Author Topic: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?  (Read 2617 times)

Offline vinasp

  • Member
  • Posts: 120
    • View Profile
Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« on: January 01, 2010, 10:44:54 am »
Hi everyone,

 Are the five nikayas an esoteric system? Yes, but a strange one. The teaching admits that it is an esoteric system by speaking of "insiders" and "outsiders". Also, anyone with access to the teachings (and that includes us) can "initiate" themselves into the inner circle by understanding certain key doctrines. What are the main elements of this esoteric system?

 1. A large number of suttas contrast the "ordinary man" (puthujjana) with the "noble disciple" ( ariya savaka). It is always the ordinary man who does not understand and the noble disciple who does understand. It is important to grasp that this distinction applies to both lay-followers and monks.

 2. There is a sutta which in speaking of the monks speaks of two companies the "ariyan" and the "non-ariyan". The commentary explains that these two groups are the noble disciples and the ordinary men. The ariyan monks are said to understand the four noble truths - the others do not understand.

 3. There is a sutta which describes a monks progress towards enlightenment. It starts by calling him a monk but then changes to calling him a noble disciple. At one point it describes the noble disciple thinking :"Is there anyone outside (the inner circle) who has a view such as mine?", and he concludes "No there is not".

 4. There is a sutta in which the Buddha talking of those monks who have no real understanding of the teachings, says that they "stand outside - in the ranks of the ordinary men (puthujjanas)."

 Now, you may raise an objection here by saying that the teachings are deep and profound and so there will always be those who do not understand. This is true, but there is more to it than that. The teachings have intentionally been made obscure and difficult to understand. The five nikayas use an early version of what later came to be called a "twilight language".

 Best wishes, Vincent.

 

Offline pickledpitbull

  • Member
  • Posts: 271
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #1 on: January 01, 2010, 11:32:59 am »
Vincent,

What do you think is the reason for the "exclusivity" of the texts?  Supposedly, the Buddha spoke to each of us according to our level of understanding. 

The way I understand it, the suttras were not written until several centuries after the Buddha's passing, and that up until that time, they were preserved by certain individuals and passed by oral tradition.  But in response to the ego of those holding the teachings, it was decided to write the suttas so that they would be preserved more authentically.

Do you think that the "esoteric" nature of the teachings has anything to do with the politics of the time?  That, perhaps, the holder of the teachings would only share them with those doing the writing if some tradition of withholding from those not worthy (aka ordained) was not maintained?

We need to keep in mind that while the suttas are the words and teachings of the Buddha, that they were written by ordinary monks...

Donna
You've been taught that there is something wrong with you and that you are imperfect, but there isn't and you're not.


~ Cheri Huber

overmyhead

  • Guest
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #2 on: January 01, 2010, 12:27:36 pm »
Buddhism is stepped - certain teachings are only comprehensible if the student has sufficient understanding.  The most obscure teachings will always be opaque to lay-people, and in this regard it is necessarily esoteric.  I would say that any profound discipline is similarly esoteric.  In the case of early Buddhism, however, it is especially esoteric because the teachings are culturally based in another time, and so the cultural gap between contemporary lay people and the profound jewels of early Buddhism is probably much wider than it was during the time of the Buddha.

Offline vinasp

  • Member
  • Posts: 120
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #3 on: January 01, 2010, 03:52:44 pm »
Hi Donna,

Those are interesting questions. But can I ask you first to expand a little what you mean by "the exclusivity of the texts" since this is an expression which I am not familier with.

 Best wishes, Vincent.

Offline vinasp

  • Member
  • Posts: 120
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #4 on: January 01, 2010, 03:55:16 pm »
Hi overmyhead,

 Yes, I agree with everything you say. Those parts of the teachings which are deep and profound are not easily understood. However, I think that the teachings were composed with the intention of concealing certain things. Why else would they use the special "Dhamma language" as Buddhadasa calls it?
 Is it your understanding that there was no such intention to conceal?

 Best wishes, Vincent.

Offline Monkey Mind

  • Member
  • Posts: 2800
    • View Profile
    • My Buddhism Biography
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #5 on: January 01, 2010, 07:04:47 pm »
I've always found the "early teachings" to be pragmatic, and the opposite of esoteric. If a teaching seemed beyond my grasp of understanding, the more practice I have with Dhamma, the easier it is to understand.

overmyhead

  • Guest
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #6 on: January 01, 2010, 09:52:33 pm »
Hi overmyhead,

 Yes, I agree with everything you say. Those parts of the teachings which are deep and profound are not easily understood. However, I think that the teachings were composed with the intention of concealing certain things. Why else would they use the special "Dhamma language" as Buddhadasa calls it?
 Is it your understanding that there was no such intention to conceal?

 Best wishes, Vincent.

I can only speculate.  I have two guesses:

(1)  I would guess that a special language is used mainly because the definitions are "locked in", and the meanings of these words do not change over time with the rest of language.  Every time the words are updated to fit modern culture, the entire doctrine is open to interpretation (and mistakes).  I think Buddhists over the years have preferred to keep the words the same, and just let practitioners figure out for themselves what the words mean.  I don't now if there was a special "Dhamma language" during the time of the Buddha or not.  I would be surprised if there was, aside from a few key words.

(2)  Some of the concepts of Buddhism are so obscure that they have no reasonable analogue in popular language.  In these cases new words have to be invented in order for clarity.

(3)  It is possible that certain concepts were intentionally obscured by using a special language.  I think the main motivation would be if it was thought that newcomers were better off not studying the more obscure concepts at first.

Offline Monkey Mind

  • Member
  • Posts: 2800
    • View Profile
    • My Buddhism Biography
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #7 on: January 01, 2010, 10:41:41 pm »
This might be an issue of how different traditions understand the Dharma. I was taught that there are no secret teachings, that nothing is obscure. I am aware that other traditions believe that Buddha was intentionally obscure, intentionally concealing certain things.

Offline pickledpitbull

  • Member
  • Posts: 271
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #8 on: January 02, 2010, 06:11:35 am »
Vincent:

According to Webster, esoteric is defined as "designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone."  I used "exclusive" as a synonym.

Donna
You've been taught that there is something wrong with you and that you are imperfect, but there isn't and you're not.


~ Cheri Huber

Offline pickledpitbull

  • Member
  • Posts: 271
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #9 on: January 02, 2010, 06:21:58 am »
Hi overmyhead,

 Yes, I agree with everything you say. Those parts of the teachings which are deep and profound are not easily understood. However, I think that the teachings were composed with the intention of concealing certain things. Why else would they use the special "Dhamma language" as Buddhadasa calls it?
 Is it your understanding that there was no such intention to conceal?

 Best wishes, Vincent.

I am not familiar with Bhuddhadasa, what is the context of the reference to "Dhamma Language"?

Is is possible that some background is required in order to understand context?  For example, those of us who are "initiated" know that when we read "Thus I have heard" it is the Buddha's teaching and if the reference is to Vulture Peak, we know that it is one of the very earliest.  During the life of the Buddha, these distinctions were not necessary.  
You've been taught that there is something wrong with you and that you are imperfect, but there isn't and you're not.


~ Cheri Huber

Offline Ron-the-Elder

  • Member
  • Posts: 4472
  • May all beings live rightly and harmoniously.
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #10 on: January 02, 2010, 07:22:51 am »
My uderstanding developed over a period of eleven years reading, studying, and discussing The Suttas of The Nikayas is that Buddhas intention was not exclusivity, nor, according to the suttas which describe a great Brahma urging him to teach what he had discovered regarding The Four Noble Truths to all sentient beings capable of benefiting from The Dhamma,but teaching The Dhamma was his charter to do so. 

I found just the opposite of esoteric intention in review of the literatures of The Tipi Taka and not just The Nikayas.  As my college literature professors used to say regarding assessment of our readings, "The proof (of our arguments) is in the literature.)  Many laypersons were transformed from a state of ignorance to a state of deep understanding based upon Buddhas Socratic method of questioning perfected long before the birth of Socrates, and/or from Buddha's assignments and examples presented to those he wished to benefit in a method which was not only educational, but in the manner they were presented, confined the student of The Dhamma to behaviors which would allow them not only to understand the lesson, but be led to a place where no other conclusions, other than Right View, could be drawn from from the experience. 

An example which immediately comes to mind is the story about the mother who came to Buddha begging for him  to raise her recently deceased son from the dead.  Buddha agreed to do so if the mother could bring to him but a single mustard seed from a home in the nearby village, which had never been visited by death.  Of course the mother found no such home and returned to Buddha realizing The Dhamma.

Another example which comes to mind is Buddha's advisory to Angulimala, the murderous slayer of men, who wore his victims fingers about his neck.  Buddha's advice to him was not at all esoteric:  "The only way to stop is to stop!", which advice could very well be given to our combatants in the numerous wars and other acts of brutality and violence around the world today.  Angulimala was converted,  became a monk, and later an Arahant. 
What Makes an Elder? :
A head of gray hairs doesn't mean one's an elder. Advanced in years, one's called an old fool.
But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness,self-control, he's called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened.
-Dhammpada, 19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

overmyhead

  • Guest
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #11 on: January 02, 2010, 03:23:48 pm »
Many laypersons were transformed from a state of ignorance to a state of deep understanding based upon Buddhas Socratic method of questioning perfected long before the birth of Socrates ...

Socrates was estimated to have lived between 469 BC and 399 BC.  It is not certain when the Buddha lived, but their lives probably overlapped.  From Wikipedia, "The time of his birth and death are uncertain: most early 20th-century historians dated his lifetime as c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE; more recently, however, at a specialist symposium on this question, the majority of those scholars who presented definite opinions gave dates within 20 years either side of 400 BCE for the Buddha's death, with others supporting earlier or later dates."  Just saying.  :namaste:

Offline vinasp

  • Member
  • Posts: 120
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #12 on: January 02, 2010, 05:22:46 pm »
Hi Monkey Mind,

 Since my knowledge is limited to the five nikayas, I would be interested to know what other traditions have to say about these teachings.

 Best wishes, Vincent.

Offline vinasp

  • Member
  • Posts: 120
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #13 on: January 02, 2010, 05:50:27 pm »
Hi Donna,

 Thank you for the clarification. So your first question is : What is the reason for the esoteric nature of the texts? That is a big question and one which is difficult to answer. If there are reasons for some things to be secret it is hard to explain without revealing the secrets. I hope to say more on this in due course, but first I would like to provide more background to enable a productive discussion. But if you want a short answer I would say:

 Early Buddhism is two things, a popular religion and a path of liberation. Some truths, known to those on the real path, could undermine the beliefs which form the basis of the religion. Hence the need for secrecy.

 Best wishes, Vincent.

Offline vinasp

  • Member
  • Posts: 120
    • View Profile
Re: Is Early Buddhism an esoteric system?
« Reply #14 on: January 02, 2010, 05:53:39 pm »
Hi Donna,

 Thank you for the question about Buddhadasa, I should not have assumed that we  would all be familiar with this Thai monk and his works. Here is the wiki page :

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhadasa

 And here is a website with many writings by him in English translation :

 http://www.suanmokkh.org/archive/index.htm

 Here is a link to an essay called "Two kinds of Language" which I believe was the first use of the expression "dhamma language":

 http://www.buddhadasa.com/naturaltruth/twolanguage1.html

 Best wishes, Vincent.

 

 


SimplePortal 2.3.3 © 2008-2010, SimplePortal