Is Theravada straightforward?

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 1:02 am

I found this comment on the "how does zen differ from theravada?" thread to be intriguing.
alan... wrote:... whereas theravada is a progressive step by step teaching laid out in the suttas and elaborated on in the commentary and by later teachers, zen can only be transmitted from master to student by direct interaction?
viewtopic.php?f=16&t=15568#p224090


Is it true that Theravada (or other early forms) can be adequately understood just from Sutta and ancient and modern Commentary?

I've been working through Patrick Kearney's [currently latest] retreat talks:
http://www.dharmasalon.net/Audio/BMIMC% ... BMIMC.html
and yesterday came to:
12 On truth
We examine what the Buddha means by “truth,” by unpacking Cankī Sutta (With Cankī MN95). This occurs during a debate between the Buddha and Kāpaṭhika, a brilliant young brāhmaṇa student.

Patrick points out, there and in other talks, that when the Buddha talks about "truth" he's talking about personal experience (not facts from books) and in the Suttas it is learned by paying careful attention to a teacher (who is found to be worthy of putting faith into after careful observation). Often the teacher is the Buddha himself:
E.g. MN 47:
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=576
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.ph ... 84#p223084
The Scope of Free Inquiry according to the Vimamsaka Sutta and its Madhyama Agama Parallel by Bhikkhu Analayo.

However, Patrick used MN 95, Canki Sutta, as the basis for discussion.

Thanissaro translation:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
When, on observing that the monk is purified with regard to qualities based on delusion, he places conviction in him. With the arising of conviction, he visits him & grows close to him. Growing close to him, he lends ear. Lending ear, he hears the Dhamma. Hearing the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, he becomes willing. Willing, he contemplates (lit: "weighs," "compares"). Contemplating, he makes an exertion. Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.

Nanamoli translation:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .nymo.html
It is as soon as by testing him, he comes to see that he is purified from ideas provocative of lust, hate, and delusion, that he then plants his faith in him. When he visits him he respects him, when he respects him he gives ear, one who gives ear hears the True Idea, he remembers it, he investigates the meaning of the ideas remembered. When he does that he acquires a preference by pondering the ideas. That produces interest. One interested is actively committed. So committed he makes a judgment. According to his judgment he exerts himself. When he exerts himself he comes to realize with the body the ultimate truth, and he sees it by the penetrating of it with understanding. That is how there is discovery of truth. But there is as yet no final arrival at truth. How is truth finally arrived at? Final arrival at truth is the repetition, the keeping in being, the development, of those same ideas. That is how there is final arrival at truth."

Nanamoli/Bodhi translation:
20. “When he has investigated him and has seen that he is purified from states based on delusion, then he places faith in him; filled with faith he visits him and pays respect to him; having paid respect to him, he gives ear; when he gives ear, he hears the Dhamma; having heard the Dhamma, he memorises it and examines the meaning of the teachings he has memorised; when he examines their meaning, he gains a reflective acceptance of those teachings; when he has gained a reflective acceptance of those teachings, zeal springs up; when zeal has sprung up, he applies his will; having applied his will, he scrutinises;[889] having scrutinised, he strives;[890] resolutely striving, he realises with the body the supreme truth and sees it by penetrating it with wisdom.[891] In this way, Bhāradvāja, there is the discovery of truth; in this way one discovers truth; in this way we describe the discovery of truth. But as yet there is no final arrival at truth.”[892]
    [889] Tūleti. MA: He investigates things in terms of impermanence, and so forth. This stage thus seems to be that of insight contemplation.
    [890] Although applying the will (ussahati) appears similar to striving (padahati), the former may be understood as the exertion undertaken prior to insight contemplation, the latter as the exertion that brings insight up to the level of the supramundane path.
    [891] MA: He realises Nibbāna with the mental body (of the path of stream-entry), and having penetrated the defilements, he sees Nibbāna with wisdom, making it clear and evident.
    [892] While the discovery of truth in this context appears to signify the attainment of stream-entry, the final arrival at truth (saccānuppatti) seems to mean the full attainment of arahantship.

So, clearly, the Truth is experienced, not discovered by pondering. In this case the experience comes from practice based on a respectful interaction with a trusted teacher.

Patrick makes a number of other points about Truth, but this post is getting a little long, so I'll give some opportunity for comment...

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby daverupa » Wed Jan 02, 2013 1:25 am

I think "teacher" and "reciter" were roughly equivalent in the early days of formulating the oral corpus; therefore, there is a modern splice into the sequence, i.e. reading relevant literature regarding this oral corpus, whereupon ..."he remembers it, he investigates the meaning of the ideas remembered. When he does that he acquires a preference by pondering the ideas. That produces interest. One interested is actively committed."
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby contemplating » Wed Jan 02, 2013 3:24 am

To answer the thread question yes I believe that Theravada is relatively straight forward. There is nothing that abstract about it really - nor do I think that any of the Buddhas teaching are that abstract.

It's interesting the point Dave brings up about reading being a sort of modern counterpart to being educated from a teacher via spoken word. This is a fair question; how many people during the early days of Buddhism were literate? Therefore was learning via teacher a necessity? And is it one today?
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 3:49 am

Hi Dave,
daverupa wrote:I think "teacher" and "reciter" were roughly equivalent in the early days of formulating the oral corpus;

I see it very differently. The sutta suggests selecing a teacher who, under examination, appears to be free of greed, hatred, or delusion. One then puts faith in that teacher.

It's not so easy for me to examine the behaviour of these books I have sitting here here. :reading:
daverupa wrote:... therefore, there is a modern splice into the sequence, i.e. reading relevant literature regarding this oral corpus, whereupon ..."he remembers it, he investigates the meaning of the ideas remembered. When he does that he acquires a preference by pondering the ideas. That produces interest. One interested is actively committed."

I guess that's possible. Since I've not met anyone who has got very far without teachers or strong support groups, I find it hard to visualise how it might actually work, for example, how one would correct one's confused understanding.

Of course, there is a selection problem, since I'm unlikely to run into such a practitioner off line.

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 4:02 am

Hi contemplating,
contemplating wrote:To answer the thread question yes I believe that Theravada is relatively straight forward. There is nothing that abstract about it really - nor do I think that any of the Buddhas teaching are that abstract.

This is an interesting part of the question. Are those descriptions really any more than "fingers pointing at the moon"? There are certainly these apparently straight-forward statements in the Suttas that people spend years arguing over. And the commentaries report details of experience of practitioners in the form of various jhana practices and the progress of insight. But clearly reading the suttas and commentaries is not the same as knowing it for oneself (or one-not-self...).

contemplating wrote:It's interesting the point Dave brings up about reading being a sort of modern counterpart to being educated from a teacher via spoken word. This is a fair question; how many people during the early days of Buddhism were literate? Therefore was learning via teacher a necessity? And is it one today?

It's interesting that you and Dave focus on the technology of writing vs. memory rather than the function of a teacher. As far as I can see, there no cases in the Suttas of awakening without personal contact with the Buddha or one of his students. We do have some cases, like Sariputta becoming a stream enterer, which are quite rapid:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
Then Ven. Assaji gave this Dhamma exposition to Sariputta the Wanderer:

Whatever phenomena arise from cause:
their cause & their cessation.
Such is the teaching of the Tathagata,
the Great Contemplative.

Then to Sariputta the wanderer, as he heard this Dhamma exposition, there arose the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."

But note that Sariputta has already assessed Ven Assaji in a similar way to in the Canki Sutta, and therefore has some faith in him:
Sariputta the wanderer saw Ven. Assaji going for alms in Rajagaha: gracious... his eyes downcast, his every movement consummate. On seeing him, the thought occurred to him: "Surely, of those in this world who are arahants or have entered the path to arahantship, this is one. What if I were to approach him and question him: 'On whose account have you gone forth? Or who is your teacher? Or in whose Dhamma do you delight?'"

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 4:11 am

Here's a little more about Truth.

From the Canki Sutta, MN 95 it seems that just reciting the teachings would not be enough. One needs to know that the truth can be realised:
Then, knowing with his own mind the thought in the brahmin student Kāpaṭhika’s mind, the Blessed One turned his eye towards him. Then the brahmin student Kāpaṭhika thought: “The recluse Gotama has turned towards me. Suppose I ask him a question.” Then he said to the Blessed One: “Master Gotama, in regard to the ancient brahmanic hymns that have come down through oral transmission, preserved in the collections, the brahmins come to the definite conclusion: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ What does Master Gotama say about this?”

13. “How then, Bhāradvāja, among the brahmins is there even a single brahmin who says thus: ‘I know this, I see this: only this is true, anything else is wrong’?”—“No, Master Gotama.”

“How then, Bhāradvāja, among the brahmins is there even a single teacher or a single teacher’s teacher back to the seventh generation of teachers who says thus: ‘I know this, I see this: only this is true, anything else is wrong’?”—“No, Master Gotama.”


To paraphrase some of Patrick Kearney's points:

Truth is found in a person and a way of life. Truth transforms. If I've found truth, I'll be living in a different way. If this transformation has not happened then I have not connected with this truth.

The Noble Truths are described as things we do.
Realising the Noble Truths has to do with awakening to dukkha ('This Origin of Suffering as a noble truth should be eradicated') and the possibility of a way out ('This Path leading to the cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, should be developed')
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .piya.html

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Kim OHara » Wed Jan 02, 2013 4:22 am

mikenz66 wrote:... It's interesting that you and Dave focus on the technology of writing vs. memory rather than the function of a teacher. As far as I can see, there no cases in the Suttas of awakening without personal contact with the Buddha or one of his students. ...

Hi, Mike,
A teacher can be a source of information, a source of insight and guidance, or both.
These days we are aware of the two roles and can separate them according to need. Back in the Buddha's time, every teacher had to be both because without books there were no other sources of information. It therefore probably wouldn't have crossed the mind of anyone (teacher or student) that a student could learn anything without interacting with a real live teacher.

That said, I do agree that learning only from books is bound to limit progress.

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby contemplating » Wed Jan 02, 2013 4:23 am

mikenz66 wrote:Hi contemplating,

This is an interesting part of the question. Are those descriptions really any more than "fingers pointing at the moon"? There are certainly these apparently straight-forward statements in the Suttas that people spend years arguing over. And the commentaries report details of experience of practitioners in the form of various jhana practices and the progress of insight. But clearly reading the suttas and commentaries is not the same as knowing it for oneself (or one-not-self...).


I agree that reading is not the same as doing, practicing or knowing. And that just because one reads doesn't mean one truly knows or understands. As the only way to understand is through experience, right? But then of course reading is apart of that experience as well.

edit: I should also say that reading is not a necessary part of that experience is it? I'm sure there have been many illiterate followers of the dhamma

mikenz66 wrote:
It's interesting that you and Dave focus on the technology of writing vs. memory rather than the function of a teacher. As far as I can see, there no cases in the Suttas of awakening without personal contact with the Buddha or one of his students. We do have some cases, like Sariputta becoming a stream enterer, which are quite rapid


Reading Dave's comment simply sparked the question(s) I asked. I have more; Are there any parts of the Suttas that you know of which state that a teacher is absolutely necessary? Do you think that scriptures were made solely as a supplement to learning from a teacher? There is another thread active right now which asks if attaining nibbana is possible without knowing of rebirth/kamma - essentially without learning from a teacher no?
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby contemplating » Wed Jan 02, 2013 12:32 pm

Perhaps I was getting a little off topic with my questions - apologies.
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Mr Man » Wed Jan 02, 2013 1:15 pm

I think a good example of Theravada being fairly straight forward is the Forest tradition in Thailand. There is a structure which is the Vinaya and you work within that. Living within the structure becomes the teacher/teaching. Opportunity for realization is hopefully created within the structure.
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 8:54 pm

contemplating wrote:Perhaps I was getting a little off topic with my questions - apologies.

Not at all, I'm interested in various perspectives on this.

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 9:04 pm

Mr Man wrote:I think a good example of Theravada being fairly straight forward is the Forest tradition in Thailand. There is a structure which is the Vinaya and you work within that. Living within the structure becomes the teacher/teaching. Opportunity for realization is hopefully created within the structure.

Practices might be (or sound) straightforward (a monastic environment is, by definition, a personal-interaction environment, about as far from a "just read the suttas" environment as you can get, and is highly variable and personalized), but is realization straightforward?

The Forest tradition (in it's broad context, not just the Ajahn Chah group) is very diverse (actually the Ajahn Chah group, even just the Western students, is quite diverse within itself), so it's hard to discuss without falling into cartoon versions. However, there seem to me to be elements that are very much along the lines of "what you realise is the important thing", which seems to me to be analogous to how (cartoonishly) Zen is seen to be "impossible to explain". (e.g. http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=15568&start=0#p224090).

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 9:27 pm

Hi Contemplating,
contemplating wrote: Are there any parts of the Suttas that you know of which state that a teacher is absolutely necessary? Do you think that scriptures were made solely as a supplement to learning from a teacher?

These are interesting questions. There are certainly hints in the suttas that they are very abbreviated summaries, not detailed manuals. For example, the Anapanasati Sutta is delivered to Bhikkhus who had spent months learning from others:
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Savatthi in the Eastern Monastery, the palace of Migara's mother, together with many well-known elder disciples — with Ven. Sariputta, Ven. Maha Moggallana, Ven. Maha Kassapa, Ven. Maha Kaccana, Ven. Maha Kotthita, Ven. Maha Kappina, Ven. Maha Cunda, Ven. Revata, Ven. Ananda, and other well-known elder disciples. On that occasion the elder monks were teaching & instructing. Some elder monks were teaching & instructing ten monks, some were teaching & instructing twenty monks, some were teaching & instructing thirty monks, some were teaching & instructing forty monks. The new monks, being taught & instructed by the elder monks, were discerning grand, successive distinctions.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

Or this passage:
"As for the individual who has attained neither internal tranquillity of awareness nor insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, he should approach an individual who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment... and ask him, 'How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated? How should fabrications be regarded? How should they be investigated? How should they be seen with insight?' The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced: 'The mind should be steadied in this way. The mind should be made to settle down in this way. The mind should be unified in this way. The mind should be concentrated in this way. Fabrications should be regarded in this way. Fabrications should be investigated in this way. Fabrications should be seen in this way with insight.' Then eventually he [the first] will become one who has attained both internal tranquillity of awareness & insight into phenomena through heightened discernment.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

The Gradual Training process goes like:
Tathagata, having taken on a man to be tamed, first of all disciplines him thus:
"'Come you, monk, be of moral habit, live controlled by the control of the Obligations, endowed with [right] behavior and posture, seeing peril in the slightest fault and, undertaking them, train yourself in the rules of training.' As soon, brahman, as the monk is of moral habit, controlled by the control of the Obligations, endowed with [right] behavior and posture; seeing peril in the slightest fault and, undertaking them, trains himself in the rules of training, the Tathagata disciplines him further saying:
...
[and so on]
...
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .horn.html

The following sutta discusses what happens when a bhikkhu tries to go off to meditate in the Mango Grove when he isn't properly prepared. The Buddha then reminds him of the work he needs to do.
Then the Venerable Meghiya, on emerging from seclusion in the late afternoon, approached the Lord, prostrated himself, sat down to one side, and said: "Revered sir, while I was staying in that mango grove there kept occurring to me three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought. and I thought: 'It is indeed strange! It is indeed remarkable! Although I have gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless state, I am overwhelmed by these three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought.'"

"When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, five things lead to its maturity. What five?
...
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .irel.html
viewtopic.php?f=25&t=15579

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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Alex123 » Wed Jan 02, 2013 11:25 pm

mikenz66 wrote:Is it true that Theravada (or other early forms) can be adequately understood just from Sutta and ancient and modern Commentary?



Merely being able to repeat complex technical teaching can count as knowledge, but not understanding.

IMHO, ultimately it is personal experience and results is the understanding.
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby daverupa » Wed Jan 02, 2013 11:38 pm

Alex123 wrote:
mikenz66 wrote:Is it true that Theravada (or other early forms) can be adequately understood just from Sutta and ancient and modern Commentary?



Merely being able to repeat complex technical teaching can count as knowledge, but not understanding.

IMHO, ultimately it is personal experience and results is the understanding.


Then:

Is it true that the Dhamma can be productively practiced when it is learned from books, and not in the context of live instruction?
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Alex123 » Thu Jan 03, 2013 12:19 am

daverupa wrote:Is it true that the Dhamma can be productively practiced when it is learned from books, and not in the context of live instruction?


It is true. But the best would be to have Buddha or an Arahant as a live teacher who will set one strait and help avoid dead end paths.


I wish I could teach myself then what I know now. I would have saved so much time and useless effort.
I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care."
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Dan74 » Thu Jan 03, 2013 12:52 am

I wonder if one could teach himself (herself) why do we need the Sangha at all? Why did people like Ajahns Sumedho and Amaro go to Thailand, train for so many years, endured mosquitoes and tropical diseases when they could've just stayed home?

I mean yes, sure, one can make some progress on one's own, but can we really pull ourselves out by the bootstraps? Can a blind person in a dark labyrinth find his way out even with the most accurate map?
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby daverupa » Thu Jan 03, 2013 1:09 am

Dan74 wrote:I wonder if one could teach himself (herself) why do we need the Sangha at all?


The monastic sangha, when done properly, offers the most efficacious environment for practice. In addition, there was once no distinction between monastic sangha and the teachings, since the oral tradition meant that the two could not be differentiated.

Writing ultimately changed the second part, but not the first.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Alex123 » Thu Jan 03, 2013 1:25 am

Dan74 wrote:I wonder if one could teach himself (herself) why do we need the Sangha at all? Why did people like Ajahns Sumedho and Amaro go to Thailand, train for so many years, endured mosquitoes and tropical diseases when they could've just stayed home?

I mean yes, sure, one can make some progress on one's own, but can we really pull ourselves out by the bootstraps? Can a blind person in a dark labyrinth find his way out even with the most accurate map?



In the past there were no Dhamma books. Thus you needed ordained sangha who would dedicate their life to to remember and recite the Pali Canon .

Today you don't have to climb mountains and travel far to learn some subtle doctrines.


IMHO.
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Re: Is Theravada straightforward?

Postby Mr Man » Thu Jan 03, 2013 8:34 am

mikenz66 wrote:but is realization straightforward?
I'm not sure about actual realization but I think the conceptualization is certainly fairly straightforward and not overly technical.

mikenz66 wrote:The Forest tradition (in it's broad context, not just the Ajahn Chah group) is very diverse
In my opinion it is not really that broad and diverse. The key uniting element was practicing within the vinaya and following a certain style of practice.
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