Pseudo-scholarship in Buddhism

Sometimes I feel a little self-conscious about the fact that I spend so much time debunking what I hear other Buddhist teachers saying. However, I feel a little bit better about this since I heard Thanissaro Bhikkhu point out that in both the Digha Nikāya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha) and the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha), the first sets of discourses are ones in which the Buddha is addressing teachings of other sects. For example, Discourse 1 in the Digha Nikāya is 1 the Brahmajāla Sutta: The Supreme Net – What the Teaching Is Not.

I have a great deal of respect for the Dharma. Some of the stories that I cherish most from the Pali canon are ones in which monks – it is usually monks – are asked what their teacher teaches, and they decline to answer because they are afraid that they will misrepresent the Dharma. When I hear some of the things that Western meditation teachers are saying, I wonder if they would be so confident about what they are saying if the Buddha were sitting there next to them.

One of the things that being an engineer taught me is how useless opinions are. Computers are relentlessly uninterested in your opinion about how something should work. An opinion is something you have when you don’t know something. When I do not know something, I try to think of my understanding as a “current working hypothesis.” And one of the many things that I admire about the Buddha is that rather than trying to “make something up” that sounds plausible – which is the way most religious thinkers and philosophers do – he devoted all of his energy to understanding how things actually work. (Fortunately, as Robert Thurman is fond of pointing out, the answer is good news. “Wouldn’t it have been a bummer if”, Thurman says, “after all that, the Buddha discovered that life really is pointless and miserable.”)

Recently I watched a video of an atheist talking about what he could and could not accept when it came to religion, theism in particular. I remember thinking how arrogant that is. The universe is the way it is, and it works the way it works, and like computers, it is completely uninterested in what we think about it.

What the Buddha taught is a repeatable experiment. He gave us a roadmap – the canon – and the destination – nirvana – and directions on how to drive (meditation). So we know where to go and we can develop the skills to make the journey. The precise route that we take and what that journey is going to be like will be uniquely individual. But no longer are we just wandering around the desert. We can see a way out.

But back to my original point. As you would expect, Buddhism in the West has gone through a number of phases. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of Westerners went to Asia and brought back what they brought back. This was a remarkable gift and took a great deal of courage. However, since then our understanding of the Buddhadharma has grown immensely. When Bhikkhu Bodhi (and Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) published the Majjhima Nikāya in 1995, it was the first time that English speaking people had access to really good translations of that book. We read about and heard about things that were never mentioned by those earlier teachers. One of the most prominent has been written about a lot here, and that is jhāna. Since 1995 there has been a lot of backtracking as teachers from the earlier era tried to reconcile what they were taught with what is in the canon. At times it has created something of a mess.

And – I suppose not unexpectedly – as a result there has been a lot of pseudo-scholarship. What I mean by that is teachers who take a single fact – out of context – and not only come to wrong conclusions about that fact, they use it as a way to solidify their status as superior and knowledgeable teachers. They point out something that “everyone knows” and then go on to point out why it is wrong.

The first time I ran into this was at a time when Ajahn Anālayo’s book Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization had become quite popular. The Satipatthana Sutta (The Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness) is one of the most important discourses of the Buddha.

There was an article written at the time that pointed out how over the centuries a lot of additional material was added to the Satipatthana Sutta. That was really all the article was about. The obvious implication was that the Satipatthana Sutta as it has come down to use is not authentic, and is therefore suspect.

But students of critical thinking will note that those two things are not necessarily connected. Because material was added to the Satipatthana Sutta, it does not necessarily follow that this invalidates the discourse.

If you study that sutta along with the rest of the Pali canon (!), as well as other versions of the Satipatthana Sutta (most especially the two Chinese versions of it), you can see two things. One is what parts of the sutta have (probably) been added in the Pali version, and that the additional material was brought in from other places in the Pali canon.

For example, it would appear from comparing the multiple versions of the sutta that in the fourth foundation of mindfulness – which is dharmas or phenomena – that originally there were only two components: the five hindrances and the seven factors of awakening. This is useful to know, at least for me. It greatly simplifies the sutta and makes it, I think, a little more understandable.

But to say that the other components in the Pali version – which are the aggregates of clinging, the sense bases, and the Four Noble Truths – are not teachings of the Buddha is absurd. And to further suggest that this invalidates the sutta is an indefensible leap in non-logic. We should simply be grateful that we have so much knowledge available to us that we can put everything into perspective.

(Note: The Pali canon, as I have pointed out before, has a problem in the modern context in that in the Buddha’s time, everything was memorized. Thus the discourses tend to be short so they can be remembered. The idea was that over time the monk or nun could piece them together in a coherent whole, like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. But nowhere does the Buddha give us a “top-down” outline. This is why, I think, these additions were made to the Satipatthana Sutta, to make it a more “complete” teaching.)

I heard another example of pseudo-scholarship recently. As I have written before, the Pali word sati – which we usually render as mindfulness – actually means – literally – to recollect or to remember. This had more meaning in India, where to know something is to have memorized it. It is an oral and not a written tradition. To this day in India Hindu priests memorize the Vedas, and school children spend their days memorizing and reciting long passages. At the time of the Buddha and for hundreds of years afterwards, sati meant a) learning the discourses and b) remembering what you learned through your own experience, most especially in your practice, and then – this is a Buddhist inflection – c) to bring that to bear in the present moment.

The word mindfulness has over the years come to be taught often as something more resembling attention. But the word attention in Pali is not sati but manasikāra. The Buddha often used the word sati in conjunction with other qualities. For example, in the Satipatthana Sutta he links sati with ardency and alertness:

“He abides contemplating mind as mind, ardent, alert, and mindful…” [MN 10.3]

This new understanding of the word sati has thus caused a lot of backtracking and pseudo-scholarship. Some years ago I heard a quite prominent teacher explain sati in this way: “The hard part in meditation is not in bringing our attention to the breath, it is in remembering to stay with it.”

This, of course, has nothing to do with the meaning of sati. But it was the best he could do after decades of describing sati as meaning attention, or more precisely, choiceless awareness.

And just recently I heard another teacher say that since sati really means to recollect or to remember that this renders the term mindfulness as inaccurate and – I am exaggerating here – somewhat useless. She then went on to say something about sati that did not make any sense to me at all. In fact later I was trying to reconstruct what she said and came up empty.

In fact, the rendering of sati as mindfulness is actually quite clever:

“When, in the nineteenth century, T. W. Rhys Davids encountered the word sati while translating DN 22 into English, he tried to find an English term that would convey this meaning of memory applied to purposeful activity in the present. Concluding that English didn’t have an adequate equivalent, he made up his own: mindfulness. This, of course, wasn’t a total invention. In fact, Rhys Davids’ choice was apparently inspired by the phrasing of the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others—i.e., to always keep their needs in mind. Rhys Davids simply turned the adjective into a noun. Although the term mindfulness has its origins in a Christian context, and although its meaning has ironically become so distorted over the past century, its original meaning serves so well in conveying the Buddhist sense of memory applied to the present that I will continue to use it to render sati for the remainder of this book. “ [Right Mindfulness – Thanissaro Bhikkhi]

Sadly, now it has become popular convention to dump all over poor T.W. Rhys-Davids for his quite creative and thoughtful translation.

(For those of you who have never heard of T.W. Rhys-Davids, he is a person of incalculable importance in Western Buddhist history. Among his many accomplishments are the founding of the Pali Text Society – PTS – in 1881 and the first Pali-English dictionary and the first English language versions of the Pali canon. His wife took over the PTS when he died in 1922.)

Thus as I think you can see, a partially understood “fact” is used as proof of “scholarship” and thus validates the teacher.

Over the years I have heard a lot of teachers say things that I did not think made any sense. (This happens in spades in Zen, where they like to not understand things and then use that as proof that they know something you don’t. If you can’t understand something it is simply proof that you are hung up on conceptual thinking.) We are often afraid to question deeply because this makes us look stupid. I used to work with an engineer who was not afraid to say he did not know something, and in fact he used the simplicity of his questions to show that people often did not know what they were talking about. “The quickest way to bring a meeting to a halt,” he would say, “Is to say you don’t understand something.”

The Dharma requires deep understanding, and that requires deep questioning, a deep sense of inquiry, and a deep devotion to discovering the truth about how things are.

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