Thus Have I Heard

“Is there a Buddhist Bible?” Visiting students often pose this question while attending the weekly service at our temple. Unlike most other major beliefs, Buddhism does not have a primary book. Instead, there is a large collection of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha known as Sutras.

Shakyamuni Buddha was neither a god nor a prophet. He was an ordinary human, like you or I, who awakened to the cause of suffering and the path to overcoming this suffering. For forty-five years he traveled throughout what is now India sharing his realization. Kings and commoners alike came to hear him speak. Finally, at the age of eighty, surrounded by his followers, he passed away.

Three months later his followers gathered to preserve the teachings. Individuals and groups recounted the Buddha’s talks at which they had been present. This is why all sutras begin with the phrase, “Thus have I heard.” The Buddha’s cousin Ananda, who had traveled with the Buddha throughout the forty-five years, verified the truth of these recollections. But, how to preserve these teachings? After all, this was 2,500 years ago in a place where written language was almost non-existent. Thus, the Buddhist tradition of chanting the Sutras came into being. This served two purposes. The first was to preserve the teachings. The second, and more important, was to create a means to share the teachings. Although the Sutras have been in written form for many centuries, the tradition of chanting sutras exists in most Buddhist practices today.

The Sutras fill hundreds of volumes and the breadth and diversity of the teachings is the root of the various Buddhist sects. Unlike theistic belief systems, Buddhism does not have a deity to worship. The focus of the teachings is overcoming the suffering in this life; both ours and the suffering that surrounds us. It is said that there are 84,000 paths to enlightenment. Knowing that all people are different, the Buddha presented a multitude of paths. Throughout the centuries, various teachers and groups have focused on different sutras as being the primary path. As Buddhism has traveled from India, through Asia, and now to the rest of the world, the local culture and customs have been incorporated into the practice.

In America, Buddhism is again growing and changing. The diversity of our population has introduced Buddhism in all its forms. Our openness to the various traditions will eventually lead to an American Buddhism that draws from all the teachings. New forms and practices have already begun to emerge. However, not everything can be called Buddhism. Commenting on this emergence, the Dalai Lama said, “Everyone is free to practice as they wish. However, to call it Buddhism it must have a basis.” This basis is the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Three Treasures as taught by the Buddha and preserved in the Sutras. Thus have I heard.

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