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Key Buddhist Teachings

The following are simple explanations of some key Buddhist teachings.  To expound upon them at length would take more space than is practical, but hopefully these explanations will encourage people to explore the teachings more thoroughly.  


The word karma literally means “action,” but for Buddhist purposes it is defined as “cause and effect.”  Simply put, causes are things that make other things happen and effects are the things that happen due to causes.  The seeds of karma are produced by thoughts, words or actions stemming from a deluded view.  Karma may be experienced by ourselves or by others, and karmic effects may also mature.  This is called “flowering” or “ripening.” Effects ripen depending on the conditions they encounter.  These conditions are also known as “secondary causes” which make it possible for karma to ripen just as fertile soil makes it possible for plants to grow.

Karma has both potential and actual aspects.  Karmic seeds  which reside in our consciousness represent the potential for our subsequent existence in the realm of Samsara (realm of birth, death and rebirth).  Karma fuels the mechanism of rebirth, and so is considered to be the energy that fuels the Samsaric process.


LotusNirvana (Nibbana in Pali) comes from the ancient Indian word meaning “extinction” or “blowing out,” much as one would blow out a candle.  In this case, the word extinction refers to the extinction of desire, anger and ignorance which leads to perfect bliss, or “The Highest Perfect Joy.”  Nirvana is also known as the "unconditioned state” as opposed to the conditioned state of existence in which we find ourselves.

Nirvana is the transcendence of the cycle of Samsara.  Since Nirvana transcends Samsara it’s difficult to conceive with our Samsaric mind; think of it as the ultimate “outside the box..”  The Buddhist author Walpola Rahula says of Nirvana, “The only reasonable reply is that it can never be answered completely and satisfactorily in words, because human language is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality which is Nirvana.  Language is created and used by masses of human beings to express things and ideas experienced by their sense organs and their mind.”  The Third Noble Truth says that we can transcend Samsara, which points directly to Nirvana.

12 Links of Interdependent Origination

When Siddhartha became a Buddha he thoroughly realized that all phenomena arise as the result of cause and effect.  Each cause gives rise to an effect, which then becomes another cause, and so on in a seemingly endless cycle.  The Twelve Links represent one complete cycle of life:

  • Ignorance of the true nature of reality.  The mind dissolving into its own fundamental state of unconsciousness.
  • Mental Formations.  The gradual stirring of mental activity caused by karmic energy.  This activity begins the active phase of the pre-rebirth process.
  • Consciousness.  The ability of the mind to recognize something other than itself as an object.  A sense of self arises, and phenomena are perceived as being separate from this self (self-and-other).
  • Name and Form.  The manifestation of the rising sense of self.  “Some-thing” is perceived by "some-one."
  • The Realm of the Six Senses.  This consists of the six senses (Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking) as well as the objects of those senses.
  • Phenomena.  Contact with the phenomenal world; the contact between sensory subjects and sensory objects, a sort of  “tactile” sensation.
  • Feeling or Sensation.  Value judgment of the actual experience of contact (rough or smooth, hot or cold, etc.).
    Desire or Craving.  A tremendous yearning for experience.
  • Grasping or Clinging.  A powerfully driven blind will to achieve physical rebirth, to manifest into some form that can have experiences.
  • The Process of Becoming.  The culmination of the will to exist.  Abandonment of the endless nature of mind in order to give rise to the birth process.
  • Rebirth.  The physical process of birth.
  • Suffering, Aging, illness and Death.  The consequences of rebirth into Samsara, the conditioned realm in which we exist.

The Buddha, beginning with the reality of Samsaric existence, traced the rebirth process back to fundamental ignorance.  Suffering is dependent on Rebirth, Rebirth is dependent on the Process of Becoming, etc.

The Five Aggregates

These are the five causally conditioned elements of existence which produce the deluded sense of a separate self which exists apart from all other phenomena.  They are also thought of as the elements which comprise a "personality," a so-called "permanent self."  The Aggregates are all subject to the Three Characteristics of Existence, namely Impermanence, Suffering and Non-Ego (no-self).  The Aggregates are:

  • Form.  A “something-or-other” that is perceived by the senses.
  • Feeling.  A sensation of form which may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
  • Perception or Discrimination.  Our identification of this “whatever-it-is” as being some kind of “thing” that isn’t some other “thing.”
  • Mental Formations.  52 separate impulses which include emotions, mental states or intentions which come before an action.  These things are usually manifested through bodily actions, speech or thought.
  • Consciousness.  Awareness of both an experience and something which is experienced.  In effect, the Five Aggregates are the process of our samsaric life.


This commonly misunderstood term refers to the fact that all phenomena are "empty of" (do not have) a totally discrete existence apart from all other phenomena.  The teaching of interconnectedness, interdependence and interrelatedness.

Four Foundations of Mindfulness

  1. Awareness of the Body.
  2. Awareness of Feelings.
  3. Awareness of Mind.
  4. Awareness of the Objects of Mind.

Seven Factors of Awakening

  1. Full Attention (mindfulness).
  2. Full Inquiry (investigation of phenomena).
  3. Tireless Energy.
  4. Unworldly Joy.
  5. Tranquililty (lightness and peacefulnesss).
  6. Stillness.
  7. Equanimity.

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