Original Buddhism

Simple Suttas is supposedly “a podcast on original Buddhism.” But does such a thing even exist?

At one level it’s just a notion. We can never know exactly what the Buddha said and taught. We are stuck with 1.) the ancient texts, 2.) the living traditions, and 3.) archeological evidence.

Consider: My son was born in 2004. I was born in 1975. My father was born in 1947. My grandfather was born in 1921. To get back close to a century you have to go back to your great-great grandfather. Most of us never get to know that person directly, just from second hand evidence. Do you know anything about what he actually said? Do you know what he smelled like? This is a person I share a y-chromosome with!

To the extent we know anything about the Buddha, we owe it mostly to 25 centuries, 100 generations, of monks and nuns getting up early every morning to chant the suttas, preserve the tradition, and embody the practice.

Transmission happens over time as well as nations or individuals. Time and distance have shaded all of the traditions away from the original teachings. Yes, sometimes important ideas are lost or mangled. Probably many beautiful teachings are lost forever. Even more frightening, perhaps some of the teachings we do have are inauthentic or corrupted.

For myself, I want to root my practice as much as possible on the words of the Buddha, but to what extent is that possible? At what point do we move from learning from a wise teacher to becoming a fundamentalist?

As far as I can see, here’s the bottom line: We can never know exactly what the Buddha originally taught, but we can get close. And even more than that, we know for sure that many things that are taught as the teachings of the Buddha were not.

Here are a few things that were a part of original Buddhism and must be a part of any Buddhist tradition worth of the name:

  • a monastic sangha of both monks and nuns
  • a lay sangha that actively practices and actively supports the monastic sangha
  • a strong ethical code
  • a focus on the teachings of the oldest suttas
  • jhana practice

Here are some things the Buddha never taught and should be eased out of all traditions:

  • any notion that women are inferior to men in dhamma or any other way
  • getting paid to teach dhamma
  • the idea that someone could decide to return after death to help others
  • the idea that “we” or “the mind” or whatever is innately pure and is merely sullied by the defilements
  • the idea that nibbana is not all that important after all
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