and share our enthusiasm for them with our friends.

Before we go on to consider the third principal object of gratitude, our spiritual friends, I want to make the general point that we need not think of these three objects of gratitude as being completely separate and distinct from one another. There’s a certain amount of overlap between the first and second, and between the second and third. Our parents are also our teachers to an extent. In Buddhist tradition parents are called poranacariyas, which means ‘former (or ancient) teachers’. They are called this because they are the first teachers we ever had, even if they only taught us to speak a few words. We can be grateful to our parents not only for giving us life but also for giving us at least the rudiments of knowledge, and initiating us into the beginnings of our cultural heritage.

Similarly there is some overlap between teachers and spiritual friends. The very greatest poets, artists, and composers can inspire us with spiritual values, help us rise to spiritual heights. In the course of the last few hundred years, great changes have taken place, at least in the West. Previously, Christianity as represented by the Church was the great, even the sole, bearer of spiritual values. But now, having lost faith in Christianity, many people look elsewhere to find meaning and values, and they find them in great works of art: in the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Wordsworth, Baudelaire, and Rilke, the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, the great painters and sculptors of the Italian Renaissance. These great masters become, as it were, our spiritual friends, especially if we remain in contact with them and with their work over many years. Learning to admire and love them, we feel intensely grateful to them for what they have given us. They are among our spiritual friends in the broadest sense.

But now let us come to our spiritual friends ‘proper’. Here, as with the word gratitude, we have to go back to the Sanskrit words behind the English equivalent. As we have already seen, the Sanskrit phrase translated as ‘spiritual friend’ is kalyana mitraMitra comes from the word maitri (Pali, metta), and maitri is strong, unselfish, active love, sharply distinguished in Buddhist tradition from prema (Pali, pema), in the sense of sexual love or attachment. A mitra or friend is therefore one who feels a strong unselfish active love towards one. And kalyana means firstly ‘beautiful, charming,’ and secondly ‘auspicious, helpful, morally good’. Thus kalyana mitra has a much richer connotation than the English phrase ‘spiritual friend’.

Our spiritual friends are all those who are spiritually more experienced than we are. The Buddhas are our spiritual friends. The Arhants and the Bodhisattvas are our spiritual friends. The great Buddhist teachers of India and China, Tibet and Japan, are our spiritual friends. Those who teach us meditation are our spiritual friends. Those with whom we study the scriptures are our spiritual friends. Those who ordain us are our spiritual friends. And all these spiritual friends should be the objects of our intense, heartfelt gratitude. We should be even more grateful to them than we are to our teachers.

Why? Because from our spiritual friends we receive the Dharma. We have not discovered or invented the Dharma. We have received it as a free gift from our spiritual friends, from the Buddha downwards. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says, ‘The greatest of all gifts is the gift of the Dharma.'(footnote 106) The greater the gift, the greater the gratitude we should feel. We should not only feel that gratitude in our hearts; we should give expression to it in words and deeds. We can do this in three ways: by singing the praises of our spiritual friends, by practising the Dharma they have given us, and by passing on that Dharma to others to the best of our ability.

The greatest of our spiritual friends is the Buddha Shakyamuni, who discovered – or re-discovered – the path that we as Buddhists follow today. It is to him that we go for Refuge, it is the Dharma he taught that we try to practise, and it is with the support of the Sangha he founded that we are able to practise the Dharma. We therefore have reason to be intensely grateful to him – more grateful, in principle, than we are to anyone else. Our parents have indeed given us life, but what is life without the gift of the Dharma? Our teachers have given us knowledge, education, and culture, but what value do even these things have without the Dharma? It is because they are so intensely grateful to the Buddha that Buddhists perform pujas in devotion to him, and celebrate his life in the context of the various Buddhist festivals.

But people don’t always find it easy to be grateful to their parents, or their teachers, or even their spiritual friends. Why is this? It is important to understand the nature of the difficulty. After all, gratitude is an important spiritual quality, a virtue exemplified and taught by the Buddha and many others. Cicero, the great Roman orator and philosopher, said that gratitude is not just the greatest virtue, but the mother of all the rest. Ingratitude therefore represents a very serious defect. On one occasion the Buddha said that ingratitude was one of the four great offences which bring about niraya in the sense of rebirth in a state of suffering – a very serious and weighty statement.(footnote 107)

But why are we ungrateful to our parents, our teachers, our spiritual friends? One would have thought that as Buddhists we would be simply bubbling over with gratitude to all these people. A clue is to be found in the Pali word which we render as gratitude, katannuta. As we have seen, it means knowing or recognizing what has been done for one’s benefit. Similarly, akatannuta (a being the negative prefix), ingratitude, means not knowing or recognizing what has been done for one’s benefit.

There are a number of reasons for ingratitude. Firstly, one may fail to recognize a benefit as a benefit. There are some people who do not regard life itself as a benefit, and hence do not feel grateful to their parents for bringing them into the world. Sometimes people say things like, ‘Well I didn’t ask to be brought into this world.’ If you believe in karma and rebirth, of course, this isn’t quite true – but anyway, it is what people say. In a few cases, they may not regard life as a benefit because they experience it as painful, even predominantly painful, and therefore don’t appreciate its value, don’t realize the immense potential of human life. In Buddhist terms, they don’t realize that it is possible for a human being, and only for a human being, to attain Enlightenment, or at least to make some progress in that direction.

Similarly, there are people who don’t regard knowledge or education or culture as benefits. They feel no gratitude towards their teachers, or towards those who at least try to teach them something. They may even feel resentment. They may feel that education or culture is being imposed upon them. Such people are unlikely to come into contact with spiritual values, with the Dharma, or with spiritual friends, and even if they do, such contact will be external and superficial. They will not be able to recognize it for what it is. They may even see those who try to be their spiritual friends as enemies, and therefore the question of gratitude will not arise.

This was true of some people’s responses to the Buddha himself. Not all those who heard him speak or teach felt grateful to him, by any means. There were many people in his day who saw him as a rather eccentric, unorthodox teacher. They certainly didn’t feel any gratitude towards him for the gift of the Dharma. Sometimes people slandered him, and some people even tried to kill him.

On the other hand, we may recognize benefits as benefits, and even recognize that they have been given to us by other people, but we may take those benefits for granted. Not realizing that they are a free gift, we may think that they are owed to us, that we have a right to them, and that therefore in a sense they belong to us already, so that we have no need to be grateful for them.

This attitude is widespread in society today. People tend to think that everything is due to them, that they have a right to everything. Parents, teachers, or the state have a duty to provide them with whatever they want. Even spiritual friends, they may think, have a duty to provide them with what they want. If they don’t get what they want from one spiritual friend, or teacher, or guru, and get it quickly, in the way they want it, off they will go, to try to get it from someone else. Once again, the question of gratitude doesn’t arise. Of course, parents, teachers, and friends have a duty to bestow benefits to the best of their ability. But it should be recognized that those benefits have been given, and that the response to them should therefore be one of gratitude.

Another reason for ingratitude is egoism. Egoism takes many forms, and has many aspects. Here I mean by it an attitude of chronic individualism: the belief that one is separate from others, not dependent on others in any way, and that one therefore does not owe anything to others. One feels that one is not obliged to them, because one can do everything oneself. Dickens’s Mr Bounderby is a good example of this sort of attitude, but there are other examples in literature, like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and ‘Black Salvation’ in The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. The person who is egoistical in this sense is incapable of feeling gratitude, and cannot admit that they have been benefited by others. They may not actually say so in the way Mr Bounderby does, but this is their underlying attitude.

This attitude sometimes finds expression in the sphere of the arts. Some writers and artists don’t like to think that they owe anything to their predecessors. Wanting to be original, to strike out on a completely new path, they don’t like to think that there is such a thing as cultural heritage, or a literary canon. In some circles this attitude has taken an extreme, even a virulent form, and has resulted in an attempt to repudiate the greater part of our literary and artistic heritage on ideological grounds. This is an extremely unfortunate, even potentially disastrous development, and it is to be resisted wherever possible. Egoism in the sense in which I am using the word also finds expression in the sphere of religion. It happens when we don’t acknowledge the sources of our inspiration, or when we try to pass off as our own a teaching or practice that we have in fact learned from our spiritual friends.

The fourth and last reason for ingratitude that I want to mention here is forgetfulness. There are two main reasons for forgetfulness of benefits received. First, there is simply the passage of time. Perhaps the benefits were given to us a long time ago – so long ago that we have no distinct recollection of them, and no longer feel grateful to whoever bestowed them upon us, even if we did originally feel grateful. This is perhaps the principal reason for our not feeling actively grateful towards our parents. Over the years so much has happened in our life: early memories have been overlaid by later ones, other relationships have assumed importance, and perhaps we have moved away from our parents, geographically, socially, or culturally. And the result is that – practically speaking – we forget them. We forget the numerous ways in which they benefited us when we were young, and we cease therefore to feel grateful. The other possible reason for our ‘forgetting’ to be grateful is that we did not feel the positive effects of the benefits very strongly in the first place, and therefore did not feel much gratitude. In such circumstances, it is easy for the gratitude to fade away and be forgotten altogether.

These, then, are the four most important general reasons for ingratitude: failure to recognize a benefit as a benefit, taking benefits for granted, egoism, and forgetfulness. Ingratitude is, unfortunately, liable to crop up in various ways in the context of the life of a practising Buddhist. Beyond a certain point of spiritual progress, it is simply impossible to feel ungrateful. A Stream-entrant is incapable of it, and in fact will be overflowing with gratitude to parents, teachers, and spiritual friends. But until we have reached that point, we are in danger of forgetting to be grateful.

Over the years – more than thirty, at the time of writing – since I myself founded a Buddhist movement, I have received many, many letters, perhaps thousands, from people who have recently discovered the Dharma through one of the centres of the movement I founded, or through contact with individual members of the order. Every year I receive more and more of these letters. They come from young people and old people, from people in many different walks of life, from many different cultural backgrounds and nationalities. And all these letters say, among other things, one and the same thing. They say how glad the writers are to have discovered the Dharma. Not only that, the writers of the letters want to express their gratitude to the Three Jewels and to the Buddhist movement, and to me personally for having founded it. Some people express their feeling of gratitude very strongly indeed. They say that the Dharma has changed their lives, given their lives meaning, saved them from despair, even saved them from suicide.

Such letters of gratitude reach me nearly every week, and they make me think that I have not altogether wasted my time all these years. But over the years I’ve also noticed that while some people, perhaps the majority, stay grateful, and even become more and more grateful, in the cases of a few people, unfortunately, the feeling of gratitude weakens. They start forgetting the benefits they have received, and even start questioning whether they really were benefits at all. No longer knowing or recognizing what has been done for them, they become ungrateful. Feeling ungrateful to their spiritual friends, they may even start finding fault with them. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed, and in recent years I have given some thought to it and have come to certain conclusions about how it happens.

It seems to me that people forget the benefits they have received because they no longer actually feel them. And they no longer feel them because for one reason or another they have put themselves in a position where they cannot receive them. Let me give a concrete example. Suppose you have started attending a meditation class. You learn to meditate, and you achieve some success. You start practising at home. But one day, for one reason or another, you stop attending the class and then you gradually stop practising at home. You cease to meditate. Eventually you forget what meditative experience was like. You forget the peace and the joy you felt. You forget the benefits of meditation. So you cease to feel grateful to those who introduced you to the practice. The same thing can happen with regard to retreats, Dharma study, spending time with spiritual friends, taking part in pujas, and attending Buddhist celebrations. People can get out of touch. They can forget how much they did, once upon a time, benefit from those activities, and therefore they can cease to feel grateful to those who made the activities possible.

Sometimes people reconnect after a while; they start attending the meditation class again, or go on retreat again, perhaps after many years. I have known people who have re-established contact after anything up to twenty-two years – rather a long time in anybody’s life. When this happens, they nearly always say the same thing: ‘I had forgotten how good it was.’ And therefore they feel renewed gratitude.

This is entirely appropriate. It is appropriate that we should be grateful, that we should recognize the benefits we have received. It is appropriate that we should be grateful to our parents, with all their admitted imperfections – parents are not perfect any more than children are. It is appropriate that we should be grateful to our teachers, to our spiritual friends, and to the Buddhist tradition. Above all, it is appropriate that we should be grateful to the Buddha, who, as we have seen, was himself utterly and instinctively full of gratitude.

notes and references

101: For more on the path of vision and the pathof transformation, see Sangharakshita, Visionand Transformation, Windhorse, Birmingham 1999, pp.12-15.
102: See, for example, the Lalitavistara in The Voiceof the Buddha, trans. Gwendolyn Bays, Dharma Publishing, Berkeley1983, vol.ii, p.570; or the Abhiniskramana S<@251>train The Romantic Legend of Shakya Buddha, trans. SamuelBeal, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1985 (first published 1875), p.237.
103: Huien Tsiang, in Buddhist Records of the Western World,trans. Samuel Beal, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1981 (first published1884), part ii, p.123.
104: ‘Reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude and timely hearingof the Dhamma; this is the most auspicious performance.’ MahamangalaSutta in Sutta-Nipata verse 265. This translation byH. Saddhatissa, Curzon Press, London 1985, p.29.
105: from Sigalaka Sutta (also known as the SigalovadaSutta), Digha-Nikaya iii.188. This translation fromThe Long Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Maurice Walshe, WisdomPublications, Boston 1995, p.467.
106: Dhammapada 354.
107: Anguttara-Nikaya IV.xxii.213.

Buddhism and the Environment

Buddhism and environmental issues

(Introduction written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college. Subsequent sections by other authors, see below)

Buddhist attitudes to nature

Buddhism, in common with some other Eastern traditions, does not make the big distinction found in the West between “nature” and human beings. It is stressed that we are not set apart from nature (as is believed in Christianity), but that we are part of it. The doctrines of karma and of rebirth put the whole of human life in the context of an endless series of cycles, which resemble those which operate in the natural world (e.g. the water cycle, the food cycle). The Buddhist stress on impermanence reminds us that our bodies are subject to the endlessly-changing processes of nature, whilst beliefs about rebirth suggest that even our consciousness is recycled in relation to a new body. The form of things changes constantly, but certain basic patterns continue.

So, it should certainly not come as a shock to practising Buddhists to discover what environmentalists are now telling us. That is, that nature is not a boundless ocean of resources (the doctrine of impermanence should have made this clear), and the actions that we perform have an effect on the world around us. In the theory of karma the effects of our actions are in proportion to the greed and hatred which motivated them, so if our spoiling of the planet through stripping its resources and polluting it was motivated by greed, we are now beginning to experience the effects of that greed. The earth is our mirror.

Buddhism thus offers some strong arguments for environmentalism, and it is quite difficult to interpret Buddhism not to at least be sympathetic to environmental concerns. On the other side there are not really any anti-environmentalist Buddhists, but there are some who have given the environment relatively little priority in their thinking, perhaps because of a focus on the personal pursuit of enlightenment.

The Precepts

The practice of the First Precept requires respect for all sentient beings, not merely human beings.

This has often meant respect for animals. The majority of Buddhists historically and in the East have not been vegetarians, but the assumption is nevertheless there that vegetarianism is the ideal and that killing animals and eating meat is a source of bad karma. Buddhists have often protected animals, for example by establishing nature reserves around monasteries, and hunting is quite rare in Buddhist countries.

Sometimes the first precept has also implied respect for plants: sometimes plants are described as “one-facultied”, having some of the sensitivity of animals through the sense of touch alone. Obviously Buddhists could not protect all plants, but the wanton destruction of trees has often been opposed. A Buddhist campaign group trying to save trees in Thailand famously did this recently by ordaining a number of trees as Buddhist monks.

However, the first precept does not give such obvious reasons for preserving natural resources (apart from trees and wildlife) and avoiding pollution, unless these are seen as indirect ways of harming others. The Second Precept might deal with this more explicitly.

If one takes things from nature which are required by future generations, this might well be seen as taking the not-given. Consuming beyond one’s own immediate needs whilst taking resources that later generations will need is not taking resources that they have actually laid a claim to as yet, but it is depriving them of their needs. There is no reason why them being further away in time should make any difference to this.

The Simple Life

However, the more profound objections to over-exploitation of natural resources and pollution in Buddhism are related to the attitudes behind these actions. It is greed or craving (tanha) which leads us to take more than we need for simple and straightforward living. The monastic life in Buddhism gives a model for what simple living without too much consumption might look like. If everyone lived as simply as a Buddhist monk or nun, it might be argued, there would be no problems with depletion of resources, and very little pollution produced, because the sources of pollution (manufacturing, transport etc) would be much more limited.

The point of the simple life in Buddhism is that it creates an environment where there is less likelihood of craving and greater likelihood of contentment. Such contentment is further cultivated through meditation practice. It is in mental states, Buddhists may argue, that the solution to environmental problems is ultimately to be found.

Middle Way

However, in real life environmental issues are a constant matter of compromise and negotiation. I might want to live more simply, but the attitude of my family, or the requirements of my job, might make this very difficult. For example, air travel and car use create a good deal of pollution, but some jobs in the modern world (which may be otherwise right livelihood) involve quite a lot of either or both of these. Also, air travel may have other important and positive purposes, such as communication with people overseas or broadening of one’s outlook through contact with other cultures.

The Middle Way might help provide a balanced and realistic way of dealing with these. Supposing the dilemma for a Buddhist is whether to make an air journey, which contributes to pollution, in order to go to hear the teachings of a great Buddhist teacher in Asia. Obviously both the desire to hear the teacher and to avoid pollution need to be considered, but a broader view of the issue might show other alternatives. Perhaps it is possible to wait until the teacher comes to this country, or perhaps it is possible to incorporate the air journey into a longer trip that will also serve other purposes. If the air journey is unavoidable, it may be possible to make restitution in other ways. Some Buddhists now are going ‘carbon neutral’ by making sure that they plant trees which soak up a corresponding amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to that released by the air journey.

Not all activities which use natural resources or release pollution are a result of greed, and to cease all such activities may seem an extreme reaction which interferes with people’s development towards enlightenment in other ways. Buddhists may thus end up with various compromises which take environmental issues seriously, but nevertheless do not result in complete purity in environmental matters. This fits in with the general Buddhist perception that ethics is not about gaining purity so much as following through a right intention.

Discussion Questions
1. Work out your own example of an application of the Middle Way to an issue of natural resources
2. How useful do you think it is to follow the example of the simple lifestyle of a Buddhist monk in overcoming environmental issues?
3. Do you agree that environmental problems could be solved by changes in mental states?
4. How do you think Buddhists would respond to the criticism that the Middle Way is a sell-out, not dealing with the full force of the environmental problems that face us?

Write some ideas on the following:
1. What are the Buddhist grounds for arguing that pollution should be reduced?
2. What possible grounds are there for arguing that pollution is not a problem?
3. What attitude should a Buddhist take to pollution?
4. What grounds are there for conserving natural resources (Choose one type of resource e.g. energy, forests, fish)
5. What possible grounds are there for exploiting this natural resource?
6. Should a Buddhist use this resource freely, limit consumption or avoid it altogether?

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p. 150-156 & 174-186
Damien Keown (ed.) Contemporary Buddhist Ethics ch.5 (a sceptical article arguing that Buddhism gives little support to environmentalist principles)
Christopher Titmuss The Green Buddha (The strongest Buddhist statement yet of support for ‘Green’ principles).
Akuppa Touching the Earth: A Buddhist guide to saving the planet, Windhorse



(3 extracts from Akuppa’s book Buddhist Guide to Saving the Planet)

There are many practical ways of living more in harmony with nature, and I’ll be looking at some of these in the next chapter. But living in harmony with nature is inseparable from living in harmony with each other. It’s not just a question of somehow bolting environmental awareness on to our existing lifestyles. Environmental problems, with their roots in greed, hatred, and unawareness, should cause us to question our whole way of being in the world. When the Buddha saw that we are not ultimately separate from the universe or from others, it was not just an intellectual observation. His realization that all things are interconnected was something felt in his heart as much as his head, and it moved him to live out the rest of his life helping others.(footnote 13)

If we experience a desire to do something to help the environment, it is probably because we ourselves have to some extent understood interconnectedness. According to the Buddha, this is something we can grow to understand more and more deeply. We can do this by trying it out, little by little, through individual acts of kindness. If we are truly interconnected, these will make us on the whole freer and happier. In this chapter, I’d like to examine how this sense of exploration might bring to life our whole approach to the environment.

The Armchair Society

In the West, people have become ever more oriented to material consumption, and live in smaller and smaller units. The average number of people in each household is steadily declining. If the trends continue much further, we will soon all be sitting in our own armchair, in our own house, watching our own television. The information age, progressing through the successive technologies of radio, television, the Internet, and mobile phones, is reaching the point of saturation, where everyone has instant access to virtually unlimited information. We have televisions in the kitchen and the bedroom, computers on our palms, and telephones in our pockets. In turn, each new technology has become the object of fetishistic desire, as status symbol or fashion statement. All too often, the actual content of the information having been transmitted, the quality of our communication becomes of secondary or no importance at all. Indeed, the very quantity of information at our fingertips can numb our minds to the whole notion of quality. The television addict, the computer nerd, and the loud but vacuous mobile phone user have become the successive icons of the passing decades.

It is not just information that we expect to have at our command. We expect fast food, fast transport, fast service. We expect a wide array of choices of even the most everyday products. I heard a story of an East European woman who was visiting England. Faced with the bewildering array of different kinds of shampoo on a supermarket shelf, she burst into tears. Yet choice is what we’ve come to expect and consider normal. We would probably like to think of ourselves as an exception – it’s other people who are the rampant materialists, who are obsessed with information and gadgets. But I wonder whether it might apply to all of us more than we’d like to acknowledge. When you are brought up within a particular culture, you unconsciously imbibe its values and habits. We can come to consider the strangest things quite normal.

The writer Helena Norberg-Hodge lived for many years in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. It is a place that had, until the advent of the Westernized economy, a very strong sense of community and co-operation. Despite living in a land with few resources and a harsh climate, Ladakhis have a reputation for irrepressible happiness and laughter. Norberg-Hodge relates how, when told that many people in the affluent West were so unhappy they had to go to see their doctor, the Ladakhis’ mouths dropped open in astonishment.(footnote 14)

How have we so spectacularly failed to build a happy society despite our material wealth? How can we begin to move forward? What are the unconscious assumptions that are holding us back?

We carry a model in our heads about the way we function in society, one that most of us rarely question. We see ourselves as tightly defined units, either individually or in households. To put it crudely, money comes into the unit at one end when we receive our wages and it goes out of the other when we buy things. Compared to other societies, our actual experience of being connected with others is slight. The advertising industry, which equates consumption with status, and the job market both promote an essentially competitive relationship between units. Somewhere along the line we have lost the art of living together.

In the post-industrial era, many of the cohesive forces in society have been weakened. There is much more geographical and social mobility – there are few who live and work with the same people, and families and friends tend to live further apart. Traditional rural communities and industrial working-class neighbourhoods have largely dispersed. There are few communities left where a unifying ideology, such as Christianity, socialism, or nationalism, can be taken for granted. The ideal of democracy, in so far as it is shared, allows us to live together but does not provide a common purpose, something higher than our private economic interests.

Our problem is that we are living as though disconnected. We think we are disconnected from our neighbours, from people in other countries, from the natural world. But this isn’t in accord with reality – it doesn’t work. Everything we eat and drink comes from the earth. We depend on others in countless ways even for the most basic necessities of life. But, too often, we just want to look after our own little unit. And the more we have withdrawn into our own private sphere, the more boredom, loneliness, or desire for status has driven us to consume.

We now have a choice. One option is to sit in our armchair and accept the ascendancy of untrammelled capitalism, with all its social and environmental problems. Another is to try to escape to an imagined utopia away from it all, a rustic idyll where we can turn back the clock. A third option is to begin to build within our society a new cohesion, co-operation, and trust from first principles, based not on an imposed ideology but on our common humanity. This means patiently beginning the work of rebuilding. It means connecting with people, as a way of trying out the truth of interconnectedness.

To begin this patient work of rebuilding, we can reflect on how we affect other people individually and on how we affect the world as a whole. Having done so, we can make a conscious effort to connect with people in a more positive way by giving.

How do I Affect Other People?

Every time you speak to someone, buy something from them, or just sit opposite them on a train, you are sending out ripples of cause and effect into the world. The effects are sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Being preoccupied with our own concerns, we all too often forget this, but as part of the process of learning and awakening, we can train ourselves to think more about it. I’ll come back to this later. The point I want to make here is that it’s not just our deliberately willed actions that affect others. We are constantly communicating with others across a much broader spectrum than simply our words – through every minor detail of our body and speech. We communicate who we are as well as what we do; we communicate our lifestyle, our state of mind, our values. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates this with an image of some refugee ‘boat people’ adrift on the ocean:

“Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.”(footnote 15)

When we talk with other people about environmental issues or the state of the world, it is not just what we are saying that makes a difference, but how we are saying it. We can communicate panic and despair, or clarity and calm. The communication of panic and despair follows from a desire to take from other people a sense of reassurance or comfort. The communication of clarity and calm follows from a desire to work with others to find a solution. These are two very different kinds of environmentalism.

We can see this even in very ordinary circumstances. If you have ever worked with someone in a very negative state of mind, you will know how this casts a cloud over everyone. Conversely, just the occasional friendly word on a train can dispel the atmosphere of reserve and make for a more relaxed and enjoyable journey for everyone.

A Reflection

Take some time to reflect on what you communicate to others, how you connect to others across this broad spectrum through your body language and tone of voice. You may be fortunate and know someone whom you could ask and who will give you an honest answer.

Consider in particular whether you transmit calm or anxiety, clarity or confusion, friendliness, reserve, or ill will. Communicate a natural concern when talking about environmental issues, rather than despair. Think back to people who have had a positive influence on your life. What was it about their communication that affected you? Could you affect others in a similar way?

How Do I Change the World?

As well as thinking we are disconnected from others, we very often think we are disconnected from the world at large. To use the words of the political thinker Andre Gorz, we feel ‘impotent in the face of autonomized processes and faceless powers’.(footnote 16) We tend to think that the world is only really changed by people in positions of wealth and power. This is certainly the view perpetrated by the news media, which can often whip up the most trivial murmur in circles of government as if it were a matter of great national import.

But this is a very narrow way of thinking about how change occurs, and one that makes us feel so marginal and unimportant that we can be misled into thinking that our own actions don’t have consequences. An alternative view is that acts of parliament or international treaties come about because of the forces of public opinion – or perhaps something deeper than just opinion. People’s values and perceptions, individually and collectively, can shift in quite mysterious and unpredictable ways. The sum total of the broad spectrum of communications going on, by which people communicate their values and states of mind, will have an effect. In this light, formal politics can look more like what the writer Tor Norretranders has described as ‘tardy rationalizations of what has already taken place’.(footnote 17) He cites as an example the end of the mutual paranoia that underpinned the Cold War. In the mid-1980s, he argues, even before the break-up of the Soviet bloc, there was a defusing of tension that could not be explained by any formal political process. He speculates that this was the result of millions of ordinary people, persistently, over the decades, talking about the unthinkable nature of nuclear war. In unseen ways, they brought about a phase transition that changed history. In this perspective, politicians just bumble along a few years behind the cutting edge of change. Human society is as complex and chaotic as any ecosystem. We may think that our behaviour, conversations, and transactions are our own private business, but, in aggregate, they are constantly bringing about changes in ways we don’t even suspect. You don’t have to win an election or stage a revolution to change the world. Our actions do have consequences.

This isn’t to say that political activity, such as environmental campaigning, isn’t necessary, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how we affect people in very ordinary ways. Having high ideals about saving the environment is not necessarily enough; one could spend one’s whole life talking and thinking about ideas, bold plans, utopian visions, but without a way of putting them into practice – at least to some extent – they have been not the slightest bit of use to anybody. There is a danger with big issues such as the global environment that you lose yourself in abstractions. You might even entertain private fantasies about saving the world single-handedly. You can convince yourself that you have great concern for the world, when actually you can’t even get along with the people you see every day.

A Sharing Revolution

What are the ordinary individual words and deeds that will bring about a phase transition towards an environmentally sustainable future? If lack of connection lies at the heart of the problem, it follows that the most direct antidotes are things that start to reconnect us, such as giving and sharing. The quality of generosity is rarely mentioned in environmentalist writings, yet it has never been so indispensable. Giving material things reminds us that happiness comes from connecting with others. Sharing things breaks down the barriers of our isolated consumer units.

Giving and sharing are powerful acts because they undermine the notion, taken for granted by some economists, that we all act out of economic self-interest and that economic growth is the greatest good. On a world scale, these qualities will be expressed as a global vision of fairness and security, which will counter the attitude, still advanced by leading politicians, that the national economic interest should always take precedence over global concerns. Economists can only measure financial transactions and too easily forget that happiness does not equate with how much money we spend.(footnote 18)

Generosity is a kind of liberation movement. Liberation movements arise when people refuse to assent any longer to whatever regime or ideology is oppressing them. The idea of freedom becomes contagious and pressure for change becomes irresistible. If materialism and isolation are the great oppressions of Western society, then generosity is liberation.

So the first step forward can be taken through the very ordinary and simple act of generosity. Anyone can do it. Even someone in the most self-absorbed state, if they put their mind to it, can find some way of giving, even if it’s just a tiny gesture of friendliness. This is the first step towards rejoining the human race, connecting with others. It relieves us from the narrow, constricted pain of selfish isolation.

Progressively, starting from wherever we are and working upwards, we can try out more ways of freeing ourselves. At each stage, we can reflect on how generosity feels, not in a self-righteous way, but feeling what it’s like to be more connected to other human beings. If you have ever worked in a situation where everyone is pulling together, or played in a band, or been part of a sports team, you may recall sometimes thinking in terms of ‘us’ rather than ‘me’. We can look to develop this sense of ‘us-ness’ in our everyday lives, beginning with those around us, then including more and more people. Here are some examples of giving and sharing, many of which have an environmental flavour:

  • Give a gift to your neighbour.
  • Pick up a piece of litter every day.
  • Share garden tools.
  • Start a car-sharing scheme.
  • Adopt a development charity to give to, or volunteer for.
  • Offer your services via a local or international volunteer bureau.(footnote 19)
  • Adopt a local green space and help to improve it.
  • Become a conservation volunteer.(footnote 20)
  • Join a lets (local exchange trading scheme) or a skills co-operative.(footnote 21)

There are many other things we could do, of course. Perhaps as we go on, we’ll find that we want to increase the amount of time and energy we give to them. This is one way of responding to the environmental crisis – learning to connect with others more and more. A sharing society will tend to live in greater harmony with nature.

In the Buddhist scriptures there is a story about three disciples of the Buddha who were living in a wooded place called Gosinga.(footnote 22) One day, the Buddha came to visit. He first enquired after their physical well-being and then asked whether they were living together in harmony. He was pleased to find that they were bearing each other in mind so naturally that no words about practical tasks were needed. The first to return from the almsround would fetch drinking water, and the last would wash the refuse bucket. Whoever noticed that the washing water was low would fetch more. Each would maintain the attitude that while they were different in body they were one in mind. Being sensitive to nature, they took care that no waste was discarded wherever there was greenery or water that supported life. For the three disciples, devoted to simplicity and meditation, complete harmony with each other and with their environment was the foundation of a truly human existence.


13: The chapter title is the epigraph in E.M.Forster’snovel, Howard’s End

14: Helena Norberg-hodge, Ancient Futures: Learningfrom Ladakh, Rider: London 1992

15: Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Parallax:Berkeley 1987, pp. 11-12

16: Andre Gorz, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology,trans. Chris Turner, Verso: London 1994, p.4

17: Tor Norretranders, The User Illusion: CuttingConsciousness Down to Size, Penguin: London 1999

18: There is a growing amount of work to replace theGross National Product, which only measures financialtransactions, with a measure that takes account of social,cultural and environmental factors. The Government ofBhutan, for example, has introducted a measure of GrossNational Happiness – see

19: See for a wide range ofinternational volunteering opportunities

20: For information on becoming a conservation volunteerin the UK, contact the BTCV at

21: For information on LETS schemes in the UK andelsewhere, see

22: Culagosinga Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 31



Having given some thought to how we might get into the habit of being more connected to others, the next question is – what specific things do we need to do? How should one’s lifestyle be changed to help the environment? Most books of this kind will include a list of environmental dos and don’ts. This one is no exception, so here it is – a list of twenty-five specific things you can do that will make a difference. A lot of them are one-off actions that will have lasting consequences. You could set yourself a timescale, say a month, and put a reminder in your diary to check how many you’ve done. But please read the rest of the chapter before you start, because I’ll be suggesting that it’s not just what you do, but how and why you do it, that makes a difference.(footnote 23)

Twenty-Five Excellent Things To Do

See how many of these action points you can tick off after a month. Most of them can be carried out in any country, though most of the information references and phone numbers are uk-based.

  • Make a decision to avoid air travel whenever possible. Calculate the carbon emissions from your flight at
  • If you drive, set yourself a target to cut down on car mileage – a 25% reduction could save a tonne of greenhouse gases in a year.
  • If you do drive, avoid going at over 55 mph, as fuel efficiency decreases rapidly above this speed. For more on energy-efficient driving, see
  • Try out public transport alternatives for your most frequent journeys and find ways to enjoy the ride.
  • Take up cycling, especially for local journeys. To join a peaceful bike-power protest, visit
  • Switch to phosphate-free detergents to avoid killing plant-life and fish. Or try out eco-balls (available from, which contain no harmful chemicals at all.
  • Clean your house without polluting the world. Check out environmentally friendly cleaning products at
  • Wash your clothes at 40°C maximum – any hotter is unnecessary.
  • Turn down your central heating thermostat by 1°C.
  • Check your insulation and find out some other energy saving ideas through the Energy Savings Trust at You could save up to £200 a year on your bills.
  • Switch to green electricity. It is now possible to buy from only renewable sources through companies such as Good Energy ( You can check out the alternatives at
  • Check out green DIY and building products at
  • Learn how to become an ethical shopper. There’s loads of information available at , , and
  • There’s more specific information available at the UK Organic Directory (; the Clean Clothes Campaign (; the Fairtrade Foundation (; the Recycled Products Guide (; and the Green Stationery Company ( And if you’ve done all that, reward yourself with some
  • Reduce your food miles – how far your food has travelled and contributed to climate change. See
  • Avoid plastic packaging by making your own sandwiches instead of buying them ready-made. And carry your own water bottle rather than buying bottlled water. You can check out the effects of the bottled water industry at Take your own shopping bag and refuse excess packaging when it’s offered to you.
  • Start a compost heap, preferably built from scrap materials. Remember that they benefit from fibres such as tissues and cereal boxes, as well as uncooked food. See for more tips.
  • Get into a ‘slow food’ rather than ‘fast food’ habit. Take time to enjoy growing, preparing and eating food. For inspiration see
  • Arrange for a green burial! Information on pollution-free funerals and biodegradable coffins is available from the Natural Death Centre at
  • Make yours a pesticide-free wildlife garden. is an excellent site for this. Help save endangered species of butterfly through
  • Grow your own flowers or give plants instead of commercially produced flowers. They are often associated with heavy pesticide use, cheap labour, and high transport-related pollution.
  • Ask your bank whether it has an ethical investment policy. If not, switch to the Co-op or Triodos and tell your old bank why you changed. For further information, see
  • Eliminate junk mail! If you register with the Mailing Preference Service, you can choose what direct mail you want, and what you don’t want.
  • Keep an eye on what your MP is doing (or not doing) about environmental issues through – and let them know what you think! And go and talk to your local councillor about issues such as road building and recycling.
  • Support a development charity or campaign. Here are a few examples to choose from: WaterAid 020 7793 4500, the World Development Movement 020 7737 6215, Oxfam 01865 312610, or for a Buddhist-run alternative dedicated to dignity and self-confidence, the Karuna Trust 020 7700 3434.
  • For more in-depth information and advice on ecologically friendly daily living, see The Ecologist magazine, or their site

Lists such as these are an excellent place to start and give us plenty of good, practical things to be getting on with, but there are some drawbacks to just ticking off boxes. First, lists in themselves don’t motivate us to take action. Even if we do take action, we don’t always sustain it. Most of us who have made New Year’s resolutions know how easy it is to slip back into our unwanted habits by February.

Secondly, it is all too easy to select the least challenging things on the list and ignore the rest. For example, it is tempting to think that by recycling one’s glass and paper, one is ‘doing one’s bit for the environment’. Whilst recycling reduces the amount of waste that is incinerated or dumped in local landfill sites, it has little or no impact on big global issues such as climate change. If you’re making a special car journey to the recycling bank, it might even have a negative effect. It is easy to espouse an environmental sentimentality whilst quietly putting off decisions that are really going to bite. We need to be clear about what we’re doing and why. There needs to be a clear relationship between the precise problems we want to address and the actions we take. The well-known slogan ‘Think Global, Act Local’ only works if the action taken locally is appropriate to the global problems.

A third pitfall of lists of dos and don’ts is that they can reduce environmental concern to a matter of following rules. The problem of following rules is that you can forget the original motivation for doing so and it becomes a very dry experience. There’s a danger of becoming a bit of an eco-bore. You’ve probably met the kind of person who sternly tells you off for putting your orange peel in the wrong compost bin. Or worse, you might have found yourself doing it to others. This type of ‘environmental correctness’ probably does more harm than good. How many of us are so perfect that we are in a position to judge others? In any case, what is an easy decision for us might require a real effort for someone else. A morally superior attitude singularly fails to inspire other people to take action. Perhaps the best thing to do if you find it creeping into your own thinking is to throw your jam jars into the main rubbish bin for a day or two, and enjoy the sense of freedom! To avoid these pitfalls, we need to keep the following points in mind when we try to apply an action list:

Don’t let the fact that you can’t be perfect stop you from doing anything at all. We can all make a start somewhere.

Remain aware of your basic motivation. What motivates you positively? Is it, for example, a concern for wildlife, or a desire that people should be able to live happily on the earth in the future?

Do the unexpected. If you find yourself dismissing certain actions as too difficult, gently ask yourself why. It is likely to be the difficult things (usually those that have implications for the way we spend our time or money) that break the more harmful patterns of our lives and really make a difference. Work up to doing at least one thing that is quite radical and unexpected, despite the difficulties.

Don’t rest on your laurels. There is always something more to do.

Don’t get stuck in guilt. Enjoy doing what you can and try to make progress. What a difference it would make if everyone did that.

Cultivate simplicity. Don’t think of the action list as an end in itself, but as a guideline for cultivating a richer, more contented lifestyle, in tune with the environment and with others.

In the rest of this chapter, I’ll look at these areas in more depth and see how the Buddha’s teachings might give us some insight into them.

Motivation: The Cultivation of Wisdom and Compassion

What motivates us to take action on the environment in the first place? In some way, it is probably a desire to end suffering, particularly the suffering that comes from the pollution, stress, and exploitation associated with the environmental crisis. We see people struggling to survive drought, or animals losing their habitats, and something inside us is moved to respond. Something resonates.

This basic desire that other beings should not come to harm is what underlies Buddhist ethics. There are no commandments in Buddhism – just a set of guidelines to help us cultivate non-violent and loving states of mind. The things that lead us to such states, covering actions of body, speech, and mind, are:

  • acts of kindness,
  • open-handed generosity,
  • stillness, simplicity, and contentment,
  • truthful communication,
  • clear and radiant awareness.

Underlying these is the principle of non-violence. The Buddha himself exemplified it. Not only did he oppose the iniquities of the caste system of his day, but he also repeatedly spoke against the practice of blood sacrifice.(footnote 24) There is some evidence that the Buddha’s teachings brought about a change of attitude towards animals throughout India, even within his own lifetime, which endures today. Non-violence is difficult or even impossible to apply in an absolute way. Just being alive implicates us in the death of countless micro-organisms inside our bodies. There are many situations in the world – violent crime, state brutality, terrorism, war – in which it is hard to see a non-violent solution that does not itself imply more suffering. But these difficulties need not deter us from being as non-violent as we can, trying our best in each circumstance to see the best way forward. They don’t undermine non-violence as a principle, but only go to demonstrate that we live in a world of complex choices, where we don’t have the comfort of simplistic rules that will tell us what to do in every situation.

What we can do, over a period of time, is push back the boundaries of our sensitivity to other living things. In Buddhist ethics, what defines an act as positive or negative is not whether it conforms to a rule, but the motivation behind it. So non-violence is not a rule or an external observance, but a state of heart and mind. In each situation, we bring to bear whatever wisdom and compassion we have and try to act non-violently. From each situation, we learn how we might have done better, how we can become wiser and more compassionate. The Buddha likened this development of wisdom and compassion to lotuses growing from the mud. We may begin by being tightly closed and bound within mud, but we can start to reach out of the mud and up through the water. Eventually, we will rise above the surface of the pond and open up to the sunlight as beautifully coloured and fragrant flowers.

We can use our action list in the same way – not as a list of commandments to be obeyed out of grim duty, but as a tool to help us cultivate an attitude of non-violence to all that lives. To the extent that we can do this, our actions to help the environment will become a natural expression of our growing wisdom and compassion. They will become a celebration of life itself.

Doing the Unexpected

It is sometimes difficult enough to behave ethically even when face to face with those affected by one’s actions. How much more difficult it is when separated by thousands of miles, or by decades or generations. This is exactly the predicament we face in the modern world. The complexities of manufacturing systems, technological processes, and trading patterns all obscure from us the effects of our actions. We don’t know where our potatoes were grown, which forest our newspaper came from. We don’t see the undesired effects of the chemicals we spray in our gardens. We may not even know what happens to our own effluent once it disappears round the U-bend.

It follows that to act truly ethically in the modern world will require some extra effort on our part. The changes we need to make to our lives are very real and visible, while the benefits they might have are far away and far removed. It is very easy in these circumstances to develop ethical blind spots – areas that we’re dimly aware of but would rather not look into too closely. But if we do look at them, they can be seen as valuable opportunities, because these are exactly the changes that will have the most transformative effect on ourselves and the world.

We need to be willing to change our habits. People often fear that behaving in an environmentally friendly way means spending one’s days lost in complex calculations of the effects of car exhausts, roof lagging, and plastic bags, continually weighing one course of action against another. But our lifestyles are really just an amalgam of habits. We don’t usually decide from scratch on each new occasion which washing powder to buy or how to travel to work. With a little initial effort, habits can be changed. Perhaps we can have the greatest effect by keeping the environment in mind when making big decisions – where to live, how to make a living, where to go on holiday, and so on.

In this way, instead of necessarily thinking about changing everything at once, you could think about changing your habits and conditions over a period of time. You could, for example, make a list of proposed changes and make a note in your diary to review your progress every three months. The important thing is to remember why you want to make the changes, not to lose touch with your motivation. In this way, changing your lifestyle will be a natural part of broadening your sphere of concern. If this happens, making the right choices will become second nature.

a case study: air travel

Let’s take as an example the first point on our action list – air travel. Perhaps the most pressing global issue of the moment is climate change, the greenhouse effect. This is brought about by so-called greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) which we have been emitting in large quantities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and especially in the last fifty years. They reduce the amount of heat that the earth radiates back into space, leading to a gradual warming of the atmosphere. There are a number of ways in which you can reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions for which you are personally responsible. One of these is to avoid travelling by air, or at least to reduce your air mileage. Increasing numbers of people are travelling by air, which has led to a three per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions per year.(footnote 25) You can cause as much greenhouse gas emission in one return transatlantic flight as in driving a car for a year. So, avoiding a rule-following approach, how can one engage one’s imagination more with the consequences of air travel? There are two ways of doing this, both of which might help.

First, before booking a flight, visualize a square on the ground ten metres by ten, and imagine all the air above it, stretching up to the top of the atmosphere. The same amount of carbon dioxide is contained in that column of air as is emitted for each passenger on a 1,500-mile flight (roughly the distance from London to Athens). To absorb that amount of carbon dioxide, you would have to plant a tree that would grow to twelve metres in height.(footnote 26) Once emitted, the gas will stay in the atmosphere for more than a century, still, as it were, bearing your name on it.

Imagine meeting and talking with some of the people who, over that period, will lose their homes, their means of livelihood, or their lives, through rising sea levels, floods, and droughts brought about by global warming, and to which you have contributed. What would you say?

Imagine, again, being back in Tuvalu, talking with Tubwebwe (see chapter two). As she strains the nonu juice she talks about her anxiety as to what will become of her three children if their island is lost beneath the rising sea. She asks you why this might happen and whether you can help.

Imagine watching a nature documentary in a few decades’ time describing the death of the last coral reef. How would you feel?

Imagine the effects that some scientists are warning of, in which some of the Antarctic ice sheet slips into the sea, leading to an even higher rise in sea levels than predicted for ordinary global warming scenarios, and deluging vast populated areas such as London. Or to take the worst scenario of all, imagine the fate of the last surviving people and animals struggling to find sustenance from an increasingly scorched planet.

Perhaps you have now decided not to buy the ticket, or you might have taken the consequences into account but decided they are outweighed by the benefits to the world of your journey (not something one could do lightly). You could still choose to travel overland by bus or train, or go by sea.

Perhaps you have dismissed the above scenarios as overly emotive, or even hysterical, even though they merely point out some very real possibilities. Or you could argue that the aircraft is travelling anyway and one extra passenger won’t make any difference. Aircraft only fly, though, because passengers pay the airlines. Yours might be the booking (or cancellation) that makes the difference between a flight going ahead or not. We have individual responsibilities even in collective situations, a point which also accounts for the ‘my little bit of greenhouse gas emissions won’t make that much difference’ argument.

Perhaps you feel concerned by the effects of air travel, but not concerned enough to make a difference to your decision. Thinking about the consequences only makes you feel guilty. To get this far is a very positive step if, instead of just feeling guilty, you recognize the limitations of your concern for others and resolve to do something about it.

Now try out the second way of imagining the consequences of all our actions. Imagine the earth in a few decades or centuries, home to happy, thriving human societies and a myriad colourful forms of life. Cultivate a care for the health of the planet, as you would care for the health of your own body. Think of yourself as the protector of coral reefs and future generations of people. Imagine talking to those future people and being able to say, ‘I was one of those who helped to change things for the better.’

Using the Imagination:
Some Other Examples

Similar exercises of the imagination can easily be devised with respect to other common choices we are faced with.

Car travel is another major contributor of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution such as acid rain – a cocktail of photochemicals that has damaged vast stretches of forest and poisoned tens of thousands of lakes in Europe and North America. Pollution from cars also aggravates asthma and can cause eye irritation, coughs, and lung and chest problems. When you buy a new car, you are using up large quantities of finite resources in steel, plastic, aluminium, and rubber. Imagine the effects of all these on real people.

Keep in mind, if you do drive, that the houses, villages, and towns that pass like a blur outside the windows are people’s homes, and how you drive affects their peace of mind and safety. Noise is a frequently overlooked aspect of environmental pollution. It is worth taking some time to think how one affects others in this respect, not only by the transport one uses, but also through stereos, barking dogs, security alarms, and so on.

The immediate effects of eating meat are quite easy to imagine, especially if you’ve ever visited a slaughterhouse. Many Buddhists are vegetarian simply because meat-eating involves the taking of life, but there are also very good environmental reasons for eating less meat. It is a grossly inefficient use of agricultural land – as much grain is fed to livestock in the United States as is consumed the populations of India and China put together.(footnote 27) Farm animals produce about a fifth of the methane (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. About a hundred and fifty thousand square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been cleared for beef production.(footnote 28) This deforestation also contributes to global warming, because trees soak up carbon dioxide. Imagine the richness of the forests, or the people who could be fed as a result of using land more efficiently.

Experiments with Simplicity

If we practise environmentalism as a list of rules bolted on to our existing lifestyle, we might find it’s an unwanted complication; just one more thing to think about. But if we use our imagination and think of it as a way of cultivating a richer connection with life, the opposite is likely to be true.

Many people in the West are locked into high-income high-consumption ways of life, working long hours to buy the best cars, holidays, and electronic gadgetry. Sometimes we get into self-perpetuating loops – earning the money to buy the car that we need for work; or to squeeze enough enjoyment out of one fortnight’s holiday to compensate for overworking the rest of the year.

Some people have embraced the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and made radical changes to their lifestyles, working less and consuming less. Some are motivated by environmental concerns, while others are escaping the rat race. Many have found that their lives have been enriched – rather than impoverished – by the experience. It can reduce stress, sweep away a lot of the time-consuming clutter of life (buying, cleaning, maintaining, and insuring things), and encourage more creativity and communication.

The Buddha taught simplicity as a guideline for living because he knew how easily distracted we are, how easily we can get caught up in inconsequential detail. Being caught up in details alienates us from other people, or brings us into competition or conflict with them. The more we can open ourselves up to the question of how much is really necessary, the more likely we are to be in harmony with others and with the natural world.

Everyone can try some experiments with simplicity. Here are some examples of modest steps we could take towards lower consumption, most of which could be tried out for a week or two:

Buy food in bulk and enjoy the art of cookery.

Live without television, radio, and your computer.

Ignore the news media for a while.

Reduce working hours and use the extra free time creatively.

Give up the idea of shopping as a leisure activity.

Keep a note of what you spend your money on and see how much is really unnecessary.

Get rid of things that are neither useful nor beautiful.

Use public transport instead of a car, spending the time in reflection or reading.

Once you have tried these experiments, you might, if you have not already done so, feel more inclined to more radical courses of action, such as living without a car, changing your employment patterns, or living more communally.

The point is not to deny ourselves things, but to strip away some of the inessentials of life so that what is essential can shine through. Initially we might find ourselves bored without our usual distractions, or it may be that we have to ask ourselves what the essential is – what is life for if not to work and consume?

Practised in this way, simplicity is more than a way of avoiding stress or even of living in greater harmony with the environment. It is a way of streamlining our lives around their central purpose. As part of awakening the heart and mind, the process of simplification can be carried much further than choices of lifestyle. Ultimately, all our thoughts, words, and deeds can express non-harmfulness and loving-kindness – which become part of who we are as well as what we do. The Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita describes what he calls this aesthetic simplicity in the following way:

The truly simple life glows with significance, for its simplicity is not the dead simplicity of a skeleton but the living simplicity of a flower or a great work of art. The unessential has melted like mist from life and the Himalayan contours of the essential are seen towering with sublime simplicity above the petty hills and valleys of the futilities of mundane existence.(footnote 29)


23: The chapter title is taken from Henry David Thoreau:’Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.’ Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin: London 1983, p.136.
24:Kutadanta Sutta, Digha-Nikaya 5.22 ff.
25:Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Aviation and the Global Atmosphere, 1999
26: You can check out the implications of your own journey at<
27:Nicholas Hildyard, ‘Foxes in Charge of Chickens’, in Wolfgang Sachs (ed.) Global Ecology: A New Arena of Political Conflict,Zed: London 1993
28: Bodhipaksa, Vegetarianism, Windhorse: Birmingham 1999
29: Sangharakshita, from ‘The Simple Life’, in Crossing the Stream, Windhorse: Birmingham 1987



In September 1915, the philosopher Albert Schweitzer was travelling on a steamer along the Ogooue River in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).(footnote 39) He was turning over in his mind the question of what might be the soundest basis for ethics. Just then, the boat passed close to a herd of hippopotamuses. As he paused to watch them, a phrase flashed into his mind that was to become the basis of all of his future work: ‘reverence for life’. This phrase came to him quite unexpectedly and unsought. It was not so much a logical deduction as a leap of intuition, a heartfelt conviction that arose in response to the beauty around him.(footnote 40)

We all have some experience of natural beauty – perhaps a passing sense of being stirred by a particular sight, or an unexpected peace and oneness with nature while out walking in the countryside. Sometimes these experiences can have a deeper feel to them, as if they concern the meaning and purpose of life itself, as if they are showing us something of how to live our lives. If, like Schweitzer, we are able to learn from them, our lives will naturally be richer and more purposeful. We will live not on the basis of moral codes or assumed ideologies, but from a heartfelt experience of truth. Natural beauty, it seems, can be a gateway to wisdom.

But how can we learn for ourselves from such experiences? We can’t seek the unsought, or even expect something unexpected. We can, however, be open to the experience of beauty. We can learn to see nature with a warm heart. We can spend more time with nature. And we can reflect on it. I’ll say more about each of these in the following paragraphs.

Being Open

We need to be open in a number of different ways. We need to be open-minded enough to see the world not only through facts and figures, and to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. And we need to be open-hearted enough to want to seek – even long for – higher levels of truth and value. (In Buddhism, the word ‘faith’ denotes exactly such openness and longing, rather than referring to any sort of intellectual belief.)

We also need to be open-handed, because beauty will resist any attempt at appropriation. The truth of this struck me a few years ago. As I was setting off for a week in Scotland, a friend of mine, whose writing workshops I had been attending, set me an exercise. He suggested I write a poem about the loch in front of the retreat centre where I was staying. When I arrived, I looked and looked at the loch, but all I could see was an expanse of water occupying the glen, nothing inspiring at all. The loch was just a loch. It was only after a few days, when I’d given up in exasperation, that I was finally able to experience something of the beauty of the surroundings and write my poem. To appreciate beauty, I first had to stop grasping after it.

Sometimes, natural beauty can be difficult to resist. The majesty of a mountainous landscape, or the night sky, is such that it resists all attempts at appropriation. Not even a Sibelius or a Van Gogh can really capture them – all they can do is try to share their own sensibility to them.

Seeing with a Warm Heart

Appreciating the beauty of nature is too important to be left entirely to artists, poets, and musicians. Appreciation means seeing the world with a warm heart, which is essential if we’re going to sustain our efforts to save it. There are two things that are likely to get in the way of this kind of seeing. One is seeing the world in a utilitarian way – seeing nature just as an economic resource. The other, which as environmentalists we are likely to be more prone to, is seeing the world in a problem-oriented way. The rainforest becomes just another issue to be angry about, and the sight of a blue whale is just another occasion for anxiety.

The utilitarian view can be likened to that of a gardener who creates one big vegetable patch, cutting down hedgerows, trees, and anything else that gets in the way so as to save some money on the grocery bill. The problem-oriented gardener, on the other hand, is one who can’t look out of the window without worrying about when they’ll find time to mow the lawn, or remarking on how pernicious the bindweed is. For both of these types, actually working in the garden is likely to be a matter of grim necessity. But for the gardener who takes time simply to enjoy the garden for its own sake, the hours spent working will melt away unnoticed. Their warm appreciation of the richness of the soil and the unique qualities of different plants will turn their work into pleasure.

With the same warm appreciation as the happily absorbed gardener, our work in the world will be enriching and invigorating. As we have seen, we can cultivate warm appreciation of people through meditation and the practice of ethics. We also need to cultivate a warm appreciation of all of nature.

Time with Nature

In practice, this means that we need to take some time away from the usual business of life to enjoy nature. The Buddha himself did this in his own life. Much of his time was spent instructing his own followers, or in walking from village to village to share his understanding with as many people as possible. He also spent time cultivating individual friendships and urged his followers to do likewise. But at other times, he would just enjoy being alone with nature.

On one occasion, feeling hemmed in by the crowds of followers, kings, ministers, and other visitors, the Buddha took off alone to spend some time in a forest. Once there, he came upon a great bull elephant, who, also feeling hemmed in by his herd, had left to find some solitude. It seems that the two recognized in each other a kindred spirit. And so, for a few months, they lived, of one mind, each delighting in the unclouded waters and tranquil solitude of the forest.(footnote 41)

Reflecting on Nature

We can get a little closer to the truths of nature through active reflection. This won’t, of course, be just an intellectual exercise, but will involve feeling the truth as well as thinking it. To illustrate what I mean by this, let’s try to imagine what the Buddha might have been thinking and feeling in the forest.

The Buddha taught that all things are part of inter-dependent networks of causes and effects. When he looked at a tree, he wouldn’t just have thought ‘here’s a tree,’ or even ‘here’s a beautiful tree’. You can imagine that his understanding and warm appreciation would go deeper than that. He would have seen the tree as the product of conditions – the seed of another tree, the rain, the sunlight, the nutrients in the soil around the roots. When a leaf or a branch falls, it ceases to be part of what we call the tree. If a woodcutter were to come along, the tree might be turned into a pile of firewood, leaving only the stump in the ground. So ‘tree’ is just a label that we attach to an arbitrarily defined part of a much bigger process. It is not a separate or permanent feature of reality, but a temporary arrangement in a flow of energy and matter. From an atom’s point of view, the tree is just a stage on the journey from the atmosphere, to tree, to firewood, and to ashes.

This is not to say that the Buddha would necessarily have analysed the tree in a scientific way. Perhaps these insights would have been contained within a more intuitive appreciation of the tree’s beauty. Just as he felt a natural sympathy with the bull elephant, so he would have understood what united him with the tree. A tree is made up of the same air, water, and sunlight as a human body. A mango picked from its branches one day might be a part of the human body the next. People, trees, elephants, and mangoes are not ultimately separate, they are merely labels that we attach to different parts of a greater interconnected process.

If trees are not separate and permanent features of reality, then by applying similar logic we can say the same for individual atoms, for the earth as a whole, and for ourselves. Perhaps much of the anxiety that attaches to the survival of the planet arises from a reluctance to think about one’s own death. Thinking about the inevitability of death forces us to question life’s meaning and purpose. It forces us to look beyond what we arbitrarily label as our self towards the mystery of whatever greater process it is that unifies all life and all things. Thinking about the inevitability of the end of life on earth – whether in a hundred years or in a hundred million years – prompts us to ask the same question all the more deeply.

In looking at a garden of roses at the height of summer, or the play of light on the sandflats as the sun goes down, one might catch a glimpse of reality. Would a rose be as beautiful if it wasn’t so delicate and didn’t fade in the autumn? Would the light from the sun setting over the sandflats be as beautiful if it stayed the same all day and night? In experiencing their beauty, one knows that any words one might try to attach to them will pale into insignificance.

To find ultimate meaning, according to the Buddha’s teachings, one needs to see this same fragile, evanescent beauty not just in roses and sunsets, but in oneself, in other people, in all living beings and, indeed, in everything. As the ‘Diamond Sutra’ concludes:

‘As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.’

Indra’s Net

We can learn to see this beauty not only in things viewed individually, but also in reality as a whole. As nothing is fixed, it is not ultimately separate from everything else. The Avatamsaka Sutra<i*>, another ancient Buddhist text, illustrates this unity in diversity by means of the simile of Indra’s net. Indra, the king of the gods in Indian mythology, owns a net made of strings of jewels. Each jewel perfectly reflects, and is reflected by, every other jewel. Thus each jewel shares in the existence of every other jewel yet does not lose its individual identity.</i*>

Indra’s net symbolizes an aspect of beauty that has increasingly come to light through the environmental crisis. It shines through the delicate balance of ecology, the interconnectedness of all life from the coral reefs of the Pacific Ocean to the open horizons of the African savannah. This vast net of life, which contains more species than we have yet counted, is worth cherishing not just because it is useful, but because we are part of it and it is part of us. Just as we see our selfishness reflected in the despoliation of the environment, so, in its rich beauty, we see an intimation of our own potential.

Indra’s net is also a symbol for the unity of humanity. Here, spread out across the surface of a living blue-green planet, we are the universe aware of itself – each person individual and unique, yet inextricably connected. We are all in the same boat. We are in the human race and the human race, in all its beautiful diversity, is in us.

It is not just a question of seeing beauty, or talking about it or writing about it. Beauty has failed if it doesn’t change us. As part of the intricate, delicate web of life, forever changing beneath the blue sky, our perspective shifts. We see living things and the world as forever changing but all the more to be cherished and revered – not from an anxiety to preserve things as they are, but from simple compassion. In losing the world, we save it.


Try this exercise somewhere in a natural landscape, perhaps one that is familiar to you or where you have spent some time.

Look all around you. Take in the shape and form of the land, its texture, the weather, the water flowing or standing on the earth’s surface, the kind of vegetation, any animals you can see. Note the forms, colours, patterns of sunlight and shade.

Feel the earth beneath where you are standing or sitting. Be aware of gravity – the solid matter in your body being drawn to the greater solid matter of the earth. Reflect that the food from which your body is made comes from the earth and will return there.

Look at the rivers and streams. Their form changes only slowly, but the water that flows through them is constantly changing. Be aware of the flow of liquid through your body – through your digestive system, your bloodstream, your skin. Water comes in and goes out, just like a stream.

Reflect on the forces that brought the earth into being, the vast energy of the expanding universe. Imagine the earth coming into being, its surface solidifying into a crust. Imagine the forces that have shaped the landscape over millions of years – the movement of the earth’s surface, being worn down by ice or rivers. Feel your own physical energy – your movement, the warmth of your body. Reflect that this energy has come from the same source. The same energy that you feel inside has brought into being the landscape around you.

Watch the clouds or the wind, changing from second to second. Feel the air on your skin. Feel the air entering and leaving your body, filling your lungs and sustaining your life from moment to moment.

Reflect how dependent you are on the landscape around you, on the extent to which your body has evolved to survive on the earth’s surface. Try to still your mind and sit in silence, simply experiencing yourself as part of the landscape rather than as a detached observer.

39:The chapter title is paraphrased from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
40:Quoted in Peter Marshall, Nature’s Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth, Cassell: London 1992
41:Udana iv.5

Buddhism and vegetarianism

(extracts from Bodhipaksa’s book Vegetarianism)

The sufferings of farm animals

Old macdonald had a factory

What do we think of when we stroll along the aisles of the supermarket looking at the almost clinical cellophane-wrapped parcels of lamb or beef? Few of us have had the opportunity to see what goes on in the production of meat. Our ideas about farming are often based on childhood picture-book illustrations of happy cows, fluffy yellow chicks, and pink pigs with curly tails running around a farmyard. Our ideas about farming – if we have any – can be highly romanticized and sanitized. Most of us have never set foot in a farmyard, and I probably wouldn’t have either, if it were not for the fact that I’d trained as a vet. I’d like to take you on a guided tour of the modern farm. We don’t have the time or space to look at every detail, or every animal; I will give just a few examples to convey a feeling for what life is like for a farm animal today.

Life for farm animals nowadays is not pleasant and you will almost certainly find parts of this account distressing. The accounts I give are of general modern farm practices – they don’t represent the worst (and sometimes illegal) things that go on in the factory farm. There are relatively compassionate farmers who keep their animals in far better conditions than I describe. In addition, the regulations governing animal welfare, as well as the degree of enforcement of those regulations, varies from country to country. In some ways animals in less industrialized countries have freer lives, but in other ways life – and death – for animals, just as for humans, can be far crueller in poorer parts of the world. What you are about to read is a fairly typical account of how farm animals live in the industrialized world.


A cow’s natural life expectancy is twenty years – fairly long for an animal – but most won’t live beyond four. The demands placed upon their bodies, draining milk at a rate which nature never intended, will typically leave them spent by their fourth year. Naturally, their bodies would produce less than 1,000 litres of milk in a year. Due to selective breeding and modern husbandry techniques, they deliver between 6,000 and 12,000 litres.

To achieve this they are milked almost all year round, even while pregnant. There is a period of only a few weeks during which they are given a respite. This is when they are heavily pregnant and their body simply couldn’t cope with a growing foetus as well as milking.

Dairy cows often experience metabolic diseases because they can’t take in enough nutrition to meet the demands of the milking machine. Their systems may run short of calcium or magnesium, bringing them to the point where they physically collapse. The demands placed on the cows’ metabolism mean that they are often effectively malnourished, no matter how much they eat.

Cows are commonly artificially inseminated with semen from one of the large beef breeds. This gives a more valuable calf, which is good for the farmer. Unfortunately for the cow, this means that they give birth to a far larger calf than their pelvic girdle allows for. They frequently suffer greatly giving birth to these huge offspring, or require Caesarean operations, which weaken them further and shorten their lives.

A cow has to calve every year to produce milk, but her calf is taken away shortly after birth and fed on reconstituted milk. The mother’s milk is too valuable a commodity to waste on a calf. Like most animals, the cow has a strongly developed maternal instinct and it’s distressing for her to lose her calf. It’s upsetting for the calf as well.

Whereas a calf would have suckled, on and off, all day long, the cow is milked by machine, usually only twice a day. Cows frequently suffer from painful mastitis – due mainly to the amount of milk they have to produce. The pressure of accumulated milk causes great pain. Cows sometimes kick their own udders because they are in such distress. Eventually the strain may cause the ligaments of the udder to give way and the cow will be useless for milking. A short trip to the abattoir and her brief life is over.

People often assume that cows produce milk just because they are cows, and that producing milk is what they do – as if it were their job. But cows produce milk only in order to feed a calf. They have to be made pregnant every year so that they keep producing milk. This results in a lot of calves as a side-effect of milk production. What happens to a calf once it is taken from its mother? Not many need to be kept to maintain the dairy herd. Some 42 per cent of them end up as beef at around eighteen months old. Some are sent off a few days old to be reared as veal. The meat industry and the dairy industry are inseparable and as much as 80 per cent of beef comes from dairy farms.

The calves destined to become beef tend to have the most natural lives. Some are kept on grass and can roam relatively freely, although many live out their lives on concrete and are fed concentrates to accelerate their growth. They may be castrated and dehorned. Both these operations are highly stressful and usually very painful. The animals find being handled very distressing and they are often castrated without anaesthetic. Animals are dehorned to make them safer to handle. The operation should be performed under local anaesthetic. Unfortunately, animals are usually dehorned in batches, so the anaesthetic often hasn’t started to work or it may have begun to wear off by the time the dehorning starts. Worse still, I knew one vet who didn’t always use anaesthetics at all because some farmers wouldn’t pay the extra cost. ‘If they see me taking the anaesthetic out of my bag they just laugh,’ he told me.

You may wonder why having a horn cut off requires anaesthetics. The reason is that horns contain nerves and blood vessels. Having a horn removed is not like having your fingernails trimmed but more like having a finger or even a hand sawn off.

Veal was originally just the meat of an unweaned one- or two-day-old calf. Because they were so young, and had never eaten grass or exercised, their meat was unusually pale and tender. It was also expensive because there isn’t much eating on a baby calf. Now veal production has become an industrial process. The calves are still taken from their mothers at a day old, but they are now kept in highly artificial conditions in order to keep their flesh pale and soft. Veal calves often live in pens so small that they can barely move. This stops them from using their muscles, so their flesh remains very tender. Sometimes they are kept in virtual darkness because there is a rather irrational belief that this contributes to the paleness of the meat. This makes observation for illness next to impossible, of course, so disease may go untreated.

However, the very nature of veal production prevents the welfare of veal calves being of crucial interest to those who rear them. The calves are allowed no solid food and are fed only on milk substitutes deficient in iron. Veal calves are deliberately made ill with anaemia in order to keep the meat pale. A malnourished calf is the whole point of the veal system. In addition, their stomachs, which are designed to process large quantities of roughage, are deprived of anything solid whatsoever. The calves are not even allowed straw to lie on in case they eat it. Their craving for roughage is so strong that they chew on wood and eat their own coats. Their lives are very distressing.

However, even before the calves reach the veal units they have to face the stresses of transportation. It’s unpleasant and distressing for us to be in a bus or crowded underground train in the rush-hour; how much more so then for animals being transported for (as current uk regulations allow) up to 28 hours in such conditions, for much of that time unable to feed or drink. At least when we endure such circumstances for a much shorter period we know why we are there – the animals are terror-stricken because of the unfamiliarity of the whole experience. It was against these movements of animals that thousands of people protested at airports and docks in the uk in 1995. These mass demonstrations resulted in changes in the regulations affecting uk veal production, but conditions in many other parts of the world are unchanged.


Chickens are reared in more intensive conditions than any other farm animal. Despite the increased availability of so-called free-range eggs the overwhelming majority of laying chickens still live in tiny wire cages in vast sheds. Usually there are five birds to a cage, and each bird has a living space slightly less than the size of this opened book. There is hardly enough room to turn round. Birds kept in these conditions develop ‘vices’, or destructive behavioural habits, and they often have their beaks painfully severed to prevent them from pecking at, and even eating, each other. It’s worth adding that chickens are not particularly nasty creatures. It’s simply intensely frustrating for them not to be able to fulfil any of their natural urges. They aren’t able to stretch their wings, dust-bathe, walk, establish social structures, forage for food, or sit on eggs. Take away these natural outlets and birds go mad.

The wire of the cages imprisoning the birds irritates their feet, resulting in sores that will go untreated (with 30,000 birds in a shed there is no personal attention). The birds’ feet can even become ‘welded’ to the wire mesh as their claws or flesh grow around the metal. If they are lucky they are within reach of food and water when this happens.

Laying birds are usually killed at the end of a year. They are all females, of course. Skilled workers separate the males from the females at one day old and treat them as a waste product. They may be killed by gassing, or suffocated in rubbish bags, or they may be thrown into boxes where they crush and suffocate each other. Some, it is claimed, are thrown live into mincing machines to be used for animal feed.(footnote 1)They look exactly like the fluffy yellow Easter chicks that we see on greetings cards.

Many so-called free-range chickens don’t fare much better. Despite the more attractive label, many rarely get outside. They are often crammed into sheds in their tens of thousands in conditions that are far from natural. These overcrowded conditions also prevent the birds from fulfilling their full range of natural activities and from establishing a proper social structure. Bullying and stress are common. A small group of dominant and aggressive hens can prevent the others from getting to the outside world, making a nonsense of the ‘free-range’ label.

Chickens for eating are called ‘broilers.’ They live (you’re probably getting the hang of this by now) in huge sheds in tens of thousands, sometimes crowded together on the floor in a living carpet, sometimes in racks of cages. The amount of space recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture gives them about the same amount of room, when fully grown, as a battery hen.

They stand on their own accumulated faeces, which quickly become disease-ridden. The lights are dimmed to reduce the stress of overcrowding so the stockman probably won’t see animals that are ill or have died. In any event there may be only one stockman for tens of thousands of birds, making effective supervision impossible. Health experts consider these sheds to be a serious hazard for workers. As one writer points out:

‘Researchers warned chicken farmers to spend as little time as possible in their sheds and to wear a respirator when they go in. But the study said nothing about respirators for the chickens.(footnote 2)


Few pigs will ever have the opportunity to be outside, to run, to wallow in mud, to dig, to nest (yes, wild pigs build nests), or to play. Pigs are as smart as clever dogs, and like most intelligent animals pigs are very playful.

Instead, most pigs live in concrete boxes or are confined by iron bars in warehouse-sized sheds. The breeding sows have the worst time of it. Most of the time they stand singly in stalls so narrow that they are unable to turn round. They have no bedding and lie on bare concrete. Pigs don’t find it any easier than you or I to lie on concrete, so you can perhaps imagine the discomfort. They have no way of socializing or playing or of fulfilling any of their natural impulses. Life is brutally painful and devastatingly boring.

The sow leaves her stall only when it is time for mating or for transfer to the farrowing accommodation where she will give birth to her litter. Again she lives on bare concrete and often can do nothing except lie down and stand up because the space is too narrow to allow anything else.

A farm worker snaps her piglets’ eye-teeth off, severs their tails, and castrates the males – all usually at a few days old and without anaesthetic. After weaning, the piglets are kept in batches – usually on a concrete slatted floor in a bare concrete box. Any intelligent animal would become bored in such conditions and pigs are no exception. They often become so frustrated in such unnatural and limiting conditions that they become deranged. Young pigs often indulge in neurotic behaviour such as suckling each other or inanimate objects. They frequently go insane. A common sign of this is tail-biting, where pigs bite the tails of their fellow-inmates, gnawing them to the base of the spine. This is why they have their tails removed at an early age. However, once bored pigs have reached this level of psychopathy they may gnaw the remaining stump of the tail as far down as they can. Another similar ‘vice’ that pigs develop in these conditions is vulva-biting. The prominent vulva of the females is an easy target for a deranged pig.

Because so many pigs live in one building, airborne infections spread easily. As a result, pneumonia is widespread. When animals stand on slats above their own faeces and urine, as they usually do, the ammonia produced is an irritant to the respiratory system, further aiding the spread of respiratory infections. Leg injuries and arthritis are common because the pigs live on concrete and cannot exercise, and because forced rapid growth puts strain on the joints.

The concrete boxes in which fattening pigs live commonly overheat in warm weather. Since pigs, contrary to the popular saying, cannot sweat, they have to roll in their own faeces to keep cool. Imagine yourself in the same position.

If you are beginning to think that pigs are nasty animals because of tail- and vulva-biting then think again. You won’t see this kind of behaviour in the wild. It is the result of sheer boredom. They are signs of insanity. Humans kept in similar conditions would do crazy things as well. The ‘vice’ is surely not that of the animal but the conditions that bring about this derangement.


Sheep are the least intensively reared farm animals. In most of the world they tend to have relatively natural lives, brought indoors only for lambing and receiving little handling except during shearing and dipping. The downside of this is that they often die through exposure, neglect, or starvation. Sheep form a large percentage of the 16,000 large animals that die on British farms every day.(footnote 3)Many sheep are kept on hill farms and at lambing time in particular their mortality rate, due to disease and exposure to a harsh hill climate, is especially high. In Britain, 23 per cent of single-born lambs and 55 per cent of twins die on extensive pastures.(footnote 4)

The thick woolly coats that we associate with sheep are not entirely natural but are the product of selective breeding, or ‘unnatural selection’. In the rain their wool soaks up masses of water (making for a fairly miserable sheep), and in the summer they overheat. Sheep are very prone to painfully itchy skin infections due to their woolly coats. The organophosphate chemicals in which they are dipped to prevent the spread of parasitic diseases are a major health hazard for the farmers, who don’t actually have to go into the dip-bath. What does it do to the sheep?

A sheep’s main problem is its lack of financial value. Few sheep are worth much, so they tend not to be given prompt medical attention. If you ever see sheep grazing ‘kneeling down’ it’s because standing is too painful for them. This happens when the ground is persistently wet during periods of heavy rainfall, and fungal infections, followed by secondary bacterial infections, invade the hoofs, causing great pain. Judging by the severity of some of the cases I’ve observed, first aid for sheep is not usually a priority.

A story one farmer told me sums up the lack of regard given to individual sheep. One of his ewes was having trouble lambing. Rather than waste money calling the vet to do a Caesarean – which would cost as much as the ewe was worth – he did the operation himself, with a carving knife and no anaesthetic. He was pleased with himself for having saved money.

The kind of treatment farm animals receive may seem incredible. What would happen if you or I tried to keep a dog in the conditions that a pig has to endure, or if we confined a pet bird so that it couldn’t spread its wings? In any civilized country a court would quite rightly prosecute us for cruelty. Farmers can keep animals in such conditions only because of the demand for cheap meat. There is a chain of causality connecting a consumer’s appetite with the kind of suffering we have seen.

Fish are the only commonly eaten animals living an entirely natural life (except for farmed fish). However, their death through suffocation when they are taken from the water must be deeply unpleasant. Fish farming causes serious pollution, not least because of the heavy metals used in anti-fouling paints used to prevent molluscs and seaweed colonizing the fishes’ cages. We have to remember that eating fish also puts us into competition with fish-eating wildlife. Part of the true price of fish is the culling programmes carried out on wild animals like seals and birds of prey to make sure there are enough fish for human consumption. Vast numbers of the fish caught in nets are not used for human consumption. The fishing industry call them ‘trash’, and dumps their corpses at sea. ‘Trash’ can constitute as much as half of a catch.(footnote 5)An additional indicator of our lack of regard for both fish and land animals is that 40 to 50 per cent of the world’s fish catch is fed to farm animals – most of which are naturally vegetarian.(footnote 6)

The way of all flesh

Few of us would wish to visit an abattoir. They are hellish places. The stench of death, the blood-slicked floors, the noise of machinery, chain-saws tearing flesh and bone, the report of the captive bolt pistols that stun animals before they have their throats cut and, above all, the noises of fear and distress as animals are led to their deaths; all contribute to make a slaughterhouse a hell on earth.

In the abattoir, haste is essential to keep costs down. Animals have to be bullied to come forward to the killing area as quickly as possible. Some abattoir workers believe that a distressed animal makes for better meat due to the release of adrenaline. This ‘fight or flight’ hormone – released in conditions of fear – tenderizes the muscles and helps stop the meat from becoming infected with bacteria. Slaughtermen are often therefore at no pains to make the animals’ last minutes less distressing than they need be. Electric cattle prods goad animals towards the slaughtering area. That these implements are distressing can be inferred from the fact that they are a favoured instrument of torture in countries with the worst records of human rights abuses.

Abattoir workers have to stun all animals that are to be slaughtered to lessen the animals’ distress. The exception to this is Muslim (halal) or Jewish (kosher) slaughter, where animals are fully conscious while they are turned upside-down and have their throats cut. The distress of this is unimaginable, and it is worth remembering that many animals slaughtered in this way end up on the shelves of our supermarkets.(footnote 8)

A common method of stunning is by captive-bolt pistol. A metal rod is fired from a gun into the brain, destroying the higher functions. A flexible plastic rod is then inserted in the bullet hole and stirred to destroy the reflexes in the lower brain – a process known as ‘pithing’. Pithing is done to prevent the corpse from thrashing around and injuring the workers. Pigs, and sometimes sheep, are often stunned with electric tongs, which, in theory, render the animal unconscious. More rarely a carbon dioxide gas chamber may be used. These have been described by researchers as causing ‘severe respiratory distress’.(footnote 9)

Electric tongs are, understandably, dangerous to the workers, and problems arise because low voltages are used in order to render them less hazardous. Animals commonly begin to recover consciousness before they are killed. In any event some people believe that animals stunned in this way are not unconscious at all, merely paralysed. One hopes that this is not true – it must be appalling to be aware of what is happening but unable even to cry out. Even when carried out effectively the electric stunning is likely to be extremely painful, as humans who have experienced similar shocks report.(footnote 10)The actual killing is achieved by cutting the arteries that carry blood to the brain.

Chickens are killed in specialized processing plants. They too have to be stunned first, and this is usually done by suspending them upside-down by the legs on a conveyor line that leads them towards an electrically charged saline bath. Inevitably, as some of the birds struggle, they manage to miss being stunned and are still conscious when they reach the rotating blades that sever the carotid arteries.

Some authorities believe it is better to allow animals destined for slaughter to see their fellows being killed in order to shorten the time they have to wait in terror. Others hold that animals should wait longer so that they are spared seeing their fellows being killed.(footnote 11) It is a useful exercise in empathy to decide which we would prefer if such circumstances were forced upon us. Afterwards we could reflect on whether we want to put animals in that situation at all.


1: Peter Singer, Animal Liberation , Random House, London1995, p.108.
2: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.105.
3: Veterinary Record vol.iii no.2, 1982. Quotedin Kath Clements, Why Vegan , Heretic, London 1995, p.56.
4: ‘Piggy in the middle’, New Scientist, 23 January 1999.
5: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.173.
6: John Bennett, The Hunger Machine , Polity, Cambridge1987, p.37.
7: H. Saddhatissa (trans.), Sutta Nipata , Curzon, London1985, p.34.
8: Farm Animal Welfare Council, Report on the Welfare ofLivestock (Red Meat Animals) at the Time of Slaughter , hmso,London 1984, paragraphs 88 and 124.
9: Agscene , no.128, Winter 1997, p.13.
10: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.152.
11: See, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food’s Response to the Report on the Welfare of Livestock (Red Meat Animals) at the Time of Slaughter, MAFF, Surbiton 1985,pp.7-8, where the pros and cons are discussed.


Why are we beastly to animals?

If we are beginning to become aware of the suffering involved in the meat trade, but still eat meat, then we have a problem. We have a source of conflict in our lives.

We have to decide what to do with that awareness of the suffering inherent in meat-eating. It’s all too tempting to push the awareness away so that we can carry on acting as before. We may even recall having done this in the past with this very issue. Another, and more creative, response would be to face up to and explore the conflict so that we can learn and grow from the insights this might reveal. A good place to begin is with an exploration of the views and assumptions that underlie meat-eating and provide a foundation for the practices of the farm and slaughterhouse.

One of the most powerful insights of Buddhism is that behind every action is a view . Views are not necessarily philosophical positions that we have carefully worked out; in fact we may never put some of our deepest-held views into words at all. Our views are more likely to be held as unconscious ‘inherited’ assumptions about the world. These assumptions guide and give rise to our actions. Bringing views into consciousness, and recognizing where they have come from and how they affect us, is a valuable exercise. It gives us the power to change our views for ones that will bring more harmony and fulfilment to our lives.

Applying this principle to meat-eating, we can see that many of our views about our relations with animals come from the Judeo-Christian model of the world. Even if we don’t believe in the biblical account of the world it probably affects us unconsciously. After all, it has shaped the Western psyche for close on two millennia. Some of the views that we have unconsciously absorbed from this tradition stand in the way of our respect and compassion for animals.

Firstly, we have inherited the view that humankind has dominion over the animals and that we therefore have a ‘right’ to kill animals and that it is ‘natural’ for them to live in fear of us. We have come to assume that animals have been put on earth for us to use, and that their suffering is unimportant if it arises as a result of our use of them.

‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'(footnote 12)

The book of Genesis clarifies what this stewardship entails when God tells Noah:

‘And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.'(footnote 13)

Consequently, most of us believe that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not apply to animals. The Western approach has typically been to see a rigid separation between humans and animals, with humans having a ‘soul’ or ‘rationality’ setting us apart. Westerners have generally seen human suffering as a matter for concern (with some important exceptions) while we have tended to ignore or deny animal suffering much of the time.

This view of animals as possessions to be used in any way we please became a philosophical standpoint for many Western thinkers. Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest medieval European philosopher, wrote:

‘We cannot wish good things to an irrational creature, because it is not competent, properly speaking, to possess good… Nevertheless we can love irrational creatures out of charity, if we regard them as the good things that we desire for others.’ (footnote 14)

In other words we can only care for the welfare of animals if it will benefit a human, not for the sake of the animal.

The philosopher Descartes and his disciples developed yet further the idea that, because they are ‘irrational’, we can treat animals in any way we wish. Descartes regarded animals as no more than complex mechanisms, devoid of rationality. His followers took this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. If an animal has no ‘soul’, and is merely a mechanism, then the cries of an animal when it is injured no more signify that it is in pain than the rattling of a faulty engine suggests that an automobile suffers. His followers ‘kicked about their dogs and dissected their cats without mercy, laughing at any compassion for them, and calling their screams the noise of breaking machinery’, according to one of his biographers.(footnote 15)

This was probably the low point of Western relations with animals (although some factory farming methods come close), but some people have expressed such views well into the twentieth century. In the 1960s a theologian claimed that animals exhibit ‘a very interesting and, indeed, very mysterious psychism, but one that is devoid of consciousness of any kind ‘. (Original emphasis retained.) He goes on to conclude that

‘the problem of animal ‘suffering’ is an empty one, as ‘unconscious suffering’ is a contradiction in terms. To suffer and not to be aware of the fact, to suffer and not to be conscious of suffering, is the same as not suffering at all.’ (footnote 16)

One powerfully influential scientific view of the early twentieth century came from the same current of thought. The school of ‘behaviourism’, whose most famous exponent was B.F. Skinner, dismissed the idea of animals having any self-consciousness. Like Descartes, he saw animals as complex machines devoid of the capacity to experience pain. Although this view has lost ground, it still has its exponents in the scientific community today. As recently as 1992, a serious scientific magazine could carry an article entitled ‘Do Animals Feel Pain?'(footnote 17) The article reported that a working party of experts rather tentatively decided, after three years of deliberation, that vertebrates (which include all farm animals) ‘ may be capable of experiencing some suffering’. (My emphasis.)

It would be wrong to suppose that all Christians (or scientists) hold, or have held, the inhumane views we’ve touched upon. Many have taken a leading role in animal welfare, and some Christians (and scientists) are vegetarian and have a strongly compassionate relationship with the animal world. However, traditional Western views have deeply conditioned many of us and underpin our acceptance of the modern horrors of the factory farm, where animals are treated as machines, and where the pain they feel is regarded as inconsequential.

the buddhist perspective

At first one should meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself.  I should dispel the suffering of others because it is suffering like my own suffering.’ (footnote 18)

The Buddhist view of animals and their relation to humans is rather different from the traditional Western viewpoint outlined above. Buddhism has always recognized that animals show every sign of experiencing and fearing suffering. That animals lack some faculties that humans have, or have them less well developed, is a separate issue, and not one that affects animals’ ability to suffer. Buddhism sees suffering as undesirable and freedom from suffering as something to be preferred, irrespective of whether it is an animal or a human that suffers.

Buddhism, then, regards animals as being worthy of our respect, and urges us to have compassion for animals when we see they are suffering. When they are free from suffering Buddhism also encourages us to respect that fact and not to cause them any unnecessary pain or distress.

In the West, the myth of humans being given dominion over the animals has shaped Western relations with nature. Many Buddhist myths and symbols, recognizing the continuity between animals and humans, and showing that all sentient life is intimately interrelated, are expressive of the Buddhist approach to animals. One such traditional Buddhist symbol is called the Wheel of Life.(footnote 19)This shows six realms of existence, including the realm of animals and the human realm.

The Wheel of Life is a symbol of change; it shows us how we progress or regress, depending on how we act. Buddhism does not see the realms as being completely separate from one another – beings can die in one realm and be reborn in another. Animals may be reborn as humans in the future and, possibly, those of us who are humans now may be reborn as animals. There is no absolute discontinuity, in the Buddhist account, between animals and humans. Instead, our continuity and commonality are emphasized. Animals and humans are, so to speak, all trapped on the Wheel, one of whose characteristics is a tendency to suffering.

As well as this symbol, there are many popular folk tales, called Jatakas, about the Buddha’s previous lives. In some of these stories – which are similar to Aesop’s fables – the Buddha is portrayed as an animal. Usually he is the animals’ leader and performs heroic deeds that benefit others.(footnote 20)These stories illustrate Buddhist teachings through the simple, direct medium of storytelling rather than doctrinally.

These myths are not presented as reasons for becoming vegetarian, but as an illustration of how fundamentally different the Buddhist view of animals is from the Western view. Although there is no need for Western Buddhists to believe that the Buddha was literally an animal in previous lives, we can learn from the Jataka tales that early Buddhists had no problem with thinking about their revered teacher as having been an animal in a past life.(footnote 21)Once more, animals and humans are seen as part of a continuum of life.

Although humans may or may not literally be reborn as animals, the underlying message of these images – that there is similarity and continuity between animals and humans – is something we can learn from. We all have the capacity to suffer and the desire to escape suffering. There is therefore no question of Buddhists regarding animals as ‘things’, to be possessed or treated as if they were objects without feelings. There is also no question of animals having been put here for us to use. Instead, we’re all trapped in this Wheel of Life together. The main difference between humans and animals is that humans have a greater ability to seek and create happiness – for ourselves and others. Buddhism encourages us to empathize with animals and see them as worthy of our kindness and compassion.


12: Genesis 1:26.
13:Genesis 9:2- 3.
14:Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica . Christian Classics,Westminster 1981, p.1282.
15:J.P. Mahaffy, Descartes , Blackwood, Edinburgh 1880,p.181.
16:Fernand van Steenberghen, Hidden God , PublicationsUniversitaires de Louvain, Belgium 1966, p.252.
17:New Scientist, 25 April 1992.
18:Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, The Bodhicaryavatara ,Oxford University Press, Oxford 1995, p.96.
19:See Alex Kennedy, The Buddhist Vision , Rider, London1985, for a detailed account of this symbol.
20:A particularly good example is the children’s book, TheMonkey King , written and illustrated by Adiccabandhu and Padmasri,Windhorse, Birmingham 1998.
21:See P.D. Ryan, Buddhism and the Natural World , Windhorse, Birmingham 1998, for further explorations of therelationship between Buddhism and animals.


The benefits of vegetarianism

benefits for the world

Giving up meat means that fewer animals will die, and fewer animals will be reared in the appalling conditions we have looked at. Just by changing your diet you will ensure that there is less suffering in the world. However, the benefits of becoming vegetarian go much further than that. In adopting a vegetarian diet you will have a real impact on the planet in many ways.

We live in a time of unparalleled crisis, with growing environmental problems which some believe may threaten the very existence of our planet. Raising animals for food causes many of those problems, which are therefore avoidable.

Farming animals is intensely wasteful of resources. It has been estimated that 500g of steak from intensively-reared animals consumes 2.5kg of grain, 10,000 litres of water, the energy equivalent of four litres of petrol, and about 16kg of topsoil (footnote 32). Intensive beef production is very wasteful of fossil fuels. In America, intensively-reared beef consumes 33 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces (footnote 33). This short-sighted squandering of the planet’s resources is simply not sustainable.

It takes 10kg of plant protein to produce 1kg of animal protein. If a field is capable of producing 10 tonnes of soya beans, we can do two things with it. We can feed humans with the soyabeans or we can feed the soya beans to cattle. If we do the latter we effectively lose 90 per cent of the protein and energy value of the original crop, which means we use 10 times more land than is necessary.

Because rearing animals is intrinsically wasteful of land, the demand for ever more farmland has resulted in the loss of more and more ofour wilderness areas. We have ripped out hedgerows, felled forests,and drained marshes in order to produce more grazing land for animals. More than 25 per cent of the forests of Central America and 40 million hectares of the Amazon jungle have been cleared for beef production (footnote 34). In the case of the rainforests these natural areas will never recover. Deserts all over the world are expanding as overgrazing leads to depletion of the soil in marginal areas. Our forests produce the very oxygen we breathe, yet we are destroying them in order to make beefburgers.

We are all aware now of the threat of global warming brought about by the build-up of ‘greenhouse gases’, which trap the sun’s warmth in the atmosphere, leading to a rise in global temperatures.We may not be aware that cattle and sheep produce large quantities of methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Farm animals probably produce around 20 per cent of the 400 million tonnes of this gas that is produced every year worldwide (footnote 35). Since global warming may be one of the greatest dangers to the future of our species, a reduction in the numbers of farm animals will help reduce that threat.

Farming animals also produces large amounts of sewage which frequently contaminates aquatic environments (footnote 36). The raised level of nutrients in the water leads to the rapid growth of algae and the death of fish (footnote 37).The pollution of lakes and rivers can have devastating effects, harming human health and livelihoods and impoverishing our environment.

With fewer people eating meat these pressures will lessen and the effects may even be reversed. With more of the population becoming vegetarian we may be able to allow land presently under cultivation to return to wilderness – with more forests, swamps, and moorlands for future generations to thank us for. With more farmland being freed up there is enormous potential for cultivating biomass fuels -plants grown for fuel – which make a zero net contribution toglobal warming. By adopting a vegetarian diet we will help support a more sustainable world for future generations.

However, perhaps the most worrying side-effect of agricultural activity on humans is the emergence of new disease-causing organisms. According to one authority,

‘by far the most potentially destructive effect…is the evolution of pathogens with mass destruction potential when they are transferred to their final host: man. This could produce epidemics paralleled only by the plagues associated with the increase in the population density in the Middle Ages and Victorianepochs.’ (footnote 38)

It’s worth contemplating that the medieval plagues wiped out between a third and a half of the population of Europe. The unidentified pathogen that causes bse in animals and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans is only one of the latest of these diseases – and we don’t yet know how extensive that problem is. Some animal viruses and bacteria have the potential to cross into the human population and this is believed to happen on farms. Cholera, which has killed millions, spread to the human population from sheep and cattle as have many other diseases (footnote 39). The various waves of influenza that periodically sweep the world, causing millions of deaths, are believed to have their origins in agriculture. 20,000,000 people were killed by the influenza epidemic that followed the first World War – 10,000,000 more than died in the war itself (footnote 40).

In late 1997 and early 1998, the entire chicken population of Hong Kong, followed by much of the domestic animal population, had to be exterminated to prevent the spread of a deadly avian virus that had begun to infect humans. A plague may have been averted – but at a tremendous cost in suffering. In early 1999, an outbreakof a deadly strain of encephalitis began in Malaysia, spreading to humans from pigs. At the time of writing, 67 people had died and another 99 had been admitted to hospital. Malaysian farmers are slaughtering hundreds of thousands of pigs to try to prevent a deadly human epidemic (footnote 41). With pig population densities in some parts of Europe reaching 9,000 animals per square kilometre, the potential for a disastrous human epidemic is vast (footnote 42). By lessening our dependence on the growing of animals for food we will be helping to protect the human population, particularly the youngand elderly, from such diseases.

Antibiotics are used on animals to treat disease (oftenarising from the intensive manner in which they are confined) and as a routine food additive to promote faster growth. A uk National Consumer Council report points out that ‘some antibiotic residues in food may be toxic and cause some people to become hypersensitive to antibiotics. They could also make bacteria resistant to antibiotics’ (footnote 43). The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the greatest challenges to modern medicine – and much of the problem comes from farming.

The benefits of vegetarianism for our world are far-reaching. Every meal we eat has some say as to which direction our world moves in – towards the ever-accelerating degradation of the planet or towards increasing harmony with nature and a sustainable future for the planet and for our species. These choices are, truly, on our menu. Which will we have?

benefits for our health

It certainly isn’t necessary to be a vegetarian to be healthy, although I am personally convinced that vegetarianism is, generally speaking, a healthier alternative than meat-eating. And it does seem to be the case that vegetarians are, overall, healthier than average. A paper by the British Nutrition Foundation says that ‘many studies have shown that vegetarians as a group have lower rates of heart disease and of some cancers, and may also benefit from the reduced risk of some other conditions’ (footnote 44). A massive study of over 120,000 men in Japan showed that simply adding meat to the diet increased the risk of dying from heart disease by 30 per cent. (footnote 45) A recent uk government report recommended that those eating an average 90g of meat (less than a quarter-pound hamburger) per day should consider cutting back (footnote 46).

There are, of course, good and bad vegetarian diets and whatever diet one follows it is important to eat healthily. If we eat a varied and interesting vegetarian diet there is little or no risk of deficiencies, and a good prospect of living a longer and more healthy life. The chart on page 56 gives an example of the food sources that can form the basis of a healthy vegetarian diet.

Ultimately, I am attempting to convert people to vegetarianism not on health grounds, but on ethical grounds. However, a point that we often need to highlight is that vegetarianism is a perfectly healthy option. Many people still have worries that a vegetarian diet might not be healthy, though in fact becoming vegetarian is one of the simplest steps they could take to improve their chance of a long and healthy life. Below I outline the main nutritional issues that can arise for someone switching to a vegetarian diet.

Some will say that it’s natural for us to eat meat. I often wonder if they have thought through the idea of meat-eating being natural. For example, when a lion takes control of a pride his first action is to kill all the offspring of the previous dominant male so that his own offspring will have the best chance of surviving. This is natural, but we would hardly use it as a basis for human morality. That something is natural does not mean it is ethical. Humans are capable of living in ways that transcend ‘animal’ nature and, from an ethical point of view, it is only by so doing that we can become truly human.

In a very real sense meat-eating is not natural for us: we are poorly adapted to eating meat. The human gut is proportionately far longer than that of a carnivore, and this is probably why meat-eaters have a far higher incidence of bowel cancer than vegetarians. A likely explanation is that the bacterial breakdown of meat in the gut produces carcinogenic by-products. True carnivores, like cats and dogs, have a much shorter length of gut in proportion to their body than us,and can expel waste more quickly. We just don’t seem to be cut out to eat flesh. You could say that it just isn’t natural for us to eat meat.

Our bodies are also not good at dealing with the amount of fat found in meat. The editor of the American Journal of Cardiology wrote that ‘no matter how much fat carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis’.(footnote 47)He went on to say that dogs, even when fed a massive 200 times the average level of cholesterol that Americans ingest, do not develop heart disease.(footnote 48)Heart disease in humans is,of course, a major killer.

People often have worries about iron, calcium, and protein, and fear that these are deficient in a vegetarian diet. None of these concerns has any real basis in fact. According to the American Dietetic Association,’appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.'(footnote 49) Let’s take a look at these specific nutrients.


Many women in particular worry about anaemia,which is, of course, more common in women due to blood loss during menstruation. They have understandable concerns that a vegetarian or vegan diet might make them more likely to suffer from this condition.However, as the British Nutrition Foundation points out, ‘studiesof haemoglobin levels indicate no significant differences between vegetarian and non-vegetarian groups, or between vegans and controls.'(footnote 50)Anaemia seems to be no more of a problem in vegetarians than in meat-eaters,for plants can provide all the iron most healthy people need. Leafy green vegetables, wholemeal bread, molasses, dried fruits, lentils,and pulses are all important sources of iron. For those who are clinically anaemic, whether meat-eaters or vegetarians, it is preferable to take an iron supplement rather than rely solely on dietary iron.


Osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) is another disease that affects mainly women, usually in later life, and again many people worry about whether a vegetarian diet can supply enough calcium.This may be rather ironic, since a study in America showed that women on a vegetarian diet had half the chance of developing osteoporosis than women who were omnivorous.(footnote 51)Other studies, however, have shown no significant differences between bone density in vegetarian and omnivorous women. At the very least we can say with confidence that a lack of calcium is not a problem for most vegetarians. Perhaps surprisingly, osteoporosis is most common in countries where the population eat a lot of meat and dairy products. It is least common in countries like China and Japan where many people eat a mainly vegetarian or vegan diet.(footnote 52)

Important vegetarian sources of calcium are dairy products, leafy green vegetables, bread, nuts, and seeds (especially sesame seeds),dried fruits, calcium supplemented soya milk, and tofu.


While it’s mostly women who have concerns about iron and calcium, it often seems to be men who worry about getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet. There is a great deal of mythology surrounding protein. Many people assume that meat equals protein, which in turn equals health, and that we need a lot of protein and therefore need to eat meat. A lot of advertising for meat plays on this belief. Actually we can easily get the protein we need (45g a day for women, 55g for men, (footnote 53) although more is needed if pregnant or exercising heavily) from a vegetarian diet which includes nuts, seeds,pulses, and soya products – eaten daily. Dairy products and eggs are of course sources of protein for many vegetarians, although elsewhere in this book I have pointed out the ethical implications of eating these.

Although vegetarian diets may contain less protein, on average, than omnivorous diets, the British Nutrition Foundation’s briefing paper on vegetarianism tells us ‘there is abundant protein with a high overall amino acid score in most vegetarian diets’ (my emphasis).Surveying a number of studies of protein intake in various groups,it concluded: ‘In all cases, intakes of protein in vegetarians andin vegans appear fully sufficient in relation to estimated average requirements for protein.'(footnote 54)Just because there is less proteinin a vegetarian diet does not mean there is not enough. Many top athletes,like tennis player Martina Navratilova, olympic gold hurdler Ed Moses,and cycling champion Sally Hibberd, are vegetarians. The list of famous vegetarian and vegan athletes includes bodybuilders, ice-skaters,basketball stars, runners, weight-lifters, and triathletes, showing that it is possible for the body to perform at peak effectiveness without meat.(footnote 55)

In fact, eating too much protein is bad for health. Diets very high in protein (in excess of 150g daily) cause calcium to be lost through the urine. This may explain why those who eat a lot of dairyproducts and meat are more likely to suffer osteoporosis than those who are vegetarian or vegan.(footnote 56)In addition, proteincannot be stored in the body in significant quantities. When we consume excess protein we convert it into carbohydrate, producing toxic nitrogenous waste products.

Having said that, those who are pregnant, or who participate in intensivephysical activities, do need to eat more protein than the average person. But even the amounts of protein that bodybuilders require(and bodybuilders are fanatical about protein) are easily supplied by a vegetarian diet. The nutrition director of an internationally famous chain of body-building gyms said: ‘I supervise 160 employees around the world who’ve probably worked with over 300 vegetarian body builders. These employees report to me that the vegetarian bodybuildersare building muscle just as nicely as if they ate meat.'(footnote 57)

There is a persistent myth that meat proteins are ‘first class’ while proteins from vegetarian sources are ‘second class’. This outdated view is based on the fact that meat and eggs contain all the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) whereas no individual vegetable or pulse does, except soya. Twenty amino acids go to make up proteins.We can make many of these in the body by converting other amino acids,but there are eight that must be present in the diet. These are the ‘essential amino acids’.

However, it turns out that when we eat rice or cereals in combination with pulses or nuts all the essential amino acids are present in thecorrect proportions. This means that many classic food combinations(rice and dhal, macaroni cheese, beans on toast, felafel with pitta   bread, peanut butter sandwiches) give protein that is at least as high in quality as meat. However, it’s not strictly necessary to combine proteins in every meal. We have a ‘pool’ of amino acids and if one  amino acid is deficient we can make this up from our body’s stores if we eat them all regularly.(footnote 58)

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer from serious health problems such as kidney or liver disease, it would be prudent to take medical advice before changing your diet. For healthy individuals, as longas you eat a vegetarian diet drawing on a variety of sources as indicated in the chart on page 56, you will be eating enough protein and giving your body all the amino acids it needs.


32: Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.166.
33:Peter Singer, How Are We to Live? , Prometheus, Amherstny 1995, p.44.
:34:ibid., p.45.
35:S. Tamminga, ‘Gaseous Pollutants Produced by Farm AnimalEnterprises’,in Clive Phillips and David Piggins (eds.), Farm Animals and theEnvironment , cab International, Wallingford 1992,p.347.
36:Farm Animals and the Environment , op. cit., p.325,quotes statistics from the National Rivers Authority showing an average3- 4,000 incidents of water pollution from farms annually.
37:Animal Liberation , op. cit., p.168, reports 3,500incidents of water pollution in 1985, just one of which -involving one farm – caused the deaths of 110,000 fish.
38:Clive Phillips and David Piggins, ‘Effects of Farm Animalson the Environment’, in Farm Animals and the Environment , op.cit., p.326.
39:Peter Cox, Why You Don’t Need Meat , Bloomsbury, London1992, p.45.
40:Frank P. Mathews and Robert J. Rubin, ‘Influenza’, ColliersEncyclopedia , Colliers, New York 1996, vol.13, p.16.
41:‘The pigs must die’New Scientist , 3 April 1999.
42:In 1997, six million pigs had to be slaughtered in theNetherlands to control a major epidemic of Classical Swine Fever which,fortunately for us, is not transmissible to humans. ‘This little piggyfell ill’New Scientist , 12 September 1998.
43:’Intensive farming methods <@147>risk to health<@148>’,Guardian ,12 March 1998, p.6.
44:Vegetarianism , British Nutrition Foundation, London1995, p.4.
45: Why You Don’t Need Meat , op. cit., p.7.
46:’Eat less red meat to cut cancer risk, urges report,’Guardian ,26 September 1997.
47:Atherosclerosis: Hardening and thickening of the arteriesaccompanied by fatty degeneration – a common sign of heart diseaseassociated in humans with over-consumption ofsaturated fats.
48:Why You Don’t Need Meat , op. cit., p.148.
49:American Dietetic AssociationVegetarian Diets.
50:Vegetarianism , op. cit., p.15.
51:ibid., p.22.
52:Why You Don’t Need Meat , op. cit., p.153.
53:Vegetarian Society information sheetBasic Nutrition (link unavailable but see Vegan Society fact sheetKey facts).
54:Vegetarianism , op. cit., p.10.
55:An extensive list of vegan and vegetarian athletes of national and international stature (link unavailable – but see PETA’s Top 10 Vegetarian Athletes).
56:Vegetarian Society information sheet , Calcium (link unavailable).
57:’Where’s the Beef? Vegetarian bodybuilders show there’smorethan one way to feed growing muscle’, Muscle and Fitness , October1992, p.130.
58:Vegetarian Society information sheetBasic Nutrition (link unavailable but see Wikipedia article on protein combining).


Commonly asked questions about vegetarianism

You may still have some questions – most people do when they are considering changing their diet. This section attempts to address some of the more common questions.

How do I give up eating meat?

Nowadays it’s remarkably easy to become vegetarian. Indeed, it is easier now, in the West, than at any previous time. Virtually every restaurant has a vegetarian selection on the menu. A few years ago, vegetarians had to haunt health-food stores; now even the supermarkets have latched on to the fact that the vegetarian population is substantial (7 per cent of young adults in the uk in 1999) and enthusiastically market vegetarian products.

There has been an explosion in the number of cookery books devoted exclusively to vegetarian food, and many of these are remarkably inexpensive. Buy some. Look at the pictures and try out some of the recipes. You may realize that some of your favourite foods are vegetarian and you hadn’t even thought about it! Many people imagine that a vegetarian meal is meat-and-two-veg with the meat missing, or replaced by some kind of soya substitute. Once you begin to explore vegetarian cookery you will begin to see that pattern as hopelessly limited and won’t even try to imitate it most of the time. You can slowly build up a new repertoire of dishes, gradually phasing the meat out of your diet. Or you can just decide to stop eating meat right now.

Telling others what you are doing and why – kindly and clearly – can help you to reinforce it and clarify your thinking. Some will be supportive, others may be hostile (and may think they’re being criticized even when they aren’t). Those who might invite you to dinner need to know you’re vegetarian or it might prove embarrassing for both of you. Let them know – it’s really not a problem since most people by now must be used to catering for vegetarian friends. Anyone who wants to have guests round had better get used to catering for vegetarians, given that people are increasingly giving up meat.

If you’re the only vegetarian in your family, that is more difficult, but not insurmountable. There are cookery books designed to help you and your family cope with this. In addition, supermarkets supply many vegetarian frozen and chilled foods (although it’s a shame to eat mass-produced food when home-cooked is usually much better). You could try introducing the others in your family to the food you eat. They might be pleasantly surprised.

Surely it is impossible to live without causing harm?

It’s true that it’s impossible to live without causing any harm. Even the cultivation of vegetables and grains kills many small creatures living in the earth, and pesticides (whether organic or chemical) kill many insects. We should not dismiss this out of hand. If we wish to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, we should be aware of such issues.

However, some forms of agricultural practice cause less destruction than others. If we have a choice of foods grown in different ways, it would be sensible to choose those grown by the most ethically acceptable methods. At the very least, it would be good if we began to make more use of organically grown produce. The build-up of long-lasting toxic chemicals in the food chain undoubtedly leads to problems for birds and higher mammals (including ourselves), and we should discourage the use of such chemicals.

As an argument for meat-eating, though, the idea that we cannot avoid causing some harm simply does not hold water. There is some harm that we can avoid. The harm caused to farm animals is unnecessary, and we can, and indeed should, avoid it if we regard ourselves as compassionate. We may not be able to live without causing any harm at all but we can certainly live in such a way that we cause less harm.

Plants are living too. Aren’t vegetarians inconsistent?

The notion that vegetarians are being inconsistent in eating plants because plants are living things is very common: there can scarcely be a vegetarian who hasn’t heard this argument several times. It is hard, however, to see how plants can suffer. They have nothing corresponding to a central nervous system or even to nerves. While it’s of considerable evolutionary benefit for animals to have a sense of pain so that they can escape danger, why should plants, which are by nature static, have evolved such a sense? I believe that we instinctively recognize that plants are of a different order from animals. I doubt if many who employ the above argument would really feel the same seeing a carrot pulled out of the ground and eaten as they would seeing a lamb having its throat cut. The difference seems obvious.

A second count on which this argument falls is that it takes ten kilos of vegetable protein to produce one kilo of meat protein. Thus, by eating plants directly, rather than by converting them into animal protein first, we cause the deaths of far fewer of them. If you’re concerned about causing less destruction to plants then become a vegetarian!

Why should I worry about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world?

For some, the issue of animal suffering is insignificant compared to the problems involved in human suffering. They would rather not, they say, divert their energies into preventing animals from suffering while there are so many humans in the world who lack food, medicine, and clean water.

If we had to make a choice between alleviating the sufferings of animals and that of humans, this argument would have a great deal of force. However, it is not necessary to do this. Becoming a vegetarian is not a difficult thing to do. It adds little or no extra demands to our lives. In choosing what to eat (something we have to do anyway) we simply choose to eat food that does not contain meat. In doing so we boycott a trade that leads to immeasurable suffering. The rest of our time is free to spend in whatever way we wish, including working for the welfare of other members of our species.

There is also a strong argument for becoming vegetarian to help other humans (apart from the many ecological arguments we’ve already looked at). The ten kilos of vegetable protein it takes to produce one of animal protein mean that raising animals is a vastly inefficient method of producing food. Animal farming has been correctly described as ‘a protein factory in reverse’. As much as 40 per cent of the world’s grain is used to feed cattle, pigs, and poultry.(footnote 59)In theory (for there are also problems of unequal distribution of wealth and food), we could feed many more people on a vegetarian diet. There would be far more food in the world to feed the hungry if we did not eat meat and potentially far less human suffering as a result.

How do I relate to meat-eaters?

Some meat-eaters seem to feel threatened when they are with a vegetarian. It is as if they sense an implied criticism in the simple action of someone asking if there is anything vegetarian on the menu. This may reveal an underlying sense of moral unease. We rarely acknowledge that meat is part of a dead animal, and nowadays meat is packaged to disguise the connection with the farm and slaughterhouse. Reminders of the connection are often unwelcome. It’s therefore quite natural and to be expected that some meat-eaters will react in this way.

In return, some vegetarians can be self-righteous and harsh, but most are not. If a vegetarian is self-righteous, the problem is with their lack of metta, and not with their diet. They need to learn to have more respect and kindness towards others and not to judge harshly. If you are going to become a vegetarian it’s good to be aware of any tendency you might have toward self-righteousness. You can then deal with it by reminding yourself that you once ate meat, and for the same reasons that others continue to eat meat. A little patience, kindness, and humility are called for.

What would happen to the animals if we all became vegetarian?

There is one other argument that comes up surprisingly often. Well, if the whole world decided simultaneously to stop eating meat, there would be an enormous crisis! However, common sense tells us that changes do not happen in such a way, except where there is a major panic over health, as with salmonella in eggs or the bse scare. Vegetarianism has been growing in recent decades but in the way we would expect – in a relatively slow, steady, and progressive manner. When change happens in this way, farmers and the food industry adjust to suit the market. Fewer animals are bred, so the total number of farm animals declines. There is no question of us being lumbered with vast herds of animals roaming around the countryside.

Will I miss having meat in my diet?

To start with, the answer for many people is probably ‘yes’. It would be normal for you to experience cravings for meat from time to time – but this will probably be just a passing phase and won’t last very long. If you begin to have doubts about what you’re doing then reflect on your reasons for becoming vegetarian in the first place. Think about what it is you’re really giving up – your involvement in death and destruction. Think about the benefits of what you’re doing, for yourself; the benefits for your health and for your conscience – and for others; the contribution you’re making towards a better world.

We all hit times when our own actions seem insignificant in this very large and complex world of ours. In the chapter on ‘Meat and Metta’ (page 80) we’ll see that the whole subcontinent of India became almost entirely vegetarian as a result of individuals giving up meat – and that was in a time and place where there were no mass media to spread ideas and information. At times when we feel discouraged, it’s good to bear this in mind. Your actions are important. You are shaping the world whatever you do. Why not change it for the better?

Above all, enjoy the change in your diet. You’ll be performing a highly positive action in giving up meat. You’ll probably get more pleasure from your food, you’ll almost certainly be healthier, and you can be absolutely sure that there will be less suffering in the world as a result of your actions.

What about veganism?

A vegan diet is one that excludes all animal products, including dairy and eggs. In addition many vegans do not wear leather or wool, and avoid other products that contain ingredients derived from animals.

For some, becoming vegetarian is not enough. The sufferings of animals in the dairy and poultry industries are so great that many people feel they have to take a stand against it by abstaining from dairy products and eggs. Indeed, it’s a perfectly logical step from vegetarianism to veganism. If we want to reduce the amount of harm that our needs and appetites cause, it is unhelpful to assume that because we’ve become vegetarian we’ve done all we can. Vegetarians need to avoid complacency, and the arguments in this book support the change from vegetarianism to veganism just as much as they do the change from meat-eating to vegetarianism.

As we have seen, the dairy and meat industries are, in reality, a single economic entity. Cows have to calve in order to lactate. Most of the calves (mainly the male ones) have no value except as meat. By supporting the dairy industry, we are also supporting the meat industry. It makes sense, considering what we have seen, to go the whole way and stop supporting both. This can involve a bit of scrutinizing of labels – eggs and milk are used in a large range of products, including biscuits, cakes, yoghurt, ice-cream, chocolate, etc., although there are vegan alternatives to all of these.

If you do decide to become vegan there is one nutrient that you do need to take special notice of – vitamin B12. This is needed for the healthy production of blood and to maintain the nervous system. Meat and dairy products are rich sources, but vegetables have only traces of this vitamin. However, it is abundant in yeast extract and fermented foods like soy sauce and miso, and B12 is added as a supplement to other foods (some margarines, soya milk, breakfast cereals, etc.). We need only minute quantities every day, and even in pregnancy two-millionths of a gram daily should be sufficient for good health. If in doubt take a supplement.

If you eat meat, you might think it’s too big a change to go straight to a vegan diet. In fact your digestive system might not take kindly to such a large change in your dietary habits in too short a time. It makes more sense to change your habits little by little – after all, any change you make in moving towards veganism is going to benefit the world. Even if you don’t feel you can make the step from being a meat-eater to being a vegan all at once, it is still good to be aware that becoming vegetarian is an immensely positive action. It will lead, over the course of an average human life, to many scores of animals not having to experience the hells that we have been exploring in imagination. Once you feel comfortable about being a vegetarian you can begin to adopt a vegan diet more and more.

If you are a vegetarian who still eats dairy products and eggs, I hope this exploration of the principles of vegetarianism and the practices of modern farming will persuade you to take a further step in the direction of abstaining from harm and cultivating an all-embracing love for all that lives.


59: John Bennett, The Hunger Machine , Polity Press, Cambridge1987, p.37.

Engaged Buddhism

Is there such as thing as disengaged Buddhism?

An article by Maitrīsara, former secretary of the Network of Engaged Buddhists.

I have one of those ‘thought for the day’ pads next to my desk called Insight from the Dalai Lama. I find it helps to remind me of the intention behind my daily work as a community worker and trainer in the voluntary sector.

One day recently the entry said:

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.

The Dalai Lama

So what has Buddhism got to offer when ‘something needs to be done in the world’?

Effectiveness – How many times have decisions that have adversely affected our communities and our planet been based on rage, revenge and the egotistical craving to be noticed and to make a mark on the world? To understand our deeper motivations and to be realistic about the motivations of others, helps us to get to grips with the action which would really make a difference.

Sustainability – Buddhist based mind trainings encourage calm, balance, patience, energy and courage. Above all, the practices help to address greed, hostility and confusion. In an ever more materialistic society, the relevance of simple living and contentment are evident.

The world of activism and action for justice also has something to offer our practice.

An expression of interconnectedness – Buddhists believe that life is a web of interconnections; in Thich Nhat Hahn’s words, we all “inter-are”. This means that every event – near or far, past or present is to do with us. We are connected with it and our response to it can help to heal or perpetuate its dis-ease. Each and every situation – locally and globally is an opportunity for compassion, for generosity, for truth and for equanimity.

The development of compassion – Buddhism is a practice of love and the Mahayana teachings tell the story of the Bodhisattva who suspends her attainment of Enlightenment until she has helped all to find peace. The Karaniya Metta Sutta tell us that we should cultivate loving kindness towards all living beings, just as a mother cares for her only child. How can we best express that care for other humans, our brother and sister species and all life?

Existing justice and helping organisations and movements already have structures, experience and resources to make a difference and Buddhists can take their place within them for maximum effect. The campaign against the DSEi arms fair in 2005 for example, was a protest during which a number of different peace groups took different roles and carried out different actions. Buddhists meditated on the trains full of arms fair delegates thereby demonstrating their objection to the sale of arms. At other times, Buddhists can work together within their Sanghas to take action such as the work of the Karuna Trust which raises money in the UK for social projects in India among the poorest Dalit communities.

Engaged Buddhism is a practice which helps to link the work on your own mind and the more social, public dimension of compassion. As the Dalai Lama suggests, all Buddhism is compassionate action – but engaged Buddhism refers to those aspects of action which are more public, more collective. Kenneth Kraft suggests that:

an exclusively inner transformation, however profound, is not the end of the trail. Greed, anger and delusion .. need to be uprooted in personal lives, but they also have to be dealt with as social and political realities.

Ken Jones refines the term to pinpoint just what we are talking about:

It usually comes down in discussion as to what ‘engagement’ means. This is why I prefer ‘SOCIALLY engaged Buddhism’ Otherwise it is claimed that ALL authentic Buddhism must inevitably be ‘engaged’, and the discussion starts to go round in circles.

Though there is no suggestion that all Buddhists should express both these aspects in their practice, the Buddhist world as a whole needs to and perhaps every Sangha needs to consider doing so in some way.

Buddhism in the West

Types of Buddhism and their Development in the West

(A slightly amended text written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

The focus in this section is mainly on Buddhism in the West and the way that Buddhism has adapted to Western conditions. However, to understand this fully it will also be necessary to look further at some schools of Buddhism in the East to compare their Eastern and Western forms.

By ‘The West’ throughout, we shall mean the developed countries of Europe, North America and Australasia, with particular focus on the UK. ‘The East’, on the other hand, is a shorthand term for the traditionally Buddhist countries of Southern and Eastern Asia. It is worth pointing out that this is purely a matter of convention, and that who is West or East of whom depends on which way round the globe you go!

The Development of Buddhism in the West

The spread of Buddhism to the West

Although the Ancient Greeks undoubtedly had contact with Buddhism, all through the Middle Ages and beyond, the West was almost totally ignorant of it. One of the saints in the Roman Catholic list is St Josaphat, believed to be a corruption of ‘Bodhisat’, and the stories about him bear a vague resemblance to those of the Buddha (see Catholic Encyclopediaunder “Barlaam and Josaphat”). It was only in this heavily filtered and misunderstood form that stories of the Buddha made their way to medieval Europe.

Two hundred years ago, not only were there no Buddhists whatsoever in the West, but few even amongst educated or travelled people would recognise the term. There was very little understanding of what linked the Asian religions that stretched from Sri Lanka to Japan. Although stories about the Buddha were vaguely known, he was thought to be a god and there was no knowledge of a historical Buddha. No Buddhist texts had been translated into any European language.

Today, Buddhism is recognised as one of the great world religions throughout the West. All the most important texts have been translated, and there are Western scholars with detailed knowledge of the scriptural languages. Buddhist art and practices such as meditation are widespread. Buddhism is researched and taught at Western universities and also taught in some schools. Although the numbers of committed Buddhists still form a very small proportion of the population (perhaps about a quarter of 1%), the influence of Buddhism is spread much more widely than this, and continues to grow.

Of course, one could still argue that Buddhism is still widely misunderstood and fairly marginal in Western society. But nevertheless, the contrast between these two situations is astonishing. Given that a religion has to be recognised, known, understood and accepted before it can go as far as making converts, and that there is enormous resistance to Buddhism from other religions and from secular society, Buddhism has come a very long way in a relatively short time.

Overall reasons for the spread

Some of the major reasons for this are as follows:

  • The development of Oriental Studies, which created basic knowledge of Buddhism in the West
  • The development of competing forms of Christianity after the Reformation, which enabled an atmosphere of religious tolerance and individual religious choice to develop in the West
  • The declining influence of Christianity in the West, given the impact of science and humanism
  • European colonialism in Asia, which put Europeans in contact with Asian culture (especially the British with India)
  • The development of the “New Age” movement, which is hospitable to Buddhism and has helped people be receptive to it
  • The usefulness of techniques of meditation and martial arts in the modern West
  • The Chinese invasion of Tibet, creating a “Tibetan diaspora” of exiled lamas abroad
  • The efforts of certain key teachers in “translating” Buddhism into a form that can be readily understood and used by Westerners

We will be investigating some of these reasons in more detail in the rest of this section. Before we do this it is also worth noting one of the major reasons which is absent in the case of Buddhism which largely accounts for the spread of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism in the West during the same time period. The spread of Buddhism is not due very much to immigration to the West from Buddhist countries. Although there are a few traditional Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese Buddhists in the West, particularly in the United States and Australia, this ethnic minority Buddhism has had very little connection with the spread of Buddhism among the native inhabitants of Western countries.


Why do you think that Buddhism (in contrast to, say, Islam) has spread and gained influence more through native Western populations than through ethnic minorities?

Oriental Studies

One of the most basic conditions allowing the understanding of Buddhism to develop in the West to start with has been the rise of Oriental Studies. This was the academic study of oriental cultures, including those of India, China, Japan, and other countries, by Westerners. This has included study of languages and texts, archaeology and anthropology.

Oriental Studies was pioneered by figures like Sir William Jones, who was a British judge in Calcutta in the late eighteenth century, one of the first British people to take a genuine interest in Indian culture. In China and Japan Oriental Studies was pioneered by missionary Jesuits who realised that in order to convert the natives of those lands, it was first essential to understand their view of the world. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these studies developed to such an extent that today many (though not all) British and American universities offer Oriental Studies courses of some kind, and an entire institution, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is devoted to them.

Some key figures in Oriental Studies for the understanding of Buddhism:

  • Max Müller, Sanskritist: developed the understanding of Hindu and Buddhist scriptural languages
  • Sir Alexander Cunningham, archaeologist: first realised that the Buddha was a historical figure
  • Eugene Burnouf, philologist: the first European academic to identify “Buddhism” as a religion and subject of study
  • Alexander Csoma de Körös, Tibetan scholar: a Hungarian who was the first European to study and translate Tibetan texts
  • T.W. Rhys-Davids and Mrs T.W. Rhys-Davids: founders of the Pali Text Society devoted to translating Pali scriptures (which still exists), and translators of many texts from the Pali Canon
  • Arthur Schopenhauer: The first Western philosopher to take Hindu and Buddhist ideas seriously and incorporate them into his philosophy


Choose one of the above figures and research them further, using Stephen Batchelor’s Awakening of the West or the internet. Write a brief summary on their contribution to the Western understanding of Buddhism.

The first Western Buddhists

Even during the nineteenth century scholarly investigation of Buddhism, however, it did not occur to any of the investigators to actually practise Buddhism. Most of the scholars would have thought of themselves as at least loosely Christian and would not have dreamed of changing their religion. They were practising science in investigating Buddhism from what they took to be an objective standpoint, and religious participation would be taken to undermine the objectivity of the investigation. These kinds of attitudes linger to this day amongst many scholars of Buddhism in universities.

The only actual serious Western convert to Buddhism recorded before the late nineteenth century was the former Jesuit missionary Christavao Ferreira, who may have been a forced convert to Buddhism in Japan during the seventeenth century. However, the next converts, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, revealed the beginning of a new tendency. Founders of the theosophists, a universalist group who tried to find truth in all religions but singled out Buddhism for special praise, Blavatsky and Olcott were the first Europeans to publicly take the Refuges and Precepts in 1880. Olcott encouraged a revival of confidence among Buddhists in British occupied Sri Lanka, which led to a number of monks gaining Western education and some other Westerners becoming Buddhists.

In 1902, the first Englishman was ordained as a Buddhist monk: this was Allan Bennett, who received the name of Ananda Metteyya. Although he returned to England from Sri Lanka, though, he was not really able to do very much to spread Buddhism in England.

In 1924 came the foundation of the Buddhist Society in London, by Christmas Humphreys, a high court judge. The Buddhist Society was not aligned to any one school of Buddhism, but tended to be Theravada in flavour. Many of its members thought of themselves as Buddhists, but many were of an armchair variety who were mainly interested in discussing the ideas rather than meditating or changing their lifestyle. The Society survives to this day.

The Sixties

It was only really in the 1960’s that more actively Buddhist organisations began to emerge in the West. It was at this point that new freedoms began to open up for young people in the Western democracies: they were able to experiment with different beliefs and lifestyles, and also to travel. This coincided with the arrival of Buddhist teachers in the West, especially Tibetan lamas fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1961. Other new teachers, such as the Englishman Sangharakshita and the German Lama Anagarika Govinda, were returning from a self-imposed exile in the East.

At this point Buddhism became one of the influences on the New Age movement. Various famous hippies and beatniks experimented with Buddhism, such as Jack Kerouac (author of “The Dharma Bums”) and Allan Ginsberg (poet). Anti-establishment figures like Timothy Leary, the LSD pioneer, drew parallels between drug experience and meditational experience. Many hippies took the road to India, many overland in various battered vehicles, and congregated in Kathmandu, Dharamsala or Goa in search of enlightenment. Some of these eventually encountered Buddhism. There was much enthusiasm for Buddhism at this time, but little order or discipline, and much woolly thinking.

Out of this, however, emerged individuals and organisations who took Buddhism much more seriously and were determined to live their whole lives by its precepts. The new Buddhist organisations can be divided between those which imported an established Eastern form of Buddhism into the West, and those which attempted to start a new, distinctively Western form of Buddhism.

Traditional forms of Buddhism in the West

Perhaps the most popular of the traditional forms of Buddhism was Zen. Under the impact of western popularisers like Alan Watts, Zen changed from being the austere and deeply ceremonial religion it often is in Japan, to a religion of spontaneity and instant realisation. The simplicity of Zen practice made it easily compatible with Western lifestyle, and the teaching that we simply have to realise that we are already enlightened was often understood to cut out the hard work involved in Buddhist practice. Those who tried to practise Zen seriously then found that this was a misunderstanding, and that the spontaneity of Zen is created through much hard work.

Zen also became popular through its links with martial arts such a judo and taekwondo, and the Zen aesthetic, expressed in Japanese rock gardens and tea ceremonies, also became popular in the West. There were also more scholarly, but still enthusiastic, communicators of Zen to the West like D.T. Suzuki and Christmas Humphreys. Zen monasteries were founded in the West, of which the most famous in this country is probably Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland.

Tibetan Buddhism also became popular in the West through the efforts of exiled lamas. Some of the most important of these have been Chögyam Trungpa (a gifted but controversial teacher), Lama Yeshe, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Trungpa and Yeshe founded Samye Ling, a Tibetan monastery in the border area of Scotland, but Trungpa then disrobed and married and went to the United States, where he founded several new organisations. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso founded the Manjushri Institute in Cumbria, which has become the headquarters of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), an exclusive group in the tradition of one particular school of Tibetan Buddhism, which has spread rapidly through the UK and become the most numerous Tibetan group.

The Theravada has also been represented through the foundation of a number of Thai and Burmese monasteries in the West. One of the first of these in the UK was the London Buddhist Vihara, founded by Hammalawa Saddhatissa in 1954. Amaravati in Hertfordshire and Chithurst in Sussex followed, founded by the Thai teacher Ajahn Chah. These monasteries depend on lay support in the traditional fashion, which they gain through a combination of support from the Thai community in the UK and Western converts who might, for example, go to the monastery to learn meditation. These monasteries now contain a mixture of Thai (sometimes Burmese) and Western monks.

Two Japanese devotional schools have also found their way into the West. The Pure Land school is mainly represented by people of Chinese and Japanese origin particularly in the United States. In the UK it was promoted through the mid-20th century by the Reverend Jack Austin, originally a Soto Zen priest, who was ordained in the Jodo Shinshu tradition in Japan in 1977 and founded the Shin Buddhist Association of Great Britain. The other devotional school is Nichiren Shoshu, which is focused on devotion to the Lotus Sutra and recitation of a mantra which means ‘homage to the Lotus Sutra’: nam myoho rengye kyo. A combination of simplicity of practice and flexibility in trying to make use of worldly motives has helped Nichiren Shoshu spread quickly in the West and gain some famous supporters, such as pop stars.

At the same time, from the sixties, others were taking a more radical route: attempting to establish a new form of Buddhism more directly suited to Western conditions. There were two early attempts at this, a ‘Western Buddhist Order’ (different from the recent one) set up in 1951 by Robert Clifton, and the Scientific Buddhist Association set up by Gerald du Pre and Paul Ingram. Neither of these have gained very much support, and the first Western Buddhist Order has now long died out. However, in the Sixties two Westerners who had each spent much time in the East, studying and practising Buddhism, returned to Europe and each tried to begin a new Western form of Buddhism. These two figures were Lama Anagarika Govinda and Sangharakshita. Govinda founded the Arya Maitreya Mandala, but again this is a very small organisation. It is Sangharakshita who has had the most success.

Sangharakshita, an Englishman from London originally called Dennis Lingwood, spent twenty years in India, ordained first as a Theravada monk and then increasingly adopted Mahayana practices whilst living in contact with Tibetan lamas in the town of Kalimpong on the northern frontier with Tibet. He came to believe that a Buddhist practitioner who had understood the core principles of Buddhism could make use of a wide range of practices from the whole Buddhist tradition, so he refused to confine his loyalties to one school. On returning to the UK, he at first tried to work with the Buddhist Society, but got into too much conflict with them and decided to form his own organisation. Thus in 1968, the Western Buddhist Order (distinct from Clifton’s version – and now known as the Triratna Buddhist Order, TBO) and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now known as Triratna Buddhist Community, TBC) began.

The TBO is not a monastic order, but has a membership who are publicly acknowledged as effectively committed Buddhists despite leading a wide variety of lifestyles. The TBC has succeeded in making Buddhism more accessible to Westerners by teaching two simple core meditation practices and stressing the spiritual value of friendship and of individual cultural development within a western setting. It has also dropped the hierarchical power structure of traditional Eastern schools and has become increasingly decentralised. At the same time it has stressed the value of creating contexts for serious Buddhist practice: communities, right livelihood businesses, retreat centres and urban Buddhist centres. It has now spread to many parts of the world and throughout the UK.


Why do you think Buddhism has developed these two different forms in the West, rather than simply importing Eastern schools or simply adopting a Western form of Buddhism?

Further Reading
Cush p.154-160
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.300-321
Batchelor The Awakening of the West
James Coleman The New Buddhism

Past questions on AQA syllabus:
Consider the factors which have contributed to the establishment of various forms of Buddhism in the West.
Outline the establishment of Buddhism in the West, and assess the claim that Buddhism is popular in the West because it contrasts so much with the Western way of life.

Theravada East and West

Theravada Buddhism East and West

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Theravada Buddhism in the East

In brief, Theravada differs from Mahayana Buddhism in its appeal to the historical Buddha and the Pali Canon, the stress on nirvana as an individual goal to be reached through becoming a monk, and its generally greater conservatism. Theravada Buddhism is the only surviving school of the Hinayana (or non-Mahayana) schools in Ancient India. When Buddhism was wiped out in mainland India in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE, Theravada Buddhism survived in Sri Lanka and subsequently established itself in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. It is the dominant religion in all these countries (in Thailand and Burma, the established and official religion).

The practice of Theravada Buddhism in the East today is changing, but maintains some important core features:

  1. A close association with nationalism. Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma is closely associated with national identity in those countries, having been established as the official religion for many centuries.
  2. High social status for monks, who, for example, always eat before the laity and sit at a higher level.
  3. Temporary ordination as an important part of the education and socialisation process for young men
  4. A changing role for monks in the community, whose role as a provider of social services is being gradually taken over by the state
  5. The erosion of Buddhist identity by consumerism (especially in Thailand) and conflict with Marxism (which, under Pol Pot, tried to destroy Buddhism in Cambodia)
  6. Buddhism also becoming the focus of radical social, political and environmental movements, such as the Sarvodaya Sramadana in Sri Lanka (see Harvey Introduction to Buddhist Ethics p.225-234)

Using Cush p.70-84, make notes on Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Thailand. You can find more detailed information in Richard Gombrich’s Theravada Buddhism.

After looking at Theravada Buddhism in Asia, what features of it would you expect to be most difficult to transfer to the West?

Theravada Buddhism in the West

As the most conservative form of Buddhism, it might be thought that Theravada Buddhism would have the most difficulty adapting to different conditions in the West. However, some other features of the Theravada have proved helpful in establishing it in the West.

  • The greater reliance on scripture, appeal to the historical Buddha, perceived greater rationality and ritual simplicity, creates a parallel with Protestantism which has made the Theravada easier to accept than the Mahayana for Westerners with a Protestant background. (However, it’s certainly a huge oversimplification to think of Theravada as “Protestant Buddhism” and Mahayana as “Catholic Buddhism”: it’s a parallel to be used only with great caution!)
  • Many of the early Orientalist scholars assumed that Theravada was “real” Buddhism and Mahayana some kind of corruption of it: an attitude which has lingered in some quarters. This involves an uncritical acceptance of Theravada claims of superiority based on a supposed link with the historical Buddha. The Mahayana viewpoint on this remained unheard for a long time in Western academic circles.
  • The Theravada has maintained a strong meditation tradition amongst the “Forest Monks” of Sri Lanka and Thailand. This has made a major contribution to the development of Buddhist meditation in the West.
  • British colonial links with Sri Lanka and Burma have created a ready point of contact between Theravada and the Western world, particularly with the UK. There was also a lot of contact between Thailand and Americans during the Vietnam War, when Thailand provided a base for American operations.

Theravada has spread in the UK by two types of methods: the founding of monasteries, and the development of local groups or societies. Local groups have sprung up in many places in the UK, and the Samatha Trust, for example, teaches Theravada-style meditation in local groups.

There are now about 12 Theravada Buddhist monasteries in the UK. Some of these are inhabited wholly or mainly by expatriate Thai or Burmese monks, and are mainly supported by, and give teachings to, an expatriate lay community. However, there are other monasteries where most if not all the monks are Westerners. A group of these has been founded by Ajahn Sumedho, the American-born disciple of Ajahn Chah, a leading teacher from the tradition of Forest Monasteries specialising in meditation in Thailand. These started in Chithurst, Sussex, and since then new monasteries have been founded in Devon and at Amaravati, near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. Chithurst is one of the few places in the UK where you can see Buddhist monks going on a regular alms round.

The absence of a traditional supporting community has naturally led to some of the features of the Theravada in the East being compromised when it is imported to the West. For example, the tradition of young men joining the monastery as part of their education has not been imported. However, Theravada monasteries in the UK do continue to depend entirely on lay donations, strictly follow the vinaya rules (for example, only eating before midday, celibacy, wearing the correct robes, strictly limited personal possessions etc.), and continue to preserve the strong Theravada distinction between the roles of monks and lay people. Theravadins argue that all these things are intrinsic parts of the pure Theravadin tradition and must not be compromised.

Net search
Look at at least one of the following websites of Theravada organisations in the UK. Take notes on the history of the organisation and ways they seem to have and or have not adapted to a Western environment:

Western Buddhist critics of the Theravada in the UK argue that the Theravada organisations have imported features of Eastern Buddhism which are merely cultural and not essential to Buddhism. How far would you agree or disagree?

Past questions
Outline how Theravada Buddhism has adapted itself in the West and adapted to Western society, and assess how successful this adaptation has been.

Further reading on Theravada in the West
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.310-314

Tibetan Buddhism East and West

Tibetan Buddhism East and West

Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.

Tibetan Buddhism in the East

Buddhism in Tibet was imported directly from India between the 8th century and 12th century CE, and thus has preserved many of the features of Indian Buddhism as it had developed up to that time, just before Buddhism in India itself was wiped out. In particular it stresses the Vajrayana (or Tantra), believed to be the third phase of development both of Buddhism as a whole and of the individual practitioner, after those of the Hinayana and Mahayana. The isolation of Tibet, a country which consists of an enormous high-altitude plateau surrounded by the world’s highest mountains, contributed to preserving this form of Buddhism from outside influences.

The Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, applied the reasoning found in the Madhyamika doctrine of Shunyata in a very practical way. If all things are Shunyata, then even the most despised things in the world are part of it, as much as the holiest. In the teaching of the Tantric saints of India, known as siddhas, Buddhist practice must force us to face our prejudices about things we consider impure or immoral, and through ritualisation and meditation, realise their nature as Shunyata and their ultimate purity. Tantric ritual thus incorporated the use of sex, meat, and alcohol, and laid particular stress on direct confrontation with death. It is due to this Tantric influence that figures in Tibetan Buddhist art contain representations of skulls, bowls of blood, severed heads, fearsome animals, monsters, nudity and sexual union. For example, the Padmasambhava figure here is holding a skull-bowl full of blood and is holding a trident with three heads impaled on it in order of their stage of decay. These are intended to force us to confront our fears and taboos and realise an aspect of enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhism thus preserves some features which have made it fascinating to Westerners: a rich and colourful religious art based on a complex symbolism, a wide range of meditation practices from the simplest mindfulness practices to extremely complex visualisations, and a highly developed monastic system which had a central place in Tibetan society, yet at the same time allowed lay participation in the highest levels of practice (unthinkable in the Theravada). Religion had a central part in Tibetan society which was not differentiated from other areas of human concern, with even the rulers, the Dalai Lamas, being monks and teachers.

Some distinctive features of Tibetan Buddhism are:

  • The adaptation of a large number of indigenous Tibetan gods (from the pre-Buddhist Bön religion) to powerful symbolic roles as representatives of aspects of enlightenment. This is represented in Tibetan legend by Padmasambhava, the figure credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet, taming its demons and making them serve the dharma.
  • The use of elaborate magical ritual derived from the Tantra.
  • The existence of a teaching role independent of the status of monk: the lama. Not all lamas are monks: some are laymen with families.
  • The belief in reincarnate lamas, or tulkus, who are believed to be bodhisattvas taking voluntary rebirth to help others. The Dalai Lama is one of these.
  • Emphasis on the role of the guru as an immediate representative of the Buddha, in direct relationship to the disciple.
  • The development of four different schools within Tibetan Buddhism. These agree on most fundamental aspects of Tibetan Buddhism but differ on the teachings and practices they emphasise and the traditions they maintain.

Read and take notes from Cush p.115-123 on Tibetan Buddhism.

What aspects of Tibetan Buddhism would you expect to be most difficult to transfer to the West?

The Chinese invasion and Tibetan diaspora

The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West is impossible to separate from important political events in the East. Tibet was an independent country prior to 1951, but China had a longstanding claim on it. Between 1949 and 1951, following the communist triumph in the Chinese civil war, the Chinese invaded Tibet, but at first a settlement was reached whereby the Dalai Lama stayed and retained control over internal affairs. However, in 1959 there was a Tibetan uprising, put down by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama fled to India, and the Chinese, after taking full control, began a period of repression in Tibet which went on for about 20 years.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet:

The destruction of Tibet’s culture and oppression of its people was brutal during the twenty years following the uprising. 1.2 million Tibetans, one-fifth of the country’s population, died as a result of China’s policies, according to an estimate by the Tibetan government in exile; many more languished in prisons and labor camps; and more than 6000 monasteries, temples and other cultural and historic buildings were destroyed and their contents pillaged. (see

During this period large numbers of Tibetans, particularly including monks, nuns, and lamas, fled to India and Nepal, some going on from there to Western countries. The Dalai Lama established a government in exile in Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas, which continues to peacefully challenge Chinese rule in Tibet.

Large numbers of Chinese have migrated to Tibet since the invasion, meaning that Tibetans are now outnumbered. Some monasteries have now been reconstructed and monks and nuns allowed to return under strict conditions of Chinese government regulation.

Naturally, many Westerners who have adopted Tibetan Buddhism have also joined the political campaign against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. For a pro-Tibetan view giving detail of Chinese repression of Tibet, look at For a balanced account including the Chinese view, see

Tibetan Buddhism in the West

Tibetan Buddhism in the West needs to be understood in relation to the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism in the East: Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya and Nyingma. All of these have been represented in the West to some extent, though it is the Kagyus who arrived first and have been most active. It is the Gelugs who are the most influential politically, and this is the school to which the Dalai Lama belongs. The Sakyas are the smallest school and have had the least impact in the West, whereas the Nyingmas, with their tradition of married lamas and their tradition of Dzogchen “Pure Awareness” meditation training, have had a distinct following.

The following attempts to make the relationships clear between the schools, the best-known teachers and organisations. Most of the teachers have the title of Lama (teacher), Rimpoche (incarnate teacher), or Geshe (doctor):

Chögyam Trungpa, Akong Rimpoche, Chime Rimpoche, Ato Rimpoche, Vajradhatu Organisation,Rokpa

Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Geshe Rabten, Geshe Wangchen
Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)

Ngakpa Jampa Thaye

Dudjom Rimpoche, Sogyal Rimpoche, Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche
Rigpa, Dzogchen Community, Rigdzin Shikpo, Longchen Foundation

The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West has raised a number of issues:

  • Should Tibetan Buddhist division into schools and sectarianism be imported into Western conditions?
  • Should the traditional model of ordination as a monk or nun be used for Westerners?
  • Should the importance of faith in the guru as representative of the Buddha, important in Tibetan Buddhism, be promoted as much amongst more sceptical (or gullible) Westerners?
  • Related to this, should apparently erring lamas be unconditionally trusted? Should Westerners who want them be given access to higher (Vajrayana) teachings when they have not yet absorbed the basic (Hinayana) ones?
  • Should traditions closely associated with ethnic Tibetan tradition, such as the use of divination, the burying of jewels in stupas, or the following of traditional Tibetan festivals, be followed in the West?
  • How should Tibetan Buddhists relate to other types of Buddhists and to other religions? Should they maintain traditional claims of exclusive access to the true dharma, or adopt Western relativism?

Websites of Tibetan Buddhist Organisations

Chinese/Japansese Buddhism East and West

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism East and West

(Written for the AQA syllabus by Robert Ellis, formerly a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and a former Head of RS in a 6th-form college.)

Buddhism in China

In contrast to the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibetan, the Mahayana Buddhism of China was imported at an earlier stage of Buddhist history, after the development of the Mahayana but largely before the development of Vajrayana (though Tantrism does form one small school in the Chinese and Japanese tradition). The Buddhism of China thus started off with a selection of Mahayana schools imported from India, but then also developed its own schools, giving a distinctively Chinese slant on Buddhism, which proved more popular in the long run. It was these Chinese schools which then went on to spread to Korea, Vietnam, and most importantly Japan.

Buddhism in China had a whole new set of conditions to adapt to. Chinese culture was perhaps almost as different from Indian as European culture is to Indian, and there were already two well-established Chinese religions, Confucianism and Taoism. These had a big influence on the way Chinese Buddhism developed. The emphasis on accepting an enlightenment that is already present in oneself in the Ch’an tradition, for example, could be seen as due to Taoist influence. The changes in attitudes to monasticism in China, such as the fact that monks started to work (the Chinese were less sympathetic to the value of monastic idleness as a sign of renunciation), may also be seen as due to Confucian influence.

The most important home-grown Chinese schools are the TienT’ai School, which stresses the Lotus Sutra, the Ch’an School, which emphasises meditation, and the Pure Land School, which emphasises devotion to Amitabha (the Red Buddha) in order to be reborn in his Pure Land, whence it is much easier to gain enlightenment. The following shows the main Chinese schools in relation to their Indian forbears and Japanese descendants:

INDIA: Madhyamika: Purely philosophical school. Name means “Middle Way”. Founded by Nagarjuna in C2nd CE. Developed Prajnaparamita teachings about emptiness…> CHINA: San Lun: Introduced by Kumarajiva in C5th, called ‘3 Treatise School’. Straight Indian import with no Chinese modifications. Soon absorbed into other schools…>JAPAN: Sanron: A minor school in Japan

INDIA: Yogachara/ Cittamatra: Purely philosophical school. Founded by Asanga and Vasubandhu in C4th CE. Psychological explanation of the dharmas. Trikaya doctrine: the Buddha’s 3 bodies…>CHINA: Fa Hsiang: Introduced by Paramartha and Hsuan-Tsang in C7th, called “Characteristics of dharmas” school. Soon absorbed into other schools…>JAPAN: Hosso: A minor school in Japan

INDIA: Avatamsaka: Based on the Indian Avatamsaka Sutra which describes Indra’s Net – the interpenetration of all dharmas…>CHINA: Hua Yen: First systematised by the Chinese master Fa-tsang in C7th. Used Yogachara ideas and put them in a wider framework.Also Tien Tai Named after mountain (Heavenly Terrace) of its HQ. Founded by Chih-I in C6th. Based around Lotus Sutra: stressed meditation and study….>JAPAN: Kegon: Kegon Among earliest Japanese schools. Stresses Buddha-nature based on interpenetration. Never gained wide following in Japan. Also Tendai Brought to Japan by Saicho in C9th. HQ at Mt. Hiei. Found favour at court and developed elaborate ritual and philosophy. Highly influential.

INDIA: Tantra/ Vajrayana: Began around 500 CE (also in Hinduism) Based on Tantras describing meditations. Complex magic, ritual and symbolism. Non-rejection of things in world…>CHINA: Chen Yen: Introduced in C8th but died out quickly. Passed on to Japan and Korea. Dominant form in Tibet and Mongolia…>JAPAN: Shingon: Brought to Japan by Kukai in C9th. Developed elaborate magical rituals invoking spiritual beings. Favoured by court and highly influential.

INDIA: Pure Land Sutras…>CHINA: Ching T’u: Started by Tan-Luan in C6th. Faith-based school where Amitabha is invoked to bring one to the Pure Land. Wide lay following…>JAPAN: Jodo/Jodo Shin: (Pure Land) Started by Honen and Shinran in C12th, splitting from Tendai. Gives up all faith in own efforts and relies on Amitabha completely. Extremely popular among laity.

CHINA: Ch’an: Founded by Bodhidharma in C6th. Name means “dhyana”: back to meditation. Stresses return to simplicity and strict practice…>JAPAN: Zen: Introduced in C12th by Eisai. Strictness andpracticality appealed to Samurai. Minority following. 2 types: Rinzai and Soto.

Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was imported into Japan either directly from China or via Korea. So, although most Japanese Buddhism reveres the historical Buddha and shares basic Buddhist doctrines like the Four Noble Truths with every other form of Buddhism, it is only indirectly related to the Indian roots of Buddhism, and most of the schools that were successful in Japan were ones that had developed in China.

Buddhism shares the Japanese religious landscape with Shinto, the native Japanese religion that involves reverence for a variety of gods, ancestors, and the Emperor. Often it is difficult to tell where Buddhism ends and Shinto begins, and many Japanese combine the two in some way. The history of religion in Japan is one of a struggle for influence between the two religions, with each being dominant during different periods in relation to the political situation.

Today, Buddhism in Japan really falls into four types: the traditional schools like Tendai and Shingon, which maintain a strong monastic tradition; the Zen schools, which have monasteries but also influence a minority of lay people; the Pure Land schools, which have no monks but have a popular lay following and have non-celibate priests; and the Nichiren Shoshu (Soka Gakkai) tradition, which developed in Japan itself, and like the Pure Land is a non-monastic and devotional form of Buddhism.

A Brief History of Japanese Buddhism: dates, historical events in [ ], followed by developments in Buddhism:

538: [Epidemic]: First Buddhist delegation arrives from Korea. Buddhist temple burned and Buddhism expelled.
C7th & C8th: [Strong Chinese cultural influence] : Six Chinese schools imported. Buddhism supported by elite. Shinto-Buddhist conflict.
794-1185: [Power shifts to Kyoto] : Distinctive Japanese schools emerge. Tendai and Shingon ascendancy: elaborate ritual and philosophy. Monasteries gain political power. Shinto-Buddhist harmony begins.
1185-1336: [Power in hands of samurai (warriors) and the shogun (military dictator)] : Decline of Tendai and Shingon. Down-to-earth religion, especially Zen, favoured by the samurai. Rinzai Zen imported by Eisai (1141-1215). Soto Zen imported by Dogen (1200-1253). Pure Land founded by Honen (1133-1212).Nichiren (1222-82) founds Nichiren Shoshu.
1336-1573: [Samurai dominance continues. Increasing prosperity and urbanisation.] : Zen flourishes among the samurai. Devotional forms of Buddhism achieve greater popular followings.
1573-82: [Nubunaga breaks samurai power and reunites Japan.] : Power of established Buddhist schools broken. Tendai temple complex on Mt.Hiei destroyed.
1582-1868: [Long period of international isolation and authoritarian rule.] : No new developments in Buddhism. Time of some great Zen figures like haiku poet Basho (1644-94) and Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768).
1868: [Imperial power restored. International isolation ended.] : Shinto becomes the state religion and emperor divinised. Buddhism considered foreign and persecuted for a while.
Late C19th: [Rapid industrialisation.] : Contact with other Buddhist countries stimulates scholarship.
Early C20th: [Rise of militant nationalism.] : Nichiren Shoshu heavily involved in nationalism. Other Buddhist groups remain passive.
1941-45: [Japan in World War 2. Invades large section of Eastern Asia, then driven back by Allies. Defeated by use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.] : According to Brian Victoria’s controversial book Zen at War, Zen Buddhists were closely implicated with the Japanese imperialism and war effort.
1945-present: [Rapid recovery and continued economic development.] : ‘New Religions’ such as Soka Gakkai (based on Nichiren but stressing peace) emerge. Zen, Pure Land and Soka Gakkai spread to the West.

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism in the West

It is the above three schools which have found their way to the West, rather than the more traditional Japanese schools of Buddhism, and nearly always in the Japanese form rather than Chinese, with the exception of communities of ethnic Chinese Pure Land Buddhists and a few practitioners of Chinese or Korean Zen among the Western population.

It is Zen Buddhism which has become the most common and widespread of these three forms of Buddhism. Perhaps it began in the UK in 1953, when Alan Watts, a Zen teacher from the US, leapt onto a platform, stood still for a few moments, and then cried ‘Wake Up!’. Western Zen has been divided between the serious traditional practitioners and the wacky spontaneous radicals.

The leading teachers who have gone through traditional Zen training include some Japanese monks who have come to the UK, and also Western teachers have gone to Japan for training and returned to start new organisations: perhaps the most famous of the latter is Peggy Kennett, who, as Roshi Jiyu Kennett, founded the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, including Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland. Throssel Hole makes considerable (and controversial) use of Christian ideas and language to try to create a form of Zen adapted to the West.

The wacky spontaneous radicals include mystic Alan Watts, poet Alan Ginsberg and eccentric figures like Douglas Harding, author of On Having No Head, and Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On a very loose definition of the term the ‘Dharma Bums’ like Jack Kerouac in the United States were also advocates of ‘Beat Zen’.

Zen also has close links to martial arts in the West, and many people have developed an interest in Zen through the martial arts. A leading practitioner of both who has taught in Britain for many years is Trevor Leggett.

Some of the major questions Zen practitioners have had to face concern how to treat the Japanese and Chinese Zen heritage and how far to try to create a new radical form of Western Zen. Some teachers have argued that a basis in rigorous traditional training is essential to stop Zen becoming very superficial in the West, whilst others have argued that the essence of Zen has often been betrayed by the Japanese tradition, which claims access to a wordless truth beyond traditions and yet closely adheres to traditions and rituals. Western Zen practitioners visiting Japan have often been shocked by how authoritarian and ceremonial Japanese Zen is. Other Zen teachers have tried to recreate this tradition using elements of the Christian tradition in the West.

Look at at least four of the following websites, taking notes on any evidence you find of how forms of Chinese or Japanese Buddhism in the UK have maintained Chinese or Japanese practices, and how far they have adapted Western ones.


Nichiren Shoshu UK
Pure Land / Shin Buddhism or Amida Trust

Further Reading
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism p.148-169
Paul Reps Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (collection of ko’ans)
J. Blackstone Zen for Beginners
D. Suzuki An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
Alan Watts What is Zen?
Brad Warner Hardcore Zen

Triratna Buddhist Community