Walpola Rahula: What the Buddha Taught (Draft Outline)

Chapter 1: The Buddhist Attitude of Mind

Gautama Buddha not a god, not one inspired by God, but a human being who became enlightened by means of human endeavor and human intelligence (Buddha – awakened one, see Heraclitus on waking and sleeping).

Human beings are responsible for their own “spiritual success; they must liberate themselves. Gautama shows the way, but we must tread the way ourselves.

Freedom of thought is important. One must come by one’s own realization of the Truth (p. 2), must see/realize for oneself, cannot depend on God or any external power.

Doubt is a hindrance to enlightenment. Ignorance (false views, illusions) vs. knowledge. Enlightenment as seeing things as they really are (see Kant). Avidya or avijja (ignorance) vs. seeing clearly. Belief in what is not known or seen (characteristic of many religions) has no place in Buddhism. The example of the blind Brahmin leading the blind.

Tolerance, respect for the religions of others, sympathetic understanding. No religious persecution of unbelievers. Absolute non-violence (ahimsa). Violence is forbidden. Example of Emperor Asoka of India.

Truth and love belong exclusively to no sect. Seeing the thing itself, understanding it. Truth is not a “brand-name,” but generic.

Faith vs. seeing, knowing, understanding. Overcoming of subjectivity and achieving complete objectivity. Seeing things as they really are (suchness). Faith as confidence in Buddhism.

Story of Buddha and the young recluse Pukkusati. Hindu orthodoxy of the Brahmins. Doctrine of the Jains (Mahavira). The Brahmins or Brahmanas: the blind leading the blind; problem of reliance upon the teaching of others. Cannot be enlightened by having others see for us. Cannot rely on the words or accounts of others.

Teachings are like a raft that we build for crossing over from the dangerous shore (samsara) to the safe shore (enlightenment). Attachment to doctrine is a fetter: Upon reaching the other shore, one clings to the raft, will not let go of the raft, wants to carry it around with him (the burden of religious doctrine). The enlightened should leave doctrine behind, should give up even good things. Freedom as letting go of fetters, entanglements, burdens.

The Buddha was not interested in metaphysical questions (wilderness of opinions), e.g.: (1) whether the universe is eternal or non-internal, (2) whether the universe is finite or infinite, (3) whether the soul is the same as body or distinct from it, (4) whether the arrived one (tathagata) exists or does not exist after death, (5) whether he both exists and does not exist after death, (6) whether he both does not exist and does not not exist after death. Recall Heraclitus and the problem of useless and idle speculation about things we do not know or experience for ourselves [so much for most of Western philosophy].

The futility of metaphysical questioning or speculation is illustrated in the story of the poisoned arrow (see p. 14). Suffering (dukkha) is the poisoned arrow of our existence. Its poison penetrates all of our conditioned states.

The arrow and the poison emerge within our aggregates. The arrow and the poison must be pulled by means of those aggregates. Buddhism is practical, not metaphysical. The point is to remove suffering, not talk about it – to be liberated from ignorance and suffering.

Understanding the Four Noble Truths as key to this liberation. Understanding any of them leads to understanding all of them.

Chapter 2: The first Noble Truth: Dukkha

From Buddha’s first sermon at Benares. Understanding the Four Noble Truths means understanding the truth of –

1) Dukkha
2) the arising or origin of dukkha (tanha)
3) the cessation of dukkha (nirvana)
4) the way leading to the cessation of dukkha (eightfold path or magga)

Dukkha: generally translated as suffering. Means more than the word “suffering” can convey. It is a kind of dislocation (like a dislocated joint), being out of whack, things not right (think of Thoreau’s term, “quiet desperation”), like a wheel off its hub, off center, something is very very wrong.

Dukkha contains the notions of imperfection, impermanence, emptiness, insubstantiality, something is eluding us, something is missing.

Dukkha includes happiness as fleeting, transitory, impermanent, reflected in the “sighing” of existence. It includes enjoyment of sense-pleasures, and it even includes enjoyment of “spiritual pleasures.” Rahula writes (p. 18): “Now if you have no attachment to the person, if you are completely detached, that is freedom, liberation.” Note that sensations can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant).

Recall the stoics (and Kant): Freedom as detachment/peace of soul. Freedom as detachment from desiring (interest for Kant). Avoidance of pleasure/pain.

Liberation from dukkha will amount to liberation from craving, attachment, or dependence upon what is impermanent. [Remember that for the Stoic, reason, logic, and natural law are permanent, as Brahman-Atman is permanent for Hinduism.]

Three aspects of dukkha:

(1) Ordinary suffering: birth, old age, sickness, death, association with unpleasant persons or conditions, separation from pleasant persons and conditions, not getting what one wants, distress, disappointment.

(2) Suffering due to change, impermanence, transitoriness (impermanence of happy conditions). Nothing lasts. Things come and go.

(3) Suffering linked to conditioned states, grasping, heaps (skandha). All types of attachment, clinging, binding, “intentionality.”

According to Buddhism, what we call a person is simply the combination of these ever-changing aggregates or heaps. There is no individual soul-substance or atman behind or beyond these heaps (compounds). Human beings are collections of physical and mental states (more on this in Chapter 6). Compare to the Christian or Platonic soul-substance that outlives (or precedes) the body. Compare to the atman in Hinduism. Recall the mental substance of Descartes (cogito, ergo sum). Think of the Kantian will or personality or soul as thing-in-itself, the “real me” hidden behind the “empirical me.” [the self versus the Self]

Aggregates are of five types:

(1) Aggregates of material body or form, derived from the four basic material elements. These aggregates include:

eye <= contact with => visible forms (sights)
ear <= contact with => audible forms (sounds)
nose <= contact with => odors
tongue <= contact with => tastes
body <= contact with => tangible forms
mind <= contact with => mental objects

Note that mind is a faculty (a sixth “sense”). It is not an owner of other aggregates, nor a self.

(2) Aggregate of sensations – pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings experienced through contact of physical and mental organs or faculties with forms (external or internal).

Pleasure, pain, and neutral feeling are due to contact of five senses and mind with objects. The mind is not a spiritual substance, not a Cartesian thinking thing (no duality of matter and spirit). The mind is an organ or faculty that sees mental objects or thought objects. Mental objects are based upon experience of visible, auditory, tasty, odorous, and tangible forms.

(3) Aggregate of perceptions: not feeling, but recognition of objects. Depends upon contact between organs and objects.

(4) Aggregate of mental formations, volitional acts. There are fifty-two of these. See list. These are the locus of karma. These are volitional acts or acts of will (such as willing, intending, deciding, determining, wanting) which set things into motion (such as through body, speech, or thought). These are the initiators and the engines of continuance of the momentum of samsara.. (See pp. 22 - 23) See handout about karma and how it works. Karma is action which produces more actions and reactions. Action and reaction is the cause/effect nexus of conditioned states.

(5) Aggregate of consciousness: “Consciousnesses” are phenomena of awareness that arise in association with sensation, perception, volition, etc. There is no such thing as “consciousness itself.” Each consciousness arises due to and associated with the other aggregates. Consciousness depends upon contact between internal faculties or organs and their internal or external objects. Consciousness depends on the other aggregates and has no independent existence.

Note on anatman: No permanent, unchanging, individual soul or spirit. Ego or self is itself a mental construct or mental formation, due to illusion or wrong belief that there is an “owner” behind the aggregates, “an unmoved mover.”

Constant flux: coming to be/ passing away, emergence/disappearance of conditioned states or compounds. Rising and falling of sensations, perceptions, volitional acts, acts of consciousness. Impermanence. The end of one is the cause of the beginning of another.

The idea of the self is a mental formation, a false idea that arises from the working together and interdependence of the five aggregates. Idea of the self is a volitional act, an act of will. It arises from the illusion of attachment to sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and thoughts. We think in terms of my body, my mind, my feelings, my hopes, my dreams, my ideas, my opinions, my beliefs, my salvation, my liberation, my nirvana. This is a matter of trying to grasp and hold on to (or own). The key to all bad karma is selfish striving to get, to keep, to get rid of, to continue, to increase.

Life is movement, process. There is no thinker behind the thought. Thoughts come and go as birds appear and disappear in the sky. Clinging to thoughts is like wanting to catch the birds, keep them, bind them. My philosophy, my religion, my way of life.

Stream of becoming, flux, process of thirst/craving/hankering/chasing/seeking without beginning in time. Seeing things as they are means seeing them for what they are – conditioned states, insubstantial, fleeting, impermanent. This “characteristic” of reality does not jar one who is enlightened, calm, serene, detached (smiling).

Aversion, repugnance, and hatred are “unskillful” or “immoral” mental formations (volitional acts). Aversion to suffering is an unskillful act. One should not hate suffering or become impatient with it. That is a reaction that only leads to more suffering.

Chapter 3: The Second Noble Truth: The Arising of Dukkha

Tanha: thirst, craving, desire, greed, wanting, hankering.

(1) thirst for sense-pleasures (having and enjoying)
(2) thirst for existing and becoming (wanting to continue, to become “someone,” will to live) – ambition
(3) thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation, destruction)

Recall Freud’s id with the associated eros (love) and thanatos (death). Tendency to self-assertion, self-denial.

Thirst is based on contact and sensation. Attachment, appropriation to oneself, grasping, getting, drawing to oneself (gimme), self-centeredness. Selfish desire for sense pleasures [think of hedonism]. Selfish desire for wealth and power [think of Hobbes’ honor and profit]. Selfish desire for ideas and ideals, views, opinions, theories, conceptions, beliefs [think of philosophical and spiritual pride]. My opinions, my beliefs, my money, my body, my everything.

This striving is the essence of samsara, the cycle of birth and death. This me-oriented grabbing and pulling is the basis of all social ills.

There are four things necessary (nutriments) for the existence and continuity of things (that feed samsara): (1) food, (2) contact of six organs with the external world, (3) consciousness, and volition (volitional acts).

See p. 32 and the process of building the ego. Striving, willing for oneself (delusional) is the cause of dukkha. Since dukkha has its seat in volitional acts, then release from dukkha is found there as well. The cessation of dukkha comes with skillful, rather than unskillful mental formations or volitional acts. It will be a reversal of selfish volitional acts by means of unselfish volitional acts, the reversal of the momentum of becoming more and more and having more and more. Thus, generosity can replace miserliness and selfishness; compassion can replace ill-will; wisdom can replace delusion and ignorance. The way to freedom from fetters includes both the renunciation of unwholesome volitional acts (bad karma) and the fostering of wholesome acts (good karma). We can cut off jealousy, hatred, and greed before they arise (through renunciation); and we can promote their opposites of love, compassion, and generosity.

Karma in Buddhism means willing, setting events into motion by willing (volitional acts). Willing may be good or bad, depending upon its results, but all willing based upon the false idea of the self leads to more and more suffering. See handout about Karma.

Death (p. 33): Each being is a heap of conditions, a compound of aggregates. Each condition goes through a cycle of birth and death, coming and going. Through the years, each person is the same person and yet not the same person. The “heaps” have changed, and there is no unchanging “core” or “self.” Death and rebirth occur in every moment of life, with conditions constantly changing. “Re-birth” is the continuity of changing and impermanent conditions. Something passes on, yet all things are different. The force of karma or striving or samsara (volitional acts) is strong enough to continue and ignite the conditioned states of the newly born, the person who is the same and yet not the same from one life to another.

This whole process or momentum ceases with the cutting off of thirst. Ceasing craving and letting-go of attachments. “Starving” unwholesome acts of their nutriment.

Chapter 7: Meditation or Mental Culture (Bhavana)

Mental health is hard to achieve. Through meditation or bhavana, one can arrive at a state of perfect mental health, equilibrium, and tranquility.

Meditation means mental cultivation (culture) or mental development. It does not mean “escape,” or mystic trance. It is not like the practice of yogi (such as the example of the Buddhist nun who wanted to see out of her ears – a good example of ego and sego-enhancement).

Meditation includes cleansing the mind of impurities and disturbances, improper feelings, thoughts, and desires AND cultivating positive mind-states such as concentration, awareness, and tranquility and hopefully leading finally to the attainment of wisdom or seeing things as they really are, without additives, embellishments, and subjective concerns or interpretations.

There are two types of meditation:

(1) Mental concentration or one-pointedness of mind. This is similar to Hindu yoga and leads to a variety of mental states, such as mystic states. This are pleasant mind-created states, but they have nothing to do with reality, truth, and nirvana.

(2) Insight into or awareness of (full attention to) the nature of things. This is a kind of bare attention or simple awareness of what is going on. It is clear comprehension, mindfulness (sati), awareness, vigilance, observation. [Right Mindfulness is receptive awareness of things, seeing them as they are and for what they are.]

This insight or awareness is awareness of what is going on here and now, in the present. It is not self-conscious awareness, but bare attention to the thing or condition itself. It is simple inspection of things, without reference to “my” or “mine.”

The first type of meditative awareness is awareness of body, which includes awareness of breathing and awareness of postures or actions – physical or verbal – in daily life. Meditation is nothing something removed from everyday life; it is an integral part of it. Our daily routines provide limitless opportunities for meditation.

The awareness of in-and-out breathing has many positive results. See Rahula’s description of the technique (pp. 69 - 70). In the beginning, the mind wanders; and it is hard to be freed from distractions. Eventually, mindfulness is only of the breathing itself. The “self” and its preoccupations disappear from the scene. Rahula writes: “As long as your are conscious of yourself, you can never concentrate on anything.” (P. 70) The advantages of meditation on breathing is that it helps to develop concentration (focus), to relax, and to be liberated from self-consciousness.

Then, you can meditate on or be aware of everything that you during your daily life. It is important to live in the present moment, here and now, to be aware of the present moment. This is like Zen, which cultivates direct awareness of things as they are in the present. Most people do not live in the present; they live in the past and future. They are not aware of what they are doing while they are doing it, but are consumed by memories, regrets, expectations, desires, and thoughts of the future. They miss the significance of the present. Self-consciousness is a problem, both for thinking and getting things done (creativity as well). It is only by “forgetting” oneself (an obstacle to enlightenment) that we can work and act well.

In simple awareness of what you are doing while you are doing it, avoid self-consciousness. Do not think “I am doing this” or “I am doing that.”

The second type of meditation or awareness has to do with awareness of sensations and feelings. One meditates on sensations that are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This means awareness of feelings as they arise, watching them arise and disappear. If an unhappy feeling arises, watch it emerge and then subside. Don’t be unhappy about the unhappy feeling (that would be embellishment and would add to the unpleasantness); just be aware of it. Avoid subjective reaction to the feeling. Be an outsider, an “inspector,” a detached observer. Try to see how the feeling arises (contact or conditions). Rahula writes: “When you see its nature, how it arises and disappears, your mind grows dispassionate toward that sensation, and becomes detached and free.” (P. 73) That helps to keep sensations from swelling up, expanding, and introducing all sorts of bad mental states.

The third type of meditation or awareness applies to mental states, states of mind, mental formations (volitional acts). It is bare awareness of these “events” as they occur. For example, it is awareness of anger as it occurs and grows. All sorts of mental states can be meditated upon, such as desire, non-attachment, greed, hatred, ill-will, love, compassion, delusion, doubt, and more. The point is not to pass judgment on these mental states, not to criticize them, or whip oneself for having them, but to see them for what they are and as they are. What counts here in mindfulness of mental states is not harsh judgment, but detached observation like that of a scientist. This helps promote undoing of grasping and clinging. It can lead to freedom from clinging. See Rahula’s examination of anger (p. 74).

The fourth type of meditation is directed to a variety of intellectual, spiritual, and ethical subjects. It includes reading, study, thinking, discussion, conversation, and deliberation about those topics essential for progress toward peace and tranquility. One could say that attention paid to Rahula’s book is an instance of meditation.

Meditation could be about:

~ The five hindrances to enlightenment:

1. lustful desires (sensual desires)
2. ill-will, hatred, or anger
3. torpor and languor
4. restlessness and worry
5. skeptical doubts

~ Seven factors of Enlightenment:

1. Mindfulness (sati)
2. Investigation and research [into all sorts of subjects]
3. Energy (viriya) [the right kind of energy or determination]
4. Joy (piti)
5. Relaxation (of both body and mind)
6. Concentration (samadhi)
7. Equanimity (facing life without being disturbed or knocked off balance)

~ Other Subjects (there are more than forty other subjects of meditation): Five Aggregates (and the illusion of self), Four Noble Truths, and the Four Sublime States. These are:

1. Universal Love (metta bhavana or cultivation of universal love). Extending universal love from oneself (wishing oneself well) to other persons without any exclusions or discrimination.

2. Compassion (karuna bhavana or cultivation of compassion). Extending feelings of compassion for those who are suffering and intention that they be relieved from their suffering.

3. Sympathetic Joy (mudita). Feeling joy at the happiness, success, and well-being of others.

4. Equanimity (upekkha). Equanimity in whatever conditions life throws at us.


Disclaimer: These notes are very rough, very preliminary, and even incorrect at times. Do not bet your enlightenment on them. Build your own raft, and use better materials. You can keep yourself warm on the other shore by burning these lousy notes into ashes. If it helps, burn them before you leave. As annoying as they are, try not to become angry with them. That will only cause you more suffering.