Back to the Beginning

An interview with Andrew Olendzki

What is the Pali Canon?
The Pali canon is the body of literature that dates to more or less the lifetime of the Buddha (circa 500 B.C.E.) and the first few generations of his followers.

In Pali we refer to the canon as the "Tipitaka" ("Tripitaka" in Sanskrit)—literally, the "Three Baskets," which contain the collected words of the Buddha. The Three Baskets are:

The Vinaya, the teachings on the history and rules of the monastic community; The Suttas ("Sutras" in Sanskrit), which comprise the narrative and verse teachings; and The Abhidhamma ("Abhidharma" in Sanskrit), a later compilation of teachings on Buddhist psychology that was primarily built upon the Vinaya and the Suttas.

What are the Three Councils?
Several months after the Buddha died (fifth century B.C.E.), his followers gathered at what is known as the First Council, when the Vinaya and the Suttas were first recited. A hundred years later, the Second Council was held to discuss some discrepancies that had emerged regarding the Vinaya. Finally, the Third Council was convened during the reign of King Ashoka in about 250 B.C.E., several hundred years after the Buddha's death. It codified the Vinaya and the Suttas, probably added some new material, and established the Abhidhamma as a distinct collection. The Abhidhamma texts systematize and homogenize material that is found in the Suttas.

After the Third Council, there is little evidence of any further substantial changes made to the canon. In other words, for over two thousand years, the Pali canon has remained virtually unchanged.

Abide as an Island
This text, a favorite among Westerners, is often understood to contain the Line, ''Be a lamp unto yourself, " motivating many Buddhist practitioners to take a more individualistic approach to the teachings. According to Pali scholar Andrew Olendzki, however, "lamp" is a mistranslation; the correct translation is "island," and the phrase an admonition not to be taken with worldly phenomena.

Bhikkhus, abide with yourselves as an island, with yourselves as a refuge, with no other refuge; with the dhamma as an island, with the dhamma as a refuge, with no other refuge.

And how does one do this? A person contemplates the body as body ... feelings as feelings ... mind as mind ... phenomena as phenomena ... ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having put aside favoring and not favoring the things of the world. Whoever abides in this way, either now or after I am gone, will be practicing at the highest level of my training.

When you abide with yourselves as an island ... you should carefully investigate: "From what are sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair born? How are they produced?" The uninstructed person regards consciousness as self, or self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. But that consciousness of his changes and alters, and then there arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. But when one has understood the impermanence of consciousness, its change, fading away, and cessation, and when one sees as it really is with correct wisdom thus: "In the past and also now all consciousness is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change," then sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair are abandoned. Then one does not become agitated, and one dwells happily. Such a person is said to be quenched. [The same is said of the other aggregates: form, feeling, perception, formations.]


—The Buddha
[Digha 16:2; Samyutta 47:9; Samyutta 22:43] Translation by Andrew Olendzki

THE THORN IN YOUR HEART
The early Buddhist teachings emphasize eradication of desire through insight rather than the transcendence or transformation of desire.

I'll tell you about the dreadful fear
That caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around
Like fishes in shallow water,
So hostile to one another!
—Seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
It trembles in all directons.

Seeing people locked in conflict
I became completely distraught.
But then I discerned here a thorn
—Hard to see—lodged deep in the heart
It's only when pierced by this thorn
That one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out—
One does not run, and settles down.

Who here has crossed over desires,
The world's bond, so hard to get past,
He does not grieve, she does not mourn.
His stream is cut, she's all unbound.
What went before—let go of that!
All that's to come—have none of it!
Don't hold on to what's in between,
And you'll wander fully at peace.


—The Buddha
Adapted from the Attadanda Sutta (Sutta Nipata 935-949) Translation by Andrew Olendzki

Images: © Sarah Schorr

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