Tuesday, 24 January 2012

WHAT IS THE DHARMA?

The Buddha-Dharma stems from the teachings and discourses given by Siddharta Gautama during the 40+ years of his life after becoming a fully enlightened Buddha.

After his enlightenment experience, the Buddha remained beneath the Bodhi tree for several days. He wondered how he could possibly communicate the extraordinary understanding he had realised. However, was always his intention to gain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings so he decided to seek out the group of five ascetics he has spent the past 7 years with. However, as he set out to find them he met a holy man, Ajivaka, walking the other way. They stopped and recognising a fellow seeker of the truth, he asked him, “Who is your teacher? Who’s dharma do you follow?” The Buddha tried to explain that he had awakened and discovered the truth for himself and would now teach his own dharma. Ajivaka smiled and nodded in a knowing way, and walked on unimpressed. The newly enlightened Buddha realised that he had to think carefully about how he was to present his Dharma.

He found the ascetics staying in a deer park in Saranath, near the ancient city of Benares. They were reluctant to listen at first but there was something distinctly different about their former colleague so they invited him to sit amongst them and listened to what he had to say. This was the Buddha’s famous discourse on the Four Noble Truths. It was later described as having ‘set the wheel of the dharma turning’ and is the bedrock on which all other teachings are mounted.

The Four Noble Truths
The first was the truth that dukkha is part of the human condition and is present in all our lives.
The second truth was that all dukkha has a root cause.
The third truth was that there was a way to reduce dukkha or even eliminate it altogether.
The fourth of the Four Noble Truths was the Noble Eightfold Path, the teaching that leads us away from dukkha

Dukkha is translated in many ways, with varying levels of emphasis, from simple unsatisfactoriness to out and out suffering.

The Nobel Eightfold Path was a sort of route map to enlightenment. In setting it out, the Buddha was suggesting an alternative to the long hard slog he had endured to reach his insight experience. By following the eight limbs of this suggested path, we too can achieve what he achieved. The eight limbs of the path are:

Perfect Vision
Perfect Emotion
Perfect Speech
Perfect Action
Perfect Livelihood
Perfect Effort
Perfect Awareness
Perfect Meditation or Concentration

During the following years the Buddha gave many hundreds, if not thousands of discourses to his followers and devotees. None of this was written down and recorded until hundreds of years after his death so how can we be sure that what we read in the accounts of his teachings are accurate and truly represent what he said?

We can’t be certain that what was eventually recorded was word-for-word exactly what the Buddha said, but we trust that the general tenor of the teaching was preserved. The main way to ensure the truth of these teachings was conveyed was by the common habit of listing things in numerical order and by repetition. Consequently, the written Buddha-Dharma is full of lists and often tedious repetitions and occasionally the Buddha summarised the teaching with a short rhythmical verse. All this can make for difficult reading but 2,500 years ago it enabled his followers to learn the Dharma by heart so that it could be handed on from generation to generation.

There was also another way the truth of the teachings was preserved. The Buddha’s most loyal and dedicated follower was his cousin, Ananda. Twelve years after the Buddha was enlightened Ananda joined him as his personal attendant. He had what we would call today, a photographic memory – or in his case perhaps, a tape recorder memory. During the followiurn are translatas always by the Buddha’Pali and Sanskrit words have no direct equivalent in our modern lexicon. The term ‘metta’ for example can be translated as love, kindness, empathy, compassion, etc. As we have seen, ‘Dukkha’ can be interpreted as anything from outright suffering to simple discontent. These translations can add different emphasis to the teachings so from tradition to tradition the understanding and interpretation of the Buddha-Dharma can vary widely. Over the centuries the Buddha’s teachings have been interpreted in many different ways with varying degrees of emphasis and, just like the Christian movement that was to follow half a millennium later, it led to schisms and the formation of various ‘schools’ of Buddhism.

Finally, at the age of 80, after 49 years of wandering and teaching, the Buddha grew ill and began to die and with his disciples and a number of villagers gathered round him, he uttered his last words, and passed away. What his words were will depend upon which school of Buddhism you follow or what translation you read. It coucient of surviving Buddhist scriptures, the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Cannon. Typically Ananda’s recollections begin, “Thus I have heard…”

The scriptu completion by being heedful." Or, slightly more abridged, “With mindfulness, strive on”.

Even though the Buddha passed away over 2,500 years ago, the real magic of his Dharma is that it is just as pertinent to those of us who live in a modern western culture as it was to the lives of the monks, villagers, tribes-people and forest dwelling hermits he encountered in his lifetime.