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  • Early Buddhism and Incommensurability
  • Christopher I. Beckwith (bio)

Charles Goodman (henceforth G)'s Response to the thoughtful paper by Adrian Kuzminski ("Early Buddhism Reconsidered") in this volume is actually devoted mainly to my book Greek Buddha (2015). Half a century ago, Thomas Kuhn famously coined the term incommensurability to refer to the inability or unwillingness of many scholars in a given field to understand substantially new ("revolutionary") work. He describes their reactions against it and their attempts to suppress or discredit it. The reason for their response is that new discoveries advance science by challenging and displacing old beliefs and practices. Kuhn accurately describes G's Response.

When I wrote Greek Buddha, I assumed that the potential readership would be people interested in a major topic of intellectual history that has been neglected for a long time, people who are able and willing to think about an alternative to the problematic received views. In general, that has proved to be the case. Kuzminski, the author of an excellent book on later Pyrrhonism (especially Sextus Empiricus) and later Buddhism (especially Nāgārjuna), states in his paper that my book makes a significant contribution toward solving the problems it addresses. Unfortunately, by contrast, G takes selected bits out of their contexts in my book, puts them into new contexts of his own making, and then deconstructs his own creations.

Thus at the very beginning of his Response, G gives a story that he has written himself, but attributes it to me, saying: "The second, more elaborate narrative summarizes the views stated or clearly implied by Christopher Beckwith in his book Greek Buddha." However, I do not say or imply anything like it, as may be revealed by even a cursory reading of the relevant sections of the book, including my explicit conclusion on that particular topic on page 121.

G's basic argument throughout is that the truth about ancient Buddhism (i.e., actual "Early Buddhism") is already known from the portrayal of antiquity in texts of late Normative Buddhism, which are centuries younger [End Page 1009] than the dated sources for Early Buddhism and represent a radically different system. But unless Normative Buddhism, including its modern form, preserves the exact words of the Buddha, it has changed, like all religions. Normative Buddhism is first attested in around the first century C.E., half a millennium after the Buddha. Normative Buddhist texts portray something drastically different from the dated, contemporaneous Early Buddhist testimonies—the hard data on that form of Buddhism. Several long sections of Greek Buddha analyze, in great detail, the account of Early Buddhist sects in Megasthenes (fl. 305–304 b.c.e.) and the religious content of the early third century b.c.e. Major Inscriptions of Devānāṃpriya Priyadarśi. (In my book, I establish which inscriptions were not inscribed by the Mauryas but by a much later ruler of the Normative Buddhist period named Aśoka.) These sources show that Normative Buddhism—a radically changed belief system compared to attested Early Buddhism—developed under the Sakas and Kushans. G says not a word about my book's in-depth coverage of this.

As far as I know, Greek Buddha is the first monograph devoted to carefully examining, studying, and thinking about the dated Early Buddhist inscriptions and manuscript data with the goal of discovering what Early Buddhism was really like. Throughout his Response, G's authorities are undated late Normative Buddhist texts. These texts are filled with marvels recounted in the traditional-modern Buddhist "frame tale" based on the late canonical literature of early Normative Buddhism (which is unattested until some 500 years after the Buddha), the magical fantasies that fill the hagiographical literature of medieval Buddhism (mostly a millennium or more later than the Buddha), and the modern "popular" misinterpretation of Buddhism that non-devotional Buddhologists have been fighting against for at least a century. Normative Buddhism certainly deserves study for its own sake. However, my book has nothing to do with the late Normative Buddhist stories about Early Buddhism except to note that it is not based on them and does not discuss them.

The limited time and space available to me for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 1009-1016
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-08
Open Access
No
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