Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Buddha in the Pali Canon

This talk was given at Sangha Night in Cambridge Buddhsit Centre May 2015

Before I talk about the Buddha in the Pali Canon, I will say just a few words about the Pali Canon itself. Buddhism was an oral tradition and nothing was written down for at least 300 years after the Buddha’s death. When the teachings did come to be recorded in this way there was an established monastic Sangha with it’s own take on things and it’s own message to deliver. Sometimes it’s glaringly obvious that the text is from a later period and sometimes the character of Gautama Buddha seems to shine through almost in spite of the words. Because an oral tradition depends on repetitions, stock phrases and images, the Pali Canon is full of these – although most modern translations leave out a lot of the repetitions. Oral traditions also rely on storytelling and the Pali Canon is full of stories – no doubt embellished in the telling over centuries.

There are three sections to the Pali Canon – the Abhidharma, the Vinaya and the Sutta Pitaka. The Abhidharma, which is devoted principally to analysing mental states is unlikely to be part of the oral tradition, but a later attempt to systemise the psychological or mind the teachings of the Buddha. The Vinaya Pitaka is the code of discipline or rules for the monastic Sangha. Most of the rules are accompanied by a story relating how they came about. Some of these rules would have come into being during the life of the Buddha and some much later. The third and most important section of the Pali Canon is the Sutta Pitaka – this section of the Discourses. This section contains the teachings of the Buddha and is subdivided into five sections – the long Discourses, the middle length discourses, the connected discourses, the numerical discourses and the miscellaneous discourses. These were written down in Sri Lanka about 100 years BC. Sanskrit discourses – which are called sutras – have a different history. They are Indian and were almost all destroyed when Buddhism disappeared in the 12th century. There are some excellent books about the life of the Buddha which draw on the stories in the Pali Canon to bring him to life. I can highly recommend Gautama Buddha by Vishavapani, also Warrior of Peace by Jinananda and the Life of the Buddha by Nanamoli. I think all Buddhists should really try to familiarise themselves with who the Buddha was and what he taught. The talks at Sangha night this summer will help with that. As an aside, I think mitras and order members in Triratna should also familiarise themselves with the life and teachings of Sangharakshita – it’s interesting to see the parallels with the Buddha’s life.

Gautama the Buddha was a determined and disciplined practitioner. In a sutta of the middle length sayings (Dvedhavittakka sutta) he talks about his life before he was enlightened and how he maintained constant mindfulness of his mental states – noting the skilful and unskilful. He showed determination in leaving home against the wishes of his parents and in his early practice of austerities. He loved solitude all his life and although he didn’t get much opportunity after his enlightenment because he was so much in demand as a teacher and had so many disciples, nevertheless from time to time throughout his life he would simply head off alone for a period of quiet solitude. He always spoke highly of the life lived in the wilderness – the austere, simple, even rudimentary lifestyle of the wanderer.

But he also valued friendship highly and saw communication of the Dharma as the obvious practice for himself and other experienced practitioners. He encouraged his first disciples to go out and teach the Dharma for the welfare of others and he spent his whole life from enlightenment to death wandering from town to town teaching all who would listen from every walk of life. His most famous teachings on friendship were given to Ananda is companion for the last 25 years of his life and Meghiya an earlier companion. In the connected discourses (Samyutta Nikaya) he is reported as saying to Ananda that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. In the Meghiya sutta he tells Meghiya that friendship is the basis for a whole path.

The Buddha was a many faceted character. He had a huge impact on his contemporaries and has had a big impact on the world. Although it’s worth noting that Buddhism may not have had such an impact on the world were it not for the warrior king Asoka having his own sort of road to Damascus moment after the slaughter of the battle at Kalinga. He adopted Buddhism as the religion of his huge empire and through his efforts it spread far and wide. There is probably a whole thesis to be written about the impact of military men on the religious history of the world. The Buddha himself was destined to be a warrior chieftain but chose to forego that life for one of possibly even greater hardship in order to do battle with life’s existential questions. Because he did so and with such success and because others down the generations have taken up this challenge too he has left us a rich inheritance. Among those others who have taken up this challenge is of course Bhante Sangharakshita and it is up to us whether we use our inheritance wisely or squander it. That is a genuine choice. May we all choose wisely.

The Buddha is many faceted and I want to talk about his qualities as they are depicted in the Pali Canon. There is his gentleness, his firmness, his fierceness, his pragmatism, his fearlessness, his physical toughness and his revolutionary nature. So I would like to have a look at each of these qualities in turn.
In his communication he was invariably gentle and courteous but he could also be quite fierce if the occasion demanded it. For example with Meghiya he’s quite gentle. You will hear more about that story in a couple of weeks. With Kisa Gotami, the woman who was so distraught when her baby died, he was extremely kind and gentle while at the same time showing her the reality of the situation. We will hear more about this in Viryajyoti’s talk.
With the monk Bhaddhali, who is being very publicly disobedient, the Buddha is a very firm. Bhaddhali publicly announced that he was not going to keep one of the rules because it caused him discomfort. At the end of the rains retreat, Bhaddhali’s friends urged him to go and get back into communication with the Buddha and apologise. The Buddha doesn’t immediately accept Bhaddhali’s apology – he wants Bhaddhali to understand the effect of his actions on others – on the other monks and nuns and on the lay people and on the reputation of the order. When Bhaddhali understands all this – the Buddha forgives him and they go on to have some very good communication about other things.
The Buddha could also be fierce, almost scorching people with his words, if the occasion demanded. This was the case with Saccaka, the boastful debater, whom we will hear about from Samamati in his talk. Another occasion when his fierceness came out was when the king of Kosala, Prasenajit came to see him for the first time. Prasenajit was the king of all Kosala – that included the Shakyans, the Koliyans and the Vajjians. So although Gotama’s father was a chieftain of the Shakya clan, he was a vassal of Prasenajit. Prasenajit was a young king, not easily impressed. So when he met Gautama his first question was “I have heard that you claim to be fully and perfectly enlightened, Buddha – is this true” and the Buddha replies – “if that can be said of any one, it can be said of me”. Then Prasenajit says “but there are great sages who have been practising for many years who don’t make that claim and you are young still.” Then the Buddha responds “great King, there are four things you should not look down on for their youth: a warrior, a snake, a fire and a perfect monk.

Do not underestimate a young warrior. One day he will gain the throne and punish you with his Royal might. So avoid him if you value your life.

Do not look down on a young snake. It slithers along, shimmering with vibrant colours, and one day it may bite the fool who scorns it.

Do not disparage a fire that is newly lit. Someday it may burn you. If it grows it will become a great mass of flame that feeds on everything and leaves blackened trail behind it.

When a fire burns down the forest the shoots grow up again; but if a perfect monk burns you with his potency, you will not acquire sons or cattle and your heirs will not enjoy wealth. They will be barren and heirless, like the stumps of palm trees.”

This is the Buddha as shaman or magician. He is faced with someone who exercises worldly power and he speaks with words of power. It’s an assertion and a kind of warning. It reminds me of the much later incident when Padmasambhava confronts the king of Tibet. Though the Buddha could be gentle, he could also be firm and he was capable of a fierce flashing forth of shamanic power – depending on what the situation demanded.

His communication is always appropriate and usually practical, just what was needed. In the Brahmajala sutta we find the Buddha being very practical. Two followers of another sect are on the road at the same time as the Buddha and his disciples. These two are a teacher and pupil and the teacher is constantly criticising the Buddha and his followers, while the pupil is defending them. When they all stopped to rest this carries on and eventually the Buddha’s disciples feeling exasperated, go to him and tell him what’s happening. His response is very practical and instructive he says “if anyone should disparage me, the Dharma or the Sangha, you should not feel angry and resentful or upset – that would be a hindrance to you. Just explain what is incorrect. And if others praise me, don’t feel elated. Just acknowledge whatever is true.” And he added “ Listen to the sound of water in the clefts and in the gullies. The tiny streams gurgle loudly; mighty waters flow in silence.” Bhante has written an essay based around this incident to show that Buddhism should never support laws against blasphemy. The essay is called Buddhism and blasphemy.

The Buddha was again very practical when his relatives in the clans of Shakya and Koliya are about to go to war over who should draw water from the dwindling river Rohini. The Buddha is patient with them and persuades them to co-operate rather than to kill each other.

Other qualities that Gautama developed were fearlessness and physical toughness – the ability to endure hardship. When he was practising before gaining enlightenment he deliberately put himself in situations where he would experience fear and then he would just face the fear and let it wash over him in the waves. He talks about this in the fourth sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (Abhayabherava sutta). He says “I dwelt in such awe-inspiring, horrifying abodes as orchard shrines, woodland shrines, and tree shrines. And while I dwelt there, a wild animal would come up to me, or a peacock would knock off a branch, or the wind would rustle the leaves. I thought: what now if this is the fear and dread coming?. I thought: why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread? What if I subdue that fear and dread while keeping the same posture that I am in when it comes upon me? While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither stood nor sat nor laid down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I stood, fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor sat nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I sat, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor lay down until I had subdued that fear and dread. While I lay down, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor sat down until I had subdued that fear and dread.” This is a kind of extreme version of feel the fear and do it anyway. His whole lifestyle demanded a lot of physical endurance and toughness – both he and his followers were very tough. They slept rough in cold and heat, they walked long distances and subsisted on an uncertain diet.
I also get the impression that the Buddha was unpredictable – not in the sense of unreliable – but spontaneous and creative in his responses rather than conventional or calculating.
But perhaps what comes across most in the Pali Canon is that the Buddha was radical in his departure from conventions. His insight into the nature of reality made him a spiritual and social revolutionary. He rejected the division of society according to caste. He tried to subvert the language of caste by talking of a Brahmin as someone possessing certain qualities rather than someone born into a Brahmin family. He spoke in terms of the most important feature of one’s livelihood being its ethical nature, rather than being assigned by caste. Even his spiritual hierarchy of stream entrant, once returner, non-returner and Arhat may be an attempt to undermine the social hierarchy of the four castes of workers, merchants, warriors and priests. In the order of wandering mendicant’s he established, no distinction was made with regard to caste and all were welcome.

When he first began teaching his Dharma, he was very successful in gathering followers and in Rajagaha people started to get annoyed and call him a home breaker, a destroyer of families. In the Mahavagga of the Vinaya it says “at that time many distinguished young Magadhan noblemen lead a religious life under the direction of the Blessed one. The people were annoyed, murmured and became angry, saying the Samana Gautama, causes fathers to beget no sons, the Samana Gautama causes wives to become widows, the Samana Gautama causes families to become extinct.” The Buddha’s response when told this was “this noise will not last long, it will last only seven days and then it will be over”.

There was also controversy about allowing women to go forth. This went against all the norms of a traditional society where women were wives and mothers. Women going forth threatened society’s norm in a more direct way than men going forth and the early women wanderers had a hard life – even the monks were opposed to the wandering Sangha including women and after the Buddha’s death Ananda was criticised for having supported the women’s case.

But the Buddha’s radical message went even further. In a meeting with Dhaniya the herdsman the Buddha states very clearly what he thought: here is how Vishvapani describes it – “one day, not long after his awakening, Gautama was walking through the swamp lands near the River Mohi when he fell into conversation with the herdsman called Dhaniya. Dhaniya told Gautama that he had been preparing for the rains. “I’ve cooked my rice and milked my cows. My family live nearby in a well thatched house and the fire’s been lit. So I say let the rain come down!” Looking askance at the Wanderer’s rags, Dhaniya remarked, “I support myself by what I earn through honest labour. My sons are all healthy and I never hear a bad word about them.” “I serve no one” Gautama replied. “Having found liberation I wander through the world with no need to earn anything!”  Gotama’s dialogue with Dhaniya shows one version of his message to mainstream society: a complete rejection of its worldly values and the cramped and dusty householder lifestyle. At the end of the discourse Mara pops up to defend possessions, but Gautama tells him: “one with sons grieves because of his sons and one with cattle grieves because of them. A person’s grief comes from possessions, and someone without possessions does not grieve.” I don’t think he’d be very impressed with our society of consumers.

Of course not everyone could or would renounce a household and family life and the Wanderers depended on householders for their food, so a more down-to-earth but still radical teaching about ethics developed for those who wanted to stay at home. The Sigolavada Sutta has detailed teachings on this and is sometimes known as the layperson’s Vinaya or rules of conduct.  It is a detailed code of conduct covering all the major relationships in a person’s life.

The Buddha’s message is still radical and even revolutionary today: firstly he says your suffering is largely caused by your own mental states. You can do something about that and nobody else can do it for you. You are responsible for your own mental states and for your life. So this is quite radical even today – we live in a culture of blame and complaining.

Secondly he says religion is whatever works to alleviate suffering and transform people completely in the direction of wisdom and compassion. There is no God or Guru to save you, you need to follow the guidance or take the medicine and in that way save yourself. This is a radical redefinition of religion. Then he says spiritual practices are a means to an end not ends in themselves. This is also radical.

And in our materialist, shopping culture his message about where happiness comes from is still radical. He says there is no lasting happiness to be found in worldly things. Therefore accumulating wealth or possessions or even having children doesn’t bring lasting happiness. In the end we have to let go of everything and we will be happier if we train ourselves in letting go.

And in a world where some people are willing to kill or be killed on the basis of some real or imagined insult to their teacher or teachings it is radical for the Buddha to say that he and his Dharma do not need to be defended. Buddhism doesn’t need laws against blasphemy. Anger because the Buddha is denigrated or pride because Buddhism is praised are equally unhelpful on the path.
So Buddhism is a radical teaching . Strong medicine for a sick world. Bhante Sangharakshita has continued this tradition and presented the Dharma in uncompromising terms too and he has of course been criticised for it.
The Buddha expressed his teachings verbally, but his life is also a teaching and the stories which tell us about the impact he had on others are a teaching. His life communicates the message of non-attachment, letting go, not grasping after power or wealth or security. This is an uncompromising and radical message – which is easy to understand but extremely difficult to do. Most Buddhists in the worl live a very diluted version of the Buddha’s message.

But it is far better to live out the Buddha’s teaching in an imperfect way than not trying at all. In this endeavour, this spiritual life, the ability to practise grows as we practise and our understanding develops gradually – all we need to do is put the right conditions in place. The Buddha would have commended us for that.

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