Sects & Sectarianism by Bhikkhu Sujato
Caution: The following is more suitable for the broad-minded and the wise. Others are kindly advised to pass!
Chapter 3 The Dīpavaṁsa
3.1 The heresy of grammar
26.Another crucial accusation is that the Vajjiputtakas/Mahāsaṅghikas revised the ancient texts, rejecting the Parivāra, the six books of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭisambhidā, the Niddesa, some of the Jātakas, and some of the verses, and went on to compose others (Dīpavaṁsa 4.76, 82). These works are all found in the Pali canon. Without exception, modern scholars are agreed that these works are late and are not buddhavacana. Thus the Mahāsaṅghikas may rightly claim to be the forerunners of an accurate historical-critical approach to Buddhist texts.
27.The Dīpavaṁsa’s description of the rejected texts is a projection of the Mahāvihāra’s dark side. Subconsciously, they know full well that these texts are late. The virulence of their attack—echoed elsewhere—demonstrates their fear of admitting this, and the concomitant need to externalize the problem. Why are they so afraid? Why not simply admit, as all the evidence would have it, that some of their texts are not buddhavacana? Admitting the inauthenticity of their own texts would destroy their own self-image as the true bastion of original, pure Buddhism. This would make nonsense of the ideology of Sri Lanka as the ‘Dhammadīpa’, and would ruin the Mahāvihāra’s credibility in the competition for royal favours with the Abhayagiri. The fear is quite real: at some times the Mahāvihāra had to stand face to face with its own destruction. But the reality of the threat should not blind us to the illusions conjured in response to that threat.
28.The list of texts rejected is quite precise: ‘some of the Jātakas’, ‘some of the verses’. As is well known, certain Jātakas form part of the early corpus of scriptures, while others were added continuously over many years. Similarly, many of the verses of the Khuddakanikāya are early, but many more are among the latest strata of additions to the canon.
29.In their current form, all these rejected texts are post-Aśokan. While the Abhidhamma project must have been underway in the time of Aśoka—as suggested by Moggaliputtatissa’s Abhidhamma connections and confirmed by substantial similarities among existing Abhidhamma texts—the texts as we know them were finalized later. Similarly, the Paṭisambhidāmagga is dated around 100 BCE. The Niddesa applies Abhidhamma methodology to some early poems, and stems from a similar period. Thus we are firmly in the ‘late canonical’ period of the Mahāvihāra literature, and accordingly should look for the dispute in this period.
30.If we want to know who the Mahāvihāravāsins were arguing with, the Kathāvatthu commentary, though redacted later, is our main source of information. Overwhelmingly, this concerns disputes with the Andhakas, a group of Mahāsaṅghika schools in the Andhra region, including Amarāvati, Nāgārjunikoṇḍa, etc. Thus we know that the Mahāvihāravāsins debated Abhidhamma extensively with the Andhakas, and it must surely follow that the Andhakas rejected the Mahāvihāra’s Abhidhamma and related literature. But this is perhaps not of such great importance in itself, for it is probable that most of the Indic schools did not accept the Mahāvihāra Abhidhamma—in fact, they had probably hardly even heard of it. What matters is not so much that the Andhakas rejected these texts, but that the Mahāvihāravāsins knew they rejected them, and it hurt.
31.The Paṭisambhidāmagga and the Niddesa are also crucial here, in a different way. They are both included in the Khuddakanikāya, but each has strong affinities with the Abhidhamma. The paṭisambhidās were a minor doctrinal set for the early Suttas. The primary meaning relates skill at textual exegesis with penetration to the Dhamma: dhamma (text); attha (meaning); nirutti (language); paṭibhāṇa (eloquence, i.e. the ability of one who, knowing the text and its meaning, and being fluent in the ways of expression, to spontaneously give an accurate and inspiring teaching). The Paṭisambhidāmagga takes this occasional group and, stretching their application almost beyond recognition, develops the first distinctive Mahāvihāra ‘Book of the Way’. As with all canonical Abhidhamma, the emphasis is on precise, clear cut doctrinal definition. Warder shows that the emphasis on this particular doctrinal category is peculiar to the Mahāvihāra.
32.The Niddesas are similarly about textual exegesis. They are a pair of Abhidhamma style commentaries on the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta, Aṭṭhakavagga, and Pārāyanavagga, early poems subsequently compiled in the Sutta Nipāta. Their style is curiously Abhidhammic, in stark contrast with the casual, natural language of the texts on which they comment. In fact, they come across as an attempt to ‘tame’ some early texts which express doctrinal positions not easy to reconcile with the Mahāvihāra’s developing stance.
33.As for the late Jātakas and verses, it would seem as if these were not so likely to be doctrinally controversial. They mainly deal with the Bodhisattva doctrine, which was emerging throughout all Buddhist schools, and if anything we would expect Mahāsaṅghika schools, such as the Andhakas, to be the forerunners in this movement. Nevertheless, the Kathāvatthu does record several controversies regarding the Bodhisattva and his career. The Andhakas asserted that the Bodhisattva was born as an animal or in hell of his free will (issariyakāmakārikāhetu), which for them was an expression of his transcendent (lokuttara) nature, but which the Mahāvihāravāsins saw as a denial of the law of kamma. It is not sure whether the Mahāsaṅghikas rejected certain Jātakas and verses because of doctrinal problems such as these, or simply because they were extra-canonical.
34.Recalling the Dīpavaṁsa’s accusations of bad textuality, I am struck by the aptness of a remark by Franklin Edgerton. Previously, Émile Senart had edited one of the most important and difficult works in the Mahāsaṅghika literature, the Mahāvastu, in the light of traditional Sanskrit and Pali forms. Edgerton commented that: ‘Senart’s extensive notes often let the reader perceive the despair which constantly threatened to overwhelm him.’ Following Edgerton’s work, it is now generally acknowledged that the Mahāsaṅghika texts are written in a distinctively Mahāsaṅghika ‘Hybrid Sanskrit’, and are not just bad Sanskrit. But Senart’s despair would echo the reaction of any Mahāvihāravāsin scholars, brought up on the simpler, cleaner Pali tradition, who confronted the Mahāsaṅghika texts. We therefore suggest that the Dīpavaṁsa’s accusations of textual rejection and bad grammar were levelled specifically at the Mahāsaṅghika schools of Andhra, and by extension Sanskritic or ‘modernized’ Buddhism generally, such as the Abhayagiri.81 In the usual mythic style, contemporary debates were backdated to give them a universal relevance.