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Essaying the Buddha: An Introduction

Thus I have heard. This, the characteristic opening sentence of the Pali discourses of the Buddha, makes us aware at the outset that what we are about to get is words refracted through memory, or through the memory of a memory. What relation do these words have to the earliest, most authentic words of the historical Gotama Buddha? No one can know the answer to this, but the teachings of the Discourses have such power, originality, and cogency that it is hard to resist viewing them as issuing authentically from a single, profound intelligence. The historical Gotama comes to us deflected by memory and the creative imagination, like the historical Jesus and the historical Socrates, but the deflected images taken in themselves yield such rich insight that their historical origins — which are not directly accessible to us anyway — are of only secondary interest to the reader who wants to understand the insight. It doesn’t bother me at all that I can only fantasize about the historical Socrates on the basis of the Socrates of Plato and the Socrates of Xenophon, who bear only a tenuous resemblance to one another both in the kinds of things they say and in how they say it.
Thus I have heard: About two and a half thousand years ago a single human being discovered a way to reconceive the problem of unhappiness. Realizing that all the various paths hitherto proposed as paths out of suffering were really either dead ends or paths that led deeper into suffering, Gotama Buddha — as the legend goes — sat under a tree and wouldn’t budge until he had understood the reasons for suffering and found a true path out of it. He knew that his discovery would be opposed and misunderstood by all the orthodoxies of his day, but despite his reluctance, he was persuaded to teach, and over the rest of his life held a vast number of conversations with many different kinds of people. Some of these people were perplexed by him, but most of them, after hearing what he had to say, could simply not go back to the way they had been living. After his death these conversations were recollected, and then collected, by his disciples; indeed, the Canon is mainly attributed to the prodigious memory of his closest disciple and attendant, Ananda. It was only in 29 BCE, about 450 years after the Buddha’s death, that the conversations were written down and became the Pali Canon, which comprises thousands of pages of the Buddha’s remembered discourses.

Their style is terse, formulaic, methodical, and unappealing, full of repetition and patterned phrasing designed for efficient memorization. I’ve observed a number of different charismatic spiritual teachers and know that somebody who attracted as many devoted followers as the Buddha did could not have spoken in such a stern, charmless manner. It is as if his lovable, living speech has been freeze-dried and preserved in tight foil packets for future use. The writers have meticulously shunned any possibility of verbal seduction by stylistic beauty, and are forcing us to relate only to what the words are saying. While the first impression made by the Suttas is of a forbidding and desiccated austerity, after some exposure their atmosphere starts to feel like the healthy, refreshing dryness of mountain air: up here we can see farther and smell things more clearly. The studied inelegance of the language slowly acquires the homely, unpretentious beauty of unvarnished wood beams and bare earth floors.
The Canon is vast and daunting: where to begin, and how to proceed? Many students start with the volume called Majjhima Nikaya, or the Middle-Length Discourses, which covers the full range of the Buddha’s teachings. But this one volume contains 152 dense Suttas and is longer than War and Peace. The best way is just to start reading, and if a passage catches your attention, trust that there is a reason for that and dwell on it — asking exactly what the Buddha is saying, how it is responding to this particular interlocutor, and what the Buddha is not saying in this conversation. We can learn from the interlocutor too: what is his question, and why is it a question for him? Has the Buddha tailored his response to the character, background, and intelligence of the interlocutor? The dramatic situations of many of the discourses are themselves integral to the teachings. Reading the Suttas with careful, thoughtful openness is itself a form of contemplation, training attentiveness to the connections between thoughts and also developing a habit of testing thoughts against experience. The Buddha never asks us simply to believe him; instead, he asks us to “know for ourselves,” to penetrate and comprehend our own experience and everything that is given to us to experience. The conciseness and lean abstraction of these Suttas invite us to enter into them, open them up, and breathe our own understanding into them: we have to get them to speak to us, by engaging them personally.

The essays in these pages will be essais in the classical sense: attempts, forays, investigations, a daring of myself on the difficult terrain of the text. I try to read the Suttas with my own mind, paying attention to what the Buddha is actually saying, and ignoring later interpretations by the various schools and traditions of Buddhism. I read as a non-Buddhist and write for non-Buddhists — or for Buddhists who are not primarily interested in being Buddhists — hoping that my honest encounter with the discourses may generate fresh understanding or at least give a fresh view of old understandings. I read as a struggling, often dimwitted human being who has found the discourses helpful and illuminating, and who is plainly incompetent to give any authoritative overview of the multifarious beast called “Buddhism.” Here there will be no descriptions of higher spiritual states and no speculations about what enlightenment might be like. My investigation takes place at the lower reaches of the practice, where we learn to understand the human condition, the causes of happiness and unhappiness, how the heart and mind work. It is an immensely satisfying endeavor that can be undertaken wherever we are, at any time, because the conditions for it are universal and omnipresent.
In the first four of these essays, we will see the Buddha’s response to some relatively mundane preoccupations. He doesn’t go here into the core of his teachings, but addresses his interlocutors on their own terms. It was in discourses like these that I first grew to respect the tact, gentleness, and wisdom of this teacher, who always knows what to say and what not to say, who demonstrates reasonableness and moderation in every sentence and none of the relentless one-sidedness of an ideologue. The first of these discourses culminates in the unavoidable question, Do you know who you are?