Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Give Me That Old Time Religion

Many Buddhist practitioners I have encountered afford absolutely no respect for Buddhist scholars, thinking them meddlers at worst and irrelevant at best. I simply do not share this view, which apart from being narrow-minded, is also quite incorrect.

An example of why Buddhist scholars are worthy of respect can readily be found in the case of the so-called Gandhara manuscripts. These are a series of twenty-nine birch bark scrolls, found inside labeled clay pots, that date from the first to third centuries of the common era. There is a book available about these: Richard Salomon's Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara: The British Library Kharosthi Fragments.

So, taking these early scrolls, which some people like to think of as Buddhism's equivalent of the Dead Sea scrolls, scholars are busily engaged in correcting the translations that have been made in the centuries since. Along the way, they are finding where our understanding of the underlying philosophy of Buddhism -- gained from the later translations -- is quite simply wrong, in the sense that it is contrary to the original texts.

Over at the Tibeto-logic blog, which indeed inspired our post today, they have a video clip of Stanford professor Paul Harrison discussing such work with the Diamond Sutra -- in another context, the world's earliest surviving complete example of a dated, printed book (868 CE) -- and I found this most interesting on a number of counts.

I noted his seeming ethical vindication of Kumarajiva, wherein he states that the fifth century translations into Chinese don't show evidence of political decisions; rather, they just exhibit intellectual choices.

Harrison believes that some of these choices are not optimal, and he states they have simply been accepted and replicated without question by all translators since. He is out to correct this, with his own translation due in 2010.

I also find it interesting that Harrison contrasts the earliest Chinese translations with the earliest Tibetan translations, and states that Tibetan translations are the more accurate, despite being made around four or five hundred years later. Guess Padmasambhava brought some books along for the trip to Tibet, eh?

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, "cheeky scholar monkey." On the one hand, we have Kumarajiva, who is a practitioner, and on the other hand, we have Harrison, who dines on Ho money down there in Palo Alto. Recall the sutra itself, and recall that Subhuti is worried the teachings will be forgotten in 500 years. Buddha reassures him, telling him that someone will preserve the Diamond Sutra. The argument has always been that this "someone" was Kumarajiva. The resources that Harrison brings to bear -- all the heavy clout of modern, technologically supported, richly funded academia -- are one counterpoint to this argument, but is that enough?

The criticism of Buddhist scholars is that they don't practice, so when it comes to making translation decisions, they make dry decisions. There is that point in practice where intellect becomes an obstacle, you understand? I don't know if Harrison is a scholar-practitioner or not, because I don't know the man. But, I do know he is a world-class philologist, and the state of modern philology doesn't really permit dry decisions anymore -- if only for fear that one will fall beset by thirsty practitioners armed with flaying knives and skull cups.

If we really want to pick on this, lets say that Kumarajiva was a practitioner first and a scholar second, which we think is fine, whereas some others might be scholars first and practitioners second, which we don't think is fine. Never mind that we don't know Kumarajiva in any save the scholastic sense. Buddhist hypocrisy is nastier than the Baptist by a long shot.

Nevertheless, all of this is made possible because somebody went and dug up scrolls, so I am leaning in favor of Lara Croft in this whole deal. Just where is the field of Buddhist archaeology these days? One hopes the Buddhist archaeologists are working feverishly, 24-7-365, one jump ahead of the Taliban.

I have very gifted children. I have a daughter who is a veterinarian, a son who is a brilliant software engineer, and my youngest daughter, who is weighing career choices. I am strongly encouraging her to become an archaeologist. For her birthday, I gave her a trowel and the complete Tomb Raider.

Sir Marc Aurel Stein purchased the aforementioned Diamond Sutra
from a monk at Dunhuang: some would not approve

And, wouldn't you know that Stanford chimes in on the ethics of archaeology? Seems that one department investigates the other at that institution, prompting Harrison to ponder:
"These objects have no clear provenance," Harrison said. "They were accidentally unearthed or dug up by fortune hunters, and there are no records. The objects were smuggled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and somehow ended up in London. The collectors have had the sense to make them available to us. Our view is that ownership is one thing, but the information belongs to everybody. But, honestly, there is a certain moral unease about the whole thing which is not easily resolved."

Gimmie that old time religion, but first let me get the kid through Stanford.

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