review: Dessein & Teng, eds., Text, History, and Philosophy

Text, History, and Philosophy: Abhidharma across Buddhist Scholastic Traditions

Editor(s): Bart Dessein, Weijen Teng

Brill’s Indological Library


Review—posted on AAR’s Reading Religion (here)

Many people today consider the abhidharma (Pāli abhidhamma) to be both abstruse and irrelevant. As this volume demonstrates, this is unfortunate. Abhidharma thought constitutes the conceptual backbone of the entirety of the Buddhist tradition. An example that is probably familiar to many religious studies scholars is the Heart Sutra. In addition to finding its way into many religious studies textbooks, this is widely known and recited in many East Asian Buddhist traditions. Indeed it is chanted daily in some temples, or recited continuously by Buddhist adherents on pilgrimage. However, in addition to such ritual or devotional uses, it can be read as a concise Mahāyāna commentary on the ontological status of abhidharma categories. One of the perhaps most quoted lines from the Heart Sutra—“form is emptiness, emptiness is form”—is not an isolated assertion that can be addressed on its own. It is instead the first of a long list of abhidharma categories the independent existence of which is being denied. That context is key to understanding the significance of the line.

The extent to which abhidharma thought informs the Buddhist tradition as a whole is reflected by the range of studies included in this volume. As the editors note in their preface, contemporary research activities “concern different epochs of Buddhist history, spanning from the life time of the historical Buddha to the contemporary period; deal with Abhidharmic developments in different geographical regions, extending from India, over Southeast Asia, Central Asia, China, Mongolia, Japan, and Tibet; and concern different types of materials, with some researchers working on (recent) manuscript founds, and others working on edited editions of texts in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian or Tibetan” (ix).

The focus of the collection is not explicitly textual—that is, it is not concerned with the history of the body of texts known as the abhidharmapiṭaka/abhidhammapiṭaka, nor with the organization and structure of the texts themselves. While recognizing the importance of such studies, the intent of the collection’s editors is to enable the abhidharma to be understood as an exegetical system.

The editors have structured the collection into three sections. The first, “Mātṛkā and Abhidharma Terminologies,” comprises four essays that concern themselves with the foundational structures of abhidharma, that is, the creation of lists and terminological precision. Since this is where many students of the buddhadharma are introduced to abhidharma, and find being confronted with such details to be entirely disjunct from their own concerns, it is valuable to understand these in the context of exegesis.

The second section, “Intellectual History,” comprises six essays. These range from studies of the contributions of particular intellectual figures to interactions between abhidharma thought and other intellectual traditions in China and Tibet. The last section, “Philosophical Studies,” comprises three essays, which look at particular philosophical issues in the history of the abhidharma.

Weijen Teng, one of the editors, provides a metaphor for understanding the underlying integrity within such a diverse range of studies. He likens the abhidharma tradition to a riverine system: “surveying down the river system of the Abhidharma, an overall picture is produced that enables us to connect its remote sources with its ends, and to trace its turns and stops across regions” (17). This organic metaphor conveys both spatial and temporal relations, which stretch from contacts with Hellenistic thought in Gandhara, Brahmanical philosophies in south India and Sri Lanka, to contacts with Confucian thought in East Asia.

These relations are more than incidental historical ones. The focus on exegesis is directly linked to a theory regarding the development of systems of rational inquiry. This is the claim that contestation is the key motivating factor for such development. Only when confronted by challenges to the truth of one’s views is philosophical reflection necessary. According to Bart Dessein, the other editor, not only is contestation key to the origin and development of rational inquiry, it is also key to the possibility of movement across cultural boundaries. He says that it is “precisely because rational inquiry does not take convictions that are sanctioned by intuition, generally accepted truth, or revealed truth as granted, that systems of rational thinking have the possibility to cross the borders of the cultural context in which they originated and first developed” (2).

In my own evaluation, the most important aspect of this collection is that it addresses an absolutely central issue about the study of Buddhist rational inquiry. The collection examines Buddhist rational inquiry as such, rather than in a context in which the concerns, categories, and concepts of Euro-American philosophy (or psychology) are uncritically assumed as a universal structure into which Buddhist thought is expected to fit. Only since about the beginning of the twenty-first century (a symbolic marker rather than an exact historical one) has the study of Buddhist thought, or as Dessein says “Buddhist ‘philosophy’” (2) begun to move out of the colonialist mode of viewing Buddhist thought as a resource for pre-existing conversations in Euro-American philosophy. More directly relevant to scholars of religious studies, the same dynamic applies to the treatment of Buddhism as a “religion.”

About the Reviewer: 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: February 21, 2018

About the Editors: 

Bart Dessein is full professor at the department of Chinese language and culture of Ghent University, and member of the Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies. He has mainly published on Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika history and philosophy.

Weijen Teng is assistant professor of religious studies at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts. His research interests are Chinese Buddhist intellectual history, Sanskrit grammar study in Medieval China and Abhidharma.


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