The three levels of Buddhist teaching are called 'vehicles' because they comprise the teachings and methods that will carry us to enlightenment, in much the same way that vehicles carry us to our destination in everyday life. Therevada is the foundation level of Buddhism. Just as a house needs a solid foundation in order to be strong, so also do the other Buddhist vehicles or paths need the solid foundation that Therevada provides.
We start building this foundation by focusing on ourselves. Consequently, the Therevada path is an individual journey of discovery and freedom. We face the confusion and difficulty in our lives, identify its causes and then seek to uproot them by practising the skilful means of the path, such as doing no harm, behaving in a wholesome manner and training the mind through meditation. As these aspects of the Therevada are mastered, the Mahayana aspiration to guide all sentient beings to enlightenment becomes possible. Without first putting our own house in order, however, we will not be able truly to help others. We start putting our house in order by cultivating renunciation.
This is the heart of the Therevada path. Renunciation means that we clearly look at how we are living our lives and what forces are driving it. The great insight of the Buddha was that normal life is pervaded by dukkha or suffering. His perception was that everything is in a state of perpetual change, that nothing lasts, and so holding onto things as if they are solid and permanent brings us nothing but dissatisfaction, unhappiness and pain. So what we renounce are our unhelpful and habitual ways of doing things because they cause suffering. Instead we try to live life in a more realistic and conscious way that will allow us to develop wisdom and compassion. We start this process by taking refuge.
This is the way in which we formally become a Buddhist and it lays the foundation for all that follows on the Buddhist path. The notion of 'refuge' is one of seeking guidance and inspiration as we travel the path to enlightenment. It is a support for us as we purify our mind of its limiting patterns and cultivate wholesome qualities. We take refuge in three things: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. They are often referred to as the Three Jewels because they are seen as rare and precious gifts.
- Refuge in the Buddha. The first thing we take refuge in is the historical Buddha himself. Since he achieved enlightenment, he showed us that it can be achieved by ordinary people. So we look to him as a role model and inspiration to help us along our own path towards liberation from the cycle of birth and death and suffering.
- Refuge in the Dharma. The second thing we take refuge in is the Dharma, which is the Buddha's vast and profound body of teachings. Initially these teachings and methods are simply learnt and applied to our lives as best we can, but as we practice them and integrate them into our daily experience, the Dharma becomes a vivid inner process of awakening.
- Refuge in the Sangha. The third thing we take refuge is the Sangha, whichis the community of experienced and committed Buddhists who have helped preserve the Buddha's teachings throughout the ages right down to the present day. We seek refuge in them to provide support and guidance as we practice the Dharma. Of particular value to us are those dharma teachers, known as 'realised beings', who have attained unshakeable insight into the true nature of mind.
On Taking Refuge
Once we have taken refuge we commit to living our lives according to certain ethical guidelines. In this respect, the Therevada is also called 'the path of details' in that close attention is paid to cultivating discipline and ethical conduct. In building the foundation of a house we need to pay careful attention to the details of construction, otherwise the whole structure will be unstable. Therefore, once we have committed ourselves to the Buddhist path,we build this strong foundation by living our lives according to the principles of not harming any living beings and performing wholesome actions wherever possible. For lay practitioners these ethical guidelines are based on the Ten Virtues. They apply to our actions of body, speech and mind:
- Not intentionally killing any living beings. Instead saving and protecting life.
- Not taking things that do not belong to us. Instead being generous with our wealth and possessions.
- Not engaging in sexual activity that causes harm to ourselves or others. Instead maintaining healthy sexual relationships.
- Not lying. Instead speaking truthfully
- Not saying things that will provoke discord amongst other people. Instead patching up quarrels caused by slander.
- Not speaking harshly and negatively to other people. Instead speaking in a kind and gentle manner.
- Not engaging in idle gossip and chatter. Instead talking in a meaningful way about worthwhile topics.
Attitudes of Mind
- Not being envious of the property and possessions of others. Instead rejoicing in the good fortune of others.
- Not resenting others for their happiness and good fortune. Instead cultivating loving-kindness and thinking only of their benefit.
- Not holding incorrect views about the true nature of things, such as the law of karma, cause and effect. Nonetheless maintaining tolerance of other philosophies and religious traditions, while still adhering to one's own.
Four Noble Truths
The central teaching of the Therevada vehicle is the Four Noble Truths. This was the very first teaching that the Buddha gave after he attained enlightenment. It is also referred to as the "First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma" because it represents the first phase of the Buddha's teaching. It is called a "wheel" because it is a means for travelling the path to enlightenment in much the same way that a wheel enables a vehicle to move along a road.
The Four Noble Truths are:
1. Suffering exists. This truth means that everything that exists is unstable and in a state of continual change. Nothing is truly satisfactory because nothing lasts. There are three aspects to this truth:
- The actual experience of suffering, such as feeling pain and discomfort.
- The suffering that comes from change and impermanence, such as not getting what onewants or losing what one cherishes.
- The suffering that comes with being alive and embodied. It is the suffering of being limited and conditioned and can manifest in the feelings of loneliness and alienation.
2. Suffering has a cause. This truth explains that the underlying cause of suffering is an attachment to a sense of 'me' - to the perception that we are an individual separate from everything else. This belief causes us to feel powerful desire, aversion and confusion. As a consequence, we grasp onto things and become identified with them, but because everything is impermanent and ever-changing, we inevitably suffer loss. Otherwise, we feel strong aversion towards something and try to push it away; but because everything is impermanent and ever-changing, at some point we are forced to confront what we dislike and this causes us suffering. This cycle of suffering and being bound to our patterns of aversion and attachment is called samsara or the "cycle of conditioned existence". Moment by moment and lifetime after lifetime, we perpetuate these patterns of grasping and aversion, always fiercely attached to who we think we are; and in so doing, we repeatedly experience dissatisfaction and sorrow.
3. Suffering can end. This is the "truth of nirvana". Nirvana is described by Sariputra, one of the Buddha's main disciples, as a "the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred and the extinction of illusion." It is a state of profound peace unsullied by mental activity and attachment to a self.
4. There is a path to the ending of suffering. This is the truth of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is the essence of the Middle Way, the path between the extremes of self indulgence and denial. It contains eight interrelated aspects that make up the "skilful living" that the Buddha taught is necessary to uproot suffering and its causes, and to sever the cycle of conditioned existence.
The Noble Eightfold Path comprises the three essentials of Buddhist training: ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. (Please note that 'right' in this instance means 'skilful and wise'.)
There are three components of ethical conduct:
1. Right Speech
2. Right Action
3. Right Livelihood
There are three components of mental development:
4. Right Effort
5. Right Mindfulness
6. Right Concentration
And finally, for a total of eight, there are two components of wisdom:
7. Right View
8. Right Intention
The root cause of suffering, according to the Four Noble Truths, is attachment to a fixed sense of self, while the liberating insight of the Buddha was that what we take to be 'me' is merely a label that we apply to our changing experience of body and mind. It is not who we really are. In essence 'me' is an illusion. This view of no-self or "anatta" is what distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions.
We tend to see ourselves as being a single, permanent and independent personality, but if we examine our experience more closely we see that our thoughts and feelings are changing all the time. One moment we feel happy, then something happens and we feel sad. Then someone distracts our attention and our mood shifts again. We are used to thinking of this constantly shifting process as 'me' - as a fixed entity to whom these things are happening. From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, however, there is no fixed entity called 'I'. Instead 'I' is simply a label that we apply to this continuous flow of physical sensations and mental phenomena. It is not something separate that experiences it.
The problem comes when we behave as if there is a single, permanent self, base our life around this assumption and become emotionally attached to our sense of self. We are then at odds with the way things are. Everything that we identify with as 'I': my body, my feelings, my thoughts, my life - all of these things are composed of many physical and mental processes that are interconnected and changing moment by moment. So our assumption of 'me' being single, permanent and independent is simply not true. Everything is composite, changing and interdependent. This mistaken perception is the fundamental cause of suffering, called ignorance, from which all other forms of suffering spring.
The physical and mental processes that make up our ever-changing personality are classified into five groups called aggregates (or skandhas in Sanskrit).
The Five Aggregates are:
4. Mental formations
The first aggregate - form - comprises the material elements of our physical existence. This includes our sense faculties and their objects. Feelings of pleasure, pain or neutrality arise when a sense faculty makes contact with an object, such as hearing a beautiful birdsong and feeling happy. Perception is the recognition of the sound and naming it, as for example identifying what kind of bird is singing. Mental formations are the thoughts and emotions that arise in relation to one's feelings and perceptions, as for example thinking 'I would like to get up every morning and listen to that beautiful bird singing'.
Consciousness is what links the senses with their objects and enables us to have awareness of them. There are five consciousness pertaining to each of the five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste; and a sixth consciousness pertaining to the mind. This consciousness co-ordinates the input from the five senses and experiences thoughts and feelings.
When the five aggregates are working together in combination, we develop the idea of 'me' as someone who is doing this seeing, feeling, thinking, etc, but this is merely a mental construct, much the same as we develop the idea of a 'stream' when we see drops of water aggregated together. It remains that this is just an idea - a mental formation - and what is really there are simply the five aggregates working together.
Although on an ultimate level self is an illusion, we experience 'self' at a relative or everyday level happens because of ignorance and karma. When we fixate on a sense of 'me', we then perceive everything else as 'other than me' and our way of relating to things is conditioned by this separation. This is the meaning of 'ignorance' in Buddhism. This sense of separation causes us to develop feelings of attachment and aversion. We then act on these emotions, seeking to be nearer things that we like, pushing things away that we don't like and ignoring the rest. Like planting a seed, which bears fruit, these actions produce results. In Buddhism, this cycle of actions and results is called "karma". Furthermore, the Buddha taught that if we act in unskilful ways we experience suffering and if we act in skilful ways we experience happiness.
Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination
The Twelve Links describe in detail how the process of karma works. According to this teaching, the life that we are now living is not something that has just happened by itself, it is not a 'one off' experience. Instead, it is part of an on-going process of actions and results over many lifetimes. Our current life has been moulded in the way it has because of things that we did in former lives. In the same way, what we are doing now is shaping what our next life will be like. In Buddhism, this is called the process of interdependent origination, meaning that things originate from each other and depend upon each other.
This process is going on all the time and is unbroken. We are the way we are now due to how we acted in the past. Depending on how we act now, we shape the future. This circular, on-going process is often compared to a wheel in Buddhism. It is the famous analogy for samsara: a wheel that turns round and round and round.
The process starts with ignorance because it is ignorance which causes the mistaken perception of reality that happens when the mind contracts around a sense of a 'me', thus separating 'me' from what is 'other' or 'not me'. Once ignorance is present, it starts the process of 'becoming', which is made up of the Twelve Links of Independent Origination. This process is the force which propels sentient beings through samsara and results in them taking birth in different realms of existence.
The Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination are called 'links' because each one is the cause of the next one. They don't happen independently. Instead, they behave like a row of dominoes lined up next to one another. If you push the first one over it knocks down the second one, which knocks over the third one and so on. In a similar way, when the first link occurs, it then causes the second link to happen and this in turn causes the third link to occur and so on. These links describe our moment by moment experience of the world, as well as the life cycle of an individual.
The Twelve Links are:
1. Ignorance produces
2. Karma (the law of cause and effect) produces
3. Consciousness produces
4. Form produces
5. Senses produce
6. Contact produces
7. Feeling produces
8. Craving produces
9. Grasping produces
10. Becoming produces
11. Birth produces
12. Aging and death
And death starts the cycle of existence over again by producing a state of unknowing or ignorance.