Two Buddhisms, Authenticity, Abortion, and Universal Love

These are a few of the topics, essays, and projects you should know about this week.

First, the Two Buddhisms story. I’ve written about this quite a bit and consider Charles Prebish, the man who coined the term, to be a good friend. Today he passed me the link to a new blog post by Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, a Sri Lankan scholar in Canada, who discusses the use of these and other categories. Give it a read. Let me know what you think.  


Next, Bhante Sujato is launching a project seeking to better define which of the Buddhist texts that have come down to us are most likely to be authentic.  This is another area of research close to my heart, so I’m excited to see what comes of it.  My current research is focused on reconstructing the ideas of the Buddha (cf. Gombrich’s What the Buddha Thought), so having good reason to privilege certain texts over others could prove to be very helpful.

Some people are skeptical about just how well we can reconstruct “early” Buddhism, but when faced with the evidence of growing textual and archaeological work, this skepticism often begins to shade into conspiracy theory, somewhat like (as Bhante points out) climate change deniers: “we can’t know for sure, therefore doubt it all.” Luckily, the vast majority of scholars focusing on early Buddhism assume “that the main body of soteriological teaching found in the Pali Canon does go back to the Buddha himself.”*

If we try to discover the original meaning of the Buddha’s sermons, we need to know what cultural knowledge and presuppositions he shared with his audience. We must admit, I fear, that we cannot know very much about the Buddha’s interlocutors or about what his audiences were thinking or taking for granted, and to that extent some of what he meant may be lost to us. We may however be slightly better off in this respect than were the authors of the Pali commentaries. Even if we know little of the Buddha’s cultural milieu, in some cases our knowledge of historical linguistics and of parallel (mainly brahminical) texts allows us to know things the commentators did not – as Norman’s work has amply demonstrated.**

Gombrich’s style seems to focus on contextualizing the ideas of early Buddhism vis-a-vis other traditions for which we have evidence in the same timeframe. He then finds the ones that are most “brilliant,” again vis-a-vis what would have been the Buddha’s contemporaries. These include the ethicisation of karma (kamma); removing it from the ritual context of the Brahmins and the physical context of Jainism; his reversal of the connotations of “fire” – which was exalted in Brahmanic culture and again tied to ritual, but used by the Buddha to describe greed, aversion, and delusion.

Speaking historically, if it wasn’t “the Buddha” who came up with these revolutions in thought (and there are countless more examples), then who ever did come up with them would be deserving of the title.

The skeptical retort that perhaps they were composed separately over a period of many decades or centuries just doesn’t make much sense when you sit and read them. At times, there are odd phrases or teachings -and these stand out for just this reason- but as a whole, the teachings do read as having a common voice. This is necessarily a bit subjective, but it’s also inter-subjective in that anyone can sit down and spend time with the nikayas and decide for him/herself. Having done this myself, I find theories about monks creating the Pali texts out of thin air some time after the  Buddha -if he ever existed- to be right up there with ideas about faked moon landings and Obama’s birth certificate.  Again, while there are inconsistencies, omissions, and additions, these are to be expected in such an ancient tradition. The tricky part, and one of the very interesting ones, imho, is just what Sujato is doing: figuring out just what is likely to be authentic and what isn’t.


Third, go read Richard’s excellent article on being a Pro-life, Pro-choice Buddhist in 40 years after Roe. His sentiments run very closely to my own.

First, I must clearly state that personally I believe that taking another person’s life, including that of an unborn person, is simply wrong in any and all circumstances –even in self-defense. I believe that way because killing another person represents an outcome one has hurled him or herself toward through a series of extraordinarily poor decisions that could have been interrupted just about anywhere along the way.
He goes on, however:
…despite my personal belief that taking someone’s life, including that of the unborn, is always wrong and never without consequence, I will fight to ensure that abortion is kept legal and easily accessed.
To impose my personal belief on another person about whom I know nothing about, about whose life challenges I know nothing about, strikes me as a supreme form of righteousness that frankly makes me sick.


Finally, is a NY Times article posted over at Shravasti Dhammika‘s blog, Dhamma Musings called Is Universal Metta Possible?  The premise of the article is that -contra Buddhism (and Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer) – love is biological and thus finite, therefore any kind of universal love or goodwill is just folly. Stephen Schettini, the Naked Monk, wrote something very similar recently, stating “I’ve given up on universal love.” Schettini writes:

In my religious days I tried very hard to be a good boy and love everyone. It sounded fine in theory, but the fact was, people annoyed me. Again and again I found myself faced with two bad choices: to deny my feelings and pretend to care, or to accept them and not care at all.

I’m not as cranky as I used to be but still, I can’t imagine a world in which everyone loves each other.

This calls to mind -or should I say, following the NY Times article, “this triggers so many neuron-firings in my brain”- my studies of Philosophy of Mind. Yes, love has biological correlates that can be relatively well-charted and studied. But it also has phenomenological properties – qualia – that cannot, I would argue, be so easily reduced. The arguments from biology simply don’t belong in the realm of moral aspiration in this way. It’s like saying there are always limits to how high a person can count, therefore infinity is a silly concept.

Schettini’s article is very much about being honest with your emotions, which is a very good point. But I think the author of the NY Times piece goes to far. Both are very good reads.

*Gombrich,”Recovering the Buddha’s Message,” in T. Skorupski (ed.) (1990) The Buddhist Forum: Vol. I. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, pp. 5-30.

**Gombrich, “The Buddha’s Book of Genesis,”  Indo-Iranian Journal 35 (1992):  159-78.

  • Jan Newman

    1.) The terms aquired and inherited Buddhism are an interesting way of examining things and bring to the for the lack of socio-cultural under pinning in those who have not spent a long time living in Asia.
    2.) The Buddha clearly was a product of his spiritual environment in post Vedic India. I have had some qualm with “Buddhist” Sanskrit for a significant period of time finding it “limiting and potentially misleading” You don’t need to be a scholar to make this argument as in many of the Buddha’s Sutras Hindu deities are invoked. His ideas didn’t emerge out of the ether. They were a consolidation and solidification of previous Vedic thought. The doctrine of anatta, I think has often been mistaken. I think the Buddha is referring to the idea of ” I am who I am an nothing will change me”, esp in context of the fact that his construct is that what causes suffering is conditioning and what can be conditioned can be deconditioned; nothing is permanent.

  • Doug

    Thanks for the discussion re. authenticity; I agree. I’d also argue there’s a lot of personal detail about Gotama in the Canon that, for example, one doesn’t find in the later, Mahayana texts. It’s not just the brilliance and overall coherence of the message, it’s also that it seems to come from a particular, real person rather than (e.g.) a doctrinal committee of some kind.

    For example, take MN 77, the Mahāsakuludāyi Sutta, where Gotama talks about his habits of eating a bowlful of rice with curries, of wearing nice robes, of sleeping in ‘gabled mansions’. True, it illustrates a Middle Way between asceticism and indulgence, but it isn’t the sort of flattering picture one would expect from a committee of devotees.

  • John A

    “Bhante Sujato is launching a project seeking to better define which of the Buddhist texts that have come down to us are most likely to be authentic”

    Ahh the first steps to fundamentalism ;)

    • Justin Whitaker

      Perhaps ‘authentic’ needs to be clarified (by me). I take the project to be looking at ways to discern which, if any, texts can be shown to be later creations and which of them can most arguably come from the historical Buddha himself. This is a historical project which should have little bearing on religion; and if there is any effect it should be the opposite of fundamentalism as fundamentalists oppose this sort of historical placement of texts.

      • John A

        Not totally true about fundamentalist and historical placement even in American Christian Fundamentalist tradition. As with any religious tradition it is much more nuanced than that.

        But what I am trying to say is that once someone points out the “true” vs the “untrue” then someone will decide to strictly follow the “true” labeling others who find truth in the “nontrue” as heretics. Similar to many Theravada vs Mahayana discussions I see online.

        • Justin Whitaker

          John, I’d love to hear more about the American Christian Fundamentalists you mention – any references? My understanding is that fundamentalists tend to take texts at face value; that what the ‘scripture’ or (in our case) ‘sutra’ say is literally true. The scholars who uncovered the layers of truth (and later additions) in Christianity were, as far as I know, ignored by American Christian Fundamentalists. Other scholars and educated people in general, on the other hand learned a fair bit about the history of Christianity.

          I don’t know who this ‘someone’ calling others heretics might be, but of course ‘someone’ might do just about anything. Let’s look at an example. In general today, scholars would say confidently that the Theravada Abhidhamma was developed after the Buddha’s death by other Buddhists. Theravadin ‘tradition’, however, claims that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma, as it is, directly. I put ‘tradition’ in quotes because many great Theravadin scholar/monks (I would assume Bhikkhu Bodhi to be among them) would admit that the Abhidhamma is a later scholarly development and discount the traditional story tying it to the Buddha. I don’t know of anyone calling the other heretics (although people do get attached this way or that, so it could happen). Most educated Mahayana practitioners are happy to admit that their sutras are later and the Buddha in them is definitely a literary device. Those sutras are still powerful for their teachings, however, and that’s what is important. Learning more about the ‘true’ history of the Heart Sutra doesn’t make it any less important or powerful.

          I try to avoid any X vs Y religious discussions online.

          • John A

            As far a Fundamentalist Americans. When you look at how protestants choose what texts to create a Bible version such as the ESV for a example. They go to extream lengths to choose the manuscripts that have the most historical backing using very intellectual historical critical means. They know the difference between the different books and manuscript versions. I even took some religious classes at a Baptist university and was pleasantly surprised that they went over the various layers of the creation stories. Now they still view them as literally true but the scholars in each tradition are very aware of the layers in the texts. It is only in the populist versions of the faith that you get people who think the books dropped out of the sky. Textual criticism is very alive and well in fundamentalist circles as well as historical critical views of ritual traditions withing Christianity.
            Now when I was in South Korea I ran into many Seon(Zen) Buddhists who literally believed their were Buddhist hell realms. That surprised me a bit. But like Christianity in the USA in Korea you had a conservative Buddhist tradition.

            • Justin Whitaker

              Thanks for that, John. I’m still a bit skeptical though. It’s nice to see that some textual criticism is seeping in even though the final word is “it’s still literally true…” My sense though is that there is/must be some cognitive dissonance at play – when people learn that these texts developed over centuries, were clearly written by different human authors, and offer advice wildly at odds with not only internal advice and rules but also contemporary life, it should loosen the fundamentalist grip. It doesn’t always, I admit, but again this seems to be more a symptom of how deep fundamentalism can go than a case of textual/historical evidence actually encouraging further fundamentalism. My orientation on this of late tends to come from Bart Ehrman, whose textual criticism led him out of Christianity and into a moderate agnosticism as well as the Jesus Seminar, which has been called ‘the work of Satan’ by conservatives.

              Buddhists throughout Asia (and many outside) literally believe in the hell realms. Some teachers have ‘psychologized’ them over the years, but for the most part the literal-ness of them (and often the opposing ‘pure lands’) has been used as a major motivating tool for conversion and/or ‘good practice’ (lots of donations to the monastery!).

  • Wladyslaw

    Richard I really don’t understand your believing that abortion is wrong in all circumstances, and yet allowing it could be ok for others to have one. I believe that rape is always wrong in all circumstances, and that even if others find a reason to allow rape, as in some moslem societies, it is always wrong, in every society, for all people, for all time, and not just wrong for me. Please enlighten me on your position on rape, and if it’s only wrong for you. If not only wrong for you, why not.

  • Wladyslaw

    I would also like to address the same question to the author of this post, Justin Whitaker, who says Richard’s viewpoint runs very close to his own.

  • Wladyslaw

    If Justin Whitaker doesn’t answer this question. I would be very happy if any Buddhist would answer this question.

    • Wladyslaw

      I knew that I had asked a difficult question, but I was still very surprised that no one even attempted to answer it.

      • Sparrow

        I suppose I can answer this, not for the author, but giving my own opinion for myself.
        I don’t know if I could ever have an abortion, even if it were to save my life. I doubt I ever could, because myself I feel it would be wrong under most circumstances, but I don’t want that decision taken away from me. I’m the one who would have to carry the child, not some faceless lawmaker or protest group.
        I don’t know when a fetus can be considered ineffably human. When it’s a blastocyst, does it feel? Does it think? Is it human or is it potentially human? Is there such a thing as a soul, and when does it enter the body? Does a four-week old fetus feel the same thing an eight-week old one? Sixteen weeks? Twenty, twenty-four weeks? When does it sense pain, when does it respond to the world? When is it aware? When is it independently capable of survival? How do we define humanity?
        These aren’t questions science can answer, at least not now. They’re not even questions society has a collective answer for. They’re questions for individual morality. I can’t force another’s morality, and no one can force mine.
        I have a friend whose teenaged daughter was diagnosed with clinical (chemical imbalance) depression. She was put on medication for it. One thing she did, acting out, due to her mental condition, was have unprotected sex. She was on anti-depressant drugs before she learned she was pregnant with twins. There were tests run and the diagnosis showed a very strong likelihood that the twins would have severe birth defects that would have severely negative impacts on their quality of life if they survived at all. This girl and her mother agonized over the decision to abort or not to abort. In the end, they decided to abort, given the then-current condition of the fetuses, not because of cost or time that disabled children would take to care for, but simply because they did not feel that these little girls would have a chance at a good life. They made a hard decision. The girl wanted the twins. They made a compassionate decision, for the sake of the twins. Was it the right one? Was it moral?
        I think it was. I think it was moral. I think it was compassionate.
        But more than that, I don’t think it’s any of my business to make that decision for them. As a woman myself, as a compassionate person, the best thing I can do is give them the support and the freedom to find their own way down that difficult path and make their own choices.

        • Justin Whitaker

          Sorry to keep you waiting, Wladyslaw – I had a busy evening and felt this deserved a thought-out response. And thank you, Sparrow, for sharing your story.

          To add to this, I would say that rape, unlike abortion, is an unambiguous harm. Even if a society allows it, it is still wrong. And I don’t know of any society that openly allows rape. From wikipedia under Sharia law (Women in Islam) we read:
          “Similarly, the death penalty is codified for offences such as murder, rape, apostasy, drug trafficking, and homosexuality. In some theocratic states, it is in practise impossible for legal officials to question the articles of the sharia. In orthodox countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, and Pakistan, moral weakness by individuals is punished as aggressively as desecrating a tomb or a mosque.[48]”

          This suggests exactly the opposite.

          In any case, to my knowledge, no formal justification for allowing rape has ever been discussed or debated in any society. Some rapists might think they are justified, and some might, through political connections or otherwise, get away with what is otherwise seen as a crime (punishable by death in the case of Sharia law); but this doesn’t mean that the society ‘allows rape’. Again, if there is such a society, I do not know of it.

          Abortion, on the other hand, is highly complex and ambiguous. The moral status of an unborn child / fetus is highly debated. I have my beliefs, but I also accept that reasonable people will have different ones. (Again, I know of no reasonable people or society that believes rape should be allowed.) Concerns for the mother’s health must be taken into account, as should potential issues with the child’s health as in the case Sparrow discussed. We also have to take in mind the situation of women who, for whatever personal reason, absolutely will not carry out their pregnancy. The horrific suffering caused by ‘back-room abortions’ or self administered abortions that go wrong is also abundantly clear. There are also plenty of utilitarian arguments for allowing abortion, but these are secondary to my concern.

          In any case, a much better analogy than rape (which seems pretty far off in moral terms) might be euthanasia. A person could again believe that one should never take a life, even that of a person in a persistent vegetative state (in that case ‘passive’ euthanasia would involve removing life-support/feeding tubes etc), but could still argue that people (doctors, next of kin, etc) should be allowed to make that decision for themselves. In this case, where a meaningful human ‘life’ ends is ambiguous, just as where ‘life’ begins in the case of the abortion is ambiguous.

          • Wladyslaw

            In your essay you agreed that killing another, even the killing of an unborn PERSON, is absolutely wrong for you. If you can never rape any person, you can never kill any person. If you really believed that the unborn baby was a PERSON, you could never allow any else to kill it. Killing the innocent person is much worse than raping the innocent person. The law and many people thought that blacks were less than a person. It was argued and there certainly wasn’t a consensus. I am sure you would not have fought for their right to believe so and act so, even if there was not a consensus. The law and many people thought that Jews were less than a person and unfit to live, but I am sure you would have not fought for their right to think and act so. And your position for the above is because you believe that the Jews and blacks are persons, and NO ONE could be allowed to act as if that were not true.
            By the way, the muslim religion does allow for rape for women slaves and women conquered in battle.

  • Wladyslaw

    how long do I have to wait before I can respond to her?

  • Wladyslaw

    Justin posted twice in seventeen minutes. Can I do that?

    • Justin Whitaker

      There are no time-requirements here. Just be sure to get your reasoning and evidence straight and use citations and quotes. I’m not clear what you’re talking about in the above and it doesn’t look like you’ve really understood my/Richard’s reasoning. And as for Islam, get some evidence and think about how that evidence relates to your generalizations. You changed your story from ‘some societies’ to ‘the religion’ itself and the details of their allowing rape, but both times you gave no evidence/citation. So it just wastes our time looking up facts that seem to show that what your saying is wrong.

      • Wladyslaw

        Justin asked me a question. Why did you cut me off in my answer/

      • Wladyslaw

        I believe that even if many, many people and the law considered black people non-persons and could be killed by their owners, you would still say it was absolutely wrong for them to do so.
        Likewise, if many, many, Germans and the law allowed the killing of Jews because they were non-persons, you would still say they should not allowed to do so. And so it seems that .even if many, many people and the law allow the killing of fetuses because they and the law says they are not person, you would not allow them to be killed. You wouldn’t kill an unborn person, so it seems you wouldn’t allow others to do so.

  • Wladyslaw

    I don’t know when a fetus becomes ineffably human.
    But then according to you, at some time it does become human, you just aren’t sure. You would not burn down a building if you weren’t sure if a human was inside. Even one human. But it seems you are willing to allow others to kill perhaps hundreds of thousands because you are not sure exactly when it becomes human. Is that true?

    • Sparrow

      I wouldn’t burn down a building whether or not a human was inside, and the analogy really doesn’t work at all.

      I am willing to allow others to make the moral choice to carry a child or not to carry a child. As a woman, I am unwilling to force another woman to follow my morality when it is simply that: my morality. I am unwilling to say that a women, because she is carrying a potential human life inside of her, must somehow make her own self less important that a potential human life.

      I am not certain that you, as a man, are capable of really understanding this from my perspective as a woman. You, as a man, can never be made pregnant against your will, never be made to carry a child to term against your will. I can. I am unwilling to force a woman to bear a child against her will.

      You seem to be asking for a black and white answer. I don’t think there IS a black-and-white answer to this. Why am I pro-choice? Because the issue is too complex, to unclear, too difficult to give a one-size-fits-all answer.

      • Wladyslaw

        In a demolition project, you would not destroy a building if you thought a child might be there.
        YOU said you didn’t know when the fetus becomes ineffably human. However, you would definitely want a black and white answer to the presence of the child in that building. It involves a human life. If you don’t know if it is ineffably human or not when you make a possible decision to abort, but it MIGHT be ineffably human, you would not abort, nor would you demolish the building.

        • Sparrow

          I’m sorry, did you have a question or are you trying to force me to answer in a way that seems more palatable to you, Wladyslaw?

          • tyson davis

            I think what he is trying to say is if you can’t be sure when a fetus becomes a human, how can you be sure when it is ok to kill it?

  • Wladyslaw

    I respect you enough not to think I can force you to answer you in any way. All I wanted to know is that if you believed blacks could not be killed even if others consider them non-persons, and if you believe Jews should not be killed, even if others would not consider them persons, do you believe that a “unborn person” should be allowed to be killed, because others consider them to be non-persons?

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