What is Nikaya Buddhism? | Dr Jay N. Forrest

The Buddha said:

“The true Dhamma does not suddenly disappear like a ship sinks. There are, Kassapa, five nefarious things that lead to the decay and disappearance of the true Dhamma. What are the five? Here, bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women dwell without reverence and deference to the Teacher; they remain without reverence and deference to the Dhamma; they remain without reverence and deference to the Saṅgha; they remain without reverence and deference to formation; they remain without reverence and deference to concentration. These, Kassapa, are the five harmful things which lead to the decomposition and disappearance of the true Dhamma (SN 16.13 Bodhi).

The true Dhamma disappears when monastic and lay Buddhists “dwell without reverence and deference to the Dhamma”. And where do you find the “real Dhamma”? In the monastic rules and the speeches of the Buddha. So you could say that the true teachings of the Buddha will disappear when his followers “lack respect and reverence for” the Buddhist scriptures (SN 16.13 Sujato).

The true Dharma

We are not used to hearing things like true Dharma and counterfeit Dharma. “But when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears” (SN 16.13 Bodhi). I fear that much of what is called Buddhism does not come from the historical Buddha. No current tradition is pure in this regard.

The advantage we have today is that scholarship opens the door to a better understanding of the texts and their transmission. We know that the Mahayana sutras are not authentic. They appeared several hundred years after the death of the Buddha. We also know that they changed the teachings of the Buddha.

But Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest tradition dating back to the time of the Buddha, is not pure either. There are post-Buddha texts, traditions and commentaries. We also know that there were errors that crept into the texts. What does a person do who wants to “maintain respect and reverence for the Teacher” and his Dharma?

Understanding Nikaya Buddhism

Nikaya Buddhism is my term for a modern secular Buddhism that attempts to “maintain respect and reverence for” Dharma as it is preserved in early Buddhist texts, especially the Nikayas.

Nikaya Buddhism is a term coined by Masatoshi Nagatomi. It was an attempt to find a neutral substitute for the pejorative term Hinayana (lower vehicle). It is used to refer to those who follow one of the first Buddhist schools. This is not the meaning of the term as I use it.

According to Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, the word nikaya literally means “group” or “collection”. The Encyclopedia of Buddhism explains that “‘the nikayas’ refer to the first sutras.” Bhikkhu Bodhi writes: “The Sutta Pitaka, which contains the recordings of the Buddha’s speeches and discussions, consists of five collections called Nikayas” (In the words of the Buddha 11).

Nikaya Buddhism is therefore a secular Buddhism based on and derived from the Nikayas. To be a little more concise, Nikaya Buddhism is based only on ancient material from the Nikayas. This includes the major part of the speeches in the four main Pali Nikayas, and “a small part of the Khuddaka Nikaya, consisting of the major parts of the Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada and Thera- and Theri Gatha” (Sujato and Brahmali 11- 12). Although some elements of the Vinaya of the Khandhakas are authentic, they are not as relevant to lay Buddhists.

Writing and Tradition

In Nikaya Buddhism, the Buddhist scriptures are our main authority for Dharma. The scriptures of Nikaya Buddhism are Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Suttanipata, Theragatha and Therigatha. Everything else in the Pali canon is tradition, as well as the commentaries and other texts.

Tradition is of secondary authority. The Dharma has been transmitted orally to monks and nuns. This oral tradition has been recorded primarily by the Theravada branch of Buddhism. They are the only branch of Buddhism that dates back to the historical Buddha.

The tradition can be trusted as long as it does not contradict the scriptures, dates from the early days of Buddhism and was almost universally accepted as true. Why do we give preference to the Theravada branch of Buddhism? First, because they can prove a close association with those who have had personal contact with the Buddha. Second, because they were actually reciting the suttas together and maintaining unity, indicating general agreement. Third, because Theravada is the oldest continuing Buddhist school in existence. Fourth, the Theravada tradition spoke the same language or a language very similar to the Buddha. And fifth, they had the longest chain of fully awakened monks (Arahants).

Not the original Buddhism

Nikaya Buddhism should not be confused with the original Buddhism. We don’t have the resources to rebuild original Buddhism. Whatever the original Buddhism, it has disappeared. The closest we can get is in the earliest Buddhist texts that have come down to us.

Nikaya Buddhism is an attempt by lay Buddhists, both scholars and practitioners, to approach the original Buddhist teaching as permitted by the early Buddhist texts (cf. Sujato and Brahmali). This implies not only accepting the best texts, but also following the best tradition.

We must understand that we should not choose and try to conform the scriptures to our liking, but allow the texts to speak for themselves. As Bhikkhu Bodhi illustrates, it is far too early to misinterpret the scriptures for the purpose of “reclaiming the authentic view of the Buddha,” then when we come up against “the principles taught by the Buddha which conflict with” our own. program, we might not “hesitate to throw them away” (Investigate the Dhamma 85).

Not Buddhist modernism

Evan Thompson is right: “We should not confuse Buddhist modernism with Buddhism in the modern world” (20). David L. McMahan says that “By ‘Buddhist modernism’ I do not mean all of Buddhism that exists in the modern era, but rather forms of Buddhism that emerged from an engagement with the mainstream culture and intellectual forces. of modernity ”(6). He then approves of Heinz Bechert’s definition of Buddhist modernism as “a movement which reinterpreted Buddhism as a” rational way of thinking “which emphasized reason, meditation, and the rediscovery of the canonical texts” (7 ).

David L. McMahan lists three aspects of modernization that characterize Buddhist modernism: de-traditionalization, demythologization and psychologization (42-59). Nikaya Buddhism honors tradition, while giving it a secondary place. He does not reject karma, rebirth and the five realms. And, although I affirm the psychological effectiveness of Buddhism, it cannot be reduced to a psychology. It is a religion that shows us the path to complete liberation from the conditioned kingdom.

In a sense, Nikaya Buddhism is traditional Buddhism using modern tools to better understand early Buddhist texts. And from this understanding, try to regain an understanding of Dharma as it would be understood in this culture and at this time. It is only after having acquired such a historical-grammatical understanding that one would move on to application in the modern world.

One last thing I must mention. Nikaya Buddhism is a secular movement, but it is deeply respectful of monks and supports the ordained Sangha. The greatest respect is given to those who have dedicated their lives to Dharma. Nikaya Buddhism is easily linked to the Theravada school and a fruitful interconnection with them. Nikaya Buddhism would be a neo-Theravadin movement if the monks took up the cause. Many have done so, but I would hate to say anything about the Theravada school, since I am not a Bhikkhu.

Longevity of True Dhamma

The Buddha said:

There are five things, Kassapa, which lead to the longevity of the true Dhamma, its non-decadence and its non-disappearance. What are the five? Here, bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women dwell with reverence and deference to the Teacher; they abide with reverence and deference to the Dhamma; they dwell with reverence and deference to the Saµgha; they live with reverence and deference to the formation; they dwell with reverence and deference to concentration. These, Kassapa, are the five things which lead to the longevity of the true Dhamma, its non-decadence and its non-disappearance (SN 16.13 Bodhi).

I just want to focus on that part, “they abide with reverence and deference to the Dhamma. The Dharma is in the Buddhist scriptures, so we must “respect and revere them” (SN 16.13 Sujato). Mrs. CAF Rhys Davids translates this sentence as “they live in reverence and docility towards” her. Another translation says: “They live with respect, with deference, for the Dhamma” (Thanissaro).

Respecting the Dharma means “to have esteem or honor” (Dictionary.com). And deference means “respectful submission or yielding to the judgment, opinion, will, etc., of another” (Dictionary.com). Honor the Dharma and let yourself be guided. This seems contrary to the understanding of many Buddhists who want to rely on their personal experience.

Dharma is the card that guides you towards enlightenment. It is not awakening, but it is the map. “This is the only way; there is no other for the purification of insight” (Dhp 274 Buddharakkhita). You will not find it on your own. Your experience will verify if you are on the way, but l “experience cannot lead you. Truth leads, experience follows. Do not be confused.”

Mentioned works

References to translations can be found on the Translations Used page.

  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. In the words of the Buddha: an anthology of speeches from the Pali canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu. Investigating the Dhamma: A Collection of Articles by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2015.
  • Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edward A. Irons, ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008. Printing.
  • McMahan, David L. The making of Buddhist modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Princeton Buddhist Dictionary, The. “Nikaya.” Robert E. Busswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez J. eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. Printed.
  • Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali. The authenticity of the first Buddhist texts. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2014. Printed.
  • Thompson, Eva. Why am I not a Buddhist. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 Jay N. Forrest. All rights reversed.

Image by Alejandro Rojas via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)