In the unessential they imagine the essential;
in the essential they see the unessential –
they who entertain [such] wrong thoughts
never realise the essence [of the Dharma].
– Sakyamuni Buddha
(Dhammapada, Verse 11)
When there is a supposedly ‘Buddhist teaching’ encountered, how do we tell if it is authentic? Well, it could be some self-composed piece that rides upon Buddhist cultural terminology, stealing it for branding – for unethical reasons. Of course, it makes sense to inquire through more learned Buddhist friends, who might be able to give us clear-cut answers swiftly. A few diverse opinions can be sought too. But what if a ‘teaching’ seems to be unknown outside of the circles from which it originated? This makes it likely to be a self-concocted ‘teaching’, that is better to leave aside.
Although the Buddha himself taught us not to be dogmatically attached to any scriptures, which would include those that record his teachings, they are still considered words of the Buddha, for the ultimate reference. They should not be relinquished before being mastered for practice. The Buddha was only against dogma in terms of unquestioning blind faith, and not learning to see the spirit in his teachings, which limits their scope by rigidly sticking to the letter only. The scriptures are likened as a sturdy raft for crossing the sea of suffering, not to be let go before nearing the shore of liberation.
The first tier of teachings are thus the ‘sutras’ (经), which are the authentic Buddhist scriptures. As carefully recorded and translated by ancient Dharma masters, they collectively form the highest textual authority, for discerning what is and is not the Buddha’s teachings. The second tier include historically great masters’ commentaries or treatises (论), which were written to explain the sutras for our easier understanding. The third tier include sub-commentaries (疏), which are commentaries on existing commentaries, which offer yet another layer of understanding, to further elucidate the profound and complex. With deep study, and as practised by many generations of Buddhists, these three tiers continue to stand the test of time.
The fourth tier are Buddhist teachers’ recorded teachings, as writings in articles, books, audio and video – with the last two available in our modern context. The fifth and final tier are ourselves – when we attempt to properly assimilate the fourth tier, ideally based on the third, ideally based on the second, ideally based on the first. The word ‘ideally’ was repeated as there might be gaps here and there in transmissions of teachings, thus missing key points, leading to some misrepresentations. Although more layers means more explanations, there might be more ‘lost in translation’ and interpretation too.
Thus, if a ‘teaching’ encountered cannot be traced through the crucial first, second and third tiers above, it is probably not worth your time pursuing for further study and practice. It is also important to advance in Dharma learning by moving up the tiers, to get as close to the first tier as possible via deeper personal practice, to check for consistency of what learnt in detail. Therefore, there is this teaching in the Avatamsaka Sutra (华严经) when describing the essence of taking refuge in the Dharma – ‘to deeply enter the treasury of the sutras’ (深入经藏), which is how we retrieve gems of the Dharma directly. The more we learn, the more interconnections we will see between each and every aspect of the Dharma, making it easier to clearly discern what is the true Dharma.
What is essential they regard as essential;
what is unessential they regard as unessential –
they who entertain [such] right thoughts
realise the essence [of the Dharma].
– Sakyamuni Buddha
(Dhammapada, Verse 12)
Who Should We Learn The Dharma From?