© David Crowley
© David Crowley

The teachings of the Buddha have been variously understood by scholars, monks, and laypeople over the centuries. But what was it that the Buddha actually taught? While this remains an open and oft-debated question, scholar John Peacocke—in his work as both an academic and a dharma teacher—asserts that by looking to the history, language, and rich philosophical environment of the Buddha’s day we can uncover what is most distinctive and revolutionary about his teachings. Peacocke, who does not shy away from controversy, argues that in some very important ways, later Buddhist schools depart from early core teachings.

Peacocke has been practicing Buddhism since 1970. He was first exposed to Buddhism at monasteries in South India, where he ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. He later studied in Sri Lanka, where Theravada Buddhism has flourished for centuries. Returning to lay life and his native England, Peacocke went on to receive his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies at the University of Warwick. He currently lectures on Buddhist and Hindu thought at the University of Bristol and next year will begin teaching at the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy Master of Studies program at Oxford University. A former director of the Sharpham Centre for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England, Peacocke also serves on the teaching council at nearby Gaia House, a retreat center offering instruction in a variety of Buddhist traditions. He now teaches and practices in the Vipassana tradition.

Tricycle editor James Shaheen visited with Peacocke near Bristol University in April to discuss what the language of the early Pali and Sanskrit texts tells us about Buddhism today.

To what sort of world was the Buddha introducing his teachings? Fifth-century BCE India witnessed a philosophically rich period, and a time of social, political, and cultural upheaval. It is during this period that we see the transition from tribal republics (ganasanghas) to a centralized power structure presided over by a monarch. The Buddha’s teaching—for example, in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta—is situated within just such a context. At the opening of the sutta we see an emissary of King Ajatasattu, the king of Magadha, attempting to obtain information from the Buddha in order to vanquish the Vajjian federation. Even the Sakyas (the Buddha’s tribe) were not immune from such territorial aggrandizement; they were defeated by the son of King Pasenadi during the Buddha’s own lifetime. There were also many competing religious traditions at the time, and in the early Pali canon, in the Long Discourses of the Buddha (Brahmajala Sutta), we find descriptions of sixty-two types of philosophies. These are considered by the Buddha to be sixty-two instances of wrong view. That’s the world of ideas the Buddha is responding to.

What were the dominant beliefs of the time? The Buddha was responding to two primary strands of thought. You have to bear in mind, though, that there was no such thing as Hinduism as we know it today. Rather, you had the dominant Brahmanical culture—Brahmanism—which was primarily a sacrificial religion, along with the breakaway Upanishadic culture that arose out of it and was eventually reincorporated into the Brahmanical worldview, and you had ascetic Jainism.

Can you say something first about Brahmanism? Brahmanism dealt primarily with propitiating the gods, who were believed to maintain the cosmic order. Everything was believed to be ordered and regulated and it was through sacrifices to the gods that this order was maintained. Through meticulously executed ritual, the Brahmans induced the gods to do everything from ensuring predictable planetary orbits and regular seasons to sustaining the strictly hierarchical social order characteristic of the time. The three classes of Veda (Rig, Sama, and Yajur), which served as the Brahmanical culture’s literary base, are essentially instructions for properly performing rituals that will perpetuate what was thought to be the natural order of things. The defining concept of the Vedas is the notion of cosmic order, rita. So Buddhist thought is in part a reaction to a purely sacrificial and highly ritualistic culture. In the early canon you often find critical mention of ritual.

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