Interpreting Buddhist Canons: Commentators and their Commentaries

Fri., Aug. 22nd, 09:00-12:30 

Canon and Commentary at the Kandyan Court: Ven. Väliviṭa Saraṇaṃkara

Blackburn, Anne (Cornell University, Ithaca, USA)

Taking as its focus Ven. Väliviṭa Saraṇaṃkara’s Sinhala language commentary on Pāli paritta texts, Sārārthadīpanī, composed at the 18th-century Kandyan court in highland Laṅkā (Sri Lanka), this paper examines the ways in which a commentary may develop an implicit argument through patterns of glossing and commentarial additions, and how bilingual commentarial practice may participate in the work of localizing Pāli tipiṭaka texts institutionally as well as linguistically. The paper contextualizes a discussion of commentarial argumentation and localization in relation to the Lankan monastic history of the time as well as relations between Väliviṭa Saraṇaṃkara and the Kandyan kings


Buddhaghosa and Women

Collett, Alice (York, GBR)

My interest in convening this panel stems from my work on my forthcoming book, Pāli Biographies of Buddhist Nuns. One of the foundational parameters of the book is that I attempt to establish differences of opinion on sex and gender between the Pāli canon and the early commentaries (aṭṭhakathās). Historically, on the ‘women question’, the commentaries have been used, as elsewhere, in an intratraditional manner, i.e. to augment understanding of the canon. As a historian of religion, I am interested in the commentaries as historical documents in their own right, produced in a separate socio-historical milieu. In this paper I will look specifically at one particular commentator – Buddhaghosa – and attempt to assess his views on women. This task is of course made difficult by the fact that Buddhaghosa based his commentarial exegesis on earlier, now lost Sinhala works. By looking at Buddhaghosa’s rendering of two biographies of two particular nuns – Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā and Dhammadinnā – I will argue that in one case (that of Bhaddā) it is not possible to discern which version, or which parts of which version, might have been composed or redacted by Buddhaghosa. However, in contrast, with regards to the biography of Dhammadinnā – which remains much more static through the Pāli literature – it is possible to see Buddhaghosa’s particular emphases and foci in his rendering of the biography. In its detail, Buddhaghosa’s account of the life of Dhammadinnā prior to her ordination positions her as more subservient to her husband Visākha – who is her husband only according to the Pāli tradition – than do any other accounts. However, Buddhaghosa’s reason for reconfiguring the historical memory of Dhammadinnā in this way may not have been because he was especially anti-women, but rather that he was uncomfortable with women in particular positions of high office. As such, his views may not betray a low view of women, but instead be an indicator of the changing status of the dhammakathika within the tradition.


When Commentary Begins: The Relationship between Exegetical and Canonical Literature in Early Gāndhārī Manuscripts

Cox, Collett (University of Washington, Seattle, USA)

Among the newly discovered early Indian Buddhist Gāndhārī manuscripts dating from the first to second centuries CE, there are as many as 19 exegetical texts, four of which might be considered commentaries. These exegetical texts are our earliest written evidence for the development of a genre whose formative period had been completely obscure. These commentaries, which can be seen as responses to Buddhist texts that existed at the time, also raise questions about both the parameters defining early Buddhist textual collections and the relationships among their various parts. Specifically, formal characteristics of these exegetical texts challenge the strict genre divisions typical of later canonical collections and instead imply a continuous development in which boundaries among textual genres were more fluid. In short, the Gāndhārī exegetical materials suggest that we should not view commentaries as reacting to established canons or even as demarcating canon closure but rather should adopt a co-evolutionary perspective in which commentary as exegesis operates within the sūtras and emerges as proto-Abhidharma.

An overview of the Gāndhārī exegetical texts will highlight the range of interpretive methods that they employ and will illustrate the various interpretive activities employed in commentaries during this period. An examination of two Gāndhārī commentaries, specifically, the University of Washington scroll and the commentary on the Saṅgītisūtra, will then permit us to review possible scenarios illuminating the function of commentaries and their relationship to other textual genres. Finally, drawing upon comparative material not only in Gāndhārī and Pali but also in non-Buddhist literature, this paper will briefly delineate the historical context for both the emergence of the commentary prototype and the scholastic or Abhidharma texts that developed from it.


Buddhist Commentaries and the Chinese Canon

Deeg, Max (Cardiff University, Penarth, GBR)

This paper will address some general problems around Chinese Buddhist commentaries in relation to canonicity of Buddhist Scriptures. We are used to think of the commentarial tradition of Theravāda Buddhism as closely linked to the Buddhist canon in its ideal form – the Tripiṭaka / Tipiṭaka. However, the evidence from China, with its early translated texts, poses some questions about the nature of commentaries and the texts they are supposed to elucidate. Looking at the commentaries preserved in the Chinese “Canon” it becomes clear that commentarial activity is rather focused on single Mahāyāna sūtras, and to a period where a denominational selection of such sūtras had already been made, i.e. starting with the Sui period and through the Tang. While writing commentaries on chosen Mahāyāna sūtras becomes a feature of East Asian Buddhist literary activity the relative lack of such literature in the earlier period is striking. This paper will concentrate on the few examples of such early Chinese commentaries on sūtras found in the Āgamas or on the Āgamas themselves and will readdress some fundamental questions of canon and commentary in the light of the evidence.


Hermeneutical Strategies and Challenges in the Guhyasamaja Literature: A Case Study in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Exegesis

Hackett, Paul (Columbia University, New York, USA)

This paper presents a case study in the exegesis of Buddhist tantric literature by examining a segment of the corpus of Guhyasamaja literature and in doing so, addresses both emic and etic approaches to the hermeneutics of tantric texts.  On the most basic level, we discuss the mechanisms for interpreting statements within the root tantra internal to the exegetical tantric literature itself as exemplified by Candrakirti’s Brightening Lamp (pradipoddyotana) commentary.  On a second level, we discuss the strategies for adjudicating problematic readings in the sole Sanskrit manuscript of Candrakirti’s commentary in light of its Tibetan translation and its commentaries, most notably the extensive commentary by Bhavyakirti (a text that at present remains extant only in Tibetan translation).  Finally, we discuss the strategies of exegesis adopted by the Tibetan tradition receiving the Guhyasamaja tantric system as typified by Tsong-kha-pa’s sub-commentary on the root tantra and Candrakirti’s Brightening Lamp, and discuss, in general, the methodological issues surrounding the use of the Tibetan tradition in informing decisions on the first and second levels.




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