Religion like a River

Religion like a River July 6, 2011
As I mentioned recently, I’m reading Noa Ronkin’s Early Buddhist Metaphysics which documents the rational development of Abhidhamma (and its dhamma theory) out of early Buddhism. Today, skimming through recent articles and reviews at the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, I came across Alexander Wynne’s coverage of Daniel Boucher’s new book Bodhisattvas of the Forest and the Formation of the Mahāyāna. You can view it in full here (.pdf).

It’s an excellent article and I look forward to getting to the book (though not likely soon, as it’s a bit off the topic of my thesis studies). But do read the article and the book if you’re interested in the development of mainstream and Mahāyāna Buddhism in India between the 3rd Century BCE and about the 5th CE. As with the Abhidhamma discussed in Ronkin’s book, the more we study these texts the more we see fascinating relationships, both within Buddhism and with broader communities.

Again, it’s a brief article, and for me it just reinstates the enormity of what I must learn and the sheer sense of wonder I have when thinking of the history of Buddhism.

Here are some snippits (those familiar with Buddhist studies will likely catch the context, others will hopefully still go to the full article):

What is surprising is that when it did happen in ancient India, the bodhisattva ideal was expressed by composing new discourses (sūtra) of the Buddha. Even if most of the Rāṣṭrapāla’s content is very close to the Buddhavaṃsa, the form of the two texts is entirely  different: whereas the latter is a verse text that does not  resemble any Pāli sutta, the former is  a prose discourse presented as buddhavacana. (p.198)

By the time of the later Sanskrit version of the text, it seems that the transmitters of the  Rāṣṭrapāla had become fractious disciplinarians pitted against a “new type of social  institution with considerable economic clout” (68). (p.200)

With this translation and study of the Rāṣṭrapāla, Daniel Boucher has added considerably to our understanding of Indian Buddhism in its ‘Middle Period’, from the first through sixth  centuries CE. It is to be hoped that the methodological direction set by studies such as this—and, it should be noted, Jan Nattier’s similar treatment of the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra [A Few Good Men…] —will be replicated across the entire spectrum of early Mahāyāna literature. For the time being, we are now in a much better position to understand why and how the bodhisattva movements emerged and developed in India.  (p.203)

Almost reads like “Pirates of the Caribbean” – with its “fractious disciplinarians pitted against…” da da dahhhh…

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