Essaying the Buddha: An Introduction

Thus I have heard. This, the characteristic opening sentence of the Pali discourses of the Buddha, makes us aware at the outset that what we are about to get is words refracted through memory, or through the memory of a memory. What relation do these words have to the earliest, most authentic words of the historical Gotama Buddha? No one can know the answer to this, but the teachings of the Discourses have such power, originality, and cogency that it is hard to resist viewing them as issuing authentically from a single, profound intelligence. The historical Gotama comes to us deflected by memory and the creative imagination, like the historical Jesus and the historical Socrates, but the deflected images taken in themselves yield such rich insight that their historical origins — which are not directly accessible to us anyway — are of only secondary interest to the reader who wants to understand the insight. It doesn’t bother me at all that I can only fantasize about the historical Socrates on the basis of the Socrates of Plato and the Socrates of Xenophon, who bear only a tenuous resemblance to one another both in the kinds of things they say and in how they say it. 
   Thus I have heard: About two and a half thousand years ago a single human being discovered a way to reconceive the problem of unhappiness. Realizing that all the various paths hitherto proposed as paths out of suffering were really either dead ends or paths that led deeper into suffering, Gotama Buddha — as the legend goes — sat under a tree and wouldn’t budge until he had understood the reasons for suffering and found a true path out of it. He knew that his discovery would be opposed and misunderstood by all the orthodoxies of his day, but despite his reluctance, he was persuaded to teach, and over the rest of his life held a vast number of conversations with many different kinds of people. Some of these people were perplexed by him, but most of them, after hearing what he had to say, could simply not go back to the way they had been living. After his death these conversations were recollected, and then collected, by his disciples; indeed, the Canon is mainly attributed to the prodigious memory of his closest disciple and attendant, Ananda. It was only in 29 BCE, about 450 years after the Buddha’s death, that the conversations were written down and became the Pali Canon, which comprises thousands of pages of the Buddha’s remembered discourses. 

Their style is terse, formulaic, methodical, and unappealing, full of repetition and patterned phrasing designed for efficient memorization. I’ve observed a number of different charismatic spiritual teachers and know that somebody who attracted as many devoted followers as the Buddha did could not have spoken in such a stern, charmless manner. It is as if his lovable, living speech has been freeze-dried and preserved in tight foil packets for future use. The writers have meticulously shunned any possibility of verbal seduction by stylistic beauty, and are forcing us to relate only to what the words are saying. While the first impression made by the Suttas is of a forbidding and desiccated austerity, after some exposure their atmosphere starts to feel like the healthy, refreshing dryness of mountain air: up here we can see farther and smell things more clearly. The studied inelegance of the language slowly acquires the homely, unpretentious beauty of unvarnished wood beams and bare earth floors. 

  The Canon is vast and daunting: where to begin, and how to proceed? Many students start with the volume called Majjhima Nikaya, or the Middle-Length Discourses, which covers the full range of the Buddha’s teachings. But this one volume contains 152 dense Suttas and is longer than War and Peace. The best way is just to start reading, and if a passage catches your attention, trust that there is a reason for that and dwell on it — asking exactly what the Buddha is saying, how it is responding to this particular interlocutor, and what the Buddha is not saying in this conversation. We can learn from the interlocutor too: what is his question, and why is it a question for him? Has the Buddha tailored his response to the character, background, and intelligence of the interlocutor? The dramatic situations of many of the discourses are themselves integral to the teachings. Reading the Suttas with careful, thoughtful openness is itself a form of contemplation, training attentiveness to the connections between thoughts and also developing a habit of testing thoughts against experience. The Buddha never asks us simply to believe him; instead, he asks us to “know for ourselves,” to penetrate and comprehend our own experience and everything that is given to us to experience. The conciseness and lean abstraction of these Suttas invite us to enter into them, open them up, and breathe our own understanding into them: we have to get them to speak to us, by engaging them personally. 

  The essays in these pages will be essais in the classical sense: attempts, forays, investigations, a daring of myself on the difficult terrain of the text. I try to read the Suttas with my own mind, paying attention to what the Buddha is actually saying, and ignoring later interpretations by the various schools and traditions of Buddhism. I read as a non-Buddhist and write for non-Buddhists — or for Buddhists who are not primarily interested in being Buddhists — hoping that my honest encounter with the discourses may generate fresh understanding or at least give a fresh view of old understandings. I read as a struggling, often dimwitted human being who has found the discourses helpful and illuminating, and who is plainly incompetent to give any authoritative overview of the multifarious beast called “Buddhism.” Here there will be no descriptions of higher spiritual states and no speculations about what enlightenment might be like. My investigation takes place at the lower reaches of the practice, where we learn to understand the human condition, the causes of happiness and unhappiness, how the heart and mind work. It is an immensely satisfying endeavor that can be undertaken wherever we are, at any time, because the conditions for it are universal and omnipresent.  

  In the first four of these essays, we will see the Buddha’s response to some relatively mundane preoccupations. He doesn’t go here into the core of his teachings, but addresses his interlocutors on their own terms. It was in discourses like these that I first grew to respect the tact, gentleness, and wisdom of this teacher, who always knows what to say and what not to say, who demonstrates reasonableness and moderation in every sentence and none of the relentless one-sidedness of an ideologue. The first of these discourses culminates in the unavoidable question, Do you know who you are? 


4 thoughts on “Essaying the Buddha: An Introduction

  1. Krishnan,

    ‘Thus I have heard’ – what a very key fundamental predicate to any Buddhist acolyte to put the suttas or sutras or shastras and in fact the Buddhist Tripitaka in context.

    And you said – ‘I read as a non-Buddhist and write for non-Buddhists — or for Buddhists who are not primarily interested in being Buddhists — hoping that my honest encounter with the discourses may generate fresh understanding or at least give a fresh view of old understandings. ‘ – what a revealing and honest guidance to present Buddhism to the Western world so that their New Age fad with Buddhism is not in anyway encumbered by any false notion that it is a religion or some transcendental spiritual practice that would make one an enlightened being or something of a preter-human.

    And you said – ‘The Buddha never asks us simply to believe him; instead, he asks us to “know for ourselves,” to penetrate and comprehend our own experience and everything that is given to us to experience.’ – That simply and verily sums up Buddhism.

    Yes, it is best that we dispel right from the very start any religious expectation of spiritual salvation from perdition or forgiveness of a creator God by being a Buddhist cultivator. Buddhism is neither a religion nor a spiritual practice pertaining to the betterment of the soul or spirit.

    Buddhism is simply being spiritual only in the ‘spirit of things’ in a secular sense – it is about getting to know for ourselves by and seeing the ‘seeing’, by seeing the ‘experiencing’ of the chiaroscuro of our life experience through self-introspection (but not in a physical sense seeing within our self) but through the afflatus and insight that comes in understanding and realisation that all things including our mind and body are asomatous, incorporeal and insubstantive in any manner or form, that the sine qua non of worldly thought and perception is the egocentric nature of our worldly being.

    In this quest to know for ourselves and our being, we should like any good scientist – not be attached or cling to any hypothesis, formulae, tenet, creed or notion or scriptures or canon or esoteric texts let alone any Buddhist suttas or sutras or shastras or the Buddhist Tripitaka. Until we see lambent light of Ultimate Reality we must take all we see as miasma and penumbra. Why?

    For what is the truth? To the lawyer the facts are the truth. To the individual what is the truth is what is real to him or her. But what is real? You start off with subjective personal truth of an individual, as in ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, progress to the objective or scientific truth that is common to mankind, which in the due course of Buddhist meditation or mindfulness contemplation, we will know is founded on duality and relativity, and therefore the quest goes on as to what is then the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality? And that is what the Buddhist path simply is – ‘personally’ seeking the ultimate truth – as in the sermon to the Kalammas- as the Buddha said – ‘verify the truth personally’, ‘be a light upon yourself’.

    The truth must not and never therefore be presumed to be in what Ananda said ‘Thus I have heard’ for that would be hearsay, since we cannot put Ananda on the stand for cross examination. In anycase there are innumerable suttas, sutras and shastras and the Buddhist Tripitaka is vast in its sacred writings.

    Strictly speaking the Buddhist Tripitaka cannot be canonical or epistemological or soteriological or thaumaturgical absolute in their theology. Why?

    The Buddha spoke to different enquirers according to their respective insight capacity and ability and worldly knowledge and intellect, according to their different level of personal truth and reality. To the enquirer who said there is no soul or self the Buddha said there is a (karmic) self; and conversely to the enquirer who persists in saying there is a soul or self the Buddha said there is no (absolute or eternal) self.

    Not only is the Buddhist Tripitaka of sacred texts not absolute within itself individually but it is also not exhaustive in total. The Buddha said that the Dharma is everywhere i.e. ‘at large’ and that there are a thousand pathways, that each of us have our own pathway to getting to know ourselves. That is a self journey to know for ourselves! If mere knowledge of Buddha’s teachings should suffice then why did not Ananda get enlightened until after the death the Buddha? In contrast, why did Mahakasyapa get enlightened spontaneously when the Buddha handed him a flower? How was it possible for Hui Neng, an illiterate woodcutter be immediately enlightened when he heard the recital of the Diamond Sutra while selling firewood at the market place!

    Whether sudden awakening followed by gradual cultivation like the 6th Chan or Zen Patriarch Hui Neng or gradual cultivation followed by gradual cultivation like Ananda or the dotard of old man, who the Elders refuse to ordain as a follower, who was however accepted by the Buddha because in some long ago existence the dotard had invoked the name of Buddha when fleeing from a tiger, – all Buddhist cultivators, deep or shallow, will all be ineluctably be able to know for themselves – the truth.

    And even if the Buddhist Tripitaka be taken seriously as profound transcendental knowledge, this too must only be taken in a conventional relative and subjective sense or context, for otherwise it is meaningless when it is said that in totality that the Buddha said nothing at all about the Truth, that he was just like a finger pointing, that his sermons are just like roadsigns – for the truth to be the truth cannot be in the Buddhist Tripitaka but in the very truth that we each personally seek and find in knowing ourselves. Only the truth that we personally seek and find in knowing ourselves can set us free.

    And seriously, when taken in the end point where we understand why we refer to the Buddha as the Tathagata (‘tatha’ means ‘thusness’) – why the Buddha said ‘This is this, and that is that, such is such and thus is thus’ – we realised that he actually said nothing at all about anything, that Buddhism is about not having worldly much ado about anything, that in Buddhism you seek to know and in finality find that we are really a ‘nobody going no where’!

    The Buddhist quest is like Finnegan looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow. Life and enlightenment and nirvana etc are like a rainbow. The rainbow is real in our seeing. But it is in fact not real and there is no end to a rainbow and therefore no gold!

    And that is why the Buddhists fly the rainbow colours.

    And that is how one prepares oneself for the Buddhsit journey – the way you did and have – with an open mind, and open canvas, no premptions, no expectations.

    Very well written!


    • Beautifully expressed, Vince. This essay is to be a draft of an introduction to my first collection, on the Discourses. Earlier I tried to post it but it disappeared, so it’s good to know it’s reappeared!

  2. Krishnan,

    Are you saying this was meant to be the prelude to all your writings of recent weeks?

    Maybe you could recompile or reconfigurate the order of the articles so that this appears as the preamble.

    While I am at it, perhaps in the preamble you could advise or should that be ‘forewarn’ Western New Age readers that Buddhism unlike Abrahamic religions is not about apothesis or return to a God-creator but rather about personal ‘Budh’ (to awaken) or awakening from ‘Maya’ (dream or illusion) which translates to ‘liberation’ or ’emancipation’ or ‘enlightenment’ or ‘release from rebirth in samsara (suffering of dukkha) that is termed ‘moksha’ (Hinduism) or ‘nirvana’ (Buddhism).


    • Yes, you are right about something like that in the preamble! I’m trying to put all these in order in another blog that will contain only the Pali Suttas essays, but this has been digitally glitching. Tomorrow I’ll keep working on it. Meanwhile, I’m revising all 28 essays so far into a little book for a small university press that has expressed interest. We’ll see what happens.

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