Why I think the Pali canon is relevant

Something from the canon…

I have decided to read the Pali canon, albeit in English, from front to back as available translations permit. I have a number of reasons for doing this, but the one that stands out most pointedly right now, is that this is the ground on which the modern secular interpretation of buddhism has to be based. All forms of buddhism have been secular in their own way in their own time, and we can’t rehash any of these to make them fit this century in the West – or even Australasia! It is also actually quite disrespectful to those traditions to have us pick at them like crows, taking what suits us and leaving the rest to dry up and scatter on the winds. Similarly, I have to reflect that “who am I to judge anyway?”

So I think for modern secular buddhism to make any sense to us in a complete and coherent form we have to start from the ground up. This is certainly not an original thought from me, more a clearly understood point from others who have articulated it very well. Another key factor for me is that of culture. How foreign would the world, as it now stands, seem to any of the patriachs from Gotama until even just 50 years ago? Would Gotama still talk in the same precise language? Would his followers still develop elaborate poetry and prose to preserve and protect the teachings given from the corrosion of time and inflections of culture? I’m not so sure.

One thing I do feel more confident about though, is that if Gotama gave a discourse today, he would ask “what are you doing about it?”

This short section, from the Analysis of Virtue in the Brahmajala Sutta in the Diigha Nikaaya, demonstrates the kind of material I am referring to, since it is timeless and achievable. What follows is essentially a description of the way of life of an awakened person. Stripped of metaphysics we end up with phrases such as “dwells conscientious, full of kindness, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings”. This is where I want my practice to lead me, this is why the pali canon is such a valuable resource, part of the raft Gotama recommended we build.

7 “It is, bhikkhus, only to trifling and insignificant matters, to the minor details of mere moral virtue, that a worldling would refer when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata. And what are those trifling and insignificant matters, those minor details of mere moral virtue, to which he would refer?

8 “‘Having abandoned the destruction of life, the recluse Gotama abstains from the destruction of life. He has laid aside the rod and the sword, and dwells conscientious, full of kindness, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.’ It is in this way, bhikkhus, that the worldling would speak when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata.

“Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned taking what is not given, the recluse Gotama abstains from taking what is not given. Accepting and expecting only what is given, he dwells in honesty and rectitude of heart.’

“Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned unchaste living, the recluse Gotama lives the life of chastity. He dwells remote (from women), and abstains from the vulgar practice of sexual intercourse.’

9 “Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned false speech, the recluse Gotama abstains from falsehood. He speaks only the truth, he lives devoted to truth; trustworthy and reliable, he does not deceive anyone in the world.’

“Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned slander, the recluse Gotama abstains from slander. He does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide others from the people here, nor does he repeat here what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide these from the people there. Thus he is a reconciler of those who are divided and a promoter of friendships. Rejoicing, delighting, and exulting in concord, he speaks only words that are conducive to concord.’

“Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned harsh speech, the recluse Gotama abstains from harsh speech. He speaks only such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, endearing, going to the heart, urbane, amiable, and agreeable to many people.’

“Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned idle chatter, the recluse Gotama abstains from idle chatter. He speaks at the right time, speaks what is factual, speaks on the good, on the Dhamma and the Discipline. His words are worth treasuring: they are timely, backed by reason, definite and connected with the good.’

End of my post, thank you for reading, please feel free to comment or add something you think I have missed.

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