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The Word of the Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

... foot of this tree I gained Enlightenment. This tree sheltered me, this tree shaded me. I am grateful to this tree. I pay respect to this tree.' So this was the Buddha's spirit of gratitude, even after his Enlightenment.

So having decided to teach these five ascetics, having come to understand within his own mind where they were, at the end of the seventh week after the Enlightenment the Buddha left Bodh Gaya. He set out for the place where the five ascetics were now living, and he had come to understand spontaneously as it were, intuitively, by means of his higher supernormal vision, that they were living at a place called Sarnath, which is near Benares, some seven or eight miles out of Benares. And they were living there in a beautiful deer park, where deer could live without fear of being hunted, which was a sort of sanctuary for the deer. And this place, Sarnath near Benares, was about 100 miles from Bodh Gaya - a distance, that is to say, of about a week's journey.

So the Buddha set out. He had one or two experiences, not to say adventures, on the way, but we are not concerned with those today. It took him just a week to get to Sarnath, to the Deer Park, so that he arrived there exactly two months after his Enlightenment. So as he entered the Deer Park, the five ascetics who had been his disciples, his pupils earlier on, some years 3 previously, saw him coming, and they started talking, not to say murmuring, among themselves.

And one of them said: 'Here comes that fellow Gautama, whom we used to have so much faith and trust in - you know, the one who gave up asceticism, the one who went back to the easy life of the world, who actually started taking solid food, who betrayed the path of asceticism. All right, let him come if he wants to. We shan't show him any respect at all, not to a fellow like that.' So the Buddha approached nearer and nearer. But, as the Buddha approached, strange to say they were unable to keep to their resolution. It was as though some strange force compelled them to rise to their feet and salute him and take his bowl and take his spare robe and offer him a seat. Because, even though they disapproved of him and thought he was just a runaway ascetic, there was something about him; there was something strange, something they'd never seen before, and they could not help being affected, being influenced by that.

So after the preliminary greetings were over, the Buddha, without wasting any time, coming straight to the point, said: 'I've found the Truth. I know the Truth. I am now Enlightened. Let me teach, let me share with you, the Truth that I have discovered.' But they wouldn't believe him. They said, 'Even when you were practising all those austerities and all that self-torture, self-mortification, you couldn't gain Enlightenment. And do you think you've gained it by following an easy course of life?' They apparently thought that meditation was an easy course of life. So they would not listen.

But the Buddha persisted. He reasoned with them, he argued with them, and in the end he succeeded in persuading them at least to listen to what he had to say; and then he taught them.

He taught them all through the rainy season. The rains had just begun, so he taught them for the two, three, four months of the rainy season. They sat together, they talked, they discussed, they meditated, and by the end of the rainy season all five too had gained Enlightenment, had become New Men.

Now the day on which the Buddha arrived in Sarnath at the Deer Park and started teaching the five ascetics was, of course, being two months exactly after the Vaishakha Purnima Day, a full moon day - the second full moon day after the day on which the Buddha gained Enlightenment.

And this full moon day, the second full moon day after the full moon day on which the Buddha gained Enlightenment, the full moon day on which he started teaching, is known as Ashardha(?) Purnima, that is to say the full moon day of the lunar month Ashardha, corresponding to our June-July. And it's this day which we are celebrating this evening; this is Dharmachakra or Dharmacakra- pravartina Day, the anniversary of the Buddha's first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, his first proclamation, at least his first full proclamation of the Truth to human beings, the first showing of the Way, the Path to Enlightenment.

Now the Buddha taught the five ascetics. He taught them month after month all through the rainy season. But it so happens we don't know what he taught them. We don't know exactly what it was he said. We are told simply he discoursed with them, and the oldest accounts leave it at that. It's as though it was a profound mystery, a secret; and we went into the significance of this, some of you may remember, last year.

At a later date, it was sometimes said that the Buddha taught the five ascetics the Four Noble 4 Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Well, he may have done, but we don't know definitely.

That's just a later, a much later, tradition; perhaps just an attempt to fill in the blank.

Sometimes people don't like to leave a blank, they don't like any mystery, any secret, anything not known, so they fill it in with something or other, and this is what they seem to have done here. But personally I prefer to leave this particular blank empty.

Anyway, after the five ascetics had gained Enlightenment, having heard whatever the Buddha had to say, having intuitively perceived the Truth of it, the Buddha, of course, didn't stop there.

He continued teaching. He taught for a very long time. He taught all sorts of people - hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people from all walks of life, up and down the length and breadth of north-eastern India in that sixth century BC - one of the most wonderful centuries in human history. And he taught for five-and-forty years, from the age of 35, when he gained Enlightenment, to the age of 80, when he passed away or, as we say, gained Parinirvana.

And he taught, according to the records, even on his deathbed. Even when he was was about to pass away there was just one last person who wanted to see him, to speak with him, and Ananda, the Buddha's attendant and disciple, said to him, 'What is this? The Buddha is dying.

This is not the time to come and speak to him.' But the Buddha heard this from inside, and he said to Ananda, 'Don't stop him, let him come in. I know that he will perceive the truth very quickly, even if I speak only a few words.' So in he came. The Buddha taught him very briefly, and he was the last to be personally as it were converted by the Buddha.

So after the Buddha had passed away, after the Parinirvana, the teaching did not die; the teaching was continued, the teaching carried on. It was handed on, handed down, by his disciples. And what we have to realise, what we have to appreciate, is that at this stage the teaching was still an oral tradition. It was handed down by word of mouth from teacher to disciple; then the disciple becomes a teacher in his turn. He hands it on to his disciple, and he hands it on to his. In this way, for quite a long time after the Buddha's death, the teaching was handed on, handed down, by oral tradition. This continued for several hundred years, for upward of 500 years. We don't always appreciate this. They didn't start scribbling books about Buddhism all at once. They handed it down as an oral tradition, by word of mouth. So if you wanted to learn about Buddhism, you had to find someone at whose feet you could sit and learn it from him, face to face. They handed it down like this for nearly 500 years, and then - or maybe a bit before then - the teaching started to be written down, maybe when people's memories started getting less good than they had been in earlier days.

Now the Dharma, the teaching, as taught personally by the Buddha by word of mouth to his disciples, and as transmitted orally by the disciples after the Buddha's Parinirvana, and as written down much later on in the form of scriptures - this Dharma is known by a special term, and this term is Buddhavacana, which means 'the Word of the Buddha', the utterance of the Buddha, if you like the speech of the Buddha. And it's with this word of the Buddha that we are concerned this evening. We are going this evening to explore the more usual meaning of the term as well as try to realise some of the deeper implications.

Now Buddhavacana is iubuddhau-vacanai - let's emphasise that. It's the word, the speech, the utterance, of the Buddha. So let's go into that a little first. What does one mean by Buddha? Buddha isn't just a personal name like Gautama or Ananda or Rahula. Buddha is a title, and it 5 means 'one who knows', 'one who understands'. It means 'one who has realised Truth', 'one who has realised Reality.' So the word, the utterance, of a Buddha, one who knows, really knows, truly knows, knows in the depth and knows on the heights, knows in all aspects and all modes.

The word or utterance of such a person is not like that of an ordinary person, not like the word or the utterance of someone who is not a Buddha. The word of the Buddha, the Buddhavacana, is the expression in terms of human speech of what we can only describe as an Enlightened state of consciousness. Even though we know the meaning of Buddha, Buddhavacana, word of the Buddha, we don't always realise this. We tend perhaps unconsciously to think of the Buddha as speaking in much the same way as an ordinary person speaks, because after all he uses much the same language, much the same words.

But this is not all. There is more in this, as it were, than meets the eye. Behind the Buddha's ...

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