19 August 2011

Amateur Scholars: Pros and Cons.

I'M AN AMATEUR SCHOLAR. I don't get paid to write about Buddhism. Although I've been a Buddhist for 18 years, like many Buddhist bloggers, I have almost no training in linguistics or Indic languages; no training is philosophy, history, anthropology or any of the relevant disciplines.[1] I'm not a lineage holder, or a Buddhist 'teacher' or anything fancy like that. And yet every week I make pronouncements on language, on philosophy, on history, and especially on Buddhism.

I admire amateurism. I grew up in the twilight era of amateurism in sport and politics: a time when a professional could not compete in the Olympics; when our national rugby team all had day jobs; and our government was run by people who once had real jobs. Many of the fundamental breakthroughs in the modern study of Buddhism were made by enthusiastic amateurs.

However professionalism brings advantages in scholarship. Access to resources, to conferences, to mentors, to critical dialogue with peers. The lack of mentoring and critical feedback are probably the biggest hindrances to the amateur, especially in this day of freely available internet resources. Pali is not a difficult language to learn. There are several self-teaching guides, as well as dictionaries and grammars available online. Anyone can teach themselves Pāli and dive into reading and translating texts. I wish more people would. But scholarship requires more that this. We amateurs face some difficulties that professionals do not. I want to look at some of these problems with cases studies drawn from reading Buddhist blogs.

Access to resources.

Although there is a huge amount of material online, most of the secondary literature is not. Amateurs seldom have access to journals for instance. We might get the occasional article, but really as scholars we should at least scan every issue of the main journals in our field. So much of Buddhology, and especially Pali philology, remains buried in journal articles. The internet has facilitated identifying articles, but unless one is a member of a university, it hasn't helped with access because publishing companies charge as much as £30 per article for one-off access, and subscriptions are often expensive as well. An exception to this is Buddhist Studies Review which is quite cheap to subscribe to (and probably needs your money!).

But then there are the monographs. If we are interested in history and want to read Johannes Bronkhorst's two most recent tomes then we're looking at around £300 for both. They are the sort of books that only libraries buy, and only in universities with a large Indology or Buddhist studies department. I imagine there are not more than a dozen copies in the UK. But if the history of Buddhism is your subject, then you can't not read these books. In fact if have any interest in the context within which early Buddhist texts exist then you must read these books to be well informed. So most amateurs are not well informed, or not well enough.

The lack of access to, or even interest in, resources often mean that Buddhist bloggers are out of touch with academic Buddhist Studies. Amateurs are often simply uninformed; or they are informed, but about the state of Buddhist Studies 20 years ago, when in fact the last 20 years have seen some remarkable publications.

Critical Thinking

One of the major problems that amateur scholars have is working with their own preconceptions, especially the extent to which our modern Western worldview intrudes. All too often the amateur has an idea, comes to a conclusion, and then goes looking for material to support their thesis. And usually of course they find it. Professionals will do this as well, but less often. A good scholar does have a working hypothesis, but they look at all of the evidence and try to decide what it is telling them. They also have peers and mentors to bounce ideas off.

The following case study is a composite drawing on real blogs that I read. The point is not to make personal comments but to highlight the kinds of problems that all amateur scholars confront (which are not necessarily the problems that all bloggers face). Blogger A is a modern Western Buddhist. They read a little Pali, and they have access to a version of the Canon on the Internet. They think of themselves as a Buddhist, but they are concerned about certain aspects of Buddhism that contradict their worldview. As moderns we are inheritors of the European Enlightenment and its fallout. We have been told (since the late Victorian period) that Buddhism is a "rational religion", consistent with Western scientific paradigms (even quantum mechanics) and does not require blind faith. Not only this, but we have been taught that the Buddha himself was supremely rational. The doctrine of rebirth is a contradiction of all of these: it is not rationally based, conflicts with science, and requires blind faith. There is no doubt that rebirth is a problem for Western Buddhists, even if they don't think it is!

Blogger A, like many other Western Buddhists, sees the Kālāma Sutta as one of the most important suttas in the Canon since it appears to confirms their doubts. They have read it in several translations, but never got around to translating it themselves or studying what it says in detail, so they tend to go along with the urban legends about this text. In particular they take the consolations of being an ariyasāvaka discussed at the end of the text as saying that one need not believe in rebirth. Which is a relief to them.

Blogger A decides that rebirth cannot be true, since it fails the test of rationality, and the Kālāma Sutta says we need not believe it. But it is clearly a major part of all the Buddhist traditions. So how to make sense of these facts? Blogger A comes to the conclusion that the Buddha himself did not believe in rebirth, but that this 'foreign belief' was smuggled into Buddhism by his corrupt (possibly Brahmin) followers in the years after his death. Either the Buddha did not actually teach rebirth at all, or if he did, then he took it as a metaphor and did not believe or teach literal rebirth.

This "later corruption" narrative does not spring from nowhere. It goes back to the early Victorian translators, particularly Mrs Rhys Davids. They had the very same project: squaring the obviously irrational and superstitious elements which abound in Buddhism as it is practised today, and as we find it in Buddhist texts, with the idea that the Buddha was effectively an Enlightenment figure who, had he met, say, Newton or Leibniz would have got along fine with them. What most amateurs don't see is that the 'rational Buddha' is a product of the Western imagination in the first place, the Buddha of tradition is not quite irrational, but there is plenty of non-rational mysticism attached to him—he very often converses with gods for example (more like William Blake than Isaac Newton).

The 'later corruption' narrative is a polemic developed amongst Protestant intellectuals to account for the decline of the Roman Catholic Church due to moral corruption, which appeared to mirror the decline and fall of the Roman Empire due to its moral corruption. It was first employed in relation to Buddhism by Victorian scholars who were culturally, if not religiously, Protestant. In fact there is no a priori reason to treat a development or an evolution as a corruption: the emergence of Tantric Buddhism, for instance, corresponds to a major re-invigoration of Buddhist culture in India following the chaos of the Post-Gupta Empire period. Blogger A doesn't see that their ideas are conditioned by their own culture, or that their ideas themselves have a history.

The popular idea that, ignoring what Buddhists themselves believe and practice, one could reconstruct the 'original' Buddhism from the Pali texts is the very essence of the Protestant project transferred into the Buddhist arena. Although it was seen as a viable project into the mid 20th century, it is largely discredited now. And worse, as Greg Schopen has vociferously (and, one might say gleefully) pointed out, is the fact that where we do have epigraphical and archaeological evidence for early Buddhism it tends to conflict with the textual accounts rather than confirm them. Let me quote a professional at this point:
"But, during the present century, and especially during the past several decades, Buddhologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion have raised serious doubts about this naive use of the suttas as sources for reconstructing Theravāda Buddhist history. Thus it is now recognised that the form in which the suttas survive today, like Pāli itself, is the result of grammatical and editorial decisions made in Sri Lanka centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha... More important still, historians and anthropologists have pointed to the rift between Buddhism constructed as 'canonical' on the basis of the teachings in the suttas and the actual practices and ideas of contemporary Theravāda Buddhists. As similar divergences from this 'canonical Buddhism' are evidenced as early in Buddhist history as our evidence itself, namely the time of Aśoka Maurya (third century B.C.), the question emerges whether the reconstructed 'early Buddhism' ever existed at all.

... I think it fair to say that among contemporary historians of the Theravāda there has been a marked shift away from attempting to say much of anything at all about 'early Buddhism'"

- Walters, Jonathan. S. (1999) 'Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the Sermon on the Noble Quest (Ariyapariyesana Sutta).' History of Religions 38.3: 247-8. [my italics]
But because amateur scholars are not part of this broad scholarly discussion, because they never read articles like Walters', they have not participated in this marked shift. They continue to work an abandoned gold mine, even though they only find iron pyrite. Though I note that professionals still sometimes stray into this quagmire! [2]

Pursuing this course they proceed to look for texts which supplement the Kālāma Sutta and 'prove' that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. Perhaps they stumble upon SN 15.1. This is an interesting text which describes saṃsāra in terms of ancestors stretching back through beginningless time. A couple of the other texts in this short saṃyutta also use this metaphor. However if we keep reading we see that the metaphor changes at SN 15.10 and describes one person (ekapuggala) wandering through saṃsāra leaving a mountainous pile of bones behind them. This is also somewhat anomalous, but since it contradicts the starting premise that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth it is not even considered by Blogger A. In fact SN 15.10 creates a paradox - because in it the Buddha is talking about one person over several life times, and this contradicts the accepted Buddhist notion that the next life is not the same person, but only the inheritor of previous karma. So we have here three views on rebirth - traditional rebirth, ancestral lineage, and reincarnation. All of them in the Pali Canon, and all in the mouth of the Buddha! I've read through these texts and I don't see any way of deciding which should have priority on the basis of the texts. There are no criteria one could apply.

But Blogger A has an a priori criteria, they have their view that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. So it is obvious to them that the text which describes saṃsāra in terms of an ancestral lineage is the "true text", and the others are corruptions. And so it goes. This is technically called confirmation bias. Amateurs are particularly pray to this it seems.


Teaching oneself a little Pali in order to read texts which are already familiar in translation, or where there are excellent translations already available to act as commentaries, is one thing. Knowing the language and the literature thoroughly so that one can understand the texts from the inside is another. It takes time, and is unlikely to be possible without an experienced mentor. I've more or less given up trying to translate texts from the Suttanipāta for instance because the poetry and the archaic language are so difficult to understand, even though I have access to translations and extensive notes by the great Middle-Indic philologer K. R. Norman. Interestingly Norman himself declined to formally translate the Dhammapada for the Pali Text Society because it would be "too difficult"! Let us pause to consider the implications of that!

As an amateur one can spend hours chasing one's tail. The other day I wasted a lot of time on the word esevanto = es'ev'anto = eso eva anto = "just this is the end". It just took ages for it to dawn on me that there must be two sandhi, partly because I saw -vanto and assumed it must be a present participle. And I had the English translation in front of me! This is what inexperience is like. It gets worse when we want to look at the untranslated commentaries. And it must be said that anyone seriously reading a text must look at the traditional aṭṭhakathā alongside, if not also the ṭīka. But the Pāli of the aṭṭhakathā is much more difficult—being a literary form highly influenced by Sanskrit models—and there is no guide, no standard translation to consult.

I've said that Pāli is not a difficult language, but like all languages it is idiomatic. This means that Pāli learnt from a primer must be supplemented by reading many texts. So Blogger A following up their desire to prove a supposition about rebirth finds this phrase from the Dona Sutta (A ii.37):
‘‘Devo no bhavaṃ bhavissatī’’ti? ‘‘Na kho ahaṃ, brāhmaṇa, devo bhavissāmī’’ti.
Blogger A wants this sentence to say: "Will you, Sir, become a god? No, Brahmin, I will not become a god". In the Dona Sutta various other words are substituted for deva as the Brahmin tries to decide what to make of Gotama: is he a god? A yakkha? A man? The implication deduced by Blogger A, on the basis that the verb is in the future-tense, is that the Buddha is rejecting the idea of his rebirth in various realms. The form bhavissati is undoubtedly the future-tense of √bhū 'to be', but here it is used idiomatically. As Warder points out (Introduction to Pali, p.55) "The future also expresses perplexity, surprise, and wonder." Warder's example is directly relevant: kim ev'idaṃ bhavissati 'what can this be?' So our question means 'Sir, are you a deva?', but with a tone of puzzlement. Dona the Brahmin is expressing his perplexity, and is trying to determine just what class of being the Buddha is. Blogger A over-rides these grammatical facts—ignores the cases, and idioms—and finds only confirmation of their pre-existing view.


I love the way that the Internet has reopened the field to amateurs. But the Internet has produced very few scholars of note, and few commentators consistently worth reading—some exceptions that I enjoy can be found in the "Blogs I Read" section in the sidebar. The best Buddhist blogs are usually the popular comment blogs with no pretension to scholarship, or the scholarly blogs by academics (though again there are exceptions). The tensions that often exist between popular magazine writers, and popular blog writers are a feature of the landscape of popular Buddhism, but they don't usually impinge much on the realm of serious scholarship. Where popular and professional Buddhist writing and Buddhist scholarship do cross over the result is often mutual incomprehension.

We need to be aware of our limitations. Unfortunately amateurs, with no training and often no discipline, no access to the secondary literature, and no participation in critical dialogue, can be unaware of their limitations. But amateurs are also free from the constraints of earning a living from their writing, from the artificial conditions imposed on 'serious' writing, and from the paradigmatic thinking that makes new ideas hard to see in academia. As amateurs we do not have to find approval from our peers, and this can be both weakness and strength.

Scholars, whether amateur or professional, play an important role in the ecosystem of Buddhism. Scholars are part of the system of checks and balances that characterise a healthy society. Old ideas are conserved, and put into appropriate context and perspective. New ideas, emerging from experience, are assessed in the light of existing intellectual frameworks. Knowledge gradually accumulates. Scholars, whether directly or indirectly, are in dialogue with practitioners (and increasingly span both camps) and help to refine interpretations of experiences, and the language by which our ideas, images and practices are communicated. Without scholars our ecosystem would collapse. We need only look at the toxicity of the the anti-intellectual fundamentalist religious sects to see where a rejection of scholars and scholarship lands us. Of course scholarship should not blind us to the experiential nature of the Buddhist program. Ideas can get in the way of practice—too many of us are trying to prove a dogma instead of paying attention to what is happening—but a good scholar knows this limitation and works with it.


  1. My undergraduate degree is in chemistry, and my graduate qualification in library management.
  2. I refer to Alexander Wynne's recent, award winning, article: "The Buddha's 'Skill in Means' and the Genesis of the Five Aggregate Teaching." J. of the Royal Asiatic Soc. 2010, 20(2):191-216. Wynne piles up speculation and conjecture without ever citing solid evidence, because of course there is none, and comes to a conclusion about the "original" teaching of the khandhas. Wynne's concatenation of multiple uncertain conjectures doesn't take into account what every scientist knows: that when you add two uncertain quantities together, the uncertainty accumulates.
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