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. 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.