Thanks, this is helpful.
It reminds me of what was called “redaction criticism” in Bible studies. The point being that the original text has passed through “redactors” and their hands left interesting marks on the texts as we have them.
I think the point of this criticism is that the “discourse” is assumed to be a given teaching stated at a given time to a given group of people. Differences are considered to be more-or-less trivial representations of that fundamental unit.
IIUC, he is suggesting that we pay more attention to the manner in which discourses are composed, since their composition reveals details of how the teachings were received and understood.
There’s a saying by someone in the field, unfortunately I forget who, to the effect that: no hypothesis of early Buddhism is less plausible than that the Buddha spent his whole life merely repeating the same few doctrinal formulas without variation.
Beware of academic contrarianism. It’s basically a requirement to get any work noticed that you have to say, “Everyone else is doing that. But I say we should do this.” Whether it’s true or not is beside the point, it’s a rhetorical strategy.
It’s certainly a valid approach to look at how formulas are used and to analyze their relationships and so on. I’ve done some of it myself. For example, in the Northern suttas on satipatthana, there is a commonly used short formula. Is this a genuine difference from the Pali version? I found that there’s a place in the Chinese samyukta where it gives the abbreviation, and then says that all abbreviated suttas should be expanded like this. So clearly the short form is not intended as a different content, merely a convenience.
As to formulas of setting and so on, it has been an accepted axiom of the field since the work of Ven Thich Minh Chao in the 60s (at least) that the narrative settings vary more and hence are likely to be later than the doctrinal teachings. So sure, the use of narrative formulas (pericopes) may reveal something of the way the texts were organized and the methods and values of those doing the organizing.
But there are plenty of things in the texts that are not formulas. Lots of narrative contexts are quite unique and personal. On the other hand, lots of suttas have no narrative, or if they do, they are so generic as to be useless (and often just abbreviated away). Paying attention to formulas might illuminate some patterns, but the choice of method has already focused the light of attention in a particular way that will illuminate particular kinds of truths and obscure others. This is acknowledged in Shulman’s choice of subject: by focusing on MN and DN he chooses to look precisely at that subset of EBTs where narrative invention is present. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a way of seeing is all.
One general problem with the field of Buddhist studies is the dislocation between fundamentals and theory. Consider the state of fundamentals in the field:
- we don’t have full translations of Chinese Agamas
- we don’t have full translations of Sanskrit texts
- we don’t have full translations of Chinese Vinayas
- we don’t have a complete, up-to-date dictionary.
- few scholars are fluent in all relevant languages
Things have got a lot better, to be sure. But there’s a long way to go. The field is large and complex, the workers are few and scattered, and funding is somewhere between thin and non-existent.
Meanwhile, academics are influenced by current trends in academic theory. But those theories evolved in other fields, such as Bible studies, where none of these problems apply. They have multiple fine translations, excellent and thorough study programs, and lots and lots of money. Like, lots of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars every year kind of money. Bible studies has evolved through generation after generation of theoretical approaches, all building on the fact that the Bible was already well-translated and the basics well understood since the age of textual criticism began well over a century ago. It’s a much smaller text, with many more people studying it critically for a longer time.
So there is a tendency to want to apply different theoretical models to Buddhist texts, influenced by developments in other fields (and of course Bible studies is just one of them). There’s nothing wrong with this—I’ve studied Bible criticism precisely to learn from what they have been doing. But for the field as a whole, what’s really needed is to lay the groundwork, to create a solid foundation. Perhaps insights from other fields will help illuminate Buddhist studies. Or perhaps we will find our own way.
It’s early days, is all I’m saying. Let’s listen to different theoretical approaches and see what we can learn. But just be a little cautious before hoisting your flag on the latest mast. (Does that metaphor work? Seems suss to me!)
Worth noting that TW Rhys Davids wrote some great literary analysis of Suttas; see for example his introductions to DN suttas, or his analysis of Jatakas.