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Archive for the tag “Gautama Buddha”

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

 

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The Connected Discourses of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2 volumes).  Wisdom Books 2000; 2074 pages.

I think Bhikkhu Bodhi read and considered every criticism levelled at his previous offering, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, and determined to make darn sure he didn’t have to hear those criticisms again.  The result of his enterprise is an extremely detailed and careful treatment of the second largest collection in the Sutta Pitaka, the Samyutta Nikaya.  For this post I’ll first discuss briefly the place of the SN in Pali literature, and then give an overview of how BB has treated it.

Along with the Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara and parts of the Khuddhaka Nikayas, the Samyutta Nikaya comes from the oldest strand of Buddhist texts, and is thus critical if one wants to have any hope of determining what the historical Buddha actually taught. It got its name from the fact that its various parts (called vaggas) are made up of suttas that tie directly to one another in terms of their format (the particular pattern or “template” they display) and subject matter.  The resulting vaggas are characterized by their focus on, for example, verse sayings, or discourses on dependent arising, the aggregates, the sense bases, the eightfold path, or some other critical doctrinal point.  There are also sections devoted to talks by and with certain individuals, famous and not so famous, such as Anuruddha or Channa or Samandaka.

The Samyutta Nikaya is thus at once very heterogeneous in the range of topics it covers, but also much more systematically organized than, say, the Majjhima or Digha Nikayas, where subject matter takes a back seat to other concerns.  This makes it very easy to locate suttas on specific issues one is interested in, but it also has the effect of making many of the suttas sound monotonously similar, to the point where it’s often tempting to skip ahead upon encountering–for the umpteenth time–the same iteration of terms one just read through a few pages back.  As a result, BB has had to do a lot of condensing and made extensive use of ellipses, and indeed, because the suttas seem to bleed into and repeat one another, the tradition itself does not have a solid count of how many individual suttas make up the nikaya.  The consensus seems to be around 2,900, give or take a couple dozen.

As noted, BB’s translation is thorough.  To give you an idea how thorough, I counted about 480 pages of endnotes!  Now many of these are of interest only to philologists, but many more add significantly to the text in the form of traditional commentarial materials, as well as BB’s own insights into the text.  He also is careful to note which sources he is using, as the various redactions from Burma, Sri Lanka or the PTS don’t always agree with one another.  This is something he was specifically criticized for not doing on the Majjhima Nikaya, so I think scholars in the audience will have fewer bones to pick this time around.  In addition to the general introduction, each vagga also gets its own intro, where its particular themes are further discussed; I especially found his intro to the Khandhavagga illuminating.  (I quoted from it in my essay on Christian Buddhism.)  All in all Bhikkhu Bodhi has put an enormous amount of effort into this project and I’m starting to think that Buddhists all over the world owe him a medal or something.

Regarding the text proper: as I’ve said with previous reviews of translations, I am not a Pali scholar so am not in a position to critique him on specific word choices–except, perhaps, important doctrinal terms.  In most cases his translations of such terms are quite standard and unexpected, though I was pleasantly surprised by his rendering of sakkaya not by the traditional “personality,” but as “identity.”  I think this is an improvement and brings increased clarity and accuracy to important terms like sakkayanirodha or sakkayaditthi.  The text, as a whole, is highly readable, beautifully presented, and does the best it can with the already noted copious repetitions.  Any translator of Pali has to deal with this issue and there are only so many ways of doing it.  I think BB has respected the text’s integrity by preserving what needed to be preserved, by artful use of ellipses, and by leaving enough so one can reconstruct any particular passage from the clues on hand.  And yet, we still have two weighty volumes!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution

A LETTER TO CHRISTIAN-BUDDHISTS

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