27 May 2011

Gautama Buddha : Book Review

Gautama Buddha - VishvapaniI WAS VERY PLEASED to receive a review copy of Vishvapani's (i.e. Viśvapāṇi) new book on the life of of the Buddha. I was involved in several email exchanges with the author during the writing of the book, earning me a mention in the acknowledgements as making "perceptive comments". I also provided a detailed critique of the map provided in the front of the book (more on this below). Vishvapani, a long time member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, is known to listeners of BBC Radio 4 as the Buddhist contributor to Thought for the Day; and edited a previous book: Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough. He has played important roles within the Triratna Movement in publishing, and in communicating change. Vishvapani is an excellent communicator, and so I dived into this book with interest.

An enormous amount of research and effort has gone into this book, as the huge range of texts cited shows. Vishvapani has made himself thoroughly familiar with translations of the Pāli biographical literature, which is no easy thing given how large and yet fragmentary that literature is, and how variable are the translations. The book combines narrative and commentary, if not seamlessly, then at least appropriately and often to good effect, pausing to consider the historicity of various legends. The story is so well known and almost tells itself, though Vishvapani does highlight many details that may have escaped others - particularly in the area of conflicting versions of the story.

This book can be seen as an update of biographies like Ñāṇamoli's The Life of the Buddha which focus on the Pāli Canon as an historical source, but which are almost entirely uncritical. What Vishvapani has tried to do is retell this story for Buddhists, but to inform his retelling with the historical insights of scholars such as Professors Richard Gombrich and Johannes Bronkhorst. For most readers, with little or no access to this kind of scholarship, the book provides valuable perspectives on ancient India. We see that the Buddha's biography is a composed narrative, as opposed to an historical record, and Vishvapani is a Buddhist who is retelling the story for other Buddhists. As such the book retains an element of hagiography; the Buddha is not reduced to a mere human being - human, but not too human - but retains his mystique. I imagine most contemporary Western Buddhists will find the balance between Reason and Romance appealing.

The audience for this book is most likely the average practising Buddhist - someone with a passion for the Buddhist religion, but without much access to Buddhological scholarship. Although Gombrich's most recent book was published at a reasonable price, Bronkhorst's books often exceed £100 and are bought only by University libraries. Barriers to the scholarly literature are many: it requires knowledge of multiple languages (ancient and modern); those who lack training in the various disciplines struggle with the jargon and conceptual frameworks; physical access to primary and secondary sources is often very limited - though Pāli texts and resources are a happy exception with a great deal being available online and for free. The average Buddhist relies on people like Vishvapani to open a window into this world for them. Unfortunately Vishvapani, though highly intelligent, well read, and articulate is not entirely at home in this world - he does not know Pali or Sanskrit for instance - and this has hampered him and lead him into difficulties at times.

The following criticisms are from a point of view which I do not imagine many of Vishvapani's readers will share - but they made considerable impact as I read the book. I was very disappointed to see that, despite my opinion being asked on the subject, that Vishvapani and his publisher had settled on not using diacritics when transliterating Sanskrit (saṃskṛta!) and Pāli. For me this creates an ongoing dissonance and distraction while reading. It certainly detracts from the credibility of the book as a work of scholarship - no bona fide scholar deliberately spells badly! I've published my own books, and I know that it is in fact very easy to include diacritics these days - there really is no excuse any more.

Sometimes Vishvapani's lack of linguistic knowledge shows, for example, when he says of Nirvana [sic] that "it is a verb, not a noun: a way of being rather than a fixed state, and certainly not a place to which one might travel." (p.89) and "...'Nirvana' which is the 'act of blowing out'" (p.94). Nirvāṇa is a past-participle, indicating an action already completed: it literally means 'blown out'; and it can, in fact, be used as a noun or an adjective just the way that another past participle, buddha, is. The act of blowing out - the present indicative - in Sanskrit would be nirvāti; though the causative nirvāpayati might also be used - the root is √ 'to blow' but there is some overlap with words from √vṛ 'to cover'. C.f. PED sv nibbāna, nibbāti, nibbāpeti, nibbāyati and nibbuta. The metaphor, therefore, is of a state achieved rather than a process in the present: in nirvāṇa the fires of greed, hatred and delusion are 'blown out, extinguished, quenched, snuffed out'; and suffering is eradicated. I can see what Vishvapani was getting at, but if one is going to make doctrinal points through grammar in a serious way, then one needs to know what one is talking about, or consult someone who does. There are a few examples of this type scattered throughout the book.

A further dissonance I experienced was the use of Sanskrit translations of Pāli names throughout. This was made worse by being inconsistent, and by several consistent mis-spellings. So, for instance, despite referring almost exclusively to Pāli sources, the biography is of Gautama (Sanskrit), rather than Gotama (Pāli). And it features characters such as Kashyapa [sic] and Shariputra [sic]. When I encountered the names Adara Kalama and Udraka Reamaputra [sic!] I was initially puzzled until I realised he meant Aḷara Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. Note that Rāmaputta is not Sanskritised Reamaputra, as Vishvapani has done throughout, but Rāmaputra - ea is not found in any Sanskrit transliteration scheme. Similarly the names of the Buddha's five companions are Sanskritised except Bhaddiya (Sanskrit: Bhadrika) who retains the Pāli form (p.105). Place names were mainly Sanskritised (e.g. Uruvilva for Uruvela, and Rajagriha [sic] for Rājagaha) except Sarnath (Hindi) and Isipatana (Pāli = Sanskrit ṛṣipatana) - though to be fair Sarnath is a modern town without an ancient name.

Other language oddities include using shravaka (i.e. śravaka) and savaka in the same sentence (p.120) and the spelling of the word puthujjana as patthajana which is neither Sanskrit (pṛthagjana) nor Pāli. There is a glossary in the back of the book which enables the reader to find bowdlerised versions of the Pāli names - i.e. without diacritics - but otherwise the reader consulting the sources cited will be confused because the names simply do not match and there is no discussion in the book, anywhere as far as I could see, explaining why. For me this was all very distracting.

The problem here, for the scholar, is that we get no insight into the process or deliberation that has gone on behind the scenes - we get the result of weighing things up, but not enough sense of the measures against which facts are weighed. Although citations to the Pāli sources are frequent (though some are not referenced, bottom of p.123) there are no footnotes which tell us why something has been interpreted one way or another. And although Vishvapani does bring in some of the insights of scholars in the text, we don't really get a sense of the controversy and argumentation that surrounds and suffuses the scholarly discourse. For instance any sense of the intellectual batterings that Bronkhorst has given Gombrich, and Gombrich's elegant ripostes, are absent. Many of these issues are not settled by any means. and Bronkhorst's revisions of Indian history have yet to be tested (though Geoffrey Samuel has independently confirmed many of Bronkhorst's conclusions). I would have expected, at the very least, a justification for translating into Sanskrit when the sources used were overwhelmingly Pāli, and a justification for the lack of diacritics. A separate discussion of the problems of treating Buddhist texts as historical documents would have been a real advantage.

I noticed another, more subtle, problem which plagues Sangharakshita's followers. Early on Sangharaksita, like many other Buddhists of his day, adopted the language of German Idealist philosophy: e.g. 'Transcendental', 'Reality', even 'Absolute Reality', etc., These terms don't really have Pāli or Sanskrit equivalents but came to dominate the way we talk about Buddhism. We are familiar, for instance, with the idea that the Buddha's awakening "transcended language" (p.99), even though almost every sutta speaks of the result of that experience being some form of knowledge, which of course does not transcend language and makes up the content of the scriptures (e.g. at AN 11.2 vimutti is the condition for the arising of vimuttiñāṇa). However more recently Sangharakshita has moved away from that kind of language, and begun talking more in terms of 'experience'. Vishvapani tends to alternate between writing about "the true nature of reality" (p.94) and Gautama's knowledge being a "revelation, not a cool acquisition of knowledge" (p.91); and a more phenomenological language: "Directly confronting his experience was a different kind of challenge from that of attaining mystical states..." (p.73).

Vishvapani is also sometimes ambivalent about aspects of the story when there are variations in the texts: the forest, for example, is both a frightening and dangerous place (p.73ff) and a peaceful retreat (p. 100). Perhaps it was both, but the two ideas need sorting out and some commentary to resolve what seemed to me to be an obvious contradiction.

There were one or two instances of Buddhist-speak. When Vishvapani writes that Bahiya was instructed "to focus on direct, unmediated perception" (p.12), I found myself wondering what that could possibly mean. It's the sort of statement that used to go under my radar, but now I realise that I don't understand such language, and never have. What's worse is that, as I understand the processes of perception, there could be no such thing as 'unmediated perception' - perception is mediation. My own exploration of the Bahiya Sutta goes in an entirely different conceptual direction (In the Seen. 22 May 2009).

I mentioned the map in the beginning of the book, and this also has problems. Sarnath and Vāraṇāsi are, contra the picture the map gives, very close together and on the same side of the Gomati River. The Ganges River does not cease at the confluence with the Yamuna! Perhaps I would not be complaining, but I was specifically consulted on this matter. For instance I said:
"Bodhgayā is on the western bank of the Falgu/Narañjanā. And these days is just a little south of the fork in the river (and on the western fork). Took me a while to figure out Uruvilva (aka Uruvela!) - is there a reason to think it is not Bodhgayā? My impression is of two names for one place (since the name Bodhgayā is not mentioned in Pāli AFAIK). "
The map is probably intended to give a broad overview, but some of these problems - like the 200 mile gap in the Ganges River caused no doubt by an opaque background for the word 'Varanasi' - could easily have been corrected. Such things matter to me.

I'm quite aware that these criticisms will be seen as nit-picking by most of Vishvapani's readers, and perhaps by the author himself. But nitpicking of this type is what I do - these are the kinds of comments I was making in my emails to Vishvapani during the writing process. I'm not a style guru, or a literary critic - I'm a philologist. I'm very much concerned with accurately conveying what's in the early sources, in light of contemporary scholarship, in order to show how these sources contribute to a modern understanding of Buddhism. My perception is that Vishvapani was engaged in something similar with this book, so I do think my criticisms are relevant and valid. I wanted very much to like this book, Vishvapani is a friend and colleague. But in the end if found the constant pricking of the kinds of difficulties outlined above left me feeling more frustrated than pleased. This has not been an easy review to write!

I imagine that for those who know no Pali or Sanskrit, and who have no access to the recent Buddhological scholarship, that this book will be very well received. The reviews on Amazon UK, one by a fellow order member, are so far glowing. It fills a gap in the market for a considered retelling of the life of the Buddha in a modern idiom, concerned to communicate to a relatively sophisticated contemporary Buddhist readership. I think Vishvapani knows his audience pretty well, and speaks to them. And to be fair I'm not really a member of the intended audience. Despite my criticisms I respect the care and thought that has gone into the book over a period of years. As far as I can judge, and apart from the negative points I have made, the book is well written - Vishvapani's 'voice' is serious and thoughtful, though never pedantic (more's the pity!). The many citations will allow readers to consult the translations themselves (allowing for the confusions caused by the sometimes inconsistent Sanskritization), and since he mainly sticks to recent, currently in-print translations these should be easily accessible to those who care to go looking (all of them are on my bookshelf). I think the price of £25 for the hardback, handsome though it is, will have put off many of his target audience, but once a more affordable paperback edition comes out I expect that it will become a popular and widely read book.

Vishvapani Blomfield.
Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One.
Quercus, 2011.
ISBN: 978 1 84916 409 2.
388 p.
RRP £25.


31/5/11 I note that my 'frank' review has provoked a response from Elisa Freschi on reviews more generally (see also the comments).
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