In response to David (and BlackBird's and everyone else)...
First of all, let me clarify that I am not questioning or challenging your commitment to and faith in the Nikayas per se, nor am I implying that you ought not profess it, as you are doing.
David N. Snyder wrote:
Of course everyone's engagement is through their cultural lens and filter, but just as scholars attempt to be objective as possible, I think practitioners can also attempt to be as objective as possible. There are numerous translations of the Tipitaka and just as we do peer review and look at case replications in academia, we can do the same with translations. We can look at varying translations and look for the most objective and analyze where there might be some differences and then and make some conclusions.
Yes... the point I wanted to make is that professional scholars or not, we are in fact engaging in the same activity. We all know fully well how we can give ourselves an air of legitimacy if we present our views in a scholarly manner, quoting, referencing, etc - and in fact, how often have we dismissed the views of others if they fail to meet such norms? It is a game that we knowingly play.
In which case, a distinction between those who are scholars and those who are practitioners becomes blurred. More precisely, it becomes problematic to use that distinction to claim that because one is a 'practitioner' who focuses on the Buddhist Canon as the main point of reference, one is therefore 'practicing' and not just 'mere studying'. This is a claim that I have observed from time to time, though it may be articulated in an implicit manner.
And yes, as far as we can tell, the Nikayas represent the earliest teachings of the Buddhadhamma that can be dated. There is nothing wrong with pledging commitment to this body of Buddhist knowledge. However, as all the links above point out, there are many conditionings influencing how a particular corpus is regarded as 'authentic' and 'authoritative'. And these conditionings are by no means 'just so' or self-evident:
- What are the factors influencing the selection and translation of teachings? We may be carefully studying translations, or analysing the texts carefully. But in order for us to even be able to perform this, a network of conditions must be in place.
- What research paradigms were employed in the process by which Buddhism is today recognised as 'Buddhism'? And this question cuts across various fields of knowledge, not just philology. The understandings of history, philosophy, archaeology, religion studies, anthropology, literary studies, etc. While all these fields of knowledge are not directly involved in the translation of Dhamma texts per se, they provide the FRAMEWORK OF INTELLIGIBILITY through which we make sense of the Nikayas or the Mahayana corpus or whatever. And these fields of understanding are all grappling with their own set of problems: questions about historiography and how we perceive the history of others; the limits of reason and metaphysical traps of language; ways of dating artefacts; whether 'religion' is an adequate term for describing non-Euro, non-Christocentric traditions or if doing so reflects Westerncentric conceits and colonial bad habits; whether one ought to make assessments about another culture vis-a-vis one's own culture as an 'insider' or 'outsider'; whether one mode of interpreting text can be universalised for all kinds of texts, regardless of cultural or historical contexts, etc, etc...
Regardless of whether we chose to engage with them or not, the kinds of understandings generated by these fields of knowledge reverberate across the cultural sphere to frame and influence the way we relate to the Dhamma. So when one says that one's preferred approach to the Dhamma is more factual or direct or transparent than another, a whole host of shifting conditionings are already at play. To ignore these conditions when asserting one's preferred interpretation is in effect to elevate one's reading to a transcendental
position - and yet, this has been done to decry the transcendentalizing habits of others!
To be clear, this is not to say that one cannot choose to regard one's preferred approach as more 'factual' or 'direct' or 'transparent', if this is indeed how one's faith is informed and inspired. No one should be denied their profession of faith, whether it be a faith that is inspired by the metaphorical or actual. The question is more precisely how does one go about evaluating the relative merits and flaws of one approach with another: do we do so in a way that is mindful of our MUTUAL CONDITIONALITY