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Review of the Buddhist Nikayas

Pali Canon

the Theravada canon is so vast, it will probably never be fully translated into English

Recently I completed the three Nikayas of the Buddhist Pali Canon that have been translated into English, the Digha, Majjhima, and Samyutta Nikayas, or the Long, Middle-length, and Connected discourses of the Buddha.  This was no easy feat, considering it represents a combined 4,152 pages (the 2nd shelf in the diagram), and Buddhist literature is not exactly “light” reading (footnotes are essential to understand many of the words that are not translatable).  Even with those staggering page counts, the translators have been merciful and streamlined them by skipping over repetitive sections (of which there are a lot) in the same sutta with ellipsis, or referring to the same content in another sutta, so there’s really no telling just how big the volumes would actually be if they weren’t this condensed.

Reviewing such a vast body of literature for specific content is all but impossible, but general criticisms will suffice.  Ironically, the Pali Canon is considered authoritative and sacred in that they were passed down by monks who studied under the Buddha and finally collected in writing about 400 years later, but they’re not considered “scripture” in the inspired or revealed sense that other religions use to refer to their sacred texts.  Consequently, most Buddhists in the West have read few if any of their religion’s scriptures, practicing Buddhism as a process from the basic teachings of the Noble Eight-fold Path.  I won’t be as harsh to criticize the Pali Canon as I would the scriptures of another religion, simply because they don’t purport any supernatural origins.  In short, they are merely literature, and that is all I will criticize them for being.

One of the biggest problems with the life of the Buddha is that Gautama lived for 80 years, so there is a lot to recount. Unfortunately, the Pali Canon does little to construct a coherent life of the Buddha, with the only two noticeable life events being his Enlightenment and his Parinirvana (death).  Virtually everything else uses a formulaic structure in which either a householder, rival sect leader, or monk confronts the Buddha with a question or challenge, the Buddha responds with an often-times lengthy discourse, and the individual converts or the monk rejoices at his teaching.  There are some departures from this strucure, like Buddha describing a past life or suttas telling stories about monks overcoming temptation without any interaction with the Buddha (even telling the exact same story verbatim except with the names of the monks changed), but for the most part, narrative is just a framing device to bookend a discourse.  Those who find the Gospels to be repetitive and out-of-order would be completely bored with the Nikayas, but perhaps that comparison is unfair: Jesus had a much shorter and much more eventful ministry.

The redactors really could have condensed the books considerably, but of course, their length is indicative of oral tradition.  The endless repetition obviously was designed to aid in memorization, but even then, there is very little substance.  Over and over, the Buddha expounds on what the dharma is and what it is not, when just a few of these suttas would have sufficed.  In thousands of pages, there doesn’t seem to be as much original content as there is in a few hundred pages of the Gospels.  A supposed stand-out passage like the Fire Sermon, compared in importance to the Sermon on the Mount, is simply an effort to convert  a fire worshipping sect.  Overall, the teachings seem very sparse on morality and more heavily focused on proselytizing or defining Buddha’s rigid orthodoxy.  Gems like the Golden Rule are aberrations in Buddha’s general morality, with no specifics outside of right speech, right action, and right livelihood.  The Pali Canon is even unclear on vegetarianism, resulting in endless debates through the centuries over whether the Buddha himself ate meat.

One thing that becomes apparent as you read is that Buddhism could have only been born in the India of its day.  Not simply because of the Hindu foundation that accepted reincarnation and other tenets, but because primitive India had a prevalent culture of ascetics and monks that the communities supported with alms.  Gautama probably couldn’t have found the support to feed himself and his students anywhere else in the world; one could hardly imagine thousands of monks collecting daily alms in Jerusalem, because the infrastructure wasn’t there already.  Jesus, of course, had to find more creative ways to nourish his followers.  In fact, one of the reasons that I think makes Mormonism successful is that you really could see Jesus starting a ministry anyplace in the world.

Overall, reading the Nikayas was a tedious exercise that I wouldn’t recommend except to the most dedicated student of Buddhism.  It’s clearly ancient literature and its age shows.  I don’t feel I really learned much about the Buddha, his followers, or antagonists.  While I generally dislike anthologies, I would recommend one over the complete Nikayas to get a more concise picture of the teachings, or a contemporary biography of the Buddha to get a better picture of the life of the Buddha.


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Is the Bible Plagiarized?

It’s the predictable and inevitable reaction when you tell a Mormon that the Book of Mormon is plagiarized.  Their next argument is usually “if the Book of Mormon is plagiarized, then so is the Bible.”  It’s as if they’re all reading from the same script, but it’s really deeper than that: the Mormon thought-process is basically wired for self-destruction, so that any effort to discredit  the Book of Mormon prompts them to question the authenticity of the Bible.  If you won’t let them have their Book of Mormon, then they won’t let you have your Bible either.  Unfortunately, this many times results in ex-Mormons who are vehemently anti-religion altogether.

Of course, I can’t really blame them for asking this question.  It’s actually a very important one, which more Christians ought to know how to answer.  Every now and then I see an atheist copy+paste a spam essay on a Christian or religion message board insinuating this very thing.  It always consists of shameless ignorance on the definition of plagiarism mixed with outright deception, and yet it often goes unchallenged.

First of all, when Mormons attempt to argue plagiarism in the Bible, it’s because they don’t understand the difference between the Bible’s chronological sourcing and the Book of Mormon’s anachronistic sourcing.  Merely quoting a previously existing Scripture or sharing the same source as another isn’t in itself plagiarizing.  On the other hand, claiming your work was written 2,000 years ago while quoting texts that were unavailable at that time is definitely  plagiarism.  Quotes of earlier writings in the Bible don’t affect its credibility, but for the Book of Mormon to be true these similar passages cannot be mere quotations, they must be the author’s original idea or else the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fraud.

People often think plagiarism is just about failing to cite sources, when it’s more about taking credit for somebody else’s idea.  The Bible isn’t a term paper and shouldn’t be held to the today’s technical academic standards of citing sources.  Since footnotes were non-existent at the time, virtually every book in circulation at the time could be accused of plagiarism by those standards.  A term paper isn’t considered plagiarism just for failing to cite a reference, it becomes plagiarism when the author claims another work as their own, and this standard is all we need to use to evaluate the Bible.

pla·gia·rism/ˈplājəˌrizəm/ Noun: The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. 

Most of the quotes of the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament already credit their source in the text anyway, so there’s no question there.  But what about the ones that don’t (for example, Mark 4:12)?  To suggest this is plagiarism, one would have to argue that Christ’s Jewish audience was either unfamiliar with their own Scriptures, or had no access to the book of Isaiah, and that the Gospel writer was trying to pass this off as Christ’s own, original composition.  Both premises are untenable and absurd.  Even if some members of the audience didn’t know where the material came from, that wouldn’t change the author’s intent.  On more than one occasion, I’ve actually had atheists tell me “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) or that Jesus should have told his followers to practice what they preach (Matt. 23:3), completely ignorant that they were quoting Jesus.  Even that author’s ignorance isn’t plagiarism, therefore, because although the author is unaware of the source, these are common expressions and it’s implicit in our culture that his audience would know it’s not his own original anecdote.

The next allegation of Biblical plagiarism is usually to insinuate that Christianity stole concepts from Egyptian or Greco-Roman mystery religions.  That would probably require a separate entry to cover in detail, but it falls outside the scope of this article, anyway, since it doesn’t really fit the definition of plagiarism.  Without any direct quotes, such similarities can be coincidental, or they can even be deliberate polemic.

But what about the non-Jewish sources quoted in the New Testament?  The biggest mistake uneducated Christians make to this charge is to deny it outright.  Their failure to read Scripture as literature rejects any notion of pagan influence if the Bible is to be believed as the divinely inspired Word of God.  But the truth is there are actually several quotes from pagan authors in the Bible, however, this isn’t really the damaging threat to the faith that skeptics allege.  The usual suspects that get copy+pasted all over the internet are:

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  Acts 17:28

Here the Apostle Paul addresses a Greek audience in Athens and quotes Epiminedes’ Cretica (another line also quoted in Titus 1:12) and Aratus’ Phaenomena, correctly attributing the authorship to Greek poets.  The skeptic may have an issue with quoting pagans in Christian Scripture, but this definitely is not plagiarism.  Their real implication is that if Acts is inspired, then Cretica and Phaenomena must be too.  This presumption overlooks that many non-Christians are quoted in the New Testament, from the Pharisees to Pilate and even Gamaliel the Elder, with their words inadvertently expressing unintended theological truths.  No words in Scripture are considered inspired on the basis of the religious identity of the speaker; many times they are inspired despite this.

Another such quotes can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:33, with Paul quoting Menander’s comedy Thais:

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”

Here there’s no source cited, but the burden of proof would be on the critic to prove that Paul’s audience was unaware that this was not his own original idea, and that he was trying to pass it off as that.  The context suggests the quotation marks present in today’s translations, but non-existent at the time it was written.

The last item that gets copy+pasted is actually the most troubling, but also the most deceptive.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it addressed by anyone before.  The allegation is that Paul’s phrase below in bold:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,”  Philippians 2:12

is supposedly exactly the same as the Buddha’s last words.  If true, this could be potentially damaging to Christianity, since this context suggests no quotation, and would be presenting this as Paul’s own work.  There wasn’t much material available online to research, but my first hint that this was a manufactured controversy was the fact that not even Buddhist websites made this claim.  The second clue was that these skeptics never cited their source for the Buddha’s words.  I’ve learned the more unverifiable one makes their claims, the less likely they are to be true.

Trying to trace a particular quote within Buddhist scriptures can present a near-impossible challenge.  Fortunately, the Buddha’s last words was a useful lead, otherwise it may have been hopeless.  The entire Buddhist catalogue is colossally huge compared with the Christian canon, and no branch of Buddhism shares the exact same canon as another.  Transferred from oral Sanskrit to the abbreviated Pali language in the 1st century BC, the body of Theravada (one of the two principle denominations of Buddhism) scriptures became known as the Pali canon.  This can be confusing because this source is still considered the Pali canon even when translated into other languages.  To further complicate the matter, the Pali canon became the basis for other canons, as in Chinese and Tibetan, but while much of the suttas and contents are the same, the differences are substantial enough that these cannot be considered translations, but rather completely separate works.  For instance, the Tibetan omits the Buddha’s last words altogether in this passage.  With such a complex language diversity in the canon, translators must usually consult multiple different languages when rendering a passage in English, which produces a wide range of readings.

Eventually, I was able to home in on the exact passage, which I located in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (The Great Passing), the 16th and longest sutta in the Digha Nikaya, one of five collections in the Sutta Pitaka, the second of the three principle categories in the Pali canon (yes, finding one verse is just a little easier than finding a needle in a haystack).

Using Wisdom Publication’s translation and versification:

“Then the Lord said to the monks, ‘Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay–strive on untiringly.’  These were the Tathagata’s [Buddha’s] last words.”  Digha Nikaya 16.6.7

Here we see that “strive on untiringly”, or even the alternative “accomplish earnestly” have no similarity to Paul’s “work out your salvation”, neither idiomatically nor thematically.  Giving the skeptic the benefit of the doubt, I did find a turn-of-the century English translation (Rhys David, 1890-1910) with these words, but this would be influenced by the Pauline wording, and not visa versa.  This is clearly an attempt at deception, since the skeptic who presents this argument always omits their source, an irony considering that’s a mistep usually made by those committing plagiarism, not by those accusing others of it.  It always amuses me when skeptics ridicule Christians for their beliefs, yet their reasons for not believing Christianity are verifiably false.

Understanding what is and what is not plagiarism is a prerequisite to being able to accuse others of plagiarism.  These accusations should never be taken lightly.  Proven plagiarism like in the Book of Mormon is reason alone to reject it, just as claims proven false should bring into question the integrity of the accuser.  The literary litmus test is the undoing of false scripture, whereas the Bible passes the test.  The study of source material in the Bible is not a taboo subject that Christians should avoid, instead it should be understood in the way that it affirms the Bible’s authenticity, as both literature and the Word of God.

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Review of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

The more I can’t have something, the more I want it.  I don’t mean like forbidden fruit, I just like rare, unobtainable things.  I love watching movies that once were lost but now are found, such as Beyond the Rocks (1922, presumed lost for 80 years), Sherlock Holmes (1922), or the Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, discovered in the closet of an insane asylum); I’ll wait years for movies I want to see to be released on any home video format; but my holy grail of unobtainable treasures has to be ancient literature that’s unavailable in English, whether in part or in their entirety, specifically sacred texts.  The Mandaean John book will probably never be translated in full, I’m still searching for a complete edition of the Bhavishya Purana, and there’s little chance the Baha’i Faith will ever release any of the Bab’s full works like the Bayan (Persian or Arabic), Kitab-i-Asma, or the Qayyum al-Asma.

What’s amazing about these older books is how the faithful have preserved them over the years.  All originally written by hand, they have been tediously copied manually for centuries, generation after generation.  In our digital age of instantly downloadable ebooks we often take for granted just how time consuming it used to be to make a single copy of a book.  Even today in lamaseries across Tibet, monks are still hand-printing books from prints carved 3-4 centuries ago.  Out of hundreds of thousands of these books, only a few fragments have seen print in English, and only the Tibetan Book of the Dead has been completely translated.  There’s about as much likelihood of any of those other books being printed in the West as there is of any of the current Dalai Lama’s books being published in Chinese occupied Tibet.

I had avoided previous publications called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” because they were really only a single chapter of the complete volume, which wasn’t fully released in English until 2005.  This body of literature has been erroneously called the “book of the dead” in the West since part of it was first printed in English in 1927, named for its similarity in theme to another funerary text, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was also popular at the time.  Its real name in Tibetan is the Bardo Thodol, sometimes translated as “Liberation through Hearing.”

In the 2005 edition, His Holiness–the presently exiled 14th Dalai Lama–gives what is referred to as an introductory commentary, although it really doesn’t illuminate the Book of the Dead.  He gives a polished, commercially friendly introduction to Buddhism, but further reading of the scripture itself will show how far removed his modern, humanistic practice is from historical Tibetan Buddhism.  For starters, the Book of the Dead reveals, or rather unravels, a more mythological and religious Buddhism than Western admirers of the Dalai Lama may be comfortable in accepting; but his introduction reads more like a Buddhist gospel tract written for evangelizing.

Contrary to how it’s generally represented to the West as humanist and atheistic, this Buddhism is jarringly polytheistic.  The book operates with an assumed knowledge of the 42 peaceful deities and 58 blood-drinking wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism.  There is no explanation, backstory or folklore provided in-text for these characters; readers unfamiliar with the Tibetan mythology (or even with their Hindu counterparts sharing the same names) will be frustrated by seemingly endless descriptions of these figures and their consorts, differing only in color or articles being carried.  Some of these figures are provided a pictorial reference on colored plates in the center of the book, and although it does demonstrate the explicit mid-coitus position the text refers to when it describes these bodhisattvas “in union” with their corresponding consorts, or the horrific appearances of the wrathful deities drinking blood from cups of human skulls, they are still left a mystery.  Of course, those who’ve read any other Buddhist scriptures will be familiar with the prose style of formulaic repetition, with the same sentences and paragraphs cloned over and over with only slight word changes.  Most of the first few chapters are prayers and chants with very little immediate context, that comes later.  Not much else will be recognizable to students of other schools of Buddhism, the religion’s founder only gets a passing reference as Sakyamuni, and there’s only one single quote from any other Buddhist scripture (which, unfortunately,  the editor fails to cite in the endnotes).  The first chapters read more like a prayer book, and to the uninitiated it would be like trying to learn about Christianity by reading a hymnal.

The passage of time hasn’t been kind to the next section, a guide for recognizing and preventing the signs of death.  The editor points out that Tibetans have mostly abandoned these practices in favor of modern medicine.  Much of it is complete and utter quackery, although some of the suggestions aren’t so unscientific, such as its understanding that the first culture of urine in the morning is different from any other later in the day.  Still, this is just one correct guess out of many incorrect conclusions from a wide ranging obsession with urine, semen, and menstrual blood.  The passage on dream interpretation is the most interesting to me, in which it correlates an estimated remaining lifespan based on dreams so specific that probably only the power of suggestion within that culture could cause them.  The translation here also doesn’t transfer so well to Western culture.  For instance, when it says you will die within a year if you dream of “being disemboweled by a fierce black woman”, it’s not actually referring to “black” as in race, but more like demonic or shadow figures.  Obviously, a closed kingdom like Tibet had never seen Africans, and most today still haven’t; this is something that probably should have been explained in the endnotes.  With all its medicinal and scientific shortcomings, it’s strange that section is still included in the text today.  Adherents will point out that scriptural infallibility is not a Buddhist concept; their scriptures were penned not through divine inspiration, but from observation and precedent.  With that in mind, however, it makes even less sense to retain scientifically refuted information in their scriptures, especially if the faithful no longer even practice it.

After this comes the largest and most popular section, which was previously published by itself as the Book of the Dead, and reads like a Buddhist last rites manual.  Although descended from Hinduism, Buddha’s philosophy was a caste-less shortcut out of the Hindu cycle of reincarnation.  In Hinduism, one is locked into the caste, body, gender, and species that one is born into; one cannot advance any further in this lifetime, the only hope for advancement is in one’s next life.  Buddhism circumvented this with the revolutionary concept that regardless of birth, anyone could potentially achieve Enlightenment in this same lifetime.  Tibetan Buddhism employs yet another shortcut, because even if one didn’t attain Enlightenment in life, everyone still has an opportunity at death to reach nirvana or attain a higher station in the next birth.  As the book itself says, “it is extremely important to become skilled [during one’s lifetime] in the process of dying.”

This “liberation through hearing” is supposed to be recited by a lama or spiritual teacher with perfect clarity and pronunciation to the subject (preferably) while they are dying, and continually repeated well after death.  The procedure starts with a reading intended to guide the subject towards enlightenment.  If that fails, the next reading provides guidance to be reborn in the realm of the gods, and so on.  First it tries to make the soul avoid being reborn as a human, called “obstructing the womb,” but if that fails then it tries to guide the subject towards a new birth and avoid the realm of animals, then the anti-gods, and finally hell.  Of course, even if one fails at every turn, after a graphic description of endless torture and death at the hands of Yama (a deity lifted from Hinduism who presides as judge over the Buddhist netherworld, though not really a “devil”), the text comforts us by assuring as that this hell is just as much an illusion as the material world.  Tibet’s isolationism shines through in this passage as it specifically admonishes the subject against choosing a birth either far east or west where Buddhism is not practiced.  From that perspective, one can better understand the rationale of keeping Tibet closed off for centuries, since it was believed anyone who really wanted to go there could have chosen to be born there.  This text also displays the human-centric focus of Buddhism, despite its belief that the cycle of reincarnation encompasses all living things: one could be expected to read this funerary text to an unconscious human subject or even a corpse, but not to an animal (alive or dead), not even the part instructing how to avoid being reborn as an animal, or worse.

The book suddenly shifts to an unexpected change in genre: a lighthearted masked drama still performed by monks in the near-Tibetan regions to this day.  It’s considered “lighthearted” even though the subject is souls being damned to hell in a court of the gods, with their good and bad conscience providing evidence in the form of white (good) and black (bad) pebbles representing their deeds in life, and weighing these pebbles in a scale to determine the soul’s fate.  This section is amazingly consistent with the entirety of preceding chapters.  The descriptions of the deities make sense here as instructions for costumes and set pieces, and the prayers and mantras are incorporated into the dialogue.

Finally, the book concludes with a collection of mantras intended for use in amulets.  This serves as yet another shortcut in the system, because it is believed that even those who do not practice Buddhism can attain enlightenment through wearing these amulets.  The mantras are transliterated from a script only remotely related to sanskrit, so trying to determine the actual or supposed meaning requires dependence on the notes.  Like the complete edition, the scholarship is impeccable, but it mostly only helps to highlight how flawed a book it really is.  Roughly, a third of the book is devoted to notes and a glossary of terms.  The extensive bibliography shows how much the translator and editor have done their homework, but this book is still not suitable for casual readers, and even the most committed students would probably be frustrated even with a doctorate in Tibetan studies (one of the frequently cited sources is, after all, the translators own unpublished dissertation).  In the end, it is what it is, and this edition probably does the best it can to compensate for the limitations of the text.    It’s worth a read if you’re like me and you like forbidden books, but otherwise it’s not hard to see why the Dalai Lama’s Western fans went so long without an English translation of the most famous Tibetan book ever written.

the 100 peaceful and wrathful deities

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