Freeing the Heart and Mind

Introduction to Buddhism

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Introduction to Buddhism



WHATEVER PRACTICE WE DO, the direction in which it will lead us depends on our primary motivation. Since having an improper motivation is very harmful, cultivating a suitable motivation—the highest motivation—is of utmost importance. The highest motivation for receiving teachings is to attain full enlightenment not just for the sake of ourselves but for the sake of all sentient beings. Thus, think that you are receiving these teachings in order to accomplish this altruistic aim.

The basic progression of practice in the schools of Buddhism—the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools—is to first establish a basis of sound moral conduct, then to study, contemplate, and meditate. All Buddhist schools begin with the establishment of sound moral conduct. Therefore, the very first thing is to receive the teachings with the right motivation and the right conduct. This means we receive them with a physical, verbal, and mental attitude of respect. Receiving teachings in this way is of great benefit.

According to Buddhist sutras, every sentient being, not only human beings but every sentient being, from tiny insects up to even the highest gods, possesses buddha nature. Buddha nature is the true nature of our minds. It is pure. It is never stained by obscurations. Therefore, every living being, when it meets with the right causes, right conditions, and right methods, has the potential to attain perfect enlightenment, buddhahood.


But at the moment we do not see the true nature of our minds. Instead, our minds are completely deluded by two types of obscurations: obscurations that are defilements and obscurations of knowledge. As long as we have these obscurations, we are not free. Our path to buddhahood is blocked, and we are instead mired in what is known as samsara. Samsara is our deluded universe, the cycle of existence that goes on and on.

We have both a physical body and a mind. Of course we know where the physical body came from, how it developed, and how it is maintained. We can see it with our eyes, touch it with our hands, and can describe its size, color, shape, and so on. Eventually, when we leave this world, the physical body will be cremated, buried, or something else. But the mind is something very different. The mind is something that we can’t see with our eyes; we can’t touch with our hands; we can’t describe in terms of shape, color, or size. Where does this mind come from? It cannot come from the body, which is something visible, because the mind is invisible. An invisible mind cannot rise from a visible physical entity—from matter or from the elements.

The mind also has to have some kind of continuity. It cannot come from nothing. Because of this we can establish or prove that we had a mind before we took our present physical body. We must have had a previous or past life. And before that life, we had another past life and so on. There is no point in time that we can identify as the beginning of a particular person’s mind. Our minds are beginningless.

It is one of the wonders of life that from beginningless time until now, this same mind has continued. Of course it changes from moment to moment, but it is still in some sense the same mind. Never stopping, it continues even today in our present human form, but when we leave this world, it will enter another body in another world, in another place, in another family. This goes on and on. Therefore, our universe, or samsara, is like a circle or a wheel that turns and turns 5 without end. Because samsara is like a wheel, it is called the wheel of life, and every segment of the wheel of life is characterized by some form of suffering. The Buddha taught the way to escape the wheel of life.


The very first teaching that the Buddha gave is known as the four noble truths. These four are the noble truths of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of cessation, and of the path to cessation.

The Noble Truth of Suffering

As long as we have obscurations and defilements, we will continue to be caught up in samsara. As long as we are in samsara, we will not be free from suffering. Generally speaking, no one is free from the four major sufferings: the suffering of birth, the suffering of sickness, the suffering of aging, and the suffering of death. In addition, among human beings, the wealthy have mental sufferings and those without wealth have physical sufferings, such as hunger, thirst, and exposure to the elements. As we read in the news, unhappy situations occur every day. Samsara is full of suffering.

According to Buddhist teachings, the universe of samsara is divided into six realms: three lower realms and three higher reams. The three lower realms are the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm. The amount of suffering in the hell realm is unimaginable. The hungry ghost realm also has great suffering from extreme hunger and thirst. We can see for ourselves how much animals suffer. These are the three lower realms.

The three higher realms are the human, demigod, and god realms. A demigod is midway between a god and a human being. Demigods suffer greatly because, by nature, they are very jealous and are always 6 competing with the gods. Yet because their merit is never equal to that of the gods, they are always defeated and suffer greatly. According to the Buddha’s teachings, gods inhabit many different heavenlike realms. The gods have a very luxurious and high state. They have great enjoyment, a very long life, beautiful bodies, and so on; but they are also impermanent. One day, their beautiful life ends, and again they descend to the less pleasurable existences.

According to the Buddha’s teachings, from the highest heaven to the lowest hell, all of samsara is nothing but suffering. Even what we see as enjoyments are actually a source of suffering. To see why this is so, we must understand what the teachings call the three kinds of suffering: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and the suffering of conditional nature.

The suffering of suffering refers to what we normally consider to be suffering—physical pain, mental anxiety, misfortune, and so on.

The suffering of change refers to feelings that we normally consider as pleasurable, but that are, in reality, another kind of suffering. For example, a person who moves from very poor accommodations into a house with all the modern comforts and luxuries will feel very comfortable and happy by comparison. If that comfortable new house were the cause of happiness, the longer he stayed in it, then the happier he should become. But that is not the case. Even with every luxury and comfort, were he to stay in that place for a very long time, he would again feel bored and wish to do something else. This is why feelings we consider to be pleasure are in reality another kind of suffering, the suffering of change.

Finally, due to the suffering of the conditional nature of all phenomena or of all things, even what we normally consider to be feelings of indifference are also a kind of suffering. Not only moments of pain or of pleasure, but every moment of our lives in samsara is infected by an uneasiness and dissatisfaction that comes from misapprehending the way things are. This means that as long as we are in this cycle 7 of existence, there is nothing but suffering. Wherever we go, with whomever we associate, whatever we do, we are never satisfied, and there is always something to complain about. The entirety of samsara, the whole cycle of existence, is nothing but suffering. This is crucial to realize.

The Buddha said that we must realize and know that life is suffering. Of course we suffer whether we recognize this or not. But when we don’t have obvious sufferings, we tend to forget. The reason it is important to know that life is suffering is because until we know about suffering, we will not apply the remedies necessary to overcome that suffering. It is like when we are sick with a disease. First we need to diagnose the sickness correctly, for if we don’t know the true nature of the sickness, the treatment we apply will likely be the wrong one.

To realize the first noble truth is to realize that life is suffering, samsara is suffering; all of samsara, from the highest heavenly realm to the lowest hell, is nothing but suffering. Once we know this, we produce what is known as renunciation, the wish to completely eradicate suffering. That is why we contemplate the descriptions of the sufferings of samsara, to develop renunciation. For it is this genuine feeling of renunciation that compels us to apply the necessary remedies.

The Noble Truth of the Cause

The second truth is the truth of cause: what causes the suffering, who causes the suffering, the reason we suffer.

There are many different religions. Some religions believe in a God, in the sense of a creator who created everything. God created life. God gives you happiness. God also punishes you and makes you suffer. According to Buddhists, however, there is no such God as this, no creator who judges and punishes.

According to the Buddha’s teachings, all of life, everything that we 8 experience now, is a product or projection of our own past actions, or karma. We perform actions all day long—physical, verbal, and mental actions—and every time we do an action, it is like planting a seed on fertile ground; it will produce a result. The good things that we experience and the bad things that we experience are not the product of outside forces. The good things and bad things that we experience are the product of our own actions. This is the second truth, the truth of the cause—the cause of suffering.

Why do we create the causes of our own suffering? Basically the reason we cause ourselves so much suffering is due to ignorance, to not knowing reality and not seeing the true nature of mind. Instead of seeing the true nature of the mind, our buddha nature, we cling to the notion of a self. And it is this clinging or attachment to a self that in turn brings about all our faults and thereby all our sufferings. We do this without any logical basis, for in reality there is no self.

The self is a mistaken notion, for if there were actually a self, it would have to be our name, our body, or our mind. Name of course is empty of the self. Any name could be given at any time to anybody. So the name is empty of self. As for the body, if we investigate every part of the body from the head to the toe, there are many different parts—flesh, blood, bones, and so on—but there is no single thing that can be called the self. The mind is something that is invisible. It is changing every moment. For example, the mind we had as small children and the mind we have as adults are very different. The mind changes, not just once in a while, but constantly, in every moment. Something that is always changing cannot be the self that we cling to. We mistakenly believe in a permanent self that is stable and unchanging.

In common usage, when we say “my house,” we refer to a house that belongs to me. Similarly, we say “my body,” which means the body that belongs to me. So when we say “my mind,” it means the mind that belongs to me. Now, who is this me that owns all these 9 things? Who owns our house, our possessions, our body, our mind? This big owner is the self. But where is that self? When we try to find where the self is located and who it is, nothing can be found anywhere.

It has been our habit from beginningless time to cling to the notion of a self. Our tendency to cling to a self is very strong and feels utterly natural to us, but it is this clinging to a mistaken notion of self, with no logical basis, that is the root of all faults. This is because when we cling to the idea of a “self,” there naturally arises the idea of “other,” like right and left. If there is a right side, there must be a left side. When we cling to self, therefore, then naturally there is attachment to our own side and anger toward others.

To put it another way, there are three root defilements: desire, anger, and ignorance. Ignorance is the most basic of these. The very root of ignorance is not knowing the nature of reality and clinging to the self. From this ignorance arises attachment, which is also called desire. Then comes anger, which is also called hatred. From these three main defilements arise jealousy, pride, and so on. Thus, the cause of suffering is these defilements of attachment, anger, ignorance, jealousy, and other impure thoughts, which arise from self-clinging.

Having these defilements, we undertake actions, or karma: physical actions, verbal actions, and mental actions. Creating karma is like planting seeds. Of course, there are negative actions and positive actions. Negative, or nonvirtuous, actions are actions that ripen as unpleasant experiences—pain and difficulty. It is like a tree with poisonous roots: everything that grows from it will be similarly poisonous. In the same way, any action arising from the defilements of ignorance, desire, and anger produces only suffering. And all such actions begin with clinging to a self.

Nonvirtuous actions of body, speech, and mind are often enumerated into ten types. The three nonvirtuous actions of the body are killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The four nonvirtuous actions 10 of the voice are lies, speech that creates disharmony, harsh words that cause pain, and idle talk—talk that has no benefit and instead gives rise to defilements. The three nonvirtuous actions of the mind are covetousness, ill will, and wrong view, which means not believing in karma—the law of cause and effect. These are the ten nonvirtuous actions. Poverty, the inability to fulfill our wishes, anxiety, and all of the undesirable things that we face are the product of unwholesome and nonvirtuous actions that we committed in the past. Therefore, in order not to experience more pain in the future, we must avoid nonvirtuous actions now.

Whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist, no one wants to suffer. Nobody in any society, from tiny insects up to human beings, wants suffering. Everyone wants happiness, and everyone is running in pursuit of that happiness. Yet, although their aim is happiness, due to ignorance, they are constantly creating more causes for suffering. Such is the tragedy of ignorance. If you wish to be free of suffering and to accomplish happiness, you must understand the actual source of suffering, so that you can avoid the causes of suffering and accumulate the true causes of happiness.

The Buddha helps sentient beings not through the performance of great miracles or some kind of divine intervention but through his teachings. The Buddha taught that everything is created from our own actions. So if you commit wrongs, the Buddha cannot save you. Although the Buddha came to this world and displayed many different manifestations and accomplished many different actions, the biggest, the most important thing that he did was to give his teachings. He taught what is right and what is wrong. We must follow not the wrong way but the right way. Our future happiness depends upon it.

Liberation or enlightenment is entirely up to us. The Buddha said, “I have shown you the path of liberation.” The Buddha cannot just give us liberation. The Buddha said, “I cannot wash away your sins with water; I cannot remove your suffering with my hand, like pulling 11 a thorn from your body. Neither can I transfer my realization to you.” The Buddha helps sentient beings by showing us the truth. If we correctly follow this truth, because we have buddha nature, we have the opportunity to attain liberation or enlightenment. As the Buddha said, “You are your own savior.” No one else can save us; only we can save ourselves. This is one of the main differences between Buddhism and other religions. Buddhists by and large believe that individual effort is paramount. We need the Buddha’s guidance of course, and we rely on others in our Dharma training, but the main factor must be our own efforts.

When we get sick, we need a skilled doctor and good medical facilities. But to get better, we must follow the doctor’s advice—do the right things, take the medicine, eat the right food, avoid the wrong food, avoid the wrong behavior, and so on. By doing these things, our sickness can be cured. Even if we have the best doctor and best medical facilities, if we do not follow the doctor’s advice, do not take the medicine, and continuously eat the wrong food, we will not be cured. The Buddha is like a doctor. The Dharma is like a medicine. We ourselves are like patients. Our current defilements are like the illness. To cure these defilements, we must take the right medicine. That medicine is the Dharma that the Buddha taught: how to follow the right path and how to avoid the wrong path.

The second truth is the truth of the cause, and the Buddha said that we have to avoid these causes. Without avoiding the causes of suffering, we cannot expect to overcome suffering. Just by praying to the Buddha, or by wishing alone, we cannot overcome suffering. We need to have real faith in the Buddha and then to follow his teachings to avoid nonvirtuous deeds arising from defilements. Actions arising from defilements are our closest enemies. No other enemy can create such suffering. Our defilements can cause sufferings that we cannot even imagine. The biggest enemy is not external; our biggest enemy is actually within our own mind.


Realizing this, we must try to avoid and eliminate the defilements. It is not easy, of course, because we have associated with the defilements from beginningless time until now. It is no surprise that controlling anger, desire, jealousy, and so forth is so difficult. But the first step toward eliminating the defilements is realizing that the real cause of suffering is not our outside enemies; the real cause is actually our own inner defilements. It is because of these defilements, in fact, that we perceive outside enemies.

Outside enemies are like reflections in a mirror, reflections of our own image reflected back at us. Just as there is no one in the mirror apart from the reflected image of our own body, all of these outside problems, obstacles, enemies, and so on are the reflections of our own defilements. Therefore, if we control or destroy our inner defilements, all of our outer enemies and obstacles naturally disappear. This is the implication of the second truth, the truth of the cause.

These first two truths are actually the cause and result of samsara. First there is the truth of suffering, and then there is the truth of its cause. The Buddha gave the result first. Normally, the cause comes first and the result second, but the Buddha was very skillful in teaching the result first. For until we realize that life is suffering, we will not want to apply the remedy for suffering. Because nobody wants suffering, the Buddha pointed out the truth of our suffering first. To overcome that suffering, you have to avoid the cause, and that is what is explained in the second truth.

The Noble Truth of Cessation

The third truth is the truth of cessation. The state of cessation of suffering is called nirvana, or real peace. Nirvana is completely free of defilements. The attainment of nirvana is therefore complete peace.

Here again, in this second pair of truths, the result is given first, because when we see the benefit of the result, then we will wish to 13 obtain it. Businesspeople, before investing in a new venture, will first see how much profit they can gain. If they do not see a profit, they will not pursue that business. By the same token, the Buddha first taught the truth of cessation, which is the result. On ceasing all defilements, we attain true peace and happiness. Once we truly realize how marvelous such a state would be, we will waste no effort in attaining that result.

The Noble Truth of the Path

To accomplish the truth of cessation, we must walk on the path. This last truth is called the truth of the path. When we long for the result, then of course we will naturally enter the truth of the path. This truth is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

How do we enter the Buddha’s path? The very first step is to take refuge in the Triple Gem—the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. You do not become a Buddhist just by being born into a Buddhist family. To become a Buddhist you must take refuge. Taking refuge is important because it is the root of all Dharma, the preliminary practice of all the paths, and the foundation of all vows. You cannot receive any Buddhist vows without first taking refuge.

Taking refuge is also what distinguishes Buddhists from non-Buddhists. What makes you a Buddhist is taking refuge in the Triple Gem, the Three Jewels. By this alone, you become a Buddhist. Someone may be a spiritual person, but without refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, he or she is not Buddhist. To be called a Buddhist, you must have taken the vow of refuge.

The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the same in all Buddhist schools, whether Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana, but the explanation in each differs slightly. Generally the word buddha means “fully enlightened one.” According to the Mahayana teachings, a buddha is one who possesses the three kayas, or “bodies.” The three bodies are 14 the dharmakaya, the sambhogakaya, and the nirmanakaya. Dharmakaya means “body of reality,” which can be thought of as wisdom, or the realization of ultimate truth.

Buddhists do not believe in a God who is a creator of everything, but Buddhists do believe in ultimate wisdom. This ultimate wisdom, the dharmakaya, is actually the basic wisdom, completely free of obscurations, that everyone possesses. Although we all have this basic wisdom, this buddha nature, at the moment our buddha nature is concealed by obscurations. In the case of a buddha’s dharmakaya, every form of obscuration has been completely eliminated. It is known, therefore, as “doubly pure.” Doubly because, first, it has the natural purity that we all possess, and second, because all temporary obscurations have also been eliminated.

The sambhogakaya, the “body of enjoyment,” is the most exalted physical form of the buddhas. As these buddhas dwell in the buddhafields or pure lands, this form is visible only to the highest bodhi-sattvas, the most advanced followers of the Buddha.

The third body is called the nirmanakaya, which means “body of emanations.” While the sambhogakaya always dwells in the buddhafields, a nirmanakaya is an emanation in ordinary form. It appears whenever, wherever, in whatever form is required according to the particular circumstances and needs of beings. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni, who attained enlightenment in India, was a nirmanakaya.

According to the Mahayana teachings, the Buddha had already attained enlightenment long before he came to India. He purposely chose to be born in a royal family, to become a renunciate, to search for the truth, to attain enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, to give the teachings, and to eventually attain mahaparinirvana at Kushinagara. He did this to set an example of how an ordinary person like a prince can attain enlightenment and to show people how to search and work toward enlightenment.


The Buddha in whom we take refuge possesses all three kayas, has removed every form of obscuration, and has accomplished every possible good quality. To take a journey to an unknown place, you need an experienced guide who can show you the right path. The Buddha is the guide who shows us the path.

The second jewel in which we take refuge is the Dharma. The Sanskrit word dharma actually has many different meanings, even within Buddhism. But when we refer to the “holy Dharma,” it has two aspects. The first aspect of the Dharma is the experience or realization of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. The second aspect is the teachings.

Buddhas and bodhisattvas put the experience and realization that they accomplish into words and offer them to sentient beings. This is called turning the wheel of Dharma. When a wheel turns, it gets us to our destination. In this case the wheel has two aspects: realization and teachings. The Buddha gave teachings about the knowledge and realization that he gained. As we work hard and gain this knowledge ourselves, we proceed further on the path and eventually attain liberation and enlightenment. That is to say, the more we hear the teachings, the more we understand. The more we understand, the more realization we have. The more realization we have, the closer we are to enlightenment. Because it turns through these stages, it is called the wheel of Dharma.

We take refuge in the Buddha as our guide to show us the right path, but we take refuge in the Dharma as the actual path. Because by practicing the Dharma ourselves, we proceed on the path. Therefore, the Dharma is our real savior, that which saves us from the suffering of samsara.

The third refuge is the Sangha, which means “community.” The true Sangha, however, are those who are already on what is known as the irreversible path. These are bodhisattvas who have already reached a certain level from which they will never fall back into mundane cyclic existence again. These bodhisattvas are the real Sangha. But 16 the Sangha more broadly are our companions in Dharma practice. When we must make a very long and difficult journey, it is better to have fellow travelers who are going to the same destination and the same way than to travel alone. The Sangha are our companions along the path.

So we start the Buddhist path by taking refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Buddhism has many different schools, but in general, there are two approaches: Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana primarily emphasizes attainment of nirvana—ultimate peace—for yourself. Life is suffering and nobody wants suffering. To eliminate this suffering, this school teaches you to renounce the world and attain nirvana for yourself. When all the fuel is exhausted, a fire is naturally extinguished. Similarly, when all the defilements are exhausted, suffering vanishes, and you naturally attain nirvana, which is the experience of complete peace and happiness.

In contrast, in the Mahayana, the goal is not nirvana for ourselves alone. Every sentient being has been here in the universe from beginningless time. In all this time here, we have taken countless lives in myriad forms. There is not a single place where we have not been born. There is not a single sentient being who has not at one time been our parent or relative. Even in this life, our whole existence depends on others, on our parents, our teachers, our friends, our companions. So to seek liberation for ourselves alone is not right.

Even from a worldly perspective, if we alone are safe and enjoying great pleasures but the rest of our family is in great suffering, if we are goodhearted people, we will not be happy. From this, we can recognize that it is not right to seek happiness or liberation just for ourselves. We need to consider the welfare of all sentient beings.

Every sentient being has been our very dear mother, father, or relative, but because of the trauma of the process of death and rebirth, we do not recognize each other. We see some as our friends, we see 17 others as enemies, and toward some we are indifferent. But in reality, every sentient being is our very dear one. Therefore, we must repay the benefit and kindness that they have given us. The best way to pay this back is to rescue them from the suffering of samsara and to place them on the path to enlightenment. Therefore, we seek enlightenment for the benefit of every living being without any exception.

To seek enlightenment for the benefit of every living being is the Mahayana path. This is the greatest path. It is of great merit to benefit even one sentient being. If our goal is to benefit countless, limitless sentient beings, then that is of infinite benefit. The resolve to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings is called enlightenment mind, or bodhichitta.

To give rise to this enlightenment mind, we must develop loving kindness and compassion. Loving kindness is like a mother’s love for her child. Every mother wants her child to be happy, healthy, and to have good fortune and success. Similarly, we want every sentient being to be happy and to have the cause of happiness. Such a thought is called loving kindness.

When we have loving kindness, compassion naturally arises. Compassion is the wish that every sentient being may be free from suffering and the cause of suffering. If we examine reality carefully, we will find that no sentient being is truly happy, and in fact, every sentient being is in the midst of suffering. They long for happiness, but out of ignorance, they create more and more causes of suffering. It is on this basis that we generate compassion for them.

From loving kindness and compassion, enlightenment mind arises. Enlightenment mind, again, is defined as the resolution to attain ultimate enlightenment so that one may be of greatest benefit of all sentient beings, just like Shakyamuni Buddha himself. The Buddha also first generated enlightenment mind, then accumulated wisdom and merit, and eventually attained enlightenment, through which he benefited countless sentient beings.


We are followers of the Buddha, and particularly we are Mahayanists. We must cultivate not only the abandonment of nonvirtuous deeds and defilements but also the accumulation of loving kindness, compassion, and enlightenment mind. In this way, we will be able to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.

This concludes my short explanation of the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. I hope it has inspired you to cultivate these teachings in your own life and so discover the fruits for yourself.

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