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C.A.F. Rhys Davids

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Photo Credit: R. N. Sardesai: Picturesque Orientalia (Poona 1938)

Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids (1857-1942), Lecturer in the History of Buddhism

Caroline Foley was born on 27 September 1857. She was educated at home and at University College, London. She was a member of staff of the Economic Journal, 1891-5. She worked on behalf of various societies for the welfare of women and children, 1890-4, and was a campaigner for women's suffrage, 1896-1914. She married Thomas Rhys Davids, 1894. She was appointed Lecturer in Indian Philosophy at Manchester University, 1910-13, and Lecturer in the History of Buddhism at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1918-33. She was President of the Pali Text Society, 1922-42. She died in Chipstead, Surrey, 26 June 1942.

Biography from:
University of Cambridge Crest Faculty of Oriental Studies





The Western Contribution to Buddhism

William Peiris
(1973) Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.

The governing fact about Mrs. Rhys Davids is that she was a critic. She would not accept as the Buddha-word all that is in the Pali canon. She believed that the monks who inherited the Buddha's teaching handed in a "defective and mutilated form". She had her own interpretations of the essentially tolerant and progressive spirit of Buddhism, and gave the best of her scholarship to the Buddhist cause.

At the age of 36, Miss Caroline Augusta Foley married the 52-year-old Thomas William Rhys Davids. She was mature and independent with a brilliant academic background. So was Rhys Davids. A common interest in Pali existed between them. A mutual friend, who foresaw the potentialities of a union between two great intellectuals, encouraged them to marry. The marriage proved a perfect one.

Born in 1858, Caroline Augusta Foley had a brilliant career at University College, London, of which she was later elected a Fellow. An M.A., D. Litt, she was for a long period Reader in Pali at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and was also for a long time Lecturer in Indian Philosophy at Manchester University.

Versatile, gifted, a scholar in the front rank.

"Dr. Caroline Rhys Davids, who survived her husband, is one of the most versatile and gifted women I have known," records Sir Denison Ross, the first Director of the London School of Oriental and African Studies, in his autobiography entitled Both Ends of the Candle. "Able, as a young woman, to beat most others at tennis and billiards, she has for years been a Pali scholar in the front rank. As Reader in Pali she was one of the ornaments of the school, attracting students from many countries. She suffered a terrible bereavement in the loss of her brilliant son, one of our flying aces and a V.C."

Her editions of the Pali texts, their English translations — both in prose and verse — introductions to her own works and those of other scholars, and her original works add up to a formidable number.

Credit for bringing to light the abstruse Abhidharma Pitaka goes to her. She has edited with remarkable skill such difficult texts as the Vibhanga the Patthana, the Yamaka, and the Visuddhimagga. She also rendered into lucid English profound Abhidharma works as the Dhammasangani (Manual of Psychological Ethics), the Abidhammatthasangaha (Compendium of Philosophy), and the Kathavatthu (Points of Controversy), the last two in collaboration with Swee Zan Aung of Burma.

Mrs. Rhys Davids rendered into English verse the Theragatha and Therigatha under the titles of Psalms of the Brethren and Psalms of the Sisters. They are considered masterpieces of lyrical beauty.

Besides these and other editions and translations, she has written original works such as Gotama the Man and the thought provoking Sakya or Buddhist Origins. Her articles on various Buddhist themes have published posthumously under the title of Wayfarer's Words.

Interpretation of the doctrine

One of her own interpretations of the doctrine runs as follows:

"It is recorded in the Pali scriptures at least three times that the chief comrade of Gotama Buddha, Saruputta, used to speak of 'You and your mind' in a parable. He would say, it is recorded, you should have your mind, or thoughts (citta) under your control; you should not be under the control of the mind or thoughts. Just as a Raja, with many suits in his wardrobe, would be pick out he wanted for morning wear, another for mid-day wear, another for evening wear, putting on a suitable suit (the pun is mine), the suit having nothing to say in the matter. (You will find these passages in Majjhiman Nikaya, Sutta 32, Sanyutta Nikaya, Mahavagga on Bojjhangas, Patisambhida-magga, Bojjhanga-katha).

"Here is a very clear distinction made between the man and his 'kit', his equipment, tools or instruments. The latter are to be kept in their place. You see the distinction made again in another parable, this time told of the Master: Men are in Jeta Wood about the Vihara (where he spent his last years) collecting faggots. And he: 'You would not call these faggots the Wood? So look on the body and mind as not of you, not the very you'. The faggots are carried away for burning: the Wood stands and blossoms again.

"Once more, in the first two verses of the Twins (Yamaka) chapter of the Dhammapada, you read: 'If with corrupted mind he speaks or acts, ill follows him as the wheel the foot of drawing beast; if with mind serene he speaks or acts, bliss follows him as shadows goes not from the tree.' Here again, mind is the instrument 'with' which man acts.

"But in time a change came over the teaching. Master and comrade had passed away: other teachers arose who were, as all Indian teaching, greatly influenced by the new mind-study that had been gaining ground, and which came to be known as Sankhya: Pali, sankha, sankhana. Man's mind was, in it, being analysed, as if it were an unseen body, or group of processes of an orderly kind, like those of the body. It was a beginning of what we in our day have come to do also and to call psychology. And gradually it affected the Buddhist Sasana much as it has affected our own teaching: the 'man' came to be resolved into his thoughts or mind. Just as in a modern book I read the words 'the self or mind', so did Buddhist teachers come to use the mind or thought for the self or man. Thus we read in a Sutta (M-n. 43): that it is the mind (mano) who enjoys collectively all the sense-impressions, not you, not the man, not the self as the earlier teaching would have said. Only the Commentary retains the older way: 'as a Raja owning five villages would enjoy the revenue they paid'.

A way but no Wayfarer

"Turn too to your dhammapada: in those two twin verses, each of a couplet like rest of the Twins, there has been added, or rather prefaced a line in each, to show the new importance assigned to the mind: 'Things are forerun by mind, have mind as best, are compounds of the mind.' You can see that if you take away this line the meaning of the couplets is just as good, and the symmetry of the twins is better.

"For in them is clear that it is not mind which is the speaker or doer; in them the clothes are not made the man, nor the faggots the wood. But in the interpolated line it is just this that happened. This seems the long way from the founder's first advice to laymen: 'to seek the self', the man. But we are all of us just now, in East and West, in bondage to this thrusting of man's ways or minding into place of the man 'who minds'. I see it constantly in Europeans writing and speaking; I see it in Buddhist writing. So much so, that the master's central figure of the Way is spoken as if there were no wayfarer, but only ideas about his faring. Truly is the medieval monks' teaching carried out, that 'a Way is there, but no wayfarer!' Yet what meaning has a way without the wayfarer? Is he only there for the sake of the Way, or is the way there for the sake? A road made for nobody to travel on his futile. Let us get back to the better teaching of the wardrobe and the wood. Let us be the master of the suits; let us dispose of our faggots. The shall we, as the wood in springtime break out into new and finer blossom, in that we have not wronged the great New Word taught by Sariputta and his beloved Friend."

The Buddhist in Thervada countries do not accept this interpretation, but cling on to Buddhaghosa's view that the Way is there for "mere phenomena" to roll on.

Progressive Spirit of Buddhism

Mrs. Rhys Davids stresses the essentially tolerant and progressive spirit of Buddhism thus:

"Here is a doctrine that takes us back as far as the days of the very beginnings of Hellenic Science. For this doctrine it is claimed that it might have served not to check or to ignore the discoveries of Copernicus and Bruno, Galileo and Newton, Darwin and Spenser but to stimulate and inspire them. Not a guide that they might have adhered to from convention only, or appealed to now and again to reconcile the lay world with their discoveries and conclusions but an oracle that would have spurred them on in their quest for Truth. . . .

"Well, it is one thing to talk about achievements of modern science and advance of modern thought, and another thing to claim for this age in general that it is imbued with the scientific spirit, or that the views and conduct of the average man or woman are governed thereby. This state of things is but in its infancy. But it is born, and is growing. Hence any movement of thought will have, more and more, to cope with the scientific spirit, and will stand or fall largely by its sanction. And hence all who call themselves Buddhist doctrine should or, at least, the spirit of that doctrine, should look into this claim that is made for it. Those, again, whose interest lies in tracing the growth of human ideas, can in no wise feel indifferent to the real extent to which the ancient mind of India anticipated a standpoint slowly and painfully won to by the intellect of Europe. . .

Suggestion of a psychological crisis

"The fact that early Buddhism and modern Sciene express belief in a universal law of Causation in terms so similar, leads inevitably to the further inquiry, as to how far there is historical evidence that the evolution of this belief among early Buddhists was parallel to the corresponding evolution in Europe. The lack of continuity and of chronological certainty in the literatures of ancient India hinders and complicates such an inquiry. But there does survive a body of Brahmanical literature, an accretion of various dates, known as the Sixty Upanisads of the Veda, in which form of Pantheism called Atmanism or Vedantism is set forth, with mainly archaic views on what we term First, Final and Occasional Cause. And we have the Pali canon of the Buddhists, coinciding, it is thought, in date, with the middle period of these sixty books, and repudiating this Atmanism, whether macrocosmically or microcosmically conceived.

"To what extent Buddhism, as a lay, anti-Brahmanic, anti-sacerdotal movement, originated the rejection of Atmanism, or carried on a wider and older tradtion of rejection, it is not possible to say. But the fact that the founders of Buddhism did, in leaving the world for the religious life, take up this Protestant position on the one hand, and on the other make a law of natural causation their chief doctrine, suggests at all events a profound psychological crisis."

In these passages we see Mrs. Rhys Davids at the height of her powers, when she was giving the best of her scholarship to the Buddhist cause.

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