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Buddhadharma : Fall 2014
FALL 2014 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 55 English is not the only way to preserve it—that’s a culture- centric idea. GRIFFITH FOULK: I have some concern that we’re building digital canons; they’re so easy to access that they’ve become almost the only thing people look at. There is a danger that what isn’t input digitally will fall by the wayside and be ignored. BHIKKHU BODHI: There are older Pali texts preserved in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts kept in temple cupboards across Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. In these tropical countries, the manuscripts tend to decay every hundred years or so. Now that they’re no longer being copied, what’s coming to pass is that the electronic edition becomes the single authoritative version of a text; variant readings preserved in these palm-leaf manuscripts will likely be lost. GRIFFITH FOULK: Then, when everything exists on the cloud, civilization will pull the plug on the whole thing and it will go poof! It is a bit of a fear; we are relying enormously on our data-storage devices and on our electrical grid. There’s something to be said for paper—it tends to last a long time. BUDDHADHARMA: The work of translators is obviously about more than just language; ultimately it’s about transmission— transmitting teachings and lineage. What are your reflections on the transmission of Buddhism to the West? SARAH HARDING: At this point, many decades after the first trickle of translations that arrived with D.T. Suzuki and oth- ers, there is a good foundation of material for an authen- tic transmission, but not everyone takes advantage of that. American culture is so quick to commodify something like dharma. For example, the term mindfulness has become very popular, and in 80 or 90 percent of the contexts in which it’s used, it really has nothing to do with Buddhism. I don’t have anything against that; it’s a perfectly fine tool for people to use. I just wish they wouldn’t call it Buddhism, because it’s lacking so many of the essential ingredients. So there are some very good transmissions that are at least attempting to get the full picture of what Buddhism is, both in theory and practice, and then there’s this kind of effluence from that out into the greater culture. But maybe I’m too attached to some idea I have. I mean, let’s face it—we’ll never really know for sure what the Buddha taught. BUDDHADHARMA: Griffith, what are your thoughts about trans- mission in the West today? GRIFFITH FOULK: The Chinese didn’t really start to develop their own indigenous forms of Buddhism until three hundred to five hundred years after they were exposed to it. Everything is speeded up now with communications and globalization, but we’re still in the infancy of the spread of Buddhism to the West, and I don’t know if the infant is going to survive or not. I hope it does. But the misconceptions and commodification all happened with Buddhism in China too. It was grossly mis- read, misunderstood, taken in terms of indigenous traditions like Taoism and Confucianism. Now, as Buddhism in the West gets picked up, it’s mixing with psychology and self-help. We’re looking at ourselves in the mirror and calling it Buddhism. That happened a lot in East Asia, and something emerged out of it. It wasn’t Indian Buddhism anymore, but it wasn’t completely cut off from tra- ditional roots either. The Chinese eventually did, for example, understand the doctrine of shunyata. It took them a really long time, but they finally got it. They understood, and it had a big impact on their culture. BHIKKHU BODHI: Most of the Americans who embrace Buddhism are highly educated, either with college degrees or advanced university degrees, and because of that, many feel qualified to interpret the texts on their own, without relying on any transmission of what’s considered to be the authoritative inter- pretation. For this reason, we’re finding not just one broad dominant interpretation of the teachings, or even a fairly sim- ple spectrum of interpretations with five or six main flavors, but rather thousands of different interpretations of Buddhist ideas. This could be a significant development, but I don’t know whether to evaluate it positively or negatively. On one hand, there is a lot of room for distorted subjective interpreta- tions to intrude, culminating in wholesale misrepresentations The Pali canon and all of its commentaries are available electronically now. You can download and change the script into your own language, and if you want to determine the meaning of a word, you can enter it into the search box and in a split second find all its occurrences. — Bhikkhu Bodhi