The Diamonds Under the Coal

I often encourage serious students of the Dhamma to read the Buddha’s discourses. This can be something of a hard sell. The language is repetitive, the cultural references are – of course – 2400 years out of date, and the concepts being taught can be incredibly subtle and well outside the mainstream of anything we have in our current experience. (I had a discussion with a neighbor of mine yesterday in which I used the term “universal consciousness”, which he took to mean some synonym for “God.” This, of course, has no place in Buddhist thinking.)

But, nonetheless, like Don Quixote, I strive onward, hoping to convey some of my love of the Canon.

It is, I think, without question the most remarkable literature in history. If you told me that I had to spend the rest of my life living alone on a desert island with only the Majjhima Nikaya (the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha) to keep me company, I would consider that the best of all possible lives.

Still, communicating that love to others is not always easy, but I will try.

When I first started practicing 20 or so years ago, I was told not to bother reading the original canonical literature. It was “boring and repetitive”, I was told. And to be sure, at that time Bhikkhu Bodhi had not yet made his first translation available, but nonetheless, I was told to stick to the “commentaries”.

But after many years of hearing that the Buddha said this and the Buddha said that, I got tired of hearing about what he said second hand. For one thing, a part of me always wondered how much of what I was being told was slightly doctored to support whatever point the teacher wanted to make.

Serendipitously, that was just about the time that Bhikkhu Bodhi made his (and Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s) translation of the Majjhima Nikaya available. I bought it, I read it, and life has never been the same for me.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is a real treasure. He is an American who, in 1972, went to Sri Lanka. At that time the only English language translations of the Pali canon were the “PTS” (Pali Text Society) editions that had been translated in the 19th century. Although they were remarkable for their time, the translations were suspect, and burdened with Victorian language and cultural conventions. There is at least one section in the Vinaya – the monastic code – that was left un-translated because it would have offended Victorian sensibilities. (It was about a monk who was having sex with a monkey!)

Thus, Bhikkhu Bodhi, in order to support his own practice, started working with translations that were in progress by a monk named Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, a British Theravadan monk and scholar. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli was educated at Oxford; Bhikkhu Bodhi has a Ph.D in Philosophy. (Sometimes in Buddhism, as with Mozart, it is just best to sit back and enjoy the ride.)

I am greatly abbreviating this story, but the end result of all this is that in 1995 the Majjhima Nikaya was published. This is the first volume of the Buddha’s discourses I read, and it is still my favorite. It is a true treasure, and if you are ever going to read just one volume of the Buddha’s discourses, this is the one to read.

Now to be sure, the average person will probably find the text a little difficult. But bear with it. This was an oral tradition. Typically what would happen is that the Buddha would give a talk, after which the monks present would get together, review what the Buddha had said, and memorize it. I am also guessing that like later poets in oral traditions like in medieval Ireland, the language had certain structure and conventions to support this oral tradition. It was like composing music on the fly.

It isn’t really so very strange from things that exist today, but we probably don’t think of them in this way. Blues bands used to have “battles”, where lyrics were made up on the spot. They adopted stock phrases and rhymes and rhythms. Beat poets did this in poetry slams, and I am guessing that rap musicians do the same thing. You develop a “technology of language” that supports what you are up to.

The Pali Canon is full of poetry, and this was probably part of the technology of the oral tradition in ancient India.

So while the language can be, admittedly, quite repetitive and uses a lot of the same stock phrases over and over again, I encourage people to think of the discourses more like poetry or music. No one complains when the chorus of a song comes around. In fact, I think a wonderful way to read the discourses is aloud, and in a group. This was, after all, how they were transmitted century after century.

So that is my speil on how to read the discourses. Read them as poetry; read them as music.

As to why I encourage people to read them, well…

In my last blog entry I took Leigh Brasington – and he is certainly not the only one – to task for teaching Buddhism in a western, revisionist way. If you read his comment and my comment back to him you will see that I assert – and I think I am on unusually solid ground here – that his statement that the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are “skillful means” is completely untenable. And I think that anyone who reads the discourses for themselves will find that a self-evident statement. The evidence is quite overwhelming.

I have also written about how when I read the Majjhima Nikaya, I kept coming across this thing “jhana”. I have been going to meditation retreats for over 20 years, and I have only heard the word used at 2 retreats, and one of those was a jhana retreat (!). I had never even heard the word when I read the Majjhima Nikaya, yet there it was, over and over again. To this day “jhana” is sort of the bogeyman of Buddhism.

And this is precisely why I encourage people to read the discourses themselves. We get the Buddha’s teachings filtered to the point that they are at times hardly recognizable. Sometimes they are completely wrong. And to be sure, I am not suggesting that anyone take at face value what they read. I certainly don’t. But we should all start from the same baseline.

If you don’t believe in rebirth, my goodness, there is nothing wrong with that. The same is true for the teachings on non-self, which are particularly subtle. People have been debating these issues for generations.

But all forms of Buddhism started with the canonical literature as the same base line. I mentioned that I just finished a course with Ajahn Analayo that compared Chinese versions of the discourses with the Pali ones. One of the most remarkable things about the two is how little they differ in meaning. Now, of course, the Chinese versions are the ones used by the Chinese traditions, including Cha’an (Zen) and so forth. So it is not that the basic teachings are different, even though traditions like Zen differ from Theravadan Buddhism in their interpretations.

And, OK, so maybe that sounds a little too scholarly, and I don’t mean to sound that way. Goodness, I am anything but a scholar. I am a practitioner. But I do encourage all students to pick up a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya – and I would even say Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations, which are the best – and give it a go. Read them slowly. I read one or two a day for a year. There is no hurry. But a lot of what is being taught out there as Buddhadhamma is unsupportable in the literature. It causes a lot of angst and confusion. There is nothing quite like going back to the source. And who knows, you may find yourself, after a while, getting used to the rhythm of the literature, and finding that underneath all that coal is a treasure trove of priceless diamonds.

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