A Buddhist Creed – Part 1: Confidence in the Teachings
If you haven’t read the introduction to this series, take a moment to do so: Part 0: Talking About Faith. This reading will be useful for this part.
In his Abhidharmakosha, Vasubandhu says:
“Faith is full confidence in cause and effect (Karma), the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Jewels;”
From the introduction, we recall that faith in Buddhism is neither based on hope nor fear. Instead, it is a kind of trust, it is an optimism in the teachings. We’ve seen just a small measure of benefit in our own lives, maybe also in the lives of others, so now, we have decided to trust in these teachings and put them into practice. Vasubandhu tells us that there are three fundamental teachings of the Buddha that we must have full confidence in:
- The Four Noble Truths
- The Three Jewels
These teachings could be considered the basic “core” of Buddhism if there is one. Among all schools of Buddhism, these three teachings are perhaps the ones that everyone agrees on. Even if we’re just casually practicing Buddhism, these three teachings provide us the foundation for meaningful practice of the Buddhist teachings. Although each of these teachings in and of themselves have created thousands and thousands of pages of commentary and countless hours of talks, I will attempt to summarize them briefly and relate them to Vasubandhu’s verse defining faith. Each of these teachings points us step-by-step in the direction of the “correct” view of our circumstance and our existence.
The teaching of Karma, otherwise referred to as Pratitya-Samutpada or variously in English as Interdependent Origination, Dependent Co-Production, or Dependent Arising can be expressed in a mantra commonly said in Buddhist circles:
YE DHARMA HETU-PRABHAVA HETUM TESHAM TATHAGATO HYAVADAT TESHAM CA YO NIRODHA EVAM VADI MAHASHRAMANAH SVAHA
Regarding [phenomena] that arise from a cause, the Tathagata taught their cause and also their cessation. Those were the words of the Great Mendicant.
It is said that Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s greatest disciples, upon hearing this verse immediately achieved the first stage of enlightenment: entering the stream. This teaching is considered to be imbued with such power and accuracy, that in the Tibetan Buddhist world, this is used as a mantra to purify speech as well as space.
Cause and Effect is said to be fundamental to the teachings of Buddhism and the practice of the Dharma. Why? Well, it could be called Buddhism’s creation story. Unlike other “high” religions, Buddhism does not have a creation myth … deities bringing vast swirling chaotic oceans into order. Buddhism’s creation story has just been related above … Om ye dharma hetu-prabhava … . In this vast profound teaching, the Buddha demonstrated that every situation arises from the coming together of various causes and conditions. It is within this simple teaching that the Buddhist path to liberation lies.
Karma may appear to be a complex teaching with many intricacies and subtleties. It is ripe ground for hair-splitting, but we can express Karma simply. Everything we see and experience arises out of the ripening of causes and conditions that we have accumulated since time immemorial. It is the “package” that we come with. Better yet, karma is like the “processing software” that works with the data of our perceptions. We know this is true because you and I can look at a painting or even a burger and see it in different ways. But is that it? Well, not quite.
One of the most profound aspects of Karma is that it teaches us what we have control over and what we don’t. In the Abhidharma (the systematized teachings of the Buddha), there is the teaching of the Twelve Nidanas or links of interdependent origination. The teaching, again, is one that is vast and profound, and one that gives us insight into why we keep going around and around again. But, in essence, the kernel of this teaching that is of most value to us today is this: we have no control over the phenomena that we encounter, but we do have control of how we respond to them. Between the links of feeling and grasping, there is a gap. It is in that gap that we can avoid creating negative causes and conditions.
Gen La Kelsang Dekyong, the current General Spiritual Director of the New Kadampa Tradition is often heard teaching that we as Buddhists need to believe in the teachings of Karma and put them to use. Not just she, but many other teachers say that a clear appreciation of the teaching of Karma will help us to understand how to break free from the bonds of suffering. Because, in the end, enlightenment is about breaking the cycle of Karma.
So, enough for now. In the next piece, I will talk more about the Four Noble Truths and the teachings on the Three Jewels.