Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners Week 3 Transcript

Rita Gross

The Buddha's Original Ideas, Part 2

This is our third class now. Picking up from where we left off last time and finishing up the teachings of the Buddha in their historical context, what he adopted, what he left behind, and what is new in the teachings and practices of the Buddha. Focusing today on what is new or distinctive in the teachings and practices of the Buddha.
There will be five things that I want to focus on, but I want to begin just by mentioning the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path--the Four Noble Truths being the content of the Buddha's first sermon, the truth that conventional living always ends up miserably, that's the first truth. Second truth is that the cause for that misery is clear; the cause is desire and ignorance. The third truth is that it is possible for all that to stop, the truth of the deathless and nirvana. The fourth truth is the truth of the path that facilitates finding deathlessness, which is also called the Eightfold Path.
The Four Truths and the Eightfold Path contain a tremendous amount of material. It's very easy for me to teach a 10-hour workshop just on the Four Truths, so to cover it here in a minute or two is a little bit strange. But that's what we have to mention; that's the distinctive hallmark of the Buddha's teaching--the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path. Many elements in the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path were also taught by other teachers, but the overall package is new and unique.
With that, I want to move into a deeper view of the first and the second truths, which picks up from where we left off last time. The difference between the early Buddhist view of what is the case and the view of the contemporary Upanishadic seers of his day -- the Upanishads are a very important segment of Hindu literature, contemporary with or, more likely, a little prior to the Buddha, but they were already in place, and people knew about those teachings at the Buddha's day. This is a very complicated teaching, and it's often very confusing to people, the teaching of what is often called egolessness or selflessness or lack of a true self. It's very confusing to people and it's very hard to present in a clear, simplified way. But the teaching of the Upanishads was that there is a kind of superficial self, a sense of identity that we identify with that we think is ourselves, and that, if we look more deeply, we find that there is a true self which is deeper than that. It is not personal, it's not like mine or yours or his or hers. It's an impersonal soul or self that is the same in all beings, in all things in the universe. That self in the Upanishads is called the Atman.
Now one of the most famous teachings of early Buddhism--it's kind of an expansion of the first truth, but it's also tied in with the second truth--is that sentient existence or all beings are fundamentally characterized by three things. They have three fundamental experiences that they share in common. The first of them is that they suffer, which is the same as the first truth, which I like to translate simply as, "If you go about things in a conventional way, without thinking about it very much, it won't work very well; you will end up suffering." That suffering is inherent in living an undisciplined, conventional lifestyle. The second of those three characteristics shared by all sentient beings is impermanence, and I think that's really the fulcrum of Buddhist teachings altogether. When we're honest, everything is impermanent. And when we really cop to the fact that everything is impermanent, that's the way that we start to dig ourselves out from cyclic existence, and find our way into deathlessness, into the deathless state of nirvana, by really copping to the fact that everything is impermanent. Because if we really get that down, we will have to stop clinging. We will have to recognize that it is pointless to cling to things, because it's like trying to grasp a handful of water; it just falls through your hands, it's gone again. There's nothing to cling to; it doesn't last.
According to Buddhist teachings, among the things that people cling to most desperately is, "I exist" or "I am." That's the thing that we cling to most desperately. It's often talked about as having created a sense of having a shell around ourselves that wards off the rest of the world and separates us from the rest of the world, and we cling to everything within that shell and ward off everything outside it as if it was dangerous to us. The Buddha said that, in fact, that sense of being an eternal being, of having an eternal, separate self, is an illusion. It's that illusion of being a separate self, an eternal, separate self, that causes all of the suffering in the world--our suffering, other people's suffering, we get involved in protecting territory, we fight over territory--all because we cling to the illusion of a permanent, separate self that we need to take care of and defend. The fact that there is no such permanent, separate self that we need to take care of and protect and defend is the Buddhist teaching of egolessness. In Sanskrit, that is the teaching of Anatman, and if you've been following along, listening, maybe taking notes, you can go back and see that that's exactly the opposite of the Atman that the seers of the Upanishads were talking about--the true self that the seers of the Upanishads were talking about. "An" is the Sanskrit prefix that means "no" or "not there," so "anatman" literally means "no atman." Many of us know that as the Pali term "anatta," which is the lack of a permanent, separate self. Now this does not mean that we don't have personalities and that we don't experience ourselves as unique individuals. Buddhists aren't that silly, that we think we should give up ever experiencing ourselves as unique individuals with personality. Personality is not the problem. The problem that comes is clinging to the substrate that we feel is behind that, and all of the grief that that gets into when we think we have to have this, we can't have that, we don't want that. So a lot of Buddhist energy goes into talking about ego and the problems of ego as solidifying a sense of identity and clinging to it desperately and egolessness as a sense of a very open, spacious, unattached way of working with the world and working with our experience.
This is new with Buddhism, this is unique with Buddhism. This is one of the foundation teachings of Buddhism and one of the most important to try to understand in some way. It is always said that we can think about it philosophically, but that to really understand it, we also have to meditate, we also have to see that when we try to hang on to our thoughts or ourselves--our thoughts can seem very real, then five minutes later, we can't even remember what it was. So if we somehow have this real thing that's so insistent and so demanding, it should always be there, right? But it isn't. It's fleeting, it changes, it always moves, it's always doing its own thing, and it's always changing. That's the way our experience is, and on top of that fleeting, changing experience, we construct this permanent ego, this permanent entity that just isn't there. So that's the second way I want to talk about what's new and unique that the Buddha taught.
The third thing I want to talk about that's new and unique with the Buddha is the specifically Buddhist way of talking about karma, which is to talk about interdependence--the specifically Buddhist way of talking about cause and effect. All of the teachers of the day had been talking about cause and effect: How much cause and effect is there? How much does it determine? Does it determine anything? Does it determine everything? The Buddha's way of talking about cause and effect is truly unique, and it also is at the very, very heart of Buddhist teaching. These are the teachings about interdependence or sometimes called codependent co-arising. What this means is that whatever arises arises due to causes, or whatever IS is there because of causes. That means that it is there dependently rather than independently. Very, very important. Whatever exists is dependent on its causes and conditions; therefore, it does not arise or exist independently.
There's a very famous story about the Buddha and how he first began to teach this teaching, but I'm not going to go into the whole story, due to lack of time. But the story is that two good friends were looking for--they had already left home, they were following another teacher, but they weren't satisfied with their teacher, and they were looking for the true teachings. And they had a pact that whichever of them found the true teachings first would immediately come and tell the other, and they would go off together. So one morning, one of them--and that's Shariputra, who became the Buddha's most famous disciple later on--saw a disciple of the Buddha with his begging bowl and his robes going around getting his morning alms, and he was very impressed by the way he looked. So he asked him, "Who is your teacher?" And he said, "I follow the Buddha." And he asked, "Well, what is his teaching?" The student said, "I've only newly begun to study with him. I can't say very clearly what he teaches; I can only give a summary." Shariputra said, "That's fine--that's all I want. I don't need a lot of complexity."
There are a number of translations of what the disciple told Shariputra, but this is a very succinct one: "Whatever phenomena arise from cause: their cause and their cessation. Such is the teaching of Tathagata, the Great Contemplative." And that's very, very succinct. What's key in that is that whatever phenomena arise from a cause--that's everything in cyclic existence. Everything in cyclic existence arises from a cause. So not only has their cause been taught, but also their cessation. How they can be brought to an end, how they can be stilled, how they can end. The Tathagata--that's another label for the Buddha--the Tathagata has also taught how to bring them to an end. Why is this so important? Because according to the Four Truths, we experience suffering, but suffering has a cause. But whatever has a cause also has a cessation. And all we have to do is find how it ceases, find what will end this cycle. All we have to do is find the cessation of these produced things, and if we find the cessation of these produced things, we will find the deathless.
So this was like 10,000 light bulbs for Shariputra: "Aha, this is it, this is it! We know how things are caused, but Tathagata also teaches how they can be brought to cessation. They can be brought to cessation by following the Eightfold Path. This is it. This is the solution." So that was a tremendous breakthrough for Shariputra, and in fact, that little formula has stayed throughout the entire history of Buddhism as a statement that, if you want to summarize the Buddha's teachings in a few words, this is it.
I'll read a different translation: "Of those things that arise from a cause, the Tathagata has told the cause and also what their cessation is. That is the doctrine of the Great Recluse." In some ways, that is a clearer translation. "Of those things that arise from a cause, the Tathagata has told the cause and also what their cessation is. That is the doctrine of the Great Recluse."
And another one: "All dharmas [that means all phenomena, all things] arise from a cause. Of them all, the Tathagata told the cause. He also told of their cessation. Such is the doctrine of the Great Sharmana." Sharmana was the word for someone who had renounced the world.
So this is a unique teaching on karma and on cause and effect to Buddhism, which is at once very succinct in explaining how things come to be and how they can cease. If they are unsatisfactory, how do we find their cessation? If they come into being, they will cease. If they are unsatisfactory, we're not stuck there. We just have to understand how things can be brought to cessation. In a nutshell, in terms of the Four Truths, how can they be brought to cessation, by practicing the Eightfold Path of wisdom, of ethics and discipline, and of meditation.
I want to move on to the fourth way in which the teachings of the Buddha were unique. This is also very important that, in terms of meditation, as I said last time, shamatha disciplines, disciplines for calming and stilling and stabilizing the mind were already in place in Buddhism. But one of the things the Buddha said was that's fundamentally not enough. A calm mind that has been produced through meditation techniques will not last. It doesn't produce a lasting state of peace; it only produces a temporary state of peace. So what we need beyond that is actual insight into how things work, into how things are. A very famous Buddhist phrase is "the way things are." We need insight into the way things are, and this is the term vipashyana (vipassana) or "clear seeing." So, in terms of Buddhist meditation, whenever we go through Buddhist history, we talk about the need for the basis of the foundation of "calm abiding" and then using calm abiding or whatever terms are used in other forms of Buddhism--the point of calm abiding is that with a mind that calmly abides, we can turn to look at the hard question of what actually is the case. With a mind of calm abiding, we can actually study dependent arising, we can actually study how things come into being and how they could cease. We can look at our tendencies to cling, we can look at our tendencies to want to exist forever, and look at the utter unrealism, the utter absurdity of the proposition that we are eternal beings, that we could have an eternal existence. We can look at all of those hard things that, ordinarily, people don't want to look at.
So we need the foundation of the stable mind that is brought by shamatha. The shamatha gives us the ability to really go for clear insight, for clear seeing into the nature of things, into things as they are, which is that they do not have the kind of reality we have always attributed to them. They simply do not have that level of enduring reality. Intuitively, instinctively, we think they do. We put an awful lot of our life's energy into acting as if these things lasted forever, but they don't. There is a tremendous freedom in recognizing that it's unrealistic to expect things to be other than they are. That brings us the peace and calm of the deathless state. That can't ever be taken away from us, once we realize how utterly ridiculous it is to cling to things that are impermanent and that everything we've ever encountered is, in fact, impermanent. So nothing phenomenal is worth clinging to. Tremendous freedom that comes from that kind of insight.
So we have here a tight package of the teachings on egolessness, the thing we're most likely to cling to; the teachings on interdependent arising, which show us that that self we have constructed is interdependently arisen and therefore will cease; and the teachings on vipashyana, which show us that its ceasing is actually not a problem at all, but that which sets us free. It's a very tight package. I will sum that up by saying that especially challenging was the Buddha's teachings that the thirst to exist, that the thirst to be, is the root of suffering, and that that's what we have to cut through to attain the deathless, to attain nirvana, to attain freedom from samsaric rebirths.
So this is a very challenging, very complex, very difficult set of teachings. It takes many seminars and many years of contemplation and practice to really get through to the base of these kinds of teachings, but they are very much worth pursuing in that way.
We're almost out of time, but in terms of what the Buddha accepted and what he rejected, where he was innovative and where he was conservative, in terms of his immediate surroundings, I want to leave us with one troubling question, which is the question regarding gender. Was the Buddha innovative or conventional in his teachings on gender? He moved into, he grew up in an environment of male dominance and strong sex segregation. What did he do about that? Did he continue male dominance? And also, actually, a lot of misogyny, which is dislike, fear, hatred of women and things feminine. Did he cut through that or did he go along with it? We have to give kind of a mixed answer to that question. The story is that, about three years after his enlightenment, his foster mother followed him one day, and said that she would like to be ordained as a female monk. He was ordaining men all over the places (monks), but that she would like to be ordained as a female monk, usually in English called a nun. And he said that's not possible. She asked him three times, and he still said that's not possible. Then finally, his attendant and favorite disciple Ananda came and talked to him, and asked if it was possible for women to also attain the deathless, to truly understand the Four Noble Truths, to understand the uselessness of clinging to an ego that wasn't there, the uselessness of trying to construct things that wouldn't last, and the Buddha said, "Yes, of course." So then Ananda said, "Well, if that's the case, why couldn't women also benefit from the lifestyle that is so helpful to men who want to realize that?" And at that point, the Buddha relented, and said that Mahapajapati, his foster mother, his aunt who raised him, could become a nun, and her followers could become nuns. So, in that sense, it's a real breakthrough. In India of the Buddha's day, women were under the control of men, period. It was said that a woman should always be under the control of some man--in youth, her father; in middle age, her husband; and in old age, her son--but a woman should never be independent. So for women to leave the home and enter the life of homelessness was a radical departure. Not that the Buddha was the only one; it's also said that the Jains of his day also made that innovation.
So the Buddha did form the nuns' order, he did allow it to happen. There's a lot of controversy after that about what happened. There's a text that's inserted at this point. The Buddha is said to have put down eight special rules for women, which subordinate all women; even the oldest nun is subordinate to the youngest monk, etc. Many scholars today think that was not part of the original text. But in any case, if you study the texts around this time period, it seems that for the Buddha, the fourfold sangha was the norm. By the fourfold sangha, we mean monks, nuns, lay men, lay women. Throughout the texts, it's talked about that the fourfold sangha is the norm, which would mean that his most important priority was that there should be a nuns' order parallel to the monks' order. While it's another whole lecture to talk about what are the advantages of being a nun, I have to say that, in a male-dominated world, becoming a nun is a tremendously freeing option for many, many women. It has been the case throughout the Christian world and throughout the Buddhist world that, compared to being in a patriarchal marriage, being a nun is often incredibly liberating.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.