BUDDHISM: A METHOD OF MIND TRAINING
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LEONARD A. BULLEN
BODHI LEAVES NO. 42
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY KANDY SRI LANKA
Buddhist Publication Society
P.O. Box 61
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
Kandy, Sri Lanka
First published in 1969. Reprinted 1971, 1982, 1991.
All rights reserved by the publishers
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution on DharmaNet
with permission from the publisher.
Transcribed for DharmaNet by Steven McPeak. Formatted by John Bullitt.
Buddhism: A Method of Mind Training
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When you hear something about Buddhism in the daily news you usually
think of it having a background of huge idols and yellow-robed monks,
with a thick atmosphere of incense fumes. You never feel that there is
anything in it for you, except, maybe, an exotic spectacle.
But is that all there is in Buddhism? Do the news photographers
take pictures of the real Buddhism? Do the glossy magazines show you
the fundamentals, or only the externals?
Let us see, then, what Buddhism really is, Buddhism as it was
originally expounded and as it still exists underneath the external
trappings and trimmings.
Although generally regarded as a religion, Buddhism is basically a
method of cultivating the mind. It is true that, with its monastic
tradition and its emphasis on ethical factors, it possesses many of
the surface characteristics that Westerners associate with religion.
However, it is not theistic, since it affirms that the universe is
governed by impersonal laws and not by any creator-god; it has no use
for prayer, for the Buddha was a teacher and not a god; and it regards
devotion not as a religious obligation but as a means of expressing
gratitude to its founder and as a means of self-development. Thus it
is not a religion at all from these points of view.
Again, Buddhism knows faith only in the sense of confidence in the
way recommended by the Buddha. A Buddhist is not expected to have
faith or to believe in anything merely because the Buddha said it, or
because it is written in the ancient books, or because it has been
handed down by tradition, or because others believe it. He may, of
course, agree with himself to take the Buddha-doctrine as a working
hypothesis and to have confidence in it; but he is not expected to
accept anything unless his reason accepts it. This does not mean that
everything can be demonstrated rationally, for many points lie beyond
the scope of the intellect and can be cognized only by the development
of higher faculties. But the fact remains that there is no need for
blind acceptance of anything in the Buddha-doctrine.
Buddhism is a way of life based on the training of the mind. Its
one ultimate aim is to show the way to complete liberation from
suffering by the attainment of the Unconditioned, a state beyond the
range of the normal untrained mind. Its immediate aim is to strike at
the roots of suffering in everyday life.
All human activity is directed, either immediately or remotely,
towards the attainment of happiness in some form or other; or, to
express the same thing in negative terms, all human activity is
directed towards liberation from some kind of unsatisfactoriness or
dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, then, can be regarded as the
starting point in human activity, with happiness as its ultimate goal.
Dissatisfaction, the starting point in human activity, is also the
starting point in Buddhism; and this point is expressed in the formula
of the Four Basic Statements, which set out the fact of
dissatisfaction, its cause, its cure, and the method of its cure.
The First Basic Statement can be stated thus:
DISSATISFACTION IS INESCAPABLE IN EN-SELF-ED LIFE
In its original meaning, the word which is here rendered as
"dissatisfaction" and which is often translated as "suffering"
embraces the meanings not only of pain, sorrow, and displeasure, but
also of everything that is unsatisfactory, ranging from acute physical
pain and severe mental anguish to slight tiredness, boredom, or mild
Sometimes the term is rendered as "dissatisfaction" or
"unsatisfactoriness"; in some contexts these are perhaps more
accurate, while at other times the word "suffering" is more
expressive. For this reason we shall use both "suffering" and
"dissatisfaction" or "unsatisfactoriness" according to context.
In some translations of the original texts it is stated that birth
is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, and
pleasure is suffering. In English, this last statement fails to make
sense; but if we restate it as "pleasure is unsatisfactory" it becomes
more readily understandable, for all pleasure is impermanent and is
eventually succeeded by its opposite, and from this point of view at
least it is unsatisfactory.
Now the Buddha-doctrine teaches that dissatisfaction or suffering
is inescapable in en-self-ed life; and the term "en-self-ed life"
needs some explanation. In brief, the doctrine teaches that the self,
considered as a fixed, unchanging eternal soul, has no reality.
The central core of every being is not an unchanging soul but a
life-current, an ever-changing stream of energy which is never the
same for two consecutive seconds. The self, considered as an eternal
soul, therefore, is a delusion, and when regarded from the ultimate
standpoint it has no reality; and it is only within this delusion of
selfhood that ultimate suffering can exist. When the self-delusion is
finally transcended and the final enlightenment is attained, the
ultimate state which lies beyond the relative universe is reached. In
this ultimate state, the Unconditioned, suffering is extinguished; but
while any element of selfhood remains, even though it is a delusion,
suffering remains potentially within it.
We must understand, then, that the First Basic Statement does not
mean that suffering is inescapable; it means that suffering is
inescapable in enselfed life, or while the delusion of selfhood
We can now move on to the Second Basic Statement, which says:
THE ORIGIN OF DISSATISFACTION IS CRAVING
If you fall on a slippery floor and suffer from bruises, you say that
the cause of your suffering is the slippery floor. In an immediate
sense you are right, of course, and to say that the cause of your
bruises is craving fails to make sense.
But the Second Statement does not refer to individual cases or to
immediate causes. It means that the integrating force that holds
together the life-current is self-centered craving; for this
life-current--this self-delusion--contains in itself the conditions
for suffering, while the slippery floor is merely an occasion for
It is obviously impossible, by the nature of the world we live in,
to cure suffering by the removal of all the occasions for suffering;
whereas it is possible in Buddhism to strike at its prime or
fundamental cause. Therefore the
Third Basic Statement states:
LIBERATION MAY BE ACHIEVED BY DESTROYING CRAVING
It is self-centered craving that holds together the forces which
comprise the life-current, the stream of existence which we call the
self; and it is only with self-delusion that unsatisfactoriness or
suffering can exist. By the destruction of that which holds together
the delusion of the self, the root cause of suffering is also
The ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, then, is to annihilate the
self. This is where a great deal of misunderstanding arises, and
naturally so; but once it is realized that to annihilate the self is
to annihilate a delusion, this misunderstanding disappears. When the
delusion is removed, the reality appears; so that to destroy delusion
is to reveal the reality. The reality cannot be discovered while the
delusion of self continues to obscure it.
Now what is this reality which appears when the delusion is
removed? The ultimate reality is the Unconditioned, called also the
Unborn, the Unoriginated, the Uncreated, and the Uncompounded. We can,
inadequately and not very accurately, describe it as a positive state
of being. It is characterized by supreme bliss and complete freedom
from suffering and is so utterly different from ordinary existence
that no real description of it can be given. The Unconditioned can be
indicated--up to a point--only by stating what it is not; for it is
beyond words and beyond thought.
Hence, in the Buddhist texts, the Unconditioned is often explained
as the final elimination' from one's own mind, of greed, hatred and
delusion. This, of course, also implies the perfection of the opposite
positive qualities of selflessness, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
The attainment of the Unconditioned is the ultimate aim of all
Buddhist practice, and is the same as complete liberation from
dissatisfaction or suffering. This brings us to the last of the Four
THE WAY OF LIBERATION IS THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH
The eight factors of the path are these:
1. Right understanding, a knowledge of the true nature of
2. Right thought, thought free from sensuality, ill-will and
3. Right speech, speech without falsity, gossip, harshness, and
4. Right action, or the avoidance of killing, stealing and
5. Right livelihood, an occupation that harms no conscious living
6. Right effort, or the effort to destroy the defilements of the
mind and to cultivate wholesome qualities.
7. Right mindfulness, the perfection of the normal faculty of
8. Right concentration, the cultivation of a collected, focussed
mind through meditation.
Now you will see that in this Noble Eightfold Path there is
nothing of an essentially religious nature; it is more a sort of moral
But in the East as well as in the West people as a whole demand
external show of some sort, and--on the outside at least--the
non-essentials have assumed more importance than the essentials.
While some external features in the practice of Buddhism must of
necessity vary according to environment, the essential and constant
characteristics of that practice are summed up in the following
outline of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Middle Way between harmful
extremes, as taught by the Buddha.
Although it is convenient to speak of the various aspects of the
eightfold path as eight steps, they are not to be regarded as separate
steps, taken one after another. On the contrary, each one must be
practised along with the others, and it might perhaps be better to
think of them as if they were eight parallel lanes within the one road
rather than eight successive steps.
The first step of this path, right understanding, is primarily a
matter of seeing things as they really are--or at least trying to do
so without self-deceit or evasion. In another sense, right
understanding commences as an intellectual appreciation of the nature
of existence, and as such it can be regarded as the beginning of the
path; but, when the path has been followed to the end, this merely
intellectual appreciation is supplanted by a direct and penetrating
discernment of the principles of the teaching first accepted
While right understanding can be regarded as the complete
understanding of the Buddha doctrine, it is based on the recognition
of three dominating characteristics of the relative universe, of the
universe of time, form and matter. These three characteristics can
briefly be set out in this way:
1. Impermanence: All things in the relative universe are
2. Dissatisfaction: Some degree of suffering or dissatisfaction is
inherent in en-selfed life, or in life within the limitations
of the relative universe and personal experience.
3. Egolessness: No being--no human being or any other sort of
being--possesses a fixed, unchanging, eternal soul or self.
Instead, every being consists of an ever-changing current of
forces, an ever-changing flux of material and mental phenomena,
like a river which is always moving and is never still for a
The self, then, is not a static entity but an ever-changing flux.
This dynamic concept of existence is typical of deeper Buddhist
thought; there is nothing static in life, and since it is ever-flowing
you must learn to flow with it.
Another aspect of right understanding is the recognition that the
universe runs its course on the basis of a strict sequence of cause
and effect, or of action and reaction, a sequence just as invariable
and just as exact in the mental or moral realm as in the physical. In
accordance with this law of moral action and reaction all morally good
or wholesome will actions eventually bring to the doer happiness at
some time, while unwholesome or morally bad will-actions bring
suffering to the doer.
The effects of wholesome and unwholesome will-actions--that is to
say, the happiness and suffering that result from them--do not
generally follow immediately; there is often a considerable time-lag,
for the resultant happiness and suffering can arise only when
appropriate conditions are present. The results may not appear within
the present lifetime. Thus at death there is normally a balance of
"merit" which has not yet brought about its experience of happiness;
and at the same time there is also a balance of "demerit" which has
not yet given rise to the suffering which is to be its inevitable
After death, the body disintegrates, of course, but the
life-current continues, not in the form of an unchanging soul, but in
the form of an ever-changing stream of energy. Immediately after death
a new being commences life to carry on this life current; but the new
being is not necessarily a human being, and the instantaneous rebirth
may take place on another plane of existence. But in any case, the new
being is a direct sequel to the being that has just died.
Thus the new being becomes an uninterrupted continuation of the
old being, and the life-current is unbroken. The new being inherits
the balance of merit built up by the old being, and this balance of
merit will inevitably bring happiness at some future time. At the same
time, the new being inherits the old being's balance of demerit, which
will bring suffering at some time in the future.
In effect, in the sense of continuity, the new being is the same
as the old being. In just the same way--that is, in the sense of
continuity only--an old man is the same as the young man he once was,
the young man is the same as the boy he once was, and the boy is the
same as the baby he once was. But the identity of the old man with the
young man, and with the boy, and with the baby, is due only to
continuity; there is no other identity.
Everything in the universe changes from day to day and from moment
to moment, so that every being at this moment is a slightly different
being from that of the moment before; the only identity is due to
continuity. In the same way, the being that is reborn is different
from the previous one that died; but the identity due to continuity
remains as before.
These teachings are basic to the Buddha-doctrine--the illusory
nature of the self, the law of action and reaction in the moral
sphere, and the rebirth of the life-forces--but there is no need for
anyone to accept anything that does not appeal to his reason.
Acceptance of any particular teaching is unimportant; what is
important is the continual effort to see things as they really are,
without self-deceit or evasion.
So much for a brief outline of the doctrine under the heading of
right understanding. The second step, right thought or aim, is a
matter of freeing the intellectual faculties from adverse emotional
factors, such as sensuality, ill-will, and cruelty, which render wise
and unbiased decisions impossible.
Right speech, right action, and right livelihood together make up
the moral section of the path, their function being to keep the
defilements of the mind under control and to prevent them from
reaching adverse expression. These defilements, however, cannot be
completely eradicated by morality alone, and the other steps of the
path must be applied to cleanse the mind completely of its
Now in the next step--right effort--we enter the sphere of
practical psychology, for right effort in this context means effort of
will. In other words, the sixth step of the path is self-discipline,
the training of the will in order to prevent and overcome those states
of mind that retard development, and to arouse and cultivate those
that bring about mental progress.
The seventh step of the path is also one of practical psychology;
this is the step called right mindfulness, and it consists of the
fullest possible development of the ordinary faculty of attention. It
is largely by the development of attention--expanded and intensified
awareness--that the mind can eventually become capable of discerning
things as they really are.
The primary function of the, seventh step, right mindfulness, is
to develop an increasing awareness of the unreality of the self.
However, it functions also by continually improving the normal faculty
of attention, thus equipping the mind better to meet the problems and
stresses of the workaday world.
In the Buddha-way, mindfulness consists of developing the faculty
of attention so as to produce a constant awareness of all thoughts
that arise, all words that are spoken, and all actions that are done,
with a view to keeping them free from self-interest, from emotional
bias, and from self-delusion.
Right mindfulness has many applications in the sphere of everyday
activities. For example, it can be employed to bring about a sharpened
awareness, a clear comprehension, of the motives of these activities,
and this clear comprehension of motive is extremely important.
In right concentration, the last of the eight steps, the
cultivation of higher mind-states--up to the meditative
absorptions--is undertaken, and these higher mind-states serve to
unify, purity, and strengthen the mind for the achievement of
In this ultimate achievement the delusion of selfhood, with its
craving and suffering, is transcended and extinguished.
This penetrating insight is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist
practices, and with it comes a direct insight into the true nature of
life, culminating in realization of the Unconditioned. While the
Unconditioned is the extinction of self, it is nevertheless not mere
non-existence or annihilation, for the extinction of self is nothing
but the extinction of a delusion. Every description of the
Unconditioned must fail, for it lies not only beyond words but beyond
even thought; and the only way to know it is to follow the Noble
Eightfold Path to its end.
This, then, is the original Buddhism; this is the Buddhism of the
Noble Eightfold Path, of the path that leads from the bondage of self
to liberating insight into reality.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Leonard A. Bullen was one of the pioneers of the Buddhist movement in
Australia. He was the first president of the Buddhist Society of
Victoria when it was established in 1953 and one of the first
office-bearers of the executive committee of the Buddhist Federation
of Australia. He was also a coeditor of the Buddhist journal
//Metta//. He passed away in 1984 at the age of 76.
His other publications issued by BPS are //A Technique of Living//
(Wheel No. 226/230) and "Action and Reaction in Buddhist Teaching" in
//Kamma and Its Fruit// (Wheel No. 221/224).