Texts, Bones and Early Buddhists

Monday October 27, 2008


One of the reasons that I avoid identifying myself as being “Buddhist” these days is that I have become increasingly uncertain as to what this term might actually indicate. Not only this, but often other folks seem to have quite a clear idea as to what the term might mean, and more frequently than not, I have the distinct impression that I don’t measure up to the exacting idea that they have in their minds. So for everyone’s sake, and to avoid causing undue disappointment, it’s far easier to drop the whole thing.

This uncertainty has been only intensified by reading Gregory Schopen’s book Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks. Schopen’s book is underpinned by a very straightforward claim, but one that has far-reaching ramifications. The claim is that we have, for reasons that are more to do with our idea of where religion can be located than anything else, tended to privilege Buddhist texts over other kinds of evidence in reconstructing a view of the early Buddhist traditions. The papers collected in Schopen’s book all explore how archaeological and epigraphic evidence calls a great many of our assumptions about early Buddhism into question.

Schopen writes that those who attempt to reconstruct the early history of Buddhism have two bodies of data upon which to draw – in the first place, material records, and secondly literary materials. In our tendency to take texts as somehow being the place where “real” religion resides, and to consider the data from material records as secondary, we have, Schopen contends, arrived at a curiously skewed vision of Buddhist history. For example, epigraphic and archaeological evidence – records of generous donations by monks to the erecting of monuments – suggests that Buddhist monks did own property, whilst literary evidence suggests that Buddhist monks should not own property (other than the “requisites” necessary for supporting their existence); and thus the scholars have concluded that, although Buddhist monks in general didn’t own property (the texts tell us so), perhaps at certain times and in certain places there was a decline in the probity of the monkhood. The epigraphic evidence, then, is considered to be an exceptional case manifesting the behaviour of some backsliding monks, or else a case of monks acting as mediators in the donation, but in all cases it is considered to be unrepresentative of what Buddhism has been like historically.

But this is an odd conclusion to reach. There is is no a priori reason that we should privilege texts over material evidence. When there is a body of textual sources and a body of material evidence, and the two bodies conflict, it is surely peculiar to uncritically accept the former over the latter. If our concern is with what really went on in the history of Buddhism (rather than what we might like to have gone on), then we need to start to sift the various bodies of evidence with a great deal more care. Not to do so, and to assume uncritically that texts are somehow more reliable repositories of truth looks, Schopen suggests, ‘very much like it might itself be a religious or theological position’ (pg. 13).

And when we come to this weighing up of these bodies of evidence – which is the painstaking task of much of Schopen’s book – it seems that those who would like to hold to the claim that the texts should occupy a privileged position have a difficult task on their hands. The oldest textual tradition in Buddhism – the Pali canon – can’t be dated back further than the end of the first century BCE (pg. 23); and even then we have very little knowledge about the contents of this proto-canon. It is not until we get to the commentaries of the fifth and sixth centuries CE that we start to find clear references to something that is recognisable as a canon, and certainly before the fourth century our knowledge is decidedly hazy (pg. 30). Inscriptional evidence, on the other hand, predates what we know from literary sources by a good half a millennium, and not only this but it tells us, Schopen claims, ‘not what some literate, educated Indian Buddhist wrote, but what a fairly large number of practicing Buddhists actually did.’ The principle by which a lot of archaeology works is simple, even if it is in some ways unpalatable: if you want to know how people live their lives, don’t look only at what a few of them say, but poke through their rubbish, have a look at the things that the greater part of them leave behind.

We have something like eight or nine hundred years between the time of the Buddha and this developed canon, and about five hundred years between this canon and our earliest evidence for what Buddhists actually did in India. Not only this, we have a clear conflict between the later literary traditions and the earlier epigraphic traditions. Suddenly the texts begin to look on rather more shaky foundations than we might have hitherto thought.

Schopen is a scholar of considerable care, and it should be said that his arguments can only really be appreciated in the light of his painstaking research. But although it might make difficult reading at times, what all this research suggests is, I think, genuinely exciting. It suggests that the idea of “the” Buddhist tradition as a single thread that runs throughout history, spookily transmitting truths from the beyond down to the present, is simply unsustainable. Instead we have multiple histories and texts and bodies of evidence that do not stack up in the way that we have been taught. To be sure, there are many – I count myself amongst them – who value these texts and histories and traditions and fragments, who have found, here and there (amid the great number of things that are baffling or boring or strange or downright unpalatable) some things that, once woven into the fabric of their lives, have been conducive more to liberation than to bondage, more to peace than to enmity. And yet Schopen’s research suggests that the texts cannot be taken as uncomplicated accounts of what actually went on. They are literary constructions, and if we are to make use of them, it is worth bearing this in mind.

It is not uncommon for Buddhists to claim that – in the good old days – the world was populated by avatars of perfection, and to then become gloomy because they cannot live up to this ideal. This is one of those curmudgeonly complaints that is almost certainly as old as Buddhism itself. But this failure to live up to the ideal is hardly surprising, because of the very real possibility that the ideal itself is a literary creation, something capable of attainment only by a fictional being. In other words, if Schopen is right, then the remarkable beings encountered in the text may never have existed at all. This is not to say that there may not be a great deal that is useful in these texts and traditions; but it is to say that when we fasten upon the literary ideals that are contained therein, we should remember that for those of us who live in the world of flesh and blood and material things (and who has ever lived anywhere else, other than this?), things are a little more complicated.

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#1 · Doug

28 October 2008

Thanks for reviewing what sounds like a very interesting book and one that I probably wouldn’t be able to get through. Quite an important message IMHO. So thanks. Warmest regards from Calgary.

#2 · Ed Knight

28 October 2008

there is rather general acceptance that the “marks” of “buddhism” are no-self, impermanence and suffering. Your writings seem to fall in that general arena. there is also rather general acceptance that “buddhism” doesn’t operate by belief in a set of dogmas but rather by investigation of experience and that the marks are guidelines not beliefs set in stone as western beliefs generally are. you seem generally to say that too. “Buddhist” concepts are fingers pointing to the moon which are recognized as impermanent as anything else and need to be set aside when one sees the moon or as a raft when one has crossed the river. ‘course, “paramita” often translated as virtue means having already crossed as we all already have says Dogen.We practice because we are enlightened not to gain enlightenment. As Buddha is said to have said “everything is enlightened as it already is”. Hard to swallow especially whole or by introjection of someone elses ideas. this does seem to leave open the question whether the guidelines form the experince or whether there is experience at all aside from concepts. That is a question to be investigated also for one’s self which of course has no independent existence (one’s self that is). Your setting aside of Buddhism as a concept seems quite buddhishly appropriate somehow.

#3 · Nacho

28 October 2008

What a great post. Thanks for posting, and for highlighting the book.

The distinctions made by the author (as you have reported) seem to fit well with the theological debates between liberal theology and post-liberal theology (and against conservative approaches), in particular to liberal and conservative theological approaches to reading scripture to the detriment of real engagement with narrative. That debate is particularly entangled, but your post brought it to mind because it reminded me of how easy it is for us to accept quite uncritically a whole host of sedimentation that goes as “historical scholarship,” or “tradition,” or some such wisdom, and thus render us resistant to the critical self-reflexivity Zen touts.

I also do not use the label Buddhist to refer to myself. Others do use it when referring to me, and I style my ethics in alliance with a subset of so called Buddhist ethics. Primary reason, like you, is that it would be intellectually dishonest to do so for me. I just cannot attach the label while I prefer to stand on a different ground, a cosmopolitan ground if you will, that wants to be much more critical of claims provided for our assent by any program. I am inclined to much of Buddhist philosophy, but that can only be taken as blended with other thoughts and experiences. I also just don’t buy into what might be required to accept, or take on, the usual mantle of “Buddhist.”

Thanks again!


#4 · Joseph

30 October 2008

Nice post!

Is he saying we should be suspicious of the claims of the Buddha himself? I understand we can’t become beings who manifest thousands of bodies to save all beings (Mahayana claims), however Gautama was portrayed as quite realistic in the Pali Canon. He seemed a very serious fellow who followed his own ethics and through mastery of the mind came across some startling and penetrating insights. It takes a lifetime of dedication and seeing clearly the three marks.

IOW, the Buddha and his disciples, so far in my reading, haven’t seemed like literary creations, except for the few rare instances of supernaturalism in the text, like when the Buddha manifested as Brahma for eons due to good karma.

Thanks for the great blog!

#5 · ian

31 October 2008

I often wonder what the buddha was really like as a man. And how different he was from me. And what he actually taught.
And what he would think of ‘western’ buddhist culture today.

#6 · Jayarava

1 November 2008

Schopen is an interesting and at times exasperating author. He seems to delight in being iconoclastic and demolishing theories. However some of the rejoiners to his critique are as interesting, if not more so – especially regards the Pāli texts. He is wont to quote at length in French and German, not to mention Sanskrit and Pāli without offering translations – which is frustrating for the less polyglot amongst us.

Schopen is oppositional and I think this has been helpful in provoking debate. He and others like Paul Harrison have forced a reassessment of the evidence for historical Buddhism. But he is as much an extremist as some of those he criticises. For instance he commonly rejects circumstantial evidence, and traditional narratives as entirely unreliable when he really has no reason to do so. His approach does result in a creative tension, but it’s not until you read some of the rebuttals that the flaws in his arguments become apparent (or at least that was my experience of it).

If you like Schopen then Paul Harrison is worth looking up. Jan Nattier is less iconoclastic but from the same stable and a very careful and inspired scholar.

Although he is often a target for criticism from Schopen et al, I find Richard Gombrich’s revalorisation of the Brahminical milieu in which the Buddha taught very stimulating. He also redefines, or at least retranslates some key Buddhist terms. Watch for his forth coming book “What the Buddha Taught” about to be published by Equinox. www.equinoxpub.com/b…
I was at the lectures that the book is based on and one of the stand out redefinitions was upādāna – usually translated as “clinging” or “grasping”. In fact more literally it means “fuel” and this links it into the extended fire metaphor: desire (tanha) is the fuel (upādāna) for the fire of continued becoming (bhava).

If you are in an iconoclastic mood I would also recommend Paul J Griffiths “Buddhist Hybrid English” JIABS 4(2) 1981 p.17-32.

Anyway, yes, reading Schopen makes you think and reassess previously held opinions about Buddhism. Which is a good thing.

Best Wishes

#7 · Will

1 November 2008

Hi, Jayarava,
Good to hear from you as ever, and to have some more reading to add to the list. I know what you mean about Schopen being exasperating (and long-winded, I would add), and I’d be interested in reading some of the responses to his work.

What I do think Schopen gives us – apart from the pleasures of iconoclasm – is a sense that the Buddhist texts are precisely that – texts. They are literary creations, and the relationship they have to what actually went on is necessarily complex. Taking my earlier suggestion that such texts should be read as lies in which not everything is false, it is not that the texts are lies in which everything is false (and Schopen does err on this side sometimes), but rather that it is useful to think of them first of all as literary creations (lies!), and then to think about what may be true on the basis of this.

All the best,

#8 · Be Zen

2 November 2008

This was an interesting post, but it made me wonder whether westerners in general take the Buddhist texts as “gospel.”

Most religious texts are open to interpretation and debate, and it is well-known that the earliest Buddhist texts were put into writing for the first time hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death. So how can they not be open to debate? Something that has been memorized and recited down several generations is bound to have a few variations from the original utterances.

Then there is the question whether all the words attributed to the Buddha were even spoken by him, or were some perhaps spoken by very learned monks and, by virtue of their quality and correctness, later said to have come straight from the Buddha.

These discussions and questions exist in most or all religious traditions. I think they are more suitable for scholars and academics to chew on that for a lay practitioner like me. That said, the book sounds fascinating, and the idea that we might learn much from examining the archaeological sites and artifacts of early Buddhist practice makes perfect sense.

But does a practitioner need to know what archaeology yields up?

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