This is an introduction to and overview of Theravadan buddhism. The basis of this document are notes taken directly from the Pali canon (which is discussed in the next section), with additional commentary and explanation. This article should cover all the major foundational aspects and concepts of Theravadan buddhist thought and practice, as (apparently) taught by the Buddha himself. I have included a discussion of sources and resources for further reading at the end.

Buddhism is a widespread Eastern religion, which was discovered by the West in the 20th century, and continues to grow in popularity today. Unfortunately, like many cultural imports, Buddhism is largely misconceived in Western culture; the pervading view seems to be of it as some ancient and cryptic mysticism, which I believe is a result of fetishism of the mysterious ‘oriental mind.’ On the contrary, Buddhism in reality is an extremely lucid and rational philosophy.

One of the properties which struck me as I embarked on reading the texts, was that everything is very well-reasoned and properly discussed. For a long time it had been troublesome to me that ethical innovations provided by popular Western religions seem to rely on divine providence as reasoning. On the other hand, for example, when Buddha sets forth the Five Precepts (five basic rules to follow), he explains that these should be followed because they are foundational for the good of society, and because they combat delusion and suffering.

Indeed, an end to suffering is the central aspect of Buddhism, and is the final goal of the practice.

One question that many newcomers to Buddhism seem to have, and something which can be a struggle if one wishes to start studying or practicing Buddhism seriously, is how to resolve the supernatural aspects of the canon. This is an unresolved problem, and there are many opposing viewpoints. I do not profess to know the answer, but I think it is wise to consider that Buddhism grew from a distinct cultural environment, with its own theories of science, philosophy and religion. Buddhism was developed as a response and improvement on many religions of the time, particularly of the Hindu tradition, and as such it borrows from them discussion of Devas, Brahman and so on. Yet, Buddhism is also a rejection of the ideals these religions present. It seems to me, that to use this cultural lexicon was a way to teach Buddhism in the context of what people understood at the time.

Either way, it is unclear how literally one should take these parts of the canon, but I believe that to treat them metaphorically does not negate or detract from the central doctrine of Buddha’s teaching: the elimination of suffering. In the famous Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, Buddha discourages metaphysical speculation, stating that we should instead deal with the matter at hand; in the same way you would not delay treatment by speculation about unnecessary details when wounded by a poisoned arrow.

I will conclude this section with a paraphrasing of a quote from Access To Insight’s Introduction to Theravada: These teachings are meant to be assessed first-hand and tried, yielding the promised results. It is the truth the words point to which ultimately matters, not the words themselves.

Theravada and the Pali Canon

Theravada is one of oldest and most popular forms of Buddhism, and draws cultural inspiration from the Pali canon (Tipitaka), which is the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. The early mainstream buddhist canon was lost when Muslims invaded Northern India in 1100 and 1200, only one complete collection survived - that of the Theravada school. Since, the practice was transplanted to Sri Lanka (originally to escape the Muslims), and has since also spread to SE Asia. There are believed to be around 100 million followers of Theravadan buddhism today.

The Pali canon:

  1. Complete collection from single school (uniformity, most ancient and original).
  2. Preserved in the language most close to the one buddha likely spoke himself (palibhasa), thus reflects the relevant ‘thought world.’
  3. Still actively used as religious text.

After Buddha died (~480BCE), Anada commited over 500 of Buddha’s sermons to memory, then recited and verified them with monks. The teachings were passed down orally through the monastic community, as part of Indian oral tradition.

250BCE Sangha committed these teachings to writing, and arranged them into the Tipitaka (the three baskets):

  1. Vinaya Pitaka - “Basket of discipline” - Rules of the Sangha
  2. Sutta Pitaka - “Basket of discourses” - Sermons and utterances with close disciples
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka - “Basket of special/higher doctrine” - Detailed psycho-philosophical analysis of the Dhamma

And further into Nikayas:

  1. Digha nikaya - Long discourses [for popular audiences]
  2. Majjhima nikaya - Middle length discourses [for buddhist community]
  3. Samyutta - Connected discourses
  4. Anguttura - Numerical discourses

The Tipitaka plus the post-canonical texts, commentaries chronicles, constitute the complete body of classic Theravada literature.

Later, buddhism split up into 18 sects, one created Mahayana (Greater Vehicle), and Theravada is the sole survivor of the earlier non-Mahayana schools

One small note: In this document, Pali language terms have been anglicised - I have removed the diacritics - because it was easier to write the notes in this way. I may fix this at some point.

Four Noble Truths

The fundamental foundation of Buddhism are these Four Noble Truths. You will find the Buddhist canon simply loves enumeration, which I expect is because such techniques made the teachings much easier to remember for those hundreds of years before it was written down (likewise this probably accounts for the verse-like structure and frequent repetition within suttas). However, all these lists are like the ever-convoluting branches and twigs grown from these four truths. Everything in Buddhism can be traced down to these, and at their core they represent the entire Buddhist world-view and path to enlightenment.

  1. Dukkha: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, discontent, stress (understood).
  2. The cause of dukkha: craving (tanha) for sensuality, for states of becoming, and states of no becoming (abandoned).
  3. The cessation of dukkha: the relinquishment of craving (realised).
  4. The process leading to cessation of dukkha: the Noble Eightfold Path (developed).

Due to our ignorance (avijja) of these Noble Truths, and because of our inexperience in framing the world in their terms, we remain bound to samsara: the wearisome cycle of birth, ageing, illness, death, rebirth. Craving propels this process onwards, from one moment to the next and over countless lifetimes - in accordance with karma, the universal law of cause and effect. Act in unskillful and harmful ways and unhappiness is bound to follow; act skillfully and happiness will ultimately ensue (whether by body, speech or mind itself). Actions will bear their consequences. As long as one remains ignorant of karma, one is doomed to an aimless existence; happy one moment, despairing the next. Enjoying one lifetime in heaven, the next in hell. This is samsara.

Gaining release from samsara requires assigning to each of the four noble truths a specific action. The first is to be comprehended, the second abandoned, the third realised and the fourth developed.

Full realisation of the third noble truth paves the way for awakening: the end of ignorance, craving, suffering and karma itself; transcendent freedom and supreme happiness: nibbana (Nirvana), also known as enlightenment or awakening.

Noble Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is a collection of qualities which should be developed in the pursuance of release from samsara. It should not be confused with a linear path to be followed sequentially, despite it being named as a ‘path.’ Here the Eightfold Path is enumerated, accompanied by a list of what Buddha said these entail.

You may also notice that these items correspond to the Four Noble Truths. Right view to the first, right concentration to the last and so on. They can also each be attributed to one of the Threefold Gem (explained later).

  1. Right view (wisdom)
    • Knowledge of suffering
    • Knowledge of the origin of suffering
    • Knowledge of the cessation of suffering
    • Knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering
  2. Right resolve (or intention) (wisdom)
    • Intention of renunciation
    • Intention of non-ill will
    • Intention of harmlessness
  3. Right speech (discipline)
    • Absitinence from false speech
    • Abstinence from malicious (or divisive) speech
      • Speaking what is agreeable, gentle, loveable, agreeable to many
    • Abstinence from idle chatter
      • Speaks at the right time, what is fact, what is good, on the Dhamma and Discipline, worth recording
  4. Right action (discipline)
    • Abstinence from the destruction of life
    • Abstinence from taking what is not given
    • Abstinence from sexual misconduct
  5. Right livelihood (discipline)
    • Having abandoned a wrong mode of livelihood, a disciple earns his living by right livelihood
  6. Right effort (concentration)
    • Makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives
    • For generation of a desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states
    • For generation for the continuation of arisen wholesome states, their nondecline, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development
  7. Right mindfulness (concentration)
    • Dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful
    • Removing longing and dejection in regard to the world
    • Dwells contemplating feelings in feelings
    • Dwells contemplating mind in mind
    • Dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena
  8. Right concentration (concentration)
    • Seclusion from sensual pleasures
    • Seclusion from unwholesome states
    • Secluded from sensual pleasures, unwholesome states a monk enters and dwells in the first jhana
    • Reaching the four jhanas

Central Concepts


“Beings are owners of their kamma, heirs of their kamma; they originate from their kamma, are bound to their kamma, have their kamma as their refuge. It is kamma that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.”

  • Literally means ‘action’
  • Refers to volitional action, “it is volition (cetena) that I call kamma; for having willed (cetayitva), one acts by body, speech and mind”.
  • Karma thus denotes deeds that originate from volition
    • Mental: Thoughts, plans desires
    • Action: Manifest bodily and verbal actions
  • All morally determinate volitional actions create a potential to bring forth results (vipaka) or fruits (phala) that correspond to the ethical quality of those actions.
  • The capacity of our deeds to produce the morally appropriate results is what is meant by kamma
  • Process:
    • Our deeds generate gamma, a potential to produce fruits that correspond to their own intrinsic tendencies
    • When internal and external conditions are suitable, the kamma ripens and produces the appropriate fruits
    • Upon ripening, kamma rebounds upon us for good or for harm depending on the moral quality of the original action
    • Buddha says this may happen later during this life or in a future life
  • As long as we remain within samsara, any stored-up kamma of ours will be capable of ripening so long as it has not yet produced its results.
  • Ethical quality:
    • Wholesome (kusala); spiritually beneficial or morally commendable
      • It is judged by its underlying motives. There are three main wholesome roots:
        • Nongreed (generosity)
        • Nonhatred (loving-kindness)
        • Nondelusion (wisdom)
      • Distinction between wholesome kamma
        • Mundane (lokiya) leading to fortunate rebirth and pleasant results
          • Referred to as ‘bright kamma’
        • Supramundane (lokuttara) generated by developing the Noble Eightfold Path, leading to enlightenment & liberation from samsara; dismantling the process of karmic causation
          • Referred to a wholesome world-transcending kamma
    • Unwholesome (akusala); of spiritual detriment to the agent, reprehensible, potentially productive of unfortunate rebirth or pain; bound to mundane (samsara)
      • It is judged by its underlying motives. There are three unwholesome roots (from which there can be much delineation into hate, anger, hostility, arrogance etc):
        • Greed
        • Hatred
        • Delusion
      • Unwholesome action is referred to ask ‘dark kamma’
    • There is also combined bright and dark kamma which refers to a person who intermittently engages in both (an individual act being both is not technically possible)
  • Right view
    • Mundane; firm conviction in the validity of the law of kamma and its unfolding
    • Transcendent; pertaining to liberation, understanding of the four noble truths. Presupposes mundane right view (four noble truths following understanding of kamma
  • Parallels to idealism, showing that the conditions we live under closely corresponds to the karmic tendencies of our mind.

  • Different realms of rebirth:
    • sense-sphere realm (our realm, kamadhatu),
      • bad destinations (apaya): hells, states of intense torment, the animal kingdom (beings afflicted with constant hunger and thirst)
      • good destinations: human world and the six sensual heavenly planes
    • the form realm (rupa-dhatu),
      • brahmas enjoy bliss, power, luminosity and superiority to people in the sense-sphere realm, for which there are different planes based on the jhana reached
    • the formless realm (arupadhatu)
      • no form or matter
      • different planes which are the objective counterparts of the four formless meditative attainments: the base infinity of space, of consciousness, of nothingness, and neither perception-nor-non-perception long duration of lifespan

Dependent Origination

Dependent origination is a linked chain of twelve causes, which lead to rebirth and ultimately samsara.

  1. Ignorance, lack of direct knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, means we engage in wholesome and unwholesome activities of body, speech and mind
  2. These are, volitional formations, or kamma. These sustain consciousness from one life to the next and determine where it re-arises
  3. Consciousness is formed by volitional formation. Along with consciousness, beginning from the moment of conception comes
  4. name-and-form (name in mind correlate to form physical, condition for consciousness), the sentient organism with its physical form and its sensitive and cognitive capacities. The sentient organism is equipped with
  5. six sense bases, the five physical faculties and the mind as an organ of cognition. The sense bases allow
  6. contact to occur between consciousness and its objects, and contact conditions
  7. feeling. Called in to play by feeling,
  8. craving arises, and when craving intensifies it gives rise to
  9. clinging, tight attachment to the objects of desire through sensuality and wrong view. Impelled by our attachments we again engage in volitions actions pregnant with
  10. a new existence. At death this potential for new existence is actualised in a new life beginning with
  11. birth and ending in
  12. ageing and death.

12 factors split into rounds:

  1. Defilements
  2. Action
  3. Results

Defilements -> Action -> Results

(SN 12:1 ; II 1-2)

Five Clinging Aggregates

The ultimate referent of the first of the noble truths, so named because they combine all experience (e.g. all form, past future or present, past, future, far, near, inferior or superior etc).

  1. Form (physical component of experience)
  2. Feeling (its affect: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral)
  3. Perception (identification of things through mundane discernment)
  4. Volitional formation (volition, choice, intention)
  5. Consciousness (cognition through the six sense faculties: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind)

We cling to them in two principle modes:

  1. Appropriation (grasps and takes possession of)
  2. Identification (uses them as basis for views about one’s self for conceit)

All defilements stem from ignorance, which lies at the bottom of all suffering and clinging.

Delusions that the aggregates are:

  1. Permanent
  2. A true source of hapiness
  3. Self

The wisdom needed to break the spell of delusion is insight into the aggregates as (this is called the direct knowledge of the three characteristics of existence):

  1. Impermanent
  2. Suffering
  3. Non-self

The realisation that for each aggregate: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself.

Insight into the five aggregates as impermanent, suffering and nonself induces:

  1. Disenchantment (nibbida)
  2. Dispassion (viraga)
  3. Liberation (vimutti)

Hinderances and Taints

Five hinderances (abandonment of which lead to the first jhana):

  1. Sensual desire
  2. Ill will
  3. Dullness and drowsiness
  4. Restlessness and remorse
  5. Doubt


  1. Craving for sensual pleasure
  2. Craving for existence
  3. Ignorance

Merit (punna)

Bases of merit

  1. giving (dana)
    • philanthropy
    • but also giving up comfort (ascetism)
    • gift of the dhamma
    • (subsumes sila)
    • for the reason of ennobling and adorning the mind is the best reason
  2. discipline (sila)
  3. meditation (bhavana)

Best confidences

  1. Buddha
  2. Noble Eightfold Path
  3. Dispassion; uprooting of attachment and removal of thirst
  4. Sangha

Mundane merit


  • loving-kindness (metta) wish for the welfare and happiness of all beings
  • compassion (karuna) feeling of empathy for all those afflicted by suffering
  • altruistic joy (mudita) happiness at the success and good fortune of others
  • equanimity (upekkha) a balanced reaction to joy and misery, which protects one from emotional agitation

paramattha (obtainment of nibbana) samatha serenity vipassana insight panna wisdom samadhi concentration careful attenetion - yoniso manasikara


The practice of Buddhism, unsurprisingly, runs parallel to the Four Noble Truths.

Understanding Dukkha

First, Buddha asks us to consider the three major objects of attachment:

  1. Sensual pleasure
    • Consideration: Causes pain; danger in striving for it; risk; impermanence and loss; sorrow and grief of failure; paranoia of protection; war.
    • Escape: Removal of desire and lust for sensual pleasure.
  2. Bodily form
    • Consideration: The body ages and dies. It is impermanent.
    • Escape: Removal of desire and lust for the body.
  3. Feelings
    • Consideration: Even the best mundane feelings are impermanent and unsatisfactory.
    • Escape: Removal of desire and lust for feelings.

Doing this he categorises three types of form we cling to, explains why they are ultimately unsatisfactory and harmful, and gives us the solution: to remove desire and lust for that thing.

Next, we consider the Fruit of Desire, the reason we cling to the above objects of attachment. This reason is distorted perception, or perceiving pleasure in what is ultimately painful:

  • Perceiving unattractive as attractive.
  • Perceiving impermanent as permanent.
  • Perceiving painful as pleasurable.
  • Perceiving selfless as self.

Buddha also leaves us with these four summaries of the dhamma, which characterise this teaching:

  • Life in any world has no shelter and no protector.
  • Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away.
  • Life in any world has nothing of its own; one has to leave all and pass on.
  • Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving.

To understand this teaching is to understand the nature of Dukkha, and to realise the First Noble Truth. Following this understanding, a student sees the ultimate harm of the mundane life, and becomes dissatisfied and disenfranchised with the world, and with continuing in samsara. This may lead them to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.

(Note: see MN13 I 84-90)

Threefold Training

Training in these three items are objectives of the Buddhist practice, and lead to the abandonment of suffering, and eventually to Nibbana. They correspond to different aspects of the Eightfold Path:

  • Virtue (sila): Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.
  • Mind (samadhi): Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
  • Wisdom (panna): Right View, Right Intention.

When reading a sutta, or considering an aspect of the Buddhist teaching, it can be helpful to consider where the teaching fits in with the Buddha’s threefold progressive system of training: Does it focus primarily on the development of sila, samadhi, or panna?

Virtue (sila)

Right view and right resolve mature through the development of the path factors associated with virtue: right speech, right action and right livelihood.

These are condensed into the five precepts; refrain from:

  1. Killing
  2. Stealing
  3. Sexual misconduct
  4. Lying
  5. Intoxicants

Concentration (samadhi)

Through sila, one gains purification of outward behaviour. Now, meditation and development of samadhi. Final three path factors:

  1. Right effort (develop skillful qualities of mind).
  2. Right mindfulness (keep attention in present).
  3. Right concentration (immerse in meditation reaching jhana, deeper states of mental and physical tranquility).

Right mindfulness and right concentration are developed through satipatthana (frames or reference or foundations of mindfulness.)

  • Tranquility, samatha
  • Insight, vipassana

Meditator masters report having the ability to frame immediate experience in terms of anicca (inconstancy), dukkha and anatta (not-self). Subtle manifestiations of these three characters of experience are sharp, karmic process that fabricates dukkha unravels, Dukkha is relentlessly exposed. Nibbana glimpsed.

Wisdom (panna)

Wisdom, or panna, is here considered as spiritual understanding, rather than mundane understanding.

In contemporary modern thought, ‘spiritual wisdom’ is often considered to have two axioms:

  1. Nonconceptual and nondiscursive, a type of cognition that defies all laws of logical thought.
  2. It arises spontaneously, through an act of pure intuition as sudden and instantaneous as a brilliant flash of lightning.

Thus, it can only occur when the rational, discriminative and conceptual activity of the mind has been stultified. So, in contempary texts (both buddhist and non-buddhist), wisdom defies rationality and easily slides off into ‘crazy wisdom,’ which are incomprehensible ways of relating to the world, which dance the line between super-rationality and madness.

The good old Pali canon, however, disagrees. When speaking of wisdom, or Panna, they are consistently sane, lucid and sober. They describe Panna like so:

  • Panna does not arise spontaneously, it is emphatically conditioned, arised from a matrix of causes and conditions
  • Panna is not bare intuition, but a careful and discriminative understanding that at certain stages involves precise conceptual operations
  • Panna is directed to specific domains of understanding
  • Pali commentaries (the soil of wisdom) must be thoroughly investigated and mastered through conceptual understanding before direct, nonconceptual insight can effectively accomplish its work
  • To master them requires analysis, discrimination, and discernment.
  • One must be able to abtrast from the overhwleming mass of facts certain basic patterns fundamental to all experience and use them as templates for close contemplation of one’s own experience.

Moral discipline functions as the basis for concentration and concentration as the basis for wisdom

As a factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, wisdom is known as Right View, which is usually twofold:

  1. Conceptual right view: a clear intellectual grasp of the Dhamma.
  2. Experiential right view: the wisdom that directly penetrates the Dhamma; right view that penetrates the truths.

Essentially, understanding and then experience of the truth.

While aggregates are primarily the soil for views about a self, the sense bases are primarily the soil for craving.

8 conditions for gaining wisdom (AN 8:2 ; IV 151-55)

comprehension of fabrication ( note things in terms of the four noble truths

First right view and resolve, seeing the truth.

The Jhanas

note: the jhanas are not exclusive to buddha’s teaching

do not stop before reaching all four jhanas; perceptual emancipation. but even after that the true goal is the ‘unshakeable liberation of the mind’ spiritual lifes purpose is for the fading away of lust, destruction of taints, through the noble eightfold path; realisation of the four noble truths; for the sake of final nibbana without clinging

The entire spiritual life is good friendship, companionship, comradeship

The four jhanas (through right concentration):

  1. Accompanied by thought and examination, rapture and happiness born of seclusion
  2. With the subsisiding of thought and examination, he has internal confidence and unification of the mind, is without thought and concentration, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration
  3. With the fading of rapture, he dwells equanimous, mindful and clearly comprehending he experiences happiness with the body
  4. With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection; neither painful not pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity.

In the fourth jhana:

  1. Mind can be directed to knowledge of the recollection of past births and lives.
  2. Mind can be directed to knowledge (with the ‘divine eye’) of the passing away and rebirth of beings. he sees beings passing away and being reborn, inferior and superior etc.
    • He understands how beings pass on according to their actions thus (karma)
  3. Mind can be directed to destruction of the taints. He understands “This is suffering. This is the origin of suffering. This is the cessation of suffering. This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” Understanding the taints and the way leading to the cessation of the taints (at this point the disciple is in the process of ‘coming to the conclusion’)
  4. Then he sees: “The Blessed One is perfectly enlightened, the Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed one, the Sangha are practicing the good way”
    • His mind is liberated from the taints of:
      • Sensual desire
      • Existence
      • Ignorance
  5. When he is liberated there comes the knowledge ‘It is liberated’ and he understands “Birth is destroyed, the spiritual life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming back to any state of being.” This is reaching Arahantship.

Development of the mind means the development of serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana) concentration: serenity -> insight -> liberation (the still mind is the root of insight)

Reaching the Jhanas

Reaching the jhanas, and eventually nibbana, involves development of the mind: development of serenity and insight. Buddha describes four successful approaches to mental cultivation in the pursuance of arahantship:

  • Develop serenity (jhanas) -> insight
    • serenity -> concentration -> insight
  • Develop insight first and serenity afterwards. Since there can be no real insight without concentration, one must initially use concentration as the basis for acquiring insight into the true characteristics of phenomena. However it seems that such concentration though sufficient for insight is not strong enough for a breakthrough to the supramundane. These meditators must return later to the task of serenity before resuming insight.
    • insight -> concentration -> serenity
  • Develop serenity and insight in tandem. First attain a particular level of concentration, such as a jhana or formless attainment, then employ it as a basis for insight. Having developed insight, they then return to concentration, attain a different jhana or attainment and use this as the basis of insight and so on until the supramundane path is reached.
  • A sutta says that a monk’s mind is seized by agitation about the teachings, then later he gains concentration and attains the supramundane path. Initially driven by such intense desire to understand the Dhamma that they cannot focus clearly upon the meditation, later with certain supporting conditions manages to subdue the mind and gain concentration.

Development of serenity requires skill in:

  • Steadying the mind (becoming a master of the courses of thought)
  • Composing the mind
  • Unifying the mind

Development of insight requires (of formations, phenomena):

  • Skill in observing
  • Investigating
  • Discerning

The Systematic Path

Commitment to the triple gem is made to start down the path.

The Triple Gem:

  • The Buddha (both the historical Buddha, and inner potential for one to become a Buddha)
  • Dhamma (teachings and ultimate truth)
  • Sangha (monks & those who have achieved awakening)

On entering the path to attainment of nibbana, one becomes a noble person (ariyapuggala - noble = ariya, denoting spiritual nobility).

  • Each stage is divided into two phases:
    1. The path (magga)
    2. The fruition (phala)
  • Types of noble individual:
    1. One practicing for the realisation of the fruit of stream-entry
      1. Dhamma follower
      2. Faith follower
    2. The stream-enterer
      • Elimination of fetters:
        1. Identity view
        2. Doubt
        3. Wrong gasp of rules and observances
      • Remaining types of rebirth: at most seven more births among humans and devas
    3. One practicing for the realisation of the fruit of once-returning
    4. The once-returner
      • Elimination of fetters: None, but weakening of:
        1. Lust
        2. Hatred
        3. Delusion
      • Remaining types of rebirth: one more birth in the sense-sphere realm
    5. One practicing for the realisation of the fruit of nonreturning
    6. The nonreturner
      • Elimination of fetters:
        1. Sensual lust
        2. Ill will
      • Remaining types of rebirth: Spontaneous birth in the form realm
    7. One practicing for arahantship
    8. The arahant
      • Elimination of fetters:
        1. Desire for existence in the form realm
        2. Desire for formless existence
        3. Conceit
        4. Restlessness
        5. Ignorance
  • The first seven are known as trainees or sekhas
  • The arahant is called aekha, one beyond training

The four stages are defined in two ways

  1. By way of the defilements eradicated by the path leading to the corresponding fruit
  2. By way of the destiny after death that awaits one who has realised that particular fruit

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness: keeping the contemplative mind on its current object to avoid wandering; clear comprehension

Systems of meditation (including contemplative exercises; four establishments of mindfulness):

  1. Contemplation of the body (kayanupassana)
    1. Mindfulness of breathing (Buddha said that this was his main subject for attainment of enlightenment; The Tathagata’s Dwelling)
    2. Contemplation of the four postures
      • I am walking
      • I am standing
      • I am sitting
      • I am lying down
    3. Clear comprehension of activities
      1. of the purpose of one’s actions
      2. suitability of action towards achievement of purpose
      3. of the domain (not abandoning the subject of the meditation during the day)
      4. clear comprehension of reality, the awareness that behind one’s activity there is no abiding self
    4. Attention to the unattractive nature of the body (viewed by ways of organs and tissues)
    5. Attention to the elements
      • Earth; solidity
      • Water; cohesion
      • Fire; heat
      • Air; pressure/distension 6-14. Another 9 charnel meditations; contemplations based on corpses in various stages of decomposition
  2. Contemplation of feeling (vedananupassana)
    • Pleasant, painful, neither - further distinguished as carnal and spiritual (but dealt with as one subject)
  3. Contemplation of mind (cittanupassana)
    • One subject of contemplation (the mind) differentiated into eight pairs of contrasting states of mind.
    • Mind with or without:
      1. Lust
      2. Hatred
      3. Delusion
      4. Contracted (vs) Distracted (opposite unwholesome states)
      5. Exalted
      6. Surpassable
      7. Concentrated
      8. Liberated (temporarily)
  4. Contemplation of phenomena (dhammanupassana)
    • Awareness of:
      • The five hindrances
      • The five aggregates (through discernment or conditions; distinct)
      • The six internal and external sense bases
        1. eye -> forms -> eye-consciousness
        2. ear -> sounds -> ear-conscoiusness
        3. nose -> smells -> nose-consciousness
        4. tongue -> tastes -> tongue-consciousness
        5. body -> tactile objects -> body-consciousness
        6. mind -> mental phenomena -> mind-consciousness (including feeling, perception and volitional formation)
      • The seven factors of enlightenment
      • Four Noble Truths

Each major contemplative exercise is supplemented by an auxiliary section with four subdivisions:

  1. Contemplation of the object internally (within their own experience), externally (reflectively considering it as occurring within the experience of others) and both
  2. Contemplate the object as subject to origination, as subject to vanishing, and as subject to both origination and vanishing
    • Leads to insight into: impermanence, suffering and nonself
  3. Simply aware of the bare object to the extent necessary for constant mindfulness and knowledge
  4. Meditator dwelling in a state of complete detachment, not clinging to anything in the world

Serenity gives abandonment to lust, but serenity + insight gives rise to the noble path and thus destruction of the tendency to lust. Insight is the abandonment of ignorance.


  1. Bad conduct.
  2. Bad thought; ill will and sensual thought.
  3. Subtler clinging; home country, reputation, relatives.
  4. Obsession about the dhamma itself.

Upon full tranquility one can also go in other directions

  1. Superhuman activity; strength, walking through walls and flying and shit
  2. Superhuman hearing; divine and mundane hearing
  3. Understand the minds of other beings, having encompassed them with my own mind; understand them as a mind with list
  4. recollection of past lives
  5. See beings pass away and be reborn wrt kamma
  6. Destruction of taints and ultimate liberation

Removal of distraction: if thoughts arising (sign) to unwholesome thought, contemplate on its associated wholesome sign (contemplate on ugliness if lust, impermanence if desire etc); examine the danger in the thoughts connected with desire hate and delusion and abandon them thusly. Otherwise just ignore the thoughts; give no attention to them If they persist, examine the cause of those thoughts and still them thus; still the thought-formation If it persists then he should clench his teeth and press his tongue against the roof of the mouth; beat down and constrain mind with mind.

In Keeping a mind of loving kindness:

Five types of wrong speech (to and from self):

  • untimely
  • untrue
  • harsh
  • harmful
  • hate

We should remain unaffected and speak only in manners which are

  • Timely
  • True
  • Gentle
  • (Bringing) good
  • Loving-kindness

Stream-entry and above (or temporary state through meditation) dwelling and recollection:

  • in the Buddha,
  • in the Dhamma,
  • in the Sangha,
  • their own moral discipline,
  • their own generosity
  • the devas in their various heavenly realms


First enlightenment experience, stream-entry (stapatti), is the first of four progressive stages of Awakening. Each irreversibly sheds or weakens several fetters (samyojana) - the manifestations of ignorance that bind a person to the cycle of birth and death.

Stream entry marks an unprecedented and radical turning point both in the practitioner’s current life and in the entirety of his or her long journey in samsara. At this point any doubt about Buddha’s truth disappear. Any notion of abiding the personal self falls away. The stream-enterer is said to be assured of no more than seven future rebirths (all favourable) before eventually attaining full Awakening.

  1. Stream entry (sotapatti)
  2. Once-returning (sakadagati)
    • weakening of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will
  3. Non-returning (agati), in which these two fetters are uprooted altogether
  4. Arahatta - even the most refined and subtle levels of craving and conceit are irrevocably extinguished

At this point the practitioner is now an arahant, or worthy one. With ignorance, suffering, stress and rebirth having come to their end, the arahant at last can utter the victory cry first proclaimed by the Buddha upon his awakening:

Three standpoints (or moments) which move from sensual to higher knowledge:

  1. Gratification (assada)
    • worldly phenomena gives us gratification, pleasure and joy in fulfilling desire.
    • we ask if this is truly satisfactory
  2. Danger (adinava)
    • realisation that gratification is not satisfactory, full of defects we hide from ourselves to keep seeking desire
    • inherent mature of world is impermanence, bound with suffering and discontent, subject to inevitable change and decay
  3. Escape (nissarana)
    • the removal and abandonment of desire and lust

“Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task is done! There is nothing further for the sake of this world.”

The arahant lives out the remainder of their life inwardly enjoying the bliss of Nibbana, secure from the possibility of future rebirth. When the arahant’s aeons-long trail of past kamma eventually unwinds to its end, the arahant dies and enters into parinibbana - total Unbinding. What happens when a fire finally burns up all its fuel.

  1. Extinction of defilements
  2. Extinction of the aggregates

Fire (MN 72 ; I 486-88)

Guidelines for Laypersons

  1. welfare and happiness in this life
    • worshipping the six directions (rehashed from Indian ritual) “The layperson’s code of discipline”
    • six basic social relations which uphold society (through action of reciprocal duties and responsibilities bringing goodwill and kindness):
      1. parents and children
      2. teachers and students
      3. husband and wife
      4. friend and friend
      5. employer and worker
      6. layman and spiritual guide
  2. same for next life
  3. the ultimate goal of release from rebirth layperson sensual 4 happinesses:

  4. possession of right wealth
  5. meritous deeds (happiness of enjoyment)
  6. freedom from debt
  7. blamelessness

layperson qualities for good next life

  1. accomplished in faith: trust in buddha
  2. accomplished in moral discipline: abstain from destruction of life, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxicants
  3. accomplished in generosity: not stingy, giving, enjoy relinquishing
  4. acc in wisdom: sees the arising and passing of all things

buddha saysbrahmins are not actually the sons of brahma; purification is for all castes; a fire can be lit by all groups (MN 93 II 147-54)

punna - merit (getting good next lives)

= time =

tendencies: to lust pleasure, aversion or ignorance

== vicissitudes of life ==

gain and loss fame and disrepute praise and blame pleasure and pain

keep the world turning around

the old sthe sick and the dying are the divine messengers unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, delusion

anamatagga - undiscernable beginning

questions: giving and lovingkindness without passion enlightenment being the ultimate unbecoming dispassion towards enlightenment te journey how literal: handmaid/slave, women mystical enlightenment thru buddha’s teaching rather than the dhamma’s incline; how buddha manages to immediately enlighten people yet we’re told it takes many lifetimes

2 when asking buddha whether there are cleansed states cognizible through the eyes or ears he says, yes they are his pathway and domain but he does not identify with them - I 317-20

dhamma teaches in order = Giving =

Superior person gives: - out of faith - respectfully - at the right time - with generous heart - without denigration

Metaphysical and Historical Background

When considering the suttas, it can be helpful to consider the cultural and metaphysical mindset which pervaded society at the time.

Four Elements

  • Earth; solidity
  • Water; cohesion
  • Fire; heat
  • Air; pressure/distension

Six Elements

  • Earth
  • Water
  • Fire
  • Air
  • Space
  • Consciousness

when buddha was alive there were four main castes

  • brahimins: performed priestly functions prescribed in the Vedas
  • khattiyas: nobles, warriors, administrators
  • vessas: merchants and agriculturalists
  • suddas: menials and serfs

in india during buddhas life there were monarchical kingdoms and tribal societies “wheel-turning monarch”

in indian iconography the wheel is a symbol of sovergeinity which the world ruler obtains when the ‘wheel treasure’ appears to him

Notes & Comments

Extra notes and things that haven’t been assimilated into the article properly yet:

simile of the arrow MN63 culamalunkya sutta I 426-32; the danger is here and now. certain metaphysical questions are not beneficial to the spiritual life (life after death etc) those that entertain ideas about the world (loka) are entertaining ideas about the self (atta) - eternalism and annihilationism only differ slightly past the initial suggestion that the present is real

views lead to one sided, biased voews of reality which we hold as complete and bring conflict distorted views:

  • eternalism (eternal indestructable component of existence, eternal ground of the world such as god); gratification
  • annihilationist (denies survival beyond death; danger)
  • lol ud 6:4; 67-69
  • kappa - an aeon (time for world to evolve and then disintegrate) (four stages)

To do

  • Integrate above
  • Further reading
  • Loving-kindness


A major source for this document is the wonderful In The Buddha’s Words, which is an anthology of the Pali canon, translated and introduced by Bhikku Bodhi. If you are interested in Buddhism, I would strongly recommend this as a great introduction to exploring the texts.

Another source is the Access To Insight website, which provides many quality resources on Buddhism - most notably, many freely available translations of canonical texts. You can find many great articles here, as well as any of the suttas referenced in this article.