Many of us have stories of how certain dharma books came into our hands. In the case of a book such as Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, influential to generations of readers since its first publication nearly a half-century ago, there will no doubt be a multitude of stories. To obtain at least a sampling of such stories, I consulted several longtime readers of Rahula, all seasoned Buddhists: Toni Bernhard, Scobie Beer, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Sojun Mel Weitsman and Ron Nestor. What emerged from our conversations seemed to want to be told as a single story, condensing the separate voices of my informants into that of a fictional character whom I call Cindy. Cindy’s story brings out something typical of how the Dharma has always been transmitted: personably, dependent on circumstance and capacity, and—best of all—free, an act of dana.
Cindy tells how, on a particularly gray winter day in 1975, she came across What the Buddha Taught in a diner in upstate New York. “Cold, depressed, nearly broke, I was hoping a hot cup of coffee and a piece of homemade pie would give me a moral boost. I was just back from a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Ceylon, culture-shocked and out of work. Walking into the local diner, I noticed by the cash register, right next to the newspapers, a book with a picture of the Buddha on the cover, in fact a whole stack of them. I picked one up.” Cindy holds up a well-worn paperback. “This very copy, as it happens. On the dust jacket was a bio of the author, a Buddhist monk and scholar from Ceylon. I took it to the lunch counter and placed my order.”
Cindy had gone to Asia hoping to study the dharma at its source. As she traveled around, she encountered lay Buddhists visiting the temples mainly to worship Buddha images and bodhi trees, listen to recitations of protective sutras by the monks, and seek the benign aid of the deities of the earth and sky. These folk forms of Buddhism, often amalgamated with Hinduism and indigenous religions, seemed like so many cultural encrustations over the real thing. Her experience didn’t match her expectations of monks in saffron robes practicing the pure dharma, and she returned to the States, her quest for what the Buddha originally taught thwarted.
“I opened the book at random and, as I had my pie and coffee, read:
Sometimes you see a man in a restaurant reading while eating—a very common sight. He gives you the impression of being a very busy man, with no time even for eating. You wonder whether he eats or reads. One may say that he does both. In fact, he does neither, he enjoys neither. He is strained and disturbed in mind and he does not enjoy what he does at the moment, does not live in the present moment, but unconsciously and foolishly tries to escape from life.
“The author seemed to be writing directly to me. Just as he said, I was doing two things at once and neither, not really enjoying myself in the meantime, not living in the moment, trying to escape from life. Right in the middle of mindlessness, I received my first instruction in mindfulness. What I’d gone to Ceylon for, served up in an American diner! In just this one passage Rahula gave me a simple prescription for living one moment at a time, without cultural overlays. By now the coffee was cold and the work world calling. On my way out, I was about to put Rahula’s book back on the stack when I noticed a small sign I hadn’t noticed before: ‘FREE. TAKE ONE.’ I did just that.”
It wasn’t long before Cindy connected with a local meditation group, confirming her lesson at the lunch counter, and she went on, in time, to many meditation retreats, learning more of the Buddha’s teachings directly from various teachers of various traditions. As she traveled, she kept her book close at hand, reading as need arose: “The Four Noble Truths,” “Anatta,” “Meditation, or Mental Culture,” “What the Buddha Taught and the World Today,” and a selection of sutras from the first words of the Buddha to the last. The book would serve her as a reference as well as a touchstone to test the authenticity of the various teachings she would encounter.
With thirty-five years of Buddhism now behind her, Cindy is sometimes asked by a newcomer to Buddhism—or even an old-timer needing a refresher—for an introduction to dharma literature. She’ll go to the shelves of her well-stocked library and speak about the merits of this or that publication. “Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, a good balance of the Theravada and Mahayana,” she might say. Or, “Here’s Martine Bachelor’s The Spirit of the Buddha, just published, especially apt at relating the original teachings to women’s emerging role in world Buddhism.” Toward the end of her survey, she’ll often pause at a shelf dedicated to multiple copies of a single book, the cover showing the Buddha in the teaching mudra. “This happens to be my personal favorite,” she’ll say. “What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula. Well named, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not the only one. When it came out in 1959 there wasn’t much else about Buddhism for the general public, but it’s had several printings since and is rumored to be the Buddhist bestseller of our time. Elementary but not dumbed down. Clear, concise, practical. Strong on the Theravada but giving credit to the Mahayana. What I have here are remainders I picked up years ago for next to nothing.” She smiles and holds one out to her visitor. “Take one—it’s free.”
Patrick McMahon is the editor of Books and Bodhi. Toni Bernhard and Scobie Beer are longtime students of vipassana; Bhikkhu Bodhi is an ordained Theravada monk and teacher; Sojun Mel Weitsman is the abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center; and Ron Nestor is the director of the Buddhist Studies Program at the Berkeley Zen Center.