Is Early Buddhism in Danger?

| October 30, 2017 | 9 Comments

Academic study of early Buddhism has waned to near nothing, if a recent editorial by eminent scholar Richard Gombrich is anything to go on. In today’s video I’ll discuss why this should concern us.

 

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

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  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Thanks Doug. Your account here affirms a suspicion I’ve long had about the state of early Buddhist scholarship, except that I’m not nearly as versed in the subject as you are. Rather, my suspicion is more of “smell”, coming from a Judaic religious background in which Biblical scholarship – particularly of the Hebrew Bible – was of great spiritual import.

    While I realize there are limitations in this Hebrew Bible Pali Canon analogy – say, in terms of the roles these texts play in their respective religious traditions – I still can’t help the impression that Biblical scholarship – and historical source criticism, in particular – is so much more advanced (e.g. older, better funded, and more popular) as a research project, which tends to have the effect of raising my skeptical hackles (so to speak) whenever I hear someone quote a sutta as if the historical Buddha really said that. Maybe he said some of it (e.g. verses one finds in the earliest stratum that you alluded to) and then early students extended those ideas in novel but compatible ways (much as post-canonical traditions have done). But then if Gotama is anything like what so many modern Biblical scholars (when last I checked) have concluded about Moses, then the Buddha is more a legendary figure whose historical basis is now largely lost to us, or falls somewhere in between those extremes: e.g. largely recoverable, but only with more time, care, and investment in the project.

    Fortunately, none of this necessarily has grave implications for modern practice, so long as one is comfortable with uncertainty and metaphorical use of “the Buddha” – that is, to study the Buddha legend as a school of thought that developed over several centuries in and around India. But in that case it bears reminding oneself every now and then that that’s what one is doing. 😉

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I think Gotama is more like the historical Jesus than Moses; a core personality with real and novel views, rather than a legendary figure out of the mists. That is certainly the view of those who study the early material closely, such as Gombrich, Bronkhorst, Gethin, Anālayo, etc.

      Of course this doesn’t mean we can say with any certainty that any particular passage was said by Gotama himself. (Though Gombrich thinks he can say this about several). These would have been at a minimum long oral discourses that were worked into a memorizable form by monastics and then worked into organized Nikāyas later. That is, even at best they would have been a step or two from Gotama himself. (Though I think we can assume they would have had the best of intentions at preserving his words).

      Biblical scholarship is light-years more well-funded than Pāli. There is literally no comparison; I expect every university worthy of the name in Europe and the Americas has Biblical scholars on staff, and probably several each for the Hebrew Bible and the NT. I can’t expect that Pāli would ever get anywhere close to that kind of scrutiny in the West, but a scholar or two here and there would be good.

      Either way, as you say there are no particularly important implications for modern practice. Whether or not it goes back to the historical Buddha, we are left with a mass of roughly consistent, highly interesting and useful material. That said, I find reading detailed historical exegeses useful to my practice, as it often opens up new routes into the texts.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        Doug: I can readily accept the Jesus analogy, if by that one means: both legends are plausibly rooted in real people, but then what’s specifically said about them (i.e. their words and actions) raises various problems for historians.

        By the way, I’m not only reminded of Biblical scholarship here, but also of the less publicized scholarship of early rabbinic literature. After all, there is a long tradition of rabbinical exegesis, called “midrash”, which adds both folklore and legal content to Scripture. More to the point, much of it is still accepted by Orthodox Jews as being of early (as in: Biblical period) origins, but orally transmitted alongside Holy Writ. Some more sophisticated Orthodox apologists I’ve known defend these claims on the basis that oral transmission is accepted by modern scholars as a reliable mechanism of preservation. Of course, the devil is in the details here, as textual criticism demonstrates that even written scriptural traditions produce variants and introduce novelties that can affect meaning, which raises reasonable doubt about whether oral traditions are actually better at message preservation than written ones. Perhaps they are more like a game of Telephone – only stretched out over centuries and with an intent to preserve integrity – than traditionalists would have us to believe.

        In any case, few if any modern scholars of this body of literature accept the traditional claims about the early origins of midrash. More likely, each midrash began as a creative extension of Scripture, which channels its spirit if not its letter in ways that are more meaningful in later contexts.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Right; indeed the notion of an oral transmission separate from the texts is operative in Zen Buddhism as well. This is one reason they are so interested in lineages: it shows who you got the oral transmission from. This can even become a quasi-supernatural anointing, as I think happens in some Vajrayana transmissions. (Though I am not an expert on that material).

          In early Buddhism it wasn’t really so much an issue of an interpretive tradition separate from the texts as it seems to have been a Veda-inspired tradition of memorization of holy material. After all, Vedic Brahmins had been memorizing lengthy texts for centuries if not millennia before the Buddha’s lifetime.

          • Jason Malfatto says:

            Yes, only with the disclaimer that, whatever challenges scribes face in preserving texts, they at least provide historians with another check against fallible human memory – a check that’s lacking in oral-only traditions, where scholars must rely on a combination of archaeology and documents written centuries if not millennia later.

            If the texts in question only describe myths (say, creation stories), then that’s less of a problem for historians to solve (though scientists may have something to say here) than texts that are supposed to describe the lives of earthly figures – like Moses, Jesus, or Gotama (though dating them is a problem, nonetheless).

            Gotama as an historical figure faces both problems: unlike Moses and Jesus, he emerges from a preliterate oral tradition, but like Moses and Jesus, he concerns an influential person who’s theoretically traceable.

            So, to say that I doubt that Indologists have a strong handle on the historical Buddha is by no means to doubt their skill, intelligence, or toolkit, but rather to say that they have a particularly tough nut to crack, in my estimation, and I don’t think they’ve cracked it just yet, if they ever will.

  2. Gavin McC says:

    Good video! I didn’t realize the situation was so drastic. I would maybe add Thanissaro Bhikkhu to the list of scholarly monastics, by the way.

    I agree with you that it’s good to have both monastic and academic scholars, for sure there are advantages and disadvantages to the scholarship of both these groups.

    I’m very happy also to see that the video editing is less choppy now than in earlier videos, Thanks, Doug, for listening to feedback on that! Much appreciated 🙂

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Maybe I’m just the oldest person in the room, but I’ve seen academic fashions come and go, so I’m not too worried.

    I did my master’s thesis (before bailing out to law school in order to get a livelihood, “right” or not) on a french Fascist writer. Understanding fascism was a hot topic at the time (got to say I’m afraid I failed to achieve any real entry into my subject’s mind). Interest in the field waned — but now seems to be attracting attention again, probably thanks to the revival of rightwing ersatz populism).

    IMO,We’ve actually had some very significant contributions to early Buddhist studies over the last 25 years or so. Maybe the very success of these efforts have led students looking for novelty to look to less well cultivated fields.

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