08 December 2023

Prolegomenon on the Interpretation of Buddhist Scripture: Introduction

For the last decade or so, my exploration of Buddhist ideas generally has been overtaken by intensive study of the Heart Sutra. My focus has moved from blogging to publishing articles in academic journals. My project has looked at aspects of the history, philology, and philosophy of the Heart Sutra and Prajñāpāramitā generally. Getting to the point of being able to regularly publish articles has involved more than one steep learning curve. I have no training in history, philology, or philosophy. I learned by reading everything I could get my hands on.

An ongoing frustration that I have is that there are no good textbooks on how to do any of these activities that are specific to Buddhist Studies. Indeed, in reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books I have often been struck by the lack of any clearly articulated methodology or theory. This is peculiar for a field of academic study. Most academic disciplines, most especially in the humanities, have been deeply involved in discussing methods and emphasising the need to examine the theoretical basis for the methods. This is partly a response to the clearly articulated methods of scientific enquiry and the relatively new desire to produce (more) objective approaches to topics like history.

Textbooks for Buddhist Studies mainly describe Buddhist beliefs and to some extent Buddhist practices, but they really don't spend any time at all on methods for studying Buddhism or on critical thinking about such beliefs and practices. Part of the problem is that Buddhist Studies is inherently multi-disciplinary. Any given article will likely employ ideas and practices from a range of disciplines such as history, historiography, historical linguistics, comparative linguistics, translation studies, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.

In general, Buddhist Studies scholars don't acknowledge these distinctions in our writing, but take a "pick and mix" approach, employing whatever suits our purpose. For this reason alone a lot of Buddhist Studies scholarship is tendentious, i.e. intended to promote a particular point of view. When an author does bring in specific ideas from outside of Buddhist Studies, the results are often incomprehensible to non-specialists in that field. At one point it was, for example, very popular to compare Buddhist ideas with Derrida. But for anyone not versed in the distinctive thought of Derrida, and the obscurantism of all the post-modernists, such works are a complete mystery. And I don't think this was always an accident. I think some authors take an obscurantist approach in order to seem more profound than they actually are.

There is also the widespread problem that many academics in Buddhist Studies are card-carrying Buddhists who accept certain (often sectarian) religious ideas as givens. In all of the very learned and technical discussions of Nāgārjuna, for example, I have yet to see any scholar really interrogate the unspoken assumptions of Nāgārjuna that seem glaring to me. The leading writers on Madhyamaka all seem to be convinced that Nāgārjuna speaks only truth and that he makes no assumptions whatever. This might (just) be acceptable in a Buddhist theologian writing for a religious audience, but it reflects a catastrophic failure for an academic historian or philosopher. Examining assumptions is the bread and butter of academic scholarship. So the question becomes why is this activity almost entirely absent from studies of Buddhist history and philosophy?

While I have learned a lot from reading within Buddhist Studies, in order to make progress I have inevitably had to branch out and consult textbooks from other disciplines. This is fine, as far as it goes; I've always read quite widely. However, general texts on historiography or philosophical methods seldom include examples from, or aposite to, Buddhist Studies. One can consult general books on how to write history, for example, but these don't use examples from our discipline. So one is always having to translate concepts into the domain of Buddhist Studies. It's not always easy.

As I began to branch out, I also began to see how impoverished our field really is. We seem to have relied on scholars coming from other backgrounds (where they get appropriate training). The results have been patchy, to say the least. Nowadays, we have a whole generation of scholars who have specialised early in Buddhist Studies and so they don't bring the expertise that comes from specialising in, say, history or philosophy.

I am not an expert. I dabble. I'm a generalist. Though I do think my recent work on the Heart Sutra rises to the level of expertise. Still, a lot of the time I end up writing an essay, not because that is the topic I wanted to write about, but because it was a topic I wanted to read about but could not find anything written already. So, I spend time gleaning information from a wide range of sources and pull it all together into the kind of thing I wanted to read. People who give advice about writing often say that we should imagine a representative reader. For a lot of these essays I'm my own audience; I'm the reader that I'm trying to appeal to.

This work is laborious and ideally done by experts. But most of the experts are busy doing other things. By now there are probably a dozen encyclopedias of Buddhism for example. Vast amounts of time, effort, and money go into these projects. But how many encyclopedias do we really need? Especially when there is no textbook on Buddhist historiography or any other relevant methodologies. There are several works on how Buddhists practice epistemology, but none on how students of Buddhism in 2023 should do so. Sometimes it seems that the perspective is that if we just outline what Buddhists wrote in texts the job of Buddhist Studies is done. There is no need to provide commentary or analysis beyond what is stipulated in Buddhist traditions.

Recently, I have become particularly interested in the subject of how we read and interpret Buddhist scripture. This is a very popular activity amongst rank and file Buddhists these days. Moreover, writing commentary on scripture is one of the major ways that Buddhists communicate about Buddhism. And yet this is all done on an ad hoc basis. I might not even have noticed this had I not become an expert on the Heart Sutra. I'm now in a position to evaluate in detail the things that are said about the text. And my evaluation is that writing on the Heart Sutra is almost universally poor, tendentious, and religious rather than scholarly in character. Most writing on the Heart Sutra asserts a strange worldview in which truth is communicated in the form of express contradictions and paradoxes. No one ever seems to mention that such forms of communication are completely absent from general Buddhist thought (even Nāgārjuna uses logic and avoids contradiction), expressly repudiated in early Buddhist texts, and on further investigation can be seen to be based on traditional misunderstandings of Prajñāpāramitā and tendentious modern scholarship.

The absence of any methodological critique leaves the field open to abuse by fraudsters and hoaxes. I believe, for example, that the bulk of what Edward Conze contributed is fraudulent and misleading. While, privately, many scholars say they agree with me, this has not changed the blind acceptance and excessive praise of Conze in Buddhist Studies generally. The fact that Conze was a racist, misogynist, elitist asshole with messianic delusions is incidental, but also true. However, we generally expect academics to weed out such assholery over time. In Buddhist Studies this asshole is still widely revered. And publically many scholars continue to treat Conze as a neutral contributor and argue that he was a pioneer and thus allowed considerable licence. When I think of pioneer Buddhist Studies scholars I think of people like Etienne Lamotte or Thomas Rhys Davids. I would call Max Muller a "pioneer" in that he sincerely made attempts to further knowledge of Sanskrit literature in Europe and at the same time had many of the flaws of his generation. In my view, Conze was entirely disingenuous, where he was not simply wrong.

While the interpretation of scripture is a popular activity, the standards of commentary available vary wildly and there are no agreed criteria on which to assess any particular claim. While Christian theologians have long explored the problems associated with reading and interpreting scripture, there are, to my knowledge, no such resources for Buddhists.

The hermeneutics or interpretation of the Bible have been the subject of intense study over the centuries and have produced innumerable works of both general and sectarian scholarship. While theologians take many aspects of Christian doctrine for granted, they have still produced scholarly works such as John Meier's four volume, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (see Meier's Historicity Criteria). Such works have considerable merit since they are pluralistic and encourage critical thinking (albeit within religious limits). The methods they discuss were developed for theologians. Nowadays, partly through the influence of Protestantism, lay Christians are also encouraged to read and interpret scripture.

The situation for Buddhists is quite different. There are no general or scholarly works on how different ways to read and interpret Buddhist scripture. Some Buddhist theologians have published works which offer a particular interpretation of scripture (i.e. apologetics), though these are all designed to lead readers to specific sectarian conclusions rather than offering them tools that might enable them to come to their own conclusions. And this despite noticeable influence of Protestantism on Buddhism.

Of course, there are some studies of how Buddhists themselves have interpreted scripture in the past. But these are descriptions of pre-modern reading practices and they seldom involve any critical appraisal of the approaches, and are usually so arcane as to offer very little guidance to the modern reader. In most cases, such approaches to reading scripture have little value in the modern context since we don't accept some of the givens the ancients took for granted. The point of this project would be to produce a guide to reading and interpreting Buddhist scripture for twenty-first century readers, scholars, and theologians.

One of the problems that we have in Buddhism is that many academics are apologists for a sectarian approach to Buddhism. For example, almost all of the works that interpret Nāgārjuna are written by people who openly and explicitly accept a Nāgārjunian worldview. Indeed, the leading interpreters of Nāgārjuna's writing are card carrying Mādhyamikas (which is what people who accept Madhyamaka metaphysics call themselves). Where there is any difference of opinion amongst them, and there are a number of points of disagreement amongst them, it is based firmly within a Nāgārjunian worldview. To my knowledge, no scholar has investigated and evaluated the axioms that underpin Madhyamaka. So all readings of Nāgārjuna that we commonly encounter are naive readings.

For Buddhists, there is no body of work that outlines general principles of scriptural interpretation. There are no parallels to magisterial works such as Meier's A Marginal Jew. This means that there is no rational counterweight to the proliferation of conflicting religious apologetics. It increasingly seems to me that the capable scholars of Buddhism are few in number and for the most part they are absorbed in their own sub-field. Many of the Buddhist Studies scholars I've met recently have echoed my own complaint that I publish, but no one ever seems to critically engage with my work. There are simply not enough capable scholars in the field and at the same time far too many who are following (consciously or not) a religious agenda. On the other hand, if there were enough capable scholars, I'd never have had the opportunity to publish my articles on the Heart Sutra.

The aim of this project, then, will be to produce an introduction to the issues, sources, and methods of reading and interpreting buddhist scriptures and to highlight resources that contribute to understanding the topic. The idea is to ground the reading of Buddhist texts in some generally applicable principles that disparate readers can use as the basis of cross-sectarian discussions. These principles may be used by both academic and religious students to make their interpretation of scripture more nuanced (and perhaps even more persuasive).

I do have preferred interpretations of the texts I read. However, the aim here would not be to defend or promote my particular view. Rather, I wish to create a resource for those who read and think about Buddhist scripture. I'm trying to pitch this a the level of educated Buddhist readers and university undergraduates studying Buddhism or comparative religion. I hope it will be generally useful to anyone who wants to go beyond passively consuming Buddhist ideology when they read Buddhist scripture.

In the first place, this project involves identifying the intellectual tools that I have picked up piecemeal in my scholarship. I will supplement this with reference to the literature on Christian hermeneutics, with Meier as a reference point. I will try to use real world examples to illustrate points.

At present we see many of these principles being applied in an ad hoc fashion and without any reference to the broader literature on scriptural interpretation. As such, Buddhist Studies has not benefited from the depth and breadth of research on hermeneutics in Christian Studies. The only relevant exposition I'm aware of in the field of Buddhist Studies is the brief and unreferenced passage in Nattier (2003: 63-70). As a preliminary, I'm planning an academic paper which compares three approaches to the biography of Xuanzang. I will show that authors on this topic employ hermeneutic principles in an ad hoc and seemingly unconscious fashion. Most authors seem to comprehend, for example, that a corroborated fact is more reliable than an uncorroborated fact. But this has never been stated as a general principle that can be invoked by way of explanation.

At present I am conceptually dividing the project into four broad topics, which in addition to this introduction will become four blog essays: (1) Issues, (2) Sources, (3) Methods, and (4) Resources. My usual approach is to sketch out the broad outlines and then fill in the details. These blog posts will be my coarse-grained notes on what I think is important from the outset. I can already see that this is a huge topic and one that might take several years to reach fruition. Ideally, I'd like to publish a textbook on interpreting Buddhist scripture.


Meier, John P. (1991). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. 4 Vol. New York: Doubleday.

Nattier, J. (2003) A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

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