Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) 189-193
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Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth-Century Lankan Monastic Culture . By Anne M. Blackburn. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. x + 241 pp.
Buddhist Learning is an important study of the emergence of the Siyam Nikaya (monastic order) in eighteenth-century Kandy, Sri Lanka's last Buddhist kingdom (which fell to the British only in 1815). Blackburn focuses on educational institutions in her account, but frames it also to address larger issues in the study of Buddhist and non-Buddhist texts and history.
An introductory chapter sets forth Blackburn's three central arguments (4): colonial and postcolonial scholarly constructions of Sri Lankan Buddhist "tradition" obscure the eighteenth-century phenomena that she reconstructs; the idea of "textual communities," developed in dialogue with contemporary scholarship on medieval European Christianity, provides a useful tool for analyzing those phenomena; [End Page 189] thus analyzed, the early Siyam Nikaya turns out to represent an innovative "reformulation" of Sri Lankan Buddhism, made possible by the establishment of the order itself, its systematization of monastic education, and the development of a bilingual commentarial genre for use within that system.
Chapter 2 provides nonspecialists "at least a glimpse of the larger social context in which the emerging Siyam Nikaya participated" (23), with brief sketches of Sri Lankan Buddhist history, the structure and politics of the Kandyan court, the organization of monasticism prior to the rise of the Siyam Nikaya, and the presence of non-Buddhist religious leaders in Kandyan society. Chapter 3 begins with a discussion of Sri Lankan monastic education prior to 1730, then analyzes three stages in the emergence of distinctive Siyam Nikaya educational institutions (the early career of founder Valivita Saranamkara [1698-1778]; the late 1730s creation of a prototypical educational institution at Niyamakanda; and the 1753 importation of higher ordination [ upasampada ] from Thailand/formal establishment of the Siyam Nikaya, respectively), the history of royal patronage of these institutions, their new curriculum, its implementation and administration, its impact on monastic identity and lay-monastic relations, and the relationship of monastic erudition to prestige and patronage.
Chapter 4 surveys Siyam Nikaya histories to argue that the order's rise was attended by "an innovative discourse on monasticism" that bolstered its authority by depicting its education-based interpretation of monastic virtue as "natural and desirable Buddhist practice" (105). Though these histories employed the rhetorical trope of decline and revival, their emphasis on Buddhist learning "signals a moment of profound change in Lankan Buddhism" (76-77), because they provided a charter for the new Nikaya while creating a perception that Siyam Nikaya monks practiced the best form of Buddhist monasticism. When imbibed by members of the royal court, this assured these monks steady patronage and prestige over their rivals, called ganinnanses, whom they directly and indirectly attacked. Chapter 5 zeroes in on Saranamkara and his Sararthadipani, a bilingual (Sinhala and Pali) commentary on the "four recitation sections" (catubhanavara) of protective (paritta) texts in Pali. This monumental work and the genre of bilingual commentaries (called sutra sannayas ) that it inspired, Blackburn maintains, were central to Saranamkara's claim to authority and created a distinctive monastic identity for Siyam Nikaya monks. Through close analysis of selected passages from Sararthadipani, Blackburn reveals the inner workings of bilingual commentary, particularly insofar as it allowed Saranamkara and his disciples to demonstrate their proper command of the classic Pali texts.
In chapter 6 Blackburn argues that the sutra sannayas produced "a new Buddhist textual community" united in its reading and/or hearing of them. Exploring the ways in which Sararthadipani and the other sutra sannayas "constrained" readers to accept Saranamkara's vision of proper monasticism (such as direct instructions to readers and rhetorical structures), but recognizing that they also left open (in their use of simile, metaphor, and illustrative stories) the possibility of "less constrained" and "resistant" readings, Blackburn suggests that the genre extended the Siyam Nikaya's program beyond the small circle of Saranamkara's disciples to transform Sri Lankan monasticism [End Page 190] more generally. Moreover, she argues that given...