Twenty years ago, as a doctoral candidate at the University of Lancaster, the Buddhist scholar and Pali translator Peter Masefield made an assertion that struck many in his field as not only bold but perhaps even heretical. "It is simply fallacious to assume," he wrote, "as most writers on Buddhism appear to have done, that the social division of monk and layman is also the spiritual division of the Buddhist world." In the Pali texts he had been translating, texts thought to represent the most authoritative recollections of the Buddha's closest disciples, Masefield claimed to have encountered a fifth-century B.C. culture so profoundly impacted by the Buddha's transcendent revelation that it had been possible to distinguish—routinely and consistently—between those who had been transformed by that revelation and those who had not. There had been monks, lifetime members of the Buddha's wandering renunciate community, who had neither understood nor benefited from his teaching, and there had been lay men and women whose lives had been irrevocably altered by a single encounter with the "Lord of the dhamma
Superficially, this "equal opportunity" formulation may sound pleasingly democratic to Western ears, but if Masefield's thesis was correct, what it actually implied was that the world in which the Buddha lived and taught was a far cry indeed from the at once homogenized and pluralistic Buddhist culture of the contemporary West. It meant that in the Buddha's own time, the power and significance of enlightenment, understood in terms of its clear and unmistakable effects on the consciousness of an individual, had been all but impossible to ignore. It meant that the advent of a truly enlightened teacher had naturally and spontaneously given rise to an authentic spiritual elite whose implicit authority transcended all mundane social categories.
In fact, Masefield had been sufficiently criticized for his views, he told us, as to be "taken aback" by our interest in his work. Since his dissertation was published in England as Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism
in 1986, he has had "absolutely no idea how people are responding to the book or whether anybody's even read it." Despite the subsequent release of an American edition, Masefield, a resident of Sydney, Australia, has not heard from his publisher even once in the last eight years, during which time he has held visiting professorships at various universities throughout the world and continued to translate Buddhist texts. "I just work away here translating Pali commentaries," he told us. "I gave a talk in Montreal last year and one of the students was apparently so inspired that he ran out and bought the book, but he's never gotten in touch with me to tell me whether he thinks it's rubbish or not."
We were inspired by Masefield's book and wanted to speak with him because in the course of our investigation into whether, where the
subject of enlightenment is concerned, anyone knows what they're talking about, we had found it difficult to locate a contemporary formulation of the Buddha's teaching that did not somehow reduce to manageable proportions the always awesome and overwhelming nature of transcendent spiritual experience. In this respect, Masefield's book could not have been more distinctive, owing especially to the inclusion of several powerful narrative descriptions, taken from the original texts, of transformative encounters between the Master and those who, unbeknownst even to themselves, were about to become his disciples. While we did not always agree with Masefield's conclusions, we were moved by his reverence for the people and events he described, and by the care with which he allowed them to convey, on their own, the powerful transmission which one supposes must
have been experienced—at least by some—in the company of the Buddha.
Throughout his book, Masefield's rigorous textual analysis is relentlessly trained on the discovery of the nature and implications of this mysterious transmission. A central tenet of his thesis, in fact, is that the acquisition of "right view," the first step on the Buddha's Eightfold Path to liberation, is itself a transcendent event, and that "there can be no practice by means of which such right view might be acquired. 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 ariyasavaka,
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."
And it was this initial "right view of the path," rather than any final attainment, that distinguished the ariyasavaka
from the puthujjana:
"Either because he does not get to hear the dhamma
[teaching] or, if he does, remains unaffected thereby, the puthujjana
lacks the insight that arises on hearing that dhamma
and thus fails to see things as they really are." While at one time, Masefield goes on to say, "the ariyan
[supermundane] Eightfold Path was the sole province of the savaka
. . . inevitably news of that path eventually filtered down to the puthujjana
with the result that he misunderstood it, whereupon we begin to encounter puthujjana
Masefield's observations forced us to consider the arduousness and delicacy of the Buddha's sometimes thankless task, and also to wonder how well, in our own time, his efforts have been rewarded. It is true that Buddhism presently enjoys unprecedented popularity, especially in the West. But what sort of popularity is it? we wanted to ask him. And how would the Buddha's teaching be received if it were being offered to us in person here and now?
According to Masefield, the Buddha was never under any illusions about what he was up against, both spiritually and practically, in attempting to awaken as many people as possible—his own followers included—from a slumber to which the vast majority of humanity is all too happily predisposed.
"For the Buddha," he writes, "immediately after attaining enlightenment, reflected upon the puthujjana
-like habits of the world and felt a reluctance to attempt even to teach them:
This dhamma that has been won by me is deep, difficult to see, difficult to awaken to, calm, excellent, beyond the realm of doubt, subtle, knowable only to the wise. But this is a generation delighting in attachment to sensuality, delighted by attachment to sensuality, rejoicing in attachment to sensuality. So for a generation delighting in . . . delighted by . . . rejoicing in attachment to sensuality, this were a matter difficult to see, that is to say, causal uprising by way of condition. This too were a matter difficult to see, that is to say, the tranquilizing of all sankharas [defilements], the rejection of all basis for rebirth, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana [nirvana]. And if I were to teach dhamma and others were not to understand me, that would be a weariness to me, that would be a vexation to me."
It was at this moment, as the well-known story goes, that a celestial being known as Brahma Sahampati intervened, "and pointed out," in Masefield's description, "that there were beings in the world with little dust in their eyes . . . who were coming to ruin through not hearing dhamma
but who could become knowers of dhamma
. As a result, the Buddha surveyed the world with his Buddha-eye and, recognizing that there were such beings, agreed that he would teach for the sake of those beings. . . . It must be stressed, however, that although such beings may have had little dust in their eyes, or possessed the potential for realizing the sotapatti
-fruit [becoming established on the path], they were nonetheless still puthujjanas
hemmed in by sense-pleasures and thus in bondage to Mara
[the cosmic tempter]. Any rescue would require great skillfulness if Mara's
devious tactics were to be countered."
What was it that enabled the Buddha—who, despite his extraordinary attainment, never claimed to be other than human—to effect even one such harrowing rescue? It is Masefield's humble and by no means original contention that the reason it is liberating
to see things "as they really are" is that direct insight into the ultimate nature of things truly does reveal that transcendent context which alone gives the dhamma
its power to transform. The perfection of "the Perfected One" lay precisely in his having vanquished every obstacle to the realization and transmission of that place "where water, earth, heat and wind find no footing, there no stars gleam, no sun is made visible, there shines no moon, there the darkness is not found; and when the sage, the brahmin, himself in wisdom knows this place he is freed from . . . happiness and suffering."
"Indeed," writes Masefield, "without some positive counterpart to the purely negative cessation of becoming, Buddhism could well be charged with the annihilationist doctrines that the Buddha so frequently denied; at the same time, there would be no true escape from Mara
and incessant becoming. . . . It is because there is the Deathless, a realm that is inaccessible to Death or Mara
, that there is an escape from his realm and all that it entails. And it was through the Buddha's decision to teach dhamma
that the door to that Deathless was flung wide open."