September 2008

Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha is a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon.

In the Pali canon, the world is an abundantly supernatural one, a cosmos with many worlds and many deities. The Buddha’s birth is foretold to sages by deities, and he himself converses with various supernatural beings. He also does miracles, like reading minds, turning people invisible, vanishing into one of the many heavens, and so on. You get the impression that the miracles aren’t unique to him: it seems there were lots of ascetics and teachers around at the time, each with their own disciples, and this sort of stuff is par for the course. The Buddha describes Devadatta, the villain of the piece, as “stopping halfway with … the mere earthly distinction of supernormal powers”, and seems to see them as tricks that are well known.

In the book, there’s little mention of the Buddha’s early life, although some passages about living in a palace are quoted. After his birth, we’re straight into his quest for enlightenment. He tries asceticism for a while but decides it’s not helping, and disgusts the small number of followers he’s acquired by taking food and drink. He goes off and thinks about stuff, and has a series of insights about how one thing leads to another thing, Star Wars style (a process known as dependent arising), and with that, realises how to stop it. He thinks about keeping the knowledge to himself, as most people won’t be able to get it, but a brahma persuades him not to. He begins to teach people the dharma.

The book then follows the growth of the sangha, the community of monks. The community grows, and sometimes finds favour with merchants and royalty, who give the monks land. It seems they live by receiving alms from the lay people, to who receive talks on the dharma in return. We don’t see much of the lay people in the book, as it mostly concerns the teachings given to the monks. We do see the community undergo growth, dissension and outright mutiny (Devadatta again).

The chapter on the dharma itself was pretty hard going. The translation could probably have helped there, but Nanamoli writes in the preface that he’s attempting to provide as true a translation as possible, without interpreting too much. I found contemporary paraphrases easier to understand. If one can sum up a large body of teaching in a few sentences, the Buddha thinks that dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”) is real; suffering is caused by our inability to get what we want or keep it, or prevent what we don’t want; suffering can be prevented by giving up the desire for these things, which can be achieved by following the mental and ethical teachings summarised as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The scriptures bear the signs of being passed on orally: there’s a lot of repetition (one of Nanamoli’s few concessions to the reader is that he elides some of this), speech is often stylised, and teachings often use numbered groups of things (four noble truths, noble eightfold path). According to Wikipedia, there are a number of schools of thought about how much of the canon represents the Buddha’s words. Manuscript evidence isn’t helpful, as the earliest ones are apparently 8th century.

There’s a sense in which this doesn’t matter as much as it does to, say, Christianity, because the point seems to be the teaching, which is said to be something people can experience for themselves. In orthodox Christianity, at least, the scriptures recording important miraculous events which are to be believed in, so that the evidence for them is important, and the teaching of Jesus rest on his personal authority. I don’t think one can eliminate questions of authority from any religion, though: there are so many religions that ask you to “try it and see” that there’s not enough time to try them all.

More problematic to me was the way much of the Buddha’s teachings are phrased as ways to avoid rebirth, since (a) it’s not clear what rebirth means when one of your other doctrines is that there’s no fixed self, and (b) it’s not clear how anything of us survives after death, such the the results of our actions (known as karma), in a way which could be passed on to another person.

It also wasn’t clear from the book how detachment was meant to be practiced by people who weren’t monks. The monks need the lay people, or they’ll starve, but the householder’s life seems second class when it comes to attaining enlightenment. Apparently there are Buddhist scriptures which do address the lay people, so it’d be interesting to read those.

In summary, the book was interesting, but hard to get into. I got bogged down in places and ended up skipping bits. A more dynamic translation might have been easier to read, even if such a translation did end up reflecting the biases of the translator more than Nanamoli’s did.

For you Firefox users, I’ve put a new version of LJ New Comments up.

It supports Russian keyboards, courtesy of some code from mumi_0.

I’ve also made it expand collapsed comments when you move to them by pressing the “n” or “p” keys, as my assumption when you do that is that you want to read the comment. The thread expansion stuff needs the style to have an “Expand” link for the comment (literally, a link to the thread with the text “Expand”: if anyone’s got any ideas on how to identify it in a way which doesn’t assume it’s labelled in English, let me know).

Comments/questions to the entry for the script.

My wife has been blogging about ancient literature. She’s started with The Epic of Gilgamesh and moved on to the Old Testament, starting with the similarities between the Flood and creation stories in Genesis and Gilgamesh. More will be appearing on scribb1e‘s journal in future.

As part of some sort of cultural exchange programme, I’ve been reading Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon. It’s interesting, although very strange in places, mostly because of the cosmology of the time. I think it could do with a glossary explaining some of the Pali words which Nanamoli chose not to translate. I’d not realised the Buddha had superpowers (he regularly reads minds, and occasionally does cool stuff like preventing a robber from catching him even though the robber’s running as fast as he can), or that lots of supernatural beings were present at his birth. I’ll probably write more about it when I’ve finished it.

In a conversation with a Christian (edited: who was actually robhu, as Rob’s given me permission to say) recently, I asked my usual question on personal relationships with God: why do all these people who claim to have one end up disagreeing? How do we know who to believe? To paraphrase their arguments:

<lj-cut>Some “Christians” aren’t true Christians. Which is fair enough, I think, if my question is specifically why Christians disagree. There’s a more general point though, of which more later.

God chooses to interact with humans in a human way, as exemplified by Jesus. He never promised to give people a way to tell who was right. A quick read of the Bible shows that God didn’t always interact in this way. Even in the New Testament, we’re promised there will be signs accompanying those who believe, some of which I’d find pretty convincing if I saw them: I’d certainly respect the religious claims of people doing that stuff more than people who don’t, because they’re showing they can do something inexplicable which is at least worth investigating. Any Christians volunteering to drink poison? 😉 Edited to add: robhu rightly points out that textual critics say this passage has doubtful provenance. Evangelicals generally say the Bible is inerrant “as originally given”, which raises some other questions, since there’s scholarly debate about what was in original manuscripts. Edited to further add: John 14:11-13 promises that whoever has faith in Jesus will do even greater miracles than him, so the odd amputee healing doesn’t seem too much to ask of Christians.

What is noticeable is that God seems to do special effects less and less as we get closer to the present time. Edward Current argues that God’s ability to hide shows how powerful God is, and that God is testing our faith, but, despite his obvious sincerity, I’m not convinced. I think there might be a simpler explanation.

God wants people to know him rather than treating him as an encyclopedia. I suppose the objection to treating God as an encyclopedia must be that it is impersonal, rather than an argument that having access to correct information actually impedes learning. So let’s imagine a world in which God was not an encyclopedia but a teacher of Christians, a good sort of teacher who made the lessons interesting but didn’t let fights break out in the classroom. Does that world look like this one?

Aren’t you just asking why God doesn’t announce his presence? I suppose I am. Annoyingly, someone has got to that question before me and made my arguments better than I can. The brilliant Richard Carrier’s essay Why I am not a Christian (not to be confused with Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name) contains a section called God is Silent which points out the contradiction between what Christians say God is like and how he acts. Go read it.

My arguments about Christians and their relationship with God are, as my correspondent rightly says, a special case of the general argument that God is silent. Talking about Christians specifically negates one of the common defences against that argument, namely that if God were too obvious, it would do away with free will. But Carrier points out that such defences are ad hoc: who thought to mention that God values free will above almost everything else before people started debating the problems of silence and of evil? What is the evidence for this? If you’re evangelical, where does the Bible say that God values free will so highly? Christians can’t even agree that people have it, let alone that God values it.

God’s silence, and his entrusting of what we’re told is a very important rescue mission to a bunch of people who are pretty bad it, are pretty powerful arguments that he’s not there. If I saw any amputees miraculously healed, though, I’d certainly reconsider.