Buddhist Teaching in India

1. The Teaching of the Buddha

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1. The Teaching of the Buddha

Preliminary Remarks on Methodology

IN THE CHAPTER on teaching in his groundbreaking 1881 work Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order (published first in German as Buddha, sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde), Hermann Oldenberg curiously speaks throughout about “the teachings of Buddhism” rather than “the teaching(s) of the Buddha.” Helmuth von Glasenapp later emphasized this detail in his concluding note to the thirteenth edition of this book, which came out in 1959. Glasenapp points out that this choice of phrase reveals Oldenberg’s view that we do not know anything for certain about what the Buddha actually taught. Indeed, the material available to us is only sufficient to establish what the earliest community may have understood Buddhist teaching to be.

Glasenapp, while generally agreeing with Oldenberg’s view, thinks there is reason to believe that the most important ideas of the tradition can be traced back to the Blessed One himself. Glasenapp finds these ideas expressed in the so-called dharma theory, which finds its classic expression many centuries after the Buddha in the Abhidharmakośa of Vasubandhu (ca. fifth century CE). The dharma theory, which is taken up in more detail in the next chapter, is the view, presented in many Buddhist texts, that a number of metaphysical features, or dharmas, comprise reality; more recent forms of Buddhism ascribed this theory to the Buddha himself.5 Previous scholars, in their enthusiasm 2about the discovery of the dharma theory, had gone so far as to believe that the teachings of the Abhidharmakośa corresponded largely, even though not in every detail, to the oldest teaching. Glasenapp names Theodor Stcherbatsky and Otto Rosenberg as holding this view, and he himself had followed in their footsteps in his article “Zur Geschichte der buddhistischen Dharma-Theorie” (“On the History of the Buddhist Dharma Theory”) published in 1938. Here Glasenapp had come to the conclusion that the philosophical basis developed in the Abhidharmakośa constitutes the basis of the whole of Buddhism:

However much the Buddhist schools differ from each other in many details, in the general principles of their teaching they all agree with each other. The oldest layer that we can get to of Buddhist tradition already contained the essential ideas that found refined expression in the Abhidharmakośa. There is reason to assume that already the teaching of Gotama Buddha corresponded in its essence to that what we find in the great Buddhist philosophers of the classical period, even though the latter have adapted it to the way of thinking of their own time and have further elaborated it and worked it out in detail.

Glasenapp criticizes other scholars for assuming that Buddhism was not grounded in any kind of metaphysical concept. He finds this assumption unlikely in view of the fact that all other religious and philosophical systems in India accept a larger or smaller number of ultimate realities. He argues that if Buddhism wanted to compete with these other systems, it could not restrict itself to being a practical doctrine of liberation only; it, too, had to provide answers to numerous metaphysical questions.

This editorial note by Glasenapp prompted an almost immediate response by the American scholar Franklin Edgerton. In his article, 3published in 1959, the same year as Glasenapp’s concluding note, Edgerton points out that the same ancient texts that Glasenapp studied also contain passages stating that the Buddha explicitly refuses to engage in philosophical speculations. Probably the best-known passage of this kind is found in the Cūḷamāluṅkya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya of the Pāli Sutta-piṭaka.6 Oldenberg paraphrases this passage as follows:

The venerable Māluṅkyāputta comes to the Master and expresses his astonishment that the Master’s discourse leaves a series of the very most important and deepest questions unanswered. Is the world eternal or is it limited by the bounds of time? Is the world infinite or does it have an end? Is the living being identical with the body or different from it? Does the Perfect One (tathāgata) live on beyond death? Does the Perfect One not live on beyond death? It pleases me not, says the monk, that all this should remain unanswered, and I do not think it right; therefore I am come to the Master to interrogate him about these doubts. May it please the Buddha to answer them if he can. “When anyone does not understand a thing and does not know it, then a straightforward man says: I do not understand that, I do not know that.”

The Buddha answers: “What have I said to thee before now, Māluṅkyāputta? Have I said: Come, Māluṅkyāputta, and be my disciple; I shall teach thee, whether the world is everlasting or not everlasting, whether the world is finite or infinite, whether the vital faculty is identical with the body or separate from it, whether the Perfect One lives on after death or does not live on, or whether the Perfect One lives on and at the same time does not live on after death, or whether he neither lives on nor does not live on?”

“That thou hast not said, sire.”

“Or hast thou,” the Buddha goes on, “said to me: I shall 4be thy disciple, declare unto me, whether the world is everlasting or not everlasting, and so on?”

This also Māluṅkyāputta must answer in the negative.

A man, the Buddha proceeds, was struck by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives called in a skillful physician. What if the wounded man said: “I shall not allow my wound to be treated until I know who the man is by whom I have been wounded, whether he is a noble, a brahman, a vaiśya, or a śūdra”; or what if he said: “I shall not allow my wound to be treated until I know what they call the man who has wounded me, and of what family he is, whether he is tall, or small, or of middle stature, and how the weapon with which he struck me was made.” What would the end of the case be? The man would die of his wound.

Why has the Buddha not taught his disciples whether the world is finite or infinite, whether the accomplished one lives on beyond death or not? Because the knowledge of these things does not conduce to progress in holiness, because it does not contribute to peace and enlightenment. What contributes to peace and enlightenment the Buddha has taught his own: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering.

“Therefore, Māluṅkyāputta, whatsoever has not been revealed by me, let that remain unrevealed, and what has been revealed, let it be revealed.”7

There are other passages that indicate that the Buddha did not answer the questions whether the world is everlasting or not everlasting, whether the world is finite or infinite, whether the living being is identical with the body or separate from it, whether the Perfect One lives on after death or does not live on, or whether the Perfect One lives 5on and at the same time does not live on after death, or whether he neither lives on nor does not live on.8

What can we conclude from the coexistence of passages in which metaphysical speculations are rejected and passages in which a kind of dharma theory is proclaimed or assumed? In his reply to Edgerton’s critique, Glasenapp (1960) points out that the fact that specific questions remained unanswered does not allow the general conclusion that all metaphysical problems were regarded as unsolvable, or that occupying oneself with them was regarded as fruitless. However, in the centuries following the Buddha’s demise, the dharma theory gained ever more importance in the eyes of those who were responsible for the collection and preservation of his words. This may suffice to explain its supposed presence in the oldest texts. The existence of passages like the one from the Cūḷamāluṅkya Sutta, on the other hand, passages that are not in agreement with such later priorities, should for this reason be given greatest importance. Even though we cannot exclude the possibility that the seeds of what later became the dharma theory may have been present in the teaching of the Buddha, we must abandon the idea that these approached anything resembling a full-blown metaphysical framework.9 Besides, the evidence for the existence of the dharma theory in the ancient sūtras is far less conclusive than Glasenapp assumed.

The controversy between Edgerton and Glasenapp allows us to draw some important methodological conclusions. First, it shows that not every word attributed to the Buddha in the ancient discourses should necessarily be taken as having been pronounced by him. If we want to learn about the teaching of the Buddha, we cannot avoid examining the ancient discourses with a critical eye.

Second, the discussion suggests a possible method by which—in some cases at least—older parts of the teaching can be distinguished from later additions and developments. What is involved is a layering 6of teachings rather than a layering of texts.10 Two types of passage were mentioned in the controversy between Edgerton and Glasenapp: on the one hand, those in which all metaphysical speculations are rejected, and on the other hand, those in which the dharma theory is expressed or at least assumed. These two types of passages contradict each other, at least according to Edgerton. If he is right, then only one of the positions represented in those passages can be original. The Buddha did not reject metaphysical teachings while at the same time teaching a metaphysical doctrine himself. One has to choose: either the Buddha rejected metaphysical teachings or he taught a metaphysical doctrine himself. The same choice is required wherever we encounter contradictions in the ancient canon.11 The choice is relatively easy where one is able to identify the origin of a contradictory teaching in a later development of Buddhism or in non-Buddhist currents of the time. In the case of the dharma theory, for example, the origin is easy to identify: as we will see below, dharmas—here meaning the building blocks of reality—become a major preoccupation of later Buddhism. Nevertheless, it is not possible to reduce this method to a mechanical process. As we have seen above, where Edgerton saw a contradiction, Glasenapp saw none. Besides, even in relatively clear cases, where this method can be employed without problems, one could question the result. Can one 7really attribute the teaching arrived at in this manner to the historical Buddha? Perhaps the Buddha did not reject all metaphysical theories even if he did not teach the dharma theory.

One might criticize Glasenapp and other scholars for projecting later Buddhist teachings onto the historical Buddha. However, they did search for the teaching of the Buddha in the corpus of discourses attributed to him. Other authors try to show that very little of the original teaching of the Buddha has been preserved in the Buddhist canon. They claim that, in order to qualify as remains of what they call “pre-canonical Buddhism,” passages and teachings have to be in contradiction with generally recognized canonical positions.12

Some other scholars are of the opinion that the true nature of earliest Buddhism is not found in the ancient discourses at all but only in the inscriptions of Aśoka (third century BCE).13

Closely related to this is another opinion that states that it is outright impossible to know anything definite about the teaching content of the discourses before the fourth century CE.14

These scholars might be accused of throwing out the baby with the bath water, as they do not even take into consideration passages that are not contradicted by other passages. It is indeed in the non-contradicted passages where we should expect to find information about earliest Buddhist teaching.

We, cautiously, opt for the general principle that the teaching that the ancient discourses ascribe to the Buddha can indeed be ascribed 8to him.15 Only where there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of a certain teaching—because it contradicts other canonical statements, for example—should we deviate from this principle.

Following this method to the extent possible, we now turn to the actual teaching of the Buddha. Our point of departure, as indicated, is the assumption that positions that are found in the early discourses and are not contradicted in these texts can be attributed to him. However, in cases where teachings are presented in the form of lists, the possibility of later scholastic influence has to be taken into account, given the later scholastic tendency to present all the teachings it ascribed to the Buddha in lists. Where two or more contradictory opinions are ascribed to the Buddha, we have to examine two possibilities. One is that one of the contradicting opinions is also found in another religious movement current at the time. Another possibility is that one of the contradicting opinions belongs to a later phase in the development of Buddhism.16 In both cases the opinion in question can be left out of consideration in our attempt to reconstruct the teaching of the Buddha. We have already drawn attention to the weak sides of the method and need not repeat them here.

A danger accompanying the study of early Buddhism is the attempt, frequent in scholarly research, to reduce Buddhist terms to concepts current in the West. The large number of publications dealing with the 9Buddhist nirvāṇa illustrates this.17 Such studies obscure the fact that much in the ancient canonical texts leaves little to be desired in terms of clarity. We will therefore let the texts speak for themselves wherever possible. Comparative studies of different versions of a passage, often preserved in both Pāli and Chinese, will, where they exist, be mentioned. In cases, however, where the differences between versions are of little or no relevance for our presentation, we will only quote a translation from the Pāli. While relying on existing English translations for many scriptural quotations, these have been modified so as to achieve greater consistency in terminology and style.

Main Teachings

Let us now examine the details of the teaching of the Buddha. The first question to ask is: if the Buddha did not teach a metaphysical system, what then did he teach? The passage from the Cūḷamāluṅkya Sutta quoted above gives the following answer. The Buddha preached what is conducive to the holy life and to peace and enlightenment: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering. This is repeated frequently in different ways. Some examples: “Monks, both formerly and now what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering.”18 “[…] for it is praise of the Tathāgata [the ‘Perfect One’] to say of him: ‘When he teaches the Dharma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering.’”19 The teaching of the buddhas, according to other passages, is suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to cessation.20


The four truths referred to are known as the four noble truths. Perhaps their most beautiful exposition is found in the following story of the ancient canon:

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Kosambī [Skt. Kauśāmbī] in a siṃsapā [Skt. śiṃśapā] grove. Then the Blessed One took up a few siṃsapā leaves in his hand and addressed the monks thus: “What do you think, monks, which is more numerous: these few leaves that I have taken up in my hand or those in the grove overhead?”

“Venerable sir, the leaves that the Blessed One has taken up in his hand are few, but those in the grove overhead are numerous.”

“So, too, monks, the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few. And why, monks, have I not taught those many things? Because they are without benefit, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to nibbāna [Skt. nirvāṇa]. Therefore I have not taught them.

“And what, monks, have I taught? I have taught: ‘This is suffering’; I have taught: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; I have taught: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; I have taught: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’”21

The topic of liberation from suffering is never contradicted in the Buddhist texts.22 We conclude from this that it constituted a main 11theme of the teaching of the Buddha. It is often presented as part of a list, the four noble truths. This may be due to the influence of later scholastics. But this later influence concerned the form, not the content: the Buddha taught a method to put an end to suffering.

The so-called first sermon of the Blessed One contains the following explanation of these four noble truths:

This, O monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, to be united with the unloved is suffering, to be separated from the loved is suffering, not to obtain what one desires is suffering; in short the fivefold clinging (to the earthly) is suffering.

This, O monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is the thirst (for being), which leads from birth to birth, together with lust and desire, which finds gratification here and there: the thirst for pleasures, the thirst for being, the thirst for nonexistence.

This, O monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: the cessation of this thirst by the complete annihilation of desire, letting it go, expelling it, separating oneself from it, giving it no room.

This, O monks, is the noble truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path, to wit: right views, right resolution, right speech, right action, right living, right exertion, right mindfulness, right concentration.23


This explanation still lacks clarity. The noble eightfold path, in particular, provides no details of the method taught by the Buddha. The canonical texts fortunately contain a more detailed description of the path to liberation, which is repeated at several places:

Here a Buddha (tathāgata) appears in the world, accomplished (arhat, Pa. arahaṃ), perfectly enlightened (samyaksaṃbuddha, Pa. sammāsaṃbuddha), perfect in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate (sugata), knower of worlds, unsurpassed leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, venerable (bhagavat), blessed. Having realized with his own direct knowledge this world with its gods (sadevaka), Māra (samāraka), and Brahmā (sabrahmaka), this population with its ascetics and brahmans, with its gods and humans, he makes it known to others. He preaches the teaching that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with the right meaning and expression; he reveals a holy life (brahmacarya, Pa. brahmacariya) that is perfectly complete and purified.

A householder or householder’s son or one born in some other clan hears that teaching. On hearing the teaching he acquires faith (śraddhā, Pa. saddhā) in the Buddha. Possessing that faith, he considers thus: “Household life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth (pravrajyā, Pa. pabbajjā) is wide open. It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell. Suppose I shave off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robe, and go forth from the household life into homelessness.” On a later occasion, abandoning a small or a large fortune, abandoning a small or a large circle of relatives, he shaves off his hair and beard, puts on the ochre robe, and goes forth from the household life into homelessness.

Having thus gone forth and possessing the monk’s training and way of life, abandoning the destruction of life (prāṇātipāta, Pa. pāṇātipāta), he abstains from the 13destruction of life; with rod and weapon laid aside, conscientious, merciful, he dwells compassionate to all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what has not been given (adattādāna, Pa. adinnādāna), he abstains from taking what has not been given; taking only what has been given, expecting only what has been given, by not stealing he abides in purity. Abandoning sexual relations (abrahmacarya, Pa. abrahmacariya), he observes celibacy, living apart, abstaining from the coarse practice of sexual intercourse.

Abandoning false speech (mṛṣāvāda, Pa. musāvāda), he abstains from false speech; he speaks truth, adheres to truth, is trustworthy and reliable, one who is no deceiver of the world. Abandoning malicious speech (piśunā vāk, Pa. pisuṇā vācā), he abstains from malicious speech; he does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide [those people] from these, nor does he repeat to these people what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide [these people] from those; thus he is one who reunites those who are divided, a promoter of friendships, who enjoys concord, rejoices in concord, delights in concord, a speaker of words that promote concord. Abandoning harsh speech (paruṣā vāk, Pa. pharusā vācā), he abstains from harsh speech; he speaks such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable, as go to the heart, are courteous, desired by many and agreeable to many. Abandoning idle chatter (sambhinnapralāpa, Pa. samphappalāpa), he abstains from idle chatter; he speaks at the right time, speaks what is fact, speaks on what is good, speaks on the teaching (dharma, Pa. dhamma) and the discipline; at the right time he speaks such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.

He abstains from injuring seeds and plants. He eats only one meal a day, abstaining from eating at night and outside the proper time. He abstains from dancing, singing, music, and unsuitable shows. He abstains from wearing garlands, smartening himself 14with scent, and embellishing himself with unguents. He abstains from high and large couches. He abstains from accepting gold and silver. He abstains from accepting raw grain. He abstains from accepting raw meat. He abstains from accepting women and girls. He abstains from accepting men and women slaves. He abstains from accepting goats and sheep. He abstains from accepting fowl and pigs. He abstains from accepting elephants, cattle, horses, and mares. He abstains from accepting fields and land. He abstains from going on errands and running messages. He abstains from buying and selling. He abstains from false weights, false metals, and false measures. He abstains from cheating, deceiving, defrauding, and trickery. He abstains from wounding, murdering, binding, brigandage, plunder, and violence.

He becomes content with robes to protect his body and with almsfood to maintain his stomach, and wherever he goes, he sets out taking only these with him. Just as a bird, wherever it goes, flies with its wings as its only burden, so too the monk becomes content with robes to protect his body and with almsfood to maintain his stomach, and wherever he goes, he sets out taking only these with him. Possessing this aggregate of noble moral discipline (śīlaskandha, Pa. sīlakkhandha), he experiences within himself a bliss of blamelessness.

On seeing a form (rūpa) with the eye, he does not grasp at its signs and features. Since, if he left the eye faculty unguarded, evil unwholesome states of longing (abhidhyā, Pa. abhijjhā) and dejection (daurmanasya, Pa. domanassa) might invade him, he practices the way of its restraint, he guards the eye faculty, he undertakes the restraint of the eye faculty. On hearing a sound (śabda) with the ear […] On smelling an odor (gandha) with the nose […] On tasting a flavor (rasa) with the tongue […] On feeling a tactile object (spraṣṭavya) with the body […] On cognizing a 15mental property24 (dharma, Pa. dhamma) with the mind (manas), he does not grasp at its signs and features. Since, if he left the mind faculty unguarded, evil (pāpaka) unwholesome (akuśala, Pa. akusala) states of longing and dejection might invade him, he practices the way of its restraint, he guards the mind faculty, he undertakes the restraint of the mind faculty. Possessing this noble restraint of the faculties, he experiences within himself an unsullied bliss.

He becomes one who acts with clear awareness when going forward and returning; who acts with clear awareness when looking ahead and looking away; who acts with clear awareness when flexing and extending his limbs; who acts with clear awareness when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl; who acts with clear awareness when eating, drinking, chewing, and tasting; who acts with clear awareness when defecating and urinating; who acts with clear awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent.

Possessing this aggregate of noble moral discipline, and this noble restraint of the faculties, and possessing this noble mindfulness and clear awareness, he resorts to a secluded resting place: the forest, the root of a tree, a mountain, a ravine, a hillside cave, a charnel ground, a jungle thicket, an open space, a heap of straw. On returning from his alms-round, after his meal he sits down, folding his legs crosswise, setting his body erect, and establishing mindfulness (smṛti, Pa. sati) before him.

Abandoning longing (abhidhyā, Pa. abhijjhā) for the world, he dwells with a mind (cetas) free from longing; he purifies his mind (citta) from longing. Abandoning ill will (vyāpāda) and hatred (pradveṣa, Pa. padosa), he dwells with a mind free from ill will, compassionate for the welfare 16of all living beings; he purifies his mind from ill will and hatred. Abandoning dullness (styāna, Pa. thīna) and drowsiness (middha), he dwells free from dullness and drowsiness, having clear consciousness (ālokasaṃjñin), mindful and clearly comprehending; he purifies his mind from dullness and drowsiness. Abandoning restlessness (auddhatya, Pa. uddhacca) and remorse (kaukṛtya, Pa. kukkucca), he dwells free from agitation with a mind inwardly peaceful; he purifies his mind from restlessness and remorse. Abandoning doubt (vicikitsā, Pa. vicikicchā), he dwells having gone beyond doubt, unperplexed (akathaṃkathin) about wholesome mental properties (kuśala dharma); he purifies his mind from doubt.

Having thus abandoned these five hindrances (nīvaraṇa) and the secondary defilements (upakleśa, Pa. upakkilesa), secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome mental properties (akuśala dharma), he enters and dwells in the first stage of meditation (dhyāna, Pa. jhāna), which is accompanied by deliberation (vitarka) and reflection (vicāra), with pleasure (prīti) and joy (sukha) born of seclusion (vivekaja). […]

Again, with the subsiding of deliberation and reflection, a monk enters and dwells in the second stage of meditation, which has internal quiet (adhyātmasaṃprasāda, Pa. ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ) and unification of mind (cetasa ekotībhāvaḥ, Pa. cetaso ekodibhāvo) without deliberation and reflection, with pleasure and joy born of concentration (samādhija). […]

Again, with the fading away as well of pleasure, he dwells equanimous (upekṣaka, Pa. upekkhaka) and, mindful (smṛtimat, Pa. sata) and fully aware (saṃprajānat, Pa. sampajāna), he experiences joy with the body; he enters and dwells in the third stage of meditation, of which the noble ones (ārya, Pa. ariya) declare: “He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells joyfully.” […]


Again, with the abandoning of joy (sukha) and suffering (duḥkha, Pa. dukkha), and with the previous passing away of joy (saumanasya, Pa. somanassa) and dejection (daurmanasya, Pa. domanassa), he enters and dwells in the fourth stage of meditation, which is neither suffering nor joyful and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity (upekṣāsmṛtipariśuddhi, Pa. upekkhāsatipārisuddhi).25

This part of the description of the path to liberation may coincide, in its contents, with what was taught by the historical Buddha. Its precise form, on the other hand, may owe its origin to the influence of later scholasticism, especially there where lists are involved, such as with the five hindrances and the four stages of meditation.26 The description of the third stage of meditation, moreover, cannot in this form go back to the historical Buddha himself, as it contains the phrase: “on account of which the noble ones declare.” The noble ones can only be Buddhists, as there is no evidence that the path of the four stages of meditation existed before the historical Buddha. Since, then, this description quotes earlier Buddhists, we have to assume that it was given its final form by later Buddhists. Contentwise, however, we may look upon it as, by and large, original.

The concluding part of the description, presented below, requires more caution. It describes the insights that are acquired at the moment 18of liberation. These insights are the most important items of knowledge there are in Buddhism. They were soon regarded as the essence of the Buddhist teaching. Not surprisingly, whatever came to be looked upon at any time as most important in the Buddhist teaching was subsequently claimed to have been discovered by the Buddha at the time of his liberation. We will return to this issue in a following chapter...

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