Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and Southeast Asia

Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and Southeast Asia

by Anne M. Blackburn, PhD, Jeffrey Samuels

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Eleven eminent Buddhist studies scholars have contributed essays to this collection, assembled to celebrate the life of the late Sri Lankan scholar, social worker, and meditation master Godwin Samararatne.


Eleven eminent Buddhist studies scholars have contributed essays to this collection, assembled to celebrate the life of the late Sri Lankan scholar, social worker, and meditation master Godwin Samararatne.

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"These fine essays by some of the best scholars in the field meaningfully enhance our collective understanding of Sri Lankan Buddhism."  —Ananda Wickremeratne, PhD, theology professor, Loyola University-Chicago

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Approaching the Dhamma

Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and Southeast Asia

By Anne M. Blackburn, Jeffrey Samuels

Pariyatti Publishing

Copyright © 2003 Anne M. Blackburn and Jeffrey Samuels
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-928706-19-9


Part One

Interpretation and Understanding

"Obsession with Origins": Attitudes to Buddhist Studies in the Old World and the New

Richard Gombrich

Godwin Samararatne was a most unusual man, a precious blend of wisdom and compassion. As this implies, he had a lively, albeit understated, sense of humour. Once in Oxford he gave a talk on his experiences as a meditation teacher to aspirants both from the West and from Sri Lanka. There were two differences, he said, between the two groups. Among those who failed to achieve the progress in meditation that they had hoped for, the Westerners always failed because they tried too hard, the Sri Lankans because they did not try hard enough. On the other hand, the Westerners usually laid the blame for their problems on their parents; it never occurred to a Sri Lankan to do that. He chuckled.

Godwin was a devout (not to say exemplary) Buddhist, and at the same time keenly interested in and appreciative of the academic study of Buddhism. He and I shared values; and one of them was academic research, ferreting out the truth. When Godwin helped me in the research which led to Buddhism Transformed, a work which by documenting deviations from tradition has offended some chauvinists, he knew exactly what he was doing, and delighted in it. On many American campuses the kind of work that he helped me to do would be regarded as dubious, perhaps even politically incorrect. For many, Buddhism has alas become a "feel good" subject: students are allowed to enthuse about "what Buddhism means to me", rather than to describe, analyse and construct testable hypotheses. This was not Godwin's way.

I feel no need to defend academic study per se, but I hope it may be appropriate, writing in Godwin's memory, to criticise a recent academic trend. Unlike Godwin on western meditators, I am probably exaggerating when I ascribe a certain current attitude to Buddhist studies to the New World — by which of course I mainly mean the United States — and contrast it with a more traditional view which I believe continues to be common, though not universal, in the Old World, and which I propose to defend. My purpose in making the distinction, like Godwin's, is not to contribute to the sociology of ideas, but to make a deeper contribution to the subject matter. Let me therefore be content to fix my point of departure by means of a couple of anecdotes.

A research student of mine in Oxford wrote a splendid thesis on an important theme in the Buddha's teaching as it appears in the texts of the Pali Canon. Her method was traditional but her findings highly original. Soon after she had published this thesis as a book she encountered at an academic gathering another ex-student of mine who, some 15 years earlier, had first written an excellent doctorate and then published an excellent book on a related theme; he had then emigrated to take employment in North America. Her hopes of an interesting discussion with her predecessor were dashed when he said to her, "Why this obsession with origins?"

Not long after this I found myself invited to lecture at a well-known American university a few days after the beginning of the academic year. Colleagues from other universities in the vicinity assembled to dine with me before my first lecture. All of them had just given their first lecture in an introductory or survey course about Buddhism. So I asked them, "Did any of you in your opening lecture say anything at all about the chronology of Buddhism?" A brief silence. Then someone replied, "No. Why should we do such a thing?" "Because if you don't know which came first, A or B, you can't tell whether A could have been the cause of B. And I am interested in causal questions." Their faces told me that they could see little hope for this old-fashioned European.

Though this can be presented as an American / European contrast, it is probably more accurate to see it as a sign of the predominance of social science and an interest in the present over the humanities, including textual study, and an interest in the past. There is however an overlap because I think that American social science is hegemonic world-wide. The reasons for what amounts to a revulsion against history, at least as history is traditionally understood, are complex, and it is not my purpose to examine them thoroughly. Postmodernism is obviously an important factor: the idea that we give meaning to texts by reading them has been taken to utterly absurd lengths which can subvert the very concept of documentary evidence. What interests me more in this context is an attitude which strikes me as particularly American: an egalitarianism, closely linked to political theory, which in defending the rights and dignity of each individual comes to mistrust any claim to authority. The political principle of one man one vote, has been sadly misapplied in the politicised academy. The Buddha and the ancient Indian emperor Asoka were individual human beings who died long ago; why should their opinions have any greater claim on our attention than those of any other individual Buddhist?

This view, which sees itself as "anti-authoritarianism", seems to be particularly at home nowadays in anthropology. If I travel to a distant land, anything that anyone there tells me is claimed to be equally "valid", which means equally worthy of attention and respect. It follows that there can be no such thing as a stupid or ignorant informant, for everyone has an equal right not merely to express their opinion but to have that opinion taken seriously. Anthropologists are in favour of doubt, but that doubt must be directed towards oneself ("reflexive anthropology"), not towards one's informants.

Let me illustrate this attitude from a well-known book on Sinhalese Buddhism by an intelligent (and very nice) British anthropologist, Martin Southwold. Like me Southwold lived for about a year in a Sinhalese village, and like me he was charmed by his neighbours and had a good time. It cannot have been from his neighbours, however, that he acquired the view that in such matters as religion, which concern all mankind, there can be no authority, so that every man's opinion is of equal value; that view he certainly took to Sri Lanka with him. Unfortunately, however, it involved him in a paradox: if the Buddhist villagers themselves believe that their religious ideas and practices are given to them by an authority, they must be wrong. So it suddenly turns out that informants do make mistakes — though apparently only in this respect.

Southwold writes:

The term "Buddhism" is used in any or all of four senses, referring to four distinguishable kinds of thing:

1. Buddhendom, Buddhist civilisation, society and culture as a whole.

2. What within this appears to be specifically a religion.

3. The doctrines of that religion.

4. The teaching of the Founder, the Buddha himself.

Now Buddhists themselves appear to relate these in reverse order. The origin and core of Buddhism is the Buddha's teaching; this is the basis of Buddhist doctrine; this is the basis of the religion; and this is the basis of Buddhist civilisation. I am not clear how far Buddhists do say just this — nor, to the extent that they do, how far they have been influenced into doing so by European ideas. No matter; this is what nineteenth-century Europeans would have 'heard' them saying, because it precisely corresponded with their understanding of the structure of their own religious civilisation, of Christendom.

He continues:

... it is more likely than not that Buddhism did originate from the teaching of the historical Buddha ... but we cannot know anything, or at best not nearly enough, about the historical Buddha and his teaching. So, even if this approach is well founded and methodologically proper, we cannot usefully follow it, and must either find another or despair ... Thus the primary reality is Buddhist civilisation, Buddhist society and culture, a way of life of real men. This generates Buddhist religion, as a construction which orders and legitimises, in symbolic form, that civilisation. This in turn is systematised in Buddhist doctrine. And to legitimise the doctrine and the religion that lies behind it, these are attributed to Lord Buddha, who thus emerges as a projection of, perhaps an impersonation of, the prior and more basic elements of the system. No doubt the historical Buddha was the origin of the whole system; but he is unknowable.

Godwin, who on my visits to Sri Lanka would guide me around various Buddhist cult groups in order to observe "the way of life of real men", would have found this uproariously funny. But the main point, as Southwold is fully aware, is that he is contradicting the views not only of Godwin Samararatne but of all his informants. Any belief in authority or hierarchy simply cannot be accepted. In fact traditional Buddhists in Sri Lanka have their own schema to represent "Buddhism in life": pariyatti, patipatti, pativedha. These three Pali words mean learning (this refers to learning Pali texts), practice and realisation. They form a hierarchy, each being a prerequisite for the next: without knowledge of the texts there can be no correct practice of morality and mental cultivation, and without such practice no one can achieve realisation, nibbana. According to tradition the texts in question are "the word of the Buddha" as it was formulated and recited for memorisation at the first Council shortly after his death.

To some extent Southwold is simply under a misapprehension about fact, for he writes that the scriptures "were composed by monks several centuries at least after the Buddha's death," probably confusing "composed" with "written down". Modern scholarship takes a position somewhere between Southwold and the traditional view. It is virtually certain that there was no writing in India at the time of the Buddha, so that for two to three centuries after his death the record could only be preserved orally. There seems to be no reason to doubt that chronicle (MhvXXXIII, 100-102) which claims that the Canon was committed to writing in Sri Lanka rather late in the first century B.C. This refers to the version in Pali, peculiar to the Theravadin tradition; we have no comparable record of the writing down of scriptures in other dialects, and our earliest physical evidence to survive is fragmentary manuscript material from the far north-west of India probably dating from the second century A.D. While the chronicle is referring to the organised writing down of the whole Canon, there is no reason to think that particular texts might not have been written down up to two centuries earlier, for the inscriptions of Asoka, the earliest dated examples of Indian writing, date to the middle of the third century B.C.

On the other hand, the Vedic tradition, in which a huge body of textual material was orally preserved by brahmins without the use of writing for perhaps as long as two millennia, shows that not only was such a feat possible in ancient India, but the Buddhists had a model before them. They organised the sangha into groups with responsibility for preserving particular collections of texts; and the events which we usually refer to as Councils were primarily communal recitations, rehearsing and thus checking the material. I suspect that the so-called Second Council which must have been held about seventy years after the Buddha's death, was particularly important for formulating the Canon that we now have, except for the abhidhamma.

The Buddhist Canon is a very large body of textual material, showing considerable sophistication and coherence. It survives in several versions (mostly in Chinese and Tibetan translations) and the variation in versions of texts which are universally agreed to be comparatively early are many but on the whole rather trivial. It is inconceivable that this large body of material could have been composed and agreed on as authentic once Buddhism had spread over a large geographical area, as we know that it did under the emperor Asoka. The common textual heritage must therefore date back to within about 150 years of the Buddha's death, which I have shown to have taken place around 405 B.C.

On the other hand, there are certainly inconsistencies and even contradictions within this material. The simplest explanation for this is multiple authorship: many different individuals contributed their own recollections of the Buddha's teaching. These individuals came from different backgrounds before they were converted to Buddhism, and arrived with different assumptions. Moreover, the Buddha himself may have been inconsistent on some relatively inessential matters. Certainly, since he preached for 45 years, and made a point of adapting his presentation to his audience, he must have put things in very many different ways — as the tradition itself claims. Besides this, one can obviously not rule out the possibility of textual corruption — and in some cases it is a virtual certainty.

How, then, are we to proceed if we want to get closer to the Buddha himself than simply accepting the bulk of the Canon as an authentic record of his words? To begin with, we should be alive to the inconsistencies and view with scepticism the efforts of the traditional commentators either to ignore them or to argue them away. Then, if the inconsistency is serious, we may want to decide which view is more likely to have been the Buddha's own. This leads us to attempt some stratification of the material. Stratification has acquired an extremely bad name. Because it has often been done badly, the stratifier clearly following his own prejudices, the general consensus has become that it should not be attempted at all. I strongly disagree.

We have to distinguish between stratifying the texts exactly as we have them and stratifying the ideas they contain. Because the oral tradition has tended to level out modes of expression and to shift passages, whether stock phrases or entire sequences of paragraphs, from text to text, we are most unlikely to have access to the Buddha's precise words. Access to his ideas is however another matter, and indeed those ideas may include key terms, as for example when he is quoting.

The Pali canonical texts show the Buddha in dialogue with a large number of individuals, some of them brahmins, some of them ascetics with theories of their own, or their followers. The Buddha always listens to the other man's point of view and then responds, often by cross-questioning, before expounding his own views. It is not common for him to respond simply with a flat contradiction. Sometimes he begins by talking as if he accepted what the other man has said, but then steers his exposition round to give a quite different meaning to what has been said. Often he goes to great lengths to change the meanings to key words. For example, everyone knew that brahmin was a hereditary status. Giving a false etymology of the word, the Buddha said that a true brahmin was somebody who had banished evil. This is much like saying in English that being a gentleman is not a matter of birth but of conduct.

Since the reinterpretation of being a brahmin is explicit in the text, everyone knows about it. But it is astonishing how few interpreters have noticed the extent to which the Buddha uses this tactic. A crucial move, for example, was his redefinition of kamma, which means "action" and referred in particular to ritual action, to mean intention — which indeed is the very opposite of action. Moreover, as the wordplay with brahmana shows, the Buddha liked to move from the literal to the metaphorical, and used both irony and wit.

Johannes Bronkhorst has done valuable work in showing how the Buddha argued with the Jains. It is all the more disappointing that in his recent summary of the Buddha's teaching he should write: "It is not impossible that the Buddha was familiar with the content of some Upanisads or parts thereof, and with other Vedic texts." Whereas in the Jain case we can clearly see the Buddha's reaction to ideas, but cannot trace quotations from their texts, because their textual tradition is comparatively deficient and very few, if any, texts go back to the time of the Buddha, we can actually trace passages in the Upanisads, especially the Bradaranyaka, to the which the Buddha was alluding.

Over the last decade I have produced several publications drawing attention to such references, and I hope to continue the series. However, the most startling discovery in this respect is not mine. At the conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies held in Lausanne in August 1999, Dr. Joanna Jurewicz of the University of Warsaw showed that the formulation of the pratityasamutpada, the Buddha's chain of dependent origination, is as it is because it represents the Buddha's answer to Vedic cosmogony, and indeed to the fundamental ontology of brahminical thought.


Excerpted from Approaching the Dhamma by Anne M. Blackburn, Jeffrey Samuels. Copyright © 2003 Anne M. Blackburn and Jeffrey Samuels. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
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Meet the Author

Anne Blackburn, PhD, is an assistant professor in Asian studies at Cornell University and the author of Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth Century Lankan Monastic Culture. She lives in Ithaca, New York. Jeffrey Samuels, PhD, is an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he has taught Asian Religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Buddhist-Christian Monasticism as well as courses in Pali and Sanskrit.

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