Dr. Keerthi Jayasekera
Among the Buddhists in Sri Lanka the tendency is to ask the last question first. They all want to know what Nirvana is, the supreme state of mind, which the Buddha achieved over 2500 years ago in India. The Buddhist texts show the names of a large number of early disciples of the Buddha who achieved that state as well.
The Buddha never described what Nirvana is since it cannot be described in a manner an ordinary mind could comprehend. However he showed the way, and the conditions necessary for achieving it. The Buddha’s Enlightenment means knowledge and vision of absolute reality pertaining to man, society and the universe.
The central philosophy of Buddhism is that nothing happens in the world without a cause. It is a particular cause that gives rise to a particular effect. The result is always formulated by the cause itself.
“When this exists, that comes in to being; with the coming in to being of this, that exists. When this does not exist that too does not come in to being; with the cessation of this, that too ceases to exist.”
This is the formula of causality in its simplest form which explains the central philosophy of coming into being.
How does the average Buddhist set about to achieve this goal in life? Firstly it is a subject of study in schools, Sunday schools conducted in Buddhist temples, seats of higher learning like the Pirivenas and Universities, attending Buddhist discussions, listening to sermons, talks, observation of Sil on Poya days in the temples, Meditation retreats and in particular more serious following meditation courses offered under different meditation masters.
With so much of Buddhists ethics imparted to the people from their young age, one does not see the desired effect in proportion to the quantum of subject matter of inputs they receive. On the contrary, sad to say, it looks more sterile than fertile. Every day one reads in the newspapers in TV and Radio about the amount of violence directed by man against man and animal.
Theft, robbery, murder, rape, drug and alcohol addiction, contract murders, and worst of all incest, that is having sex with one’s children, which is something that happens among the animals. Father murdering the son, son murdering the father, members of the same family murdering each other are incidents reported in the newspapers every day. Then there is suicide, in hatred towards society. Unfortunately Sri Lanka records one of the highest rates of suicide in the world.
Degeneration has reached such low depths that one reads of how Buddhist monks are murdered within the temple compounds and theft, looting and pilferage of temple property takes place, antique Buddhist images are taken away for sale and export.
Something is wrong somewhere, unless we remedy this situation, no amount of building temples or constructing huge Buddha images, conferring titles on Buddhist monks, and engaging in Buddhist pilgrimages and promoting Buddhist missionaries abroad to spread the word of the Buddha, is going to help.
One of the main reasons for this state of affairs is that the ethical transformation of the society based on the impact of the Buddhist temple on the society has failed to have its desired effect.
If one listens to the sermons of an average Buddhist monk it is all ‘Dana’ or gifting by the people to the monks and temples to obtain best rewards in the next life. In other words it is an investment-oriented Buddhism.
Hence the average man gives with the hope of getting something back. It is not an act of selfless giving, but selfish act of getting more in a life unknown and unseen. The end effect of such an act is the development of an unwholesome thought, which is totally opposite the concept of giving up greed as the first step in the path to enlightenment.
Greed manifests differently, under different circumstances. When the Buddha despatched the first set of 60 Buddhist missionaries to the world, the advice to them was not to go and explain what Nirvana is but to engage out of compassion for the welfare of the many. The psychology of one who considers the welfare of others over his own is a manifestation of what is called a wholesome thought.
It is the constant ability to cultivate wholesome thoughts, which will lead to wholesome acts which will pave the way for that supreme state of bliss, Happiness which is Nirvana.
When the petroleum sector or the transport sector launches a strike action to win over demands for the betterment of their lives, they have caused immense misery to the rest of the society.
Welfare of others is of no consideration to them. When Universities are closed due to the actions of a group of students, intellectual welfare of others is of no consideration. Of all the strikes, the Hospital strikes are the worst.
These very people who are striking through an immense sense of greed add to the suffering of those who are already suffering, and have no conscious feelings of pity and sympathy for whom there is no other hope.
Ironically they, strikers themselves may have observed Sil on the Poya day, done a number of ‘Bodhi pujas’ seeking relief for their own problems or to pass their examinations, and to ward off illnesses of their relatives, or to rid them of bad planetary effects.
The Buddha has not recommended these as a means to Enlightenment. I think while being engaged in Sin to seek protection from the Divine is spiritual hypocrisy, unlikely to be pardoned by the Gods to whom they pray.
What did the Buddha do when confronted with the sick? It is said in the Buddhist texts that sometimes the Buddha visited people on purpose to instruct them. Some of them whom he visited were sick with some grave illness.
Once in a young monk named Putigatta Tissa an eruption broke out which covered his body with sores. His fellow monks, unable to look after him, abandoned him. The Buddha visited this monk, washed him with boiled water and attended on him like a good doctor before teaching the Dhamma.
Prince Siddhartha having acquired the secular knowledge in the royal household of King Suddhodana, being fit enough to rule his father’s kingdom was not very happy with all what he experienced. Hence he decided to go in search of happiness by taking to the path of mendicancy.
Having experimented out all the known ascetic practices for seven long years, finally discovered the path to happiness in the middle way. The Buddhahood was entirely acquired through empirical means without the help of any being, divine or otherwise.
The Buddha did not stay in the forest where he discovered his own enlightenment, on the contrary he came back to the very society he left to share his new found wisdom, out of compassion for the suffering mankind he once lived with.
The Buddha wanted to establish a society where maximum conditions for the elimination of misery, due to selfishness, would be present.
According to the Buddha, only such a society upholding the value of Human Ethics, could provide the suitable environment that would pave the way to the establishment of a society, where the supreme ideal of human happiness, Nibbana could be achieved.
Professor W. S. Karunaratna describes the characteristics of the basic changes necessary, in the following passage: “Granted the possibility for perfectibility of human life there have been, in the history of human thought, two alternative answers to the question as to how this perfection was to be realised.
One view is that human life can be perfected by an inner evolution in the individual in terms of a thorough going catharsis of his mind and spirit. The other view is that human life can be perfected only by an outer revolution in the environment in terms of institutional change.
The first view is largely the one adopted by the exponents of the religious life whereas the second view has largely been adopted by politicians and Statesmen of all times and climes. In the teachings of the Buddha we have a harmonious combination of these two views in so far as the social philosophy of Buddhism is concerned.”
Footsteps of this ethical pathway being with the five precepts: 1. abstinence from destruction of life, 2. abstinence from taking what is not given, 3. abstinence from sexual misconduct, 4. abstinence from speaking falsely, 5. abstinence from drinking intoxicating strong liquors, which is the cause of sloth.
The first two may be regarded as guarantees for the safeguard of life and property. Thirdly when women are regarded like our own mothers, sisters, or daughters according to their respective age, there is no breach of faith of marriage, husband and wife can have perfect trust in each other, the sacredness of home will be perfectly retained and peace will prevail.
Fourthly Truth is the final end of Buddhism as a science, which is the final standard of Buddhist morality. Fifthly intoxicating strong liquors causes torpidity and sluggishness of the mind. Buddhism teaches us to be constantly vigilant and have awareness all the time.
These five precepts are basic to all who profess the Buddhist faith, throughout life. This is followed by eight precepts which are voluntary to be observed on special occasions like Poya or Full moon days. The five precepts are moral precepts, eight are religious vows.
Another category of Virtuous conduct, ‘Ten good actions’ differs from the preceding two sets because these ‘good actions’ do not merely include bodily ‘actions’, but also those of speech and thought. Speech inherent in the human being helps to communicate thoughts and feelings to others. It is well as long as it is used rightly and properly.
Evil comes when it is misused or abused, as the Buddha says: “To every man that is born, an axe is born in his mouth, by which the fool cuts himself, when speaking bad language”. Lying, slandering, abuse and foolish talk perhaps comprise the most serious cases of evil belonging to speech; when we abstain we shall be free from the evil of speech.
Mere knowledge that the cessation of existence is Nibbana does not amount to attaining to Nibbana. So says the Buddha: The most important thing with spiritual enlightenment is therefore to experience it in our own person. This is true of Buddhist morality too. Mere knowledge is of no use.
In the Patika Sutta of Digha Nikaya we find the Buddha admonishing Bhaggava, the Wanderer, saying: “Hard it is, Bhaggava, for you holding as you do, different views, other things approving themselves to you, you setting different aims for your self, striving after a different aim, trained in a different system, to attain to and abide in the deliverance that is beautiful. Look therefore to it, Bhaggava, that you foster well this faith of yours in me.”
Again the Buddha tells Nigrodha, the wanderer: “Difficult it is, Nigrodha for one of another view, of another persuasion, of another confession, without practice and without teaching to understand that wherein I train my disciples, etc.”.
In 262 B.C. eight years after his coronation, Asoka’s armies attacked and conquered Kalinga. Having got horrified by the after effects of war, Emperor Asoka embraced Buddhism and dedicated the rest of his life applying Buddhist principles to the administration of his empire.
Edicts of Asoka are found in more than thirty places in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In his edicts were to be found principles for state morality and individual morality. Both these types of morality reflected the Buddhist values of compassion, moderation, tolerance, and respect for all life. He undertook cultivation of medical herbs, building of rest houses, digging of wells, planting of fruit and shade trees.
Asoka made frequent tours inspecting his projects and meeting people to see to their welfare. He also protected wild life. Asoka ensured protection of all religions, their promotion, and fostering harmony between them. Asoka recommended kindness, self-examination, truthfulness, gratitude, purity of heart, enthusiasm, strong loyalty, self-control and love of the Dhamma. In other words what Emperor Asoka did was to promote Benevolence.
To undertake meditation to attain Nirvana without benevolence as an ethical prerequisite, may lead to hallucinations and illusions, and scrutiny of Buddhist texts to discover Nirvana will lead to delusions. Perhaps this could be the reason why non of the edicts of Asoka has any reference to Nirvana. Need of the hour is to know and cultivate benevolence, which is the pathway to Nirvana and not to seek the definition of Nirvana.