Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buddhist Suttas / T.W. Rhys Davids, trans. -- NY: Dover, 1968.

In 1879, the noted philologist Max Muller began publishing his massive, 50 volume series The Sacred Books of the East. Volume 11 of this series, Buddhist Suttas was published in 1881. The work contain translations of seven Buddhist suttas by T.W. Rhys Davids. Originally written in the ancient Indian language of Pali during the third and fourth centuries B.C., these suttas give us an important glimpse into the life of the Buddha and early doctrines of Buddhism. They are commonly included in what is known as the Digha Nikaya, the Anguttara Nikaya, and the Magghima Nikaya -- three of the five collections that constitute the Pali canon.

The longest and perhaps most important of the suttas in this volume is The Maha-parinibbana Suttanta or The Book of the Great Decease. This provides us with an account of the Buddha's last days, his death, and the grief of the surviving community. A central theme of the work is the transience of all things. In the course of the sutta, the Buddha explains the Four Noble Truths and exhorts his followers to master the truths that he has made known to them. These are the four earnest meditations, the fourfold struggle against sin, the four roads to sainthood, the five moral powers, the five organs of spiritual sense, the seven kinds of wisdom, and the noble eightfold path. While the sutta does not explain these truths, Rhys Davids provides a valuable note elaborating them.

Despite their pleading, the Buddha exhorts his followers to accept his impending death as the inevitable fate of all things. The varying success of his followers illustrate the degrees of success they have achieved in understanding the Buddha's message. In the end, relics of the Buddha's body are distributed among the survivors, leading one to think that mainly his message was not understood; however, it is easy to understand that veneration of the relics is not a morbid fixation on the material Buddha, but a means of reminding the faithful that enlightenment is attainable in this life.

Also included in the volume is The Dhamma-kakka-ppavattana Sutta or The Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness which concisely lists the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The importance of these make this sutta of supreme significance to the history of Buddhism.

Two suttas, The Tevigga Suttanta or On the Knowledge of the Vedas and The Akankheyya Sutta or If He Should Desire... present arguments against Vedic preistly and other methods of seeking enlightenment. The Ketokhila Sutta or Barrenness and Bondage explains the significance of zeal and determined efforts to gain freedom from barrenness and bondage. It elaborates the importance of maintaining confidence in the teacher (the Buddha), his doctrine (the Dhamma), and the Buddhist order (the Samgha) and avoiding sensuality, sloth, and craving for future life.

The Maha-Sudassana Suttanta or The Great King of Glory is a long chant-like work written in a fairytale style. It describes an opulent complex built by the Great King of Glory and his decision to renounce it and attain enlightenment. It is told in the context of the Buddha's last days and mirror's the Buddha's own decision to seek enlightenment over what had been his more likely destiny as prince of a great kingdom.

Finally, The Sabbasava Sutta or All the Asavas emphasizes that Buddhism is agnostic with regard to speculative questions like our past and future existence(s) and the existence of an individual soul. Indeed, fixation on such questions will positively inhibit one's pursuit of enlightenment.

In all, Rhys Davids's collection of suttas provide an valuable insight into the foundation of early Buddhism and its emphasis on personal salvation from suffering born of selfish desires. This translation fortunately has removed a good bit of repetition that appears in Buddhist suttas, but equally fortunately, it has retained enough repetition to convey the chant-like flavor of the original works. Reading them with patience and an open heart is most rewarding.

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