The search for nirvana

How Buddhism Began
July 4, 1997

Buddhism has recently been described as Europe's fastest-growing religion. Popular as well as scholarly interest in the Buddha and his teaching has certainly increased enormously during the past few decades, finding expression in the creation of Buddhist centres and communities and the carrying on of scientific research into the history, doctrines, and institutions of Buddhism. A good deal of literature has also been produced, both popular and academic.

How Buddhism Began by Richard Gombrich, the Boden professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, belongs to the latter category, though certain of his conclusions have a definite bearing on the actual practice of the Buddha's teaching and are therefore of special interest to those wishing to take that teaching seriously. Given as lectures in 1994 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the work will also be of interest to students of comparative religion and, in fact, to anyone seeking to achieve a better understanding of some of the factors conditioning the genesis of one of the world's great religions.

A Popperian nominalist by conviction rather than an essentialist, Gombrich sees Buddhism not as an inert object but as a chain of events. Such a way of seeing it is, he points out, in the spirit of the Buddha's own teaching of conditioned genesis (paticca-samuppada), according to which things, including living beings, exist not as adamantine essences but as causally determined dynamic processes. The beginning of the chain is however involved in obscurity, an obscurity Gombrich seeks to dispel, at least to an extent, by a critical study of the "earliest texts," the texts of the Pali canon, which happen to have received far less critical attention than the text of the Bible.

In studying these ancient records he follows a middle way between the extreme of deadly over-simplification and the extreme of the deconstruction fashionable among social scientists who refuse all generalisation, ignore the possibilities of reasonable extrapolation - and usually leave us unenlightened.

His first point is that most of our physical evidence for the Pali canon is astonishingly recent, far more recent than our physical evidence for the western classical and biblical texts. Hardly any Pali manuscripts are more than about 500 years old, and the majority are less than 300 years old. Gombrich thinks we can apply our critical intelligence, and at least point out where they seem to be incoherent and therefore perhaps corrupt. We may even be able to suggest an emendation, even one which has no manuscript support.

As for the relation between these texts and what the Buddha taught, Gombrich insists that there are divergencies and incoherencies of significance within the Nikayas (the five collections of the Buddha's sermons), that doctrinal developments during the period of oral transmission were not minimal, and that his main purpose is not to stratify the texts but to trace the evolution of some of the ideas in the Buddha's teachings as reported in the Pali texts, to get a clearer idea of what they say.

The processes and mechanisms of that evolution include debate, "skill in means", metaphor, allegory, satire, and literalism, and it is to a discussion of these that the greater part of How Buddhism Began is devoted. Though the Buddha's experience of Enlightenment was private and beyond language, the truths to which he had "awakened" had to be expressed in language - not so much in the narrow literal sense, such as Sanskrit or Pali - as in that of the set of categories and concepts that language embodies. The dharma or teaching of the Buddha is, in fact, the product of argument and debate, the debate going on in the oral culture of renouncers and Brahmins (samana-brahmana), as the texts' recurrent phrase has it, in the upper Ganges plain in the fifth century bc.

The Buddha's teaching of kamma or "action" is a case in point. According to Gombrich it developed as a reaction to Brahminism. For Brahminism, "action" (karman) is ritual action in accordance with the prescriptions of the Vedas, the typical "action" being a sacrifice, which is normally positive. By means of sacrifice a man obtains rebirth in higher forms of life on earth and in heaven(s). For the Buddha, action is primarily ethical action, and what makes action ethical is intention. In redefining "action" as "intention" - a use of language which Gombrich characterises as audacious - the Buddha turned the Brahmin ideology upside down and ethicised the universe. "I do not see how one could exaggerate the importance of the Buddha's ethicisation of the world, which I regard as a turning point in the history of civilisation", writes Gombrich.

Though a kind thought is good, purifying karma, it does not come naturally to call it "action", as Gombrich admits. Yet action it undoubtedly is, karma or action being not only physical and vocal but also mental. Karma is good and bad, skilful (kusala) and unskilful (akusala), according to the nature of its motivation. The bad motivations for karma are greed, hatred, and delusion, while the good motivations include the aspect of nongreed.

At the higher stages of spiritual progress, as when one is mainly living the life of the mind in meditation, one's karma tends to be purely mental and purely skilful. Gombrich's appreciation of this fact enables him to see, not only that the practice of pervading every direction with thoughts of kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (a well-known Buddhist "meditation") constitutes mental action, but also to see that these four qualities, when cultivated to the uttermost, actually bring Enlightenment or escape from the cycle of rebirth. According to the older Upanishads, such escape was to be achieved by realising the unchanging essence of man and the universe, an essence which is "being" as opposed to "becoming". Ontology is merged, even confused, with epistemology.

For the Buddha, of course, there was no common, unchanging essence of man and the universe: there was no self (anatman). He was not an essentialist, and Gombrich sees his teaching of conditioned genesis as his answer to Upanishadic ontology. Just as "being" lies at the heart of the Upanishadic world view, so "action" or kamma, in the word's primary sense of morally relevant action, lies at the heart of the Buddha's. The Buddha was concerned, not so much with what, as with how.

Forgetful of the Buddha's wisdom in bypassing ontology, an important pre-Mahayana intellectual tradition reified the concept of karma, so that good karma was turned into something that could be possessed, accumulated, and even transferred from one person to another. Whereas in early Buddhism the Buddha was a saviour only in the sense that he taught the way to salvation, in the Mahayana both Buddha and bodhisattvas saved more directly, by transferring merit. Gombrich sees this transfer of a reified karma as being what is crucial in turning Buddhism into a religion in which one could be saved by others.

In extreme cases, as when such karma is distributed to the wicked, it results in the original doctrine of karma being stood on its head. Reification is the child of literalism. While the Buddha himself seems to have had a lively awareness of the dangers of literalism, and even designated the literalist (pada-parama) as a distinct type of person, his followers did not always share that awareness. Unintentional literalism, Gombrich argues, was a major force for change in the early doctrinal history of Buddhism. He sees in some doctrinal developments what he calls scholastic literalism - which is "the tendency to take the words and phrases of earlier texts (maybe the Buddha's own words) in such a way as to read in distinctions which it was never intended to make".

Examples of this tendency are the Vaibhasikas' separation of act from the intention to act (for the Buddha the two were virtually synonymous), and the Mahayana's separation of nirvana from bodhi, or "awakening". More controversially still, Gombrich makes literalism responsible for the creation of Buddhist cosmology.

Scientific research of this kind is not of merely theoretical interest; it has, in some cases, a practical significance. In a fascinating chapter headed "Retracing an ancient debate: how insight worsted concentration in the Pali canon", Gombrich shows how scholastic literalism played a leading role in the development of the idea that Enlightenment can be attained without meditation, by a process of intellectual analysis (technically known as panna, or insight) alone. This change in the soteriology took place, he believes, within at least 65 years of the Buddha's death, when the suttas and other texts were still being transmitted orally.

In a lengthy piece of brilliant scholarly detective work, Gombrich traces back the Theravada's sevenfold classification of moral and spiritual types to a jockeying for position among the three faculties of faith, concentration, and insight; this back to the devaluation of concentration (and faith); and this back to the differentiation between release by insight and meditation and release by insight alone, a differentiation made possible by the ambiguity of the term panna.

In another piece of scholarly detective work Gombrich tries to show that the famous mass murderer Angulimala, whom the Buddha converted by means of a significant play upon words, was actually a long-standing worshipper of the god Shiva and thus a Tantric. The evidence for such an identification rests upon Gombrich's emendations to the text of two canonical Pali verses. But though they make excellent sense, and resolve several difficulties, in the end one has to say of them that like a celebrated emendation of the dying Falstaff's "a table of green fields" they are brilliant but not wholly convincing.

Despite the book's rather catchpenny title, Gombrich does not really tell us how Buddhism began. Indeed, he professes to be more concerned with formulating problems and raising questions than with providing answers. Many of his conclusions, he assures us, are tentative. Nonetheless he manages to shed a good deal of light on some of the factors conditioning the genesis of the early teachings of Buddhism, so giving us an idea of the way in which the religion (as he does not hesitate to call it) arose and developed.

On certain points his thinking is in need of clarification. In one place he says of the dharma that it is "a set of truths, and as such is abstract and eternal, like all truths - think for example of the truths of mathematics. The truths exist whether anyone is aware of them or not". Yet elsewhere he speaks of the dharma as having "emerged from debate".

Similarly, though rightly pointing out that summaries of the Buddha's teachings "rarely convey how much use he made of simile and metaphor," he speaks at the same time of the "language" in which the Buddha had to express his experience of Enlightenment as embodying a set only of "categories and concepts". That the Buddha might also have had recourse to myth and symbol is a possibility he fails to consider. These and other shortcomings do not in any way detract from the overall merits of a work in which genial scholarship is skilfully and imaginatively deployed. There can be little doubt that we have in How Buddhism Began as readable an introduction to a difficult and thorny subject as we are likely to find.

Urgyen Sangharak****a (D. P. E. Lingwood) founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and is the author of more than 40 books, mostly on Buddhism.

How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings

Author - Richard F. Gombrich
ISBN - 0 485 17417 0
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £25.00
Pages - 180

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