Venerable Fred: How to Decipher the Teachings of the Pali Canon in the XNUMXst Century

- through Sophie Solere

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A Theravada Buddhist monk in the tradition of forest monks, Venerable Fred was ordained at the Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Tournon in Ardèche. It sheds light on the importance of the Pali canon.

Is being a Theravada monk in the 21st century a challenge?

I see being a monk as a vocation. It is not a necessary condition of practice or enlightenment. The question is whether one feels more useful to others with this dress or without. I was ordained eight years ago on a temporary basis, but this practice involved such a change in our worldview that a short period was not enough for me. I needed more time to pursue this path. The Venerable Nyanadharo, my master, says that we must regularly re-examine our motives. If at some point you feel more useful on the outside, then it is better to return to a lay life. It's not a failure, just another step on the way.

Theravada is based on the Pali canon. Remind us what it is.

It is a set of texts whose origin dates back to the historical Buddha, who lived in northern India about 2500 years ago. They were first passed down orally for 500 years and then written down in Sri Lanka at the start of the Christian era. According to recent research, the Pali language was probably the one used, or even created (1), by the Buddha to teach. The Pali canon (also called Tipitaka, “the Three Baskets”) is made up of three parts: the Vinaya, rules for monks and nuns; the suttas (sûtras in Sanskrit), discourses attributed to the Buddha, and the Abhidamma, a more technical and philosophical treatise. Suttas and Vinaya come from the memories of close disciples of the Buddha. The Abhidamma is later. The whole represents perhaps 2000 to 3000 pages. To this canon are added commentaries, also in Pali, compiled in the XNUMXth century AD, notably by Buddhaghosa.

You think it would be useful to take a fresh look at this canon. For what ?

It is difficult to understand the meaning of a sutra without referring to the commentaries of the monks that have been added to it, from the beginning and over the centuries. However, their interpretations are not always accurate. The Buddha was renowned for adapting his teaching to his listeners. Some scholars, especially Anglo-Saxons, have undertaken to study the Pali canon in its historical context. They consider that these are not texts engraved in marble as if they were eternal and universal, but teachings delivered to a particular audience, the listeners of the Buddha in India in the fifth century BC. Reading the texts with a knowledge of the religion, psychology and social condition of the Buddha's listeners would allow us to have a new look at his intentions when he taught.

What is the risk of relying on the interpretations of commentators?

Interpreting is not a problem in itself, but it is a question of making the difference between what concerns later commentaries or developments and what corresponds to the words of the Buddha. Just look at all these fake Buddhist quotes that are popping up on the internet. They can be very inspiring, but were not spoken by the Buddha. As a former scientist, I like to know who said what. There is also the problem of translations which, in some cases, can distort the original meaning. One of the risks of interpretations is to miss a certain simplicity. Some of today's meditation practices seem too elaborate to me. Perhaps it could be enough to sit and be attentive to everything, to remain contemplating what is happening, without doing anything or having a preconceived plan. The only instructions the Buddha gives in the overwhelming majority of suttas is "Go to the forest, to the foot of a tree, to a cave, or to an abandoned hut, and meditate."

Many Westerners have a negative view of the Pali canon. How do you explain it?

First, the form of the texts (with a lot of repetitions for example) and certain translations can make them a bit difficult for modern readers. Second, this negative view often relates to Theravada in general. Some even call it Hinayana, which means “little vehicle,” as if it were some sort of lower first step.

“Reading the texts with a knowledge of the religion, psychology and social condition of the Buddha's listeners would allow us to have a new look at his intentions when he taught. »

In my opinion, the real reason is that most of the Buddha's teachings run counter to our contemporary society. They aim for detachment from the world and from the pleasures of the senses, which is the opposite of our egotistical mind eager to grasp novelty. A number of contemporary meditation teachers go in the direction of this enjoyment of the senses, advocating enjoying every moment of life, a kind of hedonism. Is this adaptation of the Buddha's message to today's society legitimate or pushed to the point of misinterpretation? I'm wondering.

Your remarks may seem unsuited to practitioners today.

That does not bother me (laugh). In Buddhist practice, happiness is to be found in how one relates to the experience, rather than in the content of the experience itself. Our senses are saturated. We are no longer able to appreciate the finer things. During a retreat, one can return to simplicity, to silence, to a little bland food, in order to relate to experiences without greed, aversion and ignorance, these three poison. It's about simply appreciating what happens to us, without the idea that it's pleasant or unpleasant, without the need to consume excessively or go on vacation to the other side of the world. This is also good for human relations and for the planet.

Aren't we at risk of falling into depression?

It's a question of finding the middle way, between depression and excitement… Indeed, the texts say that the last stages of the path, just before enlightenment, lead to a kind of disinterest in the world. We are tired of this restless mind that always tries to seek novelty, pleasure and avoid discomfort. This disenchantment means that we are on the right track, provided we have a good master capable of guiding us, because he has already been there.

What is the purpose, once released?

If we are to believe the texts and the stories, to be awake would be to be able to live without concern for the pleasant or the unpleasant. The main disciples of the Buddha each had particular qualities and, once awakened, they could make the best use of their gifts, devoid of egoistic aspects. After his enlightenment, the Buddha devoted his life to teaching. When Mahayanists praise the ideal of the bodhisattva (one who strives to do good for others), saying that Theravada practitioners are selfish because they seek their own enlightenment first, I find that a bit difficult to justify. I imagine that once awakened, you lose interest in your ego and are able to help all beings. And as long as you are not awakened, however much you say that you are acting like a bodhisattva, your activity is not free from ego. Basically, beyond the words or the "schools", I don't see many differences: if we are sincerely on the path of enlightenment, we all seek to be freed little by little from the ego and, almost mechanically, one might say, more and more available to help others.

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Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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