Buddhism: An Introduction

by Alexander Wynne, I.B. Taurus, London 2015

Alexander Wynne’s excellent book is nothing like most ‘introductions’ to Buddhism. There’s no blow by blow explanation of the Eightfold Path or other basic doctrines. As Wynne points out, these are easily available on the Internet. It also isn’t an introduction to the practice of Buddhism, though Wynne is clearly sympathetic to the practitioner’s perspective. It’s really an introduction to Buddhist history with a strong focus on Wynne’s framework for interpreting how Buddhism developed. An academic text then, but freshly written; and an introduction to some of the recent scholarly thinking about the subject.

That ‘some’ is an important caveat. Wynne studied at Oxford with Richard Gombrich and he follows Gombrich’s text-focused scholarship. His previous book, The Origins of Buddhist Meditation – essentially a slightly expanded version of his Doctoral thesis – tried to locate the Buddha’s meditation teaching as it is recorded in texts such as The Ariyapariesena Sutta and the Parayayavagga of the Sutta Nipata, was a response to the teachings of his contemporaries, which Wynne largely identifies with meditation teachings found in the Upanishads. Influenced by Johannes Bronkhorst, I am unconvinced that the Upanishads themselves influenced the Buddha, but The Origins of Buddhist Meditation book convinced me that many elements of the early Buddhist meditation teaching can be better understood if they are seen as adaptations or refutations of teachings that can be found in later ‘Hinduism’.

A secondary aim of that book was to show that the texts offered reliable information about the teaching of the Buddha himself. Championing the text-historical approach in this way places him at odds with the scholars who tend to predominate in North America who reject the texts as reliable sources because of the centuries of oran translation, followed by further centuries of redaction. Gregory Schopen and others have shifted the scholarly focus to what archaeology and epigraphy, which are taken to more reliable because they are dateable, tell us.

Lynne doesn’t rehearse that debate here, but in the chapters on the Buddha and early Buddhism he shows what an intelligent textual approach seems to show. He very usefully distills the findings of textual interpreters who distinguish between strata of the Buddhist discourses, especially as they are found in the Pali Canon. For Wynne, the core of the Buddha’s outlook, expressed in philosophical terms, is what he calls ‘constructed realism’: “‘constructed’ in the sense that the world of experience is a mental construction; and ‘realism’ in the sense that the cognitive processes and the objective reality they fashion are  objectively real.’

What this means is that the Buddha is concerned with the mind and mental processes, because these are all we can ever really know, and our views of reality, even including such basic categories as time and space, are conditioned by our perceptions and interpretations. This outlook underlies the Buddha’s rejection of metaphysics and it focuses his teachings on the nature of the mind: how it constructs reality and how it can be deconstructed and reconstructed through so it is more fully aligned with reality. This approach encompasses ethics and psychology within the much larger project that is ‘Dharma practice’.

This account of the Buddha’s teaching certainly isn’t novel: many interpreters have said something similar, especially Nagarjuna. But it’s helpful to see how it can be used as a touchstone for interpreting historical status of the Discourses. Wynne distinguishes constructed realism, according to which a human being is ‘a dynamic complex of experiential factors’, from another view that is also found in the Discourses, which he calls ‘reductionist realism’ which says that human beings lack inherent existence because they are made up of various elements and constituents. The emphasis here is on analysis of these elements, which are taken to ‘really  exist’, and the Discourses contain many precursors to Abhidharma philosophy, which took the process much further. He also sees the teaching of the 12-stage dependent arising as a ‘process philosophy’ response to the question of how a self that doesn’t really exist can be reborn. As I understand it, Wynne’s point is that these ideas shift the focus from the process of cognition to the question of what does or doesn’t exist.

One implication of ‘constructed realism’ is that, as the reality we experience is constructed by our mental states, a radical reconstruction of our minds – such as Buddhism says  happens when a person attains Nirvana – will mean that we inhabit a radically different reality. This is important because it distinguishes Wynne’s understanding of the Buddha’s teachings from that of modern rationalists, who are happy to assimilate the Buddha’s view of the mind to a worldview that is drawn from post-Enlightenment western rationalism. For the secular Buddhist, the Buddha was a wise man living in our world.

Conversely, Wynne distinguishes constructed realism from the beliefs of Mystical Cessationists and Mystical Realists, whose understanding is also found in the Suttas, and who identified Nirvana with an experience of the cessation of self in a state of deep meditative absorption or with an absolute reality with which a realised person merges at death. Subtle though these distinctions appear may well indicate significant differences in practice and understanding, and in time they influenced the development of the various Buddhist schools.

I hope this discussion indicates the care and subtlety of Wynne’s account of Buddhism. There is far too much in the book to indicate here, but I should mention his use of the idea of Guild Monasticism to explain the role that Buddhist sangrias played in later societies. Buddhism deliberately situated itself at the fringe of society and was vulnerable when other religious movements such as Hinduism or Confucianism associated themselves with state power and used their influence to push Buddhism out altogether. Wynne contrasts this with the State Buddhism that developed in a number of countries and changed Buddhism in ways which, he considers, were more fundamental than the difference between Mahayana and Theravada.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to make sense of how Buddhism has developed and the role it can feasibly play in society. Wynne’s interpretations grow from complex reflections, but they enable him to establish a lucid narrative of Buddhist history across Asia. My only disappointment is that, belonging so wholeheartedly to to text-historical school, he makes relatively little use of the archaeology and epigraphy that his rivals explore.