Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al
This is one of the better (I hesitate to say “best”) surveys of Buddhist intellectual history I’ve read. As such I’d say it’s good for relative—i.e. not total—beginners. The author, Paul Williams, is a British academic with many publications under his belt, but is perhaps best known for his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, often used as a textbook in Buddhist studies. (A second edition of the 1989 original is imminent.) The writing, while intelligent and at times demanding, is not so academic as to be stultifying. Williams even displays a bit of English wit now and then.
I always appreciate illuminating passages, no matter what the sort of book I’m reading happens to be. I mean the sort that make you snatch out a pen and scribble something next to it, or underline a sentence or paragraph. There are quite a few in this book, particularly, I’d say, in the first two chapters, which make up 40% of the book’s text proper.
Chapter one, entitled “The doctrinal position of the Buddha in context,” offers an excellent starting point. Indeed, some things said here need to be remembered by everyone venturing into the world of Buddhism. Consider the following from pages 2-3:
Buddhism is thus…concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind. This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation.
How different the history of the world would be if every religion and philosophy understood and acted upon this seemingly simple and self-evident truth!
This section discusses the historical background of Brahmanism and shramanism, smartly noting that any characterization of the Buddha as a “Hindu reformer” is anachronistic at best (8). Williams points out that the story of the Buddha’s life demonstrates what is most important in his teachings. For starters, unlike in Christianity, the message (Dharma/Dhamma) is preeminent over the messenger (the Buddha). The Buddha was just a man who found Dharma; it is Dharma that really counts. You can have Dharma without the Buddha, but you cannot have the Buddha without Dharma. Williams’ discussion of elements in the Buddha’s hagiography and how it exemplifies and illuminates the Teaching is one of the most insightful and satisfying I’ve read on this subject.
The second chapter also considers “mainstream Buddhism” (i.e. non-Mahayana) and is entitled “A Buddha’s basic thought.” Williams does a good job here, except a few stumbles (more on this below); in fact, his approach is unique in ways. On 60ff he does a wonderful job debunking the notion the Buddha posited a Self outside the five aggregates:
On the basis of [the Buddha’s discussion of the aggregates] there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self. I confess I cannot quite understand this. If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so. And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed. He does not (60).
This passage illustrates another aspect of Williams’ writing I find admirable—a sort of humble, commonsensical honesty that is rarely displayed in writing by scholars. I think many would be sympathetic, for example, when he says (on page 68) “…it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means.” And I liked it even better when he wrote “This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange” (71). Rather than pretending scholarly omniscience and superiority in regards to the texts (I’m thinking of E.J. Thomas at his worst), Williams expresses understandable puzzlement as, no doubt, most people do when encountering the Buddha’s thought for the first (or even hundredth) time.
Chapter two is really a core piece of Buddhist writing in that it hits every significant point (the four truths, anatta, cosmology, nirvana, etc) and does so in an intelligible and intelligent fashion. This is not an easy feat to pull off, as anyone who has read a good many dharma books can tell you. In fact, I might even say that Williams goes about as far in his understanding as a scholar qua scholar can. But while surveying so much and dealing with so many difficult concepts, he (perhaps inevitably) takes a few pratfalls.
I won’t go into detail about what I think he does wrong; a brief list and comments should be enough:
- When referring to atta (“self”) he consistently capitalizes the S, inferring that the Buddha was discussing only the transpersonal Atman or True Self. This is not the case; the Buddha was referring especially to the experience of a subjective controller, doer, or identity (sakkaya), the self of everyday experience. The Self as an ontological construct follows upon this.
- He fails to thresh out the distinction between “intention,” “desire” and “wanting” as these pertain to the liberated person (an arhat or Buddha) (44). This may seem like nit-picking, but it is in fact an essential issue that spells the difference between insight and its lack.
- He states (67) that Ananda was unenlightened at the time of the Buddha’s death—in fact Ananda was a sotapanna.
- On 69 he perpetuates the thesis that the being reborn is “neither the same nor another” than the one who died. This teaching comes from the Milindhapanha and has infected Buddhism everywhere ever since. It is a view entirely at odds with the Suttas, falling into attavada. This is perhaps Williams’ biggest stumble from a doctrinal point of view. (The correct answer, when asked “who is reborn?” is to reject the question as meaningless on account of its presupposition of self in some form or another.)
- He continues the old saw that dependent origination is “causality.” Causality (as a descriptive concept) certainly applies to karma (“intentional action”) but it has nothing to do with paticcasamuppada. I have discussed this at length in other reviews. Part of the problem may arise from the 12-factor formulation, wherein the first ten elements are certainly structural as opposed to temporal, and then the last two are cause-effects. Williams gets it right (I think) when he suggests the list may well be “a compilation from originally different sources” (71). In other words, I suspect the 12-factored formula is a later intellectual (though still pre-scholastic) description of the original assertion: “When there is this, that is…” etc.
- Description of satipatthana as the “sole way” (83). This is a frequent mistranslation. The word here is ekayana, meaning a course that goes one way or one direction.
- His discussion of meditation (83ff) is palpably second-hand. Once again I must lament the unnecessary divorce of scholarship from practice.
The rest of the book discusses Mahayana—its early formulation, development, key concepts and texts. This area is Williams’ forte, and for the most part I think his discussions are quite good, though he does sometimes confusingly mix the names of schools, terms, and people together into a less than lucid jumble. Neophytes are likely to get lost or frustrated at times; I did myself (though I was once again, quite viscerally, reminded why I so dislike Nagarjuna’s thought!).
A special note on the last chapter, written not by Paul Williams but Anthony Tribe. This is an excellent introduction to and overview of tantric Buddhism, an area often inadequately covered in texts like this. (E.J. Thomas’ survey not only neglected but maligned it.) Tribe’s writing is clear and organized and he offers an invitation to everyone to better get to know this unique phase of Buddhist thought. I confess that while I am not convinced that tantra has added substantively to Shakyamuni’s philosophical thinking, I am now totally in the camp that affirms it possesses a host of valuable and powerful practices/techniques that can facilitate one’s spiritual journey. Lastly, the book has a lengthy bibliography tacked on at the end to enable further exploration of texts the authors drew upon during the course of their survey.
My Amazon rating: 4 stars