Thursday, May 1, 2014

"What the Buddha Taught" (best book)

Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. Walpola Rahula, the first Buddhist monk to become a professor at a Western university, lectured at Swarthmore, UCLA
The golden Buddha with golden arhats listening to the Dharma (Thai-on/
What the Buddha Taught (W. Rahula)
Most people cannot bear to look at book titled What the Buddha Never Taught -- even though it is an account of real life practices
 a modern Buddhist monastery. They are drawn instead to tradition, to "truth," to What the Buddha Taught.

This text, which can be read free here, is rightly heralded as one of the greatest publications on Buddhism in the history of English. It ranks right up there was the great sutra translations in English of Bhikkhu Bodhi and Maurice O'Connell Walshe and the previous generation of the British Pali Text Society (PTS) like Rhys Davids, Caroline Rhys Davids, and Frank Lee Woodward.

A Sri Lankan scholar-monk, Ven. Walpola Rahula, somehow managed the impossible -- succinctly covering all of the important aspects of the Dharma in one relatively short and well written book. 

Buddha (Mesamong/flickr)
How he did this has been difficult for us to figure out. We must suppose that he avoided obvious formulas and stereotyped texts to present it.

But the Buddha himself formulated those "lists," the bane of Buddhist students who have not yet realized that the lists are only a device to remember to mention everything. They have no magic or purpose beyond that. The best list would be the Seven Factors of Enlightenment explained in terms of the Seven Requisites of Enlightenment, which are 37 factors, of which the Seven Factors of Enlightenment are just one group. The Greco-Buddhist monk Ven. Nagasena spelled out this ancient formulation centuries ago. See how easy it is to become boring and weighed down bywe presunumbers and lists and terms? How does Ven. Rahula avoid it? Years of study, insight, and teaching, we presume.

Only one book
Meditating deva in gold at Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand (_cFu/flickr)
If there were only one book one was ever going to read about Buddhism, it would not be Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, which is not about Siddhartha Gautama but about another guy named "Siddhartha" in a fictional tale. The Buddha is far in the background. 

It's like Monty Python's Life of Brian, which is not about Jesus Christ but instead about a Jewish boy born in a manger, visited by three wise men on the day he is born, who grows up to be called "messiah" and "healer" as he fights Pagan Roman imperialism and temple hypocrisy. This perfectly describes Brian. The Christ is far in the background. But everyone assumes the movie is about Jesus, just as everyone assumes Siddhartha is about the Buddha's early life. 

Thailand (Laurence Hunt)
Nor would it be The Dhammapada, a collection of Buddhist aphorisms that hardly even make sense without the accompanying stories left out of most modern "pocket" versions treating the text like some kind of "Buddhist Bible." No, unless it's going to be a collection of sutras like Bhikkhu Bodhi's wonderful excellent anthology or his recorded series, "The Buddha's Teaching: As It Is" available free on CD from the Buddhist Association of the United States (BAUS/CYM) in upstate New York.

Nor would it be Buddhaghosa's compendious Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), which purports to be a meditation manual but is written so densely as to be impenetrable even for experts and scholars. One is better off tackling his earlier Path of Freedom (Vimuttimagga by Upatissa, aka Buddhaghosa). Both try to cover topics that need a living meditation master, for they are training manuals not ordinary books. They contain a great deal of commentarial literature, which many people today foolishly reject or disregard as not being sutras the Buddha uttered. What we fail to understand as Westerners is the long Indian tradition of spiritual teachers making statements their students and students' students explicate and comment on. This exegetical literature is not a comment but a detailed explanation of the practice.

The same is true in Judaism, as a living tradition of storytelling and endless interpretation to make things real in one's life. But as modern Christians, the idea makes little sense to us: We want it hard and fixed, absolute and fundamentalist. Teaching was never like this, except that writing made it so. The Buddha did not write, nor did the Vedic seers (rishis) before him or Jewish-Jesus of Nazareth after him. The mystical experience cannot be communicated that way, try as we might. The Pagan teachers of Europe and the shamans everywhere in the world. It used to be a round, a spin, a toss with storytelling to match.

Nor would it even be the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is all well and good to listen to when dying but not such a hot read for a layperson in life.

Nor would it be Ven. Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary: A Manual of Doctrine and Terms, which is written as a series of essays rather than simple entries and serves as an excellent resource.

Nor would it be a catechism. If a person had only one Buddhist book to read, it would have to be:

What the Buddha Taught
CONTENTS: List of Illustrations, Foreword, Preface, The Buddha.

CHAPTER I: The Buddhist Attitude of Mind, Human is supreme—One is one's refuge—Responsibility—Doubt—Freedom of Thought—Tolerance—Is Buddhism Religion or Philosophy?—Truth has no label—No blind faith or belief, but seeing and understanding—No attachment even to Truth—Parable of the Raft—Imaginary speculations useless—Practical attitude—Parable of the wounded man, THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS.

CHAPTER II: The First Noble Truth: Dukkha, Buddhism neither pessimistic nor optimistic but realistic—Meaning of "Dukkha"—Three aspects of experience—Three aspects of "Dukkha"—What is a "being"?—Five Aggregates—No spirit opposed to matter—Flux—Thinker and Thought—Has life a beginning?

CHAPTER III: The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: "The Arising of Dukkha"—Definition—Four Nutriments—Root cause of suffering and continuity—Nature of arising and cessation—Karma and Rebirth—What is death?—What is rebirth?

CHAPTER IV: The Third Noble Truth: Nirodha: "The Cessation of Dukkha'—What is Nirvana?—Language and Absolute Truth—Definitions of Nirvana—Nirvana not negative—Nirvana as Absolute Truth—What is Absolute Truth?—Truth is not negative—Nirvana and Samsara—Nirvana not a result—What is there after Nirvana?— Incorrect expressions—What happens to an Arahant after death?— If no Self, who realizes Nirvana?—Nirvana in this life.

CHAPTER V: The Fourth Noble Truth: Magga: "The Path," Middle Path or Noble Eightfold Path—Compassion and Wisdom—Ethical Conduct—Mental Discipline—Wisdom—Two sorts of Understanding—Four Functions regarding the Four Noble Truths.

CHAPTER VI: The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta, What is Soul or Self?—God and Soul: Self protection and Self-preservation—Teaching "Against the Current"—Analytic and Synthetic methods—Conditioned Genesis—Question of Freewill—Two kinds of Truths—Some erroneous views—The Buddha definitely denies "Atman"—The Buddha's silence—The idea of Self a vague impression—Correct attitude—If no Self, who gets the result of Karma?—Doctrine of Anatta not negative...

CHAPTER VII: "Meditation" or Mental Culture: Bhavana, Erroneous views—Meditation is no escape from life—Two forms of Meditation—The Setting up of Mindfulness—"Meditation" on breathing—Mindfulness of activities—Living in the present moment—"Meditation" on Sensations—on Mind—on Ethical, Spiritual, and Intellectual subjects.

CHAPTER VIII: What the Buddha Taught and the World Today, Erroneous views—Buddhism for all—In daily life—Family and social life—Lay life held in high esteem—How to become a Buddhist—Social and economic problems—Poverty: cause of crime—Material and spiritual progress—Four kinds of happiness for laypersons—On politics, war, and peace—Non-violence—The ten duties of a ruler—The Buddha's Message—Is it practical?—Asoka's Example-The Aim of Buddhism

SELECTED TEXTS: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta), The Fire Sermon (Adittapariyaya-sutta), Universal Love (Metta-sutta), Blessings (Mangala-sutta), Getting rid of All Cares and Troubles (Sabbasava-sutta), The Parable of the Piece of Cloth (Vatthupama-sutta), The Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana-sutta), Advice to Sigala (Sigalovada-sutta), The Words of Truth (Dhammapada), The Last Words of the Buddha (from the Mahaparinibbanasutta). Abbreviations. Selected Bibliography. Glossary. Index. READ IT

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