What is true?

[Photo Copyright by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

Ajahn Sumedho (a Western monk) took a party of Westerners to ‘Wat Pah Nanachat’ (a Thai Forest Monastery) in 1981. He did not know that the Western nun there, Ajahn Chah’s first Western nun, had suddenly converted to a very fundamentalist brand of Christianity just before the group arrived.
Ajahn Sumedho was expecting she would inspire the Western lay folk who had travelled all that way to Thailand to meet real committed Buddhist practitioners.
Instead the nun went around telling this newly inspired group of Western lay practitioners that Buddhism and Ajahn Chah were the work of the devil himself.
Ajahn Sumedho got very upset and went to Ajahn Chah complaining about her, about that she was wrong and that Ajahn Chah should stop her immediately and get rid of her as soon as possible.

Instead Ajahn Chah just smiled and said:
“Well, Sumedho, maybe she is right.”

[This little story is mentioned in several places, including “The Life and Teachings of Ajahn Chah: Remembrances of His Western Students”, which you can find here.]

Inspecting Buddhism

Inspecting Buddhism
[Photo Copyright by Religious Studies Unisa via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

I somehow made it past post number fifty and so I started wondering what it actually is I write about. A bit late, I know.

The Problem with writing about Buddhism is that the term in used by a million different schools in a million different ways. Humans really don’t use their words precise enough to avoid misconstrue and we not only don’t like to come up with new words, we also hate it to define what it is we are talking about. We much rather occupy a word that is already known and then just assume that everyone will agree with our personal definition. So I think it is useful to send a couple of disclaimer, so that all the people I piss off at least know exactly why and are not confused about all the things I missed and have the wrong view about.

I started meditating in 98 and today, almost twenty years later, it is getting tiresome to belong to a school or a sect or a club or a dojo or whatever fraction there might be that always seems to be just a bit more enlightened and true then everyone else. This is really just relevant for beginners, who search for meaning and stability on the outside. Later on you just try to get a grip of the Dhamma, which is hard enough since the longer you study the Buddha’s teachings, the less you are sure about anything you know. Here is what I think I know so far:

I know there are teachings that were supposedly given by one Mr. Gautama in India round about 2500 years ago. Today we call that man >The Buddha<. He started (as the current Buddha in charge during this kalpa) the path that is known this time around as >Buddhism<.

We know this because there is a vast canon of writing with thousands and thousands of lectures supposedly given by Mr. Gautama in his over 40 year long career as a teacher. We call this collection the Pali Canon, or the Tipitika. (There are many more canons, however the Pali Canon seems to be the most complete.)

Through historical research and text critical analysis we know that some parts of the Pali Canon are older then others. Supposedly the older ones can therefore with some certainty be placed closer to the life time of the Buddha. For those of you who are in the know, these parts of the early Buddhist teachings are the five Nikāyas.

These are my frame of reference, when I talk about the teachings of the Buddha.

When I try to understand what is or is not a teaching of the Buddha, I will go back to these texts and I will try to find out.
Based on this and if I really have to pick a school of Buddhism, then my closeness to the suttas will probably put me right in the Theravada sect. I am not quite sure how happy that makes me, however it is true, I feel very close to the old texts and so does Theravada.

People who say that we do not have to study ancient texts because they are not relevant for us any more and we have improved on that old and outdated stuff long ago make me really sad. For me people like that are ill informed about the nature of reality and especially human evolution. And saying that we improved on a Buddha sounds childish to me.

Do I personally believe the Buddha existed and the canon is a collection of his teachings?
Yes I do. It is because of the incredible consistency of the teachings within the thousands of suttas and the amazing depth they demonstrate the longer one studies them. Based on the knowledge I gathered so far it is very hard to come up with a plausible alternative for their origin.

Does this mean I fanatically stick to the letters of every sutta in the book?
No, I don’t. Sticking religiously to some text does not get you anywhere. The letters or the author are not the crucial point.  If these teaching go back to Mr. Gautama himself, or if they were give by someone else or if Mr. Gautama did not even exist at all, is not really relevant to a Buddhist. What really matters is if the teachings can be applied to my life. Are they practical?

Buddhism is not an Orthodoxy, even though it is practiced as one in most traditional Buddhist countries. However there is an important difference to be make between the Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the culture it is lived and transmitted in. I have written about this important point before. As much as these so called Buddhist countries want it to be, Buddhism was never meant to be an Orthodoxy. Buddhism is an Orthopraxis. This means what you do rather than what you believe in will define if or if not you are a Buddhist.
What you do means your practice. How does your practice influence your life?
The teachings of the Buddha should always be practically and applicable to your daily life.
If they are not, then they are not the words of the Buddha.

Apply them to your life and see if it works.
If it works, that is fine.
If not, that is fine, too.

Master of Similes 1

The five hindrances

People often wonder what makes the Pali Canon so special. What is it with these thousands and thousands of suttas? Why do we need that old stuff? Have we not improved on those stories long ago? What can they tell us, since we are so advanced already? We have cell phones, so who needs suttas?

There is a valid point in that. How can anyone today really know something about the value of texts that are 2500 years old? Even if you actually would like to know, you might be lost on were to begin. Well, there are countless aspects to talk about, let me just pick out one specific for today. 

One thing, that sets the Dhamma apart from anything else I have ever found in the spiritual world is that the Buddha used very simple everyday examples to illustrate very complicated issues. Somehow he was able to make connections in his analogies, that worked for someone in India 2500 years ago and the same connections still work for us today. He was able to construct similes that were always (almost eerily) right on point.
Furthermore, the Buddha did not do this just once, he literally did it hundreds of times and he always did it perfectly.

I know what you think. That’s all? What’s so special about similes. Everyone can do that.

Well, have you tried? In my experience it is surprisingly hard to come up with a simile that fits perfectly and does not misguide you, because it will – at some point – be ever so slightly of topic. When I come up with a simile, I will always end up forgetting at least one aspect, or the whole thing will end up sounding really labored. The reason is obvious. At the end I really don’t know what I’m talking about. It is kind of self evident, that only someone who really deeply understands an issue is able to come up with a perfect simile.

The Buddha was a master of similes. Consistently. Throughout the Canon.

I will walk you through one, just for starters. Let’s talk lists. The Pali Canon is full of lists. Four truths here, eightfold path there, plus seven factors and add five hindrances on top. It really goes on and on. This fetish for lists dates back to the time where everything had to be remembered by heart, because there was literally nothing to write on or with. Turns out if you have to remember everything it’s a lot easier to do this if you put things in neat lists.
(And there are a lot! Have a look at the Dhamma Lists)

Let us take the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) as an example.
The pañca nīvaraṇāni are: Sensory desire, Ill-will, Sloth and torpor, Restlessness and remorse and Doubt. They are in the way of you getting enlightened, hence the hindrance. As just another list to remember by heart they are a bit dry to learn. The trick is to find a simile that brings them to life. A simile so vivid, that there is no chance you will forget the factors ever again.

in the Saṅgārava Sutta (SN 46.55) the Buddha explains the five hindrances to the Brahmin Saṅgarava, by using a powerful simile in which he compares the hindrances with different states of a pond in the forest.
He compares sensual desire with looking for a clear reflection in water mixed with lac, turmeric and dyes. He compares ill will with boiling water. he compares sloth-and-torpor with water covered with plants and algae. He compares restlessness-and-worry with wind-churned water. Finally he compares doubt with water that is “turbid, unsettled, muddy, placed in the dark.”

If you read through the simile and visualize a pond in the forest and follow the changes of the water through the different hindrances, it is surprisingly hard to ever forget them again. Even more surprising since I was not able to remember them (for the life of me) for many years before.

If you try to get access to the suttas and haven’t found your way in yet, than this is a powerful way to get started.
Just Google ‘The Buddha’ and search for ‘simile of the’. (Or check out this ‘ partial(!) index of the similes and metaphors that appear in the suttas’)

Also, I wrote about another famous list of five in Buddhism before. The Five Grasping Kandhas. They grasp because they represent the fingers of a hand. Check it out, it is really neat.


Lost in Translation 1

[Photo Copyright by Jacob Botter via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

In the Dhammapada verse 183 we find one of the shortest definitions of the Buddha’s teachings ever:

Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ
Kusalassa upasampadā
Etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ.

Avoid what is evil,
Engage in what is skillful,
Purify the mind;
This is the teaching of the Buddha;

[Translated by Gil Fronsdal]

It is a wonderful little verse which I love dearly.
It also quite useful, because it very nicely demonstrates a problem we have with the old teachings from the Pali Canon. Let us have a closer look at the translation.

The first and last line are pretty straightforward. For the third line we could kind of get away with understanding >purifying< as an insinuation for moral behavior and cultivation including meditation. I think it is the second line where we run into trouble. This is the crucial part where we are actually told what exactly it is we should do. In this line everything boils down to one word: kusalassa. Kusalassa is the Gen. Sg. of kusala. Kusala can be differently rendered as:
Good, wholesome, skillful, a good thing, good deed, merit, intelligent, expert, right, virtuous, meritorious, beneficial, lucky, happy, healthy and prosperous, … as the context demands (!).

So, basically as long as it is positive it seems that kusala can more or less mean everything.
Hence, a small variety of possible translations for line two would be:

“Learn to do good.”
“Do cultivate merit.”
“Engage in what is skillful.”
“Increase your wholesomeness.”
“Become an expert.”
“Be virtuous.”
… and so on.

If you are lucky enough to know the Dhamma already, you also know that the translation should imply at least two major aspects of the Dhamma. It should have a strong implication of virtuous moral behavior and it should reflect the practical aspect that all of the Buddha’s teachings have. >Skillful< does indeed cover the practical aspect very nicely, but sadly has no strong ethical implication as the word has in Pali. Vice versa there is no word that has the strong ethical aspect while making it clear that it is a practical engagement, not a philosophical one.

This makes it basically impossible to translate the term at all without at least one page of additional information for the reader. You could go for an extended translation like: >ethically skillful<, but that would put a word in the text that the original doesn’t have and also: What the heck is ethically skillful supposed to mean anyway? You would end up with what is called >Buddhist Hybrid English<, which sounds like you are translating, but you are really just making it worse by creating a new language, specially made for the initiates of the Buddhological community.

Btw, a case like this is by no means an exception, it is more or less the rule.
The longer you engage in the study of the old Buddhist texts, the more translation problems like this you will keep running into. At the end you will probably decide that it is just easier to use the pali term. So just be kusala, ok?

This leaves us with what I call the fundamental Theravada conundrum.
You have to be an advanced meditator with a lot of acquired wisdom to understand the meaning of the term well enough to be able to translate it into a different language. At the same time you need to understand the language very well to be able to become an advanced meditator who acquires wisdom in the first place.

And there I was thinking everything will be fine once I study Pali.