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LEONARD C. D. C. PRIESTLEY: Pudgalavāda Buddhism: the reality of the indeterminate self. 225 pp. Toronto: Centre for South Asian Studies, 1999. -

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LEONARD C. D. C. PRIESTLEY: Pudgalavāda Buddhism: the reality of the indeterminate self. 225 pp. Toronto: Centre for South Asian Studies, 1999. - - Volume 64 Issue 3 - Sean Gaffney
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Pudgalavāda Buddhism: The reality of the indeterminate self, Leonard C.D.C. Priestley,
Toronto: Centre for South Asian Studies, 1999, pp. 255.
Review by Sean Gaffney. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 64, 2001,
pp. 420-421.
This work explores the interpretations and meaning of the doctrine of the pudgala 'self' as
maintained by those Buddhist schools subsumed under the name of Pudgalavādins. Given
the almost universal acceptance by other Buddhist schools of the doctrine of anātma it is
interesting to see how the Pudgalavādin doctrine of the pudgala found a place within
Buddhism. From as early as the third century BCE up to the twelfth century CE the
Pudgalavādin schools flourished in India. They were by no means a minor group but
formed perhaps as many as a quarter of all monks in India during the seventh century CE
according to the Chinese monk and historian Hsuan-tsang.
The author begins with a definition of the doctrine of anātma 'non-self', using the Pāli
Nikāyas to elaborate the concept of ātman in early Buddhism. He then considers the
origin of the Pudgalavādins and their possible founder. The different kinds of specialists,
such as the vinaya-dhara, sutta-dhara and vipassanā-dhara traditions, who would have
had their own perspectives on what was important in the Buddha’s teaching, are shown as
examples of the inherent diversity of approach in the Buddhist tradition. The author
indicates the problem of the absence of any central authority in Buddhism and proposes
that this may have lead to the emergence of divergent views. The term Pudgalavādin is
shown to be an appellation applied to a group of five schools that stem from the Sthaviras.
The Vātsputrīyas, perhaps founded by the teacher Vatsīputra, were the first of these
schools that came to be classed as Pudgalavādins.
The basic doctrine of the Vātsīputrīya school, which distinguishes it from the other
Buddhist schools, concerns the concept of the pudgala. For the other Buddhist schools
this concept is considered to be a conventional usage of the term that has no ultimate
referent or significance, it is only a conventional way of referring to the five skandhas
'aggregates' as a group of dharmas collectively. For the Vātsīputrīyas, however, the
pudgala is an ultimately existent entity that is indeterminate, that is to say it is neither the
same as nor different from the five skandhas. The author points out the difficulty for the
modern scholar in dealing with these historical and doctrinal issues when he says, p. 41.
“We have a natural tendancy to regard the views of the Pudgalavāda as anomolous”. Our
contemporary understanding of the Pudgalavādin doctrines is based on historical
accidents in the textual transmission of the texts of the Buddhist schools.
The textual sources for the study fall under three headings. First, the three surviving
Pudgalavādin treatises in Chinese translation, the Sāṃmitīya-nikāya-śāstra,
Tridharmakhaṇḍaka, and the Vinayadvāviṃśativyakti. Second, the summary of the
Pudgalavādin doctrines contained in the different accounts of the formation of the
schools, the Samaya-bheda-uparacanacakra that survives in Chinese and Tibetan, and the
Nikāya-bheda-vibhaga-vyākhyāna and the Samaya-bheda-uparacanacakre nikāya-
bhedopadarśanasagraha also surviving only in Tibetan translation. The third class of
source texts are the polemical works, the Vijñanakāya in Chinese, and the Kathāvatthu in
Pāli being the earliest of these. Ten later śāstra and commentarial works surviving in
Chinese, Tibetan or Sanskrit have been utilised in his study. The author discusses the
problems of the three types of source text, concluding that the first group lack any full or
coherent presentaion of the pudgala doctrine; the second group are particular
interpretations of the Pudgalavādin doctrines by other schools; the works of the third
group are for the most part overtly polemical treatises.
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His discussion of the concept of the pudgala in Buddhist thought examines exactly how
the pudgala was presented and defined by the Pudgalavādins, and by other schools and
commentators over a long period of Buddhist history. The essential role of the pudgala
for the Pudgalavādins is as sufferer of karma and subject of rebirth. This is how the
Pudgalavādins solve the problems, of retribution of actions and continuity between lives,
that they perceived in Buddhist philosophy. The Pudgalavādins postulated the pudgala as
a self that was inexpressible, in that it cannot be said to be the same as, nor different from,
the five skandhas. This was anathema to the other Buddhist schools, and extracts from
their texts show where they disagreed with the Pudgalavādins. The author admits that
some of the key Chinese source texts are difficult to interprete in many sections, so that
there is considerable doubt as to the precise meaning of many passages. He does however
offer some interesting hypotheses by way of trying to determine the different
understandings of the various useages of the terms in the texts.
The philosophical status of the pudgala is discussed by focussing on the way in which
the Pudgalavādins considered the pudgala to exist. The Pudgalavādins are shown to have
defined the pudgala as being true and ultimate, substantial, conceptual and indeterminate.
The author proposes at p. 87 a three-stage devlopment of the Pudgalavādin concept of
pudgala. First, that they began with a pudgala that was true and ultimate; second, that
they underwent a change where it was neither considered as conceptual nor substantial;
and third, concluded that it was substantial but indeterminate. The overall conclusion
drawn here presents a novel solution to the question of how exactly the pudgala was
viewed by the Pudgalavādins at different points in their history.
The author does not intend to give a full survey of the history and doctrines of the
Pudgalavādins, but only to focus on their conception of pudgala. This study represents a
valid attempt to reconstruct and interpret the doctrine of the pudgala, perhaps the most
contentious doctrine in the history of Indian Buddhism. He has been at pains to give as
accurate a representation of the doctrines of the Pudgalavādin school as possible. The
result is an interesting survey of the source materials that deal with the central doctrines
of that school, and which will have relevence until such time as other texts are discovered
that shed more light on this lost Buddhist school. What also comes to light during his
study is the way in which the in teachings were understood by a range of different schools
over a considerable period of time. The author is fully aware of the sectarian, fragmentary
and polemical nature of the texts that form the basis of this study, and is careful to
distinguish between the various approaches to the Pudgalavādins.
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