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What role if any does academic scholarship play in Buddhism? Should Buddhists be concerned with what scholars say, or can we safely ignore them? How should we resolve conflicts between tradition and academia?

For specific conflicts I can cite some of my own work. See for example my discovery that karma and dependent arising are mutual contradictory: See Does Karma Break the Rules? and Sarvāstivāda Approach to the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. I have subsequently discovered that Nāgārjuna also thought so (MMK 17.1-6). Or my discover that all theories of karma are internally inconsistent: ; or the conflict between metaphysics and morality; or the assertion made by Sean Carroll that no afterlife of any kind is possible (including rebirth).

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11 Answers 11

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One of my teachers explicitly warned me: do not put too much trust in books written by Buddhist scholars unless they are also Buddhist practitioners themselves.

In hindsight, having attained "independence of others in regards to Buddha's message", I now see why: Buddhist texts are ambiguous enough that correct interpretation of the points made (as opposed to the literal meaning) requires understanding of Buddhist path as a whole, in context of personal practice -- what's known as "ground, path, fruition".

Back when I was a baby-Buddhist, I used to study all kinds of materials, written by both practicing teachers and scholars alike. Now I see that most of the scholar work that focused primarily on translation have been correct, while many of scholarly interpretations of Buddhism were rather mistaken.

Not that translation is quite possible without some measure of interpretation. But there seems to be a difference between following a text and following your own train of thoughts. If you think about it, the purpose of writing is very different between the two cases. A realized teacher does not write to express his or her understanding. That's not the goal. A teacher writes in order to "deliver" the students (professional slang for "to get them to Realize"). Whereas a scholar writes to explore and explain a particular thread of reasoning they invented that seems to explain Buddhist artifacts in a cohesive and logically consistent manner.

It is not unheard of for a scholar to slip into metaphysics (how things supposedly are) as opposed to soteriological methodology (how to achieve the Goal in practice). The tradition refers to this difference as "Buddha-eye" vs. "Dharma-eye". Buddha-eye is the enlightened perspective. The elements of it may or may not be helpful to a given student at a given point in time. Whereas Dharma-eye is the perspective presented to student by the teacher, whose concerns as I said above, are primarily didactic.

Now, don't get me wrong, many lineages have professional scholars within the tradition. "Traditional" does not always equate with "sloppy" you know. I've known of teachers in both Theravada and Mahayana schools who did care about careful choice of words, precise phrasing, and clear reasoning. It is just that in the world of realized teachers conveying information is always secondary to the real objective. To entertain you with a metaphor, not every student can handle pure spirit, so teacher ought to mix in the additives according to student's capacity. Such additive, known as upaya or skilfull mean -- basically a useful simplification -- is something non-existent in the work of a pure scholar.

Let's not assume scholarly works are 100% truth either. I've seen so many cases of scholars misrepresenting evolution of Mahayana as progressive loss of the original meaning -- that every time I see a new one I don't even cringe anymore :)

I'm telling responsibly, unless one clearly sees that elusive Truth the Buddha has found under the Bodhi tree, one should be very careful making assumptions about a particular Buddhist school or individual teacher being authentic or a "mere religion".

To conclude this post which is already getting too long, the answer to your question I'm afraid is "it depends". The further the scholar is from putting the teaching to his or her personal practice, the likelier they are to misunderstand what Buddhism is really about, the more they're prone to skewing the message, the less we can trust them. The more the scholar is also a practitioner, the more credibility they can have in our eyes. After all, the proof is in the pudding - and how can you trust a cook who's never tried his own recipe?

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What role if any does academic scholarship play in Buddhism?

It's beneficial to know ones way around the Pali canon and to have knowledge about the different doctrines and suttas.

If one is a teacher then one would have to do some level of studying the canon in order to teach others what the content is. It might also be beneficial to learn how to read the Pali language in order to get the "full" meaning of the words. It's not uncommon that pali words loose part of their meaning when tranlated into other languages.

So it's important to study but that studying cannot stand alone. It must be combined with practice in meditation in order to fully understand what has been studied.

I remember hearing a story about a young monk (or maybe he wasn't yet a monk) that were described as not being very bright. He could not read and had a hard time understanding what has been taught to him. He was simple and pure. One day a teacher told him to just go and observe his mind. He did that and he won Nibbana in no time while the other hard-studying student with clever minds took a lot longer to win Nibbana because their heads were filled with intellectual knowledge.

Unfortunately i do not remember where i heard the story and i do not know if i have used the correct words to describe it. But the essence of the story is that one does not need to have a large amount of intellectual knowledge to win Nibbana. To win Nibbana practice is needed and that can be gained by simple instructions from a teacher.

Should Buddhists be concerned with what scholars say, or can we safely ignore them?

It comes down to what the goal of the Buddha's teaching is, i.e. to achieve freedom from suffering. To win Nibbana one has to practice insight meditation. Studying is simply not enough since the intellect cannot penetrate reality to it's core. Intellectual knowledge (book knowledge) will only get one so far. Experiental knowledge (insights into reality) is needed in order to fully understand the immense deepth of doctrines such as anatta.

These concepts cannot be grasped by the intellect. They are too profound. They must be experienced directly through insight meditation. Nibbana cannot be won by studying.

I like to use the onion-simile for illustration. Imagine we have an onion with it's many layers and a core. Intellectual knowledge can only penetrate the top layers of the onion while experiental knowledge can penetrate all the layers and into the core of the onion, i.e. Nibbana.

Whether or not the words of scholars should be ignored is really up to the individual being. If we take the perspective of gaining freedom from suffering then the words can be ignored if they do not have a direct relation to the decreasing of suffering, the winning of Nibbana or can be tested in insight meditation.

How should we resolve conflicts between tradition and academia?

By doing insight meditation one gets a point of reference to reality. When one has seen for oneself how reality functions then there is no need for academic discussion. Buddhism is not like philosophy where there are multiple opinions or views on a topic. We can go and test everything in insight meditation and thereby gain the right understanding of reality.

It is not like other religions where there is only faith. In Buddhism faith is balanced and guided by wisdom so that it does not become blind faith.


There are many more aspects to the questions. I have only brought up a few which i found important in the relation between Intellectual buddhism and Practical buddhism.

EDIT: The story i told above is not the correct one. Bhante has provided the true story.

It's the story of Cula-panthaka. He was a monk who could not remember a single stanza and because of that he was ordered to leave the Order. He was very sad about this and on his way out of the monastery he met the Buddha who comforted him and gave him a clean piece of cloth and said "Sit with your face to the East," and "repeat the words 'rajoha-ranam' and wipe your face with the cloth". Cula-panthaka did what the Buddha told him and wiped his face with the cloth. He saw that the cloth became dirty and then concentrated his mind on the impermanence of all things. The Buddha gave him a discourse telling about the importance of getting rid og impurities and other evils. At the end of the discourse Cupa-panthaka attained arahantship with knowledge of all the Pitakas.

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  • The DPN references are quite confused, but this seems to be a commentarial story.
    – Jayarava
    Aug 21, 2015 at 8:54
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I'm not sure my question was well enough formed for a really satisfying answer to emerge. But the answers do bring to mind the Mahācunda Sutta (AN 6.46) which I translated and commented on some years ago in this article, Meditation & Scholarship.

My article comments that this sutta describes "two kinds of monks" i.e. those 'keen on dhamma' (which Bikkhu Bodhi thinks means 'a scholar') and those 'keen on meditation'. According to the sutta the two groups disparaged each other, but instead they ought to train themselves to see both groups as equally valuable:

The meditator is of value because:

...ye amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
...they dwell having touched the deathless state with the body.

The scholar is of value because:

gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passantī
they see, they penetrate with wisdom into the depths of texts.

The Mahācunda Sutta is a plea for tolerance of different temperaments leading people towards the Dhamma in different ways.

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    It's sometimes difficult to avoid but (unless the question is tagged reference-request) in general it's better if answers aren't only links to external articles. Ideally an answer should make some sense even if the reader doesn't read the link (and more sense if they do read the reference), i.e. the linked reference should be as well as (not instead of) an answer. One way to do that is for the answer to summarize what's in the link; another is for the answer to put the link in context i.e. explain why it's an answer to the question.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 21, 2015 at 9:39
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    I hope you don't mind, I edited you answer to add a little summary of the article (please feel free to edit or 'rollback' my summary if you don't like it). I'm especially unsure of the last sentence I chose; i.e. it's a quote from the article but maybe not exactly the right hook that explained why you wanted to reference that article in this context (another hook might be the fact that some perceived division into at least two groups has existed since time immemorial, i.e. that it's a historical division).
    – ChrisW
    Aug 21, 2015 at 9:40
  • I think, the use of the term "scholar" here with reference to the bottom verse ("...they penetrate wisdom...") is a bit misleading. In the verse there is meant a certain attitude towards life/towards the dharma, while "scholar" means a certain profession and (contemporarily) has associations with a certain amount of "general respect". Of course being a profession means to be woven into the money-generating network (its ugliest outcome seems to me that "publish or perish"-paradigm). The comment-box is too short for a discussion, but perhaps you might remember the story where ... Aug 21, 2015 at 11:33
  • the Buddha himself refused to take the food of a farmer when given as payment for the teaching of the dhamma. A person might be a "scholar" and a (practicing) "buddhist" as well; for instance I like the scholarly aspect in the person Thich Nhat Hanh very much - and this gave me a certain special key to trust, that it would be worth to penetrate his work (and life!) with any effort. (Addition: some years ago I'd put my thoughts about this in a fictive "sutra" on the "bibliothecarians of the holy words", but in german and I doubt I can make it nicely into english...perhaps someone else?...) Aug 21, 2015 at 11:40
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Academic research is the raw material for my practice.

I'm a secular Mahayana Buddhist. I'm skeptical of the traditional lineages. I don't think they transmit any single person's system and there is no particular reason to think any current one of them is better than the others. Also I'm not bothered by the fact that I have "non-negotiable cultural demands"-- the sexism, authoritarianism and the cultural conservatism are nonstarters. I can't in good consciousness sign up to be a Buddhist in any orthodox organization. But here I am!

As a independent secular Buddhist, I have a project more than an orthodoxy to follow. I'm constructing my own Buddhism. The raw materials are modern day authors and academic scholars.

What Sources I Use Some secular Buddhists believe that the historical Buddha was a crypto-Enlightenment era progressive and that his true words are in the Pali texts. I find the original texts to be unreadable jumbles. The real signal in the noise is the numerous commentaries, especially from the scholars because have the least incentive to put words into the mouth of the Buddha. Stephen Batchelor's work on reconstructing the politics and intrigue drenched life of the Buddha are highly influential for me, for example, I think it is important to think about how Mahakasyapa & other early leaders of the Sangha may have made rules because they needed to keep order in the ranks & not because it was in accord with the Dharma.

The things that brought me to Buddhism in the first place were the Mahayana ideals of universalism, interconnection, social concern for the sick & poor, ahimsa and so on. So my next source is Chinese Buddhism, despite the celestial Buddhas and immortality cults. Again, I can't read it in the original and the most important thinkers, the Huayen, have no modern teachers. Chan & Zen have completely eclipsed Huayen, so the only modern masters of Huayen are the scholars who aren't usually self identifying Bodhisattvas let alone self identifying Buddhists! Jan Nattier and to a lesser extent Donald Lopez are my guides here. I try to read the original Sutras as translated by Cleary and the English translations of the Taisho, but my goodness, standards of acceptability of a text have changed so much. Without the scholars to explain what the original authors were driving at and what mistakes the translators made, these sutras would only be useful for bird cage liner.

I'm also influenced by Tom Pepper, Glenn Wallis-- I learn more from the criticism and the apollogia that I learn from emotional appeals to orthodoxy.

In the case of Shingon, the value of academia is to figure out what Esoteric Buddhism is at all. The material is officially secret, but the academics aren't paying attention to abiseka and creating a "media blackout" on the content of Shingon or esoteric Buddhism in general. I haven't much decided what to do with ritual, but what ritual I do adopt is influenced by the academics, not the traditional teacher's books that pretty much assume you are an illiterate peasant and at best can aspire to be reborn as a monk and follow the five precepts.

The other thing I use academic Buddhism for is the game "are they a believer or not" The best you just can't tell.

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As the elder used to count: Good teacher are those knowing, learned, in one Pitaka, better those in two, better those in three, better then 'learned' are those with Jhana. Better then them, a Stream-enter. Better a Once-returner... No-Returner... Arahat.

How ever, the Sublime Buddha acknowledged those who are just 'learned', 'scholars', and always encouraged his Noble disciples to see the benefit of those as well.

As in regard of pulling Dhamma-Vinaya into the play and trade-ground of Academic, making a living with it, that's not only for the sake of corruption but simply thief, encourages to disrespect and marxist values and serves for the harm of many.

Even approach and ways to sit, to be able to receive Dhamma, are fundamental, and approaching the Juwels like a entertaining or feedfull study object, handling it in most worth circumstances and relations, actually kills those not seeing the basic fault away, let them die off like foolish children who sacrificed their parents for assumed way to liberality in ways of gain to consume.

This Dhamma-Vinaya, if pulled into houses, does like a snake caught at it's tail. Right here it jumps biting into your face.

As for modern scholar monks... one can guess as doing improper sample of basicly wrong.

Did good householder Jayarava, good Brahman, actually made any liberating progress all the years he wasted away with Academic-scholars not having really build up relation to the Gems, not having met the fourth heavenly messenger yet, still not found sufficent faith, to give up house/stand? Easy a life useless spend in desire of accumulation and gain, yet Sañña, Viññāṇa subject to decay, nothing that follows one after breaking up of the body, already now near statistical endline as well. Why not seeking the real treasures and focus at least on what ever high merits after having entered the Stream.

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Academic scholarship in Buddhism is useful for understanding the history and origin of scriptures, doctrines, schools or traditions, linguistic styles etc. For e.g. for dating of scriptures, I would always trust academic scholarship over tradition.

However, academic scholarship is not useful for understanding Nirvana and the enlightenment of the Buddha. There are three reasons for this.

Firstly, parts of the scripture may be ambiguous or incomplete, without reading other parts. And even then, the connection may not be obvious.

Scholarship without insight may not be useful here because the scripture was not written like a peer-reviewed academic paper. By "insight" here I mean insight into the workings of the mind-body system, and not insight into the written texts.

For e.g. I was once confused how for an arahant, ignorance has been completely destroyed, but a living arahant clearly still has formations, consciousness, name-and-form, six sense bases and feelings. Isn't ignorance the condition for these, according to dependent origination? Iti 44 and SN 22.48 hold the answer to this. The clinging aggregates are destroyed when ignorance is destroyed, but this does not apply to the non-clinging aggregates. This is the case of Nibbana with fuel remaining.

Another example is the famous mistranslation of viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ as "consciousness that is invisible" or "consciousness without surface" from MN 49, when viññāṇaṃ in this context really means "that which can be cognized", referring to Nibbana, and not "consciousness". Only when it is interpreted as Nibbana does it become consistent with Ud 8.1, Ud 8.2, Ud 8.3 and Ud 8.4.

Secondly, parts of the scripture may be ambiguous or incomplete, without insight born from practice. Why? Because they may be like a riddle.

For e.g. in this question, I asked why sniffing a flower is considered stealing. The selected answer clearly displayed understanding born from insight. It was not about the precept of stealing, but rather it was about perfection (parami or paramita) in the practice of the precepts, for a full time professional practitioner (i.e. a monk or nun).

Thirdly, the Buddha may have taught different things to different people, depending on their specific needs and this was his employment of skillful means (upaya).

For e.g. in this answer, I explained that the teaching on rebirth-of-self based on karmic consequences is directed to persons with self view, who are novice practitioners struggling with virtue. For advanced practitioners like Bahiya, it is "all phenomena is not self" (sabbe dhamma anatta) - in which neither self nor consciousness is reborn, nor permanent.

This is based on MN 117 which tells us that there is a Noble Right View and a Right View with effluents or taints, siding with merit.

"There is such a criterion, monks, whereby a monk... could affirm the attainment of enlightenment... What is that method?

"In this, monks, a monk seeing an object with the eye recognizes within himself the presence of lust, hatred or delusion, knowing 'Lust, hatred or delusion is present in me,' or he recognizes the absence of these things, knowing 'There is no lust, hatred or delusion present in me.' Now, monks, as regards that recognition of the presence or absence of these things within him, are these matters to be perceived by faith, by persuasion, by inclination, by rational speculation, by delight in views and theories?"

"No, indeed, Lord."

"Are not these matters to be perceived by the eye of wisdom?"

"Indeed, Lord."

"Then, monks, this is the criterion whereby a monk, apart from faith, apart from persuasion, apart from inclination, apart from rational speculation, apart from delight in views and theories, could affirm the attainment of enlightenment: 'Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been accomplished, what was to be done is done, there is no further living in this world.'"

[Similarly for ear, nose, tongue, body (touch), mind.]

SN 35.152

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TL;DR: scholarship is essential, as long as (and only if) it is well-informed.

You say "See for example my discovery that karma and dependent arising are mutual contradictory: See Does Karma Break the Rules?"

When I read your article I noted a lack of breadth of scholarship. The (famous) scholar Je Tsongkhapa wrote extensively about this apparent discrepancy in great depth, in his 15th Century opus, the Lam Rim Chenmo. Tibetan scholars have been continually and actively debating the nuances around his arguments for the last six centuries (as the subject is a part of the Geshe studies training).

You are aware of some part of the Madhyamaka tradition, which Tsongkhapa relies upon for this. As you must know then, following the MMK 24:18,

Whatever is dependently co-arisen / That is explained to be emptiness.

Therefore, according to the Madhyamaka, emptiness and paṭicca-samuppāda correlate. (I recommend both the Lam Rim translation committee and Jay Garfield's text on the MMK for further clarification).

In another of his works (three principle aspects of the path), he points out that if karma, interdependence and emptiness appear to conflict in our mind, then we can conclude that our views of emptiness and of karma are faulty.

You have yet to realise the thought of Buddha
As long as the two ideas seem to you disparate:
The appearance of things - infallible dependant arising;
And emptiness – beyond taking any position.

At some point they come together and no longer alternate
Just seeing that dependant arising never fails
Brings realisation that destroys how you hold onto objects
And then your analysis with view is complete.

In addition the appearance prevents the extreme of existence
Emptiness: the extreme of non-existence, and if..
You see how emptiness shows in cause and effect
You'll never be defeated by wrong views.

This gives us one of his tests for correct view: The view of karma is correct when it strengthens one's understanding of emptiness, and at the same time the correct understanding of emptiness strengthens one's understanding of karma. If this is not the case, then the view of one (or both) is mistaken.

The way you describe the solution for this in the Madhyamaka is not correct - it is how some academics described it, within the Gelug - but this isn't a Madhyamaka solution - as you point out, it's an Abhidharma mechanism. Madhyamaka isn't big on metaphysics, for good reason.

I cannot continue at length here - life intervenes. However, there is no contradiction or mistake between karma, emptiness, or paṭicca-samuppāda unless you hold onto mistaken view, in which case they definitely appear to be contradictory - and this is not a new thing - it's been discussed by scholars since at least the 4thC CE.

If one wishes to contribute to the scholarship encompassed by "Buddhism", one must learn - at minimum, Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Then one must study a lot of texts, interacting with living scholars of these traditions.

Again, it's important to recognise the scope of your investigation: If you wish to examine the mechanism of karma, for instance, you must start by differentiating the views held by many different traditions. Even within Tibet (that which I know most - but still not much - about) the mechanism of karma is described many different ways according to the tradition and the textual lineage. When it comes to the details and nuances, it's even harder: Even the different colleges within the universities (eg Gomang/Loseling/Deyang/Shagkor etc of Drepung) each have different interpretations and, within those interpretations, there are the textbooks and commentaries which are updated and revised and edited every decade or so – since the 12th century.

Buddhism is so rich with scholarship of its own that western scholars don't really know how to start addressing it: It's easy enough to find professors of Buddhist studies that mingle source texts from different colleges, universities, schools, traditions, and cultures - but such 'scholarship' is generally bereft of significant value. Peer review falls short because the maturity of Buddhist studies is so incredibly poor that peers can get away with anything. (Some areas, admittedly, are better than others - it might be that some Pali scholarship is pretty good, but I know nothing about that). Likewise, peer review really only 'works' for maths and the sciences, but that's another story.

So, in the end, the question reminds me of the apocryphal story of the journalist and Mahatma Gandhi:

J: What do you think of Western civilisation?

G: I think it would be a good idea.

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What role if any does academic scholarship play in Buddhism?

I can't answer well, but I don't want to 'just leave a comment' instead of answering, so ...

To reference one example, it was nice to see people happily welcoming this answer. It's based on the comparison (by some academic scholars I presume, i.e. at the university of Hamburg) of a sutta with its Chinese equivalent. And the comments to this answer to the same question are interesting too: i.e. various people seem to be aware that the texts may have changed or been misinterpreted over time.

Another example of evident scholarship was this answer, which references this article, Atammayata (The Rebirth of a Lost Word): in that case the word was "recovered" by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (I'm not sure whether you want to exclude someone like him, when you ask about "academic scholarship").

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Scholarship is far more accurate than anything you will encounter, even from accredited teachers, and certainly on-line. Peer review, my friend.

But it will not substitute for a teacher, and you may well end up putting the entirely wrong emphasis on things without one.

However. hostility to academia (like anti tax sentiment) in Buddhism - which is ingrained on-line for some reason - seems just as much about a struggle for ignorance and power, as it is wisdom and practice.

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"I received a phone call from someone who was doing a thesis on using Buddhist teachings and practices in the workplace. He wanted to ask me some questions as part of his thesis. One of the things that bothered me about his questions was that he would ask first about Buddhist teachings and then about Buddhist practices, as if they were two different things. But they’re not. Everything is part of the practice. Even the more abstract and theoretical teachings are meant to be used for pragmatic purposes when appropriate. After all, right view is part of the path. It’s something to do, to develop, to be applied. When it’s done its work, you let it go."

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "The Practice of Right View" https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/Meditations5/Section0018.html

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When a supernova explodes it is seen at a distance in time and space.

SN12.22:1.8: When this exists, that is; due to the arising of this, that arises.

When the supernova ceases, it is not seen at a distance in time and space.

SN12.22:1.9: When this doesn’t exist, that is not; due to the cessation of this, that ceases.

One of the oddest things discovered by mathematics is the Fourier Transform, which illuminates the equivalence between a supernova (impulse function) and and infinite sum of infinite sine waves. This is very real and all those fancy electronic gadgets we all have used are built using this understanding. Today's entire world is built on the mathematical equivalent of when this is that is.

So where does the conflict arise?

The conflict arises in the assumption of identity. It arises from Identity View. It arises from thinking "I am here, not there". And that conflict is addressed directly in the Buddhist practice.

When scholarship starts out with the axiom "I am", it tends to find lots of conflicts in Buddhism. Like Euclid's parallel line postulate, the axiom "I am" is chosen and not a fundamental truth. In Buddhism, we have specifically:

DN34:1.2.11: What one thing should be given up?
DN34:1.2.12: The conceit ‘I am’.

Buddhist scholarship that dispenses with and avoids the "I am" axiom can often be very helpful to Buddhists since the scholars have taken great effort with their research to understand and convey the shared wisdom of our past in a manner that aligns with Buddhist teachings.

Scholarship about Buddhism that asserts the axiom "I am" will, in contrast, often be less useful to Buddhists since it asserts an axiom that is abandoned by Buddhists.

In projective geomety, there are no parallel lines as assumed by Euclid. And projective geometry is used extensively in our modern world.

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