The Opposite of Buddhism §5

The Rhys-Davids legacy, etc.

This image was posted online by the Schøyen Collection; cf. the wrapping paper (commercializing the same tradition) below.

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


These examples are not selected from the margins, but from the center: Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys-Davids may be the single most powerful influence in Europe's interpretation of Theravada Buddhism. She inherited the control of England's Pali Text Society from her husband (Mr. T.W. Rhys-Davids, who died in 1922) and was a prolific writer, editor and publisher, controlling the PTS until 1942. Her influence is so powerful because she was in a position to create a loop of references that seemed to validate themselves: she had a hand in writing the Pali-English dictionary, in editing the source texts, in translating them into English, in guiding the translations of others, and also by “enframing” many texts with introductions and interpretations.

To speak very bluntly: it cannot be ignored that this woman rejected Buddhism's crucial doctrine that there is no soul. She pursued the opposite hypothesis, and tried to prove it by mis-representing the source texts. If the study of Buddhism is a science, this fact alone should lead us to doubt the validity of the texts that she has created, and that millions of Buddhists directly or indirectly rely upon. Even the Cambodian version of the Buddhist canon, I should note, is derivative of these same PTS editions.1

I am not the first person to openly criticize the Rhys-Davids legacy,2 but the vast majority of the criticism is evasive and oblique --again, difficult for a native speaker of English to interpret, and even more difficult across barriers of language and culture. In general, those who are interested in the critique of ideology leave the accuracy and reliability of the texts unquestioned; conversely, the few authors who are willing to attack the validity of the texts (that these past scholars produced) do not want to condescend to discuss colonialism, Christianity, Theosophy and so on. In the latter camp, I would count K.R. Norman, who has made a rallying call for new scholarship by pointing to the limitations of the old, setting down the maxim, “everything that has been done [before] needs to be done again”.3 He remains part of the British tradition of stating his opinions obliquely, but I appreciate that he has tried to warn the present generation as clearly as he could that we should regard our inheritance from past generations with the utmost skepticism:

"Reading [about the preparation of a new edition of the Greek New Testament] I was struck by how close, mutatis mutandis, is the situation with regard to the books of the Pāli canon. Reading, however, about the way in which this particular edition was made [from the comparative reading of over 200 manuscripts], I was struck by the complete contrast to the way in which many editions of Pāli texts have been, and are, I fear, still being made. …[A]nyone who reads the editor's preface to many of the editions published by the Pāli Text Society will be amazed at the small number of manuscripts which editors have thought would be sufficient for them to utilize when performing their task. In some cases editors have been content to reproduce the readings of one or more oriental printed editions, often without attempting to ascertain the basis for such editions. For example, the Pāli Text Society edition of the Buddhavaŋsa-Aṭṭhakathā is based upon, and is in effect a transcription of, a single printed edition, that in Sinhalese script in the Simon Hewavitarne Bequest series. … Volume I of the Pāli Text Society edition of the Papañcasūdanī, the commentary on the Majjhimanikāya, is based upon two Sinhalese manuscripts, two Sinhalese printed editions, and a Burmese manuscript of the ṭīkā, … which could, at best, have given help with whatever words are quoted in the lemmata. From Volume II onwards the basis of the edition was three printed editions, one being one of the Sinhalese editions used for Volume I, and the other two being editions in the Burmese and Thai scripts. No information whatsoever is given about the basis for these oriental editions, nor are any variant readings quoted from them. No information is given about the principles followed in establishing the text of the Pāli Text Society edition, and we are left to suppose that, when the oriental editions differed, the editor of each volume selected arbitrarily whatever readings appealed most to him or her. Other [PTS] editions have been printed without the benefit of proof-reading, in part or in whole, and one was actually printed with spaces …between component parts of compounds, because the founder's widow, acting as General Editor, was mindful of her dead husband's dislike of hyphens and arbitrarily ordered the printer to remove all those inserted by the editor in his manuscript. This he did, but he omitted to close up the consequent gaps. It is doubtful whether these facts are known to many of those who write about Theravada Buddhism, and who happily base their work upon texts which have been edited in this way, and the translation based upon such texts." (Norman, 1993, p. 81-83)

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 This fact is “hidden in plain sight” throughout the Khmer canon: the footnotes marked with the Khmer letter “O” explicitly refer to the PTS as the European edition (the Khmer “O” abbreviates “Europe” by its first phoneme). The extent to which the Cambodian authors relied upon (or were influenced by) English translations and French scholarship of the era deserves to be investigated, too.

2 Two examples that are, in some respects, counterposed: (1) Snodgrass, 2007, and (2) Hallisey, 1995. Note, especially, p. 38 of the latter where the reader is instructed in very opaque language that we should avoid (or, perhaps, refrain from?) an “orientalist” critique of Rhys-Davids.

3 The maxim that “Everything that has been done needs to be done again” is stated twice (p. 2 & p. 172) in Norman, 1997.