Buddha’s last words to the bhikkus, before his parinibbana, were: "Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay, work out your salvation without delay." (Vayadhamma sankhara, appamadena sampadetha). In this very brief exhortation the Buddha did not make reference to dukka (suffering), cause of dukka, or the liberation from dukka.

Also to Upatissa (i.e. Ven. Sariputta before ordination) who was in search of a teacher of dhamma, Ven. Assaji replied in a concise statement the teaching of Buddha; answering Upatissa’s query as to the teacher under whom he has taken refuge, Elder Assaji said:

"Of all those things that from a cause arise,

Thathagatha the cause thereof has told;

And how they cease to be, that too he tells,

This is the doctrine of the great Recluse"

In the Scriptures we find a similar epithet used to announce and convey the realization of the initial stage of experiencing the dhamma by a stream winner (sothapanna). The first disciple of the Buddha to have become a sothapanna was Ven. Kondanna; it happened while he was listening to dhammacakkapavatana sutta – the first sermon of the Buddha. The sutta says the eye of dhamma arose in Kondanna in that he realized ‘whatever that arises due to causes all that are subject to cessation’ (yan kinci samudaya dhammam sabbantham niridha dhammam). The same epithet was used in Dhiganaka sutta to announce the realization of sottapanna stage by Dhiganaka, Ven. Sariputta’s nephew.

True, a Buddha arises in the world to teach the four Noble Truths- (1) the dukka, (2)cause of dukka, (3) cessation of dukka (i.e. nibbana) and (4) the way for liberation from dukka which is the Noble Eightfold Path. But, to Ven. Ananda, the Buddha in a single stanza explained what every Buddha would teach. It is the famous verse most Buddhists will know: (sabba papasa akaranam`85. )

"Refrain from evil

Practice virtue

Cleanse the mind

This is the teaching of Buddhas"

Surprisingly, there is no reference to dukka, cause of dukka or cessation of dukka (nibbana). Yet; this is the essence of Dhamma as taught by every Buddha. Does it mean that we need not learn the three Noble Truths not referred to in this verse?

This question has to be viewed from a practical point of view. Perhaps it can be better understood through an illustration. What should a patient do to cure from his illness? Take the medicine prescribed by the physician and that’s all. He need not know the scientific analysis of his illness. A child who is afflicted with an illness will even not know that he is sick. He simply takes the medicine given to him by his parents, and he would be cured from his illness. On the other hand, if a patient without taking the medicine, keeps researching about his illness to know what caused it; or keeps on reading the prescription and reciting it many times like a mantram will he get cured? Never, not by those means.

The extinction of suffering can come about only by practicing the way of Dhamma. That is why every Buddha will stress the importance of treading this ‘ancient path’ they discover, rather than merely reading the ‘sign boards’ giving directions. The verse above referred to contains nothing but the three essentials for one’s progress towards deliverance i.e. sila, samadhi and panna. In other words, it is the Noble Eightfold Path.

Sila is moral restraint – not allowing one’s desires generated by craving (thanha) for sensual pleasures (as well as aversion) to let lose. If we simply give in to our desires we will be behaving like wild beasts. Craving for sensual pleasures has no bounds unless controlled by sila. Like a fire that burns any amount of fuel, craving is insatiable. But, why should we not seek satisfaction through indulgence. Is it wrong because of a taboo according to the Teachings of the Buddha?

No, a Buddha can only teach us the way to end dukka; it is for us to follow the way. We should consider ourselves very fortunate to be born at a time when the Noble Teachings are found and can be practiced. If we let go this opportunity we are to be blamed for it. Indulgence in sensual pleasures will only keep us blind to reality; to use the famous simile, it is like the crab’s fleeting water dance in the curry pot. Indulgence in sensual pleasures would only make us stupidly delay (pamada) and postpone practicing the way of the Buddhas. This is why the Buddha exhorted the Bhikkus in his last words, ‘be heedful’. No amount of mere theoretical knowledge of Buddha’s Teachings would be of any use if we do not earnestly practice in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path. If not, it would be similar to a patient reading the prescription without taking the medicine.

Full Awareness

– sathi

When a person’s sila is intensified, his awareness (sathi) will naturally develop, for there has to be awareness before one could observe the arising of the desires in one’s mind. In this manner sila and sathi will work together to bring about calmness of the mind which is smadhi. It is the samadhi that helps one to detect the arising of desires at its initial stage so that one’s sila becomes more refined. But, still there would be desires arising in such a way to justify giving into it. Say, even in the form of directing mettha to a person of the opposite sex. Beware of your mind which is so cunning and artful in getting what it wants through deception! At this stage one has to have developed skillfulness (panna) in determining what is wholesome (kusal) and unwholesome (akusal). Wholesome deeds or kusal are the bodily, verbal and mental activities that lead one towards cessation of dukka – i.e. nibbana. It is through panna one determines kusal and akusal. Through right effort one should suppress all akusal from arising and develop kusal. To do this, one must develop clear comprehension (sathi sampajanna) or full awareness.

The combined work of sila, samadhi and panna will now keep the practitioner in the right track. What happens is, with full awareness he would ‘let go’ every sensation, including the most subtle ones; no matter whether they are wholesome or unwholesome. So that even if a person has a vision of the Buddha while in meditation, he should ‘let go’ the vision without grasping it. It is due to attachment to sensations and grasping (upadana) them one gets carried away with what one has grasped. When one does not grasp and let go, with full awareness, one is free from attachment and there will be no more dukka for him.

By mere intellectual knowledge of Buddhism one will not be able to ‘let go’ sensations with nonattachment. It can only be achieved by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the realization: ‘all that arise due to causes are subject to cessation’. This is the essence of Buddhism. This is the fundamental reason for dukka, which Upatissa realized when he listened to Elder Assaji’s aforementioned stanza. For convenience a person might get into a state of complacency that he is so learned in the Dhamma that he can ‘let go’ any thing. But the real test comes at the moment of his death. Unless he has developed the skill to the extent of instinctively ‘letting go’ what ever the sensation, mere intellectual understanding of the Dhamma would not be sufficient for his consciousness to release the grasp. His consciousness would cling on to the last sensation like the person who grasps even a straw to save his life when he is at the threshold of being drowned.

If this is the case, why did Buddha preach the other three Noble Truths? The answer is, if the Buddha did not preach them, no one would have accepted the Noble Truth relating to the path only. Supposing, if a person did not even suspect that he was afflicted with a cancer would he take treatment? No, in the same way there must be initial acceptance of the Noble Teachings (about dukka), for a person to generate right view (samma dhitti) by placing his confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha. ‘Right view’ being the first step on the path of Dhamma is so essential. But, that does not mean to suggest one should learn the Dhamma in depth before one begins practicing.

Buddha’s Instructions

Pali Canon has enough examples where the Buddha had not preached the four Noble Truths to every one who came to him, but just what was necessary; of course having regard to their past accumulations which only a Buddha has the ability to do. The best example is the instructions given to Bhikku Nanda (former prince) who was feeling so depressed because he could not return to his fianc`E9e–Janpadakalyani as requested by her when he was walking behind the Buddha. When the Buddha came to know about his problem, using his psychic powers the Buddha made him to see beautiful nymphs in the deva world. Nanda then agreed to meditate as instructed by the Buddha, not for extinction of suffering but to be born in the heavens so that he could have a celestial nymph as promised by the Buddha! Nevertheless, Nanda was fully cured of his desire for lust with the realization of ultimate truth of Nibbana. He immediately released the Buddha from the promise he had made.

What is to be understood from this is the importance of practice without which there would be no progress towards liberation. The purpose of this article is not to discourage those who wish to study the Buddha’s teaching, but to convey to them that Dhamma is understood better when one studies it while practicing. It’s like doing practical experiments in the school laboratory by science students. Only after seeing sunlight passing through the prism the student gets convinced that it has seven colours. Dhamma is sandhittika i.e it has to be realized through direct knowledge. -by U.Mapa