Theravada Buddhism

Vinteren 2016 128


(This is an abbreviated transcription of  a radio lecture  from Ceylon, 1933)

                                                                                 by Nyanatiloka Mahathera

Now, before beginning with the exposition of the Buddha’s teaching,
we should get acquainted in a few words with the personality of the
Buddha. The term “Buddha” literally means the “Enlightened One.” It is
a name won by the Indian sage Gotama on his enlightenment under the
Bodhi-tree at Buddhagaya in India. He was born as the son of an Indian
king on the borders of modern Nepal, about 600 years before Christ. In
his 29th year he renounced the worldly life and exchanged his princely
career for that of a homeless mendicant. After six years of hard
striving he at last attained his goal: deliverance from the round of
rebirths, or Samsara. The Buddha describes this time in his own words
as follows:

Bhikkhus, before I had attained to full enlightenment, myself
being still subject to birth, decay, disease, death, sorrow and
impurity, I too was seeking after that which is subject to birth,
decay, disease, death, sorrow and impurity. And so, bhikkhus,
after a time, while still young, a black-haired lad, in my
youthful prime, just come to budding manhood’s years, against the
wishes of father and mother weeping and lamenting, I cut off hair
and beard and, clad in the yellow robe, went forth from home to
homelessness. Thus vowed to homelessness, I was striving after
the highest good, the incomparable path to supreme peace.

At first the future Buddha learnt under two great yogis who had
attained to a high state of supernormal psychical powers and
faculties. But neither of them could satisfy him, as their teachings
did not lead to real everlasting peace and deliverance of mind. So he
left them again after having fully realized their teaching. Thereafter
he met five ascetics, who were practising the severest forms of
self-torture and mortification of the flesh, with the hope of gaining
deliverance in this way. The future Buddha became one of their party.
He subjected himself with utmost perseverance to extreme fasting and
self-torture, till at last he looked like a mere skeleton. And utterly
exhausted, he broke down and collapsed. He now came to understand that
bodily mortification is vain and useless, and will never lead to peace
of heart and to deliverance. He henceforth gave up fasting and bodily
mortification and sought refuge in moral and mental development. And
with calm and serene mind he began to look into the true nature of

Wherever he turned his eyes, he found only one great reality: the
law of suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of all forms of existence. He
understood that the destiny of beings is not the outcome of mere blind
chance, nor does it depend upon the arbitrary action of an imaginary
creator, but that our destiny is to be traced back to our own former
actions, or kamma. He beheld the sick and the leper, and he saw in
their misery and suffering only the result of actions, or kamma, done
in former lives. He beheld the blind and the lame, and he saw in their
debility and helplessness only the painful harvest of seeds sown by
themselves in former lives. He beheld the rich and the poor, the happy
and the unhappy; and wherever he turned his eyes, there he saw this
law of retribution, the moral law of cause and effect, the Dhamma.

This Dhamma, or universal moral law discovered by the Buddha, is
summed up in the //Four Noble Truths//: the truths about the universal
existence of suffering, about its origin, its extinction, and the path
leading to its extinction.

(I) The first truth, about the universality of //suffering//,
teaches, in short, that all forms of existence are of necessity
subject to suffering.

(II) The second truth, about the //origin of suffering//, teaches
that all suffering is rooted in selfish //craving// and //ignorance//,
in //tanha// and //avijja//. It further explains the cause of this
seeming injustice in nature, by teaching that nothing in the world can
come into existence without reason or cause; and that not only all our
latent tendencies, but our whole destiny, all weal and woe, results
from causes which we have to seek partly in this life, partly in
former states of existence.

The second truth further teaches us that the future life, with all
its weal and woe, must result from the seeds sown in this and former

(III) The third truth, or the truth about the //extinction of
suffering//, shows how, through the extinction of craving and
ignorance, all suffering will vanish and liberation from this Samsara
be attained.

(IV) The fourth truth shows the way, or the means by which this
goal is reached. It is the //Noble Eightfold Path// of right
understanding, right thought, right speech, right bodily action, right
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration of

From these Four Noble Truths we shall pick out and clear up such
points as are essential for a general knowledge of the Dhamma. In
doing so, we shall at the same time refute a number of widespread
prejudices concerning the Buddha’s teaching.

Let us, however, first outline the Noble Eightfold Path, for it is
this path of righteousness and wisdom that really constitutes the
//essence of Buddhist practice// — the mode of living and thinking to
be followed by any true follower of the Buddha.

(1) The first stage of the Eightfold Path is, as already stated,
//right understanding//, i.e. understanding the true nature of
existence, and the moral laws governing the same. In other words, it
is the right understanding of the Dhamma, i.e. of the Four Noble

(2) The second stage of the Eightfold Path is //right thought//,
i.e. a pure state of mind, free from sensual lust, from ill-will, and
from cruelty; in other words, thoughts of self-renunciation, of
goodness, and of mercy.

(3) The third stage is //right speech//. It consists of words which
are not false, not harsh, not scandalous, not frivolous, i.e. truthful
words, mild words, pacifying words, and wise words.

(4) The fourth stage is //right bodily action//, i.e. abstaining
from intentional killing or harming of any living creature, abstaining
from dishonest taking of others’ property, abstaining from adultery.

(5) The fifth stage is //right livelihood//, i.e. such a livelihood
as does not bring harm and suffering to other beings.

(6) The sixth stage is //right effort//. It is the fourfold effort
which we make in //overcoming// old and //avoiding// fresh bad actions
by body, speech and mind; and the effort which we make in
//developing// fresh actions of righteousness, inner peace and wisdom,
and in //cultivating// them to perfection.

(7) The seventh stage is //right mindfulness//, or alertness of
mind. It is the ever-ready mental clarity whatever we are doing,
speaking, or thinking and in keeping before our mind the realities of
existence, i.e. the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and phenomenality
(//anicca//, //dukkha//, //anatta//) of all forms of existence.

(8) The eighth stage is //right concentration// of mind. Such a
kind of mental concentration is meant, as is directed towards a
morally wholesome object, and always bound up with right thought,
right effort and right mindfulness.

Thus the Eightfold Path is a path of morality (//sila//), of mental
training (//samadhi//), and of wisdom (//panna//).

//Morality// therein is indicated by right speech, right bodily
action, and right livelihood. //Mental training// is indicated by
right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration of mind. And
//wisdom// is indicated by right understanding and right thought.

Thus this liberating Eightfold Path is a path of inner culture, of
inner progress. By merely external worship, mere ceremonies and
selfish prayers, one can never make any real progress in righteousness
and insight. The Buddha says: “Be your own isle of refuge, be your own
shelter, seek not for any other protection! Let the truth be your isle
of refuge, let the truth be your shelter, seek not after any other
protection!” To be of real effect, to ensure an absolute inner
progress, all our efforts must be based upon our own understanding and
insight. All absolute inward progress is rooted in right
understanding, and without right understanding there is no attainment
of perfection and of the unshakable peace of Nibbana.

Belief in the moral efficacy of mere external rite and ritual
(//silabbata-paramasa//) constitutes, according to the Buddha’s
teaching, //a mighty obstacle to inner progress//. One who takes
refuge in mere external practices is on the wrong path. For, in order
to gain real inner progress, all our efforts must necessarily be based
on our own understanding and insight. Any real progress is rooted in
right understanding, and without right understanding there will be no
attainment of unshakable peace and holiness. Moreover, this blind
belief in mere external practices is the cause of much misery and
wretchedness in the world. It leads to mental stagnation, to
fanaticism and intolerance, to self-exaltation and contempt for
others, to contention, discord, war, strife and bloodshed, as the
history of the Middle Ages quite sufficiently testifies. This belief
in mere externals dulls and deadens one’s power of thought, stifles
every higher emotion in man. It makes him a mental slave, and favours
the growth of all kinds of hypocrisy.

The Buddha has clearly and positively expressed himself on this
point. He says: “The man enmeshed in delusion will never be purified
through the mere study of holy books, or sacrifices to gods, or
through fasts, or sleeping on the ground, or difficult and strenuous
vigils, or the repetition of prayers. Neither gifts to priests, nor
self-castigation, nor performance of rites and ceremonies can work
purification in him who is filled with craving. It is not through the
partaking of meat or fish that man becomes impure, but through
drunkenness, obstinacy, bigotry, deceit, envy, self-exaltation,
disparagement of others and evil intentions — through these things
man becomes impure.”

“There are two extremes: addiction to sensual enjoyment, and
addiction to bodily mortification. These two extremes the Perfect One
has rejected, and discovered the //Middle Path// which makes one both
to see and to know, which leads to peace, to penetration,
enlightenment and liberation. It is that Noble Eightfold Path leading
to the end of suffering, namely right understanding, right thought,
right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right
mindfulness, and right concentration of mind.”

Inasmuch as the Buddha teaches that all genuine progress on the
path of virtue is necessarily dependent upon one’s own understanding
and insight, all //dogmatism is excluded// from the Buddha’s teaching.
//Blind faith// in authority is //rejected// by the Buddha, and is
entirely opposed to the spirit of his teaching. In the Kalama Sutta
the Buddha says:

Do not go merely by hearsay or tradition, by what has been handed
down from olden time, by rumours, by mere reasoning and logical
deductions, by outward appearances, by cherished opinions and
speculations, by mere possibilities, and do not believe merely
because I am your master. But when you yourselves have seen that
a thing is evil and leads to harm and suffering, then you should
reject it. And when you see that a thing is good and blameless,
and leads to blessing and welfare, then you should do such a

One who merely believes or repeats what others have found out, such
a one the Buddha compares with a blind man. One who desires to make
progress upon the path of deliverance must experience and understand
the truth for himself. Lacking one’s own understanding, no absolute
progress is possible.

The teaching of the Buddha is perhaps the only religious teaching
that requires //no belief in traditions//, or in certain historical
events. It appeals solely to the understanding of each individual. For
wherever there are beings capable of thinking, there the truths
proclaimed by the Buddha may be understood and realized, without
regard to race, country, nationality or station in life. These truths
are universal, not bound up with any particular country, or any
particular epoch. And in everyone, even in the lowest, there lies
latent the capacity for seeing and realizing these truths, and
attaining to the Highest Perfection. And whosoever lives a noble life,
such a one has already tasted of the truth and, in greater or lesser
degree, travels on the Eightfold Path of Peace which all noble and
holy ones have trod, are treading now, and shall in future tread. The
universal laws of morality hold good without variation everywhere and
at all times, whether one may call oneself a Buddhist, Hindu,
Christian or Muslim, or by any other name.

It is the //inward condition// of a person and his deeds that
count, not a mere name. The true disciple of the Buddha is far removed
from all dogmatism. He is //a free thinker in the noblest sense of the
word//. He falls neither into positive nor negative dogmas, for he
knows: both are mere opinions, mere views, rooted in blindness and
self-deception. Therefore the Buddha has said of himself. “The Perfect
One is //free from any theory//, for the Perfect One //has seen//:
Thus is //corporeality//, thus it arises, thus it passes away; thus is
//feeling//, thus it arises, thus it passes away; thus is
//perception//, thus it arises, thus it passes away; thus are the
//mental formations//, thus they arise, thus they pass away; thus is
//consciousness//, thus it arises thus it passes away.”

I. This important truth of the //phenomenality// and emptiness of
all existence can be, and ought to be, understood by everyone for

According to the Buddha’s teaching, our so-called individual
existence is in reality nothing but //a mere process of physical and
mental phenomena//, a process which since time immemorial was already
going on before one’s apparent birth, and which also after death will
continue for immemorial periods of time. In the following we shall see
that the above five //khandhas//, or //groups of existence//, in no
way constitute any real ego-entity, or //atta//, and that no
ego-entity exists apart from them, and hence that //the belief in an
ego-entity is merely an illusion//.

That which we call our physical body is merely a name for a
combination of manifold component parts, and in reality constitutes no
entity, no personality. This is clear to everyone without further
argument. Everybody knows that the body is changing from moment to
moment, that old cells are continually breaking down and new ones
arising; in brief, that the body will be quite another body after a
few years, that nothing will have remained of the former flesh, bones,
blood, etc. Consequently, the body of the baby is not the body of the
school boy, and the body of the young man is not the body of the
grey-haired old man. Hence the body is not a persisting something, but
rather a continually changing process of arising and passing away,
consisting of a perpetual dying out and arising anew of cells. That,
however, which we call our mental life is a continually changing
process of feeling, perceptions, mental formations and states of
consciousness. At this moment a pleasant feeling arises, the next
moment a painful feeling; this moment one state of consciousness, the
next moment another. That which we call a being, an individual, a
person does not in itself, as such, possess any independent abiding
reality. In the absolute sense (//paramattha//) no individual, no
person, is there to be found, but merely perpetually changing
combinations of physical states, of feelings, volitions and states of

What we call “chariot” has no existence apart from and independent
of axle, wheels, shaft, etc. What we call “house” is merely a
convenient name for stone, wood, iron, etc., put together after a
certain fashion, so as to enclose a portion of space, but there is no
separate house-entity as such in existence.

In exactly the same way, that which we call a “being,” or an
“individual,” or “person,” or by the name “I” or “he,” etc., is
//nothing but a changing combination of physical and mental
phenomena//, and has no real existence in itself.

The words “I,” “you,” “he,” etc., are merely terms found useful in
conventional or current (//vohara//) speech, but do not designate
realities (//paramattha-dhamma//). For neither do these physical and
mental phenomena constitute an absolute ego-entity, nor yet does there
exist, outside these phenomena, any ego-entity, self, or soul, who is
the possessor or owner of the same. Thus, when the Buddhist scriptures
speak of persons, or even of the rebirth of persons, this is done only
for the sake of easier understanding, and is not to be taken in the
sense of ultimate truth. This so-called “being,” or “I,” is in the
absolute sense nothing but a perpetually changing process. Therefore
also, to speak of the suffering of a “person,” or “being,” is in the
absolute sense incorrect. For it is //not a “person,” but a
physico-mental process// that is subject to transiency and suffering.

In the absolute sense there are only numberless processes,
countless life-waves, in this vast ever-surging ocean of bodily
states, of feelings, perceptions, volitions and states of
consciousness. Within these phenomena there exists nothing that is
persistent, not even for the brief span of two consecutive moments.

These phenomena have merely momentary duration. They die every
moment, and every moment new phenomena are born; a perpetual dying and
coming to birth, a ceaseless heaving of waves up and down. All is in a
state of perpetual flux; “//panta rhei//” — //all things are
flowing// — says the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The old forms fall
to pieces, and new ones are born. One feeling disappears, another
appears in its place. One state of consciousness exists this moment,
another the following moment. Everywhere is found a perpetual change
of material and mental phenomena. In this way, moment follows upon
moment, day upon day, year upon year, life upon life. And so this
ceaselessly changing process goes on for thousands, even aeons of
years. An eternally surging sea of feelings, perceptions, volitions
and states of consciousness: such is existence, such is Samsara, the
world of arising and passing away, of growing and decaying, a world of
sorrow, misery, lamentation and despair.

Without a real insight into this phenomenality, or //egolessness//
(//anatta//) or //impersonality// of all existence, it will be
impossible to understand the Four Noble Truths rightly.

II. In this connection let us come back to the second noble truth,
the origin of suffering, rooted in selfish craving and ignorance
(//tanha// and //avijja//). In order to understand this truth better,
it will be necessary to speak of a doctrine which so often is wrongly
interpreted and misunderstood. It is the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth
(see Chapter II). With regard to this teaching, Buddhism is often
accused of self-contradiction. Thus it is said that Buddhism on the
one hand denies the existence of the soul, while on the other hand it
teaches the transmigration of the soul. Nothing could be more mistaken
than this. For //Buddhism teaches no transmigration at all//. The
Buddhist doctrine of rebirth — which is really the same as the //law
of causality// extended to the mental and moral domain — has nothing
whatever to do with the brahmin doctrine of reincarnation, or
transmigration. There exists a fundamental difference between these
two doctrines.

According to the brahmanical teaching, there exists a soul
independently of the body which, after death, leaves its physical
envelope and passes over into a new body, exactly as one might throw
off an old garment and put on a new one. Quite otherwise, however, is
it with the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. Buddhism does not recognize
in this world any existence of mind apart from matter. //All mental
phenomena are conditioned// through the six organs of sense, and
without these they cannot exist. According to Buddhism, //mind without
matter is an impossibility//. And, as we have seen, the mental
phenomena, just as all bodily phenomena, are subject to change, and no
persisting element, no ego-entity, no soul, is there to be found. But
where there is no real unchanging entity, no soul, there one cannot
speak of the transmigration of such a thing.

How then is rebirth possible without something to be reborn,
without an ego, or soul? Here I have to point out that even the word
“rebirth,” in this connection, is really not quite correct, but used
as a mere makeshift. What the Buddha teaches is, correctly speaking,
the //law of cause and effect// working in the moral domain. For just
as everything in the physical world happens in accordance with law, as
the arising of any physical state is dependent on some preceding state
as its cause, in just the same way must this law have universal
application in the mental and moral domain too. If every physical
state is preceded by another state as its cause, so also must //this
present physico-mental life be dependent upon causes anterior to its
birth//. Thus, according to Buddhism, the present life-process is the
result of the craving for life in a former birth, and the craving for
life in this birth is the cause of the life-process that continues
after death.

But, as there is nothing that persists from one moment of
consciousness to the next, so also no abiding element exists in this
ever changing life-process that can pass over from one life to

//Nothing transmigrates// from this moment to the next, nothing
from one life to another life. This process of continually producing
and being produced may best be compared with a wave on the ocean. In
the case of a wave there is not the smallest quantity of water that
actually travels over the surface of the sea. The wave-structure that
seems to hasten over the surface of the water, though creating the
appearance of one and the same mass of water, is in reality nothing
but a continued rising and falling of ever new masses of water. And
the rising and falling is produced by the transmission of force
originally generated by wind. Just so the Buddha did not teach that it
is an ego-entity, or a soul, that hastens through the ocean of
rebirth, but that it is in reality merely a life-wave which, according
to its nature and activities, appears here as man, there as animal,
and elsewhere as invisible being.

III. There is another teaching of the Buddha which often gives rise
to serious misunderstanding. It is the teaching of //Nibbana, or the
extinction of suffering//. This third noble truth points out that,
through the cessation of all selfish craving and all ignorance, of
necessity all suffering comes to an end, to extinction, and no new
rebirth will take place. For if the seed is destroyed, it can never
sprout again. If the selfish craving that clutches convulsively at
life is destroyed, then, after death, there can never again take place
a fresh shooting up, a continuation of this process of existence, a
so-called rebirth. Where, however, there is no birth, there can be no
death. Where there is no arising, there can be no passing away. Where
no life exists, no suffering can exist. Now, because with the
extinction of all selfish craving, all its concurrent phenomena, such
as conceit, self-seeking, greed, hate, anger and cruelty, come to
extinction, this freedom from selfish craving signifies //the highest
state of selflessness, wisdom and holiness//.

Now this fact — that after the death of the Holy One, the Arahat,
this physico-mental life-process no longer continues — is erroneously
believed by many to be identical with annihilation of self,
annihilation of a real being, and it is therefore maintained that the
goal of Buddhism is simply annihilation. Against such a misleading
statement one must enter an emphatic protest. How is it ever possible
to speak of the annihilation of a self, or soul, or ego, where no such
thing is to be found? We have seen that in reality there does not
exist any ego-entity, or soul, and therefore also no “transmigration”
of such a thing into a new mother’s womb.

That bodily process starting anew in the mother’s womb is in no way
a continuation of a former bodily process, but merely a result, or
effect, caused by selfish craving and clinging to life of the
so-called dying individual. Thus one who says that the non-producing
of any new life-process is identical with annihilation of a self,
should also say that abstention from sexual intercourse is identical
with annihilation of a child — which, of course, is absurd.

Here, once more, we may expressly emphasize that without a clear
perception of the phenomenality or egolessness (//anatta//) of all
existence, it will be impossible to obtain a real understanding of the
Buddha’s teaching, especially that of rebirth and Nibbana. This
teaching of //anatta// is in fact //the only characteristic Buddhist
doctrine//, with which the entire teaching stands or falls.

IV. A further reproach, so often heard against Buddhism, that it is
a gloomy and “pessimistic” teaching, proves entirely unfounded by the
statements already made. For, as we have seen, the Buddha not only
discloses and explains the fact of misery, but he also shows the way
to find total release from it. In view of this fact, one is rather
entitled to call //the Buddha’s teaching the boldest optimism ever
proclaimed to the world.//

Truly, Buddhism is a teaching that //assures hope, comfort and
happiness//, even to the most unfortunate. It is a teaching that
offers, even to the most wretched of criminals, prospects of final
perfection and peace, and this, not through blind belief, or prayers,
or asceticism, or outward ceremonies, rites and rituals, but through
walking and earnestly persevering on that Noble Eightfold Path of
inward perfection, purity and emancipation of heart, consisting in
right understanding, right thought, right speech, right bodily action,
right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right
concentration and peace of mind.

The Noble Eightfold Path

1. Right Understanding   | —- Wisdom
2. Right Thought         |

3. Right Speech          |
4. Right Bodily Action   | —- Morality
5. Right Livelihood      |

6. Right Effort          |
7. Right Mindfulness     | —- Concentration
8. Right Concentration   |

            * * * * * * * ****************************

Originally published by Bauddha Sahitya Sabha: 1949, 1956, 1968. Copyright 1994 by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.  The text was offered for free distribution via DharmaNet by arrangement with the Publisher. DharmaNet Edition 1995



Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera (1878-1957) was the first Continental European in modern times to become a Buddhist monk and one of the foremost Western exponents of Theravada Buddhism in the twentieth century. Born in Germany, he developed a keen interest in Buddhism in his youth and came to Asia intending to enter the Buddhist Order. He received ordination in Burma in 1903. The greatest part of his life as a monk was spent in Sri Lanka, where he established the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa as a monastery for Western monks. His translations into German include the //Anguttara Nikaya//, the//Visuddhimagga//, and the //Milindapanha//. Ven. Nyanatiloka passed


water lilly


                                                                                   by Nyanaponika Thera

 Once the Buddha told his monks the following story (Satipatthana

Samyutta, No. 19):

”There was once a pair of jugglers who performed their acrobatic

feats on a bamboo pole. One day the master said to his apprentice:

“Now get on my shoulders and climb up the bamboo pole.” When the

apprentice had done so, the master said: “Now protect me well and I

shall protect you! By protecting and watching each other in that way,

we shall be able to show our skill, make a good profit and safely get

down from the bamboo pole.” But the apprentice said: “Not so, master!

You, O master, should protect yourself, and I too shall protect

myself. Thus self-protected and self-guarded we shall safely do our


   This is the right way,” said the Blessed One and spoke further as


   “It is just as the apprentice said: ‘I shall protect myself’–in

that way the foundations of mindfulness (satipatthana) should be

practised. ‘I shall protect others’–in that way the foundations of

mindfulness should be practised. Protecting oneself, one protects

others; protecting others, one protects oneself.

   “And how does one, in protecting oneself, protect others? By the

repeated and frequent practice of meditation (asevanaya bhavanaya


   “And how does one, in protecting others, protect oneself? By

patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by

loving kindness and compassion.”

   This sutta belongs to the considerable number of important and

eminently practical teachings of the Buddha which are still hidden

like buried treasure, unknown and unused. Yet this text has an

important message for us, and the fact that it is stamped with the

royal seal of satipatthana gives it an additional claim to our


Individual and Society

~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~ ~~~~~~~

The sutta deals with the relations between ourselves and our fellow

beings, between individual and society. It sums up in a succinct way

the Buddhist attitude to the problems of individual and social ethics,

of egoism and altruism. The gist of it is contained in those two

concise sentences:


         “Protecting oneself, one protects others.”

         (Attanam rakkhanto param rakkhati.)

         “Protecting others, one protects oneself.” (Param

         rakkhanto attanam rakkhati.)

   These two sentences are supplementary and should not be taken or

quoted separately. Nowadays, when social service is so greatly

stressed, people may be tempted to support their ideas by quoting only

the second sentence. But any such one-sided quotation would

misrepresent the Buddha’s standpoint. It has to be remembered that in

our story the Buddha expressly approved the words of the apprentice,

that one has first to watch carefully one’s own steps if one wishes to

protect others from harm. He who himself is sunk in the mud cannot

help others out of it. In that sense, self-protection forms the

indispensable basis for the protection and help given to others. But

self-protection is not selfish protection. It is self-control, ethical

and spiritual self-development.

   There are some great truths which are so comprehensive and

profound that they seem to have an ever-expanding range of

significance that grows with one’s own range of understanding and

practising them. Such truths are applicable on various levels of

understanding, and are valid in various contexts of our life. After

reaching the first or second level, one will be surprised that again

and again new vistas open themselves to our understanding, illumined

by that same truth. This also holds for the great twin truths of our

text which we shall consider now in some detail.

   “Protecting oneself, one protects others”–the truth of this

statement begins at a very simple and practical level. This first

material level of the truth is so self-evident that we need say no

more than a few words about it. It is obvious that the protection of

our own health will go far in protecting the health of others in our

environment, especially where contagious diseases are concerned.

Caution and circumspection in all our doings and movements will

protect others from the harm that may come to them through our

carelessness and negligence. By careful driving, abstention from

alcohol, self-restraint in situations that might lead to violence–in

all these and many other ways we shall protect others by protecting


The Ethical Level

~~~ ~~~~~~~ ~~~~~

We come now to the ethical level of that truth. Moral self-protection

will safeguard others, individuals and society, against our own

unrestrained passions and selfish impulses. If we permit the “three

roots” of evil–greed, hate and delusion–to take a firm hold in our

hearts, then their outgrowths will spread far and wide like a jungle

creeper, suffocating much healthy and noble growth all around. But if

we protect ourselves against these three roots, our fellow beings too

will be safe. They will be safe from our reckless greed for

possessions and power, from our unrestrained lust and sensuality, from

our envy and jealousy; safe from the disruptive consequences of our

hate and enmity which may be destructive or even murderous; safe from

the outbursts of our anger and from the resulting atmosphere of

antagonism and conflict which may make life unbearable for them.

   The harmful effects our greed and hate have upon others are not

limited to the times when they become passive objects or victims of

our hate, or when their possessions become the object of our greed.

Both greed and hate have an infectious power which vastly multiplies

their evil effects. If we ourselves think of nothing else than to

crave and to grasp, to acquire and possess, to hold and to cling, then

we may rouse or strengthen these possessive instincts in others. Our

bad conduct may become the standard of behaviour for those around

us–for our children, our friends, our colleagues. Our own conduct may

induce others to join us in the common satisfaction of rapacious

desires; or we may arouse in them feelings of resentment and

competitiveness. If we are full of sensuality, we may also kindle the

fire of lust in them. Our own hate may provoke them to hate and

vengeance. We may also ally ourselves with others or instigate them to

common acts of hate and enmity. Greed and hate are, indeed, like

contagious diseases. If we protect ourselves against these evil

infections, we shall to some extent at least also protect others.

Protection through Wisdom

~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~

As to the third root of evil, delusion or ignorance we know very well

how much harm may be done to others through the stupidity,

thoughtlessness, prejudices, illusions and delusions of a single


   Without wisdom and knowledge, attempts to protect oneself and

others will usually fail. One will see the danger only when it is too

late, one will not make provision for the future; one will not know

the right and effective means of protection and help. Therefore,

self-protection through wisdom and knowledge is of the greatest

importance. By acquiring true wisdom and knowledge, we shall protect

others from the harmful consequences of our own ignorance, prejudices,

infectious fanaticism and delusions. History shows us that great and

destructive mass delusions have often been kindled by a single

individual or a small number of people. Self-protection through wisdom

and knowledge will protect others from the pernicious effect of such


   We have briefly indicated how our own private life may have a

strong impact on the lives of others. If we leave unresolved the

actual or potential sources of social evil within ourselves, our

external social activity will be either futile or markedly incomplete.

Therefore, if we are moved by a spirit of social responsibility, we

must not shirk the hard task of moral and spiritual self-development.

Preoccupation with social activities must not be made an excuse or

escape from the first duty, to tidy up one’s own house first.

   On the other hand, he who earnestly devotes himself to moral

self-improvement and spiritual self-development will be a strong and

active force for good in the world, even if he does not engage in any

external social service. His silent example alone will give help and

encouragement to many, by showing that the ideals of a selfless and

harmless life can actually be lived and are not only topics of


The Meditative Level

~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~

We proceed now to the next higher level in the interpretation of our

text. It is expressed in the following words of the sutta: “And how

does one, by protecting oneself, protect others? By the repeated and

frequent practice of meditation.” Moral self-protection will lack

stability as long as it remains a rigid discipline enforced after a

struggle of motives and against conflicting habits of thought and

behaviour. Passionate desires and egotistic tendencies may grow in

intensity if one tries to silence them by sheer force of will. Even if

one temporarily succeeds in suppressing passionate or egotistic

impulses, the unresolved inner conflict will impede one’s moral and

spiritual progress and warp one’s character. Furthermore, inner

disharmony caused by an enforced suppression of impulses will seek an

outlet in external behaviour. It may make the individual irritable,

resentful, domineering and aggressive towards others. Thus harm may

come to oneself as well as to others by a wrong method of

self-protection. Only when moral self-protection has become a

%spontaneous% function, when it comes as naturally as the protective

closing of the eyelid against dust–only then will our moral stature

provide real protection and safety for ourselves and others. This

naturalness of moral conduct does not come to us as a gift from

heaven. It has to be acquired by repeated practice and cultivation.

Therefore our sutta says that it is by repeated practice that

self-protection becomes strong enough to protect others too.

   But if that repeated practice of the good takes place only on the

practical, emotional and intellectual levels, its roots will not be

firm and deep enough. Such repeated practice must also extend to the

level of meditative cultivation. By meditation, the practical,

emotional and intellectual motives of moral and spiritual

self-protection will become our personal property which cannot easily

be lost again. Therefore our sutta speaks here of bhavana, the

meditative development of the mind in its widest sense. This is the

highest form of protection which our world can bestow. He who has

developed his mind by meditation lives in peace with himself and the

world. From him no harm or violence will issue. The peace and purity

which he radiates will have an inspiring, uplifting power and will be

a blessing to the world. He will be a positive factor in society, even

if he lives in seclusion and silence. When understanding for, and

recognition of, the social value of a meditative life ceases in a

nation, it will be one of the first symptoms of spiritual


Protection of Others

~~~~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~

We have now to consider the second part of the Buddha’s utterance, a

necessary complement to the first: “Protecting others one protects

oneself. And how? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and

harmless life, by loving-kindness and compassion (khantiya avihimsaya

mettataya anuddayataya).”

   He whose relation to his fellow-beings is governed by these

principles will protect himself better than he could with physical

strength or with any mighty weapon. He who is patient and forbearing

will avoid conflicts and quarrels, and will make friends of those for

whom he has shown a patient understanding. He who does not resort to

force or coercion will, under normal conditions, rarely become an

object of violence himself as he provokes no violence from others. And

if he should encounter violence, he will bring it to an early end as

he will not perpetuate hostility through vengeance. He who has love

and compassion for all beings, and is free of enmity, will conquer the

ill-will of others and disarm the violent and brutal. A compassionate

heart is the refuge of the whole world.


   We shall now better understand how those two complementary

sentences of our text harmonize. Self-protection is the indispensable

basis. But true self-protection is possible only if it does not

conflict with the protection of others; for one who seeks

self-protection at the expense of others will defile as well as

endanger himself. On the other hand, protection of others must not

conflict with the four principles of patience, non-violence,

loving-kindness and compassion; it also must not interfere with their

free spiritual development as it does in the case of various

totalitarian doctrines. Thus in the Buddhist conception of

self-protection all selfishness is excluded, and in the protection of

others violence and interference have no place.

   Self-protection and protection of others correspond to the great

twin virtues of Buddhism, wisdom and compassion. Right self-protection

is the expression of wisdom, right protection of others the expression

of compassion. Wisdom and compassion, being the primary elements of

Bodhi or Enlightenment, have found their highest perfection in the

Fully Enlightened One, the Buddha. The insistence on their harmonious

development is a characteristic feature of the entire Dhamma. We meet

them in the four sublime states (brahmavihara), where equanimity

corresponds to wisdom and self-protection, while loving-kindness,

compassion and sympathetic joy correspond to compassion and the

protection of others.

   These two great principles of self-protection and protection of

others are of equal importance to both individual and social ethics

and bring the ends of both into harmony. Their beneficial impact,

however, does not stop at the ethical level, but leads the individual

upwards to the highest realisation of the Dhamma, while at the same

time providing a firm foundation for the welfare of society.

   It is the writer’s belief that the understanding of those two

great principles of self-protection and protection of others, as

manifesting the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion, is of vital

importance to Buddhist education, for young and old alike. They are

the cornerstones of character building and deserve a central place in

the present world wide endeavour for a Buddhist revival.

   “I shall protect others”–thus should we establish our

mindfulness, and guided by it devote ourselves to the practice of

meditation, for the sake of our own liberation.

   “I shall protect others”–thus should we establish our

mindfulness, and guided by it regulate our conduct by patience,

harmlessness, loving-kindness and compassion, for the welfare and

happiness of the many.


Copyright 1990 by Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. First published 1967 as Bodhi Leaves no. 34. This text is offered for free distribution on DharmaNet with permission from the Publisher.

About the Author

imagesLEJYXLDDNyanaponika Mahathera (1901 – 1994) was a German born Sri Lanka-ordained Theravada monk, co-founder of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy,  Sri Lanka, world famous author of numerous  books on Theravada Buddhism, and a teacher of  many contemporary Western Buddhists who  visited him at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy or at the Island Hermitage at Dodanduwa, and sometimes went to live with him there. He was the foremost pupil of Nyanatiloka Mahathera, and a long time pupil of Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, and a close acquaintance of Anagarika Munindra. Like him, Nyanaponika was a very learned scholar of the Abhidhamma  (Buddhist Psychology). He did pioneer translations of the Abhidhamma Pitaka from the Pali into English and German, and he also pioneered the first important book on Vipassana meditation in any Western language:

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                                                                         by Nyanaponika Thera

  If we contemplate even a minute sector of life’s vast range, we are
faced with a variety of living forms so tremendous that it defies all
description. Yet three basic features can be discerned as common to
everything that has animate existence, from the microbe to man, from
the simplest sensations to the thoughts of a creative genius:

  impermanence or change (//anicca//);
suffering or unsatisfactoriness (//dukkha//);
non-self or insubstantiality (//anatta//).

  These three basic facts were first found and formulated over 2,500
years ago by the Buddha, who was rightly called “the Knower of the
World” (//loka-vidu//). They are designated, in Buddhist terminology,
the three characteristics (ti-lakkhana) – the invariable marks or signs
of everything that springs into being, the “signata” stamped upon the
very face of life itself.

  Of the three, the first and third apply directly to inanimate existence
as well as to the animate, for every concrete entity by its very nature
undergoes change and is devoid of substance. The second feature,
suffering, is of course only an experience of the animate. But the
Buddha applies the characteristic of suffering to all conditioned
things, in the sense that, for living beings, everything conditioned is
a potential cause of experienced suffering and is at any rate incapable
of giving lasting satisfaction. Thus the three are truly universal
marks pertaining even to what is below or beyond our normal range of

  The Buddha teaches that life can be correctly understood only if these
basic facts are understood. And this understanding must take place, not
only logically, but in confrontation with one’s own experience.
Insight-wisdom, which is the ultimate liberating factor in Buddhism,
consists in just this experiential understanding of the three
characteristics as applied to one’s own bodily and mental processes,
and deepened and matured in meditation.

  To see things as they really are means to see them consistently in the
light of the three characteristics. Not to see them in this way, or to
deceive oneself about their reality and range of application, is the
defining mark of ignorance, and ignorance is by itself a potent cause
of suffering, knitting the net in which man is caught – the net of
false hopes, of unrealistic and harmful desires, of delusive ideologies
and of perverted values and aims.

  Ignoring or distorting the three basic facts ultimately leads only to
frustration, disappointment and despair. But if we learn to see through
deceptive appearances, and discern the three characteristics, this will
yield immense benefits, both in our daily life and in our spiritual
striving. On the mundane level, the clear comprehension of
impermanence, suffering and non-self will bring us a saner outlook on
life. It will free us from unrealistic expectations, bestow a
courageous acceptance of suffering and failure, and protect us against
the lure of deluded assumptions and beliefs. In our quest for the
supramundane, comprehension of the three characteristics will be
indispensable. The meditative experience of all phenomena as
inseparable from the three marks will loosen, and finally cut, the
bonds binding us to an existence falsely imagined to be lasting,
pleasurable and substantive. With growing clarity, all things internal
and external will be seen in their true nature: as constantly changing,
as bound up with suffering and as unsubstantial, without an eternal
soul or abiding essence. By seeing thus, detachment will grow, bringing
greater freedom from egoistic clinging and culminating in Nibbana,
mind’s final liberation from suffering.

                       * * * * * * * **************************

This text has been offered for free distribution via BuddhaNet by arrangement with the BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY, KANDY, SRI LANKA.

About the Author

(See the biography  above)