An Epitome of Rational Dhamma


Y. Karunadasa, Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong, 2013, $30, 205pp hback.

This review is copied over from Western Buddhist Review

The term ‘early Buddhism’ refers to the teaching of the Buddha and to the Buddhism of his followers up until the time of the second council and the first schism, about one hundred years after the death of the Buddha, when various geographically and doctrinally distinct schools of Buddhism came into being. There is a growing body of literature concerning the Buddhism of this earliest period,[i] despite the problem of historical evidence. Our best evidence for early Buddhism is the Pāli canon, which is the product of translation and of centuries of oral transmission. There is always an element of faith involved in discussing the Buddhism of the Buddha, faith that there really was such a person as the Buddha, and that the early discourses contain something of what he taught. In this context, Prof. Karunadasa’s new book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of early Buddhism by drawing out the meaning of the Buddha’s ‘middle way’, mainly in theory, but also in relation to the practice of the ethical life. In doing so, he does more than illuminate early Buddhist teachings: he provides a lucid though dense summary of the Buddha’s psychology of liberation, clearly explained, capable of being practised – his book is an epitome of rational Dhamma.

Prof. Karunadasa, from Sri Lanka, has specialised in Theravādin Abhidhamma studies.[ii] But in this book he turns to the suttas or discourses of the Pāli canon to explore an excellent hypothesis: that the best way to understand early Buddhist doctrine is as a critical response to the opposition of two opposed world-views, spiritual eternalism and materialist annihilationism. In his preliminary observations he makes clear that his method is one of interpretation. He draws on various discourses, subjecting them to close reading, sometimes using Theravādin exegetical terms, for the sake of presenting a coherent rational synthesis of early Buddhist teaching. The result is extremely interesting and inspiring, mainly because the author’s thinking is very clear and does not betray any imposition of a view onto the materials discussed.

He begins by proposing a historical context of the Buddha’s teaching, in which religious and philosophical discourse was polarised between two views. On the one hand the Brahmans and some ascetics (samaṇas) taught that there was a permanent metaphysical self, a spirit distinct from the body, and that spiritual practice consisted of uniting with that self. In reaction to this metaphysical view, which the Buddha called ‘eternalism’ (sassatavāda), other ascetics taught that there was only a physical self, and that this self will be annihilated at death, a view which the Buddha called ‘annihilationism’ (ucchedavāda). These two extremes are two versions of the theory of the self, and they were associated with asceticism in the case of eternalism, and hedonism in the case of annihilationism. The Buddha’s middle way is both a ‘teaching by the middle’ (majjhena dhammaṃ) in respect of views and a ‘middle path’ (majjhimā paṭipadā) in respect of practice. There is plenty of scope for further discussion of the historical hypothesis that Prof. Karunadasa proposes, but nevertheless it works well enough as a framework for the discussion of the Buddha’s teaching of the middle way.

Karunadasa next interprets dependent arising (paṭicca-samupāda) in terms of the middle way. The point of view of dependent arising transcends the dualities of monism and pluralism, in that reality is neither grounded in a single principle, nor is it a collection of unrelated entities. The best-known application of dependent arising, the twelvenidānas, he interprets as ‘the causal structure of individual existence’ (p.26). Implicitly eschewing the later interpretation of the nidānas as spread over three lives, Karunadasa boldly proposes that each nidāna implies the presence of the five aggregates (khandhas) which constitute individual existence, namely, physical form, feeling, contact, volitional formations and consciousness. Each of the nidānas, from ignorance (avijjā) to ageing-and-death (jarāmaraṇa) concerns how the individual, made up of the aggregates, enters into saṃsāra. Karunadasa next revisits the well-explored territory of ‘not self’ (anattā) but with great delicacy, stressing how the not self teaching is the middle way between an eternalist conception of a metaphysical self and an annihilationist conception of a physical self, in the sense that the person or individual is the ‘sum total of the five aggregates when they are structurally organised according to the principle of dependent arising’ (p.37). Somewhat anachronistically, however, he criticises earlier scholars of Buddhism (such as Radhakrishnan, Mrs Rhys Davids, Grimm, Bhattacarya, etc.) who claimed that the Buddha taught a ‘higher Self’.

The chapter on ‘the Analysis of the Mind’ seems to me to be the central chapter of the book. The Buddha’s middle way begins to take shape in terms of how individual existence, constituted by the five aggregates, undergoes a cognitive process which it mistakes for a self. The co-arising of sense-experience and sense-consciousness leads to contact, feeling, perception, thinking, conceptual proliferation and the consequent impact of proliferation back upon the individual. In this way we come to experience being a self in saṃsāra. Karunadasa stresses how consciousness is reciprocally dependent on name and form, the physical organism plus mental factors, this reciprocal dependence constituting an ‘irreducible ground of saṃsāric existence’ (p.61), a position transcending either an eternalist tendency to view the mind as the ultimate reality, or a materialist tendency to view physical matter as what is real. In this central chapter we begin to sense the author’s underlying conviction concerning a humanistic and psychological interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. He shows no interest in myth or symbol, even though all of these are evidently as much part of the Buddha’s teachings.

The next few chapters explore the practical implications of this theory. The Buddha characterised the human condition as dukkha, suffering (meaning, being stuck in conditioned existence). Individual existence is a causally conditioned process of grasping the five aggregates; grasping is the superimposition of the ideas ‘this is mine’, ‘I am this’, ‘this is my self’, onto the aggregates. When this process ends, suffering ends. Suffering, therefore, is the same as being motivated by self-centred craving, and the Buddhist ethical life is lived to ameliorate this suffering. Karunadasa explores three principles of the ethical life: kammavāda (that actions have consequences), kiriyavāda (the need to act wholesomely), and viriyavāda (the need to make an effort). The discussion of kamma as intention, and what this entails, is dense and stimulating. Next Karunadasa explores the nature and application of the eightfold path, the Buddha’s ‘middle way’. Finally, he discusses the role and place of happiness in early Buddhism. He successfully presents happiness as both a goal of all our desires and the result of living a wholesome (kusala) life.

In the concluding chapters, Karunadasa returns to his main theme of the ‘teaching by the middle’. Nibbāna is neither the attainment of a metaphysical reality nor the annihilation of a physical self. He begins with the simple definition of nibbāna as the destruction of greed, hatred and delusion, and then expands this definition in terms of various other ways in which nibbāna is described: as knowledge, as world-transcendence, as the unconditioned, as non-proliferation, and so on. He denies that nibbāna has anything to do with a transcendental reality. The chapter on the Buddha’s ‘unanswered questions’ (Is the world finite or infinite? Has it a beginning or not? Is the soul the same or different to the body? Does the Tathāgata exist after death, not, both, or neither?) is more philosophical but nicely demonstrates the methodology of the whole book, as well as showing the importance of right view for the practice of Buddhism. Karunadasa explores the cultural context of the questions and how the Buddha handles them, and concludes that he did not answer them because they are inappropriate and meaningless. Hence the positions put forward by other scholars, such as naïve agnosticism, pragmatism, rational agnosticism and positivism, are all incorrect.

Karunadasa ends with a chapter on the Buddhist attitude to the idea of God: not only does God have not place in Buddhism, but the Buddha offers arguments against belief in his existence. He concludes that Buddhism is anthropology, not theology. An appendix on Buddhism and fundamentalism explores how the belief, which the Buddha warned against, that ‘this alone is true; all other beliefs are false’ is as corrosive a view within Buddhism as without, and how Buddhism is a pluralist tradition, admitting a plurality of doctrines, scriptures, cultures and societies. Moreover, the Buddha did not deny that there can be liberation outside Buddhism, for what the Buddha discovered, is open to anyone to discover; and while what was said by the Buddha was well said, whatever has been well said by anyone (or in other scriptures) is the word of the Buddha too.

In short, this is a high-level abstract synthesis of Buddhist doctrine. Its value lies in its steady focus on the early discourses, its method of interpretation guided not by later Buddhist exegesis but by a historical hypothesis about the metaphysical context of the Buddha’s teaching. Karunadasa tries to cover both the theory and practice of the middle way, but in doing so the book feels like two books, the one on practice sandwiched between chapters on theory. As it is, I suspect that Early Buddhist Teachings will not gain much of a readership beyond the Buddhist intelligentsia, especially because it makes no attempt to relate the early Buddhist teachings to other philosophical or religious traditions. This is a pity, and I predict the book is destined to remain a hidden treasure among books on early Buddhism, partly because of its specialism, and also because it is only available direct from the publishers in Hong Kong.

Available direct from the publishers, for $30 + $10p&p.

Dhivan Thomas Jones is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review, and the author of This Being, That Becomes: the Buddha’s teaching on Conditionality.

[i] For instance Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought, and Alexander Wynne, The Origins of Buddhist Meditation, reviewed in WBR volume 5. Bhikkhu Anālayo is a prolific scholar of early Buddhism too; his books on satipaṭṭhāna are published by Windhorse Publications.

[ii] His book on the dhamma-theory published by the Buddhist Publication Society is available online