Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Early Buddhist Discourses, by John J. Holder

"Early Buddhism declares a way to liberation and happiness despite the precarious and changing nature of the world, and does so without falling back on a transcendental realm of security or a saving God. Instead of metaphysics or theology, early Buddhism focusses on the training of human character in terms of moral conduct, mental culture, and wisdom."
(Early Buddhist Discourses, p.xii)

Early Buddhist Discourses by John J. Holder is a fine introduction to the teachings of the Buddha found in the Tipitika, or Pali Canon. It contains twenty discourses attributed to the Buddha and found in the Sutta Pitaka section of the Canon. (The Pali words sutta & pitika approximate to 'discourse' & 'collection,' respectively.) With these texts, which Holder has translated & edited, the basic ideas of early Buddhism are introduced, including the four noble truths, the three characteristics, dependent arising, and no-self. An interesting thread that runs through these translations and Holder's comments on them, is the early Buddhist understanding of consciousness as an impermanent phenomenon, dependent upon the senses for its existence. 

The author begins the book by setting the scene for the composition of the Pali Canon, which he does with clarity and brevity. He notes the prevailing Brahmanical culture in which Buddhism arose, and the life of the Buddha as described in the Tipitaka. Moreover, he discusses the Buddha's teachings in philosophical terms, focusing on Buddhist empiricism, the four noble truths and a succinct account of the noble eightfold path. He contrasts these elements of Buddhist thought with that of Brahmanism, showing how radical early Buddhism was in its teachings of no-self and dependent arising. On this subject, Holder writes the following:

"The doctrine of dependent arising directly challenges the metaphysical worldview of the Brahmanical tradition. Whereas the sages in the Brahmanical tradition agreed with the Buddha that the world of normal human experience is changing and ephemeral, they posited a transcendent, changeless, monistic, Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that stands behind the changing world. The highest spiritual truth in Brahmanism - what the sage tries to realize - is that all existence ultimately has its source in the changeless One, and that the essence of the person (atman) is identical with this One.
The Buddha explicitly rejected the Brahmanist transcendental metaphysics. According to the Buddha, all phenomena are dependently arisen. Everything that exists is a nexus of causal factors. Thus, all phenomena are impermanent; they arise at some point in time and cease to be at another point in time. In light of this, the Buddha did not resort to transcendental or unchanging realm beyond this world of change."
(Ibid. p. xv)

Holder puts much focus on dependent arising (paticcasamuppada), choosing to include several discourses that focus on it. This is because, as he states in the quotation above, it is the Buddha's response to traditional religious answers to questions about what life is & what we are. In his introductory notes to Chapter 3: The Great Discourse on Cause (Mahanidana Sutta), Holder explains how dependent arising explains that there is no-self (or no-Self as he chooses to render the Pali term anatta). He remarks that it is a middle way between the extremes of "Absolute Reality (e.g. the Hindu "Brahman") and metaphysical nihilism." (Ibid. p.26) He also notes something not found in most works on the subject, that two aspects of dependent arising condition each other, whereas all the other elements in the chain are conditioned in a sequence. The two are psycho-physicality (mental and bodily processes) and consciousness, as explained in the words of the Buddha:

"Thus, dependent on psycho-physicality, there is consciousness, and dependent on consciousness, there is psycho-physicality; dependent on psycho-physicality, there is contact, dependent on contact, there is feeling; dependent on feeling, there is craving; dependent on craving, there is attachment; dependent on attachment, there is becoming; dependent on becoming, there is birth; dependent on birth, there is aging-and-death; dependent on aging-and-death, there is sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress. Thus there is the arising of this whole mass of suffering."
(Ibid. p.29)
This review is not the place to go into an in-depth discussion of dependent arising, but hopefully the reader is now are of the import that both the Buddha and Holder give it. Another aspect of the Buddha's teachings highlighted in Early Buddhist Discourses is Buddhist empiricism. This is illustrated in Chapter 2: Discourse to the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta), in which the Buddha teaches the people of the town of Kessaputta not to believe religious doctrines simply because they come from tradition, a report, scripture, logic, a priest or monk. Instead, only when they know certain things are unwholesome and lead to suffering, should they abandon them. Again, Holder also emphasizes the importance of this aspect of the Buddha's teaching found in the Pali Canon. He suggests that the Buddha is perhaps alone amongst the world's major religious figures in this undogmatic approach to religious truth and doctrines.

Chapter 7 contains five short discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya division of the Sutta Pitika, each of which Holder carefully chose to illustrate a specific aspect of the Buddha's teaching. The first of these is the Discourse to Kaccayana (Kaccayana Sutta), which Holder believes may be the most important metaphysical discourse in the entire Tipitika. In it, The Buddha describes the middle way between the extremes of "eternalism" and "annihilationism," which is, again, dependent arising. Another sutta in this chapter is one that does not feature the Buddha, but instead has an enlightened nun, Sister Vajira as the teacher. Here, she rejects the attempts of Mara (the Buddhist personification of evil or ignorance) to get her to admit that there is a Self. Instead, the nun declares:

"Just as the word 'chariot'
Refers to an assemblage of parts,
So, 'person' is a convention
Used when the aggregates are present."
(Ibid. p.87)
In such declarations, the reader is presented with the opportunity to reflect on their reality, seeing for her or himself whether they are true. In such investigations, there is the opportunity for awakening or enlightenment, especially if accompanied by meditation practice. Although none of this is stated by Holder, it is inherent in the translated texts themselves. Therefore, Early Buddhist Discourses is not only a fine introduction to the basic teachings of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon, but it is also a sourcebook for the reader's reflection, leading to the development of wisdom. 

So, in conclusion, John J. Holder's book Early Buddhist Discourses is an important work. From both scholarly and philosophical views, it supplies the reader with all the material required to understand the basic Buddhist concepts such as the four noble truths, no-Self, and dependent arising. This is due to the skill and knowledge of the author, and in doing so he has produced translations of clarity and significance, accompanied by his relevant and insightful comments. This work comes highly recommended, for scholars, philosophers, and the general Buddhist reader. What's more, if we are attentive enough, it is possible to apply the teachings contained in it and realize enlightenment:

"If one feels a pleasant feeling, one feels it as a person who is detached from it. If one feels a painful feeling, one feels it as a person who is detached it. If one feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one feels it as a person who is detached from it. This is called a noble disciple who is detached from birth, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress. I say that this is one detached from suffering "
(Ibid. p.93)

Title & Author : Early Buddhist Discourses, by John J. Holder
Publisher        : Hackett Publishing Company
Page Count    : 240
Price               : $13:95
ISBN               : 978-0-87220-792-9

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