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  • David Kalupahana and the Field of Early Buddhism
  • Wimal Dissanayake

I had known Professor David Kalupahana for over fifty years. David, his wife Indrani, my wife, and I were undergraduates at the same time at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. He was, of course, senior to us. David and I lived in the same hall of residence and used to meet frequently at breakfast and dinner. Even as an undergraduate, David evinced a great interest in Buddhism and philosophy. I recall that one of his earliest articles that he sent to the students’ magazine was on the idea of causality in Buddhism, an idea which was to be comprehensively explored in his magnum opus. Many of us knew instinctively that he would end up as a university professor; what we did not know then is that he would emerge as a foremost scholar in the world of early Buddhism. He initially studied Pali, Sanskrit, and philosophy, and later specialized in Pali. This prepared him well for his subsequent work in Buddhist philosophy.

After obtaining his BA and MA from the University of Ceylon, he was admitted to the University of London, where he pursued his PhD; in London, he studied classical Chinese and Tibetan as well. His PhD dissertation was on the concept of causality in Buddhism and was later published as an influential book.

In 1972, David was offered a position in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii and he remained there until his retirement. He quickly became a full professor and chairman of the department. During his long academic career Kalupahana wrote more than twenty scholarly books dealing with such topics as Buddhist concept of causality, principles of Buddhist psychology, Buddhism and ethics, Buddhism and law, and history of Buddhist philosophy. Many of these works proved to be extremely consequential.

To my mind, one of the greatest achievements of Prof. Kalupahana as a Buddhist scholar was his ability to redefine the field of early Buddhist philosophy by extending its discursive boundaries and directing investigative thought-lines in important new directions. He sought to push early Buddhist thought beyond itself by daring acts of re-imagining and re-interpretation. Kalupahana reacted against the normal tendency to see Theravada Buddhism as restricted, narrow and hide-bound; he pointed out that it was indeed complex, many-sided, multi-focal and possessed great accommodative powers. Let me cite a few examples from his writings which illustrate this point.

David translated Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with a substantial critical introduction. In it he argued that this text, which is regarded as representing the high watermark of Mahayana thinking in India, can be usefully situated within the axiomatics of early Buddhism. Far from deviating from the tenets of early Buddhism, it [End Page 523] was a return to them. Similarly, he translated the Buddhist text the Dhammapada with an important critical introduction. In it, he contended that this work represents the meeting of cultural and religious cross-currents operative in India at the time. He advanced the notion that The Dhammapada was a considered response to the venerable Hindu text the Bhagavadgītā. This went against the dominant view which was that that each of the verses gathered in the Dhammapada was deployed by the Buddha as a privileged theme of a given discourse.

Prof. David Kalupahana’s desire to fashion early Buddhism into a site of exciting interchange and contestation of meaning can be seen in the way he initiated dialogues with celebrated Western philosophers such as William James and Wittgenstein. It was David’s firmly held conviction that a strong pragmatic impulse coursed through early Buddhism, and according to him, this is borne out by the fact that the Buddha rejected metaphysics, absolutism, and essentialisms of any form or kind. Here, he saw certain parallels with William James’ thought. His point was not that there was a perfect congruence between the thought of the Buddha and William James, but that there are sufficient points of affinity to warrant instigating a dialogue, clearing a theoretical space for further inquiry. Similarly, he took the idea of suffering (dukkha) which is so central to Buddhism and compared it with some notions...


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