Theravada Beliefs

Teaching Buddha

In the next few pages section I'm going to give an overview of Theravada beliefs. To do so, I need to pull from some of the material that is already contained in the introductory section on basic Buddhist beliefs as well as some of the earlier sections of this lengthy unit on Theravada. As far as that later matter is concerned, I shall not complicate the basic issues with comparisons and contrasts to other Buddhist schools this time. Buddhism manifests a great diversity of philosophies. Interestingly, even though this is not considered bad in itself, the Buddha was not much in favor of purely abstract thinking. For him, if a topic did not relate to the question of how to attain nirvana, it was not worth spending a lot of time on. This fact is illustrated in the Potthapada Sutta (Sutra), which provides a good sample of how the Buddha, the "Exalted One," responded to metaphysical questions.

Potthapada was a mendicant, a begging monk, on his way to joining the Buddha's order, but still filled with questions. He was hanging out in a large hall that the local queen had erected specifically for wise and holy men to hold serious discussions.

As the curtain rises, so to speak, Potthapada is sitting there, surrounded by 300 or so would-be-monks who are talking drivel and telling dirty stories. When Potthapada sees Shakyamuni approaching, he shushes them, and then he and the Buddha carry on a lengthy discussion on the gradual cessation of one's consciousness, a goal of Theravada Buddhism. Potthapada is making some progress in understanding, but he's slow (or, from another perspective "fast," because he comes up with quite a few objections along the way). Let us join them about two thirds of the way through the first discussion in this sutra, as Potthapada is desperately attempting to comprehend how a person's soul and his consciousness can be both identical with and different from each other.

'But is it possible, Sir, for me to understand whether consciousness is the man's soul, or the one is different from the other?'

'Hard is it for you, Potthapada, holding, as you do, different views, other things approving themselves to you, setting different aims before yourself, striving after a different perfection, trained in a different system of doctrine, to grasp this matter!'

'Then, Sir, if that be so, tell me at least: "Is the world eternal? Is this alone the truth, and any other view mere folly?"'

'That, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.

[The same conversation is repeated verbatim multiple times now. The translator summarizes: "Then, in the same terms, Potthapada asked each of the following questions;-- 2. Is the world not eternal?-- 3. Is the world finite?-- 4. Is the world infinite?-- 5. Is the soul the same as the body?-- 6. Is the soul one thing, and the body another?-- 7. Does one who has gained the truth live again after death?-- 8. Does he not live again after death?-- 9. Does he both live again, and not live again, after death?-- 10. Does he neither live again, nor not live again, after death?-- And to each question the Exalted One made the same reply: 'That too, Potthapada, is a matter on which I have expressed no opinion.'" We rejoin the discussion.]
'But why has the Exalted One expressed no opinion on that?'

'This question is not calculated to profit, it is not concerned with the Norm (the Dhamma), it does not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to detachment, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquillisation of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to the insight (of the higher stages of the Path), nor to Nirvana. Therefore is it that I express no opinion upon it.'

'Then what is it that the Exalted One has determined?'

'I have expounded, Potthapada, what pain is; I have expounded what is the origin of pain; I have expounded what is the cessation of pain; I have expounded what is the method by which one may reach the cessation of pain.'

'And why has the Exalted One put forth a statement as to that?'

'Because that question, Potthapada, is calculated to profit, is concerned with the Norm, redounds to the beginnings of right conduct, to detachment, to purification from lusts, to quietude, to tranquillisation of heart, to real knowledge, to the insight of the higher stages of the Path, and to Nirvana. Therefore is it, Potthapada, that I have put forward a statement as to that.'

'That is so, O Exalted One. That is so, O Happy One. And now let the Exalted One do what seemeth to him fit.'

And the Exalted One rose from his seat, and departed thence.

[Dialogues of the Buddha. The Digha-Nikaya: Potthapada Sutta. Translated by T. W. Rhys-Davis.
Emphases in bold are mine.

If you've read the earlier historical sections, you are already aware of the fact that a lot of people who were followers of the Buddha spent a lot of time and energy responding to the very questions that Shakyamuni here ruled to be impertinent. Nevertheless, since he insisted on sticking to what you must have recognized as the Four Noble Truths, let's organize these thoughts along that line as well.

The first three of these statements are so closely tied together, that it is difficult to discuss one without taking the others into account, and so I shall refrain from attempting such an artificial thing. The relationship between existence and suffering is inevitable. It afflicts all forms of life, though we obviously know it best through human eyes. Now, if I think of all the people I know, there are some who have experienced enormous suffering in their lives, while others seem to have gone fairly untouched. The latter group appears to be pretty comfortable, enjoying good health, enough money not to worry about material things, and loving, caring people around them. But all of such good things are only temporary. Sooner or later these people's health will decline; material things will become irrelevant; and, unless they precede their loved ones in death, they will have to watch them wither away and die. Life is terminally impermanent. After Siddhartha's chariot ride, on which he had encountered disease, old age, and death, he could no longer see people as anything but just a short time removed from decay. Even the most beautiful woman will without a doubt wind up as a putrid rotting cadaver. Even if one were to try to resist change by sitting still in a chair without moving, pretty soon one's body would become sore and painful, and a hundred years later there would be nothing left but a skeleton. So, we do not have to think merely of tragedies or other unusual afflictions to cause suffering. If you exist as a living being, you cannot get away from the suffering that is caused by the changes to which we are all subject.

But wait! I stated that last sentence wrong, didn't I? The Buddha did not say that suffering is caused by change. He asserted that suffering is caused by "attachment." So the correct way to put it is that suffering is caused by attachment to something that is not going to be what it was when we first attached ourselves to it.It is still the common practice to translate the word that is used here as "desire," viz. suffering is caused by "desire." The word is trisha in Sanskrit and tanha in Pali. But we need to be really careful when we use that term because it has a history of generating a perennial misunderstanding. "Desire" is actually a good translation as long as we don't confuse it with simply intending something or just wanting something. Sometimes people say that the Buddha's teachings were inconsistent on this point because, after all, aren't we supposed to "desire" Nirvana? No, we are not, not in the sense of trisha or tanha. We are supposed to resolve to attain Nirvana, but the term used here as the cause of suffering includes a connotation of grasping, clinging, or attaching oneself that goes beyond intending to attain a goal. There are other words that also express a stronger sense of attachment, as we shall see momentarily, but trisha/tanha itself already means to tie yourself to something.


The problem is very simply this: As we said above, everything is changing. If we cling to something that inevitably will pass away or undergo drastic change, we're going to suffer. It's a mean trick to pull a chair out from under someone, just as they are about to sit down, so that they land heavily and painfully on the floor. Nevertheless, according to the Buddha, that's what life continues to do to us, or better, that's what we do to ourselves. We should realize that the chair is no longer going to be there a moment from now. Still, we insist on sitting down on it just as it is moving away, and then we complain about our backsides hurting. If we had refrained from attempting to lodge ourselves in that chair, we wouldn't be hurting now. As long as we maintain any attachment to the things and people that constitute the furnishings of the world, we cannot escape suffering.

Now, when we say that the world is impermanent, we should not confuse that assertion with the notion that the world does not exist or that it exists only as something unreal or an illusion. In fact, the difference between what the Buddha taught (and Theravada maintained)and the latter inferences is minimal, but that is exactly the kind of inference that the Buddha did not want to make,as he stated in the Potthapada Sutta. Later on the Mahayana philosophers were not as reticent, but it would be wrong to say that in Theravada Buddhism the world does not exist. However, its reality is like that of a swarm of mosquitoes in which the mosquitoes cause each other to exist and then vanish back into non-existence. Their individual time of existence is just long enough to be able to say that they existed. The official term for this picture of the universe is pratityasamutpada, "dependent origination."

So, it would appear that the only stable thing in the universe is me, as I am observing all of the various things in the world and their momentary configurations. The individual sensations, experiences, and observations that come my way are called "dharmas" in a use of that word that is different from its usual meaning as the principles of Buddhism. My own existence is the one thing that seems to endure all of that flickering in and out of reality of all of these dharmas. However, here is where the Buddha, as conveyed by Theravada teachings, really surprises us. There is no stable "me" because, as a matter of fact, there is no "me." In the sense in which most people would think of a person's "self," there is no such thing. There is no eternal soul, essence of my being, basic substrate, or other formal apparatus that constitutes my "self." The same thing applies to all other people. Whereas in Hinduism, many thinkers focused on our deepest innermost Self, called atman, Theravada teaching is that there is no self, a condition referred to as anatman in Sanskrit or anatta in Pali. The thing that I might call my "self" is an illusion generated by the fact that I consistently perceive the bundles of dharmas, and so I fall into the trap of thinking that where there is perception, there must be a perceiver. However, Theravada tell us that there are only the perceptions. My experiences of the dharmas is all that there is to what in ordinary, everyday language I might call my "self," and a core aspect of attaining enlightenment is precisely to come to that conclusion.


In the earlier, technical description of the debate among the Hinayana schools competing with Sthaviravadin, I made reference to the analogy brought up in a famous work called The Questions of King Milinda. In this book, written several centuries after the Buddha, King Milinda (otherwise known as the Greek King Menander of Baktria)calls upon the sage Nagasena to answer some tricky questions surrounding Buddhism. One of them is obviously the question of the "Self." Milinda challenges Nagasena to make sense of the notion that, even though there is no "Self," we seem to be experiencing our "Selves" as a substrate for all of our experiences all the time.

To respond to Milinda, Nagasena directed his attention to a chariot. He pointed to various parts of it, such as the wheels and the axle, and asked each time: "Is that the chariot?" "Well, no," was Milinda's consistent reply, "you can't identify the actual chariot with one of its parts." For that matter--and this is crucial--neither is the "chariot" another part of the chariot alongside the wheels and the axle. The thing that we call "chariot" is in a different logical class than any of its components. You can't see it by taking it apart, but it is a word that we use for the unseen totality of its visible aspects.

The same thing applies to the "Self." You can look for it inside of a human being, but you can't find it in such a way. It's not identical with one of the components of a human being, such as the head, the soul, or the arms. Nor is it one more part so that you could (only theoretically!)dismember a person and lay out their body parts, including the head, the arms, the feet, the soul, and the "Self." You can speak of a person's "Self," but only if you don't mean anything substantial by that term.





PAGE 1: Introduction

PAGE 2: Derivation and Early Schools
PAGE 3: Contrast to the Mahasanghikas
PAGE 4: Patronage of King Ashoka
PAGE 5: Contrast to the Sarvastivadins
PAGE 6: Contrast to the Pudgalavadins
PAGE 7: Theravada Basics
PAGE 8: Life of Bikhus
PAGE 9: Life of the Laity
PAGE 10: The Laity and the Temple
PAGE 11: Theravada Beliefs
PAGE 12: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 13: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 14: A Brief Christian Response