Walters and "the Buddhological Construct"

I’ve been corresponding with historian Jonathan S Walters on issues surrounding the debate on the historicity of the Buddha. Walters is not cited in any of the recent contributions (I think), but his work on this topic is quite important. Especially because he is, unlike the vast majority of those involved in this debate, an actual historian with a deep understanding of the methods of historians.

Walters sent me the first chapter of his book Finding Buddhists in Global History which I’m reading and taking notes on this morning. I’m particularly interested in his idea of the Buddhological Construct.

The Buddhological Construct was invented, along with the idea of the “historical Buddha”, in the 19th century and is now (still) presupposed to be the framework for all academic discussions about Buddhist history. This narrative is assumed to frame the discussion by Hinuber, Wynne, Levman, et al, in their attempts to defend the Victorian idea of “the historical Buddha”. But Walter’s argues that it was never grounded in what historians call “primary sources”.

One important point is that in Buddhist Studies we talk about “the primary literature” as any text written in one of the canonical languages, with no reference to chronology. Secondary literature in this paradigm is anything written in a modern language about the primary literature.

But this is not what a historian means by “primary source”. To a historian, a primary source is a document written at the time we wish to study, or by someone who lived through the events in questions. A primary source is dated to when it was written down, even if it was based on an existing oral tradition. And a “secondary source” is any work written at a later date.

I bring this up because it’s clear that many proponents of the “historical Buddha” don’t know the difference. For example, Wynne and Hinuber both castigate Drewes for not using “primary sources” when they really mean that he doesn’t cite any Pāli suttas (i.e. primary literature). Any historian can tell you that there are no primary sources from Indian in the 5th century BCE, because writing was not used at that time. Writing began to be used a little before Asoka, but the first texts were composed and written down by him in the mid-3rd century.

Anyway, I’m interested to see if any other readers find Walter’s illuminating.


I think that by “the historical Buddha” most people mean the actual human being that taught suffering and the end of suffering and whose followers preserved in some form the teachings though they may have added to them over time. Technically, the word “historical” may be incorrect, but I think it’s more a case of historical being used figuratively as opposed to literally.

I think the more interesting question is was there a single person who taught enough of what we consider the dharma to be considered the founder of Buddhism. The alternative is it was the product of the interaction of several people who’s work was attributed to a legendary generic wiseman or Buddha.

Unlike Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics really didn’t have a single founder. Plank may have made a first contribution, but not enough to take credit for being the founder. Einstein, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, and others made fundamental contributions that were very significant. It really was a team effort. Was Buddhism a team effort and does it even matter? I personally think of myself as a practitioner, not a follower. I know that that is not true for everyone.

That said, thanks for mentioning the book. It looks like a good read.

It is important to disambiguate between the two meanings as otherwise confusion may arise. When you have the case of academic literature purporting to talk about the historicity of the Buddha, using terms loosely may cause confusion and misunderstanding to arise.

There is also the purely emotional problem of followers who object to the technically correct claim that the Buddha is not a historical figure. This is argued and debated based upon an emotional fixation or attachment to the Buddha and our ability (more pointedly our inability) as followers to have certainty with to regard various facts about his personage; many react with a need to argue or refute the historian’s technically correct claim that the Buddha is not a historical figure according to how academic historians define what it means to be historical.

Ironically, it is probably a good dhamma practice to let go of this emotional fixation and not so dispute. The Teacher probably wouldn’t want us to get invested in defending a substantialist view of the personage of the Buddha as a historical figure. :pray:


I’m reading and researching views expressed in an academic context only. I don’t have much interest in popular religious views. In this context—in, for example, the recent publications by Hinuber, Levman and Wynne—“historical” is definitely being used literally.

Even so there are two camps: (1) those academics who follow the methods of historians and consider a “primary source” to have been written down at the time, or at least written down by someone who lived through the events in question.

And (2) those who believe we can make up for the lack of primary sources from the fifth-century BCE by making intuitive inferences from texts whose date of writing is uncertain and whose existence cannot be definitely corroborated until ca fifth-century CE.

Walters is a historian. As are Drewes and Faure. By contrast, Hinuber, Levman, and Wynne are all primarily philologists and seem confused about historical methodology.

In fact, Einstein was not as isolated as most people make out. For example, he was applying mathematics developed by other people, notably Lorentz, and Riemann. David Hilbert had independently derived the principle of general relativity via a different approach at more or less the same time. Einstein and Hilbert corresponded about this. Einstein has assumed that his field equations were unsolvable, but Karl Schwarzschild published solutions in 1916, which did much to make the general theory practical.

Moreover, the general theory (published in German) would have remained obscure if Eddington and his team had not shown that it accurately predicted the bending of massless light by the mass of the sun, and published their results in English. And if many other such predictions had not also been experimentally confirmed.

The idea of Einstein as a lone genius whose theory came out of nowhere is just another example of the “Great Man of History” fallacy. Einstein was a member of a scientific community. His individual contribution was certainly significant, but others would have got there without him, and at around the same time.

Even if the Buddha was the first person in history to personally achieve cessation, in Buddhist mythology he is portrayed as having had teachers, family, companions, and finally legions of followers. There was no “Buddhism” per se until some other people also underwent cessation and came to the same conclusions.


It is like biologist who struggle with the boundary of what can be called alive or not, and a living being and not. For example, is a inactive virus alive or can it be seen as a living being? Then one invents criteria to make some rational decision about this. This tends to spread and be ingrained as something that is not invented. Disputing all this is great.

Thanks for laying out the terms as a historian uses them.

My understanding is there are tools to evaluate the accuracy of the oral tradition and the way it was recorded in the primary sources. I’m more familiar with work in this area looking to use the Gospels and Paul’s letters to hypothesize what Jesus was more likely to have said/done and what stories were likely later additions.

Are there scholars of early Buddhism doing similar work?


The key word here is hypothesize and all the uncertainty that goes with it. We can of course hypothesize and reason ourselves into believing some measure of certainty, but this is an illusion, not actual knowledge. The pre-historic Buddha, as known through passed down oral tradition, will remain shrouded in uncertainty and faith; it is beneficial to make peace with this. :pray:

1 Like

Do historians have any position on the Buddha based on what they consider primary sources? Does history only begin once people started writing things down? It’s a sincere question as I’m not familiar with these historical methods.

Would they say that the Buddha is pre-historical? Would they assert that he didn’t exist, or just that they have no proof that they recognize showing that he did.

Buddhist Studies scholars generally avoid any reference to methods used to study the history of Christianity. In fact, in recent publications of the historicity of the Buddha, not a single historian is cited. Nor are historical methods ever invoked. Both sides invoke science, but neither side invokes history.

The use of hermeneutic principles—such as the principle of embarrassment or the principle of multiple attestation—is very commonly amongst Christian historians. These methods have been elaborated in multivolume works like John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (which I wrote about in an essay last year: Meier’s Historicity Criteria). But this has never, to my knowledge, been tried in Buddhist Studies. The only reference to such hermeneutic principles I’m aware of is in Jan Nattier’s (2003) book A Few Good Men, and she makes no reference to the extensive literature that enunciates such principles.

Modern historians have certainly made use of living oral traditions, such as the oral genealogies of Polynesian societies. But as far as I know there is no way to know the accuracy of an ancient oral tradition in the absence of writing or archaeological evidence.

In the case of Pāli, it’s more complicated because we don’t know when Pāli was first written down. For example, the myth that Pāli was written down in the 1st century BCE is itself from a hagiographic text from the 5th century CE, and historians deem to be quite unreliable on matters of history. A written down Pāli canon is not corroborated until the 5th century CE.


Indeed. And since writing down accounts of events began with the Greeks and Romans, historians find themselves with a primarily Eurocentric and I daresay ‘White’ view of human history.

…Which leaves vast swathes of African, North and South American, Australian aboriginal, Asian and Oceanic cultures stranded beyond the pale of the ‘historical record’. Why? Because they have no written down surviving ancient document to ‘prove’ they ever existed.

Cuneiform tablets and stone inscriptions? Proto historical. Massive monuments, pieces of art, tools and other artefacts? Pre historical. Transcribed record from now decayed palm leaf documents or previously orally passed down accounts of events? Too late and unreliable.

What could possibly be wrong with a system of study run by scholars who manage to dismiss the records of cultures other than their own as ‘Constructs’ using their own narrowly constructed, self- centered and self-reinforcing definitions of what is acceptable as evidence?



These are good questions!

Historians do have a consensus position: The Buddha is a figure of mythology, not a figure from history.

This view has been expressed by, for example Jonathan Walters, Gregory Schopen, David Drewes, Joseph Walser, Bernard Faure, and yours truly. Faure’s book— (2022). The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha (University of Hawaii Press)—is probably the most accessible and at the same time the most comprehensive study of this issue.

Those who are against this view—notably Oskar von Hinüber, Richard Gombrich, Alexander Wynne, Bryan Levman, Stefan Karpik—are not historians and don’t invoke historical methodology. In fact none of them cites a single historian or any authority on historical methods. Nevertheless, they are referred to as “historicists” for their insistence on the historicity of the Buddha (one might also think of them as positivists who think they can prove the existence of the Buddha).

It turns out that all of the historicist/positivists were trained as philologists. And I think this helps explain their methods. I have blogged a critique of Levman, though most of the criticisms apply to all of the above. I’m currently working on an article that provides a deeper analysis of the historicist/positivist approach.

I wasn’t familiar with these historical methods either, and it has been an eye-opener to learn about them. Especially as I realised that most “historians of Buddhism” simply do not bother with or understand historical methods at all.

There is a unanimous consensus amongst the dozen or so (non Buddhist Studies) historians I have consulted, all of whom published general books on historical methods, that history begins with written documents. And before this is prehistory.

The Buddha very clearly belongs to prehistory.

None of those who argue against the historicity of the Buddha go as far as saying that “the Buddha didn’t exist”.

That said, a consistent mistake amongst the historicists/positivists is to believe that when historians say “the Buddha is not historical” that they are arguing that “the buddha didn’t exist”. The historicists/positivists seem not to understand the term “historical” in addition to not understanding what a primary source is.

In arguing for the reality of the Buddha, historicists/positivists, are attempting to prove a metaphysical point. By contrast historians are making an epistemic point: real or not, in historical terms we don’t know anything about the Buddha.

What we do know—from the oral tradition—is inextricably mixed up with magic, supernatural beings, and miracles; and it is all far too recent to be a primary source for the time frame in which the Buddha might have lived (according to best guesses).


Your cynical and combative conspiracy theory regarding the field of History seems to be completely unrelated to reality. You don’t cite any examples to support your sweeping generalisations.

No one devalues preliterate cultures. Rather, they are studied by disciplines other than History, notably archaeology and anthropology. As John Vincent ( An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History. London: Duckworth Overlook p.13) says:

Absence of records is nothing to do with importance or power: the great invading hordes from central Asia, such as the Huns and Tartars, did not lack power. But records they did lack—unless and until they conquered a civilisation of cities, bureaucracies and great estates and adopted its ways.

The idea that inscriptions are left out of Indian history, for example, is demonstrably untrue. Every single modern history of ancient Indian necessarily begins with references to the Asokan inscriptions. These have inestimable value and have long been the sole reference point for all other dates in Indian history.

In Buddhist Studies, it has been historians such as Gregory Schopen that have been most vociferous on the need to look at archaeology in writing histories of India.

One also thinks of the various renditions of the “two cultures hypothesis” that is based on archaeology. And the idea of the “second urbanisation” also based on archaeology.

Assessing the value and reliability of sources is bread and butter for any textual scholar, historian or not. Vincent (20) again:

Primary sources are never innocent, never above temptation, never undeserving of a sceptical eye. No eye-witness ever stands up to comparison with another eye-witness of the event.

So the fact that historians evaluate their sources is unremarkable.

Having given a completely false account of history and historical methods, your conclusion is also unremarkably and banally false.

All forms of human inquiry have limits. Spelling out the limits of historical methods is about integrity, it is not some racist conspiracy theory. Indigenous Indians have always been at the forefront of writing histories of India. Think of Romila Thapar for example. Or A. J. Basham.

I just don’t get why people choose to tell lies about academia rather than engaging with what is going on there.


Thanks for sharing how this works among historians. I have never realised this. But it helps me to understand what certain claims really mean.

For someone without insight into all this, the general public, it easy and very normal, i feel, to misunderstand such conclusions as above. I think almost all people will read: historians did a thourough research and they all say: Buddha did not exist as a real person in the history of mankind. He is a phantasy figure, like a superhero in modern stories.


Yes, I think the general public thinks that History™️is the study of the past. But it appears that Historians™️consider it to be the study of the past that we have as a written record. Not sure how that makes them different from archeologists. The real problem becomes when they consider themselves or are considered to be seekers of the truth. In fact they are just experts in things that were written down.

It would make more sense if they called themselves something different, like historologists. They could say the Buddha is not a historological figure and not provoke people who believe that the Buddha was a real person who lived in the past. But academics depend on saying provocative things, otherwise no one would pay attention to them.

If Historians™️are experts in written contemporary accounts of the past, then since no such things exist for the Buddha why do we care at all what Historians™️are saying? They are by definition not qualified to talk about the Buddha. The most they can say is that such documents don’t exist, which everyone already knows.


This has been the case for a long time. When I was in middle school a few decades ago history was presented as primarily the study of written records whereas archeology encompasses a greater scope for the study of the past. I learned this in sixth grade I think. The time before written records is defined as pre-history. If the general public is ignorant that history is defined by the written record, then so much the worse for the general public.

As for what historians can study about the Buddha’s personage, not much proper, but Buddhism on the other hand is replete with written records. That is what historians generally concern themselves with. What those written records have to say about the people and the past that generated them.

I wish everyone great success in understanding each other and not misunderstanding each other and great success in expressing beneficial communication with kindness.


Thank you! Your reply was very clarifying. I’ve found the clearly laid out principles (e.g., embarrassment, discontinuity) very helpful in both my understanding early Christianity texts, and in creating a framework for disagreement among scholars.

It took me a long time to get a handle on the principles, positions, and scholars when I started to delve into early Christianity. When I first started studying early Buddhism 5 years ago, I figured I was just going through the same process of getting to know the lay of the land with early Buddhism studies. But I’d been starting to suspect the whole scholarly apparatus I found so helpful in approaching Christianity wasn’t just smaller in Buddhism (due to funding, etc) but a path not taken in Buddhist studies. So thank you for your reply and for the link to your great article summarizing the situation in Buddhism vs Christianity. You’ve clarified a lot of things that I had been grappling with.

Edit to Add: I deeply appreciated your connecting all this to Bayes. :+1:

1 Like

What is the point of responding negatively to a post that doesn’t interest you? I mean, clearly this whole topic does not resonate with you, you have no conception of or interest in the issues at stake, and you don’t care what the outcome of the discussion is.

As you say, this topic is irrelevant to you. One need not insist on this. One can merely ignore it and leave it to the people who are interested and who have genuine questions.

This is the most cogent contribution to the discussion so far.

I would just point out that even if you had written records from the time of the Buddha, there is no guarantee they accurately reflect what the Buddha taught. Newspapers and Magazines distort, filter and even manufacture accounts in light of ideological commitments. That kind of thing happened in the past too. Add to that the fact that India’s climate is not conducive to the preservation of paper or its substitutes. And to that add the need to copy and recopy and the natural desire to “improve” texts for clarity even if the person doesn’t understand the material as well as they think they do. Textual analysis would still need to be done.

Competing hypotheses will have to be conjectured and tested for fitting the facts such as we have them. I think in the end you are going to have to evaluate competing hypotheses using an inductive method like Bayes theorem. In the end, any inductive method will still lead to an uncertain result, but a better understanding of practice. The efficacy of the practice is what really matters.