The following opinions expessed may be controversial, so I hope we can all stay equananimous.
I really enjoy reading the Suttas as my primary way of instruction in how to practice. I remember stumbling onto accesstoinsight.org as a teenager and finding it so different and powerful. I revere and treasure the Suttas and I will always* have a deep respect for them and look to them for guidance.
I think that some (not most) of the material we find in the Suttas was added on later to mythologize, dramatize, proselytize, revere, etc. I also think that the Buddha was not omniscient, and he was a pragmatist: teaching the Dhamma according to the current understanding of the world at the time.
Some of you may now suspect you know where I am going with this, so I want to interject at this point: I am not a secular Buddhist. It seems clear to me that rebirth is a consistent enough teaching throughout the Suttas that I imagine the Buddha did actually teach this. Similarly, I consider it likely that the Buddha did teach of other heavenly and hellish realms. I’m less certain, and undecided, about some things, like the psychic powers. But I’m fairly certain that the Buddha did not, for example, possess the 32 marks of the great man. And I am also fairly certain that, as in DN3, the Buddha did not feel the need to use his psychic powers to show his (apparantly, incredibly strange) penis to an old man and a teenage boy.
So I had the following idea, and I was wondering if others would be interested: what if we created translations of the suttas which represented our best guess as to what discussions and events “actually happened” that inspired said sutta? We would remove strange events like the above and translate into an easily readable and unstilted style. For example, here are some of the tweaks which could be made:
Remove references to strange things like the 32 marks of a great man that look like they were added on to mythologize the Buddha. Another example would be the thunder god which followed the Buddha around and would split the head of anyone who did not answer the Buddha’s questions.
Keep the general teachings about different realms and deities intact, but look at individual specific stories of these realms/deities with a grain of salt.
Reframe some of the teachings to be more in line with current scientific understanding. Evidently, people in the time of the Buddha understood physical matter to be composed of four primary elements. We now know that this is not the case. The instructions for meditation on the four elements can be easily recast though and retain the exact same soteriological goal:
“Maintain mindfulness of physical matter. Understood that it is just matter subject to the three characteristics. Maintain mindfulness of physical matter internally. How might you do this? Look at this body as having solids, liquids, and gases. Understand that these are just solids, liquids, and gases; i.e., solids, liquids, and gases are inconstant, not a self, and not satisfactory. Look at some of the physical properties this matter may have: temperature, mass, velocity, etc. Again, understand that these are just physical properties.”
As another example of the above, it seems people at the time understood sensory consciousness to arise at the organ. We now know that a brain is required. So we can tweak this, but still retain the primary message: "perceptions are subject to the three characteristics and arise in dependence on other things. There must be a working eye, nervous system, and visual cortex. There must be visual consciousness. When external form, light, a working eye, nervous system, visual cortex, and visual consciousness come into contact, there is a visual perception. More generally, external form (or matter) comes into contact with a sensory organ, which comes into contact with a nervous system, which comes into contact with a brain, which comes into contact with a type of consciousness. "
The Buddha in the Suttas sometimes, to me, seems to be unnecessarily harsh and full of himself. False humility should not be encouraged, and sometimes harsh speech is necessary. But some of this looks like it was added to make the Buddha appear perfect and his interlocutor stupid in comparison.
Now, obviously a project like the above is always going to be somewhat arbitrary and reflect the biases of its author. And there is a real danger here: we will just project our own unenlightened viewpoint and biases, picking and choosing only what is comfortable to us. But just because it is somewhat arbitrary does not mean it is completely arbitrary. And are biases are going to be there anyway; a project like this would be freely bringing them out into the open. We would not claim that we are representing the “true words of the Buddha.” We would freely admit up front: these are our biases, and based on these biases here is how we have tweaked the teachings, and here is what our best guess is for what the fundamental message is.
So, what do others think of something like this?