Buddhism’s 4 Big Unanswered Questions: A Conversation with Donald S. Lopez (A webinar by Tricycle)


Tricycle offers this hour-long webinar by Donald Lopez Jr. whose works on Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhist Modernism have been famous worldwide.

This event will start roughly in 12 hours (January 13, 16:00-17:00 EST):

For those who are intrigued, below is a link to the event’s page and details.

Buddhism’s 4 Big Unanswered Questions: A live virtual event (tricycle.org)

Over decades of research, Buddhist scholars, historians, and translators have uncovered a wealth of information about the early history of the Buddha and his teachings. But students of Buddhism often struggle to reconcile the history of the dharma that’s been told and popularized by Buddhists themselves with the history that’s revealed in other sources, including Buddhist texts.

According to Donald S. Lopez, celebrated scholar of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, there are many questions that continue to perplex those seeking to tell the story of Buddhism in India. Lopez has zeroed in on four questions that are particularly consequential: When did the Buddha live? Why were the Mahayana sutras written? What are the origins of Buddhist tantra? And finally, why did Buddhism disappear from India?

Join us for this hour-long Zoom webinar (and bring your questions for Lopez!) on January 13, 4-5 p.m. EST.


:thinking: I’ll take my stab at the four!

5th c BCE

Many different reasons. Madhyamika started off as a reaction to the Abhidhamma. The Heart Sutra was a summary of a much larger treatise, probably made for chanting. The Platform Sutra gave Chan a textual basis. Etc etc…

Visualization practices and “Hindu” influences.

The Sangha became insular and eventually irrelevant.

How did I do? :smiley:


Pretty good!

Yes, it’s an odd set of questions. Most of these are quite well studied and there are reasonable answers to them. Of course scholars will always quibble about the details, but that’s their job.

Indeed. See also:

  • the advent of writing,
  • the need to present Dhamma in a different time and place,
  • the need to refresh teachings that had grown stale, reaction against overly-scholastic and rigid monasticism
  • the need to feel a certain closeness and connection with the Buddha

A @Piotr has studied this in some detail. We have a few of them around, so if this handle is the wrong one, my apologies!

Yes, it seems likely. Also, over-insitutionalized, so that the destruction of the places (esp. Nalanda) led to the collapse of the whole thing.

Here’s my four questions:

  1. Is there a way to test the physical reality of “subtle matter” and similar phenomena?
  2. What overlooked aspects of Buddhism have the potential to bring about positive change comparable to that which mindfulness has in the world of psychology?
  3. How will we learn to live according to Dhamma as the effects of climate change grow more catastrophic?
  4. How do we let go of suffering?

You already answered more than I know, Bhante! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

I just finished attending the seminar and found out that all the four answers are, of course, “we don’t know” in the strict scholarly sense, according to Prof. Lopez. I initially planned to summarize some important points until I was awed by the width and density of the lecture. :sweat_smile: For now, it seems better to wait for Tricycle’s uploading of the recording.

Just a quick, TLDR memo from the lecture would be:

When did the Buddha live?

We don’t know. Traditions say different dates which range centuries. The only reliable archeological evidence found; Ashoka’s Edicts. The gap between the Buddha’s parinibbāna and the crowning of Ashoka is 100 years according to Ashokavadana, or 218 years according to Mahāvaṃsa. It is interesting that there exist traditional texts that reveal the chronological estimation done by the writers, in terms of prophecy by the Buddha. For example, the claim that the Buddha foresaw the arise of Nagarjuna 400 years after his parinibbāna indicates the contemporary estimate of 400 years gap between the two events. The same inference can be applied to the infamous “500-years-after-bhikkhunī ordination-prophecy” in the Pali canon.

Why were the Mahayana sutras written?

We don’t know. However, it is clear that the rise of Mahayana sutras was closely linked to the conversion from oral transmission to the written one. It seems that the Mahayana was minor for nearly all the time in India, for all the great Mahayana philosophers had to defend the validity of their texts. And Prof. Lopez does not buy Heart sutra as Chinese Apocrypha hypothesis .

What are the origins of Buddhist tantra?

We don’t know even more.

Why did Buddhism disappear from India?

We don’t know, but some textbook answers (Xuanzang already reported the decline of monasteries, etc.) with interesting thoughts were provided.

Although I liked this scholarly lecture with full of passion, it was also an hour of confirming this statement.

Sadhu! :pray: :pray: :pray:

Here is the recording!


I have more respect for hearing the answer “I dont know”, instead of when people give a fudged answer, so as to not look as though they’ve lost face, in the short term. Then they act obstinate, blithe, and dismissive later (or worse), when someone proves their fudged answer wrong, to try to protect the first layer of lies.


I think your 4 questions are great, and maybe a new thread should be created, where everyone gets to come up with their own 4 best deep questions.

Here are my 4 deep, unanswered questions:

  1. What will Buddhism look like in ten years from now, when Buddhism isn’t effectively governed by Senior monks any longer, but is rather effectively governed by the Mark Zuckerburgs of the world?
  2. Twenty years from now, who will be left to attend 10-day meditation retreats, when the average person’s attention span has been shortened to about 20 seconds long, and they have likely been consuming lots and lots of legalized cannabis?
  3. When will modern physics, and Abhidhamma physics ever have a meaningful showdown of some sort?
  4. When will it be transparent which Buddhist lineages (whether Theravada or Mahayana) hold what doctrine, and maintain what level of Vinaya compliance?

Here’s my answer to that question: you’d be amazed what some brazen performers can get away with, when their innocent audience doesn’t know any better. Unfortunately, the Buddha’s penumbra and fame can be hijacked, while changing the doctrine to one that suits one’s agenda better (or at least, changing the weightiness of the doctrine towards the later parts, newly minted).

I invite you to contemplate the following:


That’s almost certainly the case for some of the Mahayana Sutras, but I doubt it’s the case for the majority of them. I get the feeling most were written in earnest. As I said: many different reasons. It’s a vast corpus stretching a thousand years!


There’s a huge difference between I don’t know and an expert saying we don’t know. The first is a humble admission of personal ignorance, the latter is a statement about the state of the field.

There are genuinely things we don’t know, of course, like the “hard problem” of consciousness (one of my big 4!)… but there’s no reason to say “we” don’t know if vaccines are effective, or if humans cause climate change, or, indeed, when the Buddha lived. There are some details to work out there of course, but there is broad consensus on these issues and experts sowing public doubt in established fact is epistemic violence, not scholarship.


I don’t have any problem with new ideas and innovations being created, which build upon achievements in the past. I’m all for credit being given where credit is due. But when I feel something wrong has been done, is when words (sometimes vast works) get retrofitted into the Buddha’s mouth (through various cock-and-bull stories which can’t be historically verified), being given an invincible status of “Buddha Vacca” (the voice of the Buddha; like it actually came out of his mouth).

Laundering doctrine in that way is a sort of a “super-fraud”, considering the powerful sway it will have over vast numbers of faithful followers, who will oftentimes take that doctrine with a religious, binding conviction. It’s totally mind-control, in every sense of the term.

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Sorry, but i’m really over don’t-know-ism. It was trendy in the 80s, but if Phil Collins can retire, so can this.

Put it this way: we know the dates of the Buddha’s birth more accurately, and with more supporting evidence, than we do almost every human being who lived before the last couple of centuries.

Science works on probabilities and aims to establish knowledge with higher probability. It’s not nihilistic.

This form of postmodern epistemological nihilism has come to dominate and hence render inert almost the entire field of American Buddhist studies.

Let’s not pretend that it has no intellectual agenda. The point, as is clear from the way that the questions are structured, is to destabilize genuine historical knowledge of Buddhism in order to rehabilitate the scholar’s field, i.e. late Buddhism. If we can pretend that knowledge of early Buddhism and knowledge of late Buddhism are equally unknowable and useless, then there are no grounds for even questioning the relation between early and late Buddhism.

Scholarship should work by establishing what is known and mapping out a path to better knowledge, not by indulging in postmodern rhetoric.

I dunno, I wonder whether it’s a straw man leftover from cartesian dualism …


I honestly don’t even know how it is tolerated in the academy. When I hear people talking in this way, it’s so painful. I was at an event some time ago, and a question was asked, and the answer was, “we don’t know this, we don’t know that …” And I’m watching everyone’s eyes glaze over. It’s just not how you learn things. Purely psychologically, the mind tends to reject negative theses. We don’t want to not know.

You begin by framing the question and establishing the grounds. You go over what is known, why it is known, and how securely it is known. You show the method, so people can trace the route from the facts to the conclusion. You make sure that the knowledge is established and understood, that people have a sense that they have actually learned something. It’s good, it feels nice to learn! It’s a reward for your time and effort.

To just be told that no-one knows anything, that even the so-called experts just have different opinions; what a waste of time that is. Sure, once knowledge is established, question it, give different perspectives. Never overstate the confidence of knowledge. But do it in a constructive way. Look to new forms of evidence or different kinds of argumentation that might illuminate the subject. Suggest avenues that students might take, or directions of research that might prove fruitful. If all you do is speak about is what we don’t know, why should any student be interested to learn?


Lol. And the primary source of income for monasteries is in crypto. Don’t think that there aren’t monks who are thinking it!

I believe that the 10 day retreat was brought to the West by pretty much the same people who were smoking pot all along, so … ?

Or more interestingly, EBT physics.

I’m not quite sure what the problem is here? People spend a lot of time talking about their doctrines. The Vinaya lineages, both in terms of the original Vinayas, and the cultural adaptations, are also quite well known if you know where to look. And you can, you know, just ask people about this stuff. I’m not seeing the unanswered questions?

Also, “Buddhist lineages” don’t hold a particular standard of Vinaya compliance, individual monastics and sometimes monasteries do. Even between monasteries in the same tradition there can be a lot of variation.


I think it would be neat if it was all consolidated into one place somehow, for easy reference. Maybe individual monk’s Vinaya compliance wouldn’t be in there, but what the consensus is, of a single monastery. And not every rule would be tracked, as there would be so many. Just the Parajikas, Sanghadisesas, Thullaccayas, and commonly-broken Pacittiyas, like money handling. As to everything to do with food handling, that one would be tedious to track, but possible, I suppose.

I’m willing to forgive the EBT physics being really medieval at times, because the Buddha is virtually always driving towards some lesson about spirituality, rather than trying to make himself out as some sort of expert in Physics (divorced of a spiritual lesson being given as the primary objective).

Yes, well, this even happened with the Theravāda Abhidhamma, which itself never claimed to be Buddhavaccana, but eventually over-zealous disciples centuries later thought, “Wow! This is so good! And it’s in the Canon, it must be from the Buddha!” :man_facepalming:

actually laughing out loud :rofl: :pray:

Idk. There is a separation between mind and body even in Buddhism. The consciousness element is not one of the four material elements, for example. And what exactly is “contact” between the physical sense bases and consciousness? How does karma/rebirth physically work? I feel like there are still meaty questions there, even if we reject “strict” Cartesian dualism, no?

Omg, and then these very same professors complain when their students disengage:


It pisses me off :joy:

I am aware of a few city monks here in Thailand already mining crypto in their kutis. Electricity is free for them, so why not?

The Open Buddhist University is open source and is happy to accept pull requests! :slight_smile:

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I admit, I was pretty proud of that one.

That’s not what dualism is. Cartesian dualism is the idea that there are two fundamental, irreducible substances that make up the world: matter and mind (or spirit or whatever). We can distinguish between mental and physical phenomena, but that is a quite different thing.


This is a different movement tho, a recent shift rather than the postmodernism from the 80s.

Fun to see how many of the specific things that they are looking at are familiar topics that I wrote about ten years ago in White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes and elsewhere: the story of Hariti, translation of Chinese nuns’ biographies, the relationship of bodies to discrimination in Dhamma.

A major theme of that twitter thread is Buddhism, cultural appropriation, and racism. Without being snarky, I promise, there’s a genuine sense of dislocation when you see who is doing this work. These are the faces of their twitter.

(I was invited to an interfaith panel discussion on racism some time ago. I asked who else was on the panel. Turns out, literally every person was white. I recommended Ven Juewei, a Taiwanese nun, so that worked out, at least from the Buddhist point of view.)

But this speaks to what I alluded to in my question 2 above: Buddhists are still playing catchup. First we say, “we have to bend Buddhism to make it fit with modern times”, then it turns out, shocker, that we have simply encoded all of our biasses and prejudices into the Dhamma, then we have to work to try to dig ourselves out of that pit.

Why aren’t we challenging others, setting the agenda, stepping out in front of the dialogue and shaping it?

Just as one very obvious and critically important issue: we need a Buddhist academic critique of materialism and economic growth in the face of climate change. We’re talking about how bad racism is, but we’re not stopping the one thing that will decimate the lands and cultures and lives of people of color more than anything else in history.


I’m sorry Bhante, you may have confuse me with somebody else. :see_no_evil:

No worries, every Piotr is a beautiful Piotr in their own way!


You can only ask people where language and culture allow. I don’t have any particular interest in interrogating my local monastic community about their vinaya interpretation and adherence, but if I was suddenly overtaken with great concern about, some of the finer points of vinaya I’ve seen debated on this and other forums, I don’t think I could do that. The language barrier is too high. Honestly, I believe I have donated cash which was then collected by a lay steward to support construction of the Wat, but I cringe at the idea of trying to interrogate the details and make sure none of the monks ever physically touch it. I bet I could, but I’d probably feel quite bad about it.

On the flip side, there’s been an explosion of resources to help me figure out everything about how the other institutions I donate to function. E.g. charitynavigator.org.

One can imagine a future, where, perhaps inspired by this famous joke:


Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

All of the finest details of the practices of all monasteries, or even all monastics, could be published online, so that if a lay donor has even the slightest quibble, they can say, “starve, heretic!” and withdraw support.

As it stands, I feel like I know enough.

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