Review of: Setting Out on the Great Way

Setting Out on the Great Way: Essays on Early Mahāyāna Buddhism, edited by Paul Harrison

setting out

  • Sheffield, England:  Equinox Publishing Limited , July  2018.  224 pages.  $100.00.  Hardcover. ISBN 9781781790960.  For other formats: Link to Publisher’s Website.

Review on AAR’s Reading Religion (link here)

Several long-established theories regarding the origin of Mahāyāna Buddhism have made it seem as if there was little to be gleaned from continuing to inquire into that question. In simplified forms these theories included the assertion that Mahāyāna was a lay-based movement in reaction to the irrelevance of monastic Buddhism to the “religious needs” of ordinary people. Or, that it began amongst forest-dwelling monks rejecting the corruption and ossification of the monastic institution, or in another reading rejecting intellectual speculation in favor of meditative experience. Or, that it was a corruption of the original pure teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha regarding meditative purification of the individual, or ethical self-improvement, that resulted from the intrusion of “Hindu” beliefs and practices. The evidence in support of each of these is an important part of the history, but not singularly explanatory. As in the case of what G. S. Kirk called “monolithic theories” of Greek mythology, none of them can explain everything (The Nature of Greek Myths, 1974).

Almost as if a purposeful exemplification of Kuhn’s notions regarding “normal science,” the gradual accumulation of evidence outside the explanatory scope of these theories led to alternative understandings. And, as in “normal science” the accumulation of such evidence and the re-evaluation of established theories has been a gradual, cumulative process. The collection Setting out on the Great Way: Essays on Early Mahāyāna Buddhism, a memorial to the important contributions of Sarah Webb-Boin to the field of Buddhist studies, brings together not simply important critiques of the established views, but also new perspectives and new areas of inquiry. The collection demonstrates that there is more to be learned about the early history of Mahāyāna than the established theories had indicated.

In his introductory essay, “Early Mahāyāna: Laying out the Field,” Paul Harrison summarizes the received view of the origin of Mahāyāna Buddhism as a lay-motivated reaction against “monastic privilege and self-absorption” that took place outside the existing institutions of what was to become “Theravāda” Buddhism (8). In contrast, contemporary scholarly critiques of that view, beginning from the 1960s and 70s, “embrace a more complex and nuanced picture of Mahāyāna as pluralistic, as a loose set of interrelated doctrinal ideas, ritual practices and literary forms rather than as a single bounded entity, as spanning all of the nikāyas [ordination lineages] and not institutionally separate from them (at least in India), as a movement or set of movements for renunciants, and not just for the laity (or not even for the laity), as entailing different—and possibly more demanding—forms of self-engagement and asceticism, rather than a wholesale turn to devotion” (9).

Another eight essays then examine additional specific aspects of the debates over the origin of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Peter Skilling, “How the Unborn was Born: The Riddle of Mahāyāna Origins”; David Drewes, “The Forest Hypothesis”; Daniel Boucher, “Recruitment and Retention in Early Bodhisattva Sodalities”; Johannes Bronkhorst, “Abhidharma in Early Mahāyāna”; Shizuka Sasaki, “The Concept of ‘Remodelling the World’”; Douglas Osto, “Altered States and the Origins of Mahāyāna”; Ingo Strauch, “Early Mahāyāna in Gandhāra: New Evidence from the Bajaur Mahāyāna Sūtra”; and Juhyung Rhi, “Looking for Mahāyāna Bodhisattvas: A Reflection on Visual Evidence in Early Indian Buddhism.” Each of these is an important work in themselves, deserving close reading—and more exposition than is possible here. For those familiar with the field, the titles are indicative of the topics discussed and issues addressed.

The collection is, rather obviously, an important overview of the topic, one that all scholars working on Indian Buddhism, and not just on the specific question of Mahāyāna origins, would do well to familiarize themselves with. As important as this work is for the field of Buddhist studies, it also provides a critical reflection on the current working conceptions of the field of religious studies. Examined from that perspective it indicates that the established conceptions of religious studies itself (the sociological categories of church, sect, cult for example) cannot be treated as unproblematically universal, they cannot be sublated out of their historical grounding in the history of Euro-American religion and applied to the history of Buddhism. Different categories are needed, different ways of conceiving that history, ones reflecting the actual categories, concerns, and concepts of those who created the many pieces that we retrospectively put together as Mahāyāna Buddhism. This is not simply an uncritical assertion of the superiority of an emic perspective over an etic one (the insider–outsider discourse being incurably politicized), but rather an indication of the need for self-critical reflection on the categories with which religious studies attempts to understand traditions outside the history of Christianity in Europe and the United States.

Such reflection reveals that the established theories here being questioned reflect Protestant and neo-Romantic historiography. That is, conceptions of historical motivations—the very themes of lay versus clerical, experience versus scholarship, reformers returning to an original pure teaching versus corrupt monastics exploiting superstition, and so on found in the received theories of Mahāyāna origins—are already built into the way that religious studies scholarship structures thinking about the history of religions outside the scope of Euro-American Christianity. This collection should help to displace these preconceptions from their pre-reflective hegemony of the field.

Exemplifying this needed shift from the historiography structured by the model of the Reformation, Paul Harrison closes his contribution by pointing out that Mahāyāna

can only be understood in terms of the matrix in which it developed, and indeed in terms of the matrix of Indian culture more generally, still woefully neglected by Buddhist scholars … [E]arly Mahāyāna is not a single, sudden turn in a new direction at one particular stage on the road taken by Buddhism, but a nexus of multiple impulses combining and unfolding in a long historical trajectory which began before the Common Era and continued well into the first millenium (23).

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 

November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Harrison is the George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

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