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The History of Buddhist Thought by Edward J. Thomas

The History of Buddhist Thought by Edward J. Thomas.  Dover Publications 2002 (1951).  316 pages.

This is my second review of an Edward J. Thomas (1869-1958) book, and I’ll say again a few things about the man’s background.  The author of a number of Indological works, Thomas was a British librarian living inIndiachiefly remembered today for the present work and his biography of the Buddha.  As will be apparent to anyone reading these books, Thomas was a brilliant and erudite man, widely read, with a formidable command of the source texts and languages (Pali certainly and, I believe, Sanksrit as well).  That these two books are still cited in discussions of Buddhist intellectual history is a tribute to their having been, at least at the time of their authorship, cutting edge scholarship, not to mention still capable of yielding nuggets of insight and a wealth of information.

History follows the standard format for surveys of Buddhist philosophy inIndia.  Chapters one, two, six and seven sketch a lot of the pre-Buddhist material—Brahmanism, the Upanishads, yoga, etc.  One interesting point Thomas makes, and which is confirmed by my other reading, is that “The original centre of brahmin culture was far from the cradle of Buddhism.  …[T]here are indications to show that the East, andMagadha especially, were long considered unfit for the habitation of brahmins.”  In other words, the Buddha taught in a backwater, and this fact, coupled with other passages (87, 90-1), indicates pretty decisively that the central thesis of the Upanishads (the atman-Brahman equivalence) was unknown to the Buddha.  This is important as it is often implied by Hindus that the Buddha was a Hindu and that he falls in line with the Upanishadic tradition (cf. Eknath Easwaran’s Dhammapada translation, 26) —a hard theory to sustain if what Thomas is saying is true.  (I believe it is.)

Thomas is quite effective when discussing the history of ideas and when speculating about what may (or may not) be different strata of teaching (“primitive” vs. later, e.g.).  Clearly, his knowledge of the sources was thorough and he had a discriminating intellect.  However, one should not look to him for doctrinal or philosophical insights, as he tends to run into problems when discussing some of the more challenging teachings of early Buddhism.

These are principally covered in chapters four, five, eight, nine and ten—“Early Doctrine,” “Causation,” “The Soul,” “Karma,” “Release and Nirvana.”  Thomas’ definition of atta (93) is really quite good, though he does not reflect much on what anatta means.  (Though he does offer a good rebuttal to those who try to insert the notion of soul into Buddhist thought—101.)  When tackling Dependent Arising and nirvana, he wades full into the scholarly debates of the day, and these sections can be quite interesting and vexing, all at the same time.  Interesting because we are made privy to the early Western, academic speculations regarding this exotic animal called “Buddhist thought,” and vexing because so often the scholars sound like the proverbial blind men with the elephant.  Consider on pages 77ff where Thomas reviews scholarly theorizing concerning dependent arising.  Not only are many of the conclusions little better than shots in the dark (the chain is a “cosmic emanation,” the product of Sankhya influence, etc), we once again can see that book knowledge, decoupled from actual practice, is of little use in this arena.  The discussion of nirvana (123ff and 130ff) is predictably sterile, sounding like a conference of food pundits sitting around a table with menus in hand, arguing about what the foods taste like, while never bothering to actually order a dish and find out.  I inevitably have to scratch my head when reading this kind of material.

Chapter eleven presents a solid discussion of the Buddha as he is viewed in the early texts, and is followed by a more strictly chronological discussion of developments in Abhidhamma (ch. 12), the conception of the Buddha (à la the early Mahayana—ch. 13), an in depth examination of the Lotus Sutra (ch. 14), the idea of the bodhisattva (chs. 15 & 16), and the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools (chs. 17 & 18).  The last chapter, “Buddhism and Modern Thought,” is a less helpful piece tacked on almost as an afterthought that begins with a startlingly dubious assertion:

The spread of Buddhism into other countries does not properly form a part of the history of Buddhist thought, except in so far as the mingling of cultures may have produced new schools.  Theoretically there was no development (249).

With this one statement the whole history of Ch’an (Zen), not to mention the Tantric schools of India and especially Tibet (the so-called Vajrayana) are dismissed, the specific reasons in the latter case made clear: “Tibetan Buddhism, except for some historical and grammatical works, has been little but a development of the less worthy elements introduced from India along with superstitions of its own” (249-50).  The early scholarly contempt for all things Tantric is strongly in evidence, to say the least!

Lastly, the scholarly state of affairs at the time of the book’s writing is made abundantly clear when Thomas writes

Mahayana has never made any impression on the West either as religion or philosophy.  Presented by the early investigators as a tissue of absurdities or niaiseries, it is still commonly looked upon as nihilism or subjectivism.  Now it is beginning to be recognized as more than this, but a full exposition of its metaphysical theories still awaits the complete publication of its authoritative texts and commentaries (256).

My, how far we’ve come in sixty years!

I hope these last tidbits won’t scare off potential readers.  Clearly, the book has its failings, but it can be a worthy addition to the reading list of those trying to shore up their history of Buddhism.  Just be sure its not your only read in this category.  Try to supplement it with others, such as Kalupahana’s Buddhist Philosophy: An Historical Analysis, Paul Williams’ Buddhist Thought, and Warder’s Indian Buddhism.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars


The Life of Buddha as Legend and History by Edward J. Thomas

The Life of Buddha as Legend and History by Edward J. Thomas.  Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers 1992 (Second Indian edition 2003).  297 pages.

Edward J. Thomas (also published under E. J. Thomas) (1869-1958) was a Briton who lived as a scholar and librarian in India, where he pursued what were at the time cutting edge researches into the roots of Buddhist thought and history.  His other noted work in this field—still showing up in bibliographies on account of its lucidity and comprehensiveness—is The History of Buddhist Thought.  (A review of that one from yours truly is in the offing, sometime down the road.)  The present work—undeservedly—has unfortunately fallen into obscurity.  I am its first reviewer on Amazon, and at present it’s not even available through Amazon’s US site.  I recommend Amazon’s UK website or Pariyatti for a copy.  Anyway…on to my review.

The book was first published in 1927; the third edition (the one presently available) was revised through 1948.  As a work of scholarship it is definitely dated, and yet the extraordinarily wide range of its author’s knowledge is on display on every page.  At the time it was undoubtedly the best the field had to offer.  Moreover, it is—as far as I am aware—still the most complete scholarly attempt to fit together the facts of the Buddha’s life and ministry.  This in itself is an amazing (and depressing) fact, but also speaks volumes for the author’s ambitions.  Whatever faults the text may possess, they aren’t there for a lack of effort on Mr. Thomas’ part.

He begins the book before the Buddha’s birth, looking at the origins and ancestry of the Sakyan clan.  This is quite interesting material, for it sheds light on what kind of environment, both cultural and familial, the Bodhisatta grew up in.  Thomas draws on a wide range of materials from different canons (Pali, Mahayana and Tibetan) and non-canonical sources.  Moreover, he brings a steady, skeptical eye to his weighing of the evidence, and I think many of his judgments in regard to what are useful, believable data as opposed to later, more fanciful legends, are reasonable and on the mark.  For example, he notes that in the lists of Sakyan rulers before Sudodhana (the Buddha’s father), there are often names of the Bodhisatta himself inserted from the Jatakas, and that the lists differ considerably depending on which source you go to: the Pali, the Tibetan or the Mahavastu.  This is but one example of traditions being created after the fact, to fill the gaps of knowledge that, even if at one time the truth was really known, had been lost by the time of the text’s recension.  One of the most interesting revelations that Thomas uncovers was that the tradition is not even in agreement on the name of the Buddha’s wife.  You would think his biographers would have gotten at least that much straight, but in fact she is variously referred to—depending on which strand of texts and traditions you consult—as Bhaddakacca, Yasodhara, Subhaddaka, Rahulamatta (“Rahula’s mother”) or Bhadda Kaccana.  In other words, when looked at through the eyes of keen scholarship—eyes that Edward J. Thomas clearly possessed—the Buddha’s life story becomes decidedly messy, even if the very basic facts are agreed upon—i.e. birth, renunciation, enlightenment, teaching, death.

And herein lies the drawback of the book.  Thomas calls upon so many texts, and pursues so many different lines of inquiry, it can at times be hard to keep them all straight.  This is especially so in the beginning, when he looks at Sakyan origins and the Buddha’s birth stories, but things get easier after the enlightenment, when the author is forced to rely upon the obviously heavily revised, standard chronology of the Buddha’s career.  This is the only part of the book where things seem to move along breezily, and then suddenly we come to the Buddha’s last days.  Thomas looks beyond the Buddha’s passing, though, even venturing into the archaeological remains of the Teacher, and for people who find this material interesting I particularly recommend Charles Allen’s The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion.  Allen, another Englishman in India, does a much better job than Thomas on this front.

For me the book’s interest pretty much ended there, though the author goes on to explore some of the basics of Buddhism as a religion.  The early search for “primitive Buddhism” is much in evidence here, as is the typical rationalist perspective that the Buddha simply “borrowed” or “took over” the beliefs in reincarnation and karma without question.  For me, this is where Thomas really stumbles, and I actually gasped out loud when I read the following (on page 199): “Although the [dependent arising] formula as such has only a historic interest, it has an importance in its being an early attempt to formulate a rational law of causation” (emphasis added).  Never mind the fact that the Buddha was quoted as saying “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma,” this authorial gaff clearly indicates the limits of the scholar’s view when it comes to the Buddha’s Teaching.  Inevitably, the most important ideas get rationalistically boiled down to mere historical curiosities, and the significance for it all to real human beings is completely lost.  Great scholar that he was, Thomas was plainly no seeker after enlightenment.

As a final note: the last chapter, entitled “Buddhism and Christianity,” where the oft-noted parallels between the life stories of Jesus and the Buddha are considered, is a throw away.  First, the comparisons add nothing to our understanding of the Buddha and Buddhism (or to Jesus and Christianity, for that matter).  Second, the comparisons are highly speculative, arbitrary, even forced, at best, and, third, they’re trite and trivial.  Together with the constant search for “primitive Buddhism,” this section perhaps most poignantly illustrates the datedness of the book.

These criticisms aside, I think the book is a worthwhile read.  In a way, it illustrates the attempt of the Western, scientific mind to come to grips with a truly alien way of thinking.  Failures and successes are revealed.  And, as noted, the effort has not been substantively duplicated since—where oh where is another such biography bringing intelligent, learned scrutiny to the life of this very important historical figure?  And please don’t mention Karen Armstrong!

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


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