Regarding the belief of academics that the Buddha taught Mahayana sutras etc

What about the Therigatha/Theragatha in which ascetics proclaim emancipation by attaining the same three knowledges that the Buddha did ?

Anecdotes are not evidence.


Based on what evidence?


If you had bothered to read the thread you would have seen that we were talking precisely about scholars of the Mahāyana.

Which is simply a paraphrase of what I was saying. Thanks.


Nope. What you said is:

I doubt any non-religious academics believe that any Buddhist texts were literally taught by the Buddha. Most of us now see the Buddha as a purely legendary figure for whom there is no historical evidence.


I should say that given the historical circumstances, under which the Early Buddhist texts were passed down to us, this scholarly opinion about the historicity of the Buddha is not surprising.

Let’s do something deeply unscholarly now, let’s stage a little thought experience and imagine tthe Christian textual tradition would exist in a Universe where there would be a larger gap between Jesus’ ministry and early texts about it, our knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean history would be on par with our knowledge of the Ancient India in the Janapada period, and the non-Orthodox Christian traditions wouldn’t have gone extinct. We’d have four canonical Gospels, a bunch of apocryphal Christian Gospels, a plethora of apocryphal Gnostic Gospels and last but not least Manichean texts.

We would know that there was an emperor named Constantine who supported a particular ‘orthodox’ version of Christianity, we would have a collection of texts known as ‘the New Testament’, but we wouldn’t know the exact teachings of this orthodox Constantine religion or how the New Testament came to be. We’d have very limited knowledge of the Old Testament or ancient Jewish traditions like apolcalyptic Jewish cults, etc., etc., etc.

I would venture to say that under these conditions quite a few scholars would believe Jesus is a purely legendary figure. In other words, I think that the similar view of the Buddha is la legitimate working hypothesis in a scholarly context.

At the same time, we could try to apply the two criteria of historical authenticity as used by Bart Ehrman in a Buddhist context. Obviously, I am not trying to claim that doing this in this thread would be count as serious scholarly effort or that there are no other possible criteria.

I. Independent attestation - does not apply. I don’t know whether the Buddha is mentioned in the older parts of the Jaina Canon; Hindu sources are obviously not contemporary with the Buddha.

II. Embarassing stories - this one is much more interesting. I would say that the Pali Canon features quite a few stories about the Buddha that would appear as odd or even embarassing to modern sensbilities. On the other hand, it remains to show that these stories were as embarassing or odd back in the Ancient India. So, if one wants to find textual evidence of the Buddha’s historicity, one could try to pursue this line of enquiry.


With the same scholarly logic (or lack thereof) one could argue that no people existed before the time of Ashoka. Where’s the evidence that they did? Everything was written down after the inscriptions, and everything came into existence following this. Also, why dedicate one’s life to studying texts from someone who apparently didn’t exist?

I’m not clear why taxpayers money is being spent this way assuming it is.

I’m not a pali scholar and don’t have any scholarly ambition; one must keep seeking the next big sensation to get published, no? Keeping this in mind, the biases in such papers are hardly declared, I assume (not having read them myself)?

Fortunately the East never relied on scholars as that would have killed off Buddhism. The West seems to place too much emphasis on biased ‘experts’ for such information I’m afraid -maybe I am overreaching when I put all scholars in the same basket; there are some good ones out there.

Even the idea that the pali canon isn’t uniform is apparent to those people who don’t understand it. It’s uniformity can only be understood by those who have depth of experience of its practices. Its complexity, for the person who has no understanding, looks more like confusion.


Cool! I’m glad to hear it.

Very interesting. Yes it would make a lot of sense for the Early Buddhist scholars o be more inclined to believe the Buddha existed, whereas Mahāyāna scholars are constantly studying inauthentic texts, so they would likely disbelieve the whole thing!

However, are there also a lot of Early Buddhist scholars who don’t believe the Buddha ever existed? @Jayarava?

Yes this seems to me a very reasonable statement from my perspective.

Cool. So, that means that it is established that the jātakas, whether in the collection or the ones in through the nikāyas, are not Early Buddhist Texts, right?

No. This is incorrect. There is plenty of evidence for people pre-Asoka going back 70,000 years, or even further if you count pre-modern hominids as people. The evidence is archaeological - both biological (remains, fossils) and cultural (tools, decorations, etc)

Again, no. My work is sometimes about new discoveries and sometimes about working through existing problems. A lot of us are just chipping away at things.

Completely untrue. Scholars played roles in Buddhism from the beginning.

The opposite is true. It’s complexity looks like consistency to one who has no understanding. The religious mindset smoothes over inconsistencies using hermeneutic and exegetical strategies - ignoring and explaining away inconvenient truths.

I no longer subscribe to this. I try to see what is there. This is also part of practice, and I would say a very important one. In the text, only the text.


Yes, in a context which was explicitly about Mahāyāna scholarship, I did say that. As I said, if you had bothered to read the thread you’d know this.

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Hi Gene. Yes they teach some very very good stuff. I was not referring to that, but to other things, such as the Buddha statue at Bodhgaya being an actual true likeness of the Buddha. The Buddha teaching that the arahant path is for inferior people, and the good students are to be bodhisattvas - and that even someone who has just joined the Mahāyāna path today, is superior to arahants.

Things like this, from the FPMT website (a Gelug organisation):

On lunar and solar eclipses, Lama Zopa Rinoche advises that the merit generated is multiplied by 700,000 and 100 million, respectively

The idea that buying captured animals (thus contributing to the demand, thus increasing suffering) and then releasing them, as non-native species, is a good thing for Buddhists to do (I heard this directly from a high lama).

That setting parts of your body on fire as sacrifice to the Buddha is a way of generating merit. (This happened in China a lot, even burning ones whole body, and I have met an old Tibetan monk who burned his finger as an offering).

That eating onions and garlic is bad because some invisible beings don’t like the smell.

That you should not even associate with Śrāvakas.

That reciting mantras will get you reborn in a buddha realm where a buddha is currently living, and he will teach you there.

That women cannot become enlightened, and had better be reborn in a male body - that I believe is taught in early Mahāyāna sūtras, not sure if that changed in later ones, but many Tibetans still believe it, and this goes some way in explaining why a common term for women in Tibetan is ‘low born’.

I think this might be enough examples for now!

I thought it was established. What is your sense of the opinion on that then, among specifically Early Buddhist scholars?

Yes, right. I am not sure how much of his story to actually believe, myself. But for a teaching career of 45 years, and knowing that many Buddhist monks would not have even met the Buddha, we should expect that there would be some heterogeny. But what is your point here?

What I was highlighting was that the schools had been apart from at least as early as 100 years after the Buddha’s death. That is to say, it is significant that they had been apart for at least that long and yet give almost exactly the same picture of the Buddha and his teachings. There are some differences, yes. But nothing like as much difference say for example between early Indian Mahāyāna and later Indian Mahāyāna. The early schools as we have them from the EBTs are extremely close!

OK well to me this seems like a very small point. I have never seen speculation about the minute details of what happens after death as a major concern in the EBTs. That kind of detail seems to be much more of a concern of abhidhamma. Do you see this as a major theme in EBTs?

I think it is great to talk abuot discrepencies! Even within the Pāli suttas, there are contradictions. And we can see evidence of different camps with opposing views, and suttas created to present the Buddha as supporting their view. That’s natural. We should expect such discrepencies, both within schools and between them. But so fr as I can see, there is agreement on the vast majority of doctrines. Not the abhidhamma of course, but the EBTs.

I would be very happy to hear any list of differences of opinion or doctrine between the early schools in the EBTs. I have seen some, but a list would be great. Maybe even one which people here can add to somehow!

I saw no-one make any claim that any school or all schools are 100% consistent. And even in my music teaching, as my students become teachers, there will be discrepencies between them, and they will have different memories of how I taught them. But that does not mean that they will not both be playing in high conformity to my style! It just means that they will not be identical to me.

And, learning rom both of them will give an academic more idea of how I taught than just by learning from one. They will get more stories, more analogies, more techniques and so on. Getting two perspectives on my teaching. And better still, they could go to a third and fourth student of mine to learn more! Such is the benefit also of comparative EBT study, I feel.

I am relatively very objective. For example, since I am a Mahāyāna practitioner, why is it that I see so much inconsistency in the Mahāyāna teachings, and so much consistency in the EBTs, relatively speaking (and I am also aware of inconsistency, by the way - some of it at least!)? Surely you would have expected me to see the opposite, if I was so based on expectation-driven perception. Do you see what I mean? It’s a matter of degree. And there is a far far higher degree of inconsistency in the Mahāyāna sūtras than in the EBTs, even though the latter have been separated for many hundreds of years longer.

This evidence:

And also the texts in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, which is a Prakrit (grammar) with a Sankritized twang (spelling of words), right? Is my logic wrong here?

Have you read the scholarship on that, and felt that scholarship to be invalid? Or are you saying this based on assumption that we cannot know any of the words the Buddha may have spoken? What I briefly read on this seemed reasonable to me.

People have been known to change their dialect or even language when moving to live in another place, and teach the inhabitants! I do not think we need to assume that the Buddha always and only used the dialect of his home village.

Do you have a different conclusion? I would be interested to hear about it. I was always unsure if the earlier jātakas were considered EBTs or not.

I think the huge difference is that the Jesus character (regardless of whether he existed or not) taught for a very very short time, and taught only Jews. He had a tiny bunch of followers, who left no texts. There was no developed oral tradition in place (that I am aware of), and there are no eye witness acounts of Jesus. All of this is totally different to the Buddha character.

Ha ha ha! How about Buddhaghosa for one! Theravāda is famous for scholarship, so much so that they declared it more important than meditation! And the Mahāyāna also, so many famous scholars at Nālandā, on whose work the Mahāyāna now bases its foundations.

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I personally think that both are true. Sometimes things don’t make sense and seem contradictory until you have studied deeper. Same with many subjects. And, also sometimes you cannot appreciate the contradictions until you have studied deeply enough. We have to admit that there are both. It is neither entirely consistent, nor untirely not. But for the sake of this discussion, we should note that the EBTs are so much more internally consistent than the Mahāyāna sūtras are - so far as my studies of these texts have revealed to me at least.

I actually also took you to be fererring to Buddhist scholars in general. If that is not what you mean, perhaps you could clarify? Would you say that most Mahāyāna scholars don’t believe the Buddha existed, and most Early Buddhism scholars believe he did? Or…?

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Good to see someone thinking through the issue a bit.

This has been my point all along. There is no external textual evidence. Nor is there any archaeological or epigraphical evidence.

Internal evidence from the texts suggests they were likely to have been composed after the start of the second urbanisation (ca 700 BC) and before the Mauryan Dynasty (ca 300 BC). And probably towards the later end of that range (i.e. closer to the present).

But there is no evidence for the Buddha or anyone like him. Except a bunch of stories, some of which are clearly mythology and clearly legend, and others that might contain grains of truth. But we have no way to tell which is which.

The Buddha, as portrayed, has a high status Brahmin name, for example (which might be considered embarrassing). How did he come by this? His father is never referred to as Gotama, when by all rights he ought to have been, if that was the family name. And yet his mother and Aunt are referred to as Gotamī and both also have high status Brahmin given names: Māyā (Creatrix) and Prajāpati (name of a Vedic God). Where they Brāhmaṇa? So which part of the story is true and which is fiction? I’ve been looking at it for years and I can’t tell.

Yes, and in my research I have done just this. For example, I have argued (based on some informal comments by Prof Michael Witzel) that the Śākyas might have been late immigrants from Iran because in their foundation story the leading Śākya men are said to commit incest with their sisters due to lack of suitable wives. Iranian leaders did sometimes marry their sisters (probably inspired by the Egyptians).

Given the general taboo about incest, which was very strong in the Vedic milieu, and later condemned in his neighbours by Vasubandhu (4th C) this is a very embarrassing story indeed and therefore, on the principle of embarrassment, likely to be true. And if true, very likely to have been linked to Iran before ca. 850 BC.


I read the thread. The context in which you made that comment included explicit reference to Gombrich and Vetter, neither of whom is primarily known as a Mahayana scholar, and both of whose major works deal with earlier Buddhism. I think one only comes close to a majority consensus in favor of the view that the Buddha is a purely legendary figure if one throws out most of the scholars whose specialization in early Buddhism, and limits attention to a relatively small circle of scholars worse specializations lie in other areas.



That was an Ajivika (Upaka), in MN 26 and MN 85. And the Ajivikas were probably the sect the Buddha was arguing against the most, because they didn’t believe in Karma and its effects. So it’s not too surprising to have a story that shows how ignorant and disrespectful they were.

Sorry, I misread you there.

I find Jataka stories terribly boring, so I never got into them. But she bases the dating on Oskar v. Hinüber’s “Entstehung und Aufbau der Jātaka-Sammlung”, 1988.

Again, I’m not good in Jatakas, but it seems they are terribly complex because there is folk popularity involved. v. Hinüber found Jatakas retelling stories from before the Buddha - so some are pre-Buddhist. The stories in the main Nikayas are surely old, shrug I wouldn’t refer to any Jatakas personally to make an historical point.

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That ‘bunch of stories’ is enough for me, and I am fine with that not being enough for some others. Why it is enough for me is in part because it is a massive bunch of stories and teachings that, from comparative analysis of the EBTs, we seem to be able to deduce was a large and highly consistent (no, not 100%, but still highly) body of work, which would be very very hard to have happened had it originated with a group of people over time. The group can account for variation, but the low degree of variation from such a large body of work seems to rule out the idea that this was a created tradition not based on it’s claimed founder. I believe this is also Gombrich’s reasoning.

If there were more evidence then that would be great, but it’s hard to hope for that from a pre-writing age.

Are we familiar with the names that the Sakya clan used at that time?

If not, how do we know those could not have been Sakyan names?

If so, and if we can establish that those names could not have been used by Sakyans, then this opens the possibility that his name was changed by the tradition at some stage. It certainly doesn’t mean he simply didn’t exist! In fact, if someone were to invent a story about a kshatriya sage, they would likely pick a kshatriya name for him, right? So I am not sure where your reasoning is going with this.

This is always a great question! And comparative study of the EBTs is I think one of the most valuable ways of addressing this question, when it is put to many topics. And also when we address this question to Mahāyāna doctrine and stories! Because Mahāyāna is absolutely overflowing with contradiction. Just take a look at the 10 bhūmi model and you’ll be confronted with a whole mass of them, since they try to integrate parallel expositions from the EBTs into an articicial heirarchy, and end up including many duplicates and other severe contradictions. It’s great untangling that. By which I mean, fun!

Ah, that was you! I saw that but never got time to read it. I found the idea very interesting. Ahhh my reading list is getting longer! :slight_smile: So then, you believe the Buddha did exist? At least it seems you believe the Sakyans did.

Where is that recorded? In the EBTs, or somewhere else?

I scanned through as far as pg 47 without noticing any mention of anyone aspiring to become a pacceka buddha. I have only seen in that article so far, temples with their images. Well, the Mahāyāna also have images and statues of the arahants, even though they would never want to become an arahant.

Could you please confirm if that article does give evidence of such a movement as you have suggested?

I didn’t see it as disrecpectful. Generally people who become enlightened in India do so under a teacher - and we can argue, all over the world also, not just India. Very rare is it that someone does it by themselves, it seems (Ramana Maharishi would be perhaps another example, seems to have done most of the work by himself). And naturally people will be skeptical about someone with no teacher, making such claims. That’s the way I took it.

What would you think if you met someone walking down the road and he exclaimed ‘I’m totally enlightened! I’m the top of the top!’ And you find out he’s some dude with no teacher who’s just walked out of the woods. Ok we might be wrong to assume, but many of us would indeed assume that he was not really enlightened. It’s a fair conclusion from the observer’s perspective.

Me too!

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The article was more a reference that shows that people in history were fascinated by Paccekabuddhas, I don’t think we can show that people actually practiced to become one. Also in the EBT monastics didn’t declare “I want to be a once-returner” etc. It is just assumed that they wanted to become arahants.

Re. Upaka, first he was fascinated by the Buddha’s ‘aura’. Then he asked the Buddha if he was a Jina, a fully realized being in the Jain/Ajivika terms, the Buddha confirmed, and then “wobbling his head, he took a wrong turn and left”. So yes, he didn’t believe the claim, but also departed disrespectfully - for sure for the Buddhist reader of the story at least.

I don’t think its a matter of thinking the Buddha is fiction.

King Arthur could have been a real man. No one can no for certain.

I think that is more the skeptical academic angle vis-a-vis Buddha-historicity.