Friday, January 4, 2008

Books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha

My good friend, Barry Boyce, suggested reading Glenn Wallis’ new book, Basic Teachings of the Buddha over the holidays. Barry is an insightful, literate man, and senior editor and staff writer for the magazines Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. I take his suggestions seriously.

Despite Barry’s gusto, I approached the task with little enthusiasm. My previous attempts to read the sutras did not go well. For one thing, I just couldn’t imagine the Buddha speaking in such a formulaic and repetitive way. They don’t read like the voice of one of the great teachers of all time.

We now know that writing was not common in India until several centuries after Shakyamuni’s parinirvana. The stories of his life and teachings were transmitted orally by his followers. Eventually, the formulaic style developed and the stories were systematized. It seems obvious that what was written down, hundreds of years after the fact, didn’t capture the actual feeling of what the Teacher said, nor the full range of meaning of his teachings.

Another irritant was that the sutras are generally presented as either ancient historical documents with no relevance to the contemporary Buddhist practitioner, or chauvinistically, as the only “true” teachings. That kind of fundamentalism puts me off.

In the Tibetan tradition, the sutras are more often treated as objects of veneration than objects of study. That’s because the primary transmission is not the “book” or the “word” as it is in the Abrahamic religions, but the personal realization of the teachers of the lineage. In the image used by Trungpa Rinpoche, what is important is the fresh baked bread, rather than an ancient recipe.

Glenn Wallis is obviously sensitive to these issues. As I started reading his excellent introduction, my resistance dissolved. He provides extensive background and context for these scriptures, treating them both as literature, and as spiritual insights.

The sixteen sutras included in this volume really do cover most of the core themes of the dharma. (They are also mercifully short covering only sixty-five pages of the text.) Wallis’ own commentary on the sutras does a wonderful job of drawing out the themes, and he continually encourages us to apply these teachings to our own experience. I particularly appreciated his treatment of Sutta 7: Evidence of Selflessness (Anattalakkhana Sutta). It is hard to find investigations of personal selflessness that strike the vital point, and this one worked for me.

It’s great to have such a readable, accessible book of early Buddhist teachings. It is both a good introduction to what the Buddha taught, and helpful to be able to ground our understanding of contemporary dharma in its historical roots. Do give it a try.


Mark Hazell said...

Thanks for this post -- I wish I had found it last week. I was invited to participate in an interfaith dialogue on the environment for which we were encouraged to provide some "scriptural" support for the points we were making. Reading through the translations of the Buddha's discourses I found them almost deadly, lacking the vitality and directness of the teachings we receive from contemporary teachers. In the end I chose to quote Thich Nhat Hahn, the Dalai Lama, and Trungpa Rinpoche who all speak/spoke in language that is readily understandable.

Anamika said...

I appreciate that you echo the concern that some may have regarding the authenticity of the Sutras as the actual words of the Buddha.
As you know there are numerous Sutras and we cannot say definitively which of them were transcribed at the scene some 2,600 years ago or put to memory and penned some hundred years later.

Before we had Radio we were left with the witten words and we had very little to verify its fidelity to the truth that it perportedly conveyed.
Radio make the information more immediate but not any more true.
Television too fails to engage all our sensory perceptions. It is strange that we never really get the full picture even after meticulous scientific research.
Having gotten what ever picture we get we have no choice but to rely on our own intelligence.

There is one thing that still impresses me about the Sutras is that they usually begin by stating the time or the ocassion of the teaching, the place of the teaching and those that were present there.
It really does remind me of of a television journalist today saying:- 'This is Any Carr reporting from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley California and here is what Rudy has to say'

We really don't know exactly how people spoke at the time of the Buddha, but centuries later Jesus is said to have spoken in parables. Today the parable speakers are only in our mental institutions.
Litrature too has changed much since Shakespeare.
So a stylistic difference between a translated text from that period and our own time cannot be used to reach the conclusion that you have 'dude'.

Lastly Tibetans do treat the Sutras as objects of veneration but that is the result of having studied them, reflected upon them, and debated its contents. You'd me hardpressed to find a single Tibetan Monastery that does not use this three pronged approach to studying the Sutras.

Hey I am not saying that there arn't any ignorant Tibetan fundamentalists. HistoricallyTibet suffered greatly under the fundamentalist movement spearheaded by Phabong Khaba who went on a rampage of spiritual persecution