Buddhism 101 (Part 1)

A Talk by Andrea Fella (IMC, September 22, 2009)

(Transcribed and lightly edited by N. Willis)

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This class has been called “An introduction to Buddhism”, but it could more correctly be called, “An introduction to Theravada Buddhism from the perspective of a practitioner”.

There are many different kinds of Buddhism, and the Buddhist teachings that we focus on here at the Insight Meditation Centre are primarily the Buddha’s teachings that come directly from the most ancient texts that have been recorded: from the Pali Canon. ‘Pali’ here is the name of the language that the texts were written in.

So the Buddhism I’m going to be talking about is the Buddhism that’s grounded in those teachings. The later versions of Buddhism used those teachings and often added on to them with other texts. We’re going to focus on the oldest texts of the Buddhist tradition.

And, “from the perspective of a practitioner” because I am a practitioner more than I am a scholar and the perspective that I hold on these teachings is in terms of what has been useful in my own experience to helping me live a more peaceful and a more happy life. So I’ll be talking about the teachings of the Buddha from the perspective of the texts but also from the perspective of very practical usage of those teachings.

I thought I’d talk a little bit to start with about the Buddha’s own journey. Where did the Buddha start? What was the problem he was trying to solve when he embarked on his own exploration?

The Buddha began his life pretty much in luxury. He was in the warrior caste, his father was a king, and he grew up as a prince in a palace – in fact, in several palaces. In the texts, he describes his palaces; he says he had three different palaces that he lived in for each of the three different seasons. He had lovely descriptions of how wonderful these palaces were and the kind of food that was served and the flowers that were grown there. Basically he lived a life of luxury. But he had an inkling, or a sense, as most of us do, that this was not all that there was to life. I’ll read some quotes from his reflections. So this is reflecting on his life in the palaces.

“While I had such power and good fortune, yet I thought, ‘When an ordinary person who is subject to ageing sees another who is aged, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted. For he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is aged.’ When I considered this, the vanity of youth entirely left me. I thought, ‘When an ordinary person who is subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, sees another who is sick, she is shocked, humiliated and disgusted, for she forgets that she herself is no exception. But I too am subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is sick.’ When I considered this, the vanity of health entirely left me. I thought, ‘When an ordinary person, who is subject to death, sees another who is dead, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted, for he forgets that he is no exception. But I too am subject to death, not safe from death, so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is dead.’ When I considered this, the vanity of life entirely left me.”

ageing, sickness and death are sometimes called the three heavenly messengers. They are the messengers that woke up the Buddha-to-be to suffering in this life. Now there’s a classic story that is often taught as a fact of the Buddha’s life, and that is that there were four heavenly messengers. In this story, he left the palace one day and saw a sick person, and was shocked and didn’t know what it was, and asked his driver what this was, and the driver said “It’s a sick person.” And the driver instructed him that everyone would get sick. And this went on – the next time he went out he saw someone who was old, the next time he went out he saw someone who was dead. And then the fourth time he went out he saw a monk who was radiant and serene, and he wondered about the monk.

This story, while it’s often told as a story of the Buddha’s life is not actually told in the Pali Canon as something that happened to him. The Buddha tells the story as something that happened to a previous Buddha. So that’s where the story comes from. You may at some point hear the story of the four heavenly messengers, and it is often told as being part of the Buddha’s life, but I cannot find evidence for that in the texts.

So for the Buddha, meeting these three signs, these three messengers of suffering, woke him up, and he began to wonder, why is there suffering? And is it possible to be free from suffering? There’s another quote:

“Before my enlightenment, while I was still an unenlightened Buddha-to-be, being myself subject to birth, ageing, ailment and death, sorrow and defilement, I sought after what was also subject to those things. Then I thought, ‘Why, being myself subject to birth, ageing, ailment, death, sorrow and defilement, do I seek after what is also subject to those things? Suppose being myself subject to these things, seeing danger in them, I sought after the unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme surcease of bondage, Nibbana?'”.

‘Nibbana’ is the term for awakening, which we’ll talk about later. So the Buddha, seeing, meeting suffering, wanted to see if there is some way to be free of it. Completely and utterly free of suffering. Free from sorrow, free from illness, free from ailment. These were the questions that motivated him. And at his time in India, there were a lot of spiritual teachers, many spiritual teachers who were also seeking freedom. So he left his home, he left his wife and his child, his family, and went out into the world to become a renunciate, and to see if he could understand suffering. That was his motivation, to understand and see if it was possible to be free of suffering.

He began engageing with the various teachers that were around at that time. There were several famous teachers at that time who taught the very deep states of concentration. So he learned these concentration practices, and attained very deep, blissful states, states free of suffering of the body, states free of suffering of the mind, that he could attain at will. He could put himself into these states and just hang out there pretty much for as long as he wanted to.

But he noticed that when he came out of those states that he still felt pain and suffering, and that this was not what he was looking for. The solution that these teachers had found, to simply hang out in these bliss states, wasn’t what he was seeking. So he left those teachers and went off to study with other teachers, to practice very severe ascetic practices, which was kind of the other end of the spectrum. Instead of making his mind and body feel really, really good, through these jhana states, the idea was to mortify the body, thinking that that would somehow free him from his body.

So he practiced these ascetic techniques to a very deep degree, to the point where he was emaciated – you could apparently could see all of his ribs. He said that when he touched the skin of his belly he could feel his backbone – he was that emaciated. And he realised when he was near death, in this state, that this too was not the way to the ending of suffering, that this was not the solution. And in that state of near starvation he had a memory of being a child. When he was a young child, he was watching his father doing a ritual harvest planting – I think it was a Spring harvest, a Spring planting – in the fields. And the young boy was sitting under a tree, watching his father do this ritual. And he went into a kind of a spontaneous state of meditation. That state of concentration was like the first state of meditation that was taught to him by these other teachers.

And he realised at that point that the pleasure of those states was not something to be shunned, and that the pleasure of those states could be used to help him understand the problem of suffering. So my understanding of the difference in terms of how the Buddha approached this question is that the other teachers, when practising the concentration, did it only to attain those states of bliss. And the Buddha decided to use those states of concentration and point his concentrated mind at this question of suffering. So he used the concentration that he’d developed to go into this question: “What is suffering?” “Why do we suffer?”

So after he nourished himself, got back to a healthy body, he sat down under a tree one evening, and resolved, “If it is possible to wake up, I’m going to do it tonight, and I’m not going to move until I do”. So he sat there and he used the concentrated states that he was familiar with, and directed his mind not just to the pleasure of those states, but to this question of suffering.

What he understood that night is stated in the Four Noble Truths. This is the core, fundamental teaching of Buddhism. All forms of Buddhism have this central teaching of the Four Noble Truths. So the Four Noble Truths, the truths that the Buddha understood that night, have to do with suffering. No surprise, since that’s what he was investigating!

And the Truths are: there is suffering; the Truth of the cause of suffering; the Truth of the cessation of suffering; and the Truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

The Truth of suffering is basically the truth that there is suffering in our world. And I’ll go into a little more detail in the definition of that in a moment. It doesn’t mean that everything is suffering. It means that everyone experiences suffering. People living a life cannot escape from suffering. That we are all subject to ageing, sickness and death, and those are suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair – we are all subject to those things.

So there is suffering. The second Truth, the truth of the cause of suffering, is the truth that there is a reason behind our suffering. It’s not simply a random event in our lives. And again I’ll go into that in more detail.

The third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering means that the Buddha found a way to the end of suffering, that he found a way to completely eradicate suffering, in this very life.

The fourth Truth, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, is the understanding he had of how not only himself but others could follow this road to completely end suffering.

Now these Truths – the Truth of suffering; the Truth of the cause of suffering, which is craving, wanting things to be other than they are; the Truth of the cessation of suffering, which is Nibbana, awakening; the Truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering, which is the Eightfold Path, which consists of eight qualities that we cultivate to open our hearts and minds to understand this problem of suffering so that we can be free of it – these truths weren’t understood by the Buddha as simply things to be believed. They were understood by him as things to do. So each of these Truths has an action associated with it.

The Truth of suffering: suffering is meant to be understood. The Buddha said we should understand suffering. The Truth of the cause of suffering, the craving, the wanting things to be other than they are – that is to be released, let go of, abandoned. The third Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, is meant to be realised, that we actually experience the ending of suffering. And the fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path, is meant to be cultivated.

So tonight I’m going to talk in fairly great detail about the first two Noble Truths. And next week I’m going to talk about the fourth Noble Truth. And then the following week, more about the understandings that come with the realisation of the ending of suffering.

This understanding of the four Noble Truths and the actions that are associated with them put the religion of Buddhism into a different category from some other religions that are out there. First, it is a very pragmatic exploration. There’s very little in Buddhism that you are asked to believe. I don’t know that there’s anything you’re really asked to believe. You’re asked to investigate, to understand in your own experience. You’re asked to look in your own experience – how do you understand these things?

So it’s a very pragmatic exploration. We take action to understand suffering. We take action to let go of the cause of suffering. We take action to cultivate the qualities that will lead to the realisation of the release from suffering. Personal effort is what is necessary in order to understand these Truths. They’re not meant to be believed. That’s not their purpose. Their purpose doesn’t have anything to do with belief. Their purpose has to do with motivating one to understand suffering.

Personal effort is crucial in this practice. Freedom or liberation or what might be called salvation in other religions isn’t granted by anything from outside of oneself. It is strictly an inner process. It’s dependent on the cultivation of qualities that help us to understand and open our hearts, to see the world as it actually is. The Buddha understood on the night of his enlightenment, that we see things through filters. We see our experience through views and beliefs, and those views and beliefs are a large part of why we suffer.

Another feature of Buddhism is that it is non-theistic. It’s not atheistic, really – it’s non-theistic. It doesn’t relate to gods. There are stories about gods in the texts, there are stories about various realms of heaven where these various types of gods live, different levels of gods, in different levels of heavens, but the stories about gods don’t have anything to do with worshiping, or not worshiping them.

So the relationship with gods is nothing to do with our own waking up. And in a sense the way the stories talk about these gods is that they themselves are in this process of waking up. So that they’re not really that different from us; it’s just that they live in a different realm. So it’s a non-theistic religion. It’s also a non-dogmatic religion.

I don’t even really think of it as a religion, myself. I mean, it’s often called a religion but it doesn’t feel much like a religion to me, it feels more like a way of life, it feels more like practical suggestions for living, than it feels like a religion. Religion for me usually conjures up theism, so a non-theistic religion sounds like an oxymoron to me.

So it’s non-dogmatic. Most religions have some kind of dogma. I looked up the definition of dogma so I could really get clear about what it means. The dictionary definition of dogma is “The established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of an organisation. It is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from”. That is not the way the Buddha taught and it’s not the way he suggests we approach these teachings. In fact, almost the opposite.

There’s one famous text in which some people meet the Buddha called the Kalama Sutta. Some of you may have heard of it. The people called the Kalamas lived in a town located at a crossroads. Various people would come wandering through the crossroads. It was a busy intersection. And all kinds of different spiritual teachers would come through their town, teaching them their beliefs. And then the Buddha came to town and they thought, “Well, we’ve heard good reports about him; we should go hear him. But let’s ask him a question.” So here’s what they said:

“There are some ascetics and Brahmans who come to our town. They explain and elucidate their own doctrines but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others. Then some other ascetics and Brahmans come to town, and they too explain and elucidate their own doctrines but disparage, debunk, revile and vilify the doctrines of others. For us there is perplexity and doubt as to which of these good ascetics speak truth and which speak falsehood.” The Buddha’s response is: “It is fitting for you to be perplexed. It is fitting for you to be in doubt. Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter.” And then he goes on to say: “Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasoning, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think the ascetic is your teacher.”

He basically says these things are not good reasons to follow a teaching. This covers most of the reasons why we do a lot of things. He goes on to say, “But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome, these things are blameable, these things are censured by the wise, these things if undertaken and practiced lead to harm and suffering’ – then you should abandon them.” And he says, “And when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are wholesome, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things if undertaken and practiced lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should engage in them.” So he encourages investigation, not simply belief.

Another aspect of this tradition about Buddhism, that was unusual for the Buddha’s day, is that he did not think that rites and rituals were of any help. Actually he thought they got in the way. Rites and rituals were a huge part of the practice of many of the religions and spiritual teachings of his day. ‘Behave this way and you will become free’. ‘Do these things and you will be free’. ‘Bathe in the river’. ‘Behave like a dog’ – many various practices that they felt led towards freedom.

He said that actually these rites and rituals would get in the way because it’s following something blindly, through ignorance, as opposed to investigating and acting out of things that lead away from suffering. From the perspective of the Buddha’s understanding, the qualities of greed, aversion and delusion are the qualities that lead us into suffering over and over again. He said if you’re engageing in these rites and rituals out of greed, aversion or delusion, you’re not going to get anywhere. It’s just going to continue perpetuating those states of mind.

In his understanding, greed, aversion and delusion, and working with those qualities is a huge part of the exploration and understanding of how suffering comes to be. And I’ll talk about that a little bit more in a few minutes.


So let’s talk a little bit about this first Noble Truth, the truth of suffering; the truth of dukkha, ‘dukkha’ being the Pali term, in the language of the Buddha, the Pali term for suffering. This is essentially the problem the Buddha was looking at. What is suffering? How does it come to be? Is it possible to be free of it?

This term ‘dukkha’ is usually translated as ‘suffering’, but it actually has a more subtle meaning than that. The ‘kha’ part of the word ‘dukkha’ means ‘wheel’ and the ‘du’ part of the word means ‘bad’. So ‘dukkha’ basically means ‘bad wheel’, or ‘a wheel out of round’. If you have a wheel where the axle is off-center, it’s just going to go, clump, clump, clump, and things are not going to be smooth. And that’s the feeling of dukkha in our lives: there’s always something off, something feeling off-kilter. Just not a smooth ride.

There are other translations for ‘dukkha’. ‘Suffering’ is the main one. ‘Stress’, ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘dis-ease’ or ‘unease’; these terms, I think, convey a little bit more of the breadth and depth of this quality of dukkha, this kind of suffering.

The dukkha of the first Noble Truth is actually a reaction to our experience. The Buddha talked about three kinds of dukkha, that there’s a dukkha that’s a reaction to pain, a dukkha that’s a reaction to change, and a dukkha that’s a reaction to existence.

So the dukkha of pain is when we have painful experience in our body or our mind. We react to that, we don’t like it. We want to get rid of it. So there is this feeling, perhaps, of some physical unpleasant sensation. Then there’s the mental response to it, which is “I don’t like this, I want to get rid of it, this is wrong, this is bad, this should not be this way”. So it’s that kind of reactivity to our physical or emotional or mental pain.

Now it may sound like that’s a kind of a surface thing. That if we just got rid of the reactivity, well, we’d still suffer. We’d still have the physical pain. And to some extent that’s true – it does say in the texts that when somebody is fully enlightened, they still experience things as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.

But if you investigate this in your own experience, explore a little bit around pain and what is pain, you’ll see – and I’ve seen this in my own experience – that the vast majority of what we call pain actually lies in our mind. That when there is no reactivity to pain, what we experience is simply unpleasant experience. It may be strong unpleasant experience, but it no longer feels like what we call pain.

When there’s no reactivity to pain, there is no suffering around pain. So it is the reactivity, this is really the piece that the Buddha discovered, that the reactivity to experience is what causes suffering.

Then there’s the dukkha of change. This is essentially the suffering that we experience when something pleasant ends. Or when we get something pleasant and we are a little afraid that it’s going to go away. So we clutch and hold and try to protect and defend. And there’s a little bit of suffering, that out-of-kilter feeling when we get something but are afraid it’s going to somehow go away.

So the suffering of change is this kind of suffering. The suffering around pleasant experience. When we have something that we like, that we feel good about, if something happens to it we feel sad, we react to that. Again, it’s the reactivity, it’s the reaction of the mind; this is what the Buddha pointed to as being the suffering. The reactivity is the suffering.

Then the dukkha of existence. This is a little more subtle. I like to call it the Buddhist version of existential anxiety. It’s the feeling, “Is this all there is?”. “I get up, I eat breakfast, I go to work, I have lunch, I work some more, I come home, I drive through a traffic jam, I eat, I have to clean up the house, I have to wash my body, I have to wash my clothes”. All of the kind of neutral day-to-day things we have to do over and over and over and over again, until we die. That’s the dukkha of existence. Just doing, doing, doing – being, being, being, there’s a sense of the things we have to engage in just to stay alive. The feeling of “Is this all there is?”. “Is this what life is about?”.

The core of my understanding of this teaching on dukkha is that it is essentially the state of mind that results from wanting things to be other than they are, no matter what is happening. It’s like there are things happening as they are right now, there’s just a certain way things are, and we want them to be different, and so we’re not aligned with the truth. We’re out of whack with the truth. That’s that kind of that out-of-round feeling. The ending of the dukkha is when we come into complete alignment with what is actually true, in this moment. No resistance, no reactivity.

The action that the Buddha suggested around dukkha is to understand it. Understand suffering. This doesn’t mean “think about it”. In the Buddhist instructions understanding suffering means exploring it in your experience. Understanding it through mindful awareness. We’ll talk about mindfulness more next week and how that fits in, but basically understanding suffering is not an intellectual exercise. It’s an experiential exercise.

Looking, turning towards suffering in our experience – what is it? This exploration of understanding suffering, this is what leads us to see how suffering can end. Because in the exploration of suffering, we start to see how it’s caused. The second Noble Truth: the cause of suffering.


So the cause of suffering is wanting things to be other than they are. That is the craving. The sense that things are not right the way they are, that they should be some other way; that craving, that wanting, is what is said to be the cause of suffering. The craving or wanting that causes suffering – the term in Pali for craving is ‘tanha’. It literally translates to the word ‘thirst’, which I think gives a sense of the biological urgency behind the craving that causes suffering. The sense of, “gotta fulfil this need – no other way around it”.

There’s the sense that things are not acceptable the way they are. That things have to be changed. Now I want to clarify the understanding of the second Noble Truth, because sometimes tanha is translated as ‘desire’; sometimes it’s ‘craving’; sometimes it’s ‘wanting’; and people sometimes feel like all wanting is bad, which is not how the teaching is framed.

There are skillful desires, and unskillful desires. Unskillful desires are desires that are based out of greed, aversion and delusion. More skillful desires or wants or wishes are aspirations that are based out of non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion, or as we might say, generosity, kindness and wisdom.

I like to use the term “aspiration” for that kind of desire, the skillful kind of desire. And the hallmark of it is that it is open to possibility. It doesn’t demand a particular result. It goes into the future with an open heart and an open mind as to what will arise or come. There’s a direction that we’re headed but not necessarily a requirement that it has to be this way. That’s essentially the hallmark of craving: that we have this idea – it’s got to look like this.

I’ve been using the terms greed, aversion and delusion. These three qualities of mind can be considered forms of wanting. The greed, the wanting, to have something we like. The aversion, wanting to get rid of something we don’t like; both of these are forms of craving. So if there’s something we like, something that happens in our experience, something pleasant, we want it. We have this idea “I will be happy if I get that thing”.

We also have the idea, “I’ll be unhappy if I don’t get that thing”. So that greed is constructing an image of the world that needs to be fulfilled. “I need this thing”. Or, in the case of not liking something, something in our world that is unpleasant, that we want to get rid of, there is the feeling of, “Got to get rid of this thing, or get myself out of this situation, in order to be happy. No other way about it”. Again it is looking at creating the world to look a certain way.

If we want something and we get it, our dissatisfaction goes away. We’ve learned this over and over and over again in our lives, from the time we were infants – that we’re hungry; we want something; we get it; our feeling of dissatisfaction goes away. We have a toy that somebody takes away from us – we’re unhappy. Someone gives it back to us – we’re happy. Over and over again we see this pattern, that when we want something and we get it, we feel a moment of satisfaction. When we don’t want something and we get rid of it, we feel a moment of, “I can control my world”. That things are ok, things are right in the world.

Having experienced that so many times in our lives, we come to believe that the only way we can satisfy our desires is to get what we want. And we come to believe that’s the only way to be happy, and the only way that we won’t suffer.

The surprising and non-intuitive thing that the Buddha recognised is that it’s not the getting what we want that frees us from the dissatisfaction: it’s the ending of the wanting that really frees us from the dissatisfaction. In a sense, the dissatisfaction itself *is* the dissatisfaction. If the dissatisfaction ends, there’s no problem.

So the action that the Buddha suggests with respect to this truth, is to let go of craving, to let go of wanting.

How does this work? How does one actually do this, because, again, this is not something just to believe – this is meant to be enacted. These Truths are meant to be acted on. In seeing wanting happening, you can sense, “Oh, yes, that’s not so useful. Maybe I could let that go”. Sometimes there can be an active sense of letting wanting go – but more often, in my experience, the wanting doesn’t let go so easily; but it can be observed. You can simply observe the wanting, observe what happens to it. It’s impermanent – the wanting will disappear. If you don’t act on it, it will disappear. And slowly you will begin to understand that there’s another way to end your dissatisfaction, and that is to watch the wanting, and to watch it end.

Just yesterday I was driving and I got stopped at a stop light, and there was a Starbucks close by. And I hadn’t particularly thought of wanting a latte, but I saw the sign and I thought, “Ooh, I could get a latte”. The stop light was really long, so I sat there and thought, “Ooh, a latte, I could get a latte”. And I realised at some point that this is just wanting. It stayed there the whole time I sat at the light. But I knew that if I just drove by the Starbucks, as soon as the Starbucks was out of my sight, that wanting would disappear. And it did.

So I just drove by the Starbucks. I didn’t stop. But I had to tell myself that. I had to remind myself, “You know, if you just drive by that Starbucks this wanting will go away.” (laughs) “You don’t need to satisfy this desire”.

Watching the wanting end is one of the more amazing meditative experiences. When you get to see that wanting – wanting has a really strong unpleasant experience. It’s a really strong pull, a feeling of, “something’s not right, something’s got to be fixed, got to be changed”. If you can see that wanting let go, you will experience the ending of suffering in that moment.

It feels somewhat like being let out of a vice grip. That wanting just grabs the mind. So observing wanting is a way of letting it go. Turning our attention to it – it’s a letting be. Letting it be allows it to let go of itself.

Now I need to talk a little about delusion. I’ve talked about greed and aversion as being kinds of craving. Delusion’s a little more subtle. The Buddhist understanding is that craving results from a kind of very deep ignorance, and that the ignorance feeds the craving and craving feeds the ignorance, in this cycle. And in this cycle of craving and ignorance is this delusion of believing in a self. Believing that there is somebody here, an ‘I’, who wants something to be mine. This is the Buddha’s teaching on not-self, on anatta, and I will talk in more detail on this in a couple of weeks. But I need to introduce it here.

So this understanding of not-self is not that there’s nothing here, because obviously there’s something here, but that the Buddha understands us as human beings, as a process rather than an entity. That there’s no abiding entity inside of us. It’s simply a changing mind stream and body stream that’s integrated together and following a kind of natural set of causes and conditions.

Somebody described it like a wave in an ocean. Think about how a wave works in the ocean. It’s not the same water that travels across the surface on the wave. It’s energy that moves and there’s different water that rises and falls. The water stays where it is, and it rises and then falls and then rises and falls, and then the next water rises and falls and rises and falls. It’s different water all along the way. And in a similar way our psycho-physical processes are like a wave. And the energy that propels us, or that propels that wave, is karma. This karma is the Buddha’s teaching on intention and action, and cause and effect.


So this comes back to another aspect of the second Noble Truth, that suffering has a cause. That everything in our experience has a cause – not just suffering, actually. Everything in our experience unfolds in a lawful way. I look at the Buddha as a scientist, in a way. He looked at the world and he saw it as unfolding as a result of causes and conditions. That there are various causes and conditions that create the patterns of the weather, that create how the trees grow, there are natural laws, there are physical laws. And he said that we’re no exception. Our minds are no exception. There are natural laws that indicate how our minds work, and this is what he calls the law of karma.

The law of karma is stated most simply through understanding that actions have consequences, so that when we act there are consequences of our actions. He further goes on to say that if we act skillfully, if we act out of non-greed, non-aversion, non-delusion, if we act out of generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom, then the results of our actions will be happiness, will lead us away from suffering. If we act out of greed, aversion and delusion, the results of our actions will tend to be painful. We will suffer.

This reflects a kind of common understanding. One young man in hearing this said “Oh, you mean, ‘what goes around comes around'”. Yes, that’s what it means. We reap what we sow. So karma is really about understanding cause and effect, and how we can engage in our lives to maximise happiness, essentially. This comes back to what I read earlier from the Kalama Sutta. “When you know for yourselves that these things are unwholesome, these things are blameful … these things lead to harm and suffering … you should abandon them”.

He continues: “What do you think? When greed, aversion and delusion arise in a person, is it for his welfare or his harm?” And they respond, “for his harm.”

This is the teaching on karma. That acting skillfully tends to lead us towards happiness; acting unskillfully tends to lead us towards suffering. So in every moment of our lives, there is some action happening, some action of body, some action of speech or some action of mind. And there’s an intention or a volition that’s impelling that action. Some motivation. If that motivation is based in greed, aversion and delusion, we are sowing the seeds for suffering. If that motivation is based in generosity, kindness and wisdom, we are sowing the seeds towards happiness.

So what’s defined as the karma is the motivation that goes with the action, the motivation which is like that energy wave, it’s like the direction of the energy of our lives will either head towards suffering or happiness, based on this karmic flow or this karmic energy.

If we act a lot in skillful ways, it will head us towards happiness, probably more quickly. Now there’s often a misunderstanding or a misperception around karma. Karma is often talked about in our culture as meaning what we think of as the results of karma. When something happens to somebody, sometimes people say, “Oh, it’s your karma. That’s your karma, that that thing happened”. In the technical terms of the Buddhist tradition, that is the *results* of karma. The karma itself is the movement or the energy that impels one in a particular direction.

So as we explore our experience through mindfulness, we can start to see, we can start to witness these moments when we might see ourselves getting ready to do something. We can know we’re going to speak before we actually speak, we can know we’re going to move before we move. So it’s possible in that moment to witness and see, “What’s the motivation behind this speech?” “What’s the motivation behind this action?” Speech is a really great place to play with this because I’m sure that everybody in this room has had a situation where you regretted something that came out of your mouth. If you practise with this, you can start to see that you can know you’re going to speak before you speak. You’ll probably know what you’re going to say, and you might know the reason why. And you have a choice in that moment.

Karma is not deterministic. We can act in the moment to head ourselves, to kind of turn that battleship in the direction towards happiness. So moment by moment, if we see these points where we can make a choice and we choose skillfully, we can change the direction of our lives.

So this is a real high-level view of karma (laughs). I don’t have time to do more than an overview here – this whole four weeks is really a kind of a broad-brush picture.

And there’s one more topic I want to touch on in the next three minutes (laughs), and that is karma and rebirth.


Rebirth in taught in Buddhism. It is understood that the way the Buddha taught rebirth was radical, a radical departure from what was understood in his day.

In his day, reincarnation was more the understanding that there’s a soul, or an abiding entity – there’s actually a thing that passes from life to life. And this teaching of not-self is that there’s no thing that moves from life to life.

Essentially the teaching on rebirth says that this lawful process of this wave of karma, with different arising body and mind, doesn’t start at birth and doesn’t end at death. This teaching indicates that the wave of karma has preceded our birth and will continue, in most cases, after our death.

So it’s not a transmigration of the soul or an entity. There’s another analogy used to think about this, to describe this moment-to-moment shifting of experience, to see there’s not an abiding self here. And that’s the analogy of a candle, with the flame, and there’s a whole bunch of other candles lined up. And you take the first candle and you light the second candle with the flame, and blow the first candle out. And then you take the second candle and light the third one, and blow the second one out. Now the candle flame, the flame that goes from candle to candle, there’s some energetic continuity, but it’s a completely different flame. Its burning is dependent on different conditions. It’s got a new wick, new wax, so it’s not the same flame, thought there is some energy transmission.

The understanding is that after death, it’s as though the consciousness leaves this body and then re-arises in another body. It’s a different body – it’s a different consciousness. This is the way it’s described moment-to-moment as well. That moment-to-moment, consciousness appears and disappears, appears and disappears, appears and disappears. Body and mind appear and disappear, appear and disappear. And at death it’s not a different process – it’s simply that this body ends completely, and the consciousness re-manifests in another place.

Now some people find that a teaching on rebirth is very congenial to them, and others find it not at all congenial. I have found that it’s not necessary to believe this. That it’s not a make or break thing in terms of engageing with the teachings of, there is suffering; there’s a cause of suffering; there’s a path leading to the cessation of that suffering; and that it can be realised. For myself I have absolutely no direct experience of past lives. None. I have nothing to indicate for me that there’s any direct experience to indicate that this rebirth is true or false. So I really can’t make a judgement on it. Some people I respect greatly do believe it. I have to be kind of agnostic on it, but I don’t find that it gets in the way. So I hope that you can, hearing this, at least, hold it with the attitude of investigation and interest, as opposed to the sense that, “I have to believe this, or not”. It’s not something that I have found that needs to be believed. It’s an interesting exploration.

So it’ s nine o’clock, and next week we’ll talk about the Path – how we walk the Path and how we engage in the Path.

Thank you all.