What did the Buddha Really Teach?

Hint: it wasn’t ‘Buddhism’

Everyone today has heard of Gautama Siddhārtha, also known as the Buddha. And many people follow and derive benefit from teachings attributed to him. One of the most profound and important questions we address in The Dharmasar Solution is: “What is the Buddha’s original teaching?” Are the teachings and practices we know today accurate? Are they giving the full benefits? What did the Buddha really teach?

These questions became an important issue for me since I began practicing meditation according to the Buddha’s teaching. I started practicing Ānāpānasati (meditation on breath) because I was suffering, and I wanted relief. I already had tried many means to alleviate my suffering over a lifetime of research and practice—meditation, chanting, intensive psychotherapy—but frankly, none of it worked very well. Even after being a monk in a Vedic tradition for many years and becoming a guru, I was still riddled with anxiety and negative emotions. I did what most people do: just tolerated it the best I could.

Then in my 64th year, disaster struck: I discovered evidence that the spiritual path to which I had devoted the majority of my adult life was a fabrication. But instead of supporting my discovery, everyone in my spiritual community betrayed me—even my own disciples. I went through a crucible experience: a complete life meltdown, an utter upheaval. The mental and emotional suffering was total and acute: I discovered that I had no real refuge, that everything and everyone I had assumed would give me shelter was false and unreliable.

While in a condition of intense suffering, I began a crash program of research to find out what went wrong and how to fix it. Long story short, after a year of intense labor I found myself sitting on a beach in Thailand, contemplating the emptiness of conditioned existence. Surprisingly, it worked.

After just a few weeks of meditation, my suffering not only evaporated, but I felt better than I ever had. I experienced many deep realizations of spiritual truth—amazing insights I had only read about before. I was deeply grateful and impressed, and began seriously researching the teachings of the Buddha with the intention of sharing the amazing benefits I had experienced.

That’s when my concern started. I found that by great good fortune, I had been introduced to the Buddha’s original, effective views and methods. However, the vast majority of people who consider themselves Buddhists, or follow some teaching based on or derived from the Buddha, are thinking and doing something much different.

Further study revealed that most sources claiming to represent the Buddha actually conflict with his original views and methods as recorded in the Theravāda Suttas. As a result, most Buddhists and lay followers are still stuck in the existential suffering from which I fortunately have been delivered. It turned out that the benefits I experienced are extremely rare.

My concern only grew when I took an overview of the contemporary Buddhist scene and began to meet people practicing Buddhist methods. Many teachers with the best intentions, especially in the west, were presenting derivative ideas and practices having little or nothing to do with the original teachings of the Buddha, merely for the sake of popularity. This observation in particular forced me to distinguish between the original teaching of the Buddha given in the Theravāda Suttas and contemporary popular ‘Buddhism’.

Despite their obvious sincerity, from my perspective most Buddhist teachers were cheating their students of the full benefits of the Buddha’s real teachings. Many followers of popular Buddhism are laboring for years, even decades, without obtaining the benefits I received in a few short weeks of practice. Seeing that gave rise to a desire to correct the situation through a program of education based on the Suttas.

I don’t like to see people suffering unnecessarily. I would like everyone to experience the tremendous relief that I did. I would like to make it possible for anyone to attain complete enlightenment and freedom from the suffering of conditioned material existence. I would like to encourage them to set aside the crushing burdens of ignorance and kamma, as the Buddha encouraged me. I would like to see them empower themselves to realize their true nature, beyond all limitation. I would like, as far as I am able, to bring them to self-realization.

I received a free gift of immense value from the Buddha through his devoted servants. I feel obligated to pass on that wonderful gift to as many as possible. Thus the purposes of The Dharmasar Solution are:

  • To restore awareness of the Buddha’s original teaching and practices.
  • To provide the background and foundational knowledge necessary to understand and practice the Buddha’s original teaching and methods.
  • To provide the ancillary skills (such as effective study, ontological analysis, phenomenology etc.) required to implement the Buddha’s practices.
  • To provide the social support necessary for people to gain the courage to resist the tide of superficiality and deviation, and attain the profound benefits of Buddha’s powerful teaching themselves.  

Original versus derived

You’ll notice I maintain a consistent distinction between the original teachings and methods of the Buddha, and derivative Buddhist beliefs and practices. That’s because they are different, often in very subtle ways. But even subtle differences in orientation and method can have a huge influence on the outcome of a practice. This will become clearer later on, as we explore the Buddha’s ontology and the functions of chaos and feedback in the Buddha’s original presentation of his Second Noble Truth: Dependent Origination.

For now, our working hypothesis is that there is an original teaching and derived teachings that are substantially different. How are they different? Let’s consult the Buddha as he speaks of his original teaching:

“Know this, O monks: Now, as formerly, I teach of only dukkha (suffering, stress, unsatisfactoriness) and the elimination of dukkha.” — Alagaddupama Sutta [MN 22]

The Buddha said, “The suttantas are utterances of the Tathāgata, are of great profundity, have deep significance, are the means of transcending the world, and refer to suññatā.” — Mahavara Sutta [SN 2.48]

What is the Dhamma that is highest and most profound, that transcends the world and death in all their forms? The Buddha called it suññatāppatisamyuttā, which means Dhamma that analyzes suññatā (emptiness). Dhamma that discusses suññatā is the highest and most profound Dhamma. It transcends the world, transcends death, and is none other than the amatadhamma (the immortal dhamma).

Now the newer, later versions of Dhamma — what are they like?

“When the discourses of the Tathāgata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are recited, the monks don’t listen, don’t lend ear, don’t set their hearts on knowing them; don’t regard them as worth grasping or mastering. But when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, artful in sound, artful in expression, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited, they listen, they lend ear, they set their hearts on knowing them; they regard them as worth grasping and mastering. Yet when they have mastered that Dhamma, they don’t cross-question one another about it, don’t dissect: ‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They don’t make open what isn’t open, don’t make plain what isn’t plain, don’t dispel doubt on its various doubtful points. This is called an assembly trained in bombast, not in cross-questioning.” — Ukkacita Sutta [AN 2.46]

The Buddha said, “Emptiness is what I teach. A teaching that does not treat of emptiness is someone else’s teaching, an unorthodox teaching composed by some later disciple. All discourses which are utterances of the Accomplished One are profound, have deep significance, are the means of transcending the world, and deal primarily with emptiness (suññatā). On the other hand, a discourse of any kind, though produced by a poet or a learned man, versified, poetical, splendid, melodious in sound and syllable, is not in keeping with the teaching if not connected with suññatā.” — Mahāparinibbāna Sutta [DN 16]

And also consider this:

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to utter disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction’.” — Satthusasana Sutta [AN 7.79]

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathāgata has done away with. What a Tathāgata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are mental fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathāgata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation and relinquishment of all interpretations, all speculations, all I-making and mine-making and obsession with conceit — is released through lack of clinging.” — Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta [MN 72]

Analyzing the above quotes, it’s clear the Buddha’s teaching recorded in the Theravāda Suttas is based upon two principal themes:

  • The Flood (dukkha): being in the world is the cause of suffering, incompleteness, unsatisfactoriness; First and Second Noble Truths.
  • The Raft (suññata): the world and phenomena are empty of real existence. Realizing this brings release from conditioned existence; Third and Fourth Noble Truths.

Any teaching claiming to represent the Buddha’s method must harmonize with these principles. Why? Realizing suññata is the key to cessation of dukkha. So any teaching not properly founded on dukkha and suññata is derivative, deviant and incomplete.

This fits perfectly with my theory of religion. I see religion in general as a fabrication, an artificially created organization that seeks to interpose itself between the aspirant and whatever enlightenment he is seeking. Religion offers to represent the aspirant like an attorney, agent or ambassador. Religions claim they make attaining enlightenment by the aspirant easier and more convenient. But do they really?

Religion often poses itself as having some unique relationship with the originating Deity or teacher of the spiritual path it claims to represent. It essentially claims the ability to get a special deal. Of course this is ludicrous, especially in the case of the Buddha’s teaching, which is simply about the natural laws of being and consciousness. It would be as unbelievable as offering a special deal on gravity or the weather.

No, thank you. Because what happens if you accept this implausible offer is that the religious organization absorbs the time, energy and attention that would normally be invested in the aspirant’s spiritual practice. The aspirant’s misguided trust and confidence in the religion—sometimes mislabeled ‘faith’—leads him to think that the religion is going to save him without further effort on his part. But any religious organization is a fabrication, a corporate abstraction like any bureaucracy, that exists mainly to propagate its own existence and well-being. Corporations pose as helping agents, offering to make our lives easier and more convenient, but we know their actual purpose is to make a profit at the customers’ expense. There is no other reason for their existence. Similarly, large religious organizations exist only to exploit faithful but naïve people.

So what did the Buddha really teach? Did he teach all about esoteric spiritual realms, gods and goddesses, and arcane mystical rituals and rites to win merit and favors from them? No, that’s a religion based on or derived from the original teaching of the Buddha. He may have touched on those things briefly, but the actual core of his teaching is dukkha and suññata, suffering and its cure.

The Four Noble Truths are only about dukkha and suññata:

  1. There is suffering (dukkha).
  2. There is a cause of suffering.
  3. There is cessation of suffering.
  4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering: realization of suññata.

Any teaching unrelated to suññata cannot claim to be the Buddha’s original teaching. And we find in practice that meditation that does not aim for realization of suññata is more or less impotent. We will devote a section to a detailed discussion of emptiness later on.

Published by

Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

4 thoughts on “What did the Buddha Really Teach?”

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