I work in the technology field where changes happen daily, and where there’s no room for a person to dogmatically adhere to how things “used to be” (you know, like… last week!) As with biological life, adaptation is the key to survival.
I’m pretty accustomed to change, but I realize that not everyone is a fan. When changing something as dramatic as one’s worldview, one will likely find that there are many things that remain unchanged “by default,” which is to say, some things just tag along as baggage from one’s old way of thinking.
Having myself come from a staunch Christian upbringing, I understand how these things can happen. I wanted to share a few of the “gotchas” that I encountered along the way.
The Buddhist “Bible”
If Buddhism had something analogous to the Christian Bible, it would be the collection of texts that we refer to as the Pali Canon. Pali is an ancestor of Sanskrit, and it was the dominant language at the time much of Buddism was being written down for the first time around 29 BCE (some 450 years after the death of Gautama Buddha).
The Pali Canon is the central collection of texts underlying the tradition of Theravada Buddhism, the primary focus of this site.
If one is coming from Christianity, it might be tempting to see the Pali Canon as being “like the Bible,” and the two do share some common ground: both were assembled by a council hundreds of years after the events within them took place, for instance. As Buddhists, however, we should not fall into the trap of attributing “divine inspiration” or inerrancy to these works.
The story holds that the historical Buddha and his disciples taught orally, and for a few hundred years the oral tradition remained the exclusive form of transmission. Eventually, the idea of writing things down seemed like a good idea and they did so, giving us the Pali Canon.
It is important that we be realistic about our scriptures. A man conceived of the principles of Buddhism; he shared it with his friends and they continued the share it for generations, no doubt building upon it along the way. Then other men wrote it down.
To quote Wikipedia, the Pali Canon “is the most complete extant early Buddhist canon.” Period. Let’s accept it for what it is, which is an ancient compilation of what people were teaching as Buddhism two thousand years ago, and be glad it’s still around! Let’s not believe that every word must be taken literally, and when science shows us new things, let’s embrace those things as part of our basis of working knowledge.
No Prophets; No Problem
I recall as a child, the people who spoke (and often yelled!) from the pulpits of churches were considered to have been “called” (by the Christian god) to preach. Many times I have heard them come to the stage saying that they’d planned to speak on a certain topic only to have “God” give them a new message at the last moment. The inference was pretty clear: this person was speaking with the authority of the creator of the universe.
Not only does Buddhism not accept the idea of a creator-god, but the founder of our philosophy also advised us to test out what we hear for ourselves – even his own words. The teachings of Buddism are intended to serve as tools to help us grow and develop; either they do that or they don’t, and the effectiveness of any teaching is its sole measure of worth.
Anyone who tries to tell you that s/he has some “divinely-inspired” Buddhist wisdom to impart to you is at best misled and perhaps even a charlatan trying to scam you. Those of us who study and practice Buddhism are learning; some of us have been at it longer and may have words of wisdom to pass along, but even the most experienced among us are still human and have more to learn.
But that person’s not a Theravada Buddhist!
I am a big fan of the late Alan Watts, and while it would be inappropriate to pigeonhole him into a category, I would consider him most strongly a Daoist (Taoist) and Zen Buddhist. I’ve read several of his books and of late I enjoy listening to recordings of his talks on YouTube.
You may find yourself listening to the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist, or the late Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Zen Buddhist. You might also find yourself listening to people who aren’t Buddhists, such as scientists and philosophers.
This is not only okay, but it’s also a good thing (as long as they’re qualified to speak on their topic of choice). Just because someone doesn’t share your beliefs doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from them. Buddhism is all about learning so that you can grow and develop and that means drawing from a wide variety of sources.
The Bottom Line
If you have a text and you put forth that it can’t be wrong, that nothing can be added to it or taken away from it, and it says that the sky is purple, then you have two choices: admit that your book is wrong or argue that the sky is indeed purple despite obvious evidence to the contrary. If you choose the latter, you’re off down a never-ending rabbit hole of self-delusion.
Buddhism is about dispelling delusion, not perpetuating it. We are not Buddhists first, we are humans first; humans who happen to have found a useful tool to aid us along our path.