Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lecture Review: A Systematic Study of the Majjhima Nikāya; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2003-2007

In 2500 hundred years, quite a lot has been written about Buddhism. It's not always easy to find a convenient place to start studying, particularly should you wish to examine the most ancient texts, the teachings of the historical Buddha. Unlike the revealed religions of the Near East, Buddhism has no Torah, no Bible, no Koran. What there is instead is a very large collection of sermons, monastic rules, and philosophy first compiled and committed to writing nearly 300 years after the Buddha's death.

The average lay student will be most interested in the sermons, the suttas, but even these in modern printings consist of several volumes and thousands of pages. What's more, the sermons are usually printed in the ancient order in which they were first compiled, an order based on such things as the length of the texts or the names of the sermons. Reading through the suttas in the order they have been preserved conveys no sense of meaningful progression through a systematized body of religious and philosophical thought.

Thank goodness, then, for scholars such as the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.

Not only has the American Theravada monk provided a revised translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, but for five years beginning in January 2003 taught a weekly course on this text that was recorded and is available for free download thorough the website of the Bodhi Monastery, New Jersey, USA.

In his first lecture, Bodhi explains that of the five compilations of suttas, he finds the Majjhima Nikaya, the Middle Length Discourses, the most suitable for those new to Buddhism because of the breadth and extent of the the topics covered, and because the teachings are most often presented as conversations of the Buddha with the people around him - monks, practitioners of rival faiths, royalty, and the common people of India.

His approach to the text is what the Buddha once referred to as the gradual exposition of the Dhamma. Bodhi begins with suttas describing the Buddha's enlightenment experience, and follows in succession over the course of the series with scriptures explaining the qualities a person should develop to begin learning Dhamma, the gradual development of the practitioner as he traverses the path of Dhamma, the explication of the qualities of a Buddha, and finally life in the sangha, the Buddhist community.

Having listened to only the first 20 lectures, I am not able to comment on the series in its entirety. Assuming later lectures follow the same style and format, what you'll find first of all is that its not really necessary to do the reading to enjoy the lectures. Most of the MN suttas are quite short and don't present such a large burden on the reader's time, but because of their brevity and because Bodhi's approach is to cover each in detail, I found that in most cases I was able to get as much out of the lecture just from listening as I did from reading and then listening.

Bodhi is thorough in covering the main points of each sutta, in explaining relevant background information that may be unfamiliar to listeners with little knowledge of Indian society of 2500 years ago, and in drawing the listener's attention to textual inconsistencies. When expounding on philosophy he illustrates with contemporary issues or examples, often asking his recorded audience to think through principles and offer up their own examples.

While he seems at times flexible in his interpretations, suggesting for example that the Buddha may not have intended in MN21:6 to promote an extreme form of passivism, at other times he comes down quite hard on those taking liberties with the fundamentals. He insists, for example, that rebirth is not just a psychological state, but is in fact manifested in the material realm. And he takes to task modern teachers and aspirants for picking and choosing from among traditions to fashion their own form of Buddhism.

But these are small issues about which to quibble in a series this extensive. Perhaps more of a challenge for the listener will be Bodhi's rather flat, undramatic speaking style. Unlike an Alan Watts or a Sangarakshita, who mesmerize with cadence and sensitivity to an unfolding story, Bodhi's flat tone and plodding pace will make you work to keep your attention focused.

If you're up for that challenge, you'll find this series an invaluable resource for acquainting yourself with some of the earliest teachings of Buddhism. So far as I know, there is no comparable series out there covering one of the Nikayas in such detail – and especially not one made freely available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.



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