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