The Dull Monk in the Third Row Theory of the Evolution of Buddhist Doctrine

Tuesday October 18, 2005


I subscribe to a theory of the evolution of Buddhist doctrine which I think of as the ‘dull monk in the third row’ theory. It goes something like this.

First let us imagine the Buddha – if nothing else a master storyteller – standing in the centre of some village, and spinning a yarn. This story, like any good story, is filled to bursting with jokes, ironies, witty asides, double meanings. The audience are lapping it up. They are relishing his humorous turns of phrase, delighting in his images. And they are seeing the world, and themselves, with fresh eyes on account of it.

But there, somewhere in the audience, around the third row, is a monk of a particularly pious cast of mind. This dull monk in the third row is certainly sincere. He is earnest in his intentions. He believes himself to be a good and faithful disciple. He will not a single word slip past unrecorded. He is pious, extremely so. Whilst the rest of the audience chuckle, he does not. His brows are knit in deep thought. He has no time to laugh: his whole appearance speaks of deep and serious insights. As the Buddha speaks, he hangs upon every word, or almost every word – leaving out the more ribald jokes, if there be any, for they offend his sense of propriety. He is tone-deaf to double meanings, the quips, the asides. Even as he listens, his is weaving everything he hears into a structure of pleasing proportions, a cathedral of doctrine, with an imposing exterior and, when one steps through the door, soaring and awe-inspiring vaults.

Here is the basic axiom, which I think holds true not only for Buddhism, but also more generally: one dull monk in the third row makes uninspiring company; several generations of dull monks make a religion.

A good example of how bizarre doctrinal frameworks can arise out of the literalistic misinterpretation of jokes, parodies and satires can be found in the Aggañña Sutta (this is a long one – the link to the downloadable version is here). The Aggañña Sutta is sometimes referred to as a Buddhist cosmogony, or even a Buddhist book of Genesis, a tale that explains how the universe, human beings, the division of land, and social strife have arisen. (Incidentally, I do not know if anyone has noticed the superficial similarities between the Aggañña Sutta’s cosmology and that of the miller in Carlo Ginzburg’s wonderful book The Cheese and the Worms: whether these similarities are accidental or not I do not know.) But there is a problem. The Buddha tended to avoid metaphysical speculation, particularly on so grand and extravagant a scale. So what is he doing setting out a wildly speculative view of the origins of the universe?

It has long been known, however, that this text is not all it seems. The Pali scholar Rhys-Davids wrote that ‘a continual note of good-humoured irony runs through the whole story… and the aroma of it would be lost on the hearer who took it au grand serieux’. More recently, Richard Gombrich, in his How Buddhism Began, has demonstrated – I believe convincingly – that the Buddha ‘never intended to propound a cosmogony.’ Rather, the whole story is an attempt to make fun of brahminical cosmogonies, particularly the so-called ‘Hymn of Creation’ in the Rig Veda, whilst at the same time setting out the Buddha’ own very particular view of the human weaknesses of greed, hatred and delusion. There is no doubt that this was not an idle parody: it had a serious intent. But it was a parody nonetheless.

The idea that religious texts could include figurative or indirect expression (pariyaya in Pali – a “way round” or a “way of putting things”), satire, parody, even – dare it be said? – jokes, is one that does not sit well with the dull monk in the third row. Whilst he believes that his over-pious reading of texts is the only way of doing these texts justice, in fact does quite the opposite: it corrupts them.

Having said all this, perhaps we should not judge the dull monk in the third row too harshly. His earnestness and plodding diligence have had definite advantages: perhaps it is because of him and his successors that we have a tradition at all. The earnest copying, the taking of every word as literal and weighty, may have helped to preserve these very texts and teachings.

However, when it comes to our reading of these ancient works, to bring them back to life we may need to resist the temptation to join the dull monk in his piety and seriousness, his excessive reverence. We may need to recognise that however faithful he believes himself to be, he might have missed much that is nuanced and subtle and humorous. Ridding ourselves of the oppressive and unimaginative spirit of piety that accompanies the reading of religious works and that invariably stifles all genuine creativity, reading with half an eye open to jokes – both actual and possible – to ironies and to double meanings, we might find that we are liberated to read these ancient works afresh, with humour and delight, finding in them new and unexpected meanings.

Have a look at Wikipedia
How Buddhism Began Richard Gombrich. Munshiram Manoharlal 2002.
or Why Humans Have Cultures Michael Carrithers. OUP 1992. Chapter 7 – dedicated to this sutta.

Tags: , , ,
#1 · jez

19 October 2005

As you say, the dull monk is responsible for preserving tradition. Isn’t tradition all about being a ‘dull monk’? I am not talking about culture. All societies are defined by their culture. Culture, however, is not unchangeable. Tradition, by definition, I would say, IS unchangeable. Perhaps it is just a question of semantics, but words are important. Every society needs scribes who document for historical purposes. This, as you say, should not be done piously, but merely practically. Societies also need thinkers, but not moral leaders. Human beings, in my opinion are capable of making moral decisions without the ‘help’ of moral leaders.
#2 · Will

20 October 2005

Yes, scribes are great! Bring on the scribes! But the problem seems to me to be the fact that traditions in fact drift, whilst having the appearance of being unchanging – and making the claim that they are unchanging.

And, come to think of it, contexts drift too, requiring new ways of thinking, even if traditions remain the same. So the dull monks amongst us – although useful – should not be given the last word…
#3 · Kaspalita (Gareth)

6 January 2011

Yes this is true. Of course we wouldn’t have the Aggañña Sutta at all if all those dull monks hadn’t committed it to memory.

It reminds me of when one of the disciples of Buddha (this is going to be without references I’m afraid) missed a teaching and asked Ananda what he had missed.

Ananda hadn’t understood the teaching at all and still wasn’t an arahat. But he had memorised the teaching word for word.He recited the teaching and the other monk (Shariputa?) became enlightened on the spot….

#4 · David Chapman

8 January 2011

“Blessed are the makers of ALL dairy products!”

Sorry; couldn’t resist.

#5 · Curt

8 January 2011

But what about the eaters of dairy products?

#6 · Sabio Lantz

9 January 2011

The Christian equivalent may be: “Several generations of dull disciples and Catholicism is born.”

Excellent essay. The 19th century brought textual criticism techniques to Christianity. Educating Buddhist believers in these insights will be fantastic. Thanx

#7 · Paul

15 January 2011

I like what you’ve suggested here. It de-emphasizes the “rites and rituals” stuff in favor of what the Buddha was really looking for and, after he found it, teaching. He wasn’t looking for or teaching Enlightenment, but suffering and the end of suffering.

Comments are turned off for this article.