Transcribing the oral tradition...

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Pali Canon - Udana 1974

by Sangharakshita

... way, we sometimes see two different levels of Buddhism in the verses and in the prose
portions and this is rather quaint and rather interesting. They don't always quite fit. We can
see that something has happened in the interval - there's been some kind of [7] development,
not always for the better.
Aryamitra: Isn't an aphorism more or less the same as an udana?
S: Well an aphorism is generally said to be a short, pithy saying, very condensed and
compact, whereas an udana is short and compact, but it does (which an aphorism doesn't
necessarily) suggest that it is delivered under a very strong pressure of emotional inspiration.
An aphorism is usually a dry comment on life, as it were; not anything very inspired; though
it can be, but not necessarily, but an udana by very definition is a sort of inspired utterance.
'An inspired utterance' would be better than 'a verse of uplift'. The fact that it's in verse is sort
of accidental perhaps.
Chintamani: Originally, would the prose sections as well as the verses, have been chanted by
monks and committed to memory?
S: Yes, prose was chanted as well as verse. There's a different way of chanting, obviously,
with prose, but it is a chant all the same; like the introduction to the Mangala Sutta.
Chapter 1: Enlightenment
Sutta 1.1 p.1: 'Thus have I heard...' All suttas begin with 'Thus have I heard' [8] and Mahayana sutras
begin likewise. The 'I' is Ananda. It's supposed to be Ananda's marvellous memory at work,
according to the Theravada tradition, and that after the Buddha's death they held that council
at Rajagriha and Ananda, after being purified of various offences and after he'd gained
Enlightenment also, recited whatever he recollected the Buddha having spoken by way of
teaching. So traditionally, everything in the Pali canon is traced back to Ananda's recollection
at that first council. This of course is questioned by scholars, but it's definitely the tradition.
So, 'Thus have I heard': it's Ananda or whoever is the spokesman or mouthpiece of tradition
saying, 'This is what has come down to me from the Buddha.' All suttas then go on to
describe the occasion.
'Exalted One' translates Bhagavan, generally translated 'the Lord', though I've rendered it 'the
richly-endowed one', because that is what it literally means: the one who possesses various
important spiritual qualities, who is endowed with them, so it's not 'Lord' in the Christian
Western sense, and 'Exalted One' is not bad, but it doesn't really convey the meaning of the
original Bhagavan.
So, 'On a certain occasion the Exalted One was staying at Uruvela' usually described as a
small township or large village - 'on the bank of the river Neranjara' - which of course is in
modern Bihar 'at the foot of the bodhi-tree, having just won the highest wisdom', in other
words having just become Enlightened. I don't know how [9] literally we are meant to take
that because it's as though (according to some accounts, some texts) that the various texts
which are described as having taken place after the Enlightenment, are not so much after the
Enlightenment as explorations of different aspects of the Enlightenment experience; a
working of it out in detail, so in a way, a sort of completion of the Enlightenment experience.
The Buddha here directs his attention to the pratitya samutpada as though, before he did that,
even though he was Enlightened, he didn't know anything about pratitya samutpada which
would not be according to orthodox teaching. I think probably we can say that the various
episodes such as this, taking place, as it were, after the Buddha's Enlightenment, are more sort
of after the decisive turning point and represent an exploration of different aspects of that
Enlightenment. In other words they are not to be too rigidly separated from the Enlightenment
experience itself. Not that the Buddha got Enlightenment and there he was Enlightened and
then he started thinking about pratitya samutpada. That's a much too literalistic way of
looking at it. He was exploring it, was expanding it, it was opening out, that whole vast
experience sort of radiating in all directions, opening up in all directions, and one of them was
this particular one. Not that the experience was a certain limited thing and then he started
looking around and understanding various other things afterwards: you mustn't look at it like
'Now on that occasion the Exalted One was seated for seven days in one posture and
experienced the bliss of release. Then the Exalted One, after the lapse of those seven days,
during the first watch of the night, rousing himself from that concentration of mind, gave
close attention to causal uprising in direct order', that's [10] anuloma. Anuloma literally
means 'according to the lie of the hair.' It's the natural direction of the hair, therefore 'in
progressive order', 'in the usual order', not in reverse.
First of all comes the general abstract formula of conditionality: 'This being, that becomes; by
the arising of this, that arises,' and then filling it in in detail.
'... This is the arising of the mass of Ill.' Now this is of course one of the most important and
famous formulas in the whole range of traditional Buddhist teaching. It has been explained
elsewhere. It's explained for instance in 'A Survey of Buddhism', beginning [in older editions]
on page 103. There's an explanation of each of those twelve nidanas in turn. There is a
detailed explanation of the meaning of each of these terms, and it's as well to know exactly
what they mean, because if one took each translation literally, there might be some
misunderstanding. For instance, mind and body, namarupa, doesn't really correspond with
mind and body in the Western sense.
'The Exalted One was seated for seven days in one posture and experienced the bliss of
release.' That seems quite a feat.
I don't know whether one is to take the seven days literally - I'm not sure of that. I wouldn't
rule it out as literally possible, but I just wonder, because in earlier parts of the canon, in say
the [11] Vinaya, there are early accounts of the first four weeks after the Enlightenment, how
the Buddha spent them, but in later accounts those four become seven weeks. You've got
seven times seven days; it's almost like the 49 days of 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead'. So you
just wonder whether you're concerned with ordinary chronological time at all, or whether it's
just a sort of period that is being indicated. Maybe one isn't concerned with ordinary time at
all. Maybe what is happening is happening in some other dimension with some other time, as
it were. It's difficult to say, but at the same time, the Buddha might have sat quite literally for
seven days, maybe just sort of easing his posture occasionally. It isn't impossible, I think.
Even in the history of Western mysticism you hear of saints in quite historical times who
remained immobile in prayer day and night, and these are quite well authenticated. One can
be very intensely absorbed and concentrated and be quite oblivious to what is happening
outside for quite long periods. After all, you can sleep for ten hours, so why can't you remain
in samadhi for ten hours? It doesn't seem all that extraordinary from a purely biological point
of view. From a biological point of view, samadhi is practically the same as sleep, only
deeper; so I wouldn't rule it out. At the same time, I wouldn't be prepared to insist on it, that
he literally sat there for seven days by the clock, as it were, but he might have done. I don't
feel the need to be very dogmatic about it so as to be very certain even, one way or the other.
But what one can be sure of is that there was a tremendous sort of inner absorption for a very
long period of time. Because, after all, the Buddha had gained Enlightenment [12] which he
had been looking for for so many years, and at last he was there, so all his energy sort of
poured into that, just like a waterfall falling from a tremendous height. Everything goes over,
there's nothing left behind, and it's quite conceivably only after some days that be even started
thinking and even started directing his attention to the nature of existence. Maybe, in a sense,
that was at a slightly lower level, or at least a different dimension, a different facet of the
whole thing. I think also that what we have to try to do is to look at the whole passage a bit
more imaginatively. The formula, as it stands, is very cut and dried, but I'm sure the Buddha
didn't see things in that way, as very cut and dried. He saw a whole vast process of individual
existence. He saw how it comes into existence, how it develops and how it passes away, and
how the whole thing is involved with suffering; but he didn't sort of sit down and say to
himself 'Ah yes, first of all comes ignorance and then there's the activities.' It was not like
this. He saw it in one great direct flush, as it were, and in a very sort of vivid and immediate
fashion, of which the actual formula here, as this account now gives us, gives very little hint,
especially if we don't use our imagination. I think we have to try to feel our way back into at
least some measure of what it must have been like on that occasion when the Buddha's mind
started working again - his higher mind, his intuition. He started looking around and he saw
how individual beings came into existence as a result of what they had done in previous lives;
how ...

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