Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bhikkhu Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words": Book Review

The need for a larger anthology of the earliest extant texts attributed to the Buddha has been met by this compilation. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Brooklyn-born monk in the Theravada tradition who has translated the Nikaya suttas. These "longer," "medium-length," "grouped" and "numbered" collections in the Pali dialect closer to what the Buddha had used when he orally transmitted the dharma are as far back as we can go when trying to find the "original" sayings that summed up and expanded the many teachings of the founder over four decades of preaching.

These can be famously repetitive, astringent. This comes from their oral nature, as this aids memory and invokes its own state of reception. These formulae for repetition and recursion remain here, but modified in the middle of repeated paragraphs so the first and the last are kept full but not the intervening. It's a fair compromise for the reader, and it allows more selections to be included in this generous, sober, stolid, if daunting, collection.

Bodhi here compiles highlights from the Nikayas. He tends towards conservative interpretations, as a monk himself seeking the early texts to put in Theravada context. He orders them into what makes sense for a student needing a way in to the vast corpus of suttas. It starts with the human condition before the teaching is heard, then moves step-by-step along as the Buddha arrives, so to speak, and the dharma unfolds and grows in complexity as the hearer advances along the path to awakening. Bodhi arranges substantial sections of the suttas so a reader can get a sense of the core teachings. He prefaces each thematic or cognitively arranged chapter with a detailed introduction and follows with endnotes. This leaves the texts themselves to be faced apart from an orientation or commentary.

Now, unlike the shorter collections of equal value, Rupert Gethin's "Sayings of the Buddha" let alone Glenn Wallis' "Basic Teachings of the Buddha" (both reviewed by me before I read this anthology--I'd sample these before taking on Bodhi's bigger book), Bodhi does adhere to a conventional, more obedient stance regarding the dharma. That is, as a monk, he's grounded in elucidating this dharma as not a scholarly enterprise or a linguistic exercise or a philosophical confrontation. Rather, he mixes a more devotional approach that assumes the dharma's truth-claims while inviting a reader to understand the original suttas in light of later monastic commentaries and interpretations. Wallis eschews this approach and Gethin minimizes it; Bodhi as a monk embraces the suttas within a larger framework of those Theravadin monks who have pored over the Pali texts and come to their own conclusions, as his predecessors and masters within the South Asian community. I admit I lean more towards those who challenge the texts rather than bow to them, but that may be my nature! One can't fault Bodhi for a more "literal' stance towards the canon, but this needs mention. He does peer beyond the Pali to later commentaries to tackle textual cruxes and obscure passages.

Wallis and Gethin have based some of their work on Bodhi's even if they differ from some of his choices for translation; Bodhi has pioneered anthologies aimed at a wider Western audience than professors or linguists, and for this, the affordable and handsomely designed book (as with many from Wisdom Publications) fills a space on a short shelf. Endnotes, a brief glossary, charts of where the texts fit into the canon, and a full index with italicized Pali and Sanskrit terms enhance its use. As I consult this more as a researcher than an insider, my judgment of it is aimed at a similar reader.  (Many previous reviewers have reacted to this book with bursts of heartfelt praise; I wanted to provide rather a sense of how it compares and contrasts with other popular press Nikaya collections.) [Amazon US 8-29-12]

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