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Nanamoli-s Life of the Buddha - Chapters 4 and 11 Tuscany 1986 Part 1

by Sangharakshita

Nanamoli IV: Tuscany 1986

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS on NANAMOLI'S LIFE OF THE BUDDHA
Tuscany, 1986
PRESENT: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Vessantara, Uttara, Sudhana, Sumana, Cittapala,
Jayamati, Sanghapala, Chakkhupala, Dharmamati, Ratnaprabha, Padmapani, Douglas Ponton,
Duncan Steen, Peter Nicholson, Paul Tozer, Alan Pendock, Ben Murphy, Ong Sin Choon,
Alan Turner, Kevin Donovan, Derek Goodman, Colin Lavender, Thomas McGeary, Gerd
Baak.
7 October 1986Padmapani: Did you ever meet the author of this book?
Sangharakshita: No, I'm afraid I never met him. He had a quite distinguished, but quite short,
career as a monk and as a translator. He did a great deal of very useful work but, as you will
see from the short biography at the end, he didn't really live very long, which was rather a
shame. I believe I had some correspondence with him in the fifties.
Padmapani: Was he a senior bhikkhu, in terms of was he seen as a great scholar?
S: Well, to be a senior bhikkhu and to be a great scholar, unfortunately, are two quite
different things! There are lots of very senior bhikkhus who are by no means great scholars,
and vice versa. How many years had he been a bhikkhu? seniority is determined by that.
Padmapani: It seems that he was ordained in 1950, and his death was in 1960, so
S: Yes, so he just about achieved his therahood, yes. I wouldn't say he was a great scholar; he
was a good scholar a careful, conscientious scholar.
Vessantara: What do you think of his translations?
S: I think they are very readable. Sometimes his translations of technical terms are a bit
idiosyncratic, but if he gives the Pali in brackets there is no need to quarrel with that. For
instance, towards the end of his career, he started translating Dhamma as 'the true idea' which
could be a bit confusing for a beginner. But then again, as I say, if a translator always puts the
original term in brackets in the original language, after his idiosyncratic translation, [there is]
no harm. A new translation from a different point of view just makes you perhaps think more
carefully about the meaning of the term, instead of assuming that you already understand it is
translations, on the whole, are readable, no doubt. [They are] in decent English, and that is
something. His major work, of course, was his translation of the Visuddhimagga. I am not so
sure that his translation is an improvement on the previous one; I think it is as well, perhaps,
to use them both in conjunction, if one is studying that particular work seriously.
Kevin: One is aware of different sort of strata in the ... age basis of the material. Could you
comment on how old you think the passages that we are studying are 'The Spreading of the
Dhamma' in particular ?
[2]
S: That is very difficult to say, very difficult. Do you want a guess within a century, within
ten years, or within a year? Do you see what I mean? I notice on the title page he says: 'The
Life of the Buddha as it appears in the Pali Canon, the oldest authentic record.' I think many
scholars would challenge that description. But he himself has to recognize that there are
different layers in the Pali literature, not just the canonical literature but the literature that is
to say, the Canon and the commentaries, and so on. And he has this quite useful device,
actually, hasn't he? of the 'Voices' you know, the Narrator 1, the Narrator 2, the First Voice
and the Second Voice. So it is the First and Second Voices that represent the canonical
material, that is to say material taken from the Pali Canon, from the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas,
actually. But if one goes through that and I did read through this chapter for this afternoon
clearly one is already there dealing with a number of different layers. One can see that the
whole material has been very heavily edited, possibly in the oral stage of transmission itself;
because already a lot of legendary material has been incorporated, and what seem to be rather
late doctrinal formulas and stereotyped descriptions. So even if one goes back to what the
translator calls 'The oldest authentic record', that record itself is a very composite thing which
we need to analyse if we are to arrive at some idea of what the Buddha might have actually
taught or might have actually done. We can't take even this 'oldest authentic record' at its face
value, by any means. On the other hand, [3] that is not to say that we can very easily
distinguish what is older, what is later, and so on, or what is latest. It just suggests that we
have to approach the material with caution and try to read between the lines. this brings me to
something I was thinking about recently. I think I have mentioned this before: that, a few
months ago, there was a quite interesting meeting in the United States a small meeting
between a well-known Christian theologian, Hans King, and a group of American Buddhists
from various traditions. It seems that Hans King, in a quite sympathetic way, was just wanting
to try to find out 'What is Buddhism?', and he was discussing this question with the different
representatives of different schools, different traditions Zen, Theravada, Tibetan Buddhism
and so on. At the end of a series of discussions, he was no wiser than he was at the beginning,
because they all gave different accounts. But and this was an interesting point; I can't
remember all the details it is not that all the Theravadins were on one side, and all the
Tibetans were on the other, as it were. No: but, reading between the lines of the report, it was
quite clear that there were definitely two groups which cut across the ordinary as it were
sectarian divisions. You had those, whether Tibetans or Zen or Theravadins, who stuck quite
literally to the actual letter of their tradition and insisted that that was Buddhism; and there
were others who had, so to speak, a more liberal point of view, regardless of whether they
were Theravadins, Tibetan Buddhists or followers of Zen. Do you see what I mean? So it's as
though you've got what I call a fundamentalist attitude on the one hand, and a more liberal
attitude on the other. Well, 'liberal' isn't really very adequate, but I can't think of any better
one. And this distinction, this division, cuts across the division into schools. It represents a
sort of polarization. There are some people who will hang on, who will cling, to the letter of
tradition exactly as it has come down to them, but there are others who take a more liberal
view, a bit more critically minded, who try to get, perhaps, to the spirit underlying the letter.
now this is putting the contrast in rather stark terms, but one could say that, yes, you have to
be a bit traditionally minded after all, the letter is there, you can't ignore it completely; it is
also, after all, only through the letter, perhaps, that you arrive at the spirit. So it is all right to
be a bit traditionally minded, but not to go to extremes and be narrowly fundamentalistic.
And, yes, on the other hand, you do need to be a bit liberal minded, and try to get to the
underlying spirit of the tradition itself, but you don't want to be so liberal minded or so
sceptical that you just explain everything away. On the one hand, you don't want to have a
blind faith, but on the other you don't want to be totally devoid of faith. So it seems to me that
the modern Buddhist, the educated or intelligent practising Buddhist, has to steer a sort of
middle way between faith and scepticism faith in the fundamentalist sense, and scepticism in
the as it were more liberal sense. I think it is very difficult to maintain a proper balance
between these two, but I think that is really what we are called upon to do. So I think we
should read material like this, be as it were receptive to it, try to feel it, try to experience it, let
it inspire us, but at the same time retain some critical sense, some critical awareness: on the
one hand, not just take it all absolutely literally, as some fundamentalists do, whether we are
studying a Pali text or whether we are studying a Sanskrit or Tibetan text; and, on the other
hand, not approach it so critically and sceptically that we are unable to obtain any spiritual
benefit from it. It is not easy to maintain a proper balance. You are almost certain to topple a
little over in this direction or a little in that. It is not easy to just keep one's balance. but you
see what I'm getting at, I think? I was even thinking this is going a bit off the track that this
distinction between the fundamentalist and what I have called the more liberal minded person
to some extent cuts across religions; because in Christianity you can come across
fundamentalist Christians with whom it is totally impossible to have a discussion, and you
can also come across liberal minded Christians with whom you can have a very interesting
and worthwhile exchange of ideas, who are relatively open-minded. And, in the same way,
you can come across Buddhists of all schools, practically, who are so fundamentalist, whether
Theravadins or followers of Tibetan Buddhism or Zenists, that you just can't have any
discussion with them at all. I think Suvajra, in a recent letter to Shabda, described an
encounter he had had with a Western woman who was a follower of Tibetan Buddhism and
who apparently believed quite literally every word that the lamas said. Suvajra found it
almost impossible to have any discussion with her, she was so ...

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