What is the Function of Buddhism?

The Function of Buddhism is to overcome delusion by supporting our cultivation of virtues, mental clarity, and wisdom.

Buddhism supports this “threefold training” by providing both essential, explanatory frameworks and practical guidance. The Buddha himself called this a “Dhamma-Vinaya,” or “Philosophy-Discipline,” but we might simply call it “a way of life” because Buddhism is meant to transform our entire lives from our selfish, restless, addicted, never-satisfied “default mode,”1 to the pinnacle of human potential — the total eradication of suffering.

Prerequisites

This course strives to be a rigorous overview of Buddhism suitable for everyone — from beginners to experienced practitioners alike — and it is recommended for all.

For a softer introduction to Buddhism, see Buddhism 101.

Course Outline

I am satisfied that this course is both rigorous and accurate without compromising its lofty subject.

Main Text

This course follows the excellent textbook by Bhikkhu Cintita:

  • A gradual guide into the heart of Buddhism.

Introduction

This book is divided into two, unsurprising halves: Buddhist Life and Buddhist Path. These two divisions roughly follow the exterior and interior transformation of the practitioner, and also follows the gradual explanation of Buddhism, from the mundane to the transcendent, often used by the Buddha himself.

  • In this talk, Bhante Yuttadhammo gives us an overview of these two halves of Buddhism, and gives us a preview of what to expect in this course.

Lectures

Bhante Yuttadhammo will be our lecturer for this class.

The Los Angeles Course – Bhante Yuttadhammo (mp3s)

His Los Angeles Talks were originally delivered to yogis practicing his meditation technique (which I highly recommend), and thus has a different style than Bhikkhu Cintita’s more staid textbook, despite covering (approximately) the same material.

I have reordered and renumbered the lectures in Google Drive according to the chapters in “Buddhist Life, Buddhist Path” that they best correspond with:

  1. 00 - Three Trainings (2009-03-16).mp3
    • This first lecture, to listen to before starting the book, explains the three-fold training which I mentioned in my definition.
  2. 01 - Wrong View (2009-03-28).mp3
    • This lecture should be listened to after reading chapter 1 and its supplements (below).
  3. and so on…

Please listen to them in this order, not chronologically.

Supplementary Readings

To get some diversity of voices, and to enrich our understanding, we supplement each chapter in Buddhist Life with some additional words. Please read the following after each chapter:

Part 1: Buddhist Life

Chapter 1

(Which references The Medical Analogy of the Four Noble Truths by Louis De La Vallée Poussin)

  • We notice here that the Four Noble Truths parallel a medical diagnosis. In this way, we can think of the Buddha as the great “Spiritual Doctor” and his Dhamma as “medicine” which cures our spiritual ills.
Chapter 2

“Possessions, honor, and popularity are brutal, bitter, and harsh. They’re an obstacle to reaching the supreme sanctuary.
So you should train like this: ‘We will give up arisen possessions, honor, and popularity, and we won’t let them occupy our minds.’

In which the Buddha compares attachment to wealth to a dung beetle proud of her dung.

…when these people meditate they’re awfully grim.

Ajahn Geoff reminds Westerners to ground their meditation practice in generosity.

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

‘Others will be cruel, but here we will not be cruel.’ ~ MN8

In this essay, Judith Shklar (not a Buddhist) ponders the implications of placing cruelty first (as the Buddha did). She shows how this position stands at odds with both Christian piety and neoliberal apathy and carves out a more realistic humanism than either extreme.

Mendicants, there are these seven kinds of wealth. What seven? The wealth of faith, ethical conduct, conscience, prudence, learning, generosity, and wisdom.

Chapter 5

Ajahn Brahm gives a talk on how to achieve harmony in real life, where we all-too-often meet difficult people.

Chapter 6
  • A small chart summarizing the four stages of enlightenment mentioned in this chapter.
  • These stages will come up again in more detail later.

Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya on Spiritual Companionship

  • A short selection of suttas by Bhikkhu Bodhi, containing the basic instructions on how to wisely find and attend to spiritual friends and teachers.
    1. AN3.26: “And what kind of person is to be associated with, followed, and served?”
    2. AN4.32: “These are the four means of sustaining a favorable relationship.”
    3. AN6.51: “How does a mendicant get to hear a teaching they haven’t heard before?”
    4. AN5.151: “Someone with these five qualities is able to enter the sure path”

This external factor, namely good spiritual friendship, is the final (and most important) of the external factors supporting the Buddhist Path, and so concludes our discussion of “Buddhist Life” and enters us onto the path.

Part 2: Buddhist Path

Having come to the halfway point of our course, one might rightly question what makes Buddhism so different from other religions? Sure, Buddhism “puts cruelty first” and has lots of handy lists, but so far “be generous and don’t do evil” sounds like pretty standard Religious Wisdom™️, no?

And that is somewhat accurate of what we’ve covered so far. Buddhism claims no exclusivity on teaching the good life. What Buddhism does uniquely have is the path beyond suffering. For, no matter how rich and privileged you are, no matter how nice and kind and even saintly you become, even the best life still has its ups and downs. As the Buddha explained:

“What do you think, Udāyī? On an occasion when someone refrains from killing living creatures, is their self perfectly happy at that time, or does it have both pleasure and pain?”

“It has both pleasure and pain.”

“What do you think, Udāyī? On an occasion when someone refrains from stealing … sexual misconduct … lying, is their self perfectly happy at that time, or does it have both pleasure and pain?”

“It has both pleasure and pain.”

~ From MN 79

In part II, we finally turn to the Noble Eightfold Path, and the transcendant teachings.

Chapter 7
  • Ajahn Brahm reassures us that Buddhism is scientific and rational, containing things that we can discover and prove in ourselves.

Venerable Puṇṇa Mantāṇiputta teaches Venerable Sāriputta about the Buddha’s path of purification, explaining that the purification of ethics and mind are not the goal, but are rather stages of the path to it.

  • Bhikkhu Analayo summarizes and discusses this sutta in this short article.
Chapter 8
  • The Buddha explains what fuel keeps ignorance going, and fuels the path out.
  • Liberation is for one who knows and sees the origin and passing away of the aggregates, and it happens as the natural result of cultivating the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • Interestingly, right intention is not the desire to attain liberation, and the desire for liberation doesn’t lead to liberation. Rather, cultivating renunciation, goodwill and harmlessness, and developing the mind accordingly, is the motivation that leads to nibbāna.
  • While it’s impossible to know “today I’ve made this much progress” it is possible over larger time spans to reflect and see how our practice has changed our character.
  • A short series of talks and Q-and-As on Buddhist wisdom by a modern Tibetan master.
Chapter 9

For most of us, what holds us back from perfecting virtue and becoming saintly ourselves is our fears and our worldly attachments. Bhikkhu Cintita skirted the emotionally charged side of this, but Bhante Yuttadhammo meets it directly in these provocative talks.

This inspiring set of verses, the penultimate of the Dhammapada, outlines the contours of the holy life and encourages us to dedicate ourselves diligently to the path.

Chapter 10

In which we finally get to meditation!

  • A short brief in a psychiatric journal summarizing the psychotherapeutic potential of Buddhist meditation.
  • A general introduction to meditation, these instructions are applicable to whatever meditation technique you do.
  • Essentially: note whenever your mind wanders, and then gently return your awareness back to the body, trying to maintain a continuity of awareness as much as possible.
  • Ayya Santussika gives a guided meditation, followed by a talk about her own practice of…
  • A comprehensive list of 44 qualities to develop along with a rubric of levels at which we might assess ourselves.
  • One of my favorite talks by my own teacher, Ajahn Suchart, which beautifully sums up the path, encouraging us all to strive for a real, lasting happiness.
Chapter 11
  • Ajahn Brahmali explains how ethics and meditation naturally lead to enlightenment.
  • This sutta makes the same point: If one merely focuses on ethics, and becomes consummate in ethics, the path to liberation unfolds on its own.
Chapter 12
  • A transcript of a conversation with Ajahn Panyavaddho.
  • Beyond being a nice recap of what we’ve covered in the course, I feel something of the wisdom and compassion of enlightenment coming through in the light-hearted sincerity of this exchange
  • And lastly, a short poem on enlightenment from the Canon.

Conclusion

  • A rousing collection of essays on Buddhist wisdom and an earnest appeal to put the teachings into practice.
  • Bhante Yuttadhammo closes the course by encouraging us to make the most of our precious human life: do good, avoid evil, and purify your mind.

Further Reading

Monographs

A classic translation of this classic book of poetry from the Pāli Canon.

The contemporary anthology of the Buddha’s teachings, Bhikkhu Bodhi organizes the key content of the suttas into a logical and progressive series of ten chapters.

A compendium of ‘essence’ teachings on nibbāna, as they appear in the Pāli Canon and in contemporary traditions. My most highly recommended book for anyone who wants to know what Nibbāna is.

The classic introduction to Buddhist meditation.

In this beautiful letter to a friend (and one of my favorite books period), Thay offers practical advice and encouragement to cultivate mindfulness: the quality of presence and wakefulness in our life. From washing the dishes to answering the phone, he reminds us that each moment holds within it the seeds of understanding and peace. Highly recommended for all, especially newcomers to Buddhism or meditation, or anyone looking to brighten their day.

Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this

Booklets

My most highly recommended introduction to Buddhist meditation.

As for the question of suffering in the future—in this life or the next—don’t overlook your heart that’s suffering right now.

A lucid and compelling explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path by a renowned contemporary scholar of Pāli and Early Buddhism. Highly recommended for everyone interested in Buddhism.

What lies behind this insistence on love is a worry: without a deep-seated fear that one day love would no longer exist (or exist in the same way) why would anyone feel that they have to insist upon it so much?

Canonical Works

beings are intoxicated with life and engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon [death], the intoxication with life is diminished.

It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief

Khp 5: The Highest Blessings

Featured in the course, "Buddhism 101"

So this holy life, bhikkhus, does not have gain, honour, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of virtue for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But it is this unshakeable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwood, and its end.

I did not delight in the contemplative Gotama’s speech; I condemned it, rose from my seat, and left!

It is wrong perception that leads to the concepts of being and nonbeing.

What is the one thing, O Gotama, Whose killing you approve?

Who was the Buddha in his own words? In this story, he calls himself the “Tathagata” or “Truth-Arriver”, and he responds to a question on what will become of him after his death. The Buddha explains that he doesn’t talk in such terms, as he has overcome all such notions as “I am the body” or “I am the mind” so how could such a question ever be answered? He ends the discourse by famously saying that all he teaches is suffering and the end of suffering, thus redirecting our attention from empty philosophical musings to the things that matter most.

Whoso has boys, has sorrow of his boys,
Whoso has kine, by kine come his annoys.
Man’s assets, these of all his woes are chief.
Who has no more, no more has grief.

The person who’s to their body-cave
Clouded by many moods…

a perilous flood has arisen,
for those oppressed by old age and death,
let me declare an island to you.
Owning nothing, taking nothing:
this is the island with nothing further.
I call this [island] ‘nibbāna,’
the extinction of old age and death.

Articles

Handicapped and at-risk Vietnamese youths share their appreciation and enthusiasm for a mindfulness meditation course.

Essays

It’s interesting to walk through the graveyards of towns, and see that for the first few years after a person dies there may be a head stone, maybe someone remembers, but after twenty, thirty, or forty years, they could bulldoze the graves because the land is so valuable and plant somebody else in there. So even your head stone just crumbles to dust. All record of you living here is gone, because no one remembers who you were or what you did. Isn’t that beautiful? So why not do that right now? Bulldoze this idea of who you are

There is no single “swiss-army knife” technique that works equally well at all times; instead, we must carefully examine our present conditions and determine what practice is most relevant.

During my first weeks with my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, I began to realize that he had psychic powers.

Kammaṭṭhāna meditation should be practised so as to reach Nibbāna, thereby escaping from all kinds of misery

no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,
for there was no such year

Audio/Video

A talk giving a comprehensive overview of Buddhist practice, based on MN 2 (the Sabbāsava Sutta).

A short introduction to the Dhammapada, from Gil Fronsdal’s 2008 translation, read by the author.

We manifest our humanity, we are most fully human, in learning.

There’s always something we can do to progress towards Awakening. And it’s something that has benefits all along the way.

Bhikkhu Bodhi shares with the Abhayagiri community his favorite section of the Dhammapada: verses 110–115.

A heartfelt and spellbinding talk on meditation practice and expectations.

Reference Shelf

or check out our other courses to continue your studies!


Footnotes:

  1. Here, by “default mode” I refer to what David Foster Wallace called our “natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Neuroscientists have even identified a spinning, vortex of related regions in the middle of the brain which they think is responsible for this self-centered processing, which they have dubbed the “Default Mode Network.”