Aside

The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

I’m proud to announce that the short book that Ven Brahmali and myself have finished, called The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts, is out now and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

The book is essentially a collection of short articles that gather much of what we know about the historical background of Early Buddhism into one place. We believe that the debate on the authenticity of the texts in academic circles has been badly skewed by an unscientific emphasis on extreme scepticism, and it is time for the pendulum to swing back. Anyway, enjoy!

The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.

Buddhism & LaTeX

That’s ‘LaTeX’ the typesetting system, by the way, not the kinky shiny stuff. Sorry to disappoint.

One of the reasons for my prolonged absence from this blog the last couple of months is that I’ve been re-setting all my books using LaTeX. The only way I can get stuff like that done is by ignoring other stuff.

In this post I’d like to explain why Buddhists should use LaTeX. The basic reasons are simple. It’s free and open source (FOSS); and it’s the best.

Here’s the long version.

The Suttas often mention how beautiful it was to listen to the Buddha speak. He was supposed to have had a sweet voice like a cuckoo, clear, well-articulated, neither too loud nor too soft. It was not just the content of his speech, but the manner of it that was persuasive.

Just as spoken words can have qualities that are either attractive or repulsive, so too do written words. And just as the manner of presentation of spoken words substantially effects how they are received, so too with the written word. The craft of setting beautiful written text is called typography.

There is a long history of evolution of writing, which has gradually accumulated a ‘canon’ of rules that embody the best practices of presenting the written word. These style guides are not merely arbitrary, they arise from long cultural experience of what makes a text easy to read or not.

Similar principles have been followed in typography both East and West. See, for example, this inscription from King Ashoka, one of the earliest examples of Indian writing.

Without knowing anything about it, it is easily recognisable as writing. The lines are regular, with similar sized characters, and spaced so that the characters are clearly distinct, but not so far apart that they lose a sense of organic connection.

But as an early example, it is somewhat rough around the edges. The lines aren’t straight, and the characters not perfectly formed.

Here is a later, much more sophisticated piece of Buddhist typography, from 18th century Burma.

Here the typographic art has been raised to perfection. There is an unmistakable sense of care and precision about the piece; the harmony between the form and the content; the shapes of the letters, the integration of the decoration; the use of space; and so on.

This is what happens when care is taken to produce good typography. It’s not the expensive materials and decorations that matter, it’s the attention to detail.

And that is solely what typography is: attention to detail. Each little facet of the page is, in and of itself, trivial; but taken as a whole a well laid out page creates a harmonious form, which immediately, without fuss or pretension, informs the reader that they are reading something that is worth taking time over.

If you don’t get what good typography is, you won’t get the point of LaTeX. Typography leads a reader gracefully into the text, and invites them to care for the text’s meaning. Software is only a tool, which is there to help you accomplish this. So you have to know what you want. Learn what makes good typography first, then you’ll know what LaTeX is for.

In modern Buddhism, much of the typographical tradition is lost. This is, of course, a widespread outcome of the democratisation of text, so that anyone can now lay out text with a word processor. And it is exacerbated in Buddhism, where many of the books are produced by volunteers with no specialist training or interest in typesetting. And so virtually all the free distribution books in Buddhism (and many of the commercial ones) have bad typography. Mine included! (There are exceptions: the recent hard cover editions of Ajahn Chah’s teachings were produced in LaTeX, and they look lovely.)

To my mind, this is simply disrespecting the Dhamma. Do we think so little of the Dhamma that we are content to bash out any old crud as long as it fits on the page?

One of the basic issues underlying this is the use of word processors. Word processors are intended to do what their name says – process words. They are intended as tools for writing, and they can also be used for simple typesetting. If you want to do an invitation for your daughter’s 10th birthday, fine, use Word or LibreOffice. But if you want to make a book, use something designed for the job.

For a long time I used OpenOffice—later renamed LibreOffice—to lay out my books. Bit by bit, I tamed it and bent it to my will. And it did a pretty good job, once I learned how to do stuff like justify all text by hand using character styles.

What are you talking about? I hear you say. You just hit ‘justify’ and there the text is, all neatly lined up.

Ahh, no, it’s not quite like that. Word processors typically justify text by using a very simple algorithm. They see if the number of characters in a line fits the line (which of course rarely happens). If it doesn’t, they move the last word on to the next line and stretch out the remaining words to fit. The result is loose, sloppy text, with arbitrary gaps. Once you notice this, you can’t mistake it. It looks like crap.

This is how most Buddhist free distribution books are produced, using either (pirated) copies of Word, or LibreOffice, or sometimes a graphics program (since most of the volunteers who work on the books are graphic designers, not typesetters).

A proper typesetting system does much more. It evaluates what is the optimum way of distributing characters over an entire paragraph. Stretching here, compressing there, until the minimum ‘badness’ is achieved. And yes, ‘badness’ is a thing: it is the measure LaTeX uses to quantify how far from the ideal a justified line is.

Traditionally, all this stuff was done by professionals who hand set a page, using years of experience and study of their craft to produce beautiful, optimally laid-out pages. Look at an old book, and you’ll see a well-laid out page.

When computers started to be used for typesetting, the standards fell rapidly. So much so that one of the founding geniuses of computer science, Donald Knuth, took it upon himself to write the perfect typesetting program. It took six years, and he came up with TeX. This has has some modifications over the years, but is essentially perfected and stable.

Others took up the project and created LaTeX, which is essentially a programming language that uses a set of macros to make using TeX easier. Normally you don’t have to worry about TeX, just use LaTeX.

LaTeX is the standard for pretty much every scientific journal—it is particularly good at laying out equations—and is used widely in academia and elsewhere. There is, I have to admit, a geeky thrill in using LaTeX programs that written by NASA.

There is a good reason why such high-level institutions use LaTeX. It’s the best.

And there’s a good reason why most publishers use Abode’s desktop publishing software. LaTeX is, to put it mildly, unintuitive. That doesn’t mean it’s hard. I just means you have a learning curve before you can get it to do what you want.

Desktop publishing software can produce a good book, but it is not without its problems. The main FOSS program is Scribus, and while this is excellent for newsletters, magazines and the like, it lacks some basics for books, such as footnote support. Adobe software is good, but it’s expensive. And despite the premium price, in several areas it still produces output that is inferior to LaTeX. Of course the final result depends how you use the tool, but it is still true to say that LaTeX can produce output that is at least as good as Adobe.

A couple of months ago, I reached a crisis point with LibreOffice. There was so much formatting cruft in the file, it just wouldn’t work the way I wanted it to. Seriously, open up a years-old and oft-edited file one day and see what’s inside. It’s disgusting! (For a .odt file, rename the extension .zip, extract it, and open the .xml file with a text editor.)

Fortunately, I’m living with a serious geek, Ven Nandiya (he used to design physics engines for gaming). He learned LaTeX at Uni, and walked me through the basics.

Soon enough we were producing reasonably functional LaTeX documents, and I set out on redoing all my old books. I’ve done most of them, and am working on finishing touches now.

For those who want to try it out…

Okay, so hopefully some of you are interested to help create some high quality Buddhist books with LaTeX. But you have no particular computer expertise, and you don’t live with a geek god. LaTeX is very well documented, but most of the documentation is intended for serious users, and taking the first steps can be difficult. So here’s a few tips to get started.

First is obvious—do some googling and read the basics.

Second, install TexLive. This might already be present on your system. Essentially, TexLive is a distribution of software packages, documentation, and the like, that lets you produce LaTeX documents. It will be a large download, but it means that pretty much everything that you want is right there on your computer.

Third, play with creating some simple LaTeX documents. Here’s how. These instructions work for Linux, I’ve no idea if they apply on other systems.

You don’t need any special tools. I tried using LyX, which is supposed to make using LaTeX easier. But I found it frustrating and never got anywhere. I suspect it’s just that LaTeX is simply not suited to a WYSIWYG approach. There are various LaTeX editors available, but I find just using Gedit, a simple text editor (with code highlighting) and a terminal works fine.

The basic process is this. You edit the LaTeX file in a text editor. Then you use the terminal to process the file. That produces a pdf of the final product. Not so hard, right? Here’s the details.

Create a file on your desktop. Name it test.tex. Open the file with a text editor (notepad or the like) and paste in the following. Or better still, write it by hand so you get used to LaTeX.

\documentclass{book}

\usepackage{lipsum}

\begin{document}

\tableofcontents

\chapter{This is a chapter}

\lipsum

\lipsum

\section{This is a section}

\lipsum

\chapter{This is another chapter}

\lipsum

\lipsum

\end{document}

Save the document on your Desktop. Open a terminal. Write cd Desktop and press enter (capitals sensitive!). This opens the terminal in the Desktop directory. Write pdflatex test.tex and press enter.

Several files will automagically appear on your Desktop. Most of these are just logs and can be ignored. One of them will be a pdf file. But hold on: LaTeX counts page numbers on the first run through and creates a Table of Contents on the second run. So retype pdflatex test.tex in the terminal and press enter once more. (Hint: to cycle through previous commands in the terminal, use the up and down arrows on your keyboard.) Now open the pdf file. And Bingo! Your very own, LaTeX-produced pdf file.

Notice how many of the aspects of a book have been done automatically. Page numbers are there, a Table of Contents is there, and clearly formatted. The text is a reasonable size, well laid out, with plenty of white space.

So what’s going on here? Let’s have a look at what this code means.

\documentclass{book} % Commands in LaTeX start with a backslash. Every LaTeX document begins by specifying a document class (book, report, article, and so on). This tells LaTeX to use a set of defaults that are suitable. ‘Book’ is, obviously, the basic class for producing books, but the ‘memoir’ class is much more powerful and flexible and probably a better choice for serious booking. However, I only found this out after achieving most of what I wanted using the ‘book’ class, so I stuck with it.

\usepackage{lipsum} % ‘Package’ is the LaTeX (and more broadly Linux) word for a piece of software. You can specify any number of packages to use in a LaTeX document. These provide extra functionality and control. Think of them like plugins for your browser or apps for your phone. This one tells LaTeX to use dummy Lipsum text when the command \lipsum appears in the document. Tip: Packages and other LaTeX stuff (like document classes) come with excellent documentation, which you already have in your TexLive installation. To get the relevant documentation, just type in your terminal texdoc nameofpackage. No really, it’s that simple. Try texdoc lipsum and see for yourself. A nicely formatted pdf pops up explaining what the package is and how to use it.

\begin{document} % Should be obvious. Everything before this point is called the ‘preamble’, something like the <head> in an html page.

\tableofcontents % Inserts an automagically produced and formatted table of contents at this point.

\chapter{This is a chapter} %Inserts a numbered chapter heading.

\lipsum %Inserts dummy text.

\lipsum

\section{This is a section} % Inserts a numbered section heading.

\lipsum

\chapter{This is another chapter}

\lipsum

\lipsum

\end{document} %What it says. Note that everything on a line that follows a % on a line in LaTeX does not appear in the document. This is used for making comments in the file.

That’s a good start, but there’s much more to be done. What if we want to change something from the defaults? This is where things start to get tricky.

The defaults on LaTeX are brilliantly thought through (in the main), but they are obviously not suitable for everything. We will usually need to do things like change the page size, the margins of text on the page, and so on. And the default fonts are fine, but kinda stodgy (academia, you know), so we’ll want to liven things up a little.

So let’s just look at making a couple of basic modifications to the text we’ve produced so far.

You may have noticed that the pdf you produced has headers at the top of each page (except, intelligently, not the chapter title page). This is good, but the headers also appear on blank pages that have been inserted before the chapter title pages. This is because LaTeX by default follows the traditional practice of starting new chapters on a right hand page. You can change this behaviour in a number of ways. It is, of course, possible to keep the blank pages and eliminate the headers from them. But the simplest solution is to insert an ‘option’ in the specification of your document class that will eliminate the blank pages altogether.

Your original command was:

\documentclass{book}

Notice the two parts of this. The ‘command’, which is written with a backslash, and the ‘argument’, which is enclosed in curly brackets. Some commands also allow ‘options, which are inserted with square brackets between the command and the argument. In this case, we insert the option openany to instruct LaTeX to start a new chapter on any page.

\documentclass[openany]{book}

Run LaTeX again, and the annoying blank pages are gone.

For Buddhist texts, it is usually necessary to display unusual diacritical marks in Pali and Sanskrit, etc. Until recently, this was a hassle in LaTeX, as it was developed in the pre-Unicode days. As such it was limited to the fonts specially developed for LaTeX by its inventor, and using other fonts required special hacks.

There are a couple of recent extensions to LaTeX that can use any font installed on your computer very easily. One is XeTeX, but I had problems getting it to do microtypography. The other is LuaTeX, which is supposed to be unstable, but I have used it for lots of things with no problems. So, try this.

To your preamble (that’s the stuff between \documentclass and \begin{document}) add the following lines:

\usepackage{fontspec}
\setmainfont{Gentium Basic}

That tells LaTeX to use the package fontspec, allowing it to specify fonts, and chooses Gentium Basic as your main font. (You do have Gentium Basic on your computer, right? Don’t use plain old Gentium, as it doesn’t have proper bold face.) Then add some Pali or Sanskrit text after the \chapter, such as:

Upayo, bhikkhave, avimutto, anupayo vimutto. Rūpupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, rūpārammaṇaṃ rūpappatiṭṭhaṃ nandūpasecanaṃ vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyya. Vedanupayaṃ vā…pe… saññupayaṃ vā…pe… saṅkhārupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, saṅkhārārammaṇaṃ saṅkhārappatiṭṭhaṃ nandūpasecanaṃ vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyya.

Now run LaTeX. But rather than using the previous command pdflatex, which tells LaTeX to make a pdf file, we use lualatex, which tells LaTeX to use LuaTex to create a pdf file. Don’t worry, it just works (assuming, of course you have TexLive installed). Enter: lualatex test.tex.

And there you have it. Gentium Basic used throughout. And nicely formatted Pali text.

But wait! Oops, the Pali text doesn’t justify properly. One of the words hangs over the line. OMG LATEX IS SUCH CRAP!!! Okay, now’s the time to breathe. Calm down. It’s only software.

What’s happening is that, whereas word processors and the like use a simple system to do line breaks, LaTeX is much more finicky. Normally this means that it handles things like justification and hyphenation really well. But in unusual cases—like an unknown language—it doesn’t know what to do. So rather than bodging up a quick fix, it leaves the problem so that you’ll notice it and can fix it up properly.

The simplest solution is to add \-, which tells LaTeX to hyphenate at that point. So saṅkhārappatiṭṭhaṃ becomes saṅ\-khārappatiṭṭhaṃ. Run lualatex again. The problem is gone, and the text justifies nicely. *Sigh of relief*

That’s enough to get started.

O, and one other thing. Most of the time you won’t be writing directly as LaTeX, but will be adapting something from somewhere else. Remember, LaTeX is for typesetting, word processors are for writing. So you want to take your .odt or .docx or .html file and turn it into LaTeX. Heh, heh! Good luck with that.

The problem is that word processors end up with a complex mishmash of style and structure information, and there’s simply no way to anticipate how that should be changed into LaTeX. Not least because much of the information—like page format, colors, and so on—need to be changed anyway, and the program can’t guess what information you want to keep. Html files should work better, as they are a structured format not dissimilar to LaTeX.

There are various ways of converting word processing files to LaTeX. Here’s some. But after experimenting we found the best way was to use Abiword, a light weight word processor that natively exports to LaTeX. It captures most of what needs to be kept—footnotes, text formatting like italics, chapters—with a minimal amount of cruft (unlike LibreOffice’s LaTeX export…).

Open your .odt or .doc file with Abiword and export to LaTeX. Open up the .tex file, clean any cruft (I said it produces minimal cruft, not none at all…), and you should have the start of a basic LaTeX file.

One thing Abiword doesn’t do very well is export non-standard characters. It recognizes a few of the common characters with diacriticals in Pali/Sanskrit, but in most cases it just omits them. Indeed, it doesn’t just problematize obscure characters, but even some common punctuation. This is because Abiword exports to vanilla LaTeX, which is not Unicode. But we’re using LuaLaTeX so we want the Unicode characters, not the code.

When Abiword gives you the Unicode for the missing character it’s easy enough to insert the relevant character using the methods described here. However in the cases where the code is simply missing, not only is the resulting file inaccurate, but there’s no simple way to search for the missing characters.

Whether this is a hassle or not depends on what you are doing. If you’re quoting lengthy Pali passages, as for example a chanting book, then never mind, you can just paste the text again from source. But if you have Pali/Sanskrit terms or quotes embedded in your text (like me), then it’s a nightmare to find and replace them.

Luckily enough, Ven Nandiya came to the rescue. He’s hacked Abiword to export the Unicode codes of all non-standard Unicode characters. Awesome! So now the LaTeX file still doesn’t have the proper characters, but it does have the unique Unicode code for each character. In addition, each code is preceded by xx, so you can find them easily in your document.

Which is great, except you don’t have it. Ven Nandiya doesn’t want to submit his hack to Abiword for inclusion, as he says it’s real quick & dirty. But if you want it, let me know.


One of the best aspects of LaTeX is that it has an enthusiastic and very helpful online community. That’s the beauty of free and open source—it’s all about helping each other. That’s the real reason why the Buddhist community—made up largely of enthusiastic volunteers who just want to help doing something good—should feel a sense of kinship with LaTeX and other FOSS projects.

We shouldn’t spend lots of money on programs designed for massive corporations. Nor should we pirate software, which is unfortunately endemic in Buddhism.

Lurking at the core of these bad practices is the subtle lack of confidence that secretly thinks that free and voluntary stuff is not as good.

But Buddhism itself puts the lie to that. Everything is, or was until very recently, Free and Open Source.

And just as Buddhism has produced and maintained some of the world’s most amazing things without the need for commercialisation, so too the FOSS community show that the same spirit of community co-operation is not just alive, but produces the best results.

Don’t believe me? Which encyclopaedia have you used the most recently—Wikipedia, or Britannica? Why? Because Wikipedia is better, obviously. But that’s too subjective. What about something really hard and technical and objective, like, say, supercomputers. No room for Mickey Mouse thinking there. Well, the designers of the world’s fastest computers would appear to be fans of FOSS: almost all of them use a derivative of the Linux FOSS operating system.

This is not a trivial thing, it is an amazing one. The voluntary work of people coming together to help out is still, despite all our corporatization, one of the major forces in human culture. It’s on the cutting edge of technology, just as it has been for 2500 years of Buddhism.

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.

 

Thai/Lao monastic education

Here’s a review of Justin Thomas McDaniel’s Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words, a study of monastic education in northern Thailand and Laos. The book looks fascinating, but even from the review you can get a sense of the nuanced, changing, and variable situation in monastery education throughout these regions. Unfortunately the review doesn’t give any indication as to what is actually in the manuscripts discussed, apart from the fact that some of them draw on the Dhammapada. But it does shed a little more light on the evolving shape of Thai/Lao Buddhism in the colonial era, dispelling the anti-historical illusion of a consistent, standardized, constant form of “Thai Buddhism” which has been the same way “since the beginning”.

An Even Swifter Pair

Dear and beloved bloggists,

There’s been some discussion here on samatha/vipassana, sparked in part by my post on A Swift Pair of Messengers a few days ago. This is, of course, one of the old Theravadin family arguments. I’d like to congratulate the posters so far on their civil and engaging responses.

The spark behind writing SPM was simply this: that I had grown bored and frustrated with partial and inadequate ways of approaching this problem, which really is central to how we practice the Dhamma. Everything I had read, every conversation i had been involved in, had relied on one or two isolated passages, or on the discredited commentarial system of interpretation.

In writing SPM I thought that there was a better way. No, we cannot hope to solve every problem; but we can at least improve the quality of dialogue.

Since that time, every criticism of my findings that I have seen has been based on two things.

1. Completely ignore every argument and piece of evidence that I have so painstakingly assembled.
2. Invoke some obscure, irrelevant, or dubious passage from the suttas, a half-remembered quote, or an opinion from some teacher or other.

As we can all see from the response on this blog, this is still exactly what is happening.

This is not good enough. It is simply not adequate to lay out the spiritual path for Nibbana on such half-baked premises. This stuff matters, folks. Get real.

So, in the interests of getting realer, let me suggest some guidelines for debate.

1. Read A Swift Pair of Messengers.
2. Engage with and debate the contents and arguments that I have put forth there.

Disagree by all means. But do your homework – I did. When I say something like, ‘There is no path of dry insight in the suttas’, this is not because I am relying on some vague memory of something i might have heard sometime. It’s because, ten years ago, when I was researching this book, i systematically searched through every page of the Pali canon for passages dealing with samatha and vipassana. I believe I have identified every significant passage. Of course, I may well have missed something, and may well have misinterpreted some things. Fine, if that is so, point it out. But don’t just ignore the work that has been done.

Let’s have a debate – an informed, reasonable debate. Perhaps, then, we might get somewhere, rather than just rehashing the same old same old.

New Santipada site

Hi all bloggists. Just to let you know, I haven’t been checking the blog for the past week or so, so if your comments haven’t appeared, don’t worry, I’ll get around to it soon.

I’ve been putting together a new version of our decrepit old Santipada site. Like most of Santi’s web presence this was built on googlepages, which served us well for a few years, but which is now falling apart. Since I started this blog, I’ve learnt a little about WordPress, and, with substantial assistance, have learnt to do a few simple websites. We’ve rebuilt the Santi FM website on WordPress, as well as the Australian Sangha Association. The latest is Santipada, the Santi FM ‘in-house’ publishing arm, currently at http://santifm.org/santipada/ (but soon to be redirected to santipada.org).

I’ve had a number of ideas for how a good reading site should be built, and I’m glad to say I’ve been able to implement just about all of them.The aim of the site is to present writing in the best possible way on the web. To accom­plish this I have started with a text-oriented WordPress theme, The Erudite, and modified it to further enhance it as a writer’s platform. The appearance has been tweaked, and the font size increased. I’ve paid detailed attention to typographic niceties, like ‘hanging quotes’, proper verse layout, tables, footnotes, semantic markup, and so on. For seamless display of diacrit­icals in Indic terms, Gentium Basic is used throughout, delivered using @font-face by kernest​.com.

The theme has been de-bloggified, removing comments, dates, and so on: I’m after a lasting repos­itory of quality writing, not a changing diary. If you want to discuss stuff, use this blog.

There are a few exper­i­ments: notice that hovering the cursor will highlight the text, changing the dark grey text into black; this is because some readers find even dark grey difficult to read. In addition, this can serve as an attention focuser. On single posts, the same action will display automatic paragraph numbers to the side. This is because I am conscious that any writing these days will be published in a variety of media, and for reference sake texts should be marked according to paragraphs, which are a genuine textual entity, not pages, which are merely an artifact of the technology the text is presented in.

Posts will be made available in several formats: as well as the basic html for web viewing, they are, or will be, in pdf (for downloading and printing) and Scribd (for, well, whatever people use Scribd for…). More formats coming…

The content is, for the most part, my old essays taken from the earlier santipada, with a few additions. In time I will adapt my books in a similar way. I intend to use that site as a repository of quality writing, so from time to time I may take the most lasting of my blog posts, polish them up, and include them.

For now, a treat for all you blog readers. The first post on the new site is a new piece of imaginative writing, now published for the first time: ‘Dreams of Bhaddā’. I hope you like it….

And let me know what you think of the new site…