Buddhism and Revelation

Refutation of a theory

by Victor Gunasekara

[Reproduced from Vimamsa No.25, Summer 1988]

In the study of religions the term "divine revelation" is usually used to indicate the supernatural origin of a set of beliefs or sacred texts. It is in this sense that the classic religions which originated in the Middle East have been regarded as "revealed religions". The founders of these religions are regarded by their followers either as "prophets" chosen by God to act as a mouthpiece for his communication with humans (as is the case of Mohammad in Islam), or as God himself in some disguise (as with Jesus in Christianity). The "truth" of these religions is attributed to their supposed divine origin, and indeed the followers of these religions do not apply to the claims of their founders the normal criteria that are used to establish the truthfulness of other claim.

On the other hand Buddhists have generally claimed that Buddhism owes its origin to no such divine revelation. The historical Buddha is credited with the discovery of the "truths" relating to the universe and the human condition that he proclaimed, just as Einstein may be credited with the discovery of certain "truths" relating to space, time and matter. In both cases the validity of their respective claims depends on the empirical, experimental and experiential evidence that there is to support them. The Buddha in particular did not appeal to any divine authority to validate what he was saying, and indeed invited people to test his claims for themselves (ehipassiko). While some differences exist between the Buddhist and the modern secular scientific methods of verification, these are not as fundamentally opposed to each other as is the dualism inherent in the attitude of the followers of theistic religions to what they consider to be divine revelations and secular claims.

This traditional view has now been disputed by an Australian scholar of Buddhism, Peter Masefield , who in a recent book [1] claims to have discovered "Divine Revelation" in Buddhism. This claim is even more surprising when we consider that it is made with respect to Pali Buddhism of the Nikâyas itself, and not to some of the Mahayna sutras, in which the exaltation of the Buddha has been taken to extravagant lengths. It is the purpose of the present article to examine Masefield's claim. While a full refutation of the Masefield thesis is not possible in an article of this length, nevertheless even a summary refutation of Masefield's theory is necessary. It will be shown that Masefield's conclusions derive from a misunderstanding of some of the basic concepts of Pli Buddhism, and a literal acceptance of some of the more extravagant and fanciful statements contained in ancient Buddhist writings, even to some extent in the Pali Canon itself.

It is unfortunate that there is no definition or discussion of the term "divine revelation" which is so central to Masefield's thesis. We may thus assume that it has the usual meaning that it has in theistic religions like Christianity. There statements in the Bible and the utterances of Jesus have been taken to be divinely inspired statements, whose validity has to be accepted on the basis of the authority of those making the claim. The Buddha lived several centuries before the founders of the classic revealed religions of the Middle Fast, and did not have to deal with their particular kind of "revelation". But even in the India of the Buddha's day spiritual knowledge based on some kind of divine revelation was coming to be asserted. The early Vedic religion was a simple religion of sacrifice, prayer and ritual; but the Upanishadic transformation that had commenced shortly before the Buddha's time (and continued for several centuries after his death) saw the emergence of many "seers" (rishis) who claimed to be the source of divine knowledge obtained through yogic concentration, ritualistic actions, austerities, etc. The Buddha during the years of his striving to reach the truth sought out the leading seers of his day, and practiced their system; he was thus fully aware of this kind of "divine revelation". There are several passages in the Pali Canon where the Buddha denounces such pretence to divine inspiration. Probably the most important is the Klma Sutta where knowledge based on revelation is listed as the first of ten kinds of unsatisfactory knowledge. It is significant that Masefleld does not quote this discourse, or other discourses given to informed and reflecting persons, and instead confines his analysis to the more popular discourses, where the Buddha used the popular mythology of his day to make ordinary people aware of some of the more fundamental Buddhist truths.

The central thesis in Masefield's book is the claim that the "spiritual division" of the Buddhist world involves a sharp division between the "noble disciple" (aariyasaavaka) of which four categories are conventionally recognised, and the "common fold" (putujjana).[2]  While Masefield is correct in saying that this distinction does not correspond to that between monk and layman, he is distinctly wrong in assuming that there is in Buddhism a sharp dichotomy between the two. Masef ield's thesis is that the aariyasaavaka is in receipt of the "divine revelation" that he claims to find in Pali Buddhism, while the putujjana is not. The discussion of this basic point made by Masefield is fundamental to an evaluation of Masefield's thesis.

Ancient Buddhist literature is replete with classifications of all kinds - persons, realms, virtues, marks, principles, etc. These are very often for easy recollection and should not be taken as a systematic or scientific taxonomy. Nor is there a fundamental qualitative difference between the categories identified. The persons or things grouped together sharing a common value of some attribute, which itself may exhibit a continuous variation. In the case of persons with respect to their "spiritual" progress, the only fundamental distinction that is recognised is that between the fully enlightened person (arhat), and all other individuals, be they aspirants to full enlightenment or not. Persons who are not fully enlightened, be they saavakas (disciples) or non-disciples, could be considered as occupying a position along the Buddhist path. of course many of the puthuijana would not have made much progress, but it is possible that even those who have not as yet come into contact with the Buddha's teaching, may have made some progress, if only due to past karmic conditioning. Some puthujjana may well be "disciples" of the Buddha (saavaka) though they would not qualify to belong to any of the four categories into which the "noble" (aariya) disciples are divided. Entry into the ranks of the "noble disciple" is not based, as Masefield seems to imply, on the receipt of some divine revelation, but on the destruction of the relevant aasaavas ("taints" in the form of mental desires which lead to various kinds of actions). A correct classification of the "spiritual world" of Buddhism should recognise at least three categories, puthujiana non-saavaka, putujjhana saavaka, and aariyasaavaka, with the various subcategories in each. However any such classification should be treated with caution; there is no "quantum jump" between these categories, any such radical transformation taking place only at full enlightenment (sambodhi).

Masefield's interpretation of the term aariya also deserves a comment. He interprets this in purely racial term, equating it to the Aryan race. Thus for instance it is implied (p.25) that Tamils cannot be "noble disciples" and therefore cannot reach full enlightenment. This is of course nonsense, and is based on an incorrect reading of terms that occur in the Nikaayas. The Buddha used ordinary terms, but not necessarily in the ordinary sense, and went to some length to repudiate the conventional meaning. Thus we have the Buddhist use of the term braahmana not in the sense of the caste-Brahmin but in terms of a person who has accomplished requisite virtues whatever be his original caste.[3]  In the same way an aariya was one who had acquired a noble stature by understanding and action, and not by virtue of any racial origin.

Having established a false dichotomy in Buddhism, Masefield goes on to validate his claim that the aariyasaavaka are in receipt of "divine revelation". This notion appears to have been suggested by the frequent use of words meaning "hearing",  "listening" etc. (suta,_ghosa) in the Pali literature. Masefield emphasizes the importance of "oral teaching" in establishing oneself on the path, apparently forgetting that in the pre-literate society of the Buddha's day "oral teaching" was the only way of acquiring new knowledge of any kind. The earliest examples of the written word in India was in connection with Buddhism, but there was no literary tradition in the Buddha's day, and knowledge of the dhamma had to be imparted through verbal exposition. It is in this sense that the Dhamma is "revealed" to a person who previously had no knowledge of it, just as a school teacher would be "revealing" various bits of knowledge and information to his pupils. But to use the term "revelation" to designate this process of oral teaching of views is to divest that term of its proper meaning in religious discourse.

But even if one were to interpret the relevant terms in the Pali Canon as "revelation" there is no necessary implication that this revelation is "divine". In fact Masefield despite his considerable erudition in the Pali language has not been able to find a single term in Pali which has this meaning. The term that he thinks has this meaning, viz. parato ghosa which means "hearing from another" cannot be imputed with such a. meaning. It simply means precisely what it says, viz. learning from another person by actually listening to his discourses, which as we have seen was the normal way for any knowledge to be propagated in the Buddha's time. Yet this complete absence of any evidence to substantiate this point does not prevent Masefield from making such statements such as that the old saavaka monks "were in contact with the divine powers" (p.163), etc.

In his attempt to establish his thesis Masefield makes questionable interpretations of even the most basic of Buddhist doctrines. In particular his interpretation of the Eightfold Path is questionable. Of course this central theory in Buddhism has been the subject of considerable interpretation and analysis dawn the centuries, and speculation on the subject will not cease as it is one of the means through which a dedicated disciple could penetrate the Buddha's teaching. What is particularly revealing is  Masefield's view of the place of "right view" (sammaadi.t.ti) in the Buddha's path. It has been the generally accepted position at least from the time of the great commentators an the Pali Canon that right view has a twofold role in Buddhism. There is first of all the development of the initial view that would enable a person to view things from a Buddhist perspective as against, say, a theistic one. This kind of "right view" does not involve a complete penetration of the Buddha's teaching, which is of course not possible for the novice, but of getting rid of wrong views (miccaadi.t.ti) ,which may have blinkered one's perspective before. The complete penetration of sammaadi.t.ti, of course, comes only with enlightened (when the ---Dhamma eye" is opened). The space between these two events should be considered as a continuum with disciples growing in their understanding of the Buddha's teaching. (This is also true of all the other elements of the eight-fold path, which are not a sequence to be followed successively, but elements which have to be developed simultaneously). This traditional view has also been restated by modem scholars like Bhikkhu Nyaanatiloka. Masefield disputes this interpretation (p.38) and asserts that the path "commences rather than ends with right view". Such a theory is necessary because after "right view' has been obtained, and a person is established as a saavaka, his further progress according to Masefield depends not on his personal striving but m the receipt of the "divine revelation" of which Masefield has not been able to produce any credible evidence.

In accordance with this revision of Buddhism Masefield in effect enlarges the traditional Eightfold Path into a ten-fold one, the last two stages being termed "right knowledge" (not to be confused with "right view") and "right release", and together constitute a fourth division called vimutti ("liberation") to complement the three traditional divisions of paaa (wisdom) , siila (morality), and samaadhi (concentration). As mentioned earlier numerical recensions about in Buddhism, and it is possible to find similar classifications in the more obscure Buddhist texts. It is the interpretation that is attached to such classifications that is more important, and the implication in Masefield's use of this terminology is that only in the final division is the receipt of the "divine revelation" complete that the individual can finally obtain his long sought after release.

Masefield frankly admits that the purpose of his exercise is to "remythologize" the Buddhism of ancient India (p. xvi) . He has done this by taking the mythology which is all too evident in so much of the ancient Buddhist texts literally. Even in theistic religions there is a move away from the literal interpretation of the so-called "revealed" texts, a task which is more questionable that the demythologisation of the ancient Buddhist texts which has been accomplished, and very easily at that, by modern scholars both in the East and the West. Masefield's approach to remythologization is purely literary, using ancient language in a purely arbitrary manner. But in this he has failed quite conspicuously. All that can be said after a careful consideration of Masefield's thesis is that no credible evidence has been produced for the existence of a "divine revelation, as this term is usually understood, in the Pali Buddhism of the Nikaayas. .


[1] Peter Masefield, Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Colombo: Sri Lankan Institute of Traditional Studies and London: George Allen and Unwin, 1986. The book appears to be a rendering of a doctoral thesis as Prof Ninian Smart is acknowledged as the author's supervisor.

[2] The conventional translation of putujjana  "worldling", but this is unsatisfactory as it invokes the layman-monk distinction which is not relevant for this discussion.

[3] Recognition of this simple point would have spared Masefield of the lengthy discussion in Chapter 4 entitled "The New Brahmin". This chapter argues that the claim that "Buddhism is the most egalitarian" of Indian religions is "extremely questionable". He argues that the Bhikkhus were aspiring to the privileges of the old Brahmins, and refers to abuses which arose within so large an institution as the bhikkhu-sangha, where some corrupt monks appropriated the caste and other privileges of the Brahmin caste of old. That this took place cannot be denied, but it is in no way a ref lection on the Buddha's teaching. It is patently absurd to claim that Buddhism is "non-,egalitarian" on the basis of abuses which subsequently developed in it. The substantial part of Masefield's thesis, that Buddhism is little more than reformed Brahmanism, is of course nothing new.