The book What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula, is a comprehensive, short, and accurate book about the Buddha’s teachings and of the Buddhist tradition. It serves as a fantastic book to start with on the subject of Buddhism, while still leaving interpretation up to the reader in some contexts while clarifying common misconceptions in others. The author, a monk from Sri Lanka, presents a consensus of Buddhism accepted by most western scholars and monks, pictures of the Buddha, and selected original text from the Tripitaka. The author also translated many texts from Pali into English so that the uneducated reader, such as myself, could “know what the Buddha actually taught” (Rahula 1).
Although having an emphasis on the Buddha himself, the author nonetheless goes in-depth into the Four Noble Truths, meditation, Anatta or no-self, and how Buddhism relates back to today. Not only has my grasp on the topic of Buddhism been greatly strengthened from reading this book but, very surprisingly, I found Buddhism to be more compatible, flexible, and relatable to who I am, my ideology, and to the general human experience unlike any other religion has before for me. Buddhism is a religion of nonviolence created by the Buddha out of his compassion to liberate human beings from suffering to Nirvana.
The Buddha saw the world as nothing is the same in this moment to the next, everything is impermanent, and it is this constant change in life that produces one’s suffering (Rahula 19). The Buddha was no prophet, or someone born connected to the divine, or someone who claimed to be anything other than human (Rahula 1). He was an ordinary man, a teacher, who after sitting underneath a bodhi tree for several weeks found the way to ‘seeing’ or realization. After being enlightened, he spent his last forty five years of his life around varying classes of men and women so that they could reach nirvana, become happy, and escape samsara; the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (Rahula 34).
During this time he answered any questions given to him and taught the Four Noble Truths so that others could achieve this as he had. Since then, Buddhism has become one of the world’s top religions with over five-hundred million followers around the world and is the only religion to never incite violence onto others when attempting to convert people to Buddhism (Rahula 5). The first of the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught is the idea or understanding of dukkha. The word dukkha translated to English means suffering. So the first noble truth is grasping the concept that all life is suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, Dukkha is caused by change, conditioned states, and normal/ordinary suffering (Rahula 19).
This suffering is caused by one’s ‘thirst’, which is any craving, desire, attachment, or even greed in one’s life. This is the Second Noble Truths called Samudaya. While reading this section of the book, I could not help to think of how it reminded me of my psychology class and how much this applied to wealth, power, ideals, views, and beliefs as well. This in turn made me realize that this ‘thirst’ that all people withtain now affects people on a much bigger, global scale today compared to back then. Which, only gave more credibility to what the Buddha was saying in my view.
The Third Noble Truths in the Buddhist tradition is the idea of an escape from endless suffering called Nirvana. It is the “emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha” (Rahula 35). Prior to this course, I imagined Nirvana to be similar to how I imagine heaven for Christianity. This previous notion of Nirvana kept interfering with my understanding of it as the goal of Buddhism to reach. It is that state of which is without suffering, where one is ‘seeing’ the world for what it truly is. Although the author did well in his explanation, I felt at the end of this chapter there was plenty left to understood on the concept of Nirvana. The fourth Noble truth in Buddhism is the way leading to Nirvana, through the middle path which is usually referred as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold path includes: right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. By sticking to the middle path, a person chooses to take and eat only what is needed to survive and to avoid sensual indulgences or self-mortification. In the book, the author goes on to describe how all the Buddha’s teachings can be seen and encompassed in the Noble Eightfold path. This reminded me of the 10 commandments in Christianity and Judaism. Although the Ten Commandments were more like laws, The Noble Eightfold Path was more about values, lifestyle, and a guide to the cessation of Dukkha, or Nirvana.
Although after some thought, I found the five precepts mentioned in the earlier chapter to be much more similar to the last four of the Ten Commandments in the manner that god forbid one, and the other suggests to “abstain”(Rahula 47) from certain things or actions in life. One particularly interesting thing to me was that the Ten Commandments are absolute truth claims, as I learned in Kimball’s book, I then considered if the Noble Eightfold Path were as well. Again, I thought of the authors words at the start of the book stating how no harm has been caused by the spread of Buddhism in its entire history, and I struggled to understand the difference in this scenario. I then thought by making a comparison between the five precepts and ten commandments would be better.
But after some thought, I found it was a shame to the meaning of the five precepts, Buddhist tradition, and the history of Buddhism to do that. The five precepts were very much so its own set of recommendations to live one’s life compared to the latter which has actual consequences by one’s God or gods if not adhered to. Each of the Four Noble Paths that the Buddha taught, in essence, were so that people could live happily and escape the infinite cycle of suffering called Samsara. Buddhism is a religion unlike any other I have seen before and even calling it a religion has been difficult for me.
The Buddha himself was the founder of one of the world’s largest religions today but to my surprise in the book, he was also an atheist. He was born in India about twenty-five hundred years ago and was unlike any other founders/prophets of religion. He was like other prophets in the sense that they drew great insight into the relationship between humans and the world. Rather than speaking directly to God or an angel to attain this, the Buddha did this through “human endeavour and intelligence” (Rahula 1).
Although this was a clear difference between Buddhism and other religions, I continued struggling to comprehend how an atheist could create a religion in the first place. I had for so long thought someone who’s atheist meant that they did not believe or have faith in a religion but when the author asked this, I began to realize that it’s just the lack of belief in a God or gods. After questioning the definition of atheism, I began to ask the same question that my professor asked at the start of this comparative religion course that is: what is religion? I remember this question left me very surprised at how little I knew about religion at the time. Since then, my understanding of all religions has grown but with Buddhism now in the picture, it wasn’t that simple and the word ‘religion’ began to take on a better form. Religion was still the belief or faith in a God or gods as I previously thought but now I realized that it is also a system of worship, or the act of adhering to a set of teachings that influence one’s actions, thoughts, and outlook in the world. Rather than most religions that rely on the external power of a God or Gods, the Buddha advocated not to look to others for answers but to make “yourselves your refuge” (Rahula 61).
I found this line to be very comforting not just to myself but to other atheists and agnostic people as well. Since Buddhism allows and encourages freedom of thought, unlike other religions, it would allow those people like myself to pursue other fields of interest without being constrained to one doctrine. The more I read about Buddhism the more I found it to be rational, loving, caring, somewhat scientific, invokes critical thinking, and rather lucrative to the modern man. The most distinct thing I discovered about Buddhism while reading this book was the concept of Anatta or no-self. I found the denial of the self to be very theologically disturbing, hard to comprehend, and very thought provoking.
The self is one’s soul or “thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, and receiver of rewards and punishments” (Rahula 51). The soul, or self, or ego that we call ‘I’ also encompasses the idea that the self remains the same all throughout one’s life and afterward as well. It is connected to one’s soul in other religious context and is the thing that which goes onto heaven or hell. Or in Hinduism, the idea of living many lives before reaching ‘Brahma’ the ultimate reality for example. As I continued to read, I realized the self in Buddhism has a very different meaning compared to west and the whole world. Buddhists viewed the self as always changing and never the same. Although one feels like the same person experiencing the world, upon closer investigation you they know it is not (Rahula 59).
The self is a mental concept that comes from the five aggregates and the attachment or ‘thirst’ of sensations. If one is to have reached nirvana and followed the Four Noble Truths, there would be no self because you view the world objectively or are ‘seeing’ the world as it is without any preconceptions, prejudices, or prior opinions/feelings that could cause suffering. Although I’m still unsure if this is a correct understanding of Anatta or not, what they described caused a feeling of familiarity in me which then gave rise to a sense of credibility in the Buddha’s teachings in me.
Later in the section, When the Buddha is asked directly of the existence of the self or not, he chooses to not answer the man at all. Going on to say that it was in fact was better he did not answer the man’s question (Rahula 60). Again I felt my understanding of no-self in the buddhist tradition was still not quite right. I finally read this line near the end of this chapter: “He was not yet in a position to understand the idea of Anatta. Therefore, to put aside this question by silence was the wisest thing” (Rahula 64). After some thought, I realized that I too had a desire or longing for the answer to that question the man asked and that I too wasn’t ready for it.
This in turn made me recognize that this was the first time, in a very long time, that any religious text has conjured such a great interest or meaning within me. When flipping upon the next chapter called “Meditation or Mental Culture” I was both eager to read and excited to learn more about this relating to the Buddhist tradition. I have had a great interest in meditation for a long time and have tried it only a handful of times. My interest in meditation stemmed from many things such as my psychology course and articles online speaking of it’s benefits to the body. Rahula’s book brought a whole new understanding and meaning to meditation to me. In the Buddha’s eyes, meditation was to produce “a state of perfect mental health, equilibrium and tranquility” (Rahula 67).
By cleansing one owns mind of impurities, then they can live in the present moment and see the world for what it is. As I understood it, meditation was a crucial part of Buddhism and reaching nirvana. The Buddha saw the mind more like a muscle that can be “controlled and developed” (Rahula 21) like any other organ can be in the body. I found this perspective to reconfirm the belief that meditation was no easy task and is beneficial to the body, while stating it in such a way that is new to me. My handful of times meditating never lead to the “slight moment”(rahula 70) of peace described in the book so far.
Although while reading about how someone would feel their first time meditating, I felt as if the author was describing my very own experience. The thoughts, worries, concerns, and desires that all arose while I meditated was summed up by this line perfectly in the book: “When you observe your mind, and see its true nature clearly, you become dispassionate with regard to its emotions, sentiments, and states” (Rahula 73).
These words rang in my ear and solidified a previous idea of mine to visit a monastery regularly so that I can learn meditation properly and to benefit from it both mentally and physically that I think could greatly benefit my quality of life. Despite its publication in 1959, What the Buddha Taught By Walpola Rahula still remains as one of the most reliable introductory books on the Buddha’s teachings today. Within this small book the essence of Buddhism was captured and with it the Four Noble truths, Anatta or no-self, meditation, how Buddhism relates back to today, and selected texts at the end that provide clear and concise teachings by the Buddha.
Each of these played in a integral part in the authors goal for the western reader to grasp a better understanding of not just the Buddha and his teachings but also to understand an entire way of life that has dominated and influenced the eastern world for more than two millennium. From reading Rahula’s book and learning about the Buddhist tradition, it has prompted me to follow my interest in meditation and in the Buddha’s teachings to go to a local monastery. The book even left me surprised that at the age of twenty now, I am now considering to pursue these interests and possibly become a Buddhist myself someday.