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Observation on Contemporary Buddhism - Part III

Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi-Part III
Sutra translation and sutra study play a key role for Buddhism to take roots in the adopted culture, but most Buddhist practitioners in the US don’t actually read and study sutras. What can be done in this regard? In the context of various cultural systems, how can Buddhist ideas be translated and transmitted in their true sense?

It may be a misrepresentation to say that “most Buddhist practitioners in the US don’t actually read and study sutras,” with the underlying implication being that most Buddhist practitioners in Asia do read and study sutras. I have not seen any polls, but I doubt that the number of Asian Buddhists who actually study sutras (apart from devotional sutra recitation) is significantly higher than that of Western Buddhists who do so. My voluminous translations of the Nikayas have been some of Wisdom Publications’s major best sellers and many serious Western Buddhists read these translations or other translations of the Nikayas.

A problem, however, with the easy availability of translations in the West is that the suttas are now read and studied outside a traditional context. In Asia (at least in traditional Sri Lanka), lay Buddhists would not purchase volumes of the Nikayas, read them on their own, devise their own interpretations, and then debate them with their friends over the internet. Rather, they would go to the monastery to learn the suttas under the guidance of an erudite monk, and this would ensure that they are also learning the classical interpretation of the suttas. But in today’s world, however, a marketplace of interpretations has emerged. Virtually anybody who can read the suttas now considers himself or herself an expert on the Dharma, and the discussion groups on the internet become debate halls where everyone propounds their personal interpretations and engages in debates with others. My fear, then, is that as access to the suttas spreads without adequate authorities grounded in the tradition to explain them, we are going to be overwhelmed by a jungle of theories and opinions about the Buddha’s teachings that will make the genuine Dharma harder to discern.

One of the advantages of modern scholarship is that it enables us to question and criticize traditional interpretations. By examining the texts against the ancient Indian background and by comparing different versions of the same texts, modern scholarship shows that a text could take on different forms. Thus I don’t want to be seen as arguing that, with respect to reading and details, there is one single correct interpretation of the Dharma. But beneath their differences, the different schools of Buddhism agree on certain fundamental principles as constituting the “scaffolding” of the Dharma, and it is these that are in danger of being undermined when lay Dharma students read the texts on their own, without the guidance of teachers grounded in a tradition of interpretation.

Texts: Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi, by Dharma Drum Monthly <法鼓雜誌>
Photos: Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies(中華佛學研究所), Lee, Fan (李東陽)

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