Mar. 17, 2007

Sutta and Abhidhamma

Some discussion has opened up in the comments regarding my post about reading the suttas. It occurred to me that I haven't made the most imortant and salient point; the reason to read the suttas is to hear the most undiluted Dhamma directly from the most qualified source.

Who was the Buddha anyway? If you take a traditional view, as I do, he wasn't just some really smart guy. On the other hand, he wasn't a deity or incarnation of one either. He was an extremely rare historical occurence of a fully awakened human being. By his own effort, he completely purified his psyche and penetrated totally into the Unconditioned. His words are precious, because they are a manifestation into speech directly from the transcendental. In a sense, you could say he was the only fully human person in the last two and a half millenia.

To the traditional Buddhist, the Buddha's words (buddhavacana) are considered flawless. As a Tathagata, all his speech is true, connected with meaning and beneficial. This is quite different from a secular view which might hold that the Buddha taught some things because of cultural conditioning or other mundane causes of error. This is a favourite tack of those who would, for instance, edit rebirth and karma out of the teachings. If the Buddha really was a Buddha, this secular line falls apart. If he could see through the most subtle levels of samsaric delusion, he wouldn't be caught by something as relatively gross as cultural conditioning.

One problem, of course, is to know if we have the real goods. If we accept that the Buddha's Word is inherently flawless, how do we know we have the real Buddha's Word? The answer is that we don't, not completely. On the other hand, scholarship reveals the sutta pitaka of the pali canon as pretty reliable as far as we can ascertain.

We can say this because of both internal and external consistency. The bulk of the suttas agree with the contents of the Chinese agamas, which have a textual tradition going back to the second council or shortly thereafter. The various recensions of the pali, in Sinhalese, Siamese and Burmese editions agree even more. This means the original texts have not been tampered with much since the traditions diverged.

Also the degree of internal consistency of the suttas is very high, much more so than the Bible for instance. We don't find instances of the Buddha saying one thing here and another contradictory thing there.

Finally, the suttas were never subject to the same degree of political manipulation as the biblical texts.

However, we cannot have the same degree of certainty about the abhidhamma. The abhidhammas of various other early schools also survive, in whole or in part, and there is nothing like the degree of agreement as between the various recensions of the sutta material. Instead, they are completely separate. It seems likely to me that the abhidhamma arose somewhat later and served, among other things, as something like a manifesto for each school clearly defining their metaphysical positions and distinguishing themselves from the others.

Nevertheless, abhidhamma can be a rewarding and useful study. It especially complements methodical vipassana meditation, and it is no accident that these are the two branches of Dhamma developed in Burma. The only caveat is that the practioneer must remain careful not to rely on word definitions at the expense of actual phenomenal experience. One of the surest ways to block spiritual progress is to convince yourself that you've already figured it out. Just because you can name something, doesn't mean you know it, even if you can name it in Pali!


Anonymous said...

Not my place Bhante but surely you recall,

"svakkhato bhagavata Dhammo,Sanditthiko, Akaliko, ehipassiko, Opanayiko, paccatthamn veditabbo vinnuni ti"


Rod said...

Yo Bhante (and whoah Bhante), you say that The Buddha was the only fully human person in the last two and a half millennia. What about Arahants? Arahants are basically the same as The Buddha, except for the title (due to him being the first to unravel the mysteries of existence). I am aware that certain attributes are said to apply only to The Buddha, but there is no proof of such claims, and I put such things down to hagiography. I would not say that every Arahant was like The Buddha, because the natures of Arahants vary, as do their levels of samadhi, but I would say that they are equals in the aspect that counts most, and that is purity of mind. As for Abhidhamma, it was studied at Nalanda university about 1,800 years ago, and was then known as metaphysics, not Buddhist psychology.

Anonymous said...

Just great: not only ignorant comments from a man in the robes, but ignorant comments backed up by gross generalizations that appeal to "scholarship" without providing a single example, nor an almighty footnote:

On the other hand, scholarship reveals the sutta pitaka of the pali canon as pretty reliable as far as we can ascertain.

What are you talking about, Bhante? "Scholarship"? Have you read anything written by Brokhorst, Norman, Schopen, or any other major Pali scholar in the last 30 years? The label "pretty reliable" can only be dismissed as meaningless in this context.

We can say this because of both internal and external consistency. The bulk of the suttas agree with the contents of the Chinese agamas, which have a textual tradition going back to the second council or shortly thereafter.

That is an absurd statement precisely because "the bulk of the suttas" is not what modern readers are concerned about: long series of passages about feeding the ghosts of your dead relatives (that are consistent between versions) may be "reliable" --they may also be wholly apocryphal, but they are (often) consistent across recensions. Obversely, if you have a glaring grammatical error in (e.g.) the one passage in which the Buddha states that he "sees" his own previous lives, and the Chinese recension actually omits that paragraph entirely, you have the grounds for a major philosophical debate about the original text, and the way in which it changed over several centuries.

The Pali canon consists wholly of layered texts. Both internally and externally they are "consistently inconsistent" precisely because different layers belong to different periods of time --and different groups of "collective authors". This can be demonstrated easily where you have two unrelated anecdotes that are forced together into one sutta, but it is indeed all the more important when looking at the comparative historical development of philosophic suttas, the vinaya, the biography/hagiography of the Buddha, the vinaya, etc. etc.

I do not know anyone who has read any of the major "scholarship" based on the comparative reading of the Chinese and the Pali who would agree with your reckless comment, above --there are numerous, major secondary sources that could be quoted to the contrary (mentioned in almost every issue of the JPTS, I might say) --but you neglect to find even a single example of "scholarship" that would affirm your view. Although, I grant, there are plenty of simplified pamphlets on Buddhism that makes these and even more absurd claims on behalf of un-named and un-cited scholarship.

The various recensions of the pali, in Sinhalese, Siamese and Burmese editions agree even more.

Opened a history book lately? Why don't you add Cambodia to the list to make this line of argument even more hilarious. The history of the past 500 years (if not the past 1,500) has involved repeated attempts to reconstitute the canon by convening councils to carry out comparative reading of manuscripts from each of the areas mentioned. The Sinhalese canon as it exists today is not "independent of" the Thai canon, but rather was reconstituted from it --as well as bits and pieces of Arakanese, Burmese, Mon, and other MS. The uniformity of these sources is a modern phenomenon with proximate causes in our own times --and, indeed, more interesting precedents more historically removed.

I can only assume that you are either writing out of a kind of intellectual dishonesty, or real ignorance of these facts when you say:

This means the original texts have not been tampered with much since the traditions diverged.

This isn't even true of the Dhammapada or the Milindapanha, much less of the earlier, sutta texts.

Many major scholars, including Buddhist monks, dismiss huge chunks of the Pali Canon as apocryphal and debased, e.g., the entire KN, and the second and third volumes of the DN, etc. etc.

Look, are we talking about the Dhamma, or aren't we? Are you telling lies about the Dhamma, or aren't you?

You may consider these "pious lies", but I don't consider it orthodox to pretend that texts are intact when they are in tatters.

2,500 years is a long time: everything has changed, including the source texts. Every single textual scholar and every single Pali study shows the truth of this --from Hinuber to K.R. Norman to you name it.

Also the degree of internal consistency of the suttas is very high, much more so than the Bible for instance.

On the contrary: unlike the Christian Bible, comprehensive comparative studies of the Pali canon have never been carried out. K.R. Norman discusses this problem in more than one article (sorry, no citation today); simply put, the entire edifice of what modern Europeans think they know about Pali texts rests on a very small number of manuscripts, most of them in Denmark, most of them transcribed by one man (Fausboll) --and the editorial decisions made by Mindon Min's council, perhaps arbitrarily, working from a similarly small number of manuscripts.

The study of greek and latin manuscripts has had billions of dollars poured into it over hundreds of years; Pali studies is still in its infancy --but, nevertheless, deep and profound differences between important passages of text are discovered routinely.

Do you really want to be a monk who is either ignorant of this, or who chooses to lie about it?

We don't find instances of the Buddha saying one thing here and another contradictory thing there.

*Cough cough* --have you even been reading the suttas? There are myriad examples of precisely this --if you want to see some of them taken apart and explained, read almost anything with J. Bronkhorst's name on it.

Anonymous said...

Dear bhikku,

As I was reading your post, my "spider-sense" that normally detects self-deception into someone else went from gentle tickling to intense sensation :)

Combining observations from a honest investigation of human nature, a broad knowledge of human history and simply common sense can only undermine, without even going into the specifics, many of the claims made in your post.

The previous comment, which I cannot really judge the accuracy or sincerity since I know little of the topic, raises important questions, and, as opposed to you, who made very BOLD and CONSEQUENTIAL claims without bringing a single reference (did you imagine that it should be obvious to all? The last comment would prove wrong.), he does bring some context and background.

The commenter brings ignorance or dishonesty as explaining factors. I would suggest a third one: self-deception.

What about recognizing as act of faith most of the claims you advanced in your post instead of asserting the stories of the suttas as historical and factual realities? It would not be difficult to find a few christian theologians that would manifest the same "intellectual" certitude you displayed in your post but would take great exceptions to some of the stuff you wrote.

Again, you may be right. I don't know. I am just a mere human being with its share of ignorance but at least I recognize it.

Anonymous said...

The road to Larissa
In a highly charged ad hominem against Bhante, anonymous (above) declares, explicitly that the Suttas are at least contradictory & implicitely, by extension, false.
Now this writer has nothing against ad hominems, & often finds them rather fun. But when they are heavy handed & soooo earnest they tend to lose their clout.

My estimation of his argument is that he has read someone called Bronkhorst (et al) who has studied these Suttas & taken them apart! A professor non the less!
Bhante has committed the horrible gaucherie of not having read them.

There are a lot of commentaries on the Suttas, in the Milinda,visuddhi, & Abbidhamma which are precisely that, commentaries. The work of scholars.
This writer- for one- is not interested in any of them, neither is he interested in ANY other commentraries wether they be the Entire Mahayana cannon (which has nothing to do with the teachings of the Pali Suttas) or any award winning, highly acclaimed authority -not even (gasp) a nobel laureate- contemporary (or lamented).
The Pali Suttas alone have meaning for him, they are all of a piece, they are both necessary & sufficient.

Here is the thing;
You are interested in the Suttas in a scholarly way, whereby you would need to 'scholarise' about and about

OR these self same Suttas have a meaning for you, & as they do they must have ceased to be Doxa, you therefore would like to spend your time in Larissa.You dont need anyone to tell you where it is.
For you, then, the Suttas are what no scholarly work can be - without recourse or the slightest need for an infinite regress. They are tested and tried in you, this of course makes the whole thing lack objectivity-anathema to the scholar- which is the precise tendency of the Suttas; to make the teaching subjective.
Miffed,the scholar (mathematicians, of course, are excepted,in this diatribe) gathers up his petticoats and re grinds his cheap axe in another discourse on 'BHuddismus' Voila.

Now this writer does not know Bhante, having recently stumbled over his web site, neither does this writer agree with everything he has heard from him, but given the choice, he would happily, take Bhante's side anytime, for you see, Bhante is 'reckless' & has put on robes & lives in a forest. ergo the Suttas for him are not a matter of scholarship, nor a profession. To his merit. Attacking him on their veracity is meaningless, for him him they are not under question, when they are he will disrobe.
So you are 'tootling your horn '(as a Japanese car manufacturer describes it) up the wrong tree.

Now take your meds & go back to Dr. Bronkhouse I am sure he will be able to help you.


Anonymous said...

R.K. you have problems ...
The points you have unfocusly tried to make are well understood by the commenter ... At least, that is my reading. A "Scholarly" approach does not exclude that of a living tradition and religion. Actually, they complete each other. Unless, you root for ignorance ...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

You-who are you by the way? I dont see initials,handles etc. I will therefore refer to you as buddy-are absolutely correct buddy, this writer has many problems.
One of which is seeing the demarcation between scholars, religion & tradition.
The Oxford concise tells me that
Religion,is "a particular system of faith & worship."
Tradition, is "opinion or belief or customs handed down"
System of faith & worship and tradition as customs handed down can be systematised under the aegis of a more general "Religious tradition" they are either systems already or await patiently for classification,analysis,& verification (a la Bronkhorst).
ta ta a religion.
I am not sure about the living or dead part as this writer has never met a religion or tradition yet, to his chagrin.
We come to the Dicey other components of tradition,viz. Opinion & belief. I suppose you can systematize these if you ignore believers and opinion holders in a stastical exercise, whereby the higher the probability of certain beliefs or opinions held the higher the truth content. This strange creature is called statistical truth, as in, Nibbana is probably true, depending of course on the size of the sample.
A funny thing about such things is that statistical excercises fail to give results for small samples, where believers & holders of opinion manifest themselve in an embarrasing & immediate manner. which brings us back in a neat circle to opinions & beliefs which cannot be systematised, & which will be taken out of consideration from the system.
The system itself is always formulated by scholars, dileanted, & expounded by scholars, & defended by the scholars, the latter though carry the sword of authority.
I will bravely then claim; quod erat demonstrandum, scholars,live(or dead) traditions & religion are mutually inclusive. No demarcation is possible. They dont complement each other because they are the same.
Those other guys, the non-systematised believers etc. belong in the real world of things, not facts.
The other problem this writer has buddy, perhaps due to his inability to focus properly, is with ignorance-he does not root for ignorance (whatever that means) but is rooted in it, the very woof & warp of his fabric is sufused with it.
Socratese, it is said,admired Gorgias of all the sophists, as he defined his terms.

Anonymous said...

Hey R.K.,

You are really an angry man! just breath a little bit ...

What is it with your obsession for Bronkhorst? As far as know (unless my search function failed me), the commenter never brough that name her/himself. It looks like you are trying some kind of straw man argumentation here!? I won't try to respond to the content of your last post because I am not clever enough to understand it.

Have a nice evening,
Your devoted Buddy

Rod said...

As for Buddhism being a religion, this aspect of it came much later, as originally it was the science of the day; metaphysics at its highest point. However, this science is abstract indeed, and rather than attempt the impossible by trying to explain it all The Buddha focused on the approach and method so that people could come to see for themselves. The Pali canon(s) represent an accurate account of this approach and method, even though, as pointed out, some of the entries are layered and there are inaccuracies.

The anonymous poster offers a valid argument, although you don’t need a bulldozer to make it. Ancient texts invariably involve linguists, historians, and archaeologists, although most traditional Buddhists tend to accept them as they are, which is fine providing that they realize that they are only a guide and not the exact words of The Buddha.

The Sangha basically developed in two halves, the meditative side and the scholastic side. The scholastic side of Buddhism has generally called the shots in terms of Sangha hierarchy, and with a few exceptions, have been the ones interested in rank and social acceptance and have been responsible for the external form of Buddhism.

The meditative side has provided the Arahants and yogis of other levels of awareness who became the true authorities on Buddhism. Their opinion of scholarly pursuits is not that much, and they generally recommend that people study their own minds first to find the truth, and then they can read books and find out what is not true.

In the past, both halves have coexisted quite well, as in rural areas where education facilities were limited, The Sangha taught the scholastic side of Buddhism as an introduction to real Buddhism, the actual practice. Generally, Pali study has been recognized as valuable in understanding the terms and concepts used in Buddhism, rather than for the aim of becoming an expert on the Pali canon, which in the end would only be useful in becoming a member of the hierarchy and not a true follower of The Buddha.

Despite the obvious flaws of the scholastic approach, it has provided a bridge between the mundane to the higher levels of Buddhism, and has provided support for The Sangha as a whole. Thus, it is extremely doubtful whether Buddhism would have survived for so long without this external mundane form.

All texts, including the Abhidhamma, which undoubtedly has its share of inaccuracies too, do not give you the whole picture. One common example can be found in the constituents of jhana, one of the unmentioned constituents of fourth jhana is that the breathing of the meditator stops completely upon entering fourth jhana. One may think that perhaps this was not mentioned because it sounds impossible, or perhaps that it would be disconcerting for many readers. In actual practice, it certainly is disconcerting for some as they often think that they are dying. However, the real reason it was not mentioned is that, in general, scholars are the ones who write, collecting information from various texts written by other scholars, and they don’t have much of a clue when it comes to actual experience.

There is also another level of knowledge that is not written about at all, and although it has been mentioned as ‘all knowledge’ pertaining to the level of fourth path fruition, i.e. that of an Arahant, not one single word has ever been written about it. From what I can gather from various Ajarns, there is such knowledge, and it is generally described as an awareness that shows a more complete picture of existence. There also appears to be a consensus that this knowledge is not something that you can put into words.