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A Simple Guide to Life

BuddhismIn clear and simple terms, this essay by Robert Bogoda offers thoughtful advice to help the lay Buddhist lead a householder's life in line with the Buddha's teachings.

Innumerable books have been written about Buddhism, but most of these are far too exhaustive, too specialized, or too scholarly to be of much practical help to the busy lay Buddhist in search of concise guidance. A short, clear, and simple handbook on how to live a proper Buddhist lay life was therefore a much felt need. The present essay attempts to fill that gap by providing exactly what its title offers: A Simple Guide to Life.

For easy reference the essay has been divided into short, convenient sections. The first section is theoretical in emphasis. It attempts to fix in the reader's mind the essential principles of the Buddha's teaching, without complicated and sophisticated explanations. The principles discussed here should serve as a clear-cut philosophy of life, a framework which illuminates the meaning and purpose of the Buddhist life. These principles will enable the lay Buddhist to understand his or her place in the larger scheme of things, to order priorities, and to devise a proper way to achieve them. The lack of a clear philosophy of life, so widespread today, is largely responsible for the steady decline in ethical standards, both individually and socially, in Sri Lanka and in the world as a whole.

The second section is concerned with the practical implications of adopting the understanding of existence sketched in the first section. We here examine the visible benefits of accepting the Buddha-Dhamma as a way of thinking and living; in this section we will also throw a sidelong glance at what happens to a society when spiritual values are abandoned in favor of an exclusive stress on material development.

The next two sections discuss respectively the need to draw up an individual life plan and the obstacles likely to impede the successful implementation of that plan. The central problem of a Buddhist lay follower is to combine a successful lay life with Buddhist moral and spiritual principles. This problem can be solved by organizing one's life as a lay Buddhist within the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path, which represents the Master's teaching in practice. Because some degree of economic security is essential to growth in the Dhamma, the Buddha was concerned with the material welfare of his lay disciples as much as with their spiritual development. He did not deter them from seeking mundane happiness, but he stressed that in pursuing mundane goals, the lay Buddhist should take great care to avoid breaking the basic rules of morality. These rules are summed up in the Five Precepts of virtue, the minimum code of ethics to be followed by a Buddhist householder. As the Five Precepts are thus of such fundamental importance to a Buddhist lay follower, a separate section is devoted to discussing them.

The remaining sections of the essay show how to apply the basic principles of Buddhism to the other major areas of a Buddhist householder's life. The essay ends with a section briefly describing what is expected of an ideal lay Buddhist in daily life. The guiding maxim of the entire essay is: A little well done is better than a lot poorly done.

To sum up: The Buddha's teaching, which is unique in its completeness, is the most rational and consistent plan for wholesome living. It is not based on dogma or blind faith, but on facts and verifiable conclusions. It therefore offers a reasonable way of life which should be attractive to any thinking person. Moreover, the Dhamma is completely compatible with the advances of modern science and does not require clever reinterpretations to avoid clashes with scientific discoveries.

The mere fact of accepting Buddhism intellectually, however, will not ensure happiness and security. To yield its fruit the Buddha's teaching has to be utilized intelligently and constructively in all the activities of our daily life. It has to be adopted, adapted, and applied until all its basic principles are absorbed and made habitual by repeated practice, for a theoretical knowledge of Buddhism is insufficient in itself.

If one wishes to make changes in the changing personality that one now is, these changes will take time and patience. The lofty heights of Nibbana are not to be reached by a sudden leap but by quiet, persistent endeavor over a long period, guided by the Master's teaching. Let us not forget that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Daily practice, beginning with the strict observance of the Five Precepts, is the way to orderly progress along the path. Even a little practice every day brings the practitioner a little nearer to the goal each day.

I take this opportunity to offer the merit of this gift of Dhamma most gratefully and most devotedly to my parents, now no more. Such a gift excels all other gifts: Sabbadanam dhammadanam jinati. May it redound to their happiness.

1. The Right View of Life

To be happy, successful, and secure, we must first learn to see ourselves and the world as they truly are and should then shape our everyday activities in keeping with this view. We must also look for solutions to our problems in terms of the relationship of cause and effect, for the universal law of causality operates in the field of human behavior as much as it does in the physical world.

The foundation for a fruitful life is an understanding of the moral law of kamma. Kamma is volitional action, action that expresses morally determinate intentions or volitions. We need to recognize clearly that wholesome and unwholesome deeds produce corresponding good and bad results. As a person sows, so shall he reap. Good begets good, and evil begets evil. This retributive power is inherent in volitional action or kamma.

Kamma is also cumulative. Not only do our deeds generate pleasant and painful results, but in their cumulative force they also determine our character. The deeds we perform in any one life are transmitted to future lives in the form of dispositions. These dispositions constitute our character traits.

Inherent in the action is the power of producing its due result. This happens without the intervention or help of any external agency. Buddhism denies the existence of a Creator-God. Kamma is neither fate nor predestination, but our own willed action considered as capable of producing results. Understanding the kammic moral law of cause and effect, we will learn to control our actions in order to serve our own welfare as well as to promote the good of others.

There are ten unwholesome courses of action (akusala-kammapatha), deeds which originate from the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. These are: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, useless talk, covetousness, ill will, and false views. Contrary to these, there are ten bases of merit (puññakiriya-vatthu), deeds which spring from the virtuous qualities of detachment, goodwill, and wisdom, and which generate wholesome kamma: generosity, morality, meditation, reverence, service, transference of merit, rejoicing in the good deeds of others, hearing the Dhamma, expounding the Dhamma, and straightening out one's views.

It is lack of right understanding and ignorance of the underlying laws of life that account for the prevalence of materialism in today's world, even in the traditional homelands of the Buddha-Dhamma. When people become convinced that everything perishes at death, they lose sight of lofty ethical ideals and become indifferent to the long-range consequences of their deeds. Their entire lives revolve around the blind pursuit of sensual pleasures. Thus we find that today people worship money regardless of how it is earned, hunt for pleasure no matter where it is found, chase power and fame regardless of the cost to their personal integrity.

Ignorance of the law is no valid excuse in a court of law, and so it is with regard to the moral law of kamma: the law operates regardless of whether one believes in it or not, due effects following from their respective causes. Just as an infant will get burnt if it touches fire regardless of whether or not it understands the dangers in playing with fire, so those who violate the laws of morality will have to face the consequences when their kamma ripens, regardless of whether or not they accept the teaching of kamma.

Just as a shadow is connected with an object, so is rebirth connected with kamma. Craving (tanha), selfish desire, prompts us to do life-affirming deeds, kamma, volitional action. No force in nature is ever lost, and moral energy is no exception. So long as craving and ignorance remain in the mind, kamma must find expression at death. The inevitable fruit of craving for existence is rebirth.

Buddhism affirms the continuity of the individual life-flux at death, but denies the existence of a permanent soul. Mind is a flux of mental processes without any persisting core, yet this flux, though insubstantial, continues from life to life as long as it is driven on by the thirst for more becoming. The mind of a dying person, owing to the latent craving for continued existence, grasps at some object, idea, or feeling connected with an action done during his lifetime, and this grasping vitalizes an appropriate germ of life. The new form of life may be human or non-human, in keeping with the kamma or moral forces generated during the deceased's lifetime. The germ of life kindled by the process of rebirth is endowed with an initial consciousness (called the patisandhicitta) in which lie latent all the past impressions, characteristics, and tendencies of that particular individual. Hence death leads to birth and birth to death. Rebirth is thus possible without a transmigrating soul.

The twin Buddhist doctrines of kamma and rebirth are the "middle way" that provides a satisfactory answer to the problem of life. The middle way avoids the extremes of theism and materialism, preserving moral accountability without the problems raised by positing an almighty yet benevolent God. A human being is the visible expression of his or her own past action. One is born from one's past kamma, supported by one's present kamma, and at death goes where one's accumulated kamma leads one.

Buddhism teaches that human beings evolve according to the quality of the kamma they have performed during their lifetime. This supplies a rational basis for morality in place of the commandments of a Creator-God. According to the Buddha's teachings, there can be regression ("kammic descent") from the human plane to subhuman realms such as the animal world, and progress ("kammic ascent") from the human plane to the heavenly planes. Taking into account the dangers of a fall to subhuman realms, one should always act with care. Virtue, based on a righteous code of conduct, protects one from regression and ensures spiritual progress.

A true follower of the Buddha accepts the moral law of kamma as just, recognizing it as the chief reason for the many inequalities among human beings in regard to health, wealth, and wisdom. He also learns to face life's losses, disappointments, failures, and adversities calmly, without complaining; for he knows that they are the result of his own past misdeeds. If he asks himself: "Why has this happened to me?" the answer will be expressed in terms of action and result. He will try to solve his problems to the best of his ability and will adjust himself to the new situation when external change is not possible. He will not act rashly, nor fall into despair, nor try to escape his difficulties by resorting to drink, drugs, or suicide, as so often happens in Sri Lanka. Such conduct only shows emotional immaturity and ignorance of the Buddha's teachings.

For a genuine Buddhist, then, one's everyday activities, by way of thought, word, and deed, are more important than anything else in life. A proper understanding of the Buddhist moral law of kamma and rebirth is essential for happy and sensible living and for the welfare of the world. In the Buddha's own words:

The slayer gets a slayer in his turn;
The conqueror gets one who conquers him;
The abuser wins abuse, the annoyer frets.
Thus by the evolution of the deed,
A man who spoils is spoiled in his turn."
-- Samyutta Nikaya, Kosala Samyutta, trans. by Sir Robert Chalmers

Although we imagine ourselves to be a self -- a real substantial individual -- according to the Buddha's teaching we are in reality nothing more than a flame-like process, an ever-changing combination of matter and mind, neither of which is the same for two consecutive moments. All the components of our being are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and devoid of self. Life is not a being, an identity, but a becoming; not a product, but a process. There is in actuality no doer, only a doing; no thinker, only a thinking; no goer, only a going.

The Buddha teaches us how to put an end to the beginningless cycle of rebirths in which we undergo the manifold kinds of suffering. The way to end the cycle is by removing the causes that drive it forward life after life. The principal cause is craving, which assumes many forms. Craving impels a person to engage in action (kamma) designed to satisfy the craving, yet as craving is essentially insatiable the result is rebirth.

Craving is a powerful mental force latent in all unenlightened beings. The cause of craving is ignorance (avijja) of the true nature of life: not knowing that life is an ever-changing process, subject to suffering, and totally devoid of a self or core. All life, wherever it is found, bears this same nature: a process stamped with the three marks of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and egolessness (anicca, dukkha, anatta).

The Buddha realized for himself the true nature of life and through this realization attained to something beyond life and death: a reality that is permanent, blissful, and deathless. This state cannot be described but has to be realized inwardly as a matter of direct personal experience; it has to be attained for oneself and by oneself. This ultimate reality, where thought expires in experience, is Nibbana, the goal of the Buddhist path.

The Buddha's teachings may thus be condensed into these four verifiable truths, called the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause (i.e., craving), its cessation (i.e., Nibbana), and the way leading to cessation of suffering (i.e., the Noble Eightfold Path). These are eternal truths, truths that do not change and cannot change with time and place.

The only way for us to avoid unhappiness and dissatisfaction is to eliminate the craving that gives birth to it; for everything eagerly sought for and clung to is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever -- no person, no object, no experience. Whatever arises must perish, and to cling to the perishable sooner or later ends in suffering. It is by no means easy to eliminate craving; in fact, it is the most difficult challenge of all. But when we do so, we will reach a state of inward perfection and unshakable calm.

We can reach the end of suffering by cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path in its three stages of morality, concentration, and wisdom -- sila, samadhi, pañña. Morality purifies conduct and concentration makes the mind calm. When the mind is calm and concentrated, wisdom arises, clear insight, the knowledge and vision of things as they really are. With the arising of wisdom, craving in all its forms is forever destroyed; the flame of life is then extinguished for want of fuel. The Unconditioned has been won -- Nibbana, which is deathless, blissful, and real.

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of the following eight factors, inter-related and inter-connected, ordered into three groups:

Wisdom group (pañña)

1. Right understanding: knowledge of the true nature of life; understanding the Four Noble Truths.

2. Right thought: thought free from sensuality, ill-will, and aggression.

Morality group (sila)

3. Right speech: abstinence from falsehood, slander, harsh speech, and useless words.

4. Right action: abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.

5. Right livelihood: avoiding any means of livelihood that involves harm or exploitation of others.

Concentration group (samadhi)

6. Right effort: training the mind to avoid unwholesome mental states and to develop wholesome mental states.

7. Right mindfulness: developing the power of attentiveness and awareness in regard to the "four foundations of mindfulness" -- body, feelings, mind, and mental phenomena.

8. Right concentration: cultivation of one-pointedness of mind.

These eight factors summarize the Buddha's teaching and its practice. They are the very heart of the Buddha-Dhamma. It is not enough to know and admire the Dhamma; it must be practiced in daily life, for the difficulty of knowing what is right is nothing compared to the difficulty of putting it into practice. We really know something only when we do it repeatedly, when we make it part of our nature. The practical side of the Dhamma is the threefold training in morality, concentration, and wisdom, which collectively constitute the Noble Eightfold Path, the "middle way" discovered by the Blessed One for the realization of Nibbana.

Monastics and laypeople alike tread the same path. Both start from the same foundation, right understanding; both pursue the same goal, Nibbana. The only difference lies in the degree of commitment to the practice and the pace of progress. But whether as a layperson or as a monk, the systematic practice of the Eightfold Path will foster the growth of the wholesome qualities leading to liberation -- generosity, goodwill, and wisdom. As these qualities gradually reach maturity, they will weaken and finally snap the fetters of greed, hatred, and delusion which have held us for so long in bondage to the round of rebirth and suffering.

2. Benefits of Right Understanding

1. Right understanding is the foundation for developing a proper sense of values, so sorely lacking in our age. Without right understanding our vision is dimmed and the way is lost; all our efforts will be misguided and misdirected, all our plans for individual and social development must flounder and fail. Such plans will have to be based on the Eightfold Path with its emphasis on self-effort, self-control, and respect for the individual.

When wrong views prevail we will operate with a perverted sense of values: we will fling ourselves into the blind pursuit of wealth, power, and possessions; we will be obsessed by the urge to conquer and dominate; we will pine for ruthless revenge; we will dumbly conform to social conventions and norms. Right views will point us towards an enlightened sense of values: towards detachment and kindness; towards generosity of spirit and selfless service to others; towards the pursuit of wisdom and understanding. The confusion and moral lunacy now prevalent in the world can be eased, if not eliminated, if the path of the Buddha is followed. Right livelihood and right action, for instance, can help us avoid the conflicts that result from a wrong way of life and wrong action, thereby enabling a society to live in peace and harmony.

Although in the affluent countries of the West people now enjoy high standards of goods and services, the inward quality of their lives does not bear evidence of a corresponding level of improvement. The reason for the poverty of their interior life is the neglect of spiritual values. When materialism erodes the higher spiritual dimension of life, a plunge into moral nihilism is bound to follow. We see this in the alarming statistics characteristic of materialist society: in the increased rate of suicide, in the explosion of crime, in the proliferation of sexual offenses, alcoholism, and drug abuse. This shows that a one-sided stress on material development in a pleasure-seeking society is ultimately self-destructive, like a piece of iron that is devoured by the rust arising from within itself. Even knowledge and discipline on their own are not adequate, for without moral ideals they may turn a society into nothing more than a mass-scale workshop or military camp. It is only the cultivation of a proper sense of values that can make society cultured and civilized in the true meaning of those terms.

2. Having right understanding will enable us to recognize that worldly values are man-made and relative. These false worldly values lead people astray and make them suffer in vain. A Buddha teaches authentic values, real values, values that are grounded in timeless truth. A Buddha first realizes for himself the true nature of life, then he reveals to blind worldlings the Dhamma, the eternal law of righteousness and truth. This Dhamma includes the Four Noble Truths and the principles of kamma and rebirth. Any values that deviate from these principles, no matter how widely they may be accepted as the common norm, are worthless and deceptive. While those whose minds are shrouded in wrong views will be deceived by them, one with right view will realize their hollowness at once.

3. Seeing that life involves incessant change and that it is subject to many forms of suffering, one with right understanding learns to live simply and to regulate desire. A wise and virtuous person is moderate in his desires and follows the middle way in all matters. Understanding the close connection between craving and suffering, he will realize the importance of holding desire in check by simple living. One with right understanding is aware that real happiness is an inward state -- a quality of the mind -- and should therefore be sought inwardly. Happiness is independent of external things, though of course a certain degree of material security is necessary as a basis for inner development.

We require only four basic kinds of physical sustenance: wholesome food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Complementary to these, we have four mental needs: right knowledge, virtue, guarding the doors of the senses, and meditation. These are the two sets of basic requisites for leading a lofty life. Living simply, without superfluous possessions and entanglements, leads to contentment and peace of mind, releasing time and energy to pursue higher virtues and values. It is pride and vanity that keep us tied to false goals, and the smaller the mind, the greater is the pride.

4. Buddhism upholds the objectivity of moral values, for its ethics is based on the law of cause and effect in the moral sphere, and this law, like the physical law of gravity, is an unvarying truth valid for all time. Good deeds and bad deeds will produce their respective pleasant and painful fruits regardless of the views and wishes of the people who engage in them. Recognizing the objectivity of the moral law and the undeviating connection between deeds and their results, a person with right view will abstain from wrong actions and adhere to the standards of wholesome conduct embodied in the Five Precepts of virtuous conduct (discussed below).

5. As instability is inherent in life, the most unexpected things can happen. Therefore the wise Buddhist recognizes the need to control his feelings. When calamity comes, we must face it calmly, without lamenting or falling into despair. The ability to remain equanimous amidst the fluctuations of fortune is a benefit of right understanding. We should understand that everything that happens to us happens because of causes and conditions for which we are ultimately responsible. Similarly, as we obtain some degree of emotional control, we will be able to discard irrational fears and worries. The seeming injustices of life, grievances, emotional maladjustments, etc., are all explained fully and rationally by the law of kamma and rebirth. By understanding this law, we will see that, in the final analysis, we are the architects of our own destiny.

6. A further fruit of right understanding is the ability to look at people, things, and events objectively, stripped bare of likes and dislikes, of bias and prejudice. This capacity for objectivity, a sign of true mental maturity, will issue in clearer thinking, saner living, a marked reduction of susceptibility to the pernicious influence of the mass media, and an improvement in inter-personal relationships.

7. One with right understanding will be able to think for himself. He is able to make up his own mind, to form his own opinions, to face life's difficulties armed with the principles of reality taught by the Buddha. The true Buddhist will not be a moral and intellectual coward, but will be prepared to stand alone regardless of what others say or think. Of course, he will seek advice when necessary, but he will make his own decisions and have the courage of his convictions.

8. Right understanding will give us a purpose for living. A lay Buddhist must learn to live purposefully, with a worthy aim -- both an immediate aim and an ultimate aim, the one fitting harmoniously into the other. To be truly happy we require a simple but sound philosophy of life. Philosophy is the keen desire to understand the nature of man and our destiny in the universe. It gives life a sense of direction and meaning. Without one, we either dream our way through life or muddle through life. A clear-cut philosophy makes life meaningful and fruitful, enabling us to live in harmony with our fellows and with the natural environment.

3. A Life Plan

To make the best use of our human potential, we need not only a practical aim in life, but a life plan for achieving that aim. The preceding two sections of this essay show the groundwork for developing a proper sense of values, the values essential for gaining happiness, success, and security within the mundane life and for progressing towards the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, Nibbana. While we walk along the path to liberation, as laypeople we have to live in the world, and our immediate objective will be to make our life in the world both a means to worldly success and a stepping-stone to final liberation.

To accomplish this, we must organize our life within the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path. We can best realize our immediate aims by drawing up an individual life plan in keeping with our powers and circumstances. This life plan must be realistic. It must envisage a realistic development of our innate potential, steering us towards the fullest actualization of our possibilities.

At the start, we require an honest understanding of ourselves. It is pointless to devise a workable life plan on the foundation stone of grandiose delusions about our character and abilities. The more we find out about ourselves, by self-observation and self-examination, the better will be our chances of self-improvement. We should ask ourselves how far and to what degree we are generous, kind, even-tempered, considerate, honest, sober in morals, truthful, diligent, energetic, industrious, cautious, patient, tolerant, and tactful. These are the qualities of a well-developed Buddhist, the qualities we ourselves should emulate.

We need to improve ourselves wherever we are weak. A little practice everyday is all that is necessary. We should remember that the more often an action is performed, the easier it becomes for us to perform it in the future and the stronger becomes the tendency to do it again and again until it becomes a habit, an ingrained part of our character.

Our life plan should cover all the main areas of a normal householder's life, including occupation, marriage, the procreation and raising of children, retirement, old age and death. The happiness of lay life consists in finding out exactly what one can do and doing it well. A clear mental picture of a practical aim in life and a realistic sketch of the steps needed to achieve that aim will help guide us to the fulfillment of our ideal. We tend to become what we really want to be, provided we act realistically and effectively to realize our aim.

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Keywords: buddhism, what is buddhism, guide to buddhism, introduction to buddhism, basic buddhism, four noble truths, dhamma, buddha, samsara, karma, buddhism, tibetan buddhism, buddhism religion, theravada buddhism, buddhism belief, basic buddhism, buddhism meditation

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Robert Bogoda was born in 1918 in Colombo, the business capital of Sri Lanka.

His secondary education was cut short by the sudden demise of his father, which compelled him to work at a modest job as a teacher.

While engaged in teaching, he obtained by self study the B.Sc. (Econ.) and M.Sc. (Econ.) degrees from the University of London, specializing in Social Administration.

Now retired, he pursues his interests in Buddhism and social welfare.
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If you only read one book this lifetime, perhaps this should be the one." -- Mark Greenia, California USA
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The Buddhist Publication Society is an approved charity dedicated to making known the Teaching of the Buddha, which has a vital message for people of all creeds.

Founded in 1958, the BPS has published a wide variety of books and booklets covering a great range of topics. Its publications include accurate annotated translations of the Buddha's discourses, standard reference works, as well as original contemporary expositions of Buddhist thought and practice. These works present Buddhism as it truly is - a dynamic force which has influenced receptive minds for the past 2500 years and is still as relevant today as it was when it first arose.

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