Let us investigate the fundamental principles of Dhamma, Natural Truth. I would like to discuss these essential points of Buddhism in the hope that a grasp of them will help you advance in your studies and training. If you don't grasp these points, you will get confused. You will feel that there are a great number of things to be known, and that they keep increasing until there are too many things to remember, understand, or practice.
This confusion is the root cause of failure; it leads to discouragement and an interest increasingly more unfocused and imprecise. In the end, it's as if one is carrying a great load of knowledge on one's back without being able to remember, understand, or make use of it.
Therefore, I would like to focus on the essential points of Buddhism, which are necessary for a correct understanding of Dhamma. I emphasize the fact that these points are fundamental principles, because there are some kinds of knowledge that are not fundamental, and there are some kinds that are misunderstandings deviating little by little, until they are no longer Buddhism. Or, if they are still Buddhist teachings, they are offshoots that continually branch away from the trunk.
The Quenching of Dukkha
To call something "a fundamental principle of Buddhism" is only correct if, first, it is a principle that aims at the quenching of dukkha (pain, misery, suffering) and, second, it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others. These are the important constituents of such a foundation.
The Buddha refused to deal with those things that don't lead to the extinction of dukkha. He didn't discuss them. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth after death. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its "karmic inheritance?" These questions don't aim at the extinction of dukkha. That being so, they are not the Buddha's teaching, nor are they connected with it.
They don't lie within the range of Buddhism. Also, the one who asks about such matters has no choice but to believe indiscriminatingly any answer that's given, because the one who answers won't be able to produce any proof and will just speak according to his own memory and feeling.
The listener can't see for herself and consequently must blindly believe the other's words. Little by little the subject strays from Dhamma until it becomes something else altogether, unconnected with the extinction of dukkha.
Now, if we don't raise those sorts of issues, we can ask instead "Is there dukkha?" and "How can dukkha be extinguished?" The Buddha agreed to answer those questions. The listener can recognize the truth of every word of the answers without having to believe them blindly and can see their truth more and more clearly until he understands for himself.
If one understands to the extent of being able to extinguish dukkha, that is the ultimate understanding. With such understanding one knows that, even at this moment, there is no person living; one sees without doubt that there is no self or anything belonging to a self. There is just the feeling of "I" and "mine" arising due to our being deluded by the beguiling nature of sense experience.
With ultimate understanding, one knows that, because there is no one born, there is no one who dies and is reborn. Therefore, the whole question of rebirth is quite foolish and has nothing to do with Buddhism at all.
The Buddhist teachings aim to inform us that there is no person who is a self or belongs to a self. The sense of self is only the false understanding of the ignorant mind. There exist merely the natural processes of body and mind which function as mechanisms for processing, interpreting, and transforming sense data. If these natural processes function in the wrong way, they give rise to foolishness and delusion, so that one feels that there is a self and things which belong to a self.
If the natural processes function in the correct way, those feelings don't arise. There is the original mindfulness and wisdom, the fundamental clear knowing and true seeing that there is no "I" or "mine."
This being so, it follows that in the sphere of the Buddhist teachings there is no question of rebirth or reincarnation. Rather, there are the questions, "Is there dukkha?" and "How can it be quenched?" Knowing the root cause of dukkha, one will be able to extinguish it. And that root cause of dukkha is the delusion, the wrong understanding, that there is "I" and "mine."
The matter of "I" and "mine," ego and selfishness, is the single essential issue of Buddhism. The sense of "I" and "mine" is the one thing that must be purged completely. And it follows that in this principle lies the knowing, understanding, and practice of all the Buddha's teaching, without exception.
A Single Handful
There aren't that many fundamental, or root, principles of Dhamma. The Buddha said that his teaching is "a single handful." A passage in the Samyutta-nikaya make this clear. While walking through the forest, the Buddha picked up a handful of fallen leaves and asked the monks who were present to decide which was the greater amount, the leaves in his hand or all the leaves in the forest.
Of course, they all said that there were many more leaves in the forest, and that the difference was beyond comparison. Try to imagine the truth of this scene; clearly see how huge the difference is. The Buddha then said that, similarly, those things which he had realized were a great amount, equal to all the leaves in the forest.
However, that which was necessary to know, those things which should be taught and practiced, were equal to the number of leaves in his hand.
From this it can be seen that, compared to all the myriad things in the world, the root principles to be practiced for complete extinction of dukkha amount to a single handful. We must appreciate that this single handful is not a huge amount; it's not something beyond our capabilities to reach and understand.
This is the first important point that we must grasp if we want to lay the foundation for a correct understanding of the Buddhist teachings.
We must understand the word "Buddhism" correctly. These days, that which is labeled as Buddhism or the Buddha's teaching is a very nebulous thing, because it is so extensive that it has no limit or definition. In the Buddha's time, a different word was used. The word was "Dhamma," which specifically referred to the Dhamma (or teaching) that quenches dukkha.
The Dhamma of the Buddha was called "Samana Gotama's Dhamma." The Dhamma of another sect, say that of Nigantha Nataputta, would be called "Nigantha Nataputta's Dhamma." One who liked a particular Dhamma would try to study until he understood it, and then he would practice accordingly. The Buddha's Dhamma was genuine and pure Dhamma, without trappings, without any of the numerous things that have come to be associated with it in later times. Now we call those trappings "Buddhism."
Due to our carelessness, Buddhism has become so nebulous that it now includes many things that were originally foreign to it.
You should observe that there is Buddhism, and then there are the things associated with Buddhism. These latter things are endless in number and variety, yet we mix them up with the former and call it all "Buddhism."
The real Buddhist teachings alone are already abundant, as many as all the leaves in the forest. But that which has to be studied and practiced is a mere handful. Nowadays we include those things that are merely associated with the teachings, such as the history of the religion or an explanation of the psychological aspects of the teachings.
Take the Abhidhamma ("Higher Dhamma"): some parts of it have become psychology and some parts philosophy. It's continually expanding to fulfill requirements of those disciplines. In addition, there are many further offshoots, so that the things associated with Buddhism have become exceedingly numerous. They have all been swept in together under the single term "Buddhism," so that it has beome an enormous subject.
If we don't know how to take hold of the essential points, we will think there are too many and we won't be able to choose between them. It will be like going into a shop that sells a great variety of goods and being at a loss as to what to buy. So we just follow our common sense—a bit of this, a bit of that as we see fit.
Mostly we take those things that agree with our defilements (kilesa), rather than let ourselves be guided by mindfulness and wisdom. Then, spiritual life becomes a matter of superstition, of rites and rituals, and of making merit by rote or to insure against some kind of fear; and there is no contact with real Buddhism.
Let us know how to separate true Buddhism from those things that have merely come to be associated with it and included under the same name. Even in the teachings themselves, we must know how to distinguish the root principles, or essential points.