Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism


Dr. Peter Masefield’s groundbreaking study, Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, has become a standard-bearer for those who approach the early narratives of Buddhism, not exclusively through the torch of Historical-Critical-Analysis, but through a direct and synthesized correlation of what transpires in those sacred chronicles via a series of recurring themes and general non-sectarian mystical vantage points. Masefield contends that his study is a revaluation and a re-mythologization of what mainstream academia shuns and holds as anathema to their rigid methodologies. One reviewer writes:

[There are] typically vicious exchanges concerning him on the notorious Free Sangha forum, dominated by the usual anti-intellectualism and pettiness with which I, as a past participant in that forum, am all too familiar. I picked up the book out of a desire to learn about the worldview of the Nikayas, the same desire that had led me to enroll in an introduction to the Pali Canon course offered by the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies here in Toronto, now defunct. I was shocked then by the ignorance, viciousness, mediocrity, and reprehensible social views of the professor who, rather than teaching us the worldview of the Pali Canon, which he did not know in any case, having obtained his Ph.D. in education, trotted out a handful of stock lists and called it a course.

Unfortunately, in the world of Buddhist academics this is the norm. Online forums of professional academic translators debate enthusiastically over minutiae of footnotes, but have no understanding or even interest in what they translate, such understanding being berated as “subjective,” “culturally relative,” “arbitrary,” and “meaningless.” One searches Amazon.com in vain for a single comprehensive study of the Pali Canon. The only scholar I know of that I might compare with Dr. Masefield is Richard Gombrich, who has also earned the ire of the fundamentalists, both inside and outside academe, for his searching inquiry and speculative originality. [Review of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, by Peter Masefield (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986; rpt. Routledge, 2008)]

The general outline of Masefield’s study that we will cover in this series is as follows:

  1. The real bifurcation in the Buddhist world at that time was not between the monk and the layman, but rather one that invokes a deeper “spiritual significance.” As Masefield expounds:

In the first chapter I seek to show that the spiritual division of the Buddhist world was represented in the Nikayas not by that of monk and layman but by that of ariyasāvaka* and puthujjana. It was the ariyasāvaka* alone who was in possession of right view* in the sense that he had seen the impermanence of the phenomenal world, the existence of a Sanctuary lying beyond that realm of impermanence and also the path leading to that sanctuary. Only the ariyasāvaka* is on the path to nibbāna, the path to the cessation of rebirth. The puthujjana, on the other hand, lacking this vision of the ariyasāvaka* remains ignorant of the existence of that path *. He does not see things as they really are* and instead remains attached to ensnaring sensual delights, treading at best the path of merit that leads to continued rebirth within samsara. This spiritual division transcends the purely social one of monk and layman since many laymen and devas were ariyasāvakas* and many monks puthujjanas. In order to emphasize this distinction and, moreover, to isolate technical terms applicable only to the ariyasāvaka* I have made use of the asterisk (*): any term bearing an asterisk is to be understood as either denoting a particular variety of ariyasāvaka* – such as the arahant*- or an epithet or attribute exclusive to the ariyasāvaka* – for instance that he alone treads the ariyan* eightfold path*. (Masefield, pgs. xvii-vviii)

  1. Right-view* as articulated by Masefield concerns the awakening to an event horizon—the opening of the Dhamma-vision, as well as stream entry:

Indeed upon examination of those instances recording the acquisition of right view* by a given individual we always find that it was acquired at the end of a specially tailored oral initiation by the Buddha in which he first descended to the level of the individual concerned and, by means of a progressive talk, gradually guided him into a state of consciousness in which he could see for himself the impermanence of the phenomenal world, the sanctuary beyond and the path* thereto. At this moment he became an ariyasāvaka*, a hearer of the roar of the Timeless Beyond. It was this insight* granted by the Buddha that formed the right view* of the path*. (ibid, pg. xviii)

  1. Masefield contends that right view* is only authentic when it occurs in the presence of a living Buddha—i.e., “hearing the Buddhadharma” from a genuine spiritual personage.
  1. While right view* is *sealed* through the Dhamma of sound—Dhammasota, or fine-tuning the inner Dharma-ear that is instilled with the heightened Buddha-gnosis (Parato ghosa) of deathlessness, one still needs to receive an additional Spiritual Blessing from the Buddha before realizing Nibbāna. All this reinforces Masefield’s assertion that no amount of spiritual practice is sufficient without that added “singular-touch” that emanates from the Buddha’s presence.

Before proceeding further, I think it best to note some of those general criticisms of Masefield’s own methodology. Many scholars shun him because they consider his approach to be rather naive, generally devoid as it is from a “higher” historical-critical analysis. They contend that Masefield’s insistence that the Buddha needs to be present in order to confer Buddha-gnosis is way-off the mark, since most of his discourses were given by his disciples in his absence. Rather, THEY miss the mark in failing to discern that the furtherance of the Buddha-dharma is associated with those disciples who had *direct-association* with Gautma Buddha and hence are his spiritual descendants expounding IN HIS SPIRIT. Not only that, but anytime the sacred texts are read AND heard, the Buddha IS THERE in the midst of those who hear, thoroughly digest, and then later become the Sotāpanna*, or those converted in both mind and spirit. These academic-personages take great umbrage that since in their “qualified” understanding, Sotāpanna exclusively means “entering the stream”, and that Masefield’s rendering ridiculously implies “one who has entered the ear”!  What they fail to comprehend here is that, rather, it essentially means one “who hears and attunes with” the Tathatic-Mindstream. Not just by hearing through the skandhic-ear. <grin>

What we will hopefully come to discern in this series is that Masefield’s views do not contradict a Right Understanding of the Buddhadharma, but actually *enhances* the singular transfiguration of what spiritually transpires between the Buddha and those who aspire to right view* (through the Dhamma-ear, Dhamma-sota) of his revered wisdom. What the purportedly superior academic technician sorely fails to recognize, the genuine mystic successfully acquires by virtue of *Divine Revelation*.

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2 Responses to Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism

  1. Mark Collenburg Monteiro says:

    Thanks! What a fantastic vision of Buddhism, of the living tradition! I recall my one encounter with a Zen leader/master, and another social contact with a Korean Zen nun. Besides my own heteropraxy, those encounters strike me as having played a significant part in a “baptism” like way.

    If I can ever get my hands on these books, I´ll be blessed, living abroad now as I do.

    • Vajragoni says:

      Glad to be of service. Also, if you check-out our Unborn Mind Library (top right link), I’m sure you will discover many useful resources. Best to you on your journey.

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