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Unit 3: Buddha's Wisdom & Compassion

The Qualities of the Buddha

As a child, Prince Siddhartha was extraordinarily thoughtful and was able to meditate even at the age of seven. The saving of the wounded swan was evidence of another quality, compassion. Now that He had attained Enlightenment, perfect wisdom and great compassion could be seen in all His words and actions. Many unhappy and unfortunate people came to the Buddha in order to find solutions to the problems of life and recover their confidence. The Buddha helped them to distinguish between what was useful and what was not, and encouraged them to think for themselves. He also showed them how to comfort their fellowmen who were distressed by suffering.

The Buddha's Practical Approach

Although the Buddha lived about two thousand and five hundred years ago, his approach to the problems of life was like that of the scientist of today. He was not interested in theories which had no real importance for living. He looked for practical answers. He saw a problem in the shape of the suffering of life and offered a solution to it based on His experiences. He used the following parable to illustrate the attitude of those who cannot distinguish between what is useful and what is not:

"Suppose someone was hit by a poisoned arrow and his friends and relatives found a doctor able to remove the arrow. If this man were to say, 'I will not have this arrow taken out until I know whether the person who had shot it was a priest, a prince or a merchant, his name and his family. I will not have it taken out until I know what kind of bow was used and whether the arrowhead was an ordinary one or an iron one.' That person would die before all these things are ever known to him."

In the same way, those who say they will not practise the Dharma until they know whether the world is eternal or not, infinite or not, will die before these questions are ever answered.

The Buddha did not answer these questions because they are not relevant to the problems of suffering, nor do they lead to happiness, peace and Enlightenment. Whether one believes that the world is eternal or not, or that it is infinite or not, one has to face the reality of birth, old age, sickness, death and suffering. The Buddha explained suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path leading to the end of suffering here and now. The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths because He knew that they lead to happiness, peace and Enlightenment.

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The Importance of Critical Thinking

In the Buddha's days, there were so many different religious teachings that the people did not know which teaching to follow.

Once, when the Buddha visited a village, the inhabitants (the Kalamas) told Him, "There are teachers who visit our village, who explain their own teachings and condemn the teachings of others. Then others come and they too explain their own teachings and condemn the teachings of others. So we are always troubled as we are not certain which of these teachers has spoken the truth and which has spoken falsely."

The Buddha replied that it was natural that they should have doubts regarding matters which were open to dispute. Then he told them, "Do not be led by rumour, or tradition, or by the authority of religious texts, nor by false arguments, nor by appearances, nor by theories, nor even by reverence. But rather when you know through your own experience that certain things are wrong and unwholesome, do not lead to calm and happiness and are not beneficial, then give them up. When you know for yourselves that certain things are right and wholesome, lead to calm and happiness and are beneficial, then follow them."

The Buddha advised them to accept His Teaching only after having examined it for themselves and not out of reverence for him. For instance, it is clear that greed and anger are not beneficial. A person who is overcome by greed and anger finds that he cannot eat or sleep. Greed and anger destroy the well-being of mind and body, and can lead to disagreements and quarrels with others. When people see for themselves the harmful consequences of greed and anger, they will understand the truth of the Buddha's Teaching that greed and anger lead to suffering.

Care for the Sick

The Buddha's compassion was exemplary. Not only did He arouse confidence in those who were forlorn and who had lost hope, but He also inspired others to cultivate wholesome attitudes towards their fellow beings.

Once a young monk known as Tissa fell sick. At first, small boils broke out on his body. Gradually they became bigger and finally burst. Eventually when open sores covered his entire body, his fellow monks became unwilling to look after him and left him alone. On learning of this, the Buddha set some water to boil over a fire. Then he went to where Tissa was lying and took hold of the corner of the bed. The monks understood what the Buddha wanted and carried the patient to the fire. The Buddha had the monks wash Tissa's clothes and dry them while He Himself gently cleaned the sores and washed Tissa. The monk's suffering was greatly eased and he lay on his bed with his mind at peace.

Comforting the Distressed

Then again, there was the case of the woman known as Patacara who was born into a wealthy family at Shravasti. She was so attractive that in order to keep away her suitors, her parents confined her in a tower watched over by guards. She fell in love with one of the guards and when she heard that her parents had arranged to have her married to another man, she ran away with her lover.

The two soon found life difficult as they had little to live on. When she became pregnant, she wished to give birth to the baby in her parents' home but her husband was reluctant to let her go. Nevertheless, she set out for her parents' home by herself. Fearing for her safety, her husband joined her, but before they could reach their destination, the child was born. They then decided to return home.

Sometime later, she became pregnant again. This time, in her husband's absence, she took her child in her arms and started for her parents' home. Her husband caught up with her but they were overtaken by disaster. A great storm arose and they were without shelter. Fear and worry hastened the time of delivery. She asked her husband to look for a shelter, but while doing so, he was bitten by a snake and died. While waiting for her husband's return, the baby was born.

In the morning, she was grieved to find the body of her husband. Feeling helpless, she hurried on with her two children towards her parents' home. When she came to a river swollen by the recent rain, she was too weak to carry the two children across. She carried the newborn baby across first and left him hidden under some leaves. Then she went back to fetch the other child. While she was in midstream, an eagle swooped down to where she had left the baby and carried him off. Though she shouted and clapped her hands, the bird took no notice. The other child, watching from the bank, thought that his mother was calling him. He started to go to her but tumbled into the river and was carried away by the swift current.

Overcome by grief at the loss of her husband and children, Patacara went on to her parents' home. There, more bad news awaited her. She learnt that her father, mother and brother had died when their house collapsed in the storm. On hearing the news, she could no longer bear her grief and became mad. She ran naked through the streets of Shravasti. The sight of her aroused amusement among the foolish, some of whom even threw stones at her.

When she sought refuge at the Monastery of Anathapindika, some tried to prevent her from entering, but the Buddha forbade that. She came before the Buddha who said to her, "Sister, regain your mindfulness." His compassionate words calmed her and she regained control of her mind. A kind person in the crowd then gave her a shawl to cover her body. The Buddha talked to her and she began to have an understanding of the nature of things. Some time later, when her insight was complete, she became an Arahant.

These episodes show how the Buddha's wisdom and compassion helped confused and desperate people to realise the Truth and regain hope and confidence. The Buddha, having overcome suffering Himself, was always ready to relieve the suffering of others. He treasured life and cared for the spiritual and material needs of the people.


The Buddha had great wisdom and compassion. Through His wisdom, people learn to be practical in their approach to the problems of life, as illustrated by the parable of the man wounded by a poisoned arrow. He also taught people to examine all teachings in the light of their experience in order to know which is true. Out of compassion, He taught people to care for and comfort the sick and the unfortunate, as in the cases of the sick monk and Patacara.

Secondary Level Unit 3: Buddha's Wisdom & Compassion
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Life of the Buddha (Parts 1 & 2)