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The Glory of the Literary World

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 165: The Glory of the Literary World - Edited Version

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT THE RENAISSANCE that would be brought about by the discovery, in the nineteenth century, of the treasures of oriental literature, would be incomparably more glorious than that which had been ushered in during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the recovery of the classics of Greece and Rome. Whether that prediction will be fulfilled it is difficult for us, in the middle of the penultimate decade of the twentieth century, to be sure, but we can at least be sure that there is a possibility of its being fulfilled. The treasures of oriental literature have indeed been discovered, that is, discovered by the peoples of the West, and have proved to be even richer than was originally supposed. Not only have they been discovered, but many of them have been made more generally available by being translated into the major occidental languages, especially English. Thus today, less than two hundred years after the discovery of those same treasures, we find that hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of people in Europe and the Americas are able to read, in their own tongue, some of the greatest works of Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Persian literature. What people read cannot but affect them, and what affects hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of people cannot but affect the civilization and culture to which they belong, at least in course of time. We may therefore say that the second, more glorious renaissance that, it was predicted, would be brought about by the discovery of the treasures of oriental literature, has in a sense already begun, even though it has begun on a very small scale, and to a very limited extent, and though we cannot be sure whether the process will ever be completed.

There are, of course, differences between the two renaissances. The first was ushered in by the recovery of the classics of Greece and Rome, whereas the second hopefully is being brought about by the discovery of the classics of India, China, Japan, Tibet, and Persia. Moreover, in the case of the first renaissance the Greek and Roman classics were in most instances recovered from the hands of a people (i.e. the Byzantine Greeks) whose religion - and culture too, to a great extent - was quite different from that of the authors of those classics, whereas in the case of the second renaissance the treasures of oriental literature have in almost all instances been discovered among people whose spiritual outlook was broadly identical with that of the ancient poets and sages by whom that literature had been produced. This latter circumstance has meant that the discovery of the treasures of oriental literature has been associated with the discovery of those who were, so to speak, the natural heirs to those treasures and who were therefore in a position to help us appreciate their value and significance. When the Italian humanists recovered the Dialogues of Plato, for example, they did not recover any living Platonists along with them; but when British orientalists discovered the Bhagavad Gita they at the same time discovered many learned and pious Hindus who had studied and practised its teachings. In other words, whereas the humanists recovered books the orientalists discovered both books and men, that is, men who were the living representatives of the tradition to which the books belonged. Another difference between the two renaissances is that the actual number of Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Persian classics discovered in the course of the last two hundred years far exceeds the number of Greek and Roman classics recovered during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.

In view of all these differences it is obvious that if the second renaissance succeeds in coming to maturity it will be not only more glorious but more thoroughgoing and more far-reaching in its effects than the first.

Indeed, it will be more glorious precisely because it is more thoroughgoing and more far-reaching in its effects. However, it is not with the vast subject of the two renaissances that I propose to deal on the present occasion. I do not even propose to deal with one of them separately. My purpose is much more modest.

All I propose to do is to offer a few more or less random remarks on one particular aspect of the renaissance that has been brought about by the discovery of the treasures of oriental literature - a renaissance in the midst of whose very tentative beginnings we are all, to some extent, now living.

As I have already indicated, the treasures of oriental literature are to be found in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Persian. These are the six principal languages involved. If we look at the corresponding literatures, however, we shall see that, taken in their respective totalities, Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan literature all have much more in common with each other than any of them has with Persian literature. These five literatures thus form a kind of natural group. If we look again, we shall see that what the five literatures have in common is the fact that they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, Buddhist literatures. Indeed, in a number of cases a work that is a classic of Buddhist literature in one language is also a classic of Buddhist literature in another language, into which it has been translated.

This is particularly the case with Sanskrit Buddhist literature, on the one hand, and Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist literature on the other. In England we are not unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the Authorized Version of the Book of Job and Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, for example, being as much classics of English literature as the original works are classics of Hebrew and of Persian literature.

The most important part of that part of Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan literature which is also Buddhist literature is what is traditionally known as the Tripitaka or `Three Collections' (literally `baskets') of the Buddha's teachings, that is, the Sutra Pitaka or Collection of Discourses, the Vinaya Pitaka or Collection of Monastic Discipline, and the Abhidharma Pitaka or Collection of Further Doctrine.

In Tibet and its cultural dependencies the Tibetan version of the Tripitaka is known as the Kangyur or `[Translated] Word of the Buddha'. This designation draws attention to the fact that the contents of the Tripitaka are traditionally regarded as Buddhavacana, the word or utterance of the Enlightened One.

Buddhist literature, whether in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, or Tibetan, thus falls into two great divisions, one consisting of works composed by the Buddha's disciples, immediate or remote, the other consisting of works purporting to embody the Buddhavacana, either in its original form or in translation.

It is this latter group of works that comprises what I have termed Buddhist canonical literature, by `canonical' meaning that the literature in question is traditionally regarded as Buddhavacana. Besides being the most important part of Buddhist literature, this Buddhist canonical literature is probably the most valuable of all the many treasures of oriental literature that have so far been discovered. Such being the case it is to be expected that it will make an especially significant contribution to the second, more glorious renaissance that the discovery of those treasures hopefully is bringing about, and it is on the subject of Buddhist canonical literature that I therefore propose to offer a few remarks on this occasion.

In offering these remarks on this particular aspect of the second renaissance, as I have called it, I shall not be trying to give you a resume of The Eternal Legacy, useful as that might be. I shall not even be trying to determine the exact nature of the contribution that Buddhist canonical literature is likely to make to the second renaissance. Instead, I shall be seeking to share with you a few reflections on Buddhist canonical literature as literature.

Before I can do this, however, it will be necessary for me to deal with a possible objection. We know that the Buddha himself wrote nothing. We know that he taught orally, and that before being written down around the beginning of the Common Era his teachings were preserved entirely by oral means. But the word literature means `writing'. If the canonical literature consists of works purporting to embody the Buddhavacana, therefore, is it not a contradiction in terms to speak of Buddhist canonical literature? The objection is more apparent than real. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are universally regarded as works of classical Greek literature: indeed, they are regarded as its greatest works; but there is no doubt that both epics existed as oral compositions for centuries before they were committed to writing in the sixth century BCE. From this it is obvious that literature, which a modern dictionary defines as `written material such as poetry, novels, essays, etc.' and as `the body of written work of a particular culture or people', includes both material that was written down at the time of composition and material that was written down subsequently, after it had been preserved by oral means for a longer or a shorter period. No contradiction in terms is therefore involved in speaking of Buddhist canonical literature.

What, then, do I mean when I speak of sharing with you a few reflections on Buddhist canonical literature as literature? What sort of difference of attitude does such an emphasis imply? In any case, what is literature, in the real as distinct from the merely formal sense of the term, and in what other way or ways could one approach Buddhist canonical literature if one does not approach it as literature? In discussing these questions ...

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