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.’” Continue reading