"The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology from the Pali Canon" is the 1st organized set of teachings that the Buddha said formed the heart of his message.
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Many anthologies of the Buddha’s teachings have appeared in English, but this is the first to be organized around the set of teachings that the Buddha himself said formed the heart of his message: the Wings to Awakening (bodhi-pakkhiyadhamma). The material is arranged in three parts, preceded by a long Introduction. The Introduction tries to define the concept of Awakening so as to give a clear sense of where the Wings to Awakening are headed. It does this by discussing the Buddha’s accounts of his own Awakening, with special focus on the way in which the principle of skillful kamma (in Sanskrit, karma) formed both the “how” and the “what” of that Awakening: the Buddha was able to reach Awakening only by developing skillful kamma—this is the “how”; his understanding of the process of developing skillful kamma is what sparked the insights that constituted Awakening—this is the “what.”
With this background established, the remainder of the book focuses in detail on the Wings to Awakening as an expanded analysis of the “how.” Part One focuses on aspects of the principle of skillful kamma that shaped the way the Wings to Awakening are formulated. Part Two goes through the seven sets that make up the Wings to Awakening themselves: the four foundations of mindfulness (here called the four frames of reference), the four right exertions, the four bases for power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, and the noble eightfold path. Part Three reduces all the terms in the seven sets to the five faculties and then deals with those faculties in detail.
With the fifth and final faculty, discernment, the book concludes by returning to the “what” of Awakening, showing how discernment focuses on the Wings themselves as topics to be observed in such a way that they will spark the insights leading to total release.
Thus the organization of the book is somewhat circular. As with any circle, there are several points where the book can be entered. I would recommend two to begin with. The first is to read straight through the book from beginning to end, gaining a systematic framework for the material from Parts One and Two, which explain why the seven sets are organized as they are, and then focusing more on individual elements in the sets in Part Three. This way of approaching the material has the advantage of giving an overall perspective on the topic before going into the details, making the role and meaning of the details clear from the start. However, this approach is the reverse of what actually happens in the practice. A practicing meditator must learn first to focus on individual phenomena in and of themselves, and then, through observation and experimentation, to discover their inter-relationships. For this reason, some readers—especially those who find the discussion of causal relationships in Parts One and Two too abstract to be helpful—may prefer to skip from the Introduction straight to sections A through E of Part Three, to familiarize themselves with teachings that may connect more directly with their own experience. They may then return later to Parts One and Two to gain a more overall perspective on how the practice is meant to deal with those experiences.
Regardless of which approach you take to the material, you should discover fairly quickly that the relationships among the overall patterns and individual elements in the Wings are very complex. This complexity reflects the non-linear nature of the Buddha’s teachings on causal relationships, and is reflected in the many cross-references among the various parts of the book. In this way, the structure of this book, instead of being a simple circle, is actually a pattern of many loops within loops. Thus a third way to read it—for those familiar enough with the material to want to explore unexpected connections—would be to follow the cross-references to see where they lead.
Parts One through Three of the book are each divided into sections consisting of passages translated from discourses in the Pali Canon, which is apparently the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings. Each section is introduced, where necessary, with an essay. These essays are printed in sans serif type to distinguish them clearly from the translated passages. They are attempts to provide context—and thus meaning—for the passages, to show how they relate to one another, to specific issues in the practice, and to the path of practice as a whole. They are not meant to anticipate or answer every possible question raised by the passages. Instead, they are aimed at giving an idea of the kinds of questions that can be most fruitfully brought to the passages, so that the lessons contained in the passages can properly be applied to the practice. As the Buddha has pointed out, the attitude of “appropriate attention” (yoniso manasik›ra), the ability to focus on the right questions, is one of the most important skills to develop in the course of the practice. This skill is much more fruitful than an attitude that tries to come to the practice armed with all the right answers in advance.
The context provided by the essays is threefold: doctrinal, placing the passages within the structure of the Buddha’s teachings taken as a whole; historical, relating them to what is known of the intellectual and social history of the Buddha’s time; and practical, applying them to the actual practice of the Buddhist path in the present.
The first and foremost sources for the doctrinal context are the discourses in the Canon itself. The Buddha and his noble disciples are by far the most reliable guides to the meaning of their own words. Often a teaching that seems vague or confusing when encountered on its own in a single discourse becomes clearer when viewed in the context of several discourses that treat it from a variety of angles, just as it is easier to get a sense of a building from a series of pictures taken from different perspectives than from a single snapshot.
This approach to understanding the discourses is instructive not only when discourse x explicitly defines a term mentioned in discourse y, but also when patterns of imagery and terminology permeate many passages. Two cases in point: in separate contexts, the discourses compare suffering to fire, and the practice of training the mind in meditation to the art of tuning and playing a musical instrument. In each case, technical terms—from physics in the first instance, from music theory in the second—are applied to the mind in a large
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