One of my Twitter friends, Mike D posted a link a while back to this FAQ on fundamentalbuddhism.com. It’s a response to the common question from those newly interested in practicing Buddhism: Do I need a local teacher? Their answer may surprise you.
You can look for one. However, based on our interpretation of the Pali Canon, we believe that the best teacher is the Buddha’s discourses themselves. We believe, despite 2,500 years and at least two language iterations plus the problems with interpretation and translation, the essence of the Buddha’s teaching is still discernable within the Pali Text Society English translations. We suggest that the best approach is to obtain the recommended Pali Canon translations, find a secluded place to be by yourself, read and study them, and then reflect, meditate and concentrate. Individual effort is what is needed.
The conventional answer to this question is a resounding yes – that only a close relationship with a meditation teacher will provide the best return on your investment of time and effort in Buddhist practice. But, in all the Pali canon suttas I’ve read, that point is never made – and it seems like it would be an important one to make if Buddha intended it to be made.
The Fundamental Buddhism site describes itself as follows: Explicit explanation of Buddhism based on the Pali Canon
recognized by Buddhist scholars as the oldest surviving written record of what the Buddha actually taught.
So this gives the answer a frame of reference. But it’s also one I happen to (mostly) agree with. I’m not knocking teachers – I listen to talks online given by lots of different teachers. But I’ve practiced Buddhism for years and have never had a relationship with a teacher. I have, however, read a good share of the Pali canon.
Now, the reason I say mostly above is that I’d temper this statement by admitting that the Pali canon is not a walk in the park. First, it’s freaking huge. It’s got a lot of what I’d call chaff in it, it can be extremely repetetive, and some of it can be downright contradictory. Like any ancient work of scripture (the Buddha’s discourses were not written down until long after his death) there’s been an awful lot of room for reinterpretation, insertion, modification, etc. As a result, a purist, fundamentalist view of Buddhism based on the Pali canon alone is somewhat of a shaky proposition.
My suggestion for a new practitioner interested in the core teachings of the Buddha is to read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s excellent book, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a renowned Buddhist scholar and monk who has published massive tomes of Pali canon translations. He knows these works like few others alive, and in this book he selects what are commonly, among Buddhist practitioners, considered core and essential suttas. Along with them he provides his top notch commentary. The commentary is especially important for those new to Buddhism, as the suttas contain a lot of quirks that can befuddle the uninitiated. This is a big book in and of itself and contains a very healthy dose of Pali canon suttas. You’d be hard pressed to find a sutta mentioned in popular Buddhist blogs or books that are not included in this volume.
If you’re hungry for more after reading Bodhi’s book, then by all means, pick up one of his massive volumes of Pali canon translations. Those will keep you busy for a long time.
Finally, two points worth mentioning. First, it’s important to say that some people simply aren’t geared for learning in this way, and would do better with a teacher. If this is you, then by all means, find a good teacher. The point of this post is simply that you don’t necessarily need one. Second, there are countless great books about Buddhism that provide insightful retellings of the teachings that are well suited to the modern reader. Again, by all means, read these and learn from them. But I have to agree that anyone serious about Buddhist practice would be well served by reading enough of the Pali canon to understand what was actually taught and have that as a basis.