If you are reading this post chances are that you are a Buddhist practitioner. Imagine someone comes up to you and asks: “What is the teaching of Buddha really about?” Reflect for a moment. What would you say?
There are many ways to answer the question. One way to answer it would be to respond with the following four famous lines in which Buddha himself gave the essence of his teachings:
“Commit not a single unwholesome action,
Cultivate a wealth of virtue,
To tame this mind of ours,
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.”
(Click here for a teaching by Sogyal Rinpoche on this topic and here for a video)
Alternatively, one could answer with the Four Seals or ‘four hallmarks of the Buddha’s teachings’:
“All that is conditioned is impermanent,
All that is tainted is suffering,
Nirvana is peace,
All phenomena are empty and devoid of self.”
One could also look at this from the point of view of the two truths, the ultimate truth of how things truly are and the relative truth of how they appear. From the point of view of ultimate truth one could say Buddha realized that everything is shunyata, which mean empty of inherent existence. From the point of view of relative truth one could say that everything appears because of interdependent origination, due to many causes and conditions.
Because I am now beginning to reflect on karma, the principle cause and effect, I have been reflecting on interdependent origination and want to focus more on this aspect. An essential explanation of this principle is expressed in The Mantra of the Essence of Interdependent Origination. In Sanskrit this mantra is:
om yé dharma hetu prabhawa hetun teshan tathagato hyavadat teshan tsa yo nirodha ewam vade mahashramanah soha
which can be translated as:
“All dharmas originate from causes.
The Tathagata has taught these causes,
And also that which puts a stop to these causes–
This too has been taught by the Great Shramana.”
If you are a Buddhist practitioner chances are that you are reciting this mantra every day, but often it is just recited quite mindlessly and it is rarely explained in the teachings. I recently rediscovered the wonderful story about how this mantra came about.
It actually happened at the time of the Buddha with exactly the same question that this post began with: “What is the teaching of Buddha really about?” Two friends were walking near a gathering where Buddha was giving teachings to his disciples. They met a man called Ashvajit and asked him questions like “Who is teaching here?,” “What is your teacher teaching?” Even though he was just a beginner monk, Ashvajit gave an amazingly profound answer which is now known as the mantra of interdependent origination. I have been trying to imagine how this encounter might have happened. Asvajit must have told the two men something like: “Oh, the Buddha is a wonderful teacher. He has truly realized the truth. He not only teaches how phenomena come about but also how to become free from being trapped in this never ending cycle of conditioned existence.” As it turns out the two men were so inspired by this answer that they decided to study with the Buddha and become two of his most famous students, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. I wish I could come up with a similarly profound answer if someone were to walk past a gathering with my teacher and approach me with the same question!
Here is an annotation referring to this from the Zindri, A Guide to the Words of my Perfect Teacher by Khenpo Nagkchung: “According to the Maha Vaga this quintessential formulation of the Buddha’s teaching which is almost used as a mantra, was originally the reply given by the beginner monk Ashvajit when questioned by the young brahmin Shariputra about what the Buddha taught. It so inspired Shariputra and his companion Maudgalyayana that they both began to follow the Buddha and became two of his closest and most accomplished disciples.” (Annotation 89 p.301)