That all-too-human urge to understand the heart of things

As I discussed in a recent post at the Indian Philosophy Blog, there is quite often a divide in approaches taken to the study of religion between what we might broadly call the ‘philosophers’ and the ‘historians’. Philosophers, and I count myself as one of these most days, seek out the meaning of texts, seeing them as doorways into distant lands and into the minds of great thinkers, past and present. We often have to construct meanings through fragmentary and at times conflicting evidence: at one point the great thinker said X, but here we see him/her saying not-X. What happened? And through our collections of Xs and not-Xs we try to paint a picture of who this person was, what his/her life was like, what the society must have been like that fostered such thoughts, and so on.

It is an exciting practice when it is going well. To borrow the term ‘psychonaut’ seems passé, but it is like that: we are traveling through our own reason and imagination into and through the worlds of the greatest minds of human history; at least those lucky enough and deemed worthy of preservation by succeeding generations.

The problem, as Historians will quickly point out, is that what we often conflate what we discover and what we create. Reading a history of discoveries of Buddhism, such as Philip Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism, one quickly discovers the truth in the adage that: what an author writes about Buddhism tells us less about Buddhism than it does about the author. And it’s not just Buddhism that has this problem (a fact that all students of Buddhism would do well to remember). In his cautionary chapter, “The Quest for the Historical Socrates” in the Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates, Robin Waterfield writes:

It is in fact generally acknowledged that the Sōkratikoi logoi are a species of fiction, and that the differences between the views of Socrates we find in the Socratics tell us more about the authors than they do about the historical Socrates…  The contradictions between the many Socrateses we find in the pages of the Socratic writers is due to the fact that each of them used Socrates as an ideal and a cipher, for his own purposes (see Gomperz 1924)… There was no Socratic school: every follower was free to develop his own ideas and to use ‘Socrates’ to express those ideas. This is why his followers could contradict one another on points of doctrine while, presumably, claiming to be true Socratics. (pp.9-10)

The Buddha did develop a school, which eventually became 18 (according to tradition). But this doesn’t seem to have mattered too much. We still have the potential problem. Buddhism, with it’s amazing diversity of texts and teachings, methods and instructions, allows for an unending diversity of interpretations, say the Historians. We cannot interpret them (lest we simply put forth our own particular prejudices), we can only describe them.

Waterfield goes on though, to argue that we needn’t fall into deep skepticism about Socrates and his views. We do, however, have to keep in mind the potential unreliability of all of our sources and we should always keep an eye out for sources of information outside of our received texts.

Fair enough, most Philosophers say, and then get on with their work.

So when I came across the following from Paul Dundas in his wonderful book, The Jains:

No religious tradition should be reduced to a simple set of basic principles; nor, however congenial it might be to philological research, should an attempt be made to situate the complete essence of a religion in the words of some putative founder, both because it is usually extremely problematic to make objective decisions about what a founder actually said and because religions are obviously highly complex interlocking patterns of practice and belief which ultimately elude fixed categorisation. (p.41)

I thought, “okay, this is a Historian.”

Historians will be careful about just these things and will avoid any sweeping categorizations and broad interpretations of a person, movement, period in history, or religion. But can Historians really avoid that all-too-human urge to do just that, to sum up, to understand and categorize with a broad brush? Dundas concludes that section of his book:

What appears as new [with Jainism], however, and what must have served at the outset to distinguish the Jains from other groups of world renouncers, is the integration of previously established categories such as karma, rebirth and deliverance into a particularly rigorous mode of life based on a uniquely sensitive analysis of the nature of the external world and the various types of living creature which surrounded the individual. It is both the self-control and the compassion generated by this understanding, the awareness that all living creatures to a greater or lesser extent experience the same sort of feelings as humans, and the resultant desire for, as the Jains put it, friendship with all creatures, which mark out Jainism as a religion with universal concerns at its very beginning. (p.44)

It seems that he is in fact making at least some tentative assertions about basic principles (karma, rebirth, a particularly rigorous mode of life, a uniquely sensitive analysis, and so on) leading to a fixed, though loose, categorization of Jainism as a religion of self-control and compassion and desire for friendship with all creatures and universal concerns.

It seems to me, again putting on my Philosopher’s hat, that if we want to say anything meaningful about a tradition such as the Jains or Buddhists, or even about a single man like Socrates, Jesus, or the Buddha, we need to at times reduce them to basic principles and make at least provisional categorizations. This is not only possible, but necessary, for our further understanding. And if we do, as accusers hold, often impart our own views on the great thinkers and traditions we interpret, then this must be the price we pay for that understanding.

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  • Douglass Smith

    Yes. Good to note as well that Jainism is one of the most difficult movements to pin to a “putative founder” — much more difficult than Buddhism, Christianity, or Socratic/Platonic philosophy, even given all the historical minutiae. All cross-cultural reconstruction is problematic, but some is significantly more problematic. It’s important to highlight that difference as well, and refrain from tossing everything into the same murk.

    • justinwhitaker

      Agreed; while history is by nature murky, there are still vast differences between the murkiness of Jainism and Buddhism….

      • Jayarava

        Much of what we know about the murky origins of Jainism come from murky Buddhist texts. And the early Buddhists are not renowned for their accurate portrayals of rivals and enemies.

  • Michael Schapers

    All good points! I must say though that I myself as an aspiring *philosopher* felt rather disengaged from the whole scientific conundrum of determining the /historical/ reality behind the worldview I am interacting with philosophically – a conundrum I would say that is primarily something of *historical* interest after all. Does it not matter most to the *historian* whether or not the ‘personalized text’ (the authors, that is) is in fact the historically verifiable entity that we ‘read him to be’; who precisely for this reason has become most apt (much more than the *philosopher*) in developing a critical consciousness of the pitfalls of this science? Why does it, *philosophically*, matter so much if there’s a historically singular Buddha behind our beloved texts; doesn’t *philosophical* analysis benefit more from primarily relying on uncovering coherent relations of meaning in the texts themselves; accepting -embracing- that these meanings are fundamentally a-historical and dynamical in nature, dependent as much on their readers as they are on their writers?

    • justinwhitaker

      Good questions, as always, Michael. “Why does it, *philosophically*, matter so much if there’s a historically singular Buddha behind our beloved texts”?

      For me it matters in part because a historically singular Buddha is someone who would have had a physical makeup like anyone today (so we can ‘feel’ his pains, as it were, as he grew older, had certain ailments, etc, and thus *taught* to people in ways relating to these human pains – old age, sickness, etc). He also debated other philosophical systems of his time (if we don’t have a singular individual it is hard to talk about ‘his time’). Those systems in part informed his teachings; they loaned him language and presented obstacles and competition for him to overcome. And he in turn influenced them and the development of later Indian thought.

      Context is important for establishing meaning. I think we’re still working on figuring out meanings in a number of areas; but I think you’re right in that once we have some agreed upon interpretation, we can argue about it in a thoroughly a-historical manner.

      • Jayarava

        I’m not sure I follow your logic here Justin.

        Funnily enough historically Buddhists have consistently moved away from seeing the Buddha as human. MacQueen’s study of the Śramanyaphala Sūtra is a case in point. Stories about the Buddha become ever more super-human and super-natural. One sees parallels in the lives of Buddhist saints – Kūkai stands out for me.

        This peculiar interest in the humanity of the Buddha is an historical quirk. Isn’t it very much a modernist pre-occupation?

        To say that “he debated other philosophical systems” is predicated on there being a “him”, so it can’t be used to justify your belief in “him” as a person – the logic is circular.

        The existence of a protagonist in the suttas is not proof of anything except a particular kind of anthropomorphic story telling that is quite widespread around the world.

        The fact that the protagonists is shown speaking a language common to North India is no great surprise in North Indian scriptures. Funnily enough Yajñavālkya speaks Sanskrit. And Jesus speaks English :-)

        As far as I know no mention is ever made of a Buddhist founder outside Buddhist texts. No one other than a Buddhist ever met the guy let alone recorded an argument with him.

        The syncretic nature of the teachings as we receive them suggests more than one person, in more than one group, in arguments over more than one lifetime, with a variety of interlocutors, being partially synthesised, probably under some major political influence (Asoka?). If you really look at the Pāli Canon, even just the Nikāyas, it’s clear that they cannot really stem from one person. And if they did then snafus like the mismatch between karma and paṭiccasamuppāda would be far less likely, wouldn’t they? Or is that kind of cock-up easier to attribute to one person. It looks to me like a series of bungling committees rather than a single gifted philosopher! Or perhaps it was first one and then the other?

        I’m kind of surprised to see you making these kinds of arguments.

        • justinwhitaker

          > This peculiar interest in the humanity of the Buddha is an historical quirk. Isn’t it very much a modernist pre-occupation?

          I might just be a bit of a quirky modernist here, but it’s also a philosophical quirk for me. As we see the Buddha’s Greek contemporaries as quite human and situated in particular times and even locations, we can endeavor to do the same for him.

          > To say that “he debated other philosophical systems” is predicated on there being a “him”, so it can’t be used to justify your belief in “him” as a person – the logic is circular.

          The logic is that one goes with a preponderance of the evidence, which I believe virtually all contemporary scholars agree is that there must have been one “Buddha” who quite likely lived from around 480-400 B.C.E. We all know that the Canon was redacted and edited over several centuries; but the fact that there is *some* common core is not unimportant. It seems less plausible that a committee, or committees, basically baked it all up at some point; but if you are to propose such activities, it would be good to say just when and where and how these processes fit in with the archeological record as well. I don’t think we can entirely discount reducing the Buddha to a mere “protagonist” (if that term is indeed meant to suggest that he’s a fictional being), but again the evidence seems to point toward a historical person.

          > The syncretic nature of the teachings as we receive them suggests more than one person, in more than one group, in arguments over more than one lifetime, with a variety of interlocutors, being partially synthesised, probably under some major political influence (Asoka?).

          This is also new to me and would require more fleshing out. One man can be quite syncretic after all; and the presence of *some* ideas or historical evidence that couldn’t have come from the Buddha for some reason again might just suggest that *some* of the Canon can be clearly said to come from outside sources.

          But certainly you are probably more cutting edge on all of this than I am (I’m relying a lot on Gombrich, Gethin, Keown, and various articles collected in Paul Williams’ 2005 Critical Concepts (Routledge) series, many of which are a bit dated – but as far as I know still authoritative).

          • Jayarava

            The Greek contemporaries of the Buddha did not have supernatural powers, did they? The explicit comparison of the Buddha with Greek philosophers is an aspect of the Modernist revision of Buddhism. It needs to be justified.

            I know that many scholars argue for single founder. But I’ve yet to see any real *justification* of this view – it’s a common *opinion*, but my view is that this is almost a modernist revision of history. I keep finding discontinuities.

            It’s worth reading Schopen for some alternate views on what the Canon can tell us and what it cannot. The very fact that we still talk about “The Canon” with the definite article is really a give away about our preconceptions.

            My relationship with the concept of “authoritative” is currently complicated. As Feynman said: science is a belief in the ignorance of experts. :-)

            • justinwhitaker

              > The Greek contemporaries of the Buddha did not have supernatural powers, did they?

              Well, yes, they did. Perhaps not exactly the same as the Buddha, but miraculous powers and supernatural beliefs about and around many Greeks existed from pre-Thales days on through to the Romans. Pythagoras started his own religion; Empedicles (a near-direct contemporary of the single founder fellow known as the Buddha) claimed to be able to control storms and cure old age. Look at the mystery cults and poets and I imagine you’ll find more of the same – again nothing quite like the Buddha; but similarities nonetheless.

              > I know that many scholars argue for single founder. But I’ve yet to see any real *justification* of this view – it’s a common *opinion*, but my view is that this is almost a modernist revision of history. I keep finding discontinuities.

              I think even Burnouf (or perhaps I’m thinking of some of the early 20th century works) gives at least tentative justifications for there being a single founder of Buddhism; against earlier theories that he was just a mythic figure. But again, this is anyhow the scholarly consensus afaik; but if you’re able to argue your case for discontinuities well, you can change that (the joy of academia).

              Since I consider Feynman to be an expert, I’m not sure how to take that quote; but in any case, we all march on, each to the tune of our own drum :)

              • Jayarava

                You keep saying it’s a scholarly consensus, but most American scholars don’t concede this point at all. Since they say we cannot know anything at all about Buddhism prior to the 5th century CE. I agree with Wynn Alexander to some extent that this is an extreme view, but I think there the consensus is moot. It’s only a consensus amongst the scholars who concede the point.

                I know that I didn’t invent the distinction between the traditional Buddha and the historical Buddha; nor the idea that we cannot know the latter, only the former. I read it somewhere. Less than a year ago Sujato was complaining, in “The triumph of Buddhist denialism: Buddhism without the Buddha” that scholars had stopped studying early Buddhism. He at least seems to think the other side can claim a consensus.

                Also I’m a scholar and I don’t concede the point. So it’s not a consensus. Just a widely repeated view which owes a great deal to cultural lenses and cherry picking evidence.

                Feynman was an expert, but he overturned the views of preceding experts. One has to be convinced that so far scholars have got it (slightly) wrong. For example I argue that to date we have failed to consider intellectual input into pre-sectarian Buddhism from Iran. I now have two publications (JBE will publish my latest article in a few days) exploring this idea and sketches for a third. Thus I am close to establishing a new paradigm regarding the early sources of Buddhist ideas. Had I believed in the expertise of Gombrich (who I admire greatly) I would never have discovered what I did.

                • justinwhitaker

                  Fair enough; I used ‘consensus’ in too loose a sense. But, Ven. Sujato’s worthy worries aside, I have yet to see a serious, peer-reviewed, well received article or monograph that specifically argues for the absence of a historical Buddha. But like Ven. Sujato, I would love to see some more discussion of the first 500 years of Buddhism (or a compelling argument against it rather than quick one or two-liners here and there). And I also agree with him that (a lot of) the discipline is stuck in a sort of 1980s Postmodernist time-warp. But only time will tell whether that blip becomes the way things go in the future or whether it falls away, like so much other 20th century totalizing theory, into the backwaters of historical curiosity.

                • justinwhitaker

                  I should also add that my curiosity now is whether those who claim “we cannot know…” can accept that dictum consistently in their own work.

                  Also, thank you for pointing to the Sujato post (and comments therein); as much of this discussion is hashed out quite thoroughly there.

                • Jayarava

                  Sujato is quite good, intelligent and thoughtful, but he suffers from just the kind of confirmation bias one would expect of a bhikkhu. All of the scholar bhikkhus do to some extent. They aren’t looking to disprove anything.

                  The post-modernist blip is pretty much over and had little impact on Buddhist studies. A lot less than Indology generally where Edward Said had a huge impact. I’m just starting to get into Foucault :-)

                  I think the unifying bias is systematic in the field and has been for decades, indeed right back to the Rhys Davids. And this has made it hard to get published, but I’m working on it. See my draft article on the Buddha’s name: (Comments appreciated if you have the time). My new article in JBE takes up the theme to some extent. It is something I’ll be pursuing.

                  The texts exist and even the “don’t know” camp have continued to comment on what is in the texts. They just don’t think of them as the words of the Buddha.

  • Jayarava

    My favourite history book is James Belich’s “Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century”. In it he spends the first chapter outlining the the main historical “lens” that he as author and we as readers are likely to use when we look at history. And he constantly refers to these in his text and tries to see key events through various lens to give a more nuanced view.

    In fact we know very little about early Jainism and most of that from early Buddhist texts and extrapolation of later beliefs backwards. There’s very little evidence.

    One of my fascinations at present is the over-whelming urge philosophers have to give unified accounts of traditions. Thus philosophers present Buddhism as a largely unified religio-philosophical tradition, that may change over time, but can be seen as self-consistent (with a few very minor inconsistencies) at every step. These accounts neglect or gloss over major inconsistencies. For example I recently discovered that the earliest attested versions of paṭiccasamuppāda and karma contradict each other with respect to the nature of conditionality: one denies the possibility of action at a temporal distance and one relies on it. Interestingly Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā has a chapter (17) which discusses precisely this problem and at least two of the 18 schools were named for their solution to it (Sarvāstivāda and Pudgalavāda). And yet this major inconsistency seems not to be discussed in modern accounts of Buddhist ideas, even though the ancients knew it.

    Personally this area is where I see a role of Foucault and his methods of exploring the history of ideas. One of the things that a book like Almond’s excellent “The British Discovery of Buddhism” does is show us how our own views change the way we view ideas. Early Victorians saw Buddhism as a terrible heathen religion. After Darwin et al and the rediscovery of Indian Buddhism they began to reassess Buddhism so that late in the 19th century “The Light of Asia” was a best seller.

    We have to understand our own history in order to understand history more generally, particularly the history of ideas.

    • justinwhitaker

      Interesting. Have you written about this contradiction between paṭiccasamuppāda and karma? To say that they contradict presupposes a logical and categorical nature to both, and that is just the thing that a Historian would say is “imposed” upon the texts rather than found in them. The fact that it was imposed by interpreters early on is, I think, good reason to justify such an imposition today; but I would guess that there could be other interpretations, one suggesting that the two work on different levels of analysis perhaps.

      As for “philosophers present[ing] Buddhism as a largely unified religio-philosophical tradition” – I’d be interested in what you are basing that on. Certainly many look at “early Buddhism” – itself an object somewhat constructed both by later Buddhists and by contemporary scholars – and then seek to discuss how and why later Buddhisms differed. But none, to my knowledge, overly downplay such differences and discontinuities.

      As to your last statement, “We have to understand our own history in order to understand history more generally, particularly the history of ideas.” I couldn’t agree more.

      • Jayarava

        I touch on the issue in my recent essay on Sarvāstivāda.

        As I point out both the Sarvāstivādins and the Pudgalavādins seem to have been alive to the problem. And in fact to be *named* for their solution to it. Without understanding that they were trying to solve this problem it’s difficult to see how they could have come to the conclusions they did. My critique is also anticipated by Nāgārjuna in Chp 17 of the MMK. And the Yogacāra ālayavijñāna is also a solution to the same problem.

        It’s very much a feature of the Buddhist intellectual landscape from ca. 200 BCE onwards. Though I did discover it before realising that it was widespread – when I first mentioned it I thought it was previously uncommented on because there’s next to nothing in modern scholarship. Having seen it I cannot believe that so little has been made of it!

        I think my comment on the unified view is fairly straight forward. Look at almost any account of Buddhism for an example. As you say we construct categories like Early Buddhist or even Mahāyāna that belie a great of complexity and variation. Of course the major variations must be accounted for. But take for instance the variations in the paṭiccasamuppāda formulas in Pāli. All the explanations I know of seek to establish a unified norm and explain variations in relation to that norm: be it shorter sequences joined together, a long sequence fragmented, or Jurewicz’s Vedic parody theory. In all likelihood there was no single norm. The Pali Canon is only a partial synthesis of a wide variety of oral traditions. It is irreducibly pluralistic. There is no early Buddhism only early Buddhisms. Braids rather than trees – as I’ve argued on my blog often enough.

        I think the eventual translation of the Chinese āgama texts will help. Translations of the Sanskrit fragments would be nice, as would getting more of the Gāndhārī into print (and even finding more of them!). A plurality of canons and the devalorisation of the Pali as the “only complete” Canon would be helpful. But even the Pāli is pluralistic and this is not the picture we generally get beyond academic specialist publications.

        I’m reading a critical intro to Foucault at the moment. He’s very good for making me think about how my views are conditioned.

  • Amod Lele

    I’m often not sure the “historians’” approach (as described here) is great even for historians. It often seems like the kind of the approach they take doesn’t require any research at all; all you have to do is take anything anyone says and reply “it’s more complex than that.”

    All understanding is a simplification. Without simplification there is no map, there is only the territory itself, and in that case a scholar can tell you nothing about it.