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NA330712 - Voice of the Buddha (The)
The Voice of the Buddha
The Buddha - Kulananda
The doctrinal texts of Buddhism are extensive. It has been calculated that they are 50 times larger than The Bible and 250 times larger than the Qur’an. Buddhism is not the religion of a creator deity and therefore its practitioners have legitimately added to the corpus of wisdom as the centuries have passed from the time of the Buddha himself around 500 BC.
So, Buddhist texts are rich and varied, reflecting the changing times and the changing environments in which the teachers found themselves. But there is a special place for what is called the Buddhavacana, the word of the Buddha. His teachings were not written down until some 400 years after his passing away. However, they were maintained by generation after generation of monks who, drawing on memories accustomed to storing accurately vast quantities of words and meanings, relayed them down through the ages.
The Tipitaka, the three baskets, regarded by the Theravadin school (and all subsequent Buddhist traditions) as the earliest records of Buddhism, contains those words purportedly spoken by the Buddha. They were eventually written down in Pali, a language of North-East India; but the Buddha probably spoke Magadhi, because he spent much of his time in Magadha, a neighbouring kingdom to the Sakyas, his own people.
Even during the Buddha’s lifetime there were suggestions that his teachings should be given in Vedic, the aristocratic ‘Latin’ of India of the period. But the Buddha insisted that his teachings were for everyone and should be given in the language of the people so that everyone could understand what was said.
In the end, this helped the word of the Buddha to survive. As Buddhism spread throughout the East, and was written down, it was translated into many languages. The key texts, the sutras, went into Chinese, Khotanese, Tibetan, Japanese, Mongolian and many others. What is extraordinary is that when the Buddhavacana is compared through the medium of these translations, the accuracy and similarity, despite the distance of thousand of kilometres and centuries of time, is deeply impressive.
This was aided by the use of various mnemonic forms including lists, poetry, chanting and manageable collections. This made it easier for the monks, after the Buddha’s Parinirvana, to share out the teachings and commit them to memory.
For around 400 years the word of the Buddha was passed on. Gradually, however, and certainly by 100 BC, the Buddhavacana was written down. It was written in Pali.
The Dhammapada is one of the bestknown and most quoted texts of the Buddhist tradition. There are three extant texts in ‘original’ language—one in Pali, one in Sanskrit and one in Prakrit. It also appears in Chinese and Tibetan translations, but the texts are largely the same. As Sangharakshita says in his consideration of Buddhist texts:
While the Dhammapada is the selfcontained jewel in this recording, this audiobook presents other teachings which form the basis of Buddhism worldwide, whatever the tradition, whatever the language, whatever the expression. The stories of Angulimala, Meghiya and Bahiya of the Bark Garment offer not only the nature of the Buddha’s view but something vibrant of his character. He, as a man, comes alive here.
Other teachings, on death, karma, rebirth, ethics, meditation and wisdom, can appear more formal; and no one approaching the key concept of Dependent Origination can say it is an easy process to grasp. But here too the unmatched directness of the Buddha comes through so clearly.
For those who want to burrow deep into metaphysics, he produces the metaphor of the arrow; for his own son Rahula, explaining about how actions result in consequences, he draws the image of the mirror. So often there is an unmistakeable sense of smile, of compassionate humanity touched with playfulness.
Of course, he can also be unequivocally direct—if you do this, this will happen. But more often than not, there is a gentle understanding of the human condition.
The teaching of the Buddha is among the most wide-ranging and complex of the world religions. It is precisely because there isn’t a Bible or a Qur’an, a text from the ultimate, non-human authority, that the Dhamma (the teachings) seems so much more discursive. It is a teaching that, as the Buddha says again and again, must be practised to be assimilated—not learnt by rote and accepted.
It is also the nature of Buddhism that its Dhamma literature grew with the centuries, accruing more texts, more teachings, as the spiritual experience of successive generations added to the three baskets of the original teachings. As Buddhism went from country to country, the teachings were expressed in different ways, in different languages; there were different emphases reflecting the different age, a different environment, a different temperament.
This is seen in the variety of Buddha images around the world. A Burmese seated Buddha figure is distinct from a Thai image; a Chinese image is different from a Japanese image, and a Tibetan rupa is different again. This is also the case now in the West.
Similarly, the language, the metaphors, and the experience of the teachings differ. And yet it is always enriching to come back to the words of the Buddha himself.
This is where it began. This is where the world impetus started, with one man walking around North India in the fifth century BC, encountering bandits, kings, merchants, courtesans and monks in all stages of development. It is when we hear the actual words that we can really come face to face with the Buddha.
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