Monday, October 29, 2012

Rupert Gethin's "Sayings of the Buddha": Book Review

After reading Gethin's "The Foundations of Buddhism" I sought out this companion volume from the same press, Oxford. True to that institute's reputation, "Foundations" proved both rewarding and challenging; "Sayings" sustains the discipline applied by this scholar to his subject. Both books, taken together, in a comparatively brief study manage to cover the essentials of, respectively, the common doctrine and the earliest suttas.

Enamorato's review, also online elsewhere via a FWBO site, sums up Gethin's anthology alongside Bhikkhu Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words" and John Holder's scholarly collection of teachings. Mine will focus on its editorial approach. I came to Gethin's edition after Glenn Wallis' "Basic Teachings of the Buddha". I admired Dr. Wallis' reader-response theory and philosophical approach, conveyed well in his introduction and commentary. Similarly, Dr. Gethin constructs from a solid linguistic command of the earliest extant Nikaya collections from the Pali his own rigorous interpretation of the core of the Theravada, Southeastern Asian dharma teachings. Unlike more popularized collections, this can be used by a student in a class or on one's own to study the stories seriously--that is, with a guide taking one closer to the dialect in which the historical Buddha is said to have conveyed the teachings, as transmitted by monks into oral and then written form a few centuries later.

These are sorted traditionally as longer, middle-length, grouped, and numbered discourses. Gethin follows this organization and offers examples of all four from the vast number edited by scholars. He tries to give an accurate rendering, including the repetition that hammers home the point even if this may be strange to readers. He reasons that this oral feature embedded itself in the writing down, and this repeating of phrases offers its own pleasure in the recital of these passages and their inculcation.

As with Glenn Wallis' more compact but equally eloquent translation and commentary of sixteen essential suttas ("well-said" sayings), his fellow scholar Gethin captures in his introduction an enthusiasm for dharma. He may translate it as "Truth," "teaching," "practice," or "quality" to catch the most precise meaning of this all-encompassing term. He bases this on his own research into Pali.

The contents speak for themselves. Suffice to say that Gethin (as does Wallis) allows the suttas to sit as complete narratives, in their original form, so as to let readers appreciate the elaboration of points, their repetition, and their gradual unfolding in the words attributed to the historical Buddha. What in his "Foundations" study may become paraphrased, debated, and cited here, by contrast, emerges as if told by one person to others. You will find preaching, but you will also find dialogues and advice.

Each entry is preceded by an efficiently condensed preface and supported with precise end-notes. These may refer one to linguistic points, or other works elaborating topics here alluded to or compressed. Therefore, this is an excellent introduction that I'd recommend following up Wallis, and perhaps preceding Bhikkhu Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words," for three variants on this wise teaching. (Amazon US 4-9-12)

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