At the age of twenty-nine, Prince Siddhartha left the comfort and luxuries of his father’s palace to adopt the life of a wandering ascetic. His motivation was to understand the existential problems of birth, sickness, death, aging and unhappiness, and to search for a possible way to eradicate and overcome these sufferings. He initially sought the advice of renowned hermitic sages of the time and under their guidance, engaged in austere practices, denying bodily needs to the extreme. One day he collapsed from sheer physical exhaustion. On recovery the prince realised that physical austerity, which was so severe that it induced mental torpor and weakness, was not conducive to spiritual progress. Thereafter, the future Buddha followed the path of the Middle Way, avoiding the two extremes of over-indulgence and severe austerity. In this way, the Buddha broke away from traditional religious practices of the time to find the path out of suffering for himself.
One evening at the age of thirty-five, while meditating under a tree at Bodhgaya in modern day Bihar, the Buddha attained the complete state of enlightenment, the highest state of human evolution. An awakening is invariably described as a state of full awareness characterised by total elimination of ignorance and an overflowing of inexhaustible energy, coupled with profound compassion for all living beings. In the next forty-five years of his life as an unparalleled teacher, he would address all classes of human beings - beggars and kings, men and women, Brahmins and "untouchables" - without discrimination. In time, Buddhism spread and took root in many countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Tibet, China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea and Nepal etc.
The Buddha’s quest for enlightenment had been inspired by profound loving compassion for all sentient beings and had been the result of his undaunted efforts over countless lifetimes. Thus his initial cultivation of the aspiration to gain enlightenment, his subsequent accumulation of merits from virtuous actions, the development of insight into the nature of reality, and his final attainment of the state of perfect enlightenment had been inspired by the deep wish to rid all beings of their sufferings.
His fundamental teachings were presented in three sets of discourses that popularly came to be known as the ‘Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma’. The first discourses were given at place called Saranath in modern day Benares. The theme was the ‘Four Noble Truths’, which became the foundation of all Buddhist thought and practice. The Buddha taught that conditioned existence is suffering (the Noble Truth of suffering); that suffering has a cause fundamentally rooted in ignorance, attachment and hatred (the Noble Truth of the origin of suffering); that cessation from suffering is possible as it depends on causes and conditions (the Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering); and hence there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering (the Noble Truth of the path). Therefore, within the context of the Four Noble Truths we find Buddha’s discovery of suffering and its origin in our unenlightened existence as well the state of happiness and its path in an enlightened existence.
His second discourses (Turning of the Wheel) were on the theme of the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ that deals with the ultimate nature of reality, establishing how things do not have intrinsic or real existence. These discourses were given at Vulture Peak, located in the city of Rajgriha, in modern day Bihar.
His third ‘Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ occurred at a place called Viashali in modern day northeast India. The teachings came to be known as ‘Thorough Discrimination’, being mainly clarification on teachings from his two earlier sets of discourses.
The essence of Buddha’s comprehensive teaching of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma can be incorporated within its philosophical position of the interdependent nature of all things and the moral ethics of non-violence. Buddha taught that interdependence is the mode of true existence of all phenomena. As such, both the happiness that we aspire to achieve and the suffering we try to avoid, do not arise accidentally or without cause; they are dependent on their related causes and conditions. If the cause were wholesome, the effect would also be wholesome. Likewise, if the cause were negative, the effect would also be negative. Wholesome causes refer to mental, physical or vocal actions that induce the motivation to help other sentient beings.
The effect of engaging in virtuous deeds is that one gains a genuine sense of happiness in oneself and influences other people around one in a positive way, creating a sense of well-being and harmony. On the other hand, negative actions refer to one’s mental, physical or vocal actions induced by motivation to hurt others. Such actions bring misery and unhappiness both to oneself and others.
Moral ethics of non-violence means that, through developing compassion and awareness, we try our best to help others. If we cannot, we should at least refrain from harming others. In a verse, the Buddha condenses his entire message:
Don’t commit any unwholesome actions,
But thoroughly engage in wholesome actions.
Subdue your mind completely,
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
The law of cause and effect, or the interdependent nature of all things, which underpins the Buddhist philosophical foundation, has profound implications. Our current state of happy or unhappy existence is the effect of our past actions. Like-wise, our present actions will determine our future state of existence. As such, we have tremendous responsibility for our own happiness and welfare.
Oneself is one’s own protector,
What other protector can there be?
With oneself fully controlled,
One obtains a protection, which is hard to gain.
In unequivocal terms, the Buddha declared that we are each our own protector and our own refuge. No one, not even the Buddha in his infinite compassion, can change the course of our actions and their subsequent effects, unless we take personal initiative and effort on the Path.
One of the most important features of Buddhism is that we do not have to blindly accept the teachings of the Buddha. In fact, the Buddha himself invites us to test the truth and relevance of his teachings through logical reasoning and valid individual experience:
O bikkhus and scholars!
Just as the gold is examined through burning, cutting and rubbing;
So you should thoroughly test my teachings and accept them.
But never out of reverence for me.
In this way, the Buddha gave us complete power and freedom to follow his teachings according to our level of intelligence and understanding. Ultimately, his teachings only make sense if they accord to valid logic and experience. As such, in Buddhism, faith plays a fluid role. Even our faith has to be inspired by the logic and validity of his teachings, not by his personal charisma or out of our own blind faith. The Buddha also taught that not only does everyone have equal freedom to practice the dharma, but they also have the same potential to gain the state of enlightenment. Whether one realises the potential for enlightenment or not, is not a matter of caste, birth, status of wealth or religious affiliation. For the Buddha, truth and dharma are beyond the realm of such divisions. The Indian society of his time was afflicted with social division and discrimination based on the caste system, where Brahmans were considered to be the highest caste. To make his point that one is defined by one’s actions and not by birth, the Buddha taught:
By birth and caste,
One does not become a Brahman;
Living by truth and dharma,
One becomes a true Brahman.
Buddhism ascertains the potential for all sentient beings to gain the state of enlightenment, because of the presence of the mind in every living being. The mind is understood as inherently clear and aware, and has the ability to develop infinitely. If we make effort to develop the positive qualities of the mind like compassion, generosity, tolerance and enthusiasm, and reduce negative qualities such as anger, hatred, pride and grasping, then we can gradually transform our own mind to higher levels of consciousness, culminating in the state of enlightenment.
What is it about Tibetan Buddhism that has made it so popular in the West? At first we might have been forgiven for thinking it was just a passing fad. But 30 years on, and having survived its brush with fame in the form of various Hollywood celebrities, Tibetan Buddhism continues to attract large and growing numbers of Western followers.
It is true that this has occurred at a time when Buddhism generally has been flourishing, but the Tibetan tradition has attracted particular interest. Perhaps in the initial stages it was the mystique of Tibet itself that grabbed imagination ?the remote and mysterious Himalayan land with its ancient monasteries, ruled by the mystical God-Kings: the real life Shangri-La.
However, with the spread of Tibetan Buddhism out of Tibet and India, the romanticised vision of the Land of Snows has become less important. As Westerners have engaged with the fundamental ideas and methods of this tradition they have found it to be full of surprise and paradox. On the one hand Tibetan Buddhism appears to have a strong tradition of colourful ritual and formal structure.
But on closer examination these are found to be simply the external forms of profound ‘inner technology’, the aim of which is very simple. Ultimately it’s about enhancing people’s ability to extract happiness and value out of every life situation they encounter.
Also, for many Westerners the special appeal of Tibetan Buddhism lies in its strong emphasis on critical analysis, debate and logic. Far from demanding that practitioners must accept its world view, it holds that followers should rigorously analyse every aspect of the teachings and check whether they hold up in one’s personal experience. Without going through this process, it’s considered that the practice will only bring superficial benefits.
But perhaps most of all it has been the figure of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that explains the West’s fascination with Tibetan Buddhism. Which other exiled political leader still maintains, after 40 years of struggle against the forces that seized his country and repressed his people, that the path of non-violence is the only method of resistance that can bring lasting success? Which other leader has urged compassion for the people who have occupied his homeland and insisted that they must be respected as human beings? Which other leader has maintained such good humour and openness in the face of such great adversity for his nation and people? For many Westerners His Holiness’ special qualities seem to be a living advertisement for the power of his spiritual practice. Little wonder then that so many people have been curious to re-examine the ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition in this 21st century of the Western world.
This article comes from the booklet printed for the tour of HH the Dalai Lama to Australia in May 2002. Reprinted with kind permission from the © Dalai Lama in Australia Ltd.