Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Jan 28, 2009 7:57 am

Greetings everyone,

Zavk presented the following views in another thread, which I'm copying and pasting here because it would also make a good discussion topic in and of itself.

This notion that the views of commentators outside the Buddhist tradition (i.e. those speaking from the secular academe like Gombrich, for instance) are by default less relevant or less instructive in matters of the dhamma is, in my view, terribly disingenuous. I say this for several reasons:

1.) This stance of anti-(secular)intellectualism belies the fact that what we understand of the dhamma today was made possible and continues to be influenced by the work of Buddhist scholars of the 19th century. These forefathers of 'Western Buddhism' were driven by the post-Enlightenment secular ethos, and they employed the rigorous methodologies of the secular academe to uncover what they felt was a more 'authentic' version of Buddhism, a Buddhism that is universalist, rationalist and pragmatic. Theravada teachings appealed to many of them as, through their secular academic lenses, they were deemed to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Are the values of universality, rationalism and pragmatism not the same ones that are celebrated today about the dhamma? Do we not invoke the same values of critical inquiry when we discuss the dhamma?

2.) Rejecting the views of secular commentators on the basis that there are merely 'academic' and not 'applied' or 'practical' belies the fact that within Buddhist traditions themselves there is a high degree of scholasticism. And I'm not talking about Tibetan traditions here. We could assume that one reason Theravada has survived for so long is because of the work of countless scholar-monks who have maintained the canon for a good two millennia, translating and espousing the dhamma to new audiences generation after generation. The suttas and commentaries we have today would not have been possible without continued scholarly work, the kind that requires an analytical rigor not unlike what is demanded of secular academics. In light of this, can we justifiably dismiss the scholarship of secular academics as less meaningful? When we debate about the dhamma, do we not cite from texts, make reference to this argument or that--as secular academics do? When the views of secular academics are dismissed simply because they are 'academic' what is really the issue: is it because rigorous scholarship has no place in Buddhism (evidently not) or is it because such 'merely-academic' views raise questions that are uncomfortable to tradition? Should Buddhism shy away from such questions simply because they are uncomfortable?

3.) The reason Buddhism has survived for so long is because it has been able to adapt to (whilst also transforming) the existing worldviews of the societies it migrated into. This requires conversation and a willingness to listen. In a contemporary secular world--an interconnected world where the secular academe plays an integral (although not a sole) role in providing the knowledge base for society--how is Buddhism to maintain its vitality if it sees the views of those outside the tradition as less trustworthy? Is Buddhism really listening when it dismisses such views as merely 'academic' and of little relevance to its emancipatory and ethical endeavours?

To make this post relevant to the thread I would suggest that Buddhist views about women/men ought to take into consideration secular academic views about women/men. The latter has approached the subject in ways that Buddhism hadn't been able to in traditional societies, and also allowed for new ways of being amongst women/men that wasn't possible (or needed) in traditional societies. This is perhaps a rather banal point. But nevertheless, what I find instructive about secular academic views is the way they reveal how individuals and societies have a great deal of unrecognised craving and attachment to notions of women/men that are not strictly 'natural' or 'inevitable' but which have more accurately congealed over time to appear as self-evident truths. So, if liberation involves seeing how we crave and are attached to certain notions of self (and what more powerful sense of self is there if not woman/man), is it not worth our while to consider such secular academic views in our pursuit of the path? To be true to the FNT, why shouldn't we entertain the possibility that our understanding of the dhamma may be coloured by this attachment to notions of women/men, an attachment which may very well foreclose the truly emancipatory possibilities of the dhamma--or worse, unwittingly turn the dhamma into an impenetrable shining fortress?

Best wishes,
Zavk

PS: I do not pretend that I'm speaking from a neutral position for I am indeed pursuing a career in the academe. However, what I've written above can be considered by most of us, for it seems to me that many here have been educated one way or another in the secular academe and through such prior education is engaging with the dhamma in ways that weren't possible for the laity in traditional Buddhist societies.


Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby jcsuperstar » Wed Jan 28, 2009 9:13 am

i think the problem we face with academics who arent practicing buddhists is that they often just dont get it right, i'm not anti-academic in anyway, but i'm gonna trust my buddhist history lesson from someone like bhikkhu sujato over a purely academic one. i'm sure we've all read horrible intro to buddhist books this is what happens when one doesnt really understand the dhamma.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

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: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby Cittasanto » Wed Jan 28, 2009 9:19 am

Hi JC

jcsuperstar wrote:i think the problem we face with academics who arent practicing buddhists is that they often just dont get it right, i'm not anti-academic in anyway, but i'm gonna trust my buddhist history lesson from someone like bhikkhu sujato over a purely academic one. i'm sure we've all read horrible intro to buddhist books this is what happens when one doesnt really understand the dhamma.


not understanding the Dhamma is not exclusive.

I would trust any who looked at the whole aspect of the Suttas over someone who accepted blindly whet they have been told.

Academics and Commentators are no different if they do not look for themselves the truth of the matter!
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
With Metta
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Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."
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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby jcsuperstar » Wed Jan 28, 2009 9:31 am

i've never run across that problem with any of the monks who present buddhism from an acadenic POV. however i've seen buddhism presented in a couple philosphy courses and it was utter rubbish the job done.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

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: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jan 28, 2009 9:54 am

i'm gonna trust my buddhist history lesson from someone like bhikkhu sujato over a purely academic one.


It depends. Richard Gombrich might not be a Buddhist, but he is deeply sympathetic to Theravada/Pali Buddhism, with a knowledge base second to none, which includes a mastery of Pali and Sanskrit. He is quite willing to explore various ideas and to put them out there for discussion and debate. Ven Sujato is quite bright, but I don't think he is in the same league as a scholar as is Gombrich, much of what Ven Sujato has written is derivative (Gombrich being a major source).

An interesting interview with him:

http://www.ordinarymind.net/Interviews/ ... an2003.htm
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.

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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby robertk » Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:00 am

tiltbillings wrote:
i.


It depends. Richard Gombrich might not be a Buddhist, but he is deeply sympathetic to Theravada/Pali Buddhism, with a knowledge base second to none, which includes a mastery of Pali and Sanskrit. An interesting interview with him:

http://www.ordinarymind.net/Interviews/ ... an2003.htm

From the interview:

The other crucially important thing is that the Pali Canon says that the doctrine of Dependent Origination, with its twelve links, is extremely obscure. The Buddha even reprimands Ananda for saying that he understood it. A Polish lady called Joanna Jurewicz has finally understood it.*

Yes folks, that's right. It took 2600 years but finally a Polish lady called Joanna (one of the esteemed professors students perchance?) has done what millions of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis through teh ages haven't been able to do , according to the great Don. :rolleye:
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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:27 am

Yes folks, that's right. It took 2600 years but finally a Polish lady called Joanna (one of the esteemed professors students perchance?) has done what millions of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis through teh ages haven't been able to do , according to the great Don.


You seem to miss the point. There is much in the Buddha's teachings that obviously references Brahmanical teachings, even if this is not acknowledged by the commentarial literature. That the Buddha used a structure from the Vedas, does not detract from his teachings, but rather it gives them a cultural context that helps in understand the teachings historically. This does not diminish the insight contained in the teachings. If anything, it points to the skill and brilliance of the Buddha in using what he had at hand in making known what it is that he realized.
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.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby zavk » Wed Jan 28, 2009 10:31 am

Hey, thanks for starting this thread Retro. :bow:

My opinion is (and I suspect others would share this view too) is that Buddhism should indeed have sovereignty over 'Buddhist' matters but this shouldn't be misconstrued as privileged access to or monopoly over the dhamma, which is really more than 'Buddhism' (although one might argue that Buddhism has articulated a path to the dhamma in a particularly incisive way).

I agree with what some of you have said about poor academic studies of Buddhism. The study of Buddhism in the discipline of Religious Studies can sometimes be problematic insofar as such an approach misperceives its methodology (modeled after the now passe idea that all modes of scholarship should follow that of the natural sciences) is more 'objective' than the scholarship of the practitioner which is seen as 'less objective' because of his/her commitment to tradition. Such an approach attempts only to analyse Buddhism descriptively, seeing no merit in concerning themselves with doctrinal claims and practices. What an impoverished approach, I say! But I think in this day and age, committed Buddhist scholarship is increasingly being accepted in secular academes, which in my view is a good thing as it opens up new avenues for enquiry.

For example, this anthology, Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, presents some interesting views from Buddhist commentators who are committed to both secular academic enquiry and dhamma practice. Most of them are Mahayanist though but their ideas are relevant to the study and development of the dhamma on the whole. If you can find the book in a library, some of the chapters are worth a read. There are two reviews of the book online: a positive one by a Buddhist, and a less positive one by a non-Buddhist.

All in all, to come back to my initial point about Buddhism vis-a-vis the dhamma: I'd like to think of the emancipatory possibility of the dhamma as a horizon. A horizon, by definition, cannot be conquered or owned for it is ever-receding. But a horizon can orientate us and set the distance for our pursuits. A horizon is what makes any journey (and by implication, any destination) possible, even if the horizon always recedes. A horizon can be seen and followed by anyone (not just 'Buddhism')--if they care to look and risk the journey.

:namaste:
Metta,
Zavk
With metta,
zavk
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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby Cittasanto » Wed Jan 28, 2009 6:03 pm

Hi Tilt

tiltbillings wrote:
Yes folks, that's right. It took 2600 years but finally a Polish lady called Joanna (one of the esteemed professors students perchance?) has done what millions of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis through teh ages haven't been able to do , according to the great Don.


You seem to miss the point. There is much in the Buddha's teachings that obviously references Brahmanical teachings, even if this is not acknowledged by the commentarial literature. That the Buddha used a structure from the Vedas, does not detract from his teachings, but rather it gives them a cultural context that helps in understand the teachings historically. This does not diminish the insight contained in the teachings. If anything, it points to the skill and brilliance of the Buddha in using what he had at hand in making known what it is that he realized.


I would say this could mean she finally understood its context, and/or the teaching, not that no one else has or has not before her, he could of easily been refering to her struggle in understanding it not everyones.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
With Metta
Upāsaka Cittasanto
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."
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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby Bankei » Sat Feb 07, 2009 11:17 pm

The Journal of Global Buddhism has a special issue out in 2008 with articles you may be interested in:

Special Issue: Blurred Genres
http://www.globalbuddhism.org/toc.html

Introduction: Buddhists and Scholars of Buddhism: Blurred Distinctions in Contemporary Buddhist Studies By Cristina Rocha and Martin Baumann
[view] [print] Page 81

Buddhism and the Perils of Advocacy By Ian Reader
[view] [print] Page 83

The Emergence of Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection in the Academy as a Resource for Buddhist Communities and for the Contemporary World By John Makransky
[view] [print] Page 113

At Ease in Between: The Middle Position of a Scholar-Practicioner By Duncan Ryûken Williams
[view] [print] Page 155
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Re: Commentators/academics from outside the Buddhist tradition

Postby Bankei » Sat Feb 07, 2009 11:24 pm

robertk wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:
i.


The other crucially important thing is that the Pali Canon says that the doctrine of Dependent Origination, with its twelve links, is extremely obscure. The Buddha even reprimands Ananda for saying that he understood it. A Polish lady called Joanna Jurewicz has finally understood it.*

Yes folks, that's right. It took 2600 years but finally a Polish lady called Joanna (one of the esteemed professors students perchance?) has done what millions of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis through teh ages haven't been able to do , according to the great Don. :rolleye:


I don't think this is anything unusual.
Theravada Buddhism left India early on, the people of Sri Lanka would have been unlikely to have a knowledge of the Brahmanical traditions like the average Indian would. Things obvious to an Indian may have been not obvious to a Sri Lankan monk. As time went on the gap became even wider. Now with modern scholarship and electronic searching etc it is much easier to compare works with other works and to find parallels which had not been previously found. K R. Norman has also demonstrated many times that the original meanings of various words had been forgotten or mixed up and the commentarial tradition has to come up with some sort of explanation so they made it up or stretched it to fit their own theory.
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