A Western Academic Buddhist Conspiracy Theory…and Worse
Although scholars often talk about enlightenment as if it had some recognized empirical referent, it does not….Although D.T. Suzuki’s depiction of enlightenment as a transformed psychological state has been highly influential in scholarship, early texts show no awareness of anything that could answer such a description, and no such state is known to science. A possibility that is perhaps more likely, suggested by Ananda Coomaraswamy nearly a century ago, is that the Bodh Gayā site was a tree or yakṣa shrine converted to Buddhist use…. (from the article)
Only the learned read old books, and…they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so….
The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (especially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. —C. S. Lewis (from The Screwtape Letters)
Recently, on the Discord server which ostensibly has been associated with my SubscribeStar page, but which now has taken on its own raison d’être, somebody posted an academic article by a person called David Drewes, entitled “The Buddha and the Buddhism That Never Was,” published in the XIXth Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Seoul, South Korea, in August of 2022. Just the brief passages quoted by the person who posted it indicated that it was a real howler from a traditional Buddhist point of view. Nevertheless, I suppose this sort of thing is pretty common in the cesspit known as liberal academia.
I’ve commented on this sort of thing before, particularly with regard to leftist activist academics trying to convert Theravada into just another flavor of western postmodern leftist activism. This article, though, is not quite the same, although there is considerable overlap. The writer of this one is evidently a secular liberal also, but he is undermining Dhamma in a more traditional, more 2oth-century manner, namely, attempting to debunk some of the central teachings of early Indian Buddhism by more or less scientific means. The article is around 25 pages long, and really not worth reading unless you like spirituality being challenged by common worldlings, and so I read it so you don’t have to. It can be educational, though, from an anthropological or sociological perspective.
Drewes begins showing his hand immediately, first by quoting a pop song (by the Pet Shop Boys, I think) as the article’s epigraph. Then he launches into the first part of his article with the following sentence:
In a previous paper for JIABS, I argued that no significant basis for identifying the Buddha as a historical figure has yet been identified and that we should no longer treat him as such.
Naturally I consider this to be starting off on the wrong foot (which foot, the wrong one, he remains on throughout the article, methinks), considering that there is ample information concerning the Buddha in ancient sources and modern archeology to make it appear very likely, to say the least, that such a man really existed in the ancient Ganges Valley sometime around the fifth century BCE. There are statements in the texts, along with some archeology, indicating that he was born of the Shakya clan in what is now called Nepal, that he became enlightened at Bodh Gāyā, that he delivered his first formal sermon at the Deer Park near Varanasi, that he interacted with famous kings and philosophers of that area and time, and that he died in Kusinara. A stupa, or burial mound for some of his relics, was constructed in Kusinara in ancient times also.
His argument is essentially that there is no conclusive proof that Gotama Buddha really existed. That is a relatively facile argument, as there is no proof that any specific figure in very ancient times ever really existed. Similar arguments have been used to refute the existence of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, for example, and fellows like Socrates, Xenophanes, and Agamemnon are just as doubtable as Gotama Buddha. It was well known even in ancient times that Plato’s dialogues, for example, were cases of Plato putting his own words into the mouth of a quasi-empirical Socrates. And the fables regarding Alexander the Great in the Quran differ wildly from the mainstream history of the man. So Drewes’ second sentence,
To get from the gold-skinned, blue-haired, forty-toothed, flying, teleporting, omniscient, and nearly omnipotent being of the early texts to a figure we can situate in history requires a long leap, and we lack the evidence to cover it,
is essentially justifying the rejection of his existence as a historical fact, or even a historical likelihood, because famous people, especially in ancient times, get absurd myths concocted about them and added to their biographies. The waters are muddy to be sure, and I certainly do not believe all or even most of the legends associated with the Buddha’s existence, but that is not a ground, in my opinion, for rejecting completely his existence as a historical figure. Hercules, maybe; Buddha, no.
One may wonder at the purpose of passages like these, or rather of the entire first half of his article:
De Jong follows Lamotte, writing that “the texts do not allow us to discover a historical kernel in the legend of the Buddha,” and adding that “it will never be possible to know exactly, or even approximately, the contents of the teachings of the Buddha.” It bears repeating: or even approximately.
It seems that this sort of argument could easily be applied to attack ANY religion or spiritual system with ancient or otherwise premodern origins…which for all I know may be one of the reasons why this fellow wrote the article. Postmodern liberal academics tend to harbor a dislike for religion taken seriously, and to a somewhat lesser degree, a liking for Marxism, which of course wishes all religions taken seriously (except atheistic Marxism) to be wiped off the face of the earth. Also, of course, by championing a controversial idea he might make a name for himself in secular academic Buddhist studies. It’s too bad that the Buddha was cremated, I suppose, because otherwise his most historically verifiable relics, like those found in Peshawar, Pakistan, could be examined and put to some tests. DNA doesn’t survive burning very well, but at least some carbon-14 dating on his bone fragments could lead to a useful date.
Even much closer to our own time in the West, the origins of such traditions as the Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Mormonism, and QAnon have been attributed to ahistorical founders or revealers said to be then living or active.
This is appears to be just a matter of questioning the historical reality of Buddhism’s founder, and might be seen as having little bearing on the actual content of the system; but Drewes uses a dismissal of the Buddha as a means of dismissing Dhamma also. And this guy began studying Buddhism about thirty years ago, and has a PhD. in some kind of Buddhist Studies. Yet he exposes some remarkable ignorance of his speciality in early Buddhism, like the proverbial spoon not tasting the soup. For example:
In the ancient texts, everything that makes the Buddha a Buddha is supernatural: his discovery of the Dharma by his own effort; his understanding of karma, the geography of the world, the structure of the cosmos, the makeup of living beings and the material world, and the path to liberation; his freedom from desire; his omniscience; his thirty-two marks; his special characteristics and powers. Since most of the dialogue in the early sūtras focuses on the supernatural and the afterlife, with the Buddha speaking in the role of omniscient authority, it is difficult to imagine that it could have been composed before he was understood as such.
The idea of anything being supernatural is really alien to Buddhist philosophy. Anything that happens is necessarily natural, including the Buddha’s enlightenment and his reported psychic powers. It may be viewed as superhuman in the sense that it does not happen to mundane normies, but to call all this “supernatural” is a misunderstanding of the very Buddhism that this person specializes in studying. Also, he does not specify which suttas are early, which is not helpful. The Atthakavagga, arguably the largest fragment of really “primitive” Buddhism in existence, contains little if any explicit mention of anything conceivably supernatural, with the Buddha speaking “as one who knows,” which is what spiritual teachers do even now. Consider Eckhart Tolle, for example.
At any rate Drewes finishes the first part of his article, the part dismissing claims by other scholars that the Buddha was a historical figure, with a few choice statements like these:
If we would like to do actual history, we cannot just make it up as we go along. If scholars wish to maintain a belief in the Buddha’s historicity in the privacy of their own hearts, they are of course free to do so, but they have no business presenting it as a known fact, or a likely fact, or any kind of fact. Whatever we may think or feel, whatever impressions we may get from the texts, the only fact here is that we do not know how Buddhism or the idea of the supernatural Buddha—the only Buddha known to Indian Buddhist tradition—initially emerged.
Again, the author refers to claims of superhuman mental states and what are vulgarly known as “miracles” as “supernatural,” which I presume is a backhanded way of dismissing primitive superstitions in the purifying light of scientific realism, also known as the religion of Scientism. He seems to assume that anything paranormal is necessarily unreal. “Supernatural” and “unreal” appear to be almost synonymous.
After dismissing other academics’ claims that the Buddha was a historical figure, mainly because of very unscientific claims of his psychic powers and other paranormal personal qualities, Drewes moves on to the main argument of this article: that early Buddhism did not teach meditation or the cultivation of exalted mental states(!). This person, mind you an “expert” on early Buddhism, evidently endorses the hypothesis of some early western Buddhist scholars that meditation and austerity had a primary purpose of cultivating “morbid” mental states that degenerate the quality of consciousness and allow Buddhists to “see” the “truth” of their supernatural (and thereby false) mythology. For example:
Rhys Davids saw the idea of meditation as running contrary to the spirit of original Buddhism and put it into the category of later accretion. Oldenberg made an effort to take what early Buddhist texts said about meditation seriously, which led him to suggest that it generated hallucinations that served as the basis for Buddhist cosmology and understanding of saṃsāra. A few decades later, Louis de La Vallée Poussin commented that meditation “like asceticism, is not an essential part of the Path” and that “the professional ecstatic is likely to forget how to see exterior objects . . . . He becomes inaccessible to the desires that are born from the senses, inaccessible to pain, for his nervous sensibility is almost destroyed . . . . There are many aspects of Buddhism, which are more attractive.”
This exposes such a profound ignorance of meditation and basic Buddhist mental cultivation that it would be laughable if this silly person were not a veteran Buddhist scholar.
After this he begins wandering into the realm of astonishing self-delusion, for example:
As for the practice of meditation, there is little to suggest that its actual practice played any significant role in Indian Buddhism, and a good deal to suggest that it did not.
So much for step eight of the Noble Eightfold Path. How could anyone be familiar with the Pali texts and think that meditation was not fundamental to early Buddhism? Even the Atthakavagga, what I consider to be the largest extant fragment of “primitive” Buddhist Dhamma, refers to the good monk as a jhāyī, or meditator. And consider the multitude of other suttas, including the Satipatthāna and Ānāpāna Suttas, which are dedicated to formal meditation practice and the cultivation of higher mental states, including jhāna. And of course we must dismiss out of hand the Buddha’s own enlightenment while sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, because in all probability it’s just a made-up story about a mythological hero. This fellow obviously does not understand what he rejects.
Here’s another passage along the same lines, which at the end veers off into objective ignorance of the Pali texts themselves:
While the Buddha and his great disciples are depicted as masters of meditation, the various stages that they are said to pass through are described so fantastically, and are correlated with such extraordinary supernatural powers, that they cannot be taken as descriptions of actual states. The correlation of the dhyānas with supernatural powers would seem to have cast them beyond the realm of possibility for ancient Buddhists, who were not able to ignore or dismiss them with the impunity of modern enthusiasts. The fourth pārājika rule prescribes expulsion for any monk or nun claiming to have reached them.
Again, he is relying on modern scientific beliefs to “debunk” any kind of mental state above the level of the mundane. This is followed by a falsehood, not deliberate but based on ignorance: the truth is that the fourth pārājika rule in the rules of monastic discipline prescribes expulsion for any monk or nun who FALSELY claims to have reached not supernatural, but superhuman states, uttarimanussadhammā. To claim them truly to laypeople entails a lesser offense.
Here’s another one:
Although it is often suggested that the practices taught at modern vipassanā centers have some ancient lineage, they were all developed in the twentieth century.
Again this is false, unless by “developed” he means adapted to twentieth century westerners. The methods are found in ancient Pali texts like the Bible for vipassanā meditators, the Mahā Satipatthāna Sutta. Then we have this:
Despite frequent sensational headlines to the contrary, scientific study has not shown meditation to produce any very significant results, making it difficult to suppose that it played an important role in the lack of actual evidence.
Once again, faith in Scientism trumps actual Dhamma for a western secular academic authority on Buddhism. The fellow, bless his heart, harps away on the need for verifiable evidence, for example evidence that meditation can result in profound inner transformations, but he is unwilling or unable to test the hypothesis by actually practicing. Instead he adopts by default a spiritually bankrupt and foolish point of view, instilled in him through modern and postmodern western cultural conditioning, and insists that his foolishness is somehow preferable, and better.
The grand climax of the entire article is the final paragraph, which I submit here in full, with an added translation of the French author.
Letting go of the idea of the historical Buddha will open a new door to approaching early Buddhism, and Buddhism more generally, in a more realistic way. Rather than weaving a golden age of “it strikes me-s” and “it seems to me-s,” we can begin to develop a more human picture based on demonstrable fact. In the broadest strokes, this will mean presenting Buddhism as emerging onto history’s stage as tradition focused on a supernatural being and the supernatural truths and ritual practices he revealed. Of the greatest importance, I would suggest, is that, as scholars, we leave off trying to present the tradition as a repository of profound knowledge, universal truths, or special insights of any kind. What we have is an ancient religion, like Egyptian religion, Greek religion, or early Jainism; let us not play games with it. As Auguste Barth observed nearly a century and a half ago in response to this problem, which was already afoot, “il faut une incroyable capacité d’illusion pour prétendre en tirer la moindre chose qui soit à notre usage.” [“it takes an incredible capacity for illusion to pretend to get the slightest thing out of it that is for our use.”] As for the meaning of life, we must aver that it is not yet known, as the right ways to live a human life are also not known.
And so, the moral of the story is, if science cannot explain something, then it is rubbish; and if you want to understand an ancient spiritual tradition, don’t bother with the people who actually practice it and know it experientially—just rely on smug academics enslaved to the western cultural conditioning of scientific realism who don’t understand anything of such a system that lies below mere superficialities. The man has been studying Buddhism for thirty years, and has a PhD. in the field of Buddhist Studies, and he STILL DOESN’T GET IT. Seriously, if you want to understand Dhamma, you must practice it, and practice it conscientiously, intensively, and well. Much better to learn Dhamma in an Asian forest than, say, the University of Virginia, or Oxford for that matter.