*If true* this would be rather shocking, and Ven.Anil should be congratulated for detecting what had been done. It should be easy though – many Thais would know ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’ by heart, and hence they would be able to notice the oddness of prayer books that change that. I think very strongly, though, that this piece of news should be double checked. It sounds very strange to me, in fact, that Ven.Anil would make a public appearance and make such declarations. I wasn’t able to find any reference to this matter on the Bangkok Post, hence, I remain a bit doubtful about the authenticity of the information.
About Oxford, let me notice that ‘critical scholarship’ is often not as ‘critical’ as it may appear. In my opinion, some scholars of Pāli coming from an Oxford background have a tendency to be a bit over self-confident about their ability to reconstruct the Buddhist past basing themselves on purely philological considerations. Their methods are often highly speculative and, to my mind at least, not as conclusive as they present them to be.
A good example of that is the work of Dr.Alexander Wynne, who has basically argued that the ‘earliest’ of the Buddha’s teachings entail that the aggregates are not the self, but they do not entail that the self doesn’t exist at all. In the articles wherein he forwards such a line of argument, he shows himself to be extremely erudite and careful in citing the original sources. However, it seems to me that the arguments themselves contain some possible fallacies – in particular the main argument is, I believe, circular.
It so happens that scholars with good erudition and with a prestigious institutional background feel rather confident in asserting conclusive statements about what the Buddha taught or thought basing themselves on a few sentences, whose chronology they claim to know better than anyone else. When we look at the arguments themselves, however, we can see that they are far, very far from conclusive.
Dr.Wynne’s positions would actually give credence to the Dhammakaya contentions and teachings. In themselves, I do not find their teachings so objectionable – well, at least not in the version taught in their source monastery, Wat Pak Nam. I do not find the teaching to be so easily comparable to the non-Buddhist teachings about ātman; my impression is that, in the end, it is not so easy to assess.
Changing the Suttapiṭaka intentionally seems an act of great demerit. However, please do consider that scholars too, often effectively do re-write the Tripiṭaka. While their claim is to reconstruct a philologically probable original, what often happens is that their reconstruction contains a great level of arbitrariness and depends on the perceptions and expectations they may have about both the content and the language of the texts. If you would like to know more about what I mean, please consider the very long lived polemics that has surrounded the nature and content of the Aṅgaññasutta, with scholars such as Gombrich and Gethin taking up very different positions. In my opinion, this is partly occasioned by (mis?)understanding Buddhism as a purely textual tradition, hence disregarding the continuous practice of interpreting and understanding the text that is still alive to this day: questioning traditional methods and positions is one thing – overlooking them, is another.
A further and clear example of ‘revisionism’ is the edition of Buddhist texts in Sanskrit. Many scholars have tended to ‘regularize’ the syntax and spelling of these texts, according to an idealized and probably rather artificial idea of how Sanskrit should look like. In recent years the attitude towards Buddhist texts in Sanskrit has changed, so that now editorial decisions of some earlier scholars are being questioned. And so forth. (Incidentally, a preconceived idea about the nature and regularity of Pāli may be one reason why the study of Pāli texts composed in South East Asia has been rather neglected for decades; this too, has created a rather artificial idea about ‘Theravāda’ Buddhism. I recommend Prof.Peter Skilling’s articles on that matter).
To me, it still seems unlikely that the Dhammakaya might do such a thing. Their strategy has been different – they have concentrated on the sections of the Pāli Canon that lend more credit to their views, and they have looked for texts from other Buddhist traditions that also may support their interpretation: all of this seems much more legitimate and acceptable. Of course it is a complex procedure, since the Tathāgatagarbha texts (which do use the term ātman) are difficult to interpret and often explain that ātman is nothing but a synonym of nairātmya (‘self’ is used to indicate the ‘selflessness’ is always the case).
In brief, I am arguing that although here a very straightforward dividing line has been set between the Dhammakaya methods of revising texts and the ‘critical scholar’ contentions about his/her own work of revision, I think that the difference is not so much. In both cases, a remarkable degree of arbitrariness and a priori assumptions is necessary. If we invest ‘critical scholars’ with such a higher degree of prestige and trust, we should really ask ourselves why – and we should really ask ourselves whether we are being critical at all.
I personally believe that institutional prestige should be thrown out of the window, especially when we are referring to modern universities, who have a very short history in terms of their tradition of Buddhist studies. Can any single western university claim to have fostered the study of Buddhism at a high level for anything more than a hundred years?
P.S.: If the main piece of information in the initial post were to be confirmed to be false, wouldn't it be desirable to create a new post with a corrective title? I believe it would be fair and polite towards the Dhammakaya.