Over the past year, I’ve been driving up to Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, many Saturday mornings, to meditate and take instruction in some of the suttas (or sutras in Sanskrit) of the Pali Canon from the American-born Buddhist scholar monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi . The crowd is delightfully diverse. I’ve met there an osteopath, a professor at a Connecticut college, a mid-wife, shaven-headed Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns, and a woman who likes to knit during the talks and who told me at lunch last week that she won a $100 prize for doing the best Sarah Palin imitation in the last annual Cold Spring Halloween Parade. I’m drawn to these talks and the suttas because after decades of practicing meditation and going on retreats and reading books by all kinds of Western teachers, I finally had an overwhelming interest in finding out what the man they called the Awakened One had to say for himself.
Ven. Bodhi’s classes are held in Kuan Yin Hall, which like the rest of the monastery (which means “solemn monastery”) is built in the style of the Tang Dynasty. Front and center behind an altar sits a gorgeous wooden Kuan Yin Bodhisattva from the actual Tang Dynasty (about a 1000 years old). Kuan Yin is a bit like the Virgin Mary, a great loving and merciful saint of compassion, and this particular Kuan Yin sits with such grace and wears an expression of such beautiful self-contained tranquility that without knowing the tiniest thing about Buddhism or the suttas an observer gets the impression from looking at her that it is that it has to do with being easeful and kind with the world and with yourself, with being open yet self-contained no matter confronts you, which means in this Kuan Yin’s case facing a lot of people taking notes and sometimes knitting.
As the weeks go by, I have learned that there really is no getting back to the exact words of Siddhattha (or Siddhartha) Gotama, the historical Buddha. Pali , by the way, is a vernacular form of classical Sanskrit, which originated in the North Indian dialects that Gotama himself would have spoken. What has come to be the Pali Canon was perseved as an oral tradition for hundreds of years before it was written down in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C.E. (other versions of the suttas, verification of this oral transmission, popped up in China and elsewhere). What we have, according to Ven. Bodhi, who translated the Pali Canon into English and continues to debate and refine word choices even as he speaks to us, are spare and sometimes very ambiguous notes from a journey that untold numbers of human beings have taken towards freedom for about 2500 years. Freedom from what? What is captured in the posture and carved with such exquisite care on face of that Tang Dynasty Kuan Yin is a state of gracefulness that can come to us when we have freed ourselves from the cage of ego, shed blinders of our value judgements and favorite thoughts. Some days it seems impossible to ever bridge the gap between us, Kuan Yin and I. Other days it is clear that what others have done, we can do. ..and what better use for my time?
The key is remembering that this map, these suttas, are really meant to be used, worked with, even, dare I say it, played and experimented with. So much religious intolerance, hatred, and violence in the world could come to an end if more people could spend even a couple of minutes a day actually trying to see how we cling to our thoughts and experiences and how just plain seeing that fact lets us let go and open up to the world around us. The paradox is that the more I learn about the Buddha’s path, the closer I come to understanding the real scale and majesty of Golden Rule, which means living outside your own self interest, living in the light of the Whole.