Basic Teachings of the Buddha

I’ve just finished reading  Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis for the second time, and I must say I really like this book. In fact, I wish I had had it years ago when I first started my exploration into Buddhism. I will be referring to this book in years to come.

So many books tend to over-complicate Buddhism, make it hard to discern exactly what the practice is, and what we get out of it. Additionally, many books I’ve read have made the Buddhism seem magical, like meditation brings us to some higher spiritual (whatever that means) state of mind. Very often after reading some book, I was left wondering what I had just read.

Glenn not only explains the teachings of the Buddha in plain, modern day English, he has translated 16 suttas that reveal the foundational teachings of the Buddha. I really like this format of having open commentary, some history of Buddha and Buddhism, explanation of what the suttas are, and then 16 specifically chosen suttas that clearly explain the most important teachings of the Buddha.

I have read The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodi, and while I do continue to read them, as well as those translated by other authors on Access to Insight, I find many of those suttas to be tedious to read, overly long, and filled with cultural details not necessary to the teachings. I completely understand why they are filled with the endless repetition. The suttas had been an oral tradition, and nothing helps memory like repetition. But what I also find difficult is some of the language and the wording. Sometimes it’s just confusing to understand what is intended in the wording.

Over the years, I have discovered from various people who are learning Pali and doing some of their own translations, that many Pali words have multiple meanings, are used in a variety of ways, depending on context, and therefore the suttas message sometimes varies. Of course, this is not surprising.

What I like about Glenn’s selection and translations is that each of these texts exemplify a specific teaching, and he uses modern language that I can understand. He has left out the pointless (in modern day context) repetition, and cultural detail that can be distracting. Even better, he follows the texts with what he calls Guide to Reading the Texts. For each sutta, Glenn has provided helpful commentary on the teaching and notes regarding some of the terms and their uses.

My only criticism is that I would have preferred to read a sutta and have the commentary immediately follow, instead of all the suttas, followed by all the commentary for each text.

Perhaps over time we will see many more translations of the Pali Canon suttas. I hope so. I think we have for too long had to go by the same volumes. It’s nice to see new translations through people who are not monks, or caught up within certain traditions. Something that comes through well in Basic Teaching of the Buddha is how very practical the Buddha was, how secular and agnostic, and also how doable the practice is, how it helps sit us in the heart and reality of our existence.

I’m hoping, hint, hint, that Glenn will write another similar book, with a new set of suttas that build on or reiterate the basics. In the meantime, I’m now looking forward to reading his translation of  The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way.

No Comments

  1. Andrew on July 23, 2011 at 1:11 am

    Thanks Dana, for pointing to Glenn’s book. I look forward to getting a copy.

    What, no Amazon widget for me to buy it via your site?

  2. Brad Potts on July 23, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    I read this book about 3 years ago and, what can I say, it rocked my Buddhist world. As one reviewer has said, the commentary alone is worth the price of the book. (Actually, I would go so far as to say that the commentary is more enlightening than the suttas themselves, but, alas, if it weren’t for the suttas, there would be no commentary, so we obviously need both.)

    One of the remarkable things that I liked about this book is how Glenn can juxtapose both a respectful reverence for the tradition as well as a critical deconstruction (though I think his most recent writing seems to lean a bit more on the latter). He cries “foul” and “no fair” where most Buddhist writers simply nod their heads in agreement at the (fictionalized?) words of “the world honored one” (bah!). At the same time this is not a thorough debunking: he spotlights the practical, “it-works-in-the-real-world” teachings of Gotama and explicates how we can actualize this in our messy little lives today.

    If you’re reading this, thanks for the great book, Glenn. And I echo Dana’s sentiments: it’s time for an encore.

  3. Candol on September 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Well i’m not sure if i need to read another book on basics of buddhism but you make it sound compelling anyway. How does it compare with What the Buddha Taught? That has also been a very useful book on the basics of buddhism with none of the airy fairy stuff so it would be a useful comparison. Also in that book, whilst not having the suttas, there are many references to suttas so if one were keen to explore further one could. One can also see, as a result of all this referencing, when its the author who is adlibbing.

    Yesterday I listened to a couple of podcasts on buddhist geeks by john peacock. I would say he is also worth listening to because he talks about “early” buddhism and the sutta nipata which shed some very interesting points, for example that the the four noble truths and DO are not mentioned in that book. That is a very very interesting point and makes me wonder what it means – ie are those ideas formulations of later buddhists too? Those were talks 127 or 137 can’t quite remember which.

    I also listened recently to a podcast by Glenn from here on translating pali. I thought he made some interesting points about the way its done. JP also often comments on that aspect of the translations.

  4. Dana Nourie on September 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Hi Candol,

    This book is very different from What the Buddha Taught. Glenn translated some suttas, and I liked his translations, and he gave commentary on them. I thought the book was very well done, well written, and I liked the suttas that he chose. It’s been a long while since I read it so I can’t give specifics, but I hope to see more books written in the future in this format, with those who are learning Pali, translating suttas and have their own commentary.

  5. JimChampion on May 23, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    Hi. I’m reviving an old post here, but I’m currently reading ‘Basic teachings of the Buddha’ by Glenn Wallis. It is superb. It did in a roundabout way lead to me spending about 2 hours reading the comments on his Speculative non-Buddhism article about “What’s wrong with secular Buddhism?” (I paraphrase), but I’ve put that aside for now and returned to his 2007 book where he seemed to be less worked up about it all.

    Just read his paraphrase relating to the essence of the Bhara Sutta, on page 110 of the book, it’s really quite good so I’m quoting it here:

    “Don’t think that the obvious lack of an inherent self, person, soul, life forever or whatever you want to call it absolves you of the responsibilities of being a person. And don’t pretend not to know what “person” means. We all know what it means; and we know perfectly well to what it refers. It refers to so-and-so from such and such a family. You know who that person is.”

    • Mark Knickelbine on May 24, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      Yes, I notice that, despite Glenn’s vehement denunciation of every stripe of Buddhism, the secular variety included, all of his books on the topic are still in print.

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