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Mahidol University is launching a New International PhD Programme in Buddhist Studies

 

Mahidol University is taking a lead in introducing a new international PhD programme in Buddhist Studies to promote advanced research on Buddhism in Thailand that employs an academic rigor of international standard. Broadly speaking, the main aim of the new PhD programme is to create scholars of Buddhism who can really explain the true, original teaching of the Buddha, influences from outside religious and philosophical traditions, its historical developments through the long history as well as the languages used to record them. In fact, our task is to produce scholars who could be able to explain the teaching of the Buddha suitable to modern times and society.

The problem we the drafting committee have in mind is: ‘Given that the Buddha passed away for more than 2500 years ago already and his teachings are recorded in many languages and spread in many local traditions and culture, how can we produce Buddhist scholars who are dependable and are capable of doing research to explain various aspects of Buddhism accurately and suitable to modern times and society?’

The historical founder of Buddhism is Siddhattha Gotama who was born to the noble warrior Suddhodhana and the Princes Maya around the 5th century BC in Kapilavatthu, the main town in what is now the Nepalese Terai. Later, Siddhattha Gotama abandoned his worldly pleasures to seek after the salvation and attained supreme and perfect enlighentment and became known as Buddha or ‘the enlightened one’. Since then he taught his teachings known as the Four Noble Truths which can open the doors to Immortality and which he had discovered out of his infinite compassion until he died. The teaching of the Buddha was later collected and known as ‘Buddhism’.

During his life time, the Buddha ordered his disciples to spread his teaching in many different places and directions. So his teachings since then were preserved and transmitted in many different dialects by many different groups of his disciples. Before the Buddha passed away, he did not appoint any particular disciple to succeed him. Soon after the death of the Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held with a monk named Mahakassapa presiding the ceremony. The goal of the council was to record the Buddha's sayings or suttas in Pali and codify monastic rules. Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant, was called upon to recite the discourses of the Buddha, and according to some sources the abhidhamma, and Upali, another disciple, recited the rules of the Vinaya. These became the basis of the Tipitaka. However, this record was initially transmitted orally in form of chanting, and was committed to text in a much later period.


Both the sutras and the Vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a wide variety of elements including discourses on the Dharma, commentaries on other teachings, cosmological and cosmogonical texts, stories of the Buddha's previous lives, and lists relating to various subjects. The Theravada and other early Buddhist Schools traditionally believe that the texts of their canon contain the actual words of the Buddha. The Theravada canon, also known as the Pali Canon after the language it was written in, contains some four million words. Other texts, such as the Mahayana sutras, are also considered by some to be the words of the Buddha, but supposedly were transmitted in secret, or via lineages of mythical beings, or came directly from other Buddhas or bodhisattvas.

However, Buddhism has many schools and so we have many different texts. Different schools of Buddhism place varying levels of value on learning the various texts. Some schools venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. Buddhist texts and scriptures exist in great variety and in many different languages. We have texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and enormously in Chinese. All these texts are supposed to be the words of the Buddha. Through the long history, Buddhist texts in either Pali or Sanskrit were contineously composed by various teachers before being translated into Tibetan and Chinese. Many of the original manuscripts in both Sankkrit or Pali are now lost. The Theravadins adhere to the Pali canon and its commentaries while the adherents of Mahayana accept both the agamas and the Mahayana sutras as authentic, valid teachings of the Buddha, designed for different types of persons and different levels of spiritual penetration. For the Theravadins, however, the Mahayana sutras are works of poetic fiction, not the words of the Buddha himself. The Theravadins are confident that the Pali canon represents the full and final statement by the Buddha of his Dhamma—and nothing more is truly needed beyond that. Anything added which claims to be the word of the Buddha and yet is not found in the Canon or its commentaries is treated with extreme caution if not outright rejection by Theravada.


Buddhism came to South-East Asia, which was earlier known as Suvannabhumi around the 3rd century AD under the support of King Asoka the Great. We don’t know exactly where the Suvannabhumi was exactly situtated, but certainly Thailand was among many other countries in South-East Asia which received Buddhism either directly or indirectly from Asoka’s missionary work. Even though we have had some traces of Mahayana Buddhism in the forms of inscriptuions scattered here and there in what is now called Thailand, Theravada Buddhism has played a major part in the country. It has been adopted as the national religion and played a dominating role in Thailand ever since. Since the acceptance of Theravada Buddhism onwards, the Thai Buddhists have taken the scriptures known as the Pali Canon as definitive and authoritative. Buddhist texts of other traditions are totally neglected.


Apart from focussing solely on Pali and Theravada Buddhism, the very idea of a critical edition never occurred to the Thai Buddhists in those days. Since Buddhism has been adopted, Thai monks started to learn Pali which is the language of Theravada Buddhism and then tried to explain them to the general public. They even went to Sri Lanka to learn Pali and came back to spread them to other Thais. Several Pali texts were also composed by Thai, particularly during King Tiloka of Lanna. According to the tradition, King Tiloka of Lanna also patronized the first council to collect the Pali Canonical texts and afterwards asked his men to inscribe them into bundles of leaves or Bailan in about 15th century.

Other texts were also collected and inscribed. We don’t know for certainty when Buddhist monks started to transliterate Buddhist texts in original Pali or Sanskrit into local alphabets in the area where Thailand is situated now, but certainly the areas of studies were limited solely to Pali and Theravada Buddhism. Attempts were also made by Thai Buddhists to transliterate several Buddhist texts into local dialects, particularly Thai or Siamese, which have very much influenced on ancient Thai literature. Sometime Palm leaf manuscripts in the country were damaged or destroyed due to successive wars, particularly during the loss of Ayutthaya, the Thai kings also asked to borrow the relevant Pali manuscripts from Myanmar and Sri Lanka to copy. At the moment we have a large number of Buddhist texts in the forms of bundles of leaves kept in various places and many of these texts or manuscripts have never been adequately studied. Regarding the Thai manuscripts, Dr Peter Skilling, one of the best-known scholars of Buddhism in South-east Asia, once wrote that


‘The manuscript heritage of Siam is in several scripts and several languages, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Siamese culture. The classical texts, such as the Tripitaka and its commentaries, are written in Pali. Many Pali texts were composed in Siam, but few of these have been properly studied, let alone edited or translated. The study of the Pali literature of Siam is one of the exciting tasks in the field. The vernacular literature is equally unstudied, and equally important. It includes texts written in Thai, Lanna Tai and related languages, Lao, Mon, and Khmer. A rich literature was produced in Southern Thailand as well.’

The remarks by Skilling clearly indicate that most texts produced in Thailand are not critically edited and need to be further studied. Currently, Thailand has several organisatins responsible for editing those Pali texts, but a critical edition has never been used or studied seriously in order to reconstruct the genuine original Buddhist texts.
A question may be raised:‘Why this PhD programme?’ The international PhD Programme in Buddhist Studies is based on three guiding principles.

The first principle of the programme is to embrace the diversity of the Buddhist tradition. We therefore offer an extremely wide range of courses, including, to name but a few: Pali Buddhism, the history of Buddhism in South-East Asia, Mahayana Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, Abhidharma philosophy, contemporary Buddhism, Buddhist narrative, and more. While other Buddhist Studies programmes in Thailand have tended to focus almost entirely on Theravada Buddhism, we at Mahidol Unvirsity believe that it is crucial to study not only other Buddhist traditions such as Mahayana Buddhism or Sarvastivada Buddhism but also non-Buddhist traditions such as Brahmanism. In order to gain this deeper perspective, the programme offers numerous courses on Brahmanical and Hindu thought so as to provide students with an acute awareness of the Indian context in which the Buddha’s teachings arose. Modern Buddhist ethics is also a subject of ever-growing importance in Buddhist Studies. Several courses on the PhD programme therefore offer students the opportunity to develop critical ways of analysing the relationship between Buddhist values and modern social issues.

The second guiding principle of the PhD Programme is academic excellence. The PhD Programme strives to breed scholars who can produce authoritative and informed research of a high international standard. During their taught courses, students will acquire a thorough familiarity with the wealth of international scholarship available in Buddhist Studies. The various classes on methodology also ensure that students are trained in numerous analytical approaches to the study of Buddhism, giving them the necessary grounding for becoming leading academics in the field. In addition to textual study, the programme covers several other disciplines, including ethnography, epigraphy, and art history. All our lecturers are extremely well qualified and all are dedicated towards ensuring the success of the programme’s aspiration for academic excellence.

The third guiding principle of the PhD Programme is the firm conviction that it is impossible to study Buddhist teachings properly unless they are analysed in their original language. Our programme therefore focuses on two of the major languages in which Buddhist texts have been composed: Pali and Sanskrit. Through their expertise in these languages, students will gain direct access to the original Buddhist texts. In harmony with the Buddha’s teaching that beliefs should be tested through direct experience, students will be able to apply their own independent analysis to the Buddha’s teachings without relying on secondary sources or on the potentially misleading interpretations of translations.

A challenge, however, faces the textual scholar. While the number of Buddhist texts is enormous, many have never been read, let alone edited. Most Buddhist texts are preserved in manuscripts that often contain significant differences from one another. In these circumstances, the various manuscripts must be collected and studied comparatively in order to produce a proper, critical edition of the text.

A critical edition is an attempt to reconstruct an archetype that is as close to the original text as the evidence allows. It also points out the reception and transmission of the text by analysing the different manuscripts. In this way a textual editor creates a genealogical tree of the manuscripts that enables him to select readings based on objective criteria, rather than on his personal preferences. Such critical editions are severely lacking but they are of vital importance to the study of Buddhism. For we cannot produce an accurate interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings on the basis of corrupt manuscripts or deficient textual editions. This is especially important in Thailand, where a huge store of manuscripts is available in numerous libraries and monasteries throughout the country. The overwhelming majority of these manuscipts have never been studied and can be fruitfully compared with other manuscripts available outside Thailand in order to produce authoritative editions and translations.

The PhD Programme in Buddhist Studies at Mahidol University is thus an exceptional endeavour. Priding itself on its rigorous approach towards analytical research and primary sources and on the diversity and depth of its courses, it is unique among programmes available both in Thailand and in South-East Asia generally. Above all, it is our sincere hope that, through their academic excellence, graduates of our PhD programme will be able to promote the importance of Buddhist Studies as a university subject not only in Thailand but also on the international stage throughout the world.

 

Notes to the editors
1.The International PhD Programme in Buddhist Studies of Mahidol University is available at http://www.st.mahidol.ac.th/bodhi
2. For more details and to reserve a place at the seminar on the 4th June 2008, please contact: Dr Pathompong Bodhiprasiddhinand, Director of Programme at shpbp@mahidol.ac.th and Dr Justin Meiland, secretary of Programme at jmeiland@yahoo.com

Post Date : May 10, 2008

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