10/8/10 - buddha's teachings

In today's excerpt - the teachings of Siddhatta Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama), the Buddha (circa 500 BCE), did not include such items as an explanation of the origin of the universe, because he was only concerned with those teachings that helped relieve suffering:

"The Buddha had no time for doctrines or creeds; he had no theology to impart, no theory about the root cause of dukkha (suffering), no tales of an Original Sin, and no definition of the Ultimate Reality. He saw no point in such speculations. Buddhism is disconcerting to those who equate faith with belief in certain inspired religious opinions. A person's theology was a matter of total indifference to the Buddha. To accept a doctrine on somebody else's authority was, in his eyes, an 'unskillful' state, which could not lead to enlightenment, because it was an abdication of personal responsibility. He saw no virtue in submitting to an official creed. 'Faith' meant trust that Nibbana [nirvana] existed and a determination to prove it to oneself. The Buddha always insisted that his disciples test everything he taught them against their own experience and take nothing on hearsay. A religious idea could all too easily become a mental idol, one more thing to cling to, when the purpose of the dhamma [dhamma, religious teachings or truths] was to help people to let go.

" 'Letting go' is one of the keynotes of the Buddha's teaching. The enlightened person did not grab or hold on to even the most authoritative instructions. Everything was transient and nothing lasted. Until his disciples recognized this in every fiber of their being, they would never reach Nibbana. Even his own teachings must be jettisoned, once they had done their job. He once compared them to a raft, telling the story of a traveler who had come to a great expanse of water and desperately needed to get across. There was no bridge, no ferry, so he built a raft and rowed himself across the river. But then, the Buddha would ask his audience, what should the traveler do with the raft? Should he decide that because it had been so helpful to him, he should load it onto his back and lug it around with him  wherever he went? Or should he simply moor it and continue his journey? The answer was obvious. 'In just the same way, bhikkhus (monks), my teachings are like a raft, to be used to cross the river and not to be held on to,' the Buddha concluded. 'If you understand their raft-like nature correctly, you will even give up good teachings (dhamma), not to mention bad ones! '

"His Dhamma was wholly pragmatic. Its task was not to issue infallible definitions or to satisfy a disciple's intellectual curiosity about metaphysical questions. Its sole purpose was to enable people to get across the river of pain to the 'further shore.' His job was to relieve suffering and help his disciples attain the peace of Nibbana. Anything that did not serve that end was of no importance whatsoever.

"Hence there were no abstruse theories about the creation of the universe or the existence of a Supreme Being. These matters might be interesting but they would not give a disciple enlightenment or release from dukkha. One day, while living in a grove of simsapa trees in Kosambi, the Buddha plucked a few leaves and pointed out to his disciples that there were many more still growing in the wood. So too he had only given them a few teachings and withheld many others. Why? 'Because, my disciples, they will not help you, they are not useful in the quest for holiness, they do not lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of Nibbana.' He told one monk, who kept pestering him about philosophy, that he was like a wounded man who refused to have treatment until he learned the name of the person who had shot him and what village he came from: he would die before he got this useless information. In just the same way, those who refused to live according to the Buddhist method until they knew about the creation of the world or the nature of the Absolute would die in misery before they got an answer to these unknowable questions. What difference did it make if the world was eternal or created in time? Grief, suffering and misery would still exist. The Buddha was concerned simply with the cessation of pain. 'I am preaching a cure for these unhappy conditions here and now,' the Buddha told the philosophically inclined bhikkhu, 'so always remember what I have not explained to you and the reason why I have refused to explain it.' "


Karen Armstrong




The Penguin Group


Copyright Karen Armstrong, 2001


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