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Archive for the category “Pali Suttas”

Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki

Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki.  Wisdom Publications 2010.  190 pages.

Book blurbs are invariably hyperbolic, laudatory and, well, a wee bit exaggerated.  In this case, I think they’re actually spot on.  Consider this from Christopher Germer: “This book has the power to change how you see yourself and the world.”  Or the following from Joseph Goldstein: “[Olendzki] enlarges our understanding of basic principles and raises occasionally unsettling questions about familiar assumptions.”  Or, from David Loy: “Olendzki’s presentation of the Abhidhamma is particularly helpful and informative.”  I could go on, but you get my drift.  This is, indeed, a work of great knowledge and perspicacity.

First, as to the contents.  The book consists of previously published essays from a variety of venues, mainly Tricylce, Insight Journaland Buddhadharma.  The upshot of this is that there really is no sustained polemic or argument to the text, though it is organized into sections with such titles as “Caring for the World,” “Constructing Reality,” “Self and Non-Self” etc.  I admit I hardly noticed these as I read though. The individual essay topics hit all the traditional Buddhist favorites–dependent arising, not-self, suffering, impermanence, karma, ethics, as well as war and peace, the environmental crisis, modern psychology, and other things besides.  However, the book does not really develop progressively from section to section.

This hardly mattered to me because each essay is itself a little gem.  Olendzki brings several strengths to his work.  First, he is very familiar with the Pali texts, the oldest Buddhist scriptures and the only ones that can claim a direct link to the Buddha himself.  Second, he has clearly read and pondered and used these texts in the way they are meant to be studied and used–as guides to one’s world of inner experience.  He has done this thoroughly and reflectively, and brings a strong teaching resume to the work.  (His academic credentials are solid, plus he has a long-time association with IMS.)  Third, Olendzki is an excellent writer.  He is quotable, to the point, clear, and succinct.  In other words, he’s got all the ingredients necessary to turn out a masterful book, and that is what he’s done.

This is a work that can speak for itself, so I offer a few quotes as examples.  Here is Olendzki on the ever-controversial issue of anatta:

One assumption challenged [by the Buddha] is that the self has some sort of privileged ontological status as a substance, an essence, or a spiritual energy that is something other than the manifestations of a person’s natural physical and mental processes.  Self might be a useful word for referring to a person’s body, feelings, perceptions, behavioral traits, and consciousness, but it cannot be construed as something underlying or transcending these manifestations.  It may be a good designation of a person, in other words, but a person is not something other than how he or she manifests in experience (9).

Olendzki adds much as well to the understanding of paticca samuppada:

As an example of interdependent origination making a specific contribution to the new psychologies, we can look more closely at the relationship between feeling and desire.  As we have already seen, Buddhist psychology regards feeling–the affect tone of pleasure or displeasure–as an intrinsic feature of the mind/body organism.  Every moment’s experience of an object will come with a feeling tone, whether or not this feeling is accessed by conscious awareness.  In response to a feeling of pleasure or pain, an emotional response or attitude of liking or not liking the object may also arise.  Most of us conflate these two experiences much of the time, concluding that a particular object is liked or disliked.

However, in fact the object is merely experienced, and the liking or disliking of it is something added by our psychological response to it.  This difference is a subtle but important nuance…  It is the difference between “I am an unworthy person” and “I am a person who is feeling unworthy just now” (13-14).

Here Olendzki puts the Buddhist path into perspective, at the same time revealing its non-theistic origins:

Having identified that suffering is caused by a thorn–craving–lodged deep in the heart, the Buddha offered to pull out that thorn, allowing a person to find peace in any circumstance.  It turns out that extracting the thorn is not something magical, requiring the special grace or powers of a transcendent being; rather it is something that can be learned by almost anyone.  Since the causes of human suffering are ultimately psychological, the healing process is psychological.  This somehow puts the whole enterprise within reach, and renders it attainable (15).

Amazingly, the above passages are all found just in the introduction!  With such a wealth of well-put insight, how could any sincere and open-minded person not benefit from this book?

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Karma This, Karma That…

I recently encountered someone online who described karma as a “theory,” or “thesis.”  Ironically, they also criticized Stephen Batchelor as doing a disservice to Buddhism.  I noted that the Buddha in Anguttara Nikaya 6.63 explicitly stated: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and thought.”  Since I can see my intentions in real time (if I look), I therefore can see karma and, ipso facto, karma is not a theory but a lived fact, like breathing or farting or whatever.  For good measure, I quoted the Sutta Nipata where the Buddha defined karma as that which has consequences or results:

651-By action [kamma] is one a farmer, by action a craftsman,
By action is one a merchant, by action a servant,

652-By action is one a thief, by action a soldier,
By action is one a priest, by action a king.

I thought this made the stance of the historical Buddha as regards the definition of karma pretty clear.  But in response I was told that we do not see karma, only enlightened beings can do this.  I was also told karma is both cause and effect and the force that binds these together.  I was also told to get my head out of the Pali Canon.

I found these responses and the attitude they betrayed perplexing to say the least, and I’d like to take a moment to dissect what’s going on here.

First, let’s get back to Stephen Batchelor.  Batchelor is famous for his efforts to strip Buddhism of its mythology, dogma and old-fashioned delusions.  For this general program I applaud him, but he has a frightening tendency to confuse babies with bathwater.  When it comes to karma he kind of, almost, sort of gets it right, since in the chapter entitled “Rebirth” in his Buddhism Without Beliefs he quotes the above passage on the equation of karma and intention.  But then he goes on to spout silly and unjustifiable things, as when he claims on page 37 that karma is (just) an “ancient Indian metaphysical theory” and that “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  The first statement directly contradicts the definition of karma as intention (nothing theoretical there) and the second is simply false since if you can directly observe something it is a datum of experience and not something you need take on faith.

This misapprehension of the term karma seems to be a widespread problem, partly because not all Buddhists are even willing to acknowledge the quite straightforward definition of the term from the oldest texts—as in “get your head out of the Pali Canon.”  The inevitable result is vacuous assertions like “only enlightened people can see karma,” which is exactly the mindset Batchelor—quite rightly—criticizes.  In the case of my interlocutor, he clearly had an animus toward “narrow hinayanists,” not to mention a dislike for evidence that didn’t conform to his beliefs.   Such an attitude reflects a “true believer” mentality, since if we cannot experience something until the hoped-for day we get enlightened, then we have no choice but to accept the word of those who claim themselves enlightened.  This way of thinking reduces the Buddha’s teaching to a faith-based religion.

I loathe faith-based religions.  While I may with good reason accept a proposition as a working theory, I remain ever ready to toss it out if and when strong contrary evidence comes to light.  I treat a range of phenomena in this fashion, most notably the thesis of rebirth.  I accept rebirth for a variety of reasons, but I would not say I believe it.  I am willing to dispense with the notion; it just so happens that the balance of data I’ve encountered so far weighs in favor of it.  (When I went to Asia at age 23, I was quite firmly of the opinion rebirth/reincarnation did not happen.)

But I digress.  Back to karma.

Another point I made in the debate was that karma is cause, not effect.  I noted that vipaka (“fruit”) is the word the Buddha defined as the effect of karma; it is what happens as a result of my intentional action.  I was told this amounted to “an appeal to authority” and was therefore an illegitimate argument.

[Scratch head.]

Imagine you and I are playing Scrabble.  I disagree with your spelling of a word, or even doubt the word’s existence.  You suggest we look it up in Webster’s.  I then say “No dice!  That’s an appeal to authority.”  What should you do other than punch me?  I mean, really?  The issue here is not “authority.”  The issue is the definition and proper use of technical vocabulary, and it seems a great many people—especially when it’s something they’re emotionally vested in, like a religion—are inclined to making up definitions to suit themselves.

Think of the chaos that would ensue in daily life if everybody went about their affairs in this way.  Suppose you’re a Freudian analyst and one day, for amusement’s sake, you switch the meaning of the words “id” and “ego.”  How long will you last before you’ve lost everyone in the room?  How long will you last before you lose your board certification and are out of a job?

As in any endeavor, progress begins with learning the lingo.  It continues with clear and sincere motivations.  It is consummated when you are able to effectively communicate your realization, your understanding, to others in such a way that it helps them.  For this reason I find karma deniers and obfuscators among the most pernicious so-called Buddhists around.  They take a simple but very important idea and flog it until it submits to their ulterior motives.  This is not helpful.  It is bad karma.

The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges by Matara Sri Ñanarama

The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges: A Guide to the Progressive Stages of Buddhist Meditation by the Venerable Mahathera Matara Sri Ñanarama.  Buddhist Publication Society 1983/2000.  74 pages.

Do not be fooled by the page count.  This is a dense little book with lots of Pali outlining in detail the stages of meditation development originally described in Buddhaghosa’s work the Visuddhi Magga.  Its purpose is not to teach you how to meditate.  The assumption here is that you’ve already been given the instructions and are now in a position to put them into practice.  What the book describes are the results of that practice, from your first meeting with the bare phenomena of experience until the moment everything winks out of existence–i.e. nibbana (nirvana).

I’m not going to attempt here to explain what the seven stages are–that’s the purpose of the book, after all.  What I will say is that if you are planning to take up vipassana (i.e. insight, or satipatthana) practice in a serious way, you need to read this book or some equivalent substitute.  In other words, it behooves the one who would travel in his own mind to get a map and to master it–to know the terrain–before traveling there.  Failure to do so is likely to result in confusion, disorientation, lost time and wasted effort, not to mention needless pain and suffering.  You should view this as what it is–an atlas of mental states to be experienced by those who drive the vehicle of insight.

As a guide, the book is excellent.  It tells you in detail what you’ll encounter, along with the dangers, rewards, and tips on what needs to be done to keep up momentum and keep the goal in sight.  Do not look for scintillating prose or touchy-feely New Age fluff–it isn’t here.  This is hardcore, to be known, used, and–ideally–mastered.  The goal is to make this material your own, not to debate its merits as a “philosophy” book.  All the philosophy the West has produced will do less for you than will following this little guide.  The dialogues of Plato,  Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the aphorisms of Nietzsche–none will give as much to you if you are willing to sit down and do the work this thin text recommends.

That goes for me, too, by the way.

Other books and resources in a similar vein you should check out are: The Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, by Mahasi Sayadaw, Daniel Ingram’s talk at Brown University’s Cheetah House, Kenneth Folk’s writings on the progress of insight.  Use them all.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based On the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness by Nyanaponika Thera.  Buddhist Publication Society 1954/1996.  223 pages.

If Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught introduced me to the thought of the early texts, this one introduced me to their practice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it until I was already in Asia and losing some of my attraction for Zen.  Since I’d been reared on Sanskrit terminology, the existence of this other language (Pali) and its corpus remained somewhat hidden from me, despite my earlier exposure.  I remember the weird feeling just reading the world “satipatthana” gave me…

Many of the compliments I paid to Rahula’s work I can pay to this one as well.  In fact, the two are even structured in a similar fashion–a dense yet lucid, non-sectarian exposition followed by an expertly translated and arranged set of selections from the suttas.  The chief difference lies in the more focused and practical thrust of this book.  If Rahula’s is for orientation, a gazeteer or general map, as it were, Nyanaponika’s is like the car you get in to travel to your destination.

The book’s focus is the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is the same discourse as the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) only minus the exposition of the four noble truths.  In effect, Nyanaponika’s little book is a commentary upon this great teaching.  The first chapter, “The Way of Mindfulness,” discusses the centrality of mental culture in the Buddha’s teaching, and places mindfulness (sati) at the heart of the practice of mental culture.

Chapter two, “Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension,” is the critical part.  Here the notion of “bare attention” is defined, and for those who are entirely new to meditation, this may be a difficult concept to wrap the head around precisely because it is not a concept.  The teaching of Right Mindfulness is described within the context of bare attention.  Clear comprehension (sampajañña), the second aspect of Right Mindfulness, is discussed in various ways per the sutta commentaries, such as awareness of what one is doing, the suitability of one’s actions, etc.

Chapter three, “The Four Objects of Mindfulness,” dives into the discourse proper, examining the various bases or foundations of practice, the body (breath, postures, contemplation of disgust for the body, etc), feelings (i.e. what is felt or sensed internally and externally), mental states (sleepy, clear, distracted, etc) and mental objects (thoughts and emotions that arise and pass away).

Chapter four attempts to counter charges that these practices are “coldly intellectual,” “dry,” or “indifferent,” charges that have at times been leveled at Theravadin teachings in general (though to be exact, these teachings are pre-Theravadin).  I have to confess I’ve always found such objections to the Pali teachings rather hard to understand.  They clearly derive from people armed and ready with preconceived ideological agendas who are eager to avoid any evidence to the contrary.

The last two chapters of Nyanaponika’s exposition cover the Burmese satipatthana method (the Mahasi style of practice) and anapanasati, which is mindfulness of the breath, traditionally as it passes through the nasal passages.  Here you get detailed instructions for how to put everything you’ve learned into practice.  It must be noted that these are simply instructions on “how to”–they are not equivalent to having an actual teacher who will tell you what to expect, or what you should do if–god forbid–you actually get enlightened!

Part II of the text is a translation with extensive notes of the Satipatthana Sutta.  I have only one bone to pick here, and that is with the translation of ekayano maggo in the first sentence of the third paragraph as “sole way,” as if satipatthana was the only way to nibbana.  Numerous translators have done this, but it has been pointed out by many others that a better translation of this phrase is “a road that goes one way” or has “one direction”–meaning that satipatthana is a path that leads inevitably toward a single goal.  Maurice Walshe, in his note to the passage (from The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 589, n. 626), points out even the commentary is confused about how exactly to interpret it.  Part III, “Flowers of Deliverance,” collects other passages from the suttas and even the Mahayana sutras that concern mental culture, with particular attention to satipatthana and its related concepts.

While the book can at times perhaps be faulted for a somewhat dated prose style, this is in no way to say its contents are dated.  It is throughout a clear and intellectually rigorous work, quite complete as regards its subject matter, and represents an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation practice.

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!

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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

 

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

 

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