Problems with scripture

Protestant Buddhism” inherits from Protestant Christianity the idea that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority. Many Western Buddhists take this for granted; others dismiss it.

Authority, and the role of scripture, has passed through three phases in Buddhism:

  • Traditional Buddhism: Scripture is mostly ignored; the monastic sangha has ultimate spiritual authority
  • Protestant Buddhism: Scripture is the ultimate authority
  • Politically-correct Buddhism: Scripture is mostly ignored; each individual has ultimate spiritual authority

Scripture in traditional Buddhism

Buddhism is, in theory, a text-based religion. In practice, scripture is almost entirely ignored in traditional Buddhism. Transmission of doctrine and practice is oral, instead. Mostly only monks can read, and usually only a small fraction of them. They read only a handful of selected texts, which are used to prove particular points of doctrine. The vast majority of scriptures are never read by anyone at all. Monastic institutional traditions are the ultimate spiritual authority. (This is similar to the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.)

Problems with scripture as authority

Starting in the mid-1800s, Buddhism was partly reformed in imitation of Protestant Christianity. Scripture was given ultimate spiritual authority.

For this to work, all the following would have to be true:

  1. The Buddha had a complete, correct understanding
  2. The scriptures, as we have them now, are a complete, correct explanation of the Buddha’s understanding
  3. The scriptures are so clear that each Buddhist can read them and form the same complete, correct understanding

All these seem questionable.

The third is particularly unlikely, because Buddhists do not agree about how to read scriptures. There is a problem of interpretation: we know what the text says, but what does that mean? Often texts are highly obscure or ambiguous. (They also often seem insane, idiotic, ethically repugnant, or factually wrong, which needs to be explained away.)

In such cases, who gets to decide what the right interpretation is? It seems that whoever decides, gets to be the ultimate spiritual authority—rather than scripture itself.

Scriptural interpretation in Protestantism

Protestant Christianity faces the same problem with the Bible. Different Protestant Christians have developed different approaches, and this is one of the main issues that divides the Christian world today. Overall, there is no satisfactory solution.

In practice, the winning approach is to deny that there is a problem. The Bible should be read literally. “There is only one literal meaning for each sentence, and everyone can agree on what that is.” That is plainly untrue, but it seems to be the only way to hold onto the non-negotiable Protestant doctrine of scriptural authority. It’s held by most Christian conservatives (with fudges as needed to deal with the most blatant problems).

Conservative (“fundamentalist”) Christianity is doing well. Mainstream Christianity is collapsing. When everyone gets to interpret the Bible for themselves, most people implicitly replace unappealing Christian doctrines with comfortable liberal secular humanist ones. Christianity is gutted; it is reduced to a shell, an outer form whose core has been eaten away by non-Christian beliefs and practices. It has no distinct function, so everyone leaves. (Some of them put a Buddhist shell on their beliefs, and that’s Consensus Buddhism.)

Scriptural interpretation in Western Buddhism

Some Buddhists are scriptural literalists; but that’s rare.

A liberal Protestant approach to scripture dominated Western understanding of Buddhism from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Liberal Christian scholars had developed “sophisticated historical-critical textual analysis methods” which were supposed to reveal the “original meaning” of the Bible. Western Buddhist scholars applied the same methods to Buddhist scripture, expecting that this would reveal the “original intent of the Buddha,” as opposed to the ignorant misunderstandings of later Asian Buddhists. This work has significantly influenced current Western Buddhist interpretations.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many living Buddhist teachers arrived in the West, and their teaching mainly replaced Western scriptural analysis. Also, it turned out that the supposedly “sophisticated methods” were unreliable. Their conclusions have often been shown to be factually wrong using other kinds of evidence. (Some of those mistaken conclusions persist as Western Buddhist myths—but that’s a whole ’nother topic…)

So, most Western Buddhists now either take the traditional approach (Sangha elders provide the correct interpretation based on oral transmission), or believe that each Buddhist has to find a personal understanding. The Protestant approach doesn’t seem to have worked out well for Buddhism in the West.

Individualist egalitarianism

“Consensus” Western Buddhism makes each Buddhist their own ultimate spiritual authority. Everyone takes their own inner journey to find their own truth. Everyone has the right to interpret scripture as they like.

If people actually did that, it might be interesting. I’m not sure what would happen. Probably we’d get a thousand strange new forms of Buddhism, and that would be cool.

In practice, Consensus Buddhists don’t read scripture. It’s difficult, unpleasant work, and mostly a waste of time.

I’ve forced myself to read some. Almost all of it is exceedingly boring. It’s unbelievably repetitive, it takes a full page to make a simple point that could be said in a sentence, and most of it is just silly, one way or another.

And then, there’s large chunks that are hopelessly obscure. Often, oral tradition agrees that they are incomprehensible; no one claims to be sure what they mean.

Occasionally you learn something—but you have to be a masochist.

So mostly we’re back to ignoring Buddhist scripture. (Maybe tradition got that right…) Modern Buddhists’ personal interpretations of Buddhism owe little to ancient texts.

So where’s authority?

But this points up another problem. Politically correct Buddhism gives everyone the right to interpret scripture—but we can’t. The right doesn’t give you the ability. This becomes obvious if you seriously try to read scripture.

On the other hand, a competent teacher can help you make much more sense of scripture than you could figure out on your own.

And that leads to the topic of an upcoming post—the problematic role of teachers in Consensus Buddhism.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

33 thoughts on “Problems with scripture”

  1. David,

    i love reading the series of posts you’ve been putting out on this topic. the parallel with Protestant Reformation is an interesting perspective.

    “Western Buddhist scholars applied the same methods to Buddhist scripture, expecting that this would reveal the “original intent of the Buddha,” as opposed to the ignorant misunderstandings of later Asian Buddhists.”

    Stephen Batchelor comes to mind upon reading the above quote. do you agree? ;)

    that said, as much as i enjoyed this intellectual ride of dissecting Buddhism, i see this as just another way of slicing the Buddhist cake. in theory we can slice the cake however we want, from different angles, shapes, and sizes. in my case, i prefer to slice the cake using the AQAL approach. i won’t attempt to explain AQAL here since i know that you’re already familiar with Ken Wilber’s integral theory. (note: for those readers who are not familiar with Wilber’s integral theory, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Wilber#AQAL:_.22All_Quadrants_All_Levels.22 )

    the way you are slicing Buddhism is through the lens of Western religious reformation (e.g. Catholic v. Protestant). it relays an interesting perspective, and a good topic for discussion. however, i do find it a bit limiting, because it is leaving out a key component of Buddhism, which is “awakening”, or the first-person perspective of those who passed on the dharma including the Buddha’s. your approach seem to only highlight a third-person view of the development of Buddhadharma in the West (which is an important perspective), but if we only reify this story, then we’ll miss out on that which is being pointed to by the dharma all along.

    i guess i’ll just follow along and see where you’re heading with this series of posts, and what will be your overall theory, proposed solution, and how to put them into actual practice.

    ~C

  2. ~C4Chaos, thanks for this interesting comment!

    I haven’t actually read any of Stephen Batchelor’s writing; but from what I’ve read about it, he does seem to be taking the historical-critical, essentialist approach that was popular a hundred years ago, and coming to the same wrong conclusion that the Buddha was a rationalist.

    What I’m trying to do in this post, and the few that come before and after it, is to explain how we got to “Consensus Buddhism”—the most popular approach in America currently. I believe that tracing its history will shed light on why it is popular, and also why it won’t work in the long run. I agree that any categorization is somewhat arbitrary and misleading; I do hope that pointing out implicit Protestant assumptions in Consensus Buddhism will clarify its strengths and weaknesses.

    I haven’t read about AQAL in depth, but I know the basics. I wrote about Ken Wilber’s Spiral Dynamics—a related theory—in “I seem to be a fiction“.

    As I explained there, I’m working toward some of the same goals, with some of the same tools. The last part of this blog series—the most important part—will try to develop a framework for future Buddhisms, using that approach. The Consensus is “green meme” Buddhism, or end-game modernist Buddhism.

    The question is, how are culture, society, and consciousness evolving after the collapse of modernity? How can Buddhism be a part of that? In Spiral Dynamics jargon, what would a “third-tier Buddhism” look like?

    I think my answer will be quite different from what Ken Wilber might say, but we’re working on the same problem.

  3. David,

    you said:

    “What I’m trying to do in this post, and the few that come before and after it, is to explain how we got to “Consensus Buddhism”—the most popular approach in America currently. I believe that tracing its history will shed light on why it is popular, and also why it won’t work in the long run. I agree that any categorization is somewhat arbitrary and misleading; I do hope that pointing out implicit Protestant assumptions in Consensus Buddhism will clarify its strengths and weaknesses.”

    fair enough. i do see the value of what you’re getting at here. and i do share you concerns with how Buddhism has been presented as too “nice” and politically correct. Daniel Ingram has a not-so-nice way of putting it, he calls it, the “Mushroom Factor”. see http://web.mac.com/danielmingram/iWeb/Daniel%20Ingram%27s%20Dharma%20Blog/The%20Blook/2854F3F2-472F-47BB-9CE1-7D7F32A749C1.html

    thanks for the link. “Boomeritis” as described by Ken Wilber contains the gist of AQAL applied to cultural analysis. but the more recent integral approach can be found here: http://integrallife.com/learn/overview/essential-introduction-integral-approach

    that said, i believe that you’re on the same trajectory as Wilber with what you’ve been describing as “Consensus Buddhism.” i just had to make sure by asking you :) Wilber’s term for this is “Boomeritis Buddhism” and he has extensively written about this, see: http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/boomeritis/sidebar_h/index.cfm/

    “The question is, how are culture, society, and consciousness evolving after the collapse of modernity? How can Buddhism be a part of that? In Spiral Dynamics jargon, what would a “third-tier Buddhism” look like?”

    this is another interesting area for discussion. but i think this would be a tall order to answer without changing one’s own level of psychological development. “second-tier” alone is already challenging, let alone “third-tier”. but hey, i won’t let my own personal limitation hinder you from pursuing this :)

    thanks and keep it flowing…

    ~C

  4. Hi, yes, the page I linked to is a review of Boomeritis (among many other things). I discuss his “Boomeritis Buddhism” there (somewhat in passing).

    Whoops! When I said “third-tier”, I meant “second-tier”. Quite ambitious enough!

  5. Very interesting. But I think you have some problems with the terminology. What you call Protestantism, I would call Protestant Fundamentalism.

    There are plenty of Protestants (both in the US and abroad) who aren’t fundamentalists. In fact, there is an inherent contradiction between being a fundamentalist and seeing each person as their own ultimate spiritual authority. If scripture is never wrong or outdated, how can a Protestant lay person decide that eg eating shrimp is fine. (Cf. http://www.godhatesshrimp.com/) On a more serious note, how can Lutheran churches in the US ordain gay clergy in non-celibate relationships?

    If you were to decide to call the second category Fundamentalist, the third category could be called Liberal Protestantism. That would also do away with the need to call the last category “Politically Correct”. PC has a lot of sneering privilege attached to it, and it distracts from what you’re trying to say, in my opinion.

  6. Regarding the challenge of how to interpret buddhist scripture, I am reminded of something Ngakpa Chogyam used to say. Unlike the ‘religions of the book’ (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), you couldn’t hold up your hand to swear on a ‘book of Buddhism’, because the book(s) would fill up entire rooms. Thousands of texts, from perhaps thousands of sources. So it’s not only a question of how to interpret, but which texts you choose as important to interpret.

  7. Hi, Apel,

    I have never been a Christian, so my understanding might be mistaken… However, I gather that Martin Luther held both that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority and that all believers have an equal spiritual status. These were defining principles for Protestantism, and they seem to have been held by most/all Protestant denominations up until recently (the 1960s, at least, I would guess).

    As you point out, there seems to be an inherent contradiction in the two principles, and that is the source of the interpretation problem. My point is that, for a while, Western Buddhism inherited this same problem from its Protestant roots. By the 1970s, the problem had mostly gone away, because Western Buddhism abandoned scriptural authority.

    As you also point out, contemporary American Lutherans have differing perspectives on this; many have also abandoned scriptural authority.

    The third “politically correct” phase goes beyond liberalism, I think. Just to be clear, my own ethics are liberal; I think same-sex and mixed-sex couples should have the same marriage rights, for example. “Consensus” Buddhism imposes “politically correct” ethical norms that I find illiberal. I agree that “politically correct” is a loaded term, and I would like to find an alternative. However, I don’t think Consensus Buddhism is either liberal or Protestant (in the older senses of those terms).

    I’ve done a little rewording of the text of the post. I hope it clarifies possible misunderstandings that your comment drew my attention to.

    Thanks,

    David

  8. Also, your tweet was about this project looming and turning demonic like the Rat made was good. That was one crazy-ass story. :)

  9. I’m sorry. What I meant to write was:

    Also, you tweet about this project looming and turning demonic like the Rat was good…

    (Weird.)

  10. People become understandably animated if scripture is criticised. It’s a bit like criticising someone’s wedding photos. However the problem with scripture can be demonstrated in a less esoteric fashion by – say – suggesting someone writes a 100 word piece of prose on a particularly magical moment in their life, with the aim of capturing that moment for a friend who was there. A wedding say, or the performance by a child in their first school play. The written word concretises on a page a shared moment. The written word *must* be partial – must paint a pen picture, a sketch. Unless you are James Joyce you’ll struggle to fully describe a single moment, let alone a single day. And some would say even Ulysses has its problems. Back to our piece of prose – for someone who was there, it can conjure a recollection, and if the experience was strong enough, and common between author and reader, it can rekindle the moment. For someone who was not there, a commentary is required. You could write down the commentary, for the benefit of posterity, but then that just redoubles the problem, because it too concretises a passing moment. The only chance you have of recapturing the moment (rather than a mere guessed-at echo of the moment) is by having it explained to you by someone who experienced that moment. *Maybe* it is possible to fully articulate a *philosophy* solely via the written word. But, realisation is an experience, not a philosophy. So, you’re likely to struggle to access it solely via the written word. At that is why you need a teacher. Because you need someone who has been there.

  11. David, great post! Thanks for that.

    You wrote: “I have never been a Christian, so my understanding might be mistaken…Martin Luther held both that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority and that all believers have an equal spiritual status … there seems to be an inherent contradiction in the two principles, and that is the source of the interpretation problem.”

    As far as I can tell, you are right … about being mistaken ;)

    As a caveat, I too have never been Christian, but my father is a Christian Minister (and a Lutheran at that), so I studied Christian Theology long and hard and with an open mind so as to be able to disagree respectfully and learnedly with his often fundamentalist interpretations of scripture.

    Your statement that “Martin Luther held both that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority and that all believers have an equal spiritual status” seems accurate enough. But I think you are misunderstanding both of these clauses somewhat (though such misunderstanding is almost endemic now).

    Lets take a look at the second clause first:

    Here are Martin Luther’s words:

    “If they were forced to grant that all of us that have been baptized are equally priests, as indeed we are…, they would then know that they have no right to rule over us except insofar as we freely concede it.”

    It seems to me that Luther’s emphasis was on the faithful being equal before and in ‘God’ such that the faithful need no intercession or intermediary. The clause regarding interpretation of scripture, must be understood in that light, i.e. the person goes directly to ‘God’ to open his eyes and ears (mind and heart) to that interpretation of scripture that conforms to Divine Reality. So, this is not saying that any ad hoc, individualistic interpretation of scripture is equally valid relative to others, but that no individual or institution can claim sole interpretive authority because each individual, to the extent he/she can put aside personal will, can take up the ‘Will of God’ and interpret scripture (kind of a “Not my will, but thine be done” applied to scriptural exegesis).

    As regards the first clause:

    Scripture is held to be a reflection, in this world, of the Logos – the Word, Law, or Order of reality against which the faithful are measured.

    So, as far as I understand it, this is not a license to interpret scripture in any way that might happen to please the individual, but a recognition of that fact that scripture is a reflection of reality, and to the extent that each person of faith can open to Divine Reality, they can also (in and by the light of that opening) effectively interpret scripture for themselves and others.

    It seems to me that this concept holds true to a large extent in Buddhism. However, we are so very lucky that, in scripture, we have such statements as this from the Prajnaparamita Vajrachedika:

    “… do not say that The Realized One entertains this thought: ‘I should preach some doctrine.’ Do not entertain this thought. Why? If any say that The Realized One preaches any doctrine, they are slandering the Buddha, because they cannot understand what I say … the explanation of the teaching is that there is no doctrine to preach—that is called teaching.”

    Teachings like this help remind us that doctrine and dogma are not the path, that words are auxiliary, and we must not get caught in and by them. Scripture is not the Dharma itself, but its reflection in words through the skillful application of expedient means.

    As far as interpretation of scripture is concerned, T’ienT’ai Patriarch Chih I, in his “Ching-t’u Shih-i-lun” (or “Ten Doubts about Pure Land”) wrote:

    “The one Mind at the phenomenal level is not tainted by delusions of views and thoughts, and the One Mind at the noumenal level is not deluded by the supposed dualisms [of essence and form, nirvana and samsara, buddhas and sentient beings].”

    It seems to me that it is this ‘One mind’ that must be used to interpret scripture in a valid way and not our personal minds, although the personal mind provides the arena for contextualization through the skillful use of expedient means.

    Of course, I defer to those more competent than I in the revealing and employment of that One Mind, and this seems to me what Luther means when he says that priests “have no right to rule over us except insofar as we freely concede it.”

  12. @ Noah – Glad you liked The Rat! My main regret about writing this series is having broken the momentum of the Buddhist vampire novel. There’s one episode unwritten, and then the next six are ready to go. Postponing those is a disappointment—but I don’t seem to be able to work on both projects simultaneously.

    @ James C. – Thank you for the correction and clarification. I did realize that Lutheranism does not accept just any eccentric interpretation of scripture. But, who decides what is OK? It seems that the numerous schisms in Protestantism since his time were generated by understandings of scripture that some accepted and others rejected.

    I also agree that accepting any eccentric interpretation of Buddhist scripture is not workable. (And there perhaps I part company with “Consensus Buddhism”.) But again there is no definitive way to say which interpretations are kosher (unless you happen to be a Buddha yourself!).

  13. > “But again there is no definitive way to say which interpretations are kosher (unless you happen to be a Buddha yourself!”

    @ David Chapman – Ah, there is the thorny reality of it. What to do, what to do? ;)

  14. @ David

    Yeah, I would imagine that writing a Buddhist vampire horror story and doing and presenting deep research into the history of Western Buddhism require two rather different moods.

    @ James C.

    Very nice post.

    “…the person goes directly to ‘God’ to open his eyes and ears (mind and heart) to that interpretation of scripture that conforms to Divine Reality.”

    and

    “…no individual or institution can claim sole interpretive authority…”

    But isn’t the elephant still in the room?

    How does one TEACH a religion then?

    If no one is necessarily any more of an authority, then how do I know I’m not being swindled (especially by my own unassessed agendas) when selecting a teacher?

  15. @ Noah – The elephant is still in the room, true. Which part are you feeling?

    You ask what seems to me to be an/the important question: “how do I know?”

    And, what is more, I don’t think of it as academic, rhetorical or unanswerable – though it is rather subtle. I am reminded of Plato’s concept of Anamnesis: there does seem to be something in us that recognizes reality. I mean, when a fundamentalist uses scripture to justify hatred and violence, we sense that this is wrong. Do we not? The problem is that this ‘part’ that remembers the ‘taste’ of Reality is not always what we are leading with or led by. Often our petty wants and needs and hopes and fears occlude reality, and this ‘part’ seems to retract -like the head of a turtle- back into the shell of our egoity, and we are left groping the elephant with the wrong faculty.

    But your question, in my humble opinion, goes straight to the heart of the issue of the existence and value of the Dharma (as reality itself, not just teachings about it). It also seems to me that the whole point of the Prajnaparamita texts and the Platform Sutra (among others) is in pointing to the answer to that question.

    It seems to me, that if we seek a strictly and coldly epistemological solution, we will likely miss the mark. It would seem equally misguided to seek a strictly warm and fuzzy emotional/sentimental solution. The Dharma (as certain teachings about reality) often mentions the need to unite Wisdom and Compassion and I think that this is a good place to begin. If we wish to know, we must also be willing to be a proper receptacle for that knowing. And the knowing and the being are mutually conditioning such that what we know affects our being, and what we are determines and conditions what we may know. There is no Wisdom without Compassion, and no Compassion without Wisdom. If we lack wisdom, it were well for us to increase our Compassion. If we lack Compassion, it were well for us to increase our Wisdom. But we must be sure to remain alert to and wary of the subtle ego traps in that developmental process ;)

    My old mentor used to say: “Don’t look to me for answers, but I’ll help you ask some questions.”
    Certainly, I have no answers – I think I am feeling the ear.

  16. @ James C.

    Thank you for that response.

    Yeah, I think you’re right.
    I liked this part:
    “..and we are left groping the elephant with the wrong faculty.”

    Yeah…perhaps the “wrong faculty” is the I-want-a-Guarantee!-that-this-will-work faculty of my mind.
    Maybe Adventurous Engagement is the way to go.

  17. Knowing that one is feeling only a part is already a solution to a good portion of the puzzle since we are no longer confusing a part with the whole, right? ;)

  18. It might be useful to distinguish between the general features of Protestantism – such as the authority of scripture and the personal involvement of each individual – from the manifestations of Protestantism in various Protestant sects. The proto-type is Luther, but membership of the group labelled Protestant requires that we have some of the important characteristics rather than all of them. Also the group will be fuzzy around the edges where a member of the group might have some of the characteristics, but insufficient to make it clear they belong in the group.

    I think David has correctly identified some of the general characteristics of what was always a broadly based movement of reaction against the authority of Rome with it’s corrupt priests and practices.

    In other words “Protestant” is a generalisation and just because we know one Christian who is nominally a member of a Protestant sect but is not Martin Luther, doesn’t invalidate the generalisation. The use of generalisations on the internet seems to be fraught with difficulty as so many people seem unable to hold the central idea and deal with the exceptions.

  19. Hi David,

    I only just discovered your blog and I am catching up with the articles and comments whenever I have a bit of time. So whatever I will write below may already have been mentioned and/or discussed elsewhere. But first thank you for your wonderful blog.

    I saw your reference to David L McMahan’s book, I recently had the honour of meeting Thanissaro Bhikkhu who made me aware of his article on the influence (via German Romanticism and the American Transcendentalists) of various ways to read the Bible on American Buddhism (http://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/CrossIndexed/Uncollected/MiscEssays/TheBuddhaViaTheBible.pdf). Some of his arguments I find back in your discussions on Protestant Buddhism and the possibly greater importance of scripture in Western Buddhism than in traditional Buddhism.

    It seems to me that scripture (Buddhavacana) has always played a very important role in Buddhism. Scripture was perhaps not the “ultimate spiritual authority” but certainly did have an authority that doesn’t allow one to say that in traditional Buddhism scripture is mostly ignored. The whole commentarial tradition only exists by the grace of Buddhist scriptures considered as the words of the Buddha. The Buddhist scholastic tradition would have been much ado about nothing if they didn’t believe the Buddhavacana had at least a very high authority (not to mention the chanting and attributing power to the words themselves).

    A scripture like the catuḥpratisaraṇasūtra (See Lamotte, La critique d’interprétation dans le bouddhisme) teaches four criteria for understanding scriptures, the first one saying that Dharma and not the individual is the proper refuge. The word “refuge” perhaps doesn’t stand for anything absolute, but it comes very near to what many would interpret as absolute, and it is what Buddhists go for :-). The second criterion, the meaning not the words is the proper refuge, could easily be understood along the lines of one of the ways to read the Bible (“poetically”), where the intuition or underlying meaning, is more important than the actual words which are culture-bound. I am aware that my interpretation of those two criteria may itself be nearer to “Protestant Buddhism” than their intended meaning, but what I am trying to say is that we may overrate the importance of “Protestant buddhism”. For completion here are the four criteria (the fourth one being a license to mysticism…).

    dharmaḥ pratisaraṇaṃ na pudgalaḥ
    arthah pratisaraṇaṃ na vyañjanam
    nītārthaṃ sūtraṃ pratisaraṇaṃ na neyārthaṃ
    jñānaṃ pratisaraṇaṃ na vijñānam

    So whatever the influence of Protestant Christianity on Western Buddhism, scriptures were important and central in a(n educated) monk’s life to a degree that doesn’t allow one say it was ignored. That it was ignored by uneducated ordinary monks and lay people may only seem important and count now for us in our modern democratic and statisticophagical society.

    Joy

  20. For those with less linguistic ability than Joy (hello!), here is a basic translation of the four “criteria” (pratisaraṇa) for interpreting scriptures (with technical terms in place).

    1) teaching (dharma) is a criterion (pratisaraṇa), not person (pudgala)
    2) meaning (artha) is a criterion, not letters/words (vyañjana)
    3) a sūtra of definitive meaning (nītārtha) is a criterion, not one of provisional meaning (neyārtha)
    4) direct knowing (jñāna) is a criterion, not discursive knowing (vijñāna)

    I don’t think ‘teaching’ or ‘doctrine’ (both of which are frequently used) are good translations for ‘dharma’ I would prefer a phrase like ‘teachings reflective of reality’ but this makes the skin of some people crawl, and I can understand that. As for number four, I hear you (regarding the opening for mysticism), but to be trapped in the gilded cages created by the limitations of the discursive/ratiocinative intellect is not my cup of tea. It is a valuable tool, to be sure. but that does not mean it is the only tool or the best tool for everything. I do not have a problem with number four, though all four of these criteria give great license and leeway to those who would use calculative exegesis to abuse the ignorant and credulous.

    I agree with David that sutra is often absolutized and abused (and sometimes downright bemusing and amusing), but I also agree with Joy that sutra has weight and validity and was historically an important part of Buddhism since very early on.

    It has always helped me to see Sutra (as teaching) and Dharma (as reality) as mutually reflective and conditioning. Which is why many of the great Chan and Hua-Yen exemplars teach that there is no hard and fast separation between Sutrayana and Mahayana/Vajrayana. The experience of reality gives birth to sutras as expressions and signposts, and those sutras can be read and used as travel guides when traversing the terrain necessary to get to the other shore, whereupon the raft (of the formulation of the teaching) is to be abandoned. Sutrayana is recapitulated in Mahayana, where sutra is not looked to as ‘absolute’ doctrine (though this does often creep in as you both are well aware). And Sutrayana is recapitulated in Vajrayana, though Vajrayana employs many devices which would give many Sutrayanists fits.

    I find the Avatamsaka Sutra to be a most amazing sutra, but I will be the first to admit that taking it literally would be a disaster of unmitigated proportions; and to believe that its explicit teachings cover every possibility would be naive in the extreme. But, to simply dismiss it as quaint and irrelevant, preposterous and irrational, or repetitive and boring would be to let contemporary (even post-modern) thinking about scripture occlude its value and hinder or prevent the possibility of perceiving the functional nature of the repetitiveness and the flights of fantastic imagery.

    David, you mention that your approach to Buddhism is as a Path and the three ‘problems with scripture’ which you mention are not abolished by the four criteria of interpretation.

    My approach to sutra is also as a Path.That way I can engage it as upaya, so that it is de-absolutized, and given a functional value instead. And, I can certainly understand that there are people for whom it has little or no function (I have been such a one).

    I am not sufficiently informed so as to be able to accurately discuss the influence of Protestant thinking upon Buddhism, so I will leave that conversation to you and will watch appreciatively from the sidelines.

    Thanks for the conversation.

    @Jayarava – re: Protestant generalizations – agreed, and point taken.

  21. Hi Joy,

    Thank you so very much for the pointer to Thanissaro Bikkhu’s article on (mis)reading the Pali Canon. There is some really great stuff in there—especially toward the end. I had read his earlier “Romancing the Buddha,” which was one of the inspirations for this blog series, but had not come across this piece.

    There are not many practicing Buddhists who would get through that article. I see my work here partly as popularizing his insights for a broader audience. I share his alarm at this Romantic (mis) understanding of Buddhism, and hope to alarm others as well!

    How much authority was granted to scripture vs. institutional tradition was surely different for different Buddhists at different times. Highly-educated monks have doubtless always taken scripture seriously. That said, it is not surprising to find that scripture recommends relying on scripture rather than persons! It is not disinterested…

    If we want to know what people did, as opposed to what scripture said they ought to do, we have to look to anthropology and history, rather than scripture itself. To defend my “mostly ignored” claim would require defining “mostly” (head count of monks? lay people? important monks? percentage of practice based on scripture vs. tradition? etc.) and then a lot of counting. Which would be hard work!

    So my “mostly” is impressionistic, based mostly on anthropological studies of 20th century practice in several Asian countries. It seems, for instance, that almost all monks, almost everywhere, ignore much of Vinaya. If you grant that, then it seems hard to argue that tradition does not trump scripture in practice.

    David

  22. Hello James, thank you for adding the translation and sorry for not having added it myself. Lamotte and others (probably following him) translate “refuge” instead of “criterion”. Pratisaraṇa (rton par byed pa in Tibetan) means “leaning or resting upon” according to Monier-Williams. Refuge seems a bit too eager, criterion too distant, “reliance” seems like a good translation. As you seem to suggest, dharma has various meanings and can’t be limited to scriptures. I agree with your approach and mine is significantly the same, maybe too consensual and romantic for some? :-)

    @David
    What you do on this website is impressive and very useful. It’s the sort of discussion on Buddhism we need now. If I had the energy I would like to start a forum like yours for French speaking Buddhists less inclined to go on English speaking forums. Maybe one day.

    I understand your intention to warn Buddhists against romantic (mis)understanding and share it, but we should remain critical about or aware of the tools we use ourselves in doing so. There definitely is an influence of Protestant Christianity, Scientific rationality, Romantic Idealism, but I disagree with the idea that scripture was “mostly” ignored as a spiritual authority in Buddhism and that it had to wait for the influence of Protestant Bible reading, German Romanticists and American Transcendentalists for this to happen. Buddhism is not a religion of the Book, it didn’t start like a Revelation (Veda, Upanisads), but once the Buddha’s words (Buddhavacana) were received, repeated, transmitted and written down, they certainly got a treatment very similar to any other religious scripture. They had authority, were venerated, placed on shrines, inside statues and in stupas, they had magical power, were used like arms in debates, just like in any religion of the Book.

    You may say that the chanting and study of scriptures was reserved for educated monks and that most Buddhists had no contact with them. I disagree. This elite, was supported by the laity for just that reason, to do what they were unable to do themselves for various reasons. But they shared the interest and devotion for the scriptures. Abridged formulas (dhāraṇī ) of the scriptures were considered to carry the same benefits as the scriptures they were extracted from and were recited as mantras. This is a way of making the scriptures available to all monks and benefactors, educated or not. There was a genuine cult to the prajñāpāramitā texts. The scriptures definitely had authority. When the Buddha was no longer there physically (rūpakāya), his words and qualities (dhammakāya) replaced him as far as spiritual authority was concerned. When there were no more physical remains left of the Buddha, the stupas were consecrated with his words, scriptures. I don’t think one can say Buddhism mostly ignored scriptures.

    The situation wasn’t that different in the West. But because of education becoming generalized, and people learning how to read, everybody was capable of reading the Bible for themselves. If Buddhists, monks and laity of various casts, in India and elsewhere had been able to read and had been allowed allowed to read the scriptures, they might very well have done the same. Those two factors democratizing access to scriptures, rather than the spiritual authority of scriptures may have been determinate in what happened in Protestant Christianity and have not been limited to it. When Westerners read the Pali canon, they simply use the fact that they can read and that they have the right to read the scriptures.

    That is why most Buddhists mostly ignored the scriptures, not because the scriptures lack spiritual authority for them. The owner of a majestically decorated palace may blame the owner of a

  23. Oops wrong key. The owner of a majestically decorated palace may blame the owner of a small cottage for his lack of taste… But it’s not the lack of taste that is at stake here.

    I better finish here. One more quick point. The fact that most monks, almost everywhere, ignore much of Vinaya etc. has different reasons in my opinion. Numbers have become important nowadays because of statistics to determine the importance of a religion, its political power etc. So we see all sort of mass gatherings to show off their strength. “Mass Buddhism” is a new phenomenon (Monlam gatherings, Dhammakaya sect…).

    Until later no doubt

    Joy

  24. Buddhism like all religions guides and teaches people to be a better person. Scriptures are like literature, subject to interpretation. But why should we let words divide us when we as humans cannot even achieve absolute calmness, compassion and kindness? Practice the way and you shall find the way.

  25. @David Chapman
    @ Marie Ramos says:comment dated June 25, 2011 at 12:09 am

    I have a lot of interest in the Buddha; though I am an Ahmadi Muslim; as belief in Buddha being a perfect man (called Messengers Prophets of One-True-God) is part of my faith (five pillars of our faith).

    Since Buddhist scriptures ( named after the Buddha) consist of thousand of pages; and one could not perhaps read it conveniently; I thanked God when I came by a book named “Gospel of Buddha” which gives the Buddhist scriptures in a concise form.

    How do you see Gospel of Buddha” in this perspective? Please

    Thanks and regards

  26. The Gospel of Buddha was written by Paul Carus in the late 1800s. It’s a mixture of translations of selected Buddhist scriptural passages plus stuff he made up himself. His aim was to show Buddhism as compatible with Christianity and with Science. It’s not considered a reliable guide to Buddhism now.

    I understand better now what you were asking in a comment on a different post. You would like to find a concise summary of Buddhist scripture.

    You might try the Dhammapada. It covers only a small fraction of the whole, but is the closest thing I can think of to what you want.

  27. @David Chapman says:January 25, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    I have downloaded the Dhammapada recommended by you and have started reading it.
    Thanks and regards

    Paul Carus has provided the reference of the Suttas/sutras at the end of Gospel of Buddha; I don’t think that he added any stuff from his own; there is nothing in the “Gospel of Buddha: belonging to Jesus or Christianity.

    Can you please quote where he committed such wrong.

  28. I am not at all an expert in this area. My interest is in Vajrayana, which is very different from the material Carus wrote about.

    I can quote two people who are experts—Western academic historians who are also Buddhists—Robert Sharf and David L. McMahan. Sharf writes:

    Gospel of Buddha [is] a compendium of Buddhist teachings compiled by Carus and published in Open Court’s ‘Religion of Science’ series in 1894 (see Carus, 1915). Carus had taken available European translations of Buddhist scriptures and, through the use of careful selection, creative retranslation, and outright fabrication, managed to portray the teachings of the Buddha as humanistic, rational, and scientific.

    McMahan:

    Not a scholar of Buddhism [himself] … Carus’s most influential work, The Gospel of Buddhism, assembled material from the Buddhist canon, edited to resemble the chapter-and-verse arrangement of the Christian gospels. Although disparaged by some scholars, it became quite popular and was translated into numerous languages… Carus’s Gospel used translations of Buddhist texts available at the time, but he admitted to occasional “modernization” of the contents, and he added six chapters of his own that he called “elucidations of [Buddhism’s] main principles”—considered “main” insofar as they appeared to be in harmony with the Religion of Science.

    McMahan writes about Carus for several pages in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, which I recommend highly.

    If you want more detail than that, you’ll need to do your own research—this is all I know.

    However, no contemporary Buddhist or academic takes Carus seriously. His book, and his understanding of Buddhism, are considered discredited and long since obsolete.

  29. @ David Chapman says:February 1, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Thanks and regards

    If possible, kindly email me the pages written by McMahan where he had pointed out the stuff that Paul Carus added in the Gospel of Buddha from his own self.

    paarsurrey@gmail.com

    Thanks

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