When the First Council assembled shortly after the parinibbana of the Buddha, these monks, disciples of the Buddha, Arahants, recited from memory what they heard over the course of the forty-five years of the Buddha’s teaching. To witness their intention to faithfully recite the teachings each recollection began with “evam me sutam,“ “Thus have I heard.”
These suttas, or discourses, became the Pali Canon, the basis of Buddhist practice and understanding. This Canon is also the source of everything we know about the Buddha and most of what we know about his times.
The new translation by Maurice Walshe of the Digha Nikaya, part of the Pali Canon, is wonderfully readable. Most translations of the suttas have been hampered by stilted language and a Victorian sensibility. However, good translation benefits from earlier efforts. This is the case here. Pali is a musical language, very given to chanting and poetry because word-ending agreement, rhyming, occurs in almost all speech. It is difficult to do a translation that is as musical as the original. Generally, this translation is faithful to the spirit of the original Pali. The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is quoted on the jacket, “Dr. Walshe’s translation is very good and his fluent, readable style makes these scriptures highly accessible to readers put off by the ponderous and sometimes archaic renderings of more academic translations.”
It is not only the style of many translations that can keep us from reading the Buddha’s words. We may have difficulty hearing the message as well. We often want to fit him into our notion of what a Buddha is and want him to teach what we believe the teachings to be. We want him to confirm our notions of things even when our attachment to those notions is a source of suffering. The Buddha does not oblige. He is often silent, but he never pads the truth.
To a disciple, Sunakkhatta, a skeptic who does not want to believe that the Buddha speaks literally, he says, “But, Sunakkhatta, would the Tathagata make any statement that was ambiguous?” There are many stories in the Canon where the hearing of discourses led one or even one hundred listeners to spontaneous enlightenment. This is not always the case. Sunakkhatta travels with the Buddha, sees his work, tests him over and over again and then leaves. No test will satisfy him. It is a sutta with no “happy ending.”
The Buddha we meet in the suttas makes house calls, goes on alms rounds, changes his mind, delights in stories and parables, recites spontaneous poetry. There are even passages which are funny. When, for example, the Buddha sees the Lichavis, a people given to adornment and makeup, he says, “Monks, any of you who have not seen the Thirty-Three Gods, just look at this troop of Lichavis! Take a good look at them, and you will get an idea of the Thirty-Three Gods!” This flavor is often missing in translations.
In many suttas we see a Buddha who is a dynamic social reformer. In the Kutadanta Sutta, he leads someone away from animal sacrifice to true sacrifice. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, he dissuades a king bent on conquest from his war. In the Cakkavati-Sihanada Sutta, he looks at how injustice leads to more injustice, to the decline of life, the community and the kingdom.
There is an extensive introduction that treats the Buddha’s life, the main concepts of the teaching, the historical period, other philosophies, Buddhist cosmology, the Canon, the language, and the commentaries. The Canon is outlined in more detail. The thirty-four suttas in the Digha Nikaya are listed with brief explanations of each one.
The notes to the text are not only abundant but illuminating. The 1163 notes provide excellent explanations of translations, relations to other translations or other suttas, and historical context. They do not assume that the entire body of the work handed down is, word for word, the Buddha’s and indicate questionable passages, ideas, and stories. The index is also quite useful with both English and Pali references.
So many of the themes of practice are treated in these discourses: the fruits of renunciation; what is true renunciation; what are the qualities of a true Brahman; what are views leading to suffering; humility; should the teachings be shared; states of consciousness; faith; good and bad teachers; the relation of ethical behavior to concentration and wisdom; advice to lay people; dependent origination; and the four heavenly abodes (lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity)—to name a few.
The Digha Nikaya also includes the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, which is the starting point for all vipassana practice. The last two suttas are a particular treasure. Buddhism is often thought of as a religion/ philosophy/psychology of lists: the three this’s, the four that’s, etc. These two suttas include 230 of these lists. In themselves, they provide an amazing excursion through the mind of a buddha.
While these are discourses they are also dialogues in the Platonic sense. If we enter into dialogue with the Buddha, we must allow our opinions, view and beliefs to be scrutinized. Are we prepared to let go? Again and again, when someone, like Sunakkhatta, wants miracles performed, wants to know the origin of the world, wants to know all sorts of fantastic things, the Buddha says that his miracle is the miracle of instruction. His instruction is suffering, the cause of suffering, that there is a means to the ending of suffering and that the Noble Eightfold Path is that means.