Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review: How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings; Richard Gombrich, 1997

This book is not an easy read. The four essays cover obscure scholarly topics, the arguments based on Pali and the Brahmanical cultural milieu of the Buddha's age.

Nonetheless, I found it quite compelling and refreshing.

Compelling because of the author's careful detective work; refreshing for it's approach to the Buddha and early Buddhism. This is no work of religious devotion, but a sober reflection on how the behavior of scholastics and practitioners influenced the creation and evolution of Buddhist thought.

How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings collects a series of four papers and one public lecture presented at the 1994 Jordan Lectures by Richard Gombrich, Pali and Sanskrit scholar and current Academic Director of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. He lays out his interests in the lecture as “how the Buddha's teachings emerged through debate with other religious teachers of his day,” and “how his early followers, in attempting to preserve the Buddha's teachings, subtly and unintentionally may have changed them.” His arguments proceed from the assumption that even though our oldest existing copies of the Pali texts are no more than 500 years old, by comparing recensions and the later commentaries, it may sometimes be possible to trace the development of ideas and, through the tracing, identify their earliest expression, as well as points along the way at which they were altered.

Over a 40 year career in which he taught extemporaneously to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and learning, Gombrich notes that the Buddha's “skill in means did not stop at conversion, or did not die out when the Buddha died, but must have gone on influencing formulations of the teachings.” Debate within the sangha led to processes that over the years subtly altered the meaning of the texts, including banalization, or simplifying difficult ideas; literalism, creating unnecessary and unjustifiable distinctions based on synonymous terms or phrases; and systemization, the process of developing a unified theory. That such processes alter texts and ideas in modern life seems a rather commonplace observation, but one that seems to have been overlooked in Buddhist studies. At least what little I have read.

Many of Gombrich's findings are tentative, but that seems besides the point. He appears more interested in setting out a research agenda, a call to colleagues for more nuanced reading of the Pali texts, reading informed by a thorough history of the Buddha's age, reading responsive to competing interests within the Buddhist community, reading sensitive to satire and humor, metaphor and allegory.

For more details on the topics and specific arguments, see John Holder's 2000 review; for a critical reading of the book, see Bhikkhu Bodhi's 1997 review.



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