The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India

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Item Code: IDC327
Author: Johannes Bronkhorst
Language: English
Edition: 2000
ISBN: 9788120816435
Pages: 171
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.8" X 5.9"
Weight 260 gm
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Book Description
About the Book:

This book elucidates the early Buddhist teachings and beliefs concerning meditation and its role in the process to liberation. In a number of cases, the Buddhist canonical texts reject practices which they accept elsewhere. When these practices - sometimes rejected, sometimes accepted - correspond to what is known about non-Buddhist practices, the conclusion is then proposed that they are non-Buddhist texts. A similar procedure enables one to choose between conflicting beliefs.

In order to arrive at these results, an analysis is offered of the non-Buddhist (especially Jaina and early Hindu) practices and beliefs as they are described in the non-Buddhist literature of the time. Passages in the Buddhist canon which emphasize the distinctions between Buddhism and other religious currents are also taken into consideration.

About the Author:

JOHANNES BRONKHORST is a Professor of Indian Studies at University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He has authored several books and articles on traditional Sanskrit linguistics, Indian thought, the history of asceticism and meditation in Indian religions.

Preface to the Second Edition

The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India has been out of print for a while. Reactions to the first edition have been varied, ranging from positive to critical. It is clear that these reactions are determined, at least to a large extent, by the positions of the scholars concerned with regard to the question of what can be expected from research into earliest Buddhism. The brief discussion that follows of some of the criticisms that have been expressed against the first edition, is therefore more than just a defence of this book; it is meant to be a contribution to a more general discussion regarding the aspirations and possibilities of scholarship in this particular field of study.

Lambert Schmithausen has recently (1990) distinguished three positions held by scholars of Buddhism with regard to the question whether and to what extent the early Buddhist texts can be regarded as faithfully preserving the doctrine of the Buddha himself at least in essence. They might be presented as follows : (i) stress on the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic materials; (ii) skepticism with regard to the possibility of retrieving the doctrine of earliest Buddhism; (iii) This position is to be preferred to (ii) for purely methodological reasons : only those who seek may find, even if no success is guaranteed.

The danger of position (i) is that it may raise a hypothesis into a principle. And once the homogeneity of the early Buddhist texts is taken as point of departure rather than as a hypothesis to be tested against the evidence, one is in the same situation as the Christian church, which managed to obstruct progress in Biblical studies for many centuries, precisely because it insisted on the fundamental homogeneity of its scripture. This parallelism becomes almost complete, once the further requirement is added that the early Buddhist texts have to be interpreted in the light of the later tradition.

It would be unfair to those who uphold position (i) to put too much emphasis on the parallelism with the unfortunate history of Biblical studies. We must assume that they look upon their position as, in their eyes, the best hypothesis available, which they are ready to abandon at any time, if only good enough evidence were forthcoming. The present book concentrates on contradictions and inconsistencies. Upholders of position (i) – such as R. Gombrich (1990) – argue that some lack of homogeneity is only to be expected in the early Buddhist texts, even on the assumption that all of them go back to the Buddha himself. No far-reaching conclusions should therefore be drawn from 'inconsistencies' and 'contradictions', especially not where these latter occur in descriptions of such notoriously elusive 'things' as meditational states. Similar problems which specifically referring to the first edition of the present book, complains that the "treatment of the relevant material is not infrequently based on unexplicated or unexamined (and anything but self-evident) presuppositions about 'contradictions' in the tradition".

It seems that the main arguments of this book have escaped Gombrich and Ruegg. They may escape other readers too. For this reason these main arguments will be once more presented in this Preface, but in as abbreviated and differently arranged form. This new presentation will, I hope, show that the criticisms mentioned above are not applicable to this book. Details and references will be found in the main body of the book

The point of departure is the undeniable fact that even the oldest Buddhist texts we have do not date back, in their present form, to the period of the Buddha. Linguistic considerations alone suffice to show that "all Buddhist texts, as they are read today, are not only heavily influenced by linguistic developments known to be much later than early days of Buddhism, but also reformulated perhaps, and certainly recast from one language into another before they reached their present linguistic shape" (Hinuber, 1991: 184). There is therefore no guarantee whatsoever that all these texts represent the teachings of the Buddha, and it is at least conceivable that some of their contents are non-authentic.

How can we imagine non-authentic views and practices to have found their way into the canonical collections. Primarily the collections of Sutras? This is not difficult. It is at least conceivable that in the process of collecting some texts or passages were included that contained elements that derived, ultimately, not from the teaching of the Buddha, but from other religious groups and ideals current at the time.

The preceding remarks concern conceivable events; no evidence has yet been presented that they actually took place. Suppose they did take place. How could we ever discover the non-authentic elements in the Buddhist texts? In general this would be difficult or even impossible. Elements that were not part of the teaching of the Buddha but were not rejected either, might find their way in – after or even before the death of the Buddha – without anyone ever noticing, least of all the modern scholar. Perhaps the only hope ever to identify non-authentic elements in the Buddhist texts is constituted by the special cases where elements which are recorded to have been rejected by the Buddha, yet found their way into the texts, and, moreover, are clearly identifiable as belonging to one or more movements other than Buddhism.

This gives us what might turn out to be an objective criterion for identifying foreign intrusions into the Buddhist texts : An element that is (i) rejected at some places in the Buddhist texts, (ii) accepted at others, and (iii) known to fit at least some non-Buddhist religious movements of the time, such an element is very likely to be a non-authentic intrusion into the Buddhist texts. As we have to work with only limited evidence, I would not know what better criterion there could be in the circumstances. Unfortunately, the importance of thus criterion seems to have escaped all of my critics.

Of course, having a criterion in theory is one thing, applying it to the texts, quite another. This book tries to apply this criterion to the one aspect of Buddhism – perhaps the only one – where it seems to work: that of meditation. Much of the book is dedicated to the presentation of the meditational and ascetic practices and related ideas found in early Jainism and other non-Buddhist religious movements of early India. Since no one has criticized this presentation, whereas several scholars have expressed doubts with regard to the 'inconsistencies' and 'contradictions' in the Buddhist texts (see above), I shall concentrate on the latter. I shall briefly discuss some examples, all of them taken from the main body of the book.

1. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, in its various recensions, records a discussion of the Buddha with someone called Putkasa (in Sanskrit) or Pukkusa (in Pali). The Buddha here boasts that once, in a violent thunderstorm when lightning killed two farmers and four oxen nearby him, he did not notice it. It is known that abilities of this kind were sought after by certain non-Buddhists. Another Buddhist Sutra (the Indriyabhavana Sutta of the Pali canon and its parallel in Chinese translation), on the other hand, ridicules such 'cultivation of the senses' which leads to their non-functioning; the Buddha is here reported to say that if this is cultivation of the senses, the blind and deaf would be cultivators of the senses.

The passages here mentioned may not logically contradict each other, yet they come about as close to that as one could hope for in this type of texts: on one occasion the Buddha disapproves of the practice that aims at the complete suppression of all sense-activities, on another he boasts about his attainments in this direction. This situation calls for a solution. One solution would be to think that that the Buddha changed his mind about this practice. A more plausible explanation is that a practice that was respected among non-Buddhists came to be ascribed to the Buddha, either before or after his death. This latter explanation implies that the practice concerned is not authentically Buddhist.

2. A Sutra of the Majjhima Nikaya (the Culadukkhakkhandha Sutta) as well as its parallels in Chinese translation describe and criticize the Jainas as practicing 'annihilation of former actions by asceticism' and 'non-performing of new actions'. This can be accepted as an accurate description of the practices of the Jainas. But several other Sutras of the Buddhist canon put almost the same word in the mouth of the Buddha, who here approves of these practices (see note 8 to chapter 2, below). Did the Buddha first hold one opinion, then to change his mind? Or did he not know how to describe his experiences? Obviously it is far more plausible that, again, practices that were widely accepted outside the Buddhist fold, but not inside it, found their way in.

The argument here summarized is again presented, in a but slightly different form, by non one else than Ruegg, apparently without realizing it, in the very same book in which he dismisses my arguments. This situation is extraordinary enough to warrant quoting the passage concerned at length (Ruegg, 1989: 142-143):

Now, in some old Buddhist canonical texts also there are in fact found certain references to the idea that liberation from Ill (duhkha) results from, and consists in, the non-production of any future karman at all and from the ending, often through austerities (tapas), of any existing bad karman. This idea is there usually ascribed to the Nigantha Nataputta (Nirgrantha Jnatrputra), in other words to Mahavira and the Jainas. We also read that immobility of body and renunciation of speech bring Ease (sukha). Moreover, in a couple of Buddhist canonical texts the idea that no new karman at all should be generated, and that any existing karman should be ended, has even been connected with the Buddha himself in a sermon he once addressed to a Nirgrantha and in another one he addressed to Vappa, a disciple of the Nirgranthas.

The connection of such a teaching with the Buddha himself seems nevertheless to be rare. When it does occur, it is evidently to be explained by the fact that his auditor was a Nirgrantha and that the teaching was thus intended as an introductory salvific device, a circumstance that would lend support to Kamalasila's statement denying that such relinquishment of all activity was the Buddha's own teaching. In the majority of other places where it has been mentioned in the Pali canon, this doctrine has in fact been severely criticized. It is patently inconsistent with such basic principles of Buddhist doctrine as the four correct efforts (sammappadhana / samyakprahana).

It is not a little surprising to see how Ruegg, who rejects my arguments, arrives here at my conclusions, using my arguments and basing himself on the inconsistencies whose very existence he had attributed to my ill-founded presuppositions. In the situation it is no doubt kindest to Professor Ruegg to assume that he dismissed my book without having read it.

3. The Vitakkasanthana Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya and its parallels in Chinese translation recommend the practicing monk to 'restrain his thought with his mind, to coerce and torment it'. Exactly the same words are used elsewhere in the Pali canon (in the Mahasaccaka Sutta, Bodhirajakumara Sutta and Sangarava Sutta) in order to describe the futile attempts of the Buddha before his enlightenment to reach liberation after the manner of the Jainas. Once again it is hard to see a better explanation than that these Jaina practices had come to be accepted by at east some Buddhists.

It would be unrealistic to expect that all 'contradictions' in the Buddhist cannot are quite as explicit as the ones mentioned above. This does not however mean that they are any less real. Consider the following.

4. Four states of meditation are often enumerated in the Buddhist Sutras in varying contexts, but almost always together. They are: 1) the Stage of Infinity of Space; 2) the Stage of Infinity of Perception; 3) the Stage of Nothingness; 4) the Stage of neither Ideation nor Non-Ideation. The texts say little by way of explanation of these stages, but the names make clear that they together form a list of graded exercises aimed at the cessation of all ideations. This aim conforms very well with the aims we have to ascribe to the early Jainas and those of similar convictions. Moreover, the Jaina scriptures describe 'reflection on infinity' as one of the accompaniments of pure meditation'. These stages are denounced elsewhere in the Buddhist canon, be it indirectly: The Buddha is said to have had two teachers before his enlightenment: Arada Kalama and Udraka the son of Rama. From the former he learned the Stage of Nothingness, from the latter the Stage of neither Ideation nor Non-Ideation. However, the Buddha left these teachers, because he came to believe that these Stages would not lead him to his goal.

Here the question seems justified: do these stages lead to the goal or do they not? Various answers can be imagined, such as, "they do to some extent, but not all the way", "the Buddha had second thoughts about the usefulness of these stages", etc. but I insist that there is a problem here that demands an answer, and not just a manifestation of my "unexplicated or unexamined (and anything but self-evident) presuppositions about 'contradictions' in the tradition", as Ruegg would have it. Criticism of this kind, which refuses to study arguments, is not only counter-productive, it constitutes one of the greatest enemies of scholarship which, as Gombrich rightly points out, should at least try to progress by argument. Returning to the Stage of Nothingness and the Stage of neither Ideation nor Non-Ideation, it will hardly be necessary to add that in my opinion they comply with the criterion of foreign intrusion into the Buddhist texts formulated above.

The conclusion that the above four meditational Stages were not accepted in earliest Buddhism finds support in an altogether unexpected quarter; for a detailed presentation of the argument I must refer the reader to BSOAS 48, 1985, pp. 305 f. Among the early (Abhidharmic) matrkas, one seems to have been considered particularly important. It occurs a number of times in the early texts, but not always in exactly the same form; to an original enumeration of merely mental characteristics, meditational states came to be added. But initially the meditational states thus added did not contain the four Stages discussed above, even though these Stages, collectively known as 'the Formless States', are very prominent in the Buddhist scriptures as we have them. The most plausible explanation is again that the Formless States were not accepted during the earliest period of Buddhism.

5. The Buddhist texts are not of one mind concerning the time when liberation is reached. A great number of passages emphatically states that liberation is reached in this life, i.e., well before death. This is hardly surprising, for the Buddha himself is agreed to have passed many years teaching after his moment of liberation. Yet other, passages speak about liberation as taking place at death. As in all the preceding cases, there is here a contradiction in the texts. Various solutions are conceivable, such as "the Buddha didn't know", "he expressed himself variously", "he changed his mind", "some are liberated at death, others in life", etc. Indeed. Anyone with some imagination can add to this list of possibilities almost indefinitely. However, we know that among many non-Buddhists hold the oppo0site opinion. It is no doubt superfluous to add that an intrusion of foreign ideas seems to me most plausible here, too.

These examples should suffice to induce critics, at last, to read this book, rather than presenting their a priori reasons for thinking that the effort made in it cannot possibly lead anywhere. Scholarship should and indeed can only progress by argument, and this implies also: trying to understand someone else's arguments. Those who are not willing or able to do this, would have done better to ignore the book, rather than pronounce facile judgments about it.

The first edition of this book was published in 1986, by Franze Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, Stuttgart. The preparation of this second edition has permitted me to correct a number of, usually minor, mistakes, and make other improvements. For ease of comparison, the page numbers of the first edition are indicated in the margin in the present edition. The help provided by Yves Ramseier in the preparation of this edition is here gratefully acknowledged.


The main aim of the present study is to find out what early Buddhist meditation was by ascertaining what it was not. The results are therefore largely negative, but not any less interesting.

The fact is that everyone who wishes to form an opinion on early Buddhism has to choose from a bewildering mass of often contradictory statements in the Buddhist canon. This chose is in danger of being arbitrary, for little is known about the relative chronology of the different parts of the canon. There can be no doubt that the canon-including the older parts, the Sutras- and Vinaya-Pitaka – was composed over a long period of time. Only by assuming this can we make sense of its often glaring contradictions. But which parts are the oldest?

In the following pages I shall try to answer this question in so far as it concerns Buddhist meditation by a method which, to my knowledge, has never yet been employed. At a number of places the Buddhist canon criticizes alternative practices which are claimed by others to lead to the highest good. These alternative practices can be identified in the early scriptures of Jainism and Hinduism. The idea behind this method is that those alternative practices, even when they are described and approved of in other parts of the Buddhist canon, cannot be considered to be authentic to Buddhism; they must be looked upon as later borrowings from outside. Traces of earliest Buddhism therefore must be sought among the practices which are opposed to those alternative ones.

Does this deny the possibility that early Buddhism shared certain features with the other religious movements that existed in India in its time? Clearly not! We do not wish to exclude features from early Buddhism simply because they are present elsewhere. We wish to exclude such features only if other, contrasting or even contradictory, features exist in the early Buddhist scriptures which are explicitly preferred to the former ones in those scriptures.

Why should features which are peculiar to Buddhism have greater likelihood to belong to early Buddhism than features which also occur elsewhere? This is partly a matter of definition. By 'early Buddhism' we mean the beginning of the tradition peculiar to Buddhism. The question will remain whether all these peculiar features came more or less at the same time and can therefore be ascribed to a single founder of this tradition, i.e., to the historical Buddha. All we can say is that the Buddhist tradition clearly points to such a person. Moreover, it is known that religious traditions tend to be conservative. They may inadvertently borrow elements from outside; they may also develop and undergo modifications. They will not as a rule introduce complete novelties. This privilege is reserved for the founder of such a tradition.

The execution of the above program will enable us to reach a better understanding of early Buddhist meditation. It also allows us to obtain more insight into the alternative, non-Buddhist, practices, especially of the early period. The circumstance that the two traditions intermingled at a rather early date had hidden from previous investigators the ideas underlying the non-Buddhist practices. It also obscured the influence which these ideas had on virtually all systems of Hindu philosophy.

A few words must be said about methodology. This book presents a theory about what early Buddhism – or rather, certain aspects of it – was and what it was not. That is to say, this book does not merely reproduce the texts on which it is based, and is not simply the result of 'just reading the texts" (if such a thing is at all possible; cf. Bronkhorst, 1986: Introduction). In a way it contains more than what can be found in the texts. In return, it explains contradictions and other features of the texts which would otherwise remain obscure. There is no way to prove that the theory presented in this book is right. But this does not by itself detract from its value. A great deal, if not all, we know about the world is of such a theoretical nature.

Such a starting point has consequences for those who wish to disagree with my theory. It will not just be enough to say that it has not been proved. It may be more worthwhile to try and show the theory does not fit certain facts. Criticism of this kind, thought not without value, will at best bring us back to the situation where the contradictions in the Buddhist canon are, again, unexplained. Really constructive criticism of my theory will present an even better theory.

Excerpts from reviews

Is readable and will be of interest to the students of meditation and religion.

E.R. Sreekrishna Sarma
The Adyar Library Bulletin, 1994

…an attempt to retrieve the original earliest doctrine of Buddhism and find out the early teachings and meditational practices, separating them from those that have found their way later on from the two parallel traditions of meditation, namely early Hindu and Jain meditational practices. The methodology adopted for doing this is comparative study of all these three traditions with a view to shifting those beliefs and practices which once having been accepted are rejected in some canonical works of Buddhism.

David Frawley
Journal of the Oriental Institute, Baroda,
Vol. 42, Nos. 1-2, Sept-Dec. 1992.

…a careful analysis of the meditational traditions of the early Buddhists and Jains. The present volume is concerned with early Hindu traditions of asceticism, in particular in relation to the theory of the four asramas. With characteristic acuity Bronkhorst analyses the early sources, mainly Dharmasutra texts, the early Upanisads, and the Mahabharata and presents his arguments with admirable conciseness and clarity. .

Per Kvaerne
University of Oslo, Acta Orientalia-55, 1994.


Preface to the second edition vii
Acknowledgements to the first editionxv
Part I: Two traditions of meditation
Ch. 1: The ascetic practices of the Bodhisattva1
Ch. 2: Further Buddhist criticism of alternative practices26
Part II: The main stream
Ch. 3: Early Jaina meditation31
Ch. 4: Meditation as part of asceticism in early Hindu scriptures45
Ch. 5: Theory and practice in the main stream54
Ch. 6: The influence from Buddhist meditation68
Part III: Buddhist meditation
Ch. 7: Influence on Buddhist meditation (I)78
Ch. 8: Influence on Buddhist meditation (II)96
Ch. 9: The origin of Buddhist meditation112
Ch. 10: Pratyekabuddhas, the Sutta Nipata, and the early Sangha124
Ch. 11: The position and character of early Buddhist meditation128
Abbreviations 129
Primary Sources131
Modern Authors135
Of Related Interest:

Complete Collection of Books on Meditation

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