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Why *Early* Buddhism?

Letizia Baglioni

What follows is part of an ongoing attempt at articulating what is it about the early teachings that makes them unique and relevant, and why it is worthwhile taking the time to undo (or at least relax) some of the meanings and methods we may have inherited from Buddhist schools and teachers, and turn to these sources. In the process, five key features of the early Dhamma stand out which, I believe, are lost or obscured in later formulations. They are precisely the features which, once well-grasped, enable us to derive meaningful insights from the Suttas despite the socio-cultural gap, and to formulate and apply them in fresh, unique ways today.

My premise: the Dhamma is ‘well-spoken’ (svākkhāta). It is a teaching that aims at catalysing and supporting a specific evolutionary process – as it actually occurs for the individual and the group – while generating its own language and conceptual frames to chart it. So, it is not a religion or a moral utopian vision. In essence it is maieutic rather than prescriptive. The teaching (Dhamma) goes with a training (Vinaya), but training, or practice, does not determine or define the transformations which the Dhamma addresses. So it is not an ancient handbook of psychospiritual technology. Rather, it demands a creative effort to devise a suitable training in real-life situations.

Like an exquisite bird, the Dhamma requires subtle, gentle handling (nothing too rushed or rough), lest it should fly away or die. Like a poisonous snake, it is not mild or risk-free. Like any living organism, it requires suitable conditions to thrive; while adapting, it will attempt to retain its inner coherence. I am concerned with organic Dhamma whose fruits are irregular, yet carry a distinctive taste. GM Dhamma may be smart-looking and easier to grow, but equally flavourless.

While Gotama’s unique genius and accomplishments shine through the texts, the Dhamma of early Buddhism is neither the work of a single thinker (like Plato’s Dialogues), nor the revelation of a prophet or godlike figure (like the Gospel). Rather, it claims to retrieve insights and accomplishments available to humans (the ‘ancient path in the forest’(1)), it develops within a relational matrix, exemplified at its earliest stage by the Group of Five Bhikkhus, and undergoes a process of oral transmission and implementation before becoming written down.

While the early texts celebrate the Tathāgata as a model and ‘pointer of the way’, the Dhamma does not belong to him, nor does its validity rest upon the authority of his word, or even his being around at all(2) – rather like Newton and the workings of gravity. Rather, the Dhamma belongs to anyone who brings it forth in their own time and place, accepting the responsibility of keeping the path open.

Now, the five points. You’ll find they are plain, somewhat blunt statements. I do not stop to argue for or even explain them. They are meant for reflection and inquiry, and hopefully will encourage some of you who are lingering on the threshold to venture into this fascinating world. The scattered textual references are just a few places that came to mind as I was writing this.

1) FRACTAL SHAPE – The Dhamma presents the same global pattern at different scales. Giving (dāna), giving up (nekkhamma), the wholesome gathering of the mind (samādhi), and nibbāna (the stilling of drives) all turn on one immediate experience: the stress of grasping and clinging, the ease of relinquishing and letting go. This is a physical, proprioceptive metaphor, whose validity and implications in the realm of the heart and behaviour are to be sensed and realised, rather than an ideal to live by or achieve. The image of the Path is a powerful one, but does not say it all. If taken literally (and linearly) this image may even be misleading. Rather than performing or ‘accumulating’ a set of steps that lead to a desired end that you imagine (or are told) lies ahead, it is a matter of getting a taste of the kind of happiness and freedom Gotama is talking about. It is about appreciating what ‘gesture’ got you there, then letting it all flow forward, dealing with obstacles as they come up.

2) THE PRINCIPLE OF REGULARITY (dhammaniyāmatā) – The awakening of Gotama is reproducible, yet not produced at will. So the teaching has an intrinsic order which mirrors a natural, impersonal, conditional process, and is not culturally specific. ‘Given A, B is possible.’ ‘Without A, B is not possible’ (however hard you try). It is neither random, nor deterministic. Neither self-willed, nor externally-induced. Conscious mind and will have little bearing on the outcome, any more than you find chicks hatching out of their eggs because the mother hen wishes that they do so.(3) The ‘natural process’ perspective has a counterbalance in #3.

3) THE PRINCIPLE OF SKILFULNESS (kusalatā) – The teachings are only as effective or valid as your skills allow. So they are not universally ‘true’. However, skills (usually described in sets such as the ‘5 faculties’ or the ‘7 limbs of awakening’) can be developed and honed through associating with ‘admirable friends’ (kalyāṇamitta). Goodness and realisation are to be measured by the kind of hands-on discernment you need for a trade or craft. Work metaphors and similes, which abound in the Suttas, suggest conscious mind and will play a role after all (for the good or the bad). This perspective has a counterbalance in #2.

4) COMPLEXITY, NOT UNIVOCITY – The Discourses provide not one doctrine (e.g. the four noble truths) or one meditation method (e.g. ‘just sitting’, or vipassanā), but a set of models partially overlapping, approaching the subject matter from different angles, or at different levels of cultivation. This makes for ambiguities, inconsistencies and gaps which are to be solved, as it were, not theoretically, but in the context of one’s own practice as it actually develops. The Abhidhammas, the commentarial traditions, and Buddhist schools try to make it all fit and work neatly, but somehow that is beside the point. If this is going to be a raft, according to a well known simile for the Dhamma,(4) then it is one that requires you to piece it together from available, scattered material, then test if it’s good enough to stay afloat and carry you through.

5) POLYSEMIC LANGUAGE – Early Buddhist teachings largely use experiential concepts.(5) Simply stated, experiential concepts do not symbolise or designate things (units, objects, realities, logical entities, mind states…). Rather, they tap into a pool of implicit, shared knowledge and elicit certain cognitive-affective responses. In turn, such subjectively felt meanings will inform attitude and action – even the subtle, inner actions of ‘meditation’. Terms such as nibbāna, taṇhā, dukkha, are metaphors based on observations in daily life. They are meant to be intuitively grasped by any interested person and play a certain role in discourse, rather than being dissected and imparted as philosophical concepts, psychological categories, or religious dogmas. One major example would be the term sati, which cannot be reduced to any one function of mind (such as ‘bare attention’): if you are sloppy or absent-minded it will mean ‘remember your task or priorities’; if you are easily carried away or overwhelmed, it will entail ‘being as vigilant and protective as a town watchman’; if you’re restless and overactive, it will remind you to ‘sit back and watch your grazing cows’ (and so forth).(6)

Needless to say, living interaction with people who are actually doing all this and thereby providing both the ethical context and the benefit of their experience is an integral part of unpacking the teachings. The early texts imply not just a Master or exegetic tradition, but a living, accomplished Sangha that helps you make sense of the Dhamma; more importantly, that makes sense of you, as you struggle to live it out.

– Comments are welcome to


1 Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.65.
2 Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.20.
3 The image is found in Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.101.
4 Majjhima Nikāya 22.13.
5 For a discussion of different ‘types’ of concepts, and terms such as ‘experience’ and ‘imply’ as I use them here, see E. T. Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, 1962, and later works. For a quick reference:
6 For these and other images of sati in the suttas, see Bhikkhu Anālayo, Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, Windhorse: Birmingham 2003, pp. 53 ff.