I’ve been working on some scholars of early Buddhism, Joanna Jurewicz and Richard Gombrich (“What the Buddha Thought). I’ve been reading about the Buddhist concept of the 12 Nidanas. According to some scholars, the Buddhist concept was drawn form the Rg Veda and the Hindu myth of creation. Buddha’s use of the 12 Links was both a commentary and criticism: that if you follow the beliefs of the Brahmins, you are doomed to endlessly repeat this cycle indefinitely. Buddha proposed an alternate pratityasamutpada to the 12 Links that is simpler: “because this, that.” Everything has cause and effect, immediately, in this lifetime and beyond. Our karma, i.e. our intentional acts, have effects that ripple out to those distant form us in space and time, even beyond our lifetimes. By declaring that there is no atman, Buddha pulled the plug on the whole Vedic system of cosmology, creation and karma that depended on atman, and substituted his own teachings.
Basically, Gotama attempted to dismantle the entire system of Vedic cosmology, saying in so many words: “it’s stupid, it’s wrong and it doesn’t work”; and substituted his own teachings on ‘cause and effect”; “if this arises, that arises, if this ceases, that ceases.” He didn’t say there was no self; he said there is no atman, atman being the mythical creation of Brahman, the Creator, as a reflection of itself.
The Vedic creation myth goes that Brahman, being alone in existence, could not know himself. So it (he) created a mirror image of itself by which it could know itself. That “other self” is atman. When Buddha said there is no atman, he wasn’t saying there is no ‘self’ in the normal, human sense of the human psyche. He was saying there is no atman, no mythical creation of a being that reflects the nature of Brahman; atman is a myth, and it’s a stupid myth because not only is it wrong, it enslaves people in this endless cycle of religion and ritual sacrifice. The non-self that Buddha did teach was that self is an entirely conditioned phenomenon. We are impermanent and constantly changing; we are process, not object; everything we experience is process, not object.
And thus the whole Tibetan Buddhist teaching on emptiness and non-self is not only bunk in terms of western science, it’s not even what the Buddha taught. It’s a misunderstanding and misappropriation of Hindu Vedic mythology, couched within Buddhist language and scripture that has been completely misunderstood. I have been diligently trying to unlearn all the crap that I’ve been taught so far and striving to get it right, by going to the scholarship of modernist Theravadans.
Gombrich’s thesis in “What the Buddha Thought” was that Buddha was a revolutionary realist who “modernized” ancient Vedic cosmology, creating instead an empirical version of cosmology. It seems obvious to us today because as modernists, we are already empiricists. Of course everything has a cause and effect, of course everything changes. This is completely ordinary to us, but it was radical in Buddha’s day. The relevant teaching for us today is “question everything, especially question everything that is religious, mythical, and makes no sense from the point of view of empirical experience.”
(Gombrich’s book is a pdf free to download here: http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/What%20the%20Buddha%20Thought_Gombrich_2009.pdf )
But not all Buddhist traditions got this wrong. The Theravadins didn’t misunderstand it because they understood the cultural milieu that Buddha was speaking to, and so they could distinguish between what Buddha was criticizing about Vedic religion and what he supported, or what had no opinion about. The British Theravadins, which include Stephen Batchelor, Richard Gombrich, John Peacock and others, also understand the difference. Dr. Ambedkar and the modern scholars of Sri Lanka also understand the difference. “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula was the basis for Richard Gombrich’s “What the Buddha Thought.” Rahula was a Sri Lanka Theravada scholar and Gombrich’s teacher. So there is a tradition of Buddhism that understood much of what the Buddha correctly from the start in the Pali canon, and it has been even more refined with modern scholarship in the 20th and 21st century. There are aspects of ancient Theravada that are also mythical and religious, and those need to be corrected by modernist scholarship.
“What the Buddha Taught” can be dowloaded as a pdf for free here: http://www.dhammaweb.net/books/Dr_Walpola_Rahula_What_the_Buddha_Taught.pdf
The following is from “Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic thought”, by Joanna Jurewicz, Journal of the Pali Text Society 26 (2000) pp. 77 – 103, Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Vol. I, P. Williams, 2005
This is very difficult stuff, especially if you’re not familiar with the Rg Veda, but Jurewicz does a very thorough job of explaining the differences between the Vedic concept of dependent origination and the Buddhist concept.