A Liberal Buddhist "On the Origin of the Buddhist Arthakathás"

This is a journal article written by a Sri Lankan Liberal Buddhist in 1871. Although he seems to have some interesting ideas, I took one of his end-notes into the beginning as a warning for the reader, in order to give a pinch of salt before reading.

NOTES.(BY THE AUTHOR.)
Note A.—It is my opinion, although contrary to that of orthodox Buddhists, that the Buddhistic philosophy, in so far as regards its asceticism and self-purification, is derived from the Hindu system of Patanjali.

On the Origin of the Buddhist Arthakathás,
Cambridge University Press Stable (1871)

R. C. Childers:

“The commentary, I say, upon this Scripture was at the first Council rehearsed by five hundred holy elders, and in later times rehearsed again and yet again.”

We find here a distinct statement …

At the very outset I met with a difficulty, in the shape of an historical statement in Buddhaghosa’s introductory verses which seemed in the highest degree improbable and untrustworthy.

After vainly endeavouring to solve the problem, I wrote to my friend …
After a long delay I received …, a paper on this subject by a Simhalese native gentleman which seemed to me so able and scholar-like, …

A singular interest attaches to this essay from the circumstance that it is the work of a liberal Buddhist.

L. Comrilla Vijasinha, Government Interpreter to the Ratnapura Court, Ceylon.:

It must be admitted that the point raised by Mr. Childers is one of grave importance as affecting the credibility of Buddhaghosa and the authenticity of all the commentaries on the Tipitaka. From a missionary point of view, the astounding statement that a commentary on Buddha’s discourses existed during his lifetime, and was rehearsed along with those discourses at the First Great Council, appears so improbable and unnatural as at once to justify one in discrediting the testimony; and I doubt not that missionary orientalists will hail the discovery as a valuable addition to their stock of arguments against the genuineness and authenticity of the Buddhist Scriptures.

The word, as is well known, is compounded of two terms, attha, “meaning,” and katha, “a statement, explanation, or narrative,” the dental t being changed to the cerebral by a latitude in the rules of permutation. The literal meaning of the compound term would thus amount to simply “an explanation of meaning.” Taking this wider sense of the word as a basis for the solution of the problem, I think the statement of Buddhaghosa in his preface to the commentary on the Dígha Nikáya is not so hopelessly irreconcilable with probable and presumable facts as would at first sight appear.

On a careful perusal of the two accounts given by Buddhaghosa of the proceedings of the three famous Councils in the Sumańgala Vilásiní and the Samanta Pásádiká, this view will, I think, be found to be very reasonable. It must be admitted that no actual commentary, in the sense that the westerns attach to that term, and like that which has been handed down to us by Buddhaghosa, existed either in the lifetime of Buddha or immediately after his death. The reasons adduced by Mr. Childers, apart from others that can easily be added, against such a supposition, are overwhelmingly convincing. But if we suppose that by the word Atthakathá in his preface Buddhaghosa only meant to convey the idea that at the various Councils held for the purpose of collocating the discourses and sayings of Buddha, the meanings to be attached to different terms (-chiefly those that appear to have been borrowed from the Hindu system of ascetic philosophy-) were discussed and properly defined, then the difficulty of conceiving the contemporaneous existence of the commentaries and the Pitakas would be entirely removed.

This view of the subject will appear still further borne out if we briefly glance over the history of the First Convocation, as narrated by Buddhaghosa himself.

The proceedings of this Council appear to have been conducted in a very orderly and systematic manner, …

Buddhaghosa’s account of the synod is gathered from tradition, which was very probably embodied in the Simhalese atthakatha’s, and there can be little doubt that the main facts are correct; but that he drew largely from tradition, written and oral, and possibly in some instances from imagination, will I think appear clear to any careful reader of the commentaries.

The thought struck him, as no doubt it would strike any careful reader of the Buddhist Scriptures, that a large portion of the writings contained in that canon appear to be explanations and definitions of terms used by Buddha, and also that a great many discourses said to have been delivered by Buddha to certain individuals have not been recorded. Now what more easy to conceive, or what more probable, than that they formed the nucleus of matter for the formation of a commentary, and that at the First General Council, which lasted seven months, the elders, who had all seen and heard Buddha, should have discussed them, and decided on the method of interpreting and teaching the more recondite portions of Buddhist philosophy?
and what therefore if he should say in somewhat exaggerated language, " the commentary on the Digha Nikaya was at the beginning discussed (or composed, or merged into the body of the Scriptures) by five hundred holy elders " ?—for the original words may admit of such a construction. Nor will this opinion appear merely hypothetical if we carefully peruIn his introduction to the Samanta Pasadika, …

Buddhaghosa uses the following words: " The Dhamma as well as the
Vinaya was declared by Buddha, his sacerdotal sons understood it in the same sense as it was delivered; and, inasmuch as in former times they (i.e. the Simhalese commentators) made the commentaries without rejecting their (i.e. Buddha’s
immediate disciples’) opinions, therefore, etc." This passage will, I think, explain the sense in which he uses the word Atthakatha in his preface to the Sumangala Vilasini. se the account given by Buddhaghosa of the commentaries in
his Samanta Pasadika.

For two things are clearly deducible from the passage, viz., that when Buddhaghosa speaks of the Atthakatha that existed in the earliest days of Buddhism, and almost contemporaneously with Buddha, he only refers to the method of explaining and
interpreting the Buddhist Scriptures adopted by Buddha’s immediate disciples

One of the glossarists in expounding this passage takes a very sensible view of the
matter. His words are :—" The Dhamma as well as the Vinaya was declared by Buddha ; that is, it was declared by the blessed Buddha in words as in sense, for there is not one scriptural term which has not been defined by the Blessed
One: the sense of all words has been truly expounded. Therefore it should be borne in mind that it is by the all perfect Buddha himself that even the method of interpreting
the three Pitakas has been propounded. In fact, the desultory discourses made by the Blessed One here and there, are what is meant by the word Atthakatha." My view of this subject therefore receives additional weight from the exposition grven of Buddhaghosa’s meaning by his glossarist.

Nor will this view receive less support from collateral facts connected with the life and ministry of the " Great Sage,"… During this long period of uninterrupted labour, he not only preached and argued and conversed and travelled, but also legislated, and gave to his disciples a code of monastic discipline surpassed by no other system of monachism either in the East or West. Can it be imagined then that the Tipitaka contains all the words of Buddha? Undoubtedly not. To the followers of that faith it may contain " all that is necessary to salvation," but it assuredly does not record all and everything done and spoken by this almost superhuman intellect.

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He missed one point: The Middle Way - Majjhima -patipadā - the Magga Sacca.

The Eightfold Path as Majjhimā Patipadā – Buddhist Doctrine One extreme is kamasukhallikanuyoga (self-indulgence)… Other extreme is attakilamathanuyoga (self-mortification)…Middle Path leads to arise in the mind in moral conduct, concentration and wisdom. It is used to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion. It is called noble (ariya) because it ennobles one who practices it, and it is called a path (magga) because it leads from one place to another and free from suffering of samsara…

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: A Beginner's Guide - The YogaLondon Blog WHAT DO PATANJALI’S SUTRAS TELL US?… Yoga is “citta vritti nirodhah”. This translates as: ‘the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga’… What this means is that yoga is a practice which disarms the (often powerful) fluctuations of the mind. It is a common principle in Eastern philosophy that mental fluctuations, driven by attachment to things, ideas, people, are the cause of suffering, and that enlightenment is a release from suffering.

Yes, they also teach how to become arahants. Many ascetics from other religions used to claime they were arahants.

Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life Then another minister said to the king: “Your majesty, there is Makkhali Gosala… Your majesty, there is Ajita Kesakambalin… Your majesty, there is Pakudha Kaccayana… Your majesty, there is Sañjaya Belatthaputta… Your majesty, there is Nigantha Nataputta, the leader of a community, the leader of a group, the teacher of a group, honored and famous, esteemed as holy by the mass of people. He is aged, long gone forth, advanced in years, in the last phase of life. Your majesty should visit him. Perhaps, if you visited him, he would enlighten and bring peace to your mind.”

Ja 418 The Story about Eight Sounds (8s) The queen Mallikā came and asked the king, why the brahmins went about so delighted and smiling. The king said: “My queen, what have you to do with this? You are intoxicated with your own glory, and you do not know how wretched I am.” “How so, sire?” she replied. “I have heard such awful noises, my queen, and when I asked the brahmins what would be the result of my hearing these cries, they told me I was threatened with danger to my kingdom or my property or my life, but by offering the fourfold sacrifice they would restore my peace of mind, and now in obedience to my command, they have dug a sacrificial pit and are gone to fetch whatever victims they require.” The queen said: “Have you, my lord, consulted the chief brahmin in the Deva world as to the origin of these cries?” “Who, lady,” said the king, “is the chief brahmin in the Deva world?” “The Great Gotama,” she replied, “the Supreme Buddha.” “Lady,” he said: “I have not consulted the Supreme Buddha.” “Then go,” she answered, “and consult him.”

The term Middle Way is very often used, in Buddhist society, to apply to an idea whether related to Buddhism or not, just like the term moderate. Here is an ideological fight:

The Black Abaya & Majjhima-Patipada - Colombo Telegraph Professor Abhayawansa states that I am attempting to make out that the black abaya accords with the middle path in Buddhism. Black, is a colour ; Abaya is an outer garment. It does not make sense for these two to accord with the middle path in Buddhism as the Professor has asserted.

It has been mentioned that if the black abaya is to comply with the Middle Path it should be a moderate dress acceptable to all.

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On the Authenticity of Abhidhamma and Commentaries - Tibetan and Chinese sources


These are Accounts from Tibetan and Chinese sources regarding the first council, if anyone is looking for a confirmation outside of Theravada tradition.
(I coudn’t get access to the original sources yet.)


“Geiger’s introduction to his translation of the ‘Mahavamsa’ (PTS)”:

"Among the Northern Buddhist sources dealing with the first Council I mention the Mahavastu. Here, in agreement with the southern tradition Kasyapa is given as the originator of the coucil, the number of the bhiksus taking part is stated to be 500 and the place the aptaparna grotto near Rajagrha.

"There is, besides, an account in the second volume of the Dulva, the Tibetan Vinaya of the Sarvastivadin sect. The fixing of the canon took place, according to this source, in the following order: 1) Dharma, by Ananda; 2)Vinaya, by Upali; 3)Matrka (i.e.Abhidarma) by Mahakasyapa himself.

Fa-hian and Hiuen-thsang also mention the First Council. The former gives the number of the bhiksus a 500, the latter as 1,000; the former speaks in a general way of ‘a collection of sacred books’, the latter expressly mentions also the redaction of the Abhidharma by Mahakasyapa.”

Norman, K.R. (1983) Pali Literature , p. 119. :
(Included in Wikipedia as well)

There is no direct evidence that any commentarial material was in fact recited at the first council, but there is clear evidence that some parts of the commentaries are very old, perhaps even going back to the time of the Buddha, because they afford parallels with texts which are regarded as canonical by other sects, and must therefore pre-date the schisms between the sects. As has already been noted, some canonical texts include commentarial passages, while the existence of the Old Commentary in the Vinaya-pitaka and the canonical status of the Niddesa prove that some sort of exegesis was felt to be needed at a very early stage of Buddhism.

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yes… post it in suttacentral :rofl:
Or maybe that is why sc is now including the abhidhamma texts.
This will go in my paper I’m writing.

I have pulled the abhidhamma texts from github and made 5 of the 7 books in epub format. They will be included in the next TPP version as a
sideload epub in English Mode

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