Mar 17, 2007

Sutta and Abhidhamma

Some discussion has opened up in the comments regarding my post about reading the suttas. It occurred to me that I haven't made the most imortant and salient point; the reason to read the suttas is to hear the most undiluted Dhamma directly from the most qualified source.

Who was the Buddha anyway? If you take a traditional view, as I do, he wasn't just some really smart guy. On the other hand, he wasn't a deity or incarnation of one either. He was an extremely rare historical occurence of a fully awakened human being. By his own effort, he completely purified his psyche and penetrated totally into the Unconditioned. His words are precious, because they are a manifestation into speech directly from the transcendental. In a sense, you could say he was the only fully human person in the last two and a half millenia.

To the traditional Buddhist, the Buddha's words (buddhavacana) are considered flawless. As a Tathagata, all his speech is true, connected with meaning and beneficial. This is quite different from a secular view which might hold that the Buddha taught some things because of cultural conditioning or other mundane causes of error. This is a favourite tack of those who would, for instance, edit rebirth and karma out of the teachings. If the Buddha really was a Buddha, this secular line falls apart. If he could see through the most subtle levels of samsaric delusion, he wouldn't be caught by something as relatively gross as cultural conditioning.

One problem, of course, is to know if we have the real goods. If we accept that the Buddha's Word is inherently flawless, how do we know we have the real Buddha's Word? The answer is that we don't, not completely. On the other hand, scholarship reveals the sutta pitaka of the pali canon as pretty reliable as far as we can ascertain.

We can say this because of both internal and external consistency. The bulk of the suttas agree with the contents of the Chinese agamas, which have a textual tradition going back to the second council or shortly thereafter. The various recensions of the pali, in Sinhalese, Siamese and Burmese editions agree even more. This means the original texts have not been tampered with much since the traditions diverged.

Also the degree of internal consistency of the suttas is very high, much more so than the Bible for instance. We don't find instances of the Buddha saying one thing here and another contradictory thing there.

Finally, the suttas were never subject to the same degree of political manipulation as the biblical texts.

However, we cannot have the same degree of certainty about the abhidhamma. The abhidhammas of various other early schools also survive, in whole or in part, and there is nothing like the degree of agreement as between the various recensions of the sutta material. Instead, they are completely separate. It seems likely to me that the abhidhamma arose somewhat later and served, among other things, as something like a manifesto for each school clearly defining their metaphysical positions and distinguishing themselves from the others.

Nevertheless, abhidhamma can be a rewarding and useful study. It especially complements methodical vipassana meditation, and it is no accident that these are the two branches of Dhamma developed in Burma. The only caveat is that the practioneer must remain careful not to rely on word definitions at the expense of actual phenomenal experience. One of the surest ways to block spiritual progress is to convince yourself that you've already figured it out. Just because you can name something, doesn't mean you know it, even if you can name it in Pali!

Mar 12, 2007

Reading Suttas

I've been leading a book study once a week on the Sutta Nipata. This is a challenging and fascinating exercise. So I'll share a few general thoughts about reading suttas and post links to some helpful resources.

Why read the suttas? There are hundreds of Buddhist books out there; good, bad and middling. Many western Buddhists have read dozens of them without cracking the scriptures. This is a shame; you want to get the straight goods, you should go directly to the source. The whole sutta pitaka has now been translated, parts of it several times. If you want to have a firm grasp of what the actual historical Buddha taught, as opposed to all the various re-castings, spins and speculations, why not check out his own words? This is especially important because so many people have put their own words into his mouth over the centuries, as discussed by my post Check Your Sources.

How to Read the Suttas. First remember that they were originally oral literature. So don't be put off by all the repetetions and numbered lists; these were aids to memorization. They definitely have a deeper resonance by being heard rather than read and some people like to read them out loud. Some of the beauty of the language is lost in translation; large portions like most of the Sutta Nipata are actually verse although the translations tend to be in a rather dry prose. Stylistically, the suttas are a very rich and diverse collection. There are straight technical sections, devotional passages, myths and stories all intermixed.

Problems of Translation. Never forget that languages are not completely isomorphic. Even the best translation is not completely true to the original, it cannot be. Even if you go to the effort of learning some Pali, you can't escape the problem entirely (although it helps.) It is however important not to become overly reliant on the bare English words which often translate Pali words inexactly. This is not sloppy translation; it is an insoluble problem because some words in Pali have no exact English equivalent. Pali has a very precise technical language for mental states and spiritual phenomena, something which English lacks. To give the most obvious example, dukkha is not the same as suffering. One of the best ways to get around this limitation, at least in part, is to acquire a working vocabulary of technical terms in Pali and refer back to them when in doubt. A very good resource here is the Buddhist Dictionary by Nyanatiloka. (Link is to an online version).

Some More on Translations. The best translations available at present are by Bhikkhu Bodhi and his teacher Nyanamoli. Maurice Walshe's edition of the Digha Nikaya is also very good. Many texts are still only available in the Pali Text Society editions dating to the early years of the last century. These works are generally very good from a purely linguistic point-of-view, but often lack the background in the actual living tradition which informs Bh. Bodhi and M. Walshe. Readers should also be aware that some of the PTS translators imposed their own ideas onto the work. A well known example is the way Mrs. Rhys-Davis and to a lesser degree I.B. Horner translated the particle atta. They wanted to "prove" that Buddha never actually taught no-self, so whenever this particle occurs, they take it as a substantive noun. A close analogy would be the use of the suffix -self in English words like myself, yourself, oneself, which does not imply a metaphysical entity. See this article, anatta6, for a discussion.

What to Read. If you are new to the suttas, or even if you're not, the best place to start would be with Bhikkhu Bodhi's In the Buddha's Words, which is a collection of suttas and sections of suttas arranged thematically and progressively together with copious explanatory notes. Another good overall collection is Nyanamoli's Life of the Buddha which arranges all the narrative sections of the suttas into a chronological sequence, together with some sections which relate the most important teachings.

When you are ready to go to the original texts in whole collections, the best place to start is usually with the Digha Nikaya, and then go on to the Majjhima. After that, you can proceed as your interest goes; deeper into the philosophy with the Samyutta for instance, or get the flavour of the myths and stories with the Dhammapada commentary or the Jatakas.

Resources and Aids. Many of the suttas are now available online at These are mostly in Ajahn Thanisarro's translations. These are quite good, but the novice should be aware that the Ajahn's choice of words is often not standard and this can lead to confusion (example: dukkha is translated as stress)

I've already linked to the indispensible Buddhist Dictionary, another amazing web find is the entire Dictionary of Pali Names, in the hard-cover three fat (and expensive) volumes. This is a real treasure trove of information if you like to dip into the stories behind the names.

Not online, alas, but invaluable nonetheless, is a little booklet from the Buddhist Publication Society called An Analysis of the Pali Canon by Russell Webb which provides handy indices to the various suttas.

Long Time No Blog

I just checked the blog and discovered to my embarassment that it's been almost a month since I've written anything here. And I've been deluged by requests to get back to it. (Okay, one guy asked)

Anyway, my only excuse other than sloth-and-torpor is that I've been pretty busy with other projects this last while. I'm leading a sutta study seminar on the Sutta Nipata and the preparation work is taking up a suprising amount of time. And I don't want to go in unprepared because it's a pretty sharp group! I've also just finished the first semi-finished draft of my historical novel about Ajatasattu. And I've been doing more teaching here at Arrow River; plus plowing snow, fixing generators and trying to find time to watch my breath.

So if anyone is still checking in here after that shamefully long gap, I'm not dead yet. Only one month closer.