Zen buddhism

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One paragraph per each question.

1) It is likely that this week’s material was new and different for you. Take about 20 minutes to simply think about some of the core ontological claims (or, claims having to do with what it means to exist) made by the Buddha. Write a paragraph that describes your state of feeling while thinking about these claims. Do they make you comfortable?  Do not distribute without prior permission 8 Uncomfortable? Are they confusing? Do they feel familiar? Note in a few sentences the process of rearticulating these claims in your own words–is it easy? 

 2) Rephrase, in ONE WORD ONLY, each of the Three Marks as you understand them without using “suffering,” “impermanence,” and “no-self.” Note in a few sentences the process and challenge of capturing complex meaning in a single word and explain why you chose your words used to rephrase. 


The Word of the Buddha
Buddhist Scriptures and Schools

Dharma: texts, practice, and realization

The Buddha is author of no books or treatises. Moreover it is
extremely unlikely that any of his immediate disciples wrote any-
thing of his teachings down. And yet we are told that the Buddha
devoted some forty-five years of his life entirely to teaching
and that by the end of his life he was quite satisfied that he had
succeeded in passing on his teachings carefully and exactly, such
that they would long be of benefit and help to the world.1 This
state of affairs is worth reflecting on, for it reveals something of
the nature of Buddhism.

Buddhism cannot be reduced to a collection of theoretical writ-
ings nor a philosophical system of thought-although both these
form an important part of its tradition. What lies at the heart of
Buddhism, according to its own understanding of the matter, is
dharma. Dharma is not an exclusively Buddhist concept, but
one which is common to Indian philosophical, religious, social,
and political thought in its entirety. According to Indian thought
Dharma is that which is the basis of things, the underlying nature
of things, the way things are; in short, it is the truth about things,
the truth about the world. More than this, Dharma is the way we
should act, for if we are to avoid bringing harm to both ourselves
and others we should strive to act in a way that is true to the way
things are, that accords with the underlying truth ()f things. Ulti-
mately the only true way to act is in conformity with Dharma.

The notion of Dharma in Indian thought thus has both a
descriptive and a prescriptive aspect: it is the way things are and
the way to act. The various schools of Indian religious and philo-
sophical thought and practice all offer slightly different visions

36 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools

( darsana) of Dharma-different visions of the way things are and
the way to act. Of course, when we examine the teachings of the
various schools, we find that there is often substantial common
ground and much borrowing from each other. Yet the.Buddha’s
vision and understanding of Dharma must be reckoned to have
had a profound influence on Indian culture and, to an extent unpar-
alleled by other visions of Dharma, on cultures beyond India.

The Buddha regarded the Dharma he had found as ‘profound,
hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the
sphere of mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise’.
Thus knowledge of Dharma is not something that is acquired
simply by being told the necessary information or by reading
the appropriate texts. Knowledge of Dharma is not a matter of
scholarly and ~ntellectual study. This does mean that such study
may not have a part to play, yet it can never be the whole story.
In fact according to an ancient and authoritative view of the
matter knowledge of Dharma comes about as a result of the
interplay between three kinds of understanding (prajnii/pannii):
that which arises from listening (sruta/suta ), that which arises from
reflection (cintii), and that which arises from spiritual practice
(bhiivanii).2 The aim of Buddhism is to put into practice a par-
ticular way of living the ‘holy life’ or ‘spiritual life’ (brahma-cariya)
that involves training in ethical conduct (fila/slla) and meditative
and contemplative techniques (samiidhi) and which culminates
in the direct realization of the very knowledge (prajnii/paniiii)
the B·uddha himself reached under the tree of awakening. There-
fore what the Buddha taught is often referred to in the early texts
as a system of ‘training’ (sik~ii/sikkha), and his disciples may be
referred to as being ‘in training’ (saik~a/sekha) or ‘not in need
of further training’ (asaik~a/asekha). Thus in certain important
respects the nature of the knowledge that the Buddha was trying
to convey to his pupils is more akin to a skill, like knowing how
to play a musical instrument, than a piece of information, such
as what time the Manchester train leaves tomorrow.

That knowledge of Dharma was conceived of in this way
explains in part why the written word was not originally the
medium for its communication. Practical training is difficult to

The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 37

impart and acquire simply on the basis of theoretical manuals;
one needs a teacher who can demonstrate the training and also
comment on and encourage one in one’s own attempts to put
the instructions into practice.3 In fact a sense that knowledge is
not properly communicated by the written word colours the
traditional Indian attitude to learning in general: knowledge
must be passed from teacher to pupil directly. This does not mean
that at the time of the Buddha India had no literature. On the
contrary, in the form of the 8-g Veda India has a literature that
predates the Buddha by perhaps as much as a thousand years.
But this literature is ‘oral’. It was composed orally, memorized,
and then passed from teacher to pupil directly by a process of
oral recitation for centuries, without ever being committed to writ-
ing. India’~ is, of course, not the only culture to have an ancient
oral literature; the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, grew out
of a tradition of oral composition, yet the oral origins of tradi-
tional Indian learning continued to inform its structure long
after texts had begun to be committed to writing.4

In presenting its teachings to the world, the Buddhist tradition
would thus point towards an unbroken lineage or succession of
teachers and pupils: just as the Buddha took care to instruct his
pupils, so they in turn took care to instruct theirs. The visible
and concrete manifestation of this succession is in the first place
the Sangha, the community of ordained monks (bhikkhu) and
nuns (bhikkhunz). Becoming a Buddhist monk or nun requires
a particular ceremony that is legitimate only if properly carried
out according to prescribed rules, which apparently go right
back to the time of the Buddha himself. In particular the pre-
scriptions for the ceremony require the presence of a minimum
of five fully ordained bhikkhus of at least ten years’ standing.
Thus when someone ordains as a Buddhist monk there is in effect
a direct link back to the presence of the Buddha himself. Of course,
the principle of the passing of the teachings directly from per-
son to person may also operate outside the Sangha, for members
of the Sangha do not only teach other members of the Sangha,
they teach lay people as well. Yet the Sangha remains the tan-
gible thread of the tradition.

38 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools

So the Buddha’s Dharma is mediated to us via the Satigha-
a community that ideally does not tnerely hand down some
vague recollection of what the Buddha taught but actually lives
the teaching. In the Pali commentaries written down in Sri
Lanka in the fifth century CE a distinction was made between
two kinds of monastic duty: that of books and that of practice
(see below, pp. 104-5).5 The former is concerned with the study
of the theory as preserved in Buddhist writings. The latter is the
stniightforward attempt to put the Buddha’s system of training
into practice, to live the spiritual life as prescribed by the Buddha
and his followers. Although this formal distinction is found in
the writings of a particular Buddhist school, the point being high-
lighted holds good for Buddhism as a whole. Throughout the his-
tory of Buddhism there has existed a certain tension ~etween the
monk who is a great scholar and theoretician and the monk who
is a realized practitioner. Something of the same tension is in-
dicated in the sixth and seventh centuries in China with the
arising of the Ch’an (Japanese Zen) school of Buddhism, whose
well-known suspicion of theoretical formulations of the teach-
ing is summed up by the traditional stanza:

A special tradition outside the scriptures;
Not founded on words and letters;
Pointing directly to the heart of man;
Seeing into one’s own nature and attainingBuddhahood.6

The same kind of tension is in part reflected in a threefold
characterization of Dharma itself as textual tradition (pariyatti),
practice (patipatti), and realization (pafivedha) once again found
in the Pali commentaries.7 The first refers to the sum of Buddhist
theory as contained in Buddhist scriptures, the second to the put-
ting into practice of those teachings, while the third to the direct
understanding acquired consequent upon the practice. The rest
of this chapter will primarily be concerned with Dharma as
textual tradition.

Dharma as textual tradition goes back to the teachings heard
directly from the Buddha. These teachings were, it seems, mem-
orized by the immediate followers of the Buddha. For several

The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 39

generations perhaps, the teachings of the Buddha were preserved
and handed down directly from master to pupil orally without
ever being committed to writing. It is tempting for us in the
modern world to be sceptical about the reliability of this method
of transmission, but it was the norm in ancient India; the use of
mnemonic techniques such as the numbered list and frequent
repetition of certain portions of the material within a given text
aided reliable transmission.8 Indeed the evidence of the trans-
mission of the Vedic texts, for example, is that oral transmission
can be more reliable than a tradition of written texts involving
the copying of manuscripts.9

In the early phase of their transmission then the only access
to Buddhist ‘texts’ was by hearing them directly from someone
who had heard and learnt them from someone else, this oral trans-
mission of the ‘texts being an activity that went on primarily within
the community of monks. Even after these texts began to be com-
mitted to writing their study was primarily a monastic concern.
Thus the ordinary lay Buddhist’s access to Buddhist teachings
was always through the Sangha: he or she learnt the Dharma by
sitting in the presence of a monk or nun and listening to their
exposition of the teachings. Thus, in so far as a monk or nun neces-
sarily follows a way of life defined by the prescriptions and rules
of Buddhist monasticism, the study of Buddhist theory always
took place in a context of practice. It is only in the twentieth
century-with the arrival of the modern printed book in tr.adi-
tional Buddhist societies, and the demand in the West for books
and information on Buddhism-that this state of affairs has begun
to change. That is, for· over two millennia it was only by some
form of contact with the living tradition of practice that there
could be any knowledge of Buddhism.

The first recitation of scriptures: the four Nikayas/Agamas
and the Vinaya

According to a generally accepted ancient tradition, the first
attempt to agree the form of the Buddhist textual tradition, what
was remembered as the authoritative ‘word of the Buddha’,

40 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools

took place some three months after the Buddha’s death at the
town of Rajagrha (Pali Rajagaha) in northern India when soo
arhats took part in a ‘communal recitation’ (sar[lglti). This event
is commonly referred to in modern writings as ‘the first Buddhist
council’. Significantly the earliest Buddhist tradition attempts
to resolve any tension between theory and practice by insisting
that the first commmial recitation of scriptures was carried out by
soo individuals who had each realized direct and perfect know-
ledge of Dharma. According to the accounts of this communal
recitation, what was remembered of the Buddha’s teachings fell
into two classes: the general discourses of the Buddha, the siitra.s
(Pali sutta ), and his prescriptions for the lifestyle of the Buddhist
monk, the ‘discipline’ or vinaya. Some accounts suggest there
was a third category, miitrkiis (Pali miitikii) or summary mne-
monic lists of significant points of the teaching. At any rate, later
canonical collections of Buddhist writings were subsequently
often referred to as ‘the three baskets’ (tri-pi{akalti-pi{aka): the
basket of discipline, the basket of discourses, and the basket of
‘further dharma’ (abhidharma/abhidhamma), whose development
is in part related to the use of the summary mnemonic lists or

Three principal ‘canons’ of Buddhist scriptures survive today
corresponding to the three main traditions of living Bud-
dhism: the Pali or Theravada canon of the southern t.radition of
Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, the Chinese Tripitaka of the
eastern tradition of China, Korea, and Japan, and the Tibetan
Kanjur (bKa’ ‘gyur) and Tenjur (bsTan ‘gyur) of the northern tra-
dition of Tibet and Mongolia. All three of these collections are
extensive. Modern printed editions of the Pali canon run to some
fifty moderately sized volumes; the Taisho edition of the Chi-
nese Tripitaka comprises fifty-five volumes, each containing some
I,ooo pages of Chinese characters; together the Tibetan Kanjur
and Tenjur comprise 300 traditional poti volumes. When the
contents of the three canons are compared it is apparent that,
while significant portions of the Pali canon are paralleled in the
Chinese collection, and there is considerable overlap between the
Chinese Tripitaka and the Kanjur and Tenjur, Buddhism as l;l

The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 41

whole does not possess a ‘canon’ of scriptures in the manner of
the Hebrew Bible of Judaism, the Old and New Testaments of
Christianity, or the Qu’ran of Islam. It is also apparent that the
Chinese and Tibetan canons do not represent en bloc transla-
tions of ancient Indian canonical collections of Buddhist texts,
but rather libraries of translations of individual Indian works. made
over the centuries (see Chapter ro). In the case of the Chinese
canon this process of translating Indian texts began in· the sec-
ond century cE and continued for over 8oo years; the process
of arranging and cataloguing these texts continues down to the
present century. In the case of Tibetan Kanjur and Tenjur the
translation process was carried out between the seventh and
thirteenth centuries, while the precise contents and arrangement
of these two collections has never been fixed. ·

What of the Pali canon? The use of the term ‘Pali’ as the name
of the language of the Theravada canon of Buddhist scriptures
derives from the expression piili-bhiisii, ‘the language of the
[Buddhist] texts’. This language is an ancient Indian language
closely related to Sanskrit, the language of classical Indian cul-
ture par excellence. At the time of the Buddha, Sanskrit appears
to have been very much the language of brahmanical learning
and religious ritual. The Buddha therefore seems to have delib-
erately and consciously eschewed Sanskrit, preferring to teach
in the ordinary vernacular-the various Middle Indo-Aryan
dialects, known as Prakrit, which were spoken across the north
of India in the fifth century BCE.10 In the first century or so after
the death of the Buddha, as Buddhism began gradually to spread
across the Indian subcontinent, different groups of monks and
the evolving schools of Buddhism appear to have preserved
their own versions of the Buddha’s teaching orally in their local
dialect. However, as time passed there was a tendency for the
language of ‘the scriptures’ to become frozen and increasingly
removed from any actually spoken dialect. At the same time
Sanskrit was becoming less an exclusively brahmanicallanguage
and more the accepted language of Indian culture-the language
in which to communicate learning and literature right across India.
Thus Buddhist scriptures were subject to varying degrees of

42 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools

‘sanskritization’ (‘translation’ is too strong here since the order
of difference between Middle Indian and Sanskrit is similar
to that between modern English and Chaucer’s or Mallory’s
English). Although basically Middle Indo-Aryan, the language
of the Pali canon is thus something of a hybrid, preserving lin-
guistic features of several dialects and showing some evidence
of sanskritization.

Theravada Buddhist tradition traces the Pali canon back to a
recension of Buddhist scriptures brought from northern India
to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE by Mahinda, a Buddhist
monk who was the son of the emperor Asoka. Mahinda and his
company brought no books, the texts being in their heads, but
the tradition is that the Pali.texts were subsequently written down
for the first time in the first century BCE. The historical value of
this tradition is uncertain. Most scholars would be sceptical of
the suggestion that the Pali canon existed exactly as we have it
today already in the middle of third century BCE. We know, how-
ever, that what the commentators had before them in the fifth
century CE in Sri Lanka corresponded fairly exactly to what we
have now, and the original north Indian provenance and relative
antiquity of much of the Pali canon seems to be guaranteed on
linguistic grounds.U Significant portions of the material it con-
tains must go back to the third century BeE:

How many other versions or recensions of the canon of Bud-
dhist scriptures existed in partially or more fully sanskritized
Middle Indian dialects is unclear. The Pali canon is the only
one to survive apparently complete in an Indian language. Of
the other ancient Indian versions of the canon, we have only
isolated fragments and portions in the original Indian languages.
More substantial portions are, however, preserved in translation
especially in the Chinese Tripitaka. This, along with what Bud-
dhist literature as a whole reveals about its own history, allows
us to know something of the content of these other ancient
Indian canons and also to identify the generally more archaic
material-material that must be relatively close in time to the
ancient Rajagrha recitation. This material takes the form of the
four primary Nikayas or ‘collections’ of the Buddha’s discourses

The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 43

-also known as the four Agamas or books of textual ‘tradition’
-along with the Vinaya or Buddhist monastic rule. These texts
constitute the essential common heritage of Buddhist thought,
and from this perspective the subsequent history of Buddhism
is a working out of their implications. This is not to imply that
Buddhism can somehow be reduced to what is contained in
these texts; one must understand that this ‘working out’ in prac-
tice constitutes much of what Buddhism has actually been and,
today, is. Nevertheless, in the quest for an: understanding of Bud-
dhist thought these texts represent the most convenient starting

Today we have two full versions of this Nikaya/Agama mat-
erial: a version in Pali forming part of the Pali canon and a ver-
sion in Chinese translation contained in the Chinese Tripitaka.
It is usual scholarly practice to refer to the Pali version by the
term ‘Nikaya’ and the Chinese by the term ‘Agama’. Like the
Pali canon as a whole, it is impossible to date the Pali Nikayas
in their present form with any precision. The Chinese Agamas
were translated into Chinese from Sanskrit or Middle Indo-
Aryan dialects around the end of the fourth century CE, but the
texts upon which they rest must like the Nikayas date from the
centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. Portions of
further versions of this material also come down to us in Tibetan
translation in the Tibetan Kanjur.

The four Nikayas/Agamas arrange the Buddha’s discourses
in the first place according to length. The collection of long dis-
courses ( dirghiigama/digha-nikiiya) comprises some thirty siitras
arranged in three volumes; the collection of middle-length dis-
courses (madhyamiigama/majjhima-nikiiya) comprises some 150
siitras in the Pali version and 200 in the Chinese. Finally there
are two collections of shorter siitras. The first of these is ‘the
grouped collection’ (saf!lyuktiigama/saf!lyutta-nikiiya) which con-
sists of short siitras grouped principally according to subject
matter and dominated by the subjects of dependent arising, the
aggregates, the sense-spheres, and the path. The oral nature of
early Buddhist literature resulted in the proliferation of numbered
lists, in part as mnemonic devices, and the ‘numbered collection’

44 The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools

(ekottarikiigama!atiguttara-nikiiya) consists of short siitras built
around such a numbered list and grouped according to number
rather than topic.

In this book I generally quote from and refer to the Pali re-
cension of these texts. Using the Pali recension is in part a
matter of convenience and not a question of thereby suggesting
that the traditions it preserves are always the oldest and most
authentic available to us, even if it is likely that this is generally
the case. The Pali versions of these texts have been translated
into English in their entirety (unlike the Chinese and Tibetan
versions) and are readily available. That these texts have become
widely known over the past century through their Pali form has
sometimes led to an attitude which sees them as presenting the
peculiar perspective of Theravada Buddhism. But, as Etienne
Lamotte pointed out forty years ago, the doctrinal basis com-
mon to the Chinese Agamas and Pali Nikayas is remarkably uni-
form; such variations as exist affect only the mode of expression
or the arrangement of topics.U Far from representing sectarian
Buddhism, these texts above all constitute the common ancient
heritage of Buddhism.

The failure to appreciate this results in a distorted view of
ancient Buddhism, and its subsequent development and history
both within and outside India. From their frequent references
to and quotations from the Nikayas/ Agamas, it is apparent that
all subsequent Indian Buddhist thinkers and writers of whatever
school or persuasion, including the Mahayana-and most certainly
those thinkers such as Nagarjuna, Asaiiga, and Vasubandhu,
who became the great Indian fathers of east Asian and Tibetan
Buddhism-were completely familiar with this material and treated
it as the authoritative word of the Buddha. When disagreements
arose among Buddhists they did not concern the authority of the
Nikaya/Agama material, but certain points of its interpretation
and the authority of other quite different material, namely the
Mahayana siitras, which we shall return to presently.

Alongside the four primary Nikaya/Agama collections of siitras
the ancient Indian canons like the Pali canon preserved a ‘minor’
( k~udrakalkhuddaka) collection of miscellaneous texts that were

The Word of Buddha: Scriptures and Schools 45

also recognized as having the authority of the Buddha’s word.
This fifth collection included such works as the Dharmapada
(‘sayings on Dharma’) and the Jiitaka or stories concerning the
previous lives of the Buddha. The four Nikayas together with a
greater or lesser number of miscellaneous minor texts constituted
‘the basket of discourses’ (Siitra/Sutta Pitaka) for the earliest
Buddhist schools.B

The Pali canon, Chinese Tripitaka, and Tibetan Kanjur all
preserve versions of the ancient ‘basket of monastic discipline’
(Vinaya Pitaka ): the Pali canon and Kanjur one each, the Chinese
Tripitaka four, plus an incomplete-fifth. All six extant versions
of the Vinaya fall into two basic parts. The first is a detailed
analysis of the rules which constitute the priitimok:ja (Pali
pii{imokkha) and which govern the life of the individual monk
or nun. The second comprises twenty ‘sections’ (skandhaka/
khandhaka) which set out the proper procedures for conducting
the various communal acts of the Sangha, such as ordination (see
Chapter 4).14

Sutra and Abhidharma: the problem of textual authenticity
The Nikayas/Agamas are collections of siitras or ‘discourses’
regarded as delivered by the Buddha. The older term for a dis-
course of the Buddha preserved in Pali is sutta. It is not clear
what this term originally meant. When Buddhists started sans-
kritizing their texts they chose the word siitra. This is a term
which literally means ‘thread’ (compare English ‘suture’) but in
a literary context refers especially to authoritative brahmanical
texts consisting of a string of terse, aphoristic verses which a
pupil might memorize and a teacher might take as the basis for
exposition. Buddhist siitras, however, are not in this form. As
Richard Gombrich has pointed out, it is perhaps more likely that
Middle Indo-Aryan sutta corresponds to Sanskrit siikta, which
means ‘something that is well said’ and was early in the history
of Indian literature used to refer to the inspired hymns of the
Vedic seers that make up the collection of the ~g Veda. Early


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