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In The Buddha's Words

An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Created: 2021-03-13
Wordcount: 1.7k

In The Buddha's Words is a selection of texts from the Pali Canon.

You could say that Pali Canon is the Buddhist Bible. Why? Well, it is a collection of sayings about and by the Buddha, gathered very shortly after the Buddha's death, and put into a canonical collection.

You could also say that the Pali Canon is nothing like the Bible. Why not? Well it takes up about 6 feet of shelf space. It has sections that share more features with Plato, Marcus Aurelius, or Hume than with the Bible. It certainly doesn't claim the same peculiar connection with God that the Bible does. It occupies a far different cultural slot in Buddhism than the Bible does in Christianity.

Even so, if you want to learn Buddhism from an ostensible ad-fontes source, the Pali Canon is probably the right place to look.

A review of it is unavoidably, to a certain degree, a review of the religion of Buddhism. A review of a religion seems in bad taste. But bad taste has never really stopped me in the past. So, my basic impressions are as follows.

  1. I don't possess enough knowledge to say if Bhikkhu Bodhi has provided the right texts for an accurate view of Buddhism, or if he has tried to slant the view of Buddhism that you would get through these texts.

A friend of mine said that every abridgement is an argument, when I told him I was reading this. That made me a little angry; I think the assumption of infinite hermeneutic flexibility upon which that statement rests is only true for subjects that are basically false or dumb or vague. Every abridgement of Plato seems like an argument; not every abridgement of Newton's Principia is necessarily an argument, though.

Anyhow. If this selection introduces some distortions, I'd suspect they are distortions hiding the apothegmatic, paradoxical, and generally purple parts of Buddhism. The selector of texts, Bhikku Bodhi, reminds me of some of my Catholic professors at CUA in some of the introductions to Buddhism videos he has made. He believes Buddhism, but is reasonable, and at times in the book at pains to make the subject appear reasonable.

Even so, some quite paradoxical parts slip through. My favorite was when someone, Vachagotta, asks the Buddha what happens after death to someone who has reached awakening. Paraphrased, it goes like this:

"Is the monk reborn after death?", asked Vachagotta. "'Being reborn' isn't right," said Buddha. "Is the monk not reborn after death?", asked Vachagotta. "'Not being reborn' isn't right either," said Buddha.

You'd think this would exclude most possibilities, but you have to go a little further.

"Is the monk not reborn and also reborn after death?", asked Vachagotta. "That also isn't right," said Buddha. "Is the monk neither not reborn nor also reborn after death?", asked Vachagotta. "That also isn't right," said Buddha.

Vachagotta, understandably, expresses confusion. And Buddha says, well, you just gotta experience it. Not in quite so many words.

  1. Buddhism has a reputation for being less judgemental than Christianity. As far as I can tell, this is well deserved.

The typical introduction to Christianity involves the claim that Jesus will save you. Save you from what? Well, the inevitable answer rolls around, from hell and damnation. For the wrath of God that is stored up against the impious and wicked, as Paul would say. Christianity then goes on to say that you should love God for His own sake, of course. Christianity tends to start with Hell, but it doesn't always end there. But the typical introduction remains the heaven-hell dichotomy.

Buddhism is much less judgemental, and earth-related. The typical introduction to Buddhism involves the claim that Buddhism will save you. Save you from what? Well, from duhkha, which can be translated as suffering, unhappiness, or stress -- probably innaccurately in all cases, but you get the gist. Concretely, the Buddhist points at sickness, old-age, and death, and multiplies this suffering by a million because of the cycle of rebirths. And Buddhism claims to offer a way to awaken and escape this cycle of pain. Again, Buddhism goes on to specify that you shouldn't be, precisely, moved simply by fear, just like Christianity.

But the germ of the Buddhist beginning is still far less judgement-related than the germ of the Christian beginning. The problem in Buddhism comes from nature; the problem in Christianity seems to kinda come from God.

  1. Buddhism does seem to have rebirth as a core tenet.

This is a little unfortunate for secular people like me who like Buddhism. It would be great for us if you could peel out the supernatural stuff about rebirth from Buddhism, and still basically have Buddhism. That doesn't look possible.

Specifically, there are three reasons to do good things in Buddhism: (a) So your life in this particular incarnation is better. Thus, if you don't steal, the police won't imprison you. (2) So in later cycles of rebirth, you are born higher up. Thus, if you don't steal, you might be incarnated higher up in the realm of form. (3) To escape the cycle of rebirths and the wheel of samsara, ultimately. Thus, if you don't steal, you won't be bothered by regret and worry and can meditate better and awaken.

Ultimately a lot of the metaphysics of Buddhism seem to involve a very robust belief in the cycle of rebirths, such that a lack of belief in it is derided as wrong view.

This is particularly so because Buddhism isn't just a religion for monks, although it is a very monk-centered religion. The Buddha wants non-monk people to have reasons to act well. And the general reason given for this is that, as mentioned above, is that if you act well, then in a later life you're more likely to reach enlightenment, or to be born in a higher realm. The moral motivations given by Buddhism often depend on rebirth, then, just like the moral motivations in Christianity depend on the afterlife.

  1. Buddhism really is a kind of heretical break-off of pre-existing meditative practices.

A lot of the characteristic Buddhist meditative practices already existed in India when the Buddha lived. So, for instance, before the Buddha awoke, he was able to cycle through different concentration-style jhanas, according to the account here given. This is a pretty pedestrian point -- you cannot have Jesus without Judaism, and you cannot have Buddha without pre-existing vedic religions -- but nevertheless hit me pretty hard. Actually understanding the origins of Buddhism probably requires the actual knowledge of these things.

  1. Buddhism is a more philosophically sophisticated religion than Christianity, at least in its origin.

I use "sophisticated" here neutrally -- philosophical sophistication can be both a good and a bad thing. It isn't particularly related to truth; it's related to the length, articulation, and awareness of discourse around your claims.

What I mean is that Buddha is aware of and responds to pre-existing philosophy in a way that Jesus and Paul do not. Later on, Christainity gets philosophical expositions and defenses from the Neoplatonics and Aristotelians and Scholastics and so on; but these things did not exist at the beginning of Christianity.

  1. Buddhism has in it some of the problems that Christianity does.

I was not, precisely, surprised by this, although I was saddened.

For instance, Buddhism has some of the sexism problems that Christianity does. There's a part of the text where the Buddha describes the qualities of an ideal wife, just like the Old Testament describes the qualities of the ideal wife in Proverbs. It isn't exactly wrong in what it says; the qualities are more or less generically admirable. But, well, there's no list about the qualities that an ideal husband should have, which says a lot about the perspective taken for granted. This is unfortunate.

Similarly, Christianity has a problem with how it recommends giving to religious orders. The graces you can supposedly get from giving to these orders bothers me, because it is so obviously in the self-interest of these orders to emphasize these graces, just like it was in the interest of the Pope before the reformation to have people believe you could buy indulgences.

Well, the Buddha likes to talk about how you'll definitely get a higher place in the round of rebirths, if you only give food to the wandering ascetic Buddhists. This is, again, a little unfortunate.

  1. Despite all of the above, I think some of the claims Buddhism makes are true and useful. I'm probably going to spend some more time on Buddhist works in the future.

This is a zoom-out from my review of the text, of course.

I don't think the above review is, actually, terribly good. I don't communicate a lot of the particular flavor of the thing. The peculiar flavor of Buddhism is better illustrated by reading it; it involves Buddha giving very specific advice for meditation, by Buddha talking about his life, by Buddha talking about the cycle of rebirth, and by Buddha telling paradoxical aphorisms.

I certainly haven't communicated all of the claims Buddhism makes, even. But I think it would be a little hubristic for me to try to communicate all this, because I'm still very early-on in understanding Buddhism. So the above is, perhaps, more a textual reaction-video to the book than it is a formal review; picture a horrible youtube splash image.

Even so, again, I think some of the claims Buddhism makes are true and useful, and I'm probably going to spend more time with it.

In my experience, meditation seems like it helps make you happier, and also helps you be a better person. It helps make you more aware of your own emotions. It even leads to, at least ocassionally, weird and high-energy mental states. I'm going to probably continue reading books on meditation, and trying to expand my practice of meditation to at least 90 minutes a day, because I think that right now that's worth trying. And Buddhism seems like the biggest body of practice and theory around meditation, so I'm inevitably going to keep being interested in Buddhism.