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The Principles of Buddhism

The fundamentals of Buddhism collectively are known as The DharmaDharma has as its basis The Four Noble Truths but it also comprises the aspirations and techniques used to achieve the goal which is enlightenment. 

The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel

The four principles or truths are:  The truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the way to the end of suffering.  Speaking metaphorically, we have a disease, we know how we caught it, we know there is a cure and the treatment is tried and true.

The first sermon given by the Buddha is also known as the First Turning of the Wheel of the Law.  It consisted of the teaching about moderation in all things: The Middle WayIt demonstrated the Four Noble Truths which include the 8-fold Path.  This path includes 5 elementary precepts. (Numbers are used widely in Buddhism as devices to aid the memory.}

1. Existence is suffering [Pali: dukka] :  Whether we are talking about the acute pain of a wound or the chronic pain of toothache; about the death or loss of a parent or the abandonment by a lover; the passing of youth or the loss of income, there is no question that to live is to suffer.   

Traditionally, suffering is described as being of three types: 

  1. acute suffering such as pain, war, homelessness, --  "the suffering of suffering."  

  2. loss and/or uncertainty: the suffering of impermanence or change, 

  3. pervasive suffering: awareness of the condition of all beings and states.

Dissatisfaction or unsatisfactori-ness are also good translations, and perhaps less dramatic than the word suffering.

The state of anxiety in anticipation of future disappointment is a great source of suffering. The third kind of suffering (of existence itself) is due to impermanence [anicca,] though we can suffer even more knowing that others are in pain.  

Recognizing the truth of suffering is realistic rather than pessimistic because of what follows:

2. Suffering is due to desire: We know why we suffer. We constantly crave, or thirst (tanha) for something, or we desire some satisfaction.  Our very physiological systems are based on homeostasis, which is the constant readjustment to achieve ideal levels or balance. 

The desire for eternal life, or for enlightenment itself, is certainly another of these thirsts. The ignorance, fear or anxiety that we are all subject to increases these desires; so do feelings of ill-will towards others.  This thirst can also be thought of as attachment.

3. There is a way to put an end to suffering:  The Buddha and others have managed to achieve nirvana, the absolute end to this continual round of misery.  Therefore we know the objective is "do-able."  It is for this reason the Buddha is also known as Tathagatha, the One- Who- Has- Gone- There.  In older translations, The Thus-gone.

4. The way to accomplish the end of suffering is through moderation:  The Eightfold Path consists of right views or understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right deeds in action and in livelihood, and right effort, right concentration, and mindfulness including right meditation.  It emphasizes moderation and the pursuit of virtue in all things.

Right action includes five precepts

  1. Not taking a life  
  2. Not taking what is not given, ie. stealing  
  3. Not lying  
  4. Not behaving sexually in an irresponsible fashion, and 
  5. Not using intoxicants.  

This first public teaching referred to as the Turning of the Wheel of the Law was given in Sarnath, the Deer Park on the outskirts of the holy city of Varanasi (formerly known as Benares.)  The Buddha’s former associates were among those present at this sermon.  All Buddhists rely on this teaching.

The Second Turning of the Wheel

The next discourse that the Buddha gave publicly on was at Vulture Peak outside Bodhgaya.  It was on the importance of compassion and on the concept of Emptiness. The Prajnaparamita scriptures expound on this.  The view presented therein is encapsulated in the Heart Sutra a.k.a. the Prajanaparamita Hridya.  All Mahayana Buddhists rely on this teaching.

The Third Turning of the Wheel

This course of teachings focused on what is called Buddha Nature. Sermons were given at Vaishali and some other locales.  The topic is treated in The Maha-parinirvana Sutra, and is referred to in several other scriptures including the Uttara-tantra Shastra.

The Fourth Turning of the Wheel.

Sometimes Shakyamuni Buddha's tantric transmission (eg. of the Guhyasamaya and the Kalachakra) are referred to as the fourth turning of the Wheel.  Not all Buddhists accept the historicity of the mysterious accounts of a fourth set of teachings in which beings of other realms took part.

The Sangha

The Buddha taught for many years, using various approaches to suit the variety of his listeners. He often used metaphors and visual aids in his explanations. The group of original disciples is known as the Noble Sangha, but the word sangha is used also to refer to all followers of the Buddha, the world community of Buddhists, and also the monastic orders that he established for both men and women.  This religious order was one of the first of its kind.

A person who vows to forgo enlightenment and nirvana in order to help others is called a bodhisattva.  Therefore, before his determination to teach, Shakyamuni is thought of as a bodhisattva.

It is said that Buddha Shakyamuni taught several methods of achieving enlightenment, each suited to a certain type of person.  For instance, at the natural hot springs known as Rajagriha (Rajgiri), he one day described in detail the land of bliss, Sukhavati, the Western paradise which is the domain of Amitabha, Buddha of boundless light. Here are reborn those not entirely released from the wheel of rebirth, but who, after a time of purification will dwell in a state of bliss. They may choose to return to help others.

It is recounted how, before his death or parinirvana, the Buddha told his disciples to spread out in small groups to all directions in order to teach the dharma.  He stressed that it should be taught in the various languages of the listening public. 

By the 5th century of the contemporary era, Buddhism had spread from India, its place of origin, to the borders of the Persian Empire and east to China and Japan.  The great Indian ruler, Ashoka (3rd century BCE) decreed it the state religion and posted its principles on lion-topped pillars throughout his realm.

Like Gold

The four truths are not to be treated like dogma, said the Teacher.  

Rely not upon the person, but upon the doctrine.

With respect to the doctrine, rely not on the words but on the meaning.

With regard to the meaning, rely not on the interpretable meaning, but on the definitive meaning.

With regard to the definitive meaning, one should rely not upon comprehension by an ordinary state of consciousness but upon an exalted wisdom consciousness. 

Because of this, the reliability of teachings cannot be determined by the person who taught them but by investigating the teachings themselves.

From the Sutra on (Pure Realms) Spread Out in Dense Array:

Do not accept my Dharma merely out of respect for me, but analyze and check it the way a goldsmith analyzes gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it. ~ Lord Buddha.  

The Dalai Lama, among others, confirms that we ought to treat the words of the Buddha like a piece of jewelry the seller claims is made of gold.

"Monks and scholars should accept my word not out of respect but upon analyzing it as a goldsmith analyzes gold, through cutting, melting, scraping and rubbing it. "

~ interview concluding John Avedon's In Exile From the Land of Snows.


The Middle Way also refers to a predominant philosophical standpoint of Buddhism in which physical reality is understood as not real in any absolute sense, but also not non-existent.   (This view that is neither materialist nor nihilist was a revolutionary one for its time and place, emphasizing as it does the idea that there is no eternal unchanging soul.  Besides being non-dual, it is also not monist.  It falls into a  category of Indian philosophy called anatta in Pali or anatman in Sanskrit.)

Pali vocabulary is used here since it was the one introduced with the first English translation of The Dhammapada, a scripture thought by many to be the actual words of Buddha.  The Pali terms, anicca, dukkha, became associated in the West with the First Turning of the Wheel a.k.a. The First Sermon.

By the way, Sanskrit is a classical language whose name actually means that it is reformed.  In other words, it is a literary language, and it is unlikely that any ancient group of people actually used it for everyday discourse.


For some context, a Dharma Talk by the late Ayya Khema.

Nirvana or, nibbana, and its relation to Emptiness

Nirvana is Sanskrit for what is usually translated as extinction  or non-existence.  The expression  is most often found in Theravada discussion.  It means "gone" as in the reply to, "Where is the  flame when you blow out the candle? "

The corresponding term in the Mahayana tradition is more usually, Emptiness, a somewhat misleading term for shunyata, a word that derives from the Sanskrit for zero in its original sense of a neutral, yet perfect state of neither being nor not-being.  It is not a negative but the "marker" between positive and negative.

The Geshe, Palden Dakpa said, in a teaching on Chenrezi:

"The real or main means to liberate beings from sufferings is, as the great master of logical reasoning Dharmakirti has said in his Treatise on Valid Cognition (Pramanavarttika):

'The view of emptiness liberates,
And the remaining meditations are means to achieve it.'


"Shantideva in Guide to the Bodhisattava’s Way of Life (Bodhicharyavatara) says:

'Buddha has taught all those branches
For the attainment of wisdom'

and since, as Acharya Dharmatreya (slob-dpon-chos-skyob) reminds us . . .  :

Buddhas do not wash away sins with water,
Nor do they remove the sufferings of beings with their hands,
Neither do they transplant their own realization into others.
Teaching the truth of suchness they liberate (others).

The truth of suchness refers to the teaching by means of experience and logic that the nature of existence is empty.

". . . suffering is rooted in the ignorant conception of self and thus it is essential to teach disciples its antidote, the path of emptiness of inherent existence. Here, Dharmakirti in Treatise on Valid Cognition, says:

'If one is ignorant of the arisen effect and its cause,
It is difficult to teach them (to others).'

"If one teaches emptiness in the very beginning, without investigating the disciples well, [or] examining whether they are really qualified, the great Nagarjuna has said in his Root (text on) Wisdom, Mulamadhyamaka,

'If one misconceives emptiness,
Persons with little wisdom will be ruined.
Just as a person who mishandles a snake
Or is unskillful with mantras will suffer.' "

(~ entire above discourse is at

As we have already noted, the basis for the teaching of Emptiness is the Prajnaparamita Sutra often given in its encapsulated form as the Heart Sutra.  Its recitation serves as the daily practice for Buddhists of all types all over the world.

It is very important that people interested in studying Buddhism have an experienced teacher.  Real harm can be done if the student gets the idea that Emptiness means that nothing matters.


Enlightenment was maybe a poor choice for translating the Sanskrit word bodhi since it connotes a light from some source outside a person.   Awakening would be more accurate.

In the Japanese Rinzai Zen school, the objective (awakening) is said to occur in a sudden flash.  In Soto Zen, it is a gradual process.  Either way, and in all Buddhist schools, the word refers to a state of being totally awake --  tuned into the state of consciousness with no preconceptions or personal contamination.

The nature of the state is indescribable, except that it leads to no further suffering.  From one perspective it is called Nirvana or "extinction." From another, it is called  Emptiness, which some schools describe as "consisting of" Buddha-nature.  (However, since it cannot be said to consist of anything, nor is it a state in the usual sense of the word, therefore here we have used quotation marks.)

  • John Powers' Introduction to Buddhism: has a chapter on Buddhist doctrines with scriptural references and quotations.


Dharma: From an ancient word meaning "support," as the armature or framework of a sculpture, for example.  It is generally used to refer to the cosmic order, but can also mean the virtual basis for apparent forms of reality.  Orthodox Hindus use it to refer to the fundamental principles of their belief system[s] but Sanatana Dharma is more exact, in this context.   Buddhists use the word as a short form for Buddha-dharma meaning the teachings of the Buddha or buddhas. That is, the way to Awakening. 


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