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To Do and Not To Do: Bodhisattva Virtue In Action

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (5)

“Virtue,” Acariya Dhammapala tells us, “is twofold as avoidance (varitta) and performance (caritta)” (p. 41).  If you keep the five precepts, you are avoiding certain actions.  You are not killing, notstealing, not committing adultery, not lying and not using intoxicants.  This is a type of virtue, certainly–we might even say a negative virtue.  In this way, your goodness is measured by absence.

In the Pali Nikayas this is considered sufficient for the attainment of arhantship.  A person not engaging in certain behaviors will remove him or herself from those situations and consequences that ruffle the mind and lead to unfortunate outcomes.  For the establishment of a peaceful mind, a mind that is ready to meditate, this is enough.

But here, perhaps, we really do see a difference between the bodhisattva ideal and the ideal of someone who simply wants to meditate for his own well-being. The bodhisattva cannot stand on negative virtue alone, he must go further and act, positively, outwardly, to express compassion to the best of his ability.  Virtue must not only be absence, but performance.  The bodhisattva mustdo something.

dog carrying dog

The Dalai Lama’s quote above perfectly captures these two facets of virtue or goodness.  At leastdon’t hurt others (or yourself); that is the lowest standard one should hold oneself to.  Going beyond that, practice the opposites of those behaviors the precepts guard against.  So, we might say:

  1. At least, do not kill.  Better yet, protect and render assistance to others.
  2. At least, do not steal.  Better yet, give to others (dana).
  3. At least, don’t misuse your sexual energy.  Better yet, be chaste and educate people on the right uses of sexuality (when and as appropriate).
  4. At least, don’t lie.  Better yet, disclose your faults and when you speak, be gentle and informative.
  5. At least, don’t take intoxicants.  Better yet, nourish yourself with healthy, edifying food, what the Hindus call sattvic.

Dhammapala goes into considerable detail about the do’s and dont’s of bodhisattva virtue.  Here is my boiled-down version of his virtue as avoidance:

  • hold no resentment against anyone
  • do not take what is not given
  • never arouse a thought of lust for the wives/husbands of others (if a householder)
  • abstain from all forms of sexuality (if a renunciate)
  • do not say anything untrue, hurtful, unwise, or untimely
  • abstain from harsh speech
  • abstain from slander
  • abstain from idle chatter
  • abstain from covetousness, ill will and perverted views
  • never injure another
  • do no evil deed even if threatened with death
  • do not indulge in omens and superstitious practices
  • do not indulge in the “diversity of outside creeds”
  • abstain from all wrong means of livelihood
  • never arouse unwholesome states in others
  • never place oneself in a higher position or rank than those who are of inferior conduct
  • be neither too accessible nor inaccessible (i.e. associate with others at the proper time)
  • do not criticize those who are dear to others in front of them nor praise those who are resented by them
  • do not engage in persuasion
  • do not accept excessive favors
  • do not refuse a proper invitation

Now for virtue as performance:

  • speak only truthful, beneficial, endearing, measured and timely talk, especially talk concerned with Dhamma
  • possess knowledge of and faith in cause-and-effect
  • have faith and respect for recluses who have gone forth and are practicing in the right way
  • perfect the practice of loving-kindness
  • eradicate hatred, ill-will and aversion
  • be devoted to renunciation
  • have faith in the enlightenment of the Tathagatas
  • treat others with respect and courtesy
  • wait upon the sick
  • render service to those who ask
  • give thanks to those who commend you
  • praise the noble qualities of the virtuous
  • patiently endure the abuse of antagonists
  • always repay help and advice rendered to you
  • diligently practice wholesome states of mind
  • acknowledge all transgressions and reveal your faults
  • do good deeds anonymously [per Dogen]
  • dedicate your every goodness to supreme enlightenment
  • be a companion to those who need companionship
  • comfort and aid the sick and needy
  • console the bereaved
  • restrain with Dhamma those who need to be restrained
  • inspire with Dhamma those who need inspiration
  • determine to perform the “loftiest, most difficult, inconceivably powerful deeds of the great bodhisattvas of the past”
  • conceal your virtues
  • do not become complacent over minor achievements, but strive for successively higher achievements
  • assist those who suffer from blindness, deafness and physical disability
  • help the faithless gain faith, the lazy generate zeal, the confused develop mindfulness, the unconcentrated gain concentration
  • dispel the five hindrances from those who suffer them
  • establish beings in wholesome states

All of the above, every last bit of it, is dedicated to the “purpose of becoming an omniscient Buddha in order to enable all beings to acquire the incomparable adornment of virtue” (47).  Furthermore:

Thus, esteeming virtue as the foundation for all achievements — as the soil for the origination of all the Buddha-qualities, the beginning, footing, head, and chief of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood — and recognizing gain, honor, and fame as a foe in the guise of a friend, a bodhisattva should diligently and thoroughly perfect his virtue as a hen guards its eggs: through the power of mindfulness and clear comprehension in the control of bodily and vocal action, in the taming of the sense-faculties, in purification of livelihood, and in the use of the requisites (44).

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  (Translation by Martine Batchelor; edited, with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor.)  Weatherhill 2009. 182 pages.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic introduction to Zen Buddhism–or, as it is called in Korea, Seon Bulgyo (where “seon” is pronounced like English “son”).  But perhaps the word “introduction” is not really appropriate.  If you know nothing about Zen Buddhism this is probably not the best place to start.  If you’ve waded into the ocean of Zen and are looking for a fine “fish” to eat, something tasty and nutritious, something truly representative of these particular “waters” (to carry my analogy near the breaking point), this book is marvelous.

It is not about Japanese Zen, though, but Korean.  The Koreans have been practicing Buddhism longer than the Japanese, plus there is more active, “authentic” Buddhism happening in Korea than in Japan.  (At least that’s been my impression; let me know if you think otherwise.)  This situation, however, is changing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the tradition is dying and is probably ready for life support at this point.  (In Japan it is as good as clinically dead; there is probably more authentic Zen in America than in Japan.)  That said, the Koreans understand the whys and wherefores of koan (or “hwadu”) practice in a way I never got the sense contemporary Japanese do.  This book delves in depth regarding koans and contains prime instruction for anyone utilizing this particular meditation subject.

Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)

Some words about the source of these teachings.  Kusan Sunim was, along with Seong-cheol Sunim (“sunim” means monk in Korean), arguably the greatest living exponent of Zen Buddhism in twentieth century Korea.  He started life as a farmer and barber, was even a married man.  At the age of 26 a life-threatening disease struck him.  He survived by going to a temple and reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum for a hundred days, which practice cured him.  Three years later he renounced family life and ordained as a monk and soon after took up meditation, which he did with fanatic resolve.  Sometimes circumstances intervened to interrupt his practice, but he repeatedly went back to it with increased determination.  During one stint, to fight off drowsiness he practiced continuous standing meditation for days on end, during which time “he lost any sense of the outside world.  He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died.  He was so absorbed in his meditation that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests” (45).  Eventually he attained Great Awakening, which caused his teacher Hyobong Sunim to say “Until now you have been following me; now it is I who should follow you” (47).  This book gives you a chance to follow this great man.

The contents offer a good variety.  The introduction (by Stephen Batchelor) chronicle the history of Buddhism in Korea, a much neglected area of study by Western Buddhists.  Readers who wish to delve more deeply into this would be advised to check out Mu-Seong Sunim’s Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers.  Those with a philosophical bent will appreciate Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen.  (Chinul, a contemporary of Dogen’s, is the intellectual godfather of Korean Zen, though in the last several decades he has been somewhat overshadowed by Seong-cheol’s “sudden awakening, sudden cultivation” teachings which hearken back to the Sixth Patriarch.)  There follows an overview of life in a Korean Zen monastery and a brief bio of Kusan.  Those wishing to know more about the former should read The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell.

The second half of the book constitute the teachings proper.  They consist of meditation instructions, specifically how to practice the koan (hwadu), as well as discourses from winter retreats delivered by Kusan to monks assembled at Songgwang-Sa, where Kusan was the abbot.  (This is also the temple where I lived most of the time that I spent in Korean temples.)  There are also less formal talks–“advice and encouragement”–and a series of poems and commentaries on the traditional “Ten Oxherding Pictures.”

Entrance to Songgwang-Sa

The feeling one gets from reading the words of Kusan is This is the real deal.  Imagine if one of the ancient Chinese masters–Huang-po or Linchi or even Huineng–were suddenly resurrected in the here and now and started spouting off–this is what you’d expect to hear.  Kusan has the same punch, energy, sense of paradox, and intrinsic authority.  You can’t help but want to take this man’s advice, to run off to the mountains, live in a cave and risk all for the breakthrough.

But don’t believe me.  Listen to him:

To live long would be to live for a hundred years. A short life is over in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath. A hundred years of life depends upon a single breath, for life stops when respiration ceases. Can you afford to wait for a hundred years when you do not know how soon death will come? You may die after having eaten a good breakfast in the morning; you may die in the afternoon after a good lunch. Some die during sleep. You may die in the midst of going here and there. No one can determine the time of death. Therefore, you must awaken before you die (78-9).

What will it take to awaken?  Kusan tells us:

The Buddhas and the patriarchs did not realize Buddhahood easily. They realized it through great effort and much hardship. They exerted themselves with such great effort because the sufferings of birth and death are so terrifying. Therefore, even though you want to sleep more, you should sleep less. Even though you want to eat more, you should eat less. Even though you want to talk a lot, you should try to talk less. Even though you want to see many things, you should see less. Your body will definitely feel restrained by acting in such a way. This is indeed a practice of austerity. However, none of the Buddhas and the patriarchs would have awakened had they not trained themselves in this manner (81-2).

Finally, if you want to help sentient beings, how can you do it?  Kusan says

In order to be able to actually help others, you should seek to emulate the spirit of a great hero.  This is necessary because only one who is the greatest hero among heroes is able to accomplish this difficult task [of awakening]. You need supreme courage in order to bring this practice to its completion. To transform this world into a Pure Land and to change ordinary sentient beings into accomplished sages is no easy matter. It is truly the work of a great hero (118).

I advise all you wanna-be great heroes to get a copy of this illuminating and inspiring book and enter soon the practice of the Way!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars 

How Buddhism Began by Richard F. Gombrich

How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings by Richard F. Gombrich.  Athlone Press 1996/Munshiram Manoharlal 2010, 180 pages. 

This is my last book review of the year. It will not be, however, the last review I do of something not on my Ultimate Buddhist Reading List.  There are still a half-dozen volumes hanging around on my shelves that I’ve read over the years I’d like to review, and when time and chance align, I’ll write up something on them too.

This project of reading and reviewing is the biggest intellectual endeavor and commitment I’ve undertaken since I finished my novel (unpublished) back in 2007.  That was something I’d wanted to do for much of my life—I once aspired to be a fantasy novelist, by the way—but when I was a hundred thousand words into a second novel depression hit and I understood intuitively I would not be able to continue.  Life had kicked me in the gut and I had no choice but to change.  A complete reorientation of priorities was the result, and a re-commitment to Buddhist study and practice followed.  It remains to be seen what fruits will be born from this.

Anyway, thanks so much for reading my blog and happy New Year to you!


The book consists of five related essays based upon lectures Gombrich delivered in 1994 at theSchoolofOrientaland African Studies.  Certain characteristic interests, however, give them a semblance of unity.  In each case Gombrich attempts to look at how specific doctrines developed based on the texts, and how those doctrines often misconstrued the texts via over-literalism, lack of a sense of context, or by readings based on corrupted words or phrases.  His approach is primarily investigatory and exploratory as opposed to strictly didactic.  He starts with these words: “In these lectures I am more concerned with formulating problems and raising questions than with providing answers” (1).  In this, Gombrich is certainly successful.  That is, he excels in illuminating issues begging further clarification.  However, I have to confess that despite my enjoyment of his work I am not convinced by some of his arguments.  More on this to follow…

The first essay, “Debate, skill in means, allegory and literalism,” discusses the role of debate in the evolution of the Buddha’s teaching.  Gombrich writes: “…the Buddha, like anyone else, was communicating in a social context, reacting to his social environment and hoping in turn to influence those around him” (13).  He therefore emphasizes the importance of understanding the Buddha’s environment to understand his message, while at the same time noting the difficulty of properly reconstructing that environment.

Consider, for example, the anatta teaching.  Hindus, emphasizing the Buddha’s role as a “reformer,” have downplayed it, attempting to claim the Great Man as one of their own.  (Anatta, of course, flies in the face of Upanishadic teachings.)  Westerners, however, have misconstrued the “soul” the Buddha was apparently denying, seeing it from a Judaeo-Christian-Platonic perspective.  “But none of this has anything to do with the Buddha’s position,” Gombrich tells us (15).  “[The Buddha] was opposing the Upanishadic theory of the soul…”  He then goes on to elaborate how anatta only makes sense from that context.

This was my first point of significant disagreement with Gombrich.  Did the Buddha argue against the notion of an atman such as you find in the Upanishads?  Certainly.  Consider, for example, Brahmajala 1:30, 2:18, 2:38, all of which condemn Upanishadic teachings of one form or another about the Self.  (The Upanishads, it should be noted, are not monolithic, but contain multiple stances on this issue.)  But the Buddha’s anatta teaching is not primarily concerned with a metaphysical Self that, for most of us at least, is little better than an abstraction.  It is concerned, rather, with our experience of a locus of control, of inherent identity, of continuous being-ness, of “I am-ness,” as Ken Wilber likes to say.  (One of my gripes with the Great Integral Master…)  If it purely concerned the Upanishadic doctrine, the Dhamma would have no relevance to anyone today, unless they were followers of Upanishadic teachings.  (A few hundred million Hindus, I would guess.)  But then Gombrich redeems himself to an extent when he says “[The Buddha] was refusing to accept that a person had an unchanging essence.  Moreover, since he was interested in how rather than what, he was not so much saying that people are made of such and such components [i.e. the five aggregates], as that people function in such and such ways, and to explain their functioning there is not need to posit a soul.  The approach is pragmatic, not purely theoretical” (16).  I would go one step further and say it’s one hundred percent practical and not theoretical at all.  (As I’ve noted elsewhere, a three month Vipassana retreat should convince you of the reality of the anatta teaching, even if you don’t reach stream entry.  The moment-to-moment examination of experience and the inability to find a controller, a doer, even though suffering the sense one is lurking there somewhere, severely challenges any notion of identity.  Heady stuff…)

My objection here though is minor compared to the delights offered by this essay.  Gombrich goes on to discuss the Buddha’s skill-in-means, the assertion that the later tradition attempted to “level out” inconsistencies in his modes of expression, and concludes with a marvelous discussion of the simile of the raft (which confirmed a suspicion I’d had for a long time).

The second essay, “How, not what: kamma as a reaction to Brahminism,” illuminates the differences between the Buddha’s ethical orientation and the more ontological orientation of Brahminism. Here, too, he sees the Buddha in argument with the Upanishads, specifically the Brihadaranyaka U. (31).  The Upanishads asserted essence (especially as regards consciousness), the Buddha denied it (viz. dependent arising).  Gombrich says “that just as Being lies at the heart of the Upanishadic world view, Action [karma] lies at the heart of the Buddha’s” (48).  He runs with this idea, citing Lamotte, who called karma “the keystone of the entire Buddhist edifice” (49).  I think, however, that Gombrich goes too far.  In the Tevijja Sutta (D.13) the Buddha discusses how to attain the Brahma worlds via meditation on the four immeasurables (brahma-viharas).  Gombrich correctly notes that the Buddha says by such practice one can become like Brahma in his moral qualities, and gain ceto-vimutti, “release of the mind.”  He equates this with the liberation of nirvana.  “I am claiming that a close reading of the Tevijja Sutta shows that the Buddha taught that kindness—what Christians tend to call love—was a way to salvation” (62).

Now, I don’t need to cite texts to make my point here.  If you’ve got enough meditation practice under your belt, you will know that a heart practice like loving kindness (metta-bhavana; Mahayana practices to develop bodhicitta and Tibetan lojong are elaborations on this) is fundamentally different from an insight practice like vipassana or anapanasati.  While the former is intellectual and emotive and can develop concentration (i.e. it works with the contents of consciousness), the goal of the latter is to see directly the nature of experience itself.  While not at cross purposes, they are, you might say, at 90 degree angles to one another.  The development of concentration, which is absorption in a particular state of consciousness, as well as (in the brahma-viharas) the development of positive emotions and feelings, does not enable one to see the nature of one’s experience, which is what insight is all about.  Here we have Gombrich the scholar missing the truly applied—that which lies beyond the texts, in their lived experience—nature of the Buddha’s teaching.

Chapter three, “Metaphor, allegory, satire,” examine the Buddha’s manner of communication; specifically, how he used turns of speech, the flipping of terms, satire, etc to make his points.  This is probably the least weighty—and controversial—of the essays.  For me it was of interest in that it served to give a more human and concrete feel for the Buddha and his time.  Subjects discussed here include time, naga cults, allegory and satire, Mara, the Enlightenment, cosmology, and apperception.  (A lot!)

Chapter four—“Retracing an ancient debate: how insight worsted concentration in the Pali canon”—is controversial in the way the second essay was: it questions long-held assumptions about the nature and meaning of Buddhist practice and soteriology.  Briefly put: Gombrich believes the suttas point up tension between those who took an intellectual approach to the Dhamma (the insight or “wisdom” school) and those who advocated meditation (which he identified as concentration practice).  As Gombrich puts it, it was a battle between those who think “Enlightenment can be attained without meditation, by a process of intellectual analysis (technically known as paññā) alone” (96) and those who do not.

While it is clear there are tensions in the suttas between scholasticism and practice, I am not aware of the Buddha or any of his enlightened disciples propounding the notion one could get enlightened simply by thinking about it.  In other words, the identification of paññā solely with intellectual analysis is gravely mistaken.  What in fact appears to be the case is that those who favored paññā were monks (or laity) who were “dry insight” practitioners, much like the Mahasi satipatthana practice out of Burma.  Thus we have those who follow the more conventional concentration-and-insight path (attaining jhanas first and then the insight stages) versus those who go straight to insight.  But insight practice is not an intellectual exercise; anyone who has any familiarity with the Mahasi system can tell you that.

If you think the above is a trivial discussion, I want to assure you that in Sri Lanka, where opposition in the Sangha to the Mahasi practice was for a long time wide and vocal, a lot of ink has been spilled—and, probably, a few harsh words or blows exchanged—concerning which is the “right” or “correct” method of practice.  Regrettably, I have to say I don’t think Gombrich adds much to this discussion.

“Who was Angulimala?” is the last essay of the book, and possibly my favorite.  Who has not wondered about the true origins of this sutta, with its fantastic story of the homicidal bandit collecting fingers from his victims?  Who was this man, really, and what his motivation?  The sutta (and even its commentaries) does not come across as particularly reasonable in its internal logic, so these questions ought to naturally arise.  In this essay Gombrich offers some ingenious speculation on these questions that is quite possibly correct—though of course, we’ll never know.

All in all, while I found some of Gombrich’s arguments implausible, his book is a pleasure to read and a worthy contribution to the literature of Buddhist textual analysis.  His is a refreshing, learned and intelligent voice, and he admirably succeeds in unlocking closed doors, leaving it to us to open them and peer in and wonder what might be hidden behind them.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


Gautama Buddha by Vishvapani Blomfield

Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One by Vishvapani Blomfield.  Quercus 2011.  387 pages.

Having written several lengthy book reviews of late, I’m going to try to keep this one–my second-to-last of the year–relatively brief.

I was looking for an up-to-date, well researched biography of the Buddha, and I sort of found it in this book.  I say “sort of” because it wasn’t as heavy on the scholarship as I would have liked, though it was enjoyable, generally insightful, and informative.

Blomfield takes his time getting to the Buddha’s birth, first drawing a picture for us of the world Gotama grew up in.  He describes the political and economic scenes and gives us a sense of the religious ferment of the time.  I was disappointed though that while Blomfield adopts the more recent scholarship dating the Buddha to c.484 – 404 BCE, the rational for this new dating is never discussed.

Blomfield mostly adopts a realistic tone in portraying the events of the Buddha’s life and upbringing, though inevitably mythical elements intrude.  All in all, I think he does a pretty good job at indicating what sort of person the Buddha was–energetic and sincere, inquisitive, skeptical, a brilliant raconteur, adaptable, charismatic, a genius.  His treatment of Gotama’s search for enlightenment draws on recent scholarship (I recognized Alexander Wynne’s contributions) but for me his account of the enlightenment falls flat.  I actually got the sense Blomfield doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  I’m not saying he doesn’t know his way around the suttas, just that he doesn’t really seem to grasp what the Enlightenment actually entailed or meant.  (This despite the back flap claiming Blomfield has been practicing and/or teaching meditation for thirty years.)

After Gotama became the Buddha, the sequence of events is difficult to nail down, so Blomfield pauses to discuss the teaching.  I thought this the weakest part of the book, for the coverage here is incomplete, and let’s face it–I’m very hard to satisfy as regards these matters!  Admittedly though, saying something about the Teaching here is  unavoidable, and Blomfield takes a decent shot at it despite limited space.

Further chapters take up the formation of the Sangha, how the Buddha interacted with the society around him (“A Holy Man In the World”–an excellent chapter), the Devadatta crisis and then the last years.  By the end I realized just how much had either been left out or only skimmed over, and it occurred to me that if anyone is ever going to do a really thorough, scholarly treatment of the Buddha’s life it may well run to a thousand pages (not including a hundred pages of notes).  Personally, I would like to have seen more discussion of the important disciples, as well as something more about the various rival shramana sects (Ajivakas, Jains, etc) who competed with the Buddha.  Blomfield could have said more too about the archaeology of the Buddha’s life–e.g., the debate over exactly where Kapilavastu was (generally now thought to be Tilaurakot in Nepal) is a fascinating story in itself.  Anything at all to lift this man’s life out of the realm of legend and lost kingdoms and to place it on a solid footing, on the earth, connected to real things we can see and touch, would have been appreciated.  (And I can always dig talk of relics!)

I have one other specific complaint: the use of Sanskrit terms, place and personal names instead of their Pali equivalents.  I really don’t understand this practice.  The earliest texts, the only ones that can lay any claim to being truly biographical, are all in Pali.  It is simply logical to defer to those texts.  Using Sanskrit instead bespeaks an ideological prejudice of some sort, I am convinced.  Exactly what that prejudice might be, though, probably differs from one writer to the next.

Don’t take my complaints here too seriously though.  This is a worthy book and ought to prove inspirational to many.  While it is not quite the biography I would have liked, I can honestly say that what Blomfield has done here both moved and informed me.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


The Origin of Buddhist Meditation by Alexander Wynne

The Origin of Buddhist Meditation by Alexander Wynne.  Routledge 2007.  169 pages.

I found this an extremely thought-provoking, occasionally riveting, speculative account of the Buddha’s life before he was the Buddha, though it was also heavy going at times.  Wynne’s fundamental thesis is that by closely examining, through linguistic and comparative textual analysis, the earliest Buddhist scriptures, it is possible to not only detect earlier and later strata of material, but to actually catch the historical Buddha in action.  If this last phrase doesn’t set your ears on fire, I don’t know why you’re reading my blog.

Wynne tells you what’s on his mind right up front: “The biggest problem in Buddhist Studies is that nobody knows what the Buddha taught” (1).  While I actually don’t agree with this statement, it is fine as an operational standpoint or working hypothesis.  Indeed, it is the justification for Wynne’s entire project (with which I do agree), and if you want a magnifying lens view of the Dhamma, Wynne is a good guide.  He is to the point about what he intends to do:

 In this book I will reconsider the problem [“of establishing a relationship between early Buddhist doctrine and historical fact”].  I will attempt to prove that facts about the Buddha’s early life are historically authentic and can be used to identify some of his teachings in the early literature.  The historical facts in question concern the mysterious figures who are said to have taught meditation to the Buddha-to-be (the Bodhisatta), Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta.  I will claim that the primary text in which this account is contained, the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, is probably the earliest and most historically valuable biographical tract in the early Buddhist literature.  This being the case, it is quite likely that the Bodhisatta really was taught meditation by these two men.  This text does not say anything about the content of the earliest Buddhist teachings, but I will use it to provide a historical background to early Buddhist thought in another way.  I will attempt to show correspondences between the early literature on the two teachers and some of the speculations contained in the philosophical literature of early Brahminism.  By this means I will try to reconstruct the philosophical presuppositions of the two teachers’ meditative practices.  This will lead to a much improved understanding of the teachings that the Bodhisatta rejected and thus, I will claim, some idea of his intellectual development (2-3).

I actually believe he accomplishes most, if not all, of the above.  There are trials and tribulations along the way though, interspersed with sections of wonderful insightfulness and interest, and these—the good and the bad—are what I’ll be talking about in this review.

First the good:  You can learn a lot of really cool stuff from this book!  Wynne is a skillful detective, and he leads you step by step via meticulous analysis of the texts, their words and their histories, to ferret out clues to the Buddha’s life story.  Consider a neat little revelation he offers in the introduction.  Starting with an insight Richard Gombrich offered concerning jokes and puns attributed to the Buddha (“Are jokes ever composed by committees?”) (2), he goes on to point out that even the Vinaya’s monastic laws can be sources of historical insight:

 …one of the rules in the Bhikkhu-patimokkha forbids the teaching of the dhamma ‘word to word’ to a layman.  From this evidence we cannot conclude that such things never happened…  However, in stipulating that the teaching out not to be ‘word for word’ (padaso), the rule indirectly indicates the manner of teaching the dhamma to ordained monastics… and implies that Suttas were transmitted ‘word for word’ even in the earliest period, thus raising the possibility that some of the Buddha’s teachings, and perhaps even his words, have been preserved verbatim (7).

I offer this as an example of the sort of deductive textual analysis Wynne employs, and which, it seems to me, yields much fruit.

The book’s chief focus, as noted, concerns the two teachers the bodhisatta studied under before his enlightenment, the meditation masters Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta.  Personally, I’ve never had any doubt they were real people, but Wynne pursues the reality of their existences with the enthusiasm of a prosecuting attorney.

Apparently some smart people have doubted they ever lived—Messers Zafiropulo, Bareau, Bronkhorst and Vetter among the guilty.  Wynne has first to undermine their arguments and then set his own in place as superior.  I will not here attempt to reconstruct the points-counterpoints (I’m trying to encourage you to read the book, after all), though I can’t help but note one passage on page 13 where Wynne discusses the Bharandu Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya.  Bharandu, it turns out, was also known as Bharandu Kalama, and the Buddha was visiting the man in the hermitage of their former teacher, Alara Kalama.  “It is even possible that Bharandu, and not the Buddha (who had forsaken the community), was the son or spiritual heir of Alara.”  I don’t know why, but the image of these two old companions on the Path reminiscing in that hermitage (where is it now?) gave me a quite indescribable thrill.  I think the text has indeed recorded a moment in time, and the sutta seems to corroborate the story of the bodhisatta’s apprenticeship under Alara Kalama.

Similarly, in the discussion of Uddaka Ramaputta (the “son of Rama”), Wynne makes much of idiosyncrasies of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, noting that some scholars (e.g. I.B. Horner) have “been duped by [its] repetitive oral style” into missing the differences between the Udakka Ramaputta and Alara Kalama accounts.  For example, upon close reading it becomes clear it was Uddaka’s father Rama and not Uddaka himself who had attained the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (fourth of the arupa jhanas).  And that is why, before the bodhisatta departs, Uddaka offers him not co-governorship of the community (as Alara Kalama had done), but total control.  (This says a lot for the kind of person Uddaka was, by the way.)

I don’t want to dwell overlong on particulars here.  Suffice to say that anyone interested in Shakyamuni the man (as opposed to simply the myth) will find great pleasure in Wynne’s textual revelations.  I think he proves well that the suttas have much to offer the historian, not only in terms of discovering what kind of person the Buddha was (I was so impressed by what I read about the Buddha on page 99 I scribbled “fucking genius!” in the margin), but also his teaching.

As noted though Wynne does hit some stumbling blocks.  The biggest is his insistence that Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta necessarily represent a Brahminic meditation tradition as opposed to shramanic.  (This is, by the way, the chief complaint Vishvapani Blomfield brings against Wynne in his review.)  Discussion concerning the shramanas—the wanderers and free-lance ascetics so numerous in the Buddhist suttas—is curiously absent from Wynne’s book.  The emphasis is almost entirely on brahminism, but the region around Magadha where the Buddha lived and taught lay somewhat outside the main sphere of Brahminic influence, which was more to the northwest; you might even call it a backwater.  I have always been inclined therefore to assume the Bodhisatta’s teachers were not members of the established tradition of rituals and sacrifices, but stood more on the fringes, offering alternative, perhaps even controversial or exotic ideas and practices.  If, for example, you look at the Buddha’s brahmin interlocutors versus the wanderers, you’ll see the spheres of interest of the two groups are almost mutually exclusive: one is all about “hearth and home,” community and rituals, the other is interested in meditation, other worlds, and the value—or lack thereof—of various ascetic practices.

(At the same time, if you look at the larger picture of Indian mediation systems and their associated beliefs, I think it is difficult, indeed artificial, to say that one group of meditators’ practices were “Brahmin” while another’s was “Jain” or Buddhist or shramanic or whatever.  The reason, simply, is that contemplatives are on the whole a fairly practical lot—that is, they tend to use what works—and the reason the Buddha continued using the practices of his teachers was because they delivered genuine benefits.  Similarly, whether the teachers came from a brahminical tradition or not is somewhat irrelevant given the religious environment of the time.  The suttas clearly reflect a world in which people of all different stripes—loners, community followers, intellectual leaders, freelance philosophers—all went around competing, arguing and sharing what they did and why they did it.  I think any notion of a tight, “pure” tradition—brahmin or otherwise—is illusory.)

I also wonder if Wynne understands a lot of what he’s talking about, specifically as regards the meditative states that are front and center in some of his discussions.  He talks a lot about “element meditation” but never really defines it, and then on page 39 says “Early Buddhist and Brahminic meditators, so it seems, believed that liberation was achieved by means of a meditative progression through the material elements and a few higher states of consciousness beyond them.”  This statement is patently false in the light of the Pali suttas (nibbana is not the top of an ascending stair of meditative states) and it puzzles me how he could actually believe it.  Also, on page 43 he essentially says the Upanishadic doctrines are based on experience of the formless realms.  But for anyone with firsthand experience of these states of consciousness this has to appear a dubious assertion at best.  While the early Buddhists did indeed draw equivalencies between mental states and ontological states (realms) of existence, the jhanas are not nondual in character; that is, the Upanishadic philosophy (tat tvam asi = “That thou art”) is unlikely to have been deduced or derived from them.

I think this lack of understanding of meditative states shows itself most seriously on pages 102-3. There Wynne discusses the meaning of “consciousness stopped,” in the process asking a number of questions.  For example: What is meant when the text says consciousness is “stopped”?  What does this have to do with liberation?  Do these passages contradict other passages in the suttas?  Does consciousness disappear when liberation is attained?  (Which, I must say, would be quite a trick!)  The best Wynne can manage in response to these psychological quandaries is a bit of philological wiggling and then what amounts to a shrug of the shoulders and the decidedly unsatisfying conclusion that perhaps it all comes down to “poetic license.”

My final complaint—and what will probably bother most readers far more than anything I’ve said thus far—is the specialist-level depth of some of the philological discussions.  Consider the following riveting passage from page 62 (note: I am missing the diacritical marks):

 The relative/correlative construction yadtan in 3cd may be pronominal or adverbial, and both possibilities suggest different cosmogonies.  The problem is confused by the fact that tan in 3d agrees with (e)kam: this suggests that the subject of 3d may be identical with the subject of v. 1-2, named in 2c as tad ekam.  This identification is accepted by Brereton, but according to the alternative interpretation offered above, which generally agrees with Macdonell’s translation, this is not so and the word ekam in 3d is a red herring.  The same confusion surrounds the word tad in 4a—it could be either a pronoun or an adverb.  Moreover, a confusion over the relative clause, similar to that found in 3cd, is again seen in 4b.  Macdonell and Bereton think that yad in 4b picks up kamas of 4a, but it could be a relative pronoun agreeing with tad in 4a… (62)

If after reading this you are not experiencing at least a small degree of mental constipation you clearly possess a stronger constitution than do I.  (Or perhaps you finished fourth year Sanskrit…)  So, fair warning: you will have to endure a bit of this sort of thing—especially in chapter four—to get to the pearls I noted earlier.

My advice?  Endure!

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams.  Routledge 1989/2009.  438 pages.

As the back of the book will tell you, the 1989 publication of this work’s first edition made quite a stir and, I quote, “It is still unrivalled.”  Indeed, it has become a foundational text for courses on Mahayana Buddhism at the university level, and since almost two decades of burgeoning scholarship in the field had passed, a second edition was considered necessary.

I can say this much: it is quite a book.  If you are smitten with a lust for all things Mahayana—its history, people, practices, and philosophies—look no further.  In fact, this book may even cure you of your unwholesome desires.  What I mean is that the page count does not give you any idea of what you’re getting into.

By the numbers: 438 total pages; 266 pages of main text; 122 pages of end notes; 32 pages of bibliography.  You can do the math for the rest.  Every page is dense with names, dates, terms, unpronounceable sutra titles (if you can actually say Bodhisattvagocaropayavishayavikurvananirdesha Sutra you must already be enlightened) and who knows what else.  And just look at the notes to main text pages ratio: 0.46!  I scrounged around my shelves, where I have a great many scholarly books on a wide array of topics, but could find nothing comparable.  Even Bhikkhu Bodhi’s monumental translation of the Samyutta Nikaya clocked in at an anemic 0.25.  Usually I’m an assiduous reader of notes (though I confess to loathing endnotes—why oh why did the publishing industry quit on footnotes??), but this time I just gave up.  Many of the end notes are so lengthy by the time you finish one you’ve forgotten where you were on the main page.  All of which leads me to my chief complaint about Williams’ opus:

Loss of control.

Sometimes you want to lose control (think sex—especially if you’re a woman).  But when you’re writing something touted as a textbook—and an intro textbook to boot—you want to be measured in just how much data you dump on your audience.  One hundred twenty-two pages of endnotes are not only unhelpful, they’re positively sadistic—or self-indulgent, which in this case comes to the same thing.  Let me put this in perspective: I have a fair education in Buddhist literature under my belt.  I’m not as deeply read as most scholars, but I would wager I understand a few things as well as anyone.  I will admit though I began to get dizzy in places as I read this book (lack of oxygen?), and resorted to skipping to those areas where I felt greater interest and surer footing.  So…reader beware: you are in for a sensory overload with this one; bring the Dramamine.  I’ll now return to my ordinarily more professional reviewing style.

Williams starts with an introduction the likes of which I’ve never seen.  Introductions are usually, well, introductory, but by page 17 (it goes on for 44 pages) he was already enumerating the numbers and types of dhammas according to the Abhidhamma classification scheme!  Needless to say, this sort of material is not ordinarily considered introductory.  At times I wondered if I’d somehow skipped into the first chapter and missed something, but no…on checking I found I was still in the introduction.  I think this is where I started to get worried.

To sum up the above complaint and how it affects the text as a whole: it appears Williams felt compelled to put everything he knew into this book, not to mention the obscure article he read the night before.  He mixes social history, philosophy, biographies, the history of specific texts and schools, all in a jumble.  (See, e.g., p. 67, where a chart would have been so much more helpful.)  You can’t write a book in this fashion; or at least, I advise against it.  Different areas need to be kept separate, or integrated with great care, but that is clearly not what happened.  In other words, I don’t suggest discussing a sutra’s history and provenance, its philosophy, the school that formed around it, and its effects on later readers and its place in the grand scheme of things all on the same page.  It’s just too much.  But this is really the best way to characterize how Williams has gone about summarizing fifteen hundred years of Mahayana doctrinal history.  Like I said, “loss of control”…

The upside of this avalanche of information is that there’s something for everyone.  And if you need the latest scholarly speculation on this text or that school, chances are you’ll find it in here (somewhere).  So this is the other edge of the sword—an abundance of fact and insight (yes, Professor Williams has carefully and intelligently considered his material) that is there if you have the patience and fortitude to dig it out.  I’ll offer a random list of what were, for me, eye opening or especially intriguing passages:

  • Page 43 on how the Mahayana began to develop a separate identity vis-à-vis “mainstream” Buddhism;
  • Pages 48-9 on Conze’s outline of Mahayana intellectual history;
  • Pages 60-1 on some of the internal logical inconsistencies besetting Mahayana Buddhology (authors rarely think out loud like this—I found the honesty refreshing);
  • Pages 68-9 make clear the meaning of svabhava;
  • Pages 71-2 indicated to me that Nagarjuna was first and foremost a deconstructionist, not a nihilist as opponents have charged;
  • Page 74 reassured me that Nagarjuna did not abrogate the teaching of anatta;
  • Pages 108ff suggested where notions of a True Self in Buddhism came from;
  • Pages 122ff on the debate over not-self in Thai Buddhism was fascinating, something I was previously unaware of;
  • Pages 132ff are a wonderful discussion of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the most profound if not most influential of Mahayana scriptures;
  • Chapter seven on the Lotus Sutra reminded me many times over why I so detest this particular scripture;
  • Page 184 has an excellent chart on the three bodies of the Buddha;
  • Chapter nine on the bodhisattva was at once inspiring and comical (on account of all the contradictions found in the texts);
  • Chapter ten offers a detailed who’s who of bodhisattvas and buddhas for all you folks out there who can’t figure out which statue is for whom and why.

And that about does it.  As I said, not only will you be punished in the course of this text, you will be rewarded as well.  There is a lot of pleasure and pain to go around.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars


Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Williams et al.  Routledge 2000, 323 pages.

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


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


Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana

Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana.  The University Press of Hawaii 1976.  188 pages.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book—probably at least four times, maybe five.  There’s a reason for this: it’s relatively short, dense with information and insight, well written, and the single best book I know of for demonstrating the clear differences—nay, the rift—that lies between the teachings of the early texts (Pali suttas) espoused by the Theravada and those of the later Mahayana and Vajrayana sutras.

If the above sounds partisan, allow me to explain.  I have long been dismayed by the cavalier way in which so many Buddhists—and even scholars—muddle up terms and ideas from the different Buddhist traditions.  They take a little from here, a little from there, and assume that all of this represents the Buddha’s thinking.  They sometimes even buy into the idea that the early teachings were somehow “less developed” or “sophisticated”—hinayana, as they say.  Very beginner books are especially prone to do this, and since that’s where so many people start their dharma journey (for understandable reasons), the intellectual foundation they lay for themselves is often vague and non-discriminating as regards the historical realities of Buddhist thought.  Needless to say, a foundation of sand cannot serve anyone well when they venture into more difficult and challenging terrain.  Anyone reading this book, however, should avoid such troubles.

While the subtitle is “a historical analysis” the emphasis is much more on analysis than history.  In line with a historical approach, however, the book starts at the beginning in “Early Buddhism.”  Seven chapters take up critical points of the historical Buddha’s thoughts—epistemology, causality (more on this later), the three marks of existence, karma and rebirth, ethics and, lastly, nirvana.  In each case Kalupahana shoots right for the heart, trying to dig at the critical points underlying each concept.  Particularly noteworthy here, I think, is his discussion of the Buddha’s epistemology—that is, what the Buddha viewed as valid sources of knowledge.  Already here we can see how the Buddha stands out from so many other philosophers—not to mention religious teachers—in that he clearly equates the means of knowledge with knowledge (“gnosis”) itself.  The two are not distinct; his approach is relentlessly empirical.  Revelation and reason from unexamined a priori assumptions are rejected.  Only direct seeing without the intrusion of egoic distortions can be taken as valid (“in the seeing, only the seen” etc.).  I always get a thrill reading these kinds of passages and contemplating this man, a product of fifth century BCIndia, so far ahead of even the most modern of thinkers.  Kalupahana does an excellent job illustrating this, as well as other points.

This is not to say I agree with everything Kalupahana writes about the early teachings.  In particular I would fault his discussion of paticcasamuppada (“Dependent Arising”) or, as he terms it, “causality.”  My problem lies in particular with that word—causality.  As defined by Merriam-Webster, causality is “the relation between a cause and its effect or between regularly correlated events or phenomena.”  Consulting Hume, we get his first three points on causality, which define the commonsense notion:

  1. The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
  2. The cause must be prior to the effect.
  3. There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect.

Clearly what is implied in these definitions is a process in time: A (at time 1) causes (or determines) B (at time 2) etc.  But this is not how the Buddha describes Dependent Arising.  In fact, look at that translation—dependent arising.  B can be dependent upon A, but this does not mean A is its cause or precedes it in time.  Referring to the classical definition of dependent arising: “When there is this, that is; with the arising of this, that arises; when this is not; that is not; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—we can see clearly that the order of A and B is not chronological but structural.

Consider a twelve storey building.  It would be ridiculous to say that the first floor causes the second floor.  It would be perfectly correct though to say that it supports it, that the second floor is dependent upon it, and that if the first floor ceases, the second will cease (collapse) as well.  In considering this analogy, its obvious limitation has to be acknowledged: when building a twelve storey tower the first floor is necessarily constructed in time before the second floor.  But when speaking of human consciousness—which is what paticcasamuppada concerns—one part of consciousness does not appear before another part—consciousness simply appears, it is—and as it is, its structure is internally dependent/conditioned after the fashion of the Buddha’s description.

Failure to consider Dependent Arising as a structural principle leads to the sort of nonsense Theravadan commentators wallowed in, like the three lives interpretation.  Obviously, if the Buddha had actually wanted to teach such a thing, he would have done so, but nowhere in the suttas does the Buddha ever imply that dependent arising is a process stretching over time, not to speak over multiple lives.  Instead, he describes it as akalika—literally “not (in) time.”  Moreover, were it a process in time, it would of necessity be a thing remembered and therefore open to the distortion of memory.  But the Buddha described it also as sanditthika, meaning visible here-and-now.  Too, no arhant’s awakening experience (as described in the suttas) ever involved memory of past lives, which, again, the notion of causality and the resulting three-lives interpretation of necessity imply.  (None of this is to say though that the Buddha never discussed causality in the sense of trains of response and counter-response in emotions, actions, and social behaviors.)This is the most significant caveat I would issue in regards to Kalupahana’s work, though even this does not obviate the invaluable service he offers in distinguishing early and later Buddhisms.

The latter portions of the book clarify Mahayana, beginning first with the development of scholasticism, then the newer sutras and explicitly philosophical schools, such as Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka and the Yogacara.  In these later thinkers we see the development of philosophical absolutism and the steady departure from the Buddha’s psychological and empirical approach in favor of more metaphysical and speculative ideas.  The results often bear more resemblance to the Advaita of Shankara than to the Dhamma of the Buddha.  As Kalupahana puts it:

We have attempted to explain the gradual development of the absolutist tendency within Buddhism after the death of the Buddha.  If what has been said here regarding the early doctrines is true, then the Prajnaparamitas certainly represent a “revolution”…in Buddhism.  The revolution consists of the adoption of the transcendentalist standpoint, which is opposed to the empirical approach of early Buddhism (p.134).

That, in a nutshell, is the vital lesson of the book and the best reason for reading it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Buddhist Religion by Richard H. Robinson

The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Rob inson, Dickenson Publishing Company, 1970, 136 pages.

This book is one of a popular series of books entitled “The Religious Life of Man” released during the sixties and seventies and edited by Frederick J. Streng.  A fifth edition, released in 2004 and revised by Willard Johnson and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is also available in the more politically correctly named series “Religious Life in History.”

I would lay money on it anyone who took intro to religion courses during the seventies and eighties read at least one of these books.  I read four, the best being Thomas J. Hopkins’ dense but excellent survey entitled The Hindu Religious Tradition.  Robinson’s work is not as good as Hopkins’ but is still useful for a newcomer to Buddhism.  As is invariably the case with books of this sort, it is broad in sweep though shallow in terms of doctrine or practice.  Nonetheless, it does offer a few surprising moments of insight.

The first chapter, entitled “The Scene Today” (today of course being sometime in the late sixties when Robinson was writing; he died, tragically, in 1970 at the age of 44 from a gas explosion), takes the reader on a tour of the Buddhist world, starting, appropriately, in Bodh Gaya and heading thence to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Tibet-in-India, Vietnam (where monks were still immolating themselves), to Japan and the West.  This tour is kind of a “blast from the past,” Buddhism as it was forty years ago, coping with war and communism and the interest generated in it by the hippie generation.  The book, clearly, is dated, but since history is its main concern, even its datedness is not without interest.

Chapter 2 is a whirlwind overview of the Buddha’s life and teaching.  Honestly, I always get a bit of a kick reading scholarly surveys of the Dhamma.  Such surveys are the inevitable starting points for anyone venturing into the Teaching, but written as they typically are by scholars who are paid to be “objective” and “historical” they inevitably reveal the limitations of even the most brilliant and learned minds if they’ve not had actual experience with practice.  Still, it is worth learning about the Buddha’s life milieu–namely, the sramana and ascetic culture of fifth century BC India–and Robinson covers this in addition to the basic elements of his biography.

I found myself especially intrigued by Robinson’s comments on the Enlightenment.  He writes:

What actually happened on the night of the Enlightenment?  The oldest account is stylized and exhibits typical mythic features.  It purports, though, to be autobiographical, and the claim may be substantially true.  First-person reporting of “peak experiences” was not a genre in pre-Buddhist Indian literature, and flourished only sporadically in later centuries.  Implicit in it is the affirmation that the particular experiences of a historical person are of outstanding value.  The dignity, economy, and sobriety of the account not only highlight the magnitude of Gautama’s claims, but strongly suggest a remarkable man behind the style, self-assured and self-aware, assertive but not bombastic.  If disciples put such words into the mouth of their master, then who put into their minds such an image of him? (pp. 18-19).

Robinson goes on to review the knowledges obtained by the Bodhisattva during the night of his enlightenment, concluding they are “two-thirds shamanism ethically transformed, and one-third philosophy,” and suggesting comparisons to the “mysterious light” seen by Eskimo shamans.  These are certainly the words of a professor of comparative religion, and as such give voice to the inherent humanness and universality of the Buddha’s experience while at the same time not actually understanding it.  Robinson offers a similar interpretation of the First Sermon, suggesting that the prominence the Buddha gave to suffering stems from

the essential component of the chief primitive rights of initiation into manhood.  The warrior brotherhood tests the initiant by ordeal to see whether he is worthy and to stimulate his martial powers.  The shaman guild initiates the neophyte with a ritual dismemberment and other austerities to solemnize  his change of status, but even more to effect a transformation of his personality and to endow him with powers.  Suffering kills the old self and induces “the second birth.”  The Buddhist way partakes of both martial and shamanic elements.  It is a state of prolonged initiation, lasting until nirvana is attained.  The Buddha rejected extreme physical mortification, but in its place he put mental mortification, the contemplation of universal suffering (p. 29).

I quote this passage at length as an illustration not of Robinson’s failure to “get” the Buddha’s teaching, but rather to indicate the fine line that any would-be scholar walks when assessing this teaching.  As they say, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  In this case, the hammer is traditional, “objective” scholarship, the point-of-view that disdains any point-of-view–for such would not be “objective”!  The nail, of course, is the Object of study, and in truth anything is just as worthy as anything else for study, be it neolithic pottery from Anatolia or the history of the sonnet in Elizabethan poetry.  In this case, however, it is the Dhamma that is being objectified, and the fact that the Buddha lived and died for this teaching, and in doing so affected millions of human beings in the most personal of ways, is something that is lost in its translation into an Object of academic interest.  Like the carved totem from some vanished tribe’s ritual, the Dhamma becomes, in the hands of the scholar, a mere curiosity.

The rest of the book is a quick overview of the Dhamma’s growth and decline in India and its spread to Tibet, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and into East Asia.  Hundreds of names and dozens of doctrines are taken up and dropped, so that for the beginner this may come off as a dizzy race through time and space.  This kind of survey almost always feels like this–who, after all, could possibly remember all those people and what they said?–but since one has to start somewhere this is as good a place as any.  For students who really want to get something out of the book, keeping a list of major schools and important personages would probably be the best way to make use of the material.  Then later one can go back and explore more in-depth items of interest.  Robinson’s bibliography, though dated, is still good, and can serve as a springboard to other, richer works.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars


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