Fundamental View: Talk 1

Presented at the Buddha Center, Second Life, on June 15 and 18, 2013


Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.


Welcome to my first talk on the Pali Canon. This talk is the first of ten I plan to give as an introduction to the Pali suttas. I thought it best to begin with an overview of the Pali Canon itself. Although it may seem a bit academic, do not worry – this is not going to be a series of academic lectures. Rather, this is going to be a very personal inquiry into why all of us as Buddhists can and should pay attention to the original Pali texts. Of course, if one is a Therawadin, the Pali Canon is one’s only authority, especially the Abhidhamma. However, I hope to show the Pali Canon is far more than the canonical textbook of orthodox conservative Buddhism. In fact, if you look at the Pali Canon with fresh eyes, it is amazing what you will see! I will also keep this introduction general, just to give you the main outlines.

According to tradition, during the first rainy season after the Buddha passed on, the Buddhist community met to recite the teachings. This was about three months after the Buddha’s death. The rainy season in India begins at the end of June. This would place the Buddha’s death in late March or April. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta,

the Buddha died while lying between two sal trees. The sal, or shorea robusta, is a common tree of northeast India – tall, with large leathery leaves and yellowish flowers. The sutta says the sal is reported to have flowered out of season. The flowers normally appear at the beginning of summer. This is April to June in northeast India, so the chronology fits perfectly. It seems the Buddha died in late winter, there being no “spring” in India.

During this First Buddhist Council, the rules governing the organization of the Buddhist community, called the Vinaya, were formally laid down. This was followed by a recitation of the teachings of the Buddha by Ananda. Ananda was the Buddha’s personal attendant for most of his life. Ananda was also famous for his memory in an oral culture where memorization was the main means of passing on tradition. Therefore, every sutta begins with the words, “Thus have I heard” (ewam me sutam).[1] Each sutta included the place, time, people involved, and a story explaining the situation and what the Buddha did and said. Ananda’s recitation became the basis of the suttas of the Pali Canon. These accounts are collected together in the second part of the canon, called the Sutta Pitaka. Sutta Pitaka means a collection of traditional stories. This process was said to take seven months.

There is no reason to doubt this account. Ancient India was still an oral culture. A similar process of memorization and recitation for over a thousand years had passed down the Vedas. They continued to be recited for another 1,400 years before being committed to writing.

The suttas continued to be passed down in this way until about 29 BCE. This was about the same time the earliest Mahayana sutras began to appear. The suttas were written on palm leaves in Sri Lanka during the Fourth Buddhist Council. According to the conventional view of the date of the Buddha’s passing, this was about 450 years after the Buddha’s death. However, many scholars now believe the Buddha died much more recently than this. According to this view, the Buddha probably died within 20 years or so of 400 BCE. In that case, less than 400 years had passed between the first and fourth councils – perhaps as few as three complete human lifespans. Still a long time! During this time, the Pali Canon acquired additional material besides the Vinaya and the suttas. This material included accounts of lives in heavens and hells; poems written by monks and nuns; many mythological birth stories of the Buddha and monks and nuns, drawn largely from Indian folklore; apocryphal accounts of previous Buddhas and historical ages; and extensive commentaries and interpretations, including the Abhidhamma – the word means “metaphysics,” and summarizes the Therawadin interpretation of the suttas.

The Abhidhamma became the third major part of the Pali Canon and the basis of the Therawada sect that survives today. The Therawadins were not the only school of early Buddhism. Only their version of the canon has survived intact, due to their famous conservatism. Bits and pieces of other canons from the same period have survived in Pali or Tibetan or Chinese translations. These translations are similar to the suttas preserved in the Pali Canon. Most scholars consider the suttas pre-sectarian. The compositions of the Abhidhammas of the various schools were definitely sectarian in intention. The Sarwastivadin Abhidhamma is very different from the Therawadin Abhidhamma. This disproves the claim the Therawada alone represents the authentic lineage of the Buddha.

Of course, the suttas were continuously consolidated over this period. As a result, stock phrases and rote lists recur all through the canon as an aid to memorization. Various elaborations were designed to resolve the doctrinal disputes that continued to challenge the unity of the Buddhist community. This conservatism also worked to maintain the integrity of the texts. What we see today is an amalgam of these two opposite tendencies – one obsessed with preservation, the other with codification. We see a similar phenomenon in the early formation of the New Testament (so-called) in Christianity.

Modern scholars address the problem of assessing the Pali Canon in two basic ways. The linguistic school, still popular with some academics, studies the Pali language in which the Pali Canon is written and tries to ferret out the original doctrines of the Buddha by identifying the oldest layers or strata of the Pali Canon through formal linguistic analysis. Similarly, some Christian scholars have tried to identify the original sayings of Yeshua in the New Testament. However, whereas the earliest Christian writings are relatively few, the Pali Canon consists of about forty volumes of material. Moreover, the Pali Canon is highly repetitive due to its oral origin.

Linguistic analysis can only take one so far. The great Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich has suggested this line of inquiry is effectively exhausted. Important for translators and historians, it is less interesting to those who seek to understand the dhamma from a speculative and philosophical point of view. This is of course why the suttas were preserved in the first place. Instead, an increasing number of scholars, like Gombrich and Peter Masefield, amongst others, are looking at the Pali Canon with fresh eyes.

Trying to ferret out the “original words” of the Buddha from this mass of texts is like picking individual threads out of a tapestry. The new approach is to look the tapestry as a whole. Of special interest are the 5,000 plus suttas preserved in the Sutta Pitaka. The Vinaya is also interesting, although there are at least six different Vinaya collections. The new scholars search for the large patterns of meaning that emerge, not merely a handful of hypothesized “original doctrines.” The core doctrines are only the axioms or building blocks. The results of the comprehensive approach have been incredibly rich and profound. Because we have so much material to work with, we can be confident this approach accurately reflects the essential philosophy of the Buddha, even if the suttas do not incorporate his exact words. Many aspects of this philosophy only become clear when the texts are compared from this higher point of view. Looked at in isolation, many meanings disappear. It is the old adage of the forest and the trees.

One conclusion that has emerged from this higher point of view is the realization the Pali Canon is not just a Therawada or even a Hinayana canon. Rather, it is the original pre-sectarian matrix from within which all Buddhist schools have drawn their inspiration. Few people believe the Mahayana sutras are actual accounts of the sayings and doings of the historical Buddha. Nevertheless, all their essential axioms are found in the Pali Canon, if one chooses to look at it philosophically and not merely from a narrow historical perspective. The Buddha said he was restoring a primordial doctrine taught by the original rishis of the Indian Vedic tradition. The Buddha declared this teaching was part of a much older and larger tradition, the spiritual fountainhead of humanity. Today we would call this the perennial philosophy. It is the basis of all wisdom traditions.

The division between Hinayana, so-called, and Mahayana is not really about historical authenticity. It is about what the dhamma of the Buddha means. This is not merely reducible to what the Buddha did and said. The dhamma is much more than an historically and culturally contingent system of rules and beliefs. The dhamma is the living truth and meaning of reality itself. It is the essential discovery of all those who approach the spiritual life. As such, it is universal and must include all religions, all civilizations and cultures, science, art, mysticism, and all of life and sentience itself, everywhere in the universe and beyond. If we do not understand the dhamma in this way, if we reduce it merely to a system of rules, doctrines, or historical events frozen in the past, we have not even begun to understand dhamma – we have merely constructed a kind of facsimile or fake. This is certainly not what the Buddha wanted or intended for the Buddhist community, either in his time or our own.

[1] Pali terms and phrases are summarized in the Glossary.

Talk 1
Human, All Too Human

Traditional Indian philosophy began with a grand cosmological scheme of the nature of reality. In the West, we would call this “ontology,” the science of being. The Buddha, however, began with direct observation of the nature of lived human experience. In the West, this approach to philosophy was pioneered in the early 20th century. The Buddha’s approach to philosophy was a radical break with Indian tradition. It anticipated Husserl’s phenomenology, existentialism, and process philosophy by more than 2,300 years.


The fundamental insight of the Buddha is all men are afflicted by the same suffering (dukkha), without regard to social station or wealth. This woe is aging and death. Even the liberated arahant, the Pali word for “worthy,” is subject to this affliction. The cause of aging and death is birth. Aging and death are the universal experience of humanity. The Buddha realized there is no difference between the decay to

which a constructed object like a chariot is subject and the body. That they decay just the same is a universal law. Today we would call this “entropy.” It is the universal tendency to disorder that is inextricably interwoven with time. As time passes, disorder increases and objects decay. Even the universe is subject to entropy.

However, entropy is not a problem for chariots or even animals. They have little or no awareness of their own or others’ death. For human beings, however, aware of our mortality, this becomes a problem. The realization of the impermanence of things (aniccha) grips at our heart strings and destroys our capacity for living. Either we immerse ourselves in pleasure or the quest for power or money or use alcohol and drugs to try to dull our consciousness to approximate the animal state, or we delude ourselves with illusory promises of salvation. If we face the fact of death squarely, we will see it destroys our capacity for pleasure, our will and effectiveness, and makes continued living impossible. This is the raison d’être of renunciation.

The situation described above would appear to be insoluble, as existentialists hold. According to the Buddha, there is a solution: dhamma. According to the Buddha, “the Dhamma of the good does not decay. So the good proclaim along with the good.” Therefore, we must find out more about this dhamma and what it is. It seems to be a life raft in a sea of suffering.


The word dhamma is not simply translated. It comes from the Vedic words dharma and dharman. These roots are cognate with karma, from the root dhr, meaning “to hold, to support; that which forms a foundation and upholds; constitution.” In use, dhamma alludes primarily to the universal order of things in their most ultimate and absolute nature. Thus, dhamma is reality – being in itself.

Second, dhamma refers to the mind that perceives reality. The dhamma-mind formulates dhamma as knowledge and philosophy. Dhamma is the true knowledge of things. Dhamma refers to the knower, the knowledge in which knowing is expressed, and the known. Thus, dhamma also means “truth.” It is the truth of things as they are. Dhamma is not merely the philosophy of the Buddha. Rather, dhamma is the objective truth the Buddha discovered. That the Buddha’s philosophy expresses this truth in perfection is the premise of Buddhism.

Finally, it refers to the right, righteousness, moral quality or action, i.e., ethics. Ethics follows logically from the knowledge of the real. If the goal of ethics is the maximization of the good – however defined –it must be based on the knowledge of the real. If the real is perfectly understood, the course of action that leads to the good can also be rationally apprehended and defined by the discerning person. After a sermon in which everything is declared to be impermanent, the Buddha says there is something that does not decay: the dhamma. The fact that impermanence itself, while universal, is also relative is often overlooked. Therefore, impermanence itself posits permanence. As the great Chinese philosopher, Laozi, put it, opposites interdepend.[1] Laozi was a close contemporary of the Buddha and the author of the famous Tao Te Ching, the Book of the Power of the Way.

The Buddha states the cause of impermanence is birth. Birth posits death. Death posits birth. This is the cycle of transmigration (sangsāra). Therefore, the dhamma does not decay because it is not born. There is only one thing not born. That is reality, the totality, the whole, the absolute, the ultimate, the All – whichever term you prefer, the ultimate explanatory principle or system cannot be subject to decay; if it were primary, what would it decay into? – then that would become the primary. This is why the real in Indian philosophy is always described as permanent and changeless. We do not need to define it right now; we just need to know it exists (in some sense), that it is real. That is what dhamma refers to. Thus, like a finger pointing at the moon, the Buddha progressed from the immediacy of human experience to an ultimate ontological understanding.

Four Great Mountains

The Buddha compares the truth of human life to four great mountains bearing down on a powerful king and his kingdom. Despite all his power, he cannot stop it. The mountains will come crashing down and destroy everything. Nothing can escape. This appears to be nihilism. However, it is not, because, out of this utter annihilation, dhamma presents itself as the one thing that cannot be destroyed. Thus, he concludes the pursuit of dhamma is the one and only true purpose of the rare and precious thing called human life.

Animals do not have the capacity to pursue dhamma because animals are barely conscious and largely driven by automatic impulses; they are immersed in a sea of suffering from which they cannot escape. This is even truer of ghosts and demons. On the other hand, the divine beings of light (dewas), commonly mistranslated “gods” or “deities,” and even those amongst us on the human plane who are rich and powerful enough, are capable of pursuing dhamma but do not do so, mostly because of self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction is entirely illusory. Even the richest and most powerful people will suffer, get sick, and die, as will their children, and their children’s children. All the wealth they have accumulated and everything they have built will turn to dust. All human knowledge will be forgotten.

Current science is undecided whether the universe itself will either freeze to death or perish in a fiery conflagration, but nothing will survive. There is no escape from this fate, not even for those who achieve emancipation, the arahants, not even for the Buddhas, all of whose bodies will also suffer, decay, and die. This fact posits the dhamma as its necessary alternative. Therefore, dhamma is the most precious jewel of humanity and its one true purpose and goal. Here we have the basis of an ethical theory of human life and conduct.


Today many place their hope in science. They think science will save us. Through science, we will disentangle the intricate veins of cause and effect on the most fundamental levels. This will enable us to build great machines to provide for all our needs and wants. We will all become rich and powerful and want for nothing. Our understanding of the human body will become so deep and penetrating we will be able to replace our body parts as they wear out. Eventually, we will even be able to replace our brains, thus achieving functional immortality. This has become the scientific mythos of the 21st century.

The success of science appears to contradict the teachings of the Buddha on the subjects of impermanence and suffering. In fact, they do not do so, even if they are true. No matter how rich or powerful we become, no matter how much knowledge we acquire, no matter how many planets we colonize, the fundamental fact of impermanence will catch up with us sooner or later. We are threatened with annihilation at every turn. The more we have, the more we have to lose. The more powerful we become, the more likely it is we will turn the power of self-annihilation upon each other. Risk can be mitigated but can never be eliminated. Accidents are always likely. Eventually, the universe itself will come to an end, one way or another.

How are we going to administer all this power, which includes the power of self-destruction? Are we going to handle it as we have in the past, based on scarcity, competition, and greed? It seems likely if we continue along this path the very powers we unleash through our knowledge of reality will destroy us because of our own ignorance. Therefore, dhamma and, in particular, the ethical values of wisdom, compassion, and selflessness that result from its realization, become even more important in the scientific age than in the past. Indeed, without the dhamma it seems unlikely humanity will survive much longer. Certainly secular materialism has proved itself completely incapable of establishing a moral society. Aldous Huxley prophesied this in 1932 in his dystopian novel of a future technocracy, Brave New World. We have only to look around us to see this is true.

Three Divine Messengers

The Buddha refers to the three divine messengers that appear to humanity to teach us dhamma. He is not referring to gods, saviours, or even great teachers of the past or present as taught by other religions. Rather, he refers to an old woman, a hundred years old, frail, bent, crooked, leaning on a stick, shaking, sick, with broken teeth, and grey dry hair and blotchy skin. eHe NBh He refers to an old man, sick, in pain, lying in his own filth, who cannot take care of himself but must be cared for by others. He refers to a swollen, discoloured, and festering corpse.

Humanity learns the reality of its own state through these divine messengers. He who learns their lesson well turns to the dhamma with faith. He who ignores them, losing himself in the deluded paths of money, power, sex, alcohol, or drugs, will learn their lesson when he himself suffers, becomes sick, and dies: except in our society, where the dying are typically drugged into unconsciousness. He, who, despite the vain deluded pursuits of life, learns the lesson of the divine messengers, turns to the dhamma. Through dhamma, he will become one with the Deathless, experiencing good results in this life and in the next.

The Worldlings

The Buddha makes a fundamental social distinction between two human types: the puthujjana and the sawaka. Puthujjana comes from puthu, numerous, + jana, people. The puthujjana are the many-folk; ordinary, average people; worldlings. The puthujjana are the people the Buddha hesitated to teach when he became enlightened, fearing he would not be understood. A sawaka is one who hears and listens to dhamma.

Today, many Buddhists think in terms of a primary division between lay and monastic. In fact, the fundamental social distinction made by the Buddha is between the puthujjana and the sawaka. Dr. Peter Masefield ably shows this in his book, Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon (1986). The puthujjana are not necessarily non-Buddhists, however. The Buddha taught two spiritual paths, one for the puthujjana, based on the law of kamma, and one for the sawaka, based on the Noble Truths.

A puthujjana is not necessarily a lay Buddhist, and a sawaka a monastic Buddhist. The Pali Canon cites numerous examples of ordained monastics who were puthujjanas and lay people who were or became sawakas. Rather, a puthujjana is one who is lost in the mirage of sangsara. This is characteristic of the majority. A sawaka is the rare being who has heard and understood dhamma. He has achieved Right View, the first step of the Eightfold Path. When we say, “heard and understood,” we do not mean merely a sawaka has adhered to dhamma in a formal sense, as one who converts to a religion for example. Rather, we mean one who has actually heard and understood “the view” and thus “taken it into themselves,” as it were, perfectly (sammā). Such an individual has taken the decisive first step on the Buddhist path of wisdom.

The puthujjana experiences suffering on physical and mental levels. The Buddha likens this to two darts. In response to suffering, the puthujjana turns toward pleasure as an antidote. He does not understand pleasure is the same as suffering in essence. Thus, the more he suffers, the more he turns to pleasure; the more he turns to pleasure, the more he suffers. In the famous simile of the Buddha, a man covered with boils scratches, and the more he scratches the more his boils fester and itch. This sets up what is called in cybernetics a “positive feedback loop.” In fact, this is the essential nature of addiction. The more he struggles, the more attached he becomes. The more attached he becomes, the more he struggles. Life and addiction are essentially the same process.

We see this clearly in the world today. Nations struggle against nations; billions live in misery, while a few million live in unimaginable luxury, the wealth of the world controlled by a few percent. Despite all this wealth and luxury, the rich are never satisfied; the poor never have enough. The most violent, criminal, and addicted societies are the richest. In the process, we are destroying our planet through pollution, resource depletion, and climate change, but no one seems able to do anything about it. Many more prefer to pretend this is not happening at all. We live in a state of willful ignorance, seeking endless self-gratification, never satisfied, and always hungry. The power elites keep the people ignorant while they gorge themselves on the wealth the people create.

He Who Hears the Dhamma

Thus, the puthujjana perpetuates his own suffering. According to the Buddha, the sawaka does not experience suffering like this. When he feels physical pain, he has a sensation of pain, but there is no correlative mental suffering, no second “dart.” He simply feels pain as pain, without attachment. As the Buddha put it, “he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.” Without attachment, the sawaka neither avoids pain nor seeks pleasure.

Rather, the Buddha says, he knows of a way out. He is detached, and through detachment is freed from the positive feedback cycle of pain and pleasure. He is able to do this because he understands dhamma, especially the Four Truths. The sawaka is not merely one who believes in dhamma. He is not even one who knows dhamma as a matter of intellectual or academic reflection. Rather, he is one who, through believing and knowing the dhamma, realizes the truth of the dhamma in and for himself. Thus, he experiences the fruit thereof as a matter of direct realization. Only such a one is on the path of dhamma. He is awakened to the truth of the world.

The Four Truths that underlie the realization of the sawaka are:

(1)       The truth of suffering;

(2)       The truth of the origin of suffering;

(3)       The truth of the passing away of suffering; and

(4)       The truth of the way of escape from suffering.

The word here translated as “suffering” is dukkha. Dukkha is derived ultimately from the Sanskrit, du, meaning “opposite” or “wrong.” The English slang expression, “duh,” meaning “bad” or “woeful,” is derived from this word. The word also means “two.” It is the corollary of sukkah, “agreeable” or “pleasant.” Dukkha does not refer exclusively or even primarily to physical pain. It refers to the mental anguish to which physical pain gives rise. Dukkha is the ontological or existential dissatisfaction with life expressed in English by words like “angst” and “ennui.” Thus, the Buddha anticipated existentialism by thousands of years.

The First Truth of the Buddha is that suffering, or dukkha, is inextricably interwoven with all of life, right down to its core. The Buddha does not deny pleasure occurs, only that it is permanent or enduring.  Therefore, pleasure turns into pain, and pain turns into pleasure, in an endless cycle. The core of both is fundamental dissatisfaction. The more aware one becomes, the more acutely this is felt. Thus, dukkha, pleasure, and pain are all bound together in the unity of fundamental ignorance (awijjā).

The Second Truth is the cause of suffering is desire. The Second Truth is based on the doctrine of kamma (Skt. karma), the law of cause and effect. The law of kamma states every phenomenon results from a cause – there are no uncaused phenomena. Universal causality is a Buddhist axiom also shared by science. Dhamma, reality, is the sole exception, but dhamma, strictly speaking, is not a “phenomenon.”

Thus, suffering too must be caused. The word translated as “desire” is tanha. Literally, it means dryness and thirst. It is figuratively applied to craving, hunger for excitement, and the fever of unsatisfied longing. Westerners in particular are so addicted to desire they identify it with life itself. They cannot conceive any other kind of happiness. They declare, erroneously, Buddhism is “against life.” The Second Truth is usually misunderstood as referring to vitality, despite the Buddha’s repeated admonitions to develop energy.

The Third Truth follows logically from the first and second truths as the logical antithesis of the second. The Pali word is nirodha, which means destruction, cessation, annihilation, i.e., of tanha, desirous attachment. To a Westerner this sounds like nihilism. In fact, tanha is illusory. The destruction of illusion is not a real annihilation, but rather the opposite, an awakening. It is a “cutting through” illusion to the reality of suffering itself, thence to the reality of bliss. It is synonymous with realization. For this reason, it is usually taken as synonymous with nibbana, emancipation.

Finally, the Fourth Truth refers to the way or path. This is the Eightfold Path that leads to complete emancipation. The realization of the path is synonymous with enlightenment itself.

The fundamental root of the anxiety and agitation that arises due to desirous attachment is the belief in the reality of a self (atta). The belief in a self has four aspects – form is the self, the self has form, form is in the self, or the self is in form. Because form is subject to change and alteration, this creates confusion, anxiety, and agitation in the mind of the sufferer who is addicted to the notion of a self. This also applies to feelings, perceptions, volitional formations (sankhāras), and consciousness – all the psychological qualities we typically take to be the self. All these are impermanent. He who believes they are inextricably involved with the self, or the self with them, experiences the suffering resulting from desirous attachment. Similarly, the sawaka does not experience desirous attachment to any of these things. He is freed from anxiety, agitation, and suffering because he realizes the self is essentially empty. Worldly conflict is the result of attachment to sensuality. Spiritual conflict is the result of attachment to views, especially views “infected” by subjectivity, craving, ego-conceit, and distorted perceptions. Worldly and spiritual conflicts undermine the innate desire of all beings to live in peace and harmony. This concept of spiritual conflict being due to attachment to views is the basis of the sectarianism we see in all religions today, including Buddhism. It follows the cure to such a distorted concept of views is non-sectarianism. Non-sectarianism may be achieved by the practice of universalism and the reconciliation of apparently contrary views through the practice of logical syncretism. Similarly, sectarianism is one of the eighteen root downfalls of a bodhisatta. Geshe Tashi Tsering of the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London comments on this:

The sixth one [referring to the root downfalls] is referring to stopping or abandoning the practice of Buddhadharma, either completely or partly, due to misinformation. For example, for people who are practising the Mahayana path, there is such a strong emphasis on the Mahayana teachings there is a risk of saying the Theravadin teachings are not really important. Conversely if the emphasis is put very strongly on the Theravadin teachings, there is a risk of thinking the Mahayana teachings are not relevant. Of course there are different emphases but that does not mean we should abandon one teaching or the other. They are there purely due to an individual’s interest and mental dispositions.

Lama Tsong Khapa said very clearly in his Lam-rim Chen-mo, The Great Exposition of the Gradual Path to Enlightenment that a unique feature of the lam-rim is that through studying it the entire Buddhadharma can be understood as a spiritual path to achieve buddhahood.  In the earlier stage, the middle and small scope teaching, there is a strong emphasis on the law of cause and effect and the Four Noble Truths, whereas in the great scope there is much more emphasis on bodhicitta or Mahayana teachings. The entire teaching is given to show a practitioner where to start and where to end. Like the analogy I often use, if you pull one corner of the cloth, the whole cloth moves. To understand bodhicitta, we must understand emptiness and cause-and-effect. It is so important not to abandon one part of Buddhadharma just because that is not our main emphasis or because we are following a particular tradition. Of course, different traditions suit different mental dispositions. [2]

The Buddha exemplified this practice in his own discussions with the adherents of other sects. The Buddha recommended finding common ground with others, especially those holding contrary views. Then he based discussion on this, identifying axioms and implications and following them out, rather than focusing on differences.


When the Buddha refers to the eight worldly conditions that keep the “world turning around,” he is referring to sangsara. Sangsara is often mistranslated as “existence.” The literal meaning of the word is “faring on.” It refers specifically to transmigration or rebirth. The cyclical nature of existence is its essence. Thus, the word does not refer to a “thing” at all. Rather, it refers to a process universally inherent in all phenomena.

All phenomena, including living beings, are born (i.e., caused), endure for a time (though this too is illusory, because everything changes continuously), and then cease to exist (i.e., they die). This cyclical process is the essential nature of all phenomena, from the infinitesimal (i.e., the subatomic level) to the universe and beyond. Thus, sangsara itself is synonymous with time. Time is a great mystery. There is no quantum variable for time. The “arrow of time” is imposed on reality by the experience of the self. In orthodox quantum physics, this is called the “act of observation.” In string theory, time is one-dimensional, whereas space is multi-dimensional.

The eight conditions referred to by the Buddha are gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, and pleasure and pain. We may generalize these as property, society, and physicality. The elements of sangsara are not things in themselves. They are not absolutes. They are conditional. If we abolish attachment to property, social relations, and the body, we abolish sangsara. This is the essence of renunciation. The negative implications of the English word are misleading. Renouncing an illusion is not renunciation; it is liberation. The teachings of the Buddha only appear to be negative from the perspective of the relative, contingent, and illusory. From the perspective of the absolute and the real, they are not negative at all. They are positive.

What is the origin of this sangsara? The Buddha says, because of the law of cause and effect (kamma), sangsara is without beginning; to posit a beginning posits an uncaused cause. It is why Buddhism rejects theism. Theism asserts God is the uncaused cause. The question arises, if God, the First Cause, is uncaused, why posit a creator at all? Just say reality is uncaused.

Buddhism is singularly scientific in positing both the beginninglessness of sangsara and the sheer enormity of the cycles that constitute its “faring on.” In a famous simile, the Buddha compares the enormity of the macrocosmic cycles to the time it would take a person to wipe away a mountain with a rag. This duration, while finite, is unimaginably long.

Compared with the traditional Judaeo-Christian notion that creation is about 6,000 years old, the Buddhist model approximates the current scientific understanding of astronomical cycles much more truly. The Buddha says the number of cycles is like the length of the Ganges expressed in terms of the number of grains of sand between its origin and its end. I will not even attempt to quantify this.

Dedication of Merit

Before I take any questions, I would like to conclude with the dedication of merit. Before I do, I will speak briefly about the dedication of merit and how it works. According to the Buddha, based on the law of kamma, everything we think, say, and do has a result. Every result is in turn a cause of further results in an infinitely interwoven cascade of cause and effect. The dhamma itself is especially efficacious. It creates beneficial results wherever it spreads. This is called the “power of truth” (satyagrāha). A common term for this effect is “merit” (punnya).

Thus, this talk is also a cause of merit. Its merit radiates out through time and space indefinitely, but also redacts upon the speaker. Thus, most of the merit of teaching or even talking about dhamma redacts, not only to the speaker, but also to the listeners. The dedication of merit establishes the intention to sacrifice the merit one receives in favour of others. The dedication of merit is an act of generosity. Generosity itself is karmically efficacious and thus generates more merit. By redirecting the merit one receives to others, the dedication of merit acts like an amplifier, redirecting ever-greater merit to others. The dedication of merit causes the merit of the dhamma to spread exponentially through the whole system.

The great Buddhist scholar, Alex Berzin, uses the formula I prefer. I like it because it is simple and not overtly religious.

Whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you very much.

Addendum to Talk 1

Before I take any questions, I would like to address a question asked during the first series of these talks. Specifically, is there any evidence or argument for the Buddhist concept of rebirth, otherwise referred to as transmigration? Although Buddhism does not posit a “self,” it does believe in a continuity of birth, life, death, and rebirth. There are two ways of approaching this question. One is based on logic and the other on evidence. I will address both of these, beginning with the approach based on logic. The latter is based on the Tibetan view ably summarized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a document he promulgated on September 24, 2011, entitled “Statement of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation.”[3] Let us look at this argument.

According to the Dalai Lama, the logical argument for rebirth is based on four fundamental principles:

(1)    The logic that things of a similar type precede things;
(2)    The logic that things of a substantial cause precede things;
(3)    The logic that the mind has gained familiarity with things in the past; and
(4)    The logic of having gained experience of things in the past.

According to the Dalai Lama, ultimately these four points are based on the realization the nature of the mind, which is fundamentally clear and aware, must have clarity and awareness as its substantial cause. Therefore, a new stream of clarity and awareness cannot come about without causes or from unrelated causes. Specifically, mind is not reducible to material processes nor can it come about without a cause. Mind can no more be derived from matter, including the body, with which it is doubtless associated, any more than a television or radio program can be deduced from an analysis of the electronics of a television set or a radio. To use a more contemporary example, a computer program cannot be deduced from a microchip. Similarly, neuroscience cannot deduce the ineffable quality of sentience or consciousness from the biophysical processes of the body or the brain. It will never be able to do so, because consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of matter.

Matter may condition the expression of consciousness, but, in itself, matter is essentially unconscious. The contrary belief, that consciousness is “secreted” by the brain in the same way the liver secretes bile, to cite the famous simile, is thus arbitrary. It is no less dogmatic than the alternative view is claimed to be, and far less defensible. In fact, we observe people who apparently believe consciousness is mechanistic and reducible to physical causes only. It is a type of insanity we observe in certain types of autistic children, as well as sociopaths. We also observe the social and ethical consequences of this belief in the historical consequences of fascism and communism. The crimes against humanity of these movements are directly attributable to this erroneous way of thinking. Secular materialism is like this. This fact should give us pause as we approach the new world order of technocracy.

There is also empirical evidence for the post-mortem survival of the human personality and rebirth. Robert Almeder has assessed the quality of this evidence in his book, Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence of Life after Death (1992).

Dr. Almeder received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and has done post-doctoral work in logic and philosophy of science at Stanford University. He has published more than fifty philosophical essays in peer-reviewed journals, including scientific journals. Almeder surveys published studies of reincarnation, apparitions of the dead, possession, out of body experiences, and communications with the dead. He concludes the evidence for the post-mortem survival of the human personality is at least as good as the evidence for the past existence of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are another phenomenon that has never been observed directly by any human being, since dinosaurs are extinct.

With respect to rebirth, a significant researcher in this area is Dr. Ian Stevenson, a Canadian psychiatrist and academic. Dr. Stevenson intensively studied several thousand spontaneous rebirth memories exhibited by young children. From these he abstracted the twenty most convincing cases in his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966).

Dr. Stevenson studied these children in situ. He went to great lengths to investigate their claims, including interviews with the children, their parents, families, and communities, and the parents, families, and communities of the deceased, including an assessment of physical evidence. He carefully evaluated these claims with respect to such potential contaminating influences as social bias, both deliberate and accidental. Consider that in order to disprove a general hypothesis, only a single exception needs to be proved.

Dr. Stevenson’s research is of special interest in that he found the past life memories of young children are the most reliable evidence, but they fade away quickly. This corresponds exactly to the collective tradition of rebirth in Tibet. For this reason, Tibetan tulkus (literally, “incarnation bodies”) must be discovered at a young age, before their past life memories fade away. This does not mean that every tulku is authentic, as the Dalai Lama himself has acknowledged. In addition, the fact that some, perhaps even many, tulkus are not authentic does not prove that the phenomenon of rebirth is not real.

Therefore, there is more evidence for than against rebirth. The contrary belief, that rebirth is a delusion, is an expression of ignorance and a purely arbitrary and dogmatic statement based on the ideology of “scientific” – really secular – materialism. Secularism and scientism have become a kind of pseudo-religion and are even beginning to turn militant in this degenerate age as it seeks to purge all semblance of spirituality from society.

[1] Laozi, Tao Te Ching, Chap. 2.

[2] Geshe Tashi, The Bodhisattva Vows (London, Feb.-March 2001),


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