The Buddha Failed…

…pivoted, and restarted development of his teaching at least 3 or 4 times, depending on how you keep score. Immediately after forming the intention to benefit all conditioned beings by teaching the Noble Path, he concluded;

“And what may be said to be subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement? Spouses & children… men & women slaves… goats & sheep… fowl & pigs… elephants, cattle, horses, & mares… gold & silver [2] are subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement. Subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement are these acquisitions, and one who is tied to them, infatuated with them, who has totally fallen for them, being subject to birth, seeks what is likewise subject to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement. This is ignoble search.”

So rejecting the household life, he went forth into the homeless life of a bhikkhu. That was the first pivot. Then he approached Alara Kalama:

“Having thus gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Alara Kalama and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kalama, I want to practice in this doctrine & discipline.’

“When this was said, he replied to me, ‘You may stay here, my friend. This doctrine is such that a wise person can soon enter & dwell in his own teacher’s knowledge, having realized it for himself through direct knowledge.’ It was not long before I quickly learned the doctrine. As far as mere lip-reciting & repetition, I could speak the words of knowledge, the words of the elders, and I could affirm that I knew & saw — I, along with others… 

“‘The Dhamma I know is the Dhamma you know; the Dhamma you know is the Dhamma I know. As I am, so are you; as you are, so am I. Come friend, let us now lead this community together’.”

But the Buddha was not satisfied with Alara Kalama’s teaching and moved on to Uddaka Ramaputta. This was the second pivot.

“In search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Uddaka Ramaputta and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Uddaka, I want to practice in this doctrine & discipline.’

“When this was said, he replied to me, ‘You may stay here, my friend. This doctrine is such that a wise person can soon enter & dwell in his own teacher’s knowledge, having realized it for himself through direct knowledge.’

“It was not long before I quickly learned the doctrine. As far as mere lip-reciting & repetition, I could speak the words of knowledge, the words of the elders, and I could affirm that I knew & saw — I, along with others.

Finally the Buddha saw the limitations of Uddaka Ramaputta’s teaching and left him to perform severe austerities alone in the forest. This was the third pivot.

“In search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I wandered by stages in the Magadhan country and came to the military town of Uruvela. There I saw some delightful countryside, with an inspiring forest grove, a clear-flowing river with fine, delightful banks, and villages for alms-going on all sides. The thought occurred to me: ‘How delightful is this countryside, with its inspiring forest grove, clear-flowing river with fine, delightful banks, and villages for alms-going on all sides. This is just right for the exertion of a clansman intent on exertion.’ So I sat down right there, thinking, ‘This is just right for exertion’.”

But wracking austerities did not deliver the enlightenment the Buddha was seeking either. So, drawing on his childhood experiences of meditative pleasure in jhāna, he pivoted again:

“Then, monks, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’

“Then the thought occurred to me, ‘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. [3] 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 & dependent co-arising 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. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.’

Then Brahmā appeared to him and begged him to teach for the welfare of the world. We could regard this as a sixth pivot:

Then, just as a strong man might extend his flexed arm or flex his extended arm, Brahma Sahampati disappeared from the Brahma-world and reappeared in front of me. Arranging his upper robe over one shoulder, he knelt down with his right knee on the ground, saluted me with his hands before his heart, and said to me: ‘Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma! Let the One-Well-Gone teach the Dhamma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.’

“That is what Brahma Sahampati said. Having said that, he further said this:

‘In the past
there appeared among the Magadhans
an impure Dhamma
devised by the stained.

Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dhamma
realized by the Stainless One!”” — All quotes from: Ariyapariyesana Sutta

So if even the Buddha himself had to pivot and reorient his search several times, then what about us? We know enough about innovation to understand that it rarely succeeds on the first try. Thomas Edison trying thousands of formulas for the incandescent light bulb comes to mind.

And developing something like a light bulb or other piece of technology is simple compared with attaining enlightenment. So if you fail, fall down, make mistakes, switch methods, switch teachers, switch ontologies, you are in good company: the Buddha himself also pivoted several times before attaining his goal.

I’m always suspicious when some monk’s bio reads that he found his teacher at an early age and stayed on for years or decades, finally becoming his successor. It’s too neat; it doesn’t sound like the way it really is; it sounds like they were set up, and he whole thing was planned out. Made men in the monastery.

When I was first starting out I sampled so many spiritual teachers available on the US West Coast, both eastern and western. Most I rejected immediately; it was clear they faking it. I kept those with a clear disciplic succession (paramparā) who were faithful to their roots.

I joined several traditional organizations, large and small, Christian, Hindu, Budhist and so on; took the initiations, ordinations and empowerments they offered, and hung around long enough to find out what was really going on.

Sad to say, most were just money-making and power schemes. That doesn’t mean there were no intelligent, truthful, pure-minded people with deep knowledge and profound practice. But they were very much in the minority. I made it my business to make friends with them and keep in touch over the years, as part of my valuable spiritual inheritance and fortune.

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Overview of the Buddha’s Teaching

We see many general teachings attributed to the Buddha, and some nice expositions of individual Suttas. But it’s rare to see an overview of the whole teaching of the Buddha in an understandable format. Educated people love charts and graphs, so here is a chart depicting the overall view of the Buddha’s teaching in the Theravāda Suttas.

Ordinary life is an obsessive process of becoming driven by ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making, culminating in failure, loss and suffering. The cause of this suffering is the sequence of paṭicca-samuppāda, or Dependent Origination, discovered by the Buddha. Ordinarily, at each death the cycle of becoming begins anew; that is saṃsāra, the round of birth and death. Release from this cycle is possible via a special process of becoming, leading to the end of becoming. That is the Buddha’s teaching, this very Noble Eightfold Path.

An interesting feature of the Buddha’s teaching is that the cause of suffering and the cause of release are the same process of becoming. Only becoming in saṃsāra is done in ignorance, and becoming on the Path is done in full knowledge.

For more on Dependent Origination and the source of this diagram, see Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.

Rebirth is for one who has Grasping

“Just as, Vaccha, a fire with fuel blazes up, but not without fuel, even so Vaccha, I declare rebirth to be for him who has grasping.”

“But Master Gotama, at the time when a flame flung by the wind goes a very long way, as to fuel, what says the master Gotama about this?”

“At the time when a flame, Vaccha, flung by the wind goes a very long way, I declare that flame to be supported by the wind. At that time, Vaccha, the wind is its fuel.”

“But Master Gotama, at the time when a being lays aside this body and rises up again in another body—what does master Gotama declare to be the fuel for that?”

“At that time, Vaccha, when a being lays aside this body and rises up again in another body, for that I declare craving to be the fuel. Indeed, Vaccha, craving is on that occasion the fuel.” — Kutū­hala­sālā­ Sutta (SN 44.9)

Casting Away Views

“I, good Gotama, speak thus; I am of this view: ‘All is not pleasing to me’.”

“This view of yours, Aggivessana: ‘All is not pleasing to me’ — does this view of yours not please you?”

“If this view were pleasing to me, good Gotama, this would be like it too, this would be like it too.”

“Now, Aggivessana, when those, the majority in the world, speak thus: ‘This would be like it too, this would be like it too’ — they do not get rid of that very view and they take up another view. Now, Aggivessana, when those, the minority in the world, speak thus: ‘This would be like it too, this would be like it too’ — they get rid of that very view and do not take up another view.” — Dīgha­na­kha­ Sutta (MN 74)

The Buddha granted that Dīghanakha’s view is nearer detachment when compared with its opposite view, ‘all is pleasing to me’. Dīghanakha was elated for a moment, thinking that the Buddha was praising and upholding his view without reserve. But he was disillusioned when the Buddha went on to show how the very dogmatic view that all views are unacceptable can itself give rise to suffering:

“As to this, Aggivessana, those recluses and brahmins who speak thus and are of this view: ‘All is not pleasing to me’, if a learned man be there who reflects thus: ‘If I were to express this view of mine, that: ‘all is not pleasing to me’, and obstinately holding to it and adhering to it, were to say: ‘This is the very truth, all else is falsehood’, there would be for me dispute with two [other view-holders]: both with whatever recluse or brahmin who speaks thus and is of this view, ‘All is pleasing to me,’ and with whatever recluse or brahmin who speaks thus and is of this view: ‘Part is pleasing to me, part is not pleasing to me’ — there would be dispute for me with these two. If there is dispute, there is contention; if there is contention there is trouble; if there is trouble, there is vexation.’ So he, beholding this dispute and contention and trouble and vexation for himself, gets rid of that very view and does not take up another view. Thus is the getting rid of these views, thus is the casting away of these views.”

Authentic Buddhism

“Monks, these two slander the Tathāgata. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathāgata as said or spoken by the Tathāgata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathāgata as not said or spoken by the Tathāgata. These are two who slander the Tathāgata.” — Abhasita Sutta (AN 2.23)

The Buddha compassionately brought light to the world, but that light is fading due to the covering influence of three very wrong concepts: religious ‘buddhism’, intellectual ‘buddhism’, and western ‘scientific’ ‘buddhism’. All three redefine the Buddha’s teaching in ways that he certainly did not intend and would not approve, and in the process cripple its self-transcending power.

Religious ‘buddhism’ is traditional Indian religion applied to the Buddha’s teaching. Similar offerings, hymns, statues and temples are built, but instead of Vedic deities like Indra, Rāma or Kṛṣṇa, the Buddha becomes the deity and object of worship. The Buddha never instructed anyone to build statues or other likenesses, worship them or make offerings to him after his parinibbāna (Unbinding). In fact, the core teaching of the Buddha is that everything that has being is impermanent. So, where is the Buddha? He is “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond,” and never coming back into manifestation. Attaining that release is the whole point and goal of the Buddha’s teaching. So treating him as still present to receive offerings and prayers seems inconsistent.

Intellectual ‘buddhism’ is the idea that intellectual analysis and commentary on the Buddha’s teaching is sufficient to pass his legacy on to succeeding generations. My teacher Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda writes:

According to the Manorathapūraṇī commentary on the Aṅguttara-nikāya, there was a debate early in the Sri Lankan Sāsana between the scholar-monks and the meditators. And the conclusion was that merely communicating the words of the Suttas and commentaries would be sufficient for the continuity of the Sāsana, and that direct realization of the practice is not so important. So the basket (piṭaka) of the Buddha’s words came to be passed on from generation to generation in the dark — that is, without the corresponding realization. 

As a result, later derivative works like the Abhidhamma and Commentaries increasingly displayed the ideas of their unrealized authors, rather than the Buddha’s deep insights. It led to degeneration of the practice and the Saṅgha as a whole, because of the idea that study alone was sufficient to realize the Dhamma. It’s not, and the proof is that very few people today become enlightened.

So-called ‘scientific’ ‘buddhism’ is neither scientific nor Buddhist. It is, rather, using empirical science as an excuse to reject vital aspects of the original teaching—such as karma, rebirth, and observance of precepts—that do not fit with contemporary notions.

All three of these deviations destroy the most essential and unique feature of the Buddha’s teaching: its power of self-transcendence. The self-transcendence of Nibbāna makes the Buddha’s teaching unique among all wisdom traditions. Without it, the Buddha’s teaching becomes yet another brittle set of beliefs, easily destroyed by changing conditions in the world. With it, the Buddha’s teaching is truly universal, ‘beyond the beyond’.

For, as Bhikkhu Ñānananda has kindly pointed out in his book Concept and Reality, Nibbāna is non-conceptual. To reduce it to a mere concept by defining it is to deprive the Buddha’s teaching of its most powerful aspect. Religious ‘buddhists’ have defined nibbāna differently than intellectual ‘buddhists’, but the effect in both cases is to deny their followers entrance into the Dhamma door of nibbāna.

Some may object by pointing out the list of 33 names of Nibbāna in the Saṃyutta Nikāya as definitions of Nibbāna. But if we examine them closely, we must conclude that these are not definitions but epithets or euphemisms: expressions that name the ineffable without defining it directly. This apophatic nature of Nibbāna is precisely the feature that gives the entire teaching of the Buddha its extraordinary power of self-transcendence.

An ontology is a set of terminology defined in terms of one another. Ontology and taxonomy are the semantic tools at the heart of all science. But any system in which terms are circularly defined is a closed system—brittle and subject to falsification. A single anomalous finding falsifies any theory.

But the Buddha’s teaching is applicable to any set of aggregates, for it is based on the cycle of being and becoming (paticca-samuppāda or Dependent Origination). It is incapable of falsification because any system of being and becoming, in this or any other universe, must be based on the principle of conditionality or causality. And Nibbāna, being the unconditioned, is never touched or affected by causality.

‘Positions’ and the Middle Way

“Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding…”

“Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”

A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are mental fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

“But, Master Gotama, the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?”

“‘Reappear,’ Vaccha, doesn’t apply.”…

“At this point, Master Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured.”

“Of course you’re befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you’re confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, Vaccha: …If a fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, ‘This fire burning in front of me has gone out’?”

“…yes…”

“And suppose someone were to ask you, ‘This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?’ Thus asked, how would you reply?”

“That doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as ‘out’ (unbound).”

“Even so, Vaccha, any physical form… Any feeling… Any perception… Any mental fabrication… Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea.” — Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72)

“Perception Causes Proliferation”

“Visual consciousness, brethren, arises because of eye and material shapes; the meeting of the three is sensory impingement (phassa, contact); because of sensory impingement arises feeling; what one feels one perceives; what one perceives, one reasons about; what one reasons about, one turns into papañca; what one turns into papañca, due to that papañca-saññā-saṅkhā assail him in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye belonging to the past, the future and the present. And, brethren, auditory consciousness arises because of ear and sounds belonging to the past, the future and the present; olfactory consciousness arises because of nose and smell belonging to the past, the future and the present; gustatory consciousness arises because of tongue and tastes belonging to the past, the future and the present; bodily consciousness arises because of body and touches belonging to the past, the future and the present; mental consciousness arises because of mind and mental objects belonging to the past, the future and the present.” — Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (MN 18)