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  • Speaking For Buddhas: Scriptural Commentary in Indian Buddhism by Richard F. Nance
  • Maria Heim
Speaking For Buddhas: Scriptural Commentary in Indian Buddhism. By Richard F. Nance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Pp. 298. isbn 978-0-231-15230-3.

In Speaking for Buddhas: Scriptural Commentary in Indian Buddhism, Richard Nance offers the first book-length treatment of the interpretive models and principles guiding a large body of commentarial literature produced by Indian Mahāyāna Buddhists in the second half of the first millennium in northern India. He charts the conventions, protocols, and ideals these authors invoked in their efforts to “speak” for Buddhas as they wrote commentaries on sūtra, vinaya, and abhidharma texts. He is concerned less with outlining the formal lexical and syntactic principles of Buddhist scholasticism, and more with the normative and rhetorical assumptions guiding exegetical practice. He shows that Indian Buddhist authors were preoccupied with questions about the nature of scripture and commentary as complex discursive events, as they explored the qualities of Buddhas’ utterances and what it could mean to speak for and about them. Nance’s project is welcome and overdue in Buddhist and premodern Indian textual studies, particularly when we consider that intellectual progress in medieval South Asia was forged largely through commentarial interpretation and the elaboration of root texts, and yet note how little attention has been given to how these processes worked and were understood by their practitioners.

Nance’s study is impressive in its range of both texts considered and questions posed. The first chapter, “Models of Speaking,” looks at two primers widely recited [End Page 660] (according to the Chinese pilgrim Yijing) at Nālandā, the Śatapañcāśatka and the Catuḥśataka, for how they praise the Buddha’s speech and model ideal speech for Buddhists. He also dips into the Pāli suttas (which he takes as representative of the āgamic literature) on the nature of the Buddha’s speech, and he considers the proscriptive protocols of monks’ speech in the Prātimokṣasūtra, strictures that go much further than the usual accounts of “right speech,” and that demonstrate how seriously worries about authority and misrepresentation were taken in normative monastic contexts.

The Buddha’s speech (buddhavacana), according to the first verse of the Śatapañcāśatka, is “well-worded, of great meaning, true and sweet; profound, plain, or both; succinct or detailed” (p. 16). Nance carefully parses this verse to structure his treatment of this text. These attributes are commonly seen in Buddhist commentaries, and encompass well-known tropes of being excellent in both meaning (artha) and phrasing (vyañjana), and capable of being stated in brief (saṃkṣiptena) or in detail (vistarena). The second verse of the text suggests that these qualities establish evidence of the Buddha’s omniscience (p. 16), because, it would seem, uttering only speech that is at once sweet, beneficial, and true—or else remaining silent altogether—may be possible only in a condition of omniscience. Nance rightly observes that one of the important and admired features of the Buddha’s speech is the ways it “points in two directions at once”: it is universally true and beneficial for all who hear it regardless of their capacities, even while it “is generally—always and everywhere—well-suited to the particularity of local context(s)—contexts that may differ as to time, place, language, speaker, and audience” (pp. 21, 22).

Those who hear the Buddha’s speech are said to have the profound sense that “this teaching is for me alone” (in the words of the Catuḥśataka [p. 20]), and experience the words as uniquely tailored to their singular condition. Although Nance does not discuss this verse, the idea of “for me alone” is interesting. It relates to an important thread in the book, namely the ways that the Dharma—the Buddha’s speech—is simultaneously “what is responsive to, and what is dissociable from, the vicissitudes of circumstance” (p. 123). The inexhaustible Dharma always transcends, even as it finds expression in, “evanescent teachings offered in particular idioms, languages, and dialects,” and, I may add, is directed to particular individuals who experience it as...