‘Greek Buddha’ by Christopher I. Beckwith

‘Greek Buddha’ by Christopher I. Beckwith (Princeton University Press, 2015)
Review by Robert M. Ellis

This astonishing book is a feat of highly original historical scholarship, turning on its head a lot of established assumptions about the relationship between Eastern and Western thought and the nature of early Buddhism. It is concerned with the historical origins of our main source of information about the Middle Way, and is mainly concerned with establishing its case about this through rigorous historical scholarship. However, there is also one chapter about the philosophy of the Middle Way, which is perceptive in its understanding of some key points but nevertheless limited in the connections it makes and in its exploration of the Middle Way’s vast implications.Greek Buddha

Although I am going to highly recommend this book, and greatly welcome the acuity of its author, I will need to make an important caveat before I go any further in explaining why I think it is worthy of praise. That caveat is that the Middle Way is in no way dependent on its historical recognition by any particular figure or tradition. Whether or not the amazingly revisionary story Beckwith tells about the Buddha is correct is of no consequence as far as the moral justification and practical helpfulness of the Middle Way is concerned. By offering support to Beckwith’s historical contentions I do not wish to be dragged into various polarised scholarly arguments that are both dependent on debatable assumptions and are of no practical consequence. Though I nevertheless find Beckwith’s arguments both interesting and convincing, I do so only with that reservation. I expect that many of the people who will either agree or disagree with him will do so out of a commitment to the intrinsic value of historical proofs that I consider a major distraction from the Middle Way itself. So this book will primarily be of interest to Buddhists who consider the historical status of the Buddha to be of importance, and I hope that its chief value will be to help shake them out of their genetic fallacy just far enough to give up such historical commitments (rather than to necessarily adopt new ones). Beckwith’s arguments may work best as a purgative, to help wean people off trying to support practical or philosophical claims by appeal to historical figures or events. By seeing just how dramatically differently those historical claims could be seen, perhaps people will be encouraged to treat them more lightly.

But having said these necessary things, let me flag up just how astonishing this book’s historical claims are. Perhaps they can be appreciated more fully if I start with a list of generally accepted ‘facts’ about ‘Eastern religions’ that are overthrown by Beckwith’s arguments:

  1. Buddhism was founded by an Indian
  2. A reasonably accurate account of the Buddha’s life and teachings is given in the Pali Canon
  3. The Buddha taught karma and rebirth, and the way to nirvana as a release from the karmic round.
  4. Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path
  5. Taoism was founded independently by a Chinese sage called Lao Tzu, its similarities to Buddhism being a coincidence
  6. Buddhism emerged in a context of early Brahmanism, which it reacted against
  7. Buddhism emerged alongside other new religious movements reacting against Brahmanism, such as Jainism and the Ajivikas
  8. Buddhism emerged in a developing urban civilisation in the Ganges valley
  9. Pyrrhonism was a Hellenistic Philosophy which at most could be said to be influenced by Pyrrho’s visit to India

These sorts of assumed facts, plus many other lesser ones dependent on them, are fundamental to the historical understanding of the development of religion in India that you will find in any textbook on the subject today. It was also the view taken for granted by scholars when I was studying in the Cambridge Faculty of Oriental Studies in the eighties. They are also, as far as I have experienced, assumed facts that are still taken for granted by the overwhelming majority of Buddhists, many of whom who go so far as to ‘have faith’ that such propositions are true.

Here, however, are Beckwith’s counter-claims, supported by careful historical reasoning informed by datable documents:

  1. The Buddha was not Indian (though nor was he Greek – the title of the book is misleading). Instead, the Buddha was Scythian (people living to the north of Persia and in contact with the Greeks), and he was called Shakyamuni because he was a Saka, a type of Scythian.
  2. The Pali Canon, being composed and written more than 500 years after the death of the Buddha, offers very little reliable information about the Buddha. Most of the information in it has been made up to fit later models of what ‘Buddhism’ is that developed after about the first century CE.
  3. The Buddha did not teach karma and rebirth, but only the balanced sceptical argument (Pyrrhonism) of the Middle Way, and the release he taught was not from the rounds of existence, but rather from the polarising constrictions of metaphysical views, both positive and negative.
  4. However fundamental the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path may now seem to Buddhism, these are later additions attributed to the Buddha.
  5. Lao Tzu may be one and the same person as Gautama the Buddha, so that Taoism is effectively an early form of Buddhism in China.
  6. Early Buddhism reacted not against Brahmanism but against Zoroastrianism.
  7. Buddhism was the first religious movement to emerge in India, and others, such as Brahmanical Hinduism and Jainism, have copied it and sought to compete with it by claiming similar antiquity.
  8. Buddhism did emerge in a setting with developing cities, but in Gandhara (north western India, more subject to Persian and Greek influence), not in the still-rural Ganges valley, even if the Buddha then travelled to the Ganges valley.
  9. Pyrrho’s Scepticism was so radically discontinuous from other Greek philosophy that it must be considered (early) Buddhist rather than ‘Greek’. Pyrrho’s visit to India with Alexander’s armies thus becomes one of our key sources of information about early Buddhism.

Beckwith offers a set of careful arguments to support these contentions, which of course I cannot reproduce in any detail here. His basic method is only to accept the evidence of texts that are clearly datable, and not to assume that those that have merely been claimed to originate from or near the time of the Buddha are genuinely so. This means that his main sources of information are Greek, Persian and Chinese texts, with some of the rock edicts being the only admissible Indian evidence he considers. The big problem with Indian texts from this period is that they lacked all historical sense, and are thus neither datable nor reliable. The interest of later Buddhists in making the Buddha’s utterances fit later beliefs also provides a plausible reason for discounting the evidence of the Pali Canon. Beckwith does bridge gaps in the evidence with some degree of speculation, but I always found these constructions plausible, because they were consistent with the credible wider alternative picture that he was developing.

I am afraid that much of the response of both Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to this book (as well as other, perhaps, such as Jains, Hindus and Taoists) may well be one of instant dismissal, prompted primarily by the huge challenge to vested interests and sunk costs that Beckwith’s thesis offers. Of course, vested interests and sunk costs do not necessarily make opposing arguments wrong, but they will make the opposition much less plausible if it fails to closely examine the pile of evidence that Beckwith offers, and, especially if it can only offer appeals to tradition to justify faith in the Pali Canon.

There may, of course, be bigger objections that I have yet to hear, equally worthy of consideration. However, they will need to be weighty indeed to effectively challenge Beckwith. Beckwith scores in all sorts of ways that completely wrong-foot traditionalist objectors: he engages with evidence from a much wider range of contexts and languages beyond the Pali Canon, and he offers a coherent historical picture that both solves long-standing historical puzzles and simply takes more conditions into account than those who have focused only on the sources offered by the later Buddhist tradition are likely to do.

Chief among the puzzles solved by Beckwith is the glaring contradiction at the heart of Buddhism that has always bothered me (and that by 2008 personally took me away from my earlier personal commitment to the Buddhist tradition): that is, the contradiction between the sceptical perspective of the Middle Way (related to the anatta teaching and the Buddha’s ‘silence’ on metaphysical topics) on the one hand, and metaphysical commitments to the Buddha’s revelatory ‘enlightenment’ and claimed knowledge of karma and rebirth on the other. Buddhism, at one and the same time, decries and criticises metaphysics, but also promotes ‘Buddhist metaphysics’ (oddly not considered an oxymoron by those who study it). Is it really plausible that the Buddha, whoever he was, could have taught such contradictory things, which the Buddhist tradition has ever since been struggling to hold together? I find that, at least, rather implausible, and for that same reason find Beckwith’s arguments rather plausible. He has resolved a contradiction that badly needed resolving. The alternative (which up till now I have been at least prepared to consider) is that the Buddha merely contradicted himself: a possibility that committed Buddhists should have more trouble with than I do. But Beckwith has offered us an alternative to any such belief.

Up till now, too, I have been developing an increasingly negative impression of the views of both scholars of Buddhism and of many Buddhists who go in for scholarship. The main reason for this is that they simply do not appear to see a problem that for me is glaring, and their responses to having it pointed out are often defensive and dismissive. The flimsy means by which the Middle Way is reconciled into official doctrine include the mere assertion that it is equivalent to other doctrines, the implausible limitation of the Buddha’s avoidance of metaphysics to some types of metaphysics and not others, the insistence that the Buddha actually possessed metaphysical answers but refused to share them, the false separation of moral from metaphysical middle ways, or simply ignoring the Middle Way most of the time and reverting to it only when a spoiler is needed for critical issues. The Buddhist scholars who have gone in for this kind of thinking now have a chance to redeem themselves, merely by following through the implications of Beckwith’s evidence and recognising the Middle Way as both prior to and far more important than the other doctrines commonly regarded as core. They no longer have to distort our view of the Buddha as an inspirational figure by doing so, even if in the process of putting the Middle Way first they will have to drop appeals to history.

Beckwith’s evidence even re-opens a gate for me that I have in recent years considered closed – the possibility of in some sense calling myself a Buddhist. The Buddha he identifies is one I could much more happily describe myself as in some sense following. However, there is little point in doing such a thing unless Beckwith’s conclusions are widely shared by Buddhists – which I suspect they will not be – as otherwise ‘Buddhist’ will still then overwhelmingly mean a person who believes in karma, seeks enlightenment etc. Such a move would also create the danger of getting bogged down in historical arguments about what Buddhism ‘essentially’ is – so on balance it is still one I will thus abstain from, unless there is a much more positive response to Beckwith than I expect.

Despite the many positive features of Beckwith’s historical argument, though, I still have some reservations about some aspects of the book, particularly the more philosophical chapter 4. It is in this chapter, after completing most of his historical argument, that Beckwith finally drops the mask of scholarly ‘objectivity’ and lets slip that he actually supports Pyrrhonian early Buddhist approaches himself. I very much wish he had done this earlier in the book, as up to that point his form of expression is so dry, impersonal, and distanced from actual engagement in philosophical issues, that I was still thinking it quite likely that he was one of the type of Oriental scholar I often used to meet at Cambridge, who is actually quite contemptuous of his subject matter and wouldn’t dream of actually taking any of this eastern stuff seriously on his own account. Nevertheless I was glad to discover that this is not the case.

Beckwith’s philosophical explorations in Chapter Four reveal some insights into the Middle Way, but also what are in my view misunderstandings. Beckwith recognises sceptical argument as primarily a protest against absolutism or perfectionism, and that, far from being negative, sceptical arguments leave us in a realm of imperfection: an ambiguous zone between positive and negative absolutes. He also recognises the importance of incrementality – that is, that without absolutes all our judgements must be a matter of more or less. That recognition is central to seeing that scepticism is in no sense a threat to science, only to absolutist interpretations of it.

However, Beckwith’s understanding of the Middle Way is one that he consistently expresses in terms of a modification of logic. He even describes Pyrrho’s (and the Buddha’s) central position in terms of the lack of ultimate logical differentiation we can use to distinguish between claims. It seems that the problem with the two extremes avoided in the Middle Way is taken to be one of invalid conclusions being drawn from premises: we start off with relative evidence and interpret it absolutely. I disagree with this aspect of Beckwith’s account of the Middle Way, and think he has missed the more significant alternative account of scepticism that one can just as well offer: that dogmas consists of false absolute assumptions. Such false assumptions can indeed have the effect of making an argument invalid, but they do not consist in logical invalidity. Rather the problem identified by Pyrrhonian scepticism is a psychological one – our tendency to make absolutising assumptions that interfere with our engagement with the conditions around us.

Although Beckwith’s reach is broad, and obviously incorporates very impressive linguistic and historical skills together with well-targeted but slightly less impressive philosophical ones, his synthesis has his limits, and there is no mention at all of psychology and the relationship it might have to the Middle Way (for example, the absolutising tendencies of the over-dominant left hemisphere of the brain). As a result of this, Beckwith is unable to offer any account of how philosophical Pyrrhonism relates to spiritual practices of a kind that he recognises to have been an important aspect of early Buddhism. It is only when the problem of perfectionism is understood in more psychological terms that we can see, for example, how meditation can override it by continually bringing us back to experience and away from absolutisations. Meditation has no particular effect on logic, but it does have a big effect on the assumptions we make by widening the attention we bring to our judgements. Although expecting him to engage with psychology is, of course, demanding, it is an unavoidable aspect of any adequate approach to the synthetic doctrine he is telling us about.

I also found Beckwith’s treatment of ethics completely inconsistent with his Pyrrhonist perspective. This is most evident in the way he calls later, conventional Buddhism ‘Normative Buddhism’. Nowhere does he explain why he applies that label and what it is supposed to mean, and I expect it to be annoying to most Buddhists, as it was to me. The problem is not that conventional Buddhism is not normative or prescriptive – of course, it includes moral demands and expectations – but rather that if you call one form of Buddhism ‘normative’ it is presumably intended to contrast with another that is not. Does he mean to imply that early, Pyrrhonian Buddhism is not normative? But he clearly does not believe this, for he describes the teachings of early Buddhism as ethical ones. I was driven to the conclusion that he must mean a contrast between ‘Normative Buddhism’ normatively recommended by teachers in the Buddhist tradition, in contrast to an early Buddhism that he thinks he is merely neutrally describing, so that the contrast is not intended to be between two types of Buddhism, but between two kinds of ways of discussing it.

Unfortunately this kind of rigid and apparently unreflective use of the fact-value distinction, to imply that the work of the scholar is purely ‘factual’ or ‘neutral’ whilst religious traditions are not, is still typical of many academic attitudes. It is disingenuous when used by any academic, who must surely recognise that her own work contains unavoidable ‘normative’ elements, however hard she is trying to make her work ‘impartial’. Behind this is the assumption that objectivity consists in pure factuality (of a kind that is impossible in practice), rather than in attitudes, values and methods conducive to overcoming biases. However, given the subject matter and beliefs that Beckwith is concerned with here, reliance on the fact-value distinction is particularly jarring. The fact-value distinction is obviously incompatible with Pyrrhonism, as any claim to have identified a pure, value-free fact is subject to sceptical doubt (as is any claim to have identified a pure, fact-free value).

All this underlines that Beckwith’s enterprise here is incomplete. He has evidently not reflected sufficiently on the full implications of Pyrrhonian scepticism, nor made his overall style and approach thoroughly consistent with it. He has not even been as straightforward as he might have been about revealing his own commitment to it. However, that need not detract from appreciation of his tremendous achievements in this book. Just to take Pyrrhonism seriously in the teeth of long-standing academic misunderstanding of it is a big achievement, but to add to this such broad and yet rigorous scholarship in the service of such a noble end is praiseworthy indeed. Whatever my caveats and complaints about certain aspects of it, I very highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the historical roots of Buddhism or of the Middle Way.

10 thoughts on “‘Greek Buddha’ by Christopher I. Beckwith

  1. I’ve also read the book and found it very interesting and I find the conclusions you draw potentially really exciting. I just want to play devil’s advocate a bit here though. You say in the post that much of the response of both Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to this book will be one of instant dismissal, prompted primarily by the huge challenge to vested interests and sunk costs that Beckwith’s thesis offers. However, they also could say that your position is equally susceptible to confirmation bias due to Beckwith’s thesis being very conducive to various theories that you’ve put forward. How have you guarded against confirmation bias in this instance?

    You suggest that the robustness of Beckwith’s claims are due to the careful historical reasoning informed by datable documents. What is it about ‘datability’ that makes a historical claim more valid say than corroborating circumstantial evidence from undatable sources? Maybe I’m being a bit obtuse here, but is it why for example, we treat the existence of St Augustine as being much more plausible than King Arthur? What would you say are the limitations of datable evidence and in what ways could ‘evidence’ or would there be circumstances that data from a source say like the Pali Canon could be more ‘plausible’ than datable evidence?

    I’ve recently had a brief correspondence with a Buddhist scholar, (who I prefer to keep anonymous) and who has indeed been very dismissive of Beckwith’s book.. This is an extract from the letter. Like you , He also questions Beckwith’s differentiation of Early and Normative Buddhism but what are your thoughts on his other remarks?

    ‘Basically, his knowledge of what he calls Early Buddhism is very poor. He is not a Buddhist scholar and cites hardly any classical texts – and doesn’t seem to know his way around the canon. Yet he makes some rather extraordinary claims about the influence of Early Buddhism on Pyrrho (e.g.: “This passage (of Pyrrho) about the three characteristics is thus the absolutely earliest known bit of Buddhist doctrinal text” (his italics). This is ridiculous. Yet nowhere does he clarify what he means by Early Buddhism and how he differentiates it from what he calls Normative Buddhsim. A key part of his argument about the three qualities of Pyrrho’s teaching being the three laksana of Buddhism is founded on a citation from the Anguttara Nikaya. Why he thinks that this source is Early rather than Normative Buddhism is a mystery to me. Yet he fails to point out that the three laksana doctrine is not to be found in what Buddhist scholars regard as the earliest texts, e.g. the Atthakavagga, the very reason he employs to argue that Four Noble Truths are not “early.” I could go on…’

    Barry

  2. Hi Barry,
    Thanks for this devil’s advocacy, which is always useful. I’d suggest that I have guarded against confirmation bias on my own account by not putting too much emphasis on historical justifications in any case, and by the caveat I put at the beginning. In the end, I think the prime value of Beckwith’s book is as a purgative to try to get people off dependency on specific historical events to try to validate beliefs that are universal. I don’t think it would be a great improvement if Buddhists simply shifted to the same historical dependence but used Beckwith’s version of history instead.

    Your example of St Augustine v King Arthur seems like a good one re. datability. I’d say it’s just an aspect of consistency in a document. If it’s datable you’re in a much better position to check it. In a similar way you might be in a much better position to check it if you know exactly where or by whom it was written. When a document is both undatable and inconsistent with other datable evidence (as seems to be the case with the Pali Canon, or most of it), we have good grounds for suspicion. Perhaps someone with more formal training in history, such as Rich, could say more about this.

    From reading Beckwith’s book I’m not at all convinced that he ‘doesn’t know his way around the canon’, but you should ask Beckwith himself whether that’s the case. Rather he doesn’t consider it relevant, because he has access to more reliable evidence elsewhere. I’ve had similar accusations thrown at me because I make little reference to the Pali Canon in my books, even though I spent two years studying Pali and indeed could, I think, fairly say I ‘know my way around it’. I don’t reference the Pali canon much because I am not trying to justify my beliefs within the limiting terms of Buddhist tradition, but rather in the wider terms of universal experience. In Beckwith’s case, he is using a wider scholarly language than those who concentrate only on Indian sources. Your Buddhist scholar just seems to be unwilling to work outside the paradigm that he’s used to working in, and expects others to adopt his language when they are actually challenging that paradigm. But changes of paradigm demand changes of language and changes of the kinds of justification we accept for our beliefs. If people continue to not think outside a given box, we will all address conditions much the worse for it.

    I think Beckwith does make it reasonably clear what he means by early Buddhism: it is the Pyrrhonian scepticism of the Buddha reacting against Zoroastrianism, and those who took a similar view in the succeeding centuries. He also recognises early versions of divergent sects emerging in that early Buddhism, including what he calls ‘Pre Pure Land’ sects.

    As regards your scholar’s point about the three qualities of Pyrrho’s teaching and the three laksanas, I did not personally think this relationship needed as much weight as Beckwith gives it (which is why I don’t mention it in the review). However, it doesn’t seem to matter much when the later Pali Canon source of the laksanas originated, given that Beckwith’s argument (as I understand it) is that the Pyrrhonian version influenced the later Buddhist version. For me it’s of greater interest just to note the more clearly sceptical interpretation of the laksanas that Pyrrhonism offers, and how this differs from the way Buddhists often present them today (with anicca/impermanence becoming a kind of truth about the universe and anatta/no-self often being seen as a denial of the self rather than an avoidance of both positive and negative assertions about the self). Beckwith’s account of the Pyrrhonian version of the laksanas makes them much more experiential and much more mere recognitions of the implications of uncertainty, avoiding turning them into new metaphysical claims.

  3. Hi Robert,

    This certainly seems like an interesting and important book, both from a philosophical and historical perspective. I have yet to read it but there are a couple of things that I would like to briefly explore here; I will post more detailed thoughts on the book itself once I have read it.

    You imply that the pursuit of historical proofs, and the debates that can arise as a result of conflicting viewpoints, are a distraction to the exploration and application of the Middle Way and are of little practical value in this regard. I would challenge this view, and argue that if the Middle Way extends beyond the left brain focused study of itself, then historical debate – and the fruits of such debates – offer much of practical value to the exploration and experience of the Middle Way.

    While it is true that an idea such as the Middle Way is valuable regardless of any historical proof relating to it, it is also true that the search for evidence regarding its historical origins and development could potentially provide much of practical value. For instance, by studying (and debating) the historical Buddha, it may be possible to uncover new and practically useful insights. Perhaps, in this search one may discover that the Buddha did indeed leave documentary evidence (unlikely, I know) and that within these documents are useful insights about the Middle Way that have not been considered since said documentation was lost. By trying to discover if the Buddha was the genuine author of such a document it may be possible to make new, and useful, discoveries about the Buddha & the society in which he lived. Or conversely, discoveries about another author that is not the Buddha, but a new Middle Way thinker. This is not to mention the objects, art, architecture & philosophy that such historical endeavours often uncover, and must surely enrich and stimulate both our right and left brain experience of the world. It can also be argued that the study of history (which must involve debate and argument) provides a useful opportunity to not only reflect on societies gone by, but also the societies in which we live today. Our experience and understanding of the Middle Way can be complemented by historical study and debate, just as historical study and debate can be complemented by and understanding of the Middle Way.

    I would even argue – based on your review – that it is not the Middle Way insights on their own, but the historical debate and study that this book may inspire that is most exciting. The philosophical points that you reference could be arrived at without this book, indeed you may already have done so. However, there may well be interesting and unforeseen insights discovered/ developed as a direct result of any future historical critique – insights that may come from both supporters and critics of it’s central thesis.

    1. Hi Rich,
      I agree with you that history is a rich source of insights about the Middle Way. That’s particularly because it tells us a lot about people’s past integrative achievements, and what helped them to address conditions better or worse. However, any one area of history is as good as another in this regard: it could be the history of the Aztecs or the Ottoman Empire, or indeed one’s own personal history, that yields such information. I have explored some examples in my case studies at the end of Middle Way Philosophy 2, where I discuss the examples of Margaret Thatcher, Sangharakshita, Northern Ireland and the Ottoman Empire from this point of view.

      However, I think you need to distinguish the incremental evidence that such studies give us from the idea of ‘historical proofs’. The limitations of human experience, as well as of historical evidence, make it impossible to prove anything historically in an absolute way. Instead we have to talk in terms of probabilities and weight of evidence. My objection to much of the way in which the Buddha is used in Buddhist tradition is the appeal to history that is involved: one absolute event is taken to legitimate the Buddha’s teachings. People then appropriate the authority of this absolute event as a shortcut to justifying their view, which they attribute to the Buddha. If Beckwith is right, this kind of appropriation of the Buddha’s authority has been going on since the 1st Century CE, and there’s always a danger of us merely compounding the mistakes that Beckwith attributes to the creators of the Pali Canon by doing the same thing.

      One can also argue that because a figure whom people have found a source of insight says something, this makes it valuable. But its value lies not in who has said it, but how far it relates to our experience and is useful to us. The credibility of a figure like the Buddha makes us more likely to pay attention to his teachings than other people, but credibility (which is an incremental justification) should not be confused with ‘proof’ or other absolute ideas. Because a person is more likely to be right on the basis of experience, does not mean they are necessarily right. The history of what they have said is indeed worth studying, but not worth arguing over beyond a certain point where the arguments begin to be motivated by absolute assumptions about the value of what is being said and the need to justify it through authority. My recent video on ‘appeals to authority’ goes into this difference between credibility and absolute justification.

  4. I entirely agree that any period of history is as good as another with regards to the possible insights that can be garnered, I only used the example of the Buddha as it related to Beckwith’s book.

    As for ‘historical proofs’, I am not really sure that such a thing can exist in any absolute sense and, in my experience so far, this is also generally accepted by a majority of historians – it is certainly taught at undergraduate level by the Open University. That is not to say that historians do not defend their competing theories enthusiastically, but most historians would agree that theirs is only one interpretation of the available evidence, and that this interpretation may well be influenced to greater or lesser degrees by their own biases (social or otherwise). Objectivity is aimed at but never fully achieved. One of the most important areas of the academic study of history is the study of other historians historical theories and the debates that inevitably follow (historiography). Historiography not only broadens our potential understanding of the period that is being debated but also tells us about the historians themselves – historical theories from the sixties differ from those of the eighties in ways that can tell us as much about these decades as they do about the French Revolution, for instance.

    It is with this in mind that I would still be cautious of dismissing such debates that may arise as a consequence of Beckwith’s book as distracting or practically unhelpful. Even if they do not contribute to our understanding of the Middle Way in a direct way, they may provide fruitful in other ways, either now or in the future with the benefit of historiographical contemplation.

    While one must admit to there being degrees of subjectivity and bias in any historical theory, one must also accept that the degrees in which they may be present are also incremental. A historian should aim to limit them as much as possible but this can be especially difficult when dealing with someone whom one regards with reverence. Philosophers, authorS, Kings & Queens are all examples of figures that can prove to be so seductive in their authority and apparent charisma that any attempts at objectivity can be seriously compromised. When one is dealing with religious individuals, who still form the central authority figure of an existing religion then these problems are likely to be magnified, and any debate may well be heavily influenced by a scholars desire (conscious or not) to reinforce their own deeply held beliefs, this does not, however, make such debates necessarily distracting or unhelpful – so long as one can observe them with the notions of incrementality and provisionality that can be so helpful in both the Middle Way and the study of history. Who knows, maybe such a debate might even cause someone who holds an absolute view to reconsider their position; we should not write such people off as being unable to change.

    In short, we seem to agree on everything here except the potential usefulness of seemingly unhelpful historical debates, be they based on absolute assumptions or not.

    1. Hi Rich, I didn’t mean to imply that historical debates about figures such as the Buddha are never useful. There is just a greater chance, as we seem to agree, of them being masked claims to authority. Indeed, I’d be pretty hypocritical if I had claimed that nothing at all helpful could be got out of such debates, because I am participating in them myself to some degree by reviewing Beckwith’s book.

      However, some of the discussions I’ve got into since about Beckwith (not here, but on Facebook) have also reminded me how very easy it is to get into fruitless debates about very uncertain matters which rest only on the interpretation of ambiguous evidence, and where the reason for maintaining a strong view of how that evidence should be interpreted is fairly transparently an appeal to the Buddha’s authority for the ends one already identifies with. I’ve just had too many of such fruitless debates, and got thoroughly fed up with the extent to which Buddhists who supposedly follow the Middle Way are often prepared to lose their awareness and give way to rhetoric in them, so you’ll have to forgive me if I seem over-cautious on this point – it’s a matter of personal experience. That experience includes getting into those states myself (by degrees that originated in critical argument) and later regretting it.

  5. Robert, your:— “I think Beckwith does make it reasonably clear what he means by early Buddhism: it is the Pyrrhonian scepticism of the Buddha reacting against Zoroastrianism, and those who took a similar view in the succeeding centuries. He also recognises early versions of divergent sects emerging in that early Buddhism, including what he calls ‘Pre Pure Land’ sects.”

    This is the most interesting part.

    What was that conversation in Central Asia? For me the hypothetical questions, or fancies even, that can be raised are the best part of reading this book. The mistake that thwarts or dukkhas this question is to label this conversation as Buddhism. Better to consider this conversation as something from which Buddhism, and Taoism, and so Pyrrhonism, arises. Was the guy from Sakya just better at marketing than the others? Was the ground more responsive there at that time.

    That conversation in reaction to the military and political imposition of hardline binary Zoroastrianism sect as an established religion for an Empire is the interesting question. Calling that Buddhism is a bit silly. However asking that question of central Asia allows all sorts of projects, whereas, by comparison, the esoteric turn, the gnostic and supernatural pathenons of saints, the personality cult marketing success, the textual revisionism of canons and what’s-in-what’s-out —-are not interesting at all.

  6. Hi Meika,
    Thanks for your comment. I can see that not calling the early movements Beckwith writes about ‘Buddhism’ could be a useful exercise in reconsidering one’s categories and one’s attachment to them. However, given its evident connection to key ideas in Buddhism, not calling it ‘Buddhism’ also involves assumptions that might be questionable.

    I increasingly feel that our use of terms is entirely a pragmatic matter. Of course we have to try to make it clear to others what we mean, but we have no reason to be bound to a traditional use of terms if it serves a useful purpose to use them differently. There is no essentially right or wrong way of using the term ‘Buddhism’. A quick look at your website suggests that you might be in sympathy with this view in some respects. So I wonder what your practical goal is in calling Beckwith’s use of ‘Buddhism’ ‘a bit silly’?

  7. Just a small note: the title of the book is not misleading at all. ‘Greek Buddha’ refers to Pyrrho, not the historical Buddha.

  8. Hi Jason,
    One will not find it misleading if one interprets it in that way, but such an interpretation is not pointed out in the book, and did not occur to me when reading it. Pyrrho is not usually referred to in the terms of a Buddha, and the main focus of the book is not Pyrrho but the figure normally known as the Buddha.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CAPTCHA
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 

Get a Gravatar