Thursday, April 19, 2012

why you don't know more about Buddhism, part 1

The founding texts of Buddhism make up what's called the Pali Canon. Pali is closely related to Sanskrit, so on the scale of "how weird is it for English speakers," it's harder than Spanish but easier than Chinese. The texts--they don't have the sort of divine authority you'd associate with "scripture"--were transmitted orally for a few hundred years before being written down. There's been a lot of textual scholarship in the past few decades and it appears that oral transmission, at least in this case, is a lot more accurate that we tend to think.

Teacher and author Stephen Batchelor typically estimates that if you were to print the Pali Canon in English, it would come to about 6,000 pages. He further guesses that if you eliminated the repetition, you'd still have 3,000 pages. My RSV Bible is a mere 1087 pages. This is the Pali Canon:

The Pali Canon is divided into three pitakas, or "baskets": the Vinaya, or monastic rules, the Abhidhamma, a post-Buddha systematized psychology, and the part most of us would be concerned with, the Suttas, a vast collection of discourses by the Buddha.

The great challenge for those interested in reconstructing a historical perspective is the way the Sutta Pitaka is organized, without any kind of narrative. Chronological order? Nay nay, shar-pei. There are 5 groupings, or nikayas. In an innovative monastic order in ancient India, this is how we roll when we have reams of material to memorize:
  1. Digha Nikaya - The long discourses.
  2. Majjhima Nikaya - The middle-length discourses. (I'm not making this up.)
  3. Samyutta Nikaya - The "connected" discourses, using various criteria for "connected," including one group organized by who appears in the sutta.
  4. Anguttara Nikaya - The "numerical" discourses, organized by the number of topics they cover. (I'm serious. Click on the link.)
  5. Khuddaka Nikaya - Khuddaka means "random little things that wouldn't fit anywhere else," including collections of sayings like the Dhammapada.
So yeah. Where do you start, exactly?

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