By: Venerable Dr. Brian Shen-Jin Kenna
“It’s always best to start at the beginning – and all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.”1
As Buddhist monks when we begin to start to engage the Scriptures it can seem a daunting task.The common thoughts that arise in one’s mind could be: Where to begin? What should be the first book and where should we begin reading? Should we start at the “beginning?” Where exactly is this ‘beginning’?
This is not only a practical problem, it is also a conceptual and interpretive problem. Wherever we choose to begin sets in motion a way of seeing, one which inevitably will highlight some aspects of what we explore and push some others into the shadows.
So what is a monk or teacher to do? How do we learn to understand this information before we can ever consider transmitting it to our students?
In Christianity the Bible is often referred to as the Word of God. As Buddhists we too can take this approach to scripture seeing them as the word of the Buddha or Buddavacana. Certainly a good first place to begin studying would be with the life of the Buddha. We can find scriptures detailing how he lived, what he thought, what he taught to his followers. By taking a scholarly approach we can begin to see the Buddha’s life and times not only from Buddhist sources but also other historical and religious sources that characterized the time in which he lived.
Within the scriptures themselves there are many biographies of the Buddha that one could start with. In the Ariyapariyesana sutta,“The Noble Search”, we hear from the Buddha himself as he recalls the start of his own journey down this path we are all traveling.
“I, too, monks, before my Awakening, when I was an unawakened bodhisattva [a buddha-to- be], being subject myself to birth, sought what was likewise subject to birth. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, I sought [happiness in] what was likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement. The thought occurred to me, ‘Why do I, being subject myself to birth, seek what is likewise subject to birth?’ Being subject myself to aging… illness…death… sorrow… defilement, why do I seek what is likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow…defilement? What if I, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, were to seek the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding [Nirvana]? What if I, being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness…death… sorrow… defilement, were to seek the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less,unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding?”
“So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”
“Having thus gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Alara Kalama and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kalama, I want to practice in this doctrine discipline.’”
There is no doubt that a good place to start engage Buddhist scriptures is as they emerged from the Buddha’s life and times. When we do this and look at his own journey, is to see the Buddha’s teaching as connected to some existential concerns. Indeed we need to look no further than where many of us began our own journey with taking refuge as a way of seeing how Buddhist practitioners have exemplified engaging the Buddha’s teachings from our own existential condition: we are beings who find ourselves in need of refuge, we are refugees when we come to the Buddha’s teaching.
A second way of beginning is to start with the Buddha’s First Sermon (Dhammacakkappavattana sutta), a teaching that is celebrated as when the Dharma Wheel was set in motion. In it the Buddha teaches the Four Noble Truths, among other things: “Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.”
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.”
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading, cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.”
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
We should be aware, however, to the possibility that to begin with the first sermon is to become inclined to see Buddhist scriptures in terms of their contents, and even more significantly, we should be alert to the possibility that to begin with the first sermon is to somehow privilege the teachings in it as more original or foundational than what is in other, ‘later,’scriptures. However throughout Buddhist history practitioners have not always seen things in this way. What is ‘first’ is not necessarily more original or more important, it could be just preliminary. We must be cautious in this regard as well for, to assume such a view, that the Buddha gave his most complete teaching later in his career, might incline one to see later scriptures as the Buddha’s ‘final’ and thus most complete teachings. We must be mindful of the Middle Path even when approaching and studying intently Buddhist Scriptures.
Of note as well is that to begin with the First Sermon might encourage us to expect the contents of Buddhist scriptures to correlate with what is associated with the great divisions of the Buddhist heritages– such as Mahayana or Great Vehicle and the Lesser Vehicle or the Hinayana–or with the doctrinal positions of particular schools– such as the Theravada. We would quickly say that this version of the First Sermon belongs to the Theravada school of Buddhism now found in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
A third place to begin engaging Buddhist Scriptures is with the first words that are found in many of them: “thus I have heard” (evam me sutam in Pali). When we see this phrase it should alert us that what follows is the word of the Buddha, taught by him and heard directly from him. Just as when we read In a Galaxy far far away, we know that something Star Wars related is to follow, when we read “Thus I have heard,” or one of the other variants “Thus was heard by me” or “This is what I heard,”, we know that some teaching of the Buddha is to follow.
Often we find these words are attributed to Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant. As the Buddha’s personal attendant, Ananda was always with the Buddha. He thus had the chance to hear whatever the Buddha taught over his long teaching career. After the Buddha died, five hundred enlightened monks were called together by Mahakasyapa in an assembly, so that they could hear together accounts of what the Buddha taught and then they could agree together that what was remembered was indeed genuine and could be trusted as “what the Buddha taught.” In this assembly, Ananda recited the various sermons of the Buddha that he had heard, introducing each one with the phrase “Thus have I heard” and the other assembled monks agreed that what Ananda remembered and recited were indeed the teaching of the Buddha. Ananda recited the Buddha’s instructions, his sermons or discourses addressed to particular people. Another monk,Upali, recited what he remembered the Buddha saying to monks on how they should live, and how they should regulate their lives together in a monastic community of men and women. The other assembled monks also agreed that what Upali remembered and recited were indeed the discipline, the Vinaya, of the Buddha.
Beginning with an account of the First Council (368BCE) is also a good place to start the study of Buddhist scriptures, especially since these accounts introduce an idea of ‘canon’ as key to understanding the word of the Buddha. They also turn our attention to issues of transmission and the possibility that the word of the Buddha could change over time, whether by inattention to what it contains or the insertion of things that do not belong to what the Buddha taught. The accounts of the First Council also highlight the necessity of caring for Buddhist scriptures, to preserve them for the well-being of men and women in the future. The Councils represent great acts of caring for the Word of the Buddha, but every time a woman or a man copies a Buddhist text, they are also caring for the word of the Buddha, in a small way ensuring that it endures in the world.
1 The Wizard of Oz MGM Studios 1939