What Buddhism means to a Buddhist by Ashin Indaka

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What Buddhism means to a Buddhist
Ashin Indaka
Theravada Myanmar Buddhist Society, Perth

The title of my talk this afternoon is “What Buddhism means to a Buddhist. Buddhism is not a religion, that word is commonly understood: but to him or to her Buddhism is a practical method of life- to show how to live rightly by this means, happily and peacefully in spite of the conflict that is prevailing in the world.

Buddhism, we say, is not a religion because it is not a system of faith and worship. The wordreligion” usually means a system of faith and worship but Buddhism is a way of life, and it is also a way of understanding the conditions of life so that a Buddhist may be able to live in harmony with other people and also in harmony with the laws of righteousness.

Buddhism is founded on reason. Therefore it is a scientific explanation of the natural laws of life and not a set of dogmas laid down authoritatively: there are no dogmas in Buddhism. You know what a dogma means, a dogmas is a rigid system laid down by authorities as representing the Truth: it is so to speak, and arrogant declaration of one’s own opinion. In Buddhism there are no such dogmas, but there are laid down a set of facts and principles for us to live by- for us to follow.

Buddhism declares the laws of righteousness, the Universal law, the laws of cause and effect (Dhamma Niyama) proclaiming that man is the master of his own destiny. He can mould his own life according to his ideas and a Buddhist. Buddhism removes that fear of death which haunts every untrained mind. Buddhism is the right way of life which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

Many people in the West think that Buddhism is pessimistic. On the contrary, the Buddhist way of life is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Many people in the world especially the unthinking, carefree of people – would like to have an optimistic view of life. Whenever such a man becomes depressed he is advised to be optimistic, but according to the Buddhist view this is not correct. Optimism, being an overestimated view of the condition of life, does not take the right view: or is the pessimist’s view, which underestimates the actual condition of life, the right view.

The right view of life is the Middle Way (Majjhimapatipada) between these two extremes. Both these two extremes are futile for anyone to follow. So to a Buddhist, Buddhism means the right way of life-a method by which a man can live happily, peacefully and with security for the present and security in the hereafter. In Great Britain people talk of future security but the security they speak of is very temporary. The Buddhist way to security is permanent, eternal and lasting.

The lives of men, and in fact the whole universe of living beings, are governed by unchanging, eternal laws, such as the laws of cause and effect, the laws of the mind or the laws of psychology (Citta-niyarma). So the whole universe is governed by these eternal laws and not by any imaginary supernatural being.

For instance, sin according to Buddhism, is not like the original sin mentioned in Christianity. Sin Buddhism says, is the direct consequence of man’s ignorance of these laws of righteousness, these laws of justice. As you know, sin begets sorrow. These are ancient or eternal laws of life.

For, the Buddhist the laws of nature, the laws of righteousness which govern the universe, are always the same, for one and all. Therefore, a man’s duty is not to try to change these laws by means of any prayer and by guarding against them but to know, to understand these eternal, unchanging laws and live in harmony with these laws.

Right though the Teachings of the Buddha stress is laid on such attributes’ as self-reliance self-confidence, resolution, energy, work, effort. Buddhism makes a man or woman stand on his or her own feet and be master or mistress of fate. Mindfulness is also emphasized greatly by the Buddha. For instance in the Dhammapada it is said: “You yourself must make an effort; the Buddhas are only teachers. The thoughtful that enter the Way are freed from the bondage of sin.” Again, in the same book, “mindfulness is the path of immortality, sloth the path of death. Those who are strenuous do not die; those who are slothful are as if dead already.

By deathlessness, the Buddha means Nibbana. All other conditions, all other lives are full of deathcontinual, unending death.

Also the Buddha said, it is in many scriptures either directly or indirectly, that it was through his ceaseless efforts and unshaken perseverance that he attained Buddhood, the highest state of perfection, that is , supreme enlightenment. Yet, the Buddha does not take a monopoly of his Buddhahood; instead the Buddha encouraged his followers to be as high as possible in the spiritual field, or if they try hard enough, even as high as himself. That is the chief characteristic of Buddhism. The Buddha is like a good father who looks after his son well and likes him to be his equal or even to be his better, if the son can; that is the beauty of Buddhism. And the Buddha shows the way to attain self-enlightenment. He again and again reminded his followers that they will have to rely on themselves, rely on their own efforts and that there is no one anywhere either in heaven or on earth to help them, to save them from the results of their own misdeeds. You will remember also the saying of the Buddha:” Evil deeds are done only by yourself, not by your parents, friends, relatives or advisers. So you yourself will have to reap the painful results of these misdeeds.’ So we are responsible for our own evil deeds. There is no one to save us from the results of these evil deeds.

Understanding that there is no one, no supernatural being, no big ceremony that can save us, that can give us spiritual salvation, the true Buddhist feels compelled to rely on himself and on his own efforts, and therefore he has confidence in his power and sense of responsibility. The tendency to rely on any supernatural being or any imaginary power outside oneself weakens one’s own confidence and affects one’s own sense of responsibility. Moral and mental progress is only possible where there is freedom of thought, without dogmas, without authorities. Where the dogmas come and bind the mind there can be no spiritual progress; and reliance, trust in any outside authority, leads to spiritual stagnation.

Now, in any faith freedom of thought is important. In one of the six qualities of the Buddha Dhamma these words, as you all know, are mentioned “Ehi Passiko” “come and see for yourself. The Buddha asked us not to believe in a blind way what is said by him. Off all religions Buddhism makes most demands on mental activity mindfulness, earnestness, strenuousness etc. When the Buddha gave his famous exhortation to the Kalama Princes in the Kalama sutta he said, “Don’t accept (views) from hearsay, from what you have been told, because it is mentioned in the scriptures, by reason of logic, in consideration of the reasoning (being believable), by tolerating the views based on speculation, because of its appearance of possibility and because “our monk is venerable”. When you Kalamas realise by yourselves that these qualities are good, faultless, praised by the wise and that they lead to good and happiness when practised and observed, then Kalamas, you should abide in them after acquiring them.’

So the Buddha urged us not to believe what is said merely on authority. Also not to believe in anything because it is the traditional custom…but at the same time it is better not to criticize such traditions very easily. You must try to examine, if it is reasonable and conducive to your happiness and the happiness and welfare of others, then take it, live up to it. This could be said to be a very grand and one of the bravest and boldest declarations ever made by any religious teacher.

To understand the causes and the conditions of life, one of the doctrines taught by the Buddha is the doctrine of Kamma. It is always good to talk a little about the doctrine of Kamma because it helps us to understand Buddhism more and at the same time to understand our daily life better. Kamma is a Pali word meaning “action”. Literally it means” good and bad actions” it covers all actions. They are mental, verbal or physical: in other words, the thought, the words and the deeds. In its ultimate sense Kamma means volition-mental volition. In the Anguttara Nikaya mental volition is defined. Having mental volition one acts by the mind, by words and by actions.

The doctrine of Kamma is not fatalism nor is it a doctrine of predetermination. Kamma is one of the 24 causes mentioned by the Buddha in the Patthana which govern the whole Universe. Kamma is one of the 12 causes which constitute the wheel of life and death taught by the Buddha in the Vibhanga. Kamma is also one of the four causes mentioned in the Abhidhamma and also in the sutta. Kamma is not of the past only; the past merely influences the present but does not fully dominate it because Kamma is not only the past but also the present. The Past forms only a background against which the present life works for the moment. The past combined with the present influences the future which is to come. Only the present moment exists and can be said to be within management, and the responsibility of using this present moment lies with each individual either for good or for evil. Every action produces its effect. It is the action or the cause that comes first and then the effect. Therefore we speak of Kamma as the Universal Law of Cause and Effect.

Let me give you a very common example which has been given many times. For instance, throwing a stone is action, which is a cause. This stone strikes a glass window and breaks the pane. The throwing of a stone is action, a cause, but the stone strikes the window pane and breaks it; that is the effect. The act of throwing a stone at the window is the cause of the breaking of the window and the broken window is the effect. This effect is its turn becomes a cause for further trouble, or effect; for instance, the wasting of money to replace the broken glass. Because you have to replace the window pane and waste your money, the effect on your mind will be disappointment. Then you become irritable. When you are irritable your anger can easily be aroused. Your anger is the result (or effect) but it also becomes a cause again; because of your anger you may say or do something unpleasant; and this something said or done in an unpleasant manner may hurt something or someone and so on.

In Christian terminology; because you throw a stone and break the window and you have to pay money to buy a new window pane, the whole series of causes and effects leading to the final result is regarded by them as a punishment of God. In Buddhism there is no room for God who would come and punish you. So to continue with my example, when you get angry you may say something unpleasant to somebody who may reply by saying something equally unpleasant to you. After that, if you are not careful, this may lead to a war. All this shows us clearly the existence of the laws of Cause and Effect.

If properly understood, the doctrine of Kamma teaches us to be careful with our thoughts, words and actions in daily life so that, as time goes on, it makes us better human beings, willing to perform better and nobler actions towards all and live more harmoniously with our fellow human beings. This is just one example.

There is a common question asked by people in other countries: “Sometimes we try to do good, thinking the effect will be good, but in some case the result or the effect is bad. In our locality cunning, grasping man is called a “shrewd” person; the shrewder, the wicked, the greedier he is, the more is he praised as a successful hero in society. Again, among the dogs, the strongest and the fiercest dog gets the best bone. So where is the working of your laws of Cause and Effect? Where is the justice of this doctrine of Kamma?

Well, as for that not only in Australia, for the questioner was an Australian, but in other parts of the world as well, cunning, greedy people are generally praised as if they are the conquering heroes in society. So you too may ask, “When shall we get good result for the good that we have done or are trying to do? The good we have done seems to be very slow in bearing fruit. Then, there was another man who told me that while he was engaged in saying his prayers aloud to God-somebody-his neighbour-came and told him that he was making a lot of noise over it. So he said to me, I was trying to perform a good act in good faith but the immediate effect is bad, very bad. So your law of Kamma does not work out well for us.”

I said to him: “Though you may be worshiping God for a good purpose at that moment, in order to know why the man came and insulted you, you will have to think over what you did or said to him either that morning or the day before or some times in the past. Then, you may be able to find some cause why he came to insult you.” People are apt to forget what they have done to other people, so when the result comes they think it comes suddenly or that they are taken by surprise. It is not always sudden or that they are caught by surprise. It may be that you do not remember what you have done and the cause may be entirely misunderstood.

Therefore whatever comes to us is always just and must be accepted in the right spirit. If something very pleasant happens to us we should not be proud of it. It just shows that our good Kamma has come back to us bearing good fruit. If anything unpleasant occurs to us we should not be angry, depressed or disappointed but we should keep calm realizing that our bad Kamma has come back to us to remind us of our past mistakes. Whenever something comes to upset us let us try to be good, and let us never be worried, excited or angry. Let us make a firm resolve within ourselves to live rightly by trying to understand the working of these Laws of Cause and Effect-called the Law of Kamma in Buddhism.