Faure's "The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha"

Despite being immersed in the debate over the historicity of the Buddha recently, I had overlooked Faure’s contribution from 2022 until it was drawn to my attention by a Sinologist at a seminar yesterday.

I’ve only read the opening chapter so far, but I can already see that he has made a major contribution to this topic.

There is a cautiously positive review in Tricycle Magazine

I doubt most Sutta Central readers will enjoy it, however, as he is definitely in the camp which says that we don’t know anything about the founder of Buddhism. That said, because he’s writing in book format and for a mixed audience (rather than experts), Faure’s contribution is able to go into much greater depth than Drewes has done and thus I think his explanation of this conclusion is more accessible.

BTW, the idea that we don’t know anything about the historical Buddha is not the same as saying he didn’t exist. This is not an argument about the founder of Buddhism per se, it’s an argument (in my view) about the absence of primary sources and the epistemology and methodology of historical research.

Note that in Buddhist Studies we often talk about “primary literature” meaning anything written in a classical language. A “primary source”, by contrast, is a first hand account of events by someone who lived through them; usually historians date a primary source from when it was written down. In my reading I note that Hinuber, Levman, and Wynne all mix up these two concepts.

I copied out a few passages that seemed useful for my project:

The Life of the Buddha became an “institution” in the sense that it was instituted by ecclesiastical orthodoxy rather than simply being based on the testimony of reliable witnesses.(9)

Unfortunately, there is no method that can separate the “man Gotama” from the Buddha of the legend. Those who claim, like Foucher, that this character “must” have existed carry on as if such a method does exist without ever explaining why they believe it is (or should be) so. (14)

as far as we can judge, there did not exist, in early Buddhism, a simple biography of the Buddha on which legendary elements could have been grafted. At the beginning, we only find a number of legends that are not yet unified in a biography, even a basic one. (14)

It seems just as fair to say that it is not that the basic elements have taken on the trappings of the myth, but rather that the myth from which these elements were extracted has ended up being passed off as history. (15)

Incidentally, the first Pāli texts are also “apocryphal,” in a way, since they date from several centuries after the parinirvāṇa. The first known manuscript dates from the fifth century CE. It is this methodological bias that the Sinhalese anthropologist Stanley Tambiah criticizes when he evokes the “Pāli Text Society mentality.” (17)

In the absence of a basic text that would reliably tell the life of the Buddha, most historians agree on a biography that is reduced to its simplest expression. But paradoxically, such a biography loses all historical character and becomes a simple archetype that could be valid for any Indian ascetic—Buddhist or not—or for any Buddha past or future. (17)

This gives a flavour of his approach.

As the book blurb says “Once the search for the “historical Buddha” is abandoned, there is no longer any need to limit the narrative to early Indian stories.” Faure goes on to discuss other types of legend about the Buddha.