Interpreting the Buddha

In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to section II: The Bringer of Light of In the Buddha’s Words, he argues that there are two general perspectives of the Buddha in the Pāli Canon.  The first general perspective views the Buddha as a human being working to see in and through his human frailties the path to enlightenment and the way to teach this path to his disciples.  This perspective is one that is most amenable to a broadly non-supernatural, humanistic interpretation of the Buddha and, more generally, Buddhism.  It is definitely one that I have emphasized in various posts on this blog and in my own thinking about practicing the Buddha way.

But there is another important and often neglected perspective.  This one situates the Buddha as “the most recent member of a cosmic “dynasty” of Buddhas constituted by numberless Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past and sustained by Perfectly Enlightened Ones continuing indefinitely onward into the future.”  From this second perspective, “the Buddha is seen as one who had already made preparations for his supreme attainment over countless past lives and was destined from birth to fulfill the mission of a world teacher.” (In the Buddha’s Words, pages 44 and 46)

As Bhikkhu Bodhi states: “A correct view of the Buddha can only arise from the merging of these two perspectives, just as the correct view of an object can arise only when the perspectives presented by our two eyes are merged in the brain into a single image.” (In the Buddha’s Words, page 45)

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s words resonate deeply with me.  There is always a danger in interpretation that we end up reading more of ourselves into what we are interpreting than the thing itself.  (Indeed, it might be that we are always playing in a web of interpretations in this respect!)  I see this most clearly when I practice listening deeply to others, sometimes seeing that I hear more of myself in their remarks than their own meanings and intentions.  (For example, treating a tired ‘hello’ as meaning the person does not want to talk with me rather than meaning that they are simply tired or had a rough day!)

This applies just as much to textual interpretation.  Of course, although I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s statement that we ought to merge the two perspectives as we study the Buddha’s life, this leaves open what overall perspective will result.  And if we take his metaphor literally, we should not expect any one interpretation to result, but a myriad of interpretations in part depending on the “eyes” of the interpreter.

Although this possibility of an abundance of interpretations might be unwelcoming, I think it is important to bring these questions about interpretation (as all questions about Buddhism) back to practice and how we cultivate the Buddha way in our lives here and now.  Many bows of gratitude to Bhikkhu Bodhi for bringing to light the interpretative life of the Buddha.  I hope to explore this theme in upcoming posts and in my own practice.

May we all benefit from looking deeply into our views and interpretations, whether fixed or flowing, in our daily lives!

In the Buddha’s Words

The next book on my reading list, both for the Buddha’s life and my general Dharma student studies, is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s edited volume In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon.  The Buddha’s discourses are collected throughout the Sutta Pitaka without paying explicit attention to thematic content.  For instance, two collections in the Sutta Pitaka are known as the Long Discourses and the Middle Length Discourses.  Bhikkhu Bodhi has taken abridged selections from throughout the Sutta Pitaka and arranged them according to thematic content and placement in the broader system of the Buddha’s teachings.  Furthermore, his introductions to each section and the anthology as a whole are real gems: carefully thought out, well written, and critical in very inspiring ways.

Any rearrangement of the Buddha’s discourses into a thematic whole should awaken a slight distrust.  The discourses were not collected thematically, the Buddha did not seem to teach thematically (but, rather, according to the needs and occasion he found himself in), and the Dharma (here thought of as the Buddha’s teachings) might seem to resist any such treatment.  Bhikkhu Bodhi’s work is both aware and critical of this distrust.  He responds to it by carefully explaining his organizing principles in the general introduction and, in my mind, by successfully executing his overall project.

For those interested in the Buddha’s teachings, this anthology is a wonderful introduction.  It will shine a light on your path back to the Pāli Canon.

(Note: To check out Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology, click on the following link – In the Buddha’s Words.)

Mahāpajāpatī and the Order of Nuns

After the death of Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, the Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu.  At this time, Mahāpajāpatī, the Buddha’s stepmother, approached him with a question that was found to be unwelcome and irksome. Mahāpajāpatī asked if women too could take up the homeless life and follow the Dharma proclaimed by the Enlightened One.  The Buddha refused.  Twice more asked, and the Buddha twice more refused.  Dejected, Mahāpajāpatī returned to Kapilavatthu while the Buddha went on his way.

Mahāpajāpatī did not rest.  She cut her hair, put on yellow robes, and along with a few Sakiya women followed the Buddha on his journey.  These women set out to see the Buddha, to implore him once again to formally accept them as wandering mendicants along with the other monks in the Buddha’s Sangha.  Having arrived at Vesāli, they met Ānanda.  The case for the order of nuns would be made again.

This time it was Ānanda who pleaded on their behalf.  After relaying to the Buddha Mahāpajāpatī’s request, the Buddha again refused.  Then Ānanda asked the Buddha if women were also capable of attaining perfection?  The Buddha replied that it was so.  Ānanda then asked if it would not be good for women to take up the homeless life since they were capable of attaining perfection and Mahāpajāpatī, as the Buddha’s stepmother, had done a great service to him?  This time the Buddha agreed on the condition that Mahāpajāpatī and the other women who were accepted into the Sangha follow eight additional precepts.  Agreeing to this condition, Mahāpajāpatī was ordained as the first nun in the Buddha’s Sangha.  Her courage to follow the Buddha on his path and Ānanda’s skillful means and compassionate heart resulted in the foundation of the order of nuns. (CV 10.1.1-4; Schumann pp. 115-16)

This is just the first post of others regarding this subject.  Many questions are raised by the way this series of interactions transpired.  It is wonderful and marvelous that women, alongside men, were permitted into the Buddha’s Sangha so early in its development – roughly 5 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Mahāpajāpatī’s courage and determination in the face of the Buddha’s initial refusals is inspiring to me here and now, as I am sure it has been inspiring to many throughout the many years following her ordination.  But the Buddha’s many refusals and the addition of eight more precepts for the nuns is curious.  After recognizing their equality in the Dharma, why treat women in the Sangha unequally?

Investigating this part of the Buddha’s life gives us greater insight into this complicated character who serves as the founding model of an enlightened human being.  As I have said in previous posts, the key part for me is that the Buddha was a human being and, despite his enlightenment, subject to the frailties of being human.  This in no way detracts from his enlightenment, but complicates our picture of him.

May we explore this complicated picture together with ease, wisdom, and compassionate understanding!

(Note: Citations such as ‘CV’ refer to the abbreviations for Pāli Canon texts found at the beginning of Schumann’s book.)

Before Turning the Wheel came Upaka

After his enlightenment, the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree for seven days.  He may also have spent longer amounts of time in nearby locations, although Schumann doubts this was so.  What is clear, according to scripture, is that the Buddha did not immediately set out to teach.  He doubted whether he could convey the subtle and profound Dharma and whether others would wake up to it.  It took Brahmā Sahampati, a divine being, to persuade the Buddha to teach the Dharma. (Mv 1.5; MN 26)

When the Buddha resolved to go forth and teach, he eventually set out for the ascetics he previously practiced with.  When he met with them, he delivered the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in what has come to be known as the Sutra on the Turning of the Wheel.  This Sutra begins the Buddha’s illustrious teaching career.  It also came after a not so successful episode.

On his way to the five ascetics, the Buddha met Upaka, a naked ascetic, on the road.  Upaka, taken in by the radiance of the recently enlightened wanderer, asked the Buddha who was his teacher.  The Buddha announced that he was emancipated through the destruction of craving.  Indeed, he was a teacher himself!  Upaka shook his head and continued forth.  Such was the Buddha’s first encounter as a teacher. (Mv 1.6; MN 26; MN 85)

This is a summary of Schumann’s account of the Buddha’s encounter with Upaka.  The references are to the Pāli Canon.  What are we to infer about the Buddha from this encounter with Upaka? What can we infer about the Dharma from this encounter?  Clearly, he did not offer a formal teaching.  But something about this encounter must have affected how the Buddha approached the five ascetics and his presentation of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  And, also as important, what lessons can we draw from this encounter for our practice?

Even the Buddha needed to learn as he followed and blazed the path.  This is refreshing to remember as we sit, walk, stand, and lie down here and now!

(Note: Citations such as ‘Mv’ and ‘MN’ refer to the abbreviations for Pāli Canon texts found at the beginning of Schumann’s book.)

The Historical Buddha

The first book on my reading list is H. W. Schumann’s The Historical Buddha (tr. M. O’C. Walshe).  I am about halfway into it and I already consider it essential reading for anyone interested in the life of the Buddha.  Unfortunately this text is no longer available in print (as a paperback), but there are numerous booksellers with used copies at reasonable prices.

I will be commenting on and presenting passages from Schumann’s text in the upcoming weeks.  For now, I will simply remark that I greatly appreciate his mix of historical and scriptural detail, freely drawing insights from available historical facts as well as the Pāli Canon.  His aim is not to disparage scripture with historical detail; rather, he reminds us that the Buddha, the Enlightened One, was a human being and that there is much to learn about the Sutras and our practice from recognizing this fact.

(Note: To purchase Schumann’s book, click on the following link – The Historical Buddha, tr. M. O’C. Walshe.)

Life of the Buddha

In the temples of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, the following gatha is recited after lunch:

Buddha was born in the Lumbini Garden,

He attained Enlightenment at Bodh Ghaya,

He set in motion the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath,

He entered Parinirvana at Kusinara.

I am reminded of this gatha as I begin my formal study of the Buddha’s life (our first year, first term assignment in the Maitreya Seminary).  These four events – the Buddha’s birth, his Enlightenment, his setting in motion the wheel of Dharma, and his Parinirvana – shape and inspire my practice.  But they are also four events in a life filled with many more, which includes both moments of complete liberation and human frailty.

We are encouraged to focus our study on some particular aspect of the Buddha’s life, as well as read about his life in general.  I am inclined to investigate either the period between his decision to teach and the first sermon or his decision to create the order of nuns.  Both events speak to me at this moment.  May my initial study and suggestions from teachers, friends, and readers guide the way forward.