The Language of Inner Truth

Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

by Bhikkhu Buddhadasa

Meeting with you on this occasion, I feel there is something that prevents us from understanding each other. That is none other than the problem of language itself. Language as it is conventionally spoken we will call everyday language, the language of ordinary persons. This is one kind of language. But there is another language spoken by those who know true reality, or dhamma. This is dhamma language, the language of higher or inner truth. People who are blind to reality speak and understand only the conventional language of ordinary people. On the other hand, the person who has genuinely realized the ultimate truth can speak either one. When only the higher truths of dhamma are discussed, the language will be unintelligible to ordinary people. “Inner” language is understood only by those who have realized the truth. What is more, the language of dhamma does not even demand verbalization; hence, a pointed finger or a raised eyebrow may communicate an ultimate meaning.

The ordinary, ignorant worldling is under the impression that there are many religions and that they are all different to the extent of being hostile and opposed. Thus one considers Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as incompatible and even bitter enemies. Such is the conception of the common person who speaks according to the impressions held by common people. Precisely because of speech like this there exist different religions hostilely opposed to one another. If, however, a person has penetrated to the fundamental nature (dhamma) of religion, he will regard all religions as essentially similar. Although he may say there is Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so on, he will also say that essentially they are all the same. If he should go on to a deeper understanding of dhamma until finally he realizes the absolute truth, he would discover that there is no such thing called religion—that there is no Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Therefore, how can they be the same or conflicting? Thus the phrase “No religion!” is actually dhamma language at its highest level. Whether it will be understood or not is something else, for this depends upon the perception of the listener.

Let us consider a simile, something very simple: water. Most people think there are many different kinds of water. The average person will view various kinds of water as if they have nothing in common. He sees rainwater, well water, underground water, water in canals, water in swamps, water in ditches, water in gutters, water in sewers, water in toilets, urine water, and so on. The common man will insist that they are completely different because his judgment depends on external criteria. A person with some knowledge, however, knows that no matter what kind of water, pure water can be distilled out of it. Distill rain water, river water, or even sewer water and you will find pure water. The elements that combine to make different-appearing types of water may alter or pollute it, but essentially these different forms are the same. If you proceed further with your analysis of pure water, you will conclude that there is no water—only two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen are not water. The substance that we have been calling water has disappeared. It is void, empty.

Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen are the same everywhere, wherever they may happen to be found; the substance water has ceased to exist, and we no longer need to use the term water. For one who has penetrated to the truth at this level, there is no such thing as water. In the same way, one who has attained to the ultimate truth sees that there is no such thing as religion! There is only reality or nature (dhammajati). Call it whatever you like–dhamma or truth–but you cannot particularize that dhamma or truth as Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. For whatever it is, you cannot define it by giving it labels. The reason the division of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam exists is that the truth has not yet been realized. Only outer forms are being taken into account, just as with canal water, muddy water, and the rest.

The Buddha intended for us to understand and be able to see that there is no person, no individual–only dhammas or real existents. Similarly, particular religions are not ultimately distinguishable. The label “Buddhism” was attached only after the fact, as it was with Christianity, Islam, and every other religion. None of the great religious teachers ever gave a name to their teachings; they just went on teaching throughout their lives about how we should live.

When the ultimate level is reached, there is only nature, only dhamma. It cannot be considered to be any particular thing because it cannot be a thing; it cannot be anything other than dhamma. It cannot be Thai, or Chinese, black or white, Eastern or Western. Nor can it be Buddhist or Christian or Islamic or anything else. When this dhamma is reached, you will have reached the heart of all religions and of all things, and finally come to the complete cessation of suffering.

Although we call ourselves Buddhists and profess Buddhism, we have not yet attained the truth of Buddhism since we are acquainted with only a tiny aspect of our own Buddhism. Although we be a monk, novice or layperson, we are aware of only the shell, the outer covering, which makes us think Buddhism is different from this or that religion. Because we have failed to understand and realize our own essential nature, we look down upon other religions while praising and supporting our own and thinking of ourselves as a separate group. Outsiders are not part of our fellowship. They are wrong; only we are right. Such judgments show our ignorance and foolishness. We are just like little babies who know only their own bellies. When you tell a small child to take a bath and ask him to wash with soap to get all the dirt off, the little child will scrub only his belly; he does not know to wash all over. He will never think of washing behind his ears or between his toes. In this same way, the perception of most adherents of Buddhism is limited to what they can do to get a reward. While supporting the temples or monks and observing the precepts, they have only the objective of getting more in return than they give. When they make offerings, some expect back ten times what they give, others a hundred times, and some even a thousand. Such people know nothing about Buddhism at all, for they are acquainted only with how to get and how to take. That is not Buddhism. It is the religion of getting; the religion of taking. Real Buddhism is to know how to get without getting, and take without taking, so that there is no suffering.

The heart of Buddhism is not getting things but getting rid of them. It is, in other words, nonattachment, not seizing or grasping anything, not even the religion itself, until finally it is seen that there is no Buddhism. To speak more precisely, that means there is no Buddha, there is no dhamma, there is no sangha! If it is expressed in this way, however, nobody will understand. They will be shocked and frightened instead.

If people understood, they would see that the Buddha, the dhamma (teachings), and the sangha are the same. They would see them as being dhamma, the true nature of things. They would not feel compelled to seize and hang on to their religion as that particular thing or this particular idea. Buddhism is just dhamma, the truth, a pure state, or whatever it is that you decide to label it.

But most of us dare not think this way! We are afraid even to think that there is no religion, no Buddha, no dhamma, no sangha. Even if people were forced to think or taught to think in this way, they still would not be able to understand. In fact, they would probably have a totally distorted viewpoint and react in the opposite way than was intended. For this reason, after the passing away of the Buddha there appeared many new systems of religious practice at various levels. If one wished to make offerings in order to gain benefits in return, it could be done. It evolved that merit became bait to attract people and to draw them into religion as a preliminary step. Through practice it was thought that eventually the people would grow beyond merit-making activities, because they are ultimately unsatisfying and lead to suffering. The next step on the way of dhamma is to voluntanly choose to live a plain and simple life, a pure life, without being led astray or intoxicated by anything. Though there is still a consciousness of a self who is enjoying this mode of happiness, it is higher than performing merit-making activities to gain a reward. In the highest level of dhamma, no trace of self remains. It is all over; nothing more is left to be done. The mind is no longer obsessed by the impression of an ego. Frustration and suffering are transcended, since there is no “I” to suffer. Then, as it is said in everyday language, there is real happiness. In dhamma language, however, there is not anything–nothing to get, nothing to have, nothing to be, nothing at all–and this is called “being void.” Everything still exists, but all awareness of it in terms of “I” or “mine” is voided.

Whenever a thought or feeling involving ego-awareness arises, suffering ensues at once, and the suffering always befits that particular concept of “I.” If “l” is human, it suffers like a human. If “I” is an angel, it suffers like an angel. Depending on the variations in the manner of the grasping and clinging of the ego to existence, there can also be birth as a denizen in hell, a beast, a hungry ghost (peta) or an asura (demon). In one day you may go through many births or many dozens of births, and every birth in such a manner is unsatisfactory, frustrating, and inseparable from suffering. To destroy this birth process is nibbana.

There is no need to speak about what happens after death. What is the point of talking about the state of being buried in the ground? It is irrelevant and completely unnecessary. First deal with the present problem of not being born. If you can understand the nature of your present life, you will not have to suffer anymore. When the process of continual rebirth is negated, there is no more self. This is freedom from ego. “I” becomes an empty concept—void–and that disposes of the problem. It is as simple as that. The question of the amount of time remaining in your life-span becomes meaningless, because time and the future cease to exist as soon as you discover how to prevent the birth of ego from ever occurring again. This state can be called non birth, or it may be called death.

The words birth and death have opposite meanings in everyday language and dhamma language. The same situation exists in the scriptures of other religions, especially Christianity. As a result, Christians often do not understand their own Bible, just as Buddhists do not understand Buddhist scriptures.

In Christianity we find that Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to atone for the sins of mankind, and also that Jesus said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). This shows that the word life has more than one meaning. Matthew 20:28 reads, “[He surrendered] his life as a ransom for many.” Here, life is used in its everyday-language sense: he submitted to being killed by others and, thus, to losing his life. Life in the passage “if you would enter life keep the commandments” is the identical word, but the life referred to here is not a life that can die. lt is a life that will never know death.

The word “die” in everyday language means to die or be killed. However, die in the language of God and as used by God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has quite a different meaning. God told Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2: 17). Eventually, Adam and Eve ate the fruit, but we know that they did not die that same day. That is, their bodies did not die but they died in the dhamma-language sense, a spiritual death which is much crueler than being buried in a coffin. Sin was newly born in the minds, as large and substantial as the Lauka Mountain, for they began to think in dualistic terms–good or evil, male or female, dressed or nude, husband or wife, and so on–to the point that their minds were flooded by indescribable sufferings. This mode of perception has been passed down to the present era. Consequently, the act of Adam and Eve is termed original sin. Death, in the original-sin sense, occurs whenever we partake of the fruit of dualism. At that very moment we die.

This meaning of death in the Christian language is similar to its meaning in the language of the Buddha. Both traditions point to the same truth, the truth about attachment and dualism, because whenever dualistic thoughts arise, there is bound to be suffering equivalent to dying. In death, all goodness has ceased. It is the end of happiness and peace when all the most worthwhile qualities have disintegrated. In the dhammic sense, everyone dies every day. It is a dying symbolized by frustration, worry, restlessness and anxiety.

To be resolved not to die is to be in accord with the Buddha’s teaching and in line with the objective of Buddhism. It is to refuse to be dominated by the original sin of dualistic thinking. The true nature of dhamma is that in reality there is no duality of any sort–no gain or loss, no happiness or suffering, no good or evil, no merit or sin, no male or female. There is absolutely nothing at all that can be divided and separated into opposite poles. Such dualism is the basis of all attachment, so do not cling to a dualistic outlook. Understand that there is nothing to be seized and held on to because everything is impermanent and only relative to the moment. Work with a mind that clings to nothing and is free from all forms of attachment. Such an attitude is called “working with a void mind.”

Every kind of work should be done with a void mind. Many people, unfortunately, have restless or agitated minds filled with the dark clouds of delusion. Consequently, they worry and are gloomy and insecure. Eventually they may suffer severe depression and nervous breakdowns. Regardless of position, intellect and sophistication, disorders of the mind, diseases of insecurity, anxiety and neurosis result from clutching at and clinging to such things as fame and money and being caught up in such matters as profit and loss, happiness and unhappiness, ease and dis-ease, praise and blame.

Seek therefore to transcend these concerns. Free yourself from all such attachment and your mind will be void. You will then be a wise person with a sharp and clear mind. With such a void mind, work will be carried out without the least bit of frustration or suffering. Sometimes it will even seem to be what we might term “dhammic fun,’” or a lightheartedness produced by detached understanding. Work in a dhammic sense makes no distinction between sacred and profane activities. In this sense all work is practice of the dhamma, whether it be physical or mental exertion, worshiping at the temple or plowing in the fields. Work as dhamma practice is, simply, working without grasping, clasping or clinging.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was an influential Buddhist monk from Thailand who lived in the 20th century and was best known for rejecting specific religious identification and considering all faiths as one. This essay first appeared in the book, Me and Mine, under the title, “No Religion.” Reprinted with the permission of Wat Suan Mokkh.

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