OCBS DIRI Lecture Series 2023

OCBS DIRI Lecture Series

Suicide, Meditation and Anti-realism: Three Problems in the Study of Early Buddhism

Dr Alexander Wynne

This lecture series will consider three apparently distinct problems in the study of early Buddhism: one ethical (suicide), one spiritual (meditation) and one metaphysical (anti-realism). By bringing out underlying connections and discontinuities between these subjects, the lectures will show how early Buddhism was decisively shaped by two forces: an ascetic spirituality based on the practice of mindfulness, and rooted in metaphysical anti-realism; and a heterodox Brahminic tradition of renunciation, stemming from the early Upaniṣads, and transmitting a tradition of calm meditation. Understanding early Buddhism in its historical context, and trying to draw out the implicit meaning of obscure canonical Suttas, these lectures will present the nascent Buddhist movement afresh as a creative fusion of two distinct streams of speculation.

1. Suicide (October 24th)

Separate Pali Suttas, all with parallels in the Chinese Tipiṭaka, record the suicides of three bhikkhus: Channa, Vakkali and Godhika. These texts have little to say about the ethical problem of suicide, and are in fact deeply ambiguous: two treat Channa and Vakkali more or less as unenlightened disciples of the Buddha, whereas the account of Godhika’s suicide expresses unorthodox ideas about meditation and final liberation. This lecture will focus on the source of Godhika’s ideas and the likely influence it exerted on the accounts of of Channa’s and Vakkali’s suicides.

2. Meditation (October 31st)

Dr Alexander Wynne

In his famous article ‘Musīla et Nārada: le chemin du nirvāṇa’ (1937), Louis de La Vallée Poussin claimed that different understandings of the Buddhist path are presented in the canonical Suttas. The notion of an ancient debate, between the proponents of calm and insight, has been the subject of academic disagreement ever since. This lecture will argue that there was indeed a debate, and that it was provoked, at least in part, by an influx of non-Buddhist ideas and practices during the 4th century BC, ideas which motivated Godhika’s suicide.

3. Anti-realism (November 7th)

Dr Alexander Wynne

Within the Pali canon, two short collections of the Khuddaka Nikāya – the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga – stand out for their high antiquity and apparently unorthodox doctrinal content. Although their unusual teachings have attracted some attention – e.g. Luis O. Gómez, ‘Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli Canon’ (1976); Grace G. Burford, Desire, Death and Goodness (1991) – contemporary Buddhist Studies has not built on them. This lecture will extend the analyses of Gómez and Burford, by arguing that the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga belong to a broader set of canonical teachings, which assume metaphysical anti-realism and teach mindfulness as the soteriological method.

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