What the Buddha Taught

This is a summary of What the Buddha Taught, a book published in 1959 by Walpola Sri Rahula based on historical records and original texts. I refer to it in several articles about traveling through Buddhist countries and in articles about public health, especially mindful meditation to relieve chronic pain, so I thought it would be useful to provide a summary within my blog. I’ll share a bit about the book and author then dive into the summary.
15 minute read.
The book
What the Buddha Taught is accepted as a historically accurate introduction into original teachings of the Buddha. Walpola Rahula wrote What the Buddha Taught in the 1950’s, publishing it in 1959, and it continues to be used in college courses on Buddhism or Eastern Religions.
I first read What the Buddha taught in a two-week Eastern Religions course in 1997, part of an accelerated semester I scheduled between regular spring and summer semesters. I was studying civil and environmental engineering and wanted to take what I considered to be simple, easy courses in accelerated semesters so I could focus on the more challenging technical courses during full semesters.
Since 1993 I’ve traveled with sub-goals of exploring ancient cities, technologies (especially civil engineering), and religions. I’d like to start documenting more of the experiences and lessons for the benefit of others, but writing is challenging for me so I do it bit-by-bit.
As I write this article in 2018 I’m enjoying the irony that What the Buddha Taught remains one of the most informative and educational books of my life, one that I continue to see more in as I mature, and that continuously influences my life positively. For me, I’ve come to realize what a genius the Buddha was, a scientists who studied and grew to understood the human mind and a teacher able to explain how others could understand complex concepts.
History of the Buddha
The Buddha was born in 563 AD as Siddhartha Gautama in what is now Nepal. He was the son of a king, living a life of luxury, with a bride and son. At age 29 his life changed when he saw four people who epitomized human suffering: an old person, a sick person, a dead person, and an ascetic denying worldly pleasures in pursuit of spiritual purity. Siddhartha left his life of luxury to understand and cure human suffering.
Siddhattha wandered for six years, studying under famous religious leaders of the time and practicing asceticism to the point of seeming to be emancipated. He never experienced the permanent peace of mind he sought so he abandoned all traditional religious beliefs and went on his own way. Alone, he sat under a tree and meditated, determined not to move until he understood the nature of suffering. A young woman saw his emancipated body and thought he was either dead or a spirit of the tree and offered him rice milk; upon drinking the rice milk strength returned to his body and he became enlightened, from then on known as the Buddha, “The Enlightened One.”
The Buddha spent five weeks near the tree, processing his enlightenment. He didn’t believe anyone would understand, but a traveling Brahman, a man born into the religious class, said that there would be some who would, so for the sake of mankind he should try. The Buddha walked to the village of Sarnath to meet his former teachers, giving his first sermon and “setting the wheel of Dharma in motion.” His former teachers began following him, and for 45 years he taught the young, old, rich, poor, kings, servants, sages, and madmen; his message remained the same until his death at age 80.
After the Buddha died, what Buddhists consider parinirvana, a group of senior monks agreed upon what the Buddha taught, developing them into poetic songs, poems, or chants, that could be recited by groups of people, facilitating memorization and providing a sense of redundancy; the more people who recited the more likely it could be preserved unadulterated. 400 years later the teachings were transcribed into writings known as the Pali Cannon and Dhammapada.
It’s ironic that the Buddha never claimed to be anything other than a human, rebelled against organized religion, and repeatedly encouraged independent thought and analysis, yet in the 2,600 years since the Buddha gave his first sermon Buddhism has become the world’s 4th largest religion, including many who believe that Siddhartha was one of many Buddhas or that all of us have the potential for becoming a Buddha within us. Walpola Rahula used the Pali Cannon, Dhammapada, and analysis of of languages used in the Buddha’s time to summarize what the Buddha taught.
The Four Noble Truths
The first teachings of the Buddha remained unchanged throughout his life and can not be dismissed today; the Buddha taught the four Nobel Truths.
The first Nobel Truth is that suffering exists. The Buddha used the word Dukkha, which is often simplified in English as suffering, but Dukkha is more complex. It includes what is commonly known as suffering, the suffering of getting old, the suffering of disease and sickness, the suffering of loss, pain, anger, sadness, doubt, worry, or any unrest of the mind in suffering, including loss of what is pleasurable. In short, suffering is attachment to things, feelings, or ideas that are impermanent or transient.The second Nobel Truth is the cause of suffering, which is desire, or thirst. Desire for more, desire for less, desire for something to continue, desire for something to end, thirst for becoming, thirst for annihilation.The third Nobel Truth is that suffering can end.The fourth Nobel Truth is the path leading to the cessation of suffering, which the Buddha called the middle way between extremes of indulgence and denial, achieved through the Eightfold Path of Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, and Right Understanding.
The Eightfold Path
Scholars group the Eightfold Path differently than original texts, defining them in terms of ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. Ethical conduct is Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. Mental discipline is Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Wisdom is Right Thought and Right Understanding.
The Eightfold Path is:
Right Speech, abstaining from telling lies; slanderous talk; saying things that may bring about disunity or disharmony among individuals or groups of people; harsh, rude, or impolite words; idle, useless, or foolish babble or gossip. When one can not use Right Speech one should practice Noble Silence. This means speaking truthfully, kindly, and beneficially to all; in today’s modern world that would include not sharing information that one hasn’t verified, including on social media and other forms of communication that weren’t known in the time of the Buddha.
Right Action, abstaining from destroying life, stealing, dishonest dealings, illegitimate sexual intercourse, and to strive to help others lead a peaceful and honorable life in the right way. I believe in Right Action and try to practice it, but never understood the nuances of “illegitimate sexual intercourse.” There’s not a lot of original references of the Buddha on this matter; my assumption is that it’s difficult to practice Right Action and Right Speech without including illegitimate intercourse.
Right Livelihood, abstaining from making one’s living in a way that brings harm to others, such as making or selling weapons, intoxicating drinks, poisons; killing animals, cheating, etc. One should earn a living doing things that are honorable, blameless and free from harm to others. I believe that Right Livelihood would also result from Right Speech and Right Action, and that in today’s world Right Livelihood would include abstaining from selling products using advertising that creates a sense of desire or false sense of need in others.
Right Effort, the will to get rid of unwholesome states of mind, prevent unwholesome states of mind from arising, and to produce wholesome states of mind. With respect to Dr. Rahula and vocabulary in both 600 BC and the 1950’s, I believe the intention of Right Effort, sometimes referred to as Right Intention, includes the effort to place oneself in the right situations and mindset for practicing the Eightfold Path. For example, to help Right Speech one should avoid associating with people who engage in or condone unwholesome speech. In other words, Right Effort includes right choices for practicing other aspects of the Eightfold Path.
Right Mindfulness, to be aware of the activities of one’s body, the sensations and feelings of one’s body, the activities of one’s mind, and one’s ideas, thoughts, and perceptions.
Right Concentration, to focus on four stages of mental development. In the first stage unwholesome thoughts like ill-will, anger, lust, worry, or doubt are discarded and feelings of joy and happiness are maintained. Subsequent levels develop one-pointedness of mind, the ability to concentrate on one thing while maintaining joy and happiness, and cummulate with pure equanimity and awareness. I’ve read similar explanations, and my research and experiences would relate Right Concentration to Right Mindfulness; it’s the ability to concentrate on one’s mind or a situation, which is related to Right Mindfulness. In other words, our minds are easily distracted and situations have many aspects, so Right Concentration is focusing on that moment, unperturbed, in a way that’s Mindful, with feelings of joy, happiness, and eventually equanimity.
Right Thought, selfless detachment with thoughts of non-violence, loving kindness, and compassion towards all beings. I would like to add that Right Thought includes both volitional wholesome thoughts and, eventually, seemingly involuntary unwholesome thoughts that may arise in early stages of development and can be observed with Right Mindfulness.
Right Understanding, seeing how things how they really are, having no doubt in the Four Noble Truths, and obtaining the highest wisdom. Right Understanding is different than memory or knowledge, it’s a deeper level of wisdom, truly seeing how things really are. This is possible through meditation, which is often misunderstood or misrepresented in western culture. The word “meditation” is a combination of concentration and analysis. I describe this in detail using my experiences meditating in Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died; to meditate while maintaining Right Mindfulness is to put forth Right Effort and practice Right Concentration, and when what’s being analyzed is one’s own happiness, one would medicate on Mindfulness and be Mindful while concentrating. This circular pattern is common in Buddhism, and part of the symbolism of “the Wheel of Dharma,” which represents the Eightfold Path.
Nirvana is the state of no suffering. It is realization of the Noble truths and Eightfold Path in understanding and practice, not blind faith.
The Buddha did not ask that his doctrine be followed blindly, he encouraged investigation, analysis, and removing one’s own doubt. He repeatedly emphasize that each person was in control of his or her destiny, that no one else could be responsible, and that mindlessly following traditions or honoring gods would not eliminate suffering: one must practice the path.
The Buddha may have expressed the path differently to different people based on their level of awareness or unique situations at the moment. As Walpola Rapula said, “Practically the whole teaching of the Buddha, to which he devoted himself during 45 years, deals in some way or other with this Path.”
Anyone can practice any aspect of the Path and improve themselves based on their needs and abilities at the moment. This was simplified by one of the Buddha’s first teachings where he said, “each day do more of what you know to be wholesome and less of what you know to not be wholesome.”
The five hindrances to practicing the Eightfold Path and achieving Nirvana, the end of suffering, are:
Lustful desiresIll-will, hatred, or angerTorpor or languorRestlessness or worrySkeptical doubt
The Eightfold Path contains a way to recognize and move beyond the five hindrances. Right Mindfulness which includes being aware of but not judging when any hindrance is present in oneself, to observe the feeling arising or going away, to gain wisdom on the cause of hindrances arising and ceasing.
There are seven factors of enlightenment, and Right Mindfulness includes being aware when they are present in oneself, observing them arising or going away. The seven factors of enlightenment are:
Mindfulness, being aware of physical and mental activitiesInvestigation into various problems of doctrine; I summarize this as critical investigation and removing doubt through wisdomEnergy, to work with determinationJoyRelaxation of both mind and bodyConcentrationEquanimity, a calm mind, tranquility, disturbance
Right Mindfulness is part of allowing detachment from hindrances and acknowledging factors of enlightenment.
Attachment and the Mind
Suffering includes attachment to things, thoughts, ideas, or feelings that are impermanent, transient, or false. We become attached to things that impact our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and formations of the mind.
In Buddhist tradition, “mind” not what many people in western cultures consider a “brain” or “intellect.” Mind, called manas or citta in some eastern philosophies, is a faculty, a sense organ, similar to the eye in that it senses, but the mind senses thoughts, ideas, perceptions, feelings, etc. The mind is related to other senses in that it perceives sensations of all senses and attaches meaning to them. That meaning becomes our thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc., which can also elicit physical sensations such as a bad dream causing an elevated heartbeat.
Our mind is part of our consciousness, the part of our life that registers our senses interacting with the world. After consciousness interacts with the world we have perception, identifying the sense as light, sound, flavor, etc. After perception there is sensation; the perception can be sensed as pleasant unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant. After sensation there are mental formations, which include volitional actions, things of choice. I learned that this includes subconscious actions, such as muscle tension that’s determent to relaxation, contributing to suffering; one can see this through Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration if one puts forth the Right Effort. Similarly, mental formations can include volitional actions such as attention, determination, concentration, wisdom, energy, etc. Our karma is our volitional action, which is often misused in the western world as the results of our actions, but the Buddha taught that karma was simply volitional choice in words, actions, thoughts, reactions, etc.
When we become attached to any sensation, idea, thought, etc. we may wish to avoid it, may want more of it, or may neither wish to avoid it or crave more of it. We may wish it to not end, or may wish it to not begin again. Attachment to mental formations creates an illusion of “self” that is a cause of suffering.
No self
The Buddha repeatedly said that attachment to the idea of a self, or a soul, or something unknowable, was a false view that created suffering. What we view as a “self” is a series of interactions between consciousness, perceptions, sensations, and mental formations; there is no “self” to be found.
Walpola Rahula shared a story about a Buddhist monk called Nagasena who used a horse-driven chariot as a metaphor when discussing the Buddha’s teachings of “no-self” with a king. I’ll paraphrase it here:
One of the king’s first questions is on the nature of the self and personal identity. Nagasena greeted the king by acknowledging that Nagasena was his name, but that “Nagasena” was only a designation; no permanent individual “Nagasena” could be found. This amused the King, who asked, “Who is it that wears robes and takes food? If there is no Nagasena, who earns merit or demerit? Who causes karma? If what you say is true, a man could kill you and there would be no murder. ‘Nagasena’ would be nothing but a sound.” Nagasena asked the King how he had come to his hermitage, on foot or by horseback? The king replied that he had come in a chariot. “But what is a chariot?” Nagasena asked. “Is it the wheels, or the axles, or the reigns, or the frame, or the seat, or the draught pole? Is it a combination of those elements? Or is it found outside those elements?” The king answered no to each question and Nagasena said, “Then there is no chariot!” The King acknowledged the designation “chariot” depended on these constituent parts, but that “chariot” itself is a concept, or a mere name.
“Just so,” Nagasena said, ‘Nagasena’ is a designation for something conceptual. It is a mere name. When the constituent parts are present we call it a chariot; When [matter, consciousness, perception, sensation, and mental formations] are present, we call it a being.”
Attachment to a self is a cause of suffering because it is a false view. The eightfold path is a path to wisdom where one can see the right view, especially through mindfulness.
Mindfulness is awareness of all senses, the nature of their rising and falling, and the impermanence of all feelings, thoughts, and ideas. I felt the best way to understand mindfulness was to read the Buddha’s teaching of The Foundations of Mindfulness. It’s long, so I’ll paraphrase it:
There is only one way to overcome suffering, to attain Nirvana: the four foundations of mindfulness. One should live observing the activities of the body, feelings, mind, and mental objects.
Begin observing the body by sitting quietly, legs crossed, body straight, and mindfulness alert, observing the breath. Know when you are breathing a deep breath, know when you are exhaling a deep breath. Know when you are breathing a short breath, know when you are exhaling a short breath. Experience the whole-body breath, and train yourself to concentrate and experience the calming of your whole-body breath. Observe the origin and disolution of body activities.
Further, know when you are sitting, know when you are lying down, know when you are falling asleep, know when you are waking. Be mindful when bending or stretching, eating, drinking, chewing, attending the calls of nature, speaking, or keeping silence. In all mindfulness of the body apply full attention, observing activities of the body internally or externally. Reflect upon your hair, skin, bones, kidneys, lungs, tears, urine, etc. Reflect upon bodies in a cemetery, reduced to flesh, reduced to skeletons, reduced to dust; reflect upon how our bodies are of the same nature. Be mindful of the body until detached.
Live observing feelings, knowing what feels pleasant, feels unpleasant, feels neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Know when experiencing worldly feelings, know when experiencing spiritual feelings, know when experiencing feelings internally or externally. Be mindful of feelings until detached.
Live observing the mind, knowing when the mind is with lust, without lust, with hate, without hate, with ignorance, without ignorance, concentrated, not concentrated, liberated, not liberated. Be mindful of the mind until detached.
Live observing mental objects. Know when the five hindrances are present or not present, knowing that sense-desire is present, knowing that sense-desire is not present, that anger is present, that anger is not present, that torpor and langour are present, that torpor and langour are not present, that restlessness and worry are present, that restlessness and worry are not present, that doubt is present, that doubt is not present. Live observing the five hindrances until detached.
Further, know when the five aggregates of clinging are present and when they are not present, how they arise and how they disappear. The five aggregates are material forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness; live being mindful of the five aggregates until detached.
Further, live observing the seven factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation of mental objects, energy, joy, relaxation of body and mind, concentration, and equanimity.
Further, live contemplating the Four Noble Truths. Know that this is dukkha (suffering). Know that this is the origin of dukkha. Know that this is the cessation of dukkha. Know that this is the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.
Whoever practices the four foundations of mindfulness in this manner shall achieve Nirvana, enlightenment, freedom from suffering.
The Buddha continuously emphasized that one should investigate his teachings, to see the deeper truth, to remove all doubt; the way to do this was meditation, which in the Buddha’s method was closely related to mindfulness. In other words, to meditate on the nature of one’s mind, to reflect on the nature of suffering, and to examine the cause-and-effect of one’s actions.
Meditating on mindfulness begins with being aware of one’s mind. This can be done in a focused, intentional manner such how the Buddha suggested: sit upright and focus on one’s breath, noticing the rise and fall of each breath, observing but not controlling. Similarly one can observe the rise and fall of all senses including distractions of the mind. But, meditation can, and should, be developed so that it’s natural and occurring throughout each day. In other words, as you’re observing your mind’s activities rising and falling, coming and going, you can meditate on the cause of their arising and the nature of their falling, learning for yourself the nature of suffering, it’s causes and it’s cessation. This leads to wisdom and the Right Understanding of yourself and the Right View of how things are for yourself and others.
Wisdom and compassion come from practicing the Eightfold Path, and both are necessary for Nirvana, freedom from suffering. Meditation is a method to gain wisdom from the Eightfold Path using one’s intellect, concentrating and analyzing, learning from experience to “see how things really are.”
Final words
The final words of the Buddha were shared with 1500 monks in attendance. He began by reemphasizing that all he ever taught was that suffering exists, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to cessation of suffering. He asked if anyone had doubt about his teachings, and that if they were too embarrassed to speak out that they should tell one someone else to speak on their behalf. He then ensured that no one was too blame for his death, a final act of compassion directed towards the person who prepared what was not known at the time to be his final meal. Then the Buddha said his final words and final advice,
“All things conditioned by the mind are transient: practice your goal with diligence.”
My parting words for this article
I share some of my experiences in Buddhist countries and my practice of mindful meditation throughout my blog. I am not Buddhist; I see the truth in many things that the Buddha taught based on experience, not faith. When I learned more about the Buddha I became interested in what I did not yet see and began to practice the Eightfold Path with an open mind.
I wish you happiness and freedom from suffering.