Filed in Theravada

A Single Handful

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

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Chiaroscuro

To call something “a fundamental principle of Buddhism” is correct only if, first, it is a principle that aims at the quenching of dukkha (suffering) and, second, it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others.

The Buddha refused to deal with those things that don’t lead to the extinction of dukkha. He didn’t discuss them. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth after death. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its “karmic inheritance”? These questions don’t aim at the extinction of dukkha. That being so, they are not the Buddha’s teaching nor are they connected with it. They don’t lie within the range of Buddhism. Also, the one who asks about such matters has no choice but to believe indiscriminately any answer that’s given, because the one who answers won’t be able to produce any proofs and will just be speaking according to his own memory and feeling. The listener can’t see for himself and consequently must blindly believe the other’s words. Little by little the subject strays from dharma until it becomes something else altogether, unconnected with the extinction of dukkha.

Now, if we don’t raise those sorts of issues, we can ask instead, “Is there dukkha?” and “How can dukkha be extinguished?” The Buddha agreed to answer these questions. The listener can recognize the truth of every word of the answers without having to believe them blindly and can see the truth more and more clearly until he understands for himself.

There aren’t that many fundamental, or root, principles of dharma. The Buddha said that his teaching is “a single handful.” A passage in the Samyutta-nikaya makes that clear. While walking through the forest, the Buddha picked up a handful of fallen leaves and asked the monks who were present to decide which was the greater amount, the leaves in his hand or all the leaves in the forest. Of course, they all said that there were more leaves in the forest, that the difference was beyond comparison. Try to imagine the truth of this scene; clearly see how huge the difference is. The Buddha then said that, similarly, those things that he had realized were a great amount, equal to all the leaves in the forest. However, that which was necessary to know, those things that should be taught and practiced, were equal to the number of leaves in his hand.

From this it can be seen that, compared to all the myriad things in the world, the root principles to be practiced for the complete extinction of dukkha amount to a single handful. We must appreciate that this single handful is not a huge amount; it’s not something beyond our capabilities to reach and understand. This is the first important point that we must grasp if we want to lay the foundation for a correct understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.

The saying of the Buddha that deals with the practice regarding shunyata (voidness) is the saying that is the heart of Buddhism. It requires our careful attention. "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as 'I' or 'mine.'" (Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya.) The Buddha himself declared that this is the summation of all the Tathagata’s [Buddha’s] teaching. He said that to have heard the phrase “Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya” is to have heard everything; to have put it into practice is to have practiced everything; and to have reaped its fruits is to have reaped every fruit. So we need not be afraid that there is too much to understand. When the Buddha compared the things that he had realized, which were as many as all the leaves in the forest, with those that he taught his followers to practice, which were a single handful, the single handful he referred to was just this principle of not grasping at or clinging to anything as being self or as belonging to self.

“To hear this phrase is to hear everything,” because all subjects are contained within it. Of all the things the Buddha taught, there wasn’t one that didn’t deal with dukkha and the elimination of dukkha. Grasping and clinging is the cause of dukkha. When there is grasping and clinging, that is dukkha. When there is no grasping and clinging—that is, being void of grasping and clinging—there is no dukkha. The practice is to make the non-arising of grasping and clinging absolute, final, and eternally void, so that no grasping and clinging can ever return. Just that is enough. There is nothing else to do.

“This practice is every practice.” Can you think of anything that remains to be practiced? In a given moment, if a person—whether Mr. Smith, Mrs. Jones, or anyone at all—has a mind free of grasping and clinging, at that moment, what does the person have? Please think it over. We can see that the person has attained all the traditional practices: the Triple Refuge (tisarana), giving (dana), virtuous conduct (sila), meditation (samadhi), the discernment of truth (panna), and even the path-realizations, their fruits, and nirvana.

BuddhadasaAt that moment of non-grasping, one has certainly attained the first practice, that of the Triple Refuge. One has reached the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, for to have a heart free of the mental defilements and dukkha is to be one with the heart of the Triple Gem. One has reached them without having to chant “Buddham saranam gacchami” [“I take refuge in the Buddha”]. Crying out “Buddham saranam gacchami” and so on is just a ritual, a ceremony of entrance, an external matter. It doesn’t penetrate to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha in the heart. If at any moment a person has a mind void of grasping at and clinging to “I” and “mine,” even if only for an instant, the mind has realized voidness. It is one and the same as the heart of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha.

The next practice is giving (dana). The meaning of giving is to let go, to end all grasping at and clinging to things as being “I” or “mine.” At the moment that one has a mind void of ego-consciousness, then one has made the supreme offering, for when even the self has been given up, what can there be left to give? Thus, at any moment that a person has a mind truly void of self, when even the self has been completely relinquished, he or she has developed giving to its perfection.

To move on to virtuous conduct (sila), one whose mind is void and free of grasping at and clinging to a self or possession of self, is one whose bodily and verbal actions are truly and perfectly virtuous. Any other sort of morality is just an up-and-down affair. We may make resolutions to refrain from this and abstain from that, but we can’t keep them. Whenever the mind is void, even if it’s only for a moment, or a day, or a night, one has true sila for all of that time.

As for concentration (samadhi), the void mind has supreme samadhi, the superbly focused firmness of mind. A strained and uneven sort of concentration isn’t the real thing. Only the mind that is void of grasping at and clinging to “I” and “mine” can have the true and perfect stability of correct concentration. One who has a void mind always has correct samadhi.

The next practice is panna (intuitive wisdom). Here we can see most clearly that knowing sunnata, realizing voidness—or being voidness itself—is the essence of wisdom. At the moment that the mind is void, it is supremely keen and discerning. When a mind is void of foolishness, void of “I” and “mine,” there is perfect knowing, or panna. So the wise say that sunnata and panna (mindfulness and wisdom) are one. Once the mind is rid of delusion, it discovers its primal state, the true original mind.

We can go on to the path-realizations, their fruits, and nibbana. Here the progressively higher levels of voidness reach their culmination in nibbana, which is called the supreme voidness (parama-sunnata).

Now, you may see that from taking refuge and progressing through giving, virtuous conduct, concentration, and wisdom, there is nothing other than sunnata, or non-clinging to self. Even in the path-realizations, their fruits, and nibbana, there’s nothing more than voidness. In fact, they are its highest, most supreme level.

Consequently, the Buddha declared that to have heard this teaching is to have heard all teachings, to have put it into practice is to have done all practices, and to have reaped the fruits of that practice is to have reaped all fruits: Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as “I” or “mine.” (Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya.) You must strive to grasp the essence of what this word “voidness” really means.

Adapted for Tricycle from Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, with permission from Wisdom Publications.

Image 1: Courtesy Chiaroscuro.
Image 2: Buddhadasa, 1903-1993. Courtesy Donald K. Swearer.

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johnmarder's picture

But isn't anyone just a little bit curious about all that stuff that was in the rest of the leaves; the stuff we don't need to know about?
Surely if we just new what kind of stuff it is, we could at least decide if we wanted to know about it or not.
May be it would explain why the only purpose of life seems to be to stop clinging and grasping and and all, so we don't need to live anymore. I do want to stop suffering it's true, but I also would like to understand a bit better where this whole craving/ suffering scenario came from in the first place; then I might not suffer so much from the suffering
I have to say, I feel a bit patronised by this teaching; or is this just me craving and I really should learn to shut up and get on with?

bradrgarrison@gmail.com's picture

“Those who grasp at perceptions and views
go about butting their heads in the world.”

-The Buddha (Magandiya Suta)

robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

Freedom from suffering in my experience comes from meeting it half way. As with quitting addictions when we are ready to meet our abstinence half way and take responsibility for our addiction we can allow the suffering to be removed. Christianity makes something like suffering appear very deep and heavy, but when we first become aware that we are suffering we can ask ourselves if we wish to suffer, and do we wish others to suffer, then we can look into ourselves, and by meeting our suffering half way we can see how love and being wanted are present when we wish for the freedom from this fear based path, and wish others the sincere happiness or sometimes just the restfulness, that allows them to come closer to their place in the life cycle, and see how our expression of concern, and sincerity are boundless in the present moment and achieve freedom of all virtue and vice

sharmila2's picture

beautiful teaching of the true heart of the Dhamma from a wonderfully simple, realized teacher.
Sadhu
SD

John Haspel's picture

This is a wonderful and insightful article from one of the clearest minds in Buddhism. The Buddha’s teachings on Shunyata (voidness or emptiness) are often misunderstood to mean nothingness or the circular logic found in the Heart Sutra that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

The buddha did not teach nothingness and never engaged in circular and confusing logic. As Buddhadasa Bikkhu so clearly showed that the Buddha taught shunyata to point out that clinging to anything that is void or empty of any permanence or inherent substantiality, including views of self, would only develop more stress and confusion.

It is also true that the Buddha did not teach any theoretical notion of karma and rebirth nor did he adopt the common views on karma and rebirth. In the Samyutta Nikaya 12:38 the Buddha uses the term rebirth to describe karma unfolding due to ignorance born of clinging. (Ignorance in this case is not understanding emptiness)

At Saavatthii the Buddha said: "Monks, what a man wills, what he plans, what he dwells on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness. (Consciousness is the second link in Dependent Co-Arising) This basis being present, consciousness has a lodgment. Consciousness being lodged there and growing, rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and from this renewed existence arise birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair. Such is the uprising of this entire mass of suffering.

"Even if a man does not will and plan, yet if he dwells (clings) on something this forms a basis for the continuation of consciousness:... rebirth... takes place...
"But if a man neither wills nor plans nor dwells on anything, no basis is formed for the continuation of consciousness. This basis being absent, consciousness has no lodgment. Consciousness not being lodged there and not growing, no rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and so birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair are destroyed. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering."

There is nothing to experience rebirth if nothing is clinged to. Ignorance gives rise to clinging which creates karma. Karma drives experience, itself impermanent and insubstantial that is described as rebirth, all taking place within the environment of anicca.

As far as the side discussion on Dependent Origination or Dependent Co-Arising, (a more accurate term) Dependent Co-Arising does not teach interconnectedness of all things as it is usually understood (or misunderstood) Dependent Co-Arising is simply the Buddha’s teaching on the 12 causative links of existence, beginning in ignorance and ending in birth and suffering. Dependent Co-Arising teaches the individual and discrete causes necessary for a “self” to arise.

It is in the Paticca-Samupadda-Vibhanga Sutta that the Buddha teaches Dependent Co-Arising and nowhere is there any mention of interconnectedness of things, or any notion that would attempt to make substantial that which is impermanent and insubstantial. If one understands the teaching on shunyata (not clinging to that which is insubstantial and impermanent) why would clinging through imaginary attachment to all things be emphasized?

The term “Dependent Origination” can lead one to assume that the notion of interconnectedness is important to the dhamma. This misunderstanding can only arise from a misunderstanding of emptiness.
Buddhadasa’s reference to the “Handful of Leaves” story points to the simplicity of the Dhamma and how the Buddha’s teachings are not hidden behind concepts or circular logic but point to one thing: understanding the distraction of dukkha so that its cause can be abandoned.

Understanding dukkha is also the point of Dependent Co-Arising. What has arisen from ignorance that results in suffering must now abandon all clinging, and certainly clinging to all things that the concept of interconnectedness suggests.

Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya, Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as 'I' or 'mine.'

Great article - thank you Buddhadasa Bikkhu and Tricycle.

John Haspel
http://crossrivermeditation.com/
http://shamatha-vipassana.com

jeff.padgett3.14159's picture

Thank You John. Why complicate things?

silapannava's picture

The only ownership required anywhere, at anytime, and,
for any reason.

oliverhow's picture

Very, very grateful for this article and its clarity.....richard

marginal person's picture

The author states that questions such as rebirth and karmic inheritance are not part of the Buddha's teaching and have no connection to it. What, then, is one to make of all the different theories of the various Buddhist's sects on karma and rebirth? Just idle speculation?
The intellectual (arguing theories) is complicated but ultimately easy since it requires no hardship for us. The practical (ending self-centered clinging) is simple but difficult because it requires us to break deeply entrenched habits.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Some intellectual folks have no interest in worrying if there is a heaven or a hell either.

marginal person's picture

You seem to be confused by the word intellectual. I'm not referring to people. I`m referring to the intellectual component of religions Try substituting the word verbal for intellectual and it might be clearer to you.
My point was the need people have to reify the words of a charismatic teacher. Words are taken out of context. Teachings that were once vital become unquestioned dogma.

celticpassage's picture

I'm not sure reification is a need or that religious people do it more than others. In my experience non-religious people do it at least as often.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Reification marks the human condition. We think therefore we are.

marginal person's picture

I meant need in the sense of "find it necessary to" not in the sense of a physical need. I agree with your comment . It's a universal trait, almost second nature. In order to avoid it, one has to "go against the grain".

celticpassage's picture

Yes. I meant it in this way also. I think that it's more of a habit than a need.
Although in religious contexts and writings reification is not usually a fallacy and it often doesn't apply.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Aren't the intellectual components of religions products of people, let alone their verbalizations?

bill.cook68's picture

one can feel the purity and simplicity of this teaching-which steers us away from all the mysticism and "magic" of much esoteric conjecture.

justcarrion's picture

Excellent article, thank you!

And yes Access to Insight is an amazing website with tons on similar articles and English translations of the Tipitaka : )

Bagdad's picture

For those who are interested in the full work that this is taken from, and are interested in other articles of a similar nature (and more) then I recommend you visit Access To Insight (accesstoinsight.org). This is an excellent source of high quality wisdom pertaining to the practices of Buddhism.

hcolbeck@shaw.ca's picture

Excellent article by Buddhadhasa.....thank you. I wanted to do a printed copy of the article but could onlly print the first page....not the second. Is it not possible to do a whole print-out? I've tried with other articles and the same problem occurs. Thank you.

sabina's picture

Try this: highlight the part to copy , the hit print on your mouse, when you get the small screen asking what to
print, hit SELECTION. That works for me!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Voidness is the concept that all phenomena have no intrinsic meaning on their own. Their value exists in relation to all other things (dependent origination).

glenzorn's picture

Change "meaning" and "value" to "existence" & you might be closer...

Dominic Gomez's picture

Your existence (your life) is relative to all phenomena. You do not exist in a vacuum.

celticpassage's picture

Void is not a concept, but its absence.

Misha's picture

Yup, you are correct about voidness. But there is no conflict between your definition and his. Dependent origination means that all things are not me or mine, as well. Voidness or emptiness can be seen as a summation of all the characteristics of observable phenomena, anicca or impermanence, anatta, which is not-self/not mine, and dukkha. Each of these characteristics is a reflection of the others. There is no separation between them.

Dominic Gomez's picture

More accurately dependent origination teaches that we are connected to phenomena. No person is an island entire of itself. Each person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. There is no separation between life and environment.

mralexander99's picture

YES --- So concise! Occam's Razor is applied!