Question about the State of Western Buddhism and Textual Scholarship

When I first began to get serious about Buddhism, after years of casual interest - I don’t know when that was, 6 or 7 years ago now? - I found lots of stuff both to read and listen to. In addition to the endless supply of “dhamma talks” and meditation guidance of every shape and variety, there was also a fair amount of scholarly material - lectures and lecture series, podcasts that had a permanent or occasional scholarly bent, books, etc. I have always been especially interested in historical context: the people who were interested in deciphering what was going on in the years in India just before, during and just after the lifetime of the Buddha, and making sense of the spotty historical record of those times, including the record preserved in the EBTs. So these would be people like Gombrich, Bronkhorst, Wynne, Gethin as well as some of the more intellectually adventurous scholar-monks.

But lately, this material seems to have slowed down to a trickle. I especially find it very difficult to find anything new to listen to on my walks - at least things that don’t just review well-worn territory. Also, despite the continuing interest in “mindfulness” in contemporary western culture, there seems to me to be some kind of falling off of Western interest in early Buddhist thought, and also a narrowing of that interest to a small portion of topics dealing with meditation techniques.

Or maybe I just don’t know the right places to go and find this material?

Is anybody else having this experience? For me it’s very frustrating. I feel very intellectually stagnant where Buddhism is concerned. The last set of lectures that really piqued my interest were the ones Alexander Wynne delivered at the OCBS. But the OCBS doesn’t seem to have updated its website in some time.

Some of the other discussions seem to be degenerating, with cranky and bossy scholar-monks complaining about one another but no new ground broken.

What’s going on? I feel like something is dying, but that the next new thing hasn’t been born yet.


Hi DKervick,
Maybe the positive spin is that you’ve assimilated so much that the new material just seems repetitive… :heart:

I’ve been enjoying Bhikkhu Sujato’s recent talks here: Bhante Sujato — Encounters With The Buddha's Words — 2019 Buddhist Library Sydney
In particular, the talk about “The Ant Hill” had some really interesting analysis of how to look at suttas in different ways, which was then applied to MN 23.



That has to be true to some extent. I read and absorbed a lot of stuff, so there is just less to read now.

But it also seems to me some kind of shift has occurred in the last couple of years. Something feels different.


A practitioner can’t rely totally on media material indefinitely, it’s only a support and there should come a time when they become independent in their practice, make the jump to live the dhamma. When that happens there is no shortage of interest because it’s a matter of psychological survival. In that situation the texts are scrutinized at a deeper level of meaning.
There was a recent post that said:
“Building an imaginary alternative world for ourselves inside the suttas, while attempting to live a life in our modern workplaces and households, can have tragic results I fear.”
This is capitultion to samsara and the life in the dhamma will never be known.

Another post suggested that samsara does not have a treacherous current. Unless the practitioner accepts the dhamma and gets outside samsara, they will find practice boring .


I wasn’t really talking about the standpoint of practice. Only a minimal amount of reading is necessary for practice. After one knows the rudiments the practice is self-sustaining. I was talking about scholarship and historical studies.

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…in all “vagueness”: perhaps your input makes me try to delve in again in my very similar vague feeling I had sometimes last years and try to analyze better.

I remember to have asked a senior (dhamma-) friend something like this a couple of years ago but that has been left aside then.

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I don’t think so. The suttas are pretty clear overall about the path to liberation. It involves “leaving the world”: abandonment of the household life, family life and worldly pleasures and concerns, and total commitment to a life of renunciation and intense 24/7 practice of the path. The modern western conceit that one can live a life in the world and, with a meditation routine and some retreats, achieve awakening or liberation or “enlightenment” (a misused western term) seems misguided to me.

I guess part of the problem is that the ‘scholarship’ depends on relatively few passionate scholars. Salomon is officially retired now (so is Gombrich) and continues to research without pay. The other established scholars refine their previous hypotheses, which means that the growth of their new insights is incremental.

So, how sexy is Buddhology for young academic intellectuals? Among the relatively few who can be bothered only a small part is interested in Buddhism of the historical Buddha. Others go to Mahayana, Yogacara, Tibetan, etc. So I’d say it all depends on new researchers with new perspectives. And since the influx of new research to historical Buddhism is not systematically nurtured it depends on flukes of history to come up with passionate individuals who dedicate their life to an academically (careerwise) unrewarding endeavor.

But who knows, maybe some people will be able to cross-over historical Buddhism to bio-ethics, artificial intelligence, neuronal networks, etc, which would raise public interest. A sort of Max Planck of historical Buddhism…


It’s a challenging and frustrating field, no doubt, because there are no written Indian texts from the period in question.

@DKervick, maybe you could add here the most interesting research you’ve come across from the last five years and we could add to it. There might be interesting new material after all. Also, if you haven’t already, I would include PhD theses in your scope.



Maybe @DKervick is overcoming doubt! That fuels endless debates…



I’ve always been more interested in the personal application rather than the scholarship. For example, I get excited about finding a new way to count my breaths without thinking. Even the stuff on historical context I only peruse to help me understand a bit more how one might interpret some things in the suttas (e.g., the semantics attached to colors).

Your post therefore presented a puzzle. How are the EBT’s not enough?

It does seem warmer. And I would not buy any property in Florida.

Perhaps it is time to work furiously on inner practice while we can?


Well the three Bronkhorst books, as well as most of his articles on that period are the most interesting to me, but also Wynne’s recent book Buddhism and his most recent articles and lecture series on text-critical scholarship. But I also like the older Martin Wllshire book on pacekkabuddhas. Honestly there is not much else.

For me, the suttas are the literary remains of a mostly lost oral tradition, which is itself the oral remainder of a long lost sub-culture in one part of India. They are filled with enigmatic, and sometimes contradictory clues about what was going on in the times in which they were produced. It seems to me we still have a vast amount to learn about the origins of Buddhism and the historical Buddha, but there are relatively few people interested in learning these things. I believe the texts record multiple competing doctrinal and practice positions, but that making sense of how these traditions relate to one another requires more detailed internal study and stratification of the texts, as well as, hopefully, corroborating historical of archaeological records.


In my opinion the only way to make sense of them is through the practice of them. They are fossils of enlightened experiences


Probably about 2/3 of them are addressed to monks. Unless one has gone forth and is living the holy life, they cannot be put into practice.

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The dynamics of the path work for any practitioner, ordained or layperson. They are : the observation of the action of kamma, the interaction between sila, samadhi and panna, the efficacy of the analogy of feeding and starvation in the employment of right effort, to begin with. These forces at work need to be energetically investigated to remove doubt.


It depends what you mean by “work”. They can surely have beneficial effects for everyone, but there is little reason to think one can achieve ultimate liberation without going forth from worldly life and renouncing all ordinary pleasures, relationships and worldly concerns.

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Honor more precepts, and much is possible. That is what I have found. It is actually rare for me to find an EBT sutta that offers no traction or insight.

Even though I skip dinner, I enjoy cooking dinner for others. And I let go of “h’anger,” (as my wife reluctantly acknowledged. :laughing:). Therefore, the renouncing of ordinary pleasures need not be a Grand Canyon to be spanned in one jump, but could be simply a series of puddles and streams to be lightly stepped over in passing. Instead of trying to cross the Sacramento River in one step, at the headwaters, the crossing is much easier. Observing precepts lets you travel to that higher ground where solitude and peace abound.


Sure, all that is true.

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