Suttavadin Buddhist Blog

Jay Forrest Suttavadin Buddhist Blog

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Meditation, Christian and Buddhist

A common misunderstanding among those raised within a Christian background is thinking that meditation means the same thing in Buddhism as it does in Christianity. This, however, is a mistake. As John Michael Talbot explains, “The word ‘meditation’ means somewhat different things to different traditions” (4).

In Christianity, meditation is “The act of calling to mind some supposition, pondering upon it, and correlating it to one’s own life” (Holman Bible Dictionary). It is an act of thinking deeply about something. The Bible suggests meditating or pondering on the “book of the law” (Joshua 1:8), on God (Psalm 63:6), on God’s “mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:12), or on his “precepts” (Psalm 119:15).

In Buddhism, meditation (samādhi) is “unifying the mind and placing its awareness upon a particular object.” A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen explains that it is “collectedness of the mind on a single object through (gradual) calming of mental activity.” It is a one-pointed concentration or focus. It is not thinking or pondering about something.

John Michael Talbot, a Catholic monk, is right when he says, “By ‘meditation,’ they mean what we would really call ‘contemplation’” (5). As Thomas Merton explains, “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of the Source” (1). Notice that this definition of ‘contemplation’ is very close to the Buddhist idea of meditation.

So what Christians call ‘contemplation’ we Buddhists would call ‘meditation.’ So in a sense, Christians just need to swap their meanings of meditation and contemplation in order to better understand us Buddhists. And it is important for those coming to Buddhism from a Christian background that mean something different by the word meditation.

References

  • A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, and Michael S. Diener. Translated by Michael H. Kohn. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2010.
  • Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 2007.
  • Olendzki, Andrew. “What’s in a Word? Samādhi?” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2021.
  • Talbot, John Michael. Come to the Quiet: The Principles of Christian Meditation. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnan, 2002.

The Long Discourses of the Buddha

The Pali Canon is divided into three large groups of books (literally, “baskets”). The first group is the monastic Discipline (Vinaya Piṭaka). The second group is the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta Piṭaka). This group is divided into five collections of discourses, of which the Long Discourses of the Buddha is the first collection. And the third group is the higher teaching (Abhidhamma Piṭaka).

This is a very short introduction to the Long Discourses of the Buddha. In the Pali language, it is called the Digha Nikāya, meaning the long (Digha) collection (Nikāya). But since it is in the group of books known as the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta Piṭaka), it is clearer to call it the Long Discourses rather than the Long Collection.

What is a Discourse?

The oldest translation into English was published in 1866 by T.W. Rhys Davids, in three volumes. This was entitled “Dialogues of the Buddha.” The word being translated as “dialogue” or the more modern “discourse” is the Pali word sutta. You might be more familiar with its Sanskrit version, which is sutra.

What is a discourse? In the Christian context, we would call it a sermon. In an educational setting, we would call it a lecture. In some Buddhist meditation centers, they would call it a dharma talk. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “discourse” as a “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought on a subject.” I think this charaterises the Buddha’s teachings quite well.

Five Collections of Discourses

There are five collections of discourses in the discourses group of the Pali Canon. They are (1) the Long Discourses (Digha Nikāya), the Middle-Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikāya), the Connected Discourses (Saṁyutta Nikāya), the Numerical Discourses (Anguttara Nikāya), and the Minor Collection (Khuddaka Nikāya). The so-called Minor Collection is the largest collection and is a miscellaneous collection of books that didn’t fit anywhere else.

The discourses were arranged into sections based upon their size. The Long Discourses are generally the longest in length. The Middle-Length Discourses are the next longest. And the smaller-sized discourses were divided into one of two collections, the Connected or the Numerical. The Connected are organized by theme and the Numerical by the number of points dealt with (the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Aggregates, etc.).

Three Sections

Now collection known as the Long Discourses of the Buddha contains thirty-four long discourses of the Buddha. It is arranged into three sections (vaggas). The first (discourses 1-13) is the section concerning morality (Silakkhandha). The second (discourses 14-23) is just called the large section (Maha). And the third (discourses 24-34) is the section dealing with Pathika, who was a naked ascetic (Patika). This last section deals primarily with meditation.

What Version Should I Read?

So what version of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya) should I read? For those who prefer a free version, the best is the translation by Bhikkhu Sujato. Another good, but partial translation of the Long Discourses, is by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. The best print version is by Maurice Walshe (see references).

My advice is to first read an online version before you buy a print version. Most people struggle with monotonous repetition. This is there because the discourses were memorized and chanted since written books were unknown at the time. The repetition is great for memorization but makes for lousy reading. This is why I recommend the Dhammapada as the first book a new Buddhist buys.

References

  • Davids, T.W. Rhys. Dialogues of the Buddha: Translation from the Pali of the Digha Nikāya, 3 volumes. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2016.
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Dīgha Nikāya,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=D%C4%ABgha_Nik%C4%81ya&oldid=1066709277 (accessed February 25, 2022).
  • Lay, U Ko. Essence of Tipitaka. Maharashtra, India: Vipassana Research Institute, 1998.
  • Meghaprasara, Matthew. New Guide to the Tipitaka: A Complete Reference to the Pali Buddhist Canon. A Sangha of Books, 2013.
  • Webb, Russell. An Analysis of the Pali Canon. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2011.
  • Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikāya. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Early Buddhist Texts

Since my entire project is based on the general reliability of texts I am calling the “Early Buddhist Texts,” I think you should what I mean, what they are, and why I think they are reliable.

Meaning of Early Buddhist Texts

First, what are “Early Buddhist Texts”? I follow Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali’s definition, Early Buddhist Texts (EBT) are “Texts spoken by the historical Buddha and his contemporary disciples” (11). These are “clearly distinguishable from all other Buddhist scripture,” notes Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, in that “these texts originated from a single historical personality, the Buddha” (7).

I find it both important and helpful to describe my sources as “Early Buddhist Texts” so as distinguish them from later works that did not originate from the Buddha. All Mahayana Sutras are later inventions and can not be traced back to the historical Buddha. They were composed 400 to 600 years after the Buddha passed away.

But the use of “Early Buddhist Texts” is also helpful to distinguished these texts from other parts of the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the oldest and only complete canon of the original mainstream Buddhist schools (of which there were reportedly 18). But not everything in the Pali Canon qualifies as “Early Buddhist Texts.”

Here it might be good to get a quick overview of the Pali Canon.

The Pali Canon

The Pali Canon is the scriptures of the Theravada school of Buddhism. This is the only school of original mainstream Buddhism to survive into the modern era. Pali is a Middle Indo-Aryan language native to India. It is the language in which Theravada Buddhism preserve their scriptures. And it is the primary source for our “Early Buddhist Texts.”

The Pali Canon is also known as the Tipitaka (Skt, Tripitaka), meaning the three baskets. The three parts or baskets of teachings are the Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline), the Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Basket of Higher Teaching).

The most important part of these three is the Sutta Pitaka because this basket contains the actual teachings of the Buddha. This “Basket” is divided into five groups of texts called the Nikayas. They are the Digha Nikaya (the long discourses of the Buddha), the Majjhima Nikaya (the middle-length discourses of the Buddha), the Samyutta Nikaya (the connected discourses of the Buddha), the Anguttara Nikaya (the numerical discourses of the Buddha), and the Khuddaka Nikaya (the minor collection).

Which Books Count

Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali enumerate these as being Early Buddhist Texts:

They are the bulk of the Suttas in the main four Pali Nikayas and parallel Agama literature in Chinese, Tibetan Sanskrit, and other Indian dialects; the patimokkhas and some Vinaya material from the khandhakas; a small portion of the Khuddaka Nikaya, consisting of the significant parts of the Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, and Thera- and Theri Gatha (11-12).

I would also include the Khuddakapatha.

The entire Abhidhamma Pitaka is eliminated from the Early Buddhist Texts because it was a later addition. This is clear from comparing the existent Abhidhammas from other schools of mainstream Buddhism. It is also known that only the Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline) and the Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses) were recited at the First Buddhist Council.

Notice also the “the patimokkhas and some Vinaya material from the khandhakas” qualify as Early Buddhist texts.” In a footnote, they clarify, “In particular some of the monastic procedures, such as the upasampada and uposatha ceremonies, that are found across all Vinaya traditions” (12). This means that a significant portion of the Vinaya does not quality as Early Buddhist Texts.

It should also be remembered that even within the books included in the Early Buddhist Texts list, not everything within them go back to the historical Buddha. Textual criticism within Buddhism is very immature and requires much more development before we can say anything definitively. But just beware that there are parts of these books that may not qualify as “spoken by the historical Buddha and his contemporary disciples.”

Early Buddhist Texts List

A. DISCIPLINE (Vinaya Pitaka)

  1. The Great Division (Mahāvagga of the khandhaka)
  2. The Lesser Division (Cullavagga of the khandhaka)
  3. Male Monastic Code (Bhikkhu Pātimokkha)
  4. Female Monastic Code (Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha)

B. DISCOURSES (Sutta Pitaka)

  1. Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya)
  2. Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya)
  3. Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)
  4. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya)
  5. The Short Passages (Khuddakapatha)
  6. The Teaching of the Path (Dhammapada)
  7. Buddha’s Inspired Utterances (Udana)
  8. Book of the Sayings (Itivuttaka)
  9. The Discourse Collection (Sutta Nipata)
  10. Male Elder Verses (Theragatha)
  11. Female Elder Verses (Therigatha)

Reliability of the Early Buddhist Texts

It is important to note, in the words of Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, “The texts as we have them now are not a verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not doctrine or substance” (12). There can be no doubt that they were customized for memorization. Anybody reading the texts will be struct by the repetition.

Glenn Wallis write:

“The Pali Canon is the only extant complete Indian collection of the Buddhist texts…. The canon has been preserved with great care down to the present day by the lone surviving sect of ancient Indian Buddhism, namely the Theravada. This is not to say that the texts have not undergone alterations over time….. So, if your aim is to get as close to ‘the Buddha’s idiom’ as possible, the Pali suttas are the logical starting point” (xxv).

So the Early Buddhist Texts are the only surviving source of the Buddha’s teachings. But are these reliable? Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali point out that, “There is a loose consensus among specialists in early Buddhism that the EBTs are in the main authentic” (67). I believe that the Early Buddhist Texts can be trusted as an authentic and reliable guide to the historical Buddha’s teaching and life.

Richard F. Gombrich writes:

I share with the Theravada Buddhists (and most scholars) the view that their form of Buddhism is extremely conservative. Doctrinally, Theravada seems to have undergone very little change or development since its origin in ancient India. While there have naturally been slight shifts in emphasis, the system of ideas we are dealing with throughout our history [of Theravada Buddhism] remains that expounded by the Buddha – at least, according to the Theravadin interpretation (22).

Richard F. Gombrich notes:

In the precise form in which we have them, the Pali texts are undoubtedly much later than the Buddha…, they were not written down til the first century BCE; moreover, the language was probably slightly modified even long after that. On the other hand, I have the greatest difficulty in accepting that the main edifice is not the work of one genius. By ‘the main edifice’ I mean the content of the main body of sermons, the four Nikayas, and of the main body of monastic rules (20-21).

The Theravada claim, writes Huston Smith and Philip Novak, “to represent original Buddhism, the Buddhism taught by Gautama himself. The claim is justified if we confine ourselves to the explicit teachings of the Buddha as they are recorded in the earliest texts, the Pali Canon, for on the whole those texts do support the Theravada position” (66).

One of the pieces of evidence of the reliability of the Early Buddhist Texts is the consistency between the canons of the different early Buddhist schools. We know that around the time of the Second Buddhist Council Buddhism split into 18 groups. We have the parts of canons of some of these schools and can compare them. What we find is a remarkable consistency between them. This means that the Early Buddhist Texts we have in the Pali Canon go back to at least 100 years after Buddha’s passing.

Samuel Beal compared the Chinese canon with the Pali and had this to say: I “find that in the main they are identical. I do not say literally the same; they differ in minor points, but are identical in plot and all important details” (xii). Etienne Lamotte agrees, “The doctrinal basis common to the Nikayas and the Agamas is remarkably uniform” (156). And, writes A.K. Warder, “whatever textual discrepancies are found hardly affect the doctrine” (5).

Conclusion

The important takeaway from this study is that the Buddha’s original teachings do in fact exist. And that these teachings can be found only in the Early Buddhist Texts. And further, all other teachings and so-called sutras should be judged by the teachings contained in the Early Buddhist Texts.

For those who claim to be Buddhist, I think this leads to an obvious conclusion: We should study and apply the teachings of the Early Buddhist Texts to our lives. And it also means that we should treat other texts claiming to be the word of the Buddha as commentaries at best.

References

  • Beal, Samuel. Buddhist Literature in China, 2nd ed. Sri Satguru Publications, 1988.
  • Gombrich, Richard F. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  • Lamotte, Etienne. History of Indian Buddhism. Peeters Press, 1976.
  • Smith, Huston and Philip Novak. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003. Print.
  • Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2014. Print.
  • Wallis, Glenn. Basic Teachings of the Buddha: A New Translation and Compilation with a Guide to Reading the Texts. New York: The Modern Library, 2007.
  • Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2000.

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