To ask why the Buddha’s teaching proved so attractive and gained such a large following among all sectors of Northeast Indian society is to raise a question which is also relevant to us today. For we live at a time when Buddhism is exerting a strong appeal upon an increasing number of people, especially among those whose level of education and capacity for reflection has made them indifferent to the claims of revealed religion. I believe the remarkable success of Buddhism, as well as its contemporary appeal, can be understood principally in terms of two factors: one, the aim of the teaching; and the other, its methodological features.
The Aim of the Teaching
Unlike the so-called revealed religions, which rest upon faith in unverifiable doctrines, the Buddha formulated his teaching in a way that directly addresses the critical problem at the heart of human existence — the problem of suffering — and he promises that those who follow his teaching to its end will realize here and now the highest happiness and peace. All other concerns apart from this, such as theological dogmas, metaphysical subtleties, rituals and rules of worship, the Buddha waves aside as irrelevant to the task at hand, the unraveling of the problem of suffering.
This pragmatic thrust of the Dhamma is clearly illustrated by an incident related in the texts. Once a monk named Malunkyaputta was pondering the great metaphysical questions — whether the world is eternal or non-eternal, infinite or finite, etc. — and he felt unhappy because the Buddha had refused to answer them. So one day Malunkyaputta went to the Master and told him, “Either you answer these questions for me or I leave the order.”
The Buddha then told Malunkyaputta that the spiritual life did not depend on any answers to these questions, which were mere distractions from the real challenge of following the path. He then compared the metaphysician to a man struck by a poisoned arrow. When his relatives bring a surgeon, the man tells him, ” I won’t let you remove the arrow until you let me know the name of the man who struck me, the type of bow he used, the material from which the arrow was made, and the kind of poison he used.” That man would die, the Buddha said, before the arrow was removed, and so too the metaphysician, struck with the arrow of suffering, will die without ever finding the path to freedom.
Not only does the Buddha make suffering and release from suffering the focus of his teaching, but he deals with the problem of suffering in a way that reveals an extraordinary degree of psychological insight. Like a psychoanalyst, the Buddha traces suffering to its roots within our minds, to our craving and clinging, and he holds that the cure, the solution to the problem of suffering, must also be achieved within our minds. To gain freedom from suffering it is futile to pray to the gods, to worship holy objects, to attach ourselves to rituals and ceremonies. Since suffering arises from our own mental defilements, we have to purify our minds of these defilements, from our greed, hatred, and ignorance, and this requires profound inner honesty.
While other religions lead us outward — towards ideas of a deity who determines our fate, or to lofty philosophical abstractions like the idea of a universal self or a nondual reality in which all opposites are resolved — the Buddha leads us back to ourselves, always keeping his teaching attuned to the hard facts of experience. He places the mind at the forefront of his analysis and says that it is the mind which fashions our actions, the mind which shapes our destiny, the mind which leads us towards misery or happiness. The beginning point of the teaching is the ordinary mind, in bondage and subject to suffering; the end point is the enlightened mind, completely purified and liberated from suffering. The whole teaching unfolds between these two points, taking the most direct route.
Characteristic Features of the Teaching
Self-reliance. This discussion of the aim of the Buddha’s teaching leads us to the teaching’s characteristic features. One of its most attractive features, closely related to its psychological orientation, is its emphasis on self-reliance. For the Buddha, the key to liberation is mental purity and correct understanding, and for this reason he rejects the notion that we can gain salvation by leaning on any external authority. He says: “By oneself is evil done, by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone, by oneself is one purified. Purity and defilement depend on oneself; no one can purify another” (Dhp 165).
This stress on human effort, on our capacity to liberate ourselves, is a distinctive feature of early Buddhism and offers a remarkable affirmation of the human potential. The Buddha does not claim any divine status for himself, nor does he assert that he is an agent of human salvation. He claims to be, not a personal savior, but a guide and teacher: “You yourselves must strive, the Buddha only points the way. Those who meditate and practice the path are freed from the bonds of death” (Dhp 276). Throughout his ministry he urged his disciples to “be islands to yourselves, be refuges to yourselves, without looking to any external refuge.” Even on his deathbed he gave his followers this last piece of advice: “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Attain the goal by diligence.”
Experiential Emphasis. Since wisdom or insight is the chief instrument of enlightenment, the Buddha always asked his disciples to follow him on the basis of their own understanding, not from obedience or unquestioning trust. He calls his Dhamma ehipassiko, which means “Come and see for yourself.” He invites inquirers to investigate his teaching, to examine it in the light of their own reason and intelligence, and to gain confirmation of its truth for themselves. The Dhamma is said to be paccattam veditabbo viññuhi, “to be personally understood by the wise,” and this requires intelligence and sustained inquiry.
Once the Buddha arrived at the town of a people called the Kalamas, who had been visited by many other ascetics. Each visiting teacher would praise his own doctrine to the sky and tear down the views of his rivals, and this left the Kalamas utterly confused. So when the Buddha arrived they came to him, explained their dilemma, and asked if he could offer some guidance.
The Buddha did not praise his own teaching and attack his rivals. Rather, he told them:
It is right for you to doubt; doubt has arisen in you about dubious matters. Come, Kalamas, do not rely on oral tradition, or on the lineage of teachers, or on holy scriptures, or on abstract logic. Do not place blind trust in impressive personalities or in venerated gurus, but examine the issue for yourselves. When you know for yourselves that something is unwholesome and harmful, then you should reject it. And when you know for yourselves that something is wholesome and beneficial, then you should accept it and put it into practice.
— AN 3.65
Universality. Because the Buddha’s teaching deals with the most universal of all human problems, the problem of suffering, he made his teaching a universal message, one which was addressed to all human beings solely by reason of their humanity. At the time the Buddha appeared on the Indian scene the higher religious teachings, recorded in the Vedas, were reserved for the brahmans, a privileged elite who performed sacrifices and rituals for others. Ordinary people were told to perform their duties in a spirit of humility in the hope that they might win a more fortunate rebirth and thus gain access to the sacred teachings. But the Buddha placed no restrictions on the people to whom he taught the Dhamma. He held that what made a person noble was his personal character and conduct, not his family and caste status. Thus he opened the doors of liberation to people of all social classes. Brahmans, kings and princes, merchants, farmers, workers, even outcasts — all were welcome to hear the Dhamma without discrimination, and many from the lower classes attained the highest stage of enlightenment.
Within the wider Indian society the Buddha did not attempt to abolish the caste system, which, it seems, had not yet developed into the complex, oppressive system it became several centuries later. However, he flatly rejected the orthodox brahman view that a person’s class status was an indication of his intrinsic worth. Within the Sangha, the monastic order, he completely disregarded all distinctions of social class, declaring,
Just as the waters of the four great rivers flow into the ocean and become known simply as the water of the ocean, so when people of all four social classes go forth as monks in my teaching, they give up their social status and become known simply as disciples of the Buddha.
— Ud 5.5
As part of his universalist project, the Buddha also threw open the doors of his teaching to women. Among the followers of Brahmanism, sacred teachings were the province of men. Women were to perform their domestic chores dutifully, to care for their husbands and in-laws, and to bear children, preferably sons. They were excluded from performing the Vedic rituals and even the teachings of the Upanishads were, with rare exceptions, the prerogative of men. The Buddha, in contrast, taught the Dhamma freely to both men and women. At first he hesitated to establish an order of nuns, since this would have been a radical step in his age; but once he agreed to create the order of nuns, women from all walks of life — princesses, housewives, daughters of good family, servant women, even former prostitutes — went forth into homelessness and attained the highest goal.
A Code of Ethics. One aspect of the Buddha’s universalism deserves special mention: this is his conception of a universal code of ethics. It would be too extreme to say that the Buddha was the first religious teacher to formulate a moral code, for moral codes of different kinds had been laid down from the dawn of civilization. But it might not be farfetched to say that the Buddha was one of the very first teachers to separate out true moral principles from the complex fabric of social norms and communal customs with which they were generally interwoven.
With astute sophistication of thought, the Buddha provides for us an abstract principle to use as a guideline in determining the basic precepts of morality. This is the rule of “using oneself as a standard” (attanam upamam katva) for deciding how to treat others. From this abstract principle, he derives the four main precepts of his moral code: to abstain from killing, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, and from lying. In the interest of personal welfare and communal harmony he adds a fifth: to abstain from intoxicants. Together, these give us the Five Precepts (pañcasila), the basic moral code of Buddhism.
The Buddha, however, did not regard morality merely as a set of rules based on reasoning. He taught that there is a universal law which connects our conduct with our personal destinies, ensuring that moral justice ultimately prevails in the world. This is the law of karma and its fruit, which holds that our intentional actions determine the type of rebirth we take and the diverse experiences we undergo in the course of our lives. This law is utterly impersonal in its operation. It gives no one preferential treatment; it recognizes no VIPs or favorites, but works with absolute uniformity towards all. Those who violate the laws of morality — whether they be high class or low class, rich or poor — acquire unwholesome karma and must suffer the consequences: a bad rebirth and future misery. Those who adhere to the moral rules, who engage in virtuous conduct, acquire wholesome karma leading to future benefits: a good rebirth, a happy life, and progress on the way to final liberation.
In conformity with the psychological orientation of his teaching, the Buddha gave special attention to the subjective springs of morality. He traces immoral behavior to three mental factors called the “three unwholesome roots” — greed, hatred, and delusion; and he traces ethical behavior to their opposites, the three wholesome roots — non-greed or generosity, non-hate or kindness, and non-delusion or wisdom. He also directs us to a more refined interior level of ethical purity to be achieved by developing, in meditation, four lofty attitudes called the “divine abodes” (brahma-vihara). These are loving-kindness (metta), the wish for the happiness and welfare of all beings; compassion (karuna), the wish that all afflicted with suffering be freed from their suffering; altruistic joy (mudita), rejoicing in the happiness and success of others; and equanimity (upekkha), impartiality of mind. These four attitudes are to be developed universally, towards all beings without distinctions or discrimination.
Before I close there is one further feature of the Buddha’s method that I want to mention. This is what might be called his “skill in means.” Through his deep meditative attainments and his enlightened wisdom, the Buddha had the special ability to discover the precise way to teach the people who came to him for guidance. He could read deep into the hidden recesses of a person’s heart, perceive that person’s aptitudes and interests, and frame his teaching in the exact way needed to transform that person and lead him or her on to the path of freedom. The texts abound in many examples of this supreme pedagogic skill of the Buddha. Here I will relate just two famous instances.
The first is the case of Angulimala, a serial killer who lived in the forests of Kosala outside the capital Savatthi. Angulimala repeatedly attacked travelers, killed them, and cut off their fingers, which he wove into a necklace that he wore around his neck. He had killed hundreds of people and was feared throughout the kingdom. He was “wanted dead or alive,” but no one had the courage to pursue him. The Buddha saw, however, with his supernormal vision, that Angulimala had another side to his character: as terrible as he was, he had the hidden potential to become an arahant, a saint. Thus one day, all alone, he headed out for the forest where Angulimala was dwelling.
When Angulimala saw him he thought, “Ah, now I will kill this ascetic and cut off his finger for my necklace.” He started to run after him with his knife poised in the air. But no matter how fast he ran he could not reach him. For the Buddha, while walking along slowly, had performed a feat of psychic power such that Angulimala, running with all his might, could not catch up with him. Angulimala ran and ran but could not gain an inch. He then called out, “Stop, ascetic, stop!” The Buddha replied, “I have stopped, Angulimala, you stop too.”
This statement had a deep impact on the criminal, an impact which struck down to the depths of his heart. He realized that the ascetic before him was the famous teacher, the Enlightened One, and he knew the Buddha had come to him out of compassion, to save him from his terrible deeds. He threw away his knife, bowed down at the Master’s feet, and asked to be accepted as a monk. The Buddha admitted him into the order and after a short time Angulimala became an arahant, perfectly wise and deeply compassionate.
The second story concerns the woman Kisagotami. She was a poor woman who had married into a wealthy family, but she did not bear children and was thus scorned by her in-laws. This made her very miserable. But after some time she conceived and gave birth to a son, who became for her the source of boundless joy. Now that she had brought forth an heir to their wealth, everyone else in her husband’s family too accepted her. But a few months after his birth the child died, and Kisagotami became distraught. She refused to believe the boy was dead, but convinced herself he was only ill. Thus she went around everywhere asking people to give her medicine for her son.
The townsfolk ridiculed her and abused her, calling her a mad woman, until she finally came into the presence of the Buddha. When she asked him for medicine, he did not give her an eloquent sermon on impermanence. He told her that he could indeed make some medicine for her son, but first she would have to bring him one ingredient: mustard seeds from a home where no one had ever died. Quite optimistic, she went from house to house, asking for mustard seeds. At each door people readily gave her seeds, but when she asked the donor whether anyone in that home had ever died, she was told, “Here a father has died, here a mother, here a wife, here a husband, a brother, a sister,” and so on.
She thus came to see that death is the universal fate of all living beings, not a unique calamity that befell her own son. So she returned to the Buddha, aware now of the universal law of impermanence. When the Master saw her coming he asked her, “Did you bring the mustard seeds, Gotami?” And she replied: “Done, sir, is this business of the mustard seeds. Grant me a refuge.” The Buddha had her ordained as a nun, and after some time she realized the highest goal and became one of the most eminent nuns in the Bhikkhuni Sangha or Order of Nuns.
To sum up, the Buddha’s mission was to establish a path to spiritual perfection, to full enlightenment and Nibbana, liberation from suffering. He did this by propounding a teaching that acknowledged our capacity for attaining spiritual perfection yet which also remained fully respectful of the intelligence and autonomy of human beings. His approach was psychological in orientation, non-dogmatic, pragmatic, and open to investigation. He emphasized self-effort, moral rectitude, and personal responsibility, and he proclaimed his message universally, holding that the potential for spiritual growth and even for the highest enlightenment was accessible to anyone who makes the appropriate effort. It is these factors that give to the ancient teaching of the Buddha such a distinctly modern flavor, making it so relevant to us in these times of shifting ideas and changing values.