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Seeking versus Following

August 15, 2013

Q: One of our readers queries: “So, Enlightenment or Nibbana can be sought through the Suttas and oneself. Is this correct? So, we should study from the Suttas alone rather than follow an established system? Finally, how do we study Suttas without misinterpreting them?”

The Arahant: Yes. In any kind of research, a primary source is always preferred over secondary or derivative sources. This is obvious, common sense. Then why should we throw our common sense overboard when it comes to the teaching of the Buddha?

Yes, I know, there has been a long tradition of derivative works like Visuddhimagga being viewed as more important, or at least more accessible than the original Suttas. But that was mainly because there were no good translations of the Suttas into the vernacular. In my opinion that was deliberate, so the monks who knew Pāḷi could maintain an advantage over others. Thus over time, the scholars came to monopolize the Buddha’s original teaching, and others were left with mere abstracts and digests of it.

Now let’s suppose you are studying some scientific subject, like Einstein’s theories of Relativity. If you merely wanted a general understanding of his work, a popular digest or summary would certainly do. But if you wanted to actually apply his work to some practical purpose, such as original research along the same lines, then there would be no substitute for studying Einstein’s original works.

Scholars are peculiar creatures. They are not interested in practical skill, but only in abstract knowledge acquired through words and symbols. Their objective is to defeat the arguments of other scholars and establish themselves as authorities. Buddhism certainly went through a long scholastic period, until around the beginning of the 20th century, when the Pāḷi Suttas started to be translated into Western languages.

Of course, at first these were also scholarly and academic translations, not too useful for practice. But for the first time, they also gave direct access to the Suttas to people outside academic circles. And because these people were interested in practice, they started asking pointed questions. Difficult questions about practice that the scholars could not address properly, because they had no practical experience.

So a gradual shift began in Buddhist circles, where the scholars and ritualistic priests in the large temples began to lose importance, and the practitioners and meditators in the small forest monasteries began to reassert themselves. This shift is generally known as the Suttānta movement, meaning ‘followers of the Suttas’. These monks are also quite learned, but their study focuses on the original Suttas and most importantly, on their practical application to solve the problem of human suffering, dukkha.

The Western results-oriented attitude is not satisfied with doctrine, dogma or ritual, but demands practical solutions to pressing problems. Thus since Westerners began to get seriously involved in Buddhism, there has been a real shift. Not to give Westerners all the credit, but they certainly were catalytic in the Suttānta movement gaining its current importance.

Any ‘system’ is an abstraction, a reductionistic oversimplification. The Buddha presented his teaching in a natural, organic way, arising out of his encounters with different individuals and their qualities and needs. These dialogues were considered so important that the monks devoted a large part of their energy to memorizing them, recording them and passing them on to the present day, more or less intact, in the Sutta-piṭaka.

The various attempts to ‘systemize’ the Buddha’s teaching have been less than fully successful. This is because, human nature being what it is, he had to evolve his teaching dynamically to meet the needs of the moment. The Buddha was not some dry philosopher implementing a fixed ‘strategy’ or ‘system’. In fact, the Buddha addressed that view:

“Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.” — Maha-sihanada Sutta (MN 12)

Because the Buddha was not an academic, but spoke spontaneously from his direct awareness of things as they are:

“In the same way, prince, when wise nobles or brahmans, householders or contemplatives, having formulated questions, come to the Tathagata and ask him, he comes up with the answer on the spot. Why is that? Because the property of the Dhamma is thoroughly penetrated by the Tathagata. From his thorough penetration of the property of the Dhamma, he comes up with the answer on the spot.” — Abhaya Sutta (MN 58)


“Herein, bhikkhus, some recluse or brahmin is a rationalist, an investigator. He declares his view — hammered out by reason, deduced from his investigations, following his own flight of thought…

“This, bhikkhus, the Tathāgata understands. And he understands: ‘These standpoints, thus assumed and thus misapprehended, lead to such a future destination, to such a state in the world beyond.’ He understands as well what transcends this, yet even that understanding he does not misapprehend. And because he is free from misapprehension, he has realized within himself the state of perfect peace. Having understood as they really are the origin and the passing away of feelings, their satisfaction, their unsatisfactoriness, and the escape from them, the Tathāgata, bhikkhus, is emancipated through non-clinging.” — Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1)

So, the Buddha’s teaching was not a product of reason, but grounded in his deep realization of natural law, Dhamma, adapted spontaneously to the teaching situations that presented themselves. This deep realization cannot be reduced or abstracted into a system, because it is transcendental to all symbolic forms of representation. It is what it is, and it is irreducible. Thus, any reductionistic approach to the Buddha’s teaching is bound to fail, because it results in an artificially simple, rigid system that cannot adapt to changing real-world requirements.

The proof of this is that under the scholastics, the number of Arahants produced in every generation dwindled to a handful. And those who did attain were invariably the heretics, the ‘wild monks’ who lived alone in the forest, away from the scholasticism and politics of the big temples and monasteries.

To address your final query, you can easily verify that your understanding of the Suttas is correct. The proof is twofold: first, rather than a mere collection of ‘facts’, words and symbols that have nothing to do with one another, your internal model of the Buddha’s teaching should be a dynamic whole, consistent and interdependent, such that changing your view of one part of the teaching would affect the whole thing. You should be able to think through the entire teaching from beginning to end, and explain any part of it in terms of any other part.

And second, whatever understanding you have must be proved in your practice to lead to higher states. The Buddha gives in many Suttas long lists of higher states and qualities that are to be achieved by practice of meditation. We should see that we are actually attaining these in a relatively short time.

In conclusion, we should not fail to understand the importance of generating lots of subha-kamma (good karma) to provide the fuel for success in our practice. If we think that mere intellectual understanding of the Buddha’s teaching is enough, we delude ourselves and will fail to reach enlightenment. Practices like mettā, offerings, charity and gifts should not be given up. And of course, the greatest gift is the gift of the Dhamma itself.

From → Q&A

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