In talking about Buddhism in past seminars, I explain that it’s absolutely fundamental to an understanding of Buddhism to recognise that its whole method of teaching is dialectic. That is to say, it consists of a dialogue between a teacher and a student. And the method of this dialogue is called Upaya. That is to say skillful means, used by the teacher to bring about the enlightenment of the student. The word Upaya, meaning expert pedagogy in teaching, but meaning deceit when used in a political context. And since Buddhism is a dialogue, what you ordinarily understand as the teachings of Buddhism, are not the teachings of Buddhism, they are simply the opening gambit or the opening process of this dialogue. And the point being, that Buddhism is not a teaching, its essence consists in a certain kind of experience. In a transformation of consciousness which is called awakening or enlightenment, which involves our seeing through our transcending the Hoax of being a separate ego.
And so, a Buddhist does not have the same tendency that a Christian has to want to find out what his faith is by going back to the most original sources. There has always been a tendency in Christianity to ask what did Jesus really teach? What is the pure New Testament, uncorrupted by theologians and by scribes who inserted things into the mouth of the master? It does not occur to Buddhists to have this attitude. Because of this dialectic pattern. You see, when you have an acorn, if it’s a lively acorn, it grows into an oak. And that’s the way it should be, in other words, it should develop into something. And so, Buddhism, as it has developed since the days of the Buddha, has gone a long way. It has become sometimes more complex, sometimes more simple, but it has changed radically because the seed which the Buddha planted was alive.
Now for example, when we ask what are the Buddhist scriptures, you can get two answers to that question. In the southern school, there is a set of scriptures which are written in the Pali language, divided into three sections called the Tipitaka. Which means the three baskets. Because these palm leaf manuscripts on which the sutras were eventually written down were of course carried around in baskets, and three baskets of these palm leaf manuscript volumes comprise the Buddhist scriptures. But you must remember that in the evolution of the scriptures, of these scriptures, that the Buddha wrote nothing. Nor did his immediate disciples. That’s a very important thing to remember, that all Indian scriptures were for many centuries handed down orally.
And so we have no clear guide as to their dates. Because when you hand down an oral tradition, you are not always likely to preserve certain historical landmarks. Supposing we’re talking about a certain king, the name of this king will mark a historical point. But in an oral tradition, the name of the king is likely to be changed every time the story is told, to correspond to the king then reigning. So, in other words, things that do change, that have a historical rhythm, like a succession of kings they will be changed in handing down the oral tradition. But things that do not change, that is to say the essential principle of the doctrine, they won’t be altered at all. So you must remember that the Buddhist scriptures were for some hundreds of years handed down orally before they were ever committed to writing and that accounts for their monotonous form. That is why everything is numbered, why there are four noble truths, eight steps of the Eightfold Path, ten fetters, five skandhas, four brahma viharas, or meditation states, and so on and so forth. Everything is put in numerical lists. So as to be memorized easily. And so there are formulae which are constantly repeated, and this is supposed to aid the memory.
Now then, it is obvious that those scriptures of the Pali canon, when you really sit down and read them, you know that what has happened here is that partly they have a certain monotony due to mnemonic aids. But also that in the course of time before they were written down, many monks spent wet afternoons adding to them, and adding things in such a style that no inspired person could ever have said them. And they made commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries, and lots of them had no sense of humor. I always love the passage where the Buddha is giving instructions on the art of meditation, and he’s describing a number of things on which one could concentrate. And there’s a commentator making little notes on this, and so when he’s made his list of things on which you could concentrate, like a square drawn on the ground or the tip of your nose or a leaf or a stone or anything, and then he says or on anything and the commentator puts footnote but not any wicked thing. I mean that’s that’s professional clergy for you. The world over.
So, this sort of thing has obviously happened. But you must remember that this is not this accumulation, this attribution of one’s own writings to the Buddha, is not done in a dishonest way. It would be dishonest today with our standards of literary historicity and correctness. It would be very wrong of me to forge a document and pretend that it was written by some very venerable person, say by Dr Suzuki or by Goethe. But, centuries ago, both in the West and in the east it was considered quite immoral to publish any book of wisdom under your own name. Because you personally were not entitled to the possession of this knowledge. And that is why you always put on any book of wisdom the name of the real author. That is to say, the person who inspired you. So in this way it is highly doubtful if the book of the wisdom of Solomon and this is not an adult for but it’s perfectly certain that Solomon never wrote it. But that it was attributed to Solomon because Solomon was an archetype of the wise man. So, in the same way, when for centuries various Buddhist monks and scholars wrote all kinds of sutras, scriptures, and ascribed them to the Buddha, they were being properly modest. They were saying these doctrines are not my doctrines, they are the doctrines of– that proceed from the Buddha in me, and therefore they should be ascribed to Buddha. And so over and above the Pali canon, there is an enormous corpus of scriptures. Written originally in Sanskrit. And subsequently translated into Chinese and Tibetan. We have very inadequate manuscripts of the original Sanskrit, but we have very complete Chinese and Tibetan translations, and so it is primarily from Chinese and Tibetans sources that we have the Mahayana canon of the scriptures over and above the Theravada canon which is written in the Pali language Pali is a softened form of Sanskrit, whereas in Sanskrit one says Nirvana, in Pali one says nibanna. Sanskrit says karma, Pali says kamma. Sanskrit says the Dharma, Pali says dhamma. Very, very similar language, but it’s softer in its speech, articulation.
Now it’s a general feeling among scholars of the West, that the Pali scriptures are closer to the authentic teachings of the Buddha than the Sanskrit ones. And so with our Christian background and approach to scriptures in general, the West has built up a very strong, you might say prejudice in favor of the authenticity of the Theravada tradition, as against the Mahayana tradition. Whereas the Mahayanas put it this way. They say that their most, they have a hierarchy of scriptures. One for very simple minded people. The next, they have about four grades. Going progressively to the scriptures for the most intelligent people, and they say that the Buddha preached that to his intimate disciples first. And then slowly, as he reached out from the most intimate group to others he came down to what is now the Pali canon. As the scriptures for the biggest dunderheads. But that, the ones that he preached first were not revealed until long, long after his death.
So they have no difficulty in making a consistent story about the fact that the scriptures in Sanskrit represent a level of the historical evolution of Buddhist ideas that from our point of view could not possibly have been attained in the Buddha’s lifetime. But you see, they say though that learned the latest revealed was actually the first taught to the in-group.
Well, you’ve got to make allowances for these differences in points of view and not entirely project Western standards of historical and documentary criticism onto Buddhist scriptures because as I said, it is in the essence of Buddhism to be a developing process, because it is a dialogue. So then, you can see the initial steps of the dialogue in our earliest or presumed earliest records of Buddhism. In the four noble truths, where you have it put out that the problem which Buddhism faces is suffering. This word dukkha, which we translate suffering is the opposite of sukha. Sukha means what is sweet and delightful. Dukkha means the opposite, what is bitter and frustrating.
And Mahayans always explain that the Buddha always taught by a dialectical method. That is to say, when people were trying to make the goal of life the pursuit of sukkah, that is to say the pursuit of happiness, he counteracted this wrong view, by teaching that life is essentially miserable. When people thought for example that there is a permanent and eternal self in each one of us, and clung to that self, the Buddha, in order to counteract this one sided view taught the other extreme doctrine that there is no fixed self in us, no ego. But a Mahayanist would always say the truth is the Middle Way. Neither Sukkha nor Dukkha, or neither Atman nor Anatman, self nor non-self. The whole point is like this. Once when R.H. Blythe was asked by some students do you believe in God? He answered ‘If you do, I don’t. If you don’t, I do.’ And so in the much the same way all Buddhist Pedagogics teaching is specifically addressed not to people in general, but to the individual who brings a problem. And wherever he seems to be over emphasizing things in one way the teacher overemphasizes in the opposite way so as to arrive at the Middle Way.
So then, with this emphasis on life is suffering, it’s simply saying, this is the problem we’re dealing with. We hurt. We human beings feel pretty unfairly treated, because we are born into a world so arranged that the price that we pay for enjoying it–that is to say, for having sensitive bodies, is that these bodies are at the same time, because they’re sensitive, capable of the most excruciating agonies. And isn’t that a nasty trick to play on us. What are we going to do about it? This is the problem. So then when the Buddha says the cause of suffering is desire. Trishna is our word thirst. And may perhaps be translated desire in a very general sense or perhaps better craving, clinging, grasping, something like that. He is saying now I’m going to make the suggestion. You suffer because you desire.
Now supposing then you try not to desire. And see if by not desiring you can cease from suffering. Or you can put the same thing in another way. You can say to a person it’s all in your mind. There is nothing either good or ill, but thinking makes it so, and therefore if you can control your mind, you have nothing else that you need control. For example, you don’t need to control the rain. If you can control your mind, if you get wet it’s only your mind that makes you think it’s uncomfortable to be where a person who’s got good mental discipline can be perfectly happy wandering around in the rain. You don’t need a fire if you’ve got good mind control. Because if you’ve got ordinary bad mind control, when it gets cold, you start shivering. That’s because you’re putting up a resistance to the cold, you’re fighting it. But don’t fight it, relax to recover. And in other words this is a matter of mental attitude and then you’ll be fine. Always control your mind. This is another way of approaching, you see.
Now then, as soon as the student begins to experiment with these things he finds out that it’s not so easy as it sounds. Not only is it very difficult not to desire not only is it very difficult to control your mind but the something phony about the whole business. And this is what you’re intended to discover. That namely, when you try to eliminate desire in order to escape from suffering, you desire to escape from suffering. You are desiring not to desire. In other words, I’m not limited playing with logic. I’m saying that, a person who is escaping from reality, will always feel the terror of it it. It will be like the Hound of Heaven that pursues him. And he’s escaping, in a way, even when he’s trying not to escape. And it was this point to see that this method of teaching was suppose to educate from you, to draw out from you, not by saying to anybody. All this in the first place but by making the experiment not to design all the experiment to control your mind thoroughly. This is the first step, you do understand this, you must go through that, or some equivalent of it, so as to come to the point where you see who are involved in a vicious circle. That in trying to control your mind, the motivation, the reason for which you were doing, is still clinging and grasping is still self-protection. You still lack of trust. And love.
So, when this is understood the student returns to the teacher and says look this is my difficulty I cannot. Eliminate desire, because that itself, my effort to do so is itself desire I cannot eliminate selfishness, because my reasons for wanting to be unselfish are selfish. As one of the Chinese Buddhist classics put it, when the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way. Now the right means are all the traditional disciplines. And you’re going to use them so you’re going to practice Zazen or whatever and make yourself into a Buddha but you see if you’re not a Buddha in the first place you can’t become one because you’ll be the wrong man. And using the right means but because you’re using them for a selfish intent or a fearful intent you’re afraid of suffering and you don’t like it and you want to get out of it you want to escape all these you see other motivations which frustrate the right means. So one is meant to find that out.
And so then, in the course of time when all this was totally explored by the Buddha’s disciples, there developed a very evolved form of this whole technique of dialectic, which was called Madhyamika. M A D H Y A M I K A. It means the middle way, but it was a form of Buddhist practice and instruction developed by Nagarjuna. N A G A R J U N A, who lived approximately in 200 AD. Nargajuna’s method, is simply an extension and drawing to a logical conclusions of the method of dialogue that already existed except that Nagarjuna took it to a to an extreme. And his method is simply this: To undermine, to cast doubts on, any proposition to which his student will cling. To destroy all intellectual formulations, and all concepts of the nature of reality or the nature of the self whatsoever. Now you might think that that was simply a parlor game, a little intellectual exercise, but if you engaged in it you would find it was absolutely terrifying. And you would feel yourself brought very close to the verge of madness. Because a skillful teacher in this method. Reduces you to a shuddering state of total insecurity. I have watched this being done among people you would consider perfectly ordinary normal Westerners who thought they were getting involved in just a nice abstract intellectual discussion. But then finally the teacher as the process goes on, discovers in the course of the discussion what are the fundamental premises to which every one of his students is clinging. What is the foundation of sanity? What do you base your life on? And when he has found out what that is for each student, he destroys it. He shows you that you can’t found a way of life on that. That it leads you into all sorts of inconsistencies and foolishness. And the student turns back to the teachers as well it’s all very well for you to pull out all the carpets from under my feet. What would you propose instead? And the teacher says I don’t propose anything. He’s no fool. He doesn’t put up something to be knocked down. But you see, here are you.. And you if you don’t put up something to be knocked down, then you can play ball with the teacher. And you may say, I don’t need to, then on the other hand the something nagging you inside telling you you do. And so you go and play ball with him and he keeps knocking it down whatever you propose whatever you cling to. And this exercise produces in the individual, a real traumatic state. People get acute anxiety. And you wouldn’t think so because it’s just seemed as if it were nothing more than a discussion on a very intellectual and abstract level. But when it really gets down to it and you find that you don’t have a single concept you can really trust, it’s the heebie-jeebies. But it is, you are preserved from insanity. By the discipline. By the atmosphere set up by the teacher and by the fact that he seems perfectly happy. Without anything in the way of a concept to cling on to, and student looks at him and says he seems to be all right maybe. Maybe I can be all right too. Know this gives a certain confidence that feeling that all is not man because the teacher in his own way is perfectly normal.