Voice of the Buddha

Buddhaghosa on the Immeasurable Words

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Maria Heim
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Voice of the Buddha: Buddhaghosa on the Immeasurable Words, is the second of two skillfully researched and beautifully written books by Maria Heim on the Pāli commentarial corpus of the iconic 5th-century Theravāda scholar-monk, Buddhaghosa. Focusing on themes mentioned but not fully addressed in her first Buddhaghosa book (The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency, Oxford University Press, 2014), Voice of the Buddha elucidates the reading practices Buddhaghosa employs in seeking to understand the immeasurable meanings contained in the Buddha’s teachings, as set down in the tripiṭaka (“three baskets”) of the Pāli Buddhist canon. Heim locates the origins of this second Buddhaghosa project in Sheldon Pollock’s call for a revitalized, globalized philology that recognizes historical-critical philology to be “not a universal practice,” but rather one “underpinned by theoretical assumptions developed in modern Europe” (3, 218). Unwilling to apply willy-nilly the analytic approaches common in modern Western philosophy, force intellectually foreign genre classifications onto the Buddhist canon, or produce “fractured reading[s]” of doctrines and rules abstracted from their narrative contexts (25), Heim seeks in Buddhaghosa a guide to a “fundamentally different Buddhist approach to the teachings” (23). Heim describes herself as reading texts alongside Buddhaghosa (24) in order to realize anew the purpose of the various Buddhist canonical genres (sutta, abhidharma, vinaya) through his eyes and apprentice herself in the exegetical art he employs for unfurling meanings from the Buddha’s words. 

Heim discovers three overarching exegetical approaches in Buddhaghosa’s commentaries. First, a good reader should “read scripture as an encounter with the Buddha,” a teacher whose most relevant characteristic in that context is his omniscience (218). For Buddhaghosa, the canonical teachings contain immeasurable meanings and have enduring relevance to our human experience, the realization of which constitutes a spiritually transformative encounter with the Buddha’s “omniscient ken” (29). Second, a good reader should pay close attention not only to doctrines or rules contained in scripture, but to the narrative context in which they are handed down. This is inasmuch as Buddhaghosa knows the Buddha to be pedagogically attuned to a high degree, engaging beings in all of their local, social, and historical particularity, not as universal types. Third, Heim takes to heart Buddhaghosa’s careful investigations and theorizations of Buddhist canonical genres. In Heim’s words, “by attending to indigenous theories of genre we can better discern the horizon of possibility set up by the texts themselves” (220), and avoid making distinctions—philosophy vs. literature, reading vs. spiritual transformation—intuitive for modern readers, but not appropriate to the Pāli Buddhist literary world of Buddhaghosa.

Heim’s compact volume falls into two sections. In chapters 1 and 2 (part 1), Heim introduces Buddhaghosa’s theory of scripture in a general sense. Chapter 1 focuses on Buddhaghosa’s concept of scripture as buddhavacana (“buddha-speech”), which is in turn dependent on understanding the Buddha to be “omniscient in the sense of possessing unobstructed and immeasurable knowledge” (33). Therefore, even fragmentary or elliptical texts from scripture expand without end to express immeasurable meanings when read well. Chapter 2 introduces a range of genre classifications and exegetical practices important to understanding Buddhaghosa’s commentarial writings, including distinctions between conventional or everyday teachings and those that express the “furthest sense” or analytical reduction of the Buddha’s teaching—these two are not ranked hierarchically for Buddhaghosa—and contextually specific versus abstract or universal modes of speech, to name just a few. Chapters 3-5 (part 2) build upon earlier chapters to provide detailed accounts of Buddhaghosa’s understanding of the three canonical genres (sutta, abhidharma, and vinaya). These chapters draw on the nidānas or introductory sections of Buddhaghosa’s major commentaries and supply illuminating readings of specific canonical texts or passages (i.e., the Brahmajāla Suttaand the vinaya story of the Brahman at Verañjā). In brief, according to Buddhaghosa (1), the suttanta teaches the Buddha’s wisdom with reference to the particular saṃsāric situations in which humans find themselves so its doctrines must be read within their narrative settings to be fully grasped; (2) abhidharma is for “disentangling the tangle” (144) of experience through analysis; and (3) vinaya (which develops from the Buddha’s omniscient knowledge of future times and skill in moral training) is to be practiced as if one were in his sanctified presence and, like sutta, always interpreted in relationship to the narrative settings supplied, especially the Buddha’s life story.

The broad contours and fine grain of Heim’s book are equally admirable. Her study, especially when paired with her previous book on Buddhaghosa, constitutes a comprehensive, sophisticated, and challenging introduction to a towering intellectual figure in South Asian Buddhism. Looking at the fine grain, Voice of the Buddha offers many insights and resources of great value to textual scholars of classical South Asian Buddhism, including: a primer on important exegetical principles in Buddhaghosa’s commentarial tradition (which Heim distills from the thicket of Buddhaghosa’s commentarial writings) (71-103); guidance for interpreting Buddhist doctrines such as dependent origination in relationship to rather than extruded from their narrative contexts (109-43); a sharp-eyed distinction between Theravāda abhidharma thought that, following Buddhaghosa, emphasizes knowledge of dharmas as an analytic tool leading to insight and the more ontologically oriented Sarvāstivāda abhidharma tradition that makes metaphysical claims (163-74); and a vivid analysis connecting the literary evocation of the Buddha’s presence in the vinaya to the practice of vinaya discipline that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in the scholarly literature (202-06). Heim is a scholar’s scholar. I urge any student of South Asian Buddhist texts who has not yet done so to engage Heim’s work without delay. 

While Heim’s exquisite book would provide wonderful stimulation for ethical philosophers, scholars thinking about scriptural exegesis in other traditions, or those working on comparative reading practices, she does not explicitly address or build bridges to those broader audiences here. Some of the work that Heim has published as article-length studies is comparative or outward facing, however, especially with respect to ethics and moral psychology. I hope that in the future Heim will also connect her work on Theravāda exegesis to larger comparative conversations about scriptural interpretation and reading practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Paris Langenberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maria Heim is Professor of Religion and Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader at Amherst College. She is the author of The Forerunner of All Things and Theories of the Gift in South Asia.


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