Editors note: This is the first of a three part series on the Buddhist canon and the role of studying view, in the context of the Buddhist path. Part I explores the role of texts and study on the path. It raises the question of why many Western Buddhists seem to reduce Buddhism to meditation and dismiss study, and it explores how meditation, like view, is "just" a skillful means, not the final realization itself! Part II will explore more specifically the role of intellect and conceptuality on the path, and explore possible misinterpretations of Zen and Dzogchen as rejecting the study of view altogether. Part III will then turn to a discussion of the actual Buddhist canon, a paradigmatic expression of view; this part will include a brief overview of the major Buddhist canons and then present a more detailed overview of the Tibetan canon.
ROLE OF TEXTS IN BUDDHISM
In its first centuries, the teachings of Buddhism were handed down orally from teacher to student. There were no Buddhist texts. According to the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, the Pali language canon was initially written down in the first century BC, more than three hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha. To this point, the teachings were not encountered or mediated through texts. They were embodied in the Buddha, in the lineage of teachers, and in the sangha. Since, from the traditional perceptive, the purpose of the teachings is to help beings attain the realization of enlightenment in direct experience, the classic Buddhist understanding of the teachings is that they are not divorced from one's lived experience; they are meant to engender piercing insight into such experience. They are not meant to be disembodied as abstract concepts or as seemingly external inert texts. Once the process of writing down the teachings commenced, texts would have been understood as an extension of the spoken, memorized, and internalized teachings. Texts would not have been understood or approached as self-sufficient presentations of the teachings. They drew their meaning and value from the larger context of the Buddhist path.
WHERE, THEN, DO THE TEACHINGS FIT ON THE PATH?
The path is frequently described as consisting of three elements: view, meditation, and conduct (Tibetan: lta, sgom, spyod). Texts, or more generally, the teachings, can be said to present the view of Buddhism. They are, however, naturally concerned with meditation and virtuous conduct, so, Buddhist texts and teachings are deeply concerned with all three elements. Understanding a text entails, then, not only study, but also concerted engagement in meditation practice and a thoughtful engagement in how one conducts one's life. Only then, in conjunction with lived experience, can written teachings contribute to the larger process of personal transformation.
TEACHINGS AS SKILLFUL MEANS
In the context of the three jewels--the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha--texts are a manifestation of dharma, the second jewel. They are the written form of the dharma. However, dharma cannot be restricted to, or solely identified with, its verbal form. Indeed the act of teaching is not restricted to the use of words. The sutras describe the simple physical acts of the Buddha, his very comportment, as being a method, a skillful means, for teaching the different types of beings. In this manner, the Buddha's state of mind, his realization, is understood as being communicated non-verbally by his very presence. Both forms of teaching, verbal and non-verbal, are used as skillful means to aid students on the path towards what is understood as the final non-conceptual realization of a Buddha.
However, since the final realization is non-conceptual, one might wonder if perhaps the use of the intellect and conceptuality is an obstacle to realization. I would suggest that this is indeed a widespread misunderstanding in the West; we have a tendency to collapse Buddhism down to meditation, actively minimizing or avoiding study, and treating conduct as a poor relative to meditation. While the most profound meaning of dharma is, indeed, understood to transcend words, such words and concepts are deeply a part of the path in serving as skillful means leading to the goal of non-conceptual realization. In Buddhism, teachings are clearly not viewed as the goal itself, but as useful in pointing to, suggesting, leading to, that goal. Since the Buddhist canon is an exemplary verbal expression of the Buddhist teachings, it is important to understand the role of teachings as skillful means in order to understand the place of the canon, or more generally, of texts, concepts, and the intellect in the Buddhist tradition.
|This excerpt is part of the contents published in Bodhi Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 2002). You can purchase this issue or subscribe to Bodhi at the Bodhi Dharma Store.|