Thursday, December 22, 2016

Encyclopaedia Of Buddhism II

Looking at the Sri Lankan Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (SLEB) and all the more recent ones it’s immediately clear what the problem is. They cover all schools of Buddhism, Buddhist art, history, biographies, odd bits-and-pieces, as well as the actual Dhamma. All religions are diverse but Buddhism particularly so. The result is that trying to fit all this info into several volumes, let alone in one, in encyclopaedic detail, requires that most articles have to be kept small; in other words, they cannot be encyclopaedic. And that’s what we see in all the recent encyclopaedias. The solution? Well, as far as the Pali tradition goes, this is what I would like to see.   There should be an encyclopaedia which covers the Dhamma as presented in the Pali Tipitaka, and this would require at least three or four volumes. The translation of all Pali terms should be standardised, and where not, the reason for it explained. Articles on doctrine should be details, comprehensive and cross-referenced with other articles. Only a few articles should deal with the cultural and historical aspects of Buddhism; e.g. perhaps an article each on the history of Buddhism in Burma,  Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc. and perhaps several brief ones on the likes of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, etc.  The results of trying to fit everything in can be seen in the SLEB.  The article on ‘Love’ is just over six pages, the article on ‘Metta’ just over four pages, while the article on Mahathupa (a stupa in Anarudhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka) takes up 17 pages. This sort of emphasis on Sri Lankan history to the detriment of important aspects of Dhamma was absent in the first several volumes SLEB but is  painfully obvious in the recent ones. Quite frankly, Thai amulet superstitions, Sri Lankan healing rituals, Burmese nat worship, and the like,  would be more appropriate in a book on anthropology. Another thing that should be kept to a minimum is what might be called scholastic equivocation. Peter Harvey’s otherwise excellent An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics  is marred by this sort of thing. On  alcohol, meat-eating, violence, homosexuality, and numerous other issues, it’s all “The Dalai Lama says this”, “The American meditation teacher ABC says that”, “According to the Tibetan understanding…”, “In the Tantric tradition…” and so it proceeds so in the end we have no idea what Buddhist ethics teach.  Again we have the problem of trying to fit everything in, and in this case, even opinions.  The Dhamma as presented in the Pali Tipitaka is pretty clear on most doctrinal and ethical issues. Where this is not the case it is usually possible to detect historical development. For example, most of the suttas in the Majjhima are earlier than the Vimanavatthu and the Petavatthu and this should be acknowledged and explained. An encyclopaedia such as this would be of enormous help to the present and future generations of Western Buddhists trying to absorb the essence of the Dhamma. There are now enough scholars, including several outstanding ones in Sri Lanka, who would be capable of undertaking a project such as this.  
A few days ago I was  somewhat carried away in a daydream (I admit to sometimes doing this). I fantasised that I had won a lottery prize of $50 million, used the money to set up a foundation to produce an encyclopaedia, and that the first volume had just come off the press. Then the phone rung and I was abruptly brought back to reality. But one is allowed to dream sometimes isn’t one? 


reddweb said...

what do you think of some of the community projects on the net, such as:

I personally benifitted A LOT just having easily cross-referenced, and accessible, suttas.

Khemadhammo said...


Where has the encyclopedia been published? I have the version finished in the 90s,but i never was able to obtain all parts of the encyclopedia. You are referring to the encyclopedia started by Malalasekera,aren't you?


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Rebbweb, I think Access to Insight, Sutta Central and similar websites are excellent resources and hopefully there will be more of them. In several subjects Wikipedia is also excellent although their articles related to Buddhism are very uneven – going all the way from dreadful, to amateurish, to adequate, to excellent, hovering mainly around adequate. Many take no account of historical developments in doctrines, give few textural references other than the tired old Dhammapada and the Dalai Lama, and often treat subjects superficially. Hopefully there will be gradual improvements there. The high quality of some non-Buddhist articles show what can be done. Have a look at the otherwise comprehensive article Animal Rights which previously had no mention of Buddhism. Now it has two line on Buddhism (including the patently false claim that according to Buddhism “humans do not deserve preferential treatment over other living beings”, a good sized paragraph on Islam, and of course a great deal on the Western/Christian perspective. Buddhism has much to say on this issue but you’d never know it reading Wikipedia.

Dear Khemadhammo, yes I am referring to the encyclopaedia edited by G. P. Malalasekera and published by the government of Sri Lanka. And yes, as I pointed out, trying to get the full set takes time. Copies are on sale at the Ministry of Buddha Sasana (if you can wake up any of the staff to bother to get it for you) and from a few outlets in Colombo. The Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy may stock it too. Inquire from them.