Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.

Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby seanpdx » Fri Feb 05, 2010 6:53 am

So... I'd like to start a thread to discuss Bronkhorst's ideas/hypotheses/conclusions about early buddhism. With that in mind, I'd like to attempt to keep the discussion somewhat focused. If you've never read anything by Bronkhorst... well, feel free to join in. Although I'm happy (as I'm sure anyone else who owns/has access to his work would be) to post helpful excerpts and what-not, none of us can really do justice to any of his research in mere forum posts. There's a reason his books and articles are more than a couple pages long. =D With that said...

The thing that strikes me most, and what has helped clear up some of the discomfort (?) I've had with a couple things ever since I began my own practice is the third-party influence he sees on buddhist thought. The two most notable things being his focus on how non-buddhist asceticism crept into buddhist teaching, and how liberating insight (especially as it pertains to anatta) was affected by the idea of non-buddhist liberating insight.

My first introduction to Bronkhorst was through his "Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India", and although his discussion of buddhist and non-buddhist meditation was very illuminating, particularly in light of the research from other authors, what stood out to me was his notion that "the explicit descriptions of the content of liberating insight are not original to Buddhism, and were added under the influence of mainstream meditation." (section 8.4). That the four noble truths, and other such fundamental tenets, as liberating insight were later additions certainly makes one pause. He discusses this idea further in other works ("Self and Meditation in Indian Buddhism", "Buddhist Teaching in India").

His insight (if you'll pardon the pun) into the doctrine of anatta is particularly elucidating. Anatta -- or rather, the way it was treated -- never really sat well with me. The concept itself is rather simple to understand. But the importance that people placed on it seemed unfounded. The idea of "self" as "process" seems self-evident, with a little bit of contemplation, but that could just be due to a background in psychology and philosophy. But I certainly wasn't -- nor am I -- liberated. Furthermore, it seemed self-evident that my own suffering/dukkha was not rooted in some illusion of a permanent, unchanging "self". Bronkhorst's explanation, explained quite well in "Self and Meditation in Indian Buddhism", removes much of the importance that mainstream theravada seems to place on anatta as liberating insight. If the idea of an "inactive self" was a non-buddhist liberating insight, it makes sense that people who didn't fully understand his teaching would latch onto his teachings about "not-self" as a similar liberating insight -- a doctrine of self defined in negative terms, with effectively the same result. It seems to me that the Buddha's teachings on anatta were not necessarily meant to be taken as any sort of liberating insight, or even necessarily a fundamental tenet of his path to liberation, but rather was a device used to get certain people to stop dwelling on the self altogether. If he was confronted by seekers who tended towards the desire to realise the "inactive self" as a method of liberation, then he would need to persuade them to stop focusing on trying to realise this elusive "inactive self" if they were to benefit from his teachings. Though Bronkhorst himself doesn't make this connection, as it's not really on his radar, it seems to be a logical bridge between the Buddha's actual teaching on anatta and what Bronkhorst sees as the final outcome of the teaching on anatta.

Whew. It's late, I'm tired, and I should probably stop here before delving into other points Bronkhorst makes.

Huifeng... your turn. ;)
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Feb 05, 2010 6:58 am

Greetings Sean,

seanpdx wrote:It seems to me that the Buddha's teachings on anatta were not necessarily meant to be taken as any sort of liberating insight, or even necessarily a fundamental tenet of his path to liberation, but rather was a device used to get certain people to stop dwelling on the self altogether.

It seems to me that as a minimum, insight into anatta is a valuable means by which to reduce craving and clinging... or so has been my experience, anyway.

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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Fri Feb 05, 2010 7:38 am

seanpdx wrote:
Huifeng... your turn. ;)


This thread was hatched in some PM between seanpdx and I, after he noticed my reference to Bronkhorst in the rebirth thread the other day.

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings Sean,

seanpdx wrote:It seems to me that the Buddha's teachings on anatta were not necessarily meant to be taken as any sort of liberating insight, or even necessarily a fundamental tenet of his path to liberation, but rather was a device used to get certain people to stop dwelling on the self altogether.

It seems to me that as a minimum, insight into anatta is a valuable means by which to reduce craving and clinging... or so has been my experience, anyway.

Metta,
Retro. :)


hmm, a key point is what is meant by "insight".

The argument is, that systems which posited an atman / jiva, etc. had that atman / jiva, etc. as the actual "content" of insight. In other words, one knows the atman or jiva, one sees it, etc. An actual real object can act as an object of insight.

Now, it was in this context that Buddhism appeared. Bronkhorst basically argues that originally the teaching is one of going through the four jhanas, and then destroying the influxes / defilements. That is liberation. It isn't that there is some particular (real, existent, etc.) object or thing to know or see.

With these other systems so presenting themselves, it was natural to then ask the Buddhists - well, what do you know and see? In a certain sense, the Buddhists could argue - well, that is missing the point. But, it was just a fundamental question that they got pulled into, and had to explain in the terminology and format of the other schools. They had to explain that (real, existent, etc.) thing that was their object and content of knowledge and insight.

So, and this has always been something of a problem for many Buddhist systems, how can anatman be the object of insight? What is the object?
There are a couple of possible answers which were developed:
1. That not self (etc. actually possibly including anicca and dukkha, too) are somehow characteristics of phenomena which are to be known. This draws one into an epistemologically based ontological system.
2. If one argues that the knowledge and insight is into having been liberated (eg. vimokkha-nana-dassana), well, that is already after the fact. Which leads to another question - why give a crucial insight at this point, rather than before release which leads to release?

Of course, one may always point to the four noble truths. And Bronkhorst does agree that these are very fundamental. But, it is the way in which "insight" (etc.) relates to these that is the issue at hand, not the truths themselves.
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Feb 05, 2010 8:21 am

Greetings bhante,

Paññāsikhara wrote:1. That not self (etc. actually possibly including anicca and dukkha, too) are somehow characteristics of phenomena which are to be known. This draws one into an epistemologically based ontological system.


But what is your criteria for "to be known"?

Take for example...

SN 22.59: Pañcavaggi Sutta (aka Anatta-lakkhana Sutta)
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html

The thrust of this sutta is that the five aggregates are anatta because they are dukkha, and because they are anicca.

I assume we take as given that dukkha and anicca are observable realities?

If A is directly observed, and B is adequately demonstrated and accepted to be a logical consequence of A... can we not say also that B is known?

In this way, I believe we can know "not self" (even if this so-called "no self" remains an unproveable, speculative, ontological theory)

I agree therefore that "not self" may be ontological by nature, but believe that ontological proof of the non-existence of that "I" within the loka of experience, is sufficient knowledge to uproot all craving. Greed (attraction) and aversion (repulsion) have no meaning when there is no subject/object dichotomy in which they can operate.

how can anatman be the object of insight?


Once you know the relationship between B and A, insight into A brings insight into B. In other words, it needn't be a direct object of insight in order to be known.

I hope I'm not messing up this topic, never having read anything of Johannes Bronkhorst, and that maybe the propositions I put forward may provide useful fodder for a Bronkhorstian analysis.

:ugeek:

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: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Fri Feb 05, 2010 11:09 am

retrofuturist wrote:
I hope I'm not messing up this topic, never having read anything of Johannes Bronkhorst, and that maybe the propositions I put forward may provide useful fodder for a Bronkhorstian analysis.



Well, the topic is "Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism".
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Feb 05, 2010 11:46 am

Greetings bhante,

Paññāsikhara wrote:
retrofuturist wrote:
I hope I'm not messing up this topic, never having read anything of Johannes Bronkhorst, and that maybe the propositions I put forward may provide useful fodder for a Bronkhorstian analysis.



Well, the topic is "Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism".


Right, which is why I'm trying to work out precisely what you and Sean are saying about his views.

So if "Bronkhorst basically argues that originally the teaching is one of going through the four jhanas, and then destroying the influxes / defilements. That is liberation. It isn't that there is some particular (real, existent, etc.) object or thing to know or see." then what role is there for vipassana?

In the suttas, the Buddha spends a lot of time teaching anatta to bhikkhus. I find it hard to believe it was just a device for differentiating his instructions from those of soul-theorists. It just doesn't seem to stack up against the weight of evidence of anatta as an integral part of the Dhamma.

If it was designed as propaganda for communications with other religionists, then why does it feature so infrequently as a theme in the Digha Nikaya (the nikaya primarily pitched at other religionists) relative to its occurrences in the Majjhima and Samyutta Nikayas (those primarily pitched at monks)?

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: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Fri Feb 05, 2010 12:07 pm

Since I have failed to communicate clearly the point to be made, neither Bronkhorst (nor I for that matter) is not saying that "it was just a device for differentiating his instructions from those of soul-theorists" or that "it was designed as propaganda for communications with other religionists", let us return to the OP (emphasis added):

seanpdx wrote:So... I'd like to start a thread to discuss Bronkhorst's ideas/hypotheses/conclusions about early buddhism. With that in mind, I'd like to attempt to keep the discussion somewhat focused. If you've never read anything by Bronkhorst... well, feel free to join in. Although I'm happy (as I'm sure anyone else who owns/has access to his work would be) to post helpful excerpts and what-not, none of us can really do justice to any of his research in mere forum posts. There's a reason his books and articles are more than a couple pages long. =D


And then go and actually see what he has to say,



Review of "Greater Magadha".

Review of "Buddhist Teaching in India.
Last edited by Paññāsikhara on Fri Feb 05, 2010 12:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Feb 05, 2010 12:10 pm

Greetings bhante,

Which of the online sources would you recommend to best understand his interpretation of the significance of the anatta doctrine... The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India?

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: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby Paññāsikhara » Fri Feb 05, 2010 12:13 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings bhante,

Which of the online sources would you recommend to best understand his interpretation of the significance of the anatta doctrine... The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India?

Metta,
Retro. :)


For this topic, his most recent book is probably best, Buddhist Teaching in India.
Though Self and Meditation in Buddhism look interesting, but I haven't yet read it myself, so can't say, actually.
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby seanpdx » Fri Feb 05, 2010 3:52 pm

Paññāsikhara wrote:
retrofuturist wrote:It seems to me that as a minimum, insight into anatta is a valuable means by which to reduce craving and clinging... or so has been my experience, anyway.


hmm, a key point is what is meant by "insight".

The argument is, that systems which posited an atman / jiva, etc. had that atman / jiva, etc. as the actual "content" of insight. In other words, one knows the atman or jiva, one sees it, etc. An actual real object can act as an object of insight.


Yes, it's important to understand what is meant by "insight". In this particular case, liberating insight is, as Huifeng mentioned, epistemological. It's the actual knowledge. As an analogy... it would be equivalent to knowing that 2+2=5, were that proposed as a liberating insight. There's nothing particularly special or mystical about it. It's just knowledge. But it's real, concrete knowledge.

Now, it was in this context that Buddhism appeared. Bronkhorst basically argues that originally the teaching is one of going through the four jhanas, and then destroying the influxes / defilements. That is liberation. It isn't that there is some particular (real, existent, etc.) object or thing to know or see.


Bronkhorst does say that there is a liberating insight, but it's not the type of "real, concrete" knowledge that can be communicated. It's a liberating insight that comes to the meditator within a meditative state (as he claims, the fourth jhana). Being an insight that cannot be communicated means that the question "What is your liberating insight?" must go unanswered. And that was apparently unacceptable to certain non-buddhists and buddhists alike.
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby seanpdx » Fri Feb 05, 2010 4:01 pm

retrofuturist wrote:But what is your criteria for "to be known"?


Barring western epistemological debates... the criteria would be that one knows it. =)
I know that 2+2=5.
I know that I have a pali tattoo.
I know that my shirt is black.
I know that the individual characteristics that go into making "me" (the khandhas) are not really an atta/atman.

And yet, knowing all of those things has done absolutely nothing to diminish my craving or clinging.
Why?
Because even though my body, my thoughts, et cetera, are not an atta/atman, this "process" that constitutes "me" wants to feel pleasure/delight/happiness.

The thrust of this sutta is that the five aggregates are anatta because they are dukkha, and because they are anicca.


It's important to understand why this means they are anatta. It is because an atta is held to be permanent and blissful. Therefore, anything which is impermanent or painful cannot possibly be an atta. Again, I personally believe that this may have been a tool to get people who were busy trying to realise their own atta to stop doing so. But it didn't always work, and this became a liberating insight equivalent to the realisation of the inactive self from non-buddhist tradition.
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby seanpdx » Fri Feb 05, 2010 4:11 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Right, which is why I'm trying to work out precisely what you and Sean are saying about his views.


He can explain better than we. *grin* I'd recommend "Self and Meditation". It's not a full book, only about 16 pages, and cuts right to the current topic of this thread. If we end up branching into some of his other topics, other works will be required. But it's _perfect_ for understanding what Huifeng and myself are currently discussing. It's also newer that "Two Traditions", but not quite as new as "Buddhist Teaching", if memory serves.

So if "Bronkhorst basically argues that originally the teaching is one of going through the four jhanas, and then destroying the influxes / defilements. That is liberation. It isn't that there is some particular (real, existent, etc.) object or thing to know or see." then what role is there for vipassana?


Yeah. What role _is_ there for vipassana? *grin* I think this may drift too much, though. I don't fully agree with some of Bronkhorst's conclusions about meditation -- for that, I'd have to refer to other authors, which I don't want to do in this particular thread.

In the suttas, the Buddha spends a lot of time teaching anatta to bhikkhus. I find it hard to believe it was just a device for differentiating his instructions from those of soul-theorists. It just doesn't seem to stack up against the weight of evidence of anatta as an integral part of the Dhamma.


It wasn't about "differentiating". It was about trying to get people to stop _clinging_ (there's that word again!) to doctrines of self.

If it was designed as propaganda for communications with other religionists, then why does it feature so infrequently as a theme in the Digha Nikaya (the nikaya primarily pitched at other religionists) relative to its occurrences in the Majjhima and Samyutta Nikayas (those primarily pitched at monks)?


It also wasn't propaganda. It was something that had to occur within his own congregation of monastics. I view it _specifically_ as a teaching device for already-converted buddhists who need help letting go of their own doctrines of self. But that it should not replace those doctrines as an object of clinging. And if you look around, you'll see that the doctrine of anatta is very much an object of clinging for many buddhists. Again, this is _my_ opinion, derived from Bronkhorst's work. This is not what he himself claims. He only claims that anatta became a liberating insight equivalent to realisation of an inactive self.
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Feb 05, 2010 8:38 pm

Greetings Sean,

seanpdx wrote:It wasn't about "differentiating". It was about trying to get people to stop _clinging_ (there's that word again!) to doctrines of self.


Yes, I agree that this is a fundamental purpose of the anatta teaching (as is the Brahmajala Sutta), but I myself have never believed in a soul... not even in my pre-Buddhist days. Yet I have benefited from this teaching even though what you say would suggest I wasn't the prime audience for the teaching?

Anyway, I want to thank you (and venerable Paññāsikhara above) for attempting to answer my questions. My skim read of "The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India" last night demonstrates that Mr. Bronkhorst is quite thorough in his investigations and explains the reasonings and probabilities behind the theories he raises well. He seems to slot his work well in against the existing academic backdrop. In time I may get around to checking out his work in greater detail (if you knew to the size of my books to read pile, you'd understand the reticence! :reading: :reading: ), but I hope that in the meantime I can pop in here and ask any questions I may have, given that Early Buddhism is relevant to my practice and approach to the Dhamma? I willing accept your (plural) caveat that Bronkhorst is the best one to explain Bronkhorst, but until such time, I'm happy to take the risk that comes with that caveat.

In the meantime, I plan to take up this "knowing" of anatta subject in a different thread (after my morning coffee once the brain is sparked up! :coffee: )... so feel free to weigh in with your views there, whether they be yours or Mr. Bronkhorst's.

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: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Fri Feb 05, 2010 8:52 pm

seanpdx wrote:He can explain better than we. *grin* I'd recommend "Self and Meditation". It's not a full book, only about 16 pages, and cuts right to the current topic of this thread.

Thanks,

I think I might have read this before...

Anyway, I didn't really find anything to disagree with. Most of his complaints seem to be about things that are not part of Theravada teaching of anatta or meditation as I understand it.
http://my.unil.ch/serval/document/BIB_EE3F136F6108.pdf
JOHANNES BRONKHORST - SELF AND MEDITATION IN INDIAN BUDDHISM
Similar reflection can be made when it comes to self and meditation
in Buddhism. It seems certain that the Buddha never preached knowledge
of the self as essential for reaching liberation. Yet his followers introduced
this notion, first in a roundabout way, later directly in such forms as the
tathågatagarbha. With regard to meditation we can be sure that the Buddha
taught some kind of meditation — the four Dhyanas to be precise — as
preliminary stages to the psychological transformation that constituted the
aim of his teachings.
His followers, once again, introduced other forms of
meditation which had little to do with this psychological transformation,
and much more with the originally non-Buddhist aim of immobilising the
mind.

Metta
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby seanpdx » Fri Feb 05, 2010 8:57 pm

retrofuturist wrote:
seanpdx wrote:It wasn't about "differentiating". It was about trying to get people to stop _clinging_ (there's that word again!) to doctrines of self.

Yes, I agree that this is a fundamental purpose of the anatta teaching (as is the Brahmajala Sutta), but I myself have never believed in a soul... not even in my pre-Buddhist days. Yet I have benefited from this teaching even though what you say would suggest I wasn't the prime audience for the teaching?


What I say would suggest you weren't the prime audience, tentatively, but I in no way suggest that you wouldn't benefit from such a teaching.

(Note: I say tentatively, because it's possible this teaching could be used to dissuade folks from nihilistic/materialistic views which could prevent progress on the buddhist path)

Anyway, I want to thank you (and venerable Paññāsikhara above) for attempting to answer my questions. My skim read of "The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India" last night demonstrates that Mr. Bronkhorst is quite thorough in his investigations and explains the reasonings and probabilities behind the theories he raises well. He seems to slot his work well in against the existing academic backdrop. In time I may get around to checking out his work in greater detail (if you knew to the size of my books to read pile, you'd understand the reticence! :reading: :reading: ), but I hope that in the meantime I can pop in here and ask any questions I may have, given that Early Buddhism is relevant to my practice and approach to the Dhamma? I willing accept your (plural) caveat that Bronkhorst is the best one to explain Bronkhorst, but until such time, I'm happy to take the risk that comes with that caveat.


Check out "Self and Meditation". It's a pretty quick, fun (can that be used to describe academic papers?) read. I believe a link was posted earlier in the thread. Feel free to drop by later if you so choose. =)
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Re: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Feb 05, 2010 9:54 pm

Greetings,

A new spin-off topic in the meditation forum...

Anatta as the basis for insight - What object? What benefit?
viewtopic.php?f=17&t=3529

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: Johannes Bronkhorst and Early Buddhism

Postby vitellius » Wed Jun 16, 2010 12:38 pm

Bronkhorst's "The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India" is criticized by Dr. Alexander Wynne in his "The origin of Buddhist meditation":
http://books.google.com/books?id=TiZWJ1ob23EC

Wynne's opinion is closer to traditional Theravadin view.
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