fba 3.0 is here! try it now for all devices: help us get the new site ready for primetime!


Transcribing the oral tradition...

Social network icons Connect with us on your favourite social network The FBA Podcast Stay Up-to-date via Email, and RSS feeds Stay up-to-date
download whole text as a pdf   Next   

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 off and meditate in the mango grove and found it just wasn’t quite as easy as he thought it was going to be. The story of Angulimala’s finger necklace, the murderer who used to chop off people’s fingers and wear them in a great necklace around his neck who the Buddha went out to find and converted. The story of Nanda and the dove-footed nymphs. When I first heard this title of the story, I had this picture of these bizarre creatures with little pink claws, but apparently pink-footed just means lovely, delicate, pink feet. So this is the story of Nanda and the dove-footed nymphs. There’s the story of Kisagotami and giving the grain of mustard seed to the young mother whose child ...

download whole text as a pdf   Next