There is a condition for the arising of the Noble Eightfold path, namely: ‘The voice of another.’ A normal, uninstructed, worldly person is completely dependent on others to point the way to truth. ‘The voice of another’ refers to encountering the True Dhamma – whether spoken, written, or in some other form. Without encountering truth, how could we develop confidence in it? How could we reflect on it enough to develop understanding?
The concept of True Dhamma can be misleading if we think it is limited to just the Buddha’s words. Truth is all around us and has been our entire lives. Yet, still, it needs to be pointed out to us and presented to us before we recognize it as such. Sometimes the truth can be just an echo of something profound and not even a discernible teaching. The serene smile of a Buddha statue or the steady, mindful steps of a practitioner can cause our minds to pause and consider our approach to life. Sometimes it’s the calm and quiet of the monastery that speaks most loudly about the goal.
While some have been inspired by seeing the Buddha or experiencing the safety and stability of the Sangha, by far the most common access point to Truth is by the teaching of dhamma. The best, most universal of these teachings have been passed down through the ages. Vetted by millennia of teachers and practitioners, the pāli canon is as close as we get to hearing the Buddha teach. While he’s not teaching to us, if we can in any way empathize with the listeners 2600 years ago it can be almost like we’re there.
I’m struck again and again by the reaction of people when they first encounter the pāli suttas. Even in this day and age with free access to full translations of the canon many people have never encountered the original texts or faithful translations. Ethnic Buddhists born into buddhist communites are often only exposed to those bits of dhamma which are chanted aloud, and sometimes for centuries at a time the meaning was obscured. Those in the Mahayana or Vajrayana are similarly working from their own collections of teachings. Only a portion of their monastics ever take the scholarly approach of reading the originals.
These days, there are many western buddhists who learn meditation and the basics of Buddhism from lay teachers. They’ve heard the similes and been instructed in key concepts. Nevertheless, they all say there is something different when they encounter monastics steeped in the suttas. And when they dare to explore the suttas themselves there seems no going back. They are no longer dependent on others to read and relay the original teachings to them. For the rest of their lives they know where to look.
Still, no matter how thirsty one is for Truth, at first grabbing hold of the pāli canon can be a lot like trying to drink from a fire hose.
The Buddha taught for 45 years after his enlightenment and most of the things he said during that time, except the most mundane polite chatter, were remembered and passed on to future generations. There is no beginning point in the suttas and no end. The Buddha’s first teaching is buried in the middle of the Samyutta Nikaya and his last is in the middle of the Digha. There is not one or two but two dozen approaches to categorizing the teachings in the canon itself.
The dhamma is not like a worldly skill where we can search out a ‘… For Dummies’ book and read until we have a basic understanding. It’s about learning to see what is in plain sight and challenging the assumptions that keep us locked in unproductive or harmful patterns. If we try to approach the pāli canon like we would any other body of knowledge we’re certain to be overwhelmed. There’s no way to consume it all in a single sitting or even a single month. With no other clear way to mark our progress we might find ourselves asking … ‘Am I supposed to read it all?’
There wasn’t anyone in the Buddha’s time who was present for all the suttas recorded in the pāli canon. Not even the Buddha himself. Some were spoken by his disciples or after his passing. This simple reality is reflected in the very nature of the canon itself: teachings are grouped by arbitrary categories of length, subject, and mode of presentation. They are not in chronological order, nor are they arranged in any manner to take a student from basic understandings to full enlightenment. They are a complete mixed bag. Each one represents a single scene with a single cast of characters. The words are only part of the teaching — it’s also about who was there, what they were going through, and how the teaching landed for them. The structure of the pāli canon reflects the nature of dhamma practice itself. Any teaching can be the teaching for us.
It’s not the case we need to study all the suttas to grow in the dhamma. It is the case that we need to study any of the suttas. The dhamma is ‘paccattaṁ veditabbo viññūhi’, meaning each person starts dependent on others but must grow to understand it themselves. Just like the situations that were recorded in each of the suttas, the most important teaching for our growth is the teaching we’re hearing right now. Developing faith and wisdom is not a product of book learning. It’s not necessarily cumulative. Faith can only arise when we are present for the true dhamma and apply ourselves to it.
The breakthrough to understanding is more a factor of us being ready than of the teaching itself. There are so many different teachings with so many different approaches to truth. That said, because we’re not ultimately in control of the thoughts, moods, and feelings arising in our minds, we increase our chances of making the breakthrough when we return again and again to hear or read the dhamma and reflect on it. We have to work with what we’ve got and set ourselves up for success.
It might seem random or mystical but there are a number of guarantees. The first is that if we don’t apply ourselves to the dhamma, we will have a zero percent chance of awakening. Even when we start taking an interest in the teachings we can’t be sure of when or how we will grow in understanding. The second guarantee is that we can know for certain we will be in the process of attending to the dhamma when we make the breakthrough. This is the quality of mind the Buddha dubs ‘yoniso manasikara’, or wise attention. The doubts that keep us spinning and forever trudging along the hamster wheel of samsara are held in place by attending to worldly things from the perspective of one in the world. When we counteract this by attending to that which is universal and true from any perspective, we have already overcome the fetter of doubt at that time.
It’s not that we overcome the fetter of doubt by reaching understanding … it’s that we reach understanding by overcoming the fetter of doubt. Applying ourselves to the true dhamma – by reading suttas, by associating with practitioners, or by putting it in practice ourselves – is the process by which this occurs. If we want to get past that feeling of being overwhelmed and confused by the dhamma the simplest way is to first set those thoughts aside. Just ask, ‘Where is the dhamma right now? What is true and stable in this situation? Where is the teaching that applies?’
If we look very closely this is the thing every sutta is trying to show us. The people listening at the time didn’t have the concept of ‘pāli canon’ or were worried about how long it would take it hear everything they needed to know. The canon didn’t exist and there was no body of knowledge other than the teacher in front of them. They just listened to the Buddha’s words and applied it to their lives. It was because of this that they made their breakthroughs. Every sutta is an invitation to drop everything else and listen. Enjoy!