People Who Want to Change Buddhism: A Commentary on YouTube Comments
“sorry but the Buddha didn't even teach about "rebirth". you are lost in superstition about falsely translated texts, later doctrines and have brought your Burmese village superstition to the West” —a YouTube comment, and a case in point to what follows
Recently I posted a video I did with venerable Ajahn Punnadhammo of Arrow River Forest Hermitage in the northern wilds of Ontario, and with Brian Ruhe, my eccentric good friend in Vancouver BC. The video was on the issue of orthodox Theravada Buddhism being very politically incorrect by 21st-century western leftist standards, so that many western Buddhists feel compelled to try to change Theravada into something more compatible with neo-Marxism. This of course results in something that is no longer really Theravada, but of course “social justice warriors” don’t care about such things.
Somehow the video became known to some of these aforementioned lefties, apparently, and so the comments section below the video swelled with criticisms and the insistence that, according to Dharma, society must be changed for the better, and with (apparently) a few western Buddhists taking issue with really noncontroversial aspects of Buddhism and the Pali language. Ironically but not surprisingly, some of the comments simply demonstrated the points we were making in the video.
I engaged in some prolonged back-and-forth with two of these commentators. One of them mainly was insisting that there was no slavery in ancient India, and that there is no word for “slave” in the Pali language (actually it is dāsa, but more on that later). The other was insisting that the Buddha never taught rebirth, and that the standard interpretations of kamma/karma itself is “superstitious.” Both of these people were at least somewhat knowledgeable with regard to Buddhism and Buddhist texts, so they weren’t wallowing at the level of, say, an evangelical Christian criticizing Buddhism in the comments of Breitbart. It is difficult to explain things well in YouTube comments, and so one purpose of this post, not the most important purpose I hope, is to present a case for my point of view, namely that there WAS slavery in ancient India, and that there is no way of knowing that the Buddha DIDN’T teach rebirth.
Those of you who are interested in the original back-and-forth exchanges can read the comments under the video yourselves; though here I will point out that the person who insisted that there was no slavery in ancient India based his arguments on two points: 1) the testimony of an ancient Greek who visited India in ancient times, and 2) the fact that the Pali word for slave, dāsa, was originally a term referring to an aboriginal ethnicity of people in northwestern India in Rig Vedic times.
The first argument is a relatively weak one, considering that there is an abundance of evidence, for example found in the ancient Indian Pali texts themselves, that slavery was common in the Ganges Valley at or slightly after the Buddha’s time, say around the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. As I pointed out in the back-and-forth, runaway slaves are not allowed to be ordained, and it was even allowable in ancient times to donate slaves to monasteries. It was touched upon in the video, I think, that a sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, M.93, refers to the Yonas or Greeks, stating that they have only two castes, masters and slaves, and that the masters can become slaves and vice versa. (This is probably an anachronism, considering that the Greeks probably were not well known to the Indians of the central and eastern Ganges Valley until after the time of Alexander’s conquests, but still it is ancient.) The word used in these contexts is of course the Pali word dāso, which means “slave.” (The word for “master” here is ayyo.) Also, outside of Buddhist texts, at least one Ashokan inscription mentions Ashoka’s wholesome act of freeing most if not all of his slaves.
But the commentator was completely unimpressed by such arguments, stating that dāsa simply refers to the dark-skinned inhabitants of prehistoric northern India. (He mocked the very idea, though, that the Indo-Aryans invaded from outside of India, causing me to suspect that, despite the English name on his comments, that of a deceased American president, he may be of Indian ethnicity—since it is mainly Indians or western Hinduized types who insist vehemently that the Aryans arose in India, generally a zillion bajillion years ago.) Dāsa, according to him, is just the Pali version of the Vedic word dāsa or dāsyu, referring to non-Aryan people. So because the original meaning of a word a thousand years earlier did not mean slave, the Pali word can’t mean slave either. That, essentially, is the argument.
But consider the word “slave” in English. It originally meant “Slav.” Slave and Slav are etymologically the same word. So what happened was, in English as well as in Pali, that a subjugated race was enslaved so often that the term signifying that race became associated with slaves, and came to mean “slave.” But some people have an agenda that interferes with seeing uncomplicated facts.
Similar is the case with the person who vehemently insisted that the Buddha never taught rebirth and that there simply is no term in Pali for “rebirth” or “past lives.” This person may not even be a leftist, though she or he is obviously a product of western culture. Those of you familiar with the Pali texts should know that there is plenty of mention of past lives, much of it reportedly coming from the Buddha himself. These mentions were dismissed by the commentator as spurious, as later additions. But some mentions of past lives attributed to the Buddha come from very old texts, in some ways even archaic ones. The Samaññaphala Sutta (D.2), for example, is the second sutta of the entire Tipitaka. One bit of evidence that it is very old, aside from its prominent position in the Pitaka, is that it enumerates the fruits of the ascetic life from low to high, and somehow leaves out the four stages of Ariya-hood (which may not have been developed yet at the time of the sutta’s composition). Anyway, one advanced fruit of the ascetic life that IS mentioned is the recollection of past lives. In Maurice Walsh’s translation of the Digha it reads like this:
“And he, with mind concentrated,… applies and directs his mind to the knowledge of previous existences [pubbenivāsā]. He remembers many previous existences: one birth, two, three, four, five births, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty births, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand births, several periods of contraction, of expansion, of both contraction and expansion. ‘There my name was so-and-so, my clan was so-and-so, my caste was so-and-so, my food was such-and-such, I experienced such-and-such pleasant and painful conditions, I lived for so long. Having passed away from there, I arose there. There my name was so-and-so … And having passed away from there, I arose here.’ Thus he remembers various past births, their conditions and details."
Now, someone who insists that there is no Pali term for rebirth or past lives is simply ignorant, plus maybe playing games with oneself in order not to see the truth. On the other hand, to say that the Buddha never taught something requires some sort of evidence to support it. I wholeheartedly agree that it can’t be proven that the historical Gotama Buddha did or did not teach this or that. All we have is some texts and inscriptions, with some fairly good guesses as to how old each one, or each part of each one, happens to be. I am aware that the most archaic Buddhist texts, like the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-Nipata, tend to avoid any kind of metaphysical arguments and go straight to the practical business of freeing the mind from delusion. But even so, rebirth was believed in and taught by most philosophical schools in India in the Buddha’s time, and is attested in Buddhism from very early times. So the insistence that rebirth is nothing but “superstition” that was never taught by the Buddha is almost certainly little more than wishful thinking and a preference for spiritually bankrupt materialistic thinking derived from modern western cultural conditioning.
This phenomenon of rejecting out of hand inconvenient doctrines as spurious later additions to the texts is fairly common. Most of the people endorsing the revival of the Order of ordained Theravadin nuns, the Bhikkhuni Sangha, do the same with the Buddha’s alleged reluctance to ordain women in the first place, and the stricter, harsher rules he imposed upon them when he finally was persuaded to allow their existence. The Buddha was enlightened; and so if in some account of him he behaves in a way that would be rejected as sexist today, even though he lived 25 centuries ago in a very patriarchal culture, then such an account must be fake. The leftist Buddhists of today have taken this ball and have run with it, rejecting and wanting to change even some of the most fundamental teachings. But if you want to know more about that, please refer to the video.
I have to admit that this is a very sticky issue. Almost all western Theravada Buddhists, including some of the most intelligent, dedicated, and knowledgeable, cannot accept ALL of the Pali Tipitaka as legit. For example, most western monks consider the third Pitaka, Abhidhamma, to be spurious, i.e. not the authentic teaching of Gotama Buddha. Other things found in the texts, like the flat earth floating on water, fire-breathing cobra dragons, and eclipses being caused by a gigantic demon named Rāhu swallowing the sun or moon into his mouth, are non-starters for most western Buddhists. But for some this kind of thing flings the door wide open to rejecting out of hand any teaching in the texts that is unpleasant or inconvenient or just in conflict with modern western materialism, or worse, in conflict with postmodern western social justice. By rejecting or changing whatever one doesn’t like, by insisting that the Buddha wouldn’t really have taught it, or that “there is no word for it in Pali” regardless of facts, or whatever, is essentially destructive to Dharma in this world.
Consequently there really should be some serious study and analysis, and a reluctance to dismiss what we simply don’t like. One should use careful analysis and a deep knowledge of Buddhist history and textual analysis, so far as it exists, before one declares that some text or doctrine is probably apocryphal. The overwhelming rejection of Abhidhamma as the authentic word of Buddha is based on many valid points, to say nothing of the flat earth floating on water or the Rāhu theory of eclipses. But to say “The Buddha never taught” or “The Buddha never said” as a bald assertion is based on bias and wishful thinking, because we really can’t know for sure what anyone said or didn’t say 25 centuries ago.
So my take on modern and postmodern Buddhists rejecting certain teachings found in ancient texts is that we should own it when we do it. I try to specify when discussing Buddhist philosophy whether I am being orthodox or deviating from orthodoxy, and if the latter, then why. But the arrogance of some people is such that they will insist that to the extent that the Buddha, or the texts, differ from their own opinions, then to that extent the Buddha or the texts are simply WRONG. Western leftists are notorious for this, but it is found on the right also. It’s mostly a western thing I suppose.
To be fair, this is not to suggest that Asians haven’t mutated Buddhism to suit themselves too. But in their defense they tend not to flat-out reject what has been venerated tradition for centuries or millennia, but rather to round off the edges and conveniently ignore certain dogmas to make the tradition fit their own culture, plus of course, in more extreme cases, to cook up “new teachings” of Buddha, maybe even of some mythological cosmic one.
I am reminded of a saying of my dear departed father, who observed that any religion that doesn’t change to adapt to new cultures and new times is committing suicide. I can see the point of that, especially considering that orthodox Theravada is so ancient Indian that it is unlikely to flourish in anything resembling its original form in a place like the USA. But on the other hand the contrary is also true: Any religion that DOES change to adapt to new cultures, especially to a spiritually bankrupt culture, is also committing suicide in a sense. When fools get to change Dharma to mean whatever they want it to mean, that is worse than mere suicide, that’s murder—the killing of an enlightened tradition for the sake of making fools comfortable.