The title, What the Buddha Taught, suggests an explication of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Indeed, in this book Walpola Rahula does provide an introduction to the basic teachings of the Buddha and Buddhism. However, this work goes beyond a mere exposition of the foundational teachings, and seeks, at least implicitly, to serve a missionary purpose. In other words, this book invites the reader to consider Buddhism as the surest path both to individual fulfillment and societal harmony.
This short but dense work consists of eight chapters. The first chapter deals with the Buddhist mindset, chapters two through five explain the Four Noble Truths, chapter six addresses the doctrine of anatman, or ‘no-soul’, chapter seven examines meditation, and chapter eight considers the relationship of Buddhist teaching to the modern world.
The first chapter begins with Rahula’s assertion that the Buddha was unique among founders of religions in that “he did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.” Furthermore, Rahula points out that the Buddha “claimed no inspiration from any god or external power” and that he credited “all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence.” In other words, Buddhism is essentially a humanistic religion—one in which “man is his own master, and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny.”
From this starting point, Rahula expands on the central role of human effort in the Buddhist mindset. Among the ideas expressed are working out one’s own liberation from bondage through personal effort, freedom of thought, tolerance, truth and how one understands it, the doctrine of cause and effect, the priority of practical teachings that bring peace and happiness over speculative philosophy, and the importance of the Four Noble Truths to the spiritual life.
In chapter two, Rahula explains dukka, the First Noble Truth. He points out...