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  • Rethinking the Buddha: Early Buddhist Philosophy as Meditative Perception by Eviatar Shulman
  • David Nowakowski (bio)
Rethinking the Buddha: Early Buddhist Philosophy as Meditative Perception. By Eviatar Shulman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xviii + 206. isbn 978-1-107-06239-9.

Eviatar Shulman’s Rethinking the Buddha: Early Buddhist Philosophy as Meditative Perception offers an important reminder to take early Buddhist texts seriously as [End Page 283] meaning (no more than) what they say, with regard to the four noble truths, dependent origination, and selflessness (anatta). Shulman’s book ably makes this interpretive point, but is frustratingly unclear in its more general discussion of the relationship between philosophy and meditation.

Shulman’s main thesis is that the four noble truths, as they are customarily taught today (i.e., as universal claims about the world or about all human experiences: “life is suffering,” “[all] suffering is caused by craving /desire,” etc.), are a younger philosophical elaboration of an original set of four observations (or, as Shulman sometimes calls them, “four truths,” without the adjective “noble”), which were to be employed as a technique in meditative observation. They take the form of presently indexed observations about an individual’s mental life: “this is suffering,” et cetera. The four observations are then used within meditation, considering individual mental phenomena as they occur.

In Shulman’s reading of the Pali texts (§ 3.1 and chapter 4), the central meditative processes of the early Buddhist community proceed in three stages. First, prior to beginning mindfulness (Pali sati, akin to Sanskrit smṛti ) practice, the student learns the Buddhist conceptual and categorical schemata, particularly as these apply to naming and categorizing mental phenomena and observing the arising and cessation of these phenomena. Second, in the practice of sati, the student learns (and becomes habituated to) direct experience of his own mental life according to these schemata. In this way, he moves from an initial practice of recalling these schemata and consciously applying them to his present experience, to a more advanced meditative experience, which is structured according to these categories without any conscious effort to conceptualize them in that way. The student is thus “practicing toward” liberation. Finally, the meditator progresses to samādhi, characterized by the “embodied perception of impermanence” (p. 189), which comprises liberation itself.

Such an account, which emerges slowly from Shulman’s study, is both highly plausible and quite consistent with the practice of later Buddhist communities in India, Tibet, and elsewhere, for whom there is no sharp disconnect between doctrine, reasoned argument, and contemplative practice. Indeed, Shulman himself has little difficulty in showing the essential continuity of Buddhist thought and practice; he struggles, rather, in his attempts to set out a tension between them in the first place.

We can identify four main elements to Shulman’s thesis: (1) We should understand the mindfulness practice of sati to be intentionally contentful, (2) we should take seriously the common phrasing of the four truths as “this is suffering,” “this is the cause of suffering,” et cetera, while (3) disregarding the account of the Noble Truths in the received texts of the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, and (4) we should emphasize the tight connection between the four observations as phrased with “this” and the accounts of dependent origination and anatta.

In his discussion of the first of these elements, Shulman emphasizes the root meaning of sati/smṛti as “memory” or “recollection,” and produces a range of texts giving instructions on sati in which the meditator is to consider himself or his experience [End Page 284] with a certain affective valence (as in the “charnel ground” meditations), or as composed of a precise list of elements, or in terms of the five aggregates, and so on. More than simply passive witnessing, such practices help the meditator to develop the habit of perceiving in certain ways, which will be conducive to liberation.

In support of the second element, Shulman notes the overwhelming frequency of this formulation of the four observations in the Pali canon, and cites a variety of texts illustrating how to make use of such observations in practice.

Against the phrasing of the Noble Truths in...