Untying the Knots in Buddhism: Selected Essays, by Wayman, Alex
Reviewed by Karel Werner
Asian Philosophy
vol.8 No.1
March 1998
     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.