How do we transmit the dhamma—the teachings of the Buddha—from one generation to the next, from a teacher to a student, or even in our own experience from one moment to the next?
The Buddhist response to this question is quite unique. It is just as unique as the Buddhist explanation of how we as (selfless) individual personalities flow on from one life to another, or from one instant to another. For just as there is no “self” as a permanent entity abiding independent of a set of unique conditions, so is there neither a “dhamma” existing independently of a series of persons who practice, understand or experience it. Like a flame passed between candles, the proverbial Buddhist metaphor of rebirth, nothing crosses over when the dhamma is transmitted.
This might be a shocking thing to hear for those eternalists within the Buddhist fold who are wont to spell dhamma with a capital Dh. After all, does the Buddha not refer to his teaching as “timeless”? And do we not in the Dhammapada (verse 5) find the phrase “This is an eternal truth”?
But perhaps the dhamma is eternal in the same way as gravity, for instance, can be said to be eternal: Any time there is a lump of matter, it will exert an attractive force (proportional to the size and distance of the bodies) on any other lump of matter. But to say that gravity as a law of nature is eternal is not the same as saying it is eternally manifest. When there is no matter, there is no gravity; gravity becomes manifest only when matter is present.
Similarly, it may be said that whenever there is craving, this craving will surely lead to suffering; or, hostilities are never resolved by hostility; or, whenever one diligently practices insight meditation, one will better see things as they are; or, when wisdom arises to dispel ignorance, there will surely be an end of suffering. Such are some of the core principles of the Buddha’s dhamma.
But these truths, though eternal, fail to be manifest when nobody practices them, understands them, or experiences them. The dhamma has remained vital in the world because monks have remembered, recited and exemplified it for generations, because lay people have embraced it, have lived by it and have put it into practice in the details of their everyday lives. The dhamma has come to America, not because there are books about Buddhism on the shelf written in English, but because people have read these books or have heard the talks of a teacher and have given the words life in their experience. The dhamma is thriving today because people practice the five precepts, calmly focus their minds, and glimpse the secrets revealed as they follow their breath and investigate the arising and passing of phenomena.
As one candle, aflame, draws near to an unkindled candle, the fire does not leap from one to the other. It surely appears to, but this is where discriminating wisdom, born of careful examination, dispels the effect of illusion. The target candle already contains some of the conditions necessary for combustion—fuel and a wick in the proper relation. Other conditions are present in the environment—oxygen, for instance. What the burning candle brings is only one other prerequisite—heat. The first candle has merely acted as one among a number of causes that contribute to the arising of an ignition process in the second.
In just this way is rebirth explained in the Questions of King Milinda. Neither a soul nor even consciousness “transmigrates” or “moves across” from one life to another. It is not a case, as Krishna explains it to Arjuna in the Gita, of an eternal soul taking on bodies as one might slough and don a series of garments. Rather the ending of one continuum is a causal factor—one of many—in the reestablishment of another continuum. One process influences the other, and shapes some of its characteristics.
This self-less explanation of the transition from one life to another is the very same one that suffices for understanding the transition from one instant to the next. A soul exists no more between lives than it does between moments. Every moment consists of a fantastically complex and interrelated set of physical and mental factors which arise together as rapidly as they cease together. They cause and influence and to a great extent determine the nature of the next moment’s set, but do not “carry over” and engage in time. For the infinite facets of phenomena are all equally empty—they are all events that occur rather than things that exist.
In much the same way, I think, does the transmission of dhamma occur from one person to another or from one generation to the next. The truths pointed out to us by the Buddha are not things that can be given to another. If they are manifest in a teacher, and a student is ripe, then perhaps the former can help kindle an insight or an awakening in the latter. If we as parents can live by the truths of non-harming, loving kindness and self-examination, then perhaps it will inspire our children to discover and choose these values for themselves.
“Be a lamp unto yourselves!” said the Buddha. The only way we can be sure of passing around the dhamma is by bringing the dhamma to life.