Book Review: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

This is a review of the book
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha)

Researchers believe that “The Buddha” ( a term meaning “The Awakened One” ) was an actual man named Siddhartha Gautama that lived in India over 2,600 years ago.

His teachings were passed down for several centuries after his death via an oral tradition until they were written down on collections of palm leaves. These are stored in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the texts of the oldest surviving form of Buddhism known as Theravada. The Sutta Pitaka consists of 5 “Nikayas” or books/collections.

These collection are thousands of pages long, contain much repetitive content and have only been translated into English as of the 19th century. Translations into English are still being perfected as ancient Pali and modern English are extremely different languages.

In other words, the reader who wants to read the Buddhist message for him/herself has the daunting task of combing through several large, expensive, repetitious volumes of translations that may not be clear to a modern reader.

“In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon” is an anthology of the Buddha’s teachings compiled by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in New York City in 1944 as Jeffrey Block. He is an American Theravada Buddhist monk. Bhikkhu Bodhi has translated large portions of the Pali Canon himself and is a native English speaker.

His goal in compiling his anthology is to make the Buddha’s message more accessible to the ordinary person and to encourage the ordinary person to read the Pali Canon themselves.

To this end, he has chosen what he thinks are the most essential of the Buddha’s discourses. Bhikkhu Bodhi has also put these suttas ( discourses from the Buddha ) into a logical order by subject in his anthology — something which doesn’t exist in the Pali Canon, which is a scattered, repetitious collection of separate talks.

Bhikkhu Bodhi further aids the reader by reducing the repetition of phrases in the translations ( left over from the oral tradition ) and Bhikkhu Bodhi introduces each section with some extremely helpful essays on the suttas that follow.

The result is an easy to understand, scholarly anthology that gives the reader a sense of what can be found in the Sutta Pitaka in regards to the essentials of the Buddha’s message – without having to make the larger investment of going through the significantly more voluminous, repetitious and expensive English translations of these collections.

This book will likely not be enjoyable to people whose exposure to Buddhism has been a mixture of inspirational poetry, psychological analysis and elements borrowed from other spiritual traditions.

People who are uncomfortable reading text that is more “religious” will find those elements in this collection.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has striven to given an honest snap shot of what someone can expect to find in translations of the Pali Canon. That snap shot includes the presence of preternatural beings, mythical realms and what is commonly known in the West as “reincarnation”. If you have limited tolerance for reading such things, this book isn’t for you.

This book can also be dry in many sections. It isn’t a book that can be read, or understood by reading through it in many large chunks while laying on a couch after a taxing day. My recommendation would be to read it a tiny bit of time, sitting up and during your best hours to get the most out of it.

I was surprised to see that a copies of the “The Peg” (Ani Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya XX.7), “The Unconjecturable” (Acintita Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya IV.77) and “To Sivaka” (Moliyasivaka Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya XXXVI.21) suttas (discourses from the Buddha ) were not included in this anthology.

These suttas state that the Buddha knew his teachings would get distorted over time, that the
Buddha believed that ordinary people could not explain the details of their current situation by tracing their karma ( kamma ) and that not all situations a person encounters in their lives are the result of karma. These are extremely important ideas and it is a bit strange that they are not included in an anthology of essential teachings attributed to the Buddha himself.

As stated previously, a big problem for those seeking to understand Buddhism directly from the original texts is that these texts haven’t been translated very well into English. English and Pali are just very different languages. The modern world is also very different from the ancient world from where the texts came.

Given that Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American and a native English speaker I had different expectations for these translations than what I read.

As an example, throughout the anthology the root causes of “suffering” are listed as being “greed, hatred and delusion”. The terms in quotes are not the only possible English translations. The English translations are technically correct, but I believe the terms used hold extreme connotations to the contemporary English speaker which rob the Buddhist message of its meaning and relevance to contemporary life.

Many people interpret “suffering” as agony, “greed” as extreme desire, “hatred” as an extremely strong emotion and “delusion” as close to being insane. Other translators have stated that the Pali word “dukha”, commonly translated as “suffering” really refers to any dissatisfactory feeling from a vague sense of things not being the best as they could be on one end, to flat out agony on the other end.

So, an alternate translation like this one is possible:

“The root cause of feelings of unhappiness, distress or suffering come from desire, aversion or being ignorant to the nature of life.”

To me, that speaks to me much more as a modern person and seems relevant to many more of my experiences than:

“The roots of suffering are greed, hatred and delusion”.

The alternative translation doesn’t come off as a recycled puritanism of which I want no part of as a secular person.

There are a number of other examples of alternative translations like this one.

I’m not a scholar of any kind and Bhikkhu Bodhi is. As an expert who has devoted his life to Buddhism I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Bhikkhu Bodhi is correct in his translation choices.

I’m just saying my preference would have been for the other choices and I think that will be true for many people interested in this book.

I believe this book to be a first of its kind in what does and how well it does it. I heartily encourage anyone with an interest in Buddhism to endure the shortcomings of the book. Read it in little bits every day, read the whole thing and talk to people about it. Such an investment will keep coming back to you for the rest of your life.

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3 Responses to Book Review: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

  1. Very good, thorough review, Steve.

  2. Steve says:

    You are a fast reader!

  3. I can’t help but admire Bhikkhu Bodh for his scholarship, and I’m sure, too, for the depth of his spiritual practice. I think that Steve’s point is well taken and Robin’s comment, too. From my perspective as a human being, and from what I’ve observed among other types of living beings, it is desire that is the cause of suffering. But as far as we know, only human beings have the capacity to understand the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Humans can trace desire back to ignorance of the fact that life is characterized by change or impermanence, and grasp the insight that suffering results when one desires one thing or outcome rather than other. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about what happens to us, in life, but simply be mindful of the movements of desire, it’s rise and fall, in our minds, and how we externalize this in our lives. Therevada mindfulness meditation is the practice of watching the rise and fall of thoughts in our minds, and becoming aware of this fact, which produces mindfulness and non-attachment to the objects of desire, even as we strive for them. Hatred, greed and delusion are particular forms of desire, but so are desires to do noble things. Mindfulness is the key. With mindfulness, extreme forms of desire like the ones just mentioned, dissolve, while mindfulness of the desire to do noble things, inspires compassion and expansiveness rather than contraction and acquisitiveness toward others, and toward living one’s life, in general.

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