The Buddha Before Buddhism

Wisdom from the Early Teachings

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Gil Fronsdal
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications
    , November
     2016.
     192 pages.
     $18.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611803242.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With The Buddha before Buddhism, Gil Fronsdal offers a fresh translation of the Aṭṭhakavagga (the “Book of Eights”), a collection of 103 verses belonging to the canonical Pali Sutta Nipāta. The Aṭṭhakavagga advances a largely apophatic outlook towards religious precepts and doctrine, admonishing its audience to “avoid attachment to views” (i.e., points of philosophical disputation) while advocating detachment from sensual pleasures and worldly pursuits. The absence of cornerstone Pali Buddhist formulations—such as the “Four Noble Truths,” the “Eightfold Path,” the “Twelvefold Conditions of Dependent Origination” (paticcasamuppāda)—has led some scholars to regard the text as an inchoate version of the Buddha’s teaching, or perhaps as a window into early Buddhist thought, prior to any extensive systematization. (This is sometimes referred to as “primitive” or “precanonical” Buddhism.) Fronsdal capitalizes on this assessment in order to draw readers in, recapitulating arguments for the probable antiquity of the Book of Eights on basis of style, references in other early Buddhist textual compendia, and the fact that it contains no mention of a settled monastic community.

Fronsdal offers an unprecedentedly readable version of the text, taking a “middle path” between the stylistic choices of previous translators (i.e., between the iambic verse of E.M. Hare [in Woven Cadences of Early Buddhists, Oxford University Press, 1945] and the literal, sometimes stiff prose of K.R. Norman). Fronsdal’s neat and parsimonious rendering is supplemented with footnotes glossing essential Pali words, explaining his translation choices, and cross referencing portions of the text that appear elsewhere in the Pali canon. Students of Pali will want to stick with Norman’s The Group of Discourses: Sutta Nipāta (PTS, 2nd edition 2001), which follows closely the original syntax and gives much more extensive notes (though occasionally Fronsdal’s concision in fact offers a more accurate rendering of the original, as for example at v. 772).

Since The Buddha before Buddhism does not represent an intervention on previous scholarship relating to the Aṭṭhakavagga, it must be assessed in terms of its appeal to general readers and potential as a teaching resource at the introductory undergraduate level. By this rubric the book fares quite well: Fronsdal delivers an engaging translation as well as a clear and compelling introduction to elementary Buddhist concepts through his commentary. There is a slight equivocation throughout the arc of the book, with Fronsdal first offering the tantalizing prospect that the Books of Eights represents the original teachings of the Buddha, only to subsequently counsel against preoccupations with text-critical studies in search of original doctrine. The quest for “what the Buddha taught,” we are reminded, is itself contrary to the spirit of the Book of Eights insofar as it constitutes grasping for “ultimate truth.” Fronsdal gives a balanced synopsis of arguments relating to the provenance of the text at the end of the book, admitting the likely possibility that the Aṭṭhakavagga arrived at its received form in the country of Avanti in Western India, “a region remote from the center of early Buddhism.”

While readers in the market for a strict scholarly assessment of the Aṭṭhakavagga may appreciate a more upfront appraisal of the text’s origins, within the context of the intended audience of The Buddha before Buddhism, Fronsdal’s inexactness may be viewed as the application of a classical Buddhist pedagogical strategy: Upaya or “skillful means in teaching” dictates that “ultimate truth” can be deferred for the sake of practical instruction.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Henry is Instructor of Religious Studies at Loyola University, Chicago.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gil Fronsdal has practiced Zen and Insight Meditation since 1975 and has a PhD in Buddhist Studies from Stanford University. He has trained in both the Japanese Soto Zen tradition (San Francisco Zen Center with Suzuki Roshi) and the Insight Meditation school of Theravada Buddhism from Southeast Asia. Gil was trained as a Vipassana teacher by Jack Kornfield and is part of the Vipassana teachers' collective at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He was ordained as a Soto Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center, and in 1995 received Dharma Transmission from Mel Weitsman, the abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center. He has been the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center, in Redwood City, California, since 1990. He is a husband and father of two boys.

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