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Vajratara reviews a first-class new book on early Buddhist doctrine:
Early Buddhist Teachings
by Y. Karunadasa
Boston: Wisdom Publications 2018, 240pp, hb £22.50, pb £11, ebook
review by Vajratara
In a book market saturated with books about Buddhism, one may not immediately choose a book about early Buddhist teachings written by a Pali and Buddhist studies Scholar. However, though Early Buddhist Teachings goes over some of the same ground as other books about basic Buddhism, it offers a fresh and comprehensive overview that leaves us with a deeper understanding. Professor Karunadasa explains a wide range of Pali terms and teachings, bringing them together in such a way as to enable the reader to understand not only their definition, but also their relation to each other.
He builds up his explanation by giving an outline of Buddhism as a dynamic-process philosophy. Subject and object are not fixed entities, but describe an ever changing process. Buddhism is essentially pragmatic. In the ever changing process of experience, whatever helps one to eliminate passion, aversion and delusion and develop generosity, loving kindness and wisdom are the Dhamma. Karunadasa is keen to rebuff any ideas that Buddhism involves ‘esotericism’ or ‘mysticism’. As he understands it, ‘mysticism’ involves attributing a ‘higher metaphysical reality’ outside of our direct experience or in positing the goal of Buddhism as a ‘mystical absorption with an absolute’. The Buddha, he says, described the nature of ‘the world’, the world being the world that we experience through our six senses (including mind): ‘It is only world of sensory experience that Buddhism recognises, the world that we experience through our six sense faculties.’
The nature of this world is described as the middle way, as ‘dependent arising’, rejecting the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. This is the foundation of Karunadasa’s exploration of the early Buddhist teachings. From that foundation he explains how the notion of self identity is formed in the cognitive process, and how the mind, and consciousness, construct our reality. This is where Karunadasa’s summary is at its most comprehensive and penetrating. He explores both the conscious, reflective and pre-reflective level of the creation of self-identity in a way that reveals the dynamic depth of our perceptions of who we are. He explores the nature of the relationship between mind and body and between consciousness and the other mental faculties. The continuum of mental phenomena that is the mind in action is explained in every stage and every level. What emerges is an understanding of the mind in early Buddhist teachings that is complex and subtle. It is invaluable for students of the later Buddhist teachings on self identity, mind and consciousness to understand the basis of the later teachings in light of the early Buddhist texts. Each term used – viññāna, manas, citta, cetāsika, vedanā, saññā, etc. – is precise and multi-layered. Karunadasa gives a clear explanation which enables the reader to understand what the Buddha did, and did not, mean when he used each term.
The latter part of Early Buddhist Teachings is taken up with the practical implications of the understanding of mind and the cognitive process. He discusses the nature of unsatisfactoriness, suffering or dukkha, and how to lead an ethical life that leads us beyond suffering, to mundane happiness and to the highest happiness of all, Enlightenment or Nibbāna. Moral ‘evil’ and moral good is based in the mind, and again Karunadasa explains the deep-seated psychological tendencies that we are all subject to, and how they manifest in ‘the mind’s turbulence’ and are expressed in action. Nibbāna too is explained in various ways, clearing up any misunderstandings, and exploring the more complex dimensions of Nibbāna, such as Nibbāna being ‘free from action’ (kamma). This leads into a discussion of the mystery of what happens when a Buddha dies, along with the other ‘unanswered’ questions. Karunadasa finishes the book looking at the Buddhist attitude to the idea of ‘God’. The appendix discusses the Buddhist rejection of religious fundamentalism. This seems of particular interest given recent religious tensions and inter-religious violence in Sri Lanka, Karunadasa’s native country.
Early Buddhist Teachings gives both breadth and depth in understanding the early teachings. Karunadasa combines both scholarship and accessibility, making it a good overview for those students wishing to deepen their knowledge of Buddhism and understand the early Buddhist foundations of later Buddhist teachings. It would also appeal to those who would like an introduction to the teachings found in the Pali Canon. For those training for ordination in the Triratna Buddhist Order, it offers a very good companion to The Survey of Buddhism by Sangharakshita, whom he quotes. It is an academic book, and thus gives a reliable grounding in the early teachings. The implications of those teachings in modern life are left for us to reflect on in our own way. Karunadasa gives us the tools to do so.
Vajratara has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 2004. She lives and works at Tiratanaloka retreat centre in Wales where she helps train women for ordination.