I’ve  listened to the first audio recording of a series of six talks called Buddhism Before the Theravada, speaker John Peacock, held at the Insight Meditation Center.

This talk is fascinating! John Peacock gives a really great history of the times Gotama lived in, and additionally he relates the importance of that history as context to how and what “the Buddha” taught. I have read some of the history of the time, and knew a little about the Indian class system and beliefs from the Vedas.  But I found John related it better to the suttas we read in the Pali Canon, the context we have to keep in mind, and the context which apparently was lost in some translations.

Additionally, it was fascinating to hear, as it always is, how Pali words have been translated, often mistranslated, or simply defy accurate translation. What he was saying in particular about dukkha struck me. In fact, it’s changing my mind about the word and the use of Pali.

I have felt quite strongly that in secular Buddhism we should try to avoid Pali words, as few of us know any Pali, they seem strange and foreign, and they often confuse. Why not just say what you mean in English! I’ve heard a few arguments for the use of Pali from my friends and acquaintances in various Buddhist circles, and while they made good points, John Peacock’s talk drove the message home for me.

In favor of the argument for Pali usage regarding secular Buddhism is that we are learning more and more how previous translations from Pali into English have suffered in a number of ways. A big problem was that the first translators were looking at the Pali mainly through Christian filters, so they’d more likely see religious content and likely miss references to a non-theist view. In fact, John reads a passage from the sutta where he explains Gotama is actually making fun of the devas by putting them in the frame of dukkha and the way they have to go to him with questions. John feels it was likely a story Gotama told to make a point, but many have believed it literally. Over time other religious filters were added, confusing some of the material in similar ways.

John, Stephen Batchelor, and several people I know who are learning Pali have said repeatedly that Gotama was way more radical than The Buddha we have been handed through western writing. Perhaps early and religious scholars didn’t think Gotama’s dynamic, energic personality was important, yet we all know how personality can make a point. Without the personality, the gesture, the expression, the tone of voice, points can be lost.

I hope and suspect that over time we will get the privilege of reading new translations and commentaries on the suttas. To help towards that effort, we have created an area to ::Learn Pali Discussion Forum::. There is a list of resources there to get you started. Use the discussion area to ask questions, share your progress, help others, etc.

I’m eager to listen to the rest of the talks. I hope you’ll listen to the one above, comment here, ask questions, and have some dialogue about it. Then, if you enjoyed the above, delve into the five other talks in the series called Buddhism Before the Theravada.

::Discuss this Audio::


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  1. Mark Knickelbine on November 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Also on the Audiodharma site are two related talks Peacock gave on Metta that are equally good and will change (or at least challenge) your ideas on this aspect of practice. It doesn’t appear Prof. Peacock has written any books on these topics (not even in the Conservatory with a pipe!)

  2. Ron Stillman on November 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    This is straight talk about the Theravada tradition that I wish I had heard when I first started learning about Gotama’s teachings. To me, it’s foundational. My task of unlearning Buddhism continues thanks to Peacock and Batchelor.

  3. Dana Nourie on November 9, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I agree, Ron! The teachings make so much sense in a practical, doable way. I’m hoping we hear a lot more from both Peacock and Batchelor, as well as other secular Buddhist teachers. Also, hoping we get some new translations of the suttas out over time, and lots of new commentary!

  4. dcfinley on November 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    John Peacock is a fascinating individual. I found these talks on Audio Dharma, and listened to each of them at least twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything (also took notes). I have been searching for more material from Mr. Peacock if anyone happens across any.

  5. Candol on March 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Is there some way we cna listen to the talk and pause it. I just shut my laptop lid and the talk went straight back to the beginning when i was only half way through it. Groan! I can’t see anyway i can drag the podcast around. I’ve got a mac and itunes but i can’t see where the file is or do anything with it. i get stuck in this situtation all the time and end up hardly ever getting to the end of listening to talks. Would there a way of listening where we could have more control cause this talk is so interesting but i don’t need to listen to it twice. I’ve currently got it playing through again with the volume off but i will have ot watch it closely if i don’t want to miss my spot.

    • Dana Nourie on March 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      I use a PC. For me, I can right-click the Download link under the podcast, click Save As, and it will save the podcast to my computer. That way if it’s on your computer, you can fast forward to wherever you need.

      I don’t know how than translates to MACs. But the idea is to save the podcast onto your computer, however you get a mac to do that.

  6. PopeEggsBenedict on April 16, 2012 at 5:28 am

    I listened to these at the start of the year and agree that they are fantastic. They are main-stayers on my MP3 player!

  7. PatrickT on November 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    I found this a very ‘enlightening’ talk (to use an un-Buddhist word). A point of clarification, if anyone can help: ‘Dhamma’ means ‘law’, but what kind of law – prescriptive (human or religious) law or descriptive (natural) law? Also, can anyone recommend a few introductory suttas to get started on?

    • Doug Smith on November 16, 2012 at 5:41 am

      I agree that Peacock’s talks are great!

      The ‘dhamma’ is most basically the Buddha’s system of belief; the way the world works. (In this sense the word is both prescriptive and descriptive). The suttas give you the dhamma. The word has other meanings as well: for example, “dhammas” can also mean “phenomena”.

      I would suggest beginning with a background book such as Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, since it will give you the foundation on which to read the suttas with better understanding. Rahula’s book also includes sections of a few famous suttas at the back.

  8. Candol on December 11, 2012 at 2:44 am

    One interesting thing i just learnt about pali words and their meanings is that the word suttas, when referred to in some of the suttas by the buddha may not refer to the whole package but to just a few of them. I picked up this notion in the first part of a book by Bhante Sujato I was reading recently, called A History of Mindfulness. The matter is of significance when you hear the direction of the buddha referring to the suttas for authority. He not have meant the whole lot but only a select few that represent those early teachings. THis point i’m making may sound a little bit confusing but if someone is interested in the question, then i would recommend the book. Sujato has a lovely way with words even when writing academically so much so that you just feel drawn along without effort even when you don’t understand the writing as well you might if you knew more.

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