A Map, A Symphony

In the chapter of The Life of the Buddha entitled “The Doctrine,” Bhikkhu Nānamoli (as Narrator One) describes the Dhamma as follows.

It is not a total description of the world nor is it a metaphysical system built up by logic.  It does not answer questions such as Is the world eternal? and Is the soul and the body one or are they different? And the Buddha does not strive toward a complete description of the world – like the leaves on the trees above us, his teachings are but a handful of them, the ones he saw as relevant.

Relevant for what?  As Bhikkhu Nānamoli puts it:

The material contained in the Discourses seems, in fact, to be rather in the nature of material for a map, for each to make [their] own map, but all oriented alike.  These oriented descriptions of facets of experience, in fact, enable a person to estimate [their] position and judge for [themselves] what [they] had better do…The facets in the Discourses are all oriented to cessation of suffering, the four points of their compass being the Four Noble Truths.

This comes out most clearly when we reflect on the way leading to the cessation of suffering given in the fourth of the Four Noble Truths – i.e.,  the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  Each part is prefaced with ‘right’.  This points us in a direction – we definitely don’t want to be practicing wrong action!  But pointing in a direction is not the same as giving a detailed description of what right action is.

We must trust ourselves as we follow this path.  As we cultivate and practice the triple teachings of meditation, morality, and wisdom, the sense of ‘right’ in the Noble Eightfold Path will unfold before us.  It will probably unfold differently for each person, but our general directions will be the same – towards the cessation of suffering.

This reminds me of music.  When learning a musical piece, we usually first look to the score.  But the score only gives the broad outlines of how to play the piece.  The spacings, the voices, the speeds, the crescendos and decrescendos – these are indicated, but how to exactly perform them is left up to the performer.  With training, each performer gets a better sense of how they sing, play, and perform.  They get a better sense of the direction they are headed in.  And as this sense is cultivated, they can play, sing, and perform with ease!

(Note: The quote and paraphrase are from Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, page 211.  I have switched gendered pronouns for non-gendered pronouns – these changes are indicated by brackets.)

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1 thought on “A Map, A Symphony”

  1. I’ve often thought of “dhamma/dharma” as a term used to describe the Buddhist “path” – but I think the notion of a map is better.

    It doesn’t matter whether the term is used to describe the actual teachings of the Buddha and other great teachers, or in the other sense of the term, as phenomena. Each sense points to the map-like function of dhamma – the “point of entry.”

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