Images: © Sarah Schorr
Images: © Sarah Schorr







Since 1996, Andrew Olendzki has been the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in Barre, Massachusetts. For the previous six years, he was the executive director of the adjacent Insight Meditation Society. A course in Chinese philosophy at the University of Colorado led Olendzki from philosophy to Taoism, then to comparative religion and the graduate program in religious studies at Lancaster University in England. In 1979 he was “kicking around Asia” and ended up studying Pali in Sri Lanka. For the next seven years he immersed himself in the Pali texts of the Buddha. “I was drawn to the earliest of the Buddha’s teachings,” explains Olendzki. “So much of what I encountered in Eastern religions was culture specific. But these teachings were remarkably universal and accessible, and so practical.” In between working as a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts and taking courses in Buddhist studies at Harvard, Olendzki received a doctorate from Lancaster in 1987.

The original mission of BCBS was to deepen the roots of Buddhist meditation practice in the West with a parallel study of the tradition. But BCBS has subsequently developed its own unique combination of practice and study and now lies somewhere, according to Olendzki, “between a college and a monastery.” Today the center hosts visiting scholars and teachers, offers courses and workshops on all aspects of Buddhism, and draws diverse participation from different lineages and academic fields. Still, one of Olendzki’s primary roles is to “hold the space” for the Pali canon. “We are trying to preserve and interpret the ancient, original teachings for the contemporary world, not as a historical relic but as a living tradition.” Olendzki lives in Barre with his wife, Kathryn, and their two small children. This interview was conducted last summer by Helen Tworkov.

Images: © Sarah Schorr
Images: © Sarah Schorr

Let’s start with probably the most-asked question about the Pali canon: Are these the words of the historical Buddha? Yes and no. No, because the dialect of the canon is probably a few generations removed from the dialect of the Buddha, and because we are hearing the Buddha’s words through the recollection of Ananda. But the linguistic differences are minimal, and Ananda is said to have had a terrific memory, so the answer is also largely yes. In the culture of the time, the teachers’ words were listened to with close attention. Memorization was considered a more reliable repository for the teachings than writing. And there was a strong incentive to carefully preserve what the Buddha said rather than to innovate.

How is that known? One example is found in an Abhidhamma text called Points of Controversy, which records debates held at the Third Council [circa 250 B.C.E.] between eighteen schools of early Buddhism. Almost two hundred and fifty years after the death of the Buddha, the debaters all quoted from the same texts. There seemed to be no disagreement at all about what the Buddha said, just about how his words should be interpreted. Also, when you compare the Pali texts to corresponding sections of the later canons, the agreement of content is remarkable.

Few dharma students today have studied the Pali canon, and it’s not widely studied in the academy. How did it become so marginalized? One of the great Mahayana innovations was seeing the Buddha not as one particular man in ancient India but as someone signifying transformation brought about by wisdom. Thus Buddha could manifest as any number of people in any number of eras and cultures. What’s most important is the Buddha’s wisdom, not so much the man who was once a prince of the Shakyas. So from the perspective of those schools that came after the Buddha, they did not repudiate the Pali canon, but set it aside for teachings from living Buddhist masters who were considered more relevant spokespeople for the awakened mind. That’s what keeps the tradition vital and evolving. Even today, the contemporary idiom of living teachers is generally considered more useful than the words of the historical Buddha.

Does the canon offer something we can’t find elsewhere? I think so. As the Buddha’s teachings grew into a religion and took on newer modes of expression, they lost some of their unique qualities. Some of these go back to the Shramana movement, which the Buddha participated in and contributed to. The Shramanas were wandering ascetics who rejected all the beliefs of the brahmins that could not be tested empirically. Through meditative and yogic practices, they developed an extremely sophisticated knowledge of the human mind and body, some of which is embedded in the Pali canon. The Mahayana was primarily a popular movement, regarding much of the old knowledge as esoteric and elitist, and it thrived on the simplification of the early teachings. The more intellectually rigorous teachings of the early schools, such as the Abhidhamma (which organized the early teachings around the phenomenology of meditative experience), were preserved in the work of the Mahayana philosophers, but much of their writing was a critique of the early systems.

Many Westerners think that the rise of Mahayana—some four or five hundred years after the Buddha—with its investigations of emptiness, reflects a more sophisticated understanding than that of the canon. You seem to be reversing that belief. Many people have been introduced to Buddhism through the Mahayana or Vajrayana, and in those traditions there is commonly a strong polemic against earlier forms of Buddhism, in part to authenticate and valorize the later interpretations. We often hear that the early teachings—the Hinayana—are the lesser teachings and the later teachings the greater. To some extent this comes from various schemas developed in China, where Buddhists had to make sense of teachings from many levels that had been imported over a thousand years. Of course, every schema ends up with its own views at the pinnacle. It’s kind of like the nineteenth-century historians who arranged all human religions on an evolutionary scale from their “primitive” origins in the East to the monotheism of the white male armchair theologian. Although the anti-Hinayana polemic still has some conceptual appeal, nobody I know who actually practices in each tradition has much use for it. The more sophisticated understanding you mention has far more to do with the practitioner’s level of realization than with the technology of the traditions themselves. Each vehicle is infinitely deep.

How do you see your work at the study center in Barre in light of a pervasive Western interest in Mahayana views? We have programs addressing all the Buddhist traditions, and these, too, involve the integration of meditation practice and intellectual inquiry. My own particular interest is in trying to rediscover and investigate the insights of the early teachings that grew out of the experiential explorations of the Shramana movement. This ancient “science of the mind” used empirical and repeatable technologies to carefully investigate the phenomena of mind and body. Similar investigations are going on today in the neuro- and cognitive sciences, although science tends to look at consciousness from a third-person perspective, while Buddhism is rooted in a first-person approach.

But modern science seeks information, not transformation. I’m wondering, if an empirical path of self-transformation was the pursuit of the Shramanas, are there parallels between science and Zen or Vipassana? To the extent they are based upon meditation, yes; and perhaps modern science, too, will eventually get around to an agenda of self-transformation. Meditation practice is a crucial tool for Buddhist studies because the wisdom spoken of in Buddhism is really only accessible to a settled and focused mind. As I understand the basic teaching, mindfulness and concentration are means toward an end rather than ends in themselves. The mind that is tranquil but alert is capable of glimpsing something about reality that is otherwise obscured—it is capable of penetrating illusion with understanding—and it is this understanding that constitutes wisdom and ultimately leads to awakening. The Pali canon offers rich instruction for how to walk this path, from mindfulness all the way to wisdom. As the tradition developed, other transformative practices were added, and many of these were adapted from other religious traditions.

If we accept the transformative power of these other, newer forms, then what is lost by not going back to the canon? My own opinion is that an empirically based psychology was gradually turned into an uncritical religion. Comparative religion shows that humans are religious creatures in fairly predictable and consistent ways. Almost everything seen in any of the other religions exists equally in Buddhism: pilgrimage, prayer, afterlife belief systems, and so on. As Buddhism became more religious, much of the unique science of experience was lost or sidelined. So Buddhism ends up losing some of its most distinct features.

Do the Buddha’s own teachers represent a fusion of the Shramana movement and Brahmanism? Yes. What we see happening in India at and before the time of the Buddha is a synthesis of Indo-European culture systems with indigenous cultures. In the West, the Indo-Europeans came into contact with the Egyptians, Semites, et cetera, leading to the Greek and Roman civilizations. In India, they came into contact with the highly developed Indus Valley civilization, and classical Indian civilization is the outcome of this synthesis. The Indo-European spirituality brought by the Aryans to India was patriarchal: It viewed the gods as “out there,” in the heavens, and humans needed to invoke the deities through ritual, sacrifice, and ceremony as well as through the hiring of a professional class of priests who knew the special language for mediating between transcendent gods and earthbound humans. The indigenous views, which I would call a more organic spirituality, seemed to emphasize immanence rather than transcendence. The primary symbol of the deity was feminine, and focus was placed on an inward journey—on what was unfolding each moment in the body and mind. Using asceticism, yoga, and meditation, the Shramanas explored the inner landscapes of psychophysical experience. They were looking at what was actually happening here and now. These represent two very different approaches to the human condition: Hinduism and Christianity see a spark of divinity within us trying to escape its material prison to return to its transcendent home; the Shramanas and the Buddhists were more concerned with understanding, purifying, and optimizing the human mind and body.

And how does nirvana play out in this? Nirvana, as it is described in the earliest texts, has to do with the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion in this psychophysical organism and in this lifetime. One way to describe what the Buddha awoke to is to say that he purged his mind and body of those poisons and got “toxin-free.” And for the next forty-five years, we can see what it’s like to live as a human being, “sobered up,” unencumbered by hate and want.

And today are we still projecting the Indo-European model onto Buddhism? I see an ongoing attempt to fit a round peg into a square hole. The square hole is Indo-European spirituality: The sacred is out there, and we have to transcend the merely human to escape back to our original “true nature.” Walking the spiritual path is a matter of orienting our lives toward something greater than ourselves, and of aspiring to reconnect to something primordial and perfect—i.e., nirvana—from which we had become alienated. I don’t see much support for this in the early Buddhist texts. The round peg is the Buddha’s injunction to investigate the textures and nuances of our experience very carefully, understand which impulses are noble and which are nasty, and undertake a process of purification, or, as the Buddha said, “Pluck out the thorn of desire that lies embedded in your heart.” And you can do that by understanding how desire pollutes the mind from moment to moment, and thereby radically transform yourself into an organism that is free of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. A lot of Indian thought has to do with purifying oneself of the defilements—like washing your sins off with water. In early Buddhism, the washing technique was basically meditation—meditation as a way of seeing yourself more clearly, understanding what’s wholesome and what’s unwholesome.

And Buddha-nature? From the Pali view, is that a reassertion of the Indo-European “soul”? Pali Buddhists don’t believe there is something within us that is changeless, original, or intrinsically pure. I’m sure there are disclaimers in the footnotes of Buddha-nature literature that say: But of course, this Buddha-nature is empty like everything else, and so on. But Buddha-nature, as it’s used in the later schools, is not found in the Pali canon. Many scholars have called into question whether the notion is originally Buddhist at all.

And in the Pali view, is anything at the center? There is no center. The whole concept of center is a construction useful in certain circumstances, but entirely counterproductive when it comes to understanding the nature of reality. There’s nothing that makes anything sacred. To separate out something that is sacred from a nonsacred milieu introduces a new concept into the Buddha’s teaching.

What about concepts like self and nonself? How do they get played out historically? The main thing I think the Buddha was saying about the self is that it is neither personal nor sacred. There is a unique and relatively stable set of habits and patterns that each of us as humans develops to organize our experience and to get by in the world. The Buddha does not say that they do not exist. Rather, he’s saying those patterns are constructed by actions and are held together by various conditions, there’s nothing essential or enduring about them, and the tendency of the theists of his age to identify the sacred essence within us is a mistake of observation. He was not arguing against the self, but against the tendency we have to substantialize the self. In some of the ways it is discussed—both historically and in contemporary discourse—the notion of Buddha-nature sounds very much like the sort of “inner essence” the Buddha was critiquing.

And the concept of shunyata, emptiness? In the early texts, the word was used primarily as an adjective: The house is “empty” of furniture; the psychophysical organism is “empty” of self. What appears to be a self is merely an aggregate of dharmas (phenomena), which are impersonal physical and mental events. The Mahayana tradition extends the concept significantly by saying these dharmas themselves are also empty of intrinsic nature, which was a useful corrective to a tendency to substantialize the dharmas. But in the process, the adjective “shunya” becomes an abstract noun, “shunyata,” and this has consequences. One has a tendency to substantialize abstract nouns: Buddhahood, emptiness, suchness.

In your description of moving from an “organic spirituality” that has no use for a center, to a religion that tends toward substantialization and reification, you seem to be almost positing a kind of de-evolution.Perhaps it can be called that. But let me be clear about something. I am referring to the later Buddhist traditions as a historian of religions, and am not trying to devalue them. The practices, for example, of Zen or Tantra or Pure Land are authentic parts of the Buddhist tradition, and may well have the very transformative effect the Buddha himself was pointing to. But in terms of the history of Buddhist thought, I don’t consider many of the philosophical and metaphysical positions of these traditions to be what the historical Buddha was teaching. I don’t find them in the Pali canon. This is simply a matter of intellectual clarity, not a critique of later developments.

What are the major obstacles to holding some space for the Pali canon in the West today? There is a strand in contemporary Buddhism that says: True knowledge and wisdom cannot be conceptual; therefore, all conceptual knowledge is suspect. So anti-intellectualism is one obstacle.

And your response to that is? Well, conceptual knowledge can get in the way and replace authentic intuition, but it need not. The Buddha was teaching us wisdom, and mindfulness is a tool for accessing that wisdom; but mindfulness, in and of itself, is not wise—at least according to the Abhidharma. The whole intellectual content of Buddhist thought is there to help guide that mindfulness in directions that are most transformative. What a waste not to take advantage of that.

Are you suggesting that a conceptual context is needed, for example, for the experience of emptiness to manifest as compassion? Conceptual guidance can help us gain an intuitive understanding of the emptiness of mind and body. Compassion will naturally emerge when the obstacles are cleared out of the way, and projecting the self onto experience is one of the primary obstacles. As human beings—and especially as mammals—I think we are naturally very compassionate, friendly, kind, and altruistic.

Now you sound like a Mahayanist. Not necessarily. It is just as natural for us to be greedy, hateful, and deluded. Both sides of human nature are constructed and conditioned; one is not more essential than the other. The Buddha was unrelenting in his message that we are personally responsible for the quality of our minds at every moment, and the trend in Buddhist history—to deflect this onto karma, other lifetimes, the vows of compassionate bodhisattvas, or the natural unfolding of innate perfection—works to undermine this view.

There’s one phrase of the Pali canon that is quoted often, even by those who have never read the canon: “Be a light—or lamp—unto yourselves.” The subtext often sounds like: “Don’t tell me what to do; I alone know what’s best for me.” And whatever the Buddha really meant, the way it’s being used is telling about our culture. Could you comment on this? We like to think that the Buddha said pick and choose what you want to do and want to believe, largely because that is what we value in contemporary American culture. The text uses the word dipa, which could mean either “lamp” or “island.” But I think a careful examination of the context will clearly show that he was saying “Be an island” rather than “Be a lamp.” Not in an alienated way, but in the sense of not getting pulled into someone else’s world; in the sense of self-composure. Be centered, be grounded, and be independent in the sense of being free, not being overreactive and getting thrown off balance by the phenomena of sense experience. In other words, don’t let the world jerk you around. But because “island” is a common metaphor in English for isolation and alienation, while “lamp” is an image of rugged self-sufficiency, it is easy to discard one interpretation for the other. In a famous discourse to a group of confused laypeople called Kalamas, the Buddha does encourage people to check what they hear from various teachers against their own experience, but nowhere in that context does he mention being “a lamp unto yourself.” It’s a Greek idea.

Does our preference for “lamp” over “island” indicate why we see so little interest in monasticism in the West? We seem to pay lip service to renunciation while wanting things our own way. The Shramana movement was rooted in renunciation. And that’s certainly another reason early Buddhism is not popular. In the early tradition, anybody is capable of awakening. But this ultimate attainment requires a very deep uprooting of psychologically embedded defilements. The first step in ancient India was to leave home, as the Buddha himself did. And that is a very radical step. One of the things early Buddhism says is required in order to cultivate the requisite level of equanimity is the cutting off of social and familial relationships. Nobody today wants to hear that. The Buddha had great respect for householders—but it’s a somewhat different path.

There are people—albeit in the later schools—who view leaving home as an external display of cutting attachment, and see subtler ways to approach this. It’s true that the distinctions are blurring, because one can point to very attached, worldly monastics and very dedicated laypeople who meditate a lot more than most monks. But the Buddha was pointing to the fact that deep inside all human beings is the habit of attachment, and his principal insight was that this attachment is the root of suffering. It can be abandoned. But it’s going to take a lot of work. Leaving home does not change the fact that the mind is snared by craving, but it does attempt to provide optimal conditions to work with that craving. It’s presumably easier to work with attachment to one’s robe and bowl than to deal with attachment to family, responsibility, power, money, fame, and all the rest of it. So by increasing the level of renunciation, you somewhat reduce the amount of stuff that you have to work with in order to uproot craving.

The tendency in modern Westerners to feel that awakening in this lifetime is the only worthwhile goal may be an expression of either insecurity or vanity. In the American psyche, if there’s a gold medal out there—i.e., enlightenment—then anything else is second or third rate. That’s our competitive neurosis; it’s not the view I see in the texts. Awakening is a gradual process that everybody is engaged in on one level or another. Life as a householder is a rich opportunity. That’s certainly been my experience. I am quite content to live the life of a layman, and try to do so with the guidance and inspiration of the Buddhist tradition.

But in terms of the challenge that the Buddha laid out, is your aspiration capped in some way? Certainly. By embracing the householder life, I don’t aspire to awakening in this lifetime. I think it’s naive or deluded to think that one can have it both ways, to live as a householder and get awakened here and now, at least in the way the Buddha understood awakening. But the adjustment is simple. You give up the expectation of awakening in this lifetime, which can be done without abandoning the aspiration for final enlightenment, and everything opens up in front of you. There are a thousand ways each day to become a more mindful, kind, generous, and noble person. And there are a thousand ways each day in which your doing so will influence others and contribute to reducing the suffering of all beings. At any point a layperson can choose to raise their sights to awakening here and now, but—just as with the goal of mastering any skill—this would require a radical reordering of priorities and lifestyle.

Is the Buddha’s enlightenment a source of inspiration for you? I do believe that something extraordinary happened to the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. But as the tradition evolved, the event became a huge historical drama: The Buddha lived many lifetimes, there were Buddhas before him and others will follow, he stands somehow at the center of the world system, and so forth. Personally, I am least inspired by that language. But I am profoundly moved to think of a more or less ordinary man going through this process of transformation involving yoga, asceticism, and meditation, understanding things in a radically new way, and then working throughout his life to share what he learned with others. The Buddhism that I am most drawn to reveals an astonishingly precise and penetrating investigation of the phenomenology of human experience. There is a well-known tendency in humans to idealize things. We certainly idealize the Buddha, and I think we may also idealize awakening. I am captivated by the possibility that this man found a way to radically reorder the human brain, and by the potential this holds for sustained human well-being.

Does what you call “holding some space around the Pali canon” contribute to this? I want to keep open the possibility that we do not yet fully understand what the Buddha was trying to teach us.

How are you doing that? Well, here at the study center in Barre we walk a fine line: We want to investigate the early texts and practices in ways people find personally relevant and meaningful, but we need to be careful not simply to plug ancient Buddhist information into our contemporary belief systems. On one hand lies the danger of merely reciting beliefs that were forged in another place and time and are no longer alive to us in a useful way; on the other hand we might create a Buddha who utters only teachings that are comfortable for a white middle-class American baby-boomer sensibility. The “middle way” here involves using classical maps to explore experience, while maintaining a critical spirit and a good deal of common sense.

What is the Pali Canon?
The Pali canon is the body of literature that dates to more or less the lifetime of the Buddha (circa 500 B.C.E.) and the first few generations of his followers.

In Pali we refer to the canon as the “Tipitaka” (“Tripitaka” in Sanskrit)—literally, the “Three Baskets,” which contain the collected words of the Buddha. The Three Baskets are:

The Vinaya, the teachings on the history and rules of the monastic community; The Suttas (“Sutras” in Sanskrit), which comprise the narrative and verse teachings; and The Abhidhamma (“Abhidharma” in Sanskrit), a later compilation of teachings on Buddhist psychology that was primarily built upon the Vinaya and the Suttas.

What are the Three Councils?
Several months after the Buddha died (fifth century B.C.E.), his followers gathered at what is known as the First Council, when the Vinaya and the Suttas were first recited. A hundred years later, the Second Council was held to discuss some discrepancies that had emerged regarding the Vinaya. Finally, the Third Council was convened during the reign of King Ashoka in about 250 B.C.E., several hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It codified the Vinaya and the Suttas, probably added some new material, and established the Abhidhamma as a distinct collection. The Abhidhamma texts systematize and homogenize material that is found in the Suttas.

After the Third Council, there is little evidence of any further substantial changes made to the canon. In other words, for over two thousand years, the Pali canon has remained virtually unchanged.

Abide as an Island
This text, a favorite among Westerners, is often understood to contain the Line, ”Be a lamp unto yourself, ” motivating many Buddhist practitioners to take a more individualistic approach to the teachings. According to Pali scholar Andrew Olendzki, however, “lamp” is a mistranslation; the correct translation is “island,” and the phrase an admonition not to be taken with worldly phenomena.

Bhikkhus, abide with yourselves as an island, with yourselves as a refuge, with no other refuge; with the dhamma as an island, with the dhamma as a refuge, with no other refuge.

And how does one do this? A person contemplates the body as body … feelings as feelings … mind as mind … phenomena as phenomena … ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having put aside favoring and not favoring the things of the world. Whoever abides in this way, either now or after I am gone, will be practicing at the highest level of my training.

When you abide with yourselves as an island … you should carefully investigate: “From what are sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair born? How are they produced?” The uninstructed person regards consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. But that consciousness of his changes and alters, and then there arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. But when one has understood the impermanence of consciousness, its change, fading away, and cessation, and when one sees as it really is with correct wisdom thus: “In the past and also now all consciousness is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change,” then sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair are abandoned. Then one does not become agitated, and one dwells happily. Such a person is said to be quenched. [The same is said of the other aggregates: form, feeling, perception, formations.]

—The Buddha
[Digha 16:2; Samyutta 47:9; Samyutta 22:43] Translation by Andrew Olendzki

The early Buddhist teachings emphasize eradication of desire through insight rather than the transcendence or transformation of desire.

I’ll tell you about the dreadful fear
That caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around
Like fishes in shallow water,
So hostile to one another!
—Seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directons.

Seeing people locked in conflict
I became completely distraught.
But then I discerned here a thorn
—Hard to see—lodged deep in the heart
It’s only when pierced by this thorn
That one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out—
One does not run, and settles down.

Who here has crossed over desires,
The world’s bond, so hard to get past,
He does not grieve, she does not mourn.
His stream is cut, she’s all unbound.
What went before—let go of that!
All that’s to come—have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.