Practice Guides March 1, 2019

The Teachings of the Buddha

Jack Kornfield, Sean Oakes

The Buddha's Story

It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"
"No," said the Buddha.
"Well, then are you some kind of magician or wizard?" Again the Buddha answered, "No."
"Are you a man?"
"Well, my friend, then what are you?" The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

The word buddha means "one who is awake." It is the experience of awakening to the truth of life that is offered in the Buddhist tradition. For 2600 years the practices and teachings of Buddhism have offered a systematic way to see clearly and live wisely. They have offered a way to discover liberation within our own bodies and minds, in the midst of this very world.

History records that the Buddha was born as a prince in an ancient kingdom of northern India. Although as a youth he was protected by his father in beautiful palaces, as he grew older the Buddha encountered what we must all face: the inevitable sorrows of life. He saw the loss of all things we hold dear, and the aging sickness and death that come to every human being. Seeing this, he chose to renounce his royal title and leave his palace to become a seeker of truth, searching for the end of human sorrow, searching for freedom in the face of the ceaseless round of birth and death.

For some years the Buddha practiced as an austere yogi in the forests of India. In time he realized that his extreme asceticism had brought him no more freedom than his previous indulgence in worldly pleasure. Instead, he saw that human freedom must come from practicing a life of inner and outer balance, and he called this discovery the Middle Path.

Having seen this, the Buddha seated himself under a great banyan tree and vowed to find liberation in the face of the forces that bring suffering to humankind. He felt himself assailed by these forces — by fear, attachment, greed, hatred, delusion, temptation and doubt. The Buddha sat in the midst of these forces with his heart open and his mind clear until he could see to the depths of human consciousness, until he discovered a place of peace at the center of them all. This was his enlightenment, the discovery of nirvāṇa, the freeing of his heart from entanglement in all the conditions of the world. The realization of truth that he touched that night was so profound that his teachings about it have continued to inspire and enlighten people all over the world to this day.

From the Buddha's enlightenment, two great powers were awakened in him: transcendant wisdom and universal compassion. Setting in motion the "Wheel of the Dharma," the Buddha wandered first to the Deer Park in Benares and gave instructions to the yogis who had practiced with him in the forest. After this, for 45 years he brought the teachings of wisdom and compassion to all who would listen. These teachings, which the Buddha called the Dharma or Way, are an invitation to follow the path of enlightenment. They are an invitation to all who hear them to discover their own "Buddha-nature," the freedom and great heart of compassion that is possible for every human being.

What the Buddha Taught

To bring about the awakening of students of all temperaments, the Buddha taught a wonderful variety of spiritual practices. There are foundation practices for the development of loving-kindness, generosity and moral integrity, the universal ground of spiritual life. Then there is a vast array of meditation practices to train the mind and open the heart. These practices include awareness of the breath and body, mindfulness of feelings and thoughts, practices of mantra and devotion, visualization and contemplative reflection, and practices leading to refined and profoundly expanded states of consciousness.

To carry on these teachings, the Buddha created an ordained Sangha, what is now one of the oldest surviving monastic orders on Earth. These monks and nuns, who still number in the hundreds of thousands around the globe, follow the Buddha through a life of renunciation. But the teachings he left were not limited to renunciates. They can be understood and awakened in the heart of human beings in every circumstance, in every walk of life. The essence of these teachings is what we offer at Spirit Rock.

(Adapted from Teachings of the Buddha, edited by Jack Kornfield with Gil Fronsdal, Shambhala, 2012.)

Fundamental Dharma Teachings

As in many oral cultures, the Buddha structured his teaching using lists, often numbered, like the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths. Much of our study of the teachings, called Dhamma in Pāli or Dharma in Sanskrit, revolves around these lists, which offer simple and memorable ways to learn the principles of the Dharma.

This practice guide assembles many of the most central lists of Dharma principles used in our practice, with the Pāli terms and common English translations. Where our Dharma Library includes a full practice guide on that list, it is linked. Practice guides include an overview of the list, links to important discourses (suttas) on the topic, and talks from Spirit Rock teachers to support you in your study.

The Lists

The Three Jewels & Three Refuges

  1. Buddha
  2. Dharma (Sanskrit) / Dhamma (Pāli)
  3. Saṅgha

The Three Characteristics

  1. Impermanence (anicca)

  2. Unsatisfactoriness/suffering (dukkha)

  3. Selflessness/not-self (anattā)

The Four Noble Truths

  1. The truth of suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha)

  2. The truth of the cause (samudaya) of suffering

  3. The truth of the cessation (nirodha) of suffering

  4. The truth of the path (magga) to the end of suffering

The Four Divine Abodes

  1. Lovingkindness (mettā)

  2. Compassion (karuṇā)

  3. Sympathetic Joy (muditā)

  4. Equanimity (upekkhā)

Four Foundations of Mindfulness

  1. Mindfulness of body (kāyā)
  2. Mindfulness of feelings (vedanā)
  3. Mindfulness of mind (citta)
  4. Mindfulness of qualities (dhamma)

Four Stages of Enlightenment

  1. Stream-entry (sotāpanna)

  2. Once-return (sakadāgāmi)

  3. Non-return (anāgāmi)

  4. Perfection (arahant)

Five Precepts

  1. Refrain from taking life
  2. Refrain from taking that which is not offered
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. Refrain from lying and unwise speech
  5. Refrain from intoxication that leads to heedlessness

Five Spiritual Faculties

  1. Faith/conviction (saddhā)

  2. Energy (viriya)

  3. Mindfulness (sati)

  4. Immersion/Concentration (samādhi)

  5. Wisdom (pañña)

The Four Elements

  1. Earth (pathavī)

  2. Water (āpo)

  3. Fire (tejo)

  4. Wind/Air (vāyo)

The Five Hindrances

  1. Sensual desire (kāmacchanda)

  2. Ill will (vyāpāda)

  3. Sloth and torpor (thīna-middha)

  4. Restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)

  5. Skeptical doubt (vicikicchā)

The Five Aggregates

  1. Form (rūpa)

  2. Feeling (vedanā)

  3. Perception (saññā)

  4. Mental Formations (saṅkhārā)

  5. Consciousness (viññāṇa)

Six Sense Bases

  1. The eye & seeing (cakkhu)

  2. The ear & hearing (sota)

  3. The nose & smelling (ghāna)

  4. The tongue & tasting (jivhā)

  5. The body & sensing (kāya)

  6. The heart/mind & cognizing (mana)

Seven Factors of Awakening

  1. Mindfulness (sati)

  2. Investigation (dhamma-vicaya)

  3. Energy (vīriya)

  4. Rapture (pīti)

  5. Tranquility (passaddhi)

  6. Concentration (samādhi)

  7. Equanimity (upekkhā)

Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right/Wise View (sammā diṭṭhi)

  2. Right Intention (sammā saṅkappa)

  3. Right Speech (sammā vācā)

  4. Right Action (sammā kammanta)

  5. Right Livelihood (sammā ājīva)

  6. Right Effort (sammā vāyāma)

  7. Right Mindfulness (sammā sati)

  8. Right Concentration/Immersion (sammā samādhi)

The Ten Perfections

  1. Giving (dāna)

  2. Ethics (sīla)

  3. Renunciation (nekkhamma)

  4. Wisdom (pañña)

  5. Energy (viriya)

  6. Patience (khanti)

  7. Truthfulness (sacca)

  8. Resolve (adhiṭṭhāna)

  9. Lovingkindness (mettā)

  10. Equanimity (upekkhā)

Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

  1. Ignorance (avijja)

  2. Volitional formations (saṅkhāra)

  3. Consciousness (viññāṇa)

  4. Name and form (nāma-rūpa)

  5. The six sense fields (saḷāyatana)

  6. Contact (phassa)

  7. Feeling tone (vedanā)

  8. Craving (taṇhā)

  9. Clinging (upādāna)

  10. Becoming (bhava)

  11. Birth (jāti)

  12. Old age and death (jarā-maraṇa)

The Discourses of the Buddha

The oldest comprehensive record we have of the Buddha's teaching are the writings collected in the Pāli language discourses preserved by the Theravāda school of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, known as the Pāli Canon, along with a largely parallel set of discourses preserved in China. Though the collection is quite extensive, it has now been translated into many modern languages and is an extraordinary and accessible source for study and practice.

Watch an introduction to the Pāli Canon created for Dharma Institute online courses.

As you work your way through the resources on the Spirit Rock site, you will find many links to discourses of the Buddha from the Pāli Canon. We are grateful for the website Sutta Central, founded by monastics and lay practitioners in the Forest Saṅgha lineage of Ajahn Chah, which contains almost the entire body of the Buddha's discourses (sutta) and the monastic code (vinaya) in a free and easily searchable format.

The teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pāli Canon are one of the world's great bodies of spiritual, philosophical, psychological, and social literature. These lists are just a beginning. With engagement, the discourses reveal the majestic depth and breadth of the Buddha's teachings, enriching every aspect of our practice.

To deepen your study and practice of the Dhamma, explore the offerings in the Dharma Institute or join us for a retreat. Blessings on your path.

Svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo 

Sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko

Opanayiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī’ti

The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One,
Apparent here and now, timeless, encouraging investigation,
Leading inwards, to be experienced individually by the wise.

(Recollection of the Dhamma)

Jack Kornfield
Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.