How a Buddhist gets any new information regarding the teaching? There are three basic groups of inputs: own experience stemming from own practice, information from textual sources (scriptures of Buddhism, other texts on Buddhism, Dhamma), information from authoritative people (Buddhist teachers, Sangha). Regardless how we first learnt of Dhamma the three sources sooner or later appear in everyday life of the person.
Finding a right balance between them is extremely important. I have seen so many extremities like accepting only the word of the Teacher and not practicing at all or accepting only the word of the Teacher, practicing but never reading any suttas. Or only practicing and drawing all conclusions from the practice only. Or any other combinations of one or two sources from the three.
Using only one or two sources creates various delusions, hamper or completely stops the progress on the Path to Enlightenment. A teacher may make mistakes. A textual source may be interpreted incorrectly. Own practice may be delusive by itself. Sometimes all three are used but not equally.
I believe it is important to make use all of them and use equally. Whatever your practice produce should be questioned and verified against texts (suttas) and words of Teachers. Whatever you hear from a Teacher should be questioned and verified against suttas and own practice. Whatever you read in a sutta should be questioned and verified against two other. Then we reach a truly balanced approach and build a strong foundation for moving down the Path.
It is been noticed many times that Pali Canon extensively use ideas and conceptions borrowed from Vedas and Upanishads. At that time the ideas and analogies were obvious to any educated student of Buddha’s lectures without any explanations. They were leveraged by Gautama to convey his ideas apprehensively. The analogies was lost with time and the meaning of them is not clear for a reader nowadays. Some of the analogies might even stay completely unnoticed.
Pali canon texts often compare an Arahant with a palm stump (MN 72, overall more than 70 times). Sometimes it is followed by the statement that the stump is not able to give growth anymore. ucchinnamūlaṁ – cut off at the root (some translations incorrectly translate it as “destroyed roots”) Some suttas applies the same idea to a forest (SN 7.17). A modern meticulous reader having a bit of gardening skills might get confused here as a tree stump normally gives new branches very soon if the roots are not removed. The answer here is that palm trees unable to grow new branches being cut off at the root. But it is not the end of the story.
At Buddha’s times the notion of a tree with its roots was a very familiar and recognizable analogy for one more reason. The ninth brahmana of third chapter of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (dated around or little earlier than suttas of Pali Canon) compares a person to a tree with the root of a man being his Self. The trunk and branches of the tree are false personal identity, created by the Self, rooted in the true Self and all that we consider as a being (a visible part like we consider visible part of a tree to be the tree). The death of the being is compared to the withering of the trunk and branches, and rebirth is when a tree grows again from a trunk, from roots.
Therefor a tree cut-off at the root meant that any visible false Self should be abandoned, cut off, extinguished and by means of it to end rebirths in any of the samsaric worlds. Removing the root was not an option according to Buddha though…
…list of five aggregates is not an analysis of what a human being is made of. As Rupert Gethin has noted, this fivefold list is instead an analysis of conditioned experience:
The five khandhas, as treated in the Nikāyas and early Abhidhamma, do not exactly take on the character of a formal theory of the nature of man. The concern is not so much the presentation of an analysis of man as object, but rather the understanding of the nature of conditioned existence from the point of view of the experiencing subject. Thus at the most general level rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṃkhārā and viññāṇa are presented as five aspects of an individual being’s experience of the world…
Sue Hamilton has similarly written that the five aggregates are ‘not a comprehensive analysis of what a human being is comprised of… Rather they are factors of human experience’. This phenomenological understanding seems to make good sense of the textual evidence. If the five aggregates were not an analysis of the different ‘factors of human experience’, the following passage from the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta would make no sense:
Here, bhikkhus, the bhikkhu contemplates: ‘Form is thus, its arising is thus, its fading away is thus; feeling is thus, its arising is thus, its fading away is thus; apperception is thus, its arising is thus, its fading away is thus; volitions are thus, their arising is thus, their fading away is thus; consciousness is thus, its arising is thus, its fading away is thus.’
In this text the five aggregates are aspects of a person that can be observed. Since a person is made up of many things that cannot be observed in this way, it would seem that the list of five aggregates was devised precisely in order that a person could contemplate his phenomenal nature.
Alexander Wynne “Early evidence for the No-Self doctrine”
The understanding of the word dhamma is a complicated and unresolved problem in the study of early Buddhism, and a protracted discussion is beyond this study. But I will at least comment on the meanings of dhamma in the Pārāyana Vagga.
In most places it simply means ‘teaching’ or ‘subject matter’. In one place it is an adjective meaning ‘nature’ in the sense of the main characteristic of a thing, and in another place it means “righteousness”. Variants on the idiom dittha-dhamma are found in four places, which Norman always translates as “in the world of phenomena”. It seems that Norman relates this idiom to the expression ditthe va dhamme, for he translates the latter in exactly the same way. I am not sure of the exact meaning of this difficult expression, and although in this case Norman translates dhamma as ‘phenomena’, it is probably not relevant to the occurrence of dhamma in v. 1076. There are only seven more occurrences of dhamma in the Parayanavagga, but all of them have a direct bearing on the meaning of word in v. 1076; in virtually all of these occurrences, Norman translates dhamma as ‘phenomena’.
Three of these occurrences occur in the expression “gone to the far shores of all dhamma-s” (sabbadhammāna pāragu), an expression which describes the Buddha in Sn 992, 1105, 1112. Here, it is doubtful that the meaning of the word dhamma is ‘phenomena’ in general: if so, it would suggest that the Buddha had gone to the far shore of all phenomena, physical as well as mental phenomena, in which case he would be dead. In fact in two of these verses in which the expression “gone to the far shores of all dhamma-s” is found, it occurs among a group of adjectives that describe the mental state of the Buddha: in v. 1105 the Buddha is described as a meditator (jhāyiṃ) who is without corruption (anasavam) and without passion (virajam) and in v.1112 he is descibed as without desires (anejo), the one who has cut off doubt (chinnasamsayo). It makes better sense to suppose that the expression “gone to the far shores of all dhamma-s” in this context refers to the Buddha’s elevated mental state, i.e. that he is a meditator “gone to the far shore of all mental states/phenomena”. This must be true in the only other verse where the expression is found. In v. 992 the Buddha is said to ‘have vision into all dhamma-s’ (sabbadhammacakkhuma) and to ‘have attained the destruction of all dhamma-s’ (sabbadhammakkhayam patto). In the latter expression dhamma cannot refer to physical phenomena, for then the verse would be a eulogy of a dead person; the word dhamma throughout this verse must refer to mental phenomena. Moreover, the compound sabbadhammacakkhuma is similar to the phrase kusalo sabbadhammanam (v. 1039), which Norman translates as “skilful in all mental states”. They must have more or less the same meaning, i.e. that the Buddha is knowledgeable about the workings of the mind. The occurrences of dhamma in v. 992, which include the expression sabbadhammāna pāragu, must all refer to ‘mental phenomena’. This suggests that the word similarly means ‘mental phenomena’ in v. 1105 and v. 1112, as argued above for different reasons. The only other occurrence of dhamma is in the phrase upekhasatisamsuddham dhammatakkapurejavam (1107), which Norman translates as “purified by indifference and mindfulness, preceded by examination of mental states”. The word here could just as easily mean “doctrine”, i.e. “preceded by an examination of the doctrine”. It is even possible that the word has shades of both meanings; at least we can be quite sure that it does not refer to physical phenomena.
Alexander Wynne “The origin of Buddhist meditation”
Sometimes people ask why is it so important to figure out what were true Buddha’s words, what was the Early Dhamma if there have been living so many enlightened Teachers since Buddha’s age? The Teachers explain us the Dhamma and teach us according to their traditions, schools and lineages and thus convey the true meaning of the Buddha words they say. Thus they equal words of teachers and Buddha’s own words. This is how the commentary tradition started. What Buddha himself thought about this?
Staying near Sāvatthī. “Monks, there once was a time when the Dasārahas had a large drum called ‘Summoner.’ Whenever Summoner was split, the Dasārahas inserted another peg in it, until the time came when Summoner’s original wooden body had disappeared and only a conglomeration of pegs remained. [The Commentary notes that the drum originally could be heard for twelve leagues, but in its final condition couldn’t be heard even from behind a curtain.]
“In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works—the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples—are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.
“In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—will come about.
“Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathāgata—deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness—are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”
So while the commentaries and traditions might help us to understand Buddha’s words better, we should first figure out what were the original Buddha words and compare any teachings we have heard (whatever famous and popular the teacher is) to the most extant layers of early suttas. If they match then the teacher’s doctrines should be accepted if not the Buddha words should be most important to us.
That is why it is extremely important for us to figure out what was the original Buddha’s words, the Early Dhamma.
One of the very known suttas in Pali Canon is SN 35.23. Unfortunately very often the sutta is misunderstood. Too many Buddhists tend to think that the sutta means nothing exists beyond six spheres of perception. This is not so.
An excellent comment of Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
The Commentary’s treatment of this discourse is very peculiar. To begin with, it delineates three other “All’s” in addition to the one defined here, one of them supposedly larger in scope than the one defined here: the Allness of the Buddha’s omniscience (literally, All-knowingness). This, despite the fact that the discourse says that the description of such an all lies beyond the range of explanation.
Secondly, the Commentary includes nibbana (unbinding) within the scope of the All described here — as a dhamma, or object of the intellect — even though there are many other discourses in the Canon specifically stating that nibbana lies beyond the range of the six senses and their objects. Sn 5.6, for instance, indicates that a person who has attained nibbana has gone beyond all phenomena (sabbe dhamma), and therefore cannot be described. MN 49 discusses a “consciousness without feature” (viññanam anidassanam) that does not partake of the “Allness of the All.” Furthermore, the following discourse (SN 35.24) says that the “All” is to be abandoned. At no point does the Canon say that nibbana is to be abandoned. Nibbana follows on cessation (nirodha), which is to be realized. Once nibbana is realized, there are no further tasks to be done.
Thus it seems more this discourse’s discussion of “All” is meant to limit the use of the word “all” throughout the Buddha’s teachings to the six sense spheres and their objects. As the following discourse shows, this would also include the consciousness, contact, and feelings connected with the sense spheres and their objects. Nibbana would lie outside of the word, “all.” This would fit in with another point made several times in the Canon: that dispassion is the highest of all dhammas (Iti 90), while the arahant has gone beyond even dispassion (Sn 4.6; Sn 4.10).
This raises the question, if the word “all” does not include nibbana, does that mean that one may infer from the statement, “all phenomena are not-self” that nibbana is self? The answer is no. As AN 4.174 states, to even ask if there is anything remaining or not remaining (or both, or neither) after the cessation of the six sense spheres is to differentiate what is by nature undifferentiated (or to objectify the unobjectified — see the Introduction to MN 18). The range of differentiation goes only as far as the “All.” Perceptions of self or not-self, which would count as differentiation, would not apply beyond the “All.” When the cessation of the “All” is experienced, all differentiation is allayed
It is interesting that Atman in ancient India was understood absolutely not like we understand the Soul.
The microcosm (man) mirrors the macrocosm (the universe). Both have an essence, a true nature, a ‘self ’ (atman), which is the same for both. So at the cosmic level brahman and atman are to be understood as synonyms. Being an essence, that atman is unchanging: it is being as opposed to becoming. Being is also a plenum, since it can be predicated of everything that exists. Unhappiness is always due to a lack of something; being, a plenum, can lack nothing; therefore being has no unhappiness, but is bliss.
R. Gombrich “How Buddhism Began”
On arrival, they saw the Blessed One sitting in the grove — his legs folded crosswise, his body set straight, mindfulness established to the fore. On seeing him, they went to the brahman of the Bharadvaja clan and, on arrival, said to him, “Sir, you should know that Gotama the contemplative is in that grove over there, sitting with his legs folded crosswise, his body set straight, mindfulness established to the fore.”
So the brahman of the Bharadvaja clan, together with the youths, went to the forest grove. On arrival, he saw the Blessed One sitting in the grove — his legs folded crosswise, his body set straight, mindfulness established to the fore. On seeing him, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, addressed him in verse:
In the deep-looking forest,
teeming with terrors,
having plunged into the wilderness
— desolate, empty —
unflinchingly, steadfastly, compellingly,
you practice jhana, monk:
How very lovely you look!