Luang Ta Maha Bua passes away

This sad news was published in the Thai Nation today.

Highly revered monk Luangta Maha Bua Yanasampanno passed away early Sunday. He was 98 years old.
His followers at Wat Pa Ban Tad in Udon Thani said the abbot of the temple died at 3:53 am.
Luangta Maha Bua was born Bua Lohitdee on August 12, 1913 in Ban Tad, Udon Thani’s Mak Khaeng district to a well-to-do farming family and had 15 siblings. At the age of 20, he was ordained as a monk on May 12, 1934, at Wat Yothanimit, according to the Thai tradition for his parents’ merit.

Luangta Maha Bua, who was a student of much-respected Luangpu Man Phurithatto, is renowned for leading many fund-raising events for charitable causes and helping to restore the country’s national reserves after they were depleted in the “Tom Yam Gung” financial crisis in 1997-98.

Luang Ta Maha Bua was one of the great monks, indeed great human beings, of the last century, and his passing away signals the end of an era. He has said for years that people should not mourn his death, as he has long gone beyond rebirth. Fierce and funny, profound and unique, he was a true original. May he rest in Nibbbana!

Australia Day

Happy Australia Day, everyone! This day means a lot to all Australians – it’s a holiday, after all.

I’m just on my way back from the Australia Day ‘do’ at The Lodge. Every year the PM invites a motley assortment of diplomats, civil servants, politicians, religious leaders and general ratbags for drinks and a gathering at her home in Canberra.

I went as the +1 of Ven Thich Quang Ba, a senior Vietnamese monk in Canberra, who’s has been to this event every year since the days if Bob Hawke.

It’s a chance to say g’day to the PM, and to meet some of the people involved in Australias’s public life, whether the Ambassador of East Timor, the head of the Trucker’s Association, or a local Greenpeace rep.

It was a sweltering day under the marquis, and most of the blokes were sweating in their suits, casting envious glances at my robes. I did get some criticism, though: the French Ambassador’s wife told me the color of my robe wasn’t bright enough and I was using the wrong wash powder. I’ll bear it in mind.

A shadow was cast, of course, by the ongoing trauma of the floods in Queensland and Victoria. Julia gave an upbeat message, all ‘We’re going to rebuild’. The luxurious surroundings reminded me of how many people still suffer, without even the basics.

It’s easy to be cynical about these events, but for me there is something magnificent about it all. It’s very low-key, with that slight Australian embarassment for formalities and nationalism; but the diversity of peoples from all different nations and backgrounds speaks volumes for Australia’s success as one of the world’s great multicultural nations. And that is something to be proud of.

Comfort or Challenge

Richard Gombrich, one of the most senior academics in Buddhist studies, recently gave a keynote address for the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya, Bangkok, Sep/Oct 2010. It’s a terrific, passionate, and all-too-true article. He had the following to say about the role of women in Theravada Buddhism.

Surely it is plain that if a religion today is to increase it popularity, it will have to appeal to women as least as much as to men. So how does Theravada Buddhism stand?

If one goes by the scriptures and ancient traditions it should be in a very strong position indeed to appeal to women. But it has thrown away its advantages, and this to such an extent that I think it cannot possibly advance in countries where women have achieved social equality.

Let me make three points, all of which I regard as of vast importance both practically and morally.

First: menstruation. While they are fertile, adult women bleed for a couple or a few days every month. In some pre-modern societies this has been regarded as dirty or impure; some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse. In brahminical tradition strict orthodoxy demands that at that time of the month women be secluded and kept away from sacred objects and observances. This is of course a ritual, not a moral, prohibition. In accordance with his principle, already discussed, that attachment to ritual is a great obstacle to spiritual progress, the Buddha ignored menstruation as irrelevant to his teaching. In Sri Lanka, where the most archaic form of Buddhism is preserved, the concept of menstrual impurity is well known (the Sinhala word for it is killa), but it is equally well known that it has no application in a Buddhist context. A woman who is of an age when she might be menstruating is not debarred from any Buddhist activity, from contact with any Buddhist person or object. In a word, for Buddhism, female impurity does not exist – as it did not for the Buddha.

I don’t know how Thai and Burmese Buddhism came to import the notion of female impurity, but in following it they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women. Of course, most women born into those societies have been brought up to take female impurity for granted and so do not feel insulted; but women who come from abroad, and have for example learnt their Buddhism in Sri Lanka, do feel insulted and repelled.

But secondly, things are even worse than this. In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman’s hand. This innovation applies not only to menstruating women, or to women who are of an age when they might be menstruating, but to all females from babies to centenarians. We are therefore dealing not just with a misguided ritual obsession but with true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust. When this is applied even to babies and young children, the necessary implication is so disgusting that I cannot even name it. Those who created such a rule and those who follow them need to be re-educated and to learn that women and girls are people, not objects.

My third point is much more often talked about. Can Theravāda restart the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the Order of Nuns, after the break in the ordination tradition? There are six extant textual traditions of the Vinaya; the fact that no two of them wholly agree about how nuns are to be ordained, and that we thus cannot be sure that the Theravādin version goes back to the Buddha, or is even the oldest, gives historians a lot to argue about. But when it comes to preserving Theravāda Buddhism, let alone allowing it to flourish, all that is entirely beside the point. If there are women who want to restart a Sangha, why should they be stopped? Should we not thank and congratulate them? What does it matter that the continuity of the ordination ritual has been interrupted? What is that but a ritual? Must we all live in a world of obsessive neurotics? Let people who only care about ritual fuss away to their hearts’ content, and let those who care for the spirit, not the letter, and for living according to the Buddha’s teaching and principles, welcome the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravāda Buddhism for many future generations.

How, then, can Theravāda Buddhism be disseminated? How can it even be saved? I find the answer obvious. We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!

The Ironic Assumptions of Gregory Schopen

The methods and assumptions of Buddhist text-critical studies have come under challenge, indeed frontal assault, by the influential academic Gregory Schopen. His writings are deliberately provocative and sometimes brilliant. His basic approach in understanding Indian Buddhism may be summed up as a change in method, leading to different results.

In method, he criticizes the assumption of modern scholars that the study of Buddhism may be equated with the study of its texts, and instead proposes that the archaeological evidence should be granted priority. I think all would agree that he has a point here, but it is not obvious to me that previous scholars have been so negligent in this regard. As just one random example, Lamotte’s discussion of King Milinda occupies about seven pages.i The first three pages mainly survey the evidences of the coins and other material evidence, summed up as ‘as few fragmentary inscriptions’; the next three pages discuss the Milindapañha, an important work of the Middle Period preserved in Chinese and Pali; and the final page mentions a few references in later works. This seems reasonable to me; if anything I would have liked to see more discussion of some of the philosophical points raised in the Milindapañha, whose stance tends to be intermediate between the canonical doctrines and the developed positions of the schools.

As far as the results of research are concerned, Schopen says that the record of the bones and stones depicts a very different type of Buddhist monastic, one who is more worldly and human than the caricature of the ascetic hero striving for Nibbana alone in the forest. Since Schopen’s work constitutes the most influential and sustained critique of the kind of project undertaken in this book, it is worth considering his claims in some detail. If we weather this storm, we’ll be ready for anything.

Many of Schopen’s conclusions, I think, are obviously true. He is primarily interested in the ‘Middle Period’ of Indian Buddhism, that is, the five hundred years or so from the beginning of the Common Era. He uses the remnants of monasteries, stupas, graves, etc., together with Vinaya material, primarily from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in Tibetan (he makes little use of the Chinese sources), which he says stems from the same period and depicts much the same activity. These sources speak to us of monks and nuns who accumulate wealth, make substantial donations from their own wealth for building projects, promote devotional activity such as worship of stupas, images, and relics, are engaged in business transactions, contracts, and lending on interest, and are frequently at the beck and call of the lay followers for performance of rituals such as weddings, house blessing, and so on. All of this picture is quite convincing and needs little discussion here.

But while it is obviously true, I would also contend that it is truly obvious. All the activities that Schopen depicts may be plainly seen in the activities of the majority of the ordained Sangha in all traditions in the present day. Schopen merely points out that these conditions also obtained in the Middle Period of Indian Buddhism as well. While this may come as a surprise to academics with little contact with Buddhism in the real world, and constitutes an important critique of the fallacy of equating Buddhism with the idealized portrait in the sacred texts, it will come as no surprise for those of us who encounter Buddhism in the world every day.

Another of Schopen’s arguments that is well taken is that the average monk or nun, not to speak of the lay followers, may hardly even know of the scriptural texts. The scriptures may have only been known to a small elite of scholars, and the ideas therein might not be representative of the range of Buddhists. A few years ago I was staying in a forest hut belonging to a devoted, intelligent Thai Buddhist, who, when he was young, had been in robes for two and a half years. Once I visited a local monastery and borrowed copies of some of the Suttas. When I mentioned it to my friend, he looked absolutely blank: he had never even heard the words ‘Majjhima Nikāya’ or ‘Dīgha Nikāya’. Again it seems plausible that this situation, observable today, could have obtained two thousand years ago in India. But the argument should not be overstated. The Buddhist scriptures are big works. They must have required a substantial organization of monk-&-nun power to maintain, whether in oral form or even in the later written form, and so a large number of people must have known them. The number of inscriptions from ancient India is only a few thousand, and so can only represent a tiny fraction of scraps of ideas of all the Indian Buddhists. And those who are wealthy enough to donate religious monuments are hardly likely to be representative of the full spectrum of the Buddhist community. Anyway, as Schopen emphasizes, many of the donors are monks and nuns (according to Schopen, most of the donors are monastic, and in the Middle period, about half the monastics are nuns) who state that they are versed in the ‘Suttas’ or ‘Vinaya’ or ‘Tripiṭaka’ or ‘Nikāyas’; in other words, they are the same people as those who passed down the scriptures.

Schopen is scathing in his assessment of the ‘assumptions’ made by various Buddhist scholars. He characterizes the work of early, Victorian, scholars such as Oldenberg and Rhys Davids as ‘protestant’, and suggests that they have read their own biases into the Buddhist texts, depicting the Buddha and his Sangha much like rational, cultured European gentlemen.

This, too, is true, but it is hardly a valid criticism. Anyone familiar with Buddhist thought should accept that our understanding is always coloured by our beliefs and values. Fine, let’s point this out – but let’s not assume that we are an exception. I am a forest monk, and I believe that the Buddha and his early generations of ordained disciples were also forest monks and nuns. So when I look at the heritage of Buddhism, I naturally focus on this aspect.

Gregory Schopen is a highly paid academic from an overwhelmingly materialistic society, and so when he looks at the heritage of Buddhism he sees money, rocks, and material remains. When he does look at the texts – as any scholar, whatever their beliefs, must eventually do, for the information contained in the inscriptions is scanty – he focuses on the Vinayas, since they deal most directly with the material aspects of monastic life – buildings, etc. But the Vinayas themselves represent a movement from the spiritual to the material – they are about what monks and nuns do when they misbehave, and so taken by themselves they are misleading. We would not expect to gain an accurate vision of how an ordinary person leads their daily life today by reading law books.

Schopen contrasts the wealthy, developed monasteries with the poor, simple villages nearby. His agenda is, in the broadest sense, Marxist. I do not mean that in the slightest pejorative sense – I think it’s sweet that he dedicates his books to the ‘working men and women’ whose ‘labor paid for my scholarly leisure’. But he has little interest in the spiritual aspect of Buddhism, which puts him in a minority of those, at any time, who wish to learn the Dhamma.

It should be obvious that Schopen’s assumptions influence his conclusions, just as the assumptions of earlier scholars influence their conclusions. Wholesome states of mind leave no scar on the rocks. Meditation attainments are airily ephemeral. Insights into reality happen in the wispy world of the mind. If we were to accept Schopen’s methods unconditionally, we would have to abandon the very reason that most of us became interested in Buddhism. There would be no more reason to study ancient India than any other ancient culture. This may not be a problem for Schopen, but it is a big one for most students of Buddhism.

My primary interest is in spiritual practice, and my interest in the Ᾱgama Suttas stems from this: they describe a spiritual practice that I find inspiring, practical, and profound. I have tried, to my limited best, to live up to the ideals taught in that literature, and have invariably found that, when problems arise, they are due to my own inadequacies, not those of the teachings. I have also had close contact with a number of human beings whose inner radiance testified to the power of the Dhamma when lived to its fullest. Since this tradition that I belong to claims to stem from a genuine historical individual called the Buddha, it is important to investigate what truth there might be to this claim.

Schopen’s work contains much that is interesting and informative, but little that could be called inspiring. His writing is characterized by wit, scandal, and good yarns. Unfortunately, it is not always characterized by consistency, and we should examine some of his fracture lines. He rests his arguments heavily on the authority of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, a text he cheerfully admits to not having fully read. This Vinaya is ‘monstrous’ in size, perhaps 4000 folios in the Tibetan, and most scholars have taken it to be late, perhaps 500 C.E. Schopen would like to see this Vinaya dated earlier, around the beginning of the Common Era. On the other hand, the Theravāda Vinaya has been taken by most scholars to be early, but Schopen would also like to date that around the beginning of the Common Era. Thus the battle-lines are drawn. Schopen says that the discussion of the date of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya has been:

‘badly misdirected by a very red herring and the inattention of those who are supposed to be following the trail. In 1958 the great Belgian scholar Etienne Lamotte declared that this Vinaya, or code, was late, that “one cannot attribute to this work a date earlier than the 4th – 5th centuries of the Christian Era.” This pronouncement – even at its inception based on very shaky grounds – still proved almost fatal, for Lamotte was forced by his own further work to change his position – and he did so several times – but few scholars seem to have noticed. By 1966, Lamotte was in fact referring to the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as a source of information for the first or second century of our era. Ironically, other scholars then, and for a long time after, continued to quote only the Lamotte of 1958.’ii

I must also confess inattention, for I have not followed the trail of Lamotte’s arguments and so must declare my incompetence to pronounce on the date of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. It might be noticed in passing, though, that the two positions ascribed to Lamotte in this passage are not necessarily contradictory. Given the evidently long period it would take to compile a vast compendium like the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, it is not unreasonable to maintain that the final redaction was in the 4th – 5th centuries C.E., but that it contains material inherited from a much earlier time. In fact, something of this sort could be said for almost all Buddhist literature. This is a phenomenon known as ‘intratextuality’, the ongoing life of a given text through a particular stream of tradition, which reflects the conservative nature of religious literature: the redactors valued ancient authority over creative expression and thus tended to work with material already to hand rather than inventing new material.iii In any case, there is nothing ‘ironical’ in the failure of some writers to notice Lamotte’s change of views: if scholars continue to quote from earlier, discredited theories this is a mistake, not an irony.

An example of true irony could be better seen from Schopen’s own work. In the same book as the above quote, he says this:

‘… this literature, the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, is itself considered by many to be late – Lamotte, for example, thinks it is the latest of the vinayas and says “we cannot attribute to this work a date earlier than the fourth-fifth centuries of the Christian Era” …’iv

Note that here Schopen says that Lamotte ‘thinks’ (present tense), thus precluding any later change of mind. This clanger needs little comment, apart from reminding us that Schopen, like the rest of us, is sometimes guilty of seeing what he wants to see.

While I am not competent to date the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, I must say that the passages quoted by Schopen himself frequently give me the impression of lateness. The elaborateness of the text may be partly explained, as Schopen argues, by cultural or other factors rather than by date, but the examples he gives fall well short of establishing this. As for specifics, we notice that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya frequently mentions books and writing, while the Theravāda Vinaya mentions them rarely. This was one of the classic reasons the early European Buddhist scholars concluded (not ‘assumed’) the Theravāda was earlier, and as far as I can see the argument still holds good. Similar considerations apply when we see that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya refers to worship of Shiva and Vishnu, while, as is well known, these deities are virtually unknown in the Theravāda canon. Schopen also argues that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya evidences the influence of the Hindu Dharmaśāstras (legal codes), while the Theravāda does not. He says that this may be explained by the lack of influence of the Dharmasastras in Sri Lanka, and is therefore evidence that the Theravāda Vinaya was composed in Sri Lanka. While I agree, for other reasons, that the Theravāda Vinaya shows some minor Sri Lankan influence, I don’t think this particular argument is very convincing. The Dharmaśāstras themselves evidently date from well after the Buddha’s time, and the situation might as well or better be explained by the simple hypothesis that most of the material in the Pali was composed in India before the Dharmaśāstras became influential, and, because of the unimportance of the Dharmaśāstras in Sri Lankan culture, the Theravāda Vinaya did not have to be extensively revised.

Another target of Schopen’s critique is the vagueness or ambiguity of some Vinaya rules, which he suggests may have been deliberate.v It seems that the poor old Vinaya just can’t win: if it is definitive, it is rigid, and if it is flexible it is decadent. Again we might compare this with one of Schopen’s own little ‘ironies’:

‘In most cases, we can place the Vinayas we have securely in time: the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya that we know was translated was translated into Chinese at the beginning of the fifth century (404-405 C.E.). So were the Vinayas of the Dharmaguptakas (408), the Mahīśāsakas (423-424), and the Mahāsaṅghikas (416). The Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was translated into both Chinese and Tibetan still later, and the actual contents of the Pali Vinaya are only knowable from Buddhaghosa’s fifth century commentaries.’vi

Does this remarkable assertion assume that the date of a text may be determined by knowing the date of its translation or commentary? That would certainly solve a lot of problems: I have beside me a translation of the Saṁyutta Nikāya dated 2000 C.E., so we can place that ‘securely in time’. Of course, the phrase is so vague – deliberately? – that Schopen escapes actually asserting that the dates of composition of the Vinayas may be determined from their translation or commentary. If that was the case, however, we would have to conclude, contrary to Schopen’s position, that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was later than the others, for its translation was later. Regarding the Theravāda Vinaya, it has been accepted, so far as I know, by all the scholars who have looked into the matter that Buddhaghosa was primarily a translator and editor, who worked with material stemming from a much older time, no later than 100 – 200 C.E. If the commentarial material dates from then, the Vinaya itself must be considerably earlier.vii

An important part of Schopen’s argument is that there is little or no early – pre-Common Era – evidence for Buddhist monasteries of the developed sort that are depicted in the Vinayas. This is, for him, a sign that the Vinayas were compiled in the ‘Middle Period’. He notes that the words vihāra and āvāsa, which are commonly used of monasteries, really mean little more than ‘dwelling’, and give us little information about what kind of institution is being discussed.viii

However he neglects to notice that the main terms used of a monastery in the Pali Suttas are vana (woodland grove) and ārāma (park); the fact that they are used together in the name of the most famous monastery of all (‘Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park’) suggests that they may be synonyms. These, of course, have a much more specific meaning – evidently the main form of Buddhist monasticism in the Suttas was the forest monastery.

Even today, the typical forest monastery consists of small huts or caves scattered through the forest, with a larger wooden sala for communal activities, and some buildings for stores, kitchen, etc. Such an institution would leave little or no evidence for an archaeologist to uncover.

Schopen does not consider the possibility of a ‘middle way’ between the large, institutionalized vihāras that are such a feature of the archaeological record of Buddhism, and the life of the lonely sage in the forest. It would seem that the forest monastery offers such a ‘middle way’. Forest monasteries can evolve to a high degree of sophistication in their internal organization, such as is described in the Vinayas, and usually have a high regard for authentic practice of the Vinaya. They often do not engage in large building projects, not because they do not have the resources or the know-how – forest monks are often more educated and better supported than the city monks – but because they want to live simply.

This is just a suggestion, and more careful work on the Vinayas – including the Chinese – has to be done to see if this suggestion has any cogence. It is obviously tenuous to draw such parallels between Buddhist practice in such far-distant times and places. But Schopen himself draws many instructive parallels between practice in Buddhist and Christian monasticism, which would seem to be no less distant. And as I have noted above, many of Schopen’s more acceptable findings do find clear parallels in contemporary Buddhism.

Schopen dismisses the ‘perishable materials’ argument for the lack of early monasteries, saying that the earliest archaeological evidence we do possess shows us a monastery in the time of Asoka that is ‘poor and unimpressive’, ‘crudely made of “rubble”.’ix He asserts that: ‘the earliest extant remains of monastic residential architecture, like the earliest cult images in stone, show a tradition still struggling, in this case towards order, still lacking a sense of functional organization and structured use of space. Such a tradition – again like that which produced the early extant cult images – does not suggest a long period of development or directed experimentation in wood or other perishable materials preceding it.’x

But this argument is also circumvented by the forest monastery hypothesis – when living in widely scattered dwellings in the forest it is not necessary to develop such a structured sense of space. What seems to be happening here is that the monastics are, for the first time, living in close proximity. This might be due to a number of factors – perhaps there were too many Buddhist monastics in that period. But some of the early sites mentioned by Schopen also share another significant feature: the monastic dwellings are near a stupa. This might suggest that these are the first monasteries for whom the devotional practices described by Schopen are becoming important.

What is perhaps more relevant for our current purposes, however, is that this argument exposes yet another of Schopen’s ‘ironies’. He assumes that the emergence of sophisticated architecture or fine arts requires a substantial prior period of development – a most reasonable assumption. But is not the same the case in literature? Schopen wants to put very sophisticated literary tracts like the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in the early Middle Period. But surely such works must have required a lengthy evolution. Similarly, we know for certain (from the dates recorded for the Chinese translations) that the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras date from no later than the beginning of the Common Era. These too are sophisticated literary and philosophical products, which are, to a large degree, a critical response to some aspects of the early schools, especially the (Sarvāstivāda) Abhidhamma philosophy, and also to such monastic practices as are detailed in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, as Schopen himself argues.xi The Abhidhamma texts themselves are sophisticated literary works that are in turn based on the material found in the early Suttas. So the early Sutta material – not necessarily the exact collections in the form we have them today, but the main doctrinal material – must be several philosophical generations before the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Again, this conclusion, not ‘assumption’, was one of the classical reasons for assigning a relatively early date to the Nikāyas/Ᾱgamas, and nothing Schopen says really affects this.

Schopen tries to show that the forest monastic life was little different from settled monastic life in general. He does this by quoting a passage from the Vinaya that describes the lovely, luxurious forest dwelling of a certain Venerable Udāyin, where many people would go to visit him. Schopen says that this is apparently how the compilers of the Pali Vinaya saw the forest life.xii Incredibly, he makes no mention of the fact, known to every Grade 1 Vinaya student, that Udāyin is the archetypal ‘bad monk’, whose appalling behaviour prompted the formulation of many Vinaya rules. On this occasion, Udāyin gropes and sexually harasses a woman who comes to visit him, prompting the laying down of yet another rule on his behalf. This part of the story, however, is discreetly omitted by Schopen as he tries to depict Udāyin as a regular forest monk.

While it is obvious that the cult of relics and so on played a large part in Buddhist practice from the Middle Period, Schopen wants to discredit the received opinion that the early texts, and hence early Buddhism, do not include the relic cult. He ends up clutching at some embarrassingly flimsy straws.

For example, he points to a passage in the Satipaṭṭhāna-saṁyutta where the novice Cunda, after the passing away of Venerable Sāriputta, takes his bowl and robes and goes to tell Venerable Ᾱnanda.xiii Schopen says that the PTS edition (which I do not have) has a variant reading from a Burmese edition that includes the phrase dhātuparibhāvana.xiv Schopen admits that the meaning is obscure, but it ‘almost certainly contains a reference to relics’. This is dubious, for dhātu rarely if ever means ‘relic’ in this strata of literature. The VRI CD that I am using does not have dhātuparibhāvana, so it seems that this reading does not represent the mainstream Burmese tradition. Thus far Schopen’s argument is flimsy, but not necessarily wrong. But then he goes on to say that the commentary appears to have a reference to relics, since it includes the term dhātuparissāvaṇa. Parissāvaṇa means ‘water strainer’, and dhātu here means ‘relics’, though the compound ‘relics-&-water strainer’ does seem a little odd.

Anyway, the matter is clarified by the very next sentence of the commentary, which is ignored by Schopen. This says: ‘But in the text (pāḷī) it just says “Here are his bowl and robes”.’ In other words, the commentary explicitly states that the original text did not mention anything other than the bowl and robes. Thus it seems almost certain that paribhāvana was not in the original text; it was probably read back into the text by garbling the commentary (by a monk whose reading rivals Schopen in carelessness).

Schopen does not refer to the Chinese parallel, which is very close to the Pali, and which similarly mentions just the bowl and robes. He says that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya version of the incident does refer to relics, although he admits that the phrase is not a cognate of either of the Pali terns with dhātu in them. This makes it seem like an independent later development, not a common inheritance.

Schopen is right on the mark when he says that ‘this will require further study to sort out’. I hope it has now been sorted out. Rather than being ‘virtually certain’ that the Pali here has suffered loss – or as Schopen insinuates, deliberate suppression – it is absolutely certain the Pali and the Chinese and the Theravāda commentary all agree that the original account of Sāriputta’s death does not mention relics. Much later the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and perhaps the Pali commentaries added the mention of relics. Thus this context, as with many others, suggests that the Mulasarvāstivādin Vinaya has more in common with the Theravādin commentaries than with the canon.

Schopen’s work offers us further lessons in ‘irony’ in the discussion of the term paribhāvita.xv He shows that several inscriptions and late textual sources describe the relics of the Buddha as being ‘infused’ or ‘permeated’ (paribhāvita) with such qualities as ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release. This suggests a quasi-magical conception of relics in this period. Schopen discusses the term in some detail and offers several references from the Pali canon showing a naturalistic usage of the term, for example a chicken sitting on eggs and ‘imbuing’ them with warmth. But, incredibly, he avoids all mention of the most well known occurrence of the term: the frequently repeated statement of the Buddha in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta:

‘Samadhi imbued with ethics is of great fruit, great benefit; understanding imbued with samadhi is of great fruit, great benefit; the mind imbued with understanding is rightly released from defilements.’xvi

Not only does the term paribhāvita appear repeatedly, but it does so specifically describing a list of dhammas similar or identical with those repeatedly mentioned in the inscriptions quoted by Schopen.

The implications of this are slightly worrying. Schopen has built a successful career largely on his pioneering research into the nature of the cults of the stupa and relics in Indian Buddhism. The prime canonical reference for these practices is the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, which describes the distribution of the Buddha’s relics. One of the most famous and prominent passages in this text repeatedly uses the term paribhāvita in connection with ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release. Schopen discusses at length the use of paribhāvita in inscriptions to describe relics that are imbued with ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release. He gives several references to unrelated uses of the term in the Pali canon, but avoids all mention of the usage in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta.

What is going on? Has Schopen not even read the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, the main source text in his own special field? Or might we conspiratorially wonder whether Schopen has deliberately suppressed the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta reference (just as Schopen alleges the redactors of the Pali canon suppressed mention of relics and stupas)?

Once the connection with the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta is noticed, it is obvious that the inscriptions are, in fact, quoting from or referring to this specific text. Note that the passage on ethics, samadhi, understanding, and release in itself has no connection with the relic cult. If it existed as an isolated fragment or in another context there would be no reason to associate this passage with relics. Only when taken as part of the overall narrative of the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta would it be possible to form an association between the passage and the Buddha’s relics.

To be sure, the implications of the usage in the inscriptions is radically different from that in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta. In the discourse it describes spiritual qualities to be developed by a living person, whereas in the inscriptions it seems to mean the magical infusion of relics with mystic power. This obviously suggests that the earlier, rational, psychological teaching has been altered – dare I say ‘corrupted’? – by magical conceptions. This is a straightforward reading from the evidence, not an imposition of ‘protestant presuppositions’. Of course, this conclusion would be impalatable to Schopen, because it would suggest, firstly, that the discourses, or at least the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, were actually known to a variety of Indian Buddhists and influenced their beliefs; and secondly that the picture he paints of the Middle Period is representative of Buddhism in its decadent, materialistic phase, rather than the psychological spirituality of the early teachings.

Schopen’s key inscriptional and textual sources for this quasi-magical use of paribhāvita are dated to around the first century of the Common Era. By this time, the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta must have been composed, and already be well-known and influential. This must have happened long enough for some of the central messages to be radically reinterpreted, and for these reinterpretations to have gained wide currency. The Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta evidences later elaboration, and, despite the fact that several sectarian versions are known, most scholars do not place it among the earliest strata of the Suttas. So if the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta was in existence significantly before the Middle Period, many other discourses must be even earlier. So we must be grateful to Schopen for, yet again, inadvertently offering us another proof of the existence of the early Suttas well before the Middle Period.

Schopen’s failure to notice this stems from his wilful enslavement to his own methodological presuppositions. He has a religious faith in ‘hard facts’, things that ‘actually’ exist in stone and bone. As normal, when a particular means of knowledge is given absolute priority in this way, it leads to philosophical distortions and a blindness to the broader perspective. Schopen castigates those who would render archaeological evidence subject to texts, since archaeological evidence can be located in place and time, and represents what was said by ‘actual’ people (as if those who wrote the texts were not ‘actual’ people).

One of his pervasive unexamined assumptions is the reliability of archaeological evidence. I am no expert, but it does seem to me that archaeologists, like those in any field of science, are engaged in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, and to do so must rely on sometimes tenuous inferences. Schopen remarks several times that the sites he is referring to have not been fully excavated, or were poorly reported, or that there is uncertainty as to dating. There is no reason why the inferences derived from such methods are more reliable than those derived from textual sources.

Just one example will suffice here. Schopen quotes an inscription that refers to the setting up of an image of the ‘Blessed Lord, the Buddha amitābha’ (bhagavato buddha amitābhasya).xvii He says that this is the only inscriptional reference to Amitabha in India, and constitutes one of the few ‘hard facts’ we know about his cult in India.

The inscription is interesting, and it is useful that Schopen brought it to light. But what does it mean? The inscription says an image was set up by a certain Nāgarakṣita or Sāmrakṣita, who wishes that ‘by this skilful root may all beings attain unexcelled knowledge’. Such references to ‘all beings’ and ‘unexcelled knowledge’ are typical of Mahāyānist inscriptions; but the present inscription is very early, apparently 200 years prior to the widespread appearance of Mahāyānist inscriptions.

Schopen assumes that amitābha refers to the Buddha of that name in the well-known Sūtras so popular in China. Thus, as usual, he is unable to say anything meaningful about the inscription without the context provided by the texts.

His assumption is reasonable, but is not necessarily true. ‘Amitabha’ means ‘infinite light’, and is virtually identical with a word used in the Pali tradition to describe an order of deities: appamāṇābhā devā, the ‘deities of measureless light’. It is possible that amitābha was used of certain deities, and from there became an epithet of the historical Buddha, and only later the human and divine elements were fused into ‘Amitabha Buddha’. In other words, the inscription might not be a reference to ‘the’ Amitabha, but might simply be a descriptive epithet of Śakyamuni, representing a stage in the development towards Mahāyāna ideas.

I am not arguing that this is in fact the case, but am merely pointing out that, in the absence of context, it is impossible to know which interpretation is correct. Any meaningful statement on the matter must be based on an inference, on what we think is the more reasonable interpretation, not on the ‘hard facts’.

I beg leave here to give an example from my own experience. Once I was staying at a forest monastery where the practice was to inter the cremated remains of the monastery supporters in the monastery wall. A hole was made in the wall, and with a simple ceremony, the ashes were placed in and covered with a brass plaque. Someone, perhaps an archaeologist of Schopenesque bent, might come at some time later and notice a peculiar feature of the plaques. In a certain section, that closest to the entrance and dated earliest, the plaques say ‘Rest in Peace’, a typically Christian saying. The later plaques, however, say ‘May she attain Nibbana’, which is obviously Buddhist. What is going on? Did the monastery change from Christian to Buddhist? Is this evidence of an obscure sect of antipodean ‘Buddho-Christians’? Might we suspect darkling intrigue, a hidden tussle for power between two opposed groups of monks, vying for the funds from the different religious communities?

Happily, I was there at the time, and can answer ‘none of the above’. These plaques were ordered from a shop whose normal business, this being in a predominately Christian country, was to make plaques for Christian burials. So they came with a typically Christian burial slogan. The monks simply didn’t give the matter any thought, until it was pointed out that a Buddhist saying would be more appropriate, and so one was invented. That’s all there was to it.

Incidentally, we did not really believe that saying ‘May she attain Nibbana’ on the burial plaque would really help the lady concerned to attain Nibbana; it just seemed like a nice sentiment.

Now compare this concrete, dateable, placeable, ‘actual’ evidence with, say, some of my own essays that are available on the Net. They have no date, no place, no concrete existence at all. Yet I regard them as a more reliable and accurate guide to my beliefs and practices than those messages on the plaques at the monastery where I stayed.

Schopen dismisses the idea that shared passages in a text are evidence of early, pre-sectarian material. He prefers the hypothesis that shared material is evidence for later sharing, levelling and standardizing of material. Thus he apparently believes that when the Buddhist monastics lived in close proximity in the Ganges valley, speaking a common language, and regarding each other as being all of one community, they developed different diverging scriptures, but when they were spread widely over ‘greater India’, speaking different languages, and regarding each other as belonging to different communities, they ‘levelled’ and ‘standardized’ their scriptures. This is not inherently plausible, or even vaguely rational. He has no real evidence for this from the Indic context, and so attempts to justify it with reference to Christian history; but the Bible is accepted with slight variations as canonical by all Christians, whereas the writings of later theologians and teachers are accepted only by certain denominations and are rejected by others.

It is as if we were to come across people living in two neighbouring villages, each speaking a slightly different dialect, with customs, beliefs, lifestyle, and physical appearance that were similar, and a shared myth that asserted that they sprang from the same origins. Schopen would point out that there is no ‘hard evidence’ that they ‘actually’ share a common ancestry. The ‘actual’ situation is that there are two different villages, with divergent languages, beliefs and so on. Any ‘assumption’ that the observable similarities derive from a common ancestry is sheer speculation. After all, there is plenty of evidence that cultures tend to homogenize, to move away from diversity towards similarity. The only reasonable explanation would seem to be that here we have two different peoples, and the similarities in their cultures and physical appearance is evidence of cultural interchange and intermarriage between two originally disparate communities. This description might sound like a caricature of Schopen’s ideas, but I honestly believe it is not.

One of Schopen’s main arguments in favour of his ‘later borrowing’ thesis is the story of the stupa for Kassapa Buddha at Toyika. Wynne has shown that this argument is deeply flawed. Schopen compares various versions of the same story, but conveniently confines to a footnote the fact that, while the other versions occur in the Vinayas, the Theravāda version is found in the Dhammapāda commentary. This turns out to be yet another piece of evidence that the Theravāda tended to close their canon early, placing later material in their commentaries.

Not only is this a fatal error in one of Schopen’s key arguments, but it is, as Wynne points out, a misrepresentation of the methods of the ‘higher criticism’ that Schopen is so dismissive of. Normally scholars will take the congruence of the canonical, not the commentarial, literature as evidence of pre-sectarian remnants.

This is not the only place that Schopen misrepresents his opponents. He asserts, for example, that the ‘cardinal tenet of this criticism states, in effect, that if all known sectarian versions of a text or passage agree, that text or passage must be very old; that is, it must come from a presectarian stage of the tradition.’xviii The repeated use of ‘must’ is highly misleading. The sharing of material is only one of many independent criteria that are regularly employed to support and check each other. I do not know of any scholar who would make the blanket assertion that shared material ‘must’ be earlier. It is no more than a reasonable hypothesis that forms a basis for further research.

In addition, this description is by no means the ‘cardinal tenet’ of textual criticism. In fact, the foundations for modern Indology were laid by 19th century scholars such as T. W. Rhys-Davids and Hermann Oldenburg. At that time there was almost no knowledge of Chinese or Sanskrit texts, and so the comparative method of comparative not used at all. Rather, those scholars relied on linguistics, the internal evidence of the Pali texts, broader knowledge of Indian history, and archaeology.

Compared with the situation in Bible studies, the quantity of Buddhist literature is so vast, the subject matter so obscure, and the amount of serious research so small, that it is premature to discard any methodology. While the early scholars may not have given due weight to the archaeological evidence, they must be forgiven, in consideration of the sheer time and effort it takes to learn the Buddhist languages and read the texts. They have at least given us a reasonably coherent and satisfying working model of Indian Buddhism. If we were to accept Schopen in his more radical moods we would be rendered incapable of saying anything about the Buddha or his teachings, and would be left with no idea as to why there were, in the later periods, such widely spread religious schools claiming inspiration from a common Teacher, sharing a similar lifestyle, and borrowing wholesale each other’s scriptures, at the same time as vigorously arguing with each other over what the scriptures mean.


i Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, pp. 419-426.

ii Schopen, Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, University of Hawai’i Press, 2004, pg. 20.

iii See David M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, pg. 12.

iv Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg 399.

v Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 143.

vi Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 94.

viiThe Chinese canon contains a Sri Lankan Vinaya commentary that Buddhaghosa may have had before him. If so, this would allow a much more accurate assessment of the kinds of changes he introduced.

viii Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 76.

ix Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 77.

x Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 75.

xi Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 95.

xii Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 93.

xiii SN 47.13/SA 638.

xiv Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pg. 203, note 111.

xv Schopen, Bones, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pg.126-128.

xvi E.g. DN 16.1.12, 1.14, 1.18, 2.4, etc. The passage occurs with similar frequency in the Skt.

xvii Schopen, Bones, pg. 39.

xviii Schopen, Bones, pg.27.

 

Kamma before the Buddha

Contrary to popular opinion, the notion of kamma is not a timeless, universal feature of Indian religions. It is a specific doctrine that explains ethical action and its consequences, and appears at a specific time and place. That time was a few generations before the Buddha; the place was the region of Mithila, in between the Sakyan republic and Vesali.

This was when the great Upanishadic sage Vajnavalkya flourished. Among many other crucial innovations in the Brahmanical teachings, he is responsible for the earliest clear statements on kamma. At that time, this teaching was an esoteric doctrine. In later years, of course, this compelling doctrine became firmly established in both Buddhism and Jainism, and due in part to their influence, became known throughout Hinduism.

The following is part of a dialogue in the Brihadarannyaka Upanishad between Vajnavalkya and King Janaka of Mithila, who is also mentioned in the Jatakas. In the opening of this dialogue (at BU 4.3.1; scroll down to ‘third brahmana’), Yajnavalkya shows his reluctance to debate the king, a sign of the esoteric nature of the teachings, as opposed to the many other public debates in this text.

FOURTH BRAHMANA

1. Yagnavalkya continued: ‘Now when that Self, having sunk into weakness, sinks, as it were, into unconsciousness, then gather those senses (pranas) around him, and he, taking with him those elements of light, descends into the heart. When that person in the eye turns away, then he ceases to know any forms.

2. ‘”He has become one,” they say, ” he does not see.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not smell.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not taste.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not speak.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not hear.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not think.” “He has become one,” they say,” he does not touch.” “He has become one,” they say, “he does not know.” The point of his heart becomes lighted up, and by that light the Self departs, either through the eye, or through the skull, or through other places of the body. And when he thus departs, life (the chief prana) departs after him, and when life thus departs, all the other vital spirits (pranas) depart after it. He is conscious, and being conscious he follows and departs.

‘Then both his knowledge and his kamma take hold of him, and his acquaintance with former things.’

3. ‘And as a caterpillar, after having reached the end of a blade of grass, and after having made another approach (to another blade), draws itself together towards it, thus does this Self, after having thrown off this body and dispelled all ignorance, and after making another approach (to another body), draw himself together towards it.

4. ‘And as a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, turns it into another, newer and more beautiful shape, so does this Self, after having thrown off this body and dispelled all ignorance, make unto himself another, newer and more beautiful shape, whether it be like the Fathers, or like the Gandharvas, or like the Devas, or like Pragapati, or like Brahman, or like other beings.

5. ‘That Self is indeed Brahman, consisting of knowledge, mind, life, sight, hearing, earth, water, wind, ether, light and no light, desire and no desire, anger and no anger, right or wrong, and all things. Now as a man is like this or like that, according as his kamma and according as he behaves, so will he be: a man of good kammas will become good, a man of bad kammas, bad. He becomes pure by pure kammas, bad by bad kammas.

‘And here they say that a person consists of desires. And as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his kamma; and whatever kamma he does, that he will reap.

6. ‘And here there is this verse: “To whatever object a man’s own mind is attached, to that he goes strenuously together with his kamma; and having obtained the end (the last results) of whatever kamma he does here on earth, he returns again from that world (which is the temporary reward of his deed) to this world of kamma.”

‘So much for the man who desires. But as to the man who does not desire, who, not desiring, freed from desires, is satisfied in his desires, or desires the Self only, his vital spirits do not depart elsewhere,- being Brahman, he goes to Brahman.

7. ‘On this there is this verse:

“When all desires which once entered his heart are undone,
then does the mortal become immortal,
then he obtains Brahman.

“And as the slough of a snake lies on an ant-hill,
dead and cast away, thus lies this body;
but that disembodied immortal spirit (prana = life)
is Brahman only, is only light.”

A Brief History of Mindfulness

I’ve been revising my second book, A History of Mindfulness, and I’m kinda amazed that anyone actually read it. It’s hard going. For those with better things to do than wade through oceans of textual references, here’s the sankhittena version. (For non-Pali geeks, that means the short version!)

The word sati, which we translate ‘mindfulness’, means ‘memory’, and was originally used by Brahmans in the sense of memorized Vedic scriptures. To effectively recall large bodies of text, you get into a zone of clarity and presence, free of distractions. This was one of the influences in developing what we today call ‘meditation’.

The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical usage, and used sati to for both ‘memory’ (of texts) and ‘presence of mind’ in meditation.

Modern teachings on mindfulness are almost exclusively derived from a peculiar 20th century interpretation of one text, the Pali
Satipatthana Sutta. This doctrine, the vipassanavada, says that satipatthana is a practice of ‘dry insight’, where the meditator, without previous practice of tranquility meditation, is ‘mindful’ of the changing phenomena of experience. This alone is sufficient to realize enlightenment.

When we carefully consider the range of teachings found in early Buddhist texts on mindfulness, it becomes clear that this doctrine does not hold up.

There are seven versions of the Satipatthana Sutta material, as well as hundreds of other texts on mindfulness. Relying on all these, not just one, we come to the following picture of mindfulness in early Buddhism.

While sati is used in many contexts, the most important is the four satipatthanas, or ‘establishments of mindfulness’. These are ‘right mindfulness’, the seventh factor of the eightfold path. The purpose of satipatthana is to gain the eighth factor, right samadhi or the four jhanas.

The word satipatthana is a compound of sati and upatthana, meaning to ‘set up’ or ‘establish’. It is the focussing and presence of awareness on an object; in other words, it basically means ‘meditation’.

Satipatthana is the ‘contemplation’ (anupassana) of body, feelings, mind, and principles (dhammas). ‘Anupassana’ means ‘sustained watching’. It is an awareness that stays on one thing and doesn’t jump from object to object. For this reason satipatthana is said to be the ‘way to convergence’, ekayana magga.

The main practice of satipatthana is breath meditation, anapanasati. One focusses on the breath, keeping awareness there, continually ‘remembering’ the breath. As the physical breath becomes tranquil, one moves from body contemplation to the awareness of the subtle feelings of bliss and rapture that arise in the breath. The mind becomes purified. Finally one reflects on how the whole process is impermanent and conditioned; this is contemplation of dhammas (‘principles’).

There are many other types of meditation that can be classified as satipatthana, but all of them follow a similar course.

The Pali Satipatthana Sutta includes a number of sections that are not shared with other texts on satipatthana, and which are later additions.

One of the additions is the inclusion of the awareness of postures and daily activities among its meditation exercizes. The awareness of postures is, in every other text, part of the preparation for meditation, not a kind of meditation itself.

Another late addition to the Pali Satipatthana Sutta is a ‘refrain’ following each meditation, which says one practices contemplating ‘rise and fall’. This is a vipassana practice, which originally belonged to only the final of the four satipatthanas, contemplation of dhammas.

The contemplation of dhammas has also undergone large scale expansion. The original text included just the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors. The five aggregates, six sense media, and four noble truths were added later.

Each version of the Satipatthana Sutta is based on a shared ancestor, which has been expanded in different ways by the schools. This process continued for several centuries following the Buddha’s death. Of the texts we have today, the closest to the ancestral version is that contained in the Pali Abhidhamma Vibhanga, if we leave aside the Abhidhammic elaborations.

Tracing the development of texts on satipatthana in later Buddhism, there is a gradual tendency to emphasize the vipassana aspect at the expense of the samatha side. This happened across various schools, although there is some variation from text to text, and perhaps some differences in sectarian emphasis. This led to various contradictions and problems in interpretation.

Nevertheless, in all schools and periods we also find presentations of satipatthana that hark back to the original meaning. For example, the great Yogacara teacher Asanga defined mindfulness as ‘the sustained awareness of the previously experienced object’.

By considering mindfulness in its historical conext, by including all relevant texts, and by understanding the historical evolution of the schools, we arrive at a richer, more nuanced, and more realistic understanding of mindfulness. This not only helps us appreciate our tradition better, it gives a more useful, balanced, and authentic framework for practice.

The Seven Secrets of Success

Here it is: how to get, achieve, and have anything you want.

1) Neglect
Just don’t do it. Ignore things. Let ‘em rot, because there’s something more important. You can only achieve something good by not doing a million other good things.

2) Never plan anything
Plans are alright, I suppose, if you have to keep some bureaucrat happy, but boy do they waste time. Ditch the plan, jump in the ditch, and start digging. Learn on the job.

3) Do what works
If it’s not working, why waste your time? See what gets results, and do that. Use your precious time as if it was precious.

4) Committees are for talking, not doing
I’m on stacks of committees and groups. They’re great, they give me a chance to get to know and work with all kinds of interesting people. One thing I’ve learnt: never try to work out details in a committee. Get the general outline, the sense of the direction, and appoint one or two people to go away and work stuff out.

5) Don’t listen to your guitar teacher
Mine was great – Barry Weeks, a patient teacher and skilled musician. But he said to me, ‘Don’t make what you love your life’. Sorry, Barry, but I did. And I never regretted it.

6) Old is better
It just is. Except for Ubuntu, which is awesome.

7) No-one beats the Buddha
Ever.

A Higher Criticism of Archaeology (& some news…)

The last little while I’ve been preparing some books for publication: A Swift Pair of Messengers, which got a new website a few months ago, and soon hopefully will have a a hardcopy to go along. My book on Buddhist mythology, White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes is also, i fervently hope, finally ready for publication. I’m gradually working through my back catalogue, updating and making available my books on WordPress and Lulu. I’m now working on Sects & Sectarianism, and I came across this essay, which is not directly concerned with the themes of S&S, but I kinda liked it, so here it is.

A Higher Criticism of Archaeology

The canonical texts are entirely silent about Aśoka, and do not authorize his interference in the Sangha. This is one of the basic reasons why early generations of Buddhist scholars concluded they were in the main completed before Aśoka. This seems to have escaped certain modern scholars who regard any suggestion of a pre-Aśokan provenance for canonical texts as sheer fantasy. This has led to a worrying decline in the understanding of these sources: if we are to take seriously the claim that the Pali canon cannot be dated before the 5th century, we obliterate the fundamental distinction between text and commentary that has allowed us to make sense of the dizzying collections of Buddhist texts.

Let us take just one example, Lars Fogelin, who has published a recent and excellent description of some early Buddhist monastic sites called Archaeology of Early Buddhism. I must apologize in advance for the crtiticism that follows: it really is a very good book, and I learnt a lot from it. Fogelin tries hard, and usually succeeds, to steer a ‘middle way’ between various extreme approachs, including the text/archaeology divide. But his perspective on Buddhist textual studies is largely derived from Gregory Schopen. I have directly critiqued Schopen’s work elsewhere, but here I am concerned with how his programmatic perspective distorts the writings of those he influences.

Fogelin says: ‘According to the Pali Canon, Ashoka actively proselytized for Buddhism, sending missionaries to Sri Lanka, redistributing relics of the Buddha, and supporting Buddhist monks’. (Fogelin 24) This is of course nonsense: Ashoka is not mentioned anywhere in the Pali canon. Fogelin is confusing the canon and commentaries. The problem is not merely an isolated mistake. Fogelin is  following modern trends in heavily relying on scholars like Schopen, and has inherited the results of his deeply programmatic attempt to undermine the findings of Buddhist textual studies. In this case the attrition of knowledge has proceeded so far that we have lost touch with the most basic of distinctions.

Fogelin speaks of the two phases of western Indological studies: the first phase depicted a rarified and ethereal Buddhism of unworldly spirituality; the inevitable reaction emphasizes the physicality, even worldliness of monastic life. The lonely ascetic hero striving to subdue his passions in the forest has been supplanted; and in his place is a hook-nosed Bhikkhu Fagin, clutching his pot of gold with one claw, while other dispenses ‘relics’ to the exploited masses. Thus the western philosophical Frankenstein of mind/body dualism flourishes in Buddhist studies.

This manifests as an epistemological apartheid, where things we learn from rocks and realia are ‘certain’, while things we learn from texts are ‘assumptions’. I hesitate to preach Buddhism to such confirmed sceptics, but it does rather occur to me that a reading of basic Buddhist epistemological Suttas, such as the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta or the Caṅkī Sutta, would serve as a reminder that all conceptual knowledge is based on inference, and as long as ignorance persists in the mind, we can regard nothing as certain.

Fogelin discusses the ‘higher criticism’:

The method, on the surface, is both simple and compelling. Those textual and doctrinal elements that are shared by the disparate textual existing sources are most likely to have the greatest antiquity.’ (Fogelin 38)

Simple, yes, not to say simplistic. I doubt that anyone familiar with the painstaking, detailed, and multi-layered reading that is required by any serious grappling with Buddhist literature would recognize their own work in this description.

Fogelin does admit that: ‘The actual practice of higher criticism is much more complicated than the simple outline presented above.’ But this is in his presentation of the modern critiques of the higher criticism, as if those engaged in the study themselves have no comprehension of the difficulties of their own task.

Fogelin goes on to say:

Despite claims by its proponents, commonalities in Chinese and Sri Lankan texts only demonstrate that the common text existed at an unspecified time prior to the existing texts in the fifth century A. D. There is no reason to believe that this reconstructed Buddhism resembled anything propounded by the Buddha.’ (Fogelin 38)

Such claims again misrepresent the methods of the higher criticism. The basic hypothesis – which is always subject to testing and modification in specific circumstances – is that the postulated ancestor text pre-dated the separation of the existing textual traditions. In Buddhist context, the scriptures are usually found to be associated with a particular school, which preserves its own textual redaction. Thus the common ancestor is hypothesized to belong to a period before the separation of the schools.

Again, while this is far from absolute,  it remains a valid generalization, confirmed by the recent work of Salomon, for example, who shows that the Dharmaguptaka Gandhārī version of the Saṅgīti Sutta is very close to the Dharmaguptaka Dīrgha Āgama version of the same sutta in Chinese, and is less close to the Pali and other Chinese versions. The prevailing view has been that the schismatic period started around the time of Aśoka. Thus the common texts are, on a preliminary basis, assigned to that period. In this work I have questioned the dating of the separations to Aśoka or pre-Aśoka, and have argued for a separative period in the centuries following Aśoka. However, this does not change the hypothetical dating of the scriptural collections: rather, it changes the basis on which the texts were separated. The texts were not separated into distinct sectarian or dogmatic collections until some time after Aśoka; nevertheless, they were clearly separated geographically from the time of Aśoka, perhaps even earlier in some cases.

Fogelin admits that the higher criticism becomes more robust as the schools become further spread out, but claims that the schools lived close to each other in earliest periods. But, as the chances of history would have it, most of our early texts derive from schools located in two places: Kaśmīr/Gandhāra and Sri Lanka. These were established as part of the missions around the Aśokan period, and are at the very opposite peripheries of India, 3000kms apart. It is methodological madness to assume that schools at the polar ends of India primarily derived their common canonical texts from later borrowings.

As  long as the texts are relatively (not totally!) isolated, we may regard their history as primarily (not completely!) separate. The existence of borrowing is a modification of details, but does not change the overall picture, unless it can be demonstrated that borrowing has taken place on a  very large scale. Things fall down according to the law of gravity: I can throw a ball in the air, but I don’t dash off a thesis claiming to have disproved Newton.

While this principle is doubtless important, to suggest it is the sole or main method of textual criticism is highly misleading. In fact, the whole enterprise of modern Buddhist studies, including the general stratification of texts still use use today, was established in the 19th Century by the European Indologists. And in those days, there simply were no comparative studies available. There were a few remarks and occasional translations, but no systematic work on comparing the Chinese or Tibetan scriptures with those in Pali was undertaken until Anesaki and Akanuma in the 20th Century. Not only was the comparative method not the sole method, it was not used at all! What then did they do? Here are some remarks by T. W. Rhys Davids, from his Buddhist India, published in 1902:

As to the age of the Buddhist canonical books, the best evidence is the contents of the books themselves—the sort of words they use, the style in which they are composed, the ideas they express. Objection, it is true, has recently been raised against the use of such internal evidence. And the objection is valid if it be urged, not against the general principle of the use of such evidence, but against the wrong use of it. We find, for instance, that Phallus-worship is often mentioned, quite as a matter of course, in the Mahābhārata, as if it had always been common everywhere throughout Northern India. In the Nikāyas, though they mention all sorts of what the Buddhists regarded as foolish or superstitious forms of worship, this particular kind, Siva-worship under the form of the Linga, is not even once referred to. The Mahābhārata mentions the Atharva Veda, and takes it as a matter of course, as if it were an idea generally current, that it was a Veda, the fourth Veda. The Nikāyas constantly mention the three others, but never the Atharva. Both cases are interesting. But before drawing the conclusion that, therefore, the Nikāyas, as we have them, are older than the existing text of the Mahābhārata, we should want a very much larger number of such cases, all tending the same way, and also the certainty that there were no cases of an opposite tendency that could not otherwise be explained.

On the other hand, suppose a MS. were discovered containing, in the same handwriting, copies of Bacon’s Essays and of Hume’s Essay, with nothing to show when, or by whom, they were written; and that we knew nothing at all otherwise about the matter. Still we should know, with absolute certainty, which was relatively the older of the two; and should be able to determine, within a quite short period, the actual date of each of the two works. The evidence would be irresistible because it would consist of a very large number of minute points of language, of style, and, above all, of ideas expressed, all tending in the same direction.

This is the sort of internal evidence that we have before us in the Pali books. Any one who habitually reads Pali would know at once that the Nikāyas are older than the Dhamma Sangaṇi; that both are older than the Kathā Vatthu; that all three are older than the Milinda. And the Pali scholars most competent to judge are quite unanimous on the point, and on the general position of the Pali literature in the history of literature in India.

But this sort of evidence can appeal, of course, only to those familiar with the language and with the ideas…

So Buddhist studies were established primarily on the basis of the internal evidence of the texts themselves. The next section of Rhys-Davids’ work discusses the epigraphical evidence, which he interprets, surely reasonably, as showing a broad correspondence with the existing texts. While the epigraphic findings do not themselves prove the existence of a closed ‘canon’ in the time of Aśoka, they certainly prove that similar  texts existed. Aśoka’s wording clearly indicates he is presenting a collection extracted from the Buddhavacana, and the demonstrated links between Buddhavacana and Aśokavacana provide further evidence that other canonical texts existed and influenced Buddhist practice. Aśoka was obviously not trying to describe the Buddhist canon, but to select a few specially recommended texts. While the sceptics would try to leap on the absence of a reference to the overall categories of ‘Tipitaka’, etc., as evidence that such things did not exist, the edicts in fact suggest that texts that we now regard as canonical did exist, while texts we now regard as post-canonical did not. Thus, far from undermining the overall picture of the development of Buddhist literature, Aśoka’s inscriptions are perfectly in accord with the findings of the higher criticism.

So the internal evidence of the texts, and comparison with Brahmanical and Jaina literature, is tempered with archaeology, but the direct comparative method is not used.

Practically, the situation has not changed all that much. While there is a small but vigorous circle of scholars pursuing comparative studies, and a tiny group of greats who have mastered a wide range of texts in the Buddhist languages, the reality is that most studies, even today, are based on the texts of only one school or tradition, with occasional references to other traditions, usually based on secondary sources. Comparative study is not a monolithic orthodoxy that needs destroying so that Buddhist studies can get modern, it is a fledgling and undernourished inquiry that needs long years of support before we can truly evaluate its worth.

But, and again this seems to have totally escaped the modern critics, direct comparison of corresponding texts is merely a starting point. Having established a hypothesis that the texts may be pre-Aśokan, we then test this. Do they actually refer to Aśoka? Contra Fogelin, the canonical Pali texts, despite what must have been a great temptation, do not. This suggests that they are pre-Aśokan; moreover, it implies that by the time of Aśoka they were already regarded as in some sense fixed or canonical, so that at the very least blatantly later things were not added, but were reserved for the commentarial or other post-canonical literature. Similarly, though we think the texts were transmitted to Sri Lanka about this time, there is no mention of Sri Lanka in the body of the canonical literature.

Next we might look at the state of doctrinal development evidenced in the texts. As is well known to textual scholars, the canonical Suttas must, in any meaningful inquiry into Buddhist doctrines, be considered fundamental. Doctrinal variation within the early strata exists, but is startlingly minor. Significant development emerges with the class of literature known as Abhidhamma, which must postdate the Sutta literature. But it is not until the latest strata of Abhidhamma literature (as evidenced by doctrine and the testimony of the schools) that we start to see fully articulated sectarian doctrines. Again, much of the philosphical content of the Mahāyāna suttas only makes sense as a reaction to late- and post-canonical Abhidhamma doctrines such as the svabhāva. But the Mahāyāna began around the beginning of the Common Era. Thus we must see the entire course of doctrinal development pre-dating this time. Doctrinal development was slow and inherently conservative, and to allow sufficient time for this complex evolutionary process we find ourselves once more back in the time of Aśoka or earlier.

I have yet to see any attempt by archaeological radicalists to explain how such a situation could exist if we abandon the evolutionary perspective developed by the higher criticism. Perhaps Buddhaghosa wrote his commentaries in the 5th century and deliberately forged a whole body of canonical literature in order to authorize his own doctrines. I am reminded of the fundamentalist Christian argument that God placed dinosaur bones deep in the ground to test our faith in creationism; similarly, it would seem that the conniving Buddhist monks, with a degree of textual sophistication hitherto unknown to humanity, deliberately created a highly stratified literature in order to separate the goats of higher criticism from the sheep  of the archaeological faithful. It would be impolite to point out that, just as textual scholars are supposed to rely on the equation ‘common = older’, archaeologists rely on the equation that ‘lower = older’. Isolated from the complexities of real digging, this is as ludicruous as the caricature of textual crticism we find in the archaeological radicalists. Indeed, Fogelin notes that the received datings for South Asian chronologies has been recently upturned. Back to the drawing board.

Again, we might ask what is the language of the texts? Pali is not the same as the Sinhalese tongue. It is inconceivable that the Sinhalese would have deliberately composed a canon in a foreign language, so they must have brought their scriptures from the mainland, where they were already relatively fixed in a a canonical language. There are a couple of references to Sri Lanka in the late Parivāra, as well as in one colophon in the Cūḷavagga, but these are obviously not part of the basic canonical texts. I am not suggesting that no changes were made in Sri Lanka: there were, but these were minor alterations to a pre-existing mainland literature. The persistence of the scriptures in a non-native tongue is further evidence of an early date for the Pali canon.

I could continue at some length, but perhaps the point has been made, though no doubt it will have to be made again. The conclusions of Buddhist textual studies were not made on the basis of the childish assumptions described by Fogelin and his mentors. They are the outcome of a long, patient, and detailed examination of a vast corpus of texts, scrutinized from every possible angle. Of course this process is imperfect, of course the findings do not always agree, of course we can pick holes in one approach or the other. But the stability of the findings – and in broad outlines, there has been a remarkable degree of stability – is indicative of their substantial and varied foundations. The findings of the archaeological revisionists have not withstood such a test of time.

And indeed, if we are to take the more radical claims seriously, they are distressingly uroboric. Wynne has already pointed out that we often would not know how to interpret the inscriptions without a knowledge of the terminology of the texts. But the problem goes deeper than that. If we are to stick with what we ‘actually know’, we would have to admit that we have no texts earlier than the first centuries C.E. And there are no Pali texts until some time later than that. Schopen has a touching faith in the existence of the Pali canon from the time of Buddhaghosa, since he wrote the commentaries on them: but in fact our information about Buddhaghosa is slim, so we should really push the date back much later.

Clearly, we cannot use evidence for such late texts to refer back to the early period. This, and let us take a deep breath as we prepare to take this seriously, also includes the grammars, without which we could not read Indian languages. Of course, the Hindu writers of the grammars can hardly be regarded as objective scholars, so in utilizing them we may be unconsciously reading later concepts back into the early writings. Thus we cannot even read the inscriptions.

Let alone read them, we cannot even presume that they are writing. There is, after all, a lively debate as to whether the Indus Valley script is a writing system. We note that the Indian Hindutva scholars are the ones who claim to be able to decipher this script, and they are clearly driven by ideology. Could not the same be the case for the early inscriptions? Could not the much later Hindu/Buddhist grammarians have devised a system for reading meaning into arbitrary symbols?

Having sternly forgone the whimsical reliance on later texts, we are left with no notion of what, say, a ‘monastery’ is. Fogelin’s exemplary examination of the sites at Thotlakanda must be entirely redone, removing the text-based, and hence unreal, assumption that we ‘know’ what a monastery is.

In fact, I begin to doubt more and more the possibility of knowing anything at all from Fogelin’s work. All I have is a book: this contains markings that I assume are writing, and that I can decipher according to a symbol-system I learnt as a child. But how does Fogelin use that symbol-system to convey meaning – does meaning not manifest in the dynamic interaction between text and reader? Is Fogelin, then, a reflection of my own dark side, an illegitimate spawn of my repressed fear and doubts regarding the the truth of my own chosen path?

Indeed, in the absence of any actual concrete evidence, we would be better advised to speak of pseudo-Fogelin, the purported writer of a book which appears, on the basis of admittedly incomplete investigations, to be about early Buddhist archaeology. Perhaps the best evidence I have for the existence of pseudo-Fogelin is the undoubted fact that I, Sujato, am writing a critique of his critique of the higher criticism. But, when I see thus set in bald concrete reality the self-referential and self-validating nature of the critical process I am engaged in, I begin to doubt even my own essay.

For my authorship too is an assumption, one which demonstrably flickers in and out of existence with the speed of thought, not bound and solid like a lump of rock, implacable and unimpeachible in being. I am only Sujato when I think of it. And of all the Sujatos in the world today, which one am I? I believe I am the same Sujato who has written several complicated and polemical diatribes on matters of Buddhist practice, doctrines, and texts that are of interest to himself alone. But this is a mere memory, as unreliable as the memories of the monks who, supposedly, were responsible for the oral transmission of the Buddhist scriptures.

Thus, I am forced to admit, in the interests of scholarly precision, that I do not know who I am. Henceforth I will refer to the author of this essay as pseudo-Sujato. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, whose sunglasses – on both his heads – would turn pitch black at the first hint of danger, pseudo-Sujato shall close his eyes at the first hint of uncertainty, taking refuge in the only thing that he really knows for certain: the utter darkness of ignorance.

But a small doubt will not give up its nagging: just what was the point of all this in the first place?