Review of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, by Peter Masefield (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986; rpt. Routledge, 2008)

Image result for DIVINE REVELATION IN PALI BUDDHISMA few years ago, Routledge Library Editions came out with a cloth reprint of what is quite possibly the most important book on the Pali Canon to appear in English to date. It is Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, by Dr. Peter Masefield. The fact that this book is based on the author’s peer-reviewed doctoral thesis (University of Lancaster), prepared under the tutelage of no less an authority than Dr. Ninian Smart, acclaimed British pioneer in the field of secular religious studies, has not deterred a slew of religious and religious-academic Buddhists from denouncing the book. In a recent interview, Dr. Masefield has somewhat ruefully remarked that since the book’s original publication the book has generated no interest or discussion in the academic community or elsewhere, and that he has not heard a word from his publisher in eight years. Such is the state of things in the contested field of Buddhist studies. Considering the original goals of Ninian Smart, viz., fostering cross-cultural understanding of religions as “worldviews,” this is a sad thing and exemplifies the increasing fundamentalism that we see taking hold in all societies, even as the world is dragged, nolens volens, into globalization.

Nevertheless, the first edition of this book, along with Herbert Guenther’s Teachings of Padmasambhava, has been one of my prized possessions since I first obtained it in the late 1980s. To my shame I only sat down to read it cover to cover recently, spurred on by the aforesaid interview with Dr. Masefield and my reading of an exchange concerning him on the notorious Free Sangha forum. I picked up the book out of a desire to learn about the worldview of the Nikayas, the same desire that had led me to enroll in an introduction to the Pali Canon course offered by the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies here in Toronto, now defunct. One searches in vain for a single comprehensive study of the Pali Canon. The only scholar I know of that I might compare with Dr. Masefield is Richard Gombrich, for his searching inquiry and speculative originality.

I was, therefore, delighted to discover on the first page of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism a frank and explicit recognition of just these facts. Referring to the tens of thousands of academic papers that have been published on Buddhism over the past century, Dr. Masefield writes,

One might think, therefore, that by now an extensive bank of knowledge were available and that little more remained to be said … Yet when we seek for a book going beyond a general introduction to the religion we tend often to seek in vain … ‘Invalid generalisations seem to be one of the cardinal sins of scholarly works.’ … not only are the majority of such generalisations not substantiated by the texts but also that they are often contradicted by the wealth of suttas lying between those usually cited. … the fact that a good many terms were used with a definitely technical sense has often escaped most scholars including, it may be noted, translators of the Pali Canon.

And so on. It came as a complete revelation to me to discover that just the conclusions to which I had come, nolens volens, are echoed by a great religious scholar of the calibre of Dr. Peter Masefield, and that his methodological approach, viz., to study the Pali texts in their entirety with a view to identifying and understanding the philosophy implicit within them, is exactly the methodology that I had sought to employ at the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies.

Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism is a breathtaking book, both in its depth and range. Taking in nothing less than the entirety of the Nikayas, including the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara Nikayas and the Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, and Sutta Nipata[1] as its universe of discourse, and despite being written in a dense narrative that includes both translated and untranslated quotations from Pali and French, Dr. Masefield has succeeded in deciphering the philosophy of the original Buddhists during the Nikaya period, corresponding to the fifth century BCE. According to tradition, these texts originated in the First Buddhist Council, held shortly after the Buddha’s death, according to the best Western estimates between 405 and 383 BCE.  Rather than attempting to identify the original teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama, through a process of linguistic, historical, and cultural reduction – an approach that has proved to be completely sterile in Christian theological studies – resulting in a kind of “academic Buddhism,” Masefield has taken the opposite tack of comprehensively studying, comparing, and collating everything, looking for continuities and recurring themes, from a non-sectarian perspective, including the Mahayana. This latter point also corresponds to a conclusion to which I have increasingly come, viz., that the sectarian distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana is a somewhat arbitrary imposition of later times, and that in fact the seeds of Mahayana and even Tantra are already implicit in the Pali Canon, which is not Theravada, Hinayana, or Mahayana, but simply dhamma, in contrast to my Nalanda College professor, who insisted that Tantra, Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana of course, and indeed much of the Pali Canon itself [sic!] are “not Buddhism” but Indian (and therefore bad).[2] Thus, Masefield is quite willing to discuss the Pali Canon in the context of the Lotus Sutra, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Prajnaparamita, nor does he seek to alienate the Buddha from his Indian cultural context.  On the contrary, Masefield is committed to understanding Buddhism in the context of Indian traditionalism, as his final chapter on the remythologization of Buddhism makes very clear, whereas my professor wished to have it that the Buddha was a tabula rasa with no cultural indebtedness or antecedents at all.

Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism consists of four chapters on (1) the spiritual division of the Buddhist world, (2) the path, (3) the goal, and (4) the new Brahmin. In these chapters, Masefield probes more deeply into the Buddhism of the Nikaya period than any scholar I know of. His research develops a line of argument that does not sit well with many Buddhist religionists, hence the controversy to which I alluded at the beginning of my review. Masefield’s line of argument is, in essence, as follows:

  • The fundamental division of the Buddhist world was not between the monastics and the laity, as it is today, but rather between the puthujjana and the ariyasavaka, the former consisting of those who have not “right view” and the latter those who do. Those who have “right view” are said to have the “dhamma eye” (dhammacakkhu). These categories existed amongst both the laity and the monastics at first, and only later was the category of savaka (“hearer”) attributed exclusively to the sangha. The Pali Canon clearly attests that it is possible for a householder to become enlightened, and for a monastic to be unenlightened, nor is enlightenment able to be obtained merely by the application of practices and rules.
  • Buddhism itself comprises two spiritual praxes, one related to kamma and rebirth and the other, higher path to the pursuit of transcendence. The former relates to the practices of morality, which the Buddha clearly identifies as elementary and inferior, whereas the latter, reserved for the ariyasavaka, was reserved for those who have “right view,” without which it cannot be practiced. The kammic practice of merit-making, in particular, which replaced the Vedic sacrifice, by giving alms to the sangha, is only efficacious if the recipient is duly qualified by “right view.” Giving alms to puthujjanas, whether lay or monastic, generates little or no merit.
  • Right view consists of the radical transformative insight, characterized even as a “rebirth,” into the true nature of existence that distinguishes the Buddhist worldview and is the first step of the path, for without “right view” there is no impetus to escape. It is, not, however, a purely intellectual knowing, but rather a deep interior or intuitive realization that is always communicated, usually by the Buddha himself, by means of what Masefield calls a “progressive talk.” Right view is the first step in the Ariyan eightfold path, which cannot be followed otherwise. Those who had experienced “right view” quickly disappeared following the Buddha’s death, thus resulting in the sangha being completely overwhelmed by the puthujjanas as soon as seventy years following the parinibbana. The overwhelming implication of Masefield’s analysis echoes that of Herbert Guenther, that the modern Buddhist sangha is a puthujjana sangha, completely devoid of authenticity, offerings to which have no kammic value or efficacy whatsoever.
  • The relationship between dhamma and sound, i.e., mantra, is essential, so that true initiation must always be auditory. This discovery is an extraordinarily important confirmation of the Tibetan and Zennist emphasis on personal oral transmission. Dhamma cannot simply be studied and intellectually understood and accepted to be efficacious. Something more, which is intrinsically intimate and ineffable, is required.
  • It is “right view,” and not years or even lifetimes of observance of meditative or other rules or practices, that is the essential thing in obtaining emancipation. The suttas make it very clear that, once right view is attained, one can achieve full emancipation in a matter of days, although it might also take years or even multiple lifetimes, the distinguishing factor being kamma. The latter is the only possibility for obtaining right view in this decadent age, but must be extremely rare, if it even occurs at all, since the maximum number of rebirths of one who achieves right view is seven and buddhas themselves only appear at intervals of eons.
  • The Buddha was not an innovator. His goal was to restore Brahminism to the original and true dhamma of the rishis from which it had degenerated, which had been taught by all the Buddhas of the past. The ariyasangha, therefore, is the new and true Brahminism, to whom alone offerings should be made due to their exclusive and immediate spiritual connexion with the supramundane.
  • Finally, at the end of the book Masefield draws the obvious conclusion that contemporary organized or institutional Buddhism is utterly decadent and corrupt, having degenerated from the Buddha’s time in exactly the same way that the Brahmins of the Buddha’s time had degenerated from the original dhamma of the rishis some 1,100 years before, nor is there any possibility of redemption, since “right view” can only be obtained from a buddha or a deva. Neither the lower (lunar) path of kamma nor the higher (solar) path of transcendence is technically accessible to moderns for the reasons stated above.

In a future post I will explore the implications of the foregoing conclusions for the Dharma Transmission to the West.


  1. The four Great Nikayas constitute the core of the Buddhavacana, consisting of roughly two million words, or four hundred hours of speech. This works out to less than ten hours for each year from the Buddha’s Enlightenment to his Parinibbana. Even allowing for repetition, this is a remarkably small number, especially given the fact that the Buddha is represented as teaching more or less continuously for forty-five years, suggesting that a significant proportion of the Buddha’s teachings, especially during the first twenty years of his career – before Ananda became his permanent personal attendant – have been irretrievably lost. In addition, the Buddha’s statement that he only taught a small portion of the dharma in any case vastly amplifies the conclusion that the Pali Canon by itself cannot be taken as a complete presentation of the dharma.
  2. This at a time when the Sri Lankan government was engaged in the mass murder of as many as 120,000 innocent Tamil civilians, according to a recent exposé by CBC Radio.

One thought on “Review of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, by Peter Masefield (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986; rpt. Routledge, 2008)

  1. Per your summary of Masefield’s book, as you presented it in your bullet points, I would agree with all of what you present him as saying EXCEPT with a categorical and absolute rejection of point 4 and most of the final point and feel a little clarification is necessary with point 1.

    As to point 1, its clear if you read widely in the Pali canon that enlightenment beyond once-returnership requires celibacy. That is, a non-celibate cannot become an arhant. So that, “The Pali Canon clearly attests that it is possible for a householder to become enlightened” is true, but only if you understand that these are celibate householders. In the canon there is a category of celibate lay disciple which is not recognized in modern mainstream Buddhism. The reason why “fundamental division of the Buddhist world” is “between the monastics and the laity” today is that all laity who identify with mainstream seem to be sex fiends and being taught that they should be.

    As to point 4, it is in absolute contradiction to points 2 and 3. “The relationship between dhamma and sound, i.e., mantra, is essential, so that true initiation must always be auditory.” This is clearly derived by taking silly Mayanist material too seriously. You cannot get this from the Pali canon. Yes, Buddha is presented as having a magical presence such that him merely preaching one sermon will put the whammy on someone and make them enlightened, but this does not mean this is the only way to enlightenment, as clearly its not how Buddha himself became enlightened, nor is it how he teaches that enlightenment works. Its just an exageration of how effective his preaching was, OR it worked so fast because he explained things more fully than what the canonizers decided to write down. In particular, I believe the thing that makes modern Buddhism so wrong is the no-soul doctrine. Buddha says “the body is not the self” and so on, not that “there is no self”…and its clear (to me) that his intention is to by process of elimination get the hearer to recognize that the spirit or soul is the self. “The body is not the self. Emotions are not the self. Perceptions are not the self. Dispositions are not the self. Consciousness, i.e. the 5 senses and the brain’s conglomeration of them into one coherent picture, is not the self.” This teaching is meant to lead the hearer to say “aha, then the soul is the self.” Its not that you have to hear the Dhamma directly from Buddha to come to Right View, but that you have to not be an inveterate materialist, and the reason modern the Buddhist establishment is iredeemable is they are inveterate materialists.

    Anyway, to the reason that point 4 is in contradiction to points 2 and 3. Points 2 and 3 assert that the modern sangha is a puthujjana sangha, completely confused and not having Right View, such that an offering to them results in no fruit. Ok, well then the conclusion in point 4 that “This discovery is an extraordinarily important confirmation of the Tibetan emphasis on personal oral transmission” is absurdity.

    As to the final point, I don’t agree that “‘right view’ can only be obtained from a buddha or a deva (orally).” Having Buddha’s teachings in the suttas is enough, IF you are not an inveterate materialist atheist type. Because if you are not, then when you read his constant harping on the 5 aggregates, and you read “The body is not the self” you’re automatic reaction will be “right, because the soul is.” This is the missing insight. This is why modern Buddhism is lost. The establishment reads “the body is not the self” and says “What Buddha really meant was, The body is the only self there is.” This is where they went off the rails. Its really an easy fix, on the individual level. The problem is, you’ll never convince the establishment.

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