Introducing Glenn Wallis’ Basic teachings of the Buddha


~ by Winton Higgins •


As most of you know, we’ve decided to start a cycle of sutta study, using Glenn Wallis’ Basic teachings of the Buddha (NY: Modern Library, 2007). Tonight I thought I’d try to whet your appetite by pulling together some of the points in the introduction to this unusually funky work for this area.

We should note that Wallis presents the basic teachings of the Buddha, not of Buddhism. This is an investigation of the Buddha’s own teaching, not a primer that tries to summarise what is by nature unsummarisable because it is so heterodox.

Wallis works from the Pali canon, which has always been the chief source of dharma teaching in this sangha and the wider secular insight-meditation movement, and of insight meditation traditions more generally. This canon includes 5434 suttas, but Wallis builds his book around just 16. As he says, if 100 different authors each made a personal selection of the 16 most central suttas, you’d get 100 different selections. So there is nothing god-given (as it were) about his selection. He has used two criteria for his selection: (a) what the Buddha himself seems to have emphasised throughout his 45-year teaching career; and (b) what seems important to the human predicament now in the 21st century.

Wallis brings to his work both a dedication to dharma practice and a sophisticated understanding of the status and workings of texts like suttas. To my mind, this makes his presentations and insights enormously valuable. But first things first: the basic starting points are vital.


Facts about the Buddha

On today’s estimates Siddhattha Gotama, who became the Buddha, lived from approximately 480 to 400 BCE, and was the son of the elected leader of a small republic in the Ganges valley. At the age of 29 he chose to leave home and join a disparate movement of spiritual seekers called samanas, outside the reigning religious tradition of Vedic Brahmanism. At the age of 35 he had a powerful spiritual experience which he referred to as ‘awakening’ – hence the title he assumed: buddha (an awakened person). On the basis of that experience he became a public teacher until his death 45 years later.

Countless millions of people since the Buddha began teaching have been moved by the power and beauty of the Buddha’s teaching. It crystallises the existential problem we face as conscious, sensitive and mortal beings, and points the way to a life of meaning and genuine satisfaction within our reach. His teaching places in our hands a whole way of life to achieve that, and in particular a practice of meditation that awakens clarity and equanimity.

The Buddha clearly shared the basic starting points of his fellow samanas: they rejected supernatural forces as arbiters of human experience and upheld the efficacy of the human mind. They emphasised the causal role of human thought, speech and action (karma); the destructive influence of ignorance (avidya) of the nature of reality; the danger of endlessly repeating self-defeating behaviours (samsara); and our ability to go beyond those patterns through a process of awakening.

The power of the Buddha’s own awakening, and of his teaching in bringing others to replicate this experience, were observable in his own lifetime and fuelled the spread of his tradition.


How do later generations come by these teachings?

But the route by which we approach these teachings is by no means self-evident. Nobody today even knows what language the Buddha himself actually spoke, though it would have been a local, vernacular dialect of what scholars today call Middle Indo-Aryan. It was not a written language.

The teachings were first written down around 29 CE (i.e., around 429 years after his death) in Sri Lanka – a long way from his own patch – and then in a language, Pali, that had never been a vernacular language anywhere. When we talk about the problem of nuances getting lost in translation, we must recognise that the Pali canon is itself already a translation.

Yet one thing that the Buddha insisted on was that his teaching should always be presented in the vernacular, and that people should attend to both its idiom and its meaning. One reason for this might be that he used a lot of metaphors and similes that depended on local cultural references.

So why take the Pali canon so seriously? There are other canonical sources of the original teachings to choose from – the Chinese and Tibetan ones. Pali was developed for the sole purpose of preserving the original oral teachings of the Buddha, and as an ancient Indic language it is probably linguistically and conceptually close to the Buddha’s own language. Much closer than Chinese or Tibetan. (But remarkably, when scholars do compare the Pali version of the Buddha’s own teachings with the Chinese and Tibetan ones, the substantive differences between them are insignificant.)

So the Pali canon is ahead on points. But – contrary to popular and especially Sri Lankan myth – the canon is not ‘pristine’. That is, it does not represent ‘the word of the Buddha’ free from translators’ and editors’ interference, prejudice and sectarian bias.

As Glenn Wallis (p. xxiv) writes: ‘Whether Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or Christian, such [canonical] works are never pristine: every page of every “sacred” work is smudged with the handprints of its creators throughout the ages.’

The smudging in question can be both gross and subtle. On several occasions, for instance, we might entertain a strong suspicion that expressions of misogyny have entered a few suttas this way, and that constitutes a gross smudging. More subtle ones are translations of original texts that favour the interpretations of particular sects. They’re the reason some individuals, Glenn Wallis among them, are now re-translating Pali texts without reference to sects’ established commentaries.

Clearly, then, we have reason to keep our wits about us when reading any text, even canonical ones. The besetting sin of any fundamentalism is literalism: taking a supposedly holy text at face value.


The model reader/listener

The Buddha taught through dialogue, somewhat like his Greek contemporary, Socrates. Dialogue is a dialectic process between two or more intelligent people who are all keeping their wits about them, and insight arises from the meeting of minds. As readers and learners, we have a responsibility to do our bit when we encounter any teaching: we have to remain critical but responsive at the same time.

To illustrate this, Wallis juxtaposes two well-known encounters that Siddhattha had, just after he’d spent he’d some weeks under the bodhi tree integrating his awakening experience. During that time he probably didn’t communicate with a living soul, although his two young supporters would have continued to bring him food every day. Given what followed, we might guess he had fallen into a degree of grandiosity.

When he left the bodhi tree to make his way to Varanasi, he encountered Upaka, a fellow samana, who was impressed by his demeanour and asked the obvious question: ‘You seem to be doing well, mate. What’s the score?’ The Buddha recounts – perhaps in a spirit of self-criticism, how this encounter developed. (Read pp. xxxi – xxxii).

In other words, the Buddha used the sort of bombastic, extravagant language that almost all grandstanding religious personages and texts use. It’s what makes religious texts and personages religious. And Upaka was smart enough not to believe a word of it, and walked away shaking his head.

That particular journey famously ended in the deer park outside Varanasi, where the Buddha encountered his five former companions in the practice of extreme austerities. They, too, were impressed by the Buddha’s appearance, but were sceptical about his claims to spiritual attainment. They were, however, up for a long drawn-out argument about what precisely the Buddha had discovered.

In the midst of that argument the Buddha was forced to abandon the extravagant religious language and talk dharma instead. In fact, this argument became his first dharma teaching, and the foundational one that introduced the middle way, the four noble truths and the noble 8-fold path.

See the account in the canon: pp. xxxii – xxxiii.

These five boneheaded ascetics in fact model how we should approach the teachings. They kept their critical wits about them, but at the same time they were receptive and responsive – they were teachable. And they duly learned. In fact, they became the Buddha’s first disciples.

A great deal emerged from that particular dialogue! Maybe we can get a sense of the process of emergence as we work our way through Wallis’s book.


• This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney in June 2010. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.



  1. Jim Champion
    Posted May 30, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Are any of the follow-up talks available? I’ve just finished reading ‘Basic Teachings of the Buddha’ for the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time. Winton has it spot on, this is an ‘unusually funky work’. Keen to see where he went with it after this intro…
    Jim (In the UK)

  2. Posted May 31, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Hello Jim. The rest of the study of Glenn Wallis’s book didn’t rely on set-piece dharma talks, but free-wheeling discussion instead. But if you like the style of the introductory talk, you’ll no doubt get heaps of stimulation from Stephen Batchelor’s ‘After Buddhism’. I’ve reviewed his book on this website.

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