Buddhism in a Phrase

There are two opposite trends in Buddhism. One trend is to spill millions of words on foundational ideas. The suttas started out as little poems or phrases that were then expounded on. The Abhidhamma is the oldest commentary on the suttas, and it’s bigger than the suttas themselves. The medieval commentaries fill libraries. Literally! And of course there are thousands of Buddhism books on Amazon and the like, all commentaries themselves in a way.

I understand the impulse of the Abhidhamma, but now, surely, this is ridiculous. Too many words! Isn’t it really just further proof that the tao that can be spoken is not the true tao? Isn’t real wisdom more simple and profound?

In fact, there is also the opposite tendency. Over and over there is this meme where someone goes to the Buddha or to a great teacher and says something like, “Could you please just tell me the teaching in brief? Maybe just a sentence or two?”

Here’s a modern attempt by Nicholas Vreeland in the foreword to the Dalai Lama’s book A Profound Mind, “The Buddhist path is fundamentally a process of learning to recognize this essential nonexistence of the self, while seeking to help other sentient beings to recognize it as well.”

Here’s what the Buddha said on one of these occasions.

Nothing should be clung to
All phenomena are not-self
all formations are impermanent

Here’s one from an anonymous modern monk: “Nothing is worth clinging to.”

Now, all of those are pretty good! All of them are true, and penetrating, and useful. But come on now! Are any of them really enough? I mean, maybe we could reconstruct the Buddha’s teachings from that one sentence, but it would be almost as big a task as the original! Reality is that  the teachings are bigger than that. Even at its most lean, the Buddha’s teachings can’t really be captured in a phrase, a sentence, or a blog post.

Now, these tendencies are alive in meditation as well. Once, kind of as a challenge to myself, I read all of Bhante Gunaratana’s doctoral dissertation on jhana in the Visuddhimagga, this 5th century Sri Lankan commentary. It’s considered the most important Theravadan document outside of the Pali canon itself. And man, let me tell you, Bhante G is an amazing man, but that was a very tough read! Brilliant, but very dense.

On the other hand, sometimes the meditation instructions we get are way TOO simple. “Just sit and follow your breath,” is beautiful, profound, direct, and exactly the right thing to do 80% of the time for 80% of the people.

But oh when you are one of the 20%, or it’s the other 20% of the time, we need more teachings than that! In a couple of days I’ll start talking about meditations other than breath meditation.


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