reserved space

Guest Article

Preface (by Paul)

I am happy to present this article by Jane Browne, who has very kindly permitted me to make this available on the internet.

What is the goal of Buddhism?

For monks and a few exceptional laymen the goal of Buddhism must be the purification of the mind leading to a state known as Nibbana, but for many Buddhists a more modest aim would be to lead a good life. For them recollection of the life of the Buddha and his Teaching helps them to achieve this goal.

I hope to give some indication from the scriptures of what is known about Nibbana and also the nature of a fully Enlightened man. I will also discuss the vital role of the Buddhist layman in supporting monks in their quest for salvation and how this contributes to their own desire for happiness.

The Buddha's teaching seems on the face of it to be quite straightforward and simple and yet few are willing and able to follow his instructions, we look at the obstacles which impede progress on the Path.

Is the goal of Buddhism the same as in other faiths and disciplines or is it in some way unique? Can Buddhists learn anything from studying the methods and aims of other faiths and disciplines? Buddhism is often accused of being a selfish religion, I would like to show how in practice this is anything but the case for only those who have made some progress have the authority to help others on the way.

Finally I will question whether a 'goal' is the right term for the ultimate aim of Buddhism or whether it would be better to just call it living in harmony with the Dhamma.

[Please note that whenever the term 'man' is used as in "layman" etc., this is to connote a human being, both male and female.]

In the Shorter Discourse on the Lion's Roar (M.N. Bodhi p163) which the Buddha gave to bhikkhus at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathathapindika's Park he said

"Bhikkhus, when ignorance is abandoned and true knowledge has arisen in a bhikkhu, then with the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge he no longer clings to sensual pleasures, no longer clings to views, no longer clings to rules and observances, no longer clings to a doctrine of self. When he does not cling, he is not agitated. When he is not agitated, he personally attains Nibbana. He understands: Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what has to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being."

Nibbana has also been described by the Holy One as incomparable security, the cessation of craving, Absolute Truth and the door to the deathless. My understanding is that, in modern psychological terms, someone who is on the way to enlightenment is no longer ruled by his emotions, he is a fully mature human being and has begun to realise his full potential. The experience of Nibbana has satisfied that deep thirst for wholeness, he no longer looks outside himself for happiness and so something rather beautiful happens. A unique flowering takes place growing out of the debris of the mistakes of the past when he grasped for happiness in all the wrong places. From now on his happiness comes from sharing this Teaching with others.

One might expect the character of someone who had realised the emptiness of his own-being would be dull and featureless but this is far from the case. From reading the modern translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and Maurice Walshe of the Middle and Longlength Discourses, the individuality of the Buddha becomes apparent. His teaching is eloquent using similes from the lives of people and animals with which he is familiar and based on his wide knowledge of skills as varied as archery, pottery, horse breaking and deer trapping. His understanding and compassion enabled him to unravel the knots in the minds of people who came to him with their problems.

His close disciples were also totally different in character - The Ven Ananda with his devotion to the Buddha and his amazing ability to remember all his sermons which was so vital as nothing was written down for four hundred years - The Ven Sariputta, the Marshall of the Dhamma, whose understanding of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination was as great as the Buddha's - The Ven Moggallana who had great psychic powers ~ and many others, all quite unique in their skills and attributes. One can read about them in a lovely book called Great Disciples of the Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (Wisdom Publications 1997). In our own time there are biographies of meditation masters in Thailand which show their great diversity of skills as Teachers. I was fortunate enough to attend a centenary celebration of the birth of their Teacher, Acharn Mun (1870-1949), in Sakhon Nakhon province. I looked round the assembly of monks, many of whom were reputed to have made great attainments and saw a collection of men and women who could have been Captains of industry, Generals, Chairmen of banks. They had a calm authority, self-possession and dignity, some looked very fierce, some gentle and all were very impressive.

Acharn Mun, with perseverance and courage, had blazed a way through to Nibbana when no one thought it was still possible., 'The Master would later tell his disciples that at this time, towards the close of the last century and the turn of the next, there was little interest in Thailand in the practice of meditation and mind development and especially in the mode of life of the dhutanga monk' (p84 The Buddhist Saints of the Forest, Tambiah, CUP 1984). Many famous Teachers, some of whom are alive today, owe their rapid progress on the Path to Enlightenment to him. Their methods of Teaching are quite different -

'Acharn Fun appears to have tried to lead his disciples to experience tranquil bliss and happiness' (P139 above) 'Acharn Cha taught mindfulness in all postures, watching defilements in the mind and letting go of them' (p137) 'Flexibility and voluntariness, fashioning one's own regime within the formal disciplinary limits and rules is matched by Tan Acharn Maha Boowa's instruction. Following his own Master's precedent, The Ven Maha Boowa does give Discourses and sermons to his assembled disciples, but pupils are encouraged to practice on their own in their own dwellings' (p145)

It is thought that there are a few laypeople who have achieved Nibbana. The Buddha named eleven laymen and ten laywomen in the Anguttara-Nikaya (PTS Vol 2 p22) and there must have been some since. Most are satisfied by fulfilling their vital role in supporting the Sangha. The Sangha, aware of the sacrifices made on their behalf, are honour bound to practice the Buddha's Teaching to the utmost of their ability. On the other hand - 'Too much contact between the laity and the monastics can become a threat to the maintenance of the purity of the Dharma' (Buddhist Saints in India. R. Ray 1994 OUP) and Ray goes on to show how the two tiered model of Buddhism in India was responsible for the growth of Mahyana Buddhism with its emphasis on compassion rather than personal salvation.

There should be no reason why it is necessary to become a monk in order to reach the goal in Buddhism. The Buddha's teaching is very simple, perhaps that is why it is so difficult for an educated mind to accept it. The evidence is right with us all the time, 'within this very body, mortal as it is and but a fathom in length, lies the world, the origin of the world and the ceasing thereof' (S N Rhys Davids 1979 p86).

Having become skilled at calming the mind through the practice of meditation one can then begin the investigation of the body.

The following passage on the arousing of insight knowledge was given to the wanderer Sakuludayin by the Buddha. 1 make no apology for its length as this seems to contain the key to releasing the mind from the shackles of ignorance.

'Again, Udayin, I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to understand thus: This body of mine, made of material form, consisting of the four great elements, procreated by mother and father, and built up out of boiled rice and porridge, is subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration, and this consciousness of mine is supported by it and bound up with it.' Suppose there was a beautiful beryl gem of purest water, eight faceted, well cut, clear and limpid, possessed of all good qualities, and through it a blue, yellow, red, white or brown thread would be strung. Then a man with good sight, taking it in his hand, might review it thus:
'This is a beautiful beryl gem of purest water, eight-faceted, well cut, clear and limpid, possessed of all good qualities and through it is strung a blue, yellow, red, white or brown thread'. So too, I have proclaimed to my disciples the way to understand thus: 'This body of mine is subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration,-and this consciousness of mine is supported by it and bound with it. 'And thereby many disciples of mine abide having reached the consummation and perfection of direct knowledge'
(MN Bodhi 1995 p642)

I was taught that Acharn Mun's advice to his disciples was to control the mind by keeping it on or within the body at all times. Straining to reach Nibbana is self--defeating.

John Richards, once a Buddhist monk, now an Anglican priest, who wrote an excellent little book called The Practice of Recollection when he was still Bhikkhu Mangalo says that you fall backwards into Nibbana. it requires equal measures of faith and wisdom, and of effort and calm, based on mindfulness, to transform ignorance into the blessed understanding which will break the cords of attachment. (see p.1 Unit Eleven, Foundations of Buddhism J Peacock).

What prevents one from maintaining mindfulness when it is plainly the vital ingredient to success in meditation and the development of insight? At the end of the Satipatatthana Sutta the Buddha says:

' ... Whoever should practice these four foundations of mindfulness for just one week may expect one of two results: either Arahantship in this life or, if there should be some substrate left, the state of a Non-Returner.' (DN Walshe p350)

The novice will say to himself, surely I can maintain mindfulness for one week and win through to Nibbana if that is all that is required? When he finds it difficult to maintain it for one minute he realises that he has serious problems with his mind. The Buddha gave a list of some of these in the Culaassapura Sutta in the Maijima Nikaya. Envy, malice, malevolence, wrath, grudging, hypocrisy, spite, jealousy, stinginess, treacherousness, craftiness, evil desires and finally, wrong view. Most people are quite unaware of these defilements lurking in their minds. This is where meditation is so important, when the mind is still they can be seen all too clearly. Meditation does give temporary relief from the turmoil they cause, but prolonged mindfulness depends on the qualities of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity having taken their place. Tan Acharn Maha Boowa, one of Acharn Mun's pupils, says that if one lives according to the Dhamma these qualitites will develop. They cannot be assumed like a cloak over bad thoughts, one's actions tend to give one away.

When the Buddha was asked by a Brahmin student what he should do to reach heaven he taught him the four Brahma Viharas. He said he should pervade all the corners of the earth, above, below and round about with a mind imbued with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. (MN p816 Bodhi) It is often said that all religions lead to the same goal. I asked the Rev John Richards (formerly Bhikkhu Mangalo) about the goal of Christianity, he said it was to do God's will and to take Christ's life as a guide as to how to live. It is the same for Muslims but they would follow the pattern of Muhammad's life (570-632AD). For both religions, to be martyred would be proof of sanctity, but violence is an anathema to Buddhists. (This is not to say that practising Buddhists do not have to learn how to deal with the pain that arises from long periods of sitting and the fear from living in dangerous situations, but this is all done willingly and does not involve other people making bad kamma for themselves). The ultimate aim of Hindus is to become one with Brahma, so how is this similar to realising the Unconditioned?

There are similarities between the goal of Buddhism and the aims of some forms of modern Western Psychology. Rune Jacobsen wrote an interesting book called The Psychology of Nirvana (George Allen & Unwin) where he concluded: 'In a word, although we have found great similarities between Nibbana and the concept of mental health, the differences predominate because they are expressions of very different philosophies. The Psychologist stresses society, the personal success and effectiveness in this world, the unceasing activity towards (badly defined, even dubious and contradictory) goals. The Buddha stressed the individual development of internal freedom and intelligent judgement, 'disinterested' action, balance and stability'.

The way the Buddha organised his monasteries on strictly egalitarian lines, with common ownership of property and each monk having an equal say in decision making, could have been the blue print for a Marxist state but of course the ultimate aims were quite different. Communism failed because it denied the individual freedom and maintained the status quo by force whereas Buddhism relies on kindness and wisdom.

Of course, Buddhists can learn from people of other faiths and disciplines. For example, practical methods of demonstrating loving kindness from Christians, courage and self-discipline from Muslims, intellectual honesty from Humanists, psychological understanding from psychologists and unselfishness from Marxists.

On the whole, Buddhism is admired and tolerated by other faiths although it is sometimes criticised for being selfish because the Buddha put self-salvation as the primary task of every man. As he goes on to say that, having achieved this goal, one should then hand on this precious teaching to others so that their suffering should end, this is rather a short sighted view. Even if the Arahant has no gift for teaching, he can still be a beacon of light in the darkness of a world without hope. In the Culagosinga Sutta, the Buddha has nothing but praise for three Bhikkhus who are leading a life of blameless purity, living quietly together in the Park of the Gosinga Sala-tree Wood. He said that, for people just to remember them with confidence, would lead to their own welfare and happiness for a long time -

'See, Digha, how those three clansmen are practising for the welfare and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare and happiness of gods and humans'. (p306 MN Bodhi 1995)

I would like to finish by questioning whether the Summum. Bonum of Buddhism can be called a goal if, by achieving a goal, it means that there is nothing more to be done.

I asked Tan Acharn Maha Boowa why Arahants tended to remain in the forest and his reply was that even the citta of an Arahant can become dusty. The Buddha warned that -

'He, brethren, who is Arahant, sane and immune, even for that brother I say gains, favours and flattery are a danger'. (KS 1922 p161)

It seems that, if the Arahant wishes to hand on the Buddha's dispensation, he must not betray the trust of ordinary people by behaviour that would offend them. The Buddha, and many other of his successful followers since, have continued to live lives of simplicity and frugality as an example to their fellow bhikkhus and the laity. The goal, therefore, is to walk on the Noble Eightfold Path and continue to practice right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Nibbana is not a state, it is a process of living within the Dhamma.

In the Anguttara-Nikaya the Buddha said that after his Enlightenment it had occurred to him that-

'Ill at ease dwells the man who reverences not, obeys not.'

But he could find no one more perfect in virtue than himself in the world of Devas and mankind. Then he had the thought that -

'Suppose this Dhamma in which I have been perfectly enlightened ~ suppose I were to dwell honouring, reverencing, obeying and serving this Dhamma?'

Brahma Sahampati, knowing what was in the Buddha's mind, came to him and said:

'Even so, Exalted One! Even so, Wellfarer! Whosoever were in times past arahants, perfectly enlightened ones, lord, those reverend ones also dwelt, honouring, reverencing, obeying and serving Dhamma. Whosoever, lord, in future time shall be arahants... shall also dwell honouring ... and serving Dhamma. So also now, lord, let the Exalted One who is arahant, a perfectly enlightened one, dwell honouring, reverencing, obeying and serving Dhamma.' (AN 1979 Vol 2 p20)

This seems to be the point of convergence between Christianity and Buddhism. Is doing God's will and living in harmony with the Dhamma so different in practice?


  1. Majjhima-Nikaya, trans. Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, 1995
  2. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest, Tambia, CUP, 1984
  3. Buddhist Saints in India, Ray, OUP, 1994
  4. Samyutta-Nikaya, trans. Mrs Rhys Davids, PTS 1952
  5. Digha-Nikaya, trans. M. Walshe, WP, 1987
  6. The Psychology of Nirvana, Jacobsen, George Allen & Unwin, 1969
  7. Anguttara-Nikaya, trans. Woodward, PTS, 1979

Jane Browne, 2002

Biographical Note

Jane Browne is a long-time Buddhist practitioner, subscriber to the Middle Way since the early 1950s, and continual supporter of the English Sangha. She is a follower of Ven Acharn Maha Boowa and has often made the journey to Wat Pah Baan Taad in North-East Thailand. In the UK she has been involved with various Buddhist groups, including the Hampshire Buddhist Society in the 1960s, the Truro Buddhist Group in Cornwall from the '70s to the '90s, and the Network of Buddhist Organsiations. She now lives in Somerset.

I am personally very grateful to her for having introduced me to the life of Venerable Acharn Mun - Mrs Browne lent me a copy of his biography and that sowed the seeds for my helping to put it online.

Related Links

  • Tan Ajahn Maha Boowa Nyanasampanno Site for the late Ven Acharn Maha Boowa at Wat Pah Baan Taad, his monastery in North-East Thailand
  • Biography of Ven Acharn Mun Bhuridhatta - a rich account of the meditation master accredited by many for greatly helping the revival of the Thai Forest Tradition. Two English translations are available online, the first is by Tan Ajahn Dick Silaratano, available from the Wat's Web site (book section). An earlier one is by Mr. Siri Buddhasukh, (PDF from this site) or alternatively in HTML format, transcribed by John D. Hughes and his wife Anita M. Hughes.

Index to Articles | Main Buddhism Index

HTML version created: 9 March 2003
Last updated: 19 March 2011