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Rediscovering Theravada: A Testimony

I was raised Christian. My faith was weak. In my late teens, I turned to atheism. Later, as a young adult seeking purpose, I turned to Theravada Buddhism where I remained for the next twelve years. Theravada sharpened my focus and calmed my ego, but the incessant pessimism of the teachings left me feeling isolated and unmotivated.

As I grew older, still seeking purpose, and growing increasingly aware of the degradation of society, I sought paths better suited for motivating personal growth and cultural outreach. Humbled by my own glaring shortcomings, and frustrated by human intermediaries, I felt, perhaps for the first time in my 38 years, a genuine desire to find God.

I first sought this voice in the other Dharmic traditions because they were familiar territory, and, as an African American, I sought a community that welcomed my complexion. Alas, when I scratched beneath the alluring surface of their cryptic teachings, my connection with these paths were short-lived.

At this point, I finally decided to explore the one Abrahamic faith that I’d always bypassed. I transferred $13.50 from my savings account, and ordered ‘To Be A Jew’ by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. For the next month, I carefully read ‘To Be A Jew’ along with ‘The Hebrew Bible’ translated by Robert Alter. Things were going well until I skipped ahead to The Book of Job. If there is a god, this ain’t it.

Two months passed. Stressed by the on-going pandemic, and now riots, I downloaded Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s latest evening talks as they had helped to relax me in the past. As usual, his talk turned to the breath. Given the other thirty-nine objects of meditation, I sometimes found his singular focus, like other Western Buddhists, on the breath limiting. Then it dawned on me. After looking through all these religions, the breath, regardless of the situation, is a convenient object to find solace in. There are no deities to worship, scriptures to memorize, or riddles to solve. Just close your eyes, turn within, and follow the abdomen.

From an overwhelming number of angles, the Tipitaka shows the unvarnished truth that I had tried to avoid. I realized this for the second time, now with more certainty. I still frown at the renunciant and antinatalist direction in which the teachings lean, but, as with life, our emotional involvement in something is wholly up to us. As we don’t have to embrace every tragedy, we don’t have to embrace every teaching. Currently, as I practice samatha meditation, I’m only reading Snp 1:8, AN 8:54, and the Jatakas. I don’t know how long this practice will continue, or how it will evolve. I hope that it leads to peace of mind.

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Sounds like quite a spiritual journey. I’m glad to hear that you have found some benefit in Theravada. I hope you find Nibbana soon. All the best :slight_smile:

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Something to keep in mind when considering the teachings is that they are a compendium of various practical instructions given to different kinds of people at different times. Not all will sync with a particular personality…nor are you expected to follow all the paths simultaneously! That is an impossibility!
Traditionally, the teacher’s role was to evaluate the character of the student (details of how to do this are given in the Vimuttimagga) and gently guide the student to the teachings best suited for him. So, one kind of person with deep faith might benefit from applying the teachings of Sila and the brahmaviharas… another more radically intellectual person might find the hard dry truths of Anicca and Anatta supported by Jhana meditations more up their alley.
Regardless, the common thread is to overcome suffering by abstaining from evil, cultivating the good and purifying the mind.
Congratulations on discovering your particular path. :smiley: Stick to it! I’m rooting for you! Go Team!!!

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Thank you so much for sharing.
This has come to me like a gift.
I truly hope that your reestablished practice does lead to peace of mind.
May we all find peace.
May you be safe.

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Have you ever looked into “early Buddhism,” as opposed to “Theravada Buddhism”?
Even if you end up choosing Theravada, at least you would have explored that option fully too.

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After studying a bit of the history of Southeast Asia, it’s funny that the first thing I thought of when I saw this thread title was about how e.g. Thailand has lost and rediscovered Buddhism several times in the last few millennia. It’s interesting how things go round. In circles small and large.

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What’s the difference between the two?

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In a nutshell and oversimplified:

Theravada = Pali EBTs + Pali Abhidhamma + Commentaries (incl. Vissudhimagga)

Early Buddhism = Pali EBTs (~ 4 nikayas) + Chinese EBTs (~ agamas) + other EBTs (Tibetan, Sanskrit etc)

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:pray:
You can find multiple perspectives on this topic in these threads:


Here is a helpful book on the topic of early Buddhist texts specifically, called “The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts”:

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:smiling_face_with_three_hearts: This reminds me of one of the songs which fascinate me most: “Little wheel spin and spin, big wheel turn around and around” by Buffy St. Marie.

In the “Rainbow-quest” episode, invited by Pete Seeger (in the 1960ies, if not earlier, I think), she plays this song in the true, amazing, and mystifying mode, which I feel I’ll never forget - my heart is just too much resonating with the refrain. Unfortunately the sound-quality of this recording is low. (see Rainbow Quest: Buffy Sainte-Marie - Little Wheel Spin and Spin (Poor quality) - YouTube )
A better sound&video (remastered) : Buffy Sainte-Marie - "Little Wheel Spin and Spin" (Remastered) - YouTube
Here is the text:

Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around

Merry Christmas, Jingle Bells
Christ is born and the devil’s in Hell
Hearts, they shrink, pockets swell
Everybody know and nobody tell

Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around

Oh, the sins of Caesar’s men
Cry the pious citizens
Who petty thieve the five and tens
And the big wheels turn around and around

Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around

Blame the angels, blame the fates
Blame the Jews or your sister Kate
Teach your children who to hate
And the big wheels turn around and around

Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around

Turn your back on weeds you’ve hoed
Silly sinful seeds you’ve sowed
Add your straw to the camel’s load
Pray like hell when your world explode

Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around

Swing your girl, fiddler say
Later on the piper pay
Do see do, swing and sway
Dead will dance on judgment day

Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around
Little wheels spin and spin, big wheels turn around and around

(taken from https://genius.com/Buffy-sainte-marie-little-wheel-spin-and-spin-lyrics)

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The following book by Choong Mun-keat may be useful for your personal spiritual and academic interest in seeking out ‘the original teachings of the Buddha’, leading to happiness, peace, and understanding:

The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A Comparative Study Based on the Sutra-anga portion of the Pali Samyutta-Nikaya and the Chinese Samyukta-agama (Series: Beitrage zur Indologie Band 32; Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2000).

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Thank you. For now, I’ll stay with Theravada, with just the two suttas and Jatakas as my foundation. I may add a few more suttas from the Sutta Nipata and Anguttara Nikaya later. If I stray too deep beyond that, I worry that my practice will become cluttered and debilitating again. As @faujidoc1 mentioned, the teachings are a compendium of instructions for different people. I feel that once you’re set on a path that suits your needs, unless those needs change, you should stay on that course to make progress.

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I agree because, as you rightly noted I think, that the Buddha seemed to teach particular individuals the relevant parts of the Dhamma-Vinaya as per their (perhaps pressing) concerns, needs, interests, aspirations, etc.

May I ask what value you see in the Jatakas? Also, what parts of/sources of the Jatakas are you using?

I ask because I think that many of the Jatakas were actually not likely taught by the Buddha and created later on by the Theravada tradition to perhaps glorify and glamorize the Buddha in his previous lives.

And these texts seem to sometimes contradict the Dhamma-Vinaya in favor of pop culture values that seem to appeal more to the masses - one example that comes to mind is the story of when Siddhartha sacrificed himself to offer himself up to a tiger or some animal who was about to eat her own cub due to starvation.
However, this contradicts the Buddha’s own instructions to do actions that do “not hurt oneself,” “do not hurt others,” and “neither hurt oneself nor others.”
But perhaps because the value of being a “selfless martyr who sacrifice himself to save others” (not unlike that found in other religions, such as Christianity, and in sects such as Mahayana) seems to be appealing to people at large, perhaps this story was created to appeal to that sentiment or inclination…despite it going contrary to Buddhism/Dhamma-Vinaya, I think.

Bhikkhu Bodhi sums it up neatly here: “Whereas Western intellectuals seek the essence of Buddhism in its doctrines and meditation practices, the traditional Buddhists of Asia absorb the ideas and values of their spiritual heritage through its rich narrative literature about the Buddha and his disciples. The most popular collection of Buddhist stories is, without doubt, the Jātakas.”

I appreciate their accessibility. Like the Puranic literature of Hinduism, they humanize the teachings.

The same could be said for many parts of the Pali Canon. My only concern is whether or not a teaching works, not the endless debates about authenticity.

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People have greatly benefited from both approaches, so I’m not really worried about it.

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I’ve been investigating the Dhamma for over 12 years. This is the practice I’ve settled on.

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I think perhaps we should be appreciative of the OP in sharing their story regarding their spiritual journey and leave it at that. Theravada itself has already been discussed elsewhere.

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