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A French monk give an interesting definition of what we call "buddhism". We can't find this kind of explanations in any book.

Little golden pagodas.

definition of Buddhism

by the monk Sāsana

Suffering and the end of suffering

What does Buddhism mean to you? In your opinion, what is the heart of the philosophy?

It is not a philosophy. Thus, I will be in trouble saying that it is the heart of a philosophy. The heart of the teaching? It is simple, Buddha does himself claim it. When somebody came to see him one day, by asking him: "And among all these things, after all, what do you teach then?" Buddha answered him(her): "My teaching is all about suffering and the end of suffering". Here is the sentence that summarises the core of Buddha's teaching. Suffering, and the end of suffering.

What does bring suffering to an end?

That which is the cause of the end of suffering is the attitude that is opposite to the one which does beget suffering. That which does beget suffering, it is ignorance. Hence, that which is the cause of the end of suffering is the cessation of ignorance, simply.

And what is the root cause of ignorance?

When somebody asked this question to Buddha, he answered: "That which is the root cause of ignorance, that is consciousness". The person asked him then: "But then, what is the root cause of consciousness?" He answered: "That which is the root cause of consciousness, that is ignorance". This simple small sentence deserves three hours of discussion to be suitably explained.

However, without getting involved into these too technical considerations, let us roughly say: That which is the root cause of ignorance, it is the simple fact to be here.

What does cause suffering to arise, apart from ignorance? Is there not attachment too?

Yes, naturally. Basically, the source, that is ignorance, but ignorance is mainly found among three kinds of behaviours, which he calls factors of perpetuation, which maintain the world into its ceaseless revolving cycles.

  • In the first place, it is the set of our philosophic beliefs, our religious beliefs too, our views and opinions.
  • Secondly, it is the set of our attachments, our desires, our fascinations.
  • Thirdly, it is our pride – which does prevail within all beings (except arahantas). It is interesting to notice that Buddha says: "humility is another form of pride".

When one has eliminated these three things – which does imply the fact of having eradicated ignorance –, one has reached the end of all our pains, problems and difficulties.

A statement of things as they are

Buddha's teaching is neither a religion, nor a philosophy, not a system even, it merely is a statement of things as they are. Admittedly, it does contrast with this very religious aspect which one finds in Burma – and as much as anywhere else; all these statues, all these monuments, etc. It is the outcome of people's need to indulge into this religious aspect, these prayers, devotions. Originally, if we truthfully stick to his discourses, we find ourselves very remote from all that. Buddha is a discoverer. He is likened to a scientist who discovers something: he does not make a religion out of it, neither a cult. He discovered a new law, and expounded this law. His pupils listen to and learn this law. Once they well master the way to give sermons at their turn, they are will be able to teach it. It is of no use to reinvent the wheel because it has already been made.

It is of no use to rediscover anything whatsoever because the ground was already cleared. So, in the wake of Buddha's predication, we are "auditors" (this is how we call Buddha's pupils) who listen to his teaching. We try to understand these natural laws, and once we understand them, we can pass on this teaching at out turn.

Thus, there are no prayers, no rituals, no invocation of divinities. We do not expect anything from anyone else than ourselves. It is merely about a work to do on ourselves. It is mainly a work of understanding, because in fact, we are nothing else than big ignorant children. Besides, he does claim it himself: "My teaching is not meant for little children".

How to overcome suffering?

Buddha has expounded suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Certainly, but from a more practical viewpoint, the question that arises is: "What to do, concretely , to succeed in overcoming this ignorance, in rooting out the causes of this misery?"

There is all the same a small work to be done; it does not occur as if by magic. To hope that the "great spirit" is going to bestow us its grace, according to him, that does not work – I besides myself tried it over ten years, and it didn't work! He therefore proposes another approach, a little more pragmatic one, which is a work to be done within us. Besides, he utilises the word "work". This work is threefold...

At first, it is advisable to manage to evolve in a living environment which is based on a fundamental ethics and to lead a virtuous life. That doesn't forcibly mean to "become a monk", remote prospect. The monk is supposed, at virtue's level, to be a kind of professional in this field. Regrettably, it is not always the case. The idea of this virtuous behaviour, in fact, lies in not being aggressive: no murder, no violence, no theft, no adultery, no lie, no consumption of any intoxicating drinks. To him, it does constitute the basic pillar.

At a second stage, backing up with this virtuous behaviour, we will be fit to do this work remaining to be done. Then, we do proceed to concentration and meditation. These meditative exercises are useful to develop concentration, a full presence of mind. A completely fickle spirit, which is not controlled, won't be able to do much.

At a third stage, once we have laid down these two foundations, which are virtue and meditation, we are going to proceed to the development of that which Buddha calls "intelligence", "wisdom", which is the pinnacle of the practice. It is the final straight line, which leads to awakening, to liberation. It is neither a meditation, nor an exercise, even less a prayer or a ritual. It is direct inner sight into reality, that's all! It is easy to say, but no easy task to do.

What is the use of statues and monuments?

A teaching is something, that which people make out of it is otherwise. When one sees all these statues and all these monuments, one can say unto himself: "With regard to all that which has just been explained – virtue, wisdom, etc.-, what do all these things have to do here?" What all these things have to do here, merely is that humans cannot refrain from doing so.

There are always people who are interested into the teaching, who do observe the five precepts, who lead a virtuous life, who practise meditation. But as Buddha claimed it, humans do have very strong religious sentiments. They therefore cannot refrain from erecting all sorts of things.

Even though, originally, we find a teaching that seems to be terse enough, sufficiently purified, we could even say technical, we couldn't avoid coming to this point. That is to say, that we finally cope with this religious aspect, which lies in building monuments, in performing ceremonies, in making a whole set of recitations.

Sometimes, one sees a group of tourists who watch monks reciting before a monument. This group can say unto himself: "That's religion, they are praying a god, they invoke Buddha, so pious are they!" If there was a translator, each among them would come to know that they simply repeat excerpts of Buddha's word in his maternal dialect (Pali language). It would then be surprising, even amusing, to find out that they say for example: "Here are described the thirty two parts of this body... They are: eyes, teeth, hairs, gall-bladder, liver, loins, urine, excrement, blood, etc." And that they finish their sentence by saying: "this body is disgusting, this body is a bag of skin filled with barren parts, with particularly loathsome things". Among the monks and the novices who regularly recite this kind of texts, there are also ten years old children.

It does always remain a statement of things as they are. We always come down to this idea. Nevertheless, human beings cannot refrain from putting a frame, from putting decorations on it. It is true that if one only sticks to its words, Buddha's teaching is not that "attractive", because it is a scientific, technical account, of the world just as it is. So obviously, it does miss a lot of aesthetics. Thus, one couldn't avoid adding a little to it.

It is advisable to wisely discriminate between things. It is necessary to avoid sticking too much to these popular, grandiose aspects of monuments, frescoes, Buddha statues. One day or the other, we should ultimately succeed in freeing ourselves from all this so as to reach the essence of the teaching. This process does apply to everything: what does really matter, that is the main point.

For example, a big university adorned with magnificent monuments and a beautiful architecture, it is beautiful, it is pleasant. However, if you enter the university, you do not lose a track that it is meant for studying a very specific subject. When you are fully immersed into the study of your subject, you do not give a damn at all about the external environment, the architecture, and the beauty of the fountains and the parks.

The same thing exactly applies to Buddha's teaching; it is necessary, at the right time, to know how to forget all that!

The decline of Buddha's teaching

The sunset that just took place reminds me of something: that which is on the decline. The day elapses, the night arrives... Buddha also spoke about the decline of his teaching. His teaching will disappear from this world one day, because it is a necessity: all that which has arisen must inevitably pass away. All civilisations of the past finally disappeared. That which deserves to be known on this subject, is that according to him, the root causes of his teaching's decline, those are neither wars, nor famines, or religions, or political ideologies... but those are monks!

The ones whom he entrusted for preserving his teaching are those who, in the course of time, will be responsible for its destruction. Why? Because, there were already, in Buddha's time, and there will be more and more monks, who will introduce into this teaching notions that are completely personal. That is to say, they will, little by little, add their personal opinions, their personal doctrine, they are going to mix up, they are going to dig up into such and such philosophy various elements by saying that "finally, everything is only one", or that "somewhere, Buddha also spoke about it".

One will be caught up amid a mixture in which one will finally no more succeed in "discerning the diamond from the pebbles", in which it is found. Thus, these monks are going to introduce views and opinions that bear little resemblance with Buddha's teaching.

What is Buddha's teaching?

What is Buddha's teaching? There are manifold ways to answer this question. To give an answer to this question, I am going to tell an anecdote connected with his lifetime. One day, Buddha travelled with a group of monks. They passed in front of a monk who was giving a teaching. He was a very skilful speaker. Buddha then asked the monks: "Monks, can you hear this monk giving a teaching so skilfully?" The monks answered: "Yes, Respectable Buddha, we hear him". Buddha continued by uttering a very important sentence. He says: "Monks, when a monk expounds the teaching, it is not "my" teaching that he expounds – that is to say the one of Buddha. Monks, when a monk expounds a teaching, it is not "his" teaching that he expounds – that is to say his personal teaching. Monks, when a monk expounds the teaching, it is only the reality of things as they are, which he expounds".

This sentence takes part among small key sentences that Buddha, during his life, left to us here and there. Crudely speaking, his teaching is a "lesson about things" (the word "dhamma", moreover, means "thing", "phenomenon"), and nothing is to be added to it. Admittedly, nothing is to be removed from it too. Owing to monks (or people) who will add to or remove things from this teaching, this later will regrettably get lost. There will only remain the empty shell, that is to say: ceremonies, recitations, big doctrinal studies in the university, etc. Moreover, this is the way it already is at the present moment.

However, we still find nowadays, particularly in Burma, monks who do stick to the essence of the teaching. They are monks who truly experienced this teaching, or in all cases, monks who put it into practice. Little by little, it is going to disappear. Buddha's teaching is an endangered species.

Read the text called "In a few sentences..."
(with essential notions about dhamma).

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Origin: video realised in Sagaing (Burma)

Author: Monk Sāsana

Author of the video: Gil Savel

Date: end of 2001

Translator: Thierry Lambrou

Date of translation: 2003

Update: 2005, June the 7th