The essence of our practice must be founded in understanding the Dhamma. In understanding the teaching. By gaining – with clear understanding – deep insight into the proces. In this moment. Now. By not getting lost in words and concepts that are 2,500 years old. By avoiding the maze of interpretations. Concretely: by considering Dhamma as one. Ekāyana magga. By integrating Dhamma into yourself. By seeing the stream. By entering the stream. By finally being the stream.
The Buddha is extremely clear what the qualities of the Dhamma are. What really belongs to the core of Dhamma . What the characteristics are. In the Mahanama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 11.13, He says:
“The Dhamma is excellently proclaimed [by me]; directly established in truth; result-oriented; inviting everyone to come and see; leading directly to the goal; to be experienced by the wise.”
Can it be worded more clearly and simply? Straight. In plain Pali. Without bends or detours. The language of a Sammasambuddha.[i]
Unfortunately, the teaching of the Buddha (Buddhadhamma) is wrapped in all kinds of ways and stripped of essence. Undressed and dressed. Mummified. A la tête du client. Consciously and unconsciously.
Thus, a carelessly translated teaching arises where on the one hand the intrinsic meaning remains hidden and on the other appears scorched. Orchestrated by scientifically trained word artists but without sufficient meditation experience. By diligent magicians who keep words and concepts like balls in the air. As ordinary balls where the shape (the balls) overshadows the content (the attention, the agility, the insight). As a result, the intrinsic meaning of Dhamma is obscured or – in the most extreme case – even completely lost. It appears like an unintelligible pile of words. Not coherent. Not consistent. A mala. [ii] Usually well-intentioned, but careless. Without any stop button. From Pali to another language. And so jumping from language to language.
Thus, the “excellently proclaimed Dhamma” by the Buddha appears as a proliferation of carelessness. Interpretations that en fin de compte only ventilate the authors’ doubts. But in the meantime also stirring up the doubts of the readers. Fueling the spiritually destructive fire of doubt. Upadhi. Again and again. [iii]
Words and concepts are not the Dhamma. Even with the utmost care, words and concepts are just pointers. In the same way as the words that you now are reading carefully. They are merely pointers to experiential insight, to direct experiential experience. Paccanubhoti.[iv]
Therefore, this recommendation: If they are not guiding beacons for you, they are only errant lights that you should neutralize as soon as possible by looking carefully. By observing alertly yourself. Observing Self.
Why are words and concepts just guiding lights?
Dhamma cannot be captured in words and concepts because – like all conditioned phenomena – they are ephemeral, impermanent concepts. Completely subject to the three characteristics of existence (tilakkhaṇa).[v]
Unlike words and concepts, Dhamma – as the natural process of existence – is timeless. As a result, Dhamma cannot be realized intellectually but only experienced directly. Through a realization that saturates every moment. Through a realization that takes place in every moment. As a cyclical maturation process: from one ‘now’ moment to the next ‘now’ moment. And not in a (distant) past or an illusory future.
Specifically applied to a rigorous practice: a translation that is not grounded in deep meditation (samādhi) – a conversion from pali that is not firmly rooted and saturated by meditative concentration – is barren, sparse and meaningless towards practice. That is also the reason why such texts – devoid of experiential insight – feel confused and woolly.
Philology can be a skillful tool for clear insight and deep understanding of Dhamma. But this is not d’office. Only when the reading and the practice of Dhamma texts (the suttas; commentaries on the suttas and insightful dhamma talks and dhamma books) create the conditions for liberation from dukkha – and in this way make the dhammanuvatti a real stream-enterer. Only in this case, the Buddha called it ‘beneficial’. [vi] Learning linguistics is a very useful activity, but please keep always in mind that it is a completely different branch of sport than liberation from dukkha.
Just as Dhamma is not a philology or a religion, nor is it a philosophy that wants to give an interpretive interpretation of existence. Nor is Dhamma a religion to support and justify – as the pivot on which the universe revolves – of a creator, god, chief architect. Dhamma stands exclusively for the natural law, the cosmic law to which everything is subject. Dhammo sanantano.
In addition to philological carelessness, there is another common problem. Many practitioners go astray by immersing themselves in all kinds of metaphysical reflections. By identifying with idealistic interpretations and turning them into a syncretic amalgam. Never forget that every preference (rati) leads to desire (lobha, taṇhā) and every rejection (arati) evokes aversion (dosa, vyāpāda). Desire and aversion stem from ignorance (avijjā) which causes ‘becoming’ – the ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’ – (bhava). [vii] Fixating on and clinging to transcendental considerations never leads to liberation from dukkha, says the Buddha. Apart from the permanent thickening of the ego[viii] – the ‘becoming’; the being born again and again (bhava) – the result is nil.
Insight into Dhamma deals with liberation (vimutti). Liberation from our dissatisfaction (dukkha). There lies the quintessence of the Buddha’s teachings. That is what he resolutely referred to in his first two lectures in Sarnath.[ix]
Awakening, waking up, self-realization refers to insight into the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariya saccāni): understanding dukkha; letting go of the cause of dukkha; realizing the liberation from dukkha and cultivating the path that leads to the liberation from dukkha.
Each of the set truths must be realized within yourself. Recognizing (pariyatti), acknowledging through practice (patipatti) and becoming one with it (paṭivedha).
This is the Buddha’s Way. There is no other. Walk with a big bend around the things that do not bring you to liberation. Don’t waste time with them. Because if you do this, you are grossly failing yourself.
Realize that your time to gain insight is extremely limited. Look exclusively in the direction of the things that will bring you to stream-entry. Create the climate and conditions for yourself that will allow you to enter the stream. To extinguish (sitibhava).
This is how you transform into a Buddha-to be.
The Dhammapada points in this direction:[x]
“Those who have experienced the emptiness and the unconditioned liberation: their trail is difficult to follow – like the trail of birds in the sky.”
[i] Sammasambuddha: literally: ‘the Completely Awakened, who completely extinguished has entered the Parinibbāna’. It is a frequently used epithet for the Buddha.
[ii] mala: a praying-necklace to support a certain thought content, a kind of formal mantra, a dharani (a tool that is supposed to keep the attention going, but can easily become a less than insightful habit pattern if it is not done under expert steering and guidance. In the Pali-sutta texts the term ‘mala’ has a negative connotation when referring to the Vedic concept: mala → Malacca = impure, tainted, in the sense of ‘an impure root’)
[iii] upadhi: the substrate, the fuel prevents the extinguishing of the fire – i.c. ignorance, desire and aversion.
[iv] paccanubhoti → pati + anu + bhu + a = experience, realize, experiential experience. Direct experience. Wisdom on an experiential level. Observe immediately. With an emphasis on personal experience. Without a head above one’s own head. Without god, without a master. Without parachute. Without any external support. Determined (adhiṭṭhāna) to cultivate and expand the personally acquired insight. With the necessary skepticism. But also with the necessary swagger and bravado for the further development of the spiritual experiment: after all, the road is never smooth, easy clear. The firm will to – unconditionally –be wise. To see for yourself. To know for yourself. Sapere aude.
If the practitioner views the Buddha’s words merely as “words,” as “concepts,” or as a metaphysical explanation he will never see Dhamma. It comes down to experiential experienced. Pure experience. ‘Pure experience is realized prior to the distinction between subject and object’ (Guitar Nishida, (1990), An Inquiry into the Good). In other words, it is not so much about what the Buddha literally said, but about making his deep experience your own. To walk next to him and not behind him.
[v] tilakkhaṇa: → ti = three; lakkhaṇa = characteristic. Tilakkhaṇa = the three characteristics of existence, namely transient (anicca); unsatisfactory (dukkha) and not ‘self’ (anattā).
[vi] The Buddha calls ‘beneficial’ everything – thoughts, words and deeds – which lead to liberation from dukkha.
[vii] Observe carefully how the ‘likes’ in ‘dislikes’ form the foundation of the success story behind social media: The ‘I’ that constantly sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels and thinks… and in this way builds up and maintains the ‘ego’.
[viii] This is especially evident in the oldest early Buddhist Pali texts. The Atthakavagga is a shining example of this. My translation of this sutta with annotations can be downloaded for free via this link: https://yatha-bhuta.com/atthakavagga/
[x] Dhammapada, Gathas #92 in 93
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276