A (New?) Theory on the Genesis of the Indian Mahayana Apocrypha
When people get together, they often tell jokes , especially when they are colleagues. Far from “pointless,” such humor serves a useful function.
Take, for example, Alvy Ray Smith’s memorable 1995 paper to his colleagues in Computer Graphics: “A Pixel is Not A Little Square, A Pixel is Not A Little Square, A Pixel is Not A Little Square!” Or take this recent randomized controlled trial of parachutes. When a field becomes noisy, especially with people making very silly, fundamental errors, humor can often help “cut through the noise” in a way that dry analysis often cannot.
The Situation in Ancient India
With that in mind, let’s take a step back and picture the situation for Buddhism in India a bit after King Ashoka.
Buddhism was well supported. There were many great Buddhist universities, filled with many bright minds. Most monks (and especially the scholars) would have had a great deal of the Early Buddhist Texts committed to memory.
The Abhidhamma project was reaching a stage of considerable maturity. Long gone were the days when the Abhidhamma Pitika was a simple concordance! Scholars debated many fine (and some less fine) points of doctrine. Different universities started to develop their own curricula. Curriculum became emphasis, emphasis became content, and content started to become doctrine.
The Genesis of Apocrypha
It is in this milieu of early sectarianism that the earliest apocryphal sutras first appeared.
But this poses something of a challenge. It would be rather incredible if such conservative institutions and well-educated scholars would immediately fall under the sway of new, inauthentic scriptures. To imagine this gives no credit to the critical thinking skills of these, the most advanced, Buddhist scholars of antiquity.
Nor does this “earnest apocrypha hypothesis” give credit to the authors. What could possibly motivate a smart and well educated Buddhist to put ink to palm leaf and pretend the Buddha said something he didn’t?
Now, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā makes no claims at being the word of the Buddha. It is merely an epic response to the frustrating trends in Buddhist scholarship at that time:
Without having essence or otherness essence, how can there be entities?
If there are essences and entities,
entities are established.
If the entity is not established,
a nonentity is not established.
An entity that has become different
is a nonentity, people say.
Those who see essence and essential difference and entities and nonentities,
they do not see
the truth taught by the Buddha.
The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is a brilliant refutation of the entire Abhidhamma project: the pointless sophistry and increasingly fractious debates between the schools. It’s witty and heartfelt and inspiring. Even millennia later, and in translation, I laugh out loud and applaud Nagarjuna’s masterpiece.
I doubt we will ever find the original prajñāpāramitā sutra. But based on the common features of those we do have (Śāriputra as a foil character, the use of absurdity and contradiction, the focus on literary aesthetic, etc), I imagine that it came about like the MKK.
An old hand sick of the debates pens a parody sutra. The words of those self-styled “Śāriputras” are put into the mouth of the actual Śāriputra, and found a bit lacking.
I imagine the contrast between contemporary behavior and the format of the suttas would have been highly amusing:
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was scrolling on Facebook. Now, at that time Sāriputta had posted a picture of his cat, Migarāja…
The Problem of Context
I propose that parody sutras became a kind of literary trope during this period of Indian Buddhism.
There would be little danger that you’d get confused and think the Buddha actually was scrolling on Facebook! But once the taboo against putting words in the Buddha’s mouth was broken, there was no going back. Many people tried their hand at the new genre and, inevitably, the line between parody and polemic got blurry.
And then Buddhism left India.
Taking this literature out of its context, hundreds of miles away, the joke, as they say, was lost in the translation.
I have proposed a sympathetic theory for the genesis and early evolution of apocryphal Mahayana sutras, which I believe fits all available evidence and explains how such literature could arise in educated, Buddhist India.