“Dr. Katz’s elaborate series of textual analyses serves to show how the rich complexities of the original bodhi have been maintained all through the various formulations and ideals of Buddhist history...how in none of the
three supreme models for man, the quality of kingly providence is absent.”
Studies in Mystical Literature, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1984), pp. 60-70
“...Katz focuses on the relationship of meditation to arahatta… Some effort is spent trying to sort out the distinctions between the various terms relating to mental discipline, as well as the distinction between cetovimutti. (deliverance through mind) and pannavimutti (deliverance through wisdom).”
—James P. McDermott Journal of Amen can Oriental Society, 105.4 (1985)
“Katz’s study presents a thorough and insightful discussion of an important theme not discussed at length since I.B. Homer’s Early Buddhist Theory of Man Perfected (London: Williams & Northgate, 1936).”
—WILLIAM IL MAHONY
Journal of Amen can Academy of Religion, Vol.55, No.1, 1987
‘The most important contribution of this book is its presentation of material that can be used as a basis for future research into ‘the dynamic structure of the history of Buddhist thought’ (p. 286). It does this by a verbal, contextual analysis of the arahant ideal as presented in the Pali Canon.”
Duke University, Journal of A men can Academy of Religion, Vol.55, No.1, 1987
“Prof. Katz has brought home the essence of the Buddhist ideal of human perfection per se and, equally valuable he has also dispelled many misconceptions about it. A study of this treatise is a must for every serious scholar in Buddhist philosophy of man.”
—U. Raja Ganesan
Review Projector (India), Vol. 11 & 12, Nov.-Dec. 1982
All forms of Buddhism—the Theravada the Mahayana and the Vajrayana— affirm the perfectability of the person, and one finds this notion of perfection embodied in three images: the arahant, the bodhisattva and the mahasiddha.
One also finds, in scholarly treatments of Buddhism, much made of the perceived difference among these three ‘vehicles’ (yana). By close textual analysis as well as by extensive field work, Katz criticizes this emphasis on difference and prefers to treat Buddhism as a whole, a position he finds in accord with the teachings of both Buddhists and Buddhist texts. By a close examination of these three images of human perfection, bridges among the Theravada, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana are built and continuities within Buddhism are explored.
Much of this book is a re-examination of the arahant image as found in Theravada literature and as informed by issues raised by the literatures of the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. The arahant image is then compared with the bodhisattva and the mahasiddha. This comparison involves pioneering discussions of Buddhist philosophy of language and hermeneutics, which are facilitated by Katz’s familiarity with Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist texts as well as his sympathetic involvement with the living Buddhist tradition.
Nathan Katz is Professor and Founding Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University in Miami. Among his dozen books are: Buddhist and Western Philosophy; Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies: Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma; The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India; and Who Are the Jews of India?
Dr. Katz has won four Fulbright awards for teaching and research in South Asia, won the “FlU President’s Award for Excellence and Achievement,” and was a Finalist for the 2000 National Jewish Book Award in Sephardic Studies. He has been a pioneer in establishing dialogues between Jews and Hindus and Buddhists, and was selected to join a delegation of eight scholars and rabbis to the Dalai Lama in 1990, as described in the best-selling The Jew in the Lotus by R. Kamenetz.
He is founding co-editor of the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies and previously served on the faculties of Naropa University, Williams College and the University of South Florida.
It is, of course, deeply gratifying that demand for this book has been sufficient to warrant a second printing. The thought that people actually read what I write never ceases to amaze and inspire me.
It is now more than a decade since 1 wrote Buddhist Images of Human Perfection, and a decade is more than enough time for reflection upon the complex constellation of issues surrounding a ‘western’ scholar who writes about an ‘eastern’ religion. One of these issues is that of privilege. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I have been in having studied Buddhism from Sri Lankan and Tibetan teachers, as well as in American, Indian, and Sri Lankan universities. When I recall that my own father grew up in a dirt-floored farm house in rural, oppressive Ukrainia, my good luck staggers me.
Another such issue is balancing ‘objectivity’ and ‘sympathy’. Both the Academy and my many Buddhist teachers and friends have a moral claim upon my work: the former demands my objectivity, dispassion and honesty: the latter, my love and solidarity. As I write, I hear their collective voices and hope I’ve managed not to sacrifice one for the other.
Religion is a curious phenomenon. It is so very, very dear to many people, so central to all of our identities, that its civilizing message is often the first casualty in the social-political conflicts we describe as “religious”. The academic study of religion is curio user still without scholarly dispassion and objectivity as our paradigm, what we do in universities is at best a dim shadow of loving study in monasteries yeshivat, and madrasas. We lose our raison d’etre if we give up on the seemingly impossible goal of objectivity. At the same time, without sympathy, appreciation, and a sense of the majesty of religious ideas and practices, we are mere technicians: we sacrifice our heart to our brain, we become intellectual idolaters. As scholars of religion, our dilemmas are acute. As privileged westerners, these dilemmas multiply.
My hope has always been that this book would prod both Buddhists and academics to see the continuity of the Buddhist tradition, which is the continuity of wisdom and compassion. I want Mahayana Buddhists, and scholars partisan to them, to cease to disparage the Theravada by calling it “Hinayana”.—an offensive term when applied to a living religion, yet a meaningful concept in the context of Mahayana hermeneutics. Similarly, I see neither wisdom nor compassion disparaging the Mahayana as degenerate, when it is obvious to me that Mahayana techniques and ideas “conduce to peace, calm, and tranquility, to nibbana.”
In short, I want the world to cease treating religions as though they were football teams. Religion is concerned with weighty issues—the death of a child, the perfection of society, how to instill kindness and charity, the nature of compulsion and freedom. Religion doesn’t need cheerleaders, however sophisticated the cheers. We don’t need team banners or pennants under the guise of piety or scholarship. Most of all, we don’t need Missionaries masquerading as scholars!
My hope for a more tolerant and open-minded approach to Buddhism was born out of sensitivities inculcated by my existential situation. I am a member of a small, ancient religion which has been the basis for larger, more powerful world religions. Adherents of these other faiths claim to understand my religion better than I do myself. In precisely the same way, some Mahayanists claim to understand the “Hinayana” better than do Theravadins. So quite naturally, I become intrigued by the question of what happens when one religion grows out of, and claims to supplant, an older religion. I have wanted to defend the older, maligned tradition, and this bit of personal history has been the impetus for taking up the question of how Buddhists of different yanas misunderstand each other.
My questions and my method are based upon a modest assumption that the first step toward understanding a religion is to understand it as members of that religion understand it, or have understood it during various historical eras. In many senses, this is a matter of courtesy: One ought not define the other, even if (especially if?) one has economic or political power over the other, which always entails the semantic power of definitions. For far too long, men have defined women, whites have defined people of color, Christians have defined Jews, the powerful have defined those lacking power, I believe it is incumbent upon scholars to resist facile, imposed definitions. Now it is time for us to listen to those whom we study. It is my dearest hopes that such listening, to teachers from both the Theravada and the Mahayana has been the basis of the book.
The arahant, the bodhisattva and the mahasiddha all call themselves Buddhists; living teachers from any of the three main forms of Buddhism—the Theravada, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana—readily grant that the goal of which they speak is identical with the goals of the other forms. Yet our three images of human potentiality, our conceptions of the perfected person in these three forms, radically diverge. How to both reconcile this divergence and maintain the identity of the goal, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of each of these three traditions, is the task of this essay.
The larger phenomenon which we are studying—that is, how a religious tradition which bases itself on an older tradition, yet claims to have its own conceptual and mythic identity, deals with the tension of this continuity and divergence—is not a problem unique to Buddhists. We find a similar problem in Christianity, which claims to be both a continuation of Judaism and an abrogation of Judaism, both at the same time—just as Mahayana Buddhism claims to be based on the teachings of the Buddha as found in the earlier Buddhist Canon, yet also claims to have its own identity distinct from what they disparagingly call the ‘Hinayana’. However, in Buddhism there was never anything like the Council of Nycaea which formulated the fundamental dogmatics by which Christianity differed from Judaism; Buddhism flowered with a magnificent proliferation of systems, schools, mythologies, symbols, practices and rituals, yet also maintained its continuity among all forms of Buddhism, expressed by such teachings as ‘buddhayana’ and ‘ekayana’, the teaching that there is, beneath these diverse flowerings, a continuous heart of the matter.
Much of the confusion with which scholars have become enmeshed on this question has revolved around naive understandings of religious language. For example, in this essay we shall consider the language of the arahant (arhat, dgra bcom pa) - In the Pali literature, a close analysis of which forms the largest part of this essay, the arahant is the perfected human, one who has completed everything there is to do, a finished product, a Buddha.
In much of the Sanskrit and Tibetan literatures, however, the arhat is described as selfish, one who is interested only in his own salvation and not in the sufferings of others, one who is arrogant and conceited. Now, following from a naive understanding of how religious language works, one might be tempted to assume a real difference between the arahant and the bodhisattva, whom the Mahayana raises as an alternative symbol of the perfected person; that the ‘nirvana of the bodhisattva’ is different from and higher than ‘the nirvana of the arhat’; that the bodhisattva is, in some sense, the contradiction and/or abrogation of the arahant. Precisely the same problem arises when the mahasiddha is proposed by Tantric Buddhism to abrogate the bodhisattva, who is seen as narrowly scholastic, as addicted to the pleasures and refuge of the monastic life, who is moralistic and aloof from the sufferings of the world.
However, religious language does not work so simplistically. This is to say that simply because we find the term arahant/arhat in both the Pall and Sanskrit literatures, it does not follow that they both refer in the same way. In fact, religious language is not referential language at all, but such a naive conception of language as referential leads one to take at face value the Mahayana claims about the arhat, and scholars and some Buddhist hermeneuticians have indeed taken arhat-talk in precisely this naive way.
Therefore, a new approach to these interrelated issues is needed, and we propose a close contextual reading of primary and combinatorial literatures from the Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan sources. To use a phrase currently in vogue, what we are doing is returning Pall arahant-talk to its original language-game, and Sanskrit arhat-talk to its own linguistic home, and so also Tibetan arhat-and bodhisattva-talk. In other words, our question is In what contexts and for what reasons do Mahayana authors say both that (a) the arhat is selfish and conceited; and (b) there is only one Buddha-vehicle by which all Buddhists attain to full bodhi ? When a Sanskrit author says that the arhat is selfish and conceited, what is really being said? Following from our claim that religious language is not referential language, we are left with this question If indeed Sanskrit arhat-talk does not refer to the arahant notion in the Pali canon, to what does it refer (if it refers at all) ?; what is really being said ?
And we find that sonic Buddhist hermeneuticians were well aware of this problem, and devised some ingenious methods for its dis-solution Such a question entails a close study of the Pali arahant concept. This, as we have said, forms the major portion of this essay, and we have undertaken a close, con textual reading the literatures on this subject. By a close, contextual reading’ we mean an analysis of the language of talking about the arahant, a very tricky problem in Buddhism because of its unique understanding of the nature of language itself. In every form of Buddhism we have studied, we have found a very suspicious attitude towards language: from the Buddha himself to the late Tantras, language is heuristic and pedagogical. Philosophical language is diseased language, language which has degenerated from its useful context, language which no longer serves us, but of which we have become servants.
Whether an arahant, a bodhisattva or a mahasiddha, language is an expression, language is useful, Language is a skill to be developed by analysis and meditation; but language is not philosophical or referential. Precisely for this reason, our method is contextual to see what is being said in particular circumstances; not to develop any type of Meta. Language by which we evaluate given Buddhist statements, but to expose and reveal by contextual analysis the utility of a given statement in Buddhist literature It is by just this method that we seek to demonstrate that arhat-talk in the Sanskrit cannot be seen as referring to arahant talk in the Pali; to hold that it does would be to make a meta-language out of everyday language, and we would argue that this is precisely to miss the point of Buddhism, which seeks to liberate language, to return to a natural discourse within clearly proscribed limits and goals of the attainment of bodhi, and not to develop a philosophy in the usual sense of the term.
While there has been excellent work done on the arahant concept previously, and on the bodhisattva concept as well, we feel that this study is unique in the history of Buddhist scholarship. It is unique for two basic reasons (a) its scope, namely a study of these three Buddhist ideals; and (b) its method, which is a contextual study of the language of talking about the perfected person, which does not develop any meta-language and which returns, for example, Sanskrit arhat-talk to its original pedagogical home.
The implications of this study fall into two areas generally. The first implies a re-appraisal of the dynamics of Buddhism and Buddhist language itself: that talk about these perfected persons, about yanas and so forth, is not referential talk; that the Mahayana criticisms of the arahant do not refer to the arahant of the Pali canon, and that Tibetan criticisms of the bodhisattva (byang chub sems dpa’) do not refer to the bodhisattva as found in Sanskrit literature. The second area is implied by our methodology, which we feel could well be applied to other issues, both within Buddhism and outside of it. Within Buddhism, such a contextual study could prove most fruitful for a study of the notion of ‘body’ in these three yanas, or to the notion of monastic vows, et cetera. In the larger context of the history of religions, this method might be helpful in sorting out, for example, talk about ‘messiah’ and ‘mosheakh’ and the contexts in which early Christians talked about Jesus as ‘messiah’ as viewed in the context of an extended discussion of what Jews might have meant by ‘mosheakh’.
If one were to assume that they meant the same thing, then the questions which were personified by the ‘Judiazers’ and the ‘Zealots’ of early Christianity would work out very differently than if such a contextual study would show that these two terms were used very differently. We beg the reader’s indulgence with the great deal of highly technical data we consider in our extended treatment of the Pall arahant concept. We must point out that Buddhism is not a simple subject, and that in order to get clear about arahant/ arhat language, a great deal of subsidiary terminology about meditation, about emotions, about the path, about one’s relatedness to society, about ‘views’ (ditthi), et cetera, is necessarily involved. With the reader’s patience, however, we will proceed to paint a picture of the arahant in a way that it has not been painted before, and we shall also analyze Mahayana claims about this arahant/arhat.
As to the question of why three portraits of the perfected person, we could only offer the following, albeit tentatively that the person is not a one-dimensional being; that the depths, psychological tendencies, methods of teaching and relation to society, et cetera, require a three-dimensional portrait; that human potentiality, of which the arahant, the bodhisattva and the mahasiddha are symbols, is varied and vast, and that it could not be fully portrayed by any one image; that to tell the ‘whole story’ we need to compile many ‘stories’, and that the strength of Buddhism as a vital religion is precisely that it is so multidimensional that it can accommodate varying, but not necessarily contradictory, portraits of what it means to be most fully human which is to say, to become perfected.
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