BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

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POEM: Rambling on a Koan

“What is your original face?”

Original? Does that mean I have one now?

Perhaps when I mirror gaze.

Otherwise, if I have a face, it resides in the minds of those who look upon it.

He who takes a scaffold built of patches of matter, varying distances from his eye

and reflecting various spectra of light, and fleshes it out in subjectivity owns the face.

That mean thing,

thing of glee,

that by which cantankerousness is displayed

thing of sorrow,

thing of madness,

that ugly-pretty, disheveled topography of flesh

is a faceless face,

or — perhaps — a thoughtless thought.