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The Dharma Treasure

by Kamalashila

11/22/2006 02:26 PM

1991 - Auckland Buddhist Centre 4 March; Croydon Buddhist Centre 2 May

Tonight what I'd like to do is to look at a particular Buddhist sutta, one
of the most famous of all the suttas in the Pali canon, and perhaps the most
important of all the Buddha's discourses. If you go to Asia, particularly to
a south-east Asian country like Thailand, you'll sometimes see a Buddhist
shrine, and upon that shrine will be what looks like a treasure chest - a
rectangular thing like a box, about eighteen inches long, which seems to be
made of gold and studded with jewels. But it's not a box. It's a sutta, a
written discourse of the Buddha, originally written down around two thousand
years ago after having been passed down by word of mouth for hundreds of
years. It is written in Thai script, in the Pali language, on palm leaves or
long, rectangular sheets of paper. Or sometimes the words are even written on
sheets of gold. Unlike our own books, the sheets are not stapled together -
they are just placed in order, one on top of the other, and they are encased
by two elaborately carved wooden covers. It is these covers which we may
sometimes see richly ornamented with gold leaf, and studded with turqoise,
ruby, sapphire and diamond.
Even though no-one knows how long it has been since Pali was actually a
spoken language - it's certainly far more than a thousand years - the words
written upon those palm leaves, perhaps in letters of gold, are, for the
Buddhists who visit this particular temple, their greatest treasure. In fact
this particular book is an important object of worship. When the Buddhists
whose temple this is perform their puja, when they celebrate their practice of
Buddhism ceremonially, they naturally worship the Buddha, the teacher who
discovered the way to Enlightenment. But they also worship his teaching. And
for them, it is this particular book which symbolises all the teachings, all
the practices.
In fact you find something like this, this Dharma worship, this book
worship, this worship of the teachings of the Buddha as symbolised in the
written word, in most if not all eastern Buddhist traditions. The Tibetans,
for example, have very distinctive shrines. They are famous for their
beautiful Buddha images, and in Tibetan gompas we may see many different forms
of the Buddha, all seated together upon a specially proportioned wooden altar.
The altar is very meticulously structured, so that the highest Buddha form is
given the highest place of all, and the others placed exactly right in the
spiritual hierarchy, with all the butter lamps, ritual offering bowls, and
other special offerings like flowers and incense placed below. But then
sometimes, above the shrine, above even the highest Buddha-form, you have the
Dharma texts. Usually in an elaborately carved wooden case, sometimes fronted
with glass, you sometimes see rows of Tibetan woodblock-printed books - sutras
and tantras. And these scriptures, rather like their southeast Asian
equivalent, are printed upon long rectangles of rough handmade paper which are
encased in wooden covers. The books are then carefully wrapped in cloth,
sometimes in beautiful gold brocade, with a red sash round the middle to hold
it all together. And they're placed above the altar, above the Buddhas and
So in a sense the Tibetans revere the Buddhist texts, the Buddhist Dharma,
even more than the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas themselves. And they do this
because the Dharma is primary. The Dharma is primordial even - it was there
even before the Buddha was there. Enlightenment arises out of the
realisatiopn of the Dharma, the truth, the ultimate real nature of things. It
is said that after his Enlightenment the Buddha himself worshipped the Dharma.
It's interesting that even an Enlightened being wants to find something even
higher than himself. And that's why the Tibetans often have all those books
above their Buddha images, and that's also why the southeast Asian Buddhists
worship the Dharma, that's why they endow the written word with such costly
and beautiful ornamentation. That's why they treasure the Dharma so much.
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11/22/2006 02:26 PM
But, as I said, they very often choose a particular text to adorn and
worship. And of course it is interesting for us to enquire which text they
choose to revere in this way. Which Dharma text is considered the most
valuable, the greatest treasure of all? How to choose? After all, the Buddha
taught so many things.
What did he teach? Lets just digress, very briefly, and take a look at the
contents of the Buddhist scriptures. They are divided into three divisions
known as the three pitakas or 'baskets'. There is the Suttapitaka, the
Abhidharmapitaka and the Vinayapitaka. The Suttapitaka is the division of
suttas. These consist of stories in which the Buddha almost always plays the
major part - though they sometimes feature his main disciples, like Sariputta
or Moggallana instead. They always contain some teaching or other. There are
hundreds and hundreds of these stories, some very long, others just a few
lines; and, apart from the actual Dharma teachings, they contain all kinds
of things - detailed information about the society of the Buddha's time,
Indian myth and legend, stories about the Buddha, his disciples - as well as
very profound philosophy and practical teaching. There is a great deal of
really fascinating reading in the suttas.
But quite early on, perhaps during the Buddha's lifetime, someone must
have realised that there is a need to sort all that great mass of material out
- to take out just the material that would be most useful for practising the
spiritual life. This is how the Abhidharma came into being. Abhidharma means
'higher' or 'essential' Dharma'. The people who compiled the Abhidharma were
trying to get at what is most essential. Unfortunately what they often ended
up with was, for our needs at least, often very dry and analytical. But some
of it is even now very useful, and very profound, the expression of a great
deal of insight.
The whole idea of condensing the teaching into its essentials,
demonstrates the need to reflect upon the Dharma, to reflect upon it so that
we understand it thoroughly, so that we make it our own. It really isn't
enough just to have a provisional understanding. If we are really serious
about practising Buddhism it isn't enough for us to simply know, for example,
that the Buddha gained Enlightenment through his insight into conditioned co-
production. It isn't enough for us merely to know that, so that we know where
to look it up, we know that Sangharakshita and Subhuti and other writers have
written on certain aspects of it. No. We need to develop a personal
understanding of conditioned co-production, or whatever teaching it happens to
be. To some extent we do this already, because when we learn a particular
teaching that we find interesting, we cannot help but reflect upon it from
time to time. But consider the proportion of time we actually spend in that
way, compared to the rest that goes on in our mind. If we are ever to gain a
really deep understanding, we need to make our reflection more conscious and
deliberate - not only through our own thought but also through discussion,
through group study. And also through writing things down in your own words,
formulating your understanding in a way that makes sense to you. This can be
done with the aid of diagrams, mind maps, flow charts, images, drawings, or
whatever appeals to you. This is the principle out of which the Abhidharma
seems to have evolved. Out of the desire to clarify what the Buddha was
really getting at, people wanted to condense things down, systematise things,
get everything on one page as it were, so that they could see it more clearly.
OK, thirdly, there's the Vinayapitaka. The Vinaya is another kind of
condensation of the material in the suttas, but from the point of view of
applying the Dharma to everyday life. So it's about ethics, it's about
principles of human behaviour. Of course the Buddha worked mostly with the
monks, so the Vinaya is about principles of behaviour in that particular
situation. What to do when one monk deceives the other monks, what to do when
one monk takes another monk's property, or takes for himself property which is
supposed to be for collective use. What to do when a monk abuses the trust of
the lay people, etc. The Buddha never started with a list of rules, but in
forty five years of living with the monastic Sangha circumstances sometimes
arose in which rules had to be made. So in each case the story is told of how
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11/22/2006 02:26 PM
a particular rule arose.
So this is very interesting for us. Ethical principles like that of
generosity and helpfulness are obviously worthwhile. But if we are actually
to be generous and helpful consistently, we often need to make rules for
ourselves. We need to agree amongst ourselves that it is OK to do this, but
not OK to do that. It is interesting ...

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