The Myth of the Buddha Myth

I am surprized that the factuality of the Buddha as a historical figure is still being doubted. As a modern person I do not question that myth accompanies fame but I am certain that the man existed.

See: " The Historical Buddha: Response to Drewes.

  • Source: Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies . 2019, Issue 14, p25-56. 32p.

  • Author(s): Levman, Bryan

  • Abstract: This article is a response to David Drewes’ hypothesis (2017: 1-25) that the Buddha was a mythic figure who did not necessarily exist as an historical fact. The article suggests that there are four criteria by which the Buddha’s historicity can be established, none of which were discussed by Drewes: 1) the historical facts presented in the Buddhist canon which are corroborated by non-canonical sources, 2) the fact that there is no plausible alternative explanation for the provenance of the teachings 3) the humanness of the Buddha as presented in the canon belies the purported mythologization which Drewes asserts and 4) a core biography of the Founder can be discerned in the Buddhist canon, once later interpolations are removed."

See Drews article:


And Levman’s response:

For me, the second of Levman’s arguments:

was always sufficient by itself.

I definitely think there are two extremes here. One extreme would be to deny his existence, the other to accept his entire biography wholesale. Having said that, it’s hard to separate the mythology from the factuality, and I think how much people choose to accept is ultimately a matter of subjective preference. I understand that for some people, the evidence simply is not enough to assert anything about the historical Buddha. For others, the evidence we have is enough to assert this or that.

On the one hand, I think it’s silly to argue that the Buddha never existed. We have more solid grounds to assert his existence than all but a handful of people in the ancient world. In point of fact, I have more reason to believe the Buddha existed than I do to believe that there ever was a scholar named “David Drew”. After all, look at the suspicious alliteration in his name: how many comic book characters have alliterative names? In a world where American academia is dominated by post-truth subjectivism, isn’t it more likely that the so-called “David Drew” is simply a meta-narrative played out as a postmodern literary pseudo-comic book hero than a “real person”, whatever that is?

On the other hand, I think it’s important that academics be allowed to pursue inquiry even if it does seem silly. Sometimes you’ve got to through things up in the air to see how they fall. Having said which, this particular argument is tired and has repeatedly failed. If they want to be radical, how about trying something new?

Academia likes to publish “novel” hypotheses, and such things in Buddhist studies rarely receive serious scrutiny before publication. I recently critiqued Halkias’ argument that Kalanos was a Buddhist ascetic, and IMHO his argument was so poor it shouldn’t have been published in the first place. Articles are reviewed at a much lower level, for spelling, syntax, accuracy of notes and the like, and in my experience rarely with a serious engagement with the actual argument.

My point is simply: don’t feel the need to take academic articles seriously. Some are okay, but most of them aren’t very good. If it seems off to you, but you don’t have the background or time to assess it properly, it’s fine to ignore it. Or you know, just bring it along here like you did!


Yeah, there’s even a perverse incentive here in that radical and plausible-at-first-glance but ultimately-pretty-easy-to-debunk claims are sure to get a rebuttal or two like Levman’s response above.

In a small field like (Anglophone) Buddhist Studies—where even seminal papers get only ~12 citations—getting a few citations debunking your ridiculousness is enough to make you one of the most-cited scholars in the field! Gregory Schopen, for example, is pretty infamous for building (much of) his career on this dubious model.

It’s very hard for funding bodies and university administrators—who generally aren’t specialists but who do decide who gets to keep writing papers—to tell the difference between constructive dialogue and noise.

This is why OBU vets every one of our articles before they’re added to the library :wink: