John Peacock talking about the buddha's world
John Peacock © 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 Peacock—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. Peacock, who does not shy away from controversy, argues that in some very important ways, later Buddhist schools depart from early core teachings.

Peacock 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, Peacock 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, Peacock 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 Peacock 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.

Can you give an example? A number of examples are scattered throughout the Pali Canon. In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha subverts the notion of literal animal sacrifice by claiming that true sacrifice is the performance of generosity, taking refuge or adhering to the five precepts. In another instance, in the Sigalaka Sutta, the Buddha comes across a young Brahmin named Sigalaka ritualistically paying homage to the six directions as a way of expressing honor, sacredness, and reverence. During the discourse the Buddha, as in the previous example, gets the Brahmin to see that the true way to express these things is through adherence to the precepts and generally behaving in an ethical manner. The Buddha in both cases reveals his practical bias. He does not concern himself with what he considers empty and pointless ritual. And he demonstrates his rhetorical brilliance by using the very customs and language of the dominant culture he critiques to subvert it.

Can you give an example of how he does that? There’s hardly a term the Buddha uses that’s not actually derived from a pre-Buddhist context. The Buddha literally takes the religious language of the Brahmins and the Jains and deconstructs and redefines it for his own purposes. Basically, he’s hijacking the language and customs of the dominant religions—whether that of the ascetic Jains, the ritualistic Brahmins, or the philosophers and mystics of the Upanishads—to introduce an entirely new body of ideas. Take, for instance, the three ritual household fires of the Indian home. In Buddhism, they are no longer the sacred fires one must keep continuously lit in order to maintain cosmic and social order; rather, they become the fires of anger, greed, and delusion—the “three poisons” we are enjoined to extinguish. Upadana, or the “fuel” used to keep the fires burning, becomes in Buddhism the stuff that fuels samsara, the world of suffering, that is, “attachment” or “clinging.”

So his method was to critique the existing culture of the time by turning the language of that culture on itself? That’s exactly right. He very cleverly hijacks virtually all of their language —and not just that of the Brahmanical culture but also that of the Jains. For example, take a term like asava. For the Jains the term means “influx” and refers to that which weighs down the soul and keeps it bound to the cycle of rebirth. However, for the Buddha the term has the connotation of something that flows out of us, namely, ignorance, sensual desire, and craving for continued existence. It is these things, from the Buddha’s point of view, that keep the individual bound to samsara.

According to the British scholar Richard Gombrich, the Buddhist Middle Way is in fact the middle way between highly materialistic Brahmanism and excessively ascetic Jainism. It’s not just asceticism in general that the Buddha is reacting to, it’s the extreme asceticism primarily associated with the Jains; and likewise, the household life and the strict and materialistic rituals of the Brahmins. Somewhere in between the two lies the Middle Way of the Buddha’s teachings.

What Brahmanism and the Upanishads had in common with Jainism was a belief in an eternal soul, while the Buddha’s universal tenets of anatta and anicca—“not-self” and “impermanence”—are a radical rejection of this belief. Can you say something about this? All three of those Indian traditions speak of an unchanging self or soul. The Buddha’s teaching is highly radical in its break with essentialist thinking, which usually conceives of the “real” as that which does not change. The Buddha’s view was that absolutely everything was changing and therefore the self was not exempt. As a result, Buddhist thinking conceives of the self as process rather than as a fixed and immutable essence.

How, then, would you look at the Brahmanical goal or the Upanishadic goal of religious activity versus the Buddhist goal? The goal of Buddhist practice can be seen as radically different from that of Brahmanical or Upanishadic thought. Brahmanical thought had an excessive emphasis on ritualism and hierarchy focused on the maintenance of order both human and divine. And the Upanishads concentrated on the realization of the lack of differentiation between brahman and atman—the essence of all things and the individual self.

The Buddha is not looking outside of ourselves for anything, for any supports. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta he instructs us to be lamps unto ourselves and insists that everything we need to know can be found within “this fathom-long carcass.” This latter suggestion is the Buddha once again alluding to Brahmanical beliefs, one in which the entire cosmos, and everything contained within it, is represented in the form of the male body. In fact, this could be seen as a direct reference to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where it is claimed that in the beginning the whole world was the self in the shape of a person. However, the Buddha is really not looking to external elements, whether metaphysical or sacrificial, as a way of life. His primary focus is on our internal experience and ethical activity. This is a real break from Brahmanical culture.

Brahmanical culture did not have an ethical focus? The focus for Brahmanical culture was duty, and again, the proper performance of ritual. The Buddha’s focus was volition, intentional motivation. Everything hangs on motivation and understanding as clearly as possible the individual’s own motivation underlying all action. For the Brahmin, karma was created by how one performed one’s duties and executed ritual; for the Buddha, intention drove karma. The Brahmins never take the step into ethics that the Buddha did.

While Brahmanical culture exhibited a literalist bent—ritual had to be executed just to fuel nature’s processes both above and below—in the thought of the Upanishads we find a philosophy that is as sophisticated as any. What would be a fundamental distinction between it and the Buddha’s method of inquiry at the time? I distinguish the two traditions by the way they ask a question. One way is metaphysical, which is precisely what the Buddha rejects: It is to ask what something is. Running throughout the Upanishads is the question, What is the self? And what is the true nature of that self? And you basically end up with an essentialist answer to that question: Atman is the universally abiding and unchanging self that underlies and sustains all things; atman is the real self.

It’s like asking if there a God or not. It leads you into the same essentialist trap. It does. By asking what is the nature of anything, you’re going to end up an essentialist if you answer the question. I make a comparison to Socrates in ancient Greek society. Socrates asks, “What is the good?” or “What is justice?” You might answer with an example, and Socrates will reply, “You’ve just given me an example. You haven’t told me what it is, what makes this example of the good or of justice good or just.

So Socrates, too, in the same way, is asking for essence.
Yes, and because he is ethically inclined, he asks, what is the good? Plato then takes it further, to the metaphysical: The essence of the good exists in the realm of the ideal, the realm of forms. The rest, the world of phenomena, is simply an imitation of the real thing, the essential thing that abides in an unchanging metaphysical reality.

John Peacock posing with a Buddha statue for interview about the Buddha's world
© David Crowley

What is the Buddhist answer to metaphysical inquiry, then? The Buddha’s method is a phenomenological one. How does something appear, how does this thing that we call the self operate? He’s not asking, Is there a self or is there not a self? One possible answer is deterministic and eternalistic, and the other, nihilistic. So the Buddha is asking not so much what as how.

I should add that I feel “not-self”—anatta—is actually a much-misunderstood teaching. The Buddha is not saying that there is no self, which is an idea that I think in a Western context can be extremely dangerous.

Why? Because it’s nihilistic. The Buddha himself says it’s better to teach self than to teach annihilationism; given the choice, it’s better to teach that there is something because this leads at least to some kind of ethical responsibility. I think in our Western culture sometimes people have a very fragile notion of what the self is anyway, so to come along and tell them there’s no self could very destructive.

So from a phenomenological point of view, an early Buddhist point of view, how would “not self”—the term you prefer—be distinguished from “no-self”? It’s basically a question of the phenomenon that we are labeling “self.” What we can ask is: How does it operate? How does it work? The most primary analysis anyone gives in Buddhism is to describe the self in terms of the five khandhas—the “heaps,” or “aggregates,” in Pali—the components of self. Each heap, or aggregate, is a process—that is, it is not fixed but is changing. In order for self to arise, it must include form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. It is upon these five processes that the label of self is affixed. To take a couple of examples: Form, which includes all of the physical processes of the individual, is not-self because it is not under our control. Likewise, perception, which includes all our faculties of discrimination, together with the capacity of memory, is also not-self. This is because memory is extremely partial, in that we may remember events from many years ago but not recall what we did yesterday. With the onset of degenerative brain disease, our capacity to remember becomes severely impaired, with the result that we may even forget who we are! Similar arguments apply to the other khandhas. The self, therefore, according to this view, exists as a set of interrelated processes rather than as an unchanging thing; so rather than try to find an essence, the Buddha chooses to simply describe a phenomenon, avoiding the essentialist trap.

The Buddha describes the self as a composite of the khandhas; how does he describe the world of which that self is a part? Our everyday world of suffering—samsara—is described in terms of the mechanism that drives it: dependent origination (paticcasamuppada, in Pali), which is depicted most commonly as the Wheel of Life.

How was this different from prevailing ideas of the Buddha’s day? Well, take the Upanishads. Basically, the Buddha’s hijacking the language again. Ultimately, they all come down to the idea that really everything is dependent on something that’s outside of time and space: brahman. This direction of thought later becomes Advaita Vedanta—the nondual school. Advaita is basically an interpretation of the Upanishads offered by the Hindu thinker Shankara. In his view, brahman and atman are essentially the same thing—the term advaita literally means “not-two.” The pluralistic world offered up to perception, according to Shankara, is ultimately an illusion (maya). Only one thing really exists, and that is brahman; and brahmancannot depend on anything else for existence and also cannot change. But for the Buddha, there is nothing that arises ex nihilo, out of nothing. Everything arises out of previous causes and conditions, and the mechanism for this is dependent origination: out of this, that arises. This ceasing, that ceases. You’ve got this complex sense of, again, phenomenology, which is, the Buddha explained, our world with its predominant feeling tone: dukkha, suffering. However, dukkha also arises out of causes and conditions, and with the discernment of the causes and their elimination, dukkha will cease. And that is Buddhism’s fundamental psychological element.

You’ve suggested in some of your lectures that there is a strong resistance to Buddhist teachings of not-self even within the Buddhist traditions themselves, that there is sometimes an irresistible temptation to essentialize phenomena. Or, as you might say, to “self.” Where do you see this impulse within Buddhism?I see it in the formation of certain Mahayana ideas, particularly later ideas, when, for example, Buddhism arrives in China, and in Tibet. In some cases I see them almost smuggling the atman in through the back door somehow. For example, if you talk about Cittamatra philosophy, then you’re talking about the alaya vijnana, or “store of consciousness.” In some interpretations this sounds very much like a self. When you talk about, say, rigpa, the notion of pristine awareness—awareness without an object, the only true knower—it sounds very much like Advaita, which defines brahman as pure consciousness and the only knower.

Might this appear already in the Theravada tradition, this tendency? I think there can be a tendency in the Theravada to make things more orthodox, of making Buddhism much more doctrinal. This takes the form of a certain literalism about the teachings, the interpretation of metaphors in a literal manner, for example. Certain ideas get solidified, as can happen with an idea like rebirth.

What do you mean by “get solidified”? What is the danger of taking the teachings literally? I’m inclined to wonder how, in a Western context, we can make the best pragmatic use of the Buddha’s ideas, understanding them as something more than a doctrinal staple. According to many, for instance, you have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist. But there’s a tension here: Buddha exhorts us to investigate, yet rebirth is quite clearly something we can’t investigate. So what might it mean outside of its literal truth? How might we apply the ideas in a practical and meaningful way that makes our lives better and helps us to see things more clearly as they are? It is this practical dimension, based on both a historical and a phenomenological approach to the teachings, that I bring to my dharma teaching. This approach does not mean ignoring what the traditions say; it means examining what they have to say in the light of a close reading of the texts. We have to remember that the historical forms of Buddhism have all become “traditions,” and that these traditions, with their viewpoints, have often gone unquestioned. Such unquestioning acceptance seems to me diminish the challenging nature and dynamism of the Buddha’s teaching.