The Buddha before Buddhism by Gil Fronsdal has the subtitle Wisdom from the Early Teachings, and provides a new translation, with commentary, of the Atthakavagga, or ‘Book of Eights’. Whilst the Atthakavagga isn’t the best known of Buddhist texts, it is widely believed to be one of the earliest, and it presents the core of the Buddha’s teaching without reference to many of the concepts that are often assumed to be quite inseparable from Buddhism as we understand it today.
Gil Fronsdal, who has previously given us a wonderful translation of the Dhammapada, started this translation of the Atthakavagga as a personal project more than twenty years ago, and in his Introduction he explains why he embarked upon it:
‘An important motivation for this work has been to understand the ancient Buddhist teachings as they might have been understood at the time they were composed. Rather than looking through the lens of a culture and a time far removed from those of the Buddha, I tried to interpret the texts in the context with which I believe the Buddha may have been familiar early in his teaching career. While I do not assume that I have succeeded in this task, the exercise itself has helped me to discover and put aside a number of modern interpretations about early Buddhist teaching.’
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The Book of Eights is an anthology of sixteen poems, and The Buddha before Buddhism dedicates one chapter to each of those. The structure of each chapter is the same, with the author first providing his commentary on the discourse to come and then presenting his translation of the poem itself.
The commentary here is superb, and gives the reader just the right amount of background information to put the discourses into their historical context whilst at the same time highlighting the universality and practicality of the teachings. As for the poems themselves, the translator has achieved a very good balance between being true to the original Pali and making the discourses a joy to read.
The lack of what many might consider to be ‘standard’ Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the three characteristics of existence and rebirth means that the Book of Eights is a text which can benefit anyone. There is nothing metaphysical about this text, only a simple and clear focus on how to achieve peace and joy in the here-and-now, and that makes it relevant to all readers, regardless of their spiritual views, religious beliefs or lack thereof.
The Buddha before Buddhism is a title that readers would be best advised to spend a lot of time with. Whilst one could read this slim volume from cover to cover in a couple of hours, it is best approached carefully, considerately and repeatedly so that each poem can be pondered thoroughly. This more meditative approach will allow readers to think about how the teachings of each discourse can be applied to their lives so that the end goals of peace and joy can be realised in daily life, and not simply understood.
We have no hesitation in recommending The Buddha before Buddhism to all readers, and we hope that it will make the life-changing teachings of the Atthakavagga better known, not just in the Buddhist community, but in the world at large.