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Basic Teachings of the Buddha

I mentioned in my last entry Glenn Wallis, scholar, translator, teacher, author. He set up our Philadelphia trip last week, as a result of which I was able for the first time to sit down with him face-to-face. While there’s always a difference between friends and acquaintances; with Glenn, it was as if we’d been friends for years.

I first met him by email after reading his book, Basic Teachings of the Buddha — the work of an eminently independent mind. In his introduction (which I wish all Buddhists would read, even if they disagree) he describes young Siddhattha — the Buddha — as a “bombastic braggadocio” who claims shortly after his historic awakening to “have no equal” (Ariyapariyesana Sutta). This isn’t to say that he’s down on the Buddha — quite the contrary; it’s just that he’s boldly staking out his personal opinion that the man was, well, just a man who took a while to refine his message. In so doing, Wallis reminds us that all those who claim to be the Buddha’s rightful heirs, as well, are just expressing their own personal opinion, ancient traditions notwithstanding.

The various Buddhist faithfuls, each seemingly innoculated by the weight of its own ancient roots (Theravadin, Tibetan, Japanese, etc.) presume themselves to be pristine — a claim I really can’t imagine the Buddha supporting. As is becoming increasingly apparent in these secular days, monolithic institutions encourage believers to believe what they believe because their elders want them to and most of the people they know go along with the charade. This is a human weakness unworthy of anyone claiming to follow the Buddha. Siddhattha Gotama tirelessly championed the precarious art of thinking and discovering for oneself.

Out of the thousands of Buddhist sutras, Wallis has strategically chosen sixteen, and translated them. These are the core of the book, but not the whole. The introduction is lengthy, innovative  and informative, and his explanatory Guide to Reading the Texts is challenging and thoughtful. In a field where the preeminent approach is conservative guardianship, his creativity is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that the Buddha taught for the sake of living human beings, not to create an indestructable institution. The whole is a slim but intense resource for anyone who’s ever sat back and imagined what it must have been like to walk with the man from Sakya twenty-six hundred years ago.

*       *       *

Guitarist Headman Glenn WallisUntil I met him last week, I presumed Glenn to be a product of the religous studies department of Harvard University, where he obtained his PhD. I learned instead that he considers himself primarily a philologist — someone who studies texts, not beliefs. (Before that, incidentally, he was a high-school dropout and touring punk rocker.) While religious Buddhists study the very same texts, it’s exceedingly rare to see them leave their devotional agenda behind. The hands-off attitude of textual analysis leaves more room for discovery, innovation — and inconvenient interpretations — not to mention glimpses of the Buddha’s humanity. For example, the words of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta have been around for millennia, but who in that time has ever made the apparently self-evident observation that the young founder of Buddhism sounded like a “bombastic braggadocio?” To the religious ear, it just won’t do; to the disinterested reader, however, it’s sort of obvious. Wallis goes to some lengths to describe the relationship of the text to the reader and of course, encourages a disinterested reading in the strongest possible way.

Which is where I stand up and applaud. I’m eternally grateful to my old Tibetan teachers, and wouldn’t dream of discouraging young men and women from entering monastic life if they’re so inclined.  I trust the Buddha’s teachings to lead those with little dust in their eyes to a place of dispassionate honesty about what they’re learning and how they’re learning it.  However, the dangers of institutional ‘truths’ are legion; they must be constantly challenged by knowledgeable dissenters and not just by opinionated outsiders.

Don’t just read Basic Teachings of the Buddha; study it. You might hate the translations of what you thought were familiar terms. Fine — disagree strenuously if it’s in your bones, but articulate your disagreement. On the Amazon listing for this book, a reviewer wrote that he preferred another translation. If you can’t read the original Pali or Sanskrit, it’s a mistake to ‘prefer’ one translation over another; serious readers will study several. All those who can, should contribute to any debate that prevents old institutions and automated beliefs from slipping into the numbing slumbers of the sacrosanct.

Diligence is the path to the deathless.
Negligence is the path of death.
The diligent do not die.
Those who are negligent are as the dead.
The Buddha, Dhammapada 21 [trans. Glenn Wallis]

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