- Voice of the Buddha: Buddhaghosa on the Immeasurable Wordsby Maria Heim
Despite more than two hundred years of modern academic study of the Pali literature, Pali commentaries still remain understudied. We know very little about the reading practices of the traditional Pali commentators and philosophers themselves. Maria Heim is one of the very few scholars invested in filling this major lacuna in Buddhist studies. Heim’s 2014 publication, The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency, already illuminated the philosophical acumen of Buddhaghosa, the foremost Pali commentator of the fifth century CE, whose name is intertwined with Theravada Buddhism itself. In her recent publication, the Voice of the Buddha: Buddhaghosa on the Immeasurable Words, Heim continues to expand our understanding of the fascinating world of Pali commentaries. She argues that carefully observing the ways Buddhist authors themselves read canonical texts and commented on them can be a valuable exercise to understand their hermeneutic practices which can enrich our own ways of doing Buddhist studies. In particular, this is a refreshing exploration into how Buddhaghosa, read, understood, and interpreted buddhavacana(words of the Buddha) in the Pali canonical texts and what we can learn from his practices of reading to become better readers of the same texts.
In this new book, Heim explores Buddhaghosa’s commentaries on the Pali Tipiṭakaand his manual, the Visuddhimagga( The Path of Purification), “in the manner of an apprentice looking over Buddhaghosa’s shoulder as he labors to create readers adequate to read him” (p. 218). The resultant product, divided into five chapters, the first two laying out the “building blocks of an interpretive program,” and the following three devoted to “interpreting the three piṭakas,” is an admirable contribution in the study of Pali commentarial literature. In the conclusion, Heim summarizes the main theoretical interventions of the book. The book is also supported by appendices containing selected translations of texts from Buddhaghosa’s commentaries. Students of Theravada Buddhism in particular, Buddhist philosophy more generally, and comparative philosophy more broadly will find much to learn (and a few things to unlearn) in this book [End Page 1]and will be rewarded with a greater appreciation of Buddhaghosa’s commentarial methods as reflecting also his philosophical practice.
Heim maintains throughout the book that Buddhaghosa recognized himself as an analyst ( vibhajjavādī) (p. 153), a term which Theravadins actually used for identifying themselves. The method of analysis ( vibhajjā) was crucial for Buddhaghosa’s philosophical practice. However, as an analyst, Buddhaghosa was not primarily interested in making universal and decontextualized metaphysical propositions. To be clear, metaphysics is not absent in Buddhaghosa’s philosophy. On the contrary, he teaches us how to make sense of the metaphysical propositions within and by means of narrative contexts ( nidāna) of the Suttapiṭakaand the Vinayapiṭaka, and in the narratives connected to the origins of the Abhidhammapiṭaka. In Buddhaghosa’s reading of the scriptural texts, Heim shows, narratives are integral to understanding the Buddha and his teachings ( dhamma). Buddhaghosa’s mode of reading the scriptures rests on a buddhology traditionally expressed through a nine-fold formula of the Buddha’s qualities. The most important of Buddha’s qualities, used by Buddhaghosa as a hermeneutic tool, is omniscience ( sabbaññū)--the immeasurable and endless expanse of Buddha’s knowledge. The omniscience of the Buddha is reflected in the dhamma, the depth of which is characterized as immeasurable and infinite. Buddhaghosa’s commentarial practice, as Heim shows us, is based on an exploration into the Buddha’s omniscience and how we as readers can access it through our readings of the Buddhist scriptural texts. Using Buddhaghosa as an example, Heim illustrates what doing philosophy as an encounter with the omniscience, the immeasurable, looks like.
For Buddhaghosa, the narrative contexts in the canonical texts where the Buddha is seen as interacting with his immediate audience are illustrations of how omniscience is enacted (p. 50). Omniscience in this sense is not about knowing everything about everything...