Can we really trust Buddhist scriptures?

This is a heartfelt cry for the thoughts of fellow spiritual seekers. I have been practicing for over 30 years but I still really consider myself a novice. I have read many suttas very diligently. My understanding is that for several hundred years all that the Buddha taught was handed down orally. Of course people of that time would have had much more developed oral skills than we have. But they were still only human.

Then things were written down but in different cultures and languages. Yet we now seem to take literally what is in those scriptures. How accurate are they really?This has begun to concern me. Although our experience of practice should be the basis of our path, still there seems to be much leaning on what is written down. Maybe I’m wrong or misunderstanding how I should view the suttas. Any thoughts/guidance would be greatly appreciated.

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Have you read Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts by Bhante Sujato and Ajahn Brahmali? https://ocbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/authenticity.pdf

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This is spot on.

I’ve read many faith books, analysed very different paths (From Abrahamic, Satanic, Pagan, Occult, Hindu anything under the sun). Only Buddha’s words truly resonated with me, so I’m here.

I think the problem with most practitioners is that there’s enough truth in the suttas for them to resonate with, then there’s the expositions that they have faith in but are unable to verify themselves. So that a lot of discussions rely on “This sutta says this / This sutta says that” instead of a dialogue of their own experiences.

Case in point, Buddha never quoted any scriptures. He always relied on his own understanding and exposition, even the formulas change slightly depending on the circumstances of his teaching.

I mean, once you get down to it, the core principles of the teaching can be laid out in a single piece of paper, and they’re repeated oft enough to believe that core of Buddha’s message was for example Jhānas / Ayatanas, 4 Noble Truth, Noble Eightfold Path.

Let me even break it down to two components - one, breaking away from addictions (physical addictions, mental addictions, looking into our own nature of khandas) and two, living a peaceful, virtuous life.

Most suttas are just an expansion of these themes, with colourful similes, praises for ethical behaviour, an ever evident call for meditation and for us to analyse & understand the happenings for ourselves.

In light of this all, what else is there in the suttas that’s controversial that we need to put our trust in? It is said that even people who don’t remember any past lives (so that they can’t verify for themselves) still can become arahants. So on the topics of relinquishing our addictions, living a virtuous life, I think suttas are a great source of inspiration, and that’s all I need them to be, not authoritative sources on Truth itself (whatever it may be).

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The Buddha in fact wants anyone to use your own language for his teachings. E.g. in Vinaya, Cullavagga (Vin. II, PTS, p. 139), the Buddha advises bhikkhus not to use Vedic language (Chanda; i.e. Vedic Sanskrit) for unifying the Buddha’s language/teachings (buddhavacana), but use your own language (sakāya niruttiyā ‘based on your own language’) for his teachings.

As a result, there are now different textual languages for the teachings and stories in early Buddhist texts. So, it is better to critically and carefully study Buddhist scriptures.

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One can trust whatever one wants. In fact where there is no direct knowledge faith is an inescapable factor in experience:

The ordinary man is affected by ignorance, and he cannot dispense with simple faith, though in good faith he may grossly misplace it, or dissipate it, and be said to have no faith (asaddhā).
But if he places it honestly and reasonably, he is called faithful (saddhā).

In the Buddha’s words, “A bhikkhu who possesses understanding founds his faith in accordance with that understanding” (SN 48:45), to which words may be added also those of the venerable Sāriputta: “There are two conditions for the arising of right view: another’s speech and reasoned attention” (MN 43). From this it emerges that an ordinary man has need of a germ of “mother wit” in order to know where to place his faith and a germ of unsquandered faith in order to believe he can develop his understanding. That is the starting position.

Faith thus begins to appear as a fusion of two elements: confidence (pasāda), and what the confidence is placed in. Faith as confidence is elsewhere described as a clearing of the mind, like water cleared of suspended mud by a water-clearing nut, or as a launching out (pakkhandana), like a boat’s launching out from the near bank to cross a flood to the further bank, or as a hand that resolutely grasps. (A grain of “mother wit” is needed to recognize the nut, to avoid launching out into a flood that has no other shore, to refrain from grasping a red-hot poker as a stick to lean on). Just as “Seeing is the meaning of the understanding as a faculty,” so also “Decision [adhimokkha] is the meaning of faith as a faculty.”(Paṭisambhidā Ñāṇakatha). When faith is aided by concentration, “The mind launches out [to its object] and acquires confidence, steadiness and decision” (MN 122).

Choice of a bad object will debauch faith by the disappointment and frustration it entails. Craving and desire can corrupt it into bad faith by the self-deception that it is not necessary to investigate and test the object, and then, as well as error, there is disregard of truth. In one of his great discourses on faith the Buddha says, “Bhāradvāja, there are five ideas which ripen in two ways [expectedly and unexpectedly] here and now. What are the five? They are faith, preference, hearsay, learning, weighing evidence, and choice of a view after pondering it [compare the Kālāma Sutta quoted above]. Now [in the case of faith] something may have faith well placed in it [susadahita] and yet it may be hollow, empty and false; and again, something may have no faith placed in it, and yet it may be factual, true and no other than it seems. In such circumstances it is not yet proper for a wise man to make the conclusion without reserve ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ … If a man has faith, then in such circumstances as these he preserves truth when he says, ‘My faith is thus’; but then too he still does not, on that account alone, make the conclusion without reserve, ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ He preserves truth in that way too” (MN 95). The other four cases are similarly treated, after which it is shown how “preserving of truth” can be developed successively into “discovery of truth” (path of Stream-entry) and “arrival at truth” (fruit of the path of Stream-entry). The element of confidence has then become absolute because its object has been sufficiently tested by actual experience for the principal claims to be found justified.

Does Saddhā Mean Faith?
Nanamoli Thera

Our present situation is different, even we would be ready to follow advice:

Bhikkhus, for a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, it is natural that he conduct himself thus: ‘The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple; the Blessed One knows, I do not know.’ MN 69

we don’t have the living Buddha, so translated in our present situation the advise is as follows:
Suttas are right, I am wrong. In other words, in the existential situation when one is ignorant, and not only ignorant, but also ignorant about ones own ignorance which makes ignorance protected by kind of catch 22 one really needs some informations which while obviously will contradict ones ideas, still should be trusted more than ones own ideas which as far as right view goes are shaped by ignorance.

This ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, which Saint Ignatius Loyola says is ‘so pleasing unto God’, is required also, incidentally, of the quantum physicist: he has to subscribe to the proposition that there are numbers that are not quantities. It is not, however, required of the follower of the Buddha, whose saddhā—trust or confidence—is something like that of the patient in his doctor. The patient accepts on trust that the doctor knows more about his complaint than he himself does, and he submits himself to the doctor’s treatment. So far, indeed, from saying to his disciples ‘You must accept on trust from me that black is white’, the Buddha actually says, in effect, ‘What you must accept on trust from me is that you yourselves are unwittingly assuming that black is white, and that this is the reason for your suffering’.

Nanavira Thera

So coming back to your question both Ven Nanamoli and Nanavira Theras regarded Suttas as wholly trustworthy. Unlike EBT Suttas weren’t for them the object of study, but rather veneration, since in absence of living Buddha they represent Dhamma and are able to help us to liberate ourselves from ignorance.

These books of the Pali Canon correctly represent the Buddha’s Teaching, and can be regarded as trustworthy throughout. (Vinayapitaka:) Suttavibhanga, Mahāvagga, Cūlavagga; (Suttapitaka:) Dīghanikāya, Majjhimanikāya, Samyuttanikāya, Anguttaranikāya, Suttanipāta, Dhammapada, Udāna, Itivuttaka, Theratherīgāthā. (The Jātaka verses may be authentic, but they do not come within the scope of these Notes.) No other Pali books whatsoever should be taken as authoritative; and ignorance of them (and particularly of the traditional Commentaries) may be counted a positive advantage, as leaving less to be unlearned.

Unfortunately the acceptance of Suttas as trustworthy is only the first step, but if you have faith in Dhamma that you samsaric enslavement has no visible beginning you must admit that your own ideas about things as they are aren’t very trustworthy, it is due to them you are still in samsara, so perhaps idea: Suttas are right, I am wrong is quite reasonable option🙂

Hi there!

I had similar thoughts to you, and ended up writing a whole article about it:

The good news is: I do believe one can (selectively) trust the texts and it is still possible to gain realisation from them. Best wishes on your path!

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My sincere thanks to everyone who has responded. I will read the various links offered.

Ultimately, his teachings can be distilled to very simple ideas: eliminate craving and desire and other unwholesome or unskillful thoughts, be the best person one can possibly be, have a calm and dispassionate disposition, have a positive attitude towards life and other living beings, and you will be forever be rid of sufffering and dissatisfaction. Even if one does not believe in anything he taught, is there nothing better than to follow that path?

This is such an amazing work and a source of incredible insight. My hat’s off to you ma’am. :tophat: :pray:

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I think that there comes a point where we start to gain some independence from the scriptures and that’s sometimes a tough period as it can manifest as a separation. It is a point where our scriptural learning is fulfilled and we have gained enough faith to start to turn our attention towards yonisomanasikāra. It’s not that we haven’t been giving this and the things that follow a go, but they just become more important and the scriptures less important. It’s like a teenager leaving home- there are mixed emotions

And I read that in AN10.62 :wink:

I like this one from Ajahn Chah:

Outward scriptural study is not important. Of course, the Dhamma books are correct, but they are not right. They cannot give you right understanding. To see the word “anger” in print is not the same as experiencing anger. Only experiencing for yourself can give you true faith.

It goes quite nicely with this other one of his:

The Buddha wanted us to contact the Dhamma, but people only contact the words, the books and the scriptures. This is contacting that which is ”about" Dhamma, and not contacting the “real” Dhamma as taught by our Great Teacher. How can people say that they are practicing well and properly if they only do that? They are a long way off.

Hi Charlie!

In some places people do, people who are very “traditional”. But for many others, including on this discussion platform, this is not the case.

Any critical look at the texts will reveal that they are not 100% trustworthy. There are different editions even of the Pali Canon itself, with sometimes entire paragraphs being different in certain editions (though that is rare and usually the differences are much more minor).

Also, by the nature of these texts and by comparing them to other traditions (e.g. Sanskrit/Chinese), we can see that there has been some editing going on.

So scholars agree that the suttas were not all literally spoken by the Buddha. However, that doesn’t mean that we should throw out the baby with the bathwater, because a lot that’s in the suttas does have every indication of being authentic.

What exactly is authentic and what not, is often hard to tell, though, which is one reason people will study and discuss these texts.

Of course experience is the basis of the path. But experiences are generally discussed between student and teacher, not in scholarly works or other public places. This platform too is primarily devoted to the study of texts themselves.

Because one question we should also ask is, can we really trust personal experiences? Sometimes the texts are there exactly to tell us we’re wrong about something. So for some people it is probably helpful to have more trust in the scriptures than their own experience.

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To be honest, I do believe that Ajhan Chah was arahat, but being arahat is not a safeguard from falling into logical and existential contradictions. What are scriptures? Lord Buddha’s words. So listening and studying Lord Buddha’s words is not important. Well …Lord Buddha’s words are correct, but they aren’t right. Well…

But surely Ajahn Chah really thought that words are important. He was very fond of giving Dhamma talks, he gave enormous amount of them, sometimes his Dhamma talks lasted many hours.

Translated into existential terms, what we see is just his preference for his own words, than the words of Lord Buddha. Since quite obviously such preference cannot be stated straightforwardly, it was shaped into this kind of zen-like statement.

After all as far as word “anger” goes, whether we see it in Suttas, or in collection of Ajahn Chan Dhamma talks is all the same. The difference lies that in Suttas you can find more advices how to dealing with anger, than in Ajahn Chan entire printed output.

Yeah he sure did:

What is Dhamma? Nothing isn’t.

Agreed. Once you’ve read what the suttas have to say about anger, you can then put them into practice in your own heart. If you haven’t read them, memorized what they’ve got to say and taken them into your heart yet, it is definitely a good idea to do that. Then you don’t need to read them again.

https://suttacentral.net/an3.65/en/sujato

Please, Kālāmas, don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned train of thought, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after deliberation, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think ‘The ascetic is our respected teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to harm and suffering’, then you should give them up.

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The point is this is precisely as I think about Lord Buddha.:slightly_smiling_face: He is my Teacher and if he says something, I take it for granted that things are exactly the way as He describes them.

Moreover I don’t see that my attitude is in any contradiction with Dhamma. If you look carefully you will see that these instructions are given to people who don’t have their own teacher, and are seriously confused since various teachers teach various contractory things.

But without proposing directly Dhamma, as the best guide, by introducing teaching about greed, hate and delusion on the end they arrived accepting fundaments of Dhamma.

So you will not find a single Sutta with such instruction for bhikkhus. Lord Buddha in unequivocal terms stated that He is the best teacher available :slightly_smiling_face: He knows much more than we, and once you recognise Him as your Teacher, your task is to strengthen your faith. Adopting Kalama Sutta towards Dhamma, would be a serious step back. Of course you are free to do it. :slightly_smiling_face:

I think in the text above, the Buddha is not referring to other teachers of the Kalama people specifically, but speaking generally. This is not about whether the Buddha is right or the other teachers are right; it is a framework of thinking to gradually approach the truth. It is always good to have doubts if those doubts are reasonable.

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And faith always needs to go hand in hand with understanding. When you see, you will naturally believe. Trying to believe without seeing and understanding is not the right attitude in approaching the truth; that is my perspective.

Yes, I have very serious doubts about your understanding function of faith in the Dhamma, but since you claim to be wise enough to make value judgement with certainty that your doubts about Dhamma are reasonable and not dependently arisen upon ignorance, good luck :slightly_smiling_face:

Hmm. I’m not wise, actually full of ignorance, but I can doubt, right?
Faith is when you believe in yourself.

Without relying on anyone, even the Buddha. Blindly accepting everything is not faith.

Some people will immediately trust what they read while others will be more skeptical. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to know if the suttas are trustworthy needs to apply what they’ve read in order to get any sort of confirmation.

There is nothing wrong with being skeptical, but it can be counterproductive to insist on acquiring any sort of confirmation at the outset, which is nothing other than presuming that the process of becoming a Buddhist is to figure out a way to be reasonably convinced that it is right prior to making the necessary lifestyle changes described in the suttas.

Is it a risk to proceed on so little? Depends on what you’re worried about. Are you concerned something bad is going to happen if you invest the time?