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The Pali Canon – What The Buddha Taught
This Dhamma article is an excerpt from my book Becoming Buddha. A preview of this book is available on Amazon.com
It is not my intent here to disparage or diminish any Buddhist religion or practice. I hope to show, in a general way, the differences that have developed since the Buddha’s passing between what he taught as preserved in the second book of the Pali Canon – the Sutta Pitaka, the collection of the Buddha’s discourses, or “Sutta’s” – from later developed “Sutra’s and what has developed into the modern forms of Buddhism.
From heron when using the word “Sutta” I am referring to the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. “Sutra’s” refers to texts that have become incorporated into modern Buddhism but were taught supernaturally or created after the Buddha’s passing. I will use the word “Dhamma” when referring to the Buddha’s teachings as preserved in the Pali Canon and the word “dharma” when referring to the adapted and accommodated teachings that are not part of the original Canon.
More importantly, I hope to show that the Buddha’s original teachings continue to be available and relevant today. The establishment and continuing careful maintenance of the original teachings of an awakened human being, and the authenticity of the Sutta’s is one of the most remarkable and important accomplishments in human history.
In this way anyone interested can understand clearly what the Buddha actually taught during his lifetime and what has been influenced over time by charismatic individuals and cultural influences.
It is often claimed that adapting and accommodating the Buddha’s original teachings is reasonable as it is impossible to authenticate the Pali Canon and so it is appropriate to rely solely on the adapted and accommodated dharma’s that have followed from the many individual and cultural influences over the past two thousand six hundred years.
I have spent the past thirty-five years of my life studying and practicing Buddhism in most of the modern schools. Prior to studying the direct teachings of the Buddha from the Sutta’s, I became increasingly confused and disappointed trying to wade through the many modern “Dharma’s,” all claiming authentic origination in the Buddha. 
Source notes are listed at the end of this article and links to related articles on CrossRiverMeditation.com are noted (I.e. ) with the text.
It was not until studying the Sutta’s did the Buddha’s teachings become accessible and practical in developing the Buddha’s stated purpose and intent of his Dhamma: developing a profound understanding of the origination of all manner of confusion, deluded thinking and resulting Dukkha, and the clear path for recognition and abandoning all individual contributions to craving, clinging, and resulting unsatisfying and distracting experiences. This path, the Eightfold Path, is clearly and consistently presented throughout the Sutta’s.
While some of the modern schools of Buddhism continue to mention the Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path, these key teachings are often presented as preliminary or conceptual rather than a practical path to be wholeheartedly engaged with.
Through the Sutta’s I came to understand one of the most misunderstood and miss-applied teachings – Dependent Origination – which clearly shows that it is through ignorance, through twelve observable causative links, all manner of suffering arises.
Dependent Origination is taught in many sutta’s and most significantly in Paticca-Samuppada-Vibhanga Sutta,  and the Nagara Sutta,  where the Buddha describes his own awakening in the direct context of Dependent Origination and the Eightfold Path.
Noting the primary differences between the Buddha’s teaching on Dependent origination and most modern presentations of Dependent Origination (or Dependent Co-Arising) will clearly show how the later-developed Buddhist doctrines have developed contradictory Dharma’s through ignoring this foundational teaching.
It is for this reason that I place great importance on understanding and acknowledging the significant differences in Buddhist practices that have developed in the twenty-six hundred years since the Buddha’s passing.
It is for this reason that I finally refined my practice to only what can be found in the Sutta’s.
It is for this reason that I teach only what can be found in the Sutta’s.
For me, it is the only way that I can practice all aspects of the Eightfold Path in all area’s of my life with emphasis on Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.
In this text I will use Pali terms as much as possible as Pali is the language that is very similar to the language the Buddha spoke and the language used first in the oral tradition and later in the first written accounts of the Canon. Occasionally I will use the more common Sanskrit terms solely to avoid confusion.
Modern Buddhism has developed from the practical and direct “path” taught by one awakened human being in his lifetime to multi-faceted and often contradictory religions. As will be shown later in this article many individual and cultural influences have adapted the original teachings to fit a view of “Buddhism” that accommodates individual and cultural predispositions.
These accommodations in no way diminish the many modern Buddhist religions or the individuals or cultures that have influenced Buddhist practice but they have diminished or dismissed entirely what the Buddha actually taught. Any study of religion is a study of adaptation and accommodation.
What has resulted from the many adaptations to the Buddha’s original teachings is a modern “Thicket of views” that often contradict in purpose, intent, and actual practice what the Buddha actually taught. This modern thicket of views has made an easily understood and accessible path to awakening, to full human maturity, into a confusing and often inaccessible mix of mystical scriptures, intricate visualizations, mantra’s, repetitive physical exercise, deity and guru worship, and contemplative and analytical “meditation” and mindfulness practices that have little or no foundation in the actual teachings of the Buddha. 
The Pali Canon consists of three distinct collections known today as Tipitaka, the three baskets. The first two, the Vinaya Pitaka and the Sutta Pitaka were recorded through an established oral tradition at the First Buddhist Council about one month after the Buddha’s passing. The third basket, the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, contains an intricate analysis of mundane phenomena and psychological and mystical teachings. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka developed over time beginning with the Second Buddhist Council.
The development of the Abhidhamma and its inclusion in the Pali Canon is explained in additional detail further on.
What is remarkable throughout the Sutta Pitaka is the consistency and relevancy of the suttas to the Buddha’s very first teaching – The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.  Everything the Buddha taught during his forty-five year teaching career was taught in the context of this very first teaching and with the purpose of developing understanding of these Four Truths.
It is when these teachings have been taken out of the context intended that the Buddha’s dhamma becomes difficult to understand and practically apply. It is when these teachings have been taken out of the context of what the Buddha awakened to – Dependent Origination – that overcoming ignorance of Four Noble Truths is diminished in importance, or entirely dismissed. 
I struggled with finding anything that I could apply practically and became increasingly more confused from the many contradictions in modern Buddhism. It was not until I studied the Pali Canon directly and began to develop the Eightfold Path that the Buddha’s teachings had any true relevancy and usefulness to my life.
The Development of the Pali Canon
The first book of the Pali Canon is the Vinaya Pitaka, a collection of rules for monastics. It is valuable in understanding the political and cultural climate within which the buddha’s teaching developed. As will be seen below, the preservation of the Vinaya Pitaka has followed the same course as the preservation of the Sutta Pitaka.
The second book of the Pali Cannon is the Sutta Pitaka and it contains all the discourses, or suttas, of the Buddha. There are over 10,000 suttas in the five “Nikaya’s” or smaller collections. The five Nikaya’s are:
1. The Digha Nikaya – The Long Discourses
2. The Majjhima Nikaya – The Middle Length Discourses
3. The Samyutta Nikaya – The Grouped Discourses, grouped by theme.
4. The Anguttara Nikaya – The Expanded Discourses grouped by the number of topics covered.
5. The Khuddaka Nikaya – The Collection of “Short Books” consisting of 15 books. (The Burmese Tipataka has 18 books)
The preservation of the authenticity of the direct teachings of the Buddha is due to the practical application of the Buddha’s teachings themselves. Those that first preserved the Buddha’s direct teachings through oral recitation had developed well-concentrated and well-focused minds through the Buddha’s Dhamma.
The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is a personal and direct experience of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha’s own teachings provided the integrity needed to maintain the authenticity of the Pali Canon.
The First Buddhist Council
During his teaching career the Buddha’s discourses were memorized by senior monks and nuns contemporaneously and repeated in small groups to check for accuracy. These monks and nuns had extraordinary memories, likely due to their highly developed concentration. By repeating these memorized discourses, they were able to accurately maintain the teachings. This is likely the beginning of Buddhist Chant and was not so much a religious ritual as it was a most skillful way to preserve and present the dhamma through repetition.
This method of maintaining an accurate record of the teachings of the Buddha continued after the Buddha’s passing. The First Buddhist Council was held 3 months after the Buddha’s passing in Rajagaha. The purpose of this council, and subsequent councils, was to maintain the authenticity of the Buddha’s dhamma.
A well-respected monk, Maha Kassapa, convened the first council. He was joined by approximately 500 other monks who had fully developed the Buddha’s teachings.
It was decided that the recording of the Buddha’s lifetime of teaching should be separated into the two general categories mentioned earlier. The Vinaya would be recounted by Upali, known for his thorough understanding of monastic discipline, and checked for accuracy from the others in attendance. This became the first book of the Pali Canon – the Vinaya Pitaka.
Ananda was the Buddha’s chief attendant during the last twenty-five years of the Buddha’s teaching career. Ananda was known to have a word-perfect memory. He was questioned on verifiable facts about the location of the discourse he was reciting, the subject being taught, and the person or people present when the discourse was presented. It was accepted that Ananda retained a true, accurate, and complete recollection of the Buddha’s teachings.
While there were written texts at the time of the Buddha, an oral recounting that could be directly verified by others, including the Buddha when he was alive, was considered a much more accurate way of preserving the authenticity of the Vinaya and the sutta’s rather, than an individual written record.
Over the next seven months, the 500 monks recited their own memories of the Buddha’s teachings. These recitations were compared for consistency and accuracy. It was then accepted by the entire council that what was presented was an accurate and complete presentation of the teachings of the Buddha. This became the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon.
There was no mention at this first council of anything that would later be the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
Two important developments occurred at the first council. A question arose about relaxing some of the rules included in the Vinaya. Just prior to his passing the Buddha told Ananda that it would be acceptable if a few of the “minor” rules were relaxed but he passed before he could specify what rules he was referring to. It was decided by Maha Kassapa that since there was no way of knowing what rules could be relaxed that the Vinaya should be accepted as it was recounted.
It was also decided that the Sutta Pitaka be divided into sections very similar to the five Nikaya’s (smaller collections) we have today. A senior monk and his direct pupils were given the responsibility to memorize these sections. The oral tradition was now established. Daily recitations of the Dhamma were then presented by various groups always verified by others in attendance.
The consistency and relevancy preserved in the Pali Canon to the earliest teachings is remarkable and a testament to this method of preserving the Sutta’s and Vinaya. Most historians agree that an oral tradition shared and consistently verified by many is much more accurate than isolated individuals writing from their memory what they individually remembered had occurred. As will be seen in future adaptations and accommodations to the Buddha’s Dhamma, this will be proven entirely true.
The Second Buddhist Council
The method of recitation and comparison continued through later Buddhist Councils. The second Buddhist Council met approximately 100 years after the first council. This was convened to continue to check for accuracy and authenticity and to again look at the Vinaya, the monastic rules. There continued to be a desire among some groups to both relax some rules and to impose new rules.
During this second council a revisionist group known as the Mahasangikas emerged. The Mahasangikas protested some of the basic rules of discipline. The Mahasangikas also desired a more visionary and mystical ‘Dharma” practice that would establish the Buddha as a god and one of many Buddha-gods extending without limit to the past and future.
The Mahasangikas created further divisiveness in the sangha and contradiction to Buddha’s Dhamma by claiming that the Buddha’s life as a human being was merely an apparition. This direct contradiction was necessary to support the “Buddha as one god among many god’s” claim and to justify any and all adaptations and accommodations that would follow.
Once the Buddha was established as a supernatural being then the “dharma” can be found in any realm and in any presentation with no authentication necessary save for the claim that the now supernatural Buddha presented the particular teaching. There is no way to disprove this version and of course what can’t be disproved remains eternally possible.
As will be shown further on when these supernatural teachings are compared to what the Buddha taught while in his physical body the many inconsistencies and contradictions become apparent. Either the Buddha taught many contradictory “Dharma’s” throughout history and pre-history, and in many realms, physical and otherwise, or he taught a cohesive, direct, useful, and accessible Dhamma that has been successfully preserved in the second book of the Pali Canon.
Whatever is believed to be true, these changes altered the Buddha’s teaching in profoundly significant ways and would lead to the development of the modern Mahayana traditions.
The Third Buddhist Council
Approximately one hundred and twenty years after the second council, during the reign of King Ashoka, the third council convened. By now, following the license taken by the Mahasangikas, various sects had formed, all with the desire to adapt and accommodate the Dhamma to fit their views of what the dharma should be.
The president of this council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu to refute some of the heretical and obviously false teachings coming into vogue. Tissa also included the more mystical practices that were becoming accepted as Dhamma practice. The Kathavatthu eventually became one of the books of the Abhidhamma. Sponsored by the Theravadins, this separated and established the Theravada sect and the division between the Buddha’s direct teachings and what followed from the split of the Mahhasangikas was now distinct.
As far as can be found, the Kathavatthu became the first significant written document in Buddhist literature although it was obviously not an account of the Buddha’s teaching but a reflection of individual opinion of what developing Buddhist practice should be.
Even with the introduction of the Kathavatthu the method of the oral tradition of recitation and confirmation preserving the Vinaya Pitaka and The Sutta Pitaka continued. The two original books of the Pali Canon now had an “accepted and authenticated” third book. This easily explains why many scholars disagree as to the ultimate authenticity of this third volume of the Pali Canon.
While adopting the more visionary and psychological teachings found in the Abhidhamma, but continuing to preserve the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka through the oral tradition, the Theravadins established themselves as more authentic to the Buddha’s direct teachings due to their refutation of the Mahasangikas. Theravadins continue to consider themselves as part of the “Hinayana” or original branch of Buddhism.
Modern Theravadin Buddhism is the least culturally and philosophically influenced of modern-day Buddhism, though there are significant differences to the Buddha’s original teachings that can be traced back to the Third Council.
Again, I am not implying that Theravadin Buddhism is not a legitimate and well-established Buddhist religion, or that any of the other later developed Buddhist religions are not legitimate or well-established. I do think that it is vitally important to recognize the how, what, when, and where the adaptations and accommodations to the Buddha’s original teachings developed in order to continue the preservation of these original teachings and continue to provide a clear distinction between what the Buddha taught and what has developed in the intervening years.
This also is when the split between the “Hinayana” and the “Mahayana” schools became firmly established although there would be no historical reference to Hinayana or Mahayana until the beginning of the common era.
Hinayana is sometimes translated to mean “lesser vehicle” as opposed to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, which is translated to “greater vehicle.” The inference being that the Hinayana branch is a “lesser” or incomplete teaching. Although often used to denigrate the earliest form of Buddhism, this is an incorrect interpretation of the two “vehicles.” The original meaning of Hinayana related to geography. Hinayana describes a “lower vehicle” or “southern vehicle” to account for the geographic spread of Theravadin Buddhism. Theravadin Buddhism spread south through southern India to Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.
Mahayana or “greater vehicle” describes how this branch of Buddhism spread. Mahayana Buddhism spread from India north through Nepal hence the definition as the “upper vehicle” or “northern vehicle.” Mahayana Buddhism then spread to China, Japan, and Korea approximately around the beginning of the Common Era.
There is more on the split between the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism and the impact of the Abhidhamma below.
Subsequent Buddhist Councils
There would be additional “Buddhist Councils” following the Third Council but by now the original sangha had mostly lost identity. In the first century BCE two competing sects held councils at approximately the same time. The Theravadins convened their council amid much political upheaval. Continuing the oral tradition of recitation and verification the Pali Canon was recorded in written form for the first time, including the Abhidhamma.
A competing council organized by the Sarvastavadins was used to introduce additional teachings that has further influenced modern Buddhism.
A fifth Theravadin Buddhist Council was held in 1871 in Burma. This five-month council was used primarily to recite the (now) three books of the Canon to continue to check for authenticity to the original Canon and the later addition of the Abhidhamma.
In 1954, in Rangoon, an international Theravadin council was convened that lasted two years. Again the entire Canon was recited and verified, and all three books were carved onto marble slabs.
Despite the addition of the Abhidhamma to the Pali Canon, the oral tradition of recitation and verification has preserved the original teachings of an awakened human being to this day. The preserved sutta’s continue the lineage of the Dhamma first established by the Buddha.
The Evolution of Buddhist Practice
The Abhidhamma is an extremely detailed theoretical and conceptual account of ordinary phenomena and, in essence, an adaptation and nullification of Dependent Origination. With this third book, the foundation was in place for the term Dependent Origination (or Dependent Co-Arising) to be used to describe the creation of all phenomena rather than a simple and direct teaching on confusion, delusion, and all manner of suffering arising from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.
The mythology used to establish the Abhidhamma as a teaching of the Buddha’s can be traced directly back to the Mahasangikas and the establishment of a supernatural Buddha rather than the Buddha as an awakened human being is obviously inconsistent with the original first two books of the Pali Canon.
It is told that the origin of the Abhidhamma occurred when the Buddha, in the seventh year after his awakening, left the physical world for the realm of the devas. There for the next three months he taught what would become this third book of the Canon.
The Abhidhamma became an unintended link between Theravada and the developing Mahasangika-influenced Mahayana schools in that the Abhidhamma is an essential influence in many of the modern Theravadin and Mahayana schools, further obscuring what the Buddha taught as preserved in the first two books.
In a little over a century between the second and third Councils the liberty taken by the Mahasangikas and, to a lesser degree, the Theravadins, in the Second Buddhist Council had altered the Buddha’s original teachings in such a way that today these teachings are often diminished in importance, or completely dismissed.
This has led to modern Buddhism to be a thicket of competing views and bewildering contradictions. These bewildering contradictions have themselves become a part of Buddhist lore and presented as the “intricate tapestry” of all dharma’s, and given authority by claiming the same basic philosophy and all leading to the same conclusion. This has only served to further mystify Buddhism and create a hierarchy within modern Buddhism that then places emphasis on “gaining merit” through rituals and practices never intended by the Buddha.
The first Mahayana texts, or sutras, appeared around the first century CE. This is also the time when a somewhat magical and mystical idea of receiving the dhamma through a mind-to-mind transmission developed. The idea of mind-to-mind transmission may have developed to account for the split in the continuity of the Dhamma as well as teachings between the different branches. A supernatural Buddha is obviously necessary to establishing a mind-only Dharma transmission and a mind-only meditation method and lineage.
With the introduction of sutra’s – teachings that are often given the authority of a teaching of the Buddha – the intent and purpose and actual path of the Buddha’s teaching has been altered and the alterations and accommodations to the original Dhamma have become further obscured.
Some of the most influential sutra’s in Mahayana Buddhism directly contradict the Buddha’s teachings as preserved in the Pali Canon. The Heart Sutra which appears around 600 CE (some date it as early as 200 CE, or 800 to 1400 years after the Buddha’s passing) is taught by a Hindu god, Avalokitesvara, to Sariputa, one of the senior monks of the original sangha. Avalokitesvara teaches the “Dharma” using emptiness as the theme but in a way that contradicts the Buddha’s meaning of emptiness – to empty oneself of ignorance of Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s very first teaching, and the foundation and context for everything he taught for the last forty-five years of his life.
In the Heart Sutra the Four Noble Truths are dismissed as “there is only emptiness and there is no path” and that the Heart Sutra contains the ultimate truth of emptiness and non-attachment. This is also the text that the Boddhisattva ideal is presented as the highest path in Buddhism and again diminishes the Four Noble Truths which includes the Eightfold Path as the Arahant path the Buddha taught.
The Buddha consistently referred to himself prior to his awakening as “an unawakened Bodhisatta” (Sanskrit: Bodhisattva) to describe himself as a being of great compassion who still required the development of understanding the conditions that bind human beings to ignorance in order to fully awaken.
Throughout the Sutta’s the Buddha describes himself prior to his awakening as “an un-awakened Boddhisatta, The Nagara Sutta is but one example. 
There is also an adaptation in the Heart Sutra of the Five Clinging-Aggregates describing them as merely empty phenomena. While this can be argued as true due to the impermanent nature of all phenomena, it is an extreme view that lacks the context of the Buddha’s use of the Five Clinging-Aggregates to describe the real and human experience of personal disappointment and suffering. Dismissing the Five Clinging-Aggregates by stating that are they are “empty” the usefulness of understanding them in the context of the Buddha’s Dhamma is lost, and a fundamental and necessary teaching is ignored.
The Heart Sutra teaches emptiness as a to-be-realized all-pervasive experience of reality rather than to develop the Eightfold Path to “empty” oneself from all self-referential views rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths. The direct dismissal of The Four Noble Truths is another example of using a conceptual application of emptiness to directly dismiss what an awakened human being spent the last forty-five years of his life teaching. 
The Diamond Sutra follows a similar theme as the Heart Sutra and appears around 500 CE. The Diamond Sutra expands the theme of emptiness and continues to elevate the Bodhisattva path as a superior path and further alters Dependent Origination from a direct teaching on ignorance of Four Noble Truths as the originating condition for Dukkha, to a vague creation myth. This sutra is an excellent example of the adaptation and accommodation of the teachings preserved in the Sutta’s having a loose resemblance to themes the Buddha taught but adapted to fit the purpose of the Boddhisattva ideal and conceptual meaning of emptiness.
The most significant difference between the Buddha’s direct teachings and the Mahayana doctrine is presented in the Lotus Sutra. In the Lotus Sutra the Bodhisattva path is presented again as a more advanced path and the Arahant path, the Eightfold Path, as an inferior path to awakening.
The Lotus Sutra has been continually adapted to accommodate the many different modern Buddhist religions that use this sutra as the foundation for their particular dharma. The Lotus Sutra is a foundational text of the Chan, Zen, Soen, and Tentai, Nichiren, PureLand, and is even referenced in the Tibetan Buddhist Religions.
Though there are many actors in the Lotus Sutra that are common to actors in the Sutta Pitaka, it is commonly agreed that the Lotus Sutra was first developed around the beginning of the Common Era and added to over the next few hundred years. Along with the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra, much of Mahayana Buddhism rests on these three Sutra’s.
This is a very brief description of these Sutra’s. I have included sources in the source notes below for further study, if desired. I only include this here to again clearly show the contradictions in the path the Buddha taught in both purpose and practice and what has developed since the first adaptations were made at the second Council.
There is nothing unreasonable in what has developed in Buddhism over the past two thousand six hundred years. It is what we all do as human beings. We are always in a struggle to adapt what human life presents in a way that hopefully brings more comfort and agreement with how we want to live our lives. It is the nature of conditioned views to continue conditioned views. This is the motivation to seek a more visionary and mystical “dharma” that motivated the Mahasangikas, and it continues to this day.
An understanding of The Four Noble Truths clearly explains how and why this occurs.The First Noble Truth states that dukkha occurs as a direct result of ignorance of the origination of all manner of confusion and deluded thinking. The Second Noble Truth states that craving for and clinging to any object, event, view, or idea rooted in this initial ignorance of Four Noble Truths and so continues dukkha.
The Buddha presented the Dhamma in the form of Four Noble Truths to be understood and acted upon. He taught that to gain understanding one would take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. It is within refuge that understanding arises. Refuge is a place of safety and comfort. In taking refuge one takes comfort in the understanding that a human being achieved profound understanding, he left his teachings, the Dhamma, so others could do the same, and one takes refuge in the sangha, a well-focused community of practitioners developing the Buddha’s Dhamma. 
The “transmission” of the dhamma occurs when a mind that has encountered The Four Noble Truths integrates the path leading to the cessation of dukkha. This is an authentic lineage of transmission directly to the Buddha.
This is what is referred to when the Buddha “Set The Wheel of Truth in Motion” at his first discourse on The Four Noble truths. The preserved Dhamma originating in the Buddha is the means of transmission.
Associating with the wise, the practicing Sangha, supports the understanding and integration of The Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha consistently taught the necessity for each individual interested in his Dhamma to actually develop a well-focused understanding of what he taught and what he did not teach. He used the word “ehipassiko” which means “come and see for yourself.”
In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha is teaching the Kalama’s how to choose a useful and effective Dhamma. The Kalama’s were confused as to who and what to follow due to the many “spiritual” teachers that visited them on the popular trade route that passed through their area.
The Buddha told them “do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are skillful, shameless, unambiguous, and direct these teachings should be developed. When these teachings are praised by the wise they should be developed. When these teachings lead to unbinding and calm they should be developed.”
The Kalama Sutta is a perfect example of how the preservation of the Pali Canon continues to provide clear direction for developing the Buddha’s teachings and avoid the confusion that follows from ignoring the original Sutta’s. 
It should be noted that many modern teachers alter and accommodate this simple and direct sutta, much like Tissa did during the Third Council, in order to claim that the Buddha is actually teaching to alter and accommodate his teachings to fit a desired view of what Dhamma practice should be.
It is not necessary to affiliate with any established “lineage” or modern Buddhist religion in order to develop the Buddha’s Dhamma. True Dhamma lineage is established and continued through the Buddha’s Dhamma and not through any individual or cultural adaptations to the Dhamma. The Buddha presented a complete and accessible Dhamma that anyone can develop and awaken – develop full human maturity – in this lifetime.
As shown earlier, modern Mahayana doctrine originated from the Mahasanghikas sect. All modern Buddhist religions have interesting and colorful histories too elaborate to explore further here. All were influenced by the culture and philosophy in which their particular form of Buddhism developed. Each Mahayana school has their own historical patriarchs contributing their own influence and view.
There is no record of the Buddha ever asking his followers to take the Vow of The Bodhisattva or follow the Bodhisattva path. In fact, the words of the Buddha near the time of his passing were: “With firm resolve, guard your own mind! Who so untiringly pursues the Dhamma and the Discipline shall go beyond the round of births and make an end of suffering. Decay is relentless. Strive diligently for your own salvation!”(Digha Nikaya 16)
The Buddha is placing utmost importance in working out one’s own salvation. An awakened being would have true compassion AND the wisdom necessary to effectively assist others in their awakening. This is the example given to us by the Buddha. Nowhere in the Pali Canon is it found that the Buddha initiated a separate salvific path for Bodhisattva’s to pursue. The Buddha was consistent throughout his teaching career by teaching individual responsibility to develop an Eightfold Path leading to awakening, or arahantship.
As the Buddha did after his awakening, it was understood that those awakened would help others to awaken by teaching and exemplifying the same Four Noble Truths.
Some of the Mahayana schools place an emphasis on esoteric, mystical or hidden teachings. Some emphasize teachings that require certain empowerments often attached to specific times of the year. This is contrary to the Buddha’s words in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta: “my teachings are not like that of a teacher with a closed fist who keeps something back.” He further stated “my teachings are the same (in practice) for monks and lay people.”
Many Mahayana schools place significance on deity worship and ritual over understanding and integrating The Four Noble Truths.
Some schools emphasize their own type of meditation or intricate visualizations without any mindful intention of developing tranquility leading to insight.
Other schools place an emphasis on koan or hwadu practice as a way of creating great mental absorption without developing tranquility or insight. There is no mention of just sitting, or wall gazing, or koan or hwadu study in the Sutta’s. These widespread methods came into use well after the passing of the Buddha, most in the past five hundred years and many, such as the Insight Meditation movement, in the past one hundred years.
Some modern schools reject meditation entirely in favor of mantra recitation and visualizations. Pure Land Buddhists worship Amitabha Buddha. Using the Lotus Sutra as validation, Pure Land Buddhist’s believe Amitabha Buddha will provide salvation upon death provided certain requirements are met during physical life. Amitabha Buddha will then provide rebirth in the Pure Land of everlasting paradise. Pure Land Buddhism is one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in the world today. (Pure Land Buddhism is much deeper than this brief explanation provided here.)
There is no mention of this type of worship or salvation in the Sutta’s. The Buddha taught that we alone determine our fate through wisdom, virtue, and concentration developed through the Eightfold Path.
Again, this is in no way meant to disparage or diminish the teachings of other schools of Buddhism. My only intent here is to point out the significant differences in the Buddha’s direct teaching and later developments influenced by individual desire and cultural influences.
The general explanation given for many of these differences has the Buddha presenting these “advanced” teachings to deities on a non-physical plane to be brought into the human realm hundreds, sometimes many hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death when people were advanced enough to understand them. The inference here is that those alive at the time of the Buddha were not able to grasp these “advanced” teachings. Of course it is impossible to prove that this did not in fact happen, but it is not in keeping with what is presented in the Pali Canon.
From the Buddha’s very first teaching when Kondanna declared “All conditioned things that arise are subject to cessation” and the Buddha replied “You are now Anna-Kondanna, the one who understands” to the many thousands that awakened during the Buddha’s lifetime, nothing has proven to be more effective in developing the Buddha’s stated purpose for teaching the Dhamma: to develop a profound understanding of suffering and to experience the cessation of all craving and clinging arising from ignorance of Four Noble Truths.
Both of these theories disparage the Buddha as an effective and wise teacher of the dhamma. There is also the implication that he lied when he said that he held nothing back. That later Buddhists have a more advanced view is also dismissive and disrespectful of the Buddha and his Dhamma.
These differences and variations to the original teachings of the Buddha preserved in the Pail Canon do not make any of these other forms of Buddhism less legitimate practices. Hundreds of millions of practitioners are engaged and committed to these other forms of Buddhist practice.
It is important to understand that there are differences, sometimes vitally important differences. What the Buddha taught and what has developed from the original teachings are significantly different.
The Buddha predicted the altering and diminishing in importance of his teachings near the end of his life: “The end of my dispensation will come not from direct oppression, but from confused dhamma.” (Digha Nikaya 16)
The Buddha was the most influential and radical thinker of his time, and ours too. His entire teaching went against the accepted religious and spiritual practices of his time. His teachings are still radical today and contrary to many modern Buddhist religions that continue to claim a lineage to the historical Buddha. This should not come as a surprise or even be a cause controversy or animosity.
The Buddha was not interested in starting yet another religion so his teachings need not threaten any religion. The Buddha was not a Buddhist. The Buddha was an awakened human being whose intention was to show other human beings how to free themselves from confusion, deluded thinking, and resulting dukkha. The Buddha never shied away from pointing out the differences between his teachings and the accepted practices of his time.
That contradictions and often antagonistic “Dhammas/Dharmas” that have developed since the. Buddha’s passing is to be expected. It is most skillful to see these differences in the context of Four Noble Truths. There is Dukkha – even in Buddhism, as Buddhism is part of human life. Craving and clinging continue to impact the Buddha’s teachings. It is in keeping with the Buddha’s Dhamma to not view the modern situation as either “right” or “wrong” but rather as what is skillful or un-skillful.
It is most skillful to view all things, including the many variations and contradictions within modern Buddhism, in the context of Four Noble Truths. By using the framework and guidance established by the Buddha in his very first discourse these contradictions can be recognized and avoided, or developed whole-heartedly, depending on each individual. Understanding the differences and contradictions then allows for a clear and mindful choice as to what will constitute an individual “Dhamma/Dharma” practice.
It is important to note that continual and skillful Right Effort that for over two thousand six hundred years has resulted in an accurate and complete record of the teachings of the Buddha to be maintained. Even so, the Sutta’s are not meant to be a course of of only scriptural study. The teachings of the Buddha are to be experienced by each individual and usefulness and effectiveness assessed based on unfolding understanding.
A good teacher of the dhamma will understand that all that they can do is point the Way, as the Buddha himself did. Nothing in the dhamma can be imposed or magically transferred from one human being to another.
A person following the original teachings of the Buddha would soon realize that what is most important is not to cling to dogma, ritual, scripture, or method. The Buddha taught that a deep and experiential understanding of The Four Noble Truths is necessary for cessation of suffering. The Buddha always taught to weigh practice against results, to ”come and see for yourself.”
If modern Buddhist practice seems confusing or unattainable, consider placing your mindfulness on the Four Noble Truths and follow the path the Buddha presented. The Eightfold Path is the path presented as leading to the cessation of suffering. The Buddha repeatedly said “I teach the truth of the arising of dukkha and the cessation of dukkha, nothing else.”
As has been seen, it is when something else is desired and incorporated into “Dhamma/Dharma” practice that confusion often arises and a direct and immediately accessible path is lost.
- John’s Experience and Understanding
- Dependent Origination
- Nagara Sutta
- Modern Buddhism – A Thicket Of Views
- Four Noble Truths
- Dependent Origination
- The Ratana Sutta
- The Kalama Sutta
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.