On my dissertation committee, Janet Gyatso always had perceptive comments to make, usually coming from many different directions. The one line of criticism that she pursued throughout the dissertation process was about authorship: she was visibly dissatisfied that I had chosen to pursue the diss as a study of a single author, Śāntideva. The point extended beyond my dissertation as well: early on in my PhD, I gave her a paper that explained it would treat the Yoga Sūtras together with their Yoga Bhāṣya commentary as an “internally coherent,” and she commented “you can’t do that.” In other classes focused on reading texts, she would tell her students that the class would not look for coherence – they would not be asking questions of the form “if the text says x here, how can it say y over here when the two contradict each other?”
One can always argue the details of this textual question in any given case. In Śāntideva’s case it’s not only a matter of arguing whether “his” two major works (the Bodhicaryāvatāra and the Śikṣā Samuccaya) were written by the same person; it’s also the fact that these texts may themselves be the work of multiple writers, in that there’s an early version of the Bodhicaryāvatāra (the “Dunhuang recension”) which differs from the received version known to tradition. But there’s an issue here much bigger than the interpretation of any one thinker: should one even try to find the coherent views of an individual author?
Gyatso greatly admired the works of Jacques Derrida, who threw doubt on the idea of authorship, and often focused on the “margins” of texts in order to highlight inconsistencies and ways in which the texts break down. Her course on Buddhist philosophy highlighted parallels between the work of Derrida and of Nāgārjuna. In some respects it’s not hard to see why: Derrida questions the idea of the subject or self, as most Buddhist thinkers do. If the self is unreal, as so many Buddhist thinkers have said, then so is the author. Thus perhaps Śāntideva’s disavowal of his own originality and profundity at the beginning of the Bodhicaryāvatāra. (I have tended to insist that the difference between Derrida and Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy is that Madhyamaka has a point. But that’s a topic for another time.)
It does help, I think, to be careful with questions of authorship – to think carefully about what one means when one speaks of “Śāntideva” (or “Plato”), when the texts come to us from such questionable sources. But I also think it’s all too easy to take the point too far. When one discards the search for coherence entirely, one discards most of one’s ability to learn from the texts one reads.
From the first draft of my proposal to the final draft of my dissertation, my research was guided by this quote from Thomas Kuhn:
When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answer, I continue, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning. (from p. xii of his The Essential Tension)
Significant words here include “important thinker” and “sensible person.” You might find plenty of contradictions or other absurdities in the ramblings of an everyday, average person. But the writers of great works like the Bodhicaryāvatāra put a lot of thought into those works, and their value has repeatedly been discovered anew by thinkers in the generations that follow them. They’re not going to drop random inconsistencies into their work and just think “oh, that’s okay.” If there are contradictions, they’re going to be there for a good reason; at the very least, contradictions need to be explained.
It was this method of looking for coherence that allowed me to find what I think is the most innovative and important part of my dissertation’s interpretation of Śāntideva: the idea that gifts benefit the recipient through the gift encounter and not the gift object. I was looking at the combination of Śāntideva’s advice that material goods are harmful, and the fact that he urges one to give those gifts to others for their own benefit. Was there a way these two ideas could go together without contradicting each other? Sure enough, there was – you just had to get rid of the idea, which seems like common sense to us but not to Śāntideva, that the purpose of gift-giving is to ensure that the recipient possesses the gift. I could have shrugged my shoulders and said “well, this is a composite text, of course it contradicts itself.” But if I had, if I hadn’t taken contradiction in the important thinker as a problem, I wouldn’t have seen what I came to see.
As far as I know, it was just such an approach that led Kuhn to write his most famous work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As a physicist, Kuhn was trying to read Aristotle’s Physics, and found it full of what appeared to be unpardonable errors in logic and observation. Just from looking at the world around him, Aristotle should have known better. Now Kuhn could easily have said “well, we all contradict ourselves and make dumb mistakes; why should we expect better of Aristotle?” But he didn’t. He did expect better from the thinker whose works had been taken as canonical for a thousand years, and rightly so. Once he did, it fell into place: Aristotle was asking entirely different questions, for different purposes, from the questions a Newtonian physicist would ask. Aristotle’s work would make perfect sense if one’s underlying assumptions changed.
More broadly, I think, it’s this search for coherence in the great and admired minds of the past that leads us to find genuinely new insights, ones that change our current perspective. In constructive study, where one seeks to learn from a tradition and not merely about it, there is always the danger that one will only find what one was already looking for – pick out the ideas one already agrees with, and not be challenged by them. One of the best ways to avoid this, to learn something genuinely new, is to focus on those “apparent absurdities,” the things that don’t make sense, and ask how somebody intelligent could have believed them. One might not come to believe in the thing one thought was absurd; but one will likely come to see the world in a new way that will challenge other ideas.