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|BEGINNINGS: THE PALI SUTTAS
A discussion of beginnings would be entirely unnecessary were it not that beginnings seem invariably to precede whatever conclusions may exist. Therefore any who hope to arrive at a conclusion in their life must perforce begin. But where? The present work is concerned entirely with this question. Herein our discussion is, by design, twofold.
First, we will discuss the human situation, and the inherent need to discover a method, a way, whereby we may resolve the dilemma of that situation. This method must be coherent: we must have a standard whereby we can judge which actions will and which will not lead us towards a conclusion. Accepting a standard is, precisely, our beginning.
Second, we will discuss whether the collection of texts known as the Pali Suttas might not offer such a standard. These texts, the oldest we have from among the various Buddhist schools, have much to recommend them. However, objections have been raised concerning their authenticity. These objections refer to the very origins and the early transmission of the Suttas. In order to evaluate these objections an understanding is needed of how these texts came into being and how they were passed on. This is the second sense in which we are concerned about beginnings.
Although this historical point occupies the bulk of our essay, it is thematically subservient to our primary question -- Where does one begin? -- and is relevant only to the extent that the primary question is seen to be relevant. This work, then, is not historical as such. Rather, it happens that an inquiry into the primary question turns out to involve an historical consideration.
The objection may be raised that any teaching which calls itself akalika, or non-temporal, as the Pali Suttas do, can never be understood by raising an historical question, which is necessarily temporal. This of course is perfectly true. The problem of existence, in its very nature, can never be resolved by such a method. It is only through a non-historical approach -- specifically, one that is personal, passionate, and persistent -- that our perilous situation in the world can ever be comprehended. In this sense the only basis for judging the Suttas would be to put their advice into practice and resolve the personal dilemma, thereby coming to know for certain that the Suttas are what they claim to be. But herein we are not yet at the point of discussing how to proceed. We are still involved with the prior question of whether these Suttas offer a standard which, if acquiesced to, will lead to an end. And although an historical inquiry can never in itself lead us to a conclusion, it is at least possible that it might lead us to a beginning inasmuch as it can serve as an initial indication to our question: Where does one begin?
Except where otherwise noted, all factual information in this essay is garnered from the Pali Suttas and their companion-piece, the Vinaya. In these texts we find accounts of the first months following the Buddha's awakening (Khandhaka I, Mahavagga, Vinaya), of the final months before his decease (Sutta 16, Digha Nikaya), of the events leading up to the First and Second Councils, together with an account of those Councils (Khandhakas XI and XII, Culavagga, Vinaya), and, scattered through the texts, incidental information and clues about the middle period of the Buddha's ministry. Considerable additional information is available in texts of later date, such as the Commentaries. However, for our purposes such data are not needed, for though our account in no way contradicts the known facts available from primary sources, it is our intention to present here not a factual history but an imaginative one. We may recall the dictum: "Higher than actuality stands possibility." We are not attempting to set forth what did happen but what must have happened. Our account is more reasoned than reportorial. As such our methods are not those of scholars; nor do our conclusions rest upon ever finer points of contention, but rather upon a commonly-held understanding of how, in their broad outlines, things generally evolve: gradually and piecemeal rather than suddenly and definitively.
This is not to say that what follows will be of no interest to scholars. On the contrary, because of the broadness of the base upon which our findings rest, it is hoped that scholars may well regard them as a significant as well as an original contribution to their discipline. However, an understanding of what follows requires no knowledge of or interest in scholarly questions. For most, perhaps, this account will be sufficient. For those who feel that they would benefit by further exploration into the substantial scholarly literature on the early history of Buddhism, this account can serve as a standard for evaluating the various conflicting views and judgements that are to be encountered therein. Avoiding those conflicts, we offer herein, using the data of the texts themselves, the most reasonable account of their beginnings and a reasonable assessment of how much confidence we can place in them, in order to make our own beginning.
Sutta references are to discourse number and, in parentheses, volume and page of the Pali Text Society edition, except for Theragatha, Dhammapada and Sutta Nipata, for which reference is to the verse number. Vinaya references are to the Khandhaka number of the Mahavagga or Culavagga, in Roman numerals, followed in Arabic numerals by subsection and paragraph as well as volume and page number.
When we apprehend the ever-present possibility of our own immediate dying, -- the impossible possibility, says Heidegger, -- then any notions we may have about our golden and glittering prospects in the world will be seen to be illusory inasmuch as they, and we as well, end in death. The gold is now seen for the leaden bondage that it really is, the alchemy has failed, and we see ourselves to be in perpetual subjugation to the uncertainty inherent in the world. And we then feel, deeply, the need to act.
There must be release from this overwhelming fact of our own mortality: we cannot believe otherwise. But, equally certain, we don't know the way to that release else, surely, we would already have taken it. Can we find this way? Fine and earnest people have tried before us -- that we know -- and have admitted failure. Our task, then, cannot be easy. But having recognized our existence in this world as inherently unsatisfactory, we now sense the utter necessity of seeking the means to transcend it. We are unwilling to plunge yet again -- again! -- into that endless round of pastimes wherein most people waste their lives in the effort to avoid facing the truth of their own mortal existence. Although we don't know the way ourselves, it is yet possible that there exists some teacher, some teaching, to provide guidance. And so we look about us, and we find... orators, teachers, therapists, hucksters, salvation-mongers, apostles, psychologists, preachers, gurus, swamis, saviours and salesmen by the score, each offering his own brand of salvation. And thus we arrive again at our original question: where does one begin?
They can't all be right. If it were so easy, we would have no need of a teacher, for we and everyone else would already have done the work ourselves. Besides, many of these teachings, anti-teachings, disciplines, non-disciplines and weekends are manifestly in contradiction with one another and sometimes even with themselves, both in doctrine and in practice. And therefore, unless we abandon consistency of both thought and effort, we must acknowledge the importance of choosing among them intelligently, unless we believe them to be uniformly mistaken, in which case the choice would again seem unimportant. For the choice we make will be our beginning, and from that beginning -- made wisely or foolishly -- everything else will follow.
Nor need we believe ourselves to be totally incompetent to make that choice. For although it is a truism that, as is sometimes argued, the only way to know for certain which teaching or teachings are in accordance with truth is to see truth for oneself, yet we can even now make a reasonable assessment of these teachings. To be unenlightened is not to know nothing; for were that the case we should not long survive in this uncertain world. We are free from confusion at least to the extent that we now see the need to free ourselves from it totally. Having acknowledged the problem, we can sort out from among those teachings which offer themselves to us those that at least address themselves to that problem from those that merely pander in one way or another to the world's proclivity for any comfortable, or even uncomfortable, notion in order to avoid facing the problem. For underlying each practice will be a doctrine or general attitude, and from this we can come to know the general nature of each teaching and can thereby separate the relevant from the superfluous. And thus it is that, eventually, we will come to the Buddha's Teaching.
The Buddha's Teaching: what images it conjures -- compassion, serenity, acquiescence, wisdom, bliss, selflessness. In such terms is it often described, even from afar, even among those who know only its general outlines. Such is the image of this Teaching that is in world-wide circulation; and with such qualities does it invite seekers of peace to take a closer look. With such a reputation it may perhaps prove to be the fount of advice and guidance we so need. And therefore we eagerly approach it, to find... Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana, Ch'an, Korean Zen, Vajrayana, Tantric and dozens of other sects and sub-sects, large and small, new and old, all claiming to be the Teaching of the Buddha. And so it is that again we return to out original question: Where does one begin?
Are these schools different in name only? Or do they differ as well in attitude, approach, doctrine and practice? Is all one? Is all a diversity? Does nothing really exist? Does everything really exist? Or are these disparate views merely worldly wisdom, best abandoned in favour of seeing that "Whatever is arises dependent on conditions and is not without conditions"? Must we save others before we will be able to save ourselves? Or must we save ourselves before we will be in a position to save others? Is everything already perfect? Or is it only suffering that arises, suffering that ceases? Do we all have Buddha Nature? Or is all existence empty, without essence? Will we all eventually arrive at eternal salvation? Or do only those achieve liberation who see that all conditions are impermanent? Is nibbana (Skt. nirvana) to be found in samsara, the round of existences, or are they mutually exclusive? What is the sound of one hand clapping?
If we accept that truth, whatever else it may be, is at least not self-contradictory, then the question necessarily arises: which among these paths, diverse and often at odds with one another, will offer us that way to liberation which we seek? And if these teachings are all different -- or even if they are not -- which of them is that Teaching set forth 2,500 years ago by a certain member of the Gotama family of the Sakyan clan, in northern India, known today as the Awakened One, the Buddha? If it were only possible to come to a reasonable judgement on this point, then we might be able with one stroke to cut through the tangle of confusion we meet with when we inquire into the nature of "Buddhism". For we will then find -- if the Teaching lives up to its reputation -- one coherent, sufficient and, above all, relevant Teaching which can serve as a standard in our inquiry into the nature of our mortal existence. And perhaps this is possible.
We know that the Pali Suttas -- the discourses in the Pali language -- are acknowledged by all Buddhist schools to be the oldest record we have of the Buddha's Teaching. We know that nearly a century ago the scholars of the West performed an about-face from their original majority position and now fully acknowledge the primacy, as regards age, of those Suttas. But we also know that certain objections have been raised with regard to the origin and transmission of those discourses. Are these objections valid? What is the difference here, if any, between "oldest" and "original"? How trustworthy are these texts as we now have them? With what degree of confidence are we able to ascertain the truth of the matter? Fortunately, it is possible to know, with reasonable confidence, the way in which these texts were first gathered together and then handed down to us. Let us inquire.
It may be objected at this point (or even sooner) that all this inquiry is absurd and that the "obvious" approach, for goodness sake, is to take whatever is useful wherever we find it and to get on with the thing already instead of dancing about the starting line for, after all, truth isn't the exclusive preserve of any one narrow sectarian doctrine, is it? And this eclectic attitude sounds very good until one tries to "get on with the thing" by taking "whatever is useful" etc., for it is at precisely this point -- the point of beginning -- that the question arises: what is useful? And what merely seems to our blind eyes to be so? Without a standard we would be unable to choose between meditation, ascetic austerities, or prayers to the heavens as paths to liberation. It is precisely this -- a standard -- that we felt ourselves to be in need of when we decided to seek guidance beyond our personal opinions and judgements.
Although the question of specific doctrines lies outside our present inquiry (for we are not yet well-placed to make the necessary distinctions), something can nevertheless be said about the approach to specific doctrines, i.e. making a beginning. Here the question is not "Where does one begin?" but "How does one begin?": perhaps the question that immediately follows upon "where?" and which is still prior to any actual beginning. And there seem to be two general answers to this question, How does one begin?, which we can conveniently label as the "syncretistic" approach and the "crystalline" approach.
In the syncretistic approach one views spiritual teachings as if they were a smorgasboard spread out on an enormous table, to be partaken of by all who seek spiritual sustenance. The seeker, plate in hand, helps himself to whatever he cares to, in whatever quantity and variety appeals to him -- let's see now, a bit of TM on toast, some Karma Yoga and cole slaw, a dash of Sufism for spice, a bit of this, a bit of that -- and if he has chosen wisely, he will consume, spiritually, a satisfying and nutritious blend which -- who knows -- just might lead to....
The crystalline approach, on the other hand, assumes that no truth can be more consistent or relevant than the teaching by which it is revealed, and that therefore a teaching that truly leads -- i.e. is one-pointed and consistent rather than an amorphous collection of spiritualisms -- is akin to a many-faceted crystal, wherein each facet may reflect its own prismatic colours, but each is nonetheless inseparable from the crystal as a whole, for the crystal, being an organic unity, is indivisible. In this approach there can be no pick-and-choose attitude, for to fragment such a teaching is to miss its holistic essence. In such a case, having once made the decision that this is the standard we choose to follow, we will thereupon voluntarily subjugate our personal preferences in favour of the advice of our teaching, even if it is directly contrary to our own wishes. This does not preclude taking "whatever is useful". Rather, it gives us a basis for judging what is and is not useful. And if it should happen that within our chosen teaching we already find all that we need in order to "get on with it", then so much the better.
But if the charge of narrowness is nonetheless made, then we will note first that an arrow that is broad and wide is far less likely to hit its mark than one that is properly shaped for one-pointed flight; and second that the charge of narrowness is made without understanding. For no point of view can be understood except from its own frame of reference, an observation which already suggests the crystalline approach, for all that it is true of syncretistic views as well. It is most commonly the case that people do not question the assumptions that underlie their own basic attitudes -- after all, it's obvious, isn't it? -- but until they do so, they will be necessarily unable to understand a point of view that does not arise from those assumptions except from within their own viewpoint, which is to say that they will not be able to understand it at all. And the charge of narrowness is made from the syncretistic point of view without comprehending the crystalline point of view.
The collection of discourses known as the Pali Suttas heartedly recommends itself to the concerned individual as being that guidance to the transcendental which he seeks. They inform the seeker firstly that his life-problem arises dependent for its condition upon a wrong view of things, and secondly that a right view, which would undermine and end that problem, is to be achieved by following right-view guidance, namely, the training-course set forth by the Buddha. There can be no doubt after even a brief look at these texts that they staunchly advocate the crystalline approach towards liberation. In many ways do they declare themselves to be all-of-a-piece,[5a] a Teaching not to be understood by taking from it according to personal preference.[5b] Therefore when inquiring into the Pali Suttas it is a necessity, if one hopes to understand what is meant therein by "right view", to adopt the crystalline approach, and we do so here.
1. "This body will perish;
2. "The fool who does his
3. If one does not accept that truth is at least consistent with itself -- i.e. that truth is not false -- then this question will not arise. Instead, one will remain lost in one's inconsistencies and will fail to see that coherent movement wherein one can achieve freedom from confusion and anxiety. [Back to text]
4. An extreme extension of the eclectic view, common enough nowadays, is that "all teachings lead to a common goal" or, at least, that the deepest teachings (= "those I most approve of") do. A discussion of this idea is beyond our scope; but since this view so accords with the spirit of the times that it is particularly liable to be accepted uncritically, it is worthwhile to note that if (as is the case) it is a mistaken view, then its adoption would be an insurmountable barrier to realization of that which transcends what is common. [Back to text]
5a. E.g.: "Monks, just as the great ocean has but one flavour, the flavour of salt, so too this Teaching has but one flavour, the flavour of freedom." -- Culavagga IX,1,4 (ii,236) = A. VIII,19 (iv,199) = Ud. V,5 (56). [Back to text]
5b. E.g.: "Monks, even with
a teacher who dwells giving importance to material things, an heir to material things,
conjoined with material things, haggling such as this would be untenable: 'If we have it
so, then we will do it; if we don't have it so, then we won't do it.' What then, of a
Perfect One who dwells unentangled with material things? Monks, a faithful disciple,
having scrutinized the teacher's advice, proceeds in accordance with this: 'The Exalted
One is the teacher. I am the disciple. The Exalted One knows. I do not know.'" --
M. 70 (i,480): Kitagiri Sutta. Numerous additional passages could be quoted to
support the two texts above; but perhaps it is not necessary to belabour the point: those
who require more evidence can find it themselves, by going to the Suttas. [Back
Source: Nanavira Thera Dhamma Page
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