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Archive for the tag “Four Noble Truths”

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.  Grove Press 1959/1974.  151 pages.

I suspect more people have been introduced to Buddhism through this book than any other—and that is a very good thing.  If any single volume can be called “core,” “fundamental,” “indispensable,” it’s this one.  Why?  I think it is Rahula’s uncommon combination of simplicity, clarity, directness, and accuracy that makes him such a good writer and this book so reliable and accessible.  Basically, if you’ve not read this book—regardless of whatever else you may have read—you are assuredly missing something.

Over the past twenty years the number of introductory works on Buddhism has exploded.  While not as mainstream as yoga, Buddhism is now “out there”—i.e. out and about, in plain view—and “in here”—meaning affecting peoples’ lives and thoughts, even if they don’t know it.  The need for a work that is at once timeless and contemporary, personally affecting and objectively critical, is more pressing than ever, and What the Buddha Taught (1959) has fulfilled and continues to fulfill these needs.

The author Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) was a Sri Lankan monk in the Theravadan tradition.  Among his other books are History of Buddhism In Ceylon and Zen and the Taming of the Bull; in his capacity as Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in Chicago, he became the first Buddhist monk to hold a professorial chair in the Western world.  On a more personal note: in 1990 I had an opportunity to meet Venerable Rahula but at the time, having only recently arrived in Sri Lanka, I was suffering from a bad case of diarrhea and general disorientation and so passed on the chance—something I’ve always regretted.

The book is built around the Four Noble Truths, which are the subject of chapters two through five.  The first chapter, entitled “The Buddhist Attitude of Mind,” starts off rather provocatively with the assertion “man is supreme.”  Right off the bat, the Buddha’s non-theistic (note: not atheistic) thought is emphasized, its difference from Western forms of religion made plain.  Remember: Rahula grew up under British colonial rule, and as a Sinhalese Buddhist would no doubt have confronted the imperial assertion of Christian supremacy many times.  (Clearly, he was unimpressed.)  As Rahula puts it:

Among the founders of religions the Buddha…was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.  Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him.  The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either.  He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence (1).

Granted the previous four hundred years of Western (read Christian) cultural ascendancy, this is a heady and defiant statement.  And I know from observation and experience that humanity can fairly well be divided into two groups: either they are offended, appalled and repulsed by such a thought, or they are intrigued, inspired and encouraged.  Upon my very first reading of this book, I knew to which camp I belonged.

In this first chapter Rahula deftly lays out basic attitudes of Buddhist culture: the requirement of responsibility for one’s actions (karma), freedom and openness of thought, the necessity of critical inquiry (cf. the Kalama Sutta), tolerance, non-violence, the distinction of faith not as belief but as intelligent devotion and trust.  Here too we encounter the vital principle of empirical verification and the Buddha’s disdain for metaphysical speculation unconnected to the problem of suffering and its cessation.  Rahula is somehow able to touch upon and clarify all these themes in a mere fourteen pages, and to do so while quoting liberally from the suttas (in easy to read, modern English translations, no less!).  Talk about economy!  That is why this book easily bears multiple re-readings so well—there is so much compacted into so little space, and yet never does one feel like drowning.  (Quite the contrast from the Paul Williams book I just read!)

I’ll briefly outline topics dealt with in the four core chapters:

  • Chapter two—first noble truth: definition of dukkha, the five aggregates, question of origins, charges of pessimism;
  • Chapter three—second noble truth: definition of tanha, four nutriments, karma, question of Self/soul;
  • Chapter four—third noble truth: definition of nibbana (nirvana), what happens to a Buddha after death?, who realizes nirvana?;
  • Chapter five—fourth noble truth: definitions of the eight limbs of the path.  If I have any significant criticism of the book, it falls on this section, which, considering its importance is given rather short shrift.

Chapter six discusses anatta.  Rahula notes the idea’s uniqueness and relates it to the teachings of the five aggregates and conditioned genesis.  Regarding the latter, he achieves the remarkable feat of actually getting what he says right (easier said than done when it comes to paticcasamuppada, which not only is the core of the Buddha’s Teaching but also notoriously difficult to grasp) and by not diluting his discussion with the later commentarial muck of the “three lives” interpretation.  He notes also the perennial effort of various people, even noted scholars (e.g. Caroline Rhys-Davids, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and George Grimm), to insert a higher metaphysical Self into the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula offers some excellent advice to such folks:

It is better to say frankly that one believes in an Atman or Self.  Or one may even say that the Buddha was totally wrong in denying the existence of an Atman.  But certainly it will not do for any one to try to introduce into Buddhism an idea which the Buddha never accepted, as far as we can see from the extant original texts (56).

He proceeds to supply an abundance of textual support for anatta and to point out that its naysayers typically defend their position by mistranslating common instances of atta (as in “myself” or “yourself”) as Self (with a capital S, of course).

Chapter seven concerns bhavana, or “mental culture.” Rahula describes the differences between concentration and insight meditations, and offers simple guidance for the practice of anapanasati—mindfulness of breathing.  This chapter (specifically the instructions on pp. 69-70) had an especial effect on me in my first year in college, when by simply following the text I was able to cure myself of a prolonged bout of insomnia. Rahula concludes his text proper with a chapter on the relevance of the Buddha’s teaching for people today.

The remaining one third of the book consists of very readable and reliable translations of selections from the Pali canon.  Included here are the Buddha’s first sermon (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the so-called Fire Sermon, the Metta Sutta (“Discourse on Loving Kindness”), the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sigalovada Sutta, and selections from the Dhammapada.  All of these are foundational texts and excellent examples of Buddhist thought, offering just enough so the reader will have a sense of what he or she is getting into.  Venerable Rahula has, in effect, opened a door for would-be seekers of truth.  After reading this marvelous book, it is then their choice whether they walk through it or not.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom (Part 10 of A 13-Part Series)

I will not be discussing Mr. MacPherson’s posts concerning the other seven points of the eightfold path.  If after reading my previous nine posts anyone remains as yet unconvinced that there is nothing of the Buddha’s teaching in the Bible, then several volumes more—not to mention several posts—are unlikely to accomplish anything.  What I do plan to discuss is his post “God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23,” wherein he uses several suttas from the Digha Nikaya as a wedge to argue for Christian theism.  

The first sutta discussed (the Payasi Sutta, D.23) concerns a certain Prince Payasi who held “the following evil opinion: ‘There is no other world, there are no spontaneously born beings, there is no fruit or result of good or evil deeds.’”  Essentially, Prince Payasi was a materialist.  He believed that the body and the self are one and the same and hence there is nothing to survive the death of the body.  This being the case, whether one does evil or good is of no particular account, since one’s death is the end of responsibility.  (Note, of course, that modern-day humanists have a very different take on this issue.  The prince was no humanist.)  “No spontaneously born beings” means he denied the existence of immaterial intelligences (i.e. devas, gods, angels—pick your term) inhabiting a world (or worlds) other than what eyes of the flesh can see.  The sutta consists of an argument between the prince and Kumara-Kassapa, a disciple of the Buddha’s, in which K-K argued for the existence of other beings (devas) and some kind of continuity beyond death.  

Clearly this sutta opposes what most people would consider essential tenets of atheism and materialism, and Mr. MacPherson correctly interprets it this way.  It does not, however, support theism such as it is found in the Bible, since (1) the devas/gods/angels whose existence Kumara-Kassapa argues for are not eternal, (2) did not create the world, and (3) are typically subject to many deluded ideas concerning themselves and the world.  They bear more resemblance to the Olympian or Norse gods than to the Biblical/Koranic God.  Mr. MacPherson does not take note of these very important facts.  

The next sutta discussed is the Potthapada Sutta (D.9).  This is actually quite an involved discourse with a lot of good material, but the point Mr. MacPherson is interested in drawing from it is that a teaching, whatever it is, should rely upon experiential knowledge.  He looks specifically to verses 34ff to illustrate this.  And indeed, this is a correct interpretation of these passages and is totally in accordance with the empirical tone of the Buddha’s teaching.  The stock description of the Dhamma as “visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise, each for oneself” (M.38:25 et al), asserts just this.    

This point—i.e. the emphasis on empirical, direct knowing—is again highlighted in the Tevijja Sutta (D.13), where the Buddha chastises the Brahmin Vasettha for having faith in teachers and traditions who rely only upon what they’ve heard, what they’ve been told, what they’ve read, etc, and have not directly known anything for themselves and don’t even act in accordance with what they teach.  Vasettha understands and asks the Buddha to teach him the proper way to Brahma, so he may experience “heaven” for himself.  The Buddha teaches him how to cultivate the jhanas as well as the Brahmaviharas—meditations on sympathetic joy, loving kindness, equanimity and compassion.  So again, the necessity of direct knowing and seeing is made clear; as arguments for the necessity of personal experience as the source of any philosophy, these suttas are excellent choices.  

So far, so good. 

But then Mr. MacPherson’s argument drives off a cliff.  Having established the empirical orientation of the Dhamma, he then tries—vainly—to establish similar credentials for Christianity: 

Consider…what is written in the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 1, verse 14. God Himself, in the flesh, walked on Earth with people, and with Saint John even. He was called Jesus. People saw him. They spoke with him. They touched him. They ate with him.Saint Johnsaw him, spoke with him, touched him, ate with him, traveled with him, lived with him. “And the Word [God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” All four gospels actually testify of actual people who actually saw, heard, touched, ate with, and shared lodgings with God. In 1 John 1:1 the Apostle repeats his personal experience: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” 

When Christians speak of God, they speak from a lineage that knows. They speak from a lineage that did actually hear the voice from heaven. They speak from a lineage that satisfied the test that Buddha put to those ascetics and priests in Long Discourses 9 and 13 (“God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23”).

Now reread that first paragraph and look at the tense—every verb is in past tense.  In other words, Jesus, whether God or man or something in between (and as already pointed out in the previous post, whichever he was really doesn’t matter), was a one-time historical person—just like you, just like me, just like Mr. MacPherson.  And he’s gone.  He doesn’t have an address or social security number—he doesn’t even pay taxes.  As such, the “event” of Jesus is non-repeatable, and, outside the texts, non-verifiable.  However wonderful his sermons may have been, his alleged “godman” status is purely a matter of conjecture and ultimately faith.  Blind faith, I would like add. 

What Mr. MacPherson is doing is appealing to a body of texts created almost two millennia ago and assuming they are unquestionable in their historical veracity.  He’s making a faith-based claim that the generations of Christians since Jesus’ time form a “lineage that knows.”  But there is no way to be sure what Jesus’ disciples actually knew about him or whether their observations were accurately recorded.  (Few if any modern Biblical scholars actually think the Gospels as redacted come direct from the hands of the disciples whose names they bear.)   We are simply expected to accept this “lineage” and the texts it supports on faith—exactly as the Brahimns in the Tevijja Sutta did.  “Just as a file of blind men go on, clinging to each other, and the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, and the last one sees nothing—so it is with the talk of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas” (D13:15).  And so it is with the talk of these Christians learned in the Old and New Testaments. 

(I would like to point out a delicious irony here.  No educated Buddhist would ever take the suttas as verbatim transcripts of dialogues and happenings.  Quite obviously they are heavily edited, condensed versions of events, sometimes generic in nature, sometimes historically specific [though we can only speculate as to which is which]—and often political.  That’s right, many are propagandistic, and the Tevijja Sutta is a case in point.  It is unlikely any devout or learned Brahmins of the Buddha’s day would have acceded to all of his arguments as readily as is portrayed in this sutta.  For example, it was [and still is] widely believed that the Vedas are revealed texts [i.e. apauruseya, “not of human agency”], and so are in fact of divine origin.  Just as Christians assume as a matter of course that their texts descend in some sense from Deity, so too did the Brahmins.  I therefore find myself in the rather awkward position of urging a Christian to take the Buddhist suttas a little less literally.  The trouble, of course, for Mr. MacPherson is that a less literal reading of the text undermines his argument and leaves him in the same uncomfortable position as the Buddha’s interlocutors.)    

Notice, too, an essential difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Christian teachings about Jesus.  The Dhamma’s singular goal is to turn an uninstructed worldling (assutava putthujjana) into an arahant; that is, to make him into what the Buddha was.  The Dhamma says that if you do A, B, and C you can and will attain X, Y, and Z: 

Those ascetics and Brahmins who fully understand aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation…[i.e. the four noble truths]: these I consider to be ascetics among ascetics and Brahmins among Brahmins, and these venerable ones, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, in this very life, enter and dwell in the goal of asceticism and the goal of brahminhood (S.12.29). 

You are not expected to believe, but to do.  

This is not the case for Christian teachings concerning Jesus.  No disciple of his, either during his lifetime or now, could claim to share Jesus’ nature.  Jesus is considered a singular, unrepeatable phenomenon.  Nor is there any conceivable method by which we might determine whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, multiplied bread loaves, resurrected Lazarus or was an incarnation of Yahweh.  I might convince myself that such is the case, but my conviction as such holds no more weight than the conviction of those who believe that praying to Ganesha the elephant god helped them pass their final exams.  (Ganesha is the Hindu patron of arts and sciences, and god of the intellect and wisdom, so is well placed to accomplish such miracles.)  

There is yet a still deeper and more subtle problem with Christianity vis-à-vis the Buddha’s teaching.  I have heard some people lament “if only we had a videotape of what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion—then we would know.”  I one time made a similar remark to friend of mine, wondering whether or not that would actually resolve the issue.  His response was illuminating: 

Let’s say someone had a camcorder and followed Jesus around for his entire ministry, filming everything he said and did, and then filmed him dying, getting buried, and on the third day rising from the dead and ascending into heaven.  Now what? 

In other words, the resolution of this particular historical conundrum does not solve the problem of your suffering.  Even if Jesus somehow resolved the existential dilemma that every human being lives with, you must still resolve that dilemma within yourself.  Believing he was God or rose from the dead is not helpful.  It is irrelevant—a distraction, a delusion, an escape.  The false certainty of faith is no defense against the inevitable and real problem of dukkha—of birth, sorrow, pain, loss, aging, sickness and death.  The sooner you admit that you suffer and your life will end and that you have no idea what, if anything, happens after, the sooner you can get on with the business of finding out the truth.    

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

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