The teachings of the Buddha offer an ethical basis for the spiritual life, a range of tools for working with emotional and mental processes, the transforming resource of meditation and a profound philosophy applicable to daily life. The teachings also offer the insight into the nature of dependent arising, the cessation of suffering, the conventional and ultimate truth and a liberation free from the unsatisfactory impact of circumstances.
Translated into English, the talks (suttas) consist of about twenty volumes. Each sentence among those countless numbers of recorded talks can be related directly to the central theme of the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering, through causes and conditions, the end of suffering and the skillful means for that end.
I appreciate that on a number of occasions, the teachings are formulated into easy groups to remember so that the mind can comprehend within relatively few concepts some of the diversity of what the Buddha communicates. The Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Four Foundations of Awareness, Five Mental Powers, Three Gems, Five Aggregates, Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Three Characteristics of Existence, Five Precepts, the Threefold Training, the Four Divine Abidings—these are the broad range of themes which the Buddha explored.
The Buddha dispensed with various beliefs that might seem integral to a religious life. Beliefs of a theistic or polytheistic nature, beliefs in a soul, a Creator, Savior, in worship and irrational views were all subject to investigation and were to be dispensed with if the beliefs did not stand up to rigorous examination.
Prayers, sacred meals, rituals, traditions, gurus and dogmas could also be abandoned without a second thought for the purposes of a liberating wisdom in the midst of things. What remains particularly significant about the Buddha’s approach is his capacity to point out the dangers of clinging to views and opinions without himself becoming a dogmatist. It is a fine line to explain the danger of promoting standpoints without becoming conceited or arrogant oneself in the process.
He directed his teachings to all manner of people: royalty, the rich, the powerful, the poor, the sick, the gurus, the fundamentalists, the secular and the ordained. For the first time in the long history of religious experiences, he formed a gathering (literal meaning of sangha) of men and women committed to inquiry and liberation equally for the welfare of oneself and others. He described this gathering of people as one of the “Three Gems” (tri-ratana) of life, along with the Buddha (the awakening) and the dharma (the teachings).
The Buddha reveals the way that depth of meditation transforms perceptions, and how the boundless discovery of joy and wisdom through the Three Gems challenges us as human beings right down to our cellular life. He diagnoses the human being as lacking any inherent existence. Teachings which question so ruthlessly the whole structure and concept of self do not leave anything or anyone anywhere to grasp hold of and cling onto as being special, including the Buddha. Yet the teachings pay immense respect to people, creatures and environment.
For myself, I make a simple division with regard to the teachings. The teachings which refer to the Four Noble Truths, Four Foundations of Awareness, Dependent Arising and so forth are applicable to all generations of men and women who breathe and abide on the face of the earth.
Other aspects of the teachings seem to be bound to time and place. A number of the rules for those who are ordained are only applicable to certain societies or climates. His one speculation about the future of ordained women was unnecessary and unhelpful—assuming that the Buddha expressed such an uncharacteristic opinion. For such a compassionate person, he seems to have overlooked the pain caused to animals, birds and fish who end up being devoured by human beings on the table or in the monks’ and nuns’ begging bowls. The teachings neglect the significance of exercise as a spiritual experience. There is insufficient analysis by the Buddha of the relationship of powerful monarchies and leaders to poverty. The consequences of these oversights have been far-reaching. This is easy to say in light of contemporary insights, of course.
The determination to bring about a fundamental change in awareness and values in society is certainly evident throughout the whole body of the teachings. In that respect, the Buddha’s teachings embraces spirituality, religious experiences, psychotherapy, philosophy, ecology and a sociopolitical dimension. He perceived that self, particularly in the form of selfish desire, brought about corruption and denigration of the fabric of society. Again and again his concerns are communicated throughout the teachings to lay people, monks and nuns alike.
During the last twenty-two years I have read the English translations of the volumes several times. Just last month I completed rereading the five volumes of Samyutta Nikaya. My major overall criticism is that the Buddha gives too much emphasis to the relative truth. There is too little exploration of ultimate truth. I consider the finest commentator on the Buddha’s teachings to be Nagarjuna, the fifth-century mystic-scholar, who beautifully reveals the ultimate nature of the teachings. It seems to me that Abhidhamma and the Theravadin commentators are bound to an atomistic theory of life in which everything is reduced to elements as ultimate reality.
It is difficult to select particular passages. If I were cast on a desert island with only a single book to read of the countless millions of books published in human history, I would take with me, without hesitation, the Sutta Nipata, probably the oldest collection of talks of the Buddha. The last two chapters (“Chapter of the Eights” and the “Chapter of the Beyond”) contain liberating insights:
None of the various truths of the world can be separated from conception.
—Verse 886, “Chapter of the Eights,” Sutta Nipata