The Buddha refused to have any dealing with those things which don’t lead to the extinction of Dukkha. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its kammic inheritance? These questions are not aimed at the extinction of Dukkha. That being so, they are not Buddhist teachings and are not connected with it. They do not lie in the sphere of Buddhism. Also, the one who asks about such matters has no choice but to indiscriminately believe the answer given, because the one who answers is not going to be able to produce any proof, but is just going to speak according to that person’s memory and feeling. The listener can’t see for himself and so has to blindly believe the other’s words. Little by little the matter strays from Dhamma until it’s something else altogether, unconnected with the extinction of Dukkha.
Now, if one doesn’t raise those sort of problems, one can ask instead, ‘Is there Dukkha?’ and ‘How can Dukkha be extinguished?’ To these questions the Buddha agreed to answer, and the listener could see the truth of every word of his answer without having to blindly believe him, and to see more and more clearly until he understood. If one understands to the extent of being able to extinguish Dukkha, then that is the ultimate understanding. One knows that, even at this moment, there is no person living. One sees without doubt that there is no self or anything belonging to a self; there is just a feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ arising due to the foolishness whereby one is deluded by the beguiling nature of sense-experience.
There being no one born here, therefore, there is no one who dies and is reborn. So the whole question of rebirth is utterly foolish and nothing to do with Buddhism at all.
The Buddhist teachings aim to inform us that there is no self and nothing belonging to a self; there is only the false understanding of the ignorant mind. There is merely body and mind, which are nothing but natural processes. They function like a mechanism that can process and transform data. If they do so by the wrong method, it gives rise to foolishness and delusion, so that one feels there is a self and things which belong to a self. If they do so by the correct method, those feelings do not arise; there is the primal truth-discerning awareness (satipanna), the fundamental true knowing and clear seeing that there is no self and nothing belonging to a self.
This being so, it follows that in the sphere of the Buddhist teachings there is no question of rebirth or anything of that nature. Rather, there is the question, ‘Is there Dukkha?’ and ‘How can it be extinguished?’ Knowing the root cause of Dukkha, one will be able to extinguish it. That root cause is delusion, the wrong understanding that there is a self and things belonging to a self.
The matter of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is the single essential point of the Buddhist teachings. It is the one thing which must be completely purged. It follows that here lies the knowing, understanding, and practice of all the Buddhist teachings without exception. So please pay full attention.
As to the foundations or root principles of Dhamma, there are not great deal. The Buddha said that there was a single handful. A sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya makes this clear: Whilst walking through the forest, the Buddha picked up a handful of fallen leaves and asked the monks present whether the greater amount was the leaves in his hand or the leaves in the forest. They all said that the leaves in the forest were much more, so much so, that it was beyond comparison. Try to imagine the scene here, try to see how greater were the leaves in the forest. The Buddha then said that, similarly, those things which he had realised and which he knew, were equal to all the leaves in the forest, but that which it was necessary to know — those things which should be taught and practised — were equal to the number of leaves in his hand.
So from this it can be taken that, compared to the myriad things that are to be found in the world, the root principles to be practised in order to completely extinguish Dukkha amount to a single handful. We must appreciate that this ‘single handful’ is not a huge amount; it’s not something beyond our capabilities to reach and understand.
This is the first important point that we must grasp if we want to lay the foundations for a correct understanding of the Buddhist teachings.
An Extract from Heart-wood from the Bo Tree by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. © 1985 suanmokkh.org
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