March 30, 2009

The Buddha's Dressing Room

A bit of a controversy is steaming away in the Buddhoblogosphere, and it has to do with what was really going on in Buddha's life.

About-dot-com's Barbara O'Brien started it with her Mar 21 post, "More Adventures in Mis-education." In it, she references a UCLA newsletter that reports on a lecture given by iconoclastic Buddhism scholar Gregory Schopen. [The newsletter article was picked up by Buddha Channel, btw; it's called "The Buddha as astute businessman, economist, lawyer."]

Schopen's lecture was called “The Buddha as Businessman: Economics and Law in an Old Indian Religion,” given on the UCLA campus at Freud Playhouse to, mostly, other faculty. Schopen is chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the university. He's expert in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Buddhism studies, generally.

The UCLA article tells us that Schopen's lecture was hilarious — delivered with "iconoclastic wit, verve and vitality, prompting frequent bursts of enthusiastic laughter" — and that it punctured Buddha's other-worldly image as an always-serene sage, above the tumult of the ordinary.

The nub of Barbara's complaint, if that's the right word, is here,

I take it that Schopen is something of a renegade scholar whose ideas are widely out of step with other Buddhist scholarship. That in itself doesn't make him wrong. But when Schopen discusses the historical Buddha's tax evasion strategies ... well, the word crackpot does come to mind.

My understanding is that there is no contemporary documentation of the Buddha's life, in the 6th century BCE, whatsoever. I believe there are artifacts that date to the 4th century BCE, but not much, if any, before that. The main body of scriptures were not written down until the 1st century BCE. There are other scriptures that exist in fragmented fashion, but none that go back to the time of the original sangha.
Here, Barbara needs to be thumped. The allusion to "tax evasion strategies" was a part of Schopen's jesting, saying what Buddha was not up to. While Schopen's research is serious, the man has a sense of humor, and it appears he went for jabs and jokes in front of a friendly audience of colleagues and kinsmen.

As for the second paragraph, quoted above, I would certainly have supposed that Barbara is right. But when you look into Schopen's writing -- e.g., detail re his books at amazon, we can see that Schopen has gathered what scraps of evidence there are to construct a vision of what life was like for those carrying on Buddha's teachings in the early centuries following The Enlightened One's death.

Per amazon, Schopen's books have these titles:
  • From Benares to Beijing Essays on Buddhism and Chinese Religion by Koichi Shinohara and Gregory Schopen
  • Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India by Gregory Schopen
  • Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India by Gregory Schopen
  • Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India: More Collected Papers by Gregory Schopen
Using "Academic Online," a service my public library subscribes to, I find these articles by Schopen:

  • "Monastic law meets the real world: a monk's continuing right to inherit family property in classical India." in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 114.n4 (Oct-Dec 1994): pp527(28) and in History of Religions 35.n2 (Nov 1995); pp101(23)
  • "Archaeology and Protestant presuppositions in the study of Indian Buddhism." in History of Religions 31.n1 (August 1991): pp1(23).
  • "The learned monk as a comic figure: on reading a Buddhist Vinaya as Indian literature." (Author abstract)(Report). in Journal of Indian Philosophy 35.3 (June 2007): p201(26).
  • "The Buddhist 'monastery' and the Indian garden: aesthetics, assimilations, and the siting of monastic establishments." (Essay). in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 126.4 (Oct-Dec 2006): p487
  • "Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India - By Gregory Schopen.(Author abstract) in Religious Studies Review 32.1 (Jan 2006): p65(1).

You get the idea. Delving into what early Buddhists were like is Schopen's focused field of interest. But is Barbara, really, quite right: that knowing what Buddha and his gang were up to in his off-hours (if I can call those hours that) is forever obscured? Is Schopen unjustifiably extrapolating; using evidence from a much later time, and falsely supposing that Buddha's activities are likened to what early Buddhism became like?

But wait! The great Rev. Danny waded in to weight in weightily on the topic in his eponymous blog, three days ago. In his post, "Gregory Schopen Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," Danno hoped to be very careful. He wrote that his "sincerest hope [is] that this response will be constructive rather than critical. My intention in responding at length here is to be helpful, and what I don't want to do is embarrass, offend, or be snarky. If, in spite of my aims, I do any of those latter things, it's due to a lack of skill on my part."

Oh, c'mon, Danny. For crying out loud, tell us what you REALLY THINK!

Happily, Danny finally blurted out the truth of his feelings, writing in defense of Schopen,

Schopen's work has prompted [quoting U. of Chicago's Dan Allen] "significant revision in thought regarding the development of Mahāyāna and regarding the role of the monastic religious in Buddhist cultic life." ...

In addition to offering vital new facts to the field, Schopen has underscored the importance of including findings from archaeologists, art historians, and others in a discipline that has been heavily text-oriented. His work has also forced Buddhologists to ask important questions about the history drawn from the texts they have leaned on. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, BARBARA!!!

Oh, all right. Danny didn't really write that last sentence. But he did crush Barbara with fact piled up on other fact, creating a mound.

And then Jeff Wilson joined the discussion with comments in both Danny's blog and in Barbara's.

Not meaning to be snarky, I need to tell ya that Jeff and I have a history. In my Zen Unbound days, I found that an article that Jeff wrote for Tricycle had, I thought, errors of fact.

In comment to Danny's blogpost, Jeff wrote, meekly, "A very useful post, Danny, thank you for offering it. Barbara really missed the boat on that one. I can't think of any Buddhologists that I know who don't consider Schopen's work to be extremely important."

But in his comment in Barbara's blog, Jeff loaded for bear, citing his toity credentials and then writing: " Rather than a crackpot, Schopen’s works are required texts for passing comprehensive exams in Buddhist Studies, and his ideas are taken seriously by people throughout the field ... Schopen’s work is meticulously researched and referenced, and rather than cherry-pick sources, he does the EXACT opposite ... To some extent, your resistance to his findings is our fault, the fault of previous Buddhist Studies scholars, who mischaracterized the allegedly ascetic nature of Buddhism. ... Schopen has taught us much, and his evidence is undeniable. He will carry the day eventually ... . It is unfortunate that, based on one media (not academic) article rather than a familiarity with the scope of Schopen’s decades of amazing scholarship, you’ve descended into character assassination of one of the most widely respected Buddhist researchers. Also, I don’t think you’ve understood his point clearly ... Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, BARBARA!!"

Oh, all right. Jeff didn't really write that last sentence.

Back in the comment thread to Danny's blogpost, Danny, himself, posted this: "I also wanted to point readers to the comment Jeff left in Barbara's post recently. Unlike my longwinded work ... what Jeff wrote is very pithy and clear. ... And you can just take everything Jeff wrote and put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, BARBARA!!"

OK. Yep. That last sentence is something I added.

FORTUNATELY, I then came upon the scene to STRAIGHTEN EVERYBODY OUT. Yes, I took this boatload of Angulimalas and wagged my finger at them.

Gregory Schopen is a jokester and his lecture was a bit of fun! He knows what early Buddhism [a pair of milennia before anyone called it Buddhism] was like, but does he really have keen insight into what Buddha was like that adds mightily to our knowledge (from the sutras) of what Buddha was like? Like, I don't think so!

I mean, sure, The Big B's sangha existed as an organization. And it is sure to have had shockingly ordinary aspects. Somebody had to pull tubers up out of the ground. Someone had to settle disputes over who slept nearest to the campfire. Or, nearest to The Great Man, himself. It was like that. It might, likely, not have been that different from Sacramento's Tent City.

I mean, we already know about the attempted assassinations of Buddha by the leader of the very conservative wing of his pre-nascent religion [Devadatta!], and the cut foot, and all.

Behind the scenes, things were not all meditation and vistas of bliss. We already knew this, right? Didn't we?

And I'm sure when it ALL LEAKS OUT, centuries from now, using fantastic imaging satillites that move backwards in time, Buddha and his gang will be disappointing in many ways.

For reasons obscure to me, I'm reminded of Jonathan Swift's poem, called "The Lady's Dressing Room," written in 1732. It tells of a fellow named Strephon who secretly surveys the dressing room of his beloved, the gorgeous Celia, and is shocked! Shocked, I tell you.

Here a snip from Swift's speedy pome [note that rhyming that rhymed then, doesn't now],

But oh! it turn'd poor Strephon's Bowels,
When he beheld and smelt the Towels,
Begumm'd, bematter'd, and beslim'd
With Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear-Wax grim'd.
No Object Strephon's Eye escapes,
Here Pettycoats in frowzy Heaps;
Nor be the Handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish'd o'er with Snuff and Snot.
The Stockings, why shou'd I expose,
Stain'd with the Marks of stinking Toes;
Or greasy Coifs and Pinners reeking,
Which Celia slept at least a Week in?
Sigh. Buddha in real life might be like that. Yes, a slob in the dressingroom!

But Swift's poem ends with wisdom and compassion, as if coming directly from a buddha:

When Celia in her Glory shows,
If Strephon would but stop his Nose;
(Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her Ointments, Daubs, and Paints and Creams,
Her Washes, Slops, and every Clout,
With which he makes so foul a Rout;)
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravisht Sight to see
Such Order from Confusion sprung,
Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung


    Anonymous said...

    Wow, didn't know about all the passion out there vis a vis Barbara, Danny, Tom, that could be generated over Schopen's 'Buddhist sangha as corporation' presentation.

    How about we all be nice and say, gee, isn't that interesting what Schopen had to say the other night. Let's think on it a little bit.

    Are we all so eager to stake out a position on things, always!

    Tom said...

    Now, now, Anon. Are you spotting a bit of mess in my dressing room? or, is there a smudge on my nose?

    You may be, righteously, guilty of the crime you're damning.

    Difficult to know. Could Betty come and straighten things for me?