November 11, 2020; revised #1, #3, #10 on November 12, 2020
The Need for a Systematic Approach
1. Tipitaka (Tripitaka in Sanskrit) is the Pāli Canon, which contains the teachings of the Buddha. It is self-consistent. It is also a vast collection of texts (in 57 volumes) divided into three sections (pitaka) of Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.
- How would one even begin to understand that vast material? That is especially a daunting task for someone who has had no prior exposure to Buddha Dhamma.
- Two main issues need to be looked at. (1) Understand the primary and ultimate goal of a Buddhist, (2) Cultivate familiarity with key Pāli words that CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be translated into English.
- Just trying to understand various suttas (with the difficulty of comprehension in a wide range) could be a waste of time. First, one needs to focus on a few suttas that provide the Buddha’s key message. But that itself requires understanding the meanings of some key Pāli words.
- In the new section, “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach,” I am trying to address both those issues. This new subsection will hopefully clarify some related issues.
The Uniqueness of Buddha Dhamma
2. A Buddha is a unique “being.” Even though born a human, he transcended his human birth and attained the Buddhahood. The Buddhahood is a title attained by those who can purify their minds to the utmost. For example, Einstein had a much higher level of “intelligence” than an average human, but a Buddha’s mind is infinitely superior. A Buddha appears in the world very rarely, once in many billions of years.
- A Buddha can “see” the true and complete characteristics of our world. Thus, Buddha Gotama revealed a world of 31 realms that is much more vast and complex than the two realms (human and animal) that are discernible to an average human.
- He also revealed to us a rebirth process that has no discernible beginning. A given “lifestream” evolves from one existence to another among the 31 possible realms.
- Rebirth is not a random process. It follows the principle of causation (causes lead to results; with the removal of causes, no results can manifest.) Translated to Buddha Dhamma, birth results from previous actions DONE WITH greed, anger/hate, and ignorance. With the removal of those “defilements” from a mind, the rebirth cycle will stop since necessary causes have been removed.
- But why would one want willingly to make an effort to stop the rebirth process? Before getting to that, we first need to look at the two main prevailing world views.
False Premise of Other Religions
3. World’s major religions are based on two fundamental premises: (1) If you live a moral life, you get to go to heaven forever, and (2) If you live an immoral life, expect to suffer forever in hell. Such a claim appear sound and logical, and most people are attracted to that simple premise. See, “Wrong View of Creationism (and Eternal Future Life) – Part 1.”
- However, the Buddha taught that just living a moral life WILL NOT guarantee the removal of future suffering. Permanent removal of future suffering REQUIRES stopping the rebirth process.
- By living a moral life, one MAY get a “good birth” in the next life, but that WILL NOT stop future subsequent births with harsh suffering.
- By the way, if someone says one “should not criticize other religions,” that statement is made out of ignorance. One needs to be able to criticize false premises, no matter where they are found. If one finds a similar issue in Buddha Dhamma, one should bring it up for discussion. I have discussed some such issues at, “Mystical Phenomena in Buddhism?” and “Myths or Realities?“
- Real compassion is to help others understand the true nature of our complex world. That will enable one to get rid of an unimaginable amount of future suffering. Of course, it is up to each individual to decide whether to accept any given explanation about the world’s nature.
- The second major false premise is the view that life ends with the physical body’s death.
Rebirth is Not True? – Another False Premise
4. In the materialistic view, one lives only the present life, ending with the physical body’s death. In this view, there are absolutely no consequences to one’s actions (other than for breaking the mundane laws.) For example, if you kill another human, you may go to jail (if caught,) but there would be no other consequences.
- The book “Free Will” by the atheist intellectual Sam Harris provides the rationale of a “materialist.” At the beginning of the book, he described heinous crimes committed by two individuals, Hayes and Komeisarjevsky. Then on page 4, he writes, “as sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom to atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.” (highlighting mine.)
- That quote embeds the essence of materialism. A person is just an assembly of atoms and molecules, nothing more. Also, see “Views on Life – Wrong View of Materialism.”
- But then the question arises, “why is Sam Harris NOT CAPABLE of such heinous crimes?” Those crimes were not done at the spur of the moment. They had planned those crimes. I don’t think Sam Harris or any other decent human is CAPABLE of committing such PLANNED crimes. One would first need to get into such a defiled mindset. Hitler planned and killed millions of Jews. Not many people are CAPABLE of such actions.
- Both types of major wrong views discussed above arise because one is not aware of the complex web of causes and effects discussed in detail in the Tipitaka. Can things happen without causes?
Nothing Happens Without Reasons/Causes
5. Modern science agrees that nothing happens without a cause(s). In the past, people believed that earthquakes, floods, floods, etc. happen due to the “will of the Creator God.” Now we know that there are natural causes for each of those, and there is no need to invoke a Creator.
- In the same way, if one wins a million dollars in a lottery or breaks a leg in an accident, that would not be the “will of a higher intelligence.” Those are results (vipāka) of previous good/bad actions (kamma.)
- Similarly, there are reasons (root causes) why some people are born healthy and wealthy, some are born at the opposite end, and an infinite variety in between. By the way, all those animals had been humans in past lives too.
- Therefore, just by using that causation principle, one can come to the reasonable conclusion that there must be causes for the diversity of births. One is born poor due to the causes (bad actions) from a previous life. Similarly, one is born an animal because one had behaved like an animal in human existence in the past. A Deva in a Deva realm is born there because of good deeds in past lives.
- There are also reasons why criminals like Hayes and Komeisarjevsky or Hitler are capable of acts of violence. Their defiled minds led them to behave like animals.
- There are reasons (causes) for anything to happen. It is just that finding those root causes is not easy because the world is complex. The rebirth process is necessary for the laws of kamma to bring forth such a variety of possible outcomes within life and from life-to-life.
- Only a Buddha can provide that complete picture. Out of that picture emerges the way to stop future suffering altogether.
Buddhist Explanation Requires a Wider World View
6. The principle of causation that explains all that is Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is at the heart of Tipitaka text. I have tried to explain it in various ways. See, for example, “Origin of Life.”
- I have recently started another, more fundamental approach in the series, “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.” But such approaches are needed ONLY IF one has doubts about the rebirth process or the other underlying aspects like laws of kamma.
- In the Buddha’s days, too, there were people with both wrong views discussed in #3 and #4. There were teachers like Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambali, Purana Kassapa, Pudhaka Kaccayana, Sanjaya Belatthiputta, and Nigantha Nataputta who taught various versions of wrong views as described in the Tipitaka.
- The Buddha engaged them in some occasions to illustrate the soundness of Buddha Dhamma. See, for example, “Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1),” “Aggañña Sutta (DN 27),” and “Cūḷasaccaka Sutta (MN 35).”
The Need to Correctly Interpret the Tipitaka
7. Therefore, the basic framework to explain the deep and complex true nature of this world of 31 realms is in the Tipitaka. Various aspects are in all three sections (pitaka) of the Tipitaka: Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.
- A Dhamma teacher needs to have the following qualifications: (1) Know the meanings of key Pāli words. (2) The ability to explain succinct and deep verses in the Tipitaka.
- Both those REQUIRE the translator to be an Ariya or a Noble Person who has attained the Sotapanna stage.
- Let me make an analogy to explain that.
8. Suppose a medical text needs to be translated from English to French.
- Would it be possible for a person well-versed in English and French to do a good job, UNLESS he/she is also a SPECIALIST in that particular field of medicine?
- Translating a text REQUIRES a deep understanding of the SUBJECT.
- Translating Pāli text in the Tipitaka to English REQUIRES much more than English proficiency and some knowledge in Pāli. A CLEAR understanding of the DEEP CONCEPTS in Buddha Dhamma is NECESSARY.
- It is not just a matter of learning Pāli grammar and to use various Pāli-English dictionaries that are available.
- In this particular case, the SPECIALIST is a Noble Person. One MUST be at least a Sotapanna to be able to explain even the basic concepts correctly.
Which Interpretation Is Correct?
9. Of course, the question arises: “How would one know whether anyone claiming to be an Ariya (Noble Person) is indeed one or not?” Any person can make that claim. The Buddha allowed one to make that declaration if one is certain that he/she has been “freed from the rebirths in the apāyā” or has attained the Sotapanna stage. See, for example, “Dutiyabhayaverūpasanta Sutta (SN 55. 29)” The same passage appears in the “Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16).”
- That is where each person has to make the decision. If two teachers claim to have the “correct explanation” AND those two are very different, only one is right or closer to the truth. It is up to each person to decide who could be right based on the totality of writings from those two.
- Of course, even an Ariya can make mistakes. Unless one is a Sammā Sambuddha Like Buddha Gotama, one COULD make mistakes. However, those mistakes would be MINOR compared to the key mistakes that an anariya is BOUND TO make. One is an anariya until becoming at least a Sotapanna Anugāmi (who has begun to understand the Noble Truths on Suffering.)
Understanding the “Hidden Suffering”
10. To understand the key message of the Buddha, it is necessary to understand the “big picture” of a rebirth process among 31 realms. The Tipitaka explains it in detail. Without an idea of that big picture, it does not make sense to try to “attain Nibbāna.” Attaining Nibbāna MEANS “stopping the rebirth process.”
- One would NOT want to stop a “good thing” from happening over and over. If repeated births is a “good thing,” the Buddha would not have labored for 45 years to convince us that many future births for an anariya (one who has not understood the Noble Truths) will be filled with unbearable suffering.
- The Buddha explained that humans (and other living beings) are incapable of seeing the hidden dangers of the rebirth process.
- The average human perceives that worldly things bring happiness. In the contrary, craving for those worldly things can ONLY lead to unimaginable suffering in future lives. Such cravings CANNOT be willfully suppressed. Those cravings NATURALLY go away when one starts comprehending the real nature of this world.
- That is the “previously unheard Dhamma” of a Buddha. It goes against all the prevailing views that we discussed above.
- We will continue that discussion in the next post.
All posts in this section at “Buddha Dhamma – A Scientific Approach.”