Methods of Delivery of Dhamma by the Buddha

1. Buddha Dhamma is undoubtedly the most complex “theory” in the world. It is truly amazing that such a deep philosophical doctrine has survived over 2500 years.

  • However, we can be confident that the pure Dhamma still survives, because the three baskets of sutta, vinaya, and abhidhamma were written down in 29 BCE when there were still numerous Arahants were present.
  • After about 100 -200 CE, people started translating the Tipitaka into Sanskrit and also the Mahayana sect started writing their own suttas in Sanskrit; see, “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze“.

2. Another important point to remember is that there is no single discourse in which the Buddha has drawn together all the elements of of his teaching and assigned them to their appropriate place within some comprehensive system; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.

  • Therefore, the same material was delivered in a variety of different ways over the 45-year “ministry” of the Buddha. If some mistakes were made in the transmission of one of the suttas or discourses, that would become apparent when compared with the numerous other discourses or the Abhidhamma.

3. The Buddha tailored his discourses to his audience at hand. Thus his teachings that have been transmitted encompass a broad spectrum, ranging from one-to-one conversations with people who had particular questions in mind, to long discourses to audiences consisting of groups with wide ranging mental capabilities.

  • If the Buddha realized that it was not fruitful to explain a deep concept to an individual, he remained silent. One example cited is Buddha’s silence when a certain wanderer named Vacchagotta asked him whether there was an atman  or athma (permanent soul) or not. Even though Buddha had clearly explained in Paticca Samuppada that the concept of a lifestream with changing “gathi“, in this case he remained in silence when Vacchagotta asked him the question twice. Vacchagotta then left.
  • After Vacchagotta left, Buddha’s personal attendant, Ven. Ananda, asked him why Buddha did not explain the concept that it is not correct to say “there is no soul” or “there is a soul” (because there is only an ever-changing lifestream) to Vacchagotta. The Buddha told Ananda that he did not think Vacchagotta was mentally capable at that time to understand the concept, and that he did not want to confuse him. See the post, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream” for the correct explanation.
  • It turned out that Vacchagotta later became a disciple and even attained Nibbana through his efforts.

4. Other times, he would enunciate invariable principles that stand at the heart of the teaching: for example, Abhidhamma is a complete description of the working of the mind. The Buddha delivered this Abhidhamma material in summary form to his chief disciple, Ven. Sariputta, and it was Ven. Sariputta and his followers who expanded that summary to the form that we have today in the Tipitaka; see, “Abhdhamma – Introduction“.

  • But in most cases, instead of trying to provide most thorough and intellectually deep answers, he tried to find the best way to steer people to the truth according to their mental capabilities. Some recent books have misrepresented such isolated one-to-one correspondence as indications that some fundamental issues have not been addressed by the Buddha. They are probably unaware that such questions have been answered in other suttas. I will point such instances as they come up in other posts.

Next, “Misconceptions on the Topics the Buddha “Refused to Answer”“, …..

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