On the Very Idea of an Article About the Pali Canon

Steven Collin’s article On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon is an influential monograph that recontextualizes the notion of the “Pali Canon”, aiming to show it in a “properly focused and realistic historical perspective”. This response consists of some brief notes to assess whether it achieves its aim.

If there is one thing we have learned in the past year, it is this: beware “realists”. Too often, the idea of “realism” is a mask for cynicism and reductionism. Thus Collins proposes that the Pali Canon, rather than being passively maintained by the Theravada school, “should be seen as a product of that school, as part of the strategy of legitimation by the monks of the Mahavihara lineage.”

In the same way, Collins’ article should be seen as a strategy of legitimation by Collins himself, as he jockeys for kudos and prestige in the cutthroat academic world.

Collins claims that “we have no evidence of any kind which can be securely dated before Asoka”. To make this kind of claim, we have to implicitly define what kinds of evidence can be accepted as “secure”. Collins himself merely assumes that we all know this, and that we share his assumption that “secure” means “material”, notwithstanding the fact that archeological evidence is absolutely as subject to exactly the same kinds of uncertainties as any other form of information.

He says we must “rely on inferences”, as if this were a problem, and not merely a bland description of literally all forms of knowledge in every field of knowledge that has ever or will ever exist.

I personally have no “secure” knowledge of Steven Collins’ existence, and must rely on the admittedly partial and uncertain evidence of certain articles and writings which, among the unreliable morass of information on the internet, have been attributed (by who?) to him. Given that there have been many notable academic frauds, given that there is clearly an institutional need for radical theses to drive popularity and enrollments, and given that many of the so-called “memories” of his life have the unmistakable tinge of hagiography, it is clear we must be “more fully aware” regarding the figure whose personhood “we denote by the short-hand term”, “Steven Collins”.

“Collins” points out that the word tipiṭaka is attested from around the 1st century CE, in the Milindapanha and some inscriptions. He says, “I think it should be taken to denote not three closed lists of documents, but rather three different genres within the tradition”.

“Collins” presents precisely zero evidence to support his contention, only what he thinks. It is in any case a distinction without a difference. Of course they are three genres; they are also (fairly) fixed lists of texts. That the word is only mentioned in the very latest of such texts merely shows that it was formalized by that time.

Obviously the “Tipitaka” did not exist in the Buddha’s day. It began with the nine angas, which were reorganized into the nikayas, which were then incorporated into the Tipitaka we have today. The entire Abhidhamma was composed after the time of the Buddha, as was much of the Vinaya, as well as portions of the Suttas. It is an intellectual failure to assert that everything in the Tipitaka was taught by the Buddha. It is equally an intellectual failure to assert that the lack of 100% clarity and precision means that we know nothing. There is a genuine historical question to be asked as to the details of this process, but “Collins” is not really interested in clarifying it.

“Collins” goes on to try to undermine the authority of the historical sense of the phrase buddhavacana. This is used in early texts in the sense, “whatever is spoken by the Buddha is well-spoken”, but later texts, chiefly Mahayana, turned it to become “whatever is well-spoken is spoken by the Buddha”, thus allowing more flexibility in what is considered to be buddhavacana.

He points out that there is a Pali text spoken by the monk Uttara where “grammatically there would be nothing wrong with interpreting his remark in the Mahayanist sense”, i.e. that “whatever is well-spoken is spoken by the Buddha.” However, he acknowledges that in context, “Uttara is saying that whatever he teaches comes from the Buddha”. In other words, contextually it clearly does not mean that Uttara feels he can just make stuff up and say it came from the Buddha, but if we remove it from context and assign it an arbitrarily possible grammatical construal, we can imagine that it might have said that. So says the realist.

I have written in more detail on this text here. “Collins” nowhere discusses the highly unusual and late character of this text.

“Collins” asks, as if he has just posed a great mystery, “Why then did what has become Theravada ‘orthodoxy’ choose to emphasize an historicist and exclusivist idea of its ‘Canon’, ‘the Buddha’s Word(s)’?” Why indeed? But any answers he provides, such as they are, are either baseless or obvious. Of course the formation and maintenance of the Tipitaka has a political dimension and is a part of the legitimation of religious and political authority. Most of the Tipitaka editions available today are either royal editions or are government-sponsored.

But a tradition consists of more than just the mindless instantiation of an orthodoxy. The First Council tells us of the 500 arahants, but also of Purāṇa who remembered things his own way. The Second Council account lays bare the political maneuvering among the Sangha to resolve differences. The Third Council resulted in the Kathavatthu, with literally hundreds of discussions of points of difference. The Dipavamsa points to competing notions of canonicity as the reason for the first schism. The commentaries regularly feature competing interpretations. The later Theravada tradition—especially post-12th century—is full of contested interpretations of Abhidhamma.

A tradition is both static and dynamic, it looks both forward and back, and it moves to the center even as it pulls to the periphery. The idea that there are contesting notions of what the teaching really is is no radical thesis, it is central to the stories that the tradition tell about itself. It has been there all along.

“Collins” goes on to “assert”—without supporting “argumentation”, but with an “abundance” of annoying “scare quotes”—that “we simply have no idea which texts in fact pre-date Asoka”. On the contrary, we have a fairly clear idea of this. But to understand this requires knowing the difference between “not 100% certain” and “having no idea”.

As usual with skeptical “realists” of “Collins’” sort, they feel no need to actually get in the trenches and make an argument that engages with the evidence. They simply assert a set of epistemological requirements that they already know cannot be met, without justifying why they must be met, then build sweeping theories as if they have just proven something.

“Collins” quotes Rahula and Malalasekera as saying we cannot know the exact relation between the Pali Canon as it was first written down and today. There are two fundamental problems here.

Firstly, he takes the most skeptical comments by these scholars and ignores their broader contribution. Clearly neither of them believed that the Tipitaka was just made up and has no relation to what the Buddha taught. “Collins” is not interested in understanding what these scholars believed and how they negotiated the encounter between tradition and modernity, only to use them as points to score in an argument. He characterizes them as “staunchly orthodox modern Theravadins”, a reductive and othering description that elides the dynamic, reformist nature of the work of these two scholars.

The second problem is, he cites from articles in 1928 and 1956, but it never occurs to him to ask, “If at that time there was a lacuna in understanding, has that now changed? Or if not, is there any way I could contribute to clarifying this knowledge.” This kind of postmodern nihilism is only interested in undermining the work of those who actually get things done.

“Collins” goes on to point out that the actual texts in practical use in a tradition are not the same thing as what is enshrined as a “Canon”. He asks whether “these and only these texts function as ‘scripture’, with no others having canonical authority?” He rather boldly answers “No” to his own question, a boldness that is untempered by the complete lack of any evidence.

The only reference he cites towards the idea that there has ever been a confusion in the tradition about what is a “Canon” is a passage in the Culavamsa, where Buddhaghosa’s work is acclaimed as being “like the Pali" (pāliṁ viya). But the word “like” can have been used for no other reason than to emphasize that, while they are not actually the thing, they are in some respects comparable to the thing. Something that is like the Canon cannot be the Canon.

Continuing in his “just asking questions” style, he speculates, “It might well be that the content of most smaller monastic libraries is in effect a ‘ritual canon’”. And further, “A monastic library … might perhaps be compared to a modern academic library”. With this, who can but concur? It certainly might.

On the other hand, if he had ever visited an actual monastery, perhaps the distinction between the “canon”, which is typically contained in a separate, locked cabinet in a sacred position next to the altar, and the other books, including various chanting books and the like, which are on ordinary shelves, might have helped clear things up for him.

Whenever I read skeptical scholars of that era, whether “Collins” or the equally dubious figure “Schopen”—whose debunked work “Collins” cites approvingly—I am struck by how they prefigure the internet troll. Seeing a flicker of uncertainty as proof of falsity; treating authority or expertise as inherently corrupted; reaching for ad hominem dismissal as a first line of argumentation; applying skeptical standards to others but not themselves; “just asking questions”; an overweening sense of confidence in the compelling rationality of their own thought; and most of all, an ideological commitment to undermining any form of received knowledge, while avoiding any responsibility for creating and building new knowledge. I can’t help feeling that there is more than a coincidence here; that they represent a manner of teaching in US colleges that birthed a generation of graduates who mistook this sort of thing for a genuine intellectual pursuit.

“Collins” ends up by saying:

we need empirical research into each individual case, not a simple deduction from the existence of the closed tipiṭaka produced by the Mahāvihāra. We need more research, for example, historical and enthographic, on the possession and use of texts …

I have not been able to uncover any evidence that Collins himself ever made any effort to do this “needed” empirical research.

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Hi Bhante,

I want to read this, but my brain cannot process the scare quotes. Partly because of the time required to imagine someone doing the related hand gestures and tone of voice in my head, and partly because it’s visually disruptive and I normally speed read only (don’t know if I should admit this). I.e. I need the visual appearance of the paragraph to chunk the text.

I look forward to finding out what the substantive content of this article was second hand. :pray:

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Lol, mission accomplished. I really wouldn’t worry, if the scare quotes in my article are too much, you won’t make it through the original either.

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it’s “Steven” :slight_smile:

but apart from that I mostly agree with you.

Metta

See how uncertain knowledge really is? Scholars cannot even agree on the spelling of “his” (if, indeed he is one, male person) name. :rofl: If we cannot be certain of such a basic fact, how much more do we not know of his existence?

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Maybe not! Maybe I was talking about a completely different person who happened to have been called “Stephen”. How would we ever know?

(But seriously, my bad, I’ve corrected it now, thanks.)

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Great minds and all that …

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Stephen Collins was the dad in 7th Heaven.

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Steven Collins (16 September 1951 – 15 February 2018) was a British-born Buddhist studies scholar.

It is according to Dhamma principles (per SN 14.15) that different individuals are drawn to different teachings. Here, Mr Collins seemed to take a deep interest in Jataka as representing the essence of Buddhism; comparing the wisdom in Jataka with the wisdom of Solomon in the Old Testament:

He seemed to admonish a Jataka where the (Bodhisatta) monkey told a deliberate lie to a crocodile with the intention to stop the crocodile from murdering him (the monkey) so the crocodile’s pregnant wife could eat the monkey’s heart.

Interesting man at 17:00 referring to “enlightened neurotics”. :thaibuddha: :thaibuddha:

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Jokes aside, great essay Bhante. You’ve highlighted some of the aspects of the article that bothered me but which I hadn’t quite articulated before.

That said, I did appreciate the “obvious” side of Collins’ article. His insistence on separating out Theravada from Early Buddhism in particular is, of course, an important topic you’ve written about yourself (if, admittedly, with a clarity and precision Collins’ himself admitted was lacking from his own work).

There’s a similar problem across the sciences these days, where in many fields you get more citations for writing meta-analysis than for doing original research. I’m not sure what the solution is, but still, it is sometimes helpful to “restate the obvious”

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Yes, in his later work he seemed to get the idea that somehow the Jatakas were the earliest form of Buddhism? I haven’t followed his work, honestly it seems so kooky I don’t know what to make of it.

Sure, some of the topics are important, we deserve a better articulation of them.

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I was rather pleased to hear this. For many years the only person I’ve heard comparing Jātaka paññā with Solomonic ḥoḵmah is … me. Now I don’t feel so lonely.

The Jātaka parallel for the Judgment of Solomon story that Collins alludes to is in the Mahā-ummagga.

A certain woman took her son and went down to the sage’s tank to wash her face. After she had bathed her son she laid him in her dress and having washed her own face went to bathe. At that moment a female goblin saw the child and wished to eat it, so she took hold of the dress and said, “My friend, this is a fine child, is he your son?” Then she asked if she might give him suck, and on obtaining the mother’s consent, she took him and played with him for a while and then tried to run off with him.

The other ran after her and seized hold of her, shouting, “Whither are you carrying my child?”

The goblin replied, “Why do you touch the child? he is mine.”

As they wrangled they passed by the door of the hall, and the sage, hearing the noise, sent for them and asked what was the matter. When he heard the story, although he knew at once by her red unwinking eyes that one of them was a goblin, he asked them whether they would abide by his decision. On their promising to do so, he drew a line and laid the child in the middle of the line and bade the goblin seize the child by the hands and the mother by the feet. Then he said to them, “Lay hold of it and pull; the child is hers who can pull it over.”

They both pulled, and the child, being pained while it was pulled, uttered a loud cry. Then the mother, with a heart which seemed ready to burst, let the child go and stood weeping. The sage asked the multitude, “Is it the heart of the mother which is tender towards the child or the heart of her who is not the mother?”

They answered, “The mother’s heart.”

“Is she the mother who kept hold of the child or she who let it go?”

They replied, “She who let it go.”

“Do you know who she is who stole the child?”

“We do not know, O sage.”

“She is a goblin,—she seized it in order to eat it.”

When they asked how he knew that he replied, “I knew her by her unwinking and red eyes and by her casting no shadow and by her fearlessness and want of mercy.”

Then he asked her what she was, and she confessed that she was a goblin.

“Why did you seize the child?”

“To eat it.”

“You blind fool,” he said, “you committed sin in old time and so were born as a goblin; and now you still go on committing sin, blind fool that you are.” Then he exhorted her and established her in the five precepts and sent her away; and the mother blessed him, and saying, “May’st thou live long, my lord,” took her son and went her way.

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Venerable. What is the Pali for “goblin”? Thank you

The impression is the Solomon story was composed in Babylon.

Biblical commentators believe the Books of Kings were written to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah by Babylon in c. 586 BCE and to provide a foundation for a return from Babylonian exile.

The story is commonly viewed in scholarship as an instance or a reworking of a folktale. Its folkloristic nature is apparent, among other things, in the dominance of direct speech which moves the plot on and contributes to the characterization.[1] The story is classified as Aarne-Thompson tale type 926, and many parallel stories have been found in world folklore. In Uther’s edition of the Aarne-Thompson index,[2] this tale type is classified as a folk novella, and belongs to a subgroup designated “Clever Acts and Words”. Eli Yassif defines the folk novella as “a realistic story whose time and place are determined … The novella emphasizes such human traits as cleverness, eroticism, loyalty, and wiliness, that drive the plot forward more than any other element”.[3]

Hugo Gressmann has found several similar stories in world folklore and literature, especially in India and the far east.[4] One Indian version is a Jataka story dealing with Buddha in one of his previous incarnations as the sage Mahosadha, who arbitrates between a mother and a Yakshini who is in the shape of a woman, who kidnapped the mother’s baby and claimed he was hers… In other Indian versions, the two women are widows of one husband.[6] Another version appears in the Chinese drama The Chalk Circle (in which version the judge draws a circle on the ground),[7] which has spread worldwide, many versions and reworkings being made, among them The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht.

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Off topic: this is useful. For goblin diagnostic assessment purposes.

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Yakkhinī, the female form of yakkha.

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Should read “perspective”.

Attention to detail, excellent thanks!

It is an amazing parallel. I heard the story via Brecht. The Mahummagga generally is an incredible text.

I haven’t read much of Collins’ work on Jatakas, but I found it curious that he focused on the Vessantara. I could never get past the ethics of that one.

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I think his fascination with it, like that of my friend Ralph Flores, is in large part because it’s so much at odds with general Buddhist values, and yet has nonetheless become one of the most culturally influential and highly revered narratives in Theravadin Asia. This leads both writers to treat it (pace the Milindapañha) as an intentionally problematic work intended as a spur to the moral imagination and to critical thinking about moral problems, rather than a simple didactic account of how dāna-paramatthapāramī is to be practised by a bodhisattva.

The story piques our interest by daring to offer a folk hero, a Great Being, a saintly fool, who also seems a monstrosity or a pathological case. This Great Being could not be recommended as a babysitter! His story is grotesque and almost a parody of its own ideal—a person of great compassion, wanting to give to all, may produce (were it not for the happy ending) more suffering than he relieves.
(Ralph Flores, Buddhist Scriptures as Literature - Sacred Rhetoric and the Uses of Theory, p. 145)
Extreme Giving

If one assumes that “religious” texts are necessarily and simply didactic, then the extravagance—indeed, to use a word that will be discussed below, the tragedy—of Vessantara’s actions must be ignored or somehow smoothed over as ultimately not in conflict with Buddhism’s core values and teachings. This was done by other premodern Pali texts, although not without difficulty. But if, on the other hand, one takes the Pali textual archive—what I have called elsewhere the Pali imaginaire—to be not only recommending and extolling certain virtues and values but also thinking critically about them, then stories such as Vessantara’s are exploring value conflicts rather than ignoring or solving them. As a “religion,” Buddhism must in the end offer a resolution of the tragedies and suffering of human existence; but Pali texts (some of them, anyway) as literature, as works of art, can accept and even celebrate the fact that conflicts between transcendental and everyday values can become themselves tragic (as well as comic, as does the Vessantara story).
(Steven Collins, ed., Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka, Introduction)

The earlier discussion referred to Gellner’s idea that ideologies are meant to be offensive (in a special, Kierkegaardian sense) to everyday life and values. This is, I think, a very useful avenue for understanding the Vessantara story

[…]

Two reactions have dominated scholarship: either this [story] is simply an indication of the selfishness (for Melford Spiro, the narcissism) of monastic life and the individual quest for nirvana, or it is simply an expression in myth of the Buddhist values of generosity and renunciation. Both interpretations are mistaken in assuming that the meaning of the story is simple. It is, inter alia, a painfully honest confrontation of the difficulties of renunciation, showing that real human goods must, ultimately, be abandoned in the ascetic search for ultimate felicity; and it is the most subtle and successful attempt in Pali literature to infuse ascetic values and soteriological motifs into an ideal image of collective life in an ordinary, productive and reproductive society.
(Steven Collins, Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities, p. 497, 501)
Vessantara Jātaka

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Bhante, what should I read to learn more about this

Perhaps one could say that it is not necessarily at odds with Buddhist values, rather it extends and explores the Buddhist values found in the suttas.

Regarding Collins’ idea that the Jatakas represent early Buddhism, can someone point me to some publications where he discusses this?