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Reviewed by:
  • Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders by Asanga Tilakaratne
  • Donald K. Swearer and Sid Brown
THERAVADA BUDDHISM: THE VIEW OF THE ELDERS. By Asanga Tilakaratne. Honolulu. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012. 186 pp.

Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders is primarily a descriptive, comprehensive study of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The book’s eight chapters begin with a brief general account of the life of the Buddha and the beginnings of the tradition in India, four chapters on the basic teachings of Theravāda (“The Triple Gem,” “The Basic Teachings of the Buddha,” “Karma and Its Results,” and “The Social Teachings of the Buddha”), two chapters that contextualize the tradition in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and a concluding chapter on diaspora Theravāda that highlights two topics—meditation and the Bhikkhuni order. The book’s broad scope is both its strength and weakness; however, it successfully negotiates a middle ground between those books that provide only a brief introduction to Theravāda, on the one hand, and more comprehensive, in-depth studies.

The author characterizes Theravāda as a spiritual practice guided by the monastic tradition based on an “interpretation of the words of the Buddha adopted and developed by the tradition.” From this normative perspective, the author’s description and analysis of Theravāda doctrine includes generous quotations from the Pali Suttas. Tilakaratne “respects modern historical and philological scholarship”; however, he follows the tradition of Theravāda monastic interpretation that accepts the Suttas as the Buddavacanam (words of the Buddha) as organized by the early disciples, and characterizes the communal act of chanting as signifying “undivided allegiance to the word of the Buddha as approved by the leaders of the community.” From this perspective, the author deems Theravāda to be “remarkably homogeneous” (p. xxvi). Although in general terms Theravāda can be seen as more homogeneous than Mahayāna and Tantrayāna textual and doctrinal traditions, in more localized contexts—not noted by the author—it is also marked by varying degrees of diversity. For example, one thinks of the Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (d. 1993), who was accused of being a “Mahayanist” for highlighting the doctrine of Emptiness (śunyatā), a central Mahayāna concept but of relatively minor importance in Theravāda.

A former monk, Tilakaratne, professor of Pali and Buddhist studies at the University of Colombo, brings an understandable normativity to his description and analysis. Furthermore, the author’s background gives the volume a direct firsthand flavor. For example, in discussing the Pali formula extoling the virtues of the sangha that all Theravāda Buddhists learn by heart and repeat within a daily ritual context, the author observes that even though lay practitioners continue to use the formula throughout their lives, they may not comprehend its meaning.

In his discussion of the basic teachings of Buddhism, the author addresses the common misinterpretation of the fundamental Buddhist teachings of not-self (anattā) and nirvāṇa as negative concepts. The teaching that an individual does not [End Page 219] exist independently affirms the phenomenology of the dynamic, interdependent nature of all things, and, more importantly from the standpoint of spiritual practice, affirms that with this realization (i.e., nirvāṇa) “one’s thirst in all forms becomes extinct” (p. 44).

The author structures the basic teachings of the Buddha in terms of the traditional categories of the three trainings: morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi), and understanding (paññā). Apropos of the contextual flavor of the book, the author’s discussion of sīla for the laity situates the five precepts (abstaining from taking life, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from telling lies, and from alcohol and intoxicants) within the ritual of taking the precepts as a daily practice at home, the temple, or at pubic ceremonies. Paññā or “seeing things as they are” addresses the fundamental Theravāda teachings of suffering (dukkha), impermanence, and not-self: “Suffering alone exists, not a sufferer; action alone exists, not an actor; extinguishment alone exists, not one who is extinguished; path alone exists, not one who treads on it” (Buddhaghosa) (p. 55).

Given the prominence of the concept of...