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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