Text as Father by Cole

Alan Cole. Text As Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahāyāna Buddhist Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Hardcover, xiii + 356 pp.

Who was the intended audience of early Mahāyāna scriptures like the Lotus Sūtra, Diamond Sūtra, Tathāgatagarbha-Sūtra, and Vimalakīrti-Nirdesha? Considering the highly specialized focus of the present work, Cole has gone to extraordinary lengths to make his book readable, accessible, and even entertaining also for nonspecialists.

Cole’s answer to the above question, developed on just about 300 densely typeset pages, is that the early Mahāyāna scriptures were carefully crafted to appeal to as large a readership as possible. They used narrative and even resorted to a variety of literary ploys to make the reading of these texts attractive and convincing. This innovative literature, which preached the new gospel of Mahāyāna, signaled a shift from the earlier oral tradition to a book tradition.

For the pious adherents of Mahāyāna, of course, these teachings were not cleverly constructed by later monastics but are the actual teachings of the Buddha. Cole, true to his academic background, begs to differ and seems to have a wonderful time of dissecting the texts and their teachings in making his point.

While Text As Father is a very competent exercise in literary analysis and also makes a valid contribution to the history of Mahāyāna literature, I think that the author’s hope that his book will appeal also to a nonspecialist audience is unrealistic. Specialists, however, are bound to find much in this monograph that will be worthy of their reflection or dissent. Certainly, Cole’s analysis of those texts is more detailed than anything available until now.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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