30 November 2007

The Cult of the Book and Western ideas of Canonicity

American Scholar Gregory Schopen makes the interesting observation that the study of Buddhism contains a curious anomaly. Buddhologists have always had two sources of information about the history of Buddhism: texts and material remains. However despite the existence of epigraphical and archaeological evidence, Buddhologists have set this aside and focuses on texts, taking texts as the sine qua non of the history of Buddhism, and of what Buddhism is. Western Buddhists have conspired with scholars because of a traditional tendency to fundamentalism with regard to texts, we have picked up our Asian teachers' faith that a sutra was always the literal word of the Buddha: thus have I heard.

Anyone educated in the sciences, as I was, will be familiar the refrain that one can only draw conclusions from what one observes. At school one almost always knew what was supposed to happen in a science experiment - but my teachers always insisted that I write up what actually happened and account for any discrepancy between that and what was expected. As the humanities have invaded the sciences - creating the "social sciences" - they could be expected to take on this dictum. However Schopen makes it clear that Buddhologists have not done this. In the rare cases where non-textual information is considered, it is always secondary to texts, and where it conflicts with texts it is set aside as an aberration.

Schopen takes a rather provocative stance in response to this situation - motivated perhaps in part by a desire to stimulate discussion, or perhaps it is frustration? For instance Schopen claims in his book Bones, Stone, and Monks that there is no evidence for a canon of writings before the 5th century. No canon is mentioned in any reliably dated source before this time Although the canon refers to it's own creation at an early date, it has become apparent over the years that the Pali Canon reflects a highly sectarian set of views, and is concerned with establishing the legitimacy of a form of Buddhism which is current in the 5th century in Sri Lanka. Another claim which Schopen makes is that the canonical texts reflect an idealised history, a way of life which no one has ever followed. Where there is material evidence on the lifestyle of monks and nuns it always contradicts the texts. For instance it is axiomatic that the Sangha did not own property, and yet inscriptions on stupas up and down India show that the donors that paid for the monuments were frequently the same monks and nuns who owned no property. Indeed coins are a common find in monastic ruins, and the means for minting coins have been found in at least one! The idea that monks did not own property is contradicted by the evidence of archaeology.

It has been interesting over the years being a member of the FWBO and seeing the vehement criticism of Sangharakshita for having the temerity of teaching things which were not strictly canonical and still calling it Buddhism. For instance Sangharakshita has made creative use of the metaphor of evolution to illustrate his thinking on the spiritual life. This kind of heterodoxy is condemned in some circles as "not Buddhism". Why? Because it is not in a traditional text - although it could be argued that Sangharakshita is simply restating an idea which is explicit in the Pali Canon, in the Upanisa Sutta for instance, but that would be to play the fundamentalists game. Oddly, for an Indian religion, written texts have become the arbiters of orthodoxy - a situation which I would argue runs counter to the long history of religion in that country.

So why is it that Buddhologists and Buddhists have privileged texts? Schopen claims to detect the spirit of Protestantism behind it. During the formation of the Protestant movement one of the defining disputes was over the status of practices. Amongst other things Catholics were accused of idolatry because of the worship given Mary and the Saints. The Protestant response was to turn to biblical fundamentalism in order, not only to distinguish themselves from Catholics, but to justify their heterodoxy by claiming to be more orthodox that the orthodox. Recall the violent repression of heterodoxy which characterised the Catholic Church over the centuries: heretics were not only persecuted they were tortured and horribly executed. If the justification for dissent came from the Bible itself, well perhaps it might prevent a red-hot poker in an uncomfortable place!

The same scenario probably would not have happened in India. The hegemonic religious caste of India has never been hostile to heterodoxy in the same violent way. When the Brahmins felt threatened by a competing faith they adopted what I call the Microsoft Approach: buy-out, rebrand, and market as an innovation. And so Shiva, the ancient cult, was soon adopted as Brahminical and Shaiva priests made honorary Brahmins. If you look at the avatars of Vishnu you will find a number of local cults - gods in the form for instance of a tortoise, a fish, a boar, a dwarf - incorporated. Indeed the 9th incarnation of Vishnu is the Buddha himself, relegated to telling us to be kind to animals. "All is one; God is good".

And so we have the interesting situation at present. Scholars of history have accepted the inevitable and more or less abandoned the project of creating a history out of the sacred texts. Anthropologists have decided they are more interested in what people do, than what they believe; beliefs are interesting in so far as they result in behaviour - a sentiment I believe the Buddha might have endorsed. Of course linguists are OK because they are interested in the language rather than the message. But Buddhists maintain a kind of fundamentalism about Buddhist texts. No point of view is valid unless punctuated by a quote from the Pali Canon (I know I am guilty of this!) Taking the Pali Canon as an example we know that it has been translated at least once (into Pali), that is has been edited rather clumsily at times, and that the current collection is attested only in the 5th century. The canon shows that it's preservers had preoccupations which were not always shared by the contemporaries, and that by the time writing came into being there were multiple competing interpretations of some of the most fundamental doctrines - such as the status of dharmas. It seems clear that the composition of news texts was a constant activity for Buddhists by the time that they began to employ writing in perhaps the 1st century BCE. The newly composed texts often gave considerable space to denouncing their heterodox co-religionists in the most base terms (I believe for instance that hinayana has caste-ist overtones and can be equated with insults such as "nigger" in contemporary vocabulary). And these are the texts to which we Buddhists yoke ourselves, mostly quite uncritically.

Don't get me wrong. I love the Buddhist scriptures, and value them both as spiritual inspiration and as literature. But I believe that what we Buddhists actually do is far more important than what we believe. The scriptures may well contain echoes of the words of the Buddha, but there is no substitute for practice, and the instruction of a more experienced spiritual friend. If, in the end, what works is in contradiction to the texts, then we must follow our insights, as the composers of the later Buddhist texts did. Buddhism is founded on principles, not on texts. Buddhist fundamentalism can never be justified in terms of Buddhist principles.

Further Reading

Harrison, Paul. 1995. Searching for the origins of the Mahayana : what are we looking for? Eastern Buddhist. 28(1), p.48-69.

Schopen, G. 1991. Archaeology and Protestant presumptions in the study of Indian Buddhism. History of Religions. 31(1), p.1-23.

Schopen, G. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks : Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India Honolulu : University of Hawai’i Press.

Schopen, G. 1999. The bones of a Buddha and the business of a monk : conservative monastic values in an early Mahayana polemical tract. Journal of Indian Philosophy. vol. 27, p.279-324.

Wedemeyer, Christain, K. 2001. Tropes, typologies and turnarounds : a brief genealogy of the historiography of tantric Buddhism. History of Religions. 40(3), p.223-259
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