Who is Buddha?

This is the essay version of a talk, Who is Buddha?, delivered online to the Heart-Insight Meditation Group on Sunday 9 October 2022. It focuses on our relationship – or not – to Buddha.

Recommended Readings on Buddhism

People sometimes ask me what they should read to learn more about Buddhism and the Buddha’s teaching. Here is a reading list that might be useful. This version was modified in February 2021.

Heart Sutra

My Place in Contemporary Buddhism

Where does my approach to teaching Buddha-Dharma fit in contemporary Australian Buddhism? Here is a chapter I wrote for a book published in 2011, called Buddhism in Australia: Traditions in Change. It was published by Routledge as part of their Critical Studies in Buddhism series. The book was edited by Cristina Rocha and Michelle Barker. This chapter provides my background and lineage, along with my approach to teaching.


Painting the sky

Explores the Buddha’s teaching on the constructed (saṅkhata) and the unconstructed (asaṅkhata). The “constructed” represents our normal everyday world of coming-&-going, of you and I, of this and that. The “unconstructed” represents that which does not come or go; is neither you nor I; is not this and not that. The essay was the basis for the Dharma Salon group at the 2010 Australian Dharma Gathering at Yarrahapinni Ecology Centre on the NSW north coast.

This essay is an attempt to draw out the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching concerning the constructed (saṅkhata) and the unconstructed (saṅkhata) in the Buddha’s teaching. It was the basis for Dharma Salon at the 2010 Dharma Gathering at Yarrahapinni, on the mid-north coast of NSW. Read Essay
Old Monk

Essays on mindfulness

A series of five essays on mindfulness written for the Dharma Salon group at the 2008 Australian Dharma Gathering. The essays are an exploration of the meaning of the term “mindfulness” (in Pali, sati), which is at the centre of the Buddha’s approach to the path of liberation.

This first essay examines the nature of mindfulness, with particular reference to Mahasihanada Sutta (Greater discourse on the lion’s roar M12). The word sati, usually translated as “mindfulness,” literally means “memory,” and here we look at why the Buddha would take a word meaning “memory,” turn it into a specialised technical term, and place it at the centre of his approach to meditation. The essay goes on to examine the relationship between memory and wisdom.
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Here we look at the meaning of mindfulness by looking at how the Buddha speaks of “establishing” mindfulness, and how he speaks of its loss.
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This essay looks at the role of mindfulness in guarding the mind, and the closely related practice of sense restraint (indriya samvara). Both of these show the inescapably ethical nature of mindfulness.
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This essay examines mindfulness in meditation practice, beginning with the relationship between mindfulness and concentration (samadhi), followed by what makes mindfulness “right” mindfulness, and so a factor of the noble eightfold path (ariya atthangika magga). Finally, it looks at how the Buddha speaks of mindfulness and the establishments of mindfulness (satipatthana) in working with a specific meditation object, breathing (anapanasati).
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This final essay explores the relationship between mindfulness on the one hand, and feeling (vedana) and insight (vipassana) on the other. What is feeling? And how does the Buddha speak of mindfulness of feeling as a basis for insight?
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Buddha & Son

Dependent arising

A series of six essays examining different aspects of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppadā), the Buddha’s central teaching, written for a sutta study course conducted for the Buddhist Library in Sydney during April and May 2002.

We become acquainted with the teaching of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda), the central principle of the Buddha’s understanding of reality. We look at such key terms as idapaccayatā, “specific conditionality,” and paṭiccasamupanna dhammā, the “dependently arisen,” as well as the middle way. Read Essay
This week we look at Mahānidāna Sutta, “Great Discourse on Causation,” found in Dīgha Nikāya. Beginning with a reminder of the profoundity of dependent arising, this sutta focuses on the relationship between awareness (viññāṇa) and name-&-form (nāma-rūpa). Name-&-form refer to the entire experienced universe – with the exception of nibbāna itself.
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This sutta, “Greater Discourse on the Exhaustion of Craving,” begins with the net of craving in which Bhikkhu Sāti is caught. He thinks that awareness itself persists through time, providing the foundation for a permanent – or at least, reborn – self. A not uncommon belief, but quickly rejected by the Buddha. The issues of awareness and identity are examined, along with their connection with the cultivation of insight (vipassanā bhāvanā).
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When most people refer to dependent arising, they usually mean the standard twelve-fold formula that begins with delusion (avijjā) and ends with the arising of pain (dukkha). Here we see the Buddha’s analysis (vibhaṅga) of this well known formula. How can it be read in terms of human experience?
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This week we continue our examination of awareness, or consciousness (viññāṇa), clarifying its meaning and seeing its role in the construction and continuation of human identity. We end with “unsupported consciousness,” or “unlanded awareness,” where questions of identity no longer apply.
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Finally we look at the relationship between dependent arising and what we call “insight meditation.” We examine the two fundamental movements of the practice, “seeing” (dassana) and “understanding” (ñāṇa), which culminate in the “entry into emptiness” (suññatā avakkam).
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Buddha Eating

From Majjhima Nikāya

Essays that look at some discourses from Majjhima Nikāya, the collection of middle length suttas. In particular, we read Mūlapariyāya Sutta (The root of all things M1), Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (The honeyball M18), and two discourses on emptiness, Mahāsuññatā Sutta (Greater discourse on emptiness M122) and its companion, Cūḷasuññatā Sutta (Shorter discourse on emptiness M121). They were written for a sutta study course conducted for the Buddhist Library, Sydney, in 2004.

We begin with an introduction to the Pāli suttas, then proceed to examine how Mūlapariyāya Sutta describes how we create our delusion, and the pain that comes from that delusion.
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After beginning with more reflections on how suttas are to be read, we look at how Mūlapariyāya Sutta describes the process of understanding, how we work our way out of our delusion.
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We move on to Madhupiṇḍika Sutta’s analysis of what lies beneath our everyday sense of ourselves and our world. The key term here is papañca, “proliferation.”
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We examine the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness (suññatā), using Mahāsuññatā Sutta, and its companion, Cūḷasuññatā Sutta. Notice that we are not interested in the later Mahāyāna understanding of emptiness, but that of the Buddha. Read Essay

Here we look at the relationship between emptiness and the practice of satipaṭṭhāna (“grounding mindfulness,” or “establishing mindfulness”). We look at the radical simplicity of the practice, and the relationship between this simplicity and the issue of progress-over-time.

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The wings to awakening

Written for a course given at the Buddhist Library, Sydney, and Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre, Canberra, in 2005. They examine the Buddha’s teaching through the interpretative framework provided by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), a contemporary Theravāda bhikkhu who is an important translator and interpreter of the Buddha. His books include The wings to awakening, which provides the basic text for our course, and Mind like fire unbound, a study of nibbāna through the Buddha’s use of the metaphor of fire. Both have been published by Dhamma Dana publications, and are available on the internet at Access to Insight, www.accesstoinsight.org.

We begin by looking at the “wings of awakening” (bodhipakkhiyā dhammā), and see how Ṭhānissaro reads the Buddha through what he calls “the principle of skilful kamma.”
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Here we look at Ṭhānissaro’s approach to the cultivation of “insight” through practice of the “frames of reference” (satipaṭṭhāna). In this way “the principle of skilful action” is learned and applied by means of a “radical phenomenology.” The mind is brought to an “attentive non-intention” which projects nothing onto present experience. This is the “entry into emptiness” (suññatā avakam) or “nonfashioning” (atammayatā), allowing the mind to balance on the edge of “Unbinding” (nibbāna).
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We extend the principle of skilful action to the four great exertions (sammappdhānas). We begin by returning to the very idea of “skill,” and what underlies it; and from there to how the exertions weave together discernment (paññā), concentration (samādhi), the four noble truths, and the noble eightfold and tenfold paths.
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In this essay we look at concentration (samādhi) and discernment (paññā; vipassanā), and the relationships between them. What does the Buddha means by “concentration”? What is the connection between concentration and the discernment that leads to nibbāna? This connection entails right concentration (sammā samādhi), the eighth factor of the noble eight-fold path.
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This essay examines a few issues implicit in the eightfold path. First we look at the relationship between faith (saddhā) and view (diṭṭhi) as it appears in the path. We examine the two levels of the path, mundane and ariya, and the relationship between desire and renunciation as it appears in the path factor of right resolve (sammā saṃkappa). And finally we investigate the use of the image of “path” (magga) or “way” (paṭipāda) to describe the nature of Buddhist practice, focusing especially on the structure of the path, its linear and holographic aspects, and its right and wrong factors.
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