The Handful of Leaves
Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?”
“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous.”
“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.
“And what have I taught? ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress’: This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them.
“Therefore your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress.’ Your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.'”
[Source: “Simsapa Sutta: The Simsapa Leaves” (SN 56.31), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.]
A little scripture well understood will serve you far better than a lot of scripture poorly understood, and you’ll notice that the combination of a little scripture well understood is exactly what the Buddha is praising in the above quotation.
The Buddha took the three characteristics of existential experience – anicca (change; impermanence), dukkha (stress; discontentment), anatta (without soul or essence; not-self) – and proposed a solution to be developed: the Noble Eightfold Path or Middle Way. The teaching of the Buddha is essentially a DIY guide to freedom from suffering and is summarised in the table below:
The Buddha’s Key Teachings are:
The Three Signs or Marks
1/ Impermanence (Anicca)
Wherever one looks, one can’t find anything static or permanent in life. Everything changes, nothing lasts. It’s impossible for anyone to find lasting security and happiness in worldly things.
2/ Suffering (Dukkha)
Contrary to popular opinion the Buddha didn’t teach that life is all suffering. Pleasure (sukkha) is a fact of life also, but the law of impermanence means that even pleasant experiences are often tainted by a sense of unease, dissatisfaction or stress (because we want them to last). Happiness and unhappiness are temporary states experienced by rich and poor alike.
3/ Not-self (Anatta)
The law of impermanece means there’s no fixed or permanent nature, and nothing stable for an everlasting “soul” or “essence” to reside in. Where most of us see a human being, the Buddha saw a collection of aggregates or “khandhas” (matter, sensations, perceptions, volitional mental activity and states of conscious) in constant flux. The person we think we are isn’t the same as the person we thought we were a decade ago, a year ago or even ten minutes ago. Our mistake is to assume permanency where none exists; to do so is to behave unskillfully, which leads to suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
1/ The Noble Truth of Suffering
Suffering is an unavoidable fact of life. To be born is to suffer; to grow old is to suffer; to be sick or injured is to suffer; to be unwillingly separated from all that one cherishes is to suffer; to be dying is to suffer. All sentient beings experience these sufferings.
2/ The Noble Truth of the Cause or Origin of Suffering
Birth is the cause of suffering. Without birth there would be no one to suffer, but having been born is a cause for experiencing sensations, perceptions, volitions and conscious states that result in a strong sense of “self” or “I”. Reacting to these momentary phenomena as if they really are permanently desirable or undesirable results in unskilful actions that perpetuate suffering.
3/ The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
Suffering ceases when wisdom, morality and concentration are sufficiently developed to cut through the ignorance, cravings and aversions arising from deluded attachments. Suffering ceases because all dependently-arising phenomena are rightly understood to be impermanent, unsatisfactory, not ‘self’ and so not worth clinging to.
4/ The Noble Truth of the Way leading to the Cessation of Suffering: The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is both a system of spiritual trainings and a disciplined lifestyle that leads to awakening, to seeing things as they truly are. The Noble Eightfold Path is often referred to as the Middle Way because it avoids the extremes of hedonism and asceticism.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path or Middle Way is traditionally symbolised as a wheel with eight spokes to illustrate how each of the eight factors – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration – are all equally essential to the task of liberation and to be practiced simultaneously. “Right” in this context means wholesome, skilful, in accordance with the facts of life, conducive to peace of mind.
Traditionally, “right view” is placed at the start because one needs an appropriate understanding of the Four Noble Truths in order to develop “right intention” – that is, the intention of letting go the attachments to “self” and other impermanent phenomena. “Right view” and “right intention” are the wisdom aspects of The Path.
The moral aspects of The Path are “right speech”, “right action” and “right livelihood”. Refraining from lying, stealing, violence and forms of livelihood that are harmful to others helps bring about general social harmony and helps to diminish the sense of “I” that motivates unskillful behavior.
The concentration aspects of The Path include “right effort”, “right mindfulness” and “right concentration”. Purifying the mind in order to relinquish worldly attachments is “right effort”, as opposed to the “wrong effort” one normally applies to manipulating objects, people and environments in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. “Right mindfulness” or awareness and “right concentration” or absorption are the dual components of meditation.
The Buddha didn’t teach meditation as merely sitting and relaxing and watching the mind non-judgmentally for a limited duration, as is commonly taught nowadays to all and sundry by teachers and monks who ought to know better. The Buddha taught meditation as a two-fold activity. He encouraged his disciples to isolate themselves in the forrest for long periods, where they would sit and concentrate their attention on some meditation object (breath, mantra, colour, contemplation of death, contemplation of the body’s repulsiveness… etc.) in order to attain mastery of “higher knowledge” such as miracle powers (chalabhinna) and mastery of extremely blissful and rarefied sensations (jhanas). He also encouraged them to continually monitor body and mind during waking hours in order to gain experiential knowledge of anicca, dukkha, anatta – the three signs or marks of existential reality. Meditation was traditionally taught as a fast-track to enlightenment and pursued mostly by the Buddha’s ordained followers; the laity rarely involved themselves with meditation and were taught a “many lifetimes” route to enlightenment that focused mainly on developing morality through precept observance and generosity towards the monastic community.
The Law of Dependent Origination is a statement of cause and effect, stated simply as: “this being that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises; from the ceasing of this that ceases.” This is really just another more abstract formulation of the Second and Third Noble Truths – the origin and cessation of suffering.
According to the Law of Dependent Origination, there are twelve factors which account for the arising of suffering throughout past, present and future lives –
Dependent Origination (arising)
i-ii Dependent on ignorance arise volitional or mental formations.
ii-iii Dependent on volitional formations arises relinking or rebirth consciousness.
iii-iv. Dependent on consciousness arise mentality-materiality.
iv-v. Dependent on mentality-materiality arises the sixfold base (the five physical sense organs plus mind).
v-vi Dependent on the sixfold base arises contact.
vi-vii. Dependent on contact arises feeling.
vii-viii. Dependent on feeling arises craving.
viii-ix. Dependent on craving arises clinging.
ix-x. Dependent on clinging arises becoming.
x-xi. Dependent on becoming arises birth.
xi-xii. Dependent on birth arises ageing and death, and sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Thus there is the origination of this whole mass of suffering.
The end of suffering requires the cultivation of wisdom to reverse this process –
Dependent Origination (the ceasing)
i-ii Through the entire cessation of this ignorance, volitional formations cease.
ii-iii Through the cessation of volitional formations, rebirth consciousness ceases.
iii-iv. Through the cessation of rebirth consciousness, mentality-materiality ceases.
iv-v. Through the cessation of mentality-materiality, the sixfold base ceases.
v-vi i-ii. Through the cessation of the sixfold base, contact ceases.
vi-vii. Through the cessation of contact, feeling ceases.
vii-viii. Through the cessation of feeling, craving ceases.
viii-ix. Through the cessation of craving, clinging ceases.
ix-x. Through the cessation of clinging, becoming, ceases.
x-xi Through the cessation of becoming, birth ceases.
xi-xii. Through the cessation of birth, ageing and death cease, and sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Thus there is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.
Kamma and Rebirth
The Buddha said; “Intention, I tell you, is kamma.”
The word kamma refers to willful action – that is, action from the point of view of a “self” that desires to have something, or be something, or get rid of something (due to ignorance of the fact that all dependently arising phenomena eventually cease and are therefore unsatisfactory, without any inherent qualities, not ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘mine’). The word kamma is often wrongly used to refer to the result or consequence of good or bad intent for the doer when actually the correct word to use would be vipaka (ripening) or phala (fruit).
“Rebirth” is the ripening or fruit of kamma. Intentional action results in yet another delusional experience of “I”, “me” or “self” existing independently of the rest of the world “out there”. The aggregates (form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications, awareness) that come together in this momentary “rebirth” experience are themselves “void” or “empty” and habitually appropriated (as “mine”, as something “pleasant” or “unpleasant” and happening to “me”) even though they are destined to break apart again in a momentary death experience that will condition the next rebirth… and so on.
It’s this unsatisfactory lifecycle – without discernible beginning or end – that the Buddha was referring to in the Four Noble Truths discourse. When the Buddha spoke of his ability to recollect “his manifold past lives” and “the passing away and re-appearance of beings” he was not rejecting the extreme views of materialist and annihilationist philosophers for the equally extreme philosophical views of the eternalists and idealists. By speaking of rebirth rather than “reincarnation” (i.e. transmigration of an eternal soul or self) he was sticking to his “Middle Way’”approach in referring to a verifiable process that is occurring many, many times in the space of a single moment and is without any discernible beginning or end.
Admittedly the teachings on kamma and rebirth are difficult – especially so for anyone who believes that death of the physical body really is “the end”. Such a person might find it useful to examine their reasons for supposing that the aggregates constituting a sense of self just vanish from existence at the moment of conventional death. Just as the form aggregates (i.e. molecules and atoms) of the dead and dying are destined to be recycled and appropriated as “I” or “mine”by beings elsewhere in time and space, might not the same be true for the mental aggregates (i.e. thoughts, feelings, etc.)? Is it not the case that when we habitually appropriate inherited cultural norms and values and ideas we are in effect ‘reborn’ same but different from our mentors and peers and parents and long dead ancestors?
The Three Fires
The Buddha taught that body and mind burn with the flames of ignorance, craving and aversion. Clinging is the fuel that sustains the Three Fires. Suffering ceases when the Noble Eightfold Path is fully developed and clinging is abandoned; the flames of passion are extinguished and the burning person “goes out” like a flame deprived of oxygen.
Nibbana (or nirvana) literally means the extinguishing of a fire and the Buddha insisted that it was an exquisite freedom attainable in this very life, not annihilation as one might suppose. To make this point he employed the metaphor of warm embers to describe the awakened person (arahant) who still walks this earth and experiences sights, sounds, pleasures and pains but without any taint of ignorance, craving and aversion. The awakened person who has taken leave of this world and is beyond the stresses and limitations of time and space he likened to cold embers.
“Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify one’s mind: this is the teaching of the Awakened.” – The Buddha (Dhammapada 14: 183)
To assist his lay followers, the Buddha prescribed five training rules or precepts for skilful living:
Refrain from harming living beings.
The practice of refraining from harming living beings calls upon one to avoid profiting from or being associated with violence of any sort. Refraining from harming even small insects develops respect for life and leads naturally to compassion for all suffering beings.
Refrain from stealing.
The practice of refraining from stealing calls upon one to avoid taking anything not freely given. Cases of blatant theft are an obvious breach this precept, but less obvious examples would include: short-changing customers, deducting employees’ pay unfairly, arriving late for work or leaving early without permission… Refraining from taking what is not freely given helps to lessen desirous attachments and develops one’s generosity and trustworthiness.
Refrain from sexual misconduct.
Celibacy isn’t a requirement for lay practitioners and mindful enjoyment of lawful, consensual sexual activities doesn’t amount to misconduct. The practice of refraining from sexual misconduct calls upon one to avoid breaking the sexual taboos and laws that govern all citizens. Sexual misconduct involves the suppression of empathy and compassion for self and others. Even in western societies, where attitudes towards sex are considerably more liberal than they are in other societies, flouting the laws of consent and coercing or manipulating one’s sexual partner invites serious repercussions.
Refrain from lying.
The practice of refraining from lying calls upon one to abstain also from slander, abusive speech and frivolous talk. Abstention disciplines verbal action and results in peace of mind. Not only is one freed from having to remember previous lies, abstention from lying is unlikely to offend others or damage one’s own reputation.
Refrain from intoxicants.
The practice of refraining intoxicants calls upon one to avoid drugs or alcohol or substances that lead to heedlessness. An intoxicated mind is unlikely to make the most skillful choices. Many health issues and much criminal behaviour can be attributed to drug and alcohol abuse in particular.
It should be remembered that these five precepts are an aid to mindfulness. They are training rules that one voluntarily upholds with due regard to context – not commandments one obeys slavishly through fear of punishment or anticipation of reward. Total abstinence just because the Buddha recommends it doesn’t actually result in wisdom. Wisdom arises through observing the effects of our mental, verbal and bodily actions. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication both disturb the mind and disrupt the lives of others, and practitioners who truly understand this are more likely to refrain wisely.