Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Three Pivotal Buddhist Sutras

Dhr. Seven and Amber Larson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly; Ven Nanamoli/Osbert John S. Moore (trans.), "Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha," Wheel No 17 (
The Buddha with Dharma chakra , wheel of truth, above in Thailand (Nippon_newfie/flickr)

Not doing any kind of harm,
Perfecting profitable skill,
And purifying one’s own heart:
This is the Buddha’s teaching.

Dhammapada 183

Afghan Buddha, Gandhara (BBC)
The message of the Awakened Ones, so stated as it is in the Dhammapada ("Dharma imprint" or "Path of Truth") in the plain terms of good and evil, upholds the same values that every great compassionate religion shares. But the seed of good (skillfulness) has to grow in the soil of truth. How the tree grows depends on the nature of the soil in which it is planted, which is where it draws its nourishment.

With humans as the custodians of the true, the fulfillment of the good depends on how truth is conceived by us to be. By our acts we verify it. A wandering ascetic called Siddhartha Gautama, it seems, a son of the Sakyans (Scythians, Afghans, Central Asians) who went forth into homelessness from a Sakyan clan (tribe), has come… Now a good report of Master Gautama has been spread to this effect:

“That Blessed One is such since he is accomplished and fully enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, awakened and blessed… He teaches a Dharma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with its own special meaning and phrasing; he exhibits a supreme life that is utterly perfect and pure.” Now it is good to see such Accomplished Ones (MN 41).

So it was said of him at the time. But what, then, was the fundamental basis of that Dharma? Of the many ways that such a question might be answered, perhaps this is the simplest and best: “He expounded teachings peculiar to buddhas: suffering, its origin, cessation, and the direct path to its cessation” (MN 56).

These four fundamentals are known as the Four Noble or Ennobling Truths in that they lead to spiritual nobility, that is, the various ariyan stages of enlightenment.

This, with the cognate teaching of no self (the impersonal characteristic of ultimate reality), may be said to constitute the distinct and unique ground of the teachings of buddhas; this is what marks them, sets them apart, and entitles them to the unique epithet “Buddha,” distinct from the “noble ones,” which refers not only to buddhas (teaching and nonteaching) but to disciples who awaken from the illusion (become enlightened) by the path-of-practice, the Middle Way, made known by buddhas.

The three discourses here presented display precisely, in all its incomparably serene simplicity, without assumptions, those special fundamental teachings, from which all Buddhism branches, and to which it all points back.
The first discourse displays these Four Noble Truths as something to be realized and verified for oneself here and now; the second discloses the contradictions which infect all “self” or “ego” conceits; the third echoes the second from another angle.

The circumstances that led up to the discovery of these Four Noble Truths and to the delivery of these three sutras or discourses were briefly as follows. The Bodhisatta -- as the Buddha refers to himself while striving and developing the Ten Perfections leading up to his great enlightenment -- was 29-years-old when he left the householder life, where he enjoyed the extreme of luxury. He went forth into wandering asceticism in order to find not a palliative but the true and incontrovertible way to make a complete and final end of all suffering for himself and all living beings.

This world is surely full of woe, because it is born and ages gets sick and dies. But to fall from one kind of existence only to reappear in another, again and again without end, compounds the problem exponentially. Yet, the world knows of no actual escape from this suffering, from aging and death. There are temporary respites to be sure with sojourns in various heavens (sagga). Is there an escape from disappointment and dissatisfaction, from ageing and death? (SN 12:65).

The Bodhisatta studied and practiced under two of the foremost teachers of samādhi (concentration, the absorptions, mental collectedness, calm, and serenity), and reached the highest meditative attainments possible thereby. But that was not enough: “I was not satisfied with that as a dharma; I left it and went away” (MN 36).

The Bodhisatta Siddhartha (Lahore Museum)
He then spent the better part of the next six years in the practice of meditation and asceticism, eventually trying every sort of extreme self-mortification.

During this time he was helped along by five fellow ascetics, who hoped that if he discovered the “deathless state” (nirvana, final liberation) he would be able to communicate his discovery to them. This extreme asceticism also failed to gain enlightenment and glimpse nirvana (deliverance from suffering).

“By this grueling penance I have attained no distinction higher than the human ideal worthy of a noble one’s knowing and seeing. Might there be another way to awakening?” (MN 36). 

He decided to try again the path of concentration, attained through mindfulness of breathing, though this time not pushed to the extreme of serenity, but guided instead by ordered consideration (mindful-contemplation).

Calm/insight meditations (Ezioman/flickr)
He remembered, “While my Sakyan father [King Suddhodana] was busy and I [as a child of 7-years-old] was sitting in the shade of a rose-apple tree, then quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unprofitable ideas, I had direct acquaintance of entering upon and abiding in the first absorption (jhāna) -- meditation, which is accompanied by initial application and sustained attention, with happiness and pleasure born of seclusion. Might thisbe the way to enlightenment?”

And following upon that memory came the recognition: “This is the way to enlightenment” (MN 36). He now gave up self-mortification and took food again in order to restore to his emaciated body strength sufficient for his purpose. Then his five fellow ascetics left him in disgust, judging that he had failed and was merely reverting to what he had forsaken.

Gaining Enlightenment
Big Buddha Tian Tan, Lantau island, Hong Kong (Michael Jevons/
But now abandoned and in solitude, his new balanced effort rooted in virtue, based on unifying strong concentration (absorption), and guided by the ordered (mindful) consideration of insight brought about by contemplation (anussati, mindfulness in the sense not just of bare attention, vigilance, and wakefulness but of careful consideration of the question, "Why is there this suffering?" which is contemplated in terms of directly seeing Dependent Origination), at length brought success. He discovered the way to the goal -- the complete end of all suffering -- he had sought for so long. 

"So I, too, found the ancient path, the ancient trail, travelled by the Enlightened Ones of old” (SN 12:65). Five faculties in balance had brought him to his goal: they were the four, namely, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and understanding (wisdom), with confidence (faith) in the efficacy of the other four -- the five that "merge into the Deathless” (SN 48:57).

According to tradition, the Buddha's “great enlightenment” took place on the night of the Vesākha-month full moon (corresponding to our April-May).

After invitation by first Sakka then Brahma, the Buddha resolved to communicate his discovery of liberation through wisdom (insight) to humans and devas. For his first audience he considered his two teachers of the previous six years, but they had passed into brahma worlds where liberation would not be possible for aeons (kalpas).

Teaching the five ascetics (
So he chose the five ascetics who had shared his self-mortification before abandoning him. He realized that they were now at Benares (Varanasi) -- India’s “eternal city.” So in due course he went there to rejoin them. Just two months after his great awakening he delivered his sutra -- the “Setting Rolling of the Wheel of the Dharma” or “Bringing into Existence the Blessing of the Dharma” -- with the five ascetics as his human hearers and many more devas.

Tradition says it was the evening of he Āsālha full moon (July-August), the day before the rainy season (vas) begins, and he began to speak at the moment when the sun was dipping, and the full moon simultaneously rising.

This, his first discourse, made one of his hearers, the ascetic Kondañña, a “stream-enterer” [one who entered the "stream," sota, a word which also means "ear," as in one who entered upon the path-and-fruits by hearing] with his attainment of the first of the four progressive stages of enlightenment. The four other ascetics soon followed in his footsteps.

The second sutra or sermon, on the impersonal characteristic of not-self (anatta), was delivered to the same five, and it brought them to the fourth and final stage, that of arhatship, full enlightenment: “and then” as it is said, “there were six arhats in the world” (Vinaya Mahāvagga 1).

These are the first two discourses presented here, and they were the first two sutras ever uttered by the Buddha. The third, the “Fire Sermon,” was delivered some months later to an audience of 1,000 forest ascetics converted from the heaven-bent practice of fire-worship. All three discourses deal only with wisdom/understanding (paññā), among the faculties mentioned above as required to be balanced.

Walking Buddha (Nippon_newfie/flickr)
But understanding, in order to reach perfection, has to be aided by and brought into balance with the other four factors. In other words, it has to be founded upon concentration (collectedness, nondistraction, the unified or unscattered mind/heart), which is founded upon virtue (non-remorse, “habit without conflict,” a mind/heart free of misgivings, worries, remorse).

A high degree of concentration (though not necessarily developed to the fullness of all the absorptions, but lightly just the first four, not necessarily mastering them fully but being acquainted with them and able to enter and emerge; later this certain course was expanded with the more uncertain development of lighter versions or "access-concentration"). Only in this way can insight-wisdom reach the ultimate goal of unshakable liberation.

Virtue and concentration alone -- without the guidance of wisdom/understanding -- can do no more than suppress the defilements, but they cannot of themselves alone lead to final liberation. Now the hearers of all these three discourses were, like the Buddha himself, all ascetics already expert in the techniques and refinements of both virtue (sīla) and concentration (right samādhi, sometimes defined technically as the first four absorptions).

So the Buddha had no need to instruct them about what they already knew very well. Similarly he had no need to expound the doctrine of action (karma) and its ripening (vipāka, phala), with which they were already acquainted through the ancient teachings or their own insight by way of having developed the divine eye through the absorptions.
What he had to do was first to show how it is possible to go astray toward the opposite extremes of sensual-indulgence and self-torment and second to describe the facts, to show how things are, clearly and succinctly enough to stir his hearers to the additional spontaneous movement of understanding essential and indispensable for the final discovery of liberation, each for oneself. (“A 'Perfected One,' a samma-sam-buddha, is one who shows the way” MN 70).
Now let us let these three sutras speak for themselves. Their incalculable strength rests on their simplicity and in their actuality. The profound truth is here, discoverable even through the foggy medium of translation. More

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