First Contact With Early Buddhism: Possible For The Secular Community To Find It Appealing As Is?

I was perusing through the original and the updated “Word Of The Buddha” pamphlets the other day.

I was surprised that I found the original pretty useful and readable. When I tried to read it eons ago back in college it seemed alienating to me and like I just walked into the middle of a movie.

Also when I was in college, I can remember complaining to a physics professor about how demoralizing it was to get a 32 on an exam and be given a C+. He explained that he and his colleagues had been doing physics for so long that it was very difficult for them to understand where students new to physics were at. I think the same is true for many authors of Buddhist introductory materials.

A frequent topic of conversation here is the culture shock of people who got into Buddhism through popular books who later went on to discover that Buddhism was something very different.

Do you think it is possible to write materials about Buddhism for a secular audience, with no knowledge of Buddhism, presenting the Buddhism of the nikayas as they are, and still have it be both appealing and useful to such an audience?

Something like “Word Of The Buddha” were it is just a brief anthology of quotes, with notes from the editor to help people new to all of it.


I think -if I try to recall my mental states before 1990, say - that I wouldn’t have had a positive reaction on sutta-texts (german version), although I’ve been an inspired discutant on religious subjects from my youth in 1968/1972. But after I had to do a (spiritual) decision in my life 1996 and after getting familiar with spiritual texts “from the east” then (and nota bene, practical experiences in the late “Osho-line”), I found the sutta-texts (in the german translation of K.E.Neumann :upside_down_face: ) much appealing… Perhaps simply because I’d practically dived into that matter already, with some experience in the occuring problems and perspectives.

So, even while KEN-translations are widely seen as outdated, as one of the “secular community” I can report that I found “early buddhism” much appealing: so this is possible! _

I think you have a great idea and I think it is possible. It will require a lot of work sifting though the suttas and determining what is the minimum to explain views on soteriology, goals, strategies for achieving it, and how meditation factors into it.

I have started to do something loke this for myself and believe that it leads to the discovery that the Pali canon has suttas from different versions of Buddhism which evolved from a relatively simple, down to earth teaching that could be taught in a sitting to become the very abstract, counterintuitive, contradictory, conglomerate we have today.

I would start from the simple beginnings. Later iterations could be presented separately and in sequence. The reader could then decide which version they think makes the most sense. I think that turns out to be the simplest one.

These are tentatively the layers of buddhism I have identified, criteria for inclusion, and exemplar suttas (still need to be identified).

  1. “No views” Buddhism
    1.1 Rebirth: The Buddha explicitly refuses to comment.
    1.2 Deepest Meditative state: The cessation of normal sense perception (this is a slight simplification)
    1.3 Liberation in this life: The end of attachment to this world via the middle way between “the world is” and the “world is not”. This is the state described to Bahiya.
    1.4 Liberation after this life: The Buddha explicitly refuses to comment, except that it likely would depending on how things end up working.
    1.5 Comment: This really is where the Buddha teaches only suffering and the end of suffering, at least in this life.
    1.6 Exemplar Suttas:
  2. “Soteriological Views” Buddhism
    2.1 Rebirth: Yes
    2.2 Deepest Meditative state: The temporary cessation of consciousness
    2.3 Liberation in this life: The end of attachment to this world via The middle way between “the world is” and the “world is not”, as well as, having achieved the end of conscousness.
    2.4 Liberation after this life: The end of rebirth being the permenant cessation of consciousness after having temperarily achieved it in life and lived the middle way.
    2.5 Comment: Possibly a rebuttal to Jainism. Maybe an early rebuttal to Brahmanism or even both. The cessation of consciousness does rebut Atman, but appears to simply support the extinction of consciousness without concern for moment to moment mindfulness of impermance.
    2.6 Exemplar Suttas:
  3. “Abstract Anatta Views” Buddhism
    3.1 Rebirth: Yes
    3.2 Deepest Meditative state: insight into the three marks of existence through Satipatanna???
    3.3 Liberation in this life: The end of attachment to Atman/Self via mindfulness and the moment by moment awareness of marks of existence.
    3.4 Liberation after this life: The end of rebirth being the permenant cessation of consciousness after having attained insight into the marks of existence.
    3.5 Comment: This seems to be a rebuttal to Brahmanism and its unchanging Atman. There are other variations of this version depending on which abstract expectation of self. There may be a need for aditional versions.
    3.6 Exemplar Suttas:

I would probably caption quotes that I think would be valuable to the reader if this were going to be used for a teaching tools. My original intent was to carve up the canon at its joints and share it here. I have put this on the back burner for now.

First contact capacity for absorption of material depends on the degree of suffering known at the time. The Buddha experienced a traumatic realization which altered his whole outlook. Additionally there was no predetermined path for him to follow. So being thrown in at the deep end is the standard entry for Buddhism.

“The search for a spiritual path is born out of suffering. It does not start with lights and ecstasy, but with the hard tacks of pain, disappointment, and confusion. However, for suffering to give birth to a genuine spiritual search, it must amount to more than something passively received from without. It has to trigger an inner realization, a perception which pierces through the facile complacency of our usual encounter with the world to glimpse the insecurity perpetually gaping underfoot. When this insight dawns, even if only momentarily, it can precipitate a profound personal crisis. It overturns accustomed goals and values, mocks our routine preoccupations, leaves old enjoyments stubbornly unsatisfying.”—Bikkhu Bodhi

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If a “Beginner’s Guide To Buddhism Through The Suttas” were to work I think a critical part of the process would be finding a test audience for feedback on the manuscript. People not involved with Buddhism,but who would be willing to read about it.

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Make sure they stay off Buddhist forums. I think the amount of argumentation would put many people off.

Try to find them a monastery within travel distance. I think it is that in-person meeting with a teacher and community that makes the difference for many.


Hmm, that sound rather similar to the situation in which the just-awakened-one has been, and when he asked him self: to whom could I go to tell my discoveries, who would be interested and capable to get this? His own first teacher came to his mind, but then he sensed that this teacher has already died. Then his five asket-comrades came to his mind… Read the sutta on this story, it is much more colorful, as I remember

(MN26) 21.1Then, understanding Brahmā’s invitation, I surveyed the world with the eye of a Buddha, because of my compassion for sentient beings. 21.2And I saw sentient beings with little dust in their eyes, and some with much dust in their eyes; with keen faculties and with weak faculties, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach. And some of them lived seeing the danger in the fault to do with the next world, while others did not.

and then

22.1Then I thought, 22.2‘Who should I teach first of all? 22.3Who will quickly understand this teaching?’

22.4Then it occurred to me, 22.5‘That Āḷāra Kālāma is astute, competent, clever, and has long had little dust in his eyes. 22.6Why don’t I teach him first of all? 22.7He’ll quickly understand the teaching.’

22.8But a deity came to me and said, 22.9‘Sir, Āḷāra Kālāma passed away seven days ago.’

22.10And knowledge and vision arose in me, 22.11‘Āḷāra Kālāma passed away seven days ago.’

22.12I thought, 22.13‘This is a great loss for Āḷāra Kālāma. 22.14If he had heard the teaching, he would have understood it quickly.’

23.1Then I thought, 23.2‘Who should I teach first of all? 23.3Who will quickly understand this teaching?’

23.4Then it occurred to me, 23.5‘That Uddaka, son of Rāma, is astute, competent, clever, and has long had little dust in his eyes. 23.6Why don’t I teach him first of all? 23.7He’ll quickly understand the teaching.’

23.8But a deity came to me and said, 23.9‘Sir, Uddaka, son of Rāma, passed away just last night.’

23.10And knowledge and vision arose in me, 23.11‘Uddaka, son of Rāma, passed away just last night.’

23.12I thought, 23.13‘This is a great loss for Uddaka. 23.14If he had heard the teaching, he would have understood it quickly.’

24.1Then I thought, 24.2‘Who should I teach first of all? 24.3Who will quickly understand this teaching?’

24.4Then it occurred to me, 24.5‘The group of five mendicants were very helpful to me. They looked after me during my time of resolute striving. 24.6Why don’t I teach them first of all?’

24.7Then I thought, 24.8‘Where are the group of five mendicants staying these days?’ 24.9With clairvoyance that is purified and superhuman I saw that the group of five mendicants were staying near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana. 24.10So, when I had stayed in Uruvelā as long as I wished, I set out for Benares.

And now we see, that, to get interested readers, a good complexion should be a nice feature (however perhaps useful only for people which are already mendicants themselves…):

25.1While I was traveling along the road between Gayā and Bodhgaya, the Ājīvaka ascetic Upaka saw me 25.2and said, 25.3‘Reverend, your faculties are so very clear, and your complexion is pure and bright. 25.4In whose name have you gone forth, reverend? Who is your Teacher? Whose teaching do you believe in?’

Hah! This fellow had really a good first contact and found it well appealing… :slight_smile: So, let’s go forth and look to whom we can tell, who would be open…