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

A 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, where academic mediocrity, nit-picking, and back-biting are so common that it is really impossible for anyone with a comprehensive, synthetic, or speculative understanding to exercise any significant influence at all (I was once told by an academic at the University of Toronto that Mircea Eliade, probably the greatest comparative religions scholar of the 20th century, was not a “real scholar”). 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 a typically vicious exchange concerning him on the notorious Free Sangha forum, dominated by the usual anti-intellectualism and pettiness with which I, as a past participant in that forum, am all too familiar. 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. I was shocked then by the ignorance, viciousness, mediocrity, and reprehensible social views of the professor who, rather than teaching us the worldview of the Pali Canon, which he did not know in any case, having obtained his Ph.D. in education, trotted out a handful of stock lists and called it a course. Unfortunately, in the world of Buddhist academics this is the norm. Online forums of professional academic translators debate enthusiastically over minutiae of footnotes, but have no understanding or even interest in what they translate, such understanding being berated as “subjective,” “culturally relative,” “arbitrary,” and “meaningless.” One searches Amazon.com 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, who has also earned the ire of the fundamentalists, both inside and outside academe, 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, which was denounced by my aforesaid professor as “unscholarly” and for which I was unceremoniously cast out of academe.

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, as my professor sought to do, motivated clearly by racist and political biases that he did not attempt to hide or conceal in any way.  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 of which I know. 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 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.

Note:

  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. And yet such an individual is employed by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Religious Studies, his salary paid for by Canadian taxpayers!
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