Jun 23, 2006

Devas; on Sources

From the mailbag;

I'm relieved to hear that you're mens sana in corpore sano, Bhante.

That's a matter of definition, but thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt.

With the sudden halt in "blogging", I was rather concerned.

My only comment on this subject is: one thousand years is a very long time, and there is a gap of more than a thousand years between the death of the Buddha and the authorship of sources such as Dhp-A (viz. the commentary to the Dhammapada) or the Jataka as we now have them.

There is, perhaps, no other religion in the world so befuddled as is Buddhism regarding the huge spans of time that separate the various texts called canonical. There are certainly striking differences between "Buddhist cosmology" as it was imagined in 600 B.C. vs. 600 A.D. --and most Buddhists are either unaware of (or doctrinally predisposed to ignore) the stark difference between these textual sources. In Thailand, there is a stark difference again between 600 A.D. and the cosmological texts of the 14th to 18th centuries.

E.M. makes some good points; we should always take the commentaries cum grano salis. (see I can use Latin too)

The only quibble I have is in his use of the word canonical. Neither the Dhammapada stories nor the prose parts of the Jatakas are considered canonical. The material which is considered canonical can pretty much all be dated to the first century after the Buddha. I.e., the time of the second council. (The big exception would be the Kathu Vatthu of the Abhidhamma; although some other material also may be a bit later. I have my doubts about some passages in the Digha, for instance.)

The commentaries as we have them are attributed to Buddhaghosa, the great scholar monk born in North India but working in Sri Lanka c. 400 AD (or 900 years give or take after the Buddha) However, he is not traditionally considered the author but the translator of these. The story is that there were at one time early Pali commentaries which had been lost by Buddhaghosa's time. However, there still remained extant Sinhalese versions which Buddhaghosa back-translated into Pali; a language that, although already "dead" would have been more widely known in the Buddhist world (cf. medieval Latin in Europe)

How much of this material is original, and how much Buddhaghosa's extrapolation or incorporation of later sources is unknown. But I have read that no stories or proper names are found in the commentaries that can be dated later than King Asoka's reign, for what that's worth.

As for the Jataka tales; the canonical bits, reportedly uttered by the Buddha, are entirely in verse and don't make a lot of sense without the explanatory stories (which is usually all you would see in modern "selections") Sometimes the stories appear to be ingenious attempts to weave odd verse fragments into a coherent tale; other times they flow more naturally, fleshing out a story already evident in the verse.

Furthermore, it may very well be that some of the Jatakas are actually pre-Buddhist folk-tales, perhaps very ancient indeed, given a light Buddhist gloss much as Beowulf was lightly Christianized. A small number of Jatakas appear to reproduce the imaginative geography of the Ramayana, where the island of Sri Lanka is a fabulous abode of monsters. That would be quite an anachronism in Buddhaghosa's time.

This is not to say that I'm a skeptic. On the contrary, like the Buddha and Anaximenes, I believe that the world is shaped like the flat lid on a steaming pot, that India is a giant island supported by an ocean, supported in turn by steam, with the latter billowing steam suspended in the void.

Supported by a giant elephant, which stands on a giant turtle. Don't ask what the turtle stands on; it's turtles all the way down.

Seriously though, there is an interpretation of this cosmology that makes sense. See the fascinating book "Hamlet's Mill." which deals with ancient astronomy. Our ancestors were not so stupid as some people like to think. Mt. Meru, the World Mountain, is in this interpretation, a colourful metaphor for the Axis Mundi, which is the imaginary line from the geographic north pole to the pole star; i.e. the rotational axis of the earth. It is not at all certain that any educated people since neolithic times believed literally in a flat earth.

In any case, E.M. ought to be more consistent with his sources. The cosmological geography he cites is commentarial, and not attributed directly to the Buddha.


e.m. said...

The Jatakas (etc.) are overtly considered canonical in Burma, and are covertly taken as canonical in Thailand. My impression of the Sinhalese is that if you step five metres outside of the Peradeniya you'll find that 90% of Buddhists regard the Jataka in much the same way.

With the commentaries, it is more the case that the bulk of "Buddhist received wisdom" derives from them, and many laypeople and monks alike are un-aware of where the source of their knowledge might be --or what the line between them might be. Western scholarship has sometimes tended to exacerbate this confusion.

As I recall (with the noted possibility of error on my part) the vision of the world as a massive clod of earth floating on an ocean, with the latter floating on steam, is very directly attributed to the Buddha on many occasions; it arises, _en passant_, e.g., in the discussions of the causes of earthquakes. However, it has indeed been some time since I read the issue in the primary source, and I may now be exemplifying the tendency mentioned of conflating the primary source with the commentary.

Fundamental cosmological assumptions tend to be common over a wide geographic and cultural range in any given era of history; thus, in general, there is less of a striking difference between the cosmology Anaximenes and that of the Buddha (viz., who lived in roughly the same era) than there is between the Buddha and (e.g.) 15th century Buddhists.

The notion that the world arose from a single, fundamental element (or root) seems to have been debated in similar terms in ancient India and Greece [viz., Anaximenes says the world arose from air, whereas Heraclitus says it is fire] --and there are several suttas that make sidelong references to cosmology in these terms. One of the more important is the first sutta of the M.N., wherein a long list of such theories of primary element or root are rejected. To my taste, this sutta has been very poorly translated and interpreted (in English) to this point --and one reason for this is the reluctance of modern Buddhists to apprehend cosmological content (and, thus, cosmological inconsistencies) in the root texts.

(There is then the broader subject of modern scholars' attitudes to this kind of material, e.g., Prof. Gombrich dismissing the Aga~n~na sutta as "Satirical", etc.)


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Turtles are explained in Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss?

More turtles, I say, more turtles!

Thanks for an interesting blog!