The Universal Teaching of the Buddha
A Dhamma talk given by Mr S.N. Goenka in Singapore.

A few years ago, quite by accident, I found this booklet which records the above talk given by the guru S.N. Goenka. When I finally got down to read it, I found that it was one of the most beautiful articles I've every read. Seldom had 8000+ words had such a profound effect on me. Mr Goenka could describe the Dharma with such clarity in so few words. I thought I must have been a really good boy to deserve the karma to learn from this wonderful man.

It is my wish to share this article with everybody. 8000 words is indeed a little long. What I did here was to condense the article down to 3000 words to facilitate convienent consumption. For the full text (8000 words long), please click here.

I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did.

I come from a tradition of very staunch conservative Hindus, and because I come from that tradition, I know the background and teachings of Indian spirituality. When I went to my teacher for the first time to take a Vipassana course, nothing seemed new to me. Buddha taught sila (morality), so did the conservative Hindus and Jains. Buddha taught samadhi, mastery over the mind, and I found that this was there also. Every tradition teaches how to control the mind, how to develop mastery over the mind. Buddha teaches panna, wisdom; and it seemed that that also was not new to me. In the tradition from which I come, one has to work to purify the mind - to come out of raga, i.e. craving; to come out of dosa, i.e. aversion; to come out of moha, i.e. ignorance. Nothing was new, and yet everything was new.

This mind, this body, which includes the entire sensorium, is impermanent, anicca, anicca. This cannot be a source of happiness for us. This is only a source of misery, dukkha, dukkha. This phenomenon is not "I," is not "mine," is not "my soul." Anatta. To many people it seems that this was the contribution of the Buddha. But this is not so. Even at the time of the Buddha we find instances when people who were not his disciples came to him and he questioned them, What do you believe about this mind-matter sensorium? Is it nicca or anicca, permanent or impermanent?" And the listener answered, "Anicca." "Is this sukha or dukkha?" and he said, "Dukkha". "Is this I, me, mine, myself, or no I, no me, no myself?" "It is no I, no me, no myself - anatta". He was Bahiya (an outsider), not a follower of Buddha, and yet he gave these answers. Then what was the wonderful contribution of Buddha?

First he questioned this person, "What do you believe? Is it anicca? Is it dukkha? Is it anatta?" And this person replied, "Yes, this is anicca. It is dukkha. It is anatta." And then the Buddha said, "By observing it so, one becomes liberated from misery. Mere believing won't help you. You observe the reality; and with your own observation, direct experience, then you understand this is anicca, this is dukkha, this is anatta." Herein lies the beauty of the Buddha's teaching.

As you practise Vipassana you will find that there are sensations throughout your body. In feeling, the mind is involved. A particular sensation has come - mind feels it and a part of the mind reacts to it. If it is pleasant, it reacts with craving. If it is unpleasant, it reacts with aversion. When the mind is reacting with aversion, the unpleasant sensation becomes more unpleasant. This interaction is going on, every moment and one does not know what is happening.

As you start experiencing these sensations, you will notice that as and when you kill you generate a tremendous amount of anger or hatred or ill will or animosity. This dosa must arise in your mind - only then will you kill someone. If you are a good Vipassana meditator, you will find that as soon as you generate any negativity in your mind - anger, hatred, ill will, animosity-you are getting agitated, you are becoming miserable. You can't enjoy peace when you generate anger. As soon as you generate anger you are the first victim of your anger. It makes no difference if you are a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain.

   He suffers now, he suffers after death, 
   in both cases the wrongdoer suffers.

When you perform an action, physical or vocal, with the base of a defiled mind, you have multiplied your habit pattern of reacting with the defiled mind. And this habit pattern keeps multiplying, keeps generating misery for you. One understands this by practicing Vipassana. Every moment that I react with aversion, I become miserable. The sensation that I experience while generating aversion is a very unpleasant sensation. It makes me feel so unhappy, and I realize, "Look nature is punishing me, nature is punishing me now, here and now and will continue to punish me unless I come out this habit pattern."

This is the law of nature. The Buddha did not create it. Dhamma is there. The Buddha discovered it. He went to such a depth that he discovered the law of nature at the experiential level, which made him an enlightened person.

Everyone can practise the technique that he discovered and they will get the same result. Everyone can explore the truth within the framework of the body and can understand the interaction. When you become more and more established in this truth at the experiential level your sila becomes perfect. If I place my hand on the fire - knowingly or unknowingly - it burns. The next time I will be very careful: "Oh, I should not place my hand on the fire - it burns - look, it burns and I don't like this burning. I want to keep my hand away." As the fire outside burns you as soon as you touch it, so also, your impurities burn youas you start generating them, and you start experiencing this burning. You won't want to generate more misery for yourself when you start experiencing the truth inside.

This is what the Buddha called passa-yana: "With Vipassana you observe directly; experience this truth and understand the reality. Then you understand my teaching properly." Otherwise, for your whole life you may say "Everything is anicca, everything is dukkha, everything is anatta." What do you gain? I didn't gain anything until I practised. Buddha is not in favor of any devotional or emotional entertainment. Buddha is teaching the actual practice of Dhamma.

With an experiential understanding of the Dhamma, it becomes so clear that there is no sectarian teaching at all. I may call myself by any name, because it doesn't make any difference. Even if I call myself a Buddhist, if I generate raga, lobha, dosa, and moha - is there any Buddha above the clouds who will come and save me? If I really want to come out of suffering I must come out of lobha, dosa, and moha.

The beauty of Buddha's teaching is that he discovered this law in depth, made use of it for his own enlightenment and then distributed it to others. "Look; I got enlightenment by this, I got liberated by this. You can also get liberated, everyone of you. You just try - you just work with the practice.

And it is the beauty of Buddha's teaching that he says, "I am not interested to make you my pupil, I am not interested in breaking you from your old teacher. I am not interested even to change your goal, because everyone wants to come out of suffering. Just give me seven days of your life. Try something that I have discovered and then judge for yourselves whether it is good or not good for you. If it is good for you, then accept it. Otherwise, don't accept it." This is Buddha's way of teaching.

The path is universal. One comes to a course of ten days or longer to practise what the Buddha taught. And the first requisite is: when you come you have to observe five precepts during your stay. Hindu or Muslim, Christian,Buddhist or Jain, all will take five precepts. They don't disagree; they accept this discipline-because the precepts are universal. Which religion will say, "Yes, you can kill; it doesn't matter. Go ahead, you can steal; it doesn't matter." No religion wlll teach that, because moral conduct is the greatest common denominator of all the religions.

So the first step is to practise moral physical and vocal actions. Next you are asked to sit down comfortably, keeping your back straight. You close your eyes, close your mouth and your guide will say, "Observe your breath." This is what Buddha taught: "Observe your breath, natural breath - as it comes in - as it goes out."

Suppose along with the awareness of the breath, one is instructed to mentally recite a word. This is what happens in various kinds of meditation. You are asked to breathe in while mentally reciting one word; breathing out, you mentally repeat another word. For example, if I am a Hindu, I breathe in: "Rama, Rama"; if I am Sikh: "Sata-nama, Sata-nama."Like this, some word is used, whatever it might be. One who calls himself a Buddhist will say, "Buddha, Buddha, Buddha."

This teaching is sectarian, because whenever one is given any word to recite, that word is almost always a sectarian word. How can a non-Buddhist say "Buddha, Buddha, Buddha"? Certainly, mentally repeating "Buddha, Buddha," the mind will get concentrated. In the same way if you recite, "Rama, Rama, Rama,"your mind will get concentrated. Even if you use an ordinary word, like, "clock, clock,clock, clock," the mind will get concentrated. But the Buddha never gave his followers any word to concentrate on.

Buddha's instruction is to observe the breath just breath, natural breath. The breath cannot be Hindu, breath cannot be Muslim, cannot be Christian. In my teaching, everywhere around the world, I find people coming from different sects, different communities, different beliefs. I ask them to observe breath. It doesn't go against their religion and they accept it. Breath is breath, natural breath. Buddha's object of meditation is so universal.

Buddha says no shape, no form, no verbalization, no visualization, no imagination. Yathabhuta nana dassanam (realization of the truth as it is). This is Buddha's teaching. Yathabhuta: as it happens, as it is happening at this moment. The breath has come in. That's all. The breath has gone out. That's all. If it is deep you are just aware that it is deep. If it is shallow, you are just aware that it is shallow. You don't interfere with the natural flow of the nature. You are just aware. Your job is to develop the faculty of awareness.

You are asked to keep the attention at the entrance of the nostrils. For three days you keep working continuously because nothing else is allowed in a Vipassana course. You are just observing yourself.

One day, two days, three days pass, then you begin to notice that besides this breath going in and coming out, something else is happening. Every moment there is some biochemical reaction throughout your body, but at the conscious level you are unaware of this. At a deeper level your mind keeps feeling these biochemical flows and keeps reacting to them. There is some sensation happening everywhere in the body. It may be heat or perspiration; it may be throbbing, pulsing,itching, tickling something or the other keeps happening. But you are instructed to keep your attention on the area of the nostrils.

On the third day you start feeling something happening here. Again, your teacher will say, "Just observe. Do nothing. If it is itching, just observe. Don't scratch it. Don't rub it. Just observe the itching. See how long it lasts." You observe, observe, observe. . . and it passes away. No itching is eternal; it doesn't stay forever. It increases and decreases, and sooner or later it goes. "Oh, anicca. Oh, anicca. After all,it passes away; sooner or later it passes away." You understand anicca. Like this, everything that arises, arises to pass away; it arises to pass away.

Initially you are concentrating on the area at the entrance of the nostrils. By the time you reach the fourth or fifth day, you will explore the entire physical structure and you will find that everywhere there is some sensation or the other. Wherever there is life, there is sensation. Again, you just observe: yathabhuta. You are observing objectively: yathabhuta nana dassanam. You are not identifying yourself with this sensation. It is not necessary that you start naming this sensation. Instead of naming the sensation, you understand its nature. Whatever sensation has come up, you are trained to observe: "Let me see how long it lasts. Let me see how long it lasts." And you find that soonor or later, it passes away: anicca, anicca. Buddha wanted you to understand this anicca at the experiential level. If you simply understand at the intellectual level - "Well, everything in this world is anicca. Look, see how people take birth and die. Buildings get erected and later they get demolished. Oh, everything is anicca" - this is merely intellectual understanding; it is not the passa-jana that Buddha wants you to have. With Vipassana you must understand, "Look how very impermanent, how very ephemeral! Arising, passing; arising, passing";

Again this is universal. This is true for everybody but people don't have the eye of wisdom. They don't have this technique of Vipassana, to feel this process of mind and matter interaction - arising, passing; arising, passing; arising, passing. And this is the specialty of Buddha's teaching. As I say, in the tradition from which I came, that teaching was there: "You must be free from craving. You must come out of aversion. You must come out of ignorance". I used to recite all that in the Gita. But how to come out of craving, aversion and ignorance? These are nothing but sermons.

If Buddha had also said only this, then there would have been no difference between Buddha and other teachers. Buddha tells us how to come out of our suffering: "Look, here is a technique. Where the greed starts, you go to the depth where it is generated. Where the aversion starts, you go to the depth and you see how it starts." By practising Vipassana you will start to understand. Experiencing this one starts changing the habit pattern of the mind.

   The meditator dwells observing the phenomenon of arising in the body.
   He dwells observing the phenomenon of passing away in the body. 
   He dwells observing the phenomenon of simultaneous arising and passing 
   away in the body.	

Unless you go to the depth of the mind, you can't change its habit pattern at the deepest level. This is what the Buddha found by practising all eight jhanas - the anusaya kilesa (sleeping impurities) remain. These impurities are the behavior pattern of the mind and they will continue unless you strike at the root, unless you cut that root. Otherwise there is no possibility of getting liberated. Practising these lokiya jhanas, you may enjoy wonderful ecstasy which does bring purity of mind at the surface level. With this layer of mental purity, after death you may attain this loka (plane of existence) or that loka; but still you are rolling. You are rotating in the loka. You cannot go beyond that. Only when you cut the root - the root of all the anusaya kilesa, where the impurities arise - only then will you get liberated.

Understand that there is a big barrier between the so-called "conscious mind" and what is called the half-conscious or unconscious mind by Western psychologists. Buddha never used these words because no part of the mind is unconscious. What is called "conscious mind" he called paritta citta, a very tiny part of the mind.

But still, if you understand the Western psychological terminology, then call them conscious, half-conscious, unconscious. Day and night the so- called unconscious mind is aware of these sensations in the body-day and night, every moment. And it is not only aware of them; it is reacting to them - every moment, it is reacting. That means it is multiplying the behavior pattern of craving, of aversion; of craving, of aversion. Either the sensations are pleasant or unpleasant, and this part of the mind keeps reacting, over and over. The conscious mind doesn't know what is happening at all.

For example now, at this moment, I am sitting. If I am not a good Vipassana meditator, what happens? While I am talking, my conscious mind is working: "Look, I have said so much. Now I must conclude in this way. Time is getting short. I must finish the talk now....etc..... They are looking at their watches. I must stop talking." My conscious mind is doing this job. The unconscious mind has nothing at all to do with it. The unconscious mind is busy feeling sensations. Sitting for one hour in one position with this heavy weight, a pressure starts somewhere in my body. When a pressure starts this unconscious mind says, "I don't like it. You better move." So I move a little. After some time another pressure appears. Again I move a little. Some itching might start up and automatically I scratch it. My conscious mind doesn't know what I am doing. Try observing someone. Keep watching him or her for 15 minutes. Do nothing: just observe the person. You will notice how frequently he or she is shifting like this and fidgeting here and there. What is he doing? Even the person himself or herself does not know what he or she is doing. This is because there is such a big barrier between the conscious and the unconscious part of the mind. The conscious mind is occupied with so many things. The unconscious mind is busy only feeling sensations and reacting, feeling sensations and reacting.

This barrier needs to be broken. You may have the intellectual understanding: "Oh everything is anicca, everything is anicca, there should be no lobha, no dosa." And yet there is lobha, there is dosa. This mind, this unconscious mind does not understand that this is anicca. When there is pain, it doesn't like it: "Oh, this is unpleasant. I don't like it." It keeps on reacting. Now, with Vipassana, you go to the depth where the mind feels the body sensations. It is at the level of the bodily sensations that the unconscious mind is reacting; and it is a tthis level that you can stop this unconscious mind from reacting. Whatever may have been understood at the intellectual level, now this mad mind, the blind mind, also starts understanding: "Look-anicca, Look, these sensations are anicca." Then the behavior pattern at the depth of the mind starts changing.

This was Buddha's enlightenment: this paticca samuppada (dependent origination). Other teachers will say, "Oh, you musn't react with craving to anything pleasant that you see, hear, smell, touch, or think. Whatever unpleasant experience there may be, do not have aversion." This teaching was there. Even today many are giving this teaching.

Buddha found out that there is a gap between the outside object coming in contact with the six sense doors and the reaction of craving or aversion. He discovered a missing link, and that missing link is vedana, the sensation on the body.

   With the base of the six senses, contact arises;
   with the base of contact, sensation arises; 
   with the base of sensation, craving and aversion arise.

I may think that I am free from craving or aversion when I hear something pleasant or unpleasant, but deep inside where the sensations have started, my mind keeps reacting. At the depth it keeps reacting. If I do not work with this link which is deeper than my superficial, intellectual understanding, I cannot come out of my misery because I cannot change the habit pattern of my mind. This is what the Buddha found out: salayatana paccaya phasso - at the six sense doors, there is contact. Phassa paccaya vedana: at every contact, there is sensation. When there is a contact at the ear sense door, or eye sense door, or nose sense door, or tongue sense door, or body sense door, or mind sense door - there is bound to be sensation on the body: vedana. Then vedana paccaya tanha: only after vedana will this craving and aversion arise. If you miss vedana, how will you know where the tanha has started? You won't even know that tanha has started. You may try to keep the impurities away at the surface level of the mind, but at the depth, long before the reaction becomes strong enough to emerge at the conscious level, it has already tied so many knots, so many knots! The behavior pattern becomes stronger and stronger. You can't come out of it by working only at the intellectual level.

The beauty of Buddha's teaching is that he gave this wonderful technique, which is universal. Anybody who goes to the depth and takes out all the impurity becomes a liberated person, and can keep calling himself by any name. It makes no difference. But someone who cannot penetrate to this depth keeps on rotating in misery. This law is universal, applicable to one and all. Buddha rediscovered this law, made use of it for himself, became liberated and then started distributing it to others with so much love, so much compassion. As people started practising it, they benefitted from it.

I invite all of you. As Buddha says, "Give me seven days of your life. Just give a trial." I am not a Buddha. I say, "Give me ten days of your life and try. Just try." Accept it only after you have passed through these ten days. You will find that Buddha's way is really beneficial - that it gives results here and now. You won't have to wait until after death. You will benefit here and now, and keep on benefitting.

May all of you get the best benefit of Buddha's teaching,the best fruits of Buddha's teaching.

Return to Interesting articles on Buddhism