The Ironic Assumptions of Gregory Schopen


The meth­ods and assump­tions of Buddhist text-critical stud­ies have come under chal­lenge, indeed frontal assault, by the influ­en­tial aca­demic Gregory Schopen. His writ­ings are delib­er­ately pro­voc­at­ive and some­times bril­liant. His basic approach in under­stand­ing Indian Buddhism may be summed up as a change in method, lead­ing to dif­fer­ent results.

In method, he cri­ti­cizes the assump­tion of mod­ern schol­ars that the study of Buddhism may be equated with the study of its texts, and instead pro­poses that the archae­olo­gical evid­ence should be gran­ted pri­or­ity. I think all would agree that he has a point here, but it is not obvi­ous to me that pre­vi­ous schol­ars have been so neg­li­gent in this regard. As just one ran­dom example, Lamotte’s dis­cus­sion of King Milinda occu­pies about seven pages.1 The first three pages mainly sur­vey the evid­ences of the coins and other mater­ial evid­ence, summed up as ‘as few frag­ment­ary inscrip­tions’; the next three pages dis­cuss the Milindapañha, an import­ant work of the Middle Period pre­served in Chinese and Pali; and the final page men­tions a few ref­er­ences in later works. This seems reas­on­able to me; if any­thing I would have liked to see more dis­cus­sion of some of the philo­soph­ical points raised in the Milindapañha, whose stance tends to be inter­me­di­ate between the canon­ical doc­trines and the developed pos­i­tions of the schools.

As far as the res­ults of research are con­cerned, Schopen says that the record of the bones and stones depicts a very dif­fer­ent type of Buddhist mon­astic, one who is more worldly and human than the cari­ca­ture of the ascetic hero striv­ing for Nib­bana alone in the forest.

What Schopen gets right

Many of Schopen’s con­clu­sions, I think, are obvi­ously true. He is primar­ily inter­ested in the ‘Middle Period’ of Indian Buddhism, that is, the five hun­dred years or so from the begin­ning of the Com­mon Era. He uses the rem­nants of mon­as­ter­ies, stu­pas, graves, etc., together with Vinaya mater­ial, primar­ily from the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya in Tibetan (he makes little use of the Chinese sources), which he says stems from the same period and depicts much the same activ­ity. These sources speak to us of monks and nuns who accu­mu­late wealth, make sub­stan­tial dona­tions from their own wealth for build­ing pro­jects, pro­mote devo­tional activ­ity such as wor­ship of stu­pas, images, and rel­ics, are engaged in busi­ness trans­ac­tions, con­tracts, and lend­ing on interest, and are fre­quently at the beck and call of the lay fol­low­ers for per­form­ance of rituals such as wed­dings, house bless­ing, and so on. All of this pic­ture is quite con­vin­cing and needs little dis­cus­sion here.

But while it is obvi­ously true, I would also con­tend that it is truly obvi­ous. All the activ­it­ies that Schopen depicts may be plainly seen in the activ­it­ies of the major­ity of the ordained Sangha in all tra­di­tions in the present day. Schopen merely points out that these con­di­tions also obtained in the Middle Period of Indian Buddhism as well. While this may come as a sur­prise to aca­dem­ics with little con­tact with Buddhism in the real world, and con­sti­tutes an import­ant cri­tique of the fal­lacy of equat­ing Buddhism with the ideal­ized por­trait in the sac­red texts, it will come as no sur­prise for those of us who encounter Buddhism in the world every day.

Another of Schopen’s argu­ments that is well taken is that the aver­age monk or nun, not to speak of the lay fol­low­ers, may hardly even know of the scrip­tural texts. The scrip­tures may have only been known to a small elite of schol­ars, and the ideas therein might not be rep­res­ent­at­ive of the range of Buddhists. A few years ago I was stay­ing in a forest hut belong­ing to a devoted, intel­li­gent Thai Buddhist, who, when he was young, had been in robes for two and a half years. Once I vis­ited a local mon­as­tery and bor­rowed cop­ies of some of the Sut­tas. When I men­tioned it to my friend, he looked abso­lutely blank: he had never even heard the words ‘Majjhima Nikāya’ or ‘Dīgha Nikāya’. Again it seems plaus­ible that this situ­ation, observ­able today, could have obtained two thou­sand years ago in India. But the argu­ment should not be over­stated. The Buddhist scrip­tures are big works. They must have required a sub­stan­tial organ­iz­a­tion of monk-&-nun power to main­tain, whether in oral form or even in the later writ­ten form, and so a large num­ber of people must have known them. The num­ber of inscrip­tions from ancient India is only a few thou­sand, and so can only rep­res­ent a tiny frac­tion of scraps of ideas of all the Indian Buddhists. And those who are wealthy enough to donate reli­gious monu­ments are hardly likely to be rep­res­ent­at­ive of the full spec­trum of the Buddhist com­munity. Any­way, as Schopen emphas­izes, many of the donors are monks and nuns (accord­ing to Schopen, most of the donors are mon­astic, and in the Middle period, about half the mon­ast­ics are nuns) who state that they are versed in the ‘Sut­tas’ or ‘Vinaya’ or ‘Tripiṭaka’ or ‘Nikāyas’; in other words, they are the same people as those who passed down the scriptures.

Prot­est­ant Buddhism’ and subjectivity

Schopen is scath­ing in his assess­ment of the ‘assump­tions’ made by vari­ous Buddhist schol­ars. He char­ac­ter­izes the work of early, Vic­torian, schol­ars such as Olden­berg and Rhys Dav­ids as ‘prot­est­ant’, and sug­gests that they have read their own biases into the Buddhist texts, depict­ing the Buddha and his Sangha much like rational, cul­tured European gentlemen.

This, too, is true, but it is hardly a valid cri­ti­cism. Any­one famil­iar with Buddhist thought should accept that our under­stand­ing is always col­oured by our beliefs and val­ues. Fine, let’s point this out—but let’s not assume that we are an excep­tion. I am a forest monk, and I believe that the Buddha and his early gen­er­a­tions of ordained dis­ciples were also forest monks and nuns. So when I look at the her­it­age of Buddhism, I nat­ur­ally focus on this aspect.

Gregory Schopen is a highly paid aca­demic from an over­whelm­ingly mater­i­al­istic soci­ety, and so when he looks at the her­it­age of Buddhism he sees money, rocks, and mater­ial remains. When he does look at the texts—as any scholar, whatever their beliefs, must even­tu­ally do, for the inform­a­tion con­tained in the inscrip­tions is scanty—he focuses on the Vinayas, since they deal most dir­ectly with the mater­ial aspects of mon­astic life—buildings, etc. But the Vinayas them­selves rep­res­ent a move­ment from the spir­itual to the material—they are about what monks and nuns do when they mis­be­have, and so taken by them­selves they are mis­lead­ing. We would not expect to gain an accur­ate vis­ion of how an ordin­ary per­son leads their daily life today by read­ing law books.

Schopen con­trasts the wealthy, developed mon­as­ter­ies with the poor, simple vil­lages nearby. His agenda is, in the broad­est sense, Marx­ist. I do not mean that in the slight­est pejor­at­ive sense—I think it’s sweet that he ded­ic­ates his books to the ‘work­ing men and women’ whose ‘labor paid for my schol­arly leis­ure’. But he has little interest in the spir­itual aspect of Buddhism, which puts him in a minor­ity of those, at any time, who wish to learn the Dhamma.

It should be obvi­ous that Schopen’s assump­tions influ­ence his con­clu­sions, just as the assump­tions of earlier schol­ars influ­ence their con­clu­sions. Whole­some states of mind leave no scar on the rocks. Med­it­a­tion attain­ments are air­ily eph­em­eral. Insights into real­ity hap­pen in the wispy world of the mind. If we were to accept Schopen’s meth­ods uncon­di­tion­ally, we would have to aban­don the very reason that most of us became inter­ested in Buddhism. There would be no more reason to study ancient India than any other ancient cul­ture. This may not be a prob­lem for Schopen, but it is a big one for most stu­dents of Buddhism.

My primary interest is in spir­itual prac­tice, and my interest in the Āgama Sut­tas stems from this: they describe a spir­itual prac­tice that I find inspir­ing, prac­tical, and pro­found. I have tried, to my lim­ited best, to live up to the ideals taught in that lit­er­at­ure, and have invari­ably found that, when prob­lems arise, they are due to my own inad­equa­cies, not those of the teach­ings. I have also had close con­tact with a num­ber of human beings whose inner radi­ance test­i­fied to the power of the Dhamma when lived to its fullest. Since this tra­di­tion that I belong to claims to stem from a genu­ine his­tor­ical indi­vidual called the Buddha, it is import­ant to invest­ig­ate what truth there might be to this claim.

On the rhet­oric of dates

Schopen’s work con­tains much that is inter­est­ing and inform­at­ive, but little that could be called inspir­ing. His writ­ing is char­ac­ter­ized by wit, scan­dal, and good yarns. Unfor­tu­nately, it is not always char­ac­ter­ized by con­sist­ency, and we should exam­ine some of his frac­ture lines. He rests his argu­ments heav­ily on the author­ity of the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya, a text he cheer­fully admits to not hav­ing fully read. This Vinaya is ‘mon­strous’ in size, per­haps 4000 folios in the Tibetan, and most schol­ars have taken it to be late, per­haps 500 CE. Schopen would like to see this Vinaya dated earlier, around the begin­ning of the Com­mon Era. On the other hand, the Theravāda Vinaya has been taken by most schol­ars to be early, but Schopen would also like to date that around the begin­ning of the Com­mon Era. Thus the battle-lines are drawn. Schopen says that the dis­cus­sion of the date of the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya has been:

… badly mis­dir­ec­ted by a very red her­ring and the inat­ten­tion of those who are sup­posed to be fol­low­ing the trail. In 1958 the great Bel­gian scholar Etienne Lamotte declared that this Vinaya, or code, was late, that “one can­not attrib­ute to this work a date earlier than the 4th5th cen­tur­ies of the Chris­tian Era.” This pronouncement—even at its incep­tion based on very shaky grounds—still proved almost fatal, for Lamotte was forced by his own fur­ther work to change his position—and he did so sev­eral times—but few schol­ars seem to have noticed. By 1966, Lamotte was in fact refer­ring to the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya as a source of inform­a­tion for the first or second cen­tury of our era. Iron­ic­ally, other schol­ars then, and for a long time after, con­tin­ued to quote only the Lamotte of 1958.’2

I must also con­fess inat­ten­tion, for I have not fol­lowed the trail of Lamotte’s argu­ments and so must declare my incom­pet­ence to pro­nounce on the date of the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya. It might be noticed in passing, though, that the two pos­i­tions ascribed to Lamotte in this pas­sage are not neces­sar­ily con­tra­dict­ory. Given the evid­ently long period it would take to com­pile a vast com­pen­dium like the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya, it is not unreas­on­able to main­tain that the final redac­tion was in the 4th5th cen­tur­ies C.E., but that it con­tains mater­ial inher­ited from a much earlier time. In fact, some­thing of this sort could be said for almost all Buddhist lit­er­at­ure. This is a phe­nomenon known as ‘intra­tex­tu­al­ity’, the ongo­ing life of a given text through a par­tic­u­lar stream of tra­di­tion, which reflects the con­ser­vat­ive nature of reli­gious lit­er­at­ure: the redact­ors val­ued ancient author­ity over cre­at­ive expres­sion and thus ten­ded to work with mater­ial already to hand rather than invent­ing new mater­ial.3 In any case, there is noth­ing ‘iron­ical’ in the fail­ure of some writers to notice Lamotte’s change of views: if schol­ars con­tinue to quote from earlier, dis­cred­ited the­or­ies this is a mis­take, not an irony.

An example of true irony could be bet­ter seen from Schopen’s own work. In the same book as the above quote, he says this:

… this lit­er­at­ure, the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya, is itself con­sidered by many to be late—Lamotte, for example, thinks it is the latest of the vinayas and says “we can­not attrib­ute to this work a date earlier than the fourth–fifth cen­tur­ies of the Chris­tian Era” …’4

Note that here Schopen says that Lamotte ‘thinks’ (present tense), thus pre­clud­ing any later change of mind. This clanger needs little com­ment, apart from remind­ing us that Schopen, like the rest of us, is some­times guilty of see­ing what he wants to see.

While I am not com­pet­ent to date the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya, I must say that the pas­sages quoted by Schopen him­self fre­quently give me the impres­sion of late­ness. The elab­or­ate­ness of the text may be partly explained, as Schopen argues, by cul­tural or other factors rather than by date, but the examples he gives fall well short of estab­lish­ing this. As for spe­cif­ics, we notice that the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya fre­quently men­tions books and writ­ing, while the Theravāda Vinaya men­tions them rarely. This was one of the clas­sic reas­ons the early European Buddhist schol­ars con­cluded (not ‘assumed’) the Theravāda was earlier, and as far as I can see the argu­ment still holds good. Sim­ilar con­sid­er­a­tions apply when we see that the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya refers to wor­ship of Shiva and Vishnu, while, as is well known, these deit­ies are vir­tu­ally unknown in the Theravāda canon. Schopen also argues that the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya evid­ences the influ­ence of the Hindu Dharmaśāstras (legal codes), while the Theravāda does not. He says that this may be explained by the lack of influ­ence of the Dharmaśāstras in Sri Lanka, and is there­fore evid­ence that the Theravāda Vinaya was com­posed in Sri Lanka. While I agree, for other reas­ons, that the Theravāda Vinaya shows some minor Sri Lankan influ­ence, I don’t think this par­tic­u­lar argu­ment is very con­vin­cing. The Dharmaśāstras them­selves evid­ently date from well after the Buddha’s time, and the situ­ation might as well or bet­ter be explained by the simple hypo­thesis that most of the mater­ial in the Pali was com­posed in India before the Dharmaśāstras became influ­en­tial, and, because of the unim­port­ance of the Dharmaśāstras in Sri Lankan cul­ture, the Theravāda Vinaya did not have to be extens­ively revised.

Another tar­get of Schopen’s cri­tique is the vague­ness or ambi­gu­ity of some Vinaya rules, which he sug­gests may have been delib­er­ate.5 It seems that the poor old Vinaya just can’t win: if it is defin­it­ive, it is rigid, and if it is flex­ible it is dec­ad­ent. Again we might com­pare this with one of Schopen’s own little ‘ironies’:

In most cases, we can place the Vinayas we have securely in time: the Sar­vāstivāda Vinaya that we know was trans­lated was trans­lated into Chinese at the begin­ning of the fifth cen­tury (404405 CE). So were the Vinayas of the Dharmagup­ta­kas (408), the Mahīśā­sa­kas (423424), and the Mahāsaṅghi­kas (416). The Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya was trans­lated into both Chinese and Tibetan still later, and the actual con­tents of the Pali Vinaya are only know­able from Buddhaghosa’s fifth cen­tury com­ment­ar­ies.’6

Does this remark­able asser­tion assume that the date of a text may be determ­ined by know­ing the date of its trans­la­tion or com­ment­ary? That would cer­tainly solve a lot of prob­lems: I have beside me a trans­la­tion of the Saṁy­utta Nikāya dated 2000 CE, so we can place that ‘securely in time’. Of course, the phrase is so vague—deliberately?—that Schopen escapes actu­ally assert­ing that the dates of com­pos­i­tion of the Vinayas may be determ­ined from their trans­la­tion or com­ment­ary. If that was the case, how­ever, we would have to con­clude, con­trary to Schopen’s pos­i­tion, that the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya was later than the oth­ers, for its trans­la­tion was later. Regard­ing the Theravāda Vinaya, it has been accep­ted, so far as I know, by all the schol­ars who have looked into the mat­ter that Buddhaghosa was primar­ily a trans­lator and editor, who worked with mater­ial stem­ming from a much older time, no later than 100200 CE. If the com­ment­arial mater­ial dates from then, the Vinaya itself must be con­sid­er­ably earlier.7

What makes a monastery?

An import­ant part of Schopen’s argu­ment is that there is little or no early—pre-Common Era—evidence for Buddhist mon­as­ter­ies of the developed sort that are depic­ted in the Vinayas. This is, for him, a sign that the Vinayas were com­piled in the ‘Middle Period’. He notes that the words vihāra and āvāsa, which are com­monly used of mon­as­ter­ies, really mean little more than ‘dwell­ing’, and give us little inform­a­tion about what kind of insti­tu­tion is being dis­cussed.8

How­ever he neg­lects to notice that the main terms used of a mon­as­tery in the Pali Sut­tas are vana (wood­land grove) and ārāma (park); the fact that they are used together in the name of the most fam­ous mon­as­tery of all (‘Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park’) sug­gests that they may be syn­onyms. These, of course, have a much more spe­cific meaning—evidently the main form of Buddhist mon­ast­i­cism in the Sut­tas was the forest monastery.

Even today, the typ­ical forest mon­as­tery con­sists of small huts or caves scattered through the forest, with a lar­ger wooden sala for com­munal activ­it­ies, and some build­ings for stores, kit­chen, etc. Such an insti­tu­tion would leave little or no evid­ence for an archae­olo­gist to uncover.

Schopen does not con­sider the pos­sib­il­ity of a ‘middle way’ between the large, insti­tu­tion­al­ized vihāras that are such a fea­ture of the archae­olo­gical record of Buddhism, and the life of the lonely sage in the forest. It would seem that the forest mon­as­tery offers such a ‘middle way’. Forest mon­as­ter­ies can evolve to a high degree of soph­ist­ic­a­tion in their internal organ­iz­a­tion, such as is described in the Vinayas, and usu­ally have a high regard for authen­tic prac­tice of the Vinaya. They often do not engage in large build­ing pro­jects, not because they do not have the resources or the know-how—forest monks are often more edu­cated and bet­ter sup­por­ted than the city monks—but because they want to live simply.

This is just a sug­ges­tion, and more care­ful work on the Vinayas—including the Chinese—has to be done to see if this sug­ges­tion has any cogence. It is obvi­ously tenu­ous to draw such par­al­lels between Buddhist prac­tice in such far-distant times and places. But Schopen him­self draws many instruct­ive par­al­lels between prac­tice in Buddhist and Chris­tian mon­ast­i­cism, which would seem to be no less dis­tant. And as I have noted above, many of Schopen’s more accept­able find­ings do find clear par­al­lels in con­tem­por­ary Buddhism.

Schopen dis­misses the ‘per­ish­able mater­i­als’ argu­ment for the lack of early mon­as­ter­ies, say­ing that the earli­est archae­olo­gical evid­ence we do pos­sess shows us a mon­as­tery in the time of Asoka that is ‘poor and unim­press­ive’, ‘crudely made of “rubble”.’9 He asserts that: ‘the earli­est extant remains of mon­astic res­id­en­tial archi­tec­ture, like the earli­est cult images in stone, show a tra­di­tion still strug­gling, in this case towards order, still lack­ing a sense of func­tional organ­iz­a­tion and struc­tured use of space. Such a tradition—again like that which pro­duced the early extant cult images—does not sug­gest a long period of devel­op­ment or dir­ec­ted exper­i­ment­a­tion in wood or other per­ish­able mater­i­als pre­ced­ing it.’10

But this argu­ment is also cir­cum­ven­ted by the forest mon­as­tery hypothesis—when liv­ing in widely scattered dwell­ings in the forest it is not neces­sary to develop such a struc­tured sense of space. What seems to be hap­pen­ing here is that the mon­ast­ics are, for the first time, liv­ing in close prox­im­ity. This might be due to a num­ber of factors—perhaps there were too many Buddhist mon­ast­ics in that period. But some of the early sites men­tioned by Schopen also share another sig­ni­fic­ant fea­ture: the mon­astic dwell­ings are near a stupa. This might sug­gest that these are the first mon­as­ter­ies for whom the devo­tional prac­tices described by Schopen are becom­ing important.

What is per­haps more rel­ev­ant for our cur­rent pur­poses, how­ever, is that this argu­ment exposes yet another of Schopen’s ‘iron­ies’. He assumes that the emer­gence of soph­ist­ic­ated archi­tec­ture or fine arts requires a sub­stan­tial prior period of development—a most reas­on­able assump­tion. But is not the same the case in lit­er­at­ure? Schopen wants to put very soph­ist­ic­ated lit­er­ary tracts like the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya in the early Middle Period. But surely such works must have required a lengthy evol­u­tion. Sim­il­arly, we know for cer­tain (from the dates recor­ded for the Chinese trans­la­tions) that the earli­est Mahāyāna Sūtras date from no later than the begin­ning of the Com­mon Era. These too are soph­ist­ic­ated lit­er­ary and philo­soph­ical products, which are, to a large degree, a crit­ical response to some aspects of the early schools, espe­cially the (Sar­vāstivāda) Abhid­hamma philo­sophy, and also to such mon­astic prac­tices as are detailed in the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya, as Schopen him­self argues.11 The Abhid­hamma texts them­selves are soph­ist­ic­ated lit­er­ary works that are in turn based on the mater­ial found in the early Sut­tas. So the early Sutta material—not neces­sar­ily the exact col­lec­tions in the form we have them today, but the main doc­trinal material—must be sev­eral philo­soph­ical gen­er­a­tions before the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Again, this con­clu­sion, not ‘assump­tion’, was one of the clas­sical reas­ons for assign­ing a rel­at­ively early date to the Nikāyas/Āgamas, and noth­ing Schopen says really affects this.

Schopen tries to show that the forest mon­astic life was little dif­fer­ent from settled mon­astic life in gen­eral. He does this by quot­ing a pas­sage from the Vinaya that describes the lovely, lux­uri­ous forest dwell­ing of a cer­tain Ven­er­able Udāyin, where many people would go to visit him. Schopen says that this is appar­ently how the com­pilers of the Pali Vinaya saw the forest life.12 Incred­ibly, he makes no men­tion of the fact, known to every Grade 1 Vinaya stu­dent, that Udāyin is the archetypal ‘bad monk’, whose appalling beha­viour promp­ted the for­mu­la­tion of many Vinaya rules. On this occa­sion, Udāyin gropes and sexu­ally har­asses a woman who comes to visit him, prompt­ing the lay­ing down of yet another rule on his behalf. This part of the story, how­ever, is dis­creetly omit­ted by Schopen as he tries to depict Udāyin as a reg­u­lar forest monk.

Sort­ing out the relics

While it is obvi­ous that the cult of rel­ics and so on played a large part in Buddhist prac­tice from the Middle Period, Schopen wants to dis­credit the received opin­ion that the early texts, and hence early Buddhism, do not include the relic cult. He ends up clutch­ing at some embar­rass­ingly flimsy straws.

For example, he points to a pas­sage in the Satipaṭṭhāna-saṁyutta where the novice Cunda, after the passing away of Ven­er­able Sāri­putta, takes his bowl and robes and goes to tell Ven­er­able Ānanda.13 Schopen says that the PTS edi­tion (which I do not have) has a vari­ant read­ing from a Burmese edi­tion that includes the phrase dhātu­parib­hāvana.14 Schopen admits that the mean­ing is obscure, but it ‘almost cer­tainly con­tains a ref­er­ence to rel­ics’. This is dubi­ous, for dhātu rarely if ever means ‘relic’ in this strata of lit­er­at­ure. The VRI CD that I am using does not have dhātu­parib­hāvana, so it seems that this read­ing does not rep­res­ent the main­stream Burmese tra­di­tion. Thus far Schopen’s argu­ment is flimsy, but not neces­sar­ily wrong. But then he goes on to say that the com­ment­ary appears to have a ref­er­ence to rel­ics, since it includes the term dhātu­paris­sāvaṇa. Paris­sāvaṇa means ‘water strainer’, and dhātu here means ‘rel­ics’, though the com­pound ‘relics-&-water strainer’ does seem a little odd.

Any­way, the mat­ter is cla­ri­fied by the very next sen­tence of the com­ment­ary, which is ignored by Schopen. This says: ‘But in the text (pāḷī) it just says “Here are his bowl and robes”.’ In other words, the com­ment­ary expli­citly states that the ori­ginal text did not men­tion any­thing other than the bowl and robes. Thus it seems almost cer­tain that parib­hāvana was not in the ori­ginal text; it was prob­ably read back into the text by garb­ling the com­ment­ary (by a monk whose read­ing rivals Schopen in carelessness).

Schopen does not refer to the Chinese par­al­lel, which is very close to the Pali, and which sim­il­arly men­tions just the bowl and robes. He says that the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya ver­sion of the incid­ent does refer to rel­ics, although he admits that the phrase is not a cog­nate of either of the Pali terms with dhātu in them. This makes it seem like an inde­pend­ent later devel­op­ment, not a com­mon inheritance.

Schopen is right on the mark when he says that ‘this will require fur­ther study to sort out’. It has now been sor­ted out. Rather than being ‘vir­tu­ally cer­tain’ that the Pali here has suffered loss—or as Schopen insinu­ates, delib­er­ate suppression—it is abso­lutely cer­tain the Pali and the Chinese and the Theravāda com­ment­ary all agree that the ori­ginal account of Sāriputta’s death does not men­tion rel­ics. Much later the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya and per­haps the Pali com­ment­ar­ies added the men­tion of rel­ics. Thus this con­text, as with many oth­ers, sug­gests that the Mulas­ar­vāstivādin Vinaya has more in com­mon with the Theravādin com­ment­ar­ies than with the canon.

An infu­sion of Dhamma

Schopen’s work offers us fur­ther les­sons in ‘irony’ in the dis­cus­sion of the term parib­hāvita.15 He shows that sev­eral inscrip­tions and late tex­tual sources describe the rel­ics of the Buddha as being ‘infused’ or ‘per­meated’ (parib­hāvita) with such qual­it­ies as eth­ics, samadhi, under­stand­ing, and release. This sug­gests a quasi-magical con­cep­tion of rel­ics in this period. Schopen dis­cusses the term in some detail and offers sev­eral ref­er­ences from the Pali canon show­ing a nat­ur­al­istic usage of the term, for example a chicken sit­ting on eggs and ‘imbuing’ them with warmth. But, incred­ibly, he avoids all men­tion of the most well known occur­rence of the term: the fre­quently repeated state­ment of the Buddha in the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta:

Samadhi imbued with eth­ics is of great fruit, great bene­fit; under­stand­ing imbued with samadhi is of great fruit, great bene­fit; the mind imbued with under­stand­ing is rightly released from defile­ments.’16

Not only does the term parib­hāvita appear repeatedly, but it does so spe­cific­ally describ­ing a list of dham­mas sim­ilar or identical to those repeatedly men­tioned in the inscrip­tions quoted by Schopen.

The implic­a­tions of this are slightly wor­ry­ing. Schopen has built a suc­cess­ful career largely on his pion­eer­ing research into the nature of the cults of the stupa and rel­ics in Indian Buddhism. The prime canon­ical ref­er­ence for these prac­tices is the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta, which describes the dis­tri­bu­tion of the Buddha’s rel­ics. One of the most fam­ous and prom­in­ent pas­sages in this text repeatedly uses the term parib­hāvita in con­nec­tion with eth­ics, samadhi, under­stand­ing, and release. Schopen dis­cusses at length the use of parib­hāvita in inscrip­tions to describe rel­ics that are imbued with eth­ics, samadhi, under­stand­ing, and release. He gives sev­eral ref­er­ences to unre­lated uses of the term in the Pali canon, but avoids all men­tion of the usage in the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta.

What is going on? Has Schopen not even read the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta, the main source text in his own spe­cial field? Or might we con­spir­at­ori­ally won­der whether Schopen has delib­er­ately sup­pressed the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta ref­er­ence (just as Schopen alleges the redact­ors of the Pali canon sup­pressed men­tion of rel­ics and stupas)?

Once the con­nec­tion with the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta is noticed, it is obvi­ous that the inscrip­tions are, in fact, quot­ing from or refer­ring to this spe­cific text. Note that the pas­sage on eth­ics, samadhi, under­stand­ing, and release in itself has no con­nec­tion with the relic cult. If it exis­ted as an isol­ated frag­ment or in another con­text there would be no reason to asso­ci­ate this pas­sage with rel­ics. Only when taken as part of the over­all nar­rat­ive of the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta would it be pos­sible to form an asso­ci­ation between the pas­sage and the Buddha’s relics.

To be sure, the implic­a­tions of the usage in the inscrip­tions is rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent from that in the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta. In the dis­course it describes spir­itual qual­it­ies to be developed by a liv­ing per­son, whereas in the inscrip­tions it seems to mean the magical infu­sion of rel­ics with mys­tic power. This obvi­ously sug­gests that the earlier, rational, psy­cho­lo­gical teach­ing has been altered—dare I say ‘corrupted’?—by magical con­cep­tions. This is a straight­for­ward read­ing from the evid­ence, not an impos­i­tion of ‘prot­est­ant pre­sup­pos­i­tions’. Of course, this con­clu­sion would be impal­at­able to Schopen, because it would sug­gest, firstly, that the dis­courses, or at least the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta, were actu­ally known to a vari­ety of Indian Buddhists and influ­enced their beliefs; and secondly that the pic­ture he paints of the Middle Period is rep­res­ent­at­ive of Buddhism in its dec­ad­ent, mater­i­al­istic phase, rather than the psy­cho­lo­gical spir­itu­al­ity of the early teachings.

Schopen’s key inscrip­tional and tex­tual sources for this quasi-magical use of parib­hāvita are dated to around the first cen­tury of the Com­mon Era. By this time, the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta must have been com­posed, and already be well-known and influ­en­tial. This must have happened long enough for some of the cent­ral mes­sages to be rad­ic­ally rein­ter­preted, and for these rein­ter­pret­a­tions to have gained wide cur­rency. The Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta evid­ences later elab­or­a­tion, and, des­pite the fact that sev­eral sec­tarian ver­sions are known, most schol­ars do not place it among the earli­est strata of the Sut­tas. So if the Mahā Par­in­ib­bāna Sutta was in exist­ence sig­ni­fic­antly before the Middle Period, many other dis­courses must be even earlier. So we must be grate­ful to Schopen for, yet again, inad­vert­ently offer­ing us another proof of the exist­ence of the early Sut­tas well before the Middle Period.

Rocks are not facts

Schopen’s fail­ure to notice this stems from his wil­ful enslave­ment to his own meth­od­o­lo­gical pre­sup­pos­i­tions. He has a reli­gious faith in ‘hard facts’, things that ‘actu­ally’ exist in stone and bone. As nor­mal, when a par­tic­u­lar means of know­ledge is given abso­lute pri­or­ity in this way, it leads to philo­soph­ical dis­tor­tions and a blind­ness to the broader per­spect­ive. Schopen cas­tig­ates those who would render archae­olo­gical evid­ence sub­ject to texts, since archae­olo­gical evid­ence can be loc­ated in place and time, and rep­res­ents what was said by ‘actual’ people (as if those who wrote the texts were not ‘actual’ people).

One of his per­vas­ive unex­amined assump­tions is the reli­ab­il­ity of archae­olo­gical evid­ence. I am no expert, but it does seem to me that archae­olo­gists, like those in any field of sci­ence, are engaged in push­ing back the fron­ti­ers of know­ledge, and to do so must rely on some­times tenu­ous infer­ences. Schopen remarks sev­eral times that the sites he is refer­ring to have not been fully excav­ated, or were poorly repor­ted, or that there is uncer­tainty as to dat­ing. There is no reason why the infer­ences derived from such meth­ods are more reli­able than those derived from tex­tual sources.

Just one example will suf­fice here. Schopen quotes an inscrip­tion that refers to the set­ting up of an image of the ‘Blessed Lord, the Buddha amitābha’ (bhagavato buddha amitābhasya).17 He says that this is the only inscrip­tional ref­er­ence to Amit­abha in India, and con­sti­tutes one of the few ‘hard facts’ we know about his cult in India.

The inscrip­tion is inter­est­ing, and it is use­ful that Schopen brought it to light. But what does it mean? The inscrip­tion says an image was set up by a cer­tain Nāgarakṣita or Sām­rakṣita, who wishes that ‘by this skil­ful root may all beings attain unex­celled know­ledge’. Such ref­er­ences to ‘all beings’ and ‘unex­celled know­ledge’ are typ­ical of Mahāyān­ist inscrip­tions; but the present inscrip­tion is very early, appar­ently 200 years prior to the wide­spread appear­ance of Mahāyān­ist inscriptions.

Schopen assumes that amitābha refers to the Buddha of that name in the well-known Sūtras so pop­u­lar in China. Thus, as usual, he is unable to say any­thing mean­ing­ful about the inscrip­tion without the con­text provided by the texts.

His assump­tion is reas­on­able, but is not neces­sar­ily true. ‘Amit­abha’ means ‘infin­ite light’, and is vir­tu­ally identical with a word used in the Pali tra­di­tion to describe an order of deit­ies: appamāṇābhā devā, the ‘deit­ies of meas­ure­less light’. It is pos­sible that amitābha was used of cer­tain deit­ies, and from there became an epi­thet of the his­tor­ical Buddha, and only later the human and divine ele­ments were fused into ‘Amit­abha Buddha’. In other words, the inscrip­tion might not be a ref­er­ence to ‘the’ Amit­abha, but might simply be a descript­ive epi­thet of Śakyamuni, rep­res­ent­ing a stage in the devel­op­ment towards Mahāyāna ideas.

I am not arguing that this is in fact the case, but am merely point­ing out that, in the absence of con­text, it is impossible to know which inter­pret­a­tion is cor­rect. Any mean­ing­ful state­ment on the mat­ter must be based on an infer­ence, on what we think is the more reas­on­able inter­pret­a­tion, not on the ‘hard facts’.

I beg leave here to give an example from my own exper­i­ence. Once I was stay­ing at a forest mon­as­tery where the prac­tice was to inter the cremated remains of the mon­as­tery sup­port­ers in the mon­as­tery wall. A hole was made in the wall, and with a simple cere­mony, the ashes were placed in and covered with a brass plaque. Someone, per­haps an archae­olo­gist of Schopenesque bent, might come at some time later and notice a pecu­liar fea­ture of the plaques. In a cer­tain sec­tion, that closest to the entrance and dated earli­est, the plaques say ‘Rest in Peace’, a typ­ic­ally Chris­tian say­ing. The later plaques, how­ever, say ‘May she attain Nib­bana’, which is obvi­ously Buddhist. What is going on? Did the mon­as­tery change from Chris­tian to Buddhist? Is this evid­ence of an obscure sect of anti­podean ‘Buddho-Christians’? Might we sus­pect dark­ling intrigue, a hid­den tussle for power between two opposed groups of monks, vying for the funds from the dif­fer­ent reli­gious communities?

Hap­pily, I was there at the time, and can answer ‘none of the above’. These plaques were ordered from a shop whose nor­mal busi­ness, this being in a pre­dom­in­ately Chris­tian coun­try, was to make plaques for Chris­tian buri­als. So they came with a typ­ic­ally Chris­tian burial slo­gan. The monks simply didn’t give the mat­ter any thought, until it was poin­ted out that a Buddhist say­ing would be more appro­pri­ate, and so one was inven­ted. That’s all there was to it.

Incid­ent­ally, we did not really believe that say­ing ‘May she attain Nib­bana’ on the burial plaque would really help the lady con­cerned to attain Nib­bana; it just seemed like a nice sentiment.

Now com­pare this con­crete, date­able, place­able, ‘actual’ evid­ence with, say, some of my own essays that are avail­able on the inter­net. They have no date, no place, no con­crete exist­ence at all. Yet I regard them as a more reli­able and accur­ate guide to my beliefs and prac­tices than those mes­sages on the plaques at the mon­as­tery where I stayed.

Were the texts stand­ard­ized later?

Schopen dis­misses the idea that shared pas­sages in a text are evid­ence of early, pre-sectarian mater­ial. He prefers the hypo­thesis that shared mater­ial is evid­ence for later shar­ing, lev­el­ling and stand­ard­iz­ing of mater­ial. Thus he appar­ently believes that when the Buddhist mon­ast­ics lived in close prox­im­ity in the Ganges val­ley, speak­ing a com­mon lan­guage, and regard­ing each other as being all of one com­munity, they developed dif­fer­ent diver­ging scrip­tures, but when they were spread widely over ‘greater India’, speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages, and regard­ing each other as belong­ing to dif­fer­ent com­munit­ies, they ‘lev­elled’ and ‘stand­ard­ized’ their scrip­tures. This is not inher­ently plaus­ible, or even vaguely rational. He has no real evid­ence for this from the Indic con­text, and so attempts to jus­tify it with ref­er­ence to Chris­tian his­tory; but the Bible is accep­ted with slight vari­ations as canon­ical by all Chris­ti­ans, whereas the writ­ings of later theo­lo­gians and teach­ers are accep­ted only by cer­tain denom­in­a­tions and are rejec­ted by others.

It is as if we were to come across people liv­ing in two neigh­bour­ing vil­lages, each speak­ing a slightly dif­fer­ent dia­lect, with cus­toms, beliefs, life­style, and phys­ical appear­ance that were sim­ilar, and a shared myth that asser­ted that they sprang from the same ori­gins. Schopen would point out that there is no ‘hard evid­ence’ that they ‘actu­ally’ share a com­mon ances­try. The ‘actual’ situ­ation is that there are two dif­fer­ent vil­lages, with diver­gent lan­guages, beliefs and so on. Any ‘assump­tion’ that the observ­able sim­il­ar­it­ies derive from a com­mon ances­try is sheer spec­u­la­tion. After all, there is plenty of evid­ence that cul­tures tend to homo­gen­ize, to move away from diversity towards sim­il­ar­ity. The only reas­on­able explan­a­tion would seem to be that here we have two dif­fer­ent peoples, and the sim­il­ar­it­ies in their cul­tures and phys­ical appear­ance is evid­ence of cul­tural inter­change and inter­mar­riage between two ori­gin­ally dis­par­ate com­munit­ies. This descrip­tion might sound like a cari­ca­ture of Schopen’s ideas, but I hon­estly believe it is not.

One of Schopen’s main argu­ments in favour of his ‘later bor­row­ing’ thesis is the story of the stupa for Kas­sapa Buddha at Toyika. Wynne has shown that this argu­ment is deeply flawed. Schopen com­pares vari­ous ver­sions of the same story, but con­veni­ently con­fines to a foot­note the fact that, while the other ver­sions occur in the Vinayas, the Theravāda ver­sion is found in the Dhammapāda com­ment­ary. This turns out to be yet another piece of evid­ence that the Theravāda ten­ded to close their canon early, pla­cing later mater­ial in their commentaries.

Not only is this a fatal error in one of Schopen’s key argu­ments, but it is, as Wynne points out, a mis­rep­res­ent­a­tion of the meth­ods of the ‘higher cri­ti­cism’ that Schopen is so dis­missive of. Nor­mally schol­ars will take the con­gru­ence of the canon­ical, not the com­ment­arial, lit­er­at­ure as evid­ence of pre-sectarian remnants.

This is not the only place that Schopen mis­rep­res­ents his oppon­ents. He asserts, for example, that the ‘car­dinal tenet of this cri­ti­cism states, in effect, that if all known sec­tarian ver­sions of a text or pas­sage agree, that text or pas­sage must be very old; that is, it must come from a pre­sec­tarian stage of the tra­di­tion.’18 The repeated use of ‘must’ is highly mis­lead­ing. The shar­ing of mater­ial is only one of many inde­pend­ent cri­teria that are reg­u­larly employed to sup­port and check each other. I do not know of any scholar who would make the blanket asser­tion that shared mater­ial ‘must’ be earlier. It is no more than a reas­on­able hypo­thesis that forms a basis for fur­ther research.

In addi­tion, this descrip­tion is by no means the ‘car­dinal tenet’ of tex­tual cri­ti­cism. In fact, the found­a­tions for mod­ern Indo­logy were laid by 19th cen­tury schol­ars such as T. W. Rhys Dav­ids and Her­mann Olden­burg. At that time there was almost no know­ledge of Chinese or Sanskrit texts, and so the com­par­at­ive method of com­par­at­ive not used at all. Rather, those schol­ars relied on lin­guist­ics, the internal evid­ence of the Pali texts, broader know­ledge of Indian his­tory, and archaeology.


Com­pared with the situ­ation in Bible stud­ies, the quant­ity of Buddhist lit­er­at­ure is so vast, the sub­ject mat­ter so obscure, and the amount of ser­i­ous research so small, that it is pre­ma­ture to dis­card any meth­od­o­logy. While the early schol­ars may not have given due weight to the archae­olo­gical evid­ence, they must be for­given, in con­sid­er­a­tion of the sheer time and effort it takes to learn the Buddhist lan­guages and read the texts. They have at least given us a reas­on­ably coher­ent and sat­is­fy­ing work­ing model of Indian Buddhism. If we were to accept Schopen in his more rad­ical moods we would be rendered incap­able of say­ing any­thing about the Buddha or his teach­ings, and would be left with no idea as to why there were, in the later peri­ods, such widely spread reli­gious schools claim­ing inspir­a­tion from a com­mon Teacher, shar­ing a sim­ilar life­style, and bor­row­ing whole­sale each other’s scrip­tures, at the same time as vig­or­ously arguing with each other over what the scrip­tures mean.

1 Lamotte, His­tory of Indian Buddhism, pp. 419426.

2 Schopen, Buddhist Monks and Busi­ness Mat­ters, Uni­ver­sity of Hawai’i Press, 2004, pg. 20.

3 See David M. Carr, Read­ing the Frac­tures of Gen­esis: His­tor­ical and Lit­er­ary Approaches, West­min­ster John Knox Press, 1996, pg. 12.

4 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 399.

5 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 143.

6 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 94.

7 The Chinese canon con­tains a Sri Lankan Vinaya com­ment­ary that Buddhaghosa may have had before him. If so, this would allow a much more accur­ate assess­ment of the kinds of changes he introduced.

8 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 76.

9 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 77.

10 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 75.

11 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 95.

12 Schopen, Buddhist Monks, pg. 93.

13 SN 47.13/SA 638.

14 Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks, Uni­ver­sity of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pg. 203, note 111.

15 Schopen, Bones, pp.126128.

16 E.g. DN 16.1.12, 1.14, 1.18, 2.4, etc. The pas­sage occurs with sim­ilar fre­quency in the Sanskrit.

17 Schopen, Bones, pg. 39.

18 Schopen, Bones, pg. 27.

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