Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

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phil
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Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby phil » Tue Mar 03, 2009 7:31 am

Hi all


I've been listening to the Bhikkhu Bodhi series on MN recently, and am often struck by how often he says that he thinks various commentarial anecdotes (and even some anecdotes in the suttas themselves) were just made up for dramatic purposes. In one case, he says he surmises that an anecdote (about the Buddha telling a young man his greedy father was reborn as a dog, and then having it proven when the dog digs something up from a place only the father could have known about) was probably the creation of a later elder who came up with it in order to stir the interest of his listeners. There are many such cases. In another, Bhikkhu Bodhi says that the incidents described in the MN sutta itself about how Ratthapaala is tempted by his father to return to the lay life (MN 82) were also made up for dramatic purposes.

Is there any historical documentation that these sort of things are true? I know some people who place a *lot* of emphasis on the commentaries, and if it is true that there is fictional material in there, it takes away a lot of the trust one can wisely place in them.

On the other hand it does seem to me sometimes that Bhikkhu Bodhi is a little too liberal with the kind of comments he makes about the veracity of the commentaries. He has become seen as a kind of absolute authority on the Dhamma by virtue of his leading role in translation, but I sometimes wonder if that kind of blind trust is justified? (I'm sure he himself wouldn't encourage, as modest as he is.)

Metta,

Phil

p.s To stay out of trouble, I won't comment any further, just curious to hear what people have to say about this. Thanks. My apologies if this is overly controversial, but it seems this is the place to discuss that sort of thing.
Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Mar 03, 2009 7:50 am

Hi Phil,

Perhaps a little off topic, but I think Bhikkhu Bodhi's interpretations are quite tame compared to academics such as Gombrich and Gethin.

Besides, unlike some other influential monastic interpreters of Suttas, such as Ven Thanissaro, Ajahn Buddhadasa, and various students of Ajahn Chah, Bhikkhu Bodhi is careful to explain where his opinions differ from the standard Theravada interpretation.

Metta
Mike

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby phil » Tue Mar 03, 2009 7:58 am

mikenz66 wrote:Hi Phil,

Perhaps a little off topic, but I think Bhikkhu Bodhi's interpretations are quite tame compared to academics such as Gombrich and Gethin.

Besides, unlike some other influential monastic interpreters of Suttas, such as Ven Thanissaro, Ajahn Buddhadasa, and various students of Ajahn Chah, Bhikkhu Bodhi is careful to explain where his opinions differ from the standard Theravada interpretation.

Metta
Mike



Yes, you're right about Bhikkhu Bodhi. He always is very clear about where his opinion differs from the Orthodox. Other teachers just barrel ahead without noting that.

Rather than asking you to post about what Gombrich and Gethin said, I will do a wikipedia check. If I can't find it there, I might ask you for more info. Thanks.

Metta,

Phil
Kammalakkhano , bhikkhave, bālo, kammalakkhano pandito, apadānasobhanī paññāti
(The fool is characterized by his/her actions/the wise one is characterized by his/her actions/Wisdom shines forth in behaviour.)
(AN 3.2 Lakkhana Sutta)

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Mar 03, 2009 9:12 am

Hi Phil,

I think both are worth looking at. It's good to have both "monastic" and "academic" scholars.

Threads with some Gombrich content:
viewtopic.php?f=13&t=825
viewtopic.php?f=24&t=785
viewtopic.php?f=14&t=85
viewtopic.php?f=13&t=545
viewtopic.php?f=16&t=550

http://www.wisdom-books.com/ProductDetail.asp?PID=19312

For some short talks by Gethin see:
viewtopic.php?f=13&t=782

Metta
Mike

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby zavk » Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:00 am

Hi Phil,

Welcome to DhammaWheel. My two cents.....

Academic commentators tend to take a more contextual approach to the study of Buddhist texts (as they should for they have a responsibility to further the agenda of the academy: free and open inquiry). That is, they see Buddhist doctrine and practice as culturally and historically dependent. But when taken to the extreme, academic commentators sometimes wrongly assume that the 'right' way to read Buddhist doctrine and practice is to read it descriptively. This is exemplified by the approach of Buddhology. The shortcoming of such an approach is that the truth claims of Buddhist doctrine and practice are marginalised.

Monastic commentators, on the hand, tend to be more committed towards tradition (as they should for they have a responsibility to further the agenda of the Sangha: maintain the Dhamma for future generations). That is, they see Buddhist doctrine and practice as authoritative. But when taken to the extreme, monastic commentators sometimes wrongly assume that all Buddhist doctrine and practice apply equally to all situations, regardless of time and place. I can't say which monastic scholar is like that, but I'm sure we have encountered this kind of attitude in commentators from other religions. The shortcoming of this approach is that it fails to be sensitive to the specific, unique needs of individuals in different sociocultural contexts.

Having said that, most commentators these days, academic or monastic, are informed by each other's approaches. We see this, for example, in Bhikkhu Bodhi's attempt to read the commentaries contextually. I don't know if Gombrich attempted to experience the truth claims of Buddhist doctrine and practice in his everyday life, but I do know that many contemporary academic commentators (e.g. B. Allan Wallace, David Loy and Sallie B. King) are also Buddhist practitioners who are committed to tradition, even as they attempt to think about Buddhism critically.

Or to put it another way, some people would take an absolutist position and say, 'You either accept everything as true and authoritative or nothing at all.' Yet, others would take a relativist position and say, 'Well, if nothing is true for sure, then nothing is authoritative'. I think the path of the dhamma avoids these extremes.

Metta,
zavk
Last edited by zavk on Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:06 am, edited 1 time in total.
With metta,
zavk

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby tiltbillings » Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:06 am

I do know that many contemporary academic commentators (e.g. B. Allan Wallace, David Loy and Sallie B. King) are also Buddhist practitioners who are committed to tradition, even whilst they attempt to think about Buddhism critically.


Rupert Gethin and Peter Harvey are scholars who are Theravadin.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

dheamhan a fhios agam

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby nathan » Tue Mar 03, 2009 1:28 pm

I could fill rooms with anecdotal evidence that life is even stranger than this. I think some of the things the Buddha didn't point out were and probably always are a lot more ironic than even this. It would follow naturally from what is observable within more limited or mundane senses of how kamma just up and whups ya. It is my policy having taken refuge utterly in the Buddha to never question His sincerity in any way. If the Buddha said it, I accept this as the Buddha's word. I am not fit to question His capacity to speak the full truth of anything He choses to speak of, not by aeons of gathered understanding. So long as that is being respected by me and to whatever necessary extents by any others about me, I remain un-agitated by what anyone else would like to think or state. Why they would question a word of it is beyond me. What I have gained by discovering and accepting the whole truth of all of it is inestimably invaluable to me. That is what I find worthwhile doing.

metta and upekkha
But whoever walking, standing, sitting, or lying down overcomes thought, delighting in the stilling of thought: he's capable, a monk like this, of touching superlative self-awakening. § 110. {Iti 4.11; Iti 115}

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby mikenz66 » Tue Mar 03, 2009 9:04 pm

Greetings zavk,

Thanks for the useful summary:
zavk wrote:Academic commentators tend to take a more contextual approach to the study of Buddhist texts ...

Monastic commentators, on the hand, tend to be more committed towards tradition (as they should for they have a responsibility to further the agenda of the Sangha: maintain the Dhamma for future generations). ...

As I've said, here and in other threads, I think it is useful to be informed by both types. Sometimes it's possible that academics can spot something interesting that doesn't contradict Dhamma.

For example, Gombrich has argued that the Angulimala Sutta has been minsinterpreted, and that teh finger necklace was some sort of tantric object:
http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=aIOY ... #PPA156,M1
This would place the Angulimala story in the same category as the conversions of people from other sects, such as fire worshipers, naked ascetics, etc. It does, of course, contradict the commentarial background story, but not any basic Dhamma, as far as I can see.

Furthermore, an important thing I've learned over the last few years is that it is not necessary (or sensible) to have "one way of looking at the world". I don't try to force my Buddhist practise into an "academic" slot, or my scientific work into a "Buddhist" slot. There's no reason not to read the Texts from both a "believer" and an "academic" point of view.

Metta
Mike

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby nathan » Tue Mar 03, 2009 9:33 pm

I sense that academic commentators are more exposed than monastics to past and current forms of scientific materialism which failed utterly scientifically and succeeded overwhelmingly materialistically and therefore is still predominant in academic institutions. On the other extreme from scientifical (truthy enough? al la Stephen Collbert) academia or any prevailing common wisdom we have in long history now continually had plagues of mystics of every kind. These types of people approach things differently. Likely they approach the Buddha's teachings and practice differently as well.

Theravada resembles the kind of rationalized or objective scientific side of a perceptual divide more in some ways than Mahayana because of the Mahayana critique of Theravada Abhidhamma Doctrine for embracing a presupposed substantialism within it and for innumerable other 'omissions' or errors. These presentations of views which can be surmounted or undermined by other views are characteristic of the different Abhidhamma formulas as a whole to some extent. I will leave it to the bookish experts of whatever kind to hash it all out. I can interpret Madyahmika logic as a logical explication of the fully necessary essential core truth in many ways but I can't find any important omissions of significance in the Buddhas teaching for simply being and becoming a welcome and humble follower and potentially a fully successful disciple of the Buddha. If I can comprehend one Abhidhamma correctly then maybe I could compare it to others so again I don't know where else to begin to make sense of everything and anything as a follower and would be full disciple if not in Theravada as I did not grow up within a buddhist tradition of any kind so I sought out specifically what is best for me. As best as I can understand the whole of the subsequent developments.

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There may or may not be many perceptual or interpretive shortcomings on all or anyone's part beyond my limited aspirations to not attempt to learn to become a Buddha (in any way other than he has described along with his teachings to disciples but how would I know - I may as well long for becoming a Buddha to happen by accident to me for all I would know about trying to do it for real somehow.) but rather to make every effort to succeed as a follower. We are continually left with only one Buddha as final arbiter as Theravadan followers and practitioners. We have the opportunity to conform as much as we can to the origins of the doctrines and the nearest points of introduction to any and all subsequent de-evolutionary doctrinal departures into dogmas or whatever other beneficial practices and precepts have evolved entirely harmoniously with the teaching of the Buddha.

metta and upekkha
Last edited by nathan on Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.
But whoever walking, standing, sitting, or lying down overcomes thought, delighting in the stilling of thought: he's capable, a monk like this, of touching superlative self-awakening. § 110. {Iti 4.11; Iti 115}

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby jcsuperstar » Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:10 pm

i dont think anyone is saying the buddha lied, i think what may be being pointed at is there may be some things in the suttas the buddha didnt say...
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the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby nathan » Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:30 pm

jcsuperstar wrote:i dont think anyone is saying the buddha lied, i think what may be being pointed at is there may be some things in the suttas the buddha didnt say...
Second hand testimony and so on is all over the commentaries but there is plenty enough to work with in the Tipitika which is presented as the Buddha's direct and definitive teachings in the appropriate language and forms within the Dhamma and Vinaya teachings as a whole. If it is a questionable comment by someone else then it is questionable to the extent that a question matters in the overall context. Nothing of great or essential significance is missing from the Buddha's words where they are clearly recorded as such that need be added or subtracted in any subsequent comment that I can see. If I start on a process of removing his clearly spoken and the equally thoroughly well received and preserved discourses in an editorial way I don't think I can expect to walk away with much in the end. I can see how much there is to loose by doing so at all from my pov. I recognize that points of departure for divergent views are abundantly available to us at all times regardless of the other observation. I don't presume to occupy the high ground of the Buddha's outlook, only to use it and a employ a pali speaking outlook as my chosen beacon for truth within and without Theravada. I try to align my questioning outside Theravada discussions to the acceptable forms within the other traditions and try to learn proper forms of respectful understanding and speech. it is too much to take on all of it comprehensively in a beneficial way for my real and ongoing need.

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But whoever walking, standing, sitting, or lying down overcomes thought, delighting in the stilling of thought: he's capable, a monk like this, of touching superlative self-awakening. § 110. {Iti 4.11; Iti 115}

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby zavk » Wed Mar 04, 2009 7:16 am

Hi nathan,

Your commitment to tradition is admirable and most inspiring. :anjali: I aspire to have the level of faith you have--as appropriate to the context of my own experience of course.

In my opinion, critical readings of Buddhist doctrine and practice has a certain ethical function. I don't see such work as aiming to debunk or disprove Buddhism. Rather, I see them as a means to better illuminate the conditionality of the teachings, to better demonstrate how the teachings arose, and will continue to develop, co-dependently in and out of various contexts. This guards against the misuse of doctrine for authoritarian purposes (note: this doesn't amount to a disregard for 'authority' but is more precisely, a critique of 'authoritarianism'). As I see it, an investigation of conditionality that is rooted in ethical concerns is in line with core Buddhist ideals. And in turn, it is the indispensable component of ethics that guards against or prevents such inquiries from sliding into indiscriminate relativism.

Metta,
zavk
With metta,
zavk

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Re: Commentarial anecdotes as dramatic devices?

Postby nathan » Wed Mar 04, 2009 4:40 pm

zavk wrote:Hi nathan,

Your commitment to tradition is admirable and most inspiring. :anjali: I aspire to have the level of faith you have--as appropriate to the context of my own experience of course.

In my opinion, critical readings of Buddhist doctrine and practice has a certain ethical function. I don't see such work as aiming to debunk or disprove Buddhism. Rather, I see them as a means to better illuminate the conditionality of the teachings, to better demonstrate how the teachings arose, and will continue to develop, co-dependently in and out of various contexts. This guards against the misuse of doctrine for authoritarian purposes (note: this doesn't amount to a disregard for 'authority' but is more precisely, a critique of 'authoritarianism'). As I see it, an investigation of conditionality that is rooted in ethical concerns is in line with core Buddhist ideals. And in turn, it is the indispensable component of ethics that guards against or prevents such inquiries from sliding into indiscriminate relativism.

Metta,
zavk
I'm only pumped because it works for me. Sure, read, reflect, consider, I'm all for it. I'm a voracious reader. I had to learn to moderate a kind of compulsion to read over the years. I'll read anything I can on the Tipitaka and Theravada tradition from any source. Probably a few times if it is really interesting or helpful. The doctrine, imho, stands up to exhaustive ethical scrutiny. People's ethics (or is it at times 'aesthetics' that are noted?) rarely stand up to much scrutiny at all. As for texts and books. I know what I keep going back to again and again simply because I have been reading so much all of my life. I find the Buddha's spoken words, now text of course, unique, outstanding, superior. I have read way too much in my life. I was a kid that emptied libraries of reading material on a regular basis. I still read, with more moderation and now that I am middle aged I have made my way through a lot of literature in the english language. There is no comment on the Buddha or what is written about his words that really changes the fact that those thoughts, composed in that way, are uniquely brilliant and effective for me as instructions for life and achieving my highest aspirations. That is how I feel and what I think about it and I'm sure many other monastic writers have similar thoughts and feelings. They are on the whole very down to earth about things which is always a good idea. Academic writers do have many other legitimate concerns that monastics do not have and so they do have to address all of these things in a different way and a different kind of individuated perspectives comes to bear. It's all good from my POV. Information all informs me about something so it is only a matter of it's relative value.

I would never say 'You either accept everything as true and authoritative or nothing at all.' Probably not in regards to any text or group of texts. I only say, take what you can and what you need to from a text. I take as authoritative what is proven out by being and becoming, relative and ultimate truths.
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But whoever walking, standing, sitting, or lying down overcomes thought, delighting in the stilling of thought: he's capable, a monk like this, of touching superlative self-awakening. § 110. {Iti 4.11; Iti 115}


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