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Ajahn Brahm’s quite interesting position on "too much Dharma" and studying Abhidharma might be conveyed in this citation:

I think of our modern age is that too much Dhamma. So much Dhamma that you get really confused. So, just keep it easy Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path. Keep it simple and if you keep it simple - it [is] much, much, much easier.

(…)

That gets too much, it gets so much that people get confused. So, that's reason why they don't get enlightened. Keep it simple.

(…)

You can actually see that [in Abhidhamma] language - those concepts they didn't arise until a couple of centuries after the time of the Buddha. So, even the language shows you it's much later. You know that's great relief you don't have to study all of that very very difficult stuff. You have to be like a professor to learn the Abhidharma sometimes. It's so complex. Keep it simple - Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, meditate. That's all the Gunpowder you need, so keep it going.

Abhidhamma was not taught by the Buddha -- YouTube

Not only Ajahn Brahm, but also Ajahn Sumedho seem to also reduce the Buddhist practise to bare minimum, to repeating “Let go” for the first number years of his practise, which is similar to general teachings of Zen/Chan and experiential Dzogchen approach as well.

Given that obsession is clinging and clinging is suffering - then, truly, for Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, Dharma cannot be realised and experienced merely through reason. Thus, theoretically, sets of teachings might be double edged sword for own progression.

There seems to be common ground in Mahayna with Ajahn Brahm’s claim. Quoting important piece that is a complementary reading to Heart Sutra, a Diamond Cutter sutra:

Moreover, Subhuti, when a bodhisattva practices generosity, he does not rely on any object—any form, sound, smell, taste, tactile object, or dharma—to practice generosity. That, Subhuti, is the spirit in which a bodhisattva practices generosity, not relying on signs. Why? If a bodhisattva practices generosity without relying on signs, the happiness that results cannot be conceived of or measured.

(…)

In a place where there is something that can be distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception. If you can see the signless nature of signs, you can see the Tathagata.

(...)

Subhuti, a bodhisattva who still depends on notions to practice generosity is like someone walking in the dark. She will not see anything. But when a bodhisattva does not depend on notions to practice generosity, she is like someone with good eyesight walking under the bright light of the sun. She can see all shapes and colors

We know that Buddha didn’t coin a great deal of technical terms and vocabulary that did arise as attempts of explanation. As such, many things were imputed to Buddha, according to many scholars. The extent of it I don’t dare to bring up as such is not a nature of this post. Yet, we can deduce that most of the practitioners that attained Arahantship in Buddha’s times had in majority followed practical and minimalistic Buddha’s advice. That is at least what Suttas depict intuitively, rather than operating in terse sets of lexical and intellectual frameworks.

In conclusion, several questions arise:

  • What is the barrier and to what extent do we need to understand things by intellect? Is it not true that just Four Noble truths, a simple teaching, can alone lead us to liberation, quoting Ajahn Brahm?
  • Is such complexity and variety of modern Dharma why there aren’t more Arahants these times? Because of “Too much Dharma” ? Is this what really sets Buddhists apart from Enlightenment? Getting attached and clinging to ideas rather the simplicity of a “very simple teaching” of Four Noble Truths?
  • Should we all study, for example Abhidharma? Buddha did not - he sat down for 49 days under a Bodhi tree, without reading anything of sorts. So, maybe abandoning reliance on sings and concepts yields greater benefit to us?
  • Is it safe to say that a frustration of imbalance between our ideal, imagined, conceptual realisation causes suffering due to unmet expectations of the actual current experience? Is it then correct that we best incrementally broaden knowledge slowly, in tandem with progressive experience, because such balance leads to better sanity?
  • See also Questions asking for an answer to a controversy -- there's one answer there which asks people not to be disrespectful to "the abhidharmic tradition", for example. I suppose a good answer to this question might explain or outline the controversy (if there is one), i.e. present "both sides" or several views -- or explain why some one approach or tradition is necessary or sufficient, but without disparaging another. – ChrisW Aug 30 '18 at 17:19
  • @ChrisW Thanks for the link. I think here it only tangentially refers to the case of Abhidhamma. At least I didn’t intend to delve into this quarrel too much (I tried!). – user13383 Aug 30 '18 at 17:37
  • I had written a big detailed answer but later I realized it was not related to Abhidharma, but I will just like to pitch-in that, 'THE PITFALLS ARE MANY'. You need to know right things at the right state of practice. That is why Ajahn Brahm has so many videos on youtube and not just few on basic teachings. – user13135 Aug 31 '18 at 4:18
  • @FriedrickNietzsche I may be wrong but maybe "abhidharma" was just an example, in the question -- that the question was about "too much dharma" of any type, for example but not necessarily the abhidharma -- instead of a minimal core of doctrine (e.g. the 4NT and N8P and meditation and little else). So an answer doesn't have to be about the Abhidharma, specifically. – ChrisW Aug 31 '18 at 11:14
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    Great question OP. – Lanka Aug 31 '18 at 14:34
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The problem arises due to a misunderstanding of how Buddhism is supposed to be practiced.

Especially in the West people tend to study the teachings in a greater degree than practicing it. The depth and profundity of Buddhism can never be understood by intellectual thinking alone. It will only lead to mental proliferation and more questions. Its an unending spiral.

A scientist will never understand reality if he only theorizes about it. It will only lead to more questions. He has to personally experience reality by performing experiments and thereby gaining feedback from reality, that can correct his (wrong) views/theories.

A person sitting in a restaurant reading the menu card will never understand the taste of the food unless he actually orders and eats it. Merely reading and thinking about the food will never result in a personal, emphirical experience of tasting.

Buddhism has to be practiced in order to personally experience the nature of reality. When practice deepens, a lot of the previous questions and doubts will subside.

There needs to be a balancing of the faculties, i.e. more Wisdom, gained from meditation practice.

TL:DR: Less thinking, more practicing!

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    Nicely put. Question now: is Four Noble truths and Eightfold path completely sufficient then in your opinion (referring to Ajahn Brahm's claim) ? – user13383 Aug 31 '18 at 13:03
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    Ajahm Brahm is correct. The Noble Eightfold Path is a complete teaching in and of itself. It needs nothing added to- or subtracted from it. Our Buddha got enlightened by following this Path, so did countless of other beings before him and so will countless of beings in the future. – Lanka Aug 31 '18 at 13:29
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My teacher said, this happens for two reasons:

  1. students don't meditate and
  2. students read books without talking to live Buddhist teachers (former students who got it) to get a sense of high-level meaning and practical real-life implications.

Because of this, students don't see how the teaching connects with real life.

Since they don't see how the teaching connects with real life -- all they have is theory (=a bunch of concepts).

Since all they have is a theory, they try to extract some knowledge by speculatively analyzing the available concepts.

Without connection to real life, the concepts can no longer be simple approximate pointers to the most important "gist" of what is really happening. Instead, the students are forced to try and keep the concepts precise - with all the details, exceptions, and endlessly recursive definitions.

This is how speculative analysis leads to further conceptual proliferation.

When students meditate and talk to live teachers, their theory connects with practice in real-life. Then the concepts can be simple (even if imprecise) pointers to what happens in real-life. These pointers do not need too much elaboration, exceptions, and definitions. Then Dharma is embodied in practice instead of proliferating as concepts.

Intellectual understanding is important. I don't agree that Enlightenment is something irrational, completely beyond the intellect. In my opinion, Enlightenment is attained through understanding. However, it has to be live, practical -- and not just theoretical -- understanding, that goes hand-in-hand with implementation.

  • Whereas I agree with most part, the last paragraph not so much. Ordinary, speculative mind (Manas) is unable to touch the lower levels of mind and intuition (or the ground). It is just not possible to grasp the idea intellectually, and whatever the idea - the idea isn't real and doesn't reflect anything real, thus it's samsaric delusion. Through samsara there is liberation - I agree, but samsara is not liberation itself, rather, it's an important part of achieving Nibbana. – user13383 Aug 30 '18 at 23:07
  • Ah, this is where I go wrong. I talk to dead teachers instead of live ones. (Really had to laugh at that one. ;) ). The dhamma has to be lived, I agree with that one. However, for the realisation of Enlightenment what has to be understood is reality as it is. That goes deeper than understanding of real-live, as you put it. – user13579 Sep 1 '18 at 17:46
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The suttas are more than "Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path" -- maybe they're still relatively simple, though, when compared to the Abhidhamma.

  • If the doctrine were only the first three noble truths, that would have been a good beginning.

  • You can't have the fourth noble truth without asking or explaining what the eightfold path is -- then the existence of eightfold path raises further questions -- like, "what is 'right view'?", or, "what method of meditation?"

  • I think the anatta doctrine is helpful (and so, may be worth teaching) but apparently it's difficult to explain or to understand. I'm not sure where it fits into the 4NT or N8P: "right view", perhaps.

    A lot of further doctrine is consequent to teaching anatta:

    • Te doctrine of the 12 nidanas for example, in my opinion, exists to explain what the "self" even is, if it isn't "me" ... and maybe as a prescription towards ending craving and attachment (i.e. by guarding the senses) ... and some doctrine about "birth" and so on.

    • Similarly the doctrine of the 5 aggregates also, IMO, exists to explain what is or isn't the "self" ... and it introduces doctrine about impermanence (after which, dispassion, etc.).

  • I hadn't mentioned "virtue" yet -- but the suttas do, in some detail, at least a book's worth. Not to mention the vinaya.

  • Something else which pervades the suttas -- the notion of skillful versus unskillful, the fact that some things tend toward suffering and some things tend away. Maybe it's necessary, to begin to draw distinctions like that, in order to say anything specific or prescriptive at all, and not only truisms? Once you begin, though, to analyse reality into dualities, perhaps there's a lot to say.

  • Other topics in the suttas include:

    • Social interactions (friends and brahmaviharas)
    • Contradicting (or correction) of other (non-Buddhist) contemporary doctrines.
    • Success stories
    • Various lists -- fetters, hindrances, stages of enlightenment, factors of awakening
    • Answering FAQs -- "isn't desiring enlightenment a type of desire?" for example

Are the suttas enough or not?

  • Maybe not -- for example in the Noble search (MN 26) it says,

    And so I was able to convince them. I would teach two monks while three went for alms, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round. Then I would teach three monks while two went for alms, and we six lived off what the two brought back from their alms round. Then the group of five monks — thus exhorted, thus instructed by me — being subject themselves to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth etc.

    At least two of the suttas record for us what he told this first group of five monks, but (according to the quote above) there were more teachings that weren't recorded.

  • But maybe -- the Punna sutta for example tells of a monk who the Buddha instructed "with a brief instruction" and who then (successfully) went to practice alone.

    According to that sutta, his "brief instruction" was dispassion towards sense objects (associating delight and attachment with dukkha)

  • I guess that "the Dhamma and the Discipline" were originally all there were -- except the Sangha as well -- I'm not sure why the Abhidhamma was developed too so I can't address that.


"What is the barrier and to what extent do we need to understand things by intellect?"

  • "Intellect" as opposed to what? Isn't dukkha and craving and so on maybe a statement about "emotions", and not just intellect? So emotions, at least, too.

  • And there's an extent to which mind conditions the body and vice versa, so that as well.

  • And society too; or seclusion.

But ... if you're studying Maths, for example -- which I guess is an example of an "intellectual" exercise -- I think you're not going to learn how to do Maths just by reading Maths lectures or watching videos.

  • You may need a live teacher for some reason
  • What about motivation, what's to motivate you?
  • You may have questions
  • You may benefit from a teacher's advice, correction, or example
  • You need some kind of practice or exercise, you need to practice applying what you learn (and learn to apply)
  • I am not sure I agree with Math example; Math cannot be experiential and intuitonal, but purely logical and knowledge-progressive, also regarding exercises etc. As we know Dharma is the opposite - it is the art of letting go. For example in Mahayana terms, Arya (Arahant) is person coined as having completely non-conceptual and hence intuitional cognition of Four Noble truths. So, I think Four Noble truths are necessary to understand intelelctually, but do we really need more then? – user13383 Sep 1 '18 at 9:07
  • I used Maths as an example of "merely reading/hearing isn't enough". Perhaps the Buddha used "playing a lute" as an example of a practice -- rather than Maths, playing the lute is another example of a skill for which intellectual learning alone is insufficient. – ChrisW Sep 1 '18 at 9:42
  • I think the parable of the lute is an example of the intensity of practice, not the type of it. But nonetheless, I cut on nitpicking; I get what you mean. – user13383 Sep 1 '18 at 10:04
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    To revert back to the topic -- why do you say "four" instead of "three"? Is just three better, sufficient, for the practice of letting go? Do you agree that teaching "four" requires a whole lot of further doctrine? Is the anatta doctrine necessary, and, sufficiently implied by the mere mention of the clinging-aggregates in the 4NT? How about just two noble truths, i.e. "Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress"? – ChrisW Sep 1 '18 at 10:15
  • See also e.g. this comment -- it can be challenging to try to explain, identify, summarise what's essential doctrine. – ChrisW Sep 1 '18 at 10:17
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In my humble opinion;

For a person who is not so stupid as to realise his tiny-puny EGO, these six nails of Tilopa will be enough to reach the promised land.

Bare minimum Buddhism

  1. Don't recall : Let go of what has passed
  2. Don't imagine : Let go of what may come
  3. Don't think : Let go of what is happening now
  4. Don't examine : Don't try to figure anything out
  5. Don't control : Don't try to make anything happen
  6. Rest : Relax, right now, and rest
  • You forgot about the conditioning and latent tendencies of past lives. :) I don't agree with your statement that everyone needs to study everything (to avoid the entire list). Not every mind is capable of holding all that info, let alone make sense of it. Also, it really is not necessary. As a famous Bhikkhu said several times: "A Buddha needs to know everything; an arahant has to let go of everything." – user13579 Sep 1 '18 at 17:38
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    @Medhiṇī yes I deliberatly left out the past lives, some people are averse to that argument. I agree with you that not every one needs to know everything, it is much easier when there is a teacher around. Its that, what I have experienced makes me need to know lot of things to make sense of my life. Thanks for your comment :). – user13135 Sep 1 '18 at 19:26
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What is the barrier and to what extent do we need to understand things by intellect? Is it not true that just Four Noble truths, a simple teaching, can alone lead us to liberation, quoting Ajahn Brahm?

These questions are impossible to answer since any answer would involve knowledge of any persons conditions and conditionings.

I don't know what you need to know and let go of to become enlightened. Nor do I know how your mind works and in what way information should be brought to it. In my case, f.i., the way information is structured in the Abhidhamma makes more sense to me than how it is presented in the suttas.

So, a definite No to the last question. Every mind simply works differently.

Wisdom comes in three levels. The first I don't remember, I believe it was conditioning. The second kind of wisdom is gained by study and the last one is wisdom gained through experience (thus practice). All three are needed.

Is such complexity and variety of modern Dharma why there aren’t more Arahants these times? Because of “Too much Dharma” ? Is this what really sets Buddhists apart from Enlightenment? Getting attached and clinging to ideas rather the simplicity of a “very simple teaching” of Four Noble Truths?

You know how many arahants there are? I have no idea. And therefore I'm unable to say that those numbers are more or less than in the old times.

Really, who knows how many arahants there are? And also: why would the amount be in any way relevant to your own path? I don't see the point.

Should we all study, for example Abhidharma? Buddha did not - he sat down for 49 days under a Bodhi tree, without reading anything of sorts. So, maybe abandoning reliance on sings and concepts yields greater benefit to us?

No, not everyone's mind is capable of understanding the Abhidhamma. Again, every mind works differently.

However, practice is something everyone can do. Abandoning any reliance to whatever will then be happening naturally.

Is it safe to say that a frustration of imbalance between our ideal, imagined, conceptual realisation causes suffering due to unmet expectations of the actual current experience? Is it then correct that we best incrementally broaden knowledge slowly, in tandem with progressive experience, because such balance leads to better sanity?

How about letting go of ideals and imagined realisations? Whether knowledge has to be broadend slowly or not, depends again on how the individuals mind works, and also of what kind of knowledge we speak.

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What is the barrier and to what extent do we need to understand things by intellect? Is it not true that just Four Noble truths, a simple teaching, can alone lead us to liberation, quoting Ajahn Brahm?

Since Ajahn Brahm seems to believe the 4NTs are about "rebirth" or "reincarnation", obviously AB's version of the 4NTs cannot lead to liberation.

Is such complexity and variety of modern Dharma why there aren’t more Arahants these times? Because of “Too much Dharma” ?

There aren't more arahant because of genetics. The arahant gene pool becomes exhausted because arahants don't reproduce children. The lack of arahants is due to inherent ignorance of "Mara-Nature". Most beings do not have "Buddha-Nature" but have "Mara-Nature". Refer to verses 59 and 174 of the Dhammapada.

Is this what really sets Buddhists apart from Enlightenment? Getting attached and clinging to ideas rather the simplicity of a “very simple teaching” of Four Noble Truths?

Mara-Nature is the impediment.

Should we all study, for example Abhidharma? Buddha did not - he sat down for 49 days under a Bodhi tree, without reading anything of sorts. So, maybe abandoning reliance on sings and concepts yields greater benefit to us?

No. The Buddha did not merely abandon reliance on signs and concepts yields. This idea is Hinduism or Mahayana.

Is it safe to say that a frustration of imbalance between our ideal, imagined, conceptual realisation causes suffering due to unmet expectations of the actual current experience? Is it then correct that we best incrementally broaden knowledge slowly, in tandem with progressive experience, because such balance leads to better sanity?

The Buddha taught the aspirant practises like if their head/hair is on fire. What is necessary is the aspiration to end suffering. This aspiration arises from when it is discerned there is no happiness in this world. But most Western Buddhists still delight in sensuality & worldliness.

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    I'm not sure it's because of genetics, though -- "Not by birth", says the Dhammapada. – ChrisW Sep 1 '18 at 13:49
  • Dhammadhatu, could it be that sensual pleasures are of strongly pursued by humans not solely because they are 'worldly', but because spiritual happiness requires cultivation? Also, most people do not experience happiness that is independent of the senses so they have no comparison really. I personally doubt that people have an inclination towards dhamma, celibacy etc. It is mostly training. If one believes one's personality is the reason one isn't advancing then that's victim mentality. – Val Sep 1 '18 at 15:06
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    Interesting point with Ajahn Brahm, can you provide the source of him saying that? Many thanks. – user13383 Sep 1 '18 at 17:13

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