Theravada, the Oldest Form of Buddhism

By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo


Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as “I” or “mine”.


 The deluded, imagining trivial things to be vital to life, follow their vain fancies and never attain the highest knowledge. But the wise, knowing what is trivial and what is vital, set their thoughts on the supreme goal and attain the highest knowledge.

                                                                               The Dhammapada, verse 11.

I have gone through many rounds of birth and death, looking in vain for the builder of this body. Heavy indeed is birth and death again and again! But now I have seen you, house-builder, you shall not build this house again. Its beams are broken, its dome is shattered: self-will is extinguished; nirvana is attained.

                                                                         The Dhammapada, verse 153-4.

Even the gods emulate those who are awakened. Established in meditation, they live in freedom, at peace.

                                                                                                      The Dhammapada, verse 181.



Theravada means the ‘doctrine of the elders’. The term Hinayana has also been used for this form of Buddhism, but it is a misnomer. This term has been used by the Mahayana Buddhists, who reckoned that they were followers of the ‘greater vehicle’. The Mahayanists to differentiate themselves from the Theravadins called the latter Hinayana, the lesser vehicle. In the pre-Mahayana period there was truly a collateral sect called the Hinayana, but this sect is not the Theravada of today. This confusion was unfortunate, and therefore, it is better to avoid the term Hinayana altogether. Any attempt to label two different forms of Buddhism as ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ is odious.

Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Buddha means awakened or enlightened, and in the context of this essay it refers to Gautama. He was the last of a line of many Buddhas, who on their own realised the Truth which is eternal. Many have tried, but only once in a long while can a Bodhisattva realised this Truth to become a Buddha. He was human and not divine. Dhamma means the Truth or Doctrine pertaining to the universe. It covers all things conditioned and unconditioned and it includes this phenomenal world as well as all spiritual states. Thus it is the Law of Reality, as well as the realms of duality and non-duality. Dhamma is also what Buddha taught.

The conventional meaning of Sangha is the community of ordained monks, whether living in a monastery or wandering in the nearby forests or villages. The three main countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) have at least one monastery in every village. The other two references of Sangha are 1) all those who have accepted certain Buddhist doctrines and have taken the Three Refuges. 2) Rarely does it only refer to those who have become Stream Enterers. Nobody uses this term under this context anymore. For the first 1500 years, there were nuns and novices in the Sangha. Early in the last millennium (1000 CE) the female ordination was lost i.e. the last nun died without any living nun surviving. However in all Theravada countries, there are female novices living in the monasteries, behaving like nuns observing ten precepts. Cloistered and ethical as their lives maybe, they are still not accepted as members of the Sangha.

The entire Buddhist religion is called Sasana, the Teaching. So, it can be said that Gautama Buddha founded this Sasana.

Theravada Buddhism came to Ceylon from India in or around 250 BC. For more than a thousand years it stayed in Ceylon and Southeast India. In the eleventh century it went over to Burma. Thence in the next two hundred years Buddhism spread over to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Buddhism in these countries is mostly Theravada, but there are minority communities, which are non-Buddhist. For the most part Theravada Buddhism also enjoyed state patronage and official status. It has now moved on to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal and Vietnam. Lately Theravada monasteries have also been established in Europe, N. America and Australia.

Pali is the main sacred language used and it depends on the Pali Canon for its practice. In Pali, the texts that are crucial in the teaching are called the Tipitaka, which are in three parts. These three are 1) Vinaya Pitaka, the rules and disciplines of the Sangha. There are 227 rules governing the monks. 2) Sutta Pitaka, Buddha’s sermons, poetry and miscellaneous texts. 3) Abhidharmma Pitaka, systematic philosophy, which consists of scholastic analysis of doctrines and the working of the mind. Then associated with the Tipitaka, there are the commentaries, most of which came about after Buddha died. An ancillary work by the monk Buddhaghosa, the Visuddhi Magga, (The Path to Purity) is a classic commentary. It was written in the 5th century and it is read more frequently than the Tipitaka.

 The Buddha

Buddha was born around 566 BC. He was born as Gautama, a clan name, which was used before his enlightenment. His father also gave him a personal name as Siddhartha. Retrospectively the name Shakyamuni was bestowed on Buddha as the sage of the Sakya people. Buddha is a universal name for anybody who is enlightened or awakened. Tathagata is synonymous with Buddha, and it means “sovereign freedom over one’s personal destiny”. Gautama lived for 80 years, and he died about 486 BC. As an only son of a wealthy king, he was very sheltered and pampered. He had the best of everything: clothes, food, education, servants and all sorts of entertainment. He was so sheltered that he knew nothing of the suffering in illnesses, old age and death. One day he was confronted with the reality of all of them. The suffering that arose with these events of a human being makes life precarious and transient. Where is the perpetual happiness? Actually after he was enlightened, he realised that these events were points of sorrow only if one clung on to them as ‘I’ and ‘mine’. After seeing these events this conundrum plagued him thereafter. Until he saw a monk whom he was told could release him to liberation. With this knowledge, he decided to walk the homeless path and decided to give up the throne waiting for him. He had learnt that power and wealth are of temporary use in this life of sorrow and suffering. He decided to forego the pleasures of his luxurious home and the power of a king.

He renounced the world at 29 years old and wandered all over the valley of the Ganges River for six years. During this time he apprenticed himself to two well-known teachers and learnt all that he could learn from them. But nothing in the teachings could relieve him from his underlying sorrow and discontentment. Then he left to search for liberation on his own. He tried all forms of austerities but failed. So he began to nourish himself in order not to die of starvation, and this worked. One day sitting underneath a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya he became enlightened. His meditation was deep with mindfulness. Four stages were described in his meditation. The first was that thought started to arise and he followed the thoughts through his mind. This gave him joyful elation. Secondly, all his thoughts were allowed to subside and no new thoughts were allowed to arise. He now experiences tranquillity with his one-pointedness. Joy is still present. Thirdly, rapture and bliss are allowed to subside to be replaced by equanimity. Mindfulness is still steadfast. He was then in the fourth jhana in full control and awareness. Next came the three kinds of knowledge.

The first was at the first watch of the night when he recollected all his previous lives. He remembered thousands of his own lives and how he arrived to where he was with karma and rebirth. He knew who he was!

The second knowledge came at the second watch. Here he could see the coming and passing away of all sentient beings of the universe. He was able to know the conditions of all of them: whether they are well or miserable, good fortune or bad according to their karmic deeds.

The third knowledge was achieved at the third watch of the night. He was finally free. It meant that he had ‘Knowledge of the destruction of the cankers.’ The three cankers are: sense-pleasures, rebirth and ignorance. In other words the four noble truths. At last, no more rebirths. He was now able to realise Nibbana at will.

Buddha realised that he was awakened by his own human ability. He was human and not a God. And that means he is no more accessible to us. However, seeing that he was human, it also gives us great encouragement with our own search. By the same token, it is useless to pray to him for help. We must be a lamp unto ourselves.

After being persuaded by the god, Brahma, which probably meant in his cosmic vision, he reluctantly agreed to teach other people the way and the path to liberation. He was reluctant because he thought that the knowledge and experience would be almost impossible to come by. But after casting his prescient eye all over the world, he saw that some sentient beings already had their eyes partially opened. So he agreed. Thence, he wandered all over the region for about forty five years, teaching all and sundry, the poor and the rich, royalties and commoners, intelligent and stupid. He also did not distinguish between his students. He kept no secrets from them: he taught them with an open hand. However, he taught according to the spiritual level of his students.

Thus, Buddha wandered around the Ganges valley teaching his new found wisdom. He was most active in the two kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha. The Sakya people were living mainly around Kapilavastu, in the lower foothills of the mountains of Nepal.

 The Dhamma

In this 21st century we seem to be still suffering from confusion, insecurity and lack of faith. There is a constant underlying discontent and unsatisfactoriness in our lives. The reason appears to be our aims in life: desire and craving for assets (money), status, power and security. At the back of our mind, we know that ill health, ageing and death will take away what we already possess. Without the right path we are bound to remain confused and discontented until we die. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddha discovered the solution himself. His answer is in the following Four Noble Truths.

  The Four Noble Truths


It was in the Deer Park at Benares (Varanasi) that he gave his very first discourse of the “Four Noble Truths” to the five ascetics that started the search with him. These five deserted him when he gave up extreme asceticism and embarked on the middle way.

Looking at the scientific prescription of Buddha, one must not take Buddhism as a belief system or a faith with principles and tenets. Buddhism is a way to look at Reality. This is the ‘teaching of the awakened’.  Buddhism is really not a religion. It is a practice to see things as they are in the here and now. One must directly perceive Reality itself. But a belief can also obstruct the Truth. It is only with direct perception that one can really see Reality. The Zen practitioners call it experiencing Buddha-nature. When you see you know immediately. It is an awakening or satori. You are already well equipped now to be awakened. Nothing more is needed.

The First Noble Truth of Suffering

In the First Noble Truth it is stated that life is full of suffering because of birth, illness, old age and death. One also suffers when what one loves is taken away, and what one detests is nearby. One also suffers when one is unable to obtain what one wants. However, life is still not all suffering. There are times and days when life is good. Few people remember the good times, but most people complain about the bad times. The unpleasant things one remembers vary from the trivial to the very serious, always not realising that one’s life is so very temporary. There is never any satisfaction.

On top of that there is this constant fear, anxiety and worry. We are too frightened to go out for a short journey to the supermarket in case of mugging. Fearful of going for a picnic as it may rain or storm. The car is too old and we are afraid of a breakdown on the way to church. The priest is covertly watching me: is my guilt so transparent? These and innumerable other concerns constitute the perennial problem, which has been plaguing the human race for thousands of years. Buddha called it the ‘eighty four problems’, the eighty-fourth being ‘not to have any problems’.

Buddha used the word Dukkha, which is generally interpreted as suffering, but this is only a partial explanation. Dukkha includes discontentment, unsatisfactoriness and not at peace. There is always a constant turpitude, an underlying smouldering of dis-ease in the subconscious. Dukkha means all these and more. Generally, one can classify Dukkha into three categories:

1)      Pain, both physical and mental. As long as we have a body, we cannot avoid pain and suffering due to injury, accidents, sickness and death. These physical episodes naturally translate into mental pain, which in a worrier can be exaggerated to unbelievable proportions. Then there is real mental pain itself without the physical component. This comes from real worries and anxieties in our daily living. Especially in a city, life is competitive, intricate and full of machinations. There is sexual and asexual harassment. There is that grouchy boss who insists on perfection in the shortest of time. Then living in a home within a small budget together with the travelling in a crowded city constitutes a problem. Also the bringing up of children up to adulthood is far from easy. All these may mean dukkha to some, but not to others. In running away from dukkha may in turn bring more dukkha. One of the most frequent causes of dukkha is worrying of what the future may bring: pessimistic expectations of future losses of jobs and assets or worrying of our own and children’s health. Are the children able to study and what schools shall we put them in? Throughout one’s life, there is always something to be anxious about. There is never any peace or contentment. The above is a litany of woes in an ordinary family. What about a broken family or a family where crimes are habitually committed? There is no end.

2)      Change. Taoism uses this reality as the central pillar of its philosophy. The minute one is born, one’s body and mind are subjected to change. The blood chemistry, skin, muscle, bones and all the organs are changing every second through wear and tear or through growth. Our thoughts change even faster. Nothing in this world exists without changing. Everything is in constant flux. We do not like change. We would like to remain static or young forever. We do not want our children to grow up. We do not want our houses or cars to grow old. We do not want to grow old ourselves. We do not want our money to dwindle as we spend. In order to control the situation, we try to take charge to prevent these changes. Quite often this attempt to control makes things worse. Occasionally we succeed, but only for a short while. Thence the deterioration resumes. The most constant thing in the world is change. If one does not accept that, then one suffers---dukkha.

What does one do? Just sit down and contemplate on it. The change could be for the better. As change is inevitable accept it with grace and dance with it step by step. Nobody can change or control his or her G-plan. There is no where to escape to. Suicide will make it worse as one will remain earth-bound for the remaining years of one’s expectant life and the next life will be much worse.

The only remedy is to see the situation in context within the whole world-----to see the Reality of the moment.


3)      Being. The dukkha of being is not easy to see. If you are in duality and see your-self as a separate entity from the rest of the world, you will continue to be in dukkha until you breakthrough to non-duality. The suffering and depression will not subside. One needs to meditate more on this subject. One is never totally separate. One’s connections with all the other entities are obvious as well as invisible. The workers in the supermarket need your custom. The restaurants also depend on you to survive. The most obvious conditional fact is your family's dependency on you. So are your co-workers in your office. The lumberjack is dependent on you because you’ve bought a desk and a house made of wood. The workers in the waterworks and electrical plants owe you a living. So if you sit down to work out all these details, you will find that you are also dependent on the rest of the community for your living. Then the most important questions are ‘who am I?’ ‘why am I here?’, ‘ is there a purpose in living?’ and ‘what happens when I die?’

That is why the most constant teaching of all religions is that we must all learn to love others as ourselves. When you hurt someone else you hurt yourself. When you succour someone else you help yourself. This is because every person, animal, vegetable and mineral is part and parcel of an integral whole. Nobody or nothing is separate. You kill an insect in one part of the world, the entire world is affected by that killing. If you become enlightened, the whole world is affected. So you are not and never separate.


2nd Noble Truth of the arising of Suffering


Craving or desire is the cause of dukkha, suffering. Craving for sense-pleasures, craving for further existence and craving for dis-becoming are the main components. Dis-becoming is craving to opt out of living, e.g. suicide.

Craving for sense pleasures is very common for all human beings, no matter rich or poor. Besides the physical, we also desire intellectual stimulation and satisfaction. So all in all, most of our cravings are mental.

Most of us, who are healthy and not in poverty, do not want to die. So we crave for existence. Even those who are in the throes of death do not want to die. We want to live forever.

However, rarely one of us who is in pain or afflicted with a terminal illness may want to die because the suffering is too intolerable. Similarly the mentally depressed due to a variety of causes would also desire to opt out of life. Of course these instances are rare but nevertheless relevant.

These three forms of desire and craving cover all the causes of dukkha. That is why our daily pre-occupations center on acquisitions of money, assets, fame and status. This pursuit itself causes pain and suffering. When we are thwarted in acquiring these objects we suffer more dukkha. After these objects are in our possession, we do not want to lose them. In fact, we want more. Or our cars and houses begin to age. Both situations are undesirable and therefore dukkha again.

During a lifetime, there are bound to be bad and good periods. When the going is good, we boast that we are clever and astute. When the time is bad, we suffer dukkha and blame everything and every body. There is no controlling of our G-plans. What one has to do is to see that there is a roller coaster of events in our lives (G-plan). One cannot control or influence our G-plans. If one can attune to this, where we are totally helpless, then we are beginning to ‘see’ the totality of the situation. Once we see it dukkha is partially eradicated. Lastly, we suffer when one has to choose. Choices always lead to suffering. We don’t suffer if there is no choice. An awakened one lives choicelessly. And of course, when one has an intention that is choice to begin with.

3rd Noble Truth of Cessation of Suffering

When one gives up craving, one ceases to suffer.

One can see that everything that rises will also subside. That means dukkha with the correct seeing will also cease. Cessation of dukkha means Nibbana, which is a state of the unborn, uncreated and the unconditioned. So Buddha was offering an escape route. This 3rd Noble Truth is freedom form suffering. It is emancipation, liberation from continuous dukkha. Nibbana is a supramundane state in which the yogin has achieved through his arduous practice of the Four Noble Truths. Being in non-duality this extinction of thirst is quite ineffable: words are inadequate to express this state of Absolute Reality. It is the result of the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred and extinction of illusion. The greatest of all illusions is the existence of a self. In his Anatta doctrine he denies the existence of self. Buddha had heard the signs and symptoms and diagnosed the disease. He is now pronouncing the extinction of the disease with the prescription to follow in the 4th Noble Truth. The Anatta doctrine is used by opponents to blame Buddha for preaching nihilism. Being in non-duality, there is no way to describe Absolute Reality, which is inexpressible in words.. Some hint of this Reality can be gotten from deep meditation. The deep meditation brings out the wisdom with its realisation that every single thing in this world is relative, conditioned and impermanent. Therefore it is not worth while to cling to anything in this world. Without clinging, there is no anxiety. Without anxiety, calm and tranquillity are the mainstay of the person’s character. He is already on the way towards Nibbana. At this stage when he experienced a sensation, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, he is unattached to that sensation. He knows that the sensation will pass, so why cling? He now sees the Absolute Truth due to the extinction of dukkha----Nibbana. This truth also tells us that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like Self, Soul or Atman within us.

Nibbana is not the result of the extinction of desires. It is not the result of a cause or effect. Nibbana just is. It is beyond cause and effect. The 4th Noble truth can lead to realisation of Nibbana, but it is not the result of the path. Nibbana is simply there for you to realise. Seeing that Nibbana is the ultimate truth, there is nothing beyond Nibbana. There is also no question of ‘entering into Nibbana’. When a person realises Nibbana while alive, when he dies, he ‘fully passes away’, or is ‘fully blown out’ or ‘fully extinct’, as he will not be reborn after death. There is no answer to the question, ‘ what happens to an arahant after his death?’ The five aggregates (body, sensation, perception, mental activities and consciousness) of an arahant are totally destroyed, never to rise again.

The famous saying of Buddha: “Within this fathom-long sentient body itself, I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.” This sentence explains a great deal. It means that there is no Self or Atman who realises Nibbana. Everything devolves down to the five aggregates. There is no thinker: it is the thought that thinks. Similarly, it is wisdom that becomes enlightened: there is no one that became enlightened. Put it in another way, dukkha arises because of craving and it ceases because of wisdom. Craving and wisdom are within the five aggregates. And after the death of an arahant, the five aggregates become extinct: there is also no more self to be reborn! Unlike other religions, in Buddhism one can be in Nibbana while still alive. In other religions, one has to die before entering heaven.

After realisation, the arahant is in a wonderful state of happiness, full of joy and peace. He has no more worries or anxiety, but is filled with compassion, love, kindness, equanimity and sympathetic joy for others. He is in a non-dual state all the time, and whatever he does is for others, as he is purely selfless. We will now embark on the path of the Fourth Noble Truth.

4th Noble Truth is the Prescription for the Cessation of Suffering

This is the middle path between the two extremes of pleasure of the senses and asceticism.

Wisdom                           Morality                            Meditation

Right view                       Right speech                     Right effort

Right thought                   Right action                     Right mindfulness

                                       Right livelihood                Right concentration

This Noble Eightfold Path is the main essence of his entire teaching. For forty-five years his ministry in discourses, teachings, lectures etc evolve around this Eightfold Path. This Eightfold Path must be practised all at once together and not one after another. As one can see this middle path is a practical one. It is a way of life and not theoretical doctrines to be studied in a cell. The word ‘right’ needs some explanation. It is not right versus wrong. It is more in the line of ‘appropriate’ with regards to the wholeness of Reality. There is no duality implied in this term.


Buddha’s teaching is based on compassion and wisdom. The ethical section on morality is to keep the individual harmonious and law-abiding in society. It is based purely on love, compassion, charity, kindness and tolerance.

Right speech means to abstain from 1) telling lies, 2) from slander and assassination of character and sowing seeds of disharmony, 3) from harsh, rude and abusive language and 4) from worthless and idle gossip. In the end it boils down to having to say the truth. Careless speech promotes bad kamma. If there is nothing to say, keep quiet.

Right Action means that one should abstain from killing, from stealing, from dishonest dealings and from illegitimate sexual intercourse. One should lead a peaceful, moral and honourable life to promote harmony in society.

Right Livelihood means one should abstain from a profession that harms others like trading in arms, intoxicating drinks, poisons, killing of animals and cheating. One should take a profession that is honourable, blameless and beneficial to society.


Under the heading of Meditation, we have Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Right Effort means we have 1) to prevent evil and unwholesome thoughts from arising, 2) to eradicate these states that have already there, 3) to stimulate good and wholesome thoughts and states of mind to arise and 4) to bring to perfection these good and wholesome states already there.

Right Mindfulness is to be aware and mindful of 1) all movements of the body, 2) sensations and feelings, 3) activities of the mind and 4) ideas, thoughts, concepts and planning. This subject is fully covered by my articles in my website on Insight Meditation (Vipassana) and on Mindfulness (Four Foundations on Mindfulness----Satipatthana-sutta).

Right Concentration. This topic is discussed in two articles in my website: 1) Meditation and 2) Progressive Stages of One-pointed Pointed Concentration.


Under Wisdom, we have Right Thought and Right Understanding.

Right Thought or Intention includes renunciation with detachment, love, compassion and non-violence, which are extended to humans, animals and minerals. There should not be any thoughts of selfishness, ill will and violence in all spheres of life. Sometimes it is also called Right Resolve. These two words of intention and resolve are probably more accurate in that if we do not resolve to walk the path, we will dilly-dally and get no where. If we have no intention or determination we are sure to fail.

Right Understanding or View means basically the Four Noble Truths. This is to see and understand situations as they are----Suchness. It means to so see Ultimate Reality. But one cannot see Reality with concepts, beliefs, ideas and opinions. In order to truly understand one must see the Wholeness of the situation, which is always in a state of flux. One cannot freeze a scene and say that’s it. That one scene is ever dynamic and moving all the time. That one scene is also attendant and conditioned by numerous factors, and therefore in order to see and understand a situation, one truly needs a highly advanced and mature wisdom to visualise the whole scene. In Buddhism there is a superficial and a deep understanding. Superficial understanding denotes general knowledge with its attendant memory and grasping of the subject from the data given. Deep understanding includes percipient penetration into the true nature of a situation without naming. One just sees and understands with a purified mind through deep meditation (Vipassana).

From the above, it can be seen that this ‘middle way’ is an individual effort of self-development and purification of the mind through meditation. Prayers, rituals and ceremony are useless. Worshipping of the Buddha or Deities is a waste of time. It is pure hard work by the self to realise Ultimate Reality. Rituals, ceremonies, worship and prayers will not bring anyone nearer to realisation.

Now, we can summarise the Four Noble Truths in the following diagrams:



Practising the Noble Eightfold Path in earnest and religiously could end up in awakening as shown in the above diagram.

Anatta Doctrine

This is the most unique feature of Buddhism. It is not found in any other religion in the world. Buddha formulated this doctrine and gave ample reasons to support it. In all the other religions there exists a Soul or a Self or Atman in humans. This is a permanent, unchanging, everlasting essence or entity in man. In some religions, this soul will end up in heaven or hell eternally after death. In Hinduism the Atman after many life times of purification will finally unite with God or Brahman. This Self or soul is the thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations and receiver of rewards and punishments. Buddhism reckons that this soul is the cause of all evils and misdeeds because of the selfishness of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Selfishness leads to all other defilements like hatred, ill will, conceit and pride.

Buddha explained that each individual is composed of five constituents: body, feeling, perception, mental factors (habitual tendencies) and consciousness. At birth these five constituents propel the karmic forces to form an individual in this life. At death, the five constituents break up to leave the forces in the spirit world during which no individual is in existence. In a subsequent birth these five separate constituents will reform another individual according to the karma accrued by that individual in his past life. So the theory goes: in life these five constituents are inconstant, forever changing and are impermanent. When impermanent the individual composing of the five constituents is consistently suffering. These five constituents being ever changing have no organizing principle or soul or permanent essence apart from the constituents. This is the rationale of the anatta doctrine.


Buddha said that man psychologically invented the idea of God and Soul for self-protection and self-preservation. God is supposed to protect man for safety and security. For self-preservation, man conceives of a Soul or Atman, which will live eternally. All other religions cling on to these entities of God and Soul due to selfish motives.  Buddha argued that these ideas are false and deep-rooted conjured in the minds of the Brahmins. After his enlightenment he postulated two theories to counter the concept of God and Atman. These are the Five Aggregates and the Conditioned Genesis.


Man is composed of the Five Aggregates, which are 1) the body, 2) feelings, 3) perception 4) mental tendencies and 5) consciousness. Try as hard as one may, one can find no essence or a Self or an Atman in any of these constituents. He also emphasized that there is no other essence or substance outside these five constituents. These conditioned and ever changing constituents are subjected to suffering---dukkha.

The Conditioned Genesis (Paticca-samuppada) is relative and interdependent.

The principle of this doctrine is given in these four lines:

When this is, that is

This arising, that arises

When this is not, that is not

This ceasing, that ceases.

This doctrine is encapsulated by twelve links:

1.      Through ignorance are conditioned volitional actions or kamma-formations.

2.      Through volitional actions is conditioned consciousness.

3.      Through consciousness are conditioned mental and physical phenomena.

4.      Through mental and physical and mental phenomena are conditioned six faculties.

5.      Through the six faculties is conditioned (sensorial and mental) contact.

6.      Through (sensorial and mental) contact is conditioned sensation.

7.      Through sensation is conditioned desire.

8.      Through desire is conditioned clinging.

9.      Through clinging is conditioned the process of becoming.

10.  Through the process of becoming is conditioned birth.

11.  Through birth are conditioned dukkha, illness, old age, lamentation, pain and

12.  Decay and Death.


Looking at the above 12 links, the crucial point is to stop at the point where contact gives rise to sensation or feeling. Even if sensation or feelings have arisen, one should prevent the feelings from concocting craving and clinging. It is at this point of craving that kamma is generated. So without craving, clinging and being, no dukkha is generated as no kamma has been earned.


One can see that all the factors in this circle of links of the Conditioned Genesis (Dependent Origination) are conditioned and conditioning. They are relative, interdependent and interconnected. Nothing is independent and absolute and there is no first cause. If the five aggregates and all the other things are conditioned and interdependent, there should also be no free will. With this Conditioned Genesis together with the analysis of the Five Aggregates, one finds that there is also no immortal abiding essence in man. Whether this essence is called Atman or soul it does not matter. This is the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, No-Soul or No-Self. In conventional truth or daily conversation we use the word “I” merely to signify an individual separate from other individuals. However in ultimate truth there is no essence or abiding substance behind this individual. ‘A person should be mentioned as existing only in designation (conventionally an individual), but not in reality.’


The verses 277, 278, 279 of chapter XX of The Dhammapada say:


277   All created things are transitory;

Those who realize this are freed from suffering.

This is the path that leads to wisdom.

278       All created things are involved in sorrow;

Those who realize this are freed from suffering.

This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.

279       All states are without self;

Those who realize this are freed from suffering.

This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.


Verses 277 and 278 say that all created things are impermanent and therefore involved in dukkha, sorrow and suffering. But verse 279 emphasized that ‘All states’ are without self (anatta). The word used to denote ‘all states’ is dhamma. The word dhamma includes both conditioned and unconditioned things and states, the Absolute and Nibbana. That means there is no Self or Atman in the Five Aggregates or outside the Five Aggregates. Furthermore, there is also no Self or Atman in the unconditioned --- the Absolute and Nibbana.


For those who take the self as consciousness, Buddha replied that it is better to take the body as self, because the body is more solid. Also the mind or consciousness changes much faster than the body. The vague feeling of ‘I Am’ gives the false impression that there is a self in us. To cure this spiritual disease is to see objectively that the Five Aggregates work interdependently in a constant flux within the law of cause and effect, and that there is no eternal, unchanging, and permanent essence in all conditioned and unconditioned things and states.


Anatta is Sunnata


Selflessness (anatta) is Emptiness (sunnata). The Theravadin emphasizes on anatta, whilst the Mahayanist accentuates on sunnata. Both are the same. According to Huang Po Sunnata is the Dhamma, Sunnata is the Buddha, and Sunnata is the One Mind. Inner Sunnata is the natural and normal state of mind that is not scattered and confused. When the mind is not grasping or clinging and not attached to anything it is Sunnata (voidness). When voidness is practiced to the utmost it becomes Nibbana. We must empty the mind of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ until it is absolutely void. Then Nibbana is there. Dukkha arises because we cling to ‘I’ and ‘mine’. If we comprehend this, then we can empty the mind of dukkha. If this happens, we will see dhamma, which becomes Sunnata. Sunnata is Nibbana. To remedy mental dukkha, we should continuously see our thoughts: they are either painful or pleasurable. Whether painful or pleasurable as long as we do not cling on to them, there will not be any dukkha. This is the process of cure by the method of sunnata. Anatta is the voidness of self. When there is no self, there is no egoism; there is no selfishness and there is no clinging to objects and concepts. If this is the case the doctrine of anatta contributes to Nibbana, which is also Sunnata. Sunnata is eternal and immutable. It is forever, unlike other dhammas. Sunnata is neither born nor dies. Once absolutely seen in its purest state it will remain forever. There is no more rebirth. Buddha said that ‘You should look on the world as being void. When you are always mindful of the Sunnata of the world as being void, death will not find you.’ The point emphasized here is that the fundamental nature of all things and all mental states is void, Sunnata. The spiritual realms are also Sunnata. It also means that if you take yourself as anatta and the world as sunnata, you will be free of dukkha (suffering). As Buddha said:


Nibbana is the supreme voidness

Nibbana is the supreme happiness.


Having learnt that grasping and clinging are the cause of dukkha, we must be mindful not to allow grasping and clinging to arise ever again. This alone will release us from dukkha and we can remain in Sunnata----Nibbana.


The Four Stages of Sainthood


Buddha also gave a sheet of the progressive four stages of Sainthood when the yogin includes in his practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Ten fetters have to be abolished.

Þ    Stream-enterer. After eradicating the first three fetters he has only at the most seven more lives to complete. The three fetters are: 1) there is no essence in the five constituents of body and mind, 2) rites and rituals do not contribute towards enlightenment, and 3) to believe in the Buddha and his teachings. In these seven lives, he is born a human and not in a state of suffering (not an animal, not a hungry ghost and not in hell).

Þ    Once-returner. After partially abolishing the fetter of anger and greed, the yogin needs to come back only once into this world.

Þ    Non-returner. After totally eradicating anger and greed, he needs not return to the world. He can be enlightened in the spirit world.

Þ    Arahant. The five fetters to be abolished are i) attachment to the realms of subtle forms, ii) attachment to the formless realms, iii) restlessness of the mind, iv) ego-conceit and v) ignorance. The yogin is now enlightened and need not be reborn again.





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