Review of the Buddhist Nikayas

Pali Canon

the Theravada canon is so vast, it will probably never be fully translated into English

Recently I completed the three Nikayas of the Buddhist Pali Canon that have been translated into English, the Digha, Majjhima, and Samyutta Nikayas, or the Long, Middle-length, and Connected discourses of the Buddha.  This was no easy feat, considering it represents a combined 4,152 pages (the 2nd shelf in the diagram), and Buddhist literature is not exactly “light” reading (footnotes are essential to understand many of the words that are not translatable).  Even with those staggering page counts, the translators have been merciful and streamlined them by skipping over repetitive sections (of which there are a lot) in the same sutta with ellipsis, or referring to the same content in another sutta, so there’s really no telling just how big the volumes would actually be if they weren’t this condensed.

Reviewing such a vast body of literature for specific content is all but impossible, but general criticisms will suffice.  Ironically, the Pali Canon is considered authoritative and sacred in that they were passed down by monks who studied under the Buddha and finally collected in writing about 400 years later, but they’re not considered “scripture” in the inspired or revealed sense that other religions use to refer to their sacred texts.  Consequently, most Buddhists in the West have read few if any of their religion’s scriptures, practicing Buddhism as a process from the basic teachings of the Noble Eight-fold Path.  I won’t be as harsh to criticize the Pali Canon as I would the scriptures of another religion, simply because they don’t purport any supernatural origins.  In short, they are merely literature, and that is all I will criticize them for being.

One of the biggest problems with the life of the Buddha is that Gautama lived for 80 years, so there is a lot to recount. Unfortunately, the Pali Canon does little to construct a coherent life of the Buddha, with the only two noticeable life events being his Enlightenment and his Parinirvana (death).  Virtually everything else uses a formulaic structure in which either a householder, rival sect leader, or monk confronts the Buddha with a question or challenge, the Buddha responds with an often-times lengthy discourse, and the individual converts or the monk rejoices at his teaching.  There are some departures from this strucure, like Buddha describing a past life or suttas telling stories about monks overcoming temptation without any interaction with the Buddha (even telling the exact same story verbatim except with the names of the monks changed), but for the most part, narrative is just a framing device to bookend a discourse.  Those who find the Gospels to be repetitive and out-of-order would be completely bored with the Nikayas, but perhaps that comparison is unfair: Jesus had a much shorter and much more eventful ministry.

The redactors really could have condensed the books considerably, but of course, their length is indicative of oral tradition.  The endless repetition obviously was designed to aid in memorization, but even then, there is very little substance.  Over and over, the Buddha expounds on what the dharma is and what it is not, when just a few of these suttas would have sufficed.  In thousands of pages, there doesn’t seem to be as much original content as there is in a few hundred pages of the Gospels.  A supposed stand-out passage like the Fire Sermon, compared in importance to the Sermon on the Mount, is simply an effort to convert  a fire worshipping sect.  Overall, the teachings seem very sparse on morality and more heavily focused on proselytizing or defining Buddha’s rigid orthodoxy.  Gems like the Golden Rule are aberrations in Buddha’s general morality, with no specifics outside of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.  The Pali Canon is even unclear on vegetarianism, resulting in endless debates through the centuries over whether the Buddha himself ate meat.

One thing that becomes apparent as you read is that Buddhism could have only been born in the India of its day.  Not simply because of the Hindu foundation that accepted reincarnation and other tenets, but because primitive India had a prevalent culture of ascetics and monks that the communities supported with alms.  Gautama probably couldn’t have found the support to feed himself and his students anywhere else in the world; one could hardly imagine thousands of monks collecting daily alms in Jerusalem, because the infrastructure wasn’t there already.  Jesus, of course, had to find more creative ways to nourish his followers.  In fact, one of the reasons that I think makes Mormonism successful is that you really could see Jesus starting a ministry anyplace in the world.

Overall, reading the Nikayas was a tedious exercise that I wouldn’t recommend except to the most dedicated student of Buddhism.  It’s clearly ancient literature and its age shows.  I don’t feel I really learned much about the Buddha, his followers, or antagonists.  While I generally dislike anthologies, I would recommend one over the complete Nikayas to get a more concise picture of the teachings, or a contemporary biography of the Buddha to get a better picture of the life of the Buddha.

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