This book takes a fresh look at the earliest Buddhist texts and offers various suggestions how the teachings in them had developed. Two themes predominate, firstly, it argues that we cannot understand the Buddha unless we understand that he was debating with other religious teachers, notably Brahmins. For example, he denied the existence of a "soul", but what exactly was he denying? Another chapter suggests that the canonical story of the Buddha's encounter with a brigand who wore a garland of his victims' fingers probably reflects an encounter with a form of ecstatic religion.
The other main theme concerns metaphor, allegory and literalism. By taking the words of the texts literally - despite the Buddha's warning not to - successive generations of his disciples created distinctions and developed doctrines far beyond his original intention. One chapter shows how this led to a scholastic categorization of meditation. Failure to understand a basic metaphor also gave rise to the late argument between the Mahayana and the older tradition. Perhaps most important of all, a combination of literalism with ignorance of the Buddha's allusions to brahminism led Buddhists to forget that the Buddha had preached that love, like Christian charity, could itself be directly salvific.
About the Author:
Richard F. Gombrich is currently the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University. He has written numerous books and articles on Buddhism, but his most recent include The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture (1991) and Buddhist Percept and Practise (1991). He is the President of the Pali Text Society and won the Sri Lanka Ranjana award in 1994 and the SC Chakrabarty medal from the Asiatic Society the previous year.
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