I am struck by the way many of us hold the dharma to a strict interpretation of the suttas, as if Buddhism could be conveyed by only one possible translation and intention. When we have questions, many of us look to the Pali scholars for the derivation of a phrase or word, seeking its exact meaning, and we often confine our own practice to that explicit definition, even if the suggested wording runs counter to our insights. We must be careful not to know too much or interpret too precisely what the Buddha meant, because that intellectual knowing may distract us from the realization of his message and leave little room to probe the depth of his teaching in personally meaningful ways. If we look upon the suttas with a little more ease, the foundation of his teaching clearly emerges and the mystery of his message invites our own exploration.
After more than 2,500 years, including 500 years of oral tradition, the suttas have been distilled down to the bare essentials to facilitate communication and deliverance. Much must be missing from the actual teaching delivered so long ago and, perhaps more importantly, must have been embellished and distorted along the way. I believe that we can rejuvenate the suttas and infuse them with renewed life through our own insights and modern metaphors. When we look at what is implied rather than what is strictly written, a plethora of meanings and purposes emerges—the sutta suddenly radiates out in breadth and extends itself into the farthest reaches of our lives. But at this point of expansion, a call of restraint must be voiced. Unless our implied translations are contained by our insights and held within the fundamental framework presented by the Buddha, we could quickly cast an unintentional veil of ignorance over the basic teaching of the Four Noble Truths.
Undisputed is the essential understanding that the Buddha’s teaching moves us from a contracted, isolated entity called “me” to the freedom and interdependence of our empty and selfless nature, free of suffering. We could say that the Buddha’s teaching moves along a continuum from suffering to the end of suffering or from belief in self to the certainty of emptiness. We suffer because we imagine that reality holds options that it does not (Second Noble Truth), and we then infuse energy into those mental choices (attachment), ultimately resisting what is and creating dissatisfaction as a result (First Noble Truth). All this is done within our thoughts as the thinking mind embellishes the images of our fantasies and creates alternative stories and possibilities.
Knowing the nature of our thinking mind and taking into account the resolution of suffering, which is to abide fully with things as they are (Third Noble Truth), we could then say that Buddhism moves us from the trance of thought (desire) to stillness (end of desire), and that the sacred is that which is not contained by thought and therefore unconditioned (nibbana). Our practice then should resolve the compulsion to think and ultimately lead us into deeper quietude. Notice that this is a different wording of the original continuum from suffering to the end of suffering, but that it is still very much aligned with the Buddha’s teaching. There are any number of continuums that establish a clear and wise view and direction for the dharma and fully support the Buddha’s message. The important point is that whatever continuum we choose, it must be consistent with the framework of the teaching and uniformly applied throughout our training.
Now that we have imposed some limits on our “implied dharma,” let us have some fun and take a single paragraph from the Satipatthana Sutta to demonstrate how we can expand the meaning and intention of this sutta while staying within the Buddha’s orientation and direction.
Furthermore, when going forward and returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward and looking away… when bending and extending his limbs…when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe, and his bowl…when eating, drinking, chewing, and savoring…when urinating and defecating… when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert. —Majjhima Nikaya 10
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