Buddhist Scriptures as Literature, Sacred Rhetoric

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Buddhist Scriptures as Literature, Sacred Rhetoric

Post by gavesako » Tue Oct 09, 2012 7:57 am

Buddhist Scriptures as Literature
Sacred Rhetoric and the Uses of Theory
Ralph Flores - Author


Looks at a variety of Buddhist sacred writings as literature and includes insights from literary theory.

Buddhist Scriptures as Literature explores the drama, lyricism, and compelling storylines in Buddhist sacred writings, while illustrating how rhetoric and ideology are at work in shaping readers’ reactions. Ralph Flores argues that the Buddha’s life story itself follows an archetypal quest-romance pattern: regal surroundings are abandoned and the ensuing feats are heroic. The story can be read as an epic, but it also has a comic plot: confusions and trials until the Prince becomes utterly selfless, having found his true element—nirvana. Making use of contemporary literary theory, Flores offers new readings of texts such as the Nikāyas,the Dhammapada, the Heart Sutra, Zen koans, Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.Understanding these works as literature deepens our sense of the unfolding of their teachings, of their exuberant histories, and of their relevance for contemporary life.

“…a fascinating look at Buddhist literature in general … [Flores] explores the drama, lyricism and storylines in Buddhist sacred literature while illustrating how rhetoric and ideology are at work in shaping the reader’s reactions … an interesting and thought-provoking book.” — Journal of the Buddhist Society

Ralph Flores teaches literature at Thammasat University in Thailand and is the author of A Study of Allegory in Its Historical Context and Relationship to Contemporary Theory.

Table of Contents


1. Fictions of Reading: Westerners and Buddhist Texts

2. A Prince Transformed: The Nikāyas, the Nidānakathā, Aśvaghoşa’s Acts of the Buddha

3. The Buddha Awakening: The Nikāyas

4. Winning Conversions: The Nikāyas

5. Passing on: The Nikāyas

6. Figures of Right Speech: The Dhammapada

7. Joyous Negations: The Heart Sutra

8. Masters of Emptiness: The Gateless Barrier and Zen Folktales

9. Extreme Giving: The Vessantara Jātaka and Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

10. Final Emergency Reading: The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Epilogue: Images in the Reader

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Literary fabrication has always been at the heart of the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha was, as Flores notes, a master of images, a storyteller par excellence, and many tales from the Pāli Buddhist texts that are often read straight should be better read precisely as stories. The example that Flores gives is that of the well-known tale of Kisā Gotamī, the bereaved mother who asks the Buddha to cure her sick child. The Buddha asks her to bring as medicine a mustard seed from a house in which no one has ever died. If she can find such a seed, the Buddha will make a medicine to cure her distress. Kisā Gotamī goes from door to door and, as she does so, eventually learns that there is no house in which no one has died, that death is universal, and through this realisation her grief is, if not eradicated, at least diminished. Flores makes clear that the story does not ring true on several levels, and points out that it is rather more convincing if understood as itself a kind of medicine, as a form of 'skilful means' rather than as an autobiographical or historical account.

Yet once one admits that, in dealing with a great deal of Buddhist literature, we are dealing not with Gradgrindish facts, but instead with stories, Flores is well aware that questions concerning the orthodoxy of interpretation come to the fore, questions about the ways in which the reading of stories is policed. For if the guardians of orthodoxies of all kinds have long recognised that they need stories to do their work, it is also the case that stories are unruly beasts by nature, and that they do not always do their masters’ bidding.

Bearing all this in mind, Flores sets out to re-read (and perhaps to deliberately misread) Buddhist texts, from the Nikāyas and the Heart Sutra to the ‘Final Emergency Reading’ of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, aware that he may along the way be treading on a few orthodox toes. His approach to reading is eclectic, drawing from such thickets of difficulty as rhetorical analysis, Russian formalism, reader-response theory and psychoanalysis, as well as literary texts that are more familiar to Western readers such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the works of Kafka and Conrad, in an attempt to ‘discern in Buddhist texts the cross-culturally understandable work of literary figures, storytellers, dramatists, rhetoricians, and poets’ (9).

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Bhikkhu Gavesako
Kiṃkusalagavesī anuttaraṃ santivarapadaṃ pariyesamāno... (MN 26)

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Re: Buddhist Scriptures as Literature, Sacred Rhetoric

Post by tiltbillings » Tue Oct 09, 2012 8:02 am

Looks like a fun read. Thanks.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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