Monday, February 23, 2009

What the Buddha Taught

What the Buddha Taught
© 1974 Walpola Rahula


I'm a member of a philosophy group on YahooGroups, and this book came up in discussion. Since my knowledge of Buddhism is quite limited, I decided to indulge in a little literacy-expanding this week. The work was introduced to me as an introduction to Buddhism, which seems appropriate given how little I know. It's famous enough that it has merited its own Wikipedia entry. Rahula begins by introducing the reader to the beginning of Buddhism and to the Buddhist mind, devoting a chapter to its ideals of tolerance, conditionality, compassion, and so on. An interesting element is that the author holds that doubt must be vanquished from the mind for someone to use a truth. I disagree: I think something can be "true enough" for our purposes.

Having introduced Buddhism, Rahula then deals with the foundational principles of Buddhism, the "Four Noble Truths". He devotes a chapter to each one. The concepts he deals with did not originate in an English-speaking culture or into a culture that English derives from, so often he has to use Hindi words or make up English approximations. He then examines the Eight-Fold Path (the practical side of the philosophy). The next two chapters are on specific topics in Buddhism, namely the doctrine of no-self/soul and meditation. According to Rahula, human beings in Buddhism are seen as not having an exterior Self, but I don't understand how that holds true given reincarnation. Rahula tried to explain it in the section of the Four Noble Truths, but so help me I couldn't really understand. The chapter on Meditation is quite free of mystical terminology. The last chapter addresses Buddhism in the modern world. Interestingly, the revised version of the book supplements the text of the book with selected texts from the Buddhist "canon" (if there is such a thing). I found parts of the text to be quite interesting and other parts not so much.

The book is apparently quite well-received: the people who review it on Amazon are nuts about it and recommend it as the introductory book to Buddhism for beginners and students of comparative religion. Having never read any other introductions to Buddhism, I can't say the same. It was sometimes thought-provoking and sometimes confusing for me, but in general I enjoyed the read. Here are a few quotations from the book I found interesting enough to write down.
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"There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement. It is not correct to say that life is moving, but life is movement itself. Life and movement are not two different things. In other words, there is no thinker behind the thought. Thought itself is the thinker. If you remove the thought, there is no thinker to be found."

"Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in man: self-protection and self-preservation. For self-protection man has created God, on whom he depends for his own protecting safety, and security, just as a child depends on its parent. For self-preservation man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally."

(From a collection of Siddhartha Gautama's sayings)
"Better is it truly to conquer oneself than to conquer others. Neither a god, nor an angel, nor Mara, nor Brahma, could turn into defeat the victory of a person such as this who is self-mastered and ever-restrained in conduct."

"Make haste in doing good; restrain your mind from evil. Whosoever is slow in doing good, his mind delights in evil."

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