Untying the Knots in Buddhism: Selected Essays, by Wayman, Alex
Reviewed by Karel Werner
Asian Philosophy vol.8 No.1 March 1998 pp.72-73
COPYRIGHT @ Journals Oxford Ltd. (UK)
One of the most distinguished Buddhist scholars presents in this collection of 24 essays a rich harvest of his research over 10 years into problems of non-tantric Buddhism. Some of the papers were previously published in periodicals or volumes for special occasions, others were delivered as lectures at different venues and some were specially prepared for this collection in order to make it into an integrated volume. They revolve around three basic themes of Buddhism: personalities; doctrine and practice; and Buddhism in the wider Indian context. The first theme occupies two sections. Section One, `Heroes of the System', opens with a well written essay summarising the Buddha's career, with immaculate source references, and continues with one on the disputed matter of his date. The author accepts the year 486 BC for the Buddha's passing away (showing preference for the Cantonese tradition which is very close to Geiger's widely used date of 483 BC). He supports this so-called `long chronology' by a convincing and well argued refutation of Bechert's recent advocacy of the `short chronology' (placing the Buddha's death at c. 365 BC) as indefensible, while elucidating several important doctrinal topics in the process, everything again painstakingly documented. After three brilliant essays, on `Nagarjuna: Moralist Reformer of Buddhism', `Doctrinal Affiliation of the Buddhist Master Asanga' and `Vasubandhu--Teacher Extraordinary', the section closes with an unusual theme: `Parents of the Buddhist Monks'. The starting-point of the essay is the author's recognition of the role which appreciation of parents plays in the stability of a given culture and in the preservation of religion. Buddhism has always upheld family values despite the otherworldliness of its goal and insistence on homelessness for monks who, however, were strongly admonished to acknowledge their indebtedness to their parents, and particularly to their mother. The author proceeds to show how this very human relationship manifested itself on different levels in doctrinal contexts. Section Two, `Theory of the Heroes', tackles first the `Aniconic and Iconic Art of the Buddha' and skilfully argues that the uniconic representations of the Buddha (such as the empty throne etc.) indicated not only his `presence in absence' as they are usually understood, but amounted to `living embodiments', while his iconic portrayals do not have the same impact. This was realised even at the time by some artists who therefore included in their icons some uniconic touches, e.g. a tree. Examples abound at Ajanta. Two subsequent papers concentrating on textual analysis deal, respectively, with the question of Nagarjuna's interpretation of the term Tathagata and with Asanga's account of three Pratyejabuddha paths, and the next one explains the role of `The Guru in Buddhism'. In the concluding essay the author argues that personal prophecy has always been accepted in Buddhism as a possibility. Personal predictions of spiritual achievements and future destinies after death were frequent even in the early times, but the possible validity of mundane predictions has never been denied, although monks are discouraged from engaging in them. Themes on doctrine and practice are represented by Sections Three and Four. The former includes core teachings, such as suffering, karma, seed consciousness, dharma, and voidness as well as a thorough examination of the meaning of the expressions `going' and `not going' whose usage in texts often has metaphysical implications. The last essay, The Meaning of Death in Buddhism', is a scholarly examination of texts pertinent to the theme and an elucidation of all possible aspects of it. The conclusion was, of course, foregone from the start: death is regarded in Buddhism `as a transit in a cyclical course rather than a decisive final event'. Section Four treats the term `food' in its realistic and metaphorical sense with the help of Asanga; the position of women in Buddhism; and purification of sin (defilement or fault--sanklesa, Pali sankilesa) through `face to face' confession which began as patimokkha ceremony, but changed in Mahayana into a procedure which involved meditative visualisation of the Buddha(s). It closes with an investigation of the meaning of parinamana, often interpreted as `transference of merit or virtue' which poses problems `in view of the karma doctrine. The author explains it as `virtue consignment', but although his arguments and explanations are illuminating, the question does not appear settled and will no doubt continue to exercise scholars' minds. Section Five, `Hindu-Buddhist Studies', contains essays which should be carefully studied by specialised Buddhist scholars who are sometimes persuaded to interpret Buddhist topics purely from within the Buddhist tradition as a whole or just from within a particular Buddhist school or sect, whether historical, such as Theravada, or construed, such as `early Buddhism', ignoring or too easily brushing aside the wider background and close connections between Buddhist ideas and trends of pre-Buddhist and contemporary Indian thought, both Vedic-Brahmanic and `non-orthodox'. First it is the Vedic and Buddhist picture of the world which is dealt with, followed by `Studies in Yama and Mara' tackling the Hindu and Buddhist mythological representations of death. Philosophically the most fruitful are the essays `Vedantic and Buddhist Theory of Nama-Rupa' and `The "No-Self" of Buddhism within Indian Culture'. The former (first published 1982), suggesting the theory of two kinds of nama-rupa and pointing out the textual usage of the expressions nama-kaya and rupa-kaya, was partly utilised in the reviewer's paper `Indian Concepts of Human Personality in Relation to the Doctrine of the Soul' (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1988, pp. 73-97); the latter argues that the statements in Buddhist texts about anatman/anatta were meant to represent not a doctrine, but a method of contemplation. The concluding essay, `Nescience and Omniscience', deals with different kinds of avidya, with the problem of knowledge and wisdom and with the way in which the concept of omniscience emerged in Buddhist thought where, unlike in some non-Buddhist contexts, it is never understood to cover all knowledge which would include even mundane matters; `it is rather an "omniscience" about the truth of the world and of man' in so far as it leads to the realisation of the path. The great value of these essays for the specialist researching a particular theme is in the references to sources, often with lengthy quotations both in the original language and in translation, and to secondary literature. In addition, the reader also always gets the author's balanced conclusions on important and controversial points of Buddhist teachings based on investigation of a wide range of sources of different schools, both within and outside the Buddhist tradition. That is what non-specialists--philosophers and religionists--can greatly profit from, even if they may not be able or inclined to follow in all details all the author's chain arguments. Now that his most important essays are easily available in this volume (and in a previous one: Buddhist Insight, 1984), I cannot imagine that any important Buddhist topic can be treated without taking his work into account or critically referring to it.