Tuesday, 24 January 2012

WHAT IS THE DHARMA?


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These are the notes of a talk to a beginner's class in January.

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 D
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 oderable powers of memory and recall, an ability most of us have lost in our modern western socety – even so, Ananda was exceptional.

After the Buddha’s death, 500 monks gathered together in what is now referred to as The First Buddhist Council. Ananda and several other monks were asked to repeat all the discourses one by one so they could be committed to memory – eventually they became the most ancient of surviving Buddhist scriptures, the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Cannon. Typically Ananda’s recollections begin, “Thus I have heard…”

The scriptures were written in Pali and Sanskrit which in turn are translated into modern languages. Many 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 s may seem unbelievable but we know from the amazing feats of memory by autistic savants that incredible feats of memory are possible. Also, before books and modern methods of recording information, it was necessary for people to develop considerable powers of memory and recall, an ability most of us have lost in our modern western society – even so, Ananda was exceptional.

After the Bu2C500 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 following 30 years he was always by the Buddha’s side wherever he travelled, listening to all the teachings he gave. Afterwards, he was able to repeat the entire discourse to his fellow monks, word for word. Not only could he recount the teaching with incredible accuracy, he was able to store them in his mind for years without forgetting a single word. It is said that he could remember up to 60,000 words in the right order without missing a single syllable.

This may seem unbelievable but we know from the amazing feats of memory by autistic savants that incredible feats of memory are possible. Also, before books and modern methods of recording information, it was necessary for people to develop considerable powers of memory and recall, an ability most of us have lost in our modern western society – even so, Ananda was exceptional.

After the Buddha’s death, 500 monks gathered together in what is now referred to as The First Buddhist Council. Ananda and several other monks were asked to repeat all the discourses one by one so they could be committed to memory – eventually they became the most ancient of surviving Buddhist scriptures, the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Cannon. Typically Ananda’s recollections begin, “Thus I have heard…”

The scriptures were written in Pali and Sanskrit which in turn are translated into modern languages. Many Pali and Sanskrit words have nEven 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.

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