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What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught (1959)

by Walpola Rahula

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A Therevada Buddhist monk lays out the basic doctrine of that tradition, to which most varieties of Buddhism you're likely to encounter owe some debt. ( )
  phrontist | Jun 1, 2011 |
Excellent material but for a beginner (this was my first book on Buddhism) it was a tough slog. Worth it, though! ( )
  thesmellofbooks | Jan 9, 2009 |
A very good introduction to Buddhism. Most of all, I found the chapter on lay practice and Buddhism's relevance today very rewarding to read. Put a lot of things straight for me. ( )
  refuge | Aug 14, 2008 |
An intelligent, concise (but not superficial) treatment of the basic teachings. It's all in here. This slim volume is one of the best introductions to Buddhist thought I've come across. ( )
1 vote sbnicar | Jan 25, 2007 |
What the Buddha Taught
by Walpola Rahula

The Practice of Buddhism is the Heart of Buddhism, January 17, 2007

The first thing that strikes one upon reading this text is the entirely this-worldly character of Buddhist thought. Like the philosophers that we are familiar with in the West the Buddha ("The Enlightened One") does not claim to be other than a man or posses other than human knowledge. That is, the Buddha is not a god or a recipient of a god's revelation. Now, unlike our modern philosophers, the Buddha does not deny the existence of the gods; perhaps even more radically - he ignores them. According to our author, Walpola Sri Rahula, the Buddha teaches that, "man's emancipation depends on his own realization of the truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a god or any external power..." This does indeed remind one of Kant's definition of Enlightenment as adulthood. In a nutshell, no one can grant adulthood to you - you must achieve it yourself. In fact, according to our author, the Buddha goes so far as to advise us to be, "not led by the authority of religious texts..." And he adds that the Buddha "discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves." Any modern philosopher (Kant, Hegel, e.g.) would say the same of his path (i.e., philosophy).

Our author quotes with approval the following remark of one Buddhist monk (or bhikkhu) to another:

"without devotion, faith or belief, without liking or inclination, without hearsay or tradition, without considering apparent reasons, without delight in the speculations of opinions, I know and see that the cessation of becoming is Nirvana."

What is required for Buddhistic Enlightenment is the modesty of reason, not the enthusiasm and hubris of speculation, which always brings in its wake the indignation of warring factions. Buddhists tell us with deserved pride that there are no Buddhist wars, crusades or jihads. One comes to Enlightenment not by reciting some articles of faith but by thinking things through on ones own. Our author correctly reminds us that with Buddhism it "is always a question of knowing and seeing, and not that of believing."

So, the Buddha, the Enlightened One, brings knowledge - not faith. It seems to follow that it is not necessary to be a 'Buddhist' to achieve salvation, i.e., enlightenment. Indeed, our author goes on to say that if "the medicine is good, the disease will be cured. It is not necessary to know who prepared it, or where it came from." The comparison of the Buddhist teaching to a type of medicine is very interesting. Medicine is a very practical discipline, concerned with alleviating the suffering (Dukkha, this term can also mean: conflict, unsatisfactoriness, unsubstantiality, emptiness) of those it treats. If a person is healthy he needs no medicine at all. Thus what shined through to me (a non-Buddhist) in reading this book is that the Buddha teaches a series of behaviors, or, if you prefer, a circle of practices, whose only purpose is to protect the individual from all suffering - whether the suffering is produced by will, desire or thought. The Buddha clearly judged his teachings not on their truth content but rather on their results; that is, on the type of lives his followers would live. So, one could perhaps infer that when a patient is cured he no longer has the slightest need for the medicine...

Rahula's recounting of a story about what the Buddha replied when asked by a young Brahmin to explain "the idea of maintaining or protecting the truth" might illustrate the point:

'A man has a faith. If he says "This is my faith", so far he maintains truth. But by that he cannot proceed to the absolute conclusion: "This alone is Truth, and everything else is false".'
Rahula immediately adds, in his own voice, "In other words, a man may believe what he likes, and he may say 'I believe this'. So far he respects truth. But because of his belief or faith, he should not say that what he believes is alone the Truth, and everything else is false.
The Buddha says: 'To be attached to one thing (to a certain view) and to look down upon other things (views) as inferior - this the wise men call a fetter'."

Now, does this mean that all the ideologies and revelations that demand that everyone be an adherent of their particular view are, according to the Buddha, fetters? ...No? 'Oh, but the fetters are so sweet' we hear many replying, 'how could they be fetters?' Not only Christians and Liberals but also far too many Buddhists that one meets (at least here in the West) are very interested, if not obsessed, in what we in the West might call theology, ontology and metaphysics. That is, the Truth of what might be called the 'Whole' or the Cosmos. But did the Buddha share this obsession? Our author tells a wonderful story about what the Buddha knew and what he taught:

"He took a few leaves in his hand, and asked his disciples: 'What do you think? O bhikkhus? Which is more? These few leaves in my hand or the leaves in the forest over here?'
'Sir, very few are the leaves in the hand of the Blessed One, but indeed the leaves in the Simsapa forest over here are very much more abundant.'
'Even so, Bhikkhus, of what I have known I have told you only a little, what I have not told you is very much more. And why have I not told you (those things)? Because that is not useful... not leading to Nirvana. That is why I have not told you those things'."

Knowledge of the Whole, whatever it might be, does not lead to enlightenment! Today, we who are influenced by philosophy would, following the Buddha on this point, speak of the abyss that (seemingly) forever looms between theory and practice. But the 'mania' of theory nevertheless insists upon showing each leaf to every inhabitant in the forest in the name of some 'Truth', while the moderation of philosophical practice remains helpless when trying to control the strife that inevitably results between the various (Christianity, Socialism, Islam, and Fascism, e.g.) possessors of 'Truth'. We are now perhaps in a position to say that post-classical western philosophy (i.e., theory) has been the process of showing every leaf in the forest to everyone. - No matter what the consequences! One day it may well be said that western philosophy showed everything except the 'practical truths' that the Buddha held in his hand. ...One day.

Be that as it may, the "Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems." In fact the Buddha compares teachings to a raft and then wonders at those that say, "This raft was a great help to me. With its aid I have crossed safely over [...] It would be good if I carry this raft on my head or my back wherever I go." Thus Man goes from the correct use of a raft (i.e., a teaching), to help one across a river, to the incorrect carrying of rafts when they are no longer needed. Note that these 'rafts' only have a practical value. What determines their value is purely the circumstances one happens to be in. But did the Buddha think of his own teachings in this manner? Our author tells a wonderful story of how the Buddha, in a debate with a representative of Jaina Mahavira, refused to allow the man to become a Buddhist! ("When Upali expressed his desire again, the Buddha requested him to continue to respect and support his old religious teachers as he used to.") Why? Well, Rahula says this is an instance demonstrating the Buddha's tolerance. In my opinion this explanation is incoherent; all of the Buddha's followers came from other religious traditions, was the Buddha being intolerant when he accepted them as his followers? No, the reason the Buddha didn't let the Jain Upali convert was that he was sent to debate him by Jaina Mahavira himself and such a conversion could only lead to conflict. In other words, the Buddha looked at circumstances to evaluate this particular conversion and quite admirably concluded that circumstances trumped doctrine...

Another story told by Rahula shows the Buddha refusing to answer questions about the eternity and infinity of the universe, about the relation between soul and body, and existence after death put to him by Malunkyaputta, one of his own monks. Why doesn't the Buddha answer these questions?

"Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. That is why I have not told you about them.
Then what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation tranquility, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them."

So we see the overriding importance that the Buddha assigned to the practical and results. The Buddha did not preach some Truth, he presented a cure to suffering (dukkha). The Buddha laughed that people carry their rafts (ideologies and revelations) when they are no longer needed, but today, the various possessors of 'truth' even use the rafts as an excuse to hate and kill. In the Buddha the moderation inherent in philosophical practice triumphed, but in the world around us it is the mania of theory and speculation that has triumphed. If the moderation of practice triumphs in the future we can create a world in which all can live; if not, there is no future at all...

Rahula ends this book, fittingly, with the last words of the Buddha. "'Then, Bhikkhus, I address you now: Transient are conditioned things. Try to accomplish your aim with diligence." One stands in awe, and gratitude, of how one so dedicated to extinction (i.e., Nirvana) could so actively and tirelessly pursue his aim. Now, this book contains only a small selection (pp 92 - 138) of the sayings of the Buddha and it was from the last text in this section that this last quote comes from. There is also a very helpful, but still too brief, glossary with an even briefer bibliography also included. Rahula's study and the selected texts are based upon the earliest texts (the so-called Pali texts) of the Buddha's sayings that have come down to us.

The moderation, care and single-minded pursuit of his goal by the Buddha are what we should perhaps be most grateful for... ( )
6 vote pomonomo2003 | Jan 25, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Walpola Rahulaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Demiéville, PaulForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Among the founders of religions the Buddha (if we are permitted to call him the founder of a religion in the popular sense of the term) was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.
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275 p. : tu ; 19 cm.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802130313, Paperback)

Beneath the enormous umbrella of Buddhism, there is a diverse galaxy of customs and beliefs, but there is also a kernel of truth that every sect holds dear. Rahula Walpola, scholar and monk, discovers this foundation of Buddhism for us first through straightforward explication, never skipping over a point that has yet to be substantiated, then through translations from key scriptures. Logical and focused, these are the essentials of Buddhism; know them first, then move comfortably on to other Buddhist works.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:26 -0400)

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Drawing on the words actually spoken by the Buddha, Rahula gives a full account of his fundamental teachings, from the Buddhist attitude of mind and meditation to the Buddha's teaching in the contemporary world.

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