The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

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Ravana
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The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Ravana » Mon Mar 09, 2009 8:54 am

From the point of view of a secular academic, the Pali Canon and its interpretations could be far less reliable than it is for a Theravadin, because the academic may not recognize the 'Arahantship' of the Arahats whose task was to preserve the canon. From a secular point of view, these people are just as fallible as any average person, prone to lying and manipulating texts as they were passed down. But for one who recognizes the englightenment of the Arahat, the validty of the canon improves tremendously.

In this light, when we consider issues such as

    * Interpreting the 31 planes of existence literally
    * Post-mortem rebirth
    * The validity of the Abhidhamma
    * 3-Life interpretation of Dependent Arising

- how much do we place our trust in the Arahats of the ancient times?

If the orthodox point of view is correct, then Arahats took a prominent place in preserving the Pali Canon and related material. This gives a lot of weight to the traditional interpretations of the canon. If the Arahats of the 3rd council did not agree with the material of the Abhidhamma, would they have let it be passed on as part of the official canon? If Buddhagosa did not receive the stamp of approval to his interpretation of dependent arising from the Arahats of Maha Vihara, then would it have become the prominent book it came to be?

I once read a diet and exercise book written by a professional bodybuilder. In it, he said that when he was training, sometimes he saw different advice coming from the bodybuilders and the scientists. He looked at the scientists and saw that many of them were overweight and not in good shape. He looked at the bodybuilders and saw that they were in good shape, so he decided to follow their advice instead of the scientists'. Similar advice may apply here: is it not better to follow the advice of people who achieved what we now want to achieve?

If issues such as listed above need to be changed in present times, then it seems to me that either
    * Arahats are not really as smart as we think; they can be wrong about even straightforward issues like rebirth, devas, etc.
or
    * The 'Arahatas' were not really Arahats (as Ven. Ñanavira would postulate, for example); how do we know that these people were really Arahats?

I think these are important criticisms that need to be addressed and discussed. So my question is, how much do we place our faith in the Arahats of the Theravada tradition?
Last edited by Ravana on Mon Mar 09, 2009 9:35 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Mon Mar 09, 2009 9:20 am

The spelling is “Canon” not “cannon.”

See The Four Great References in the Mahāparnibbāna Sutta. It is clear that the reputation of the monk or monks who are the source of the teaching is irrelevant, and should not be taken as proof of its authenticity. Any teaching should be compared with the Dhamma and Vinaya for consistency.

By definition, an Arahant is incapable of taking a wrong course through craving, aversion, fear, or ignorance. By definition, an Arahant is one who has followed the path to its conclusion. Your first premise that “Arahants are not really as smart as we think” is therefore wrong. Some Arahants may be less intelligent or less knowledgeable than other Arahants, but all of them have impeccable integrity.

It is not easy to know whether someone is an Arahant. Many people may say, out of faith, that such and such a monk was/is an Arahant, but the validity of the teachings is something that we can verify for ourselves. There is little point in studying Buddhism as a secular academic. The Buddha's teaching is a way of life to be practised and realised for oneself.

If you take hold of a snake by the tail it will bite you. So take hold of the Buddha's teaching rightly, as a method to purify your own mind from greed, hatred, and delusion.
10. "There are here, O monks, some foolish men who study the Teaching; having studied it, they do not wisely examine the purpose of those teachings. To those who do not wisely examine the purpose, these teachings will not yield insight. They study the Teaching only to use it for criticizing or for refuting others in disputation. They do not experience the (true) purpose for which they (ought to) study the Teaching. To them these teachings wrongly grasped, will bring harm and suffering for a long time. And why? Because of their wrong grasp of the teachings.

"Suppose, monks, a man wants a snake, looks for a snake, goes in search of a snake. He then sees a large snake, and when he is grasping its body or its tail, the snake turns back on him and bites his hand or arm or some other limb of his. And because of that he suffers death or deadly pain. And why? Because of his wrong grasp of the snake.
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Ravana » Mon Mar 09, 2009 9:30 am

Hi Venerable,

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:The spelling is “Canon” not “cannon.”

:oops: Sorry about that. (Corrected.)

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Your first premise that “Arahants are not really as smart as we think” is therefore wrong.

It is not my premise at all - I simply listed it as one of the accusations that are directed at the traditional views of Theravada.

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Some Arahants may be less intelligent or less knowledgeable than other Arahants, but all of them have impeccable integrity.

But still, wouldn't it be absurd to say that many of the Arahats of history were mistaken about issues such as rebirth?

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:There is little point in studying Buddhism as a secular academic. The Buddha's teaching is a way of life to be practised and realised for oneself.

I agree.
Last edited by Ravana on Mon Mar 09, 2009 9:47 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Snowmelt » Mon Mar 09, 2009 9:32 am

A trio of telling broadsides! :) I will follow with interest.

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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Ravana » Mon Mar 09, 2009 9:48 am

My point was that the various accusations that are thrown as the traditional interpretations actually boil down to either the notion of what an Arahat is as described in the canon, or the historical accounts of the tradition. What I expected from the thread was ideas supporting/refuting these accusations. I think Ven. Pesala has raised an important point that ultimately, only practice will reveal the truth.
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Rui Sousa » Mon Mar 09, 2009 12:01 pm

Many academics have their own background and they tend to see things from a specific point of view, I find it hard to see academics with a good conceptual understanding of Buddhism. I have either had contact or read texts from academics who see Buddhism as merely another offspring of the vedic tradition, and incurring in gross mistakes such as presenting Brahman as the "creator of life" in the Budhist tradition. (Read this last night in a translation of the Dhammapada)

The word of someone who has followed the path, even a Sotapanna, seems to me as more reliable than the word of someone who has just read about the path.
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby tiltbillings » Mon Mar 09, 2009 3:05 pm

Rui Sousa wrote:Many academics have their own background and they tend to see things from a specific point of view,


That tends to happen, but it is also true of the religieux, giving us very different takes on things, such as Ven Buddhadasa versus Phra Prayudh Payutto, for example.

I find it hard to see academics with a good conceptual understanding of Buddhism.


Peter Harvey, Rupert Gethin, K.N. Jayarilleke, John Ross Carter, Steven Collins, Joanna Macy, Sue Hamilton, A.K. Warder, Lily de Silva, Lynn de Silva, Richard Gombrich, Padmanabh S. Jaini to name, off the top of my head, a few scholars of Theravada/Pali Buddhism who are worth listening to when talking about Theravada/Pali Buddhism, having quite good conceptual grasp of things. And for Mahayana, any number of others can be mentioned.

I have either had contact or read texts from academics who see Buddhism as merely another offspring of the vedic tradition, and incurring in gross mistakes such as presenting Brahman as the "creator of life" in the Budhist tradition. (Read this last night in a translation of the Dhammapada)


And whose translation is that? I have yet to meet a Buddhologist that would say that Buddhism is an off-shoot of the Vedic tradition. That is a position that has been increasingly rejected in scholarly circles starting in the 60’s.

The word of someone who has followed the path, even a Sotapanna, seems to me as more reliable than the word of someone who has just read about the path.


Sure, but certainly not all sotapannas would have a scholarly knowledge of the texts and historical issues. It all depends upon what you are looking for and why.
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Rui Sousa » Mon Mar 09, 2009 3:23 pm

tiltbillings wrote:
Rui Sousa wrote:Many academics have their own background and they tend to see things from a specific point of view,


That tends to happen, but it is also true of the religieux, giving us very different takes on things, such as Ven Buddhadasa versus Phra Prayudh Payutto, for example.


Certainly, but I expected academics to have an unbiased outside look, otherwise I don't consider them as academics, but as followers of another faith with an opinion on Buddhism.

tiltbillings wrote:
I find it hard to see academics with a good conceptual understanding of Buddhism.


Peter Harvey, Rupert Gethin, K.N. Jayarilleke, John Ross Carter, Steven Collins, Joanna Macy, Sue Hamilton, A.K. Warder, Lily de Silva, Lynn de Silva, Richard Gombrich, Padmanabh S. Jaini to name, off the top of my head, a few scholars of Theravada/Pali Buddhism who are worth listening to when talking about Theravada/Pali Buddhism, having quite good conceptual grasp of things. And for Mahayana, any number of others can be mentioned.


:embarassed: I was thinking on the tiny world of Portuguese academia.

tiltbillings wrote:
I have either had contact or read texts from academics who see Buddhism as merely another offspring of the vedic tradition, and incurring in gross mistakes such as presenting Brahman as the "creator of life" in the Budhist tradition. (Read this last night in a translation of the Dhammapada)


And whose translation is that? I have yet to meet a Buddhologist that would say that Buddhism is an off-shoot of the Vedic tradition. That is a position that has been increasingly rejected in scholarly circles starting in the 60’s.


This portuguese editon: http://www.esquilo.com/dhammapada.html
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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Snowmelt » Mon Mar 09, 2009 3:29 pm

Rui Sousa wrote:Many academics have their own background and they tend to see things from a specific point of view, I find it hard to see academics with a good conceptual understanding of Buddhism. I have either had contact or read texts from academics who see Buddhism as merely another offspring of the vedic tradition, and incurring in gross mistakes such as presenting Brahman as the "creator of life" in the Budhist tradition. (Read this last night in a translation of the Dhammapada)

The word of someone who has followed the path, even a Sotapanna, seems to me as more reliable than the word of someone who has just read about the path.


Then there are those who only want to fit it into the history of philosophy, or compare it to Western philosophy, for example, whereas for me it is a spiritual path stemming from one whose wisdom was beyond compare, to be followed for the purpose of transcending suffering. I find the former almost ludicrous: the idea of only endlessly discussing it and pointing out its features is like ... well, it is like admiring a formula one car but never climbing in and driving it. :)

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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Snowmelt » Mon Mar 09, 2009 3:45 pm

To me it is a serious question as to what extent one should, having assiduously followed the advice of the Kalama Sutta and so determined for oneself that the Dhamma is efficacious and worthy of full devotion, just dive in, disregarding all external notions of truth and falsehood as hindrances to advancement, and practice, exclusively adopting the Dhamma itself as one's moral universe, examining the Dhamma itself according to its own exhortations and strictures. This is an idea I have been toying with recently: what have the Western notions of truth and falsehood, or perhaps better stated, the feverish promotion of the importance of truth and falsehood in the West ever done for me? The world is as full of lies as it ever was, and I am as helpless in their grip as anyone ever was - except for the escape the Dhamma offers. Bhikkhu Bodhi, if I recall correctly, has pointed out that the Kalama Sutta does *not* indicate that trust (we can also call it faith) is not required to follow the path: the Kalamas themselves were not followers of the Buddha at the time of its delivery, so the advice given to them is not the advice to be given to a follower of the Dhamma, one who has already accepted it into their heart. There is no hell waiting for one who does so, in my opinion: life can only get better. :)

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Re: The Arahats of Theravada and the Reliability of the Tipitaka

Postby Rui Sousa » Mon Mar 09, 2009 4:41 pm

Rui Sousa wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:And whose translation is that? I have yet to meet a Buddhologist that would say that Buddhism is an off-shoot of the Vedic tradition. That is a position that has been increasingly rejected in scholarly circles starting in the 60’s.


This portuguese editon: http://www.esquilo.com/dhammapada.html


Going deeper on this particular case, the author (who is a lecturer on religious history in a Portuguese university) starts the book's introduction by explaining that the Theravada tradition is a member of the Hinayana schools of Buddhism, then presents the theory that the era of Buddha dates back to 1800 BCE, and that the influence of Samkhya philosophy is clearly evident on the Dhammapada.

And on the comments inside the book more references are made to the samkhya sutras that to the Pali Canon... :shrug:
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