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Sensible Wisdom

Acer leaves
A gestation has a stem, somehow like a leaf has a stem. Old gestations and old leaves blow in the winds of time. And what happens next?

Buddha's daily schedule is told of in the Middle Length Discourses. He divided his time between periods of instructing assembled followers, of giving discourses to the laity, and of secluded meditation (MN 121.3, MN 122.6).

Buddha and his mendicant community would remain at a fixed place during the rainy season, when extensive travel was too hard. The rest of the year he walked about in the Ganges Valley and spread his teachings. This is the gist of what Buddha taught:


Dukkha. What is called the Four Noble Truths are the basic teaching of the Buddha. All of them stem from the notion that there is so much dukka (Sanskrit: duhkha) in this world. Dukka means "suffering and pain", but has a much wider meaning too in some places.

Impermance. "Is impermanence gone tomorrow?" (Slapstick). The notion of aniccata, impermanence, is another basic tenet in Buddha's teaching. Things change, The Book of Changes says too. In a human life, impermanance or transcience purports ageing, changes of health, ups and downs, and death (MN 26.5), for the body gets worn and stops working after some time, be it long or short. (MN 74.9).

Aggregates. A third basic is the idea of five so-called categories or aggregates. They are: material form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.

(1) The aggregate of concrete form (rupa) includes the physical body with its sense faculties as well as external material objects. (2) The aggregate or compound of pleasant, painful and other feelings, (vedana), is the affective part of human experience. (3) Perception (sauna) is the third compound, and in this way of categorisation stands for noting various qualities, recognition and memory. (4) The compound of gestations - formations, sankhara - includes the intentional emotive, and intellective sides to mental life. (5) Consciousness (vijnana), the fifth formation on the list, equals awareness.

Another apt remark: Pain is impermanent; suffering is impermanent. The principle follows logically the two marks of impermanence and suffering. As it is said, "What is impermanent is pain or suffering" and "it will pass". (cf. MN 22.26, MN 35.20, etc.).

Nirvana in the Scriptures

The end. Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana) is described as "profound, hard to see and hard to understand, . . . unattainable by mere reasoning" (MN 26.19). Buddha also says that Nirvana is to be experienced by the wise, and is desirable.

The Udana is one of the scriptures included in the Pali Canon; in the Sutta Pitaka's Khuddaka Nikaya. A passage in the Udana says "there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned," (Ud 8:3/80). The Majjhima Nikaya goes on to describe Nirvana as "the unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme security from bondage," (MN 26.18). Buddha calls Nirvana the supreme foundation of truth, its nature is undeceptive and it ranks as the supreme noble truth (MN 140.26). And Nirvana . . . can be seen with the arising of spiritual vision, (MN 26.19, MN 75.24, MN 64.9).

Nirvana goes beyond both concepts and mundane living. Buddha's aim is to lead beings to Nirvana and its release from much suffering. He describes Nirvana as the highest bliss, as the supreme state of sublime peace, as the ageless, deathless, and sorrowless, as the supreme security from bondage. (MN 26.19).

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion . . . Buddhism answers this description. - Albert Einstein, in Calaprice and Dyson 2011:482.

There are several shapes of Buddhism, though. We let such topics lie for now. Another problem with this Einstein view is all that cosmos means. And what is meaningful if paradoxical thinking is into it, as in physics? A warmer-up by Gordon Allport: "There is a story of an Oxford student who once remarked, 'I despise all Americans, but have never met one I didn't like'." That is a paradox. In physics, light is treated in a somewhat similar way. It is said it cannot both be particles and waves, but is treated as if it were, all the same.

Now, Gordon Allport writes in his Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality (1983) that one can

study man . . . as as creature of many opportunistic adjustments, and as a product of tribal molding. But it can study him as well as a self-assertive, self-critical and self-improving individual whose passion for integrity and for a meaningful relation to the whole of Being is his most distinctive capacity. . . . And as a man increases in self-knowledge he will be better able to bind himself wholesomely and wisely to the process of creation." (p. 98)

He speaks of the religious and spiritual potentialities of the human psyche (mind). What relation we get to the world at large is a function of how our minds work - and note the conformism that makes a creature or at worst a doormat of him (religious and otherwise), versus the passion for integrity and meaning to make life better. The latter could lead to wholesome knowledge and the former to be stuck on such as a lap dance level.

The Way

The Middle Way as discovered by Buddha, is also called the Noble Eightfold Path. It is shown by these markers:

  1. right view (samma ditthi)
  2. right intention (samma sankappa)
  3. right speech (samma vaca)
  4. right action (samma kammanta)
  5. right livelihood (samma ajiva)
  6. right effort (samma vayama)
  7. right mindfulness (samma sati)
  8. right concentration (samma samadhi)

The Eightfold Path is explained in MN 141 and MN 117. Other sutras explore in greater detail individual components of the path. Thus MN 9 provides an in-depth exposition of right view, MN 10 of right mindfulness, MN 19 of right intention. MN 44.11 explains that the eight factors can be incorporated into a threefold-grouped training.

  1. Sila. Right speech, right action and right livelihood make up the group termed virtue or moral discipline (sila);
  2. Samadhi. Right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration make up the assemblage of "concentration" (samadhi);
  3. Panna. Right view and right intention make up the assemblage called understanding or wisdom (panna).

Gradual training for fine development is related to this basic outline of practices and aids to enlightenment. Buddha refers to them simply as "the things that I have taught you after directly knowing them" (MN 103.3, MN 104.5).

He also stressed that long duration of his teaching in the world depends on how accurately and well the given aids to enlightenment are adhered to or preserved:

  • His mindfulness teachings (satipatthana) tends to fulfilment of enlightenment factors (MN 118)
  • Proper kinds of striving are elaborations of right effort (sammappadhana)
  • Bases for spiritual power (iddhipada)
  • Mental faculties (indriya)
  • Powers (bola)
  • Enlightenment factors (bojjhanga). Sound and deep meditation should bring to maturity the many aids to enlightenment. (cf. MN 149.10)
  • The Noble Eightfold Path itself.

Each group is defined in MN 77.15-21.

Four factors, namely energy (drive, well-directed); (advancing) mindfulness; a fit focus (concentration); and wisdom (sagacity) should be found to be essential.

One is given this free counsel: Seek first to understand the essential teachings. Then, go for living the moral disciplines of being careful and artful as to how to speak, act, and about things to do for a living, heeding the counsel of Buddha. Good standards of decency, andfit tact too, may help or usher in sound mind cultivation of being alert or mindful, and up-to-date also. There are many advantages. And, as it is implied a well focused mind may arrive at penetrative understanding. Compare knowledge of beta waves and the like.

Gradually, from the Fourth Stage of Deep Meditation

So-called gradual training. In the Majjhima Nikaya Buddha often expounds the practice of the path as a gradual training that unfolds in stages to the final goal. This gradual training is a finer subdivision of the threefold division of the path into virtue, concentration, and wisdom (above).

In principle the whole Noble Eightfold Path is open to people from any mode of life. Buddha confirms that many lay followers were accomplished in the Dharma and had attained the first three of the four supramundane stages (MN 68.18-23; MN 73.9- 22), and the Theravadin position is that lay followers can also attain the fourth stage, which is arahantship. The order of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is the resort for those who prefer no householder life.

In the Majjhima Nikaya, the main paradigm for the gradual training for purifying the being assisted by such as sound moderation is laid out in MN 27 and MN 51, with alternative versions in MN 38, MN 39, MN 53, MN 107, and MN 125. Too much moderation is hardly fit along a way that avoids going to extremes in moderation and other things. Sound moderation is fit (cf. MN 39, MN 53, MN 107, MN 125).

Ill will and lack of calmness are among the hindrances, for it is essential for the being that the mind is brought to sane, inward calmness and unification and the joyful sense of freedom that can be had.

The next stage in the sequence describes the attainment of the dhyanas, states of heightened awareness. Buddha speaks of four dhyanas, each more refined than the preceding one. (MN 39, MN 77, MN 119). However, in the Theravada tradition the dhyanas are not regarded as indispensable to getting enlightened, but foretokens of the bliss of Nirvana at the training's end.

From the fourth dhyana three alternative lines of further development become possible.

  1. Buddha mentions four meditative states that continue the mental unification established by the dhyanas.
  2. Another line of development is getting supernormal knowledge. Buddha often mentions six sorts that result from the going deep in meditation (the fourth dhyana). They are: the supernormal powers, the divine ear, the ability to read the minds of others, the recollection of past lives, and the divine eye (MN 6, MN 73, MN 77, MN 108).
  3. Enlightenment and liberation should result from the meditative process well directed along a certain line of awakening - such development. Diving deep and getting to ascertain "things as they actually are," may be crowned with the attainment of arhatship. What this term is taken to mean, varies among Buddhist schools and traditions. Many early Buddhist schools hold that arhats are still fallible, but in Theravada Buddhism, arahant (i.e., arhat) means anyone who has reached Grand Awakening and gained Nirvana – including Gautama Buddha.

Recollection of past lives and the divine eye are not said to be essential to becoming an arhat.

From the Approaches of Meditating Deeply

The meditation methods taught by Buddha in the Pali Canon are, broadly:

  1. Development of serenity (samatha), which aims at deep focus in samadhi;
  2. Development of insight (vipassana), which aims at understanding or wisdom panna).

1. The road of serenity. In Buddha's forms of training, the role of serenity is subordinated to that of insight. However, the unified mind to be had by getting keener through focused or riveted attention, also helps clear understanding. So Buddha included serenity-bringing meditation and various results of it, into his system of training, as preparations for insight and a "pleasant abiding here and now." What is more, among things one may focus on in deep meditation are rainbow colours; being mindful of one's breath (MN 118); a form of gladness (MN 140 tells about contemplating on feeling); and equanimity (MN 7, MN 40, etc.).

2. The road of insight. To see things as they really are, requires a keen, unprejudiced, impartial, fair mind that has its insights on various subjects, on various levels of being, and allows for ramifications. The material is treated differently in the Satipatthana Sutra (MN 10), and MN 118.

Serenity and insight are companions though: it can and should be a both-and. By deep meditation one evolves on supramundane or inner levels toward "deathless" Nirvana. And progress on the way (marga) is marked by breakthroughs. A so-called stream-enterer or stream-winner, srotapanna, has entered the Noble Eightfold Path, that "stream", srota and may expect it will carry him on and up toward Nirvana - after some time. In a stream-winner, clinging to rites and rituals drops off, and clear understanding comes to the fore. For such reasons he will not maim and injure Buddha, and is found worthy and straight among straight ones, and may also benefit many.

However, the wholly ideal figure of the Majjhima Nikaya, as of the Pali Canon as a whole, is the arhat. The word arhat derives from a root meaning "to be worthy." Variant descriptions of arhats focus on differing sides to arhat attainments. Majjhima records ascribe such differences to the diversity of their faculties, yet all arhats have supreme vision in such as system of understanding. (MN 35.26).

A sidelight: Both in Theravada and Mahayana it is taught that an arhat must go on and eventually become a bodhisattva (literally: foe-conqueror). A bodhisattva is dedicated to becoming fully enlightened and deliver many. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Arhat" and "Bodhisattva"]

On Karma and Rebirth

Karma and Rebirth(s) are key concepts. Karma denotes "giving back" somehow. In Buddhism, karma is distinguished from vipaka, 'fruit' or 'result'. Actions tend to create varied, subtle impressions in one's mind, and such impressions (vasanas in yoga terminology and Buddhist philosophy) are metaphorically spoken of as seeds. Some such seeds will sprout if the over-all conditions seem suitable - they do not have to be fair. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsara, while many others may liberate one or help one on the stairs toward Nirvana.

It is taught that beings who engage in good actions generate wholesome karma that leads them to higher states of existence and ripens in the human world as happiness and good fortune. However, in specific cases it is not easy to say for sure which type of rebirth lies ahead of someone (MN 136). Buddha's superb karma teachings suggest these things more elaborately.

Buddha refers in several sutras to different planes of existence that a human may be reborn into, and indicates what types of karma lead to those planes.

The Buddhist cosmos is divided into three broad realms (1) the immaterial realm; (2) fine-material realm; and (3) the sense-sphere realm. In all, thirty-one planes. Bad destinations are characterised by deprivations, torments, incessant want, also hunger and thirst.

Deeds, talk and mind-work (including evil intentions) may all contribute to one's next destination in a "seesaw transition" of lives - going down and going up repeatedly. Wholesome action needs to be sustained throughout one's fare. A life may be a great opportunity to modify one's fare and future lot as well. The stand is that it should be well to advice the newcomers, good to be warned and decent to warn against tenets that are spiritually detrimental, and also to cut away severe obstacles against right views.

The Pali Canon

Whatever language or dialect Buddha spoke, the texts that first were in the form of oral recitations were, as Dalai Lama explains, later put down in writing, and these works are the basis for all subsequent Buddhist literature (in Bodhi, 2005). Recorded texts were recorded, eventually transcribed, often added to, and preserved in Pali as canonical Buddhist texts. They were put down in writing in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE.

Historically, the Pali language is also associated with west India and the Sthavira sect of Buddhism that was centred in Avanti. And Avanti corresponds roughly with the Malwa region. Also, ancient inscriptions in Gujarat, western India, are linguistically closest to the Pali language among the Indian languages. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Pali"]

The Pali language resembles Sanskrit and is a close relative to it (Holder 1006:vii). Mahayana discourses that correspond to Pali Sutras, employ Sanskrit terms [Chau, 1991]. Since I am somewhat familiar with Sanskrit terms, I side with them, although many of their corresponding Pali words are easier, somehow, just as Maurice Walshe pinpoints that in the Pali language,

Sanskrit consonant clusters are simplified, producing one single or double consonant: Sanskrit agni (fire) > Pali aggi; Sanskrit svarga (heaven) > Pali sagga; Sanskrit marga (path) > Pali magga, Sanskrit atman (self) > Pali attar Sanskrit samjna (perception) Pali sanna; Sanskrit sparsa (contact) > Pali phassa; Sanskrit alpa (little) > Pali appa etc. Instead of vv we find bb, and instead of dy, dhy we find jj, jh: Sanskrit nirvana > Pali nibbana; Sanskrit adya (today) > Pali ajja; Sanskrit dhyana (absorption) > Pali jhana. (Walshe 1995:17)

Further, Sanskrit karma equals Pali kamma, and Sanskrit arhat is arahant in Pali, and so on.

A few technicalities

Many comprehensive key words apart from dukkha (suffering, and so on) are translated differently according to context. Renderings are good in such waters. The word brahma, for example, may be translated or rendered as "holy" or "sacred," (see MN 49), or may go untranslated, or be rendered as "divine". Translation options are sometimes many.

The modern translation of Nanomoli and Bodhi is recommended. In the above survey I have sifted wise thoughts from Bhikkhu Bodhi's enlightening introduction (p. 19-60), simplified too, and added a few things that may be of interest. Parts of their work is online at ◦Access to Insight. I have added Sister Upalavanna's translation so you have something to compare with if you like.


Buddha wisdom, basics in Buddhism, Literature  

Allport, Gordon. Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality. London: Yale University Press, 1983.

Calaprice, Alice, and Freeman Dyson, colls and eds. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein. London: Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2011.

Chau, Thich Minh, Bhiksu. The Chinese Madhyama Agama and the Pali Majjhima Nikaya: A Comparative Study. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991.

Holder, John J, tr. and ed. Early Buddhist Discourses. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006.

Nanamoli, Bhikkhu, tr. and Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. 4th ed. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

Upalavanna, Sister, tr. Majjhima Nikaya. Sri Lanka: Metta Net. Online.

Walshe, Maurice, tr. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

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