“This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this/that conditionality and Dependent Origination are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion, cessation, Unbinding.” — Ariyapariyesana Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya I 160)
For beginning students, especially English-speaking Westerners, the teaching of the Buddha may seem unapproachably complex, abstruse, hard to see and difficult to apply. The reasons are several but mainly have to do with cultural conditioning. In the East, there is a long tradition of seeking transcendent wisdom. Many of its basic concepts are enshrined in language and culture, especially in Buddhist countries.
In contrast, the emphasis in the West is on getting things done. Consequently, the language and culture have developed to facilitate practical affairs, but are not at all suitable for deep philosophical contemplation or meditative self-realization. Thus when we read a translation of the Buddha’s Suttas or a treatise on their meaning, our response tends to be ‘So, what am I supposed to do with this?’
We are conditioned by language, schooling and society to the Cartesian concept of a ‘real world’: a shared public objective space filled with solid ‘objects’. We have forgotten that what we see when we observe this so-called objective reality depends, completely and utterly, on how we look. Because we expect to see a Cartesian space filled with solid objects, that is exactly what we see when we observe the world. Though the very concept of absolutes has been thoroughly demolished by science, even after more than a century, our consciousness has not caught up and is still full of them.
More than a decade of government-mandated schooling has conditioned each of us to seek the one right answer to a problem by means of a stepwise procedure of linear reasoning. This approach may be useful for taking exams on a limited subject matter, or for performing designated assignments while working at a job. But it fails miserably when confronted with something like the teaching of the Buddha, where the answer—enlightenment, Nibbāna—is presented and described without any clear-cut approach or procedure for attaining it. That is because the teaching of the Buddha is the general solution to all problems, up to and including suffering, birth and death. It is not so much about what to do, as how to look.
This discrepancy between the broad universal nature of the Buddha’s teaching and the narrow, limited power of our perceptual apparatus and analytical skills has led to a demand for shortcut interpretations. Westerners, especially want a rendering of the Buddha’s profound teaching that fits a taste for simple, straightforward procedural instruction. As a result, many narrow and crippled versions of ‘Buddhism’ have taken root, especially in the West but even in nominally Buddhist countries as they become ‘developed’. These cheap, often quasi-religious interpretations are easy to learn and practice, but they lack the power of the synergy and holistic view of the Suttas.
So the narrow teachers become popular, actual self-realized teachers are neglected as ‘too difficult’, and no one is becoming enlightened. Should we be surprised? The real culprit is our own laziness, our unwillingness to adjust our priorities and commit sufficient resources of time and energy to learn and practice the actual teaching of the Buddha. We want the recognition and status that accrue to practicing meditators, but we don’t want to give up our trendy lifestyles and other material advantages.
Whether a Buddha appears to explain it or not, Dhamma is a universal law. We cannot cheat the law of Dhamma, any more than we can cheat the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. But we can and do often cheat ourselves out of the tremendous benefits available from the Buddha’s original complete teaching by seeking an easy way out.
When we encounter something like the Kālakārāma Sutta, we are liable to miss its deep meaning and profound possibilities for self-realization. And even when we read an expert explanation of it, such as Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda’s Magic of the Mind, without a strong background in the Theravāda Suttas and personal practice of insight meditation, we are likely to register only a fraction of its actual significance.
Differences in language and culture are certainly factors leading to this misunderstanding. But beyond that, it’s hard for us to see how to apply the knowledge. We are left looking for the exercises at the end of each chapter. They aren’t there, and there is a good reason for it.
No truly great idea, no truly powerful breakthrough can be reduced to a simple set of procedures. Although every schoolchild can recite Einstein’s famous formula E = mc2, how many of them can use it to build an atomic reactor? Similarly, though many so-called ‘Buddhists’ can recite the formula of Dependent Origination, how many of them can apply it to transcend conditioned consciousness and attain Nibbāna?
The wandering ascetic Upatissa, who was later to become the Buddha’s chief disciple Sāriputta, heard the capsule explanation of the Buddha’s teaching from the Venerable Assaji:
“Of things that arise from a cause
Their cause the Tathāgata has told
And also their cessation
Thus teaches the Great Recluse.” — Vinaya I 40
Immediately upon hearing this couplet, he attained the fruit of the Path known as Stream Entry. He needed no procedural instruction to realize this insight, for he was able to infer the application of a philosophical principle from its summary expression, even without detailed explanation.
This is precisely the skill needed to apply the Buddha’s teaching successfully. Since the details of every individual’s illusion are unique to him alone, there can be no general procedure or set of instructions for everyone. One must be able to take a principle given in the teaching, and work out the details of its application to one’s particular situation.
For example, an engineer designing a bridge or other construction refers to standard formulas for stress, loading, tensile strength and so on. These formulas are worked out by applying principles of chemistry and physics to real-world problems, and by long experience of other engineers. But in the end, responsibility for the design, integrity and durability of each component of the entire unique construction rests with the engineer.
It’s worthwhile keeping in mind the maxim, “In theory, theory and practice are the same; but in practice, they’re different.” In theory, the principles of the Buddha’s teaching are identical for everyone. But in practice, like the engineer we each have to work out their application to our unique situation. For example, it may be helpful to view the Buddha’s teaching as a series of increasingly subtle standards of purity:
“In the same way, friend, purity in virtue is simply for the sake of purity of mind. Purity of mind is simply for the sake of purity of view. Purity of view is simply for the sake of purity of overcoming perplexity. Purity of overcoming of perplexity is simply for the sake of purity of knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path. Purity of knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path is simply for the sake of purity of knowledge and vision of the way. Purity of knowledge and vision of the way is simply for the sake of purity of knowledge and vision. Purity of knowledge and vision is simply for the sake of total Unbinding through lack of clinging. And the holy life is lived under the Blessed One for the sake of total Unbinding through lack of clinging.” — Rathavinīta Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya I 147)
Here ‘purity in virtue’ refers to Precepts, especially the five basic moral standards: no lying, no stealing, no killing, no intoxication and no sex. One should examine oneself: ‘Am I able to follow these Precepts? If not, then why am I unable to follow them?” And we should investigate ourselves to find out the cause. Similarly with purity of mind and the rest.
Certainly the specific circumstances preventing each individual from meeting these standards will be unique in every case. Nevertheless we will invariably find, at the root of our inability to meet even the basic moral standards of the Buddha’s teaching, some attachment to desire (lust), aversion (hatred) and ignorance (delusion). Because of our desire to maintain the illusion of a permanent ego-identity, we are unwilling or unable to change. Yet the attachments to specific instances of lust, hatred and delusion are precisely the cause of our suffering. And of course, the inevitable deterioration of whatever impermanent things we are attached to, will force us to change anyway.
We are like a man cast into the torrent of a rapidly flowing river, clinging for life to a rotten, crumbling log, while just downstream is a mighty waterfall. If he lets go and tries to swim to shore, he may fail and drown. Even if he clings to the wood, it can disintegrate at any time. In any case, if he does nothing he is certain to go over the falls to his destruction. Here, life is the turbulent torrent, our attachments are the crumbling log, and the waterfall is approaching death. Is there really any uncertainty about what to do?
“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping and mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”
— Ani Sutta (Saṃyutta Nikāya II 266)
The Buddha’s teaching, while simple in principle, is certainly difficult in application. If not, it would lack the power to deliver us from the most pressing problems of existence. But its apparent difficulty doesn’t justify accepting some adulterated or oversimplified version of it. For whatever we would gain in convenience, we would lose much more in benefit.