On our fixation with the early texts

November 2, 2022

I have been and continue to be in love with early Buddhism. Like all true loves, it acknowledges imperfection, dislikes and points of friction, yet continues to attend with affection, interest and care. You could say this love and affection, this ‘movement towards’, resembles desire—and it does. It’s sticky, but in a skillful mode rather than one based on attachment and self-centredness. This resemblance is a fascinating point the Pali texts make when discussing mettā: love, kindness, affection. But not in the early discourses. Not even in Buddhaghosa’s “Path of Purification” (Visuddhimagga). It’s in the commentary to it. The commentary!! Blasphemous...

The earliest layer of Buddhist literature—the early discourses or ‘suttas’—gives us access to a less systematised teaching. This is one reason many secular Buddhists favour them: they’re especially suitable for fresh interpretation. Instead, later works like the Abhidharma books, manuals like the Visuddhimagga, or the commentaries to the suttas, are seen as ossified and often scholastic readings of the teachings, belonging to institutional Theravāda, less fit for a playful and existential engagement with the dharma. Yet hours of reflection and practice went into those works, and by keeping them out too rigidly we may miss valuable insights.

Despite appearences, this post is not about the commentarial tradition. This post is about identifying prejudice, about how we continue to have orthodoxies and informal lists of forbidden books based on questionable criteria. I see it as part of my dharma practice to recognise those prejudices, reconsider, and arrive at more nuanced positions.

To be clear: it’s entirely legitimate to just be into the suttas. We do not have to study later Pali texts, which certainly diverge from the suttas. But is that divergence necessarily bad? And much more importantly: where is our refusal to read those later texts coming from? Because we’re not fundamentalists, we don’t read only early discourses, we’re not at all averse to the idea of someone reflecting about them. Why can those someones be contemporary teachers and scholars but not ancient ones? While sometimes there may be perfectly good reasons for that, there is also a known bias—and this is what I’m interested in. I have heard people despise the commentaries who have likely never set eyes on them. It’s an inherited prejudice, a rhetoric of Buddhist modernism people parrot without any first-hand knowledge.

The English monk Ñāṇavīra Thera saw the commentaries as an impediment and wrote in the preface to the Notes on Dhamma (1960-1965) that not knowing them left ‘less to be unlearned’. Then he went on to write a commentary of his own! I don’t think he contradicts himself—after all, he’s saying what many thinkers, including the Buddha, have said: ‘those people speak rubbish, now listen to me’. But what a priori reason do we have to embrace his commentary and despise Dhammapāla’s? If Ñāṇavīra thought the commentaries ‘obscure wisdom’ (paññānirodhiko), to use sutta language, I think perpetuating that rejection baked into Buddhist modernism is a bigger obstacle still. Because it relates problematically with colonial attitudes to Buddhism, about who has valuable knowledge worth consulting. That is something to unlearn.

My PhD began with extensive reading of the Pali canon, gathering increasing piles of notes. In trying to make sense of them, I went to my supervisor loaded with questions, only to find out, of course, that I was not the first to ask them. He pointed out I had the exact kind of systematic questions that the tradition had raised from the beginning. For, like me, they were trying to understand the suttas. Instead of attempting to think from scratch and without help, he suggested, why not check how they had grappled with those questions? I did not need to agree with them. But by ignoring them I ran the risk of spending tons of hours working just to end up reinventing the wheel—been there, done that.

I have grown to appreciate the later Pali tradition. The texts can be obscure and the Pali grammar convoluted, which rubs the puzzle-seeking side of my brain the right way. But that aside, I have come to approach them the way you listen to a wise, knowledgeable person in any field. Study is a labour of love, love for the subject and the activity itself. It melts self-importance and leads to deeper humility and wonder. My experience is that the bias I mentioned goes in a different direction.

The commentarial tradition may not be entirely to our liking, but as I argued on Tricycle, neither may be the suttas. They abound with world-denying notions many modern readers wish to put aside. But that doesn’t stop us from reading and loving the suttas, does it? I don’t argue for embracing orthodox Theravāda, but for consulting what those authors had to say about themes from the suttas we are interested in. Mettā is a great example, because much of what we hear about it from teachers, and of how we practice it, already comes from the commentator Buddhaghosa. Another example is dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda). Some modern Buddhist scholar-practitioners, like Ñāṇavīra or Buddhadāsa, shunned the traditional interpretation that the twelve links of dependent arising comprise three lifetimes. Instead, they saw them as happening in each moment. Not only is this a fascinating idea: it is an idea already found in the second book of the Abhidharma and its commentary.

To pass judgment on the commentarial tradition as either useless or gospel, in a sweeping manner, is an instance of the absolutising tendency of reactive opinions I believe the Buddha warned against. Far from providing a single, rigid interpretation of the dharma, that literature showcases diverse viewpoints and reflections. What we might call ‘Theravāda orthodoxy’ seems more of a subset of that material. And while reading suttas only through the filter of later commentaries may be impoverishing, so is never doing so.

There’s a more general point about fixation with origins. Focus on early Buddhism and the historical Buddha is beautiful, and taken too far, it can also be a prison. The more I concentrate on that human being, the harder time I have when I jar with what he says, and the more prone I am to manipulate it into something I can more easily stomach, thus resolving cognitive dissonance. From a fundamentalist viewpoint, that exclusive focus is no problem. But for an approach that values constructive (re)interpretation, it needs caveats.

Without taking leave of Gotama the person, I have found lightness in shifting some weight towards tradition; not in the sense of conservatism, but of identifying with a tradition of thought and practice—a community across time. I participate in this community from the assumption that doctrines and practices evolve, and that we’re all reflecting on them. I do not problematise Theravādin divergence from the suttas nor my own. I’m still mainly nourished by those early discourses, but I let myself enjoy the spices of Buddhaghosa or Dhammapāla when I feel like— and while we’re at it, desserts by Śāntideva, Ta Hui or Milarepa. Even in the early discourses not everything is Gotama: I’m quite fond of the teachings associated with Mahākaccāna. In sum, I find more space to dance when I relate to a group of people rather than just one guy, regardless of how much I love that guy—and I do.

I have been and continue to be in love with early Buddhism. I don’t share this reflection to convince anyone to read the commentaries or the Visuddhimagga, but only for the purpose of identifying a bias. Because biases hang by the thread of aversion and ignorance, and it is part of our practice to cut that thread with the scissors of wisdom and let them smash to the ground. There is just more freedom as result, not more to be unlearned.



One Reply to “On our fixation with the early texts”


Thanks, Bernat, for this friendly challenge to examine bias (which i held without any basis in my own experience!) and for encouragement to explore in a balanced way resources inherited from the commentarial tradition as well as the suttas.

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