A Small Jewel of a Book

This book isn’t about Buddhism per se, but about the Buddha’s philosophy, and that means it is not so much about any specific teachings of the Buddha, but about what he was trying to teach.

The author uses selected quotes of the Buddha, taken from English translations of the “Three Pitakas,” which are the earliest words of the Buddha, to validate the author’s assertion that the Buddha had one, and only one, principle to convey: “desire for what will not be attained ends in frustration (suffering); therefore to avoid frustration, avoid desiring what will not be attained.”

This is Buddha’s middle way. It doesn’t say “stop desiring!” because desire is fundamental to life and gives it value, and without desire there can be no freedom of choice. It says stop desiring what cannot be attained, which the author clarifies as “craving” something unobtainable, such as the ending of all desiring. And it is in this last statement that the author, and this reader, finds the absolute brilliance of the Buddha’s enlightenment—the middle way between extremes, even the extreme of desiring to end all desires.

The author’s assertion is that the Buddha never strayed from this single consistent principle, and all of the Buddha’s teachings were completely coherent with this principle. Thus, any other principles found in words purportedly spoken by the Buddha were, in the author’s opinion, spoken by other minds, and in many cases introduced a misunderstanding of what the Buddha taught, primarily by taking extreme positions rather than following the middle way. The author bolsters his assertion by quoting the Buddha’s own remarks about how his teaching was being misunderstood by others and in what ways it was being misunderstood.

Even such fundamental Buddhist doctrine as the “Four Noble Truths” was derivative of the Buddha’s single principle, according to the author, who again backs up his argument with ample quotes from the Pitakas. It’s not that these derivative doctrines are wrong per se, but that they were later attempts to simplify the Buddha’s insight for students who did not understand the dialectical nature (a conflict between extremes giving rise to a new way between them) of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and thus these derivative doctrines serve to create misunderstandings, and block access to the original insight.

An example of this kind of misunderstanding is found in the “noble eight-fold path” and its assertion of the “right” (versus the wrong) way forward, such as “right speech,” “right livelihood,” etc. This, the author claims, is not the middle way, but a taking of an extreme position. In this particular case, the author points to fundamental mistranslations of the Pali and Sanskrit words in the original teachings leading to the use of the concept of right versus wrong. By focusing students on one (and only one) extreme in that conflict, rather than a middle way between both extremes, even such a simple thing as a name can obscure the Buddha’s original teaching.

This book is not about practices and does not question later developments within Buddhism and Buddhist thought. It is a clarification only of the Buddha’s brilliant and sublime principle of the middle way to end suffering, and thus the way to the direct attainment of Nirvana in this life.

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