In “Post from an Ordinary Person,” writer and practitioner Martha Henry admits, “I was greedy for advanced knowledge. It was my intention to read the thousand-page book from cover to cover.” Her story, which we present as part of our Spring Series on the Pali Canon, a collection of responses to Wisdom's call for submissions on the Teachings of the Buddha Series, gives students of all traditions something to relate to. From flipping our longheld beliefs upside-down to perplexing us with philosophy, the Pali Canon is more than a collection of old texts; it's an experience, a teaching in itself. If “Post from an Ordinary Person” doesn’t make you want to dive into the suttas yourself, then perhaps it will prepare you for your next plunge. Stay tuned for The Wisdom Blog's upcoming Fall call for submissions!
“Post from an Ordinary Person,” by Martha Henry
The Majjhima Nikāya was a graduation present to myself. I’d read all the popular Buddhist books: The Three Pillars of Zen, What the Buddha Taught, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I’d read some of Chögyam Trungpa, a lot Thich Nhat Hanh, all of Pema Chödrön. I’d read Dōgen, Basho, and Dilgo Khyentse. I’d read the works of teachers I’d been lucky enough to learn from in person: Joseph Goldstein, Christina Feldman, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
If there was a reading list for American Buddhism 101, I’d exhausted it. And the extra credit, too. I was ready for something closer to the source. If not the Buddha verbatim, then as close as I could get to him 2500 years and a couple of languages later.
I ordered the Majjhima Nikāya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha from Wisdom Publications. Not only had I entered the stream, I was wading into the deep end.
The book arrived in the mail a week later. Thick, hardback, with a caramel-colored dust jacket, it looked serious. I felt like a first-year medical student fingering a stethoscope for the first time. Here was an object that was going to help me understand what I’d chosen to explore—an instrument of my coming expertise.
I was greedy for advanced knowledge. It was my intention to read the thousand-page book from cover to cover. I sat in a comfortable chair and read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s excellent introduction. Then I started the main text. Despair set in on the very first sutta. In the “Mūlapariyāya Sutta: The Root of All Things,” the Buddha describes the progressive levels of understanding of an Ordinary Person, a Bhikkhu, an Arahant, and a Tathāgata.
Verse 18 goes like this:
“He perceives the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception as the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Having perceived the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception as the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he conceives [himself as] the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he conceives [himself] in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he conceives [himself apart] from the base of neither-perception-nor- non-perception, he conceives the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception to be ‘mine,’ he delights in the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.”
The repetition made me dizzy. I was lost. Even worse, the above is a description of an Ordinary Person and I didn’t begin to understand it. I thought I was swimming in the deep end; it turns out I wasn’t even in the kiddie pool.
Discouraged, I started flipping through the pages, reading suttas, or starting to, but getting irritated by the formality of the phrases, the long lists of adjectives, and (even with the liberal use of ellipses) the endless endless endless repetition. The MN seemed like a fusion of Derrida and Gertrude Stein, authors I wanted to pretend to understand, but didn’t.
I gave up—not meditation, not Buddhism, but trying to be an A+ Buddhist student. I went back to reading Dharma books by modern authors. For many of the Buddha’s teachings, I need an intermediary. I’m grateful for the translators, the interpreters, even the popularizers.
To me, the Majjhima Nikāya felt like a user’s manual, a genre I avoid reading at all costs. I have no patience for detailed instructions. I want only the barest of suggestions—a haiku, a white flower held high, the lyric poetry of the Dhammapada.
It was, of course, in another book that my error was so clearly articulated. Reading Charles Genoud’s Gesture of Awareness this morning, this:
Don’t we look sometimes for the wrong things—
more information, perhaps—
to help us later on?
It’s late at night and the rain has just begun. I’m done with words for the day. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the water.