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 4th–5th 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 4th–5th 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 (404–405 CE). So were the Vinayas of the Dharmaguptakas (408), the Mahīśāsakas (423–424), 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 100–200 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. 419–426.

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.126–128.

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.

Comments are disabled for this post