Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Modern Western View of the Buddha's Awakening

I like James Ford (see his blog "Monkey Mind"), the author of a recent article about the Buddha's awakening, but he has made several incorrect and misleading statements in this piece that seem to be pretty common among Western Buddhists.

Ford begins by suggesting that we will never know what the original teaching of the Buddha was, because of the distance which separates the texts from the life and language of the Buddha:
he preached sermons that were memorized and no doubt polished by those who transmitted them, and then polished some more. Finally, some four hundred or so years after these words were spoken, they started being written down, principally in two languages, Pali and Sanskrit. Neither was the language he spoke in his lifetime.
While it's true that the sutras of the Buddha were not written down until centuries after his death (see chapter 2 of Rupert Gethin's The Foundations of Buddhism), the preceding oral transmission of the texts was probably just as reliable or even more reliable than the later manuscript transmission, because of the elaborate techniques for memorization of oral texts used in south Asia (and still practiced by Brahmins today who recite the Veda).

Second, while the Buddha did not technically speak Pali, the language of the sutras, it is probably very close to whatever dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan that he did speak; Pali was a standardized form of Middle Indo-Aryan that combined features of dialects spoken across northern India at the time.

Third, Ford states that the Buddha was born a prince, the son of a king, and that he was prophesied to be either a great king or a great teacher. This is a story about the Buddha from a later, legendary biography, and is not told in the earliest texts we have about the Buddha's life, i.e. the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas of the Pali Canon. The story of the Four Passing Sights is likewise from this later source.

Finally, this is not an error or misleading statement, but it should be noted that James Ford's last sentences are reflective of Zen Buddhism (and Mahayana Buddhism in general), but not of Theravada Buddhism, which makes a distinction between the awakening of different sentient beings:
And you and I awake together. All beings. One body.
In the Theravada view (and, apparently, the view of the Buddha himself, as described in the Pali Canon), one being's awakening does not entail the awakening of all beings. That's why the Buddha decided to teach after his own awakening--because he knew that other beings were still suffering, and that there was a chance that at least some of them would attain awakening if he showed them the way. On the Mahayana view of the interconnectedness of awakening, either the Buddha's awakening was impossible (because there were still other, unawakened sentient beings out there), or his teaching of the Dhamma was pointless (because all sentient beings attained awakening at the same time as the Buddha). This view of awakening makes nonsense both of the Buddha's claim to have fully awakened, and of his decision to teach the Dhamma to other sentient beings out of compassion, respectively.
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