Buddhist scholar and author John Peacocke talks with Tricycle about what we can learn by taking a close look at the language and philosophies of the Buddha’s time.
The teachings of the Buddha have been variously understood by scholars, monks, and laypeople over the centuries. But what was it that the Buddha actually taught? While this remains an open and oft-debated question, scholar John Peacocke—in his work as both an academic and a dharma teacher—asserts that by looking to the history, language, and rich philosophical environment of the Buddha’s day we can uncover what is most distinctive and revolutionary about his teachings. Peacocke, who does not shy away from controversy, argues that in some very important ways, later Buddhist schools depart from early core teachings.
Peacocke has been practicing Buddhism since 1970. He was first exposed to Buddhism at monasteries in South India, where he ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. He later studied in Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhism has flourished for centuries. Returning to lay life and his native England, Peacocke went on to receive his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the University of Warwick. He currently lectures on Buddhist and Hindu thought at the University of Bristol and next year will begin teaching at the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy Master of Studies program at Oxford University. A former director of the Sharpham Centre for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England, Peacocke also serves on the teaching council at nearby Gaia House, a retreat center offering instruction in a variety of Buddhist traditions. He now teaches and practices in the Vipassana tradition.
Tricycle editor James Shaheen visited with Peacocke near Bristol University in April to discuss what the language of the early Pali and Sanskrit texts tells us about Buddhism today.
To what sort of world was the Buddha introducing his teachings? Fifth-century BCE India witnessed a philosophically rich period, and a time of social, political, and cultural upheaval. It is during this period that we see the transition from tribal republics (ganasanghas) to a centralized power structure presided over by a monarch. The Buddha’s teaching—for example, in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta—is situated within just such a context. At the opening of the sutta we see an emissary of King Ajatasattu, the king of Magadha, attempting to obtain information from the Buddha in order to vanquish the Vajjian federation. Even the Sakyas (the Buddha’s tribe) were not immune from such territorial aggrandizement; they were defeated by the son of King Pasenadi during the Buddha’s own lifetime. There were also many competing religious traditions at the time, and in the early Pali canon, in the Long Discourses of the Buddha (Brahmajala Sutta), we find descriptions of sixty-two types of philosophies. These are considered by the Buddha to be sixty-two instances of wrong view. That’s the world of ideas the Buddha is responding to.
What were the dominant beliefs of the time? The Buddha was responding to two primary strands of thought. You have to bear in mind, though, that there was no such thing as Hinduism as we know it today. Rather, you had the dominant Brahmanical culture— Brahmanism—which was primarily a sacrificial religion, along with the breakaway Upanishadic culture that arose out of it and was eventually reincorporated into the Brahmanical worldview, and you had ascetic Jainism.
Can you say something first about Brahmanism? Brahmanism dealt primarily with propitiating the gods, who were believed to maintain the cosmic order. Everything was believed to be ordered and regulated and it was through sacrifices to the gods that this order was maintained. Through meticulously executed ritual, the Brahmans induced the gods to do everything from ensuring predictable planetary orbits and regular seasons to sustaining the strictly hierarchical social order characteristic of the time. The three classes of Veda (Rig, Sama, and Yajur), which served as the Brahmanical culture’s literary base, are essentially instructions for properly performing rituals that will perpetuate what was thought to be the natural order of things. The defining concept of the Vedas is the notion of cosmic order, rita. So Buddhist thought is in part a reaction to a purely sacrificial and highly ritualistic culture. In the early canon you often find critical mention of ritual.
Can you give an example? A number of examples are scattered throughout the Pali Canon. In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha subverts the notion of literal animal sacrifice by claiming that true sacrifice is the performance of generosity, taking refuge or adhering to the five precepts. In another instance, in the Sigalaka Sutta, the Buddha comes across a young Brahmin named Sigalaka ritualistically paying homage to the six directions as a way of expressing honor, sacredness, and reverence. During the discourse the Buddha, as in the previous example, gets the Brahmin to see that the true way to express these things is through adherence to the precepts and generally behaving in an ethical manner. The Buddha in both cases reveals his practical bias. He does not concern himself with what he considers empty and pointless ritual. And he demonstrates his rhetorical brilliance by using the very customs and language of the dominant culture he critiques to subvert it.
Can you give an example of how he does that? There’s hardly a term the Buddha uses that’s not actually derived from a pre-Buddhist context. The Buddha literally takes the religious language of the Brahmins and the Jains and deconstructs and redefines it for his own purposes. Basically, he’s hijacking the language and customs of the dominant religions—whether that of the ascetic Jains, the ritualistic Brahmins, or the philosophers and mystics of the Upanishads—to introduce an entirely new body of ideas. Take, for instance, the three ritual household fires of the Indian home. In Buddhism, they are no longer the sacred fires one must keep continuously lit in order to maintain cosmic and social order; rather, they become the fires of anger, greed, and delusion—the “three poisons” we are enjoined to extinguish. Upadana, or the “fuel” used to keep the fires burning, becomes in Buddhism the stuff that fuels samsara, the world of suffering, that is, “attachment” or “clinging.”
So his method was to critique the existing culture of the time by turning the language of that culture on itself? That’s exactly right. He very cleverly hijacks virtually all of their language —and not just that of the Brahmanical culture but also that of the Jains. For example, take a term like asava. For the Jains the term means “influx” and refers to that which weighs down the soul and keeps it bound to the cycle of rebirth. However, for the Buddha the term has the connotation of something that flows out of us, namely, ignorance, sensual desire, and craving for continued existence. It is these things, from the Buddha’s point of view, that keep the individual bound to samsara.
According to the British scholar Richard Gombrich, the Buddhist Middle Way is in fact the middle way between highly materialistic Brahmanism and excessively ascetic Jainism. It’s not just asceticism in general that the Buddha is reacting to, it’s the extreme asceticism primarily associated with the Jains; and likewise, the household life and the strict and materialistic rituals of the Brahmins. Somewhere in between the two lies the Middle Way of the Buddha’s teachings.
What Brahmanism and the Upanishads had in common with Jainism was a belief in an eternal soul, while the Buddha’s universal tenets of anatta and anicca—“not-self” and “impermanence”—are a radical rejection of this belief. Can you say something about this? All three of those Indian traditions speak of an unchanging self or soul. The Buddha’s teaching is highly radical in its break with essentialist thinking, which usually conceives of the “real” as that which does not change. The Buddha’s view was that absolutely everything was changing and therefore the self was not exempt. As a result, Buddhist thinking conceives of the self as process rather than as a fixed an immutable essence.
How, then, would you look at the Brahmanical goal or the Upanishadic goal of religious activity versus the Buddhist goal? The goal of Buddhist practice can be seen as radically different from that of Brahmanical or Upanishadic thought. Brahmanical thought had an excessive emphasis on ritualism and hierarchy focused on the maintenance of order both human and divine. And the Upanishads concentrated on the realization of the lack of differentiation between brahman and atman—the essence of all things and the individual self.
The Buddha is not looking outside of ourselves for anything, for any supports. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta he instructs us to be lamps unto ourselves and insists that everything we need to know can be found within “this fathom-long carcass.” This latter suggestion is the Buddha once again alluding to Brahmanical beliefs, one in which the entire cosmos, and everything contained within it, is represented in the form of the male body. In fact, this could be seen as a direct reference to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where it is claimed that in the beginning the whole world was the self in the shape of a person. However, the Buddha is really not looking to external elements, whether metaphysical or sacrificial, as a way of life. His primary focus is on our internal experience and ethical activity. This is a real break from Brahmanical culture.
Brahmanical culture did not have an ethical focus? The focus for Brahmanical culture was duty, and again, the proper performance of ritual. The Buddha’s focus was volition, intentional motivation. Everything hangs on motivation and understanding as clearly as possible the individual’s own motivation underlying all action. For the Brahmin, karma was created by how one performed one’s duties and executed ritual; for the Buddha, intention drove karma. The Brahmins never take the step into ethics that the Buddha did.
While Brahmanical culture exhibited a literalist bent—ritual had to be executed just to fuel nature’s processes both above and below—in the thought of the Upanishads we find a philosophy that is as sophisticated as any. What would be a fundamental distinction between it and the Buddha’s method of inquiry at the time? I distinguish the two traditions by the way they ask a question. One way is metaphysical, which is precisely what the Buddha rejects: It is to ask what something is. Running throughout the Upanishads is the question, What is the self? And what is the true nature of that self? And you basically end up with an essentialist answer to that question: Atman is the universally abiding and unchanging self that underlies and sustains all things; atman is the real self.