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What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.  Grove Press 1959/1974.  151 pages.

I suspect more people have been introduced to Buddhism through this book than any other—and that is a very good thing.  If any single volume can be called “core,” “fundamental,” “indispensable,” it’s this one.  Why?  I think it is Rahula’s uncommon combination of simplicity, clarity, directness, and accuracy that makes him such a good writer and this book so reliable and accessible.  Basically, if you’ve not read this book—regardless of whatever else you may have read—you are assuredly missing something.

Over the past twenty years the number of introductory works on Buddhism has exploded.  While not as mainstream as yoga, Buddhism is now “out there”—i.e. out and about, in plain view—and “in here”—meaning affecting peoples’ lives and thoughts, even if they don’t know it.  The need for a work that is at once timeless and contemporary, personally affecting and objectively critical, is more pressing than ever, and What the Buddha Taught (1959) has fulfilled and continues to fulfill these needs.

The author Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) was a Sri Lankan monk in the Theravadan tradition.  Among his other books are History of Buddhism In Ceylon and Zen and the Taming of the Bull; in his capacity as Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in Chicago, he became the first Buddhist monk to hold a professorial chair in the Western world.  On a more personal note: in 1990 I had an opportunity to meet Venerable Rahula but at the time, having only recently arrived in Sri Lanka, I was suffering from a bad case of diarrhea and general disorientation and so passed on the chance—something I’ve always regretted.

The book is built around the Four Noble Truths, which are the subject of chapters two through five.  The first chapter, entitled “The Buddhist Attitude of Mind,” starts off rather provocatively with the assertion “man is supreme.”  Right off the bat, the Buddha’s non-theistic (note: not atheistic) thought is emphasized, its difference from Western forms of religion made plain.  Remember: Rahula grew up under British colonial rule, and as a Sinhalese Buddhist would no doubt have confronted the imperial assertion of Christian supremacy many times.  (Clearly, he was unimpressed.)  As Rahula puts it:

Among the founders of religions the Buddha…was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.  Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him.  The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either.  He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence (1).

Granted the previous four hundred years of Western (read Christian) cultural ascendancy, this is a heady and defiant statement.  And I know from observation and experience that humanity can fairly well be divided into two groups: either they are offended, appalled and repulsed by such a thought, or they are intrigued, inspired and encouraged.  Upon my very first reading of this book, I knew to which camp I belonged.

In this first chapter Rahula deftly lays out basic attitudes of Buddhist culture: the requirement of responsibility for one’s actions (karma), freedom and openness of thought, the necessity of critical inquiry (cf. the Kalama Sutta), tolerance, non-violence, the distinction of faith not as belief but as intelligent devotion and trust.  Here too we encounter the vital principle of empirical verification and the Buddha’s disdain for metaphysical speculation unconnected to the problem of suffering and its cessation.  Rahula is somehow able to touch upon and clarify all these themes in a mere fourteen pages, and to do so while quoting liberally from the suttas (in easy to read, modern English translations, no less!).  Talk about economy!  That is why this book easily bears multiple re-readings so well—there is so much compacted into so little space, and yet never does one feel like drowning.  (Quite the contrast from the Paul Williams book I just read!)

I’ll briefly outline topics dealt with in the four core chapters:

  • Chapter two—first noble truth: definition of dukkha, the five aggregates, question of origins, charges of pessimism;
  • Chapter three—second noble truth: definition of tanha, four nutriments, karma, question of Self/soul;
  • Chapter four—third noble truth: definition of nibbana (nirvana), what happens to a Buddha after death?, who realizes nirvana?;
  • Chapter five—fourth noble truth: definitions of the eight limbs of the path.  If I have any significant criticism of the book, it falls on this section, which, considering its importance is given rather short shrift.

Chapter six discusses anatta.  Rahula notes the idea’s uniqueness and relates it to the teachings of the five aggregates and conditioned genesis.  Regarding the latter, he achieves the remarkable feat of actually getting what he says right (easier said than done when it comes to paticcasamuppada, which not only is the core of the Buddha’s Teaching but also notoriously difficult to grasp) and by not diluting his discussion with the later commentarial muck of the “three lives” interpretation.  He notes also the perennial effort of various people, even noted scholars (e.g. Caroline Rhys-Davids, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and George Grimm), to insert a higher metaphysical Self into the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula offers some excellent advice to such folks:

It is better to say frankly that one believes in an Atman or Self.  Or one may even say that the Buddha was totally wrong in denying the existence of an Atman.  But certainly it will not do for any one to try to introduce into Buddhism an idea which the Buddha never accepted, as far as we can see from the extant original texts (56).

He proceeds to supply an abundance of textual support for anatta and to point out that its naysayers typically defend their position by mistranslating common instances of atta (as in “myself” or “yourself”) as Self (with a capital S, of course).

Chapter seven concerns bhavana, or “mental culture.” Rahula describes the differences between concentration and insight meditations, and offers simple guidance for the practice of anapanasati—mindfulness of breathing.  This chapter (specifically the instructions on pp. 69-70) had an especial effect on me in my first year in college, when by simply following the text I was able to cure myself of a prolonged bout of insomnia. Rahula concludes his text proper with a chapter on the relevance of the Buddha’s teaching for people today.

The remaining one third of the book consists of very readable and reliable translations of selections from the Pali canon.  Included here are the Buddha’s first sermon (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the so-called Fire Sermon, the Metta Sutta (“Discourse on Loving Kindness”), the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sigalovada Sutta, and selections from the Dhammapada.  All of these are foundational texts and excellent examples of Buddhist thought, offering just enough so the reader will have a sense of what he or she is getting into.  Venerable Rahula has, in effect, opened a door for would-be seekers of truth.  After reading this marvelous book, it is then their choice whether they walk through it or not.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars



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3 thoughts on “What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

  1. Pingback: Buddhism in Bite Size Lessons: Lesson #15: Commentary on Kalama Sutta « Ritu’s Weblog

  2. Dear Craig,

    I too appreciate that thousands have benefitted from Rahula’s book. But I am puzzled as to how he could make such a claim that “…there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of a drop of blood in converting people to Buddhism…”

    As we are well aware, there are countless examples of violence perpetrated by Buddhists, historically from King Ashoka, and of most interest, current events in Burma, and brutality in Asia in general.

    This is an outright untruth coming from a scholar, practitioner, and one who is passionate about Buddhism. Was this a piece of missionary work, trying to spin a new face to Buddhism in the West? Would really appreciate your opinion on this.

    Thank you,

    Full quote on page 5 of What the Buddha Taught:
    “This spirit of tolerance and understanding has been from the beginning one of the most cherished ideals of Buddhist culture and civilization. That is why there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of a drop of blood in converting people to Buddhism, or in its propagation during its long history of 2500 years. It spread peacefully all over the continent of Asia, having more than 500 million adherents today. Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teachings of the Buddha.”

    • criticalbuddhist on said:

      Hi Nicole,
      This is an interesting and not so simple issue that has come to wider attention partly as a result of the Buddhist-Muslim violence in Burma you mentioned, but also on account of books such as Zen At War (Victoria) and Buddhist Warfare (Jerryson), both of which are scholarly accounts of Buddhist history. However, in response to your query, I think the crux of the issue boils down to a few points.

      First, I think a distinction needs to be made between what the Buddha actually taught (his Dharma), and what has, over the last 2,500 years, come to be identified as Buddhist culture, religion, and institutions. The first is a psychology and associated meditative practices, the second is the accumulated habits, mores, rituals, traditions and beliefs historically connected to, derived from, or even accidentally associated with the Dharma. Second, while we can certainly hold the historical Buddha responsible for what he taught, it’s unreasonable to hold him responsible for what people who happened to grow up in this culture later on represented him as saying, or what those people who self-identify as Buddhists do. The same points hold for a lot of what is done in the name of Jesus; many of the institutions of Christianity, and the actions of Christians, bear little resemblance to what the founder is recorded to have said.

      If we accept this as true, the violence perpetrated by someone who calls him or herself Buddhist, or by an institution so identified, is certainly “Buddhist violence,” but this is kind of like saying Stalin’s gulags were “atheist violence” just because Stalin was an atheist and promoted Marxism, an atheist ideology. I’m not sure how helpful—or meaningful—such assertions are though, whether in the case of Buddhism or atheism. While Marx certainly believed in violent revolution, atheism is simply the denial of a certain truth claim (that there is a god) and as such is morally neutral. But this is not the case with Buddhism. If you read the oldest source documents for the Buddha’s teachings (the Pali texts) there is simply no way anyone could possibly find a justification for violence of any sort in those texts. And when I say “no way” I really mean no way. It’s not a matter of interpretation because the Buddha is so emphatic and clear about the necessity of eliminating not only physical violence but the mental violence that is its source. His teachings on these matters are in no way ambiguous, beginning with the five lay precepts, the first of which is to not kill (or harm or hurt). Moreover, the Buddha walked his talk. His personal example—his actions and speech, behavior and manner of administering the sangha—bears this out. Even a passing familiarity with these texts should convince you of this. (I would like to point out though that while Jesus would seem fairly clear cut—e.g., the Sermon on the Mount—there is in fact considerably more room for ambiguity with him given some instances as recorded in the Gospels. With Muhammad it is the reverse—if one reviews the Koran and Hadith it is obvious he had no problem using violence in pursuit of his aims. The only other philosophical teaching I know of that is as unambiguously peaceful as the Buddha’s is that of Jain Mahavira.)

      Such clarity aside, examples of violence by Buddhists—as you pointed out—are not hard to find. My personal favorites are the “dueling monasteries” of ancient Kyoto (Japan) that frequently went to war with each other for the sake of political power and lay contributions, and the warrior monks of Korea who helped fight off Japanese invaders. You also have the Shaolin monks. I could go on and on. All this is to say that regardless of what the reigning ideology (in this case Buddhism) of a culture might be, or what that ideology might have to say about violence (or anything else), the people in that culture are still just regular people. Very few really take to heart the teachings and practice them scrupulously. During my time in Asia, for example, I came to the conclusion that probably fewer than 10% of all Buddhist monks actually practice meditation. Most conduct rituals (for a fee, of course, or at least a meal), preside over funerals, write books, preach, or just lay about eating food and chasing women. (Which always made me wonder why they became monks in the first place; I mean—what’s the point really if you’re not going to devote yourself to mental culture?) But I think these facts say far more about human beings than they do about Buddhism.

      There is one point you made that I don’t think is accurate. You mention King Ashoka as an example of Buddhist violence. But Ashoka perpetrated his violence—a war against Kalinga that claimed as many as 100,000 lives—before he came Buddhist. In fact, it was the massive casualties of this war that convinced him to change. After he became Buddhist he tried his best to administer his kingdom by peaceful means. He did not, as far as I know, attempt any sort of forceful conversions of his subjects; people were left to live and practice whatever they wanted. He did try to spread the religion though, but that was by peaceful missionary work (including one mission sent to Greece) and humanitarian deeds—animal and human hospitals, the planting of trees, banning of animal slaughter and limits to amounts of fish people could catch, etc. He also did his best to maintain friendly relations with neighboring kingdoms and so avoided large scale war. When you consider the circumstances—a large empire surrounded by potentially hostile states—this is a remarkable feat, which is why he is typically accorded the rank of India’s greatest ruler.

      Finally, to get to the heart of your query: Is there any truth to Rahula’s assertion that “there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of a drop of blood in converting people to Buddhism”? In general, I think sweeping assertions of this sort are better left unsaid—unless of course you have the gift of historical omniscience and can vouch for certain that nobody who called themselves Buddhist ever did anything coercive to anyone for Buddhism’s account. Probably the statement is untrue. But that’s really not the point, I think. The question, for me at least, is whether or not the Buddha’s teaching—or even the religion Buddhism (the two are different things, as I noted above)—is of its nature coercive, or the sort that would motivate people to force others to think as they do. To this question I can answer without hesitation “NO.” The reason for this is that belief per se is not the point of the Dharma (or Buddhism). It is not an orthodoxy. It is, rather, a tool for personal transcendence.

      I think Ken Wilber has something of worth to say here. He defined “translational teachings” as those that help to give you new meaning in life by giving you a new set of beliefs—kind of like taking off dark colored glasses and putting on rosy colored glasses. This is what all orthodoxies aim to do. And you can see how if I don’t like your particular beliefs I might try to force you to adopt mine. But the Dharma is not a translational teaching, it is “transformative.” Its aim is not to substitute one ideology for another, but to transform your state of consciousness, which has little to do with the contents of that consciousness. In this case orthodoxy is beside the point, and “conversion” an inappropriate term. So while Rahula may come off sounding naïve or presumptuous in his statement, he is, in spirit at least, correct. Nobody who actually practiced or really cared about dharma—assuming they understood it—would ever force someone to think like him, for the simple reason that “force” is inimical to the Dharma. Note, however, that this requires us (again) to distinguish Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching, from Buddhism. The first is a technology of awakening, the second a culturally defined ideology (or set of ideologies). You can make an orthodoxy out of the latter if you choose, and you can certainly commit violence in its name or on its behalf. That’s what’s been happening in Burma, that’s what you’ve read about, that’s what makes the news. As I said though, people will be people, regardless of what they say they believe. None of this, however, has anything to do with what really mattered to the Buddha or with those who care to follow him.

      Note: If you’d like to read more about what Ken Wilber has to say on translational vs transformational teachings, see here for starters: http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j12/wilber.asp


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