66 - Buddha's Teachings 8: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 2
68 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 2: Wrestling with the Teachings

If you’ve spent any time at all studying Buddhism, you’ve discovered there are lots of Buddhist teachings and texts. What should you choose to study? Where do you begin? How much do you really need to know? How should you relate to the teachings, some of which may end up seeming contradictory? In this episode I give you an overview of the Buddhist teachings as a whole, and how the authority of a given text is measured and viewed by Buddhists. In the next episode I’ll explain why it’s important to study.

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
An Overview of Canonical Buddhist Texts
An Overview of Post-Canonical Buddhist Texts
What Makes a Buddhist Teaching Legit?
The Beautiful (if Confusing) Diversity of Buddhist Teachings
How the Teachings Inform and Transform Us

 

You may have discovered there are lots of Buddhist teachings and texts. Jews have their Torah, Christians their Bible, Muslims their Quran, and Hindus their Vedas, but Buddhists have no divinely-inspired central text, or even collection of texts, to serve as a definitive source of orthodox teachings. The texts considered authoritative in at least one sect of Buddhism would fill a large library.

If you’re a Buddhist, or interested in Buddhism, what should you study? Where do you begin? How much do you really need to know? How should you relate to the teachings, some of which may end up seeming contradictory? And how important is it to study teachings at all, given that most forms of Buddhism are based largely on practices such as meditation – things you actually do, as opposed to things you know?

In this episode I’ll give you an overview of the Buddhist teachings as a whole, and how the authority of a given text is measured and viewed by Buddhists. Then I’ll briefly talk about why it’s important to get familiar with the foundational Buddhist teachings as well as those highly valued in your particular sect or lineage of Buddhism. In the next episode, I’ll go into more detail about what a fruitful relationship with Buddhist teachings looks like, and discuss how you might go about a course of study in order to ground your understanding and practice in the Buddhist tradition.

An Overview of Canonical Buddhist Texts

First, let me describe the whole mass of texts and concepts you could call “Buddhist Teachings.” For those of us most familiar with religions that rely on central, divinely inspired texts, the sheer number and variety of Buddhist sources can be disorienting and overwhelming. That’s why a man named Dwight Goddard decided to publish a book he called “The Buddhist Bible” back in 1932, just when non-Asian westerners were starting to get really interested in practicing the religion. I remember happily purchasing the book shortly after I got involved in Buddhism in the 1990’s, thinking, “Whew, thank goodness. Now I can get a handle on this tradition.” I was pretty disappointed; Goddard’s book contains translations of four dense Mahayana sutras. They are, indeed, pretty important texts within that branch of Buddhism, but they’re far from immediately accessible to a beginner, and very few Buddhists in the world would recognize the book as being anything approaching a “bible,” or a central text that contained everything that was essential to Buddhism.

The closest thing to a Buddhist bible would the canonical collections of the most ancient Buddhist texts – the ones composed shortly after the time of the Buddha, containing either his words, the words of his close disciples, or monastic regulations compiled by the early Buddhist community. According to the Buddhist story, communities of Buddhist monks met and officially designated which texts were considered canonical – that is, authoritative and genuine – over the course of the first couple hundred years after the Buddha’s death. In this podcast I refer often to the Pali Canon, one version of this collection of canonical texts. The Pali Canon was recited orally for centuries before being written down in Pali in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE, and it’s the central authority of the Theravadin school of Buddhism. The ancient canonical Buddhist texts were also eventually translated into Sanskrit in India and made their way to Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia, so there are other, somewhat different, versions of this original Buddhist canon.

You’d think the existence of canonical collections of ancient Buddhist texts – most of them believed to contain words spoken by the Buddhist himself – would satisfy our longing for a Buddhist “bible,” but alas. The Buddha taught for 45 years on an amazing array of topics and canons are very long. According to the Access to Insight website, the Pali Text Society’s English translation of the Tipitaka (the three sections of the Pali Canon) “fills over 12,000 pages in approximately fifty hardbound volumes, taking up about five linear feet of shelf space, and costing about US$2,000.”[i] Fortunately, you can access English translations of quite a few of the most important canonical Buddhist works online, and a nice set of translations of most of the sutta sections of the canon have come out fairly recently from Wisdom Publications. If I had about $250 to spare, I could own 5 volumes totaling over 7,000 pages and have access to most – but not all – of the Pali Canon texts on the central teachings of Theravadin Buddhism.

An Overview of Post-Canonical Buddhist Texts

So, even if you consider only canonical Buddhist literature in the strictest sense, there’s still an awful lot you could read and study. Now we’re going to complicate the Buddhist teachings situation even more.

Around the beginning of the common era, or even before, a sort of “school of thought” began to develop within Buddhism. It questioned some of the basic premises of original Buddhism and began to encourage all practitioners to aspire to the path of the bodhisattva, a being who postpones her own entry in Nirvana in order to reborn in the world of suffering and help liberate other beings. I’ll go into more detail about the arising and evolution of this school of thought, which eventually developed into Mahayana Buddhism, in my Buddhist History series. What’s important to note here is that along with this new type of Buddhism came new Buddhist texts very unlike any that had come before. The Mahayanists tried to legitimize their texts by saying either that the texts had been hidden since the time of the Buddha around 500 years earlier, or that they had been delivered by the Buddha himself on occasions that transcended space, time, and death. (In other words, occasions that somehow escaped being recorded in the existing canon.)

Japanese Buddhist altar with image of Amitabha Buddha and a copy of the Lotus Sutra.

Japanese Buddhist altar with image of Amitabha Buddha and a copy of the Lotus Sutra.

In any case, these new scriptures included long texts with no clear author such as the Lotus (Suddharma Pundarika) Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna Paramita) Sutras, and the Flower Ornament (Avatamsaka) Sutra. These texts – called “sutras,” notably, which implies they’re the word of the Buddha – are flowery and grand, portraying transcendent scenes with myriad buddhas, bodhisattvas, and world systems. They preach devotion, selflessness, and bodhisattva ideals. If all you’ve read is canonical stuff from original Buddhism describing pretty down-to-earth question and answer exchanges between the Buddha and his followers, the Mahayana sutras can seem pretty foreign.

Then we go on from there in terms of the addition of Buddhist texts and teachings to the tradition. Even the followers of original Buddhism, with their canon, wrote commentaries that are valued and considered authoritative in their own right. New texts and teachings developed in each country and lineage of Buddhism. In Tibet and places where tantric Buddhism took root, there are all kinds of esoteric texts and teachings someone like me has no idea about at all. In China, still more Mahayana sutras appeared, along with commentaries and philosophical treatises. Chan Buddhism arose in China and produced its own form of literature focusing largely on stories of interactions between enlightened masters and their students. This is far from an exhaustive description of the different types of Buddhist texts and teachings out there, but I think you get the point that there’s no individual human being who’s ever read all of the Buddhist teachings, let alone fully comprehended them. And that’s just limiting our discussion to time-honored texts and teachings Buddhists consider central and authoritative in their traditions.

What Makes a Buddhist Teaching Legit?

The reason there’s so much Buddhist material out there is because most Buddhists have a different standard when it comes to deciding whether a particular teaching is legit. There are certainly sects of Buddhism, such as Theravada, which strongly emphasize teachings believed to be the word of the actual historical Buddha Shakyamuni or his immediate disciples, and Buddhists everywhere will certainly have admiration and respect for such teachings. But even the Theravadins use and honor other sources, and, as I mentioned earlier, the Mahayanists just inserted the Buddha into their scriptures as they pleased. So clearly, authentic Buddhist teachings aren’t limited to those given directly by the founder of the religion, who was just a human being and not a god or an emissary of God.

In general, a Buddhist text or teaching produced by an advanced practitioner of Buddhism may be considered every bit as legitimate, useful, and authoritative as something Shakyamuni Buddha said. There are two reasons for this. First, the Buddha taught a method of study and practice that allowed other people to fully awaken to the same thing he had. He would have considered his teaching efforts a failure if this hadn’t happened. Subsequently, people who followed the Buddha’s path to completion could, in turn, teach others. When the Buddha died he assured his students that they didn’t need him; now they could rely entirely on themselves, and on the Dharma, or teachings, he had left.

In theory, then, in every Dharma generation after that, some people have achieved and verified for themselves exactly what the Buddha did. Or, even if they didn’t quite achieve the Buddha’s level of perfection, they progressed far enough on the path to be helpful guides to others. The teachings and writings of these awakened folks become legitimate sources of inspiration and guidance for subsequent Buddhists. Of course, throughout the couple thousand years Buddhism’s been around, there have been constant arguments about what enlightenment really entails and how you verify someone has it, and differences of opinions about this matter probably account for most of the divisions of Buddhism into different lineages and sects. Within a given sect, or tradition, however, there will be fairly consistent ideas about the characteristics of an enlightened person, as well as the characteristics of people who can be of great benefit as teachers of others even they aren’t perfectly enlightened.

The second reason there are so many Buddhist texts and teachings is that we verify the legitimacy of a given teaching for ourselves, through our own direct experience. One of the classic suttas in the Pali Canon describes the Buddha telling some of his followers, the Kalamas, about how to know whether a given spiritual teaching is legitimate or not:

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”[ii]

We accept teachings and practices provisionally, just long enough to test their truth and efficacy for ourselves. Obviously, we use some common sense first in order to sort the wheat from the chaff, but when something seems okay we still verify its legitimacy through our direct experience. If the writings of a 7th century Chan master guide me to a significant and liberative breakthrough in my practice, I’m going to value her or his teachings as much as I value anything from the Buddhist canon.

This doesn’t mean we get to determine what’s an authoritative Buddhist teaching based solely on our own personal tastes and inclinations. A legitimate Buddhist teaching or practice is one that leads to positive outcomes in a spiritual sense – greater wisdom, compassion, peace of mind, and liberation from suffering. As the Buddha said, a teaching is good if its aim is skillful and blameless, and when you adopt and carry it out, it leads to welfare and happiness. In addition, Buddhist teachings should conform to foundational Buddhist principles including the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Existence, and the law of Dependent Origination. And they should always advocate ethical behavior.

From the Buddhist point of view, a teaching isn’t contrary to Buddhism because it breaks Buddhism’s rules. Rather, it’s contrary to Buddhism if it isn’t consistent with reality. It just so happens that the Buddhism describes reality. This may sound a little circular, so let me give you an example: As I mentioned, Buddhist teachings have to advocate ethical behavior. The Buddha looked around and observed that unethical behavior eventually causes suffering for someone, plus it agitates the mind in a way incompatible with deep spiritual practice. It’s just the way the world works. So if a teaching says unethical behavior is no big deal, it’s just incorrect and won’t help you awaken. Therefore, such a teaching is incompatible with Buddhism. In other words, the Buddhist ideas about what makes a teaching legitimate or false is practical rather than dogmatic.

The Beautiful (if Confusing) Diversity of Buddhist Teachings

Before I say something about why it’s valuable to explore Buddhist teachings even though there’s so many of them and it’s hard to know where to begin, let me say one more thing about the almost infinite variety of Buddhist teachings you might encounter.

Each “Dharma generation” of Buddhist teachers is not only allowed to communicate the teachings in fresh new ways, they’re expected to. The point is to help their students awaken, and students at one place and time may need different guidance than students at another. Ideally, the teacher is like a doctor, able to prescribe the teachings and practices appropriate for a student’s particular challenges. Because of this responsiveness on the part of Dharma teachers, Buddhism has evolved differently in different countries, and even within different lineages in the same country. This produces an astonishing amount of diversity in Buddhism, much more than you tend to find even among sects of Christianity. However, generally speaking, later Buddhist teachings are required to honor and be in harmony with earlier ones.

To get a sense of Buddhist teachings as a whole, two metaphors are useful. First, think of them like a tree: The roots and trunk are the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, while the branches are different lineages and schools of Buddhism. All the teachings grow out of and depend on the foundational ones, but the teachings of two branches of Buddhism may diverge from each other quite a bit and even seem contradictory. The tree metaphor reflects how the original teachings are foundational in pretty much every form of Buddhism, even if they’re not specifically mentioned. Now think of Buddhist teachings as different species arising through the process of evolution. All the teachings have a common ancestor, but over time, particularly as they encountered different environments and become geographically isolated from one another, they have adapted and evolved. One form of Buddhism, along with its associated teachings and practices, may look very different not only from other contemporary forms of Buddhism, but also from original Buddhism.

While the complexity and diversity within Buddhism can be a little overwhelming, the cool thing about it is we have the precious opportunity to find and practice a form of Buddhism that works best for us. It works best for us when we can trust it, we resonate with it, it challenges us but also supports us, and – ideally – we can find a community of real people to practice it with. Because forms of Buddhism can vary so widely, it may very well be that one form and its teachings makes total sense to you, while another seems alien and off-putting.

Some people’s spiritual practice thrives on sampling from a wide variety of traditions and teachings – comparing and contrasting them and drawing from the best aspects of each. If you’re like that, you’ll probably find Buddhism quite a delightful smorgasbord. On the other hand, some of us long for something to devote ourselves to wholeheartedly. We need to trust the teachings, particularly if they’re asking us to take a leap of faith or explore new and challenging territory. Sampling too much from various lineages of Buddhism, in this case, often leads to unnecessary confusion and doubt. For example, lately I’ve been emphasizing the Soto Zen practice of shikantaza, and how in one sense it’s not even meditation practice because you just sit there and let go of doing anything at all – even trying to influence your “meditative” experience. In contrast, the goal of Vipassana meditation is to be very deliberate and concentrated. Which is right?

If, like me, the sometimes contradictory messages in different forms of Buddhism tends to tie your mind in knots, I recommend you pick one form (or school, or lineage) of Buddhism and more or less limit your study to that. Fortunately, even if you do this, you still have a wealth of teachings to avail yourself of, because you can follow your branch of Buddhism back through time to the foundational trunk and roots of the original teachings. You may more or less ignore the other branches of the tree for simplicity’s sake, but all the teachings between the root and your branch will have a certain consistency and are fair game.

How the Teachings Inform and Transform Us

The next episode will be about why studying Buddhist teachings is important for our practice and how to go about it, but I’ll give you a teaser: The living tradition of Buddhism is found in the dynamic relationship between its teachings and your personal experience. The teachings aren’t dogmas to be accepted just as they are. They’re meant to provide references points against which we can measure our experience. They give us concepts, images, and language with which we can frame it. Teachings we don’t understand or like challenge us to question our assumptions. It’s in wrestling with the teachings that Buddhism informs and transforms our lives, not in simply memorizing, accepting, or even intellectually understanding them.

And yet, that wrestling can’t occur if we don’t know the teachings. Therefore, it’s important to study. I’ll talk about how to go about that, and about how to wrestle with teachings, in the next episode. I hope you’ll check it out!

 


Photo Credit

Japanese Buddhist altar with image of Amitabha Buddha and a copy of the Lotus Sutra open to Chapter 25: The Universal Gateway of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Japanese_Buddhist_Altar_With_Lotus_Sutra.jpeg. By Flickr user “geraldford” [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Endnotes

[i] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/faq.html#tipitaka
[ii] “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html.

 

66 - Buddha's Teachings 8: The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes - Part 2
68 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 2: Wrestling with the Teachings
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