Let’s generalize about Buddhism! Generalizations are lazy and bad, but I won’t let that stop me. Modern understanding of early Buddhism has, I posit, grown through four phases; we’re currently in the fourth.
These phases are constructive, mutually reinforcing, and ongoing. All are found in nascent form from the beginning, but the focus shifts over time. This happens when the phase is reaching maturity, its primary tasks accomplished, and its insights integrated into the broader cultural understanding of Buddhism.
For each phase I highlight the salient contributions and mention some key figures and details. This is a brief and subjective survey, not meant to be exhaustive or rigorous.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, scholars led by English and German archeologists and philologists reconstructed the history of ancient India. They confirmed the historical reality of the Buddha, detailed the places discoverable in India, and clarified the Buddha’s place in Indian history.
Just as archeologists learned that by digging under the surface they could unearth progressively older layers, historical scholars stratified Buddhist texts in earlier and later layers. They showed that the textual evidence, if interpreted carefully and critically, confirms and supports findings and research in other fields.
This period is “archeological” both in the literal sense of being spurred by the archeological discoveries of ancient India—such as the Ashokan edicts—and in the metaphorical sense of identifying “strata” of texts that correspond to historical periods.
- TW Rhys Davids
- Max Muller
- King Mongkut
- Ledi Sayadaw
- Anagarika Dharmapala
- Ven Narada
- the Buddha was a human teacher of philosophy and meditation who lived in the Gangetic plain around 500 BCE.
- the Suttas and Vinaya record his teachings and times
- Abhidhamma is a later development
- Mahayana sutras are later still
- the Buddha’s teachings are primarily rational and psychological
- many superstitious and supernatural elements in modern Buddhism stem from non-Buddhist influences
- modern editions of ancient texts
- “modernist” idea of the Buddha as proto-scientist
- inspired reforms in Buddhist traditions such as the creation of the Dhammayut Nikaya in Thailand.
Once the idea of reconstructing early Buddhism caught on, it led down a rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged readings and speculative reimaginings, notably CAF Rhys Davids’ rejection of not-self and the four noble truths, or indeed the very idea of meditation. This tendency continues today, with both traditional and secularist movements inventing forms of “original” Buddhism that are untethered from reality.
In the mid-20th century, a reaction to the excesses of the early phase began, spearheaded by a generation of learned monks in Sri Lanka, both Sinhalese and European. They accepted the findings and methods of the “archeological” phase, but eschewed imaginative reinvention in favor of a critical endorsement of traditional understandings and methodologies.
Such teachings as dependent origination, the nature of meditation methods, or the interpretation of the Suttas were framed to harmonize traditional commentarial methods with modern findings so far as possible.
To varying degrees, a critical perspective on various traditional approaches was developed, especially in the emphasis on reason, ethics, and meditation over “blind” devotion and superstition. But on the whole such teachers refrained from the wholesale revisionism that had characterized the decadent phase of the archeological period.
- The Venerable Ñāṇas: Ñāṇatiloka, Ñāṇapoṇika, Ñāṇamoli, and their student Bhikkhu Bodhi.
- Katakurunde Ñāṇānanda
- Buddhadasa (followed by Phra Payutto)
- K.R. Norman
- A.K. Warder
- I.B Horner
- K.N. Jayatillecke
- accepts the factual findings of the archeological period, while rejecting its flights of fancy
- regards tradition as a valuable aid to understanding of the Suttas and Vinaya, rather than as a degenerate distraction
- criticizes specific aspects of tradition in a measured way
- is developed hand in hand with meditation, and concerned with practical application
- detailed and fact-based histories that draw on the full range of evidence (Pali, Sanskrit, Brahmanical, archeological, etc.)
- much improved translations (Bodhi)
- meditation is globalized based on scripture (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) rather than local traditions
- centers a constructive relationship with tradition
- supported reforms and innovations in traditional forms of Buddhism, such as the emergence of the “meditation center” and the “meditation retreat”
In practice it often proves possible to ignore the difference between a “harmonizing” approach and a fundamentalist rejection of modernity. Buddhists understandably prioritize the social contract of harmony between differing approaches, but the lack of clarity cripples Buddhist education, passing misinformation down the generations and miring Buddhist communities in pointless debates on non-issues.
For example, some assert that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha, even though historical scholars have unanimously rejected this for over a century. When wider inquiry and curiosity are neglected in favor of Pali-only fundamentalism, talented aspirants are turned off because, as someone said to me recently, “everything is so boring”. Authenticity and prestige come to be invested in those who most convincingly perform submission to tradition. But as with all fundamentalisms, such “tradition” is a convenient reconstruction that elides as much as it preserves.
Just as the harmonizing movement was rooted in the findings of the archaeological phase, the comparative phase builds on discoveries made in the 19th century; namely, that texts parallel to the Pali exist in Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit. Buddhism, and in particular, the early Buddhism of the Suttas and Vinaya, is not identical with Theravada, nor its sole province. All Buddhist traditions preserve a canon of teachings and scriptures that stems from the earliest times and which contains the shared kernel of all Buddhism.
This study was pursued primarily by Japanese scholars in the 20th century, who produced a greater output of academic work than the rest of the world combined. Taiwanese scholars, especially the towering figure of Master Yin Shun, also made major contributions. European scholars mostly focused on Indic languages, and it was not until the early 21th century, with the work of Rod Bucknell and Ven Analayo, that comparative studies became mainstream in international Buddhist studies.
- Samuel Beal
- Yin Shun
- the core teachings of the Buddha are shared by all Buddhist traditions
- these are not just general principles or abstract doctrines, but the corpus of texts in the Suttas and Vinaya
- in certain cases it is possible, with due caution, to speculatively reconstruct a text that underlies the extant versions, leading us closer to the words of the Buddha himself
- tables of parallels
- Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
- detailed comparative studies (Analayo, Dhammadinna)
- support non-sectarian and non-nationalist movements across the Buddhist world
- the shared basis of the Vinayas led to the foundation of the modern bhikkhuni order in Theravada
Increased specialization and breadth of knowledge can be forbidding, and the burden of studying multiple redactions of texts overwhelming. The realities of the method are difficult to translate to a wider audience. In the absence of accurate translations of all early material, scholarship is restricted to specialists.
Even for specialists, textual reconstruction can only go so far, and is generally limited to establishing the content of the early Buddhist period before the separation of the schools. But traditions are more than texts and it is not easy to reconstruct a living practice from scripture.
While comparative study helps centralize the teachings common to all Buddhists and brings us closer to the early canon, it does not help us to understand how those teachings related to the people of the Buddha’s time and place. Once again, this understanding was present in the archeological phase, with multiple scholars demonstrating relations between Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Jainism, and highlighting the historical and social realities of the Buddha’s times.
But advances in this area were slow, with translations and studies stuck in the colonialist and dismissive attitudes of the 19th century. Newer scholarship was rare and limited, and often rendered worthless by nationalistic agendas. An exception is Wijesekera’s Buddhist and Vedic Studies, which contains detailed and penetrating analyses of the Vedic roots of a range of Buddhist terms.
A new wave of ancient Indian scholarship is fired by empathy and curiosity rather than derision or defensiveness. In 2000, Joanna Jurewicz’s pivotal “Playing With Fire” showed how the core Buddhist teaching of dependent origination responded to the Nāsadīya Sūkta of Rig Veda 10.29. Michael Witzel established the historical origins of the Vedas in compilations made in the Kuru country about 400 years before the Buddha. Other scholars have investigated the historical and linguistic context, both Vedic as well as “native”. Lauren Bausch showed that the innovations of the Kosalan Brahmins in the Śatapatha Brahmaṇa pre-empted many ideas normally considered Buddhist. Calasso’s Ka and Ardor focus on Vedic rites and myths as a system of action and meaning.
- Joanna Jurewicz
- Michael Witzel
- Lauren Bausch
- Roberto Calasso
- O.H. de A Wijesekera
- the Buddha’s teachings are dialogues; he was responding to people and ideas in his culture
- Buddhism is not a self-contained system (per the Abhidhamma and later traditions)
- to understand what the Buddha meant we need to understand who he was talking to, how they thought, and what their values were
- textually, such context is provided in the contemporary Sanskritic literature (Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads) as well as the Jain texts
- identification of specific passages to which Buddhist texts respond
- solution of historical problems such as the 32 marks
- empathetic reading of ancient texts
- new and improved translations of key texts (Rig Veda)
- bringing to light hidden connections sparks creativity
- highlights the mythical and “irrational” elements found in the Suttas that have been sidelined by modernists
What we have of ancient Indic culture is fragments, and it is easy to fill in the gaps with over-interpretation. We can agree that the Buddha was in dialogue, but we only know part of the story. We proceed with empathy, putting ourselves in their shoes as best we can, but at a vast remove we cannot help but insert ourselves into our readings. Like all the phases, then, such research promises to enrich understanding but only within the limits of its own sources and methods.
I feel like the four phases are a kind of growth. The archaeological phase pieced together the DNA of early Buddhism. The harmonizing movement took that and grew the organs a body needs. With the comparative phase, we finally had a full and whole body. And with the dialectical phase, the body is waking up, opening its eyes to see the stars, feeling the ground under its feet, and reaching out to touch something outside itself.
The following is a grab-bag of non-contributions to understanding of early Buddhist scripture. Some of these are perfectly worthy as their own fields of research or study, and perhaps they might yield meaningful results in our field, but as of yet I think any contributions they have made are marginal.
- Schopenesque “hermaneutic of suspicion”, which proves only that a “fault-finding mind” does indeed preclude the search for truth. Hyper-skeptical findings have been routinely refuted by actual experts, yet they continue to lumber on as zombie doctrines.
- Subjectivist readings (feminist, masculinist, gender-critical, “grievance studies”, etc.) are driven by the values of the author. Since they are typically based on secondary studies they reflect the problems in the basic scholarship rather than contributing to it.
- Secular materialist readings get bogged down in proving that the Buddha was (or was not) a materialist like the author. Such studies are only interesting if you think the author’s beliefs are interesting.
- Neuro-psychological studies, for example of states of jhana, promise a new field of research but haven’t really contributed to understanding the source texts.
- Likewise AI and similar approaches have not yet yielded any major new understandings of scripture.
Here a few areas that I think would be fruitful for future study.
One of the most creative works in Buddhist studies is John Strong’s The Legend and Cult of Upagupta. Strong employed archeology and textual studies together with cross-cultural history and anthropology to paint a rich and broad picture of the obscure figure Upagupta, illuminating his subject in a way that a more limited approach could not.
The realm of spiritual development is by its nature complex and resists limitations to a single dimension. Studies such as Strong’s could be applied to problems within the realm of early Buddhist studies.
Study of the Suttas is international, but still limited by culture and language. It’d be great to see broader contributions from folks of different perspectives. In particular, I would love to see Indian scholarship that revitalized the vigorous and constructive work of the mid-20th century before it was hijacked by Hindutva nationalism.
Digital possibilities will continue to erode the boundaries between canonical collections. This creates a generation gap between students educated via non-sectarian digital resources such as SuttaCentral and their teachers who learned through paper-based or oral traditions.
Modern findings should be integrated at a school and university level in traditional Buddhist curricula. Students respond positively with interest when presented with problems and means of solving them. Intoning received truths at them is a path to nowhere.
Of course, escalating climate chaos will in all likelihood burn these futures to death, so it probably doesn’t matter all that much.