Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Befriending Buddhist Sutras

John T. Bullitt, "Tips on Reading the Pali Discourses" (accesstoinsight.org); Wisdom Quarterly
"Thus should one train: 'We will listen when discourses -- words of the Wayfarer, deep, profound, transcendent, impersonal -- are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping and mastering.' That is how one should train." (SN 20.7)
The ancient Pali canon contains thousands of sutras (Pali, suttas) or discourses, of which more than 1,000 are now available in English Access to Insight. When faced with such a vast store of riches, three questions naturally spring to mind:
  1. Why should I read the sutras?
  2. Which ones should I read?
  3. How should I read them?
There are no simple cookie-cutter answers to these questions; the best answers will be the ones discovered on one's own. Nevertheless, here are a few ideas, suggestions, and helpful tips from years of experience.

Why read sutras?
Interested in exploring the original teachings of the historical Buddha? Then the Pali canon is the place to turn for authoritative advice and support through discourses. These sutras are the primary source of Buddhist teachings. We need not worry whether the exact words in standardized/chanted/memorized discourses were uttered by the historical Buddha. Who can prove such a thing? Keep in mind that the teachings in discourse form have been practiced -- with success -- by countless followers for 2,600 years. If we want to know whether the teachings really work, we study and put the teachings into practice and thereby find out firsthand.
They present a complete body of teachings. The teachings, taken in their entirety, present a complete roadmap guiding the follower from one's current state of spiritual maturity onwards toward the final goal. No matter what our current state may be (skeptic, outsider, dabbler, devout lay practitioner, or celibate monastic), there is something in the sutras to help us progress another step further along the path towards the goal. As one reads more and more widely in the canon, we may find less of a need to borrow teachings from other spiritual traditions, as the Buddha's discourses contain most of what we need to know.  
The Buddha addresses the Five Ascetics as well as countless devas.
They present a self-consistent body of teachings. 
The consistency of the canon is characterized by a single taste [Ud 5.5] -- that of freedom. As we wend our way through them, however, from time to time we encounter things to question. Contradiction, apparent or real, presents a need for a nuanced understanding of the Dharma translated into words and symbols. The truth simply is; the Dharma is a systematic attempt by the Sangha to present the message of the Buddha.
As we reflect deeply on any stumbling blocks, conflicts often dissolve as a new horizon of understanding opens up. It was our understanding that was deficient, not the Dharma's. For example, we might conclude from reading one sutra [Sn 4.1] that Buddhist practice should be to avoid all desires. But upon reading another [SN 51.15], we learn that wholesome-desire itself is a necessary factor of the path. 
Only upon reflection does it become clear that what the Buddha taught is that there are different kinds of desire. Sensual craving  is not the same as an aspiration for the goal of ending all suffering. 
Some things are actually worth desiring -- most notably, the extinction of all harmful craving.
This is not the Dharma changing. It is our understanding that needs expanding into unfamiliar territory to encompass both sutras; the apparent "contradiction" evaporates. Over time we learn to recognize apparent conflicts not as inconsistencies in the discourses themselves but as an indication that we have been carried to the frontier of our understanding. It is up to us to cross beyond the boundaries of ignorance.
Sutras offer lots of practical advice. We find a wealth of practical information on a host of relevant real-world topics such as: 
  • how families can live happily together [DN 31],
  • how to safeguard material possessions [AN 4.255],
  • what sorts of things are worth talking about [AN 10.69],
  • how to cope with grief [AN 5.49],
  • how to train the mind even on our deathbeds [SN 22.1],
  • much, much more. 
In short, the Buddha's teachings offer very practical and realistic counsel on how to find happiness, no matter what our life-situation may be, no matter whether or not we call ourselves "Buddhist." There is even instruction on how to meditate [e.g., MN 118, DN 22] although writings cannot take the place of a competent teacher/guide. (This may be very hard to accept in the West, but it has been understood to be a necessity throughout India's spiritual history).
Sutras bolster confidence in the Buddha's wisdom. As we explore we come across things we already know to be true from our own direct experience. The Buddha said them 26 centuries before we had a chance to experience them. We may already be well acquainted with the hazards of alcoholism [DN 31]. Perhaps we've already tasted the kind of wholesome pleasure that naturally arises in a concentrated mind/heart [AN 5.28]. 
Reading is not believing; experience is (Keira Sutra baby/Hansong/flickr.com)
Seeing our own experience validated in the sutras makes it easier to accept the possibility that the more refined or advanced experiences the Buddha describes may be true. And some counter-intuitive and difficult teachings may, in fact, reflect realities we were not yet familiar with. This validation can inspire renewed confidence and energy to help our meditation, daily practice, and understanding move into new territory.
Energy and confidence support and further energize our meditation (bhavana, self-cultivation) practice. When we read about other people's meditation experiences, we may begin to get a feel for what we have already tasted or accomplished in our own practice and what remains to be done.
Reading them is just plain good for us. Instructions contained in them are entirely of a wholesome nature. For they are all about the cultivation of skillful qualities such as generosity, virtue, patience, joy, concentration, mindfulness, and so on. 
Therefore, when we read we are filling our heart/mind with wholesome things. Consider by contrast all the harmful impressions modern media bombards us with. A little regular sutra becomes an island of sanity and safety in a dangerous sea. Take good care. Whereas reading a sutra is a great first step, it is taking good advice to heart that bears the fruits of wisdom and compassion. More

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