Early Buddhist Teachings



By Y.Karunadasa.
Published in 2013
by the University of HongKong.
205 pages

by Carlo Fonseka

If you were not extraordinarily vain, you would be terrified when a teacher you revere requests you to review his magnum opus. Infinitely greater would be the terror if the teacher is a renowned scholar in his discipline and you something of an upstart in it. Feeling terrified was precisely my knee-jerk reaction when I received from Prof. Y. Karunadasa an autographed copy of his Early Buddhist Teachings with a polite request for a review. The book reached me within a few days of publication in August 2013 and I lost no time in reading it avidly from cover to cover. Every time I took up my pen to write about it, however, I found myself paralyzed by hesitation. The cause of my paralysis was obvious enough to me. It was my acute consciousness that Prof. YK is a world authority on Early Theravada Buddhism and I only a trespasser on sacrosanct territory.

For starters I am innocent of Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist canon. Next, my area of professed expertise is biology, pure and applied, physiology and medicine. With such disabilities impairing my capacity for critical judgement in this field, what seriously inhibited me was my ruthless self-assessment. It seemed to me that my sole qualification for reviewing Prof. YK’s magnum opus is the fact that I had attended under him an evening course on Buddhist Studies for two academic years at the Postgraduate Institute of Buddhist and Pali Studies. That was my condition when I received and read the book in 2013. Now two years older and nearer my end than ever before I realize that I cannot possibly rest in peace without doing however maladroitly, the only thing that my great and good teacher ever asked me to do for him. So here goes!


A few words are in order to indicate how and why I, who was Prof. YK’s senior contemporary in the University of Kelaniya, came to be his pupil. Modern biomedical science is entirely materialistic. In the 1990’s I chanced upon Prof. YK’s doctoral thesis titled Buddhist Analysis of Matter submitted to the University of London, which had been published as a book. In a review of the book, Edward Conze, London University’s distinguished Buddhist scholar judged:" Combining erudition and sagacity with a surprising command of the English language, it is pretty exhaustive and likely to be the last word on the subject for some time to come." Given my abiding interest in Buddhist philosophy I wished to understand the Buddhist analysis of matter and laboriously ploughed through the book without comprehending much of it. Prof. YK asserts that the Buddhist analysis of the world of experience including the nature of matter is undertaken, not for its own sake but for evolving a rationale for the realization of the final goal of Buddhism, namely nibbana.

In my understanding, nibbana attainable by the extinction of mental defilements identified as greed, hatred and delusion can be, indeed has to be, realized in this very life. Hence the fact that biomedical science is limited only to what can be seen, heard, felt, tasted and smelled, here and now in this world did not seem to make the Buddhist analysis of matter incompatible with biomedical science. Also, I remembered that because of the Buddha’s denial of the soul, the Brahmins who believed in the existence of the soul had categorized him as a materialist. All these I had learnt from desultory reading and hearsay. So I decided to get clarification on such matters straight from the horse’s mouth. That was how in 1998 and 1999 after I retired from University service, I enrolled as a student at the Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies and became Prof. YK’s pupil.


The experience of studying under him was unforgettable. Like Aristotle in his Lyceum Prof YK was a peripatetic lecturer who manifestly enjoyed didactic teaching. He lectured without notes, seemingly extempore. His ability to think on his feet and speak clearly, cogently, persuasively and undogmatically with moral sensitivity was remarkable. When listening to him it was impossible for one not to wonder how "one small head could carry all he knew". One felt that one was in the hands of a real master. His voice filled with Buddhist wisdom descended on his pupils like a benediction. His diction was unhurried. Occasionally he would pause for a few seconds searching in his mind for the right word. When it came it was the absolutely right word for that context. The sentences he delivered so effortlessly were ready to go to press without any copy-editing. I document all this in detail because the 12 chapters comprising the substance of this book are virtually a verbatim reproduction of the lectures he gave us. The sense of déjà vu I experienced when reading them in this book was overwhelming. Even so, reading the book somehow creates the illusion that Prof. YK is proclaiming in telling fashion a new synthesis of Early Buddhist teachings for the 21st century.


The concluding pages of the book are devoted to what I should call a noble (ariya) appendix titled Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism. In it Prof Y K makes the perennial wisdom of Buddhism singularly relevant for our country in our time. In practical medicine contemporary relevance is paramount. So my spirit spontaneously moves me to expatiate first of all upon the content of the appendix. It is like a doctor’s penchant for the latest refined version of a proven cure of sterling worth. The appendix enshrines the wisdom that has permeated through Prof YK’s being by virtue of long immersion in the words of the Buddha. In it he tells the world the way it should go towards sanity, tolerance, peace and harmony among people of goodwill. It cites an epigrammatic declaration from a Pali discourse to the effect that "whatever is said by the Buddha is well-said and whatever is well-said is said by the Buddha."

The implication, says Prof. YK, is that the sayings of other religious teachers may contain teachings which are identical with Buddhist teachings. The vision of the unity and the oneness of humanity explicit in Buddhist teachings is emphasized. Prof. YK ominously reminds us of the words of the Buddha that those who are "bound by racial prejudices… have strayed far from the way of salvation." He says that the inclusiveness of Buddhism extends even to non-religious secularists. In the opening chapter of the book Prof.YK identifies for special emphasis one specific characteristic of the Dhamma. It is the invitation to all, not to come and accept the doctrine, but to come and examine the validity of the diagnosis and cure of the human condition offered by the Buddha.

Acceptance should come if and only when one is convinced and knows for oneself that the cure is wholesome and good. Prof. YK concludes the appendix by alluding to an edict of King Piyadasi (Emperor Ashoka).This inscription of Ashoka the Buddhist emperor of India in the 3rd century BC states: "He who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts by such conduct the severest injury on his own sect". At a time like the present when religious tempers are easily frayed, Prof. YK deserves praise for echoing the noble words of Emperor Ashoka. It was of him that H.G. Wells said in his Outline of History: "Among the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history…the name of Ashoka shines and shines almost alone, a star".

Pith & Substance of Chapters

Let us turn now to the twelve chapters of this book. The tone of the book is rigorously academic. There is concern with exactitude. The exposition is unvaryingly systematic and unemotional.

Chapter 1 draws pointed attention to the fact that Siddhartha Gautama who founded Buddhism was a human being who having made a discovery about the human condition took full responsibility for the discovery and proclaimed it to the world saying "come and see". It is not a divinely revealed discovery. It is capable of being experientially validated and the invitation to all and sundry is to do just that. The chapter closes with an exposition of the Kalama Sutta which I first encountered as a schoolboy in 1948 quoted on the back of the front page of Martin Wickramasinghe’s maiden novel called Leela published in 1914. It changed my life. I regard it as the charter of free inquiry. It establishes the authority of self-experience as the ultimate ground of one’s moral life.

Chapter 2 locates Buddhism in its historical context and elaborates the view that in sharp contrast to the two perennial polar opposite Indian world views, materialistic annihilation (ucchedavada = materialism) and spiritual eternalism (sassatavada= idealism) Buddhism offers a new hypothesis, the middle position theoretically represented by the doctrine of dependent arising (= paticca-samuppada).

Chapter 3 expounds the doctrine of dependent arising. The abstract structural form of this doctrine is luminously rational: "This being present, that comes to be; on this arising, that arises. This being absent, that does not come to be; on this ceasing, that ceases". This is the key Buddhist insight into reality and the chapter discusses all aspects of its application to understanding how dukkha arises and can be made to cease by conscious effort.

Chapter 4 titled "Not Self and the Putative Over Self" focuses cogently on the fact that the doctrine of not-self (anatta) is the unique discovery of the Buddha and the central doctrine that sets Buddhism apart from all other religions. And it is this discovery of not-self (= no soul) that makes Buddhism eminently compatible with modern physiology which denies a "vital principle" distinct from physicochemical forces comprising the human being.

Chapter 5 is headed The Analysis of Mind. It begins by focusing on Buddhism’s insistence on the primacy and centrality of mind in the reality of human existence. According to modern neurophysiology the mind consists of the set of operations of the brain. In Western philosophy the mind is identified with the soul which Buddhism denies. The mind-body relationship remains an unresolved philosophical problem in western philosophy. However, explaining consciousness (mind) in terms of neural science is making great strides. It seems to me that the philosophers and religious teachers will have to come to terms with the findings of modern neural science sooner or later. But Buddhism’s anatta doctrine seems to have anticipated the conclusion towards which modern neural science is moving.

Chapter 6 is perhaps the key chapter in the book. It is titled The Diagnosis of The Human Condition Prof. YK presents "the diagnosis of human condition". It expounds the nature of dukkha and its cessation. Basically the hidden springs of dukkha in both personal and social dimensions are identified as greed, hatred and delusion. Logically elimination of these evil roots should extinguish dukkha. The method is to cultivate non greed non hatred and non delusion. Non-greed is achieved by practicing generosity, detachment and contentment. Non- hatred finds expression as loving kindness, compassion and forgiveness. Non- delusion manifests as understanding, insight and wisdom.

Chapter 7 and 8 expound respectively the theory and the practice of the moral life. Even from a sociobiological perspective the repertoire of human behaviors include cooperation, altruism and reciprocity for altruism. There is also competitive dominant and deceptive behavior from time to time. Of these behaviors religions are concerned to promote cooperation and altruism and these are precisely what morality prescribes. The Buddhist theory of moral life elaborates this idea and the practice of the moral life subsumed in the noble eight fold path provides clear guidelines. As expounded by Prof YK the moral life enjoined by Buddhism is rational and noble. The practice of the moral life is urged on rational grounds: prudence enjoins moral behavior because even if there is no life after death a man who leads a morally bad life in this world will be censored by society for his misbehavior. Worse would be his fate if there is a life after death with a retributive moral price to pay.

Chapter 9 deals with The Pursuit of Happiness. Prof. YK points out that "the be-all and end-all of what the Buddha taught is the cessation of suffering" and the cessation of suffering is happiness. Cessation of suffering is achievable in this life by the eradication of the three roots of evil namely greed, hatred and delusion. Prof. YK points out that Buddhism is the only religion that promises ultimate bliss or happiness on earth. It postulates a necessary causal correlation between morality and happiness. In this context it is perhaps relevant to cite Bhikkhu Bodhi’s trenchant observations on the matter. In an article titled "Two Paths to Knowledge" published in 1999 he categorically declares: "In contrast to the classical western antithesis of religion and science, Buddhism shares with science a common commitment to uncover the truth about the world. Both Buddhism and science draw a sharp distinction between the way things appear to be and the way they really are and both offer to open our minds to insights into the real nature of things, normally hidden from us by false ideas based on sense perception and "common sense… Buddhism includes within its domain the entire spectrum of the qualities described by personal experience. This means that Buddhism gives prime consideration to values. But even more, values for Buddhism are not merely projections of subjective judgement which we fashion according to our personal whims and social needs or cultural conditioning; to the contrary they are written into the structure of reality just as firmly as the laws of motion and thermodynamics". If so the practice of Buddhist morality must be the sure-fire formula for the pursuit of happiness as interpreted by Prof. YK in his magnum opus. He concludes the chapter with the declaration: "Happiness is the only thing we purse for its own sake".

Chapter 10 is titled "Nibbana: The Final Goal". It is the clearest exposition of the concept of Nibbana I have ever read. He makes it absolutely clear that the final goal of Buddhism—Nibbana—"has to be realized in this very life". In a rare departure from his resolute policy of avoiding disparaging comparisons, in relation to Buddhism’s final goal Nibbana achievable by the extinction of greed, hatred and delusion in this life, Prof. YK declares that "in all other religions their final goal can be realized only after death". How true! For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, the supreme exponent of catholic doctrine says that "to find the ultimate good or final end of man, we have to turn to the supernatural vision of God which is attainable only in the next life".

Chapter 11 is captioned "The Unanswered Questions". It is a justification of the Buddha’s approach to the human condition which deliberately ignored as irrelevant questions such as: Is the world eternal? Is the world finite? Is the soul one thing and the body another thing? And so on. In western religion and philosophy the three perennial questions which demand conclusive answers are: Who are we? From where did we come? Where are we going? Buddhism works on the premise that whoever we are and no matter whence we came nor whither we are going, suffering on earth is our real problem. The First Noble Truth proclaims this fundamental fact. The Second Noble Truth declares its cause. The Third Noble Truth – extinction of the cause – follows as the logically necessary remedy. The Forth Noble Truth the eighth fold path prescribes the way to purse the remedy. Buddhism therefore has no reason to be skeptical, agnostic, pragmatic or nihilistic. Prof. YK explains that those questions are left unanswered because they have no relevance to realizing the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Whether the questions are answerable at all is a matter of total irrelevance to Buddhism as a religion.

Chapter 12 expounds the "Buddhist Attitude to the Idea of God". He points out that the idea of a personal deity, a Creator God conceived to be eternal and omnipotent does not find a place in the teachings of any form of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana. The idea is simply alien to the Buddhist approach to reality. Significantly whether such a Creator God exists or not is not one of the ten unanswered questions. It is almost as if the idea of God was a simple delusion of the human mind.

A Final Remark

A final remark is in order. In the 205 pages comprising this book the question of rebirth merits only a single paragraph at page 31. It may be wondered whether rebirth is not a central doctrine of Buddhism. Prof. YK leaves no doubt that it is. But even like the question of the existence of God it does not seem to be of direct relevance to the major problem of the human condition - suffering and its cessation.

On reading through what I have written in this review a final time, T. S. Eliot’s line, "In my beginning, is my end" came ineluctably to my mind. Readers may remember that in this review before commenting on the substance of the book, the twelve chapters, I zeroed in on its appendix for comment. It is a gem of an appendix. It articulates eloquently a religious philosophy for our time. By demonstrating insightfully the inclusiveness and universality of Buddhism, Prof. Karunadasa makes in my judgement an irresistible and incontrovertible case for Buddhism as the most compelling empirically validated moral guide for humanity in the 21st century.

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