Buddhism As a Way of Life
by Sayagyi U Chit Tin

The Buddha taught the way to the release from suffering, the way to Nibbana which is beyond the here and now, beyond the world of space and time. He had to discover the way first, without anyone to teach him. The Buddha hesitated to teach after he Awakened to the nature of all conditioned existence and experienced the unconditioned state of Nibbana. He saw how difficult it would be for people to understand what he could teach them. He saw that if his words fell on deaf ears he would needlessly create difficulties for himself.
Fortunately, he was asked to teach, and realizing that there were those capable of putting into practice his Teachings and reaching the goal, he spent the rest of his life helping all who made a sincere request to be taught.
To those who were not ready to attain the highest goal, the Buddha taught as much as they could understand. He realized that if they prepared themselves, they would be able to go further in the future.
I would like to explain some of the fundamentals, dividing my talk into three parts: dana (generosity), sila (virtuous conduct), and bhavana (training the mind).
First of all, let us consider these three steps as a progression. Dana, generosity, is the easiest of the three to practise. Even immoral people can be generous. If we consider what it means to be a moral, good person, we will find that once we have put to one side the kinds of actions to be avoided, what remains is giving, being generous.
For some people, this is as much as can be expected. Someone who is unable to refrain from wrong actions cannot make progress in this life toward reaching the goal of Nibbana. But if people are generous, they may at some future time encounter more favourable circumstances which will enable them to work correctly. This is because the conditioned world is subject to the forces of cause and effect. Actions done in the present will give results in the future when circumstances are right, and these results will be in harmony with the cause. A good action will give a good result. A bad action will give a bad result. We will come back to this subject after we have considered the next two steps.
Sila or virtuous conduct includes all actions which result from refraining from doing evil. In Buddhism, a person's actions are divided into three types: bodily actions, speech, and mental actions. There are a basic set of five precepts that summarize the types of bodily actions and speech that are to be avoided at all costs. Control over mental actions comes under the third step.
The five moral precepts are called panca-sila in Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist Canon. We will find similar rules in most of the world's religions. The bodily actions to be avoided include refraining from killing, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct, and refraining from taking intoxicants and drugs. As for speech, we must refrain from telling lies. These are the five precepts which must be kept at all times if we wish to make any progress on the path to true happiness.
There are many more precepts and rules which are helpful to those making a sincere effort, but we will look at those when we consider other aspects of these three steps of generosity, moral conduct, and training the mind.
The third step of bhavana, training the mind, can be divided into two aspects: We can train our minds to gain temporary purity through learning to concentrate and we can train our minds to attain lasting purity through developing insight, that is to say, through gaining knowledge of the truth by our own experience.
These three steps are not to be practised one after the other, however. They are interdependent. Practising generosity will assure us of encountering favourable circumstances under which we will be able to lead moral lives and develop our minds. Generosity will also help us to be less rigid in our thinking. It will help us to wish for wellbeing, both for ourselves and for others. Moral conduct will also assure us of favourable circumstances and will make it possible for us to calm our minds, concentrate properly, and thereby observe the true nature of the conditioned world objectively. The better concentrated we are and the more we understand concerning the true nature of reality, the more we will be inclined to be generous and to lead moral lives. If we cannot control our minds, it will be impossible to control our actions and speech.
In his commentary on the Basket of Conduct (Cariyapitaka), Venerable Dhammapala describes how we can best make gifts.[1] Dhammapala is explaining how a Bodhisatta, who is working to become a teaching Buddha,fulfills the ten perfections (parami). We may not be able to live up to such an example, but it can serve as an inspiration to us.
Dhammapala describes many ways in which we can give and all of them mean benefiting others. We may give up our own happiness, belongings, body, and life for others. We may dispel their fears, and we may instruct them in the Doctrine, the Dhamma. In other words, we can give material things, fearlessness, or the Doctrine.
Material gifts can be either external things or ourselves. External material gifts include food, drink, clothes, vehicles, etc. We should give whatever is needed to anyone in need, whether we are asked or not. We should give generously and adequately, without expecting anything in return. If there is not enough for all, we should distribute equally what we can afford to give. We should not give anything that will result in affliction such as weapons, poisons, and intoxicants, or amusements which are harmful and lead to negligence. And we should not give unsuitable food and drink to someone who is sick, even if he asks for it. Nor should we give more than a suitable amount.
We should give appropriate gifts without causing pain to anyone, and without desiring gain, honour, and fame, or expecting something in return. Our aspiration in giving should be Awakening to the Truth. We should not despise either the gift or the person we give to. We should give with care and with a serene mind, full of compassion. We should give believing in the law of cause and effect and not because of belief in superstitious omens. We should not require those we give to, to pay homage to us. We should give with kind words and a smile, not with harsh words and a frown. If we develop greed for something because of its antiquity or because we are personally attached to it, we should look for an appropriate recipient and give it away.
A Bodhisatta is able to give away his own wife and children, but only when they are willing to go, and only to those who are not cruel. Similarly, he will not give up his kingdom to someone bent on harming the citizens, but only to righteous men.
The Bodhisatta will also go into servitude, sacrifice his own limbs and even give his own life. He will give of himself only when it is for the welfare of the recipient, however.
We can give fearlessness by giving protection when others are frightened. Through moral conduct, we refrain from injuring others and that is part of the gift of fearlessness. So we can see how difficult it is to separate the different steps.
Giving the Doctrine means giving an undistorted discourse on the Doctrine which is given with an undefiled mind. This means instruction which conduces to good in the present life, in the life to come and to ultimate deliverance.
The best way to make a gift is to make a gift with a trained mind. The donor should bear in mind the impermanence of the receiver, of the gift, and of himself. And this should be done before, during, and after the gift is made. This is the way in which our teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin instructed us to make gifts. Obviously, giving in this way will only be possible after a certain degree of control over the mind has been accomplished. If we can make gifts in this way, we will accomplish many things all at the same time. As we give, our minds will be free from greed which means we will be overcoming desire (lobha). A virtuous act like this also means there will be absence of hate (dosa), and through the awareness of impermanence (anicca) we overcome delusion (moha). In other words, this way of giving overcomes the three roots of unwholesome acts. Such gifts unite generosity (dana), moral conduct (sila), and the two types of mental training (bhavana): concentration (samadhi) and insight (panna).
Now let us look in more detail at moral conduct. The five moral precepts that we have already mentioned must be kept at all times for there to be a moral base, but many more precepts can be added to these. As we make progress in working for the goal we will develop our ability to observe additional moral precepts, and we will also develop a desire to do so. For those who are able to renounce the life of a layman and become a bhikkhu (monk) there are 227 rules that must be followed. But I would like here to confine my remarks to the precepts kept by laymen.
Buddhist laymen often take on eight precepts on special days, called Uposatha days or Observance days. These days, in Buddhist countries where the calendar is based on the lunar month, correspond to the different phases of the moon (the new moon, full moon, and the quarter moons) and are roughly equivalent to Sunday in the Western calendar. On these days, laymen often spend time at the monasteries, giving food to the Bhikkhus and listening to talks on the Doctrine taught by the Buddha. But the eight precepts can be undertaken at any time. The five precepts are incorporated in the eight precepts, with the difference that one observes total abstinence from sexual activity. The three additional precepts are to refrain from eating after midday, to refrain from dancing, singing, playing music, etc.; and not using high and lofty seats and beds. The eight precepts are especially important as progress is made in controlling the mind. They help to curtail pride and to reduce our attachment to the pleasures of the senses. Some laymen keep ten precepts at times, but the ten precepts are especially appropriate for novices (samanera). The main difference between the eight precepts and the ten precepts is that one who keeps the ten precepts does not handle money. This, of course, could be very difficult for a layman, and should only be undertaken when it is possible to reasonably avoid handling money.
I would like to explain in greater detail another set of eight precepts which is called virtuous conduct with right livelihood as the eighth kind (ajivatthamaka-sila). This set of eight precepts is the initial stage of the life of purity consisting in the Path, according to the Venerable Ashin Buddhaghosa.[2] These eight precepts include three precepts for moral physical actions: (l) to abstain from killing, (2) to abstain from stealing, (3) to abstain from indulging in sexual misconduct and from taking intoxicants; four moral verbal actions: (4) to abstain from lying, (5) to abstain from malicious speech, (6) to abstain from harsh speech, and (7) to abstain from gossiping; and finally, (8) right livelihood.
Sayagyi U Ba Khin taught his students in meditation to follow these eight precepts with right livelihood as the eighth. In these precepts, the importance of right speech is made very clear. They are explained by the Buddha in a discourse given to the people of the town of Sala:[3]
" In this case, householders, a certain one, abandoning lying speech is restrained from lying speech. When he is cited and asked as a witness before a council or company or amid his relations or amid a guild or amid a royal family, and is told: "Now, good man, say what you know." If he does not know, he says, "I do not know"; if he knows, he says, "I know"; if he has not seen, he says, "I did not see," if he has seen, he says, "I saw." Thus his speech does not come to be intentional lying either for his own sake or for that of another or for the sake of some material gain or other. Abandoning slanderous speech, he is restrained from slanderous speech. Having heard something at one place, he is not one for repeating it elsewhere for (causing) variance among those people, or having heard something elsewhere he is not one to repeat it to these people for (causing) variance among these people. In this way he is a reconciler of those who are at variance and one who combines those who are friends. Concord is his pleasure, concord his delight, concord his joy, concord is the motive of his speech. Abandoning harsh speech, he is restrained from harsh speech. Whatever speech is gentle, pleasing to the ear, affectionate, going to the heart, urbane, pleasant to the multitude--such speech does he utter. Abandoning frivolous chatter, he is restrained from frivolous chatter. He is one who speaks at a right time, who speaks in accordance with fact, who speaks about the goal, who speaks about the Doctrine, who speaks about discipline. He utters speech that is worth treasuring, with similes at a right time, purposeful, connected with the goal."
I think that everyone will appreciate how difficult it is to live up to these instructions. How often do we "speak before we think"? It is not really a matter of not thinking, for everything we say passes through the mind first. What we mean when we say, "I wasn't thinking," is that we were not in control of our thoughts. If we were able to be fully aware of our thoughts, then it would be relatively easy to control which thoughts we allow to be translated into speech or into actions. So you can see that the key to moral conduct is training the mind.
We said earlier that bhavana is divided into two steps. The first step is training the mind to remain concentrated. This is known as samadhi in Pali. The Buddha taught many different techniques for developing right concentration, but I will only mention one of these, Anapana, mindfulness of breathing. This is the technique taught in Buddhist meditation courses in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. The second step is known as Vipassana, insight meditation.
In a speech given in 1952, Sayagyi U Ba Khin said, "Samadhi, as I see it, is the common ground on which all religionists work for their respective goal." He then goes on to quote from Hindu, Moslem and Christian texts which speak of working to achieve Divine Light. He points out that it is a common belief that it is extremely difficult to get even a glimpse of the light in meditation and that courses of meditation are only for those who have renounced the world. "Our experiments, however, show," he says, "that under the proper guide, the inner peace and purity of the mind with light can be secured by one and all irrespective of their religion or creed ... We have developed a technique whereby we are able to help a sincere worker to experience a state of purity of mind in the course of a few days." He also gave a word of caution, saying that while there should be no difficulty for a normal student who is sincere, some people do encounter difficulties. But even they can succeed if they possess sincerity of purpose, complete submission to the teacher, and strong determination and effort to get the desired result.
I would like to point out that the purity of mind gained through samadhi is not lasting, and that students who for one reason or another are not able to aim at the highest goal of Nibbana will not be able to go beyond this limited degree of inner peace and purity of mind. This may be the case, for example, for someone who practises Buddhist meditation while still holding on to their own religion. This is not a criticism of such people. Sayagyi U Ba Khin was always ready to help people attain as much peace and tranquillity as they could. This is consistent with the manner in which the Buddha taught.
A group of laymen, the Kalamas, once asked the Buddha how to know what to believe.[4] They said that teachers of various doctrines (Dhammas) explained their beliefs and found fault with the doctrines of others. In answering them, the Buddha gave them an approach to use to help decide what to believe. He told them they should not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or legends, they should not believe something simply because it was written in the scriptures, nor should they use conjecture or logic, weighing evidence or because a point of view appealed to them. Moreover, they should not rely on someone else's reasoning, nor should they accept something simply because their teacher told them that it is so. All these reasons for believing something should be put to one side.
Then the Buddha told the Kalamas how to know what to believe. When they knew by their own experience that a belief is unprofitable, that it should be criticised, that a belief is condemned by the wise, that it is a belief that will cause harm and suffering if it is accepted and put into practice, then that belief should be rejected. And the Buddha then pointed out that when a person is overcome by lust or hate or delusion he will kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, and get others to do the same. Would this be unprofitable, censured by the wise, and would this lead to harm and suffering?, he asked. The laymen agreed that it would. Next, the Buddha asked if the opposite would not be true if there were absence of lust and hate and delusion in a person, and the laymen agreed.
The Buddha realized that the Kalamas were not ready to work for the highest goal, and so he taught them the four brahma-viharas, the Divine Dwellings, which consist in sending to all thoughts of loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). This type of mental training, the Buddha pointed out, would lead to happiness no matter what beliefs a person holds.
The Buddha gave a similar discourse to another layman named Bhaddiya.[5] The setting of this talk is a little different. The Kalamas had heard the Buddha praised very highly. But Bhaddiya had heard that the Buddha was like a juggler who used a trick to entice followers to believe what he taught. The Buddha told Bhaddiya that he should apply the same criteria that he had outlined for the Kalamas. In addition to lust, hate and delusion, he adds violence to the thoughts that cause people to lose control over their minds and commit immoral acts.
Bhaddiya was so impressed by what the Buddha taught him, he decided to become a follower of the Buddha. But the Buddha cautioned him. "Did I say to you, 'Come, Bhaddiya, be my follower; I will be your teacher'?" Bhaddiya answered, no. The Buddha pointed out that his detractors had falsely accused him of using a trick. Bhaddiya said that he wished all his relatives and everyone else as well could be attracted to this teaching as it would be for their profit and happiness for a long time.
The commentary states that after listening to the Buddha's discourse, Bhaddiya was able to attain the first stage of Awakening, also known as Enlightenment. This is because he was ready to understand in great depth what the Buddha said. Not all of us, however, are as well prepared as that. We need to work more, using the techniques taught by the Buddha that enable us to train our minds. This is the purpose of the meditation courses taught in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. In ten days, a serious student is able to make progress in developing concentration through the technique of Anapana meditation which consists in being mindful of breathing. Once there is enough concentration to calm the mind and keep it fixed where it is placed, the student can begin to develop insight through Vipassana. The technique taught by the Buddha which Sayagyi U Ba Khin used consists in being aware of the various sensations in the body and appreciating the fact that they are constantly changing, anicca. Systematic observation of the sensations is combined with developing an equanimous attitude, which means that the student is neither elated by pleasant sensations nor dejected by unpleasant sensations. When this is achieved, it is possible to observe reality objectively and that leads to insight and understanding.
It is during the first type of meditation--concentration (anapana-sati)--that it is possible to experience the Divine Light described in other religions. This light is the natural result of a purified mind. Experience has shown us that this purification through concentration is very delicate and easily upset. But it can be achieved and maintained if the right conditions are present. This means working in a quiet place under the guidance of a competent teacher. The purity gained through insight is more durable. Indeed, when a certain stage of insight is reached, a person is no longer liable to falling by the wayside.
We wish to encourage all to practise these teachings at any and every level. If a person is so immoral that he can only practise generosity, then we encourage him to do so. But we fervently hope that everyone will be at the very least inspired to lead virtuous lives. If students are only interested in developing good concentration in order to purify their minds, then we encourage them to begin as soon as possible. We hope, of course, that as many people as possible will be ready to go further, to begin the deep purification that results from developing insight.
Sayagyi U Chit Tin

1. A long extract of this commentary is translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi as "A Treatise on the Paramis," The All-Embracing Net of Views (Kandy: Buddhist Publ. Soc., 1978, pp. 254-330 ).
2. Path, chap. I, para 27. See also the discussion by Ledi Sayadaw, The Requisites of Enlightenment (The Wheel, n 171/174, pp. 25, 85).
3. The Saleyyaka-sutta, M nr40 (MLS I 347). We use the translation by Miss Horner here.
4. See the Kesaputtiya-sutta (GS I, pp. 170-178); also translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, The Life of the Buddha, pp. 175-178 (the translation used here).
5. GS II 200ff.