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Encounters with Enlightenment

by Saddhaloka

Encounters with Enlightenment

By Saddhaloka

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM487
Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, 2001

Saddhaloka’s first encounters with the Buddha; Nanamoli’s Life of the Buddha;
Bringing the Buddha alive in stories

When I was in my teens, a cousin of my grandfather came to live with us in Jersey where
I grew up. He was an Oxford man of the old school - a historian, a scholar, a man of
letters. He lived in Burma most of his life. He had a Burmese wife and he’d expected to
die there, but then there was a military coup. A nationalist government took over and
forced all foreigners to leave and so he ended up coming to Jersey with his wife and a lot
of books, a lot of records. His sister, who had spent a lot of time in America and was
quite a bit wealthier than him, arranged to have a library built where our pigsties had
once stood. So the pigsties were demolished and a library was built and this man,
Gordon, would sit in his library studying his books, listening to his records and having
people come and visit him quite regularly - other scholars and other people with whom he
shared his interests. And he’d work away there and I’d go in and chat with him from time
to time.

When I went to university and started to develop an interest in Eastern religions, and
especially in Buddhism, he gave me a book. He himself had quite a strong interest in
Buddhism. He had a painting of the Buddha hanging in his library painted on bamboo
that he’d been given just before he left Burma. He gave me a book, and that book was
Nanamoli’s Life of the Buddha. That’s this book here. And for almost ten years, that book
was hardly opened. And then in 1979 I moved to Norwich and began my involvement
with the FWBO and early in 1980 I went on my first solitary retreat and I took this book
with me. Actually it wasn’t exactly this book. The original that Gordon gave me was
stolen in Estonia from a car when I went to look at a frozen waterfall on my way back
from a retreat. But someone else very kindly gave me this copy to replace that much
loved copy that was lost.

So on this solitary retreat, I read through this book Nanamoli’s Life of the Buddha, which
is an anthology of stories, extracts from the Pali Canon put together by Nanamoli, who
was an English Buddhist monk who went to Sri Lanka after the second world war and
spent many years there. So I’d read accounts of the life of the Buddha before, but they’d
always seemed very distant, always seemed a bit abstract. But now suddenly reading the
extracts from the Pali Canon that Nanamoli had very skilfully put together, it all came
very real, it all became very close and for the very first time I had a vivid sense of a
human being wandering the highways and byways of Ancient India. Living now in the
jungle far from anyone, now near a village, now in one of the teeming cities of northern
India at that time. There were stories of meetings with kings, with beggars, with
philosophers, with farmers, with housewives and courtesans, with murderers and holy
men, and I had this real sense of the human being who ate and slept and got sick and
grew old whilst in the way he lived and the way he spoke and talked - even in the way he
walked - communicated something quite extraordinary, quite remarkable. And over the
years I’ve returned to Nanamoli’s anthology again and again, but more than that through
this book I gained an entrance to the whole world of the Pali Canon which until then had
seemed rather daunting - perhaps because of the repetitious language of the oral tradition,
perhaps because of the rather biblical language that many of the early translators used to
use. They seemed to think, “Well, it’s a scripture, we must use biblical language,” so they
used to use the language of the authorised version or the St. James version of the Bible
rather than putting their translations into contemporary English. So for whatever reason,
I’d just not found those translations very accessible but reading the stories, the extracts
from the Pali Canon on that solitary retreat, something clicked, something shifted and it
was as if I was able to see through what had previously put me off and begin to recognise
the richness and beauty of this great treasury of teachings and stories that lay in the Pali
Canon.

The Pali Canon; passing down and compiling the teachings; changes to stories over
time; the Dhammapada

So just a bit about the Pali Canon. The Buddha lived for another 45 years after his
enlightenment. Traditionally we are told, he was 35 years old when he gained
enlightenment. He lived for another 45 years, wandering and teaching until he died as an
old man of 80. So whenever he taught, those teachings were remembered by those
present or by those to whom he later repeated them, together with the stories of how the
teachings came to be given. They’d be remembered. And then the stories and the
teachings would be recited at the gatherings of the disciples at the full moon. They’d be
checked to make sure they’d been remembered correctly by the most experienced of the
disciples. And then they’d be discussed and explored as a guide, an inspiration to
practice. I suppose very generally in the way that we might listen to a tape of Bhante’s,
have a study group, make sure we’ve understood what he’s trying to say and then go
away and just reflect on it. Really try and put the teachings into practice. It was much the
same principle at work except that people were remembering the stories of the Buddha,
remembering what he’d taught, making sure they’d understood it and then going away
and reflecting on it and really try and put it into practice in their lives.

So the stories, the teachings were remembered and gradually the Buddha spent 45 years,
he did a lot of teaching. A lot happened. There were a lot of stories, a lot of teachings to
be remembered and they used to be gradually collected together. Some of the monks
would become specialists in remembering the stories and different collections were made
in different geographical areas, in different schools and whole collections were gradually
formalised. And eventually they began to be written down after about 500 years. Some
may never have been written down. Some collections have been lost or only have
survived in fragments and there’s only one complete collection, as far as we know, that
has survived to the present and that’s the collection of the School of Elders - the
Theravada - that was written down in Sri Lanka at the start of the Common Era (that’s
around the year zero) in a language called Pali, which is apparently a language very close
to the language the Buddha himself probably spoke.

Some parts of the oral tradition got set very early on, others continued to change in the
telling. So if we imagine a story being told for the first time in Shakespeare’s time, in the
England of Elizabeth, in Shakespearean English, Elizabethan English, and that story -
well it might have been remembered exactly as it was told and passed down over the
centuries. Or it might have been retold in the idioms of the sixteenth century, seventeenth
century, eighteenth century, Victorian English, even contemporary English. Over 500 years, you can imagine how the telling of a story would change and how the ways in
which people told it would change - the sort of assumptions that the storyteller would
bring to bear that were perhaps very different to the assumptions of the original story
tellers. So we have something of that same phenomena in the stories of the Pali Canon.
Some have a very archaic feel to them. In them we come very close to the Buddha
himself and the way he spoke, the way people saw things. Others… It’s obvious that
monasticism has formed out and the whole way of thinking of the monastic community
very much colours the way the stories are told and the way incidents are seen.

So one of the oldest sections of the Pali Canon is one that you’re probably all very
familiar with, where various pithy sayings were collected together in the Dhammapada.
Put together in sets according to subject matter, and these would have been kept in the
form that they were originally passed on from very early on, so in the verses of the
Dhammapada we come very close to the authentic voice of the Buddha, hearing the
Buddha himself as he might have spoke. And there’s actually a new translation of the
Dhammapada by Sangharakshita that’s going to be due out next month in hardback
edition. So, that’s something to be looking forward to.

Best-known stories brought together; humour and lightness in the scriptures

But as well as these collections of sayings that we have in the Dhammapada, there are
many, many stories and I’ve just become very fond of these stories over the years and
I’ve recently brought together a number of the best known in a little book which
Ratnaprabha will tell you more about later. I’ve included some of the best-known stories.
The story of Meghiya the young monk who wanted to go ...

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