‘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.
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:
- Buddhism was founded by an Indian
- A reasonably accurate account of the Buddha’s life and teachings is given in the Pali Canon
- The Buddha taught karma and rebirth, and the way to nirvana as a release from the karmic round.
- Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path
- Taoism was founded independently by a Chinese sage called Lao Tzu, its similarities to Buddhism being a coincidence
- Buddhism emerged in a context of early Brahmanism, which it reacted against
- Buddhism emerged alongside other new religious movements reacting against Brahmanism, such as Jainism and the Ajivikas
- Buddhism emerged in a developing urban civilisation in the Ganges valley
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- However fundamental the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path may now seem to Buddhism, these are later additions attributed to the Buddha.
- 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.
- Early Buddhism reacted not against Brahmanism but against Zoroastrianism.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.