What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma?

Revised November 16, 2019; August 28, 2022; updated with new chart February 1, 2023

All Religions Are the Same?

1. When I hear the frequent statement, “all religions are the same; they teach you how to live a moral life,” I cringe. That is because I think about all those unaware of the Buddha’s unique message. In particular, this is the mindset of those who follow “secular Buddhism.”

  • Most religions indeed teach how to live a moral life. And there is also evidence that atheists may be as moral as religious people are; see “Morality in everyday life-Science-2014-Hofmann“.
  • However, Buddha Dhamma goes beyond that. The Buddha said no matter how well we live this life, that will not help us in the long term in the rebirth process.
  • Yet, even to understand the message of the Buddha, one must live a moral life first.
Two Paths Described by the Buddha

2. I have made a chart to illustrate the two types of Eightfold Paths explained by the Buddha:

This chart can be viewed in a separate panel by clicking on “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart” and printed for reference. There are a few key things that need explanation first.

Follow the Mundane Path First

3. To get to a specific location, one must first find (or “see”) the path. Before being able to “see” what is meant by Nibbāna (escape suffering in the rebirth process), one must first “see” or convince of specific essential criteria. That actions (kamma) have consequences (vipāka), there is a rebirth process, etc. 

  • The “mundane Eightfold Path” is depicted by the set of boxes in red, starting with “mundane sammā diṭṭhi.” One would have that “mundane sammā diṭṭhi” when one removes doubts about the ten types of wrong views. See “Dangers of Ten Types of Wrong Views and Four Possible Paths.”
  • The next box depicts mundane versions of sammā saṅkappa, sammā vācā, and sammā kammanta.” Which means “think, speak, and act morally to avoid bad outcomes/seek good outcomes”) and so on until “mundane sammā samadhi.”
  • Most of these steps (not all) are in other religions and conventional or secular “Buddhism.” They describe how to live a moral life. That means understanding actions (kamma) have consequences (vipāka), the same as in Buddha Dhamma.
  • However, most other religions aim to gain a (permanent) heavenly life at death. While living a moral life can be conducive to getting a rebirth in a good realm, that will not be a permanent existence. That is the main difference.
What Is a “Good Birth”?

4. The joys of heavenly lives are highlighted in the distorted versions of “Buddhism” that are mainstream today.  Sometimes one is encouraged to “enjoy such heavenly lives” before attaining Nibbāna.

  •  A phrase used by some bhikkhus in Sri Lanka goes as, “May you attain Nibbāna at the time of the Buddha Maitreya (next Buddha).” Why not attain Nibbāna in this life? Who is going to give guarantees that one will be born human during the time of the Buddha Maitreya? 
  • They don’t understand that anyone living today may not get an opportunity to be born human during the time of the next Buddha. Not surprising because they don’t understand the “anicca nature” of any realm in this world.
  • That misconception in “Buddhism” arises because the rarity of a “good rebirth” has not been comprehended; see “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.” This is why the Buddha said, “no happiness can be found anywhere in the 31 realms” (the true meaning of anicca). I highly recommend “Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World.”
Vision for the Noble Path – “No Permanent Good Existences”

5. Even if a heavenly rebirth is attained in the next life, a future rebirth in the four lowest realms (apāyā) cannot be avoided without attaining the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna

  • Until one comprehends anicca, dukkha, and anatta, one always values future happiness in permanent heaven (most religions) OR temporary happiness in heavenly worlds (traditional “Buddhists”). The difference between a traditional “Buddhist” and a Bhauddhaya is discussed in “A Buddhist or a Bhauddhaya?“.
  • One starts on the transcendental (lokuttara) or the Noble Eightfold Path when one comprehends the dangers of the rebirth process and BECOMES a Sōtapanna. See “Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana, Four Noble Truths.”
  • When one is trying to attain that understanding, one is called a Sōtapanna magga anugāmi; see “Sōtapanna Anugami and a Sōtapanna.”
Two Eightfold Paths

6. In the “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (MN 117),” the Buddha discussed that one must first complete the mundane eightfold path. That will remove the ten types of wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi) listed in #3 of the post “Maha Chattarisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty). After that, one needs to comprehend the Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta) to some extent to start on the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Thus, one starts on the Noble Eightfold Path starting with lokuttara (transcendental) sammā diṭṭhi of a Sōtapanna (set of blue boxes in the chart). One has seen a “glimpse of Nibbāna,” i.e., one KNOWS that permanent happiness is not possible anywhere in the 31 realms and that whatever effort one makes to achieve such happiness is like chasing a mirage.
Two Types of “Sammā Diṭṭhi

7. Note the difference in the box next to “sammā diṭṭhi” in the two cases. In the mundane path, “sammā saṅkappa, sammā vācā, sammā kammanta” are “moral thoughts, speech, and actions” intended to avoid bad outcomes and to seek good outcomes.

  • In the Noble path, “sammā saṅkappa, sammā vācā, sammā kammanta” are “thoughts, speech, and actions” intended to stop the rebirth process. One does not do immoral things because there is “no point” in doing such things. One knows that such things are unfruitful and dangerous in the long run.
  • And one becomes more compassionate towards all living beings (not just humans) because one can see that each living being suffers because of ignorance of the Buddha’s key message. One also realizes that one needs to fulfill obligations to others to “pay back old debts”; one is bound to the rebirth process not only via cravings for worldly things but also via unpaid debts from previous lives.
Mundane Eightfold Path

8. The unique message of the Buddha has been hidden for hundreds of years. What is conventionally practiced today is just this mundane Eightfold Path. This is what we call “Buddhism” today.

  • That superficial or “secular” Buddhism is not that different from what is advised by most other religions. Thus, it is easier for people to resonate with the mundane concepts in “Buddhism.”  Sammā Diṭṭhi, for example, is considered the “correct vision” of “how to live a moral life.”
  • Of course, that is the first necessary step. That will help one to be able to experience the benefits of moral behavior (even in this life as a “nirāmisa sukha“; see “How to Taste Nibbāna“) and then comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta, and embark on the Noble Eightfold Path to seek permanent happiness or Nibbāna.
Noble Eightfold Path

9. The decision to become a Sōtapanna magga anugāmi (the path to the Sōtapanna stage) can be made anytime after getting to the “red boxes,” i.e., while one is on the mundane Eightfold Path.

  • In a way,  a Sōtapanna magga anugāmi is a Bhauddhaya in the real sense. See “A Buddhist or a Bhauddhaya?” Even though not in the Tipiṭaka, sometimes the word “Cūla Sōtapanna” (pronounced “chūla sōtapanna”) is also used to describe the same person.
  • The key is comprehending the “true nature of this world of 31 realms,” Buddha described. That says it is impossible to achieve/maintain anything that can be kept to one’s satisfaction (anicca.) Thus one gets to suffer (dukkha), and thus, one is truly helpless in the rebirth process (anatta). This realization is like lifting a heavy load that one has been carrying, the first taste of Nibbāna.

10. This “change of mindset”  for a Sōtapanna is PERMANENT, i.e., it will not change even in future rebirths. One has attained an “unbreakable”  level of confidence (saddhā) in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha.

  • And a Sōtapanna can follow the rest of the seven steps in the Noble Eightfold Path even without help from others. Thus one will attain the following three stages of Nibbāna (Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, Arahant) successively by following those steps.
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