Tag Archives: text criticism

The Ironic Assumptions of Gregory Schopen

Generations of schol­ars, from the in­cep­tion of the mod­ern study of Buddhism, have es­tab­lished a long-lasting and rel­a­tively sta­ble con­sen­sus re­gard­ing the texts and his­tory of early Buddhism. While in­evitably sub­ject to the usual kinds of un­cer­tainty, in­com­plete­ness, and evo­lu­tion, this con­sen­sus has pro­vided a frame­work for the pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment of our un­der­stand­ing of the Buddha, his teach­ings, and his com­mu­nity. This con­sen­sus has been chal­lenged by the promi­nent Amercian aca­d­e­mic, Gregory Schopen. His es­says have been the most in­flu­en­tial re­assess­ment in the his­tory of Buddhist stud­ies. Many of his ideas are re­garded as vir­tu­ally canon­i­cal in mod­ern acad­e­mia, and have per­me­ated far be­yond the nor­mal reach of Buddhist aca­d­e­mic work. However, his ar­gu­ments are far bet­ter re­garded among non-specialists than among those who ac­tu­ally study early Buddhism. This es­say shows a num­ber of flaws and prob­lems with Schopen’s work on early Buddhism, by im­pli­ca­tion sup­port­ing the tra­di­tional con­sen­sus.

Mahāsaṅghika—the Earliest Vinaya?

The search goes on for some­thing that we can iden­tify as the ear­li­est Vinaya, the prin­ci­ples of monas­tic con­duct that have set the stan­dard for Buddhist monas­tics from the Buddha un­til now. For schol­ars this is part of the enig­mat­i­cally mean­ing­ful need to search for the ori­gins of things. For my­self as a prac­tic­ing monk, […]

Why Devadatta Was No Saint

Devadatta is de­picted as the ar­che­typal vil­lain in all Buddhist tra­di­tions. Reginald Ray has ar­gued for a rad­i­cal re­assess­ment of Devadatta as a for­est saint who was un­fairly ma­ligned in later monas­tic Buddhism. His work has been in­flu­en­tial, but it re­lies on omis­sions and mis­taken read­ings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap be­tween the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devadatta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is un­true. On the con­trary, the man­ner in which Devadatta is de­picted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly sim­i­lar to the Sthavira ac­counts. Such dif­fer­ences as do ex­ist are lit­er­ary rather than doc­tri­nal. The sto­ries of Devadatta’s de­prav­ity be­came in­creas­ingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a nor­mal fea­ture of the mythol­o­giz­ing process, and has noth­ing to do with any an­tag­o­nism against for­est as­cetics. In any case, the early sources are unan­i­mous in con­demn­ing Devadatta as the in­sti­ga­tor of the first schism in the Buddhist com­mu­nity.

A Higher Criticism of Archeology

The foun­da­tions of mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of Buddhist his­tory have been chal­lenged by skep­ti­cal schol­ars like Gregory Schopen, who al­lege that the meth­ods of the ‘higher crit­i­cism’ are so du­bi­ous as to be worth­less. However, Schopen’s cri­tique badly mis­rep­re­sents how text cr­ti­cism has been used, and his in­flu­ence has led to a wor­ry­ing de­cline in schol­ar­ship of early Buddhism.