Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Buddhist trifecta

It's turned out to be a very good thing indeed for the "Buddhism and Modern Thought" to start with Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught. (At left is an image of the penultimate cover; our edition strays even further from its Theravada content by replacing the hand lettering in the background with printed Sanskrit, and keeping the clearly East Asian Buddha.) For most of the class this was the first time reading anything of substance about Buddhism, and this is a classic introduction which continues to be used. It'll be useful again when we learn about Sri Lankan Buddhism modernism, and for our more general reflections on how "Buddhism" is concocted in the space of a global modernity. But the trifecta I refer to in the title of this post is something else, something we were able to do already this week. In class I called it "three books in one." The point of departure:

This is Walpola Rahula himself, in his Preface (viii). It allowed us, having once made our way through the book, to consider the implications of sequencing its content in these two ways. Try it yourself:

The Buddha
I. The Buddhist Attitude of Mind
II. The First Noble Truth: Dukkha
III. The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: ‘The Arising of Dukkha
IV. The Third Noble Truth: Nirodha: ‘The Cessation of Dukkha
V. The Fourth Noble Truth: Magga: ‘The Path’
VI. The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta
VII. ‘Meditation’ or Mental Culture: Bhavana
VIII. What the Buddha Taught and the World Today

This presents Buddhism as most textbooks do, with the Four Noble Truths as foundational. After an account of the practical orientation of the Buddhist tradition (the parable of the raft, the parable of the poisoned arrow), Buddhism is presented as the solution to an almost philosophical problem. The problem is the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) of life, which starts as a general statement comparable to the foundations of other world systems and then becomes practical. We discern intellectually that dukkha has a cause in tanha (thirst), and that this in turn is something over which we're told we have potential control. Only then do we turn to the Noble Eightfold Path which tell us how to actually do this. Quite different is the Buddhism presented this way:

The Buddha
I. The Buddhist Attitude of Mind
V. The Fourth Noble Truth: Magga: ‘The Path’
VII. ‘Meditation’ or Mental Culture: Bhavana
VIII. What the Buddha Taught and the World Today
II. The First Noble Truth: Dukkha
III. The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: ‘The Arising of Dukkha
IV. The Third Noble Truth: Nirodha: ‘The Cessation of Dukkha
VI. The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta

Here the practical orientation of Buddhism takes you right to practice - the Noble Eightfold Path, the varieties of mental culture, and the service to others which Walpola Rahula thinks incumbent on Buddhists whether monastic or lay. Presumably these are not just to be considered intellectually but put into practice. Philosophical accounts of the nature of dukkha and of the self - are left for those who need them, "when the general sense is clearer and more vivid."

The difference between these two sequences is really enormous, and I have no doubt that the latter is truer to Buddhism as lived (not just thought about as a philosophical system or "religion"). It's certainly how you'd encounter it if you were raised in a Buddhist society. But it also suggests that the significance of the Four Noble Truths isn't really graspable cold turkey - nor, perhaps, so important, at least for some Buddhist practitioners. Perhaps we aren't able to face the overwhelming reality of dukkha before we know from experience, however elementary, that there is something we can do about it, however difficult. Likewise the doctrine of anatta, which is not only paradoxical but paralyzing if we don't already know from experience, however
limited, that and why and how we cling to the idea of a perduring soul - and that we don't have to.

Thinking our way through these two sequences helped us appreciate both why Buddhism, when presented as a religion or philosophy, tends to go the Four Noble Truth way and why the place of these Truths in ancient Buddhist texts is entirely different. They appear, for instance, as one of the latter parts of the fourth of the "Four Foundations of Mindfulness" outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta - and here they are contemplated as "mental objects" (118)! They are of practical use not as the frame and foundation of practice, but, rather, as one of the more advanced forms of a practice based in... what? The experience of the efficacy of practice, of how Right Understanding, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration (the Noble Eighfold Path) ease the frustrations and disappointments of living and and loosen the grip of delusional responses to this dukkha like the fantasy of an eternal Self (and other "religions"!). Beautiful! Thank you, Walpola Rahula, for both books.

But I mentioned three books in one, didn't I? The third is the unnamed structure of the Three Jewels: Buddha - Dhamma (I-VII) - Sangha (VIII). It's not his main message (well, it's complicated) but it's still there.

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