How to Read this Book

Many anthologies of the Buddha’s teachings have appeared in English, but this is the first to be organized around the set of teachings that the Buddha himself said formed the heart of his message: the Wings to Awakening (bodhi-pakkhiya-dhamma). The material is arranged in three parts, preceded by a long Introduction. The Introduction tries to define the concept of Awakening so as to give a clear sense of where the Wings to Awakening are headed. It does this by discussing the Buddha’s accounts of his own Awakening, with special focus on the way in which the principle of skillful kamma (in Sanskrit, karma) formed both the “how” and the “what” of that Awakening: the Buddha was able to reach Awakening only by developing skillful kamma—this is the “how”; his understanding of the process of developing skillful kamma is what sparked the insights that constituted Awakening—this is the “what.”

With this background established, the remainder of the book focuses in detail on the Wings to Awakening as an expanded analysis of the “how.” Part One focuses on aspects of the principle of skillful kamma that shaped the way the Wings to Awakening are formulated. Part Two goes through the seven sets that make up the Wings to Awakening themselves: the four foundations of mindfulness (here called the four frames of reference), the four right exertions, the four bases for power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, and the noble eightfold path. Part Three reduces all the terms in the seven sets to the five faculties and then deals with those faculties in detail. With the fifth and final faculty, discernment, the book concludes by returning to the “what” of Awakening, showing how discernment focuses on the Wings themselves as topics to be observed in such a way that they will spark the insights leading to total release.

Thus the organization of the book is somewhat circular. As with any circle, there are several points where the book can be entered. I would recommend two to begin with. The first is to read straight through the book from beginning to end, gaining a systematic framework for the material from Parts One and Two, which explain why the seven sets are organized as they are, and then focusing more on individual elements in the sets in Part Three. This way of approaching the material has the advantage of giving an overall perspective on the topic before going into the details, making the role and meaning of the details clear from the start. However, this approach is the reverse of what actually happens in the practice. A practicing meditator must learn first to focus on individual phenomena in and of themselves, and then, through observation and experimentation, to discover their inter-relationships. For this reason, some readers—especially those who find the discussion of causal relationships in Parts One and Two too abstract to be helpful—may prefer to skip from the Introduction straight to sections A through E of Part Three, to familiarize themselves with teachings that may connect more directly with their own experience. They may then return later to Parts One and Two to gain a more overall perspective on how the practice is meant to deal with those experiences.

Regardless of which approach you take to the material, you should discover fairly quickly that the relationships among the overall patterns and individual elements in the Wings are very complex. This complexity reflects the non-linear nature of the Buddha’s teachings on causal relationships, and is reflected in the many cross-references among the various parts of the book. In this way, the structure of this book, instead of being a simple circle, is actually a pattern of many loops within loops. Thus a third way to read it—for those familiar enough with the material to want to explore unexpected connections—would be to follow the cross-references to see where they lead.

Parts One through Three of the book are each divided into sections consisting of passages translated from discourses in the Pāli Canon, which is apparently the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings. Each section is introduced, where necessary, with an essay. These essays are printed in sans serif type to distinguish them clearly from the translated passages. They are attempts to provide context—and thus meaning—for the passages, to show how they relate to one another, to specific issues in the practice, and to the path of practice as a whole. They are not meant to anticipate or answer every possible question raised by the passages. Instead, they are aimed at giving an idea of the kinds of questions that can be most fruitfully brought to the passages, so that the lessons contained in the passages can properly be applied to the practice. As the Buddha has pointed out, the attitude of “appropriate attention” (yoniso manasikāra), the ability to focus on the right questions, is one of the most important skills to develop in the course of the practice. This skill is much more fruitful than an attitude that tries to come to the practice armed with all the right answers in advance.

The context provided by the essays is threefold: doctrinal, placing the passages within the structure of the Buddha’s teachings taken as a whole; historical, relating them to what is known of the intellectual and social history of the Buddha’s time; and practical, applying them to the actual practice of the Buddhist path in the present.

The first and foremost sources for the doctrinal context are the discourses in the Canon itself. The Buddha and his noble disciples are by far the most reliable guides to the meaning of their own words. Often a teaching that seems vague or confusing when encountered on its own in a single discourse becomes clearer when viewed in the context of several discourses that treat it from a variety of angles, just as it is easier to get a sense of a building from a series of pictures taken from different perspectives than from a single snapshot.

This approach to understanding the discourses is instructive not only when discourse x explicitly defines a term mentioned in discourse y, but also when patterns of imagery and terminology permeate many passages. Two cases in point: in separate contexts, the discourses compare suffering to fire, and the practice of training the mind in meditation to the art of tuning and playing a musical instrument. In each case, technical terms—from physics in the first instance, from music theory in the second—are applied to the mind in a large number of contexts. Thus it is helpful to understand where the terms are coming from in order to grasp their connotations and to gain an intuitive sense—based on our own familiarity with fire and music—of what they mean.

In a few instances, I have cited alternative versions of the discourses—such as those contained in the Sarvāstivādin Canon preserved in Chinese translation—to throw light on passages in the Pāli. Although the Sarvāstivādin Canon as a whole seems to be later than the Pāli, there is no way of knowing whether particular Sarvāstivādin discourses are earlier or later than their Pāli counterparts, so the comparisons drawn between the two are intended simply as food for thought.

I have also drawn occasionally on the Pāli Abhidhamma and commentaries, which postdate the discourses by several centuries. Here, however, I have had to be selective. These texts employ a systematic approach to interpreting the discourses that fits some teachings better than others. There are instances where a particular teaching has one meaning in terms of this system, and another when viewed in the context of the discourses themselves. Thus I have taken specific insights from these texts where they seem genuinely to illuminate the meaning of the discourses, but without adopting the overall structure they impose on the teachings.

To provide historical context, I have drawn on a variety of sources. Again, the foremost source here is the Pāli Canon itself, both in what it has to say explicitly about the social and intellectual milieu of the Buddha’s time, and in what it says implicitly about the way the intellectual disciplines of the Buddha’s time—such as science, mathematics, and music theory—helped to shape the way the Buddha expressed his thought. I have also drawn on secondary sources where these do a useful job of fleshing out themes present in the Pāli Canon. These secondary sources are cited in the Bibliography.

Because the Pāli tradition is still a living one, the doctrinal and historical contexts do not account for the full range of meanings that practicing Buddhists continue to find in the texts. To provide this living dimension, I have drawn on the teachings of modern practice traditions where these seem to harmonize with the message of the Canon and add an illuminating perspective. Most of these teachings are drawn from the Thai Forest Tradition, but I have also drawn on other traditions as well. I have followed a traditional Buddhist practice in not identifying the sources for these teachings, and for two reasons: first, in many ways I owe every insight offered in this book to the training I have received from my teachers in the Forest Tradition, and it seems artificial to credit them for some points and not for others; second, there is the possibility that I have misunderstood some of their teachings or taken them out of context, so I don’t want to risk crediting my misunderstandings to them.

In providing a more modern context for the passages presented in this book, however, I have not tried to interpret the teachings in terms of modern psychology or sociology. The Buddha’s message is timeless and direct. It does not need to be translated into the passing fashions of disciplines that are in many ways more removed than it is from the realities of direct experience, and more likely to grow out of date. However, there are two modern disciplines that I have drawn on to help explain some of the more formal aspects of the Buddha’s mode of speech and his analysis of causal principles.

The first discipline is phenomenology, the branch of philosophy that deals with phenomena as they are directly experienced, in and of themselves. There are many schools of modern phenomenology, and it is not my purpose to try to equate the Buddha’s teachings with any one of them. However, the Buddha does recommend a mode of perception that he calls “entry into emptiness (suññatā)” [see MN 121], in which one simply notes the presence or absence of phenomena, without making further assumptions about them. This approach resembles what in modern philosophy could be called “radical phenomenology,” a mode of perception that looks at experiences and processes simply as events, with no reference to the question of whether there are any “things” lying behind those events, or of whether the events can be said really to exist [see passages §230 and §186]. Because of this resemblance, the word “phenomenology” is useful in helping to explain the source of the Buddha’s descriptions of the workings of kamma and the process of dependent co-arising in particular. Once we know where he is coming from, it is easier to make sense of his statements and to use them in their proper context.

I have made similar use of modern science—chaos theory in particular. There are many parallels between Buddhist theories of causation and modern deterministic chaos theory. Examples and terminology drawn from the latter—such as feedback, scale invariance, resonance, and fluid turbulence—are very useful in explaining the former. Again, in using these parallels I am not trying to equate Buddhist teachings with chaos theory or to engage in pseudo-science. Fashions in science change so rapidly that we do the Buddha’s teachings no favor in trying to “prove” them in light of current scientific paradigms. Here I am simply pointing out similarities as a way of helping to make those teachings intelligible in modern terms. Deterministic chaos theory is the only modern body of knowledge that has worked out a vocabulary for the patterns of behavior described in Buddhist explanations of causality, and so it seems a natural source to draw on, both to describe those patterns and to point out some of their less obvious implications.

In doing so, I realize that I run the risk of alienating non-scientists who feel intimidated by scientific terminology, as well as scientists who resent the application of terminology from their disciplines to “non-scientific” fields. To both groups I can say only that the terms in and of themselves are not “scientific.” Much of our current everyday terminology for explaining causal relations is derived from the science of the eighteenth century; I expect that it will only be a matter of time before the terminology of more recent science will percolate into everyday usage. For the purpose of this book, it is important to point out that when the Buddha talked about causality, his notion of causal relations did not correspond to our ordinary, linear, picture of causal chains. If this point is not grasped, the common tendency is to judge the Buddha’s descriptions of causality against our own and to find them either confusing or confused. Viewing them in the light of deterministic chaos theory, however, helps us to see that they are both coherent and of practical use.

Another example of an analogy drawn from modern science is the term “holographic,” which I have used to describe some formulations of the Buddhist path. When a hologram is made of an object, an image of the entire object—albeit fairly fuzzy—can be made from even small fragments of the hologram. In the same way, some formulations of the path contain a rough version of the entire path complete in each individual step. In my search for an adjective to describe such formulations, “holographic” seemed the best choice.

If you are unfamiliar with the terminology of phenomenology, chaos theory, and holograms, read section I/A, on skillfulness, to find the doctrinal context in which these terms can be related to an immediate experience: the process of developing a skill. The approach of phenomenology relates to the fact that, on the night of his Awakening, the Buddha focused his attention directly on the mental process of developing skillful states in the mind, without referring to who or what was developing the skill, or to whether there was any sort of substratum underlying the process. Chaos theory relates to the patterns of causality that the Buddha discerned while observing this process, whereby the effects of action can in turn become causal factors influencing new action. Holography relates to his discovery that skillfulness is developed by taking clusters of good qualities already present in the mind and using them to strengthen one another each step along the way. Once these familiar reference points are understood, the abstract terms describing them should become less foreign and more helpful.

In providing doctrinal, historical, and practical context based on all the above-mentioned sources, the essays are meant to give an entry into the mental horizons and landscape of the texts they introduce. They are also meant to suggest how the texts may be used for their intended purpose: to help eliminate obstacles to the release of the mind. Although some of the essays address controversial questions, the textual passages are not meant to prove the points made in the essays. In assembling this anthology, I first gathered and translated the passages from the Canon. Only then, after contemplating what I had gathered, did I add the essays. For this reason, any reader who disagrees with the positions presented in the essays should still find the translations useful for his/her own purposes. I am painfully aware that some of the essays, especially those in Part I, tend to overpower the material they are designed to introduce, but this is because the themes in Part I play a pervasive role in the Buddha’s teachings as a whole. Thus I had to deal with them in considerable detail to point out how they relate not only to the passages in Part I but also to themes raised in the rest of the book.

Although the essays should go far toward familiarizing the reader with the conceptual world and relevance of the textual passages, there are other aspects of the passages that might prove daunting to the uninitiated, and so I would like to deal with them here.

To begin with, the teachings on the Wings to Awakening are interrelated in very complex ways. Because books must be arranged in linear sequence, taking one thing at a time in a row, this means that no book can do justice to all the side avenues and underground passageways that connect elements in one set of teachings to those in another. For this reason, I have organized the material in line with the order of the sets as given in the Canon, but—as mentioned above—have extensively cross-referenced it for the sake of readers who want to explore connections that fall outside the linear pattern. Cross-references are given in brackets [ ], and take three forms. An example that looks like this—[§123]—is a reference to a passage from the Pāli Canon translated in this book. One that looks like this—[III/E]—is a reference to an essay introducing a section, in this case Section E in Part III. One that looks like this—[MN 107]—is a reference to a passage from the Pāli Canon not translated here. The abbreviations used in these last references are explained on the Abbreviations page. My hope is that these cross-references will open up useful lines of thought to whomever takes the time to explore them.

Another potential difficulty for the uninitiated reader lies in the style of the passages. The Pāli Canon was, for 500 years, an entirely oral tradition. As a result, it tends to be terse in some areas and repetitive in others. I’ve made an effort to cut out as many of the repetitions as possible, but I’ll have to ask your patience for those that remain. Think of them as the refrains in a piece of music. Also, when the Buddha is referring to monks doing this and that, keep in mind that his audience was frequently composed entirely of monks. The commentaries state that the word “monk” includes anyone—male or female, lay or ordained—who is serious about the practice, and this meaning should always be kept in mind. I apologize for the gender bias in the translations. Although I have tried to figure out ways to minimize it, I find myself stymied because it is so thoroughly embedded in a literature originally addressed to monks.

I trust, however, that none of these difficulties will prove insurmountable, and that you will find, as I have, that the teachings of the Pāli Canon more than reward the effort put into exploring them. The reality of the Wings to Awakening lies in the qualities of the mind. The words with which they are expressed in the Pāli Canon are simply pointers. These pointers have to be tested in the light of serious practice, but my conviction is that, of all the meditation teachers the human race has ever seen, the Buddha is still the best. His words should be read repeatedly, reflectively, and put to test in the practice. My hope in gathering his teachings in this way is that they will give you useful insights for training the mind so that someday you won’t have to read about Awakening, but will be able to know it for yourself.