Buddhism, or whatever it is

This lavishly illustrated tome explores and overturns conventional wisdom about the Theravada tradition

The standard authorities tell us that Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka about 2,000 years ago, filtered into Southeast Asia soon after, and became dominant from the 13th century AD after new infusions of teachings from the Lanka Mahavira school. This story is very generally accepted but has one wrinkle: the term "Buddhism" was not invented until the 19th century and "Theravada Buddhism" not until the 20th.

HOW THERAVADA IS THERAVADA? Exploring Buddhist identities Edited by Peter Skilling, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, Santi Pakdeekham Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai ISBN 978-616-215-044-9 950 baht

Some scholars have grown uneasy about pushing this term back into the past. Some have wondered what exactly it means. In 2008 several gathered to discuss these issues. This collection of 12 essays, ranging across the whole 21/2 millennia of Buddhist history, is the result. The subjects include the early Pali commentaries, schools and schisms in early Sri Lanka, sightings of Theravada in Chinese sources, religious reform in Pagan, the Kalyani Inscriptions, King Rama I and Wat Pho, texts on ordination, a catalogue of texts from Cambodia, King Mongkut's invention of a Pali script, and the history of the term "Theravada Buddhism".

In the past, people referred simply to "the religion" or "the teachings". The label Buddhism was invented by Western scholars when they wanted to compare it to other religions. The emergence of "Theravada" is more complex. In old texts, the word means the earliest elders of the religion or the body of texts they compiled. Western scholars in the late 19th century divided Buddhism into "southern" and "northern" schools. They argued that the "southern" school in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia was based on older and purer texts in Pali, while the "northern" school in Tibet, China, and Japan had been corrupted by non-canonical teachings.

At the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, Japanese monks counter-attacked, arguing that the "northern" school was more developed, while the "southern" was backward and stunted. They proposed that the proper terms were Mahayana and Hinayana, the big and little vehicle, with the implied hierarchy. Their suggestion stuck. Ten years later, an Irishman who ordained as a monk in Burma and had ambitions to convert the West to Buddhism, proposed "Theravada" as a less demeaning title than Hinayana. Only in 1950 at the first meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists was this proposal formally adopted, and has since become so well accepted that its recent origin has been almost totally forgotten. The story is here unearthed in a long and riveting essay by Todd Perreira.

Besides this label, another enduring legacy of early Western scholarship on Buddhism is the idea of a "Pali canon", an early compilation of texts which provide the philosophical backbone of Theravada Buddhism across countries and across time. Peter Skilling argues that this approach gives a false sense of unity and continuity.

In reality Theravada Buddhism is highly atomised. The basic units are chapters of monks and communities that support them. Of course kings like to impose rule and regulation, but in Southeast Asia rulers and dynasties have tended not to last very long. Continuity has come instead from the practices underlying these communities _ the rituals for defining sacred space, the importance placed on ordination, the role of monk as teacher and exemplar, and lineages as linkages across time. Commonality comes from networking, especially the movements of texts and monks from place to place, and the occasional ventures in religious diplomacy between Burma, Siam and Sri Lanka. In one of the many beautiful illustrations in this book, two monks chat as their ships pass in opposite directions between Siam and Sri Lanka. A catalogue of texts at a Cambodian temple includes several canonical works in Pali, but many other texts translated from Thai.

This atomised and networked religious system takes easily to innovation and adaptation. The texts found in Southeast Asia extend far beyond the Pali canon, and are constantly being supplemented and updated. Especially in times of political and intellectual turmoil, philosophy and practice can change very fast, with dramatic impact on society and art.

Lilian Handlin describes one such era of change in 11th century Burma. In reaction to a political crisis, Kyanzittha adopted Lankan Buddhism blended with local, Bramanical and more exotic elements in a project to create "good people" with a utopian future. This ambition prompted innovations in painting and architecture to create "billboards" for the king's message, resulting in the unique site of world heritage at Pagan.

Skilling describes the Bangkok First Reign as another such era of change.

Against the old view of this period as an Ayutthayan restoration engineered by the monarch, Skilling offers an alternative vision of a more general renaissance with much wider participation.

What then is the thing that we have recently started to call "Theravada Buddhism"? Skilling concludes, rather warily that it is "a monastic lineage and a textual transmission of ethics, metaphysics, narratives _ the Pali canon and the ritual practices of monasticism and liturgy." But then he adds: "The history of Theravada is one of diversity and innovation." The changes in everyday practice are just as important as the constancy of the texts in keeping Theravada Buddhism alive and well through centuries, and any definition can only be, in Handlin's phrase, "a kaleidoscopic work in progress." The recent invention of the term "Theravada Buddhism" is a prime example of the innovation in response to changing circumstances that Skilling suggests is key to the tradition's longevity.

This is a fascinating book but also a weighty and challenging book, overturning many of the comfortable simplicities of accepted wisdom on Buddhism. Several of the essays are targeted more at the specialist than the general reader. Yet if eyes sometimes glaze over, they can be soothed by looking at the pictures. The book is lavishly illustrated with colour plates, many from the collection of the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Chris Baker
Position: Freelance Writer