A little discussion about Ken Wilber a few days ago put me in mind of an observation he once made. I can’t remember exactly where, but it was something like: religions are still struggling to catch up with modernism, and have no idea how to begin dealing with post-modernism. I think this is a very insightful remark, and would like to examine it a little in the context of Buddhism, especially our relationship with Buddhist texts.
What does modernism mean here? Well essentially, when modern Buddhist studies began in mid-19th century, scholars learned the various traditional discourses. Theravada was the original, pristine teachings while Mahayana was a degenerate fabrication; or else Mahayana was the true embodiment of the Buddha’s wisdom, while Theravada was partial and narrow; and so on. You can still hear these claims in many temples today.
When these claims were subject to scrutiny along text-critical and historical lines, a different picture emerged. This was based on a study of the claims of all the schools, in addition to the revelations that were emerging from ancient India as it exposed itself to the archaeologists’ picks. The consensus view was that the Pali canon, with important reservations, represented the early Buddhist texts, and if the legendary embroideries were disregarded it could be accepted as a fairly reliable record of the Buddha’s teachings. Even those scholars who believed that the early canon was badly corrupted (e.g. CAF Rhys Davids) still had faith that the early message of the Buddha could be restored by means of textual criticism. The Mahayana Sutras were obviously later (500-1000 years after the Buddha), and the Vajrayana later still. This picture reinforced the Theravadin claim to orthodoxy, although at the same time the scholars were universally agreed that the Abhidhamma was a late addition, as was much of the Vinaya.
It is fairly obvious that this scholarly consensus has made little inroads to Buddhist culture. Despite being embraced by many prominent leaders, such as King Mongkut in Thailand, still we find Theravadins constantly asserting that the Abhidhamma was spoken by the Buddha; indeed most monks believe that the entire Vinaya is literally Buddhavacana, and so on. Within Mahayana circles, there have been great monks such as Yin Shun who have taken the historical analysis of Buddhism perhaps even further than the Western academics, and yet the anti-historical idea that the Mahayana texts were literally spoken by the Buddha is still accepted without question in all but elite intellectual circles.
This consensus lasted more or less for a hundred years or so until it was challenged on various grounds. Some of those challenges strike at the truth claims of the modernist consensus; for example, it is alleged that we can have no real knowledge of what the Buddha taught (a claim that I don’t find plausible). The more cogent of the post-modern critiques do not change the essential historical picture, but question how reliably we can reconstruct ‘the’ early Buddhism, given that there must have been great diversity from the beginning. A pristine and perfect ‘canon’ is itself the outcome of an ideological process. Rather than positing a hypothetical reconstructed ‘original’ Buddhism, post-modernists point to the diversity and relativity of the Buddhist textual scene, and question the relationship between text and practice.
For example, the modernist view tended to equate Theravadin doctrine with the Pali canon and commentaries. This viewpoint early on assumed a political significance. The Thai king in the late 19th century sponsored the first printings of the Tipitaka in modern book form, and even sent donations to England for the Pali Text Society. The way that Buddhist texts were disseminated was radically influenced by a new technology – the printed book – colonial geopolitics, and nationalist ideology. The Thai king could sponsor the printing of a set of books that would constitute the uniform doctrinal foundation for his nation’s religion, as an antidote to the twin threat of colonialists and missionaries.
Reports from around this time reveal that hardly any monasteries actually possessed a copy of the entire Tipitaka, still less the commentaries. Many monasteries only had a small collection of books. Often the teaching was based on was what called a ‘nissaya‘, which was basically a set of lecture notes by a local teacher. These would be used as the basis for classes, and copied down by the students. So the actual Buddhist education was diverse and local, and it was replaced by a uniform, national set of canonical texts.
But of course the canon itself is unwieldy and difficult, and to this day hardly any monks, at least in Thailand, actually read it at all. Even when I arrived at Wat Nanachat in 1993, we did not have the entire canon in English translation, and hardly anything in Pali. The Thai Tipitaka was there, kept safe in a cabinet that was rarely opened. If that was the situation in a monastery like Nanachat, in the vast majority of other monasteries it was far more extreme.
In fact the actual texts used to pass down ‘Theravada Buddhism’ are the Jatakas and various stories mainly from the Dhammapada commentary. As a monastic friend has just reminded me, such texts are almost never read by Western monks. If they read Buddhist scripture at all, they read the canonical Suttas and Vinaya. Traditional Buddhist communities, on the other hand, virtually ignore the canonical literature and would be mystified if they were told, say, that the Jatakas were folk-tales that were adopted into Buddhism as teachings, and were not really the past lives of the Buddha.
Yet the Jatakas, as well as including lots of great stories (and many fairly ordinary ones) contain much that is implausible or unpalatable, including some pretty virulent misogyny. If we read them today we are disgusted; but how are we to relate to the fact that these texts have been handed down, apparently without criticism, for thousands of years, by people who really thought they were the words of the Buddha? What are we to say to people who would defend their authenticity? How have such narratives contributed to the modern Buddhist cultures?
Far from being a monolithic textual orthodoxy, traditional Theravada has been full of diverse, contradictory local customs and teachings, which struggle in an ongoing tension with the centralizing forces of nationalism. I’m not trying to criticize the centralist forces here. I agree with them, pretty much, that the Pali canon (and corresponding early texts in other languages) is the Real Thing, and gets us as close as we can to what is of greatest interest to me, the words of the Buddha himself. I am just pointing out that the situation and agendas of those like you and me who read the Suttas for spiritual inspiration and learning is not necessarily the same as those who promote them on an ideological basis.
Another question raised by post modern theorists include the relationship between text and experience. The more radical question the category of experience itself, but more relevant is the question of what is the relationship between a text that is used as the basis for a meditation teaching, and the nature of the meditative experiences that the teaching will lead to. I have shown, i think convincingly (or at least no-one has managed to refute me) that the Satipatthana Sutta is a late compilation, and the the aspects of it that emphasize vipassana are mostly peculiar to one particular redaction. This calls into question the textual basis of most Theravada meditation in the 20th century; yet there is no doubt that the meditation techniques that have been developed, though on faulty textual grounds, are nevertheless still effective.
These are just some of the issues that post-modern analysis has raised, which have yet to be seriously digested in Buddhist communities. I think these are interesting and important questions. Yet post-modernism itself is probably on its way out, and we will face a whole new set of questions in the next generation, questions that we haven’t even learned how to ask yet.