The Buddhist Flag
Buddhists in Sri Lanka and in other countries celebrate the centenary
of the Buddhist flag on Vesak Full Moon Day this year. The centenary of
the Buddhist Flag not only reminds us of its origin but marks the universal
symbol of unity among Buddhists.
The flag originated from the Buddhist revival movement in Sri Lanka during the second half of the 19th century. The revival movement was the reaction to the declining state of Buddhism under colonial rule in Sri Lanka. It culminated in victory to Buddhists and the restoration of their lost rights. A flag was designed to celebrate this victory and today it stands as a memorial to the unity and inspiration of the Buddhists.
The idea of a Buddhist flag was originally conceived by the committee which was set up to plan the Vesak Day celebrations in Sri Lanka in April 1885. The flag designed by the committee consisted of six colours, viz Neela (sapphire blue), Peeta (golden yellow), Lohita (crimson), Odata (white), Manjesta (scarlet or terra cotta) and Prabhaswara (mixture of the above five colors) - bright and resplendent. The origin of these colours it is said emanated from the body of Siddhartha Gauthama when he attained Buddhahood at the historical Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, north of India twenty six centuries ago.
In 1950, the Executive Council of the World Following of Buddhists demanded the constituent members to adopt the Buddhist flag that had been in use in Sri Lanka from 1885 as the common device of Buddhists to symbolize their unity which was the dream of the committee that designed it. The universal use of the Buddhist flag was adopted on Vesak Day 1951.
The six striped flag which symbolizes unity among Buddhists and also as their aspirations for universal peace and happiness will remain for a long time one of the brightest and prettiest flag in the world.
Note: During the time of the conference, regarding SABBANNARANSI Flag, the Thai Buddhist representatives attended the meeting, but was not punctual. Therefore they did not accept this flag, rather they adopted the Dhammacakka Flag (containing wheel of truth) which had derived throughout Buddhist eras.
The Triple Gem is a name given to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha collectively. In all vehicles of Buddhism, devotees ‘take refuge’ in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem means finding trust in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha and going to them for security. This trust and confidence is built through one’s own practice, testing and experience and not through belief or faith alone. It is similar to coming to trust a doctor over time after seeing that the doctor’s medicines help you improve in health. Buddhists pay respect to the Triple Gem by bowing down three times: firstly to the Buddha, secondly to the Dhamma, thirdly to the Sangha.
The Buddha: The Buddha is the Fully Enlightened One who realised the Dhamma, or Truth, on his own over 2500 years ago before teaching his understanding to others. The Buddha teaches about suffering and the end of suffering, i.e. the path to true happiness. Without the Buddha, there would be great doubt about the path out of suffering, and no path or guidelines to follow.
The Triple Gem
The Dhamma: The Dhamma is often referred to as the Teachings of the Buddha, and can be also understood as ‘the Truth’. Understanding and seeing the Dhamma is understanding and seeing the true nature of the world: what makes it go round, what makes it tick, seeing causes, seeing conditions and seeing effects. Accessing the Dhamma is done by an investigation into one’s own life and own mind. One example of Dhamma is that all things are changable, inconstant and uncertain. When we forget the Dhamma, it is easy for us to get lost in the delusion, confusion and problems of life.
The Sangha: The Sangha are commonly known as the community of monks and nuns who have ordained under the Buddha’s Noble Way so as to practice and develop their minds to benefit themselves and others. The Sangha is a term which can also be given to all those who are and have been practicing, spreading and upholding the Dhamma throughout the generations, the lay and ordained community alike. Without the Sangha, there would be no support for the practice of Dhamma and it would be far more difficult.
The 5 Precepts
The 5 Precepts are the moral guidelines the Buddha gives for us to lead lives of happiness at the human level, also providing a strong foundation for one on the path of Dhamma. They are as follows:
1. To abstain from harming living beings.
2. To abstain from taking things not given.
3. To abstain from sexual misconduct.
4. To abstain from false speech.
5. To abstain from taking substances which lead to intoxication or heedlessness.
The 5 Precepts are not there to confine and restrict the lives of Buddhists, but are rather guidelines for people to live their lives free from danger. It is because the Buddha saw that these actions lead to great unhappiness and difficulty that the He advised us to abstain from them. For example, if one refrains from taking drugs and alcohol, it is impossible for one to ever have a drug or alcohol problem.
If we contemplate these things with calmness and clarity, we see that they indeed accumulate difficulties in our lives and lead us to unhappy states of mind, and only have fleeting pleasure as their allure. For example, when we have the urge to harm other beings, it is always with the mind state of greed, hatred or delusion – never calmness and clarity. To go on and commit the action of harming another being allows those mind states of greed, hatred and delusion to become more concrete, leadings us further away from peace and happiness. It is the wrong understand that someone or something creates our unhappiness which drives us to commit our evil actions. The Buddha remedies this by transforming that wrong understanding into right understanding: that the polluted mind causes unhappiness, not people and things, so we must purify this very mind.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are as follows:
(Dukkha) There is suffering.
(Samudhaya) There is a cause of suffering.
(Nirodha) There is an end to suffering.
(Magga) There is a way leading to the end of suffering.
The Four Noble Truths allow us to understand the nature of suffering. For example, we may begin to suffer when our car gets damaged. Knowing that this suffering is there allows us to see the First Noble Truth: There is suffering. We then investigate into the Second Noble Truth: What is the cause of our suffering? Is the cause of our suffering the damaged car? If a damaged metal of the car is causing our suffering, then why don’t we suffer when other people’s cars get damaged everyday? It must be my clinging and attachment to this car which creates this suffering, not the car itself. The Third Noble Truth is knowing that stopping the cause of suffering brings the end of suffering; so by reducing our clinging and attachment, we can reduce suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that can get us to the end of suffering. The Buddha labelled this as the ‘Middle Path’ or ‘Eight Fold Noble Path’ as it has eight factors. It begins with ‘Right Understanding’ and is further explained in the next sections. In this example, it can be seen how by changing our understanding, we can reduce our attachment to the car. For instance, we could remind ourselves that all cars must break down or be damaged in some way or another, sooner or later, and that no car can last forever. Thus by adding attachment, we only create our own suffering.
The Buddha says that those who retain the Four Noble Truths cannot fall into great suffering. Conversely, for those who forget or do not know the Four Noble Truths, it is very easy for them to fall into suffering. As we practice, the Four Noble Truths keep reminding us that the cause of suffering is in our minds, and that by training our minds we can obtain release from suffering – no matter what the external world presents to us. When we forget suffering is caused by our minds, we always blame the external world and it becomes very difficult for us to ever become happy. The world just goes about it’s duties like a tree goes about growing, to interfere with the growing creates suffering, we must simply understand it grows on its own accord.
The Noble Eight Fold Path
The Eight Fold Noble Path is what the Buddha describes as the path leading to the end of suffering. They are as follows:
(Samma-detthi) Right Understanding
(Samma-sankappo) Right Thought
(Samma-vaca) Right Speech
(Samma-kammanto) Right Action
(Samma-ajivo) Right Livelihood
(Samma-vayamo) Right Effort
(Samma-sati) Right Mindfulness
(Samma-samadhi) Right Concentration
The Eight Fold Path is divided into three parts – Sila (Morality), Samadhi (Concentration) and Panna (Wisdom). Morality includes Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Samadhi includes Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Panna includes Right Understanding and Right Thought. It is through developing this path which allows wisdom to arise about the true nature of things. Once one understands the true nature of things, no suffering is needed nor created.
Sila, Samadhi and Panna, the parts or sections of the Eight Fold Noble Path, unfold and work together to allow one to realise the Truth. Sila practically includes the morality found in the 5 Precepts and it is this practice which creates the starting point for seeing the Truth. For if we are always creating evil and unwholesome relationships with others, we can’t even sit down without fear or guilt coming to disturb us. So by choosing skillful speech, actions and livelihood, we already begin to fuel our happiness of mind – releasing ourselves from greater forms of fear and guilt which trouble our minds.
Samadhi involves Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Right Effort means one putting in effort and energy to choose wholesome mind states whilst trying to overcome unwholesome ones. Without Right Effort, we are merely swept away by our bad habits and unskillful mind states. Right Mindfulness is being aware of how things are arising and falling in the present moment. So, for example, if one is angry, knowing there is anger there, instead of being blindly driven by it. Right Concentration is the training of using one’s mind to focus to one point and keep it there. Without Right Concentration, there is too much distraction and nothing can be achieved. This section of Samadhi are developments of the mind so that one can begin to see clearly. It is important to note that Sila, Morality, must have some sort of basic grounding before one can begin to calm and concentrate their mind. So after guilt and fear from evil deeds are lessened, one can begin to cultivate wholesome, skillful states of mind which allow one gaze into the mechanisms of the mind and phenomena. Thus seeing clearly, wisdom and understanding naturally arise. Thus the last section of the Eight Fold Noble Path, Panna, is developed. Wisdom is the light in a dark room which allows us to see the objects we were once crashing into. Now that we see the objects, we no longer crash into them. And so those who have developed wisdom no longer crash into suffering. Panna goes on to support Sila and Samadhi and the Eight Fold Noble Path continues in this inter-connected way on the path to Nirvana- the final release from suffering.
Tri Laksana - The Three Characteristics of Truth
The Buddha simply looked at phenomena to see things as they are. It is through the Buddha’s observation that the Three Characteristics of Existence arise. They are as follows:
(Anica) Impermanent, transient, inconstant, subject to change, alterable.
(Dukkha) Unsatisfactory, stressful, unstable, never bringing lasting happiness.
(Anatta) Non-self, not mine, not belonging to me, out of my complete control.
As the name suggests, these “Three Characteristics of Existence” are qualities which can be seen in all conditioned phenomena. They are characteristic which can be seen virtually anywhere. Take any object, person or thing and simply ask:
Does it change, or does it last forever?
All things change.
Does it bring a stable and lasting satisfaction, or only a passing satisfaction?
Only a passing satisfaction.
Is it right to call this thing mine, to call it myself, to call it me?
No – it is changing and is unsatisfactory on its own accord.
It is when we forget the Three Characteristics of Existence that problems arise. If we forget that the nature of things are to change, we resist their changing nature and suffering arises. If we forget that the nature of things are unsatisfactory, and believe that they will bring us lasting happiness, then we go to extremes to win and hold them. If we don’t get them, we suffer greatly, if we do get them, we suffer as the happiness dependent on that thing fades. Finally, if we forget that things are out of our complete control, we suffer as we attempt to control the world around us. Instead of resisting all of these things, the Buddha encourages us to observe them as natural and thus allow them to undergo their own natural process – dropping unnecessary suffering from the equation. The resisting of these natural characteristics may not only cause grief and despair in our minds, but may also lead us to perform further evil deeds which instead result in further suffering. It is up to each one of us to continually remind ourselves of these natural characteristics and to observe them in our day to day life.
The Five Aggregates
The Five Aggregates (or Khandhas) are the mind and body mechanisms which beings use to interact in the world. Although they are only a vehicle, many people cling to the Aggregates which causes them unnecessary suffering. Thus the Buddha uses the term ‘Five Clinging Aggregates’ (pancupadanakkhanha). They are as follows:
Body Aspects - (Rupa) Form, matter, the physical body
Mind Aspects –
(Vedana) Feeling, both physical and mental feelings
(Sanna) Memory, perceptions, labels, schemas
(Sankhara) Thought, mental formation, concepts, ideas, mental creations
(Vinnana) Consciousness of the Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue & Touch.
For most of us, these body and mind mechanisms function day in and day out and practically pull us along in life. Most people are slaves to their continuous thoughts, memories, feelings and senses. However, if one can begin to pull them apart, this team of five become slightly weaker and one can begin to see them in the light of the Three Characteristics of Existence. You begin to see that these things are all changing beyond your control. For example a thought or feeling – if you knew it was just a visitor in your home who comes, stays for a while, then leaves, there is not much to be worked up about. It is when you forget that they naturally change that suffering arises and the whole mass of stress begins. Furthermore, the Buddha points out that lasting happiness is not found in this mind-body system. Although we go day in and day out experiencing different levels of pleasure and pain, we never seem to come to a point of satisfaction. However, all is not hopeless, as the Buddha points that the way to liberation is possible, and is done through realising ‘non-self’, i.e. letting go of the mind-body system. This does not mean that we live our lives as vegetables- in fact we still use the mind-body vehicle just as much as we used to, however, the difference is that we understand that it is only a vehicle, only a set of tools – and not ultimately us. So when the vehicle gets scratched: that’s normal, that’s natural – no suffering is added. Whereas before, the slightest thing happens to this mind-body system and we attempt to resist the ways of the world, giving rise to endless suffering and not understanding why.