Aesthetic theory: a cautionary tale

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; which for some reason has never stopped people from not only arguing about it, but also, trying to establish their arguments on some kind of theoretical footing. In western education, the “beautiful” has been, since the time of Plato and Aristotle, closely linked with the “good”, hence aesthetic education was supposed to be morally uplifting as well as pleasurable. A beautiful work of art, so it was taught, fulfilled certain criteria that meant it was both objectively beautiful and good for the soul.

This conjunction of beauty and virtue was also posited in the early texts. The Buddha’s words are valued primarily because of their meaning, but also because of their beauty. They are not like secular art, which may be enjoyed solely for the transient pleasures they afford, but rather the beauty in the Buddha’s words serves to attract the listener and soften the mind, reading them for the Dhamma.

One problem with passing down a sacred ancient text for 2,500 years is that no-one criticizes it. Everyone falls over themselves to praise it in every way, and no-one seriously applies philosophical or aesthetic criticism to it. This is one of the valuable innovations of the modern age, where scholars applied more critical methodology, revealing much of interest that pious readings have overlooked.

The great Scottish Indologist John Brough would have been exposed to an old-style education in European aesthetics through his mid-century studies at Edinburgh and Cambridge, and during his tenure at the British Museum. And in the introduction to his edition of the Gandhārī Dhammapada (Oxford, 1962)—one of the most significant contributions of modern Indology—he did not hold back on his aesthetic opinions. Here he is speaking to the Dhammapada literature in general, as they share a similar aesthetic.

In cultural conditions where the cliché, and particularly the religious cliché, was not so much tolerated as venerated, and where many existing verses could with the greatest of ease be broken into usable quarters, it is understandable that a considerable treasure-house of versified tags was ready to hand for any monk zealous to compose. Now and then a monk might be a poet, and here and there among the Dharmapada verses we have the good fortune to inherit some fragments of excellent poetry. But we should not expect to find very much. Poetry is not an easy art, and good poets are always rare. To build from other men’s bricks and sanctified clichés is tolerably simple; and many a monk entirely devoid of poetic ability was readily persuaded that his verses were no worse than those of his neighbour.

The resulting vast accumulations of insipid mediocrity which piety preserves are by no means peculiar to Buddhism. It is even probable that religions in general have an inherent tendency to conserve indiscriminately the dreary and the insufferable, which, because of the virtuous intentions of their authors, are accorded no less reverence than great religious art and literature. Buddhism has its own share of great art; but we do no service to Buddhism or to its genuine art if we magnify the literary worth of a text beyond its deserts. Distinguished scholars (not themselves Buddhists) have indeed written with liberal hyperbole of the ‘profound moral value’ of the Pali Dhammapada, and have rated it among the masterpieces of Indian literature. Here I politely dissent. Those who write in this way can hardly have made any serious comparison with great literature; nor could anyone with a sense of literary values describe the whole collection in terms scarcely merited by its best parts, if he had himself lived day and night close enough to these verses for long enough to arrive at an assessment of his own disencumbered of hearsay.

Harsh! He’s not wrong about the insipidity of religious art. But is this a fair assessment of the Dhammapada? Brough justifies his criticism as a contribution to an ongoing dialectic.

This much is said only because of the reckless manner in which praise has been awarded, and to react by indiscriminate censure would be unjust. A reasonable critic will readily admit that there are many attractive things here, and that the average standard of the collections is indeed much higher than it might well have been.

There’s no doubt that his critical attitude is informed by his own background in European arts; he even quotes John Donne in the epigraph to the work. Obviously this is problematic. Now, at the time, Brough’s criticism was well-known, if not notorious. But few scholars were interested enough to tackle him head-on. And in the generations following his work, the winds changed, and it was no longer fashionable to pretend to have an objective opinion of a work of art. Most commentators, especially those in the Buddhist world, simply passed over the criticisms; and if they commented on aesthetics at all, did so with the usual generalizations.

That is, until Ven Thanissaro’s translation of the Pali Dhammapada. I’m not hugely familiar with the timeline here, but I believe this was in 1997. Anyway, take the chronology with a grain of salt. Thanissaro cites Brough, but doesn’t address his aesthetic argument by name. Nevertheless, I think it’s obvious that the criticisms by Brough (and others) was at least in the back of his mind.

Thanissaro addresses the aesthetic question head on. Rather than assessing the text based on pure subjectivity, or on the canons of European aesthetics, he does so based on what he refers to as “ancient Indian aesthetic treatises”. Nowhere, so far as I know, does he cite the treatises in question, or give any explicit sources. He does, however, list A.K. Warder’s Indian Kavya Literature in his bibliography, so it seems likely that he is referring to Warder when he says:

Only more recently have scholars realized that it is also one of the early masterpieces in the Indian tradition of kavya

I don’t have a copy of this to hand, so I don’t know what Warder said about the Dhammapada.

One of Thanissaro’s key claims is this:

As an example of kavya, the Dhammapada has a fairly complete body of ethical and aesthetic theory behind it

“Behind it”. Explicitly in some places, and implicitly throughout, Thanissaro builds his case on the understanding that there is a body of aesthetic theory that the Dhammapada—and the other canonical poetic works that he similarly analyzed later—was informed by and in dialogue with. He claims, for example:

the poems of the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā may have been among the first conscious attempts to convey the calmed as a new savor, thus setting the stage for the further development of this savor in later centuries of Buddhist and even non-Buddhist poetry in India.

Thanissaro omits a rather important detail: the śāntarasa to which he refers—the savor of calm—is not mentioned anywhere until 1500 years after the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā. He is constantly saying things like:

It was common practice in ancient India for writers to announce the dominant savor they were trying to produce in their works

Yet he never gives a single example of this supposedly “common practice”, let alone one that is vaguely contemporary with the Pali Canon.

Most readers—and by “most” I mean “me”—will not be familiar with Indian aesthetics, and certainly not with its history. So Thanissaro’s analysis seems both pertinent—since it applies an Indian aesthetic to and Indian text—and pleasing—since it confirms our priors and rescues the Dhammapada from Brough’s critique. Is it, however, plausible?

Let’s look at the textual basis for the theory. Anyone familiar with Indic texts—or for that matter any ancient texts—will not be surprised to learn that the evidence for the theory is unsatisfactory. Based on a brief survey the last couple of days, here’s what I found.

The canonical text is the Nāṭyaśāstra, the most important portion of which, the Rasādhyāya, has been translated with an excellent introduction by J.L. Masson and M.V. Patwardhan via Deccan College, Poona, 1970. The Sanskrit text is available on Gretil. It is here that we meet the theory of rasa “savor” upon which Thanissaro’s analysis is based.

The translators date of the Nāṭyaśāstra “within two or three hundred years of the third century A.D.” although it certainly drew on earlier material. It’s attributed to the legendary sage Bharata, about whom we know between little and nothing.

The Nāṭyaśāstra covers a fair amount of ground, and as the title suggests, it primarily focusses on the performing arts. The section of interest, on the “savors”, is not long, about 1000 words in Sanskrit or 6 pages in translation. This is typical of ancient Indian texts: it would have been a series of short aphorisms akin to lecture notes, which would have been expanded by a teacher’s commentary.

The basic idea is this. A work of art contains various emotional/aesthetic states (bhāva), which arise from the substance (dravya) of what is presented. When an audience engages with the work of art, they experience a secondary response, known as rasa. This savor is stimulated by the bhāva but is not identical with it. It is why works of art with unpleasant content—horrifying or disgusting—can be experienced as pleasurable by an audience. It’s a brilliant theory, which goes beyond the moralizing assessment of aesthetics to consider the nature of pleasure, and why specifically artistic pleasure is so sought after.

There were, apparently, several commentaries on the text in the centuries that followed, but the first commentary available to us is that of Abhinavagupta in the tenth or eleventh century. Abhinavagupta is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant of the Hindu philosophers, and his commentary influenced all those that came later. It is, however, an extremely difficult work due both to Abhinavagupta’s uncompromising style and the corruption of the manuscripts, about which the editor Ramakrishna Kavi remarked:

… even if Abhinavagupta descended from Heaven and saw the MSS. he would not easily restore his original reading.

So far as I know, Thanissaro’s is the first Buddhist contribution to the field, and I’m not aware that any earlier Buddhist authors studied this material. Nor, despite Thanissaro’s suggestions, does it seem likely that the Hindu scholars were students of Buddhist verse.

A gap of probably 500 years or so lies between the canonical verse collections and the Nāṭyaśāstra. Another half-millennium, give or take, lies between the Nāṭyaśāstra and Abhinavagupta. So it’s clearly ahistorical to speak, as Thanissaro does, of the Buddhist texts as having a body of aesthetic theory “behind them”.

Now, there are a range of caveats to be made. By all accounts, and in agreement with the general process of Indian philosophy, the Nāṭyaśāstra drew on earlier sources—such as cited by Panini, for example—and those earlier sources could well go back to the Buddha or earlier. The problem is that we have no idea what they contain, or whether any Buddhists were aware of them.

If Thanissaro wants to argue that it is the Buddhist texts themselves that provide evidence for the existence of the rasa theory five hundred years before any textual evidence, then go for it. Make the case. But he doesn’t: he just assumes it.

Another implicit assumption is the idea that theory informs artistic creation. But as Barnett Newman said,

Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.

I worked as a professional musician before becoming a monk, and basically no artist that I knew paid the slightest attention to aesthetic theory, or even knew anything about it. We just made things because we thought they sounded good. And we’d probably laugh at anyone trying to theorize about it.

Theory is abstracted from artistic practice. Sure, some artists might create from theory, but that would be the exception that proves the rule.

So if it is the case that early Buddhist texts embody the principles of the rasa theory—and I’m not disputing the particulars of Thanissaro’s work—then it doesn’t mean that they used the theory to create the work. Rather, it means that they made things, influenced by what was around them and by their own sense of style; and later theorists, familiar with the genre of work of which these were examples, formed abstract principles that describe such works of art and the response to them.

Indeed, many of the specific aesthetic principles spoken of in the rasa theory, and identified in Buddhist texts by Thanissaro, are fairly general artistic qualities. For example, the idea that a work is meant to both delight and inform; or that different qualities are included for variety and stimulation; or that techniques like metaphor are employed to create emotional effects; or that a work is more formally structured at the beginning and end and less so in the middle (hello jazz!).

It would, I think, be interesting to examine how the artistic qualities of Buddhist literature match or miss the theory of the Nāṭyaśāstra and its commentaries. But Thanissaro doesn’t show this, he just asserts it, and says nothing of the texts from which the theory is derived. In the appendix to his Dhammapada—the same work in which he introduced his aesthetic analysis—he launches a rather scathing critique of the kind of historical text-criticism that Brough and others had been developing. Perhaps if he had paid more attention to how historical criticism works he could have made a more persuasive case.

I really like the fact that Thanissaro paid attention to aesthetics, and brought to light an aspect of the texts that is so often overlooked. His analyses are interesting and have deepened my appreciation of the texts. And by drawing from Indian tradition, he counters the rather blithe criticisms of European critics like Brough.

The fact that the theory is so much later than the text, and that it operates in a culturally distinct domain, doesn’t mean that it has no relevance to the early texts. On the contrary, I think it probably does. There’s no reason why a later theory should not shed light on an earlier text. But the case needs to be made, and the many, many, many hedges and uncertainties need to be acknowledged. The air of authority with which Thanissaro expounds his interpretations is not backed up by the realities of the field. It’s a first, tentative step, but by no means the last word.


Translation and commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra:

drama-sanskrit-aesthetic-rapture.pdf (5.7 MB)

Sanskrit text of Nāṭyaśāstra:

http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/corpustei/transformations/html/sa_bharata-nATyazAstra-1-1618-303335-37.htm

Thanissaro’s essays where he discusses aesthetic theory:

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Great essay! Thank you.

Alone?

Extra zero I think.

One thing about Thanissaro: his essays are not full of typos! Thanks!

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There is, in fact, a biological explanation for this, as the brain regions associated with moral delight and sensory delight are, in fact, the same circuits. Likewise, the brain region responsible for disgust does both sensory and moral displeasure. [citation=Robert Sapolsky]

This section is a bit overstated. I’m sure you were using (at least some) music theory (major vs minor chords, chord progressions, key signatures, etc) to create your art. A more sympathetic reading of these rasas sees them as more akin to e.g. genres, and while some some TV shows do ignore or span genres, these are (as you put it) the exceptions that prove the rule.


Just out of curiosity, after reading this essay I did a short lit review on “Buddhist Aesthetics”. Here’s what I turned up:

While some scholars have dismissed the possibility of “Buddhist Aesthetics” entirely, others have taken a stab at a Buddhist Aesthetic theory:

  • Liang and Morseth argue in JBE that saṃvega and pasāda are the defining Buddhist aesthetic emotions (a position that Charles Hallisey has seconded in his work on Buddhist poetry).
  • Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro attempted a Buddhist response to European aethetic theory in the early 20th c, focusing on “detachment” as a bridge between Kant and satori
  • In “A Buddhist Sensibility” Dominique Townsend makes the case that early, Tibetan, monastic education was was in fact an aesthetic education, in that it was all about training the senses: training you to see the world through a Buddhist lens and to act with a Buddhist “sensibility.” I find his argument compelling, as a huge part of the Thai monk’s training is to replicate the Thai “Rip Roi” aesthetic in manner and habit.
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Sure, I used music theory. I even read Schoenberg!

But that’s not aesthetic theory. It’s domain knowledge. In the context of Buddhist verses, it would be akin to understanding metre, grammar, and the like. Aesthetic theory is (relatively) domain-independent, which is why Thanissaro can apply a theory of performing arts to poetry.

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He seems to rely on crowd sourced proofing as well. It’s just that the essays you are citing are really old. Lots of typos in translations when they first come out too.

Are we sure this is true in the classical period of Indian art? It doesn’t really parallel your experience of creating music. You were free to create whatever you liked as long as people liked it. I don’t think that can be said for Indian art, especially in the classical periods. I don’t believe innovation was considered a virtue. But I don’t know. I think it would be good to reach out to people who have more knowledge in this field.

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Would be very curious to hear any other sources on general buddhist theories of aesthetics (i.e philosophical accounts of the beautiful, sublime etc. from a buddhist pov rather than an aesthetic analysis of buddhist texts) beyond the couple links Ven. Khemarato shared.

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Welcome to the community @1hullofaguy ! Enjoy exploring all the wonderful resources available here.

If you have any questions or need any help, please feel free to ask; just tag @moderators in a topic or send a PM.

with Metta :sunflower::pray::sunflower:

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Speaking of which:

What did y’all think of “Everything Everywhere All at Once”? :laughing:

Hi everyone. I’m a daily SuttaCentral reader, and also an occasional Discuss & Discover reader.

I wrote an MA thesis on early Buddhist ‘aesthetics’ (beware: culturally untranslatable word). Space constraints forced me to focus exclusively on music and dance, and to cut out most technicalities and comparisons with modern aesthetic theory.

It’s a bit rough around the edges; my intention was mainly to counter a series of even rougher claims (‘early Buddhism disapproves of music,’ ‘early Buddhism lacks aesthetics,’ etc).

I am not aware of much more literature on this topic, and this is less than a first step.

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Welcome to the community @Oscar ! Enjoy exploring all the wonderful resources available here.

If you have any questions or need any help, please feel free to ask; just tag @moderators in a topic or send a PM.

with Metta :sunflower::pray::sunflower:

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Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for sharing!

Welcome to SuttaCentral @Oscar ! Pleasure to have you. I really enjoyed your JOCBS article on Buddhaghosa :grin:

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Wow, thanks do much for sharing. Please pitch in if I’ve messed up at all in my analysis, it was based on a very brief bit of research!

Like you, I believe no Indian aesthetic theory can be traced back to the first centuries of Buddhism. But what we’d call ‘the aesthetic’ is an overriding concern in the early texts, narratives and, dare I say, worldview. It’s just not an explicit parcel of the culture, and that makes analysis interculturally demanding.

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I would add this little book:

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