by Greg Zwahlen
In our What are the Suttas?
study course last Saturday at the IDP New York City center, we had a look at a translation from Pali of the Satipatthana Sutta,
and a session of meditation practice based on the instructions contained therein. Although the Pali recension of the Sutta is particular to Theravada Buddhism (and is a very important text in that tradition), the Sutta itself is (like most of the early canon) part of the shared inheritance of all Buddhists.
Recently I’ve been interested in A History of Mindfulness, by Ajahn Sujato, a bhikkhu in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. There is much that I admire about this book and its author, not the least of which is that he has generously made it widely available without charge (you can download it here). A History of Mindfulness is a comparative survey of the various surviving recensions of the Satipatthana Sutta, known in Sanskrit as the Sm?tyupasth?na S?tra.
Ven. Sujato’s approach to the dharma illustrates how careful, multidisciplinary study of Buddhist texts can illuminate one’s meditation practice. As we were studying the Sutta, we encountered ambiguous language that generations of Buddhists have grappled with. Different possible interpretations presented themselves to us. Ven. Sujato, interested in exploring a particular interpretive question of great interest to Theravadins in recent decades (which I’m not able to summarize here), is able to use the various versions as well as the modern academic disciplines to arrive at a few persuasive conclusions.
This illustrates the practical applicability of websites such as SuttaCentral, which I blogged about recently
. I just recently discovered Ven. Sujato actually seems to be involved with that site as well.
As he writes in A History of Mindfulness,
The significance of such a historical approach to the teachings is still largely unrecognised among practicing Buddhists. In fact, our normal approach to the teachings is the very opposite of historical. An aspiring meditator first learns from the lips of a teacher whose words as they utter them must be the very latest formulation of the topic. Then they might go back to read some of the works of well-known contemporary teachers. Since devotees usually have faith that their teacher (or the teacher’s teacher) was enlightened, they assume, often without reflection, that the teachings must be in accord with the Buddha. Finally, if they are really dedicated, they may go back to read “the” Satipatthana Sutta. Once they come to the text itself, they are already preprogrammed to read the text in a certain way. It takes guts to question the interpretation of one’s teachers; and it takes not just guts, but time and effort to question intelligently.
Amen to that, and thanks Ven. Sujato for having the guts putting in the time and effort to do it. Unfortunately, sometimes even great teachers make assertions that reflect their biases at the expense of the truth. Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, in his own otherwise excellent presentation of the Satipatthana Sutta (entitled Transformation and Healing, it also compares two versions), makes the preposterous assertion that jhana practice was some sort alien tradition that “infiltrated” Buddhism at a late period in time, and he implies that modern philology proves this assertion. Ven. Sujato (very politely) summarily demolishes this mistaken idea (pg 84).
Taking the approach Ven. Sujato employs can not only clarify issues to do with meditation, it can address social concerns, and he has done that too. He’s been one of the leaders of the effort to extend the revitalized bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada world, so that women can be fully ordained and the rampant sexism in the sangha can begin to be ameliorated. His research has served that cause–another one of his books (Sects and Sectarianism
, also available free
, which I also blogged about earlier
) is a fine piece of work which helps bolster the case for the orthodox legitimacy of the ordinations while also presenting a refreshing perspective on the evolution of sectarian differences.
For more on the struggle to reestablish bhukkhuni ordination, see Ven. Sujato’s blog here
. A History of Mindfulness
is tough sledding at times, but the introductions in it and various other sections are of potential interest to anyone, and it’s free, so have a look.