- Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India
For over twenty years now, Gregory Schopen has prolifically been producing articles on the archaeology, epigraphy, and texts that pertain to Indian Buddhist monasticism. Schopen's treatment of this material has been extremely insightful and original, and his work has been instrumental in overturning many of the cherished convictions that had long constituted the "received wisdom" of Buddhist studies. In particular, his articles have prompted significant revision in thought regarding the development of Mahāyāna and regarding the role of the monastic religious in Buddhist cultic life.
With the publication of this collection of Schopen's essays, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India (the first of two such volumes, according to the Preface by Donald Lopez), Schopen's work stands to receive a wider hearing, and so to extend its already significant influence in the field of Buddhist studies. This is as it should be; for all scholars in the field are very much in Schopen's debt for the illuminating interpretations and conclusions that he has distilled from monumental amounts of epigraphical data. While Schopen has devoted care to the edition, translation, and interpretation of manuscript remains from Gilgit (chiefly, the Vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivādins), his most characteristic and original interpretations have been of the kind of "donative inscriptions" attached to the material remains of Indian Buddhist cultic life—a task that requires, among other things, a rare expertise across the range of Middle Indic dialects. In deploying such expertise, Schopen has presented compelling evidence, for example, that it was in fact monks and nuns who sponsored the kinds of practices typically associated with the rise of Mahāyāna—a conclusion that counters the long-unchallenged view that it was Buddhist laypeople who initiated this movement. It would be good indeed if such conclusions, as well as the exemplary scholarship that warrants them, were to have influence in proportion to their originality and importance.
Still, it must be said that the presentation of the essays collected in this volume also reveals one important problem, and it is to be hoped that this feature does not become entrenched as part of Schopen's influence. For particularly when reading these essays all at once, one is struck by the recurrent statement of a specious dichotomy between what religious people "actually did," and what canonical texts say they should have done. Overcorrecting the biases of his philological predecessors, Schopen insists on this dichotomy in a way, it seems to me, that reflects a problematic view of how canonical texts must have been used—a view according to [End Page 620] which, if attested behavior contradicts such texts, they must simply not have been used.
The influential essay "Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism: The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit" (reprinted as chapter 2 of this volume) clearly exemplifies the pattern of Schopen's work. He starts by arguing (contra the presupposition of many of his predecessors) that there is little basis for taking the Pāli canon as reflecting anything like the state of practice at an early point in history. He then goes on to show (on the basis of donative inscriptions that are much more reliably datable indicators of what was happening on the ground) that, contrary to what the "canon" would lead us to expect, it was in fact chiefly monks and nuns who sponsored the production of cultic images. This evidence calls for the recognition that "from its first appearance in inscriptions, the Mahāyāna was a monk-dominated movement" (p. 32); that "not only was the image cult overwhelmingly a monastic concern, it was also, on the basis of the available information, a monastically initiated cult" (p. 32); and that, "All of . . . [the] monks [involved] were doctrinal specialists...