In the Buddha’s Words


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Like other religious teachings, the Buddha’s teaching originates as a response to the strains at the heart of the human condition. What distinguishes his teaching from other religious approaches to the human condition is the directness, thoroughness, and uncompromising realism with which he looks at these strains. The Buddha does not offer us palliatives that leave the underlying maladies untouched beneath the surface; rather, he traces our existential illness down to its most fundamental causes, so persistent and destructive, and shows us how these can be totally uprooted. However, while the Dhamma will eventually lead to the wisdom that eradicates the causes of suffering, it does not begin there but with observations about the hard facts of everyday experience. Here too its directness, thoroughness, and tough realism are evident. The teaching begins by calling upon us to develop a faculty called yoniso manasikāra, careful attention. The Buddha asks us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives and instead to pay careful attention to simple truths that are everywhere available to us, clamoring for the sustained consideration they deserve.

One of the most obvious and inescapable of these truths is also among the most difficult for us to fully acknowledge, namely, that we are bound to grow old, fall ill, and die. It is commonly assumed that the Buddha beckons us to recognize the reality of old age and death in order to motivate us to enter the path of renunciation leading to Nibbāna, complete liberation from the round of birth and death. However, while this may be his ultimate intention, it is not the first response he seeks to evoke in us when we turn to him for guidance. The initial response the Buddha intends to arouse in us is an ethical one. By calling our attention to our bondage to old age and death, he seeks to inspire in us a firm resolution to turn away from unwholesome ways of living and to embrace instead wholesome alternatives.

Again, the Buddha grounds his initial ethical appeal not only upon a compassionate feeling for other beings, but also upon our instinctive concern for our own long-term welfare and happiness. He tries to 20make us see that to act in accordance with ethical guidelines will enable us to secure our own well-being both now and in the long-term future. His argument hinges on the important premise that actions have consequences. If we are to alter our accustomed ways, we must be convinced of the validity of this principle. Specifically, to change from a self-stultifying way of life to one that is truly fruitful and inwardly rewarding, we must realize that our actions have consequences for ourselves, consequences that can rebound upon us both in this life and in subsequent lives.

The three suttas that constitute the first section of this chapter establish this point eloquently, each in its own way. Text I,1(1) enunciates the inevitable law that all beings who have taken birth must undergo aging and death. Although at first glance the discourse seems to be stating a mere fact of nature, by citing as examples members of the upper strata of society (wealthy rulers, brahmins, and householders) and liberated arahants, it insinuates a subtle moral message into its words. Text I,1(2) brings out this message more explicitly with its impressive simile of the mountain, which drives home the point that when “aging and death are rolling in” on us, our task in life is to live righteously and do wholesome and meritorious deeds. The sutta on the “divine messengers”—Text I,1(3)—establishes the corollary to this: when we fail to recognize the “divine messengers” in our midst, when we miss the hidden warning signals of old age, illness, and death, we become negligent and behave recklessly, creating unwholesome kamma with the potential to yield dreadful consequences.

The realization that we are bound to grow old and die breaks the spell of infatuation cast over us by sensual pleasures, wealth, and power. It dispels the mist of confusion and motivates us to take fresh stock of our purposes in life. We may not be ready to give up family and possessions for a life of homeless wandering and solitary meditation, but this is not an option the Buddha generally expects of his householder disciples. Rather, as we saw above, the first lesson he draws from the fact that our lives end in old age and death is an ethical one interwoven with the twin principles of kamma and rebirth. The law of kamma stipulates that our unwholesome and wholesome actions have consequences extending far beyond this present life: unwholesome actions lead to rebirth in states of misery and bring future pain and suffering; wholesome actions lead to a pleasant rebirth 21and bring future well-being and happiness. Since we have to grow old and die, we should be constantly aware that any present prosperity we might enjoy is merely temporary. We can enjoy it only as long as we are young and healthy; and when we die, our newly acquired kamma will gain the opportunity to ripen and bring forth its own results. We must then reap the due fruits of our deeds. With an eye to our long-term future welfare, we should scrupulously avoid evil deeds that result in suffering and diligently engage in wholesome deeds that generate happiness here and in future lives.

In the second section, we explore three aspects of human life that I have collected under the heading “The Tribulations of Unreflective Living.” These types of suffering differ from those connected with old age and death in an important respect. Old age and death are bound up with bodily existence and are thus unavoidable, common to both ordinary people and liberated arahants—a point made in the first text of this chapter. In contrast, the three texts included in this section all distinguish between the ordinary person, called “the uninstructed worldling” (assutavā puthujjana), and the wise follower of the Buddha, called the “instructed noble disciple” (sutavā ariyasāvaka).

The first of these distinctions, drawn in Text I,2(1), revolves around the response to painful feelings. Both the worldling and the noble disciple experience painful bodily feelings, but they respond to these feelings differently. The worldling reacts to them with aversion and therefore, on top of the painful bodily feeling, also experiences a painful mental feeling: sorrow, resentment, or distress. The noble disciple, when afflicted with bodily pain, endures such feeling patiently, without sorrow, resentment, or distress. It is commonly assumed that physical and mental pain are inseparably linked, but the Buddha makes a clear demarcation between the two. He holds that while bodily existence is inevitably bound up with physical pain, such pain need not trigger the emotional reactions of misery, fear, resentment, and distress with which we habitually respond to it. Through mental training we can develop the mindfulness and clear comprehension necessary to endure physical pain courageously, with patience and equanimity. Through insight we can develop sufficient wisdom to overcome our dread of painful feelings and our need to seek relief in distracting binges of sensual self-indulgence.


Another aspect of human life that brings to the fore the differences between the worldling and the noble disciple is the changing vicissitudes of fortune. The Buddhist texts neatly reduce these to four pairs of opposites, known as the eight worldly conditions (aṭṭha lokadhammā): gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Text I,2(2) shows how the worldling and the noble disciple differ in their responses to these changes. While the worldling is elated by success in achieving gain, fame, praise, and pleasure, and dejected when confronted with their undesired opposites, the noble disciple remains unperturbed. By applying the understanding of impermanence to both favorable and unfavorable conditions, the noble disciple can abide in equanimity, not attached to favorable conditions, not repelled by unfavorable ones. Such a disciple gives up likes and dislikes, sorrow and distress, and ultimately wins the highest blessing of all: complete freedom from suffering.

Text I,2(3) examines the plight of the worldling at a still more fundamental level. Because they misconceive things, worldlings are agitated by change, especially when that change affects their own bodies and minds. The Buddha classifies the constituents of body and mind into five categories known as “the five aggregates subject to clinging” (pañc’upādānakkhandhā): form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness (for details, see pp. 305–07). These five aggregates are the building blocks that we typically use to construct our sense of personal identity; they are the things that we cling to as being “mine,” “I,” and “my self.” Whatever we identify with, whatever we take to be a self or the possessions of a self, can all be classified among these five aggregates. The five aggregates are thus the ultimate grounds of “identification” and “appropriation,” the two basic activities by which we establish a sense of selfhood. Since we invest our notions of selfhood and personal identity with an intense emotional concern, when the objects to which they are fastened—the five aggregates—undergo change, we naturally experience anxiety and distress. In our perception, it is not mere impersonal phenomena that are undergoing change, but our very identities, our cherished selves, and this is what we fear most of all. However, as the present text shows, a noble disciple has clearly seen with wisdom the delusive nature of all notions of permanent selfhood and thus no longer identifies with the five aggregates. Therefore the noble disciple can confront their change 23without anxious concern, unperturbed in the face of their alteration, decay, and destruction.

Agitation and turmoil afflict human life not only at the personal and private level, but also in our social interactions. From the most ancient times, our world has always been one of violent confrontations and conflict. The names, places, and instruments of destruction may change, but the forces behind them, the motivations, the expressions of greed and hate, remain fairly constant. The Nikāyas testify that the Buddha was intensely aware of this dimension of the human condition. Although his teaching, with its stress on ethical self-discipline and mental self-cultivation, aims primarily at personal enlightenment and liberation, the Buddha also sought to offer people a refuge from the violence and injustice that rack human lives in such cruel ways. This is apparent in his emphasis on loving-kindness and compassion; on harmlessness in action and gentleness in speech; and on the peaceful resolution of disputes.

The third section of this chapter includes four short texts dealing with the underlying roots of violent conflict and injustice. We can see from these texts that the Buddha does not clamor for changes merely in the outer structures of society. He demonstrates that these dark phenomena are external projections of the unwholesome proclivities of the human mind and thus points to the need for inner change as a parallel condition for establishing peace and social justice. Each of the four texts included in this section traces conflict, violence, political oppression, and economic injustice back to their causes; each in its own way locates these causes within the mind.

Text I,3(1) explains conflicts between laypeople as arising from attachment to sensual pleasures, conflicts between ascetics as arising from attachment to views. Text I,3(2), a dialogue between the Buddha and Sakka, the pre-Buddhistic Indian ruler of the devas, traces hatred and enmity to envy and niggardliness; from there the Buddha traces them back to fundamental distortions that affect the way our perception and cognition process the information provided by the senses. Text I,3(3) offers another version of the famous chain of causation, which proceeds from feeling to craving, and from craving via other conditions to “the taking up of clubs and weapons” and other types of violent behavior. Text I,3(4) depicts how the three roots of evil—greed, hatred, and delusion—have terrible repercussions on a whole 24society, issuing in violence, the lust for power, and the unjust infliction of suffering. All four texts imply that any significant and lasting transformations of society require significant changes in the moral fiber of individual human beings; for as long as greed, hatred, and delusion run rampant as determinants of conduct, the consequences are bound to be consistently detrimental.

The Buddha’s teaching addresses a fourth aspect of the human condition which, unlike the three we have so far examined, is not immediately perceptible to us. This is our bondage to the round of rebirths. From the selection of texts included in the final section in this chapter, we see that the Buddha teaches our individual lifespan to be merely a single phase within a series of rebirths that has been proceeding without any discernible beginning in time. This series of rebirths is called saṃsāra, a Pāli word which suggests the idea of directionless wandering. No matter how far back in time we may seek a beginning to the universe, we never find an initial moment of creation. No matter how far back we may trace any given individual sequence of lives, we can never arrive at a first point. According to Texts I,4(1) and I,4(2), even if we were to trace the sequence of our mothers and fathers across world systems, we would only come upon still more mothers and fathers stretching back into the far horizons.

Moreover, the process is not only beginningless but is also potentially endless. As long as ignorance and craving remain intact, the process will continue indefinitely into the future with no end in sight. For the Buddha and Early Buddhism, this is above all the defining crisis at the heart of the human condition: we are bound to a chain of rebirths, and bound to it by nothing other than our own ignorance and craving. The pointless wandering on in saṃsāra occurs against a cosmic background of inconceivably vast dimensions. The period of time that it takes for a world system to evolve, reach its phase of maximum expansion, contract, and then disintegrate is called a kappa (Skt: kalpa), an eon. Text I,4(3) offers a vivid simile to suggest the eon’s duration; Text I,4(4), another vivid simile to illustrate the incalculable number of the eons through which we have wandered.

As beings wander and roam from life to life, shrouded in darkness, they fall again and again into the chasm of birth, aging, sickness, and death. But because their craving propels them forward in a relentless quest for gratification, they seldom pause long enough to step back 25and attend carefully to their existential plight. As Text I,4(5) states, they instead just keep revolving around the “five aggregates” in the way a dog on a leash might run around a post or pillar. Since their ignorance prevents them from recognizing the vicious nature of their condition, they cannot discern even the tracks of a path to deliverance. Most beings live immersed in the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. Others, driven by the need for power, status, and esteem, pass their lives in vain attempts to fill an unquenchable thirst. Many, fearful of annihilation at death, construct belief systems that ascribe to their individual selves, their souls, the prospect of eternal life. A few yearn for a path to liberation but do not know where to find one. It was precisely to offer such a path that the Buddha has appeared in our midst.

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