The Opposite of Buddhism §11

Quote, “no method can be more misleading, or more uncritical…”

[Reminder: this lecture was written for a Cambodian audience, and intended for translation into Cambodian.]

§11.

To bring us up to date, and to counterpose just one example that is unrelated to Christianity or Theosophy, I would mention a long-simmering controversy over Buddhist cosmology that apparently came to a close in a new publication from Richard Gombrich.

To make a long story short, Gombrich has been an enormously influential proponent of the view that the Buddha did not preach heaven and hell, nor gods and demons. I am simplifying the matter (in this one-sentence summary), but this is what is meant by “cosmology” in discussing Theravada Buddhism: the heavens, hells, and other supernatural elements that pervade Buddhist literature, and fill up the murals that cover so many temple walls. In his long career, Gombrich has presented various arguments to disassociate this cosmology from the teaching of the historical Buddha --and some of these are very brief statements, appearing in his writing as if this were not a matter of debate but an established fact:

“…Gombrich summarily dismisses the role of gods in Theravāda Buddhism (pp. 23-24 [of his book, Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History…]), which would undermine any attempt in the classroom to use well-known reconsiderations of this problem's complexity (including the conclusions of some of the scholars whose work the author claims to 'represent').” (Walters, 1990, p. 251-253)

As with earlier arguments that brought Buddhism closer to Christianity or Theosophy, this hypothesis has many European adherents who are eager to believe it (namely, people who became interested in Buddhism as part of a rejection of the supernatural in their own prior religion). However, to remove everything that opposes this secular tendency is just as difficult as it was to ignore everything that contradicts Christianity: the most ancient Buddhist texts are already very rich in cosmological detail, including some very gory descriptions of what goes on in hell.1

In truly British fashion, critics rarely address Gombrich directly, but a certain Rupert Gethin was bold enough to challenge Gombrich's position. (Gethin, 1997, p. 183-217; for the position being challenged, see Gombrich, 1994, p. 81 et seq.) When I say, “bold”, this is relative to British standards: Gethin's disagreement is expressed obliquely throughout the text of his article, and is directly admitted only in “Appendix B” (hidden away after the bibliography) --where it is interspersed with praise.

In the midst of this miasma, there is a very real question: did the Buddha preach that bad people go to hell after they die, or not? Does this influential scholar, Richard Gombrich, have any palpable reason to dismiss the evidence of these ancient texts, or not? Or, more fundamentally, we might ask what reason would be palpable enough, if any, to direct us to disregard what both sides agree the original texts state so plainly? This last question applies just as well to the rejection of the soul and immortality in Buddhist philosophy (mentioned before, as the philosophy of C.A.F. Rhys-Davids) as it does to the status of heaven and hell in the Buddha's teaching.

This is not an example selected at random, and the debate was not joined by a voice from the periphery. Gethin, Gombrich, Mr. and Mrs. Rhys-Davids all have something in common: all four of them have been the president of the same institution, the Pali Text Society. They have all written interpretations of Buddhist doctrine that have become standard references and classroom textbooks. These are debates and contrasting opinions found at the very center of English-language Buddhism, with effects that are felt not only in universities, but also in monasteries, by monks and laypeople and curious onlookers as well.

I would call attention to the innuendo and indirectness of the debate because my concern is that it will be completely opaque to a Cambodian reader, a Chinese reader, and I admit that it is hard work even for a Canadian to make sense of, across the cultural barrier.

However, in contrast to all the evasions and politesse, there was a painfully honest statement on this matter in Gombrich's most recent book, a copy of which was kindly sent to me by the author. In this new book, he concludes yet another argument against the validity of Buddhist heaven-and-hell by admitting his personal feeling that, “I am sure that the fully developed cosmology that can be found in the Pali Canon cannot be attributed to the Buddha himself…”. (Gombrich, 2009, p 73) Nowhere in this book, nor in any book, is this personal conviction justified: ultimately, with all philology set aside, we are invited to trust the interpreter's opinion that some aspects of Buddhism are consistent with his own sense of the character of the historical Buddha, and that others are inconsistent (and therefore inauthentic) by this subjective standard.

This pattern seems to be endemic to the European milieu, and it is not unique to the interpretation of Buddhism. The problem was presaged in 1881 when Mr. T.W. Rhys-Davids wrote a warning that was also, perhaps, meant to convey a sense of self-criticism:

"I am aware that no method can be more misleading, or more uncritical, than first to form a theory regarding the personal character of the author of a new religious movement--as some later critics of the Gospel History have done--and then to adopt those passages in the sacred books which fit in with that character, and to reject those which oppose it." (T.W. Rhys Davids, 1881b, p. xxi)

The fundamental flaw, endemic to so much European writing about Buddhism, is building an argument on the concealment of evidence: when you proceed from this basis, it does not matter how sophisticated the argument may be, as soon as the original evidence is revealed, everything that was formerly supported must fall.

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 For one example among many, see the Devadūta sutta, the 130th sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (PTS MN, vol. 3, p. 178 et seq.) but found in more than one recension in the Pali canon (cf. PTS AN, vol. 1, p. 138 et seq.).