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What is Theravada Buddhism ? (part III)

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by John Bullitt
Copyright © 2002 John Bullitt For free distribution only.

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Meditation and the Practice of Dhamma

The eightfold path is an active one -- there is real work to be done -- and the Buddha laid out a broad array of concrete tools and practices to help the practitioner stay on course. The deliberate practice of virtue (sila) ensures that one doesn't stray wildly off the path and into harm's way.
The practice of generosity (dana) helps erode the heart's habitual tendencies towards craving and teaches valuable lessons about the motivations behind, and the results of, skillful action (see kamma).
The cultivation of loving kindness (metta) helps to undermine anger's seductive grasp.
The ten recollections include practical methods to help alleviate doubt (recollection of the Buddha), accept physical pain (recollection of the Sangha), maintain a healthy sense of self-respect (recollections of one's past generosity and virtue), overcome laziness and complacency (recollection of death), and moderate lust (contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body). And there is much more.

The good qualities that naturally emerge and deepen as a result of these practices not only smooth the way for the journey to Nibbana; they also have the immediate effect of helping the practitioner become a more generous, loving, compassionate, peaceful, and clear-headed member of society.

There is thus no basis to the charge occasionally leveled at Theravada Buddhism that it is somehow a "selfish" path. Each of these methods helps strengthen, to varying degrees, the path factors of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The meditation practices that utilize the four frames of reference (or "foundations of mindfulness"), mindfulness of the body, and mindfulness of breathing take this development a step further, by balancing the twin qualities of tranquillity (samatha) and clear-seeing, or insight (vipassana).

As these qualities mature, and as the meditator becomes more adept at applying the combined powers of samatha-vipassana to investigate deeply into the nature of mind and body, even the most subtle flickerings of dukkha are brought into exquisitely sharp focus.[6] At the same time, the root cause of dukkha -- craving -- is gradually brought into the light of awareness. Eventually, after persistent practice, craving is left with fewer and fewer places to hide, the entire karmic process that fabricates dukkha begins to unravel, the eightfold path reaches its climax, and the meditator gains, at long last, his or her first unmistakable glimpse of the Unfabricated (Nibbana).

This enlightenment experience, known as stream entry (sotapatti), is the first of four progressive stages of Awakening, each of which entails the irreversible shedding or weakening of some of the fetters (samyojana), the manifestations of ignorance that bind a person to the cycle of birth and death. Stream entry marks an unprecedented and radical turning point both in the practitioner's current life and in the entirety of his or her long journey in samsara. For it is at this point that any lingering doubts about the truth of the Buddha's teachings fall away; it is at this point that any belief in the purifying efficacy of rites and rituals evaporates; and it is at this point that the long-cherished notion of an abiding personal "self" disappears.
The stream-enterer is said to be assured of no more than seven future rebirths (all of them favorable) before eventually attaining full Awakening. But full Awakening is still a long way off.

As the practitioner presses on with diligence, he or she passes through two more significant landmarks: once-returning (sakadagati), which is accompanied by the weakening of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will, and non-returning (agati), in which these two fetters are uprooted altogether. The final stage of Awakening -- arahatta -- occurs when even the most refined and subtle levels of craving and conceit are extinguished, once and for all.

At this point the practitioner -- now an arahant, or "worthy one" -- has finally arrived at the end-point of the Buddha's teaching. With suffering, stress, and rebirth having all come to an end, the arahant at last can utter the victory cry that was first proclaimed by the Buddha upon his Awakening: Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done.
There is nothing further for the sake of this world. [MN 36] The arahant lives out the rest of his or her life inwardly enjoying the bliss of Nibbana, secure from the possibility of any future rebirth. Although language cannot describe what, exactly, takes place when the arahant finally dies, the Buddha likened the event to what happens when a fire goes out, having at last burned up all its fuel.

"The serious pursuit of happiness".

Buddhism is sometimes naïvely criticized as a "negative" or "pessimistic" religion and philosophy. After all (so the argument goes) life is not all misery and disappointment: it offers many kinds of joy and happiness. Why then this pessimistic Buddhist obsession with unsatisfactoriness and suffering? The Buddha based his teachings on a frank assessment of our plight as humans: there is unsatisfactoriness and suffering in the world. No one can argue this fact. Were the Buddha's teachings to stop there, we might indeed regard them as pessimistic and life as utterly hopeless. But, like a doctor who prescribes a remedy for an illness, the Buddha offers hope (the third Noble Truth) and a cure (the fourth). The Buddha's teachings thus give cause for an extraordinary degree of optimism in a complex, confusing, and difficult world. One modern teacher summed it up well: "Buddhism is the serious pursuit of happiness."

Theravada Comes West

Until the late 19th century, the teachings of Theravada were little known outside of Southern and Southeast Asia, where they had flourished for some two and one-half millennia. In the last century, however, the West has begun to take notice of Theravada's unique spiritual legacy and teachings of Awakening. In recent decades, this interest has swelled, with the monastic Sangha from the various schools within Theravada establishing dozens of monasteries across Europe and North America. In addition, a growing number of lay meditation centers in the West, operating independently of the Sangha, currently strain to meet the demands of lay men and women -- Buddhist and otherwise -- seeking to learn selected aspects of the Buddha's teachings.
The turn of the 21st century presents both opportunities and dangers for Theravada in the West: Will the Buddha's teachings be patiently studied and put into practice, so that they may be allowed to establish deep roots in Western soil, for the benefit of many generations to come? Will the current popular climate of "openness" and cross-fertilization between spiritual traditions lead to the emergence of a strong new form of Buddhist practice unique to the modern era, or will it simply lead to the dilution and confusion of these priceless teachings? These are open questions; only time will tell. Fortunately, the Buddha gave some very clear guidelines to help us find our way through the perplexing maze of purportedly "Buddhist" teachings that are available to us today. Whenever you find yourself questioning the authenticity of a particular teaching, heed well the Buddha's advice to his stepmother:
The qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome': You may definitely hold, 'This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher's instruction.' As for the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome': You may definitely hold, 'This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.' [AN VIII.53] The truest test of these teachings, of course, is whether they yield the promised results in the crucible of your own heart. The Buddha presents a challenge; the rest is up to you

. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Notes 1. Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Guide Through The Abhidhamma Pitaka (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1971), pp. 60ff. [Go back] 2. Mahayana today includes Zen, Ch'an, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land Buddhism. [Go back] 3. A third major branch of Buddhism emerged much later (ca. 8th century CE) in India: Vajrayana, the "Diamond Vehicle." Vajrayana's elaborate system of esoteric initiations, tantric rituals, and mantra recitations eventually spread north into central and east Asia, leaving a particularly strong imprint on Tibetan Buddhism. [Go back] 4. For more about the complex history of the many schools of Buddhism see The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997). [Go back] 5. Modern scholarship suggests that Pali was probably never spoken by the Buddha himself. In the centuries after the Buddha's death, as Buddhism spread across India into regions that spoke different dialects, Buddhist monks increasingly depended on a common tongue for their discussions of Dhamma and their recitations of memorized texts. It was out of this necessity that the language we now know as Pali emerged. See Bhikkhu Bodhi's Introduction in Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999), pp. 1ff, and n. 1 (p. 275) and "The Pali Language and Literature" by the Pali Text Society (»; 15 April 2002). [Go back] 6. This description of the unified role of samatha and vipassana is based upon the Buddha's meditation teachings that appear in the suttas (see "One Tool Among Many" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). The Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, by contrast, clearly state that samatha and vipassana are two distinct meditation paths (see, for example, The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation by H. Gunaratana, ch. 5). It is difficult to reconcile these two views of samatha's role just from studying the texts; any remaining doubts and concerns about meditation are probably best resolved through the actual practice of meditation
] -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Revised: Mon 24 March 2003