The nice conceit of the book is that we are present at the First Sangha Council that was convened a mere ninety days after the death of the Buddha, and that we are able to sit in on the "sub-committee" meetings of his first friends and followers, the arahants who knew him and worked with him during his life time, as they put together a "biography" from their collective memories. At the same time, the larger context of the full sangha offers a useful overview of the teachings, and a plausible and scenario of how the sutras came to be collected into the familiar "baskets" and passed down to subsequent generations through an oral tradition, before eventually being written down in the form in which they are known today. The result is part fiction, part biography, part dharma--and an entertaining read.
The story of Siddhartha's life from prince to pauper and from the moment of his enlightenment under the bodhi tree to his later years as one of the greatest and most influential teachers in human history is by now a popular, quasi-mythical one, recounted in countless books and films and widely available to all. For myself, with a bare-bones knowledge of that story, Thus We Heard fleshed it out not only with authentic and fascinating detail but also with a sense of the personalities involved, their frailties and humor, the way they lived their lives, the distinctions between rich and poor, privileged and outcast in a society that existed two and a half thousand years ago--as though it were today. A truly engaging experience.
But let me share my anger with the Buddha as I read this story. It's not so much about the abandoning of his wife and family--particularly his four-month-old son--when he answered the call to go off and seek his own enlightenment, his answer to the great, ubiquitous conundrum of human suffering; no, I found my anger arising only much later, on his return to visit that same family, now fully enlightened, with his multitude of disciples and supporters, revered by all and greeted with worshipful attentions to his every need. Okay, I thought as I was reading, so he is enlightened. Does this qualify him for such universal adoration? And does he need the thunderbolts and cosmic light shows to prove his mastery of the universe? Could he not be a little more, well, humble, toward the wife and son he left behind? He seems (in this narrative) quite content to be treated like a god.
So I noticed the anger coming up. And then I realized of course that my anger was really not about the Buddha at all; it was arising to teach me something important about the self-aggrandizement I was heedlessly projecting on to him, about my own vanity, my own need to do special things to draw attention to myself and earn the admiration of those around me. It was also about a deeply-rooted and carefully concealed resentment of those who presume to "teach" (do you think it might have to do with the abuse I experienced, as a boy, at the hands of a teacher I was supposed to respect and obey? And my resistance, all these years, to fully committing to the teaching profession myself? These are deep and complex issues.) And my skepticism of those who presume to know the answers--even though I know the Buddha's answers to be reliably good and trustworthy ones. The Buddha offers a brilliant, shining mirror whose clarity allows us to see ourselves ever more clearly, should we care to look into that mirror with uncompromising attention. Thus we learn.
"Thus We Heard" is, of course, the constantly repeated phrase from the Pali canon that reminds us that everything we know about the Buddha and his teachings is based on what is reported to us and what has been passed on from human ear to human ear. It's a perfect title for a book that manages to both humanize the Buddha and show his life to be exemplary, the model of a livable, workable moral code and the practice of compassion.
I'm still reading. And I have a long way to go--not just to reach the end of the book...