One of my favorite novels of all time is Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban. The events of the story take place approximately 2000 years after "the 1 Big 1," i.e., a thermonuclear holocaust which resulted in the collapse of modern civilization. At the time of the narrative the people of southeastern England ("Inland") are just in the process of transitioning from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, and the government of the region is led by two men called the "Pry Mincer" and the "Wes Mincer," who travel around the countryside giving puppet shows based on the religion/mythology of the people, the Eusa Story. The book is surreal. It's very strange. Plus it's written in the degenerate English of 2000+ years from now. I figure this last factor alone causes most people who attempt to read the book to give up before getting very far with it.
I like the book mainly because it's bizarre and imaginitive, and because it's about a world very different from ours in many if not most respects. It doesn't obviously, superficially have much Dharma to it, although Dharma and wisdom may be found literally anywhere, if we are receptive.
For example, there are some big, obvious reflections on impermanence and dukkha that can be very powerful—not because of moralizing on these subjects, but because of their stark portrayal in the story. There's also another interesting reflection with a clear bearing on Theravada Buddhism; and that is with regard to commentarial traditions.
In the story, one of the arcana secretly possessed by the government is a copied description of a painting which depicts the legend of Saint Eustace, originally on a wall in the cathedral of Canterbury ("Cambry"), which is the primary origin of the Eusa story. The religion of the people is centered on Eusa, a great-spirited man who worked for Mr Clevver (or, in more modern terms, a scientist who worked for a morally bankrupt government), tragically split "Addom the littl shyning man" (the atom), and then, after the 1 Big 1 (the nuclear disaster) became a wandering, Cain-like pariah. But the copied legend is as follows:
The Legend of St. Eustace
The legend of St Eustace dates from the year A.D. 120 and this XVth-century wall painting depicts with fidelity the several episodes in his life. The setting is a wooded landscape with many small hamlets; a variety of wild creatures are to be seen and a river meanders to the open sea.
1. At the bottom of the painting St Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry, a stag, between whose antlers appears, on a cross of radiant light, the figure of the crucified Saviour. The succeeding episodes lead up to his martyrdom.
2. The Saint and his family appear before the Bishop of Rome renouncing their worldly possessions and becoming outcasts.
3. His wife is taken off by pirates in a ship; on the right the father and sons stand praying on the shore.
4. St Eustace and his boys reach a river swollen by torrents. Having swum to the opposite side with one of the children, he returns for the other. As he reaches the middle of the stream a wolf runs off with the child he has left. He looks back and beholds a lion in the act of carrying off the other child. We see St Eustace praying in the midst of the river.
5. Fifteen years pass by. St Eustace has recovered his wife and sons and is the victorious general of the Emperor Hadrian, who orders a great sacrifice to the gods in honour of his victories. Eustace and his family refuse to offer incense. We see them being roasted to death in a brazen bull. The Emperor Hadrian stands on the left with a drawn sword in his hand.
6. At the top of the painting two angels hold a sheet containing the four souls; the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descends to receive them into heaven.
The date of the painting is about 1480; the work is highly skilled in an English tradition and is a magnificent example of wall painting of this date.
The government, consisting of some grubby semi-barbarians who are much more illiterate than otherwise, try to make sense of this, believing it to be of vital importance in understanding the world's situation, and how to make it right. They see it as a kind of parable or cipher, explaining in mysterious terms the 1 Big 1, and maybe also the 1 Littl 1. The 1 Big 1 was obviously a very bad thing, and nobody wants that again; but a faction in the government is trying feverishly to develop the 1 Little 1, thinking that that might really help civilization to get back on its feet. (The 1 Littl 1, incidentally, is gunpowder—although nobody in the story quite knows what it is or what it does.) Of course they profoundly lack the knowledge necessary to make an accurate interpretation of the Legend. The following account is from a scene in which Abel Goodparley, the Pry Mincer, explains to the narrator and protagonist Riddley his best attempt at an intelligent interpretation.
Wel soons I begun to read it I had to say, 'I dont even know ½ these words. Whats a Legend? How dyou say a guvner S with a littl t?'
Goodparley said, 'I can as plain the mos of it to you. Some parts is easyer workit out nor others theres bits of it wewl never know for cern jus what they mean. What this writing is its about some kynd of picter or dyergam which we dont have that picter all we have is the writing. Parbly that picter ben some kynd of a seakert thing becaws this here writing (I dont mean the writing youre holding in your han I mean the writing some time back way back what this is wrote the same as) its cernly seakert. Its blipful it aint jus only what it seams to be its the syn and foller of some thing else. A Legend thats a picter whats depicted which is to say pictert on a wall its done with some kynd of paint callit fidelity. St is short for sent. Meaning this bloak Eustace he dint jus tern up he wer sent. A.D. 120 thats the year count they use to have it gone from Year 1 right the way to Bad Time. A.D. means All Done. 120 years nor they never got it finisht til 1480 is what it says here wel you know there aint no picter cud take 1360 years to do these here year numbers is about some thing else may be wewl never know what.…
…'XVth century parbly thats old spel for some kynd of senter where they done this thing theyre telling of in this blipful writing. Episodes thats when you do a thing 1 part at a time youve got to get the 1st episode done befor you go on to the nex. Thats how youwl do if youre working chemistery or fizzics. Youwl do your boyl ups and your try outs in episodes, "Wooded landscape with many small hamlets." Wel thats littl pigs innit then theres a variety which thats like a pack or a herd and creatures thats creachers parbly dogs. May be Folleree and Folleroo in that pack who knows. May be them littl pigs is the many cools and party cools weare looking for becaws this here is blipful writing it aint strait. "Meanders to the open sea." Mazy ways to a open see meaning a look see is what I take that to mean. Whatre we follering them mazy ways for? Have a look right here now weare coming on to the nuts and balls of the thing weare coming to the hart of the matter and the Hart of the Wud where them dogs is on the foller of them littl pigs.…
…'"St Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry." Which a quarry is a kynd of digging. Whys he on his knees? What brung him down what knockt him off his feet? What come out of that digging? A stag. Wel thats our Hart of the Wud innit we know him wel a nuff. Whats he got be twean his antlers its "a cross of radiant light". Which is the same as radiating lite or radiation which may be youve heard of.'…
…'Wel we all know from our oan Eusa Story where you fynd the Hart of the Wud youwl fynd a shyning in be twean his horns. Which that shyning is the Littl Shyning Man the Addom. Only in this Legend its callit "the figure of the crucified Saviour". Figure is a word means moren 1 thing and 1 of the things it means is number. Number of the crucified Saviour….
…'I never thot this Legend ben anything moren a picter story about a bloak with a name near the same as Eusa. Nor I dint know nothing of chemistery nor fizzics then I hadnt payd no tension to it. Any how I wer reading over this here Legend like I use to do some times and I come to "the figure of the crucified Saviour". Number of the crucified Saviour and wunnering how that be come the Littl Shyning Man the Addom. Suddn it jumpt into my mynd "A littl salting and no saver". I dint have no idear what crucified myt be nor up to then I hadnt give Saviour much thot I thot it myt mean some 1 as saves only that dint connect with nothing. Id never put it to gether with saver like in savery. Not sweet. Salty. A salt crucified. I gone to the chemistery working I askit 1 Stoan Phist that wer Belnots dad what crucified myt be nor he wernt cern but he thot itwd be some thing you done in a cruciboal. 1st time Id heard the word. Thats a hard firet boal they use it doing a chemistery try out which you cud call that crucifrying or crucifying. Which that crucified Saviour or crucifryd salt thats our Littl Shyning Man him as got pult in 2 by Eusa. So "the figure of the crucified Saviour" is the number of the salt de vydit in 2 parts in the cruciboal and radiating lite coming acrost on it. The salt and the saver. 1ce youve got that salt youre on your way to the woal chemistery and fizzics of it. Right up to your las try out which is the brazen bull which is to say your brazing boal and the chard coal. But thats all tecker knowledging realy you wunt hardly unner stan it nor I wont wear you out with it. Youve got to do your take off and your run off and your carry off. Which is wrote in the story its the wife took off by pirates and the wolf run off with 1 littl boy and the lion carrit off the other. The wife is the sof and the sweet you see which is took off by the sharp and the salty. Them pirates and wolfs and lions theyre all assits theyre all sharp and biting its all chemistery in there. Them 2 littl boys theyre what they call "catwl twis" which is what you put in to qwicken on your episodes. Right thru that part of it Eusa hes whats lef after the takings hes having his res and due. Finely after the brazing boal you get your four souls which is your 4 salts gethert. Man and wife and littl childer coming back to gether for the las time thats your new clear family it aint the 1 you startit with its the finement of it in to shyning gethert to the 1 Big 1. Mynd you all this what Im saying its jus theary which I mean we aint done nothing with it yet we cudnt cud we we aint had the parper salts and that.'
Clearly Mr. Goodparley's endeavor is a hopeless case. He gets some of the points right, more or less, like the meanings of depicted and episode, but nobody has any idea of how far, far away they are from understanding the inscription, let alone nuclear physics.
Yet this kind of ignorant, fanciful interpretation is not found only in fiction. When reading the scene above I was reminded of all the strange interpretations of Genesis and the Book of Revelation that have been published, endorsed, and vehemently believed by all sorts of people, including intelligent, well-educated ones. (I think it would be interesting to see a book anthologizing various interpretations of the Apocalypse of Saint John, or of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis. I assume both books have already been written, and are out there somewhere.) Even movie symbolism, song lyrics—even advertising logos—are interpreted by modern people to suit whatever religious theory, philosophical theory, or conspiracy theory strikes their fancy.
So it should be no surprise to learn that this kind of well-meaning groping in the dark has crept into even orthodox Theravada Buddhism. The venerable monks who compiled and edited the commentarial literature, thereby laying down the official party line of Theravada, lived several centuries after the time of Gotama Buddha, in a significantly different environment and culture. Most of them were native to Sri Lanka or south India, and were unfamiliar with phenomena peculiar to the Ganges valley many hundreds of years before them. So they were often required to guess when interpreting information in the Pali texts, and their guesses were occasionally blind stabs in the dark, hardly better than Abel Goodparley's. Yet for the most part they were not inclined to specify that they were guessing; the best they would do, occasionally, was to offer more than one possible interpretation. But generally the commentators simply clothed their guesses, or the guesses of those who came before them, as knowledgeable, authoritative explanations.
I won't fling myself into more controversy than is convenient by giving as an example some arguably cardinal blunder of the commentators, since the more important the tenet that is interpreted (or misinterpreted), the more faithful, conservative traditionalists will be reluctant to acknowledge it. Plus I don't want this to be a manifesto or exposé, only a blog post. So, I'll give as an example a relatively minor case from the Vinaya, or monastic rules of discipline.
In the chapter on robes in the Vinaya Mahāvagga, the Buddha allowed six kinds of material for the making of monks' robes: linen, cotton, silk, wool, sāṇaṁ, and bhaṅgaṁ. The venerable commentators, almost a thousand years after the time of the Buddha, declared sāṇaṁ to be ordinary hemp (i.e., cannabis), and bhaṅgaṁ to represent any combination of the preceding five kinds of fiber. However, the interpretation of bhaṅgaṁ to mean a mixture of different fibers would seem to have zero support etymologically or through established precedent; and even sāṇaṁ is hardly likely to mean ordinary hemp.
Bhaṅgaṁ pretty obviously means hemp, or cannabis; and its interpretation as such in the Pali language is well established. The classical Sanskrit word is also Bhaṅga, and it apparently has a prehistoric Indo-European origin, since in Polish, for example, the word for hemp is pienka. A modern Hindi word for cannabis is bhāṅg, clearly derived from the same ancient term. (Whether the modern English word "bong" is ultimately derived from an ancient Indic language is less certain though—it may come from a Thai word which means "wooden tube.") Incidentally, bhaṅgaṁ is allowed in the rules of discipline for monks to use, as well as a pipe for inhaling fumes—so long as it is used medicinally. Strangely, in the texts there is mention of using bhaṅgaṁ externally for the purpose of inducing sweating. But I digress.
Sāṇaṁ, on the other hand, is very probably the fiber of sunn hemp, also known as Bengal hemp, a plant which produces rough fiber similar to that of common hemp. The Sanskrit word for the plant is śaṇa. The modern Hindi word for it is san; the English word, derived from the Hindi, is sunn; and even the Burmese name for it is paik san, with the "san" having the exact same etymology as the others. Considering that an alternative name is Bengal hemp, it may be that the plant is native to northern India; and considering that the commentators were living in Sri Lanka and southern India, it seems very plausible that they were quite unfamiliar with the plant. So, like Abel Goodparley, they guessed; and their relative cluelessness on the subject of north Indian botany caused them to guess wrong. But, as often happened, they did not specify that they were only guessing. And so pious traditionalists have taught their students the wisdom of the commentarial tradition without the slightest shadow of a doubt that it is absolutely reliable, and faithfully represents the true meaning of the Pali texts and of the teachings of Gotama Buddha.
Thus the Pali commentaries may be useful for giving ideas as to the meaning of strange terms that can't be figured out from context—at least they give some idea—and they may be very helpful in untangling knotty word combinations and difficult grammar. Plus they contain some interesting and edifying stories. But they are certainly NOT definitive, as there were apparently some venerable Abel Goodparleys involved in the writing of these texts. So if you are completely stumped with regard to understanding the meaning of a Pali passage, then by all means consult a commentary for a perhaps more educated opinion; but otherwise you may very well be better off trusting your own intuition, common sense, and best guess. Read it as though someone were speaking to you, and understand the meaning that occurs to you naturally and intuitively, and if you don't fully understand, leave it as a riddle and come back to it from time to time. And don't be too sure. That's obviously what the Buddha's original hearers had to do, as they didn't have any commentaries to consult. (But of course the Buddha's ancient disciples were rather more well versed in ancient Indian culture and idiom than we are. Plus they could simply ask the Buddha what he meant.) Not only are significant portions of the Rig Veda now unintelligible even to Brahmin scholars, but there are passages in Shakespeare, who wrote in an early form of modern English, the exact meaning of which modern English scholars are unsure of—and that's not even counting all the contemporary allusions in his plays that we cannot hope to notice, much less understand. So we'll probably never be sure of what all of it originally meant, regardless of commentarial exegesis. Don't trust commentaries any farther than you can throw them. Once you have the parper salts and that, then maybe you will know.
Sunn Hemp (Crotolaria juncea)
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Riddley Walker (Expanded Edition), by Russell Hoban (Indiana University Press, 1998)