My Formal Response to Ken Wheeler, Part 2: the Misinformation Manifesto
suññato lokaṁ avekkhassu
mogharāja sadā sato
evaṁ maccurato siyā
evaṁ lokaṁ avekkhantaṁ
maccurājā na passatīti
Look upon the world from the position of Void,
Mogharāja, always being mindful;
Dispelling the view of self
One would thus be a crosser of death;
One thus looking upon the world
The king of death does not see.
—from the Mogharāja Mānavapucchā of the Pārāyanavagga
Last time I discussed a rather strongly worded response to my latest attempt at explaining the Buddhist doctrine of anattā or No Self, sent to me by the notorious Ken Wheeler. The previous installment of this here blog was mainly by way of introduction, and what follows is more of a systematic demonstration of the unlikelihood that his strange views of Buddhism in general, and No Self in particular (a doctrine for which he has nothing but contempt), are correct.
So let’s move on to his strange take on the early history of Buddhism. Some of that may be found in the second part of his “introduction,” quoted in the previous installment, and more is contained in a second email that he sent to me indirectly via a mutual acquaintance (I consider him a friend, but Mr. Wheeler may have referred to him as “some random person,” so I go with “acquaintance”). Before going into his (rather naive methinks) interpretation of the earliest Buddhism I will mention a few howlers in his take on not-quite-so-early Buddhist history, plus his idea of heresy. First, the heresy.
As one may see in the first part of the (I’m guessing his) anonymous comment to my post on Buddhists who insist on a soul, Mr. Wheeler considers Theravada to be a “heretical sect proclaiming itself as Buddhism.” Well, by what authority does he declare it heresy? He’s not even a Buddhist by his own admission. It’s rather like a non-Christian declaring Eastern Orthodoxy to be heretical and false Christianity. I freely admit that Theravada as it exists today, and even as it existed after the 3rd council, even shortly before the 2nd, does not reliably represent the pure teaching of Gotama Buddha; but even so, Theravada is strongly based on pre-2nd-council Buddhism, and Buddhism even a hundred years after the Buddha or less could reasonably be called “Proto-Theravada.” Orthodox Theravada is strongly based on the suttas that Mr. Wheeler seems to consider authoritative teachings of the Buddha himself. If Theravada, which comes closest of all extant schools of Buddhism and is the only surviving school based on the language and culture of the ancient Ganges Valley, is false Buddhism, then all schools of Buddhism are false Buddhism…which appears to be what Mr. Wheeler is saying, because of course no school of Buddhism represented in history agrees with this fellow’s understanding of it, particularly his claim that the original Buddhism taught the existence of an intrinsically real soul. As I pointed out in the previous essay, even before the time of the emperor Ashoka Buddhism had split into numerous sects, with one of them being called Pudgalavāda, “the Doctrine of the Individual,” which asserted the existence of individual beings in this world—but even they were devoid of a soul because anattā was established doctrine before the various schools began the process of schism and divergent evolution, stated by various Buddhist chronologies to be shortly after the 2nd Great Council approximately one hundred years after the Buddha’s disappearance from this world.
Some of Wheeler’s claims regarding very ancient Buddhism are rather amazing. For example he asserts that the original name of Theravāda was Sarvāstivāda. It is evident from ancient Buddhist chronicles, including non-Theravadin ones, that Theravada and Sarvastivada split apart around the time of the 3rd Great Council held during the reign of the emperor Ashoka, around the mid third century BCE. In fact it could be argued that the main purpose of the 3rd Council was purging a “heretical” faction of the Thera school, that is the Sarvastivadins, and settling orthodox Theravada pretty much as it is now represented in the Theravada Buddhist Tipitaka. Sarvāstivāda means “the Doctrine of All Exists,” primarily referring to the Sarvastivadin claim that past, present, and future all exist in a sense simultaneously, as opposed to the orthodox Thera position that only the present moment exists. The Sarvastivadins also held the view that impermanence applies only to combinations of ultimately real dharmas, not the dharmas themselves, as opposed to the orthodox Thera view that all conditioned entities are flashing in and out of momentary existence at a rate of about a trillion times per second. The two schools, Sarvastivada and Theravada, developed around the time of the 3rd Council their own Abhidhamma/Abhidharma texts which differ radically from each other, and it is hardly realistic to say that Sarvastivada existed before Theravada did. Even the non-Theravadin ancient Buddhist historians agree that one of the two main branches of Buddhism after the first schism was called the Sthaviras, or Elders, with sthavira being the Sanskrit version of thera, as in Theravāda. So it may be that Wheeler is simply confusing the words Sarvāsti and Sthavira…but even so he would be mistaken because it is hardly likely that the Theras would be known by a Sanskrit term before being called Theras in Pali or rather proto-Pali, the language spoken by the first Buddhists.
Wheeler further asserts, in the second email he sent to me indirectly via the mutual acquaintance, “A Pillar edicts [sic] of King Ashoka mentions ‘Panchnikaya’ (5 Nikayas). The Pillar edicts of King Ashoka PREDATE ALL BUDDHIST SECTS, especially the Theravadins.” He makes many other statements to the effect that, based on I have no idea what, there was no splitting of Buddhism into sects until the time of Ashoka or afterwards. This displays an amazing ignorance of early Buddhist history, as the official history of the Buddhist Sangha as described not only by Theravadin chroniclers but those of other ancient sects as well agree that the first schism, into Sthavira (Thera) and Mahāsānghika schools, occurred shortly after the 2nd Great Council, predating Ashoka by over a century. (Technically the first schism in the Sangha occurred during the Buddha’s lifetime, instigated by his cousin Devadatta; and I have read that one of the early Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to India saw a monastery of the followers of Devadatta’s school during his travels…but I suppose I digress.) In fact by the time of Ashoka there were considered to be many schools of Buddhism already in existence; and one Abhidhamma text, the Kathāvatthu, is a compendium of controversies of pre-Mahayana sects of Buddhism around the time of Ashoka. This is not controversial and is accepted by various schools of Buddhism, not just “heretical” Theravada. Thus the ignorance of mainstream Buddhist history by a self-proclaimed authority on the subject is pretty amazing. Sometimes he even appears to believe that Ashoka lived in the 3rd century of the common era, not the 3rd century BCE.
But what does this authority on Buddhism consider to be the original teaching of the historical Buddha? Apparently he has no more sophisticated idea than the assumption that the Sutta Pitaka is pristine Buddha-vacana, and that the other two pitakas, Vinaya and Abhidhamma, are both apocrypha added several centuries later. This is a cruder idea than one adopted by Buddhist historian A. K. Warder and many western monks, namely that the core texts—the texts held in common by the earliest sects of Buddhism on both sides of the first great schism, namely most of the first four books of Vinaya, the first four Nikāyas, and the first several books of the fifth Nikāya—were the texts recited at the first Great Council and reliably represent the teachings of the actual Buddha. BUT, considering that the first historical schism of the Sangha (setting aside Devadatta) occurred about a century after the Buddha’s time, all the core texts represent is the state of Buddhist scriptural philosophy a century after the founder’s death…and as the history of early Christianity shows, a hell of a lot of virus-like mutation can occur in the first century of a religious movement.
In the second email Wheeler sent me indirectly through our mutual friend, he refers to a really excellent book, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, by G. C. Pande. I consider this to be one of the most important books a person could read to understand what the origins of Buddhism were like. But Wheeler appears to have learned precious little from this book that he quotes repeatedly—every quote is from the first few pages, and it may be that he never read the whole thing. If he did he would have seen Pande’s evidence of a rapid evolution of Buddhist philosophy even before the first historical schism, with a few texts, like the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-Nipāta, or the Dīghanakha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, or the central portions of the Sakkapañha Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, representing a very “archaic” stratum. In this stratum ALL philosophical views are discouraged as “extraneous” and as encumbrances. This is why the Pali word ditthi, “view,” came eventually to mean wrong view: because originally ALL views were to be dispensed with, or at least detached from. Thus no self, and no not self. The historical Buddha, based on literary analysis such as that used in Pande’s book, evidently taught that one should not reify the Absolute, and should not even attempt to describe Ultimate Reality, because it is Off The Scale, completely outside the context of Samsara in which words are applicable. (More or less as an aside I would say that one of the defects of Pande’s book is that, since he was a high-caste Brahmin Hindu, he chose to interpret early Buddhism along Vedantist Hindu lines.)
So Ken Wheeler starts with a very superficial and incomplete understanding of early Buddhist history (or if he knows better than everyone else on the matter, including ancient Buddhist chroniclers and even ancient canonical texts of several schools, he really should state the grounds for his rejection of well-established Buddhist history), a very naive interpretation of what Buddhist texts are reliably authentic, and a rather sketchy understanding of Pali grammar, and then proceeds to use preconceived biases to tease out meanings in the texts that only someone with preconceived biases would find. (I may as well add that plenty of Buddhistic scholars in the west, including philologists who probably know more about the Pali language than Mr. Wheeler and me combined, who are not Buddhists and really have no ideological or dogmatic axe to grind with regard to Buddhist doctrine, STILL see the statements in Pali suttas about No Self to be clearly endorsing No Self, and if they do disagree with anattā and prefer to believe that the Buddha taught the existence of an immortal soul, then they are obliged to suggest that all the stuff about No Self in the suttas consists of later interpolations…but maybe I digress again.)
The man is certainly entitled to his opinion regarding the earliest Buddhist doctrines; but what I really take issue with is his ridiculous claims that he is the world’s leading authority on the earliest Buddhism, despite an amazing ignorance of early Buddhist history, and, more importantly, his utter disregard of some basic Buddhist ethics. On that second grounds alone I would call him out as a charlatan, a fraud: sneering conceit, arrogance, and contemptuousness is considered fairly solid evidence of foolishness in Buddhism, and very probably in Wheeler’s professed philosophy of Platonism as well. This is the issue here: How can somebody understand Buddhist Dharma better than anyone else on the planet while being an arrogant fool at the very same time? Even I am not THAT arrogant, or that contemptuous.
The mutual acquaintance, or friend, made some considerable effort to defend Ken Wheeler’s sneering disdain of anyone who disagrees with his absurd interpretation of Buddhism, and at one point asked me what my attitude would be if some senior monk was speaking and acting in the same way. I assume he was expecting me to defer to a senior monk just out of respect for seniority; but the fact is that I would regard such a monk as worse than Wheeler and a disgrace to the robes he wore. A senior monk, much more than a silly layperson, should know better than to sneer with contempt and cackle with smug conceit. At least a layperson has the excuse of not dedicating his life to following the highest teachings of an enlightened sage.
This may all seem like I’m just trying to get back at this fellow for dissing me; although really, as I say, he is entitled to his opinion, and I have good friends who believe things that I consider to be just as ridiculous, or even more so. I would go so far as to say that he is partly right in his rejection of the doctrine of anattā: the historical Buddha, in my opinion, based on MY investigations of the earliest texts, not the dumbed-down “core texts” hypothesis, did not endorse No Self as it is put forth in the suttas; he simply discouraged reifying the Absolute. Thus, no self and no NOT self, no ontological assertions about Ultimate Reality whatsoever. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out, futilely, many times, this refusal to make assertions lends itself better to denial than to assertion, and easily led in the case of Buddhism to the positive denial of any soul or self.
So the farthest I would go, based on my decades of study of the texts and my living the life of an ancient Indian Buddhist monk as well as I was able, is that a Buddhist might accept an essentially Vedantist approach to the soul (Atman = Brahman), but only passively and tacitly, because anything asserted in words is NOT THAT—neti, neti, not this, not that, i.e. the apophasis implied in the name of Wheeler’s YouTube channel. The stereotypical example of a fool in the Pali texts says, “Only this is true! Anything otherwise is wrong!” and we’ve got the world’s leading authority on What the Buddha Really Taught (at least with regard to the immortal soul) saying essentially the same.
I have no hard feelings against Ken Wheeler, and have no great desire to mock him or sneer at him. We probably would agree on quite a few things. I might even be willing to debate him if he has the balls for it, though I still doubt that we would get very far with it, and the earliest texts discourage philosophical debate anyway, public or private. But one thing Wheeler and I have in common is that we don’t slavishly follow along with what the texts say, much less with ethnic traditions, for better and for worse.
Incidentally, for those of you who are interested in the early history of Buddhism, and the history of Theravada in particular, I made a video briefly discussing the history of Theravada, and the councils and schisms of Buddhism in general, here. Consider it part 3.
|the numbers along the left margin represent years before the common era|
(illustration is from a Pali Text Society translation of the Kathāvatthu,
if I remember correctly)