Dharma is BS

Several years ago I decided to sit in on Buddhism classes by Dr. Gregory Schopen. I heard legendary stories about his research and personality, so I had to check it out for myself.Gregory Schopen Those few weeks had a major effect on not just how I see Buddhism, but also on how I viewed academic research in general. One lecture in particular has stuck with me, and this was about “what the Buddha said.”

We Buddhists love to talk about what the Buddha said. Of course, none of us has ever heard the actual words he said. We usually don’t even quote the Pali or Sanskrit words that he’s claimed to have said. For those of us who don’t speak Sanskrit our Pali, we beg our readers to put their trust in our trust of the fellows who translate from the Pali or Sanskrit texts (and their editors). Sometimes we need to elaborate on the meaning of these translated texts, apparently the Buddha’s words don’t always speak for themselves.

Schopen applied this reasoning to Buddhist texts, and did so much more simply. And of course he uses the provocative abbreviation BS for what the Buddha Said.*

The actual words that the Buddha spoke go unrecorded. They are all related to us from others who came before us. We can call the Buddha’s own words BS0. When we actually say, “the Buddha said…”, then whatever comes after that is BS1 (read as: what the Buddha said to the first power).

You can argue back and forth about BS1 till the cows come home. Even if you agree on what constitutes BS1, you’ll often find you disagree on what the Buddha meant. This is BS2. But there’s a lot more to BS2 than you might imagine. For example, every translation of the Buddha’s words constitute BS2.

As any translator is well aware, when you translate a text from another language, you are staking a claim on what was meant by these words. Every time there is an ambiguity, then you are the one the readers rely on to resolve this ambiguity. When you gloss over subtle meanings in the original text, you are implicitly saying that this nuance has no value. So when we sit down and talk about what the Buddha said in translation, realize we’re talking about BS2.

Again, we can compare translations till we’re blue in the face, but the real fun comes along when we discuss what the Buddha really meant. Or BS3. My favorite example of this is in discussions of the fifth precept. You can find some of this on blogs, such as Daily Buddhism, the Bad Buddhist Blog and the Level 8 Buddhist (to give you a taste).

An illustration: Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi (BS1). This means, “I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which cause heedlessness” (BS2). In practice, this means that a little drink and some drugs like caffeine are okay, but only in moderate amounts, and also depending on the situation (BS3).

Now the point of this isn’t to say that Buddhism is a load of BS. I’m putting this out there because it’s good to think about this. We have a tendency to talk as though BS1, BS2 and BS3 are all the actual words of the Enlightened One himself. But they’re not. I loved Schopen’s provocative acronym because it shocked me into thinking more about the very Sutras I took for granted.

As practitioners, we should be encouraged to analyze the teachings. A text that has been translated and reinterpreted isn’t necessarily wrong or irrelevant. But then we shouldn’t equate it with the Buddha’s own words. In the space of our individual practice, especially sitting on a meditation cushion, these intellectual distinctions are often moot. As we type away in the Buddhist blogosphere, it’s good to keep in mind, “What type of BS is this?”

* This is really my take on what Schopen said (SS2?) — so be careful if you go off and cite him for this.

9 Replies to “Dharma is BS”

  1. Listen, if I couldn’t have a little coffee, that’d be a deal-breaker. Anyway, that’s JSS (what Joseph Smith said). At our temple, the main group practice is called Shower of Blessings, so of course it’s known as the SOB, as in, “Come on, it’s time to do the ol’ SOB.”

    Great post.

  2. I’m really glad to have found your voice here.

    But (again) I must disagree slightly: We Buddhists don’t check our brains at the door, and we are to be the lamp to ourselves, and frankly, Pali being an Indo-European language, it’s not so hard to extrapolate from existing translations.

  3. Mumon: Keep in mind that every translation adheres to a certain text. The language in the Pali Canon is not uniform, and we translators must deal with the fact that there are several copies of the Canon floating around. Some of the differences appear to just be phonetic, while others appear to be more meaningful. Which texts do your translations adhere to? What do you extrapolate from them?

    On a side note — does “Pali being an Indo-European language” make it harder for Burmese, Thai, Khmers, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, etc. to “extrapolate from” than for us English speakers? That’s a long sentence, but I hope you get what I mean.

  4. Good post. Every time I read a sutta the words “Evam me sutam” (“Thus have I heard…”) act as a reminder that this is not BS0 but at best BS1 — someone’s recollection of what the Buddha said.

    Although these opening words are traditionally said to indicate that it was Ananda who relayed the suttas, it’s pretty much inconceivable that one person memorized the entire canon and so I think of “Evam me suttam” as being a statement of intellectual integrity on the part of the early memorizers of the teachings: rather than taking a fundamentalist position (“this is the word of the Buddha”) they were being clear that this was what they had heard the Buddha had said.

    Some of those fifth precept comments you linked to are really great illustrations of how people will distort the Dharma to fit with their own desires and preferences.

  5. Bodhipaska: That’s my interpretation of “evam me sutam” as well. I once saw a documentary how oral texts are passed from one generation to another (this was recorded in the 70’s), and was impressed by the careful process they use for “quality control”.

    With that said though, I think this post is very helpful in reminding us that in the end, we’re still not 100% sure what the Buddha actually said.

    However, one thing I have come to realize in my studies of Buddhist texts is that one or two sutras don’t really matter, but if you read enough of them, you begin to see recurring patterns and messages behind the texts. That, to me, seems far more important than what the Buddha said here, or there. The unspoken patterns help to fill in what people really meant behind these texts, and without getting too bogged down in niggling details.

  6. @Gerald Ford – You wrote exactly what I was thinking when I read this post. Through many repetitions that occur in the Pali canon and myriad translations, we can see a lot of agreement on basic ideas about how we should live and what we should do. These things are not much disputed.

  7. Gerald and zensquared: Thanks for your comments! In his lecture, Dr Schopen said (I paraphrase), “I don’t doubt that the Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths. I doubt that he uttered every word that’s attributed to him in the Pali Cannon.” From this comment, I took what I’m guessing is the same inference that you two make — namely, even if we only see BS1/2/3, we can still get a good sense of Lord Buddha’s original words through an overall analysis of what we have 2500+ years later.

    That said, there are two obvious caveats. First, when we base the essence of the Buddha Dharma on recurring patterns in the texts, we are essentially saying, “Regardless of what Lord Buddha may have said (in a selected instance), this is what he meant (based on this recurring set of selected themes).” We may very well be right to do this, but we are still saying “what Lord Buddha (really) meant was…” In other words, BS2/3. At the very least this means that each of us must approach our understanding of the Buddha Dharma with a sense of modesty.

    Secondly, the proposal to step back and understand the Buddha Dharma through recurring themes has both theoretical and empirical implications. Should this be the yardstick for determining what is the Buddha Dharma and what isn’t? (I know/hope this isn’t what either of you was proposing. I’m just extending the argument.) There are many Buddhist traditions that are not based on the Pali Cannon, that focus on themes that do not repeat there — or even more to the point, that focus on themes that even seem refutable based on the notable repetitions. We could then say that these recurring themes either validate or invalidate these traditions, with respect to being the Buddha Dharma. Whichever way we may choose to interpret these themes, it’s still our interpretation.

    I’m not saying you guys are wrong. I like to think I take the same view as what you both mentioned. But that said, whenever we express an opinion with regards to what Lord Buddha said, we’re inevitable espousing some kind of BS.

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