The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Teachings of the Buddha: The Path to Liberation

by Bhikkhu Bodhi
November 5, 2013
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 09:30 -- bbodhi

This week's theme to The Teachings of the Buddha is “The Path to Liberation.”—Editor's note

In this chapter, we come to the unique distinguishing feature of the Buddha’s teaching, its “supramundane” or “world-transcending” (lokuttara) path to liberation. This path builds upon the transformed understanding and deepened perspective on the nature of the world that arise from our recognition of the perils in sensual pleasures, the inevitability of death, and the vicious nature of saṃsāra, themes that we surveyed in the previous chapter. It aims to lead the practitioner to the state of liberation that lies beyond all realms of conditioned existence, to the same sorrowless and stainless bliss of Nibbāna that the Buddha himself attained on the night of his enlightenment.

This chapter presents texts that offer a broad overview of the Buddha’s world-transcending path; the following two chapters will bring together texts that focus more finely on the training of the mind and the cultivation of wisdom, the two major branches of the worldtranscending path. I begin, however, with several suttas that are intended to clarify the purpose of this path, illuminating it from different angles. Text VII,1(1), The Shorter Discourse to Māluṅkyāputta (MN 63), shows that the Buddhist path is not designed to provide theoretical answers to philosophical questions. In this sutta the monk Māluṅkyāputta approaches the Buddha and demands answers to ten speculative questions, threatening to leave the Saṅgha if this demand is not satisfied. Scholars have debated whether the Buddha refused to answer such questions because they are in principle unanswerable or simply because they are irrelevant to a practical resolution of the problem of suffering. Two collections of suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya—SN 33:1–10 and SN 44:7–8—make it clear that the Buddha’s “silence” had a deeper basis than mere pragmatic concerns. These suttas show that all such questions are based on an underlying assumption that existence is to be interpreted in terms of a self and a world in which the self is situated. Since these premises are invalid, no answer framed in terms of these premises can be valid, and thus the Buddha must reject the very questions themselves.

However, while the Buddha had philosophical grounds for refusing to answer these questions, he also rejected them because he considered the obsession with their solutions to be irrelevant to the quest for release from suffering. This reason is the evident point of the discourse to Māluṅkyāputta, with its well-known simile of the man shot by the poisoned arrow. Whether any of these views is true or not, the Buddha says, “there is birth, there is aging, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair, the destruction of which I prescribe here and now.” Against the picture of the saṃsāric background sketched at the end of the previous chapter, this statement now takes on an expanded meaning: the “destruction of birth, aging, and death” is not merely the end of suffering in a single lifetime, but the end of the immeasurable suffering of repeated birth, aging, and death that we have undergone in the countless eons of saṃsāra.

To continue readng the introduction to “The Path to Liberation”, click here.

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