Siddhartha Gotama: The Teacher
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯
Talk given at the Buddha Center, Second Life
Have you ever wondered what the Buddha was really like when he was teaching? Not just how he taught, but how he projected his personality into his teaching? We know the philosophy was decidedly different, but was his style different from other spiritual masters of his time? As a Buddhist teacher myself, I do sometimes ask myself, “How did or would Siddhartha present this topic, and did it differ when he spoke to individuals or groups?” When we study the Pali Cannon, especially the Nikayas, what kind of image do we get of the Buddha as teacher, and what kind of relationship did he have with his disciples, especially his senior students? From my continuing study of the Buddhist Cannon I have begun to recognize the possible answers to some of these questions. Because, you see, some of the Buddhist text were written by his disciples, and there are some hints to his style and personality in them. One point to consider in understanding Siddhartha as teacher, is the difference between his first followers relationship with the living teacher, and what it means to followers in every generation to be in relationship with the legacy-teachings. The lessons found in the Cannon are not just about the past, not just about “how they” interacted with the teacher, but also about us.
The Buddha’s students were on the road with him. The Sangha was a journeying Sangha, they were itinerant. And they must have been able to observe Siddhartha in every-day situations, and began to find lessons that spoke to ways in elevating suffering and promote human flourishing. To journey with the Buddha means listening to his teaching, sometimes understanding it, sometimes not quite getting it. In a way, when we step on the path we are also on a journey of discovery. So if we consider the notion of a Universal Sangha, we just might find we are in a relationship with the past, present, and the future. The teachings our not static; the Buddha as teacher is a modern man.
Journeying with the Buddha also means to be in a community, to become part of the alternative community of contemporary practitioners. The Buddhist path is not an individual path per-say, but a journey in the company of practitioners. Agreed, it is a road less traveled, yet being a committed student involves being in a community that enriches the teachings from generation to generation, so they remain true to the reality of our ever-changing Universe. Thus, we have what I would call a transformative understanding of the Buddhist life, where Siddhartha challenged his students, both then and now, to have a richer and fuller understanding of the contemporary world around them. It is a vision of the Buddhist life as a journey of transformation, exemplified by the suttas reflecting the teachings of compassion and selflessness that gives us a clue of Siddhartha’s own compassionate character.
The Buddha was startlingly original for his time. Many of his ideas were formulated to refute other ideas current in his day, but to put them across, he had inevitably to use the language of his opponents. He infused old terms with new meanings. From a pragmatic point of view it is what we call creative re-description. But it is clear in the texts that this inevitably led to misunderstandings, especially among those who came to know his teachings only partially or superficially. It is interesting to note that Siddhartha was not asking the same questions as his opponents. He did not always follow the unspoken rules of what philosophy, or systematic thought, was supposed to be about, it seems. To do this successfully, the Buddha must have had an engaging since of humor, and his methods must have been disarming. I think he tried hard to make himself understood by gauging the capacity of the listener’s ability to understand the teaching in a simple and direct way. I find the Buddha’s ideas extraordinarily powerful and intelligent, but at the same time I do not think they are very complex or difficult to grasp either. Yet Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike persist in regarding the Buddha’s thought as immensely ‘deep’ and therefore difficult to awaken to. Never the less, Siddhartha worked hard to be understood, and make sure his listener were given useful and productive information that could lead to an enriched life. I think that one can teach Buddhism to a non-Buddhist audience in their own language without using any foreign words at all. Siddhartha did just that. He used the common language to great effect.
While the Buddha used direct language to convey a meaning, he also taught using metaphors as well. The use of metaphor is linked to what became known as his Skillful Means. The Buddha’s ability to adapt what he says to his audience, to their prejudices, expectations and capacities is evidenced throughout the Cannon. When he encountered someone new to his philosophy, he hardly ever initiates a discussion or begins by putting forward his own views. Once his listener has spoken, the Buddha’s normal technique is to agree — and then to carry on. He says, ‘Yes—and…’ (He did not say, ‘Yes .. But ..) The Buddha avoids an adversarial stance. What he does after his initial agreement is to take what has apparently been agreed on and turn it upside down. One of his main ways of doing that is to make the words used by his opponent mean something quite different. This is why it is so important to have a broad understanding of the Pail Cannon, and not just take a section as pointing to what is real, and make it into a doctrine. What I take away from this process is the extent of the Buddha’s compassion, and his wisdom that provided the Skillful Means which made his preaching so effective.
This image of a Buddhist life is not primarily one of believing or acting out of good intent, as much as it is one of a relationship with self and other. That relationship does not leave us unchanged but transforms us into becoming more compassionate beings, like the Buddha. To have your thoughts and teaching continue to enlighten and transform after 2500 hundred years, reflects in my mind anyway, just how dynamic Siddhartha’s nature must have been, and continues to throw a long shadow today.