Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The First Day of Spring: Tree Leaves (sutra)

Maurice O'Connell Walshe (trans.), Simsapa Sutra, "The Simsapa Tree Leaves" (SN 56.31), Ashley Wells, Dhr. Seven, CC Liu (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly partial Wiki edit

At one time the Blessed One [a name for the Buddha] was staying at Kosambi in the Simsapa Tree Grove.
Trees are sacred in Buddhism, e.g., the pipal
Then the Blessed One, taking a few simsapa leaves in his hand, said to the meditators: "What do you think, meditators? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?"
"Venerable sir, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous."
"In the same way, meditators, there are many more things that I have found out but not revealed to you.*

The Buddha was first represented as a bo tree
"What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, meditators, have I not revealed it?
"Meditators, it is because it is not related to the goal [of awakening and complete liberation], it is not fundamental to the pure life [leading directly to the goal], does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment, and nirvana. That is why I have not revealed it. But, meditators, what have I revealed?

"What I have revealed is:
  1. 'This is suffering (disappointment, woe, ill, pain)
  2. This is the arising of suffering
  3. This is the cessation of suffering
  4. This is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.'
The "Tree of Life" in Kabbalah
"'And why, meditators, have I revealed it?

"It is because this [set of teachings called the Four Ennobling Truths] is related to the goal, fundamental to the pure life; it conduces to disenchantment, dispassion (letting go), cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment, and nirvana, so I have revealed it.
"Therefore, meditators, your task is to learn [the deep and profound meaning of]: 'This is suffering, this is the arising (origin) of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the PATH leading to the cessation of suffering.' This is your task."

How many leaves are there in a grove of trees? Many, many more than fit in a hand.

In Buddhism's Pali canon there is a sutra titled "The Simsapa Grove" (SN 56.31). This discourse is described as having been delivered by the Buddha to monastics while dwelling beneath a grove of simsapa trees in the city of Kosambi. In this discourse, the Buddha compares the few simsapa leaves he picks up in his hand with the number of simsapa leaves overhead in the grove to illustrate what he teaches (in particular, the Four Noble Truths) and what he does not teach (things unrelated to the achieving enlightenment). Elsewhere in the Pali canon, simsapa groves are mentioned in the Payasi Sutra (DN 23) and in the Hatthaka Sutra (AN 3.34). See also Ashoka tree.
  • NOTES: For example, Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 708, entry for siŋsapā (dsal.uchicago.edu) associates the simsapa tree with Dalbergia sisu. The Pali canon is the main scriptural source for Theravada Buddhism and is at least nominally incorporated in the canons of other branches [Mahayana and Vajrayana] of Buddhism as well. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), pp. 1857-58; Thanissaro (1997); and, Walshe (1985), Sutra 68. Note that in an endnote to this sutra (n. 313), Walshe states that this tree is "also known as the Asoka tree" (Walshe, 1987, p. 351). This discourse is said to have been given in Kosala. In Thanissaro (1999) this discourse is said to have been given near Alavi. For both canonical and post-canonical references, see Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 708, entry for siŋsapā.
Translator Maurice O'Connell Walshe edited by Wisdom Quarterly
This famous saying has been taken to justify the [post-Buddhist] doctrines of various Mahayana schools, Theosophy, and so on. While it may do so in many cases, the real meaning is somewhat different:

The Buddha was naturally aware of many things, things unknown to others, which he did not deem necessary to teach for the gaining of enlightenment.

We can accept, even without interpreting full enlightenment vulgarly as "omniscience," that the Buddha was at least potentially aware of whatever he wished or needed to know. [In Buddhism, the Buddha is considered "omniscient" not because he knows everything at once but because he can know anything he wishes by contemplating it.]

He knew precisely which religious and philosophical doctrines that had been or might be propounded were (a) true and/or (b) conducive to enlightenment. He borrowed nothing, as such, from previous religious systems because he did not need to. But he gave his approval to whatever conformed to these criteria.
It has occasionally been urged that if the Buddha were really all-enlightened, he must have been able to foresee modern scientific discoveries. In fact, he probably could have done so, but that was not his task. And he will certainly have been more aware than such critics of the dangers inherent in modern discoveries, with their power not only to destroy but also to corrupt.

Dryads/devas live in/as trees.
As a matter of fact, he did not even utilize a very basic technical device that was already known by his time -- the art of writing. He clearly preferred that his teachings, the Buddha Dharma, should be preserved orally by those attempting to train them and indeed the ancient Indian oral tradition has continued to this day (Cf. T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, London 1903, pp. 107ff.)

There is, however, one "modern science" which the Buddha not only anticipated but far surpassed: psychology. The superiority of Buddhist psychological insights to the findings of the modern West can be readily verified. (Some examples can be found in this Anthology). Compare to Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's Abhidhamma Studies (BPS.lk 1965), and Douglas M. Burns' Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology (BPS Wheel #88-89).
We may compare the saying quoted here with another no less famous one occurring at SN 47.9 as well as in the Maha Parinibbana Sutra, Dialogues of the Buddha 16, II, 25 (= D ii, 100 [DN 16, Part Two, v. 32]): Desito Aananda mayaa dhammo anantaram abaahiram katvaa. natth'Aananda Tathaagatassa dhammesu aacariyamutthi.

[This translates from the Pali as] "I have taught Dharma, Ananda, making no 'inner' and 'outer' [esoteric and exoteric]: the Tathagata [the Buddha] has no 'teacher's fist' [secrets hidden in a tightfisted palm that is only opened to some students] in respect of the doctrines."

There is, of course, no contradiction between the two statements, which in fact point once again to the Middle Way between the extremes. Both equally imply that whatever else the Buddha may have been aware of about the world, he taught only what was needed for the gaining of enlightenment, holding back nothing, but refraining from imparting irrelevant information. As the life of the monastics was pared down to essentials, so was the Teaching.
It is fair to suggest that here, in the Pali canon, we have the Buddha's Dharma (Teaching) presented in its purest and simplest form, in the words of the Awakened Teacher himself. This statement is not meant to be in any way polemical, or to claim that doctrines developed later in the so-called "Mahayana schools" are necessarily wrong. Recent research, indeed, has conclusively shown that the essence of many such [Mahayana] doctrines can be traced back to the Pali canon.

For instance, there is little real conflict between the ideas expressed by Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school, and the Theravada (a school with which he was almost certainly entirely unacquainted).

Likewise, while the proposition recently put forward that Zen is the "Theravada of Japan" can scarcely be literally maintained, the idea nevertheless contains a strong element of truth because Zen visibly represents an effort to rid later Buddhism of some of the accretions that had tended to obscure the original message.

Zen, too, inclines more to something like the Arhat Ideal [enlightenment for all in this very life] of Theravada than to that of the Bodhisattva Ideal [martyrdom of never attaining enlightenment until everyone else goes first though they also vow to never attain until everyone else has been saved. You first. No, you. No, you, all Heckle & Jeckle style. No, really, you go first, for I am holier than thou. But I am holier and less selfish and must therefore go second, for the first shall be the last as Saint Issa/Jesus Christ is said to have taught].

On the other hand, it should not be overlooked that the bodhisattva career [the vow and commitment to develop the ten paramis or "perfections" to their utmost and thereby become a buddha far in the future] is one that is open to followers of the Theravada school [cf. SN 12.10, n. 3 and the work of Bhikkhu Bodhi there mentioned; also Ven. W. Rahula's Zen and the Taming of the Bull (Bedford 1978)].

And, as indicated in SN 55.24, n. 7, even the apparently extremist Pure Land [devotional Buddhist] schools with their emphasis on faith receive rather more support from the Pali canon than is sometimes thought [if only because their foundational idea of a "pure land" is based on the Pali canon's teaching of the suddhavasa worlds called the "pure abodes."] In this context K. Mizuno, Primitive Buddhism, tranl. K. Yamamoto (Oyama 1969) is of interest.
Finally, in connection with the relation of "Buddhism and Science," the wise words of an American astronaut, Ed Mitchell, in a recent TV program may be quoted. He said: "Science is a methodology. As a belief system, it is disastrous." Buddhism, it may be urged, is a spiritual methodology analogous to that of physical science, which makes the acceptance of any pure "belief system" superfluous.

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