John Peacock is a scholar and Associate Director of The Oxford Mindfulness Centre. His studies of the earliest Buddhist writings have revealed to him a very human Buddha and a very different Buddhism than we know today.
In a conversation with Hokai Sobol, Peacock describes the historical Buddha as a very practical teacher and a radical social reformer. He cites passages of the earliest writings that describe a very human and emotional Buddha that enjoyed satire. He calls the Buddha the “First Psychologist” and relates to him as a teacher who was more interested in practical psychology than philosophy.
This is Part 1 of a 2 part series.
Hokai: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Hokai Sobol hosting the show and I’m delighted to be joined by John Peacock. Thank you, John, for taking the time to join us.
John: That’s fine. Nice of you to invite me.
Hokai: Okay. Now just as a brief introduction to our listeners: John Peacock is both an academic and a Buddhist practitioner for nearly 40 years. He was initially trained in Tibetan Gelugpa tradition in India and subsequently spent time in Sri Lanka studying Theravada. He has lectured in the Buddhist studies at the University of Bristol. But at present he’s associate director of Oxford Mindfulness Center and teaches on the masters of studies program in MBCT at Oxford University. He has been teaching meditation for over 25 years and is a Gaia House guiding teacher. So John let us plunge together into the interview.
Hokai: You have been focusing on early Buddhism lately very much.
John: That’s right. Yes, really the focus on both my practice and academic work has been looking at early Buddhism over quite a number of years now, probably about the last 15 years overall.
Hokai: Okay. So how would you define the early teachings or the early Buddhism? What are we talking about? Is it just a specific historical period or is it also a specific layer of teachings at their very early stage of development.
John: It’s in a sense it’s both because it’s historical period in a sense it is what I called pre-sectarian Buddhism.
John: It’s the Buddhism that’s prior to the growth of any of the traditions that we know and certainly prior to the growth of what many consider to be the earliest tradition, but isn’t actually really quite the case, which is Theravada. So we’re looking at a strata which is post the Buddha’s death but prior probably to the second Buddhist council which occurs approximately sort of 60 to 100 years after the Buddha’s death.
Hokai: Okay. So probably I would suppose that what we find there is significantly different than any of the codified versions of the teaching that developed later on. But we also find a different Buddha, right?
John: Yes. The hunting bug for me that’s one of the key factors we find a historical figure. We find somebody who walked and taught and lived and breathed as opposed to a figure head. And certainly anything that’s become associated with later Buddhism where the Buddha has become much deified in a sense.
Hokai: Okay. So first of all, a more personal question this comes up frequently for me when I study the scriptures. How reliable are Buddhist scripture as historical documents even if we look just at the Pali Canon.
John: Okay. Let’s reserve our focus for the Pali Canon because that’s really as I say represents in many ways the documentary evidence of the early Buddhism.
John: What we got is obviously something which is grown up over quite a number of years and it’s something which is not written down so approximately 300 to 400 years after the Buddha’s death. So it’s primarily an oral tradition. Things are being codified. Things are being systematized in a particular way to make them in a sense transferable knowledge to others. So in terms of the historical veracity of this material some of it I think is very very old. You got certain portions of the Canon which I think most scholars these days appreciate as being some of the oldest part of the Canon and probably very very close to what Buddha actually taught.
Hokai: Would you say its Sutta-Nipata and text like that.
John: It’s most definitely the Sutta-Nipata. Sutta-Nipata is one of the oldest but not the whole text. There are certain texts within the Sutta-Nipata. There’s the Atthakavagga for example the section of eights which is considered to be very old and the Khaggavisāna-sutta which is the one of the rhinoceros horn. Now these are very very ancient. The meters that are used are very very old in them because, as you probably know, these are poetic forms. So this is a very old strata of the Canon. Something that’s come to the fore very much over the last 5 years or so is obviously sutta which I think is usually translated as “the noble search sutta” which is in the middle length discourses, the Āneñjasappāya Sutta. That also looks to me very old because it’s Buddha giving personal information about his training.
Hokai: Okay. Good. But I would guess there are also extra canonical sources like perhaps a text of other Indian traditions and also certain archaeological findings that help us in creating a more reliable picture?
John: It is. It’s a very mixed picture because you’re having to use an awful lot of different forms of evidence to actually substantiate what was going on in India at this period. Indians have never been particularly interested in history in a western sense. They got no figure within say for example Indian literature like Herodotus in the Greeks. They’ve got nobody who is in a sense the founder of a historical tradition. So we’re using for example epigraphical evidence of a statutory and things being found. Obviously [inaudible] which are there and also the theological evidence coming out of the text in the early study of the languages.
Hokai: Okay. Perfect.
John: It’s used quite a lot of trying to create a picture of what was actually going on in the Buddhist time.
Hokai: Okay. So mostly it’s a free flowing picture that is yet to be found in some precise detail, right?
John: It is. In many ways with Buddhist studies, in this sense, is in its infancy because what was going on. I did a biblical study in the 19th century where we’re just about getting there.
Hokai: Okay. Good. So going down to the bone. What is early Buddhism? What do we find there? What are the main features?
John: Okay. What do we find there? Obviously, you’re referring back to what I said a few minutes ago which is we find a historical Buddha. We find somebody who is flesh and blood.
John: Somebody who is not deified. Somebody who is far distant from the visions you get in later Mahayana Buddhism. You know he gets ill. He has a sense of humor. He does all the sort of things you’d expect from a teacher. He changes his mind as well.
Hokai: Okay. Yes.
John: At times. The teaching as you can see if you plow your way through the Canon evolved. They’re not chronological but you can see an evolution of the teaching in the way that he’s describing it. In fact from the early text that we refer to early on the Sutta-Nipata, what we find is something completely un-systematized. It’s a very interesting text. Like for example you go to that text, you look in it, and some of the things that you’d expect to see in there because they’re so Buddhist in a sense like the Noble Truth and Tibetan origination, none of those are there, certainly not in the oldest portion.
Hokai: Yes. Yes.
John: What you find instead for example in the Parayana Vagga, which is one of the other oldest portions of it, is an intense dialogue about meditation in comparison with the Brahmanical tradition of the time.
John: So he’s intensely engaging with questions that’s being asked by meditators from other traditions and distinguishing what’s going on in Buddhist meditation from what’s going on in what later becomes Vedantic tradition. Certainly that’s based on the [inaudible]. So we’re getting a very different picture. Also that text gives us a pre-settled Buddhism and there are no monasteries.
John: And in fact I always find it very amusing which is actually in the Khaggavisāna-sutta which is this rhinoceros sutra. It says here monks shouldn’t even travel together. They’re just like bracelets on a woman’s wrist they jangle.
John: You know so it’s very much a solitary mendicant tradition at this period.
Hokai: So I would guess also that at this period there are a lot of divergent versions of what arises also among the monks, right?
John: Well there are because there’s the attempt by some of the followers to kind of bring what the Buddha’s teaching back in line with Brahmanical teaching. We find often the Buddha criticizing some of his monks. He said “oh misguided man. This is not what I teach.” So you find this attempt to stir it back to this traditionalism which the Buddha is trying to break away from. He’s actually trying to break away from religion at this stage.
Hokai: So we could say that then the Buddha was very much revolutionary of sorts, at least a radical philosophical and spiritual teacher.
John: Yes. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in agreeing with that because the Buddha is far more radical in the picture we get of him through these early texts. He’s far more radical than for example the figure who received in later Buddhism who in some ways has been slightly tamed and traditionalized and made religious again. Now when we look at these early text, one of the big things I’m sure you’re aware of this, one of the things we find this is a social critic.
There’s this intense engagement with his own society whereby he is even using language in a completely different way, language which is familiar to all these people and turning it on its head.
Hokai: This sounds very important because we know that later on in the history of Buddhism the dharma was often used a social reinforcement.
John: That’s right.
Hokai: As a conventional system of reinforcing power and reinforcing political order. And here we find the founder actually questioning the basis of Indian society of that time, right?
John: That’s right. It’s a very very radical engagement with it and in many ways the middle way, the Buddha teachings, could be described as a middle way between two major religious traditions. And it’s a middle way between Brahmanism which is associated around the household life, and the middle way steering itself away from Jainism as well which is extremely asceticly base.
Hokai: This leads me to another question which seems obvious. We often focus on the Buddha as a spiritual and philosophical figure. But it would seem that he was also very much interested in organizing a different kind of impetus in social terms and also of being very aware of how important it was to organize a different kind of community?
John: Yes, that’s very much the case. I mean if we look for example the structure, the early structure of the sangha as seen in the Vinaya, the six books of Vinaya. What we found in the Vinaya is a society which is structured around republicanism
John: Very much the sort of inheritance the Buddha would have had from his early upbringing. Because in a way he was brought up in a [inaudible] would have been a very much a tribal republican basis for government. So there’s no central head at all. Again this has changed in the history of Buddhism because in Thailand now we have Sangharaja head of the sangha. Whereas early Buddhism again you do not have a head. It’s basically if we take Theravada it’s a doctrine of the elders. So the society the Buddha is creating around his monks, his very very reflective how he wants to see society run.
Hokai: Okay. So tell us more about the Buddha, about the human personality. What kind of man do we find?
John: What kind of man do we find? I think we find somebody who is intensely engaged with society, somebody who is primarily an ethicist as well as a social reformer. I think the two go hand in hand. So he’s not a religious leader in that sense of the way that we talk about spiritual teachers in the modern world. He’s somebody who is deeply deeply concerned about inequities in his society. He’s deeply concerned about bringing ethics to the forefront of human concerns. Everything that he teaches is practical. Going back to your very early question about what is early Buddhism. It’s very practical. It’s not philosophical. It’s actually if you want to kind of use a philosophical terms the Buddha is much more an epistemologist. He’s much more interested in knowledge and how things work than he ever is an ontologist.
John: He’s not interested in whether something is real in the big sense of you know capital R. What he’s interested in is how things work and how if you like human beings manage to get themselves into the mess they do.
Hokai: And how to take themselves out.
John: That’s right. One of the claims I often make, particularly in Oxford these days teaching primarily people like clinical psychologist and psychiatrist, is the Buddha is the first psychologist. He’s deeply interested in the mind and how the mind works and you’ve only got to go to the opening lines of the Dhammapada you know mind the four honorable things. So dependant on how that mind is, depends on how we view the world and the creation of any of the problems we have or the lessening of them.
Hokai: Okay. That sounds very very useful. Now you were mentioning humor.
Hokai: That is also absent from the Buddhist tradition. [laughter]
John: The problem with tradition. [laughter]
Hokai: Apart yes from it. But even as we practice it these days humor is often as seen as something weird.
Hokai: Now give us some examples of Buddha’s humor.
John: Okay. Let me give you one. You probably know and I’m not going to mention my words here. Buddha is an atheist.
John: People like to fudge it and say he’s a non-theist. I don’t think so. I think he’s an atheist.
John: He’s got no time for a creator God whatsoever. And a very famous sutta which is again translated the threefold knowledge the Tevijja sutta.
Hokai: Tevijja. Yeah.
John: Which is in the long discourses. We find I think a typical example of satire and parody. If you like some of the humorous tropes that he uses is very much satirical. So we find an example there when he’s talking about a creator god and saying isn’t it like this if we’re looking for a creator god. Isn’t it like being in love with the most beautiful girl in the world and somebody says to you well do you know her name. And you go no. Do you know where she lives? And then you answer no. Do you know what her relatives are called? No. You have a whole list of questions like this and just at the end of this and don’t you think somebody who is saying these things, don’t they turn out to be rather stupid. [laughter] You know so he’s equating this with a futile search for something you can’t possibly know. And there are many examples like that where the Buddha is using satire. He’s often actually parodying things within again the early Indian systems for example, elements of the [inaudible] and elements of the [inaudible]. We find parody very much the forefront. And one thing, not something I said but something the scholar Richard Goldman said which is “you know the jokes are probably very genuine because actually jokes are not made by committee. They’re individual very much and so when we look and find this humor within the text. If you’re talking about the historical Buddha we probably got something very close to what he said.
Hokai: Good. Good. Okay. So on the other hand can we say something about Buddha’s character.
John: Again this takes quite a deep engagement with the early text to discover this. But when you start to look these early text and primarily obviously the Pali Canon, what you find is somebody, again Sutta-Nipata, somebody who’s telling you about the impetus for their own journey. Again this is in the Atthakavagga. It’s in the section of the eight in the Atthakavagga where he’s saying I look around and I see people. He says basically like fish in shallow water flopping around. He sees enmity. He says I look for somewhere safe to be in this world with all this enmity with this sort of kind of agitation that’s there in the world and I find no place that I can call home. And then he says, and I think this is a very powerful passage and I’m recommending any of your listeners to actually go to this passage and have a look at it, because he says and then I look at people and I see buried in their hearts a barb like a fish hook. And he said it’s this, and of course this is a synonym for craving that he’s talking about.
Hokai: Yeah. Yeah.
John: He says when this is removed that the running around and exhaustion that inevitably accompanies all the running around, ceases. And what I always find when I’m reading, in fact I was doing this last weekend, I was reading this passage to a group. You can get a really tangible sense of somebody who is really revealing the impetus behind their own journey. The initial, the thing that kick starts them into wanting to go into this journey, that we find somebody who is deeply deeply concerned about the enmity in the world. He’s deeply concerned about the inequities that he finds within the world and he redefines the notion of what a Brahman is. He’s considered to be the top dog of Indian society. We find, we talked already, we find somebody who is humorous. Somebody who can get angry at times. We find that and there’s this particular sutta in the middle length of discourse where for example the Buddha says sometimes I have to speak harshly. It’s actually on the discourse of right speech and normally of course one of the images that has come down to the Buddha as a figure is of course somebody who is always deeply deeply speaking compassionately. Now that might be the case but it doesn’t necessarily equate with softly.
Hokai: Yes, yes, exactly. So there is something very personal and very human also at the basis of his impetus.
John: That’s right. That’s one of the things I find that’s so heartening about looking at this early material which I encourage people to go and look for themselves, is that you do find something, somebody in a sense that you can identify with much much more readily than this titanic figure that we often see in later Buddhism.
Hokai: Yes and also find a new sort of regard and respect, right?
John: Absolutely. That’s certainly the case for myself, you know, I have a deep deep respect for this person. I’d recently was conducting a tricycle tour around India and actually when I look at the enormous distance as he walked between some of these sites which are associated with his life and he was traversing back and forth. And he was doing this until his 80s.
John: That’s another aspect that really resonates with myself anyway. That for example he is somebody who gets sick. He does get old and he does die. And towards the end of his life he’s even joking about his decrepitude. He’s saying in the [inaudible] again in the long discourses he’s saying that the [inaudible] is just like an old cart. He can only be kept going each day by being strapped up. So he’s actually trying to make everybody aware of the human condition. I think this is one of the things for me that’s so powerful about early Buddhism. It’s not about becoming something like some kind of superman; it’s becoming the owner of the human condition and really confronting living that humanity.