The following Sutras are chosen and ordered for providing a framework for a course. This course ran over a dozen times at a further education college, and has been the basis for four or five weekend retreats.
The Kalamma Sutra
A group of people say to the Buddha “Some people teach us that there is karma and rebirth. Other teachers come and say that it’s rubbish and that there isn’t. What do you teach?”
He says “You are uncertain about things that are uncertain and you are RIGHT to be uncertain!”
When I first heard this it was like the sun coming out! We have so many ideologies, views, politics and theories coming at us it can be bewildering. Rather than take the opportunity to extol his own teaching he starts from where they are, which is uncertainty. He says on “If you know something is good then follow it, and likewise, if you know it’s bad then don’t.” Mm I thought, so I’m supposed to make up my own mind then. He asks them if they think greed, hatred and aversion are bad for a person and they agree that they are. He says that if someone abandons these and cultivates kindness, compassion, equanimity and joy then it will be really good. It’s kind of impossible to argue with that isn’t it!
Dhammacakkapavattana Sutra: Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma
This is the BIG one! The main one! Sometimes called the Elephant’s Footprint because like all the other animals footprints fit inside the elephant’s, this sutra is the container for all the others. The Buddha lays out the scheme of the four enobling truths of suffering, it’s arising, cessation and the path to it’s cessation. He says that it arises due to craving for sensual pleasures, for becoming and for non-becoming. Now, who wouldn’t want to know about the ending of suffering?
Anatta-lakkhana: The Characteristics of Non-Self
This is the second teaching given by the Buddha chronologically. During the first, Kondanna ‘got it’ but the other four of his friends didn’t. At some point he helped them out and they made it that second time. He asks them “Is form self?” to which they reply “no”. “If form were self it would be possible to have it of form ‘let my form be thus, let my form not be thus’, but since it is not possible, form is not self”. The same pattern is then followed for feeling, perception, ‘volitional formations’ (the tendencies and unconscious biases) and consciousness. Most of us find it easy to see that the body is not one’s self but increasingly mysterious and confusing to think of each one of the others as not self. The idea that my consciousness is not a ‘self’ has been the single most surprising and radical idea I’ve ever heard! “Any consciousness whatsoever–past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near: every consciousness–is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’”
He goes on to point out that not only are they not self but they are impermanent and ultimately unsatisying too. The three characteristics of all phenomena.
The Ānanda Sutra
Before we whizz of thinking that the Buddha is teaching that there is no self, something often heard in zen circles, there is an important caveat at this point. A guy named Vacchagotta asks the Buddha “Is there a self?” to which question the Buddha remains silent. Vacchagotta then asks him “Then is there no self?” and again the Buddha remains silent. The guy then walks away, understandably, and Ānanda, the Buddha’s attendant and cousin asks him why he didn’t answer the man. He replies that if he had said yes then Vacchagotta would have sided with those who hold that things have an eternal essence, the ‘eternalists’ and if he had said no then the man would have veered to the opposite and thought that things have no essence and sided with the ‘nihilists’. These two extremes of view are seen popping up throughout history and are currently being championed by the religious fundamentalists on the one hand and by the radical atheists on the other. In the struggle of these two opposing views we have the ‘eternalists’ who feel they must maintain that position or else there will be no meaning to life. The ‘nihilists’ feel that phenomena are linked in complex but logical inter-relations and are processes that do not have supernatural forces acting on them. As in the Kalama Sutra there are those who maintain that there is rebirth and karma and those who do not.
The Buddha is not teaching that there is no self but rather pointing to a practice of attending to phenomena in such a way as to extricate one’s mind from false assumptions of phenomena as ‘me’. That’s rather a subtle point isn’t it! One needs to calm down and concentrate a bit to get this. The structure of language itself tends to lead us into thinking of things as things rather than processes. An interesting thought experiment that can help dissolve this tendency is to ask if a thing is the same or different to how it was in the past. Apply it to yourself even. Am I the same person as I was when I was a child or am I a different person?
Paticcasamuppada Vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of Dependent Co-arising
The detailed linkages of cause and effect that bring about suffering which is neither random nor supernatural.
Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path
This is the explanation of the fourth of the ‘enobling truths’ ie. the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
It’s ‘right everything!’
The Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness
This is how you go about actually doing it! Paths need to be walked, not just talked about.