A Buddhism very different than the one we think we know

Weterners who have studied Buddhist philosophy and ethics, even when we have done so at length, are often thrown for a loop when we read the Mahāvaṃsa. This text – one of the most historically oriented texts in premodern South Asia – has been a central part of the Theravāda Buddhist canon for over a thousand years, and played a central role in creating the idea of “Theravāda” Buddhism.

It also looks very different from the Buddhism we constructive Western Buddhist scholars are accustomed to thinking about. Stephen Jenkins (in JIABS 33.1-2) has acutely pointed out how often premodern Buddhist texts seem to advocate gratuitous violence, and the Mahāvaṃsa is a key example. In chapter 25, King Duṭṭhagāmaṇi battles against a people called the Ḍamilas in order to establish the Buddhist dharma, and kills them in large numbers. He feels remorse at the act, as we might expect him to. But then eight arahants (enlightened ones) reassure him that he needs to feel no remorse, because his victims were unbelievers and therefore no better than beasts. (This text has hardly gone unnoticed by contemporary Sinhala Buddhists seeking justification for their bloody civil war against non-Buddhist Tamils.)

So the Mahāvaṃsa supports Steven Collins’s claim that there are two “modes” of thinking about politics and violence in classical texts: one that rejects politics for its inherent violence, as Aśvaghoṣa does, and one that is happy to endorse political violence as a necessity. Neither side takes a nonviolent politics – that key goal of contemporary engaged Buddhists, one that I find laudable if difficult – as a serious possibility. (While Collins’s making of the distinction between modes is very helpful for understanding, Collins’s chosen terms for the modes seem to be specifically chosen for their obtuseness. For some reason he thinks that people will easily remember the terms “Mode 1” and “Mode 2” – a set of terms that seems to be designed for people who found the “emic/etic” distinction too intuitive. I don’t want these terms to spread if I can help it, so I’m not going to say which number is which.)

The Mahāvaṃsa’s approach to the king’s violence looks abhorrent to our modern eyes, and – I would say – rightly so. It would hardly be surprising if a Buddhist ethicist like Jenkins were to say “let us abandon texts like the Mahāvaṃsa and make them less canonical.” (Sallie King effectively makes that move in her Socially Engaged Buddhism when she proclaims that “it is easy to take expressions of contempt and acts of violence as criteria for discerning what is not a valid expression of the Dharma” – emphasis in original.) Strikingly, though, Jenkins does not do this. He situates the Mahāvaṃsa among a body of other texts that allow for compassionate violence (including the Upāyakauśalya Sūtra, which Śāntideva quotes) – texts he rightly calls “a Buddhism very different than the one we think we know.” (325) And he praises what he sees as these texts’ ambiguity:

I mean this in the positive sense that lack of moral certainty, appreciation for narrative complexity, rejection of oversimplification, and a high toleration for the almost unfathomable complexity of moral situations can be positive things…. One gets the feeling that Buddhist thinkers are deliberately enhancing the ambiguity, as if only an ambiguous ethic could do justice to lived reality. (325-7)

I appreciate Jenkins’s approach here because I also see something of value in the Mahāvaṃsa – not so much on violence, or even ambiguity per se, but on something else that is related to both of these. Namely the Mahāvaṃsa shows us a Buddhism – a perspective committed to following the Buddha – that is not single-minded. That is, its Buddhism implicitly endorses the pursuit of goals other than nirvana, goals beyond the removal of suffering.

For there is little if any reference to nirvana in the Mahāvaṃsa, or even to the removal of suffering. Instead it is mostly a set of stories about how kings and monks brought the Buddha’s lineage to Sri Lanka. It provides lush descriptions of the kings’ dazzling bejewelled wealth, showing the sort of aesthetic of abundance that (according to Justin McDaniel) the Thais refer to as udom sombun. These descriptions go on at length in order to evoke an emotional state in the reader, what theorists elsewhere in South Asia would call rasa. The Mahāvaṃsa explicitly proclaims its purpose to be evoking emotional states: the chapters provide their justification by saying they are there to produce the states of saṃvega and pasāda. On the surface of it, these would seem to be very Buddhist emotions: saṃvega is traditionally understood to be shock at the futility of worldly life, pasāda (Sanskrit prasāda) a serene joy expressed toward the buddha, dhamma and saṅgha.

But as it turns out, in practice the text does not turn either of these emotions in a Buddhist direction. It’s hard for me to see where saṃvega even enters the picture: few if any characters in the text seem particularly disillusioned with worldly life, nor are there narrative elements that seem intended to produce such disillusionment in the reader. (As mentioned, even the bloody violence seems to be passed over with cheer.) Rather, the mood seems to be one of joyful appreciation, in a way consonant with the idea of pasāda. Śāntideva also works to create pasāda when he provides lush descriptions of the offerings made to buddhas. But the Mahāvaṃsa differs from Śāntideva in that that pasāda is directed not to buddha or dhamma, but to kings – the same violent figures that Candrakīrti and Aśvaghoṣa warn us to be suspicious of. If there’s a way this text helps us get to the kind of nirvana that Buddhaghosa or Aśvaghoṣa would recognize, I sure can’t figure out what it is.

Rather, it sure looks like nirvana and the reduction of suffering are not the point of the Mahāvaṃsa. In that respect the Mahāvaṃsa is probably closer to Aristotle’s comprehensive view of the good than is the traditional Buddhist endorsement of nirvana. H.L. Seneviratne, in his The Work of Kings, thinks the text’s references to saṃvega and pasāda are just a cheaty workaround, a way to pretend the text is bringing us closer to nirvana when it’s not actually interested in that goal. Yet still this text has been held sacred by Buddhists – monks as well as householders and kings – for over a thousand years. And I think this fact points us to something important: Buddhists through the ages have had goals in life other than the removal of suffering, and endorsed these goals even in their sacred texts. (Sometimes they have even adopted non-Buddhist or anti-Buddhist texts like the Rāmāyana as sacred.) We Buddhists today can do the same. While we should reject the Mahāvaṃsa’s violence, like the Mahāvaṃsa itself we can seek goals other than the removal of suffering, and remain Buddhists in spite of that.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

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