Beginnings: The Buddha’s Teaching

The Buddha’s Teaching: what images it conjures — compassion, serenity, acquiescence, wisdom, bliss, selflessness. In such terms is it often described, even from afar, even among those who know only its general outlines. Such is the image of this Teaching that is in world-wide circulation; and with such qualities does it invite seekers of peace to take a closer look. With such a reputation it may perhaps prove to be the fount of advice and guidance we so need. And therefore we eagerly approach it, to find… Theravāda Buddhism, Mahāyāna, Ch’an, Korean Zen, Vajrayāna, Tantric and dozens of other sects and sub-sects, large and small, new and old, all claiming to be the Teaching of the Buddha. And so it is that again we return to out original question: Where does one begin?

Are these schools different in name only? Or do they differ as well in attitude, approach, doctrine and practice? Is all one? Is all a diversity? Does nothing really exist? Does everything really exist? Or are these disparate views merely worldly wisdom, best abandoned in favour of seeing that “Whatever is arises dependent on conditions and is not without conditions”? Must we save others before we will be able to save ourselves? Or must we save ourselves before we will be in a position to save others? Is everything already perfect? Or is it only suffering that arises, suffering that ceases? Do we all have Buddha Nature? Or is all existence empty, without essence? Will we all eventually arrive at eternal salvation? Or do only those achieve liberation who see that all conditions are impermanent? Is nibbāna (Skt. nirvāna) to be found in samsāra, the round of existences, or are they mutually exclusive? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

If we accept that truth, whatever else it may be, is at least not self-contradictory, then the question necessarily arises: which among these paths, diverse and often at odds with one another, will offer us that way to liberation which we seek?[3] And if these teachings are all different — or even if they are not — which of them is that Teaching set forth 2,500 years ago by a certain member of the Gotama family of the Sakyan clan, in northern India, known today as the Awakened One, the Buddha? If it were only possible to come to a reasonable judgement on this point, then we might be able with one stroke to cut through the tangle of confusion we meet with when we inquire into the nature of “Buddhism”. For we will then find — if the Teaching lives up to its reputation — one coherent, sufficient and, above all, relevant Teaching which can serve as a standard in our inquiry into the nature of our mortal existence. And perhaps this is possible.

We know that the Pali Suttas — the discourses in the Pali language — are acknowledged by all Buddhist schools to be the oldest record we have of the Buddha’s Teaching. We know that nearly a century ago the scholars of the West performed an about-face from their original majority position and now fully acknowledge the primacy, as regards age, of those Suttas. But we also know that certain objections have been raised with regard to the origin and transmission of those discourses. Are these objections valid? What is the difference here, if any, between “oldest” and “original”? How trustworthy are these texts as we now have them? With what degree of confidence are we able to ascertain the truth of the matter? Fortunately, it is possible to know, with reasonable confidence, the way in which these texts were first gathered together and then handed down to us. Let us inquire.

Footnotes:

3. If one does not accept that truth is at least consistent with itself — i.e. that truth is not false — then this question will not arise. Instead, one will remain lost in one’s inconsistencies and will fail to see that coherent movement wherein one can achieve freedom from confusion and anxiety. [Back to text]


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