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The Glory of the Literary World

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by Sangharakshita

... I shall, in fact, be doing what I proposed to do and sharing with you my reflections on Buddhist canonical literature as literature, so that when the discussion is complete I shall have little more to say on the subject, at least for the present.

Let me begin with a few definitions, that is, definitions of literature, since it is on the question of the real nature of literature that the whole discussion hinges. These definitions will enable us to see to what extent we are justified in approaching Buddhist canonical literature as literature. According to Carlyle, literature is `the thought of thinking Souls'. There is no doubt that the great being who was so deeply moved by the sight of an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering ascetic that he left home in quest of Supreme Enlightenment was a `thinking Soul' in the fullest sense of the term, and no doubt that the Buddhist canonical literature - the Buddhavacana - contains what we may well describe as the Buddha's thought - especially if, with D.H. Lawrence, we understand by thought not just the manipulation of abstract ideas but `a man in his wholeness wholly attending'. The next definition does not bear quite so directly on the present discussion, but it is of considerable general interest. `Literature, taken in all its bearings', says William Godwin, the author of Political Justice, `forms the grand line of demarcation between the human and the animal kingdoms.' One is reminded here of the fact that in Tibetan representations of the Wheel of Life the blue Buddha is depicted showing the inhabitants of the animal world a book. The book stands for literature. It is the possession of literature, rather than the possession of language, that distinguishes man from the animals, for even though it may be argued that animals can, in fact, speak (as distinct from making inarticulate noises), it can hardly be argued that they can write books. Moreover, if it is literature that forms the line of demarcation between man and animals that line will be formed most definitively by that literature which, in the terms of the previous definition, is the thought of the most deeply thinking Soul. This would appear to suggest that inasmuch as the Buddha is traditionally regarded as the deepest thinking Soul known to history Buddhist canonical literature is not only literature but literature par excellence.

Though in certain respects very illuminating, both these definitions - Carlyle's and Godwin's - are at the same time rather narrow. A much more comprehensive definition is provided by the classical scholar J.W.

Mackail, who writes `Language put to its best purpose, used at its utmost power and with the greatest skill, and recorded that it may not pass away, evaporate, and be forgotten, is what we call, for want of a better word, literature.' This definition must be examined clause by clause. To begin with, literature is `language put to its best purpose'. But what is the best purpose to which language can be put? From a Buddhist point of view the answer to this question is to be found in the exhortation with which the Buddha sent his first sixty disciples out into the world. `Go ye now, monks,' he is reported as saying, `and wander for the gain of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, and for the welfare of gods and men.... Preach the Dhamma ...; proclaim a consummate, perfect, and pure life of holiness. There are beings whose mental eyes are covered by scarcely any dust, but if the Dhamma is not preached to them, they cannot attain salvation.'48 In other words, the monks are to preach - are to make use of language - in order that beings endowed with awareness may be enabled to live the holy life (brahmacariya) and attain salvation, and they are to do this out of compassion. Thus the best purpose to which language can be put is to communicate salvific truth (dhamma). Buddhist canonical literature contains this salvific truth. Hence Buddhist canonical literature is literature in the most real sense of the term.

Next, literature is `language used at its utmost power and with the greatest skill'. There is no doubt that in communicating the salvific truth the Buddha stretched the language that was available to him to the utmost limits of its capacity. There are, indeed, those who maintain that Middle Indic was in fact insufficient for his purposes, much as the English language `sunk under' Milton. Thus Buddhist canonical literature is literature in this sense too. Finally, literature is `language recorded that it may not pass away, evaporate, and be forgotten'. That Buddhist canonical literature is literature in this sense is obvious. After being preserved entirely by oral means for nearly half a millennium, the salvific truth communicated by the Buddha was committed to writing for the benefit of future generations. In the case of the Pali Tipitaka - the Theravada version of the Buddhavacana - this took place in Sri Lanka towards the end of the first century BCE. `The text of the three Pitakas and the atthakatha thereon did the most wise bhikkhus hand down in former times orally,' says the Mahavam.sa or `Great Chronicle' of Sri Lanka, `but since they saw that the people were falling away (from religion) the bhikkhus came together, and in order that the true doctrine [saddhamma] might endure, they wrote them down in books.'49 Whether by oral or literary means, the preservation of the Buddhavacana has indeed been ever regarded as the special responsibility of the Monastic Order.

This more comprehensive definition not only gives us a better understanding of the real nature of literature, not only helps us to see to what extent we are justified in approaching Buddhist canonical literature as literature; it also suggests that Buddhist canonical literature is, in fact, literature `writ large', in the sense that by approaching Buddhist canonical literature as literature we in fact endow the concept of literature with a fuller and richer content than it possessed before. It is therefore interesting to note that Mackail concludes by saying of language `put to the best purpose' and so on that it is `what we call, for want of a better word, literature.' For want of a better word! It is almost as though he felt that the phenomenon he had so carefully defined so far transcended what was ordinarily understood by the term literature that a more appropriate word was really needed. Might one suggest that that more appropriate word would be one that was reminiscent of the term Buddhavacana or, if that was considered as representing too high an ideal for the phenomenon in question, one that was reminiscent of what the poet-monk Vangisa, in verses addressed to the Buddha, spoke of as `deathless speech (amata vaca)' - that deathless speech which is, at the same time `truth (sacca)'?50 Nowadays we are not accustomed to thinking of literature in this kind of way. We are not even accustomed to thinking of poetry in this kind of way. Though once defined as `the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds', poetry seems to have become, in the hands of some recent practitioners of the art, the record of the worst and most depressing moments of the worst and most deeply disturbed minds. In other words literature - including poetry - nowadays tends to be `clinical': it is a record of symptoms - of symptoms of disease. So much is this the case that we often find it difficult to think of literature, and indeed the arts in general, in any other way. We find it difficult to think of literature in terms of Mackail's definition, especially when this is commented on from a Buddhist point of view, and still more difficult to understand what is meant by that fuller and richer content with which, it is claimed, the concept of literature becomes endowed when we approach Buddhist canonical literature as literature. Let me therefore read you a section from Lu Chi's rhyme-prose Essay on Literature. I had intended to read this a little later on, when the definitions of literature had all been dealt with, but perhaps I had better read it now and deal with the two remaining definitions afterwards. Lu Chi was a Chinese writer who lived from 261 to 303CE. His essay is in eleven sections, and I am going to read the fourth section, entitled `The Joy of Writing'. Since writing here means nothing less than the creation of literature, what Lu Chi has to say about the joy of writing will at the same time show us in what kind of way he thinks of literature.

Writing is in itself a joy, Yet saints and sages have long since held it in awe. For it is Being, created by tasking the Great Void, And `tis sound rung out of Profound Silence. In a sheet of paper is contained the Infinite, And, evolved from an inch-sized heart, an endless panorama. The words, as they expand, become all-evocative, The thought, still further pursued, will run the deeper, Till flowers in full blossom exhale all-pervading fragrance, And tender boughs, their saps running, grow to a whole jungle of splendour.

Bright winds spread luminous wings, quick breezes soar from the earth, And, nimbus-like amidst all these, rises the glory of the literary world.51 Writing is `Being, created by tasking the Great Void'. It is hardly necessary for me to tell you that nowadays we do not usually think of writing in this kind of way, and perhaps not everybody did even in fourth and fifth century China. Lu Chi's conception of the writer, especially the poet, and of the use of literature, is on a level with his conception of writing. The first section of his essay, entitled `The Motive', opens with the ringing declaration: Erect in the Central Realm the poet views the expanse of the whole universe, And in tomes of ancient wisdom his spirit rejoices and finds nurture.52 `The poet views the expanse of the whole universe.' This is surely reminiscent ...

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