The Buddha via the Bible

How Western Buddhists Read the Pāli Canon

Western culture learned how to read spiritual texts by reading the Bible. Not that we all read it the same way—quite the contrary. We’ve fought long, bloody wars over the issue. But most of the differences in our readings lie within a fairly tight constellation of ideas about authority and obligation, meaning and mystery, and the purpose of history and time. And even though those ideas grew from the peculiarities of the Bible and of Western history, we regard them as perfectly natural, and in some cases, even better than natural: modern. They’re so implicit in our mindset that when people rebel against the Bible’s authority, their notions of rebellion and authority often derive from the tradition they’re trying to reject.

So it’s only to be expected that when we encounter spiritual texts from other traditions, we approach them as we would the Bible. And because this tendency is so ingrained, we rarely realize what we’ve done.

For example, the way we read the Pāli Canon has largely been influenced by modern attitudes toward the Bible that date back to the German Romantics and American Transcendentalists—primarily Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even though we seldom read these thinkers outside of literature or history classes, their ideas permeate our culture through their influence on humanistic psychology, liberal spirituality, and the study of comparative religion: portals through which many of us first encounter the religions of other cultures. The question is, Do these ideas do justice to the Pāli Canon? Are we getting the most out of the Canon if we read it this way? We rarely ask these questions because our reading habits are invisible to us. We need fresh eyes to see how odd those habits are. And a good way to freshen our eyes is to look historically at the particulars of where these habits come from, and the unspoken assumptions behind them.

The Romantics and Transcendentalists formulated their ideas about reading the Bible in response to developments in linguistics, psychology, and historical scholarship in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is what makes them modern. They were addressing a culture that had grown skeptical toward organized religion and had embraced intellectual principles capable of challenging the Bible’s authority. Thus, to be taken seriously, they had to speak the language of universal historical and psychological laws. However, the actual content of those laws drew on ideas dating back through the Middle Ages to the Church Fathers—and even further, to the Bible itself: doctrines such as Paul’s dictum that the invisible things of God are clearly seen through the visible things He made; Augustine’s teaching on Christ the Inner Teacher, illuminating the mind; and John Cassian’s instructions on how to read the Bible metaphorically. So even though the Romantic/Transcendentalist view is modern and universal in its form, its actual substance is largely ancient and specific to the West.

In the complete version of this article—available at—I’ve traced how these ideas were shaped by developments in Western history. Here, however, I want to focus on the parallels between the psychological laws the Transcendentalists formulated for reading the Bible, and the assumptions that modern Dharma teachers bring to reading the Pāli Canon. My purpose is to show that, while these assumptions seem natural and universal to us, they are culturally limited and limiting: ill-suited for getting the most out of what the Canon provides.

The Transcendentalist approach to the Bible boils down to eight principles. The first principle concerns the nature of the universe; the second, the means by which the human mind can best connect with that nature; and the remaining six, the implications of the first two concerning how the Bible should be read. In the following discussion, the quotations illustrating each principle are from Emerson.

1. The universe is an organic whole composed of vital forces. (The technical term for this view is “monistic vitalism.”) This whole is essentially good because it is continuously impelled forward by the over-arching force of a benevolent creator—which Emerson called the Over-soul—operating both in external nature and in the inner recesses of the soul. People suffer because their social conditioning estranges them from the inner and outer influences of the Over-soul, depriving them of its sustaining, creative power. Thus the spiritual life is essentially a search for reconnection and oneness with the whole.

The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God… the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly in endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one.

2. Reconnection and oneness are best found by adopting a receptive, open attitude toward the influences of nature on a sensory, pre-verbal level.

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

3. The Bible can comfort the soul estranged from nature, but it should not be granted absolute authority because the inspiration it records is only second-hand, interfering with the soul’s direct contact with the One.

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps.

The saints and demigods whom history worships we are constrained to accept with a grain of allowance. Though in our lonely hours we draw a new strength out of their memory, yet, pressed on our attention, as they are by the thoughtless and customary, they fatigue and invade. The soul gives itself, alone, original, and pure, to the Lonely, Original, and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads, and speaks through it.

4. The Bible’s message is also limited in that it was composed for a less enlightened stage in human history.

If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul.

The idealism of Jesus… is a crude statement of the fact that all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself.

5. The Bible’s authority is actually dangerous in that it stifles the soul’s creative impulses, the most direct experience of the Over-soul’s vital force within.

The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul… The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates.

When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.

What is that abridgement and selection we observe in all spiritual activity, but itself the creative impulse?

Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul… When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish.

6. Another limitation on the language of the Bible is that it is expressive rather than descriptive. In other words, unlike the meta-cultural laws of psychology, it does not describe universal human truths. Instead, it expresses through metaphor how the force of the Over-soul felt to particular people at particular times. Thus, to be relevant to the present, it is best read, not as a scholar would—trying to find what actually happened in the past, or what it meant to its authors—but as a poet might read the poetry of others, judging for him or herself what metaphors will be most useful for inspiring his or her own creative genius.

[One] must attain and maintain that lofty sight where poetry and annals are alike.

The Garden of Eden, the sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry thenceforward to all nations. Who cares what the fact was, when we have made a constellation of it to hang in heaven as an immortal sign.

In the book I read, the good thought returns to me, as every truth will, the image of the whole soul. To the bad thought which I find in it, the same soul becomes a discerning, separating sword, and lops it away.

7. By reading the Bible creatively in this way, one is assisting in the progress of God’s will in the world.

Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole…. We need not fear that we can lose any thing by the progress of the soul. The soul may be trusted to the end.

8. The Transcendentalists all agreed with the Romantics that the soul’s most trustworthy sense of morality came from a sense of interconnectedness within oneself and with others. They differed among themselves, though, in how this interconnectedness was best embodied. Emerson advocated focusing on the present-moment particulars of one’s ordinary activities. In his words, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

Other Transcendentalists, however—such as Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker—insisted that true inner oneness was impossible in a society rent by injustice and inequality. Thus, they advocated reading the Bible prophetically, as God’s call to engage in progressive social work. Emerson, in turn, retorted that unless change came first from within, even the ideal social structure would be corrupted by the lack of inner contact with God. Thus the two camps reached a standoff.

Still, even the socially engaged Transcendentalists read the Bible creatively and metaphorically, seeking not its original message but a new message appropriate for modern needs. Brownson, for instance, followed the French socialist, Pierre Leroux, in interpreting the Last Supper as Jesus’ call to all Christians to drop artificial social divisions caused by wage labor, capitalist exploitation, external signs of status, etc., and to construct a new social system that would allow all humanity to celebrate their mutual interconnectedness.

Historians have traced how these eight principles—including the split in the eighth—have shaped American liberal spirituality in Christian, Reform Jewish, and New Age circles up to the present. Emerson’s way of phrasing these points may sound quaint, but the underlying principles are still familiar even to those who’ve never read him. Thus it’s only natural that Americans raised in these traditions, on coming to Buddhism, would bring these principles along. Emerson himself, in his later years, led the way in this direction through his selective appreciation of Hindu and Buddhist teachings—which he tended to conflate—and modern Western Buddhist teachers still apply all eight principles to the Pāli Canon even today.

In the following discussion I’ve illustrated these principles, as applied to the Canon, with quotations from both lay and monastic teachers. The teachers are left unnamed because I want to focus, not on individuals, but on what historians call a cultural syndrome, in which both the teachers and their audiences share responsibility for influencing one another: the teachers, by how they try to explain and persuade; the audiences, by what they’re inclined to accept or reject. Some of the teachers quoted here embrace Romantic/Transcendentalist ideas more fully than others, but the tendency is present, at least to some extent, in them all.

1. The first principle is that the Canon, like all spiritual texts, takes interconnectedness—the experience of unity within and without—as its basic theme. On attaining this unity, one drops the identity of one’s small self and embraces a new identity with the universe at large.

The goal [of Dhamma practice] is integration, through love and acceptance, openness and receptivity, leading to a unified wholeness of experience without the artificial boundaries of separate selfhood.

It is the goal of spiritual life to open to the reality that exists beyond our small sense of self. Through the gate of oneness we awaken to the ocean within us, we come to know in yet another way that the seas we swim in are not separate from all that lives. When our identity expands to include everything, we find a peace with the dance of the world. It is all ours, and our heart is full and empty, large enough to embrace it all.

2. The Canon’s prime contribution to human spirituality is its insight into how interconnectedness can be cultivated through systematic training in mindfulness, defined as an open, receptive, pre-verbal awareness. This provides a practical technique for fostering the sort of transparent religious consciousness that Emerson extolled. One teacher, in fact, describes mindfulness as “sacred awareness.”

Mindfulness is presence of mind, attentiveness or awareness. Yet the kind of awareness involved in mindfulness differs profoundly from the kind of awareness at work in our usual mode of consciousness… The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgements and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped. The task is simply to note whatever comes up just as it is occurring, riding the changes of events in the way a surfer rides the waves on the sea.

3. However, the Canon does not speak with final authority on how this receptive state should be used or how life should be led. This is because the nature of spiritual inspiration is purely individual and mysterious. Where the Transcendentalists spoke of following the soul, Western Buddhists speak of following the heart. As one teacher, who has stated that following one’s heart might mean taking the path of psychotropic drugs, has said:

No one can define for us exactly what our path should be.

[A]ll the teachings of books, maps, and beliefs have little to do with wisdom or compassion. At best they are a signpost, a finger pointing at the moon, or the leftover dialogue from a time when someone received some true spiritual nourishment…. We must discover within ourselves our own way to become conscious, to live a life of the spirit.

Religion and philosophy have their value, but in the end all we can do is open to mystery.

4. The Canon’s authority is also limited by the cultural circumstances in which it was composed. Several teachers, for example, have recommended dropping the Canon’s teachings on kamma because they were simply borrowed from the cultural presuppositions of the Buddha’s time:

Even the most creative, world-transforming individuals cannot stand on their own shoulders. They too remain dependent upon their cultural context, whether intellectual or spiritual—which is precisely what Buddhism’s emphasis on impermanence and causal interdependence implies. The Buddha also expressed his new, liberating insight in the only way he could, using the religious categories that his culture could understand. Inevitably, then, his way of expressing the dharma was a blend of the truly new… and the conventional religious thought of his time. Although the new transcends the conventional… the new cannot immediately and completely escape the conventional wisdom it surpasses.

5. Another reason to restrict the Canon’s authority is that its teachings can harm the sensitive psyche. Where Emerson warned against allowing the Bible to stifle individual creativity, Western Buddhists warn that the Canon’s talk of eliminating greed, aversion, and delusion ignores, in an unhealthy way, the realities of the human dimension.

If you go into ancient Indian philosophy, there is a great emphasis on perfection as the absolute, as the ideal. [But] is that archetype, is that ideal, what we actually experience?

The images we have been taught about perfection can be destructive to us. Instead of clinging to an inflated, superhuman view of perfection, we learn to allow ourselves the space of kindness.

6. Because the language of the Canon is archetypal, it should be read, not as descriptive, but as expressive and poetic. And that expression is best absorbed intuitively.

It’s never a matter of trying to figure it all out, rather we pick up these phrases and chew them over, taste them, digest them and let them energize us by virtue of their own nature.

Even these ostensibly literal maps may be better read as if they were a kind of poem, rich in possible meanings.

7. To read the Canon as poetry may yield new meanings unintended by the compilers, but that simply advances a process at work throughout Buddhist history. Some thinkers have explained this process as a form of vitalism, with Buddhism or the Dharma identified as the vital force. Sometimes the vitalism is explicit—as when one thinker defined Buddhism as “an inexpressible living force.” At other times, it is no less present for being implied:

The great strength of Buddhism throughout its history is that it has succeeded many times in reinventing itself according to the needs of its new host culture. What is happening today in the West is no different.

In each historical period, the Dharma finds new means to unfold its potential in ways precisely linked to that era’s distinctive conditions. Our own era provides the appropriate stage for the transcendent truth of the Dharma to bend back upon the world and engage human suffering at multiple levels, not in mere contemplation but in effective, relief-granting action.

8. As this last quotation shows, some thinkers recommend reading the Canon not only poetically but also prophetically as a source of moral imperatives for social action in our times. Because the Canon says little on the topic of social action, this requires a creative approach to the text.

We can root out thematically relevant Buddhist themes, texts, and archetypes and clarify them as core teachings for Buddhist based social change work.

Of the various themes found in the Pāli Canon, dependent co-arising—interpreted as interconnectedness—is most commonly cited as a source for social obligation, paralleling the way the Transcendentalists saw interconnectedness as the source of all moral feeling.

Numerous thinkers have hailed this prophetic reading of the Canon as a new turning of the Dhamma wheel, in which the Dhamma grows by absorbing advances in modern Western culture. Many are the lessons, they say, that the Dhamma must learn from the West, among them: democracy, equality, Gandhian nonviolence, humanistic psychology, ecofeminism, sustainable economics, systems theory, deep ecology, new paradigm science, and the Christian and Jewish examples of religious social action. We are assured that these developments are positive because the deepest forces of reality—within and without—can be trusted to the end.

We must be open to a variety of responses toward social change that come from no particular “authority” but are grounded in the radical creativity that comes when concepts fall away.

There is an underlying unity to all things, and a wise heart knows this as it knows the in-and-out of the breath. They are all part of a sacred whole in which we exist, and in the deepest way they are completely trustworthy. We need not fear the energies of this world or any other.

Often the trustworthiness of the mind is justified with a teaching drawn from the Mahāyāna: the principle of Buddha-nature present in all. This principle has no basis in the Pāli Canon, and so its adoption in Western Theravāda is frequently attributed to the popularity of Mahāyāna in Western Buddhism at large. Only rarely is the question asked, Why do Westerners find the Mahāyāna attractive? Is it because the Mahāyāna teaches doctrines we’re already predisposed to accept? Probably so—especially when you consider that although the principle of Buddha-nature is interpreted in many ways within the Mahāyāna itself, here in the West it’s primarily understood in the form closest to the Transcendentalist idea of innate goodness.

Compassion is our deepest nature. It arises from our interconnection with all things.

These eight principles for interpreting the Pāli Canon are often presented as meta-cultural truths but, as we have seen, they developed in the specific context of the Western engagement with the Bible. In other words, they’re historically conditioned. When we compare them to the Canon itself, we find that they directly contradict the Dhamma. At the same time, when teachers try to justify these principles on the basis of the Canon, we find that they’re invariably misreading the text.

1. The idea that spiritual life is a search for unity depends on the assumption that the universe is an organic whole, and that the whole is essentially good. The Canon, however, consistently portrays the goal of the spiritual life as transcendence: The world—which is synonymous with the All (SN 35:23)—is a dangerous river over which one has to cross to safety on the other side. The state of oneness or non-duality is conditioned (AN 10:29): still immersed in the river, unsafe. In reaching nibbāna, one is not returning to the source of things (MN 1), but reaching something never reached before (AN 5:77): a dimension beyond all space and time. And in attaining this dimension, one is not establishing a new identity, for all identities—even infinite ones (DN 15)—ultimately prevent that attainment, and so have to be dropped.

2. The Canon never defines mindfulness as an open, receptive, pre-verbal state. In fact, its standard definition for the faculty of mindfulness is the ability to keep things in mind. Thus, in the practice of right mindfulness, one is keeping one of four frames of reference in mind: body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities, remembering to stay with these things in and of themselves. And some of the more vivid analogies for the practice of mindfulness suggest anything but an open, receptive, non-judging state.

“Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, earnestness, mindfulness, and alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head; in the same way, the monk should put forth extra desire… mindfulness, and alertness for the abandoning of those evil, unskillful mental qualities.” — AN 10:51

“Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together, saying, ‘The beauty queen! The beauty queen!’ And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing and dancing, so that an even greater crowd comes thronging, saying, ‘The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!’ Then a man comes along, desiring life and shrinking from death, desiring pleasure and abhorring pain. They say to him, ‘Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd and the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.’ Now what do you think, monks? Will that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, let himself get distracted outside?”

“No, lord.”

“I have given you this parable to convey a meaning. The meaning is this: The bowl filled to the brim with oil stands for mindfulness immersed in the body.” — SN 47:20

There’s a tendency, even among serious scholars, to mine in the Canon for passages presenting a more spacious, receptive picture of mindfulness. But this tendency, in addition to ignoring the basic definition of mindfulness, denies the essential unity among the factors of the path—one such scholar, to make his case, had to define right mindfulness and right effort as two mutually exclusive forms of practice. This suggests that the tendency to define mindfulness as an open, receptive, non-judging state comes from a source other than the Canon. It’s possible to find Asian roots for this tendency, in the schools of meditation that define mindfulness as bare awareness or mere noting. But the way the West has morphed these concepts in the direction of acceptance and affirmation has less to do with Asian tradition, and more to do with our cultural tendency to exalt a pre-verbal receptivity as the source for spiritual inspiration.

3. The Canon states clearly that there is only one path to nibbāna (DN 16). Trying to find awakening in ways apart from the noble eightfold path is like trying to squeeze oil from gravel, or milking a cow by twisting its horn (MN 126). The Buddha’s knowledge of the way to awakening is like that of an expert gatekeeper who knows, after encircling the walls of a city, that there’s only one way into the city: the gate he guards (AN 10:95).

One of the tests for determining whether one has reached the first level of awakening is if, on reflection, one realizes that no one outside the Buddha’s teaching teaches the true, accurate, way to the goal (SN 48:53). Although individual people may have to focus on issues particular to their temperament, the basic outline of the path is the same for all.

4. Obviously the Buddha’s language and metaphors were culturally conditioned, but it’s hard to identify any of his essential teachings as limited in that way. He claimed a knowledge of the past that far outstrips ours (DN 29; DN 1), and he’d often claim direct knowledge when stating that he was speaking for the past, present, and future when describing, for instance, how physical, verbal, and mental actions are to be purified (MN 61) and the highest emptiness that can be attained (MN 121). This is why the Dhamma is said to be timeless, and why the first level of awakening verifies that this is so.

At the same time, when people speak of essential Buddhist teachings that are limited by the cultural conventions of the Buddha’s time, they’re usually misinformed as to what those conventions were. For instance, with the doctrine of kamma: Even though the Buddha used the word kamma like his contemporaries, his conception of what kamma was and how it worked differed radically from theirs (AN 3:62; MN 101).

5. Similarly, people who describe the dangers of following a particular Buddhist teaching usually deal in caricatures. For instance, one teacher who warns of the dangers of the linear path to attainment describes that path as follows:

The linear path holds up an idealistic vision of the perfected human, a Buddha or saint or sage. In this vision, all greed, anger, fear, judgment, delusion, personal ego, and desire are uprooted forever, completely eliminated. What is left is an absolutely unwavering, radiant, pure human being who never experiences any difficulties, an illuminated sage who follows only the Tao or God’s will and never his or her own.

Although this may be a possible vision of the linear path, it differs in many crucial details from the vision offered in the Canon. The Buddha certainly passed judgment on people and taught clear criteria for what are and are not valid grounds for judgment (AN 7:64; AN 4:192; MN 110). He experienced difficulties in setting up the monastic Saṅgha. But that does not invalidate the fact that his greed, aversion, and delusion were gone.

As MN 22 states, there are dangers in grasping the Dhamma wrongly. In the context of that discourse, the Buddha is referring to people who grasp the Dhamma for the sake of argument; at present we might point out the dangers in grasping the teachings neurotically. But there are even greater dangers in misrepresenting the teachings, or in dragging them down to our own level, rather than using them to lift ourselves up. As the Buddha said, people who claim that he said what he didn’t say, or didn’t say what he did, are slandering him (AN 2:23). In doing so, they blind themselves to the Dhamma.

6. Although the Canon contains a few passages where the Buddha and his awakened disciples speak poetically and expressively of their attainment, those passages are rare. Far more common are the descriptive passages, in which the Buddha tells explicitly how to get to awakening. As he said in a famous simile, the knowledge gained in his awakening was like the leaves in the forest; the knowledge he taught, like the leaves in his hand (SN 56:31). And he chose those particular leaves because they served a purpose, helping others develop the skills needed for release. This point is supported by the imagery and analogies employed throughout the Canon. Although some of the more poetic passages draw images from nature, they are greatly outnumbered by analogies drawn from physical skills—cooking, farming, archery, carpentry—making the point that Dhamma practice is a skill that can be understood and mastered in ways similar to more ordinary skills.

The Buddha’s descriptions of the path are phrased primarily in psychological terms—just like the meta-cultural principles of the Transcendentalists and Romantics. Obviously, the Canon’s maps of mental processes differ from those proposed by Western psychology, but that doesn’t invalidate them. They were drawn for a particular purpose—to help attain the end of suffering—and they have to be tested fairly, not against our preferences, but against their ability to perform their intended function.

The poetic approach to the Canon overlooks the care with which the Buddha tried to make his instructions specific and clear. As he once commented (AN 2:46), there are two types of assemblies: those trained in bombast, and those trained in cross-questioning. In the former, the students are taught “literary works—the works of poets, artful in sound, artful in expression, the work of outsiders” and are not encouraged to pin down what the meaning of those beautiful words might be. In the latter—and here the Buddha was describing his own method of teaching—the students are taught the Dhamma and “when they have mastered that Dhamma, they cross-question one another about it and dissect it: ‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They make open what isn’t open, make plain what isn’t plain, dispel doubt on its various doubtful points.” To treat such teachings as poetry distorts how and why they were taught.

7. A vitalist interpretation of Buddhist history does a disservice both to the Buddha’s teachings and to historical truth. To begin with, the Canon does not portray history as purposeful. Time moves in cycles, but those movements mean nothing. This is why the Buddha used the term saṁsāra—“wandering-on”—to describe the course of beings through time. Only if we decide to end this wandering will our lives develop purpose and direction. Otherwise, our course is aimless:

“Just as a stick thrown up in the air lands sometimes on its base, sometimes on its side, sometimes on its tip; in the same way, beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, transmigrating and wandering on, sometimes go from this world to another world, sometimes come from another world to this.” — SN 15:9

Second, Buddhism does not have a will. It does not adapt; people adapt Buddhism to their various ends. And because the adapters are not always wise, there’s no guarantee that the adaptations are skillful. Just because other people have made changes in the Dhamma doesn’t automatically justify the changes we want to make. Think, for instance, of how some Mahāyāna traditions dropped the Vinaya’s procedures for dealing with teacher-student sexual abuse: Was this the Dhamma wisely adapting itself to their needs?

The Buddha foresaw that people would introduce what he called “synthetic Dhamma”—and when that happened, he said, the true Dhamma would disappear (SN 16:13). He compared the process to what happens when a wooden drum develops a crack, into which a peg is inserted, and then another crack, into which another peg is inserted, and so on until nothing is left of the original drum-body. All that remains is a mass of pegs, which cannot come near to producing the sound of the original drum (SN 20:7).

Some scholars have found the Canon’s warnings about the decay of the Dhamma ironic.

This strongly held view [that Buddhism should not change] seems a bit odd in a religion that also teaches that resistance to all-pervasive change is a root cause of misery.

The Buddha, however, didn’t embrace change, didn’t encourage change for the sake of change, and certainly didn’t define resistance to change as the cause of suffering. Suffering is caused by identifying with change or with things that change. Many are the discourses describing the perils of “going along with the flow” in terms of a river that can carry one to whirlpools, monsters, and demons (Iti 109). And as we noted above, a pervasive theme in the Canon is that true happiness is found only when one crosses over the river to the other side.

8. The Buddha was not a prophet, and he did not pretend to speak for God. Thus he was careful never to present his teachings as moral obligations. His shoulds were all conditional. As the first line of the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta (Khp 9) states,

This is to be done by one skilled in aims

who wants to break through to the state of peace:

In other words, if you want to break through to a state of peace, then this is what you have to do. And although generosity is one of the things one must do to attain that goal, when the Buddha was asked where a gift should be given (SN 3:24), he responded, “Wherever the mind feels confidence.” This means that if we regard social action as a gift, there is no need to seek the Buddha’s sanction for feeling inspired to give in that way; we can just go ahead and do it—as long as our actions conform with the precepts. But it also means that we cannot use his words to impose a sense of obligation on others that they should give in the same way.

This is especially true in a teaching like the Buddha’s, which is strongly pragmatic, with each teaching focused on a particular end. To take those teachings out of context, applying them to other ends, distorts them. The teaching on dependent co-arising, which is often interpreted as the Canon’s version of interconnectedness, is a case in point. The factors in dependent co-arising are primarily internal, dealing with the psychology of suffering, and are aimed at showing how knowledge of the four noble truths can be applied to bring suffering to an end. There is nothing to celebrate in the way the ordinary interaction of these factors leads to suffering. To turn this teaching into a celebration of the interconnectedness of the universe, or as a guide to the moral imperative of social action, is to thwart its purpose and to open it to ridicule from people disinclined to accept its moral authority over their lives.

At the same time, the Canon questions the underlying assumption—which we’ve inherited not only from the Transcendentalists and Romantics, but also from their Enlightenment forebears—that human culture is evolving ever upwards. The early discourses present the opposite picture, that human life is getting worse as a sphere for Dhamma practice, and it’s easy to point out features of modern life that confirm this picture. To begin with, Dhamma practice is a skill, requiring the attitudes and mental abilities developed by physical skills, and yet we are a society whose physical skills are fast eroding away. Thus the mental virtues nurtured by physical skills have atrophied. At the same time, the social hierarchy required by skills—in which students apprentice themselves to a master—has mostly disappeared, so we’ve unlearned the attitudes needed to live in hierarchy in a healthy and productive way. We like to think that we’re shaping the Dhamma with our highest cultural ideals, but some of our lower ways are actually dominating the shape of Western Dhamma: The sense of neurotic entitlement produced by the culture of consumerism is a case in point, as are the hype of the mass media and the demands of the mass-market for a Dhamma that sells.

As for trusting the impulses of the mind: Try a thought experiment and take the above quote—that we must be open to the radical creativity that comes when concepts fall away—and imagine how it would sound in different contexts. Coming from a socially concerned Buddhist activist, it might not seem disconcerting. But coming from a rebel leader teaching child-soldiers in a civil-war torn country, or a greedy financier contemplating new financial instruments, it would be a cause for alarm.

The Buddha probably would have agreed with the Romantics and Transcendentalists that the human mind is essentially active in making sense of its surroundings. But he would have differed with their estimation that this activity is, at its root, divinely inspired. In his analysis of dependent co-arising, mental fabrication comes from ignorance (SN 12:2); the way to end suffering is to end that fabrication; and this requires an attitude, not of trust, but of heedful vigilance (DN 16). Thus heedfulness must extend both to one’s attitude toward one’s intuitions and to the ways with which one reads the Canon.

This point touches on what is probably the most central issue in why the Transcendentalist approach to reading the Bible is inappropriate for reading the Pāli Canon: the issue of authority. In the Bible, God’s authority is absolute because He is the creator of all. We, having been created for His inscrutable ends, must trust His authority absolutely. Although the Transcendentalists denied that the Bible carried God’s absolute authority, they did not deny the concept of absolute authority in and of itself; they simply moved it from the Bible and, bypassing other alternatives, placed it with the spontaneous intuitions of the heart. Following their lead, we as a culture tend to see the issue of authority as a simple either/or: either absolutely in the Bible or absolutely in our intuitions. As a result, when we read in the Kalama Sutta (AN 3:66), “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture… or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher,” we skip over the words in the ellipsis and assume that there is only one other alternative, as stated in a message rubber-stamped on the back of an envelope I once received: “Follow your own sense of right and wrong—The Buddha.”

However, the words in the ellipsis are equally important: “Don’t go by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, or by probability.” In other words, you can’t go simply by what seems reasonable or agreeable to you. You can’t go simply by your intuitions. Instead, the Buddha recommends that you test a particular teaching from a variety of angles: Is it skillful? Is it blameless? Is it praised or criticized by the wise? When put into practice does it lead to harm and suffering, or to wellbeing and happiness?

This requires approaching the practice as a skill to be mastered, one that has already been mastered by the wise. Although a part of mastery is learning to gauge the results of your actions, that’s not the whole story. You must learn how to tap into the wisdom and experience of experts, and learn to gauge the results of your actions—at the very least—against standards they have set. This is why we read and study the Canon: to gain a clear understanding of what the wise have discovered, to open our minds to the questions they found fruitful, so that we can apply the wisdom of their expertise as we try to develop our own.

It’s in this context that we can understand the nature of the Buddha’s authority as presented in the Pāli discourses. He speaks, not with the authority of a creator, but with the authority of an expert. Only in the Vinaya does he assume the added authority of a lawgiver. In the discourses, he calls himself a doctor; a trainer; an admirable, experienced friend who has mastered a specific skill: putting an end to suffering. He provides explicit recommendations on how to act, speak, and think to bring about that result; instructions on how to develop qualities of mind that allow you to assess your actions accurately; and questions to ask yourself in measuring your progress along the way.

It’s up to us whether we want to accept or reject his expertise, but if we accept it he asks for our respect. This means, in the context of an apprentice culture—the culture set up in the Vinaya (Cv.VIII.11-12)—that you take at face value his instructions on how to end suffering and give them a serious try. Where the instructions are ambiguous, you use your ingenuity to fill in the blanks, but then you test the results against the standards the Buddha has set, making every effort to be heedful in reading accurately and fairly what you have done. This sort of test requires a serious commitment—for a sense of how serious, it’s instructive to read the biographies of the Thai forest masters. And because the commitment is so serious, the Buddha advises exercising careful judgment in choosing the person to whom you apprentice yourself (AN 4:192) and tells you what to look for before growing close to a teacher (MN 95). You can’t trust every teacher to be a genuinely admirable friend.

This is all very straightforward, but it requires stepping outside the limitations of our culturally conditioned ways. And again, it’s up to us whether we want to read the Pāli Canon on its own terms. If we don’t, we’re free to continue reading it poetically and prophetically, taking the Buddha’s instructions as grist for our own creative intuitions. But if that’s our approach, we’ll never be in a position to judge adequately whether his instructions for putting an end to suffering actually work.