Buddhist hermeneutics by Donald S. Lopez

By Donald S. Lopez

Essays from a convention on Buddhist hermeneutics held on the Kuroda Institute for the examine of Buddhism and Human Values in l. a., 1984

Given its large literature and its perform of training what's acceptable for a specific disciple, the Buddhist culture has lengthy needed to combat with the query of which of his many scriptures represented the Buddha's optimum view. in keeping with that challenge, Buddhist commentators constructed subtle structures of interpretation, Buddhist hermeneutics. the current quantity of essays through top western Buddhologists surveys the wealthy number of options hired by way of Buddhist thinkers of India, Tibet, China, and Japan to interpret their sacred texts.

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By Donald S. Lopez

Essays from a convention on Buddhist hermeneutics held on the Kuroda Institute for the examine of Buddhism and Human Values in l. a., 1984

Given its large literature and its perform of training what's acceptable for a specific disciple, the Buddhist culture has lengthy needed to combat with the query of which of his many scriptures represented the Buddha's optimum view. in keeping with that challenge, Buddhist commentators constructed subtle structures of interpretation, Buddhist hermeneutics. the current quantity of essays through top western Buddhologists surveys the wealthy number of options hired by way of Buddhist thinkers of India, Tibet, China, and Japan to interpret their sacred texts.

Show description

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W e shall begin by considering this second question for it will enable us to see both the significance and the mean* mg o f the hermeneutical strategy of these texts In his recent book , Selfless Persons, Steven Collins has endorsed the notion that Theravada texts should be understood against the backdrop of their context H e writes, “ TTherav吞 da thinking has arisen from the historical and cultural context, ” and it embodies certain “ constructions and hypotheses which are addressed to quite specific (and socially derived) concerns ’ ’ 4 The texts can be understood, he argues, in Durkheim’s sense as “ social facts’ ’ 5 Collins’ views regarding the rela­ tion between Theravada texts and their contexts bear out the opinions of other scholars on the question of the relation between a text and its context Without digressing too far into this broader subject, we can summanze this research by saying that context seems to function on at least two levels to shape the process of text production and interpretation in a cumulative religious tradition First, contexts generate texts This truth has been long accepted in Biblical studies where it represents the basis for form criticism and other approaches to understanding the text Other scholars such as M ary Douglas have also shown that the beliefs and values that constitute a person or group’s cosmology both are shaped by and reciprocally reshape the context 6 A social context establishes a cost structure and a pattern of rewards and punishments, it permits or requires certain value systems and interpretations of the meaning of existence and, at the same time, it renders implausible other values and interpretations By its constraining influence upon belief, each context generates a particular cultural or cosmological bias, “ a col­ lective moral consciousness about man and his place m the universe ” 7 Since texts represent “ frozen cosmologies, ’ ’ we can see that texts also arise subject to the constraints of a context and represent that context The second point to note is that just as the context permits certain cosmologies as plausible and prevents others as implausible, so the con­ text also permits certain interpretations of texts and prevents others As W Cantwell Smith has shown, religious texts, as part of the cumulative tradition that comes down from the past, confront the individual of faith, but the individual has to interpret the text in a way that gives it meaning and plausibility in his context 8 The context strongly influ­ ences the decisions people make about how to understand a text—- which ideas should a people take up and emphasize, and which ideas should they leave aside?

Non­ knowledge m relation to the past (purvdnte ajU^nam) ’,,that sutra, they said, is clear and precise m meaning (mtdrtha), you cannot therefore claim it is a sutra with 压meaning to be determined (neyartha) The Vaibh 迓 sikas responded “ Nothing substantiates that that sutra is clear in meaning, the fact that it is expressed m terms o f definition proves nothing’ ’ 36 The VatsTputriyas, who believed in the existence o f an ineffable pudgala, based their authority on the Bhdraharasutra, m which it is said “ The bearer of the burden [of existence] is such-and-such a venerable one, with such-and-such a name,from such-and-such a family, suchand-such a clan, e t c ,” 37 and other similar sutras which they took liter­ ally The other Buddhist schools, while not rejecting such texts, only accepted that they have a provisional meaning and are not authorita­ tive, they resorted to sutras which are explicit m meaning and formally taught that, within that supposed pudgala, “ there are merely things whjch are impermanent, conditioned, arisen from causes and condi­ tions, and are created by action ” 38 In order to refute the existence of an external object,the Vijnanavadms took their authority from a passage m the Dasabhumtka (p 49) which states that the triple world is mind only (cittamatram idamyad tdam traidhatukam) However, the Madhyamikas took them severely to task “ are making yourselves ridiculous, ” they said,“ the intention o f the sutra is nothing like it appears m your mmds , that text only teaches the unimportance o f visible things, but not the denial of their existence” However, the Vljnanavadms persisted and produced a pas­ sage from the Lankdvatarasutra (p 47) m which it says C£The external thing, however it may appear, does not exist, it is the mind which appears m various guises, such as a body (deha) , objects of pleasure (bhoga) and a place (sthdna) ” Nonetheless, the Madhyamikas were determined to prove, in writing and by reasoning, that this quotation was provisional and not definitive 39 20 Etienne Lamotte 3 The Mahayana attached the greatest importance to sutras of inde­ terminate and provisional meaning and which constitute the intentional teaching of the Buddha The expression ' 4intentional teaching” is rendered m Pali and Sanskrit by samdhdya bhasita {Majjhima I 503, Bodhtsattvabhumi3 174), samdhdya bhamta {Dipavamsa, 5, 34), samdhdya vag bhasita ( Vajracchedikd, 23 ),samdhabhasita {SaddharmapundarTka, 125 ,199, 233 ), samdhdbhdsya (ib id ,29, 34, 60, 70, 273), samdhavacana (ibid , 59 ), samdhdya vacana {BodhisattvabhUmi, 5 6 ,108) In Tibetan, we find dgongs te bshad pa, and m Chinese mi i yu yen £the word of hidden thought?

Indian Histori­ cal Quarterly 6 (1930) 389-396, P Pelliot, in Toung Pao (1932) 147, P C Bagchi, “ Some Aspects of Buddhist Mysticism m the Garyapadas/ ' Calcutta Oriental Series 1 ,no 5 (1934),J R Ware, Journal of the American Oriental Society 57 123, F Edgerton, Journal of the American Oriental Society 57 185- 188, L de la Valiee Poussin, ^Buddhica/9HarvardJournal ofAsian Studies 3 137-139 Textual Interpretation in Buddhism 27 41 Dtpavamsa V 30-35 42 BodhtsattvabhUmi,108 artham prcdisaran bodhisattvo na vyanjanam buddhdndm bhagavatdm sarvasamdhdyavacanany anupramsati 43 Bodkisattvabhumi, 257 bodhisattvas taihagaie mvistasraddho mvistaprasada ekdntiko vacasy abhzprasannas iathdgatanitdriham suiram pratisarati na neyartham nitartham sutram pratisarann asamhdryo bhavaty asmdd dharmamnayat tathd hi neydrthasya sutrasya ndndmukhaprakrtdrthavtbhago 3mscttah samdehakaro bhavati sacet punar bodhuattvah mtdrthe 3pt sutre 3natkdntikah sydd evam asau samharyah syad asmdd dharmavinaydt 44 On the contrast between desandnaya and siddhantanaya^ see Lankdvatara, 148s 172, etc 45 C f Mahavyutpatti, nos 1666-1675, Suirdlamkara, 82-84, La Somme du Grand Vehtcule^ 2 129-132 46 Bodhisattvabhumx> 257 Punar bodhzsattvoh adhigamajndne sdradarsT bhavati na srutacintadharmdHhavijndnamdtrake sa yad bhdvandmayena jndnena jndtavyam na tac chakyam srutacintdjndrmmdtrakena vijndtum tit vtditvd paramagambhirdn apt tathagatabhdsitdn dharrndn srutvd napratiksipati ndpavadati 47 L de la Vallee Poussin, La Morale bouddhique (Pans, 1927),302 48 J C Jennings, The Vedantic Buddhism of the Buddha (Oxford, 1947) The Gradual Path as a Hermeneutical Approach to the Dhamma G eorge D B ond Theravada Buddhism, from an early period, placed the Tipitaka at the center of the tradition, regarding it as “ the word of the Buddha” (buddha-vacanam) and even as the dharmakaya 1 W ith the Tipitaka occupying the central place, hermeneutical questions concerning the interpreta­ tion of the canon took on great importance for Theravada, and as a result,many of the distinctive doctrines and ideas o f Theravada devel­ oped m the commentaries and subcommentaries to the Tipitaka A s I have noted elsewhere, 2 the commentanal writings represented Therav£da’s second and final solution to the problem of how to interpret and understand the Tipitaka Theravada^s first solution to the problem of interpretation is found, however, m two postcanomcal texts, the Netti Pakarana and the Petakopadesa These two works set forth an approach to the interpretation of the Tipitaka,a hermeneutical method and view­ point that shaped Theravada’s thinking on these matters and pro­ foundly influenced the commentanal tradition Traditionally attributed to Mahakaccana, both the Netti and the Petakopadesa represent complex, highly technical manuals of interpretation Although these two works are not identical, they present the same views and the same method of interpretation 3 Both the Netti and the Petakopadesa develop the notion of the gradual path to nibbdna and employ it as a hermeneutical strategy for explaining the dhamma Although the notion o f a gradual path became common m later Buddhism, both m Theravada and Mahayana, and came to repre­ sent the hallmark of the Theravada tradition through works such as the Visuddhimagga, the idea does not seem to have been explicitly worked out m Theravada texts prior to the Netti and Petakopadesa H ow then did these texts come to state it so forcefully and in such detail?

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