Back to the Beginning

An interview with Andrew Olendzki

© Sarah Schorr
Since 1996, Andrew Olendzki has been the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in Barre, Massachusetts. For the previous six years, he was the executive director of the adjacent Insight Meditation Society. A course in Chinese philosophy at the University of Colorado led Olendzki from philosophy to Taoism, then to comparative religion and the graduate program in religious studies at Lancaster University in England. In 1979 he was “kicking around Asia” and ended up studying Pali in Sri Lanka. For the next seven years he immersed himself in the Pali texts of the Buddha. “I was drawn to the earliest of the Buddha’s teachings,” explains Olendzki. “So much of what I encountered in Eastern religions was culture specific. But these teachings were remarkably universal and accessible, and so practical.” In between working as a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts and taking courses in Buddhist studies at Harvard, Olendzki received a doctorate from Lancaster in 1987.

The original mission of BCBS was to deepen the roots of Buddhist meditation practice in the West with a parallel study of the tradition. But BCBS has subsequently developed its own unique combination of practice and study and now lies somewhere, according to Olendzki, “between a college and a monastery.” Today the center hosts visiting scholars and teachers, offers courses and workshops on all aspects of Buddhism, and draws diverse participation from different lineages and academic fields. Still, one of Olendzki’s primary roles is to “hold the space” for the Pali canon. “We are trying to preserve and interpret the ancient, original teachings for the contemporary world, not as a historical relic but as a living tradition.” Olendzki lives in Barre with his wife, Kathryn, and their two small children. This interview was conducted last summer by Helen Tworkov.© Sarah Schorr

Let’s start with probably the most-asked question about the Pali canon: Are these the words of the historical Buddha? Yes and no. No, because the dialect of the canon is probably a few generations removed from the dialect of the Buddha, and because we are hearing the Buddha’s words through the recollection of Ananda. But the linguistic differences are minimal, and Ananda is said to have had a terrific memory, so the answer is also largely yes. In the culture of the time, the teachers’ words were listened to with close attention. Memorization was considered a more reliable repository for the teachings than writing. And there was a strong incentive to carefully preserve what the Buddha said rather than to innovate.

How is that known? One example is found in an Abhidhamma text called Points of Controversy, which records debates held at the Third Council [circa 250 B.C.E.] between eighteen schools of early Buddhism. Almost two hundred and fifty years after the death of the Buddha, the debaters all quoted from the same texts. There seemed to be no disagreement at all about what the Buddha said, just about how his words should be interpreted. Also, when you compare the Pali texts to corresponding sections of the later canons, the agreement of content is remarkable.

Few dharma students today have studied the Pali canon, and it’s not widely studied in the academy. How did it become so marginalized? One of the great Mahayana innovations was seeing the Buddha not as one particular man in ancient India but as someone signifying transformation brought about by wisdom. Thus Buddha could manifest as any number of people in any number of eras and cultures. What’s most important is the Buddha’s wisdom, not so much the man who was once a prince of the Shakyas. So from the perspective of those schools that came after the Buddha, they did not repudiate the Pali canon, but set it aside for teachings from living Buddhist masters who were considered more relevant spokespeople for the awakened mind. That’s what keeps the tradition vital and evolving. Even today, the contemporary idiom of living teachers is generally considered more useful than the words of the historical Buddha.

Does the canon offer something we can’t find elsewhere? I think so. As the Buddha’s teachings grew into a religion and took on newer modes of expression, they lost some of their unique qualities. Some of these go back to the Shramana movement, which the Buddha participated in and contributed to. The Shramanas were wandering ascetics who rejected all the beliefs of the brahmins that could not be tested empirically. Through meditative and yogic practices, they developed an extremely sophisticated knowledge of the human mind and body, some of which is embedded in the Pali canon. The Mahayana was primarily a popular movement, regarding much of the old knowledge as esoteric and elitist, and it thrived on the simplification of the early teachings. The more intellectually rigorous teachings of the early schools, such as the Abhidhamma (which organized the early teachings around the phenomenology of meditative experience), were preserved in the work of the Mahayana philosophers, but much of their writing was a critique of the early systems.

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