With Needle and Thread

Essays on early Buddhism

In this new book (pdf linked below) I present a set of essays, each of which is intended to put a few stitches in what I have come to regard as a common traditional or modern mis­understanding of an important point of Dhamma, or (in the case of the first es­say) Vinaya. In each case I advance an alternative interpretation, at least as a way of encouraging further discussion. Of the six essays in this volume, the first concerns the role of women in the Buddhist community, the second con­cerns issues of faith and belief, the third a seemingly small doctrinal point that has led, I maintain, to great misunderstanding of a significant portion of early Dhamma, and the final three with aspects of meditation: mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samādhi).

256px-A_needle_with_threadHere is an abstract of each:

What did the Buddha think of women?: the story of the early nuns. This challenges the common view that the Buddha’s intentions in establishing the nuns’ sangha were biased by the patriarchal and ofttimes misogynistic attitudes of the dominant culture. It argues that the Buddha did all that he could to se­cure equal opportunity for practice for women as for men, while, always the pragmatist, maintaining the outward propriety of the Saṅgha within the con­straints of the dominant culture. Subsequent tradition has not always been so kind.

Take seriously and hold loosely: faith without beliefs. Unlike a “belief sys­tem,” the Dhamma represents faith with wiggle room. Teachings are to be taken seriously, because they have important practice functions, to be realized in beneficial results for the practitioner and for the world at large. At the same time, the Buddha’s teachings are to be held loosely, as flexible working as­sumptions, because teachings need to be meaningful and acceptable by the in­dividual practitioner in order to fulfill their practice functions.

The Buddha as biologist: true to practice. This challenges the view that three of the twelve links of dependent co-arising, so central to the Dhamma, are about conception and development in the womb. Biological pro­cesses are sub­stantially beyond immediate ex­perience and therefore not significant factors of practice, and therefore have no substantial role in Dhamma. This traditional in­terpretation of these critical links has only served to mask their true function.

Sati really does mean memory: the Buddha’s take on mindfulness. The word we translate as “mindfulness” has been interpreted various ways in later traditions, often as a kind of mind state. However, the word literally means memory or recollection. I argue that in the EBT the word rarely wanders too much astray from recollection of the Dhamma (or Vinaya). The Buddha meant what he said. This has implications for how we practice this central teaching.

Seeing through the eyes of the Buddha: samādhi and right view. This chal­lenges the traditional and modern ways in which samādhi has become disasso­ciated from right view through the assumption that the stillness of samādhi cannot carry the cognitive load of right view. It then explores how samādhi is properly understood precisely as the most effective instrument for internaliz­ing right view, as an entryway to knowledge and vision of things as they are.

How did mindfulness become “bare, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness”? This companion essay to “Sati really does mean memory” dis­cusses the genesis of the widely accepted but very modern understanding of the term “mindfulness,” which is quite distinct from the use of sati in the EBT. The shift in meaning is attributed in part to a modern retreat from concern for virtue and right view.

These essays are revised versions of essays I have posted on-line over the past seven years. Some of them are much shorter.

EDIT: Please go HERE for pdf and hard copy.



5 Responses to “With Needle and Thread”

  1. Rick Says:

    I always enjoy reading your work. Is this in hard copy yet?


  2. dsgordon Says:

    Glad to hear from you! How are you? I’ve had some Heath issues following a total thyroidectomy. I think I may finally be on the road to recovery. .

    Cheers Donna Sent from my iPhone



  3. Branko Kovačević Says:

    Greetings Bhante, I’m glad to see your new writing!


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