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What the Buddha got wrong?

Ven Akaliko and I have been discussing doing a talk on all the mistakes that the Buddha made—or are they? That’s what we’re here to find out!

One of the marks of a good leader is that they are happy to admit their own mistakes and limitations, and to correct themselves when needed. Obviously in the Buddhist texts, the Buddha is overwhelmingly depicted as being in the right. But is that always true? Did he make any mistakes? If so, what did he do about it?

We’re going to have to set some parameters here.

  • nothing doctrinal. Sure, Hindus would argue that the Buddha got the teaching on the ātman wrong, but it’ll take too long to sort that one out!
  • nothing “otherworldly”. Again, proving the existence or otherwise of different realms would take us way afield.
  • nothing of dubious authenticity. Most or all of the controversial statements in the suttas about women, for example, can be contested on text-critical grounds, eg. they are not present in other versions of the text. So let’s stick to things that are on firm textual ground (for which, since I’m the one asking the question, I’ll be the judge of, thanks!)
  • nothing pre-awakening: we know he made mistakes before enlightenment.

So far I can think of:

  • teaching body contemplation to monks who subsequently committed suicide. (that’s a big one!) (Parajika 3)
  • getting the time for pindapata wrong (eg. MN 71)
  • the sizes of things such as Mount Sineru (see AN 7.66) or the monsters of the oceans (Ud 5.5) are much too big.
  • Vinaya rules that proved unwieldy and required modification. (common in the Vinaya, for example pacittiya 32).

Not saying that the Buddha clearly was wrong here, just that these are possible instances of mistakes.

Are there any others?

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Do you make any distinction between “What the Buddha got wrong” and “What the suttas/ vinaya got wrong”?

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I’ve been wondering about that one. It seems like a stock phrase used every time the Buddha went to speak with non-Buddhist samanas. Do you think we’re to take it literally? Even if it was fabricated, it’s interesting that the Buddha was depicted as being wrong about something. Is that why you included it? Regardless of whether it’s true or not, it’s a depiction of the Buddha “getting it wrong”?

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Yes, I’m looking for things that are explicitly attributed to the Buddha himself.

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Right. It sticks out. You’d think the tradition would smooth over these things.

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I think bhante @Brahmali can help but I remember in vinaya that buddha suggested a medicine but it made the desease becoming worse and he suggested another medicine and even it failed too, after four or fifth trials he got it right

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Interesting one, though I can’t recall it. Hopefully someone will find it.


Incidentally, I’m not sure whether to include “ordaining Devadatta” here. I mean, on the face of it, it was a severe lack of character judgment. On the other hand, one could easily argue that we have to give people a chance; and the tradition tells us that it will work out for Devadatta in the long run.

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I just feel like I should mention that my suggesting this topic was in the context of Bhante’s ongoing series of talks during the Vesak season where he is trying to explore some lesser known aspects of the Buddha’s life, rather than sticking to the often told, commonly known stories of the Buddha.

This was not just some heretical quest to find wrongness or attribute blame or anything like that… :innocent:

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Try all you like, venerable, but if you hang around with me long enough, someone will think you’re a heretic. :pray:

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In MN 97 Sāriputta teaches the Brahmin Dhānañjāni, and assumes that because he is a Brahmin he should merely be taught a path to brahmaloka, not to liberation. The Brahmin dies soon afterwards and the Buddha reproaches Sāriputta for leading him only to brahmaloka. One would think that the Buddha has instructed Sariputta better in how to teach whom.

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Yeah, that’s an interesting one.

Should we assume that the Buddha was correct in walking away from the arguing bhikkhus in Kosambi? Couldn’t he have put his foot down, shown some tough love, and set things right? We assume that he did the right thing by just leaving the monks to their own devices, but did he?

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It’s interesting in its own right, but for this topic it’s a bit of a stretch! If the Buddha was responsible for everything his students did, there’d be a much longer list.

Well, I think it’s reasonable. He tried to convince them, failed, and walked away. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, and when to run.

Thinking about it, I guess there could be another category of “failures”, where he tried but there was no way to succeed. The encounter with Upaka on the road springs to mind.

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Yeah that’s the one I always think about: How the Buddha’s pedagogical approach changed over the years.

I definitely get the sense that the religion started off as a free-wheeling cult of personality, and that the Buddha figured out over time how to structure things.

There’s also the famous examples of the Buddha’s bad luck which Buddhists have long struggled to explain: Why ordain Devadatta? Why eat tainted food that would kill him? Why go on alms round somewhere he won’t get food? etc

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Oh, that’s another good one. But more curious than a simple mistake.

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Very enjoyable session tonight on this topic. Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu.

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So, coming from a much more traditional background I’m not really keen on the framing of this thread but I understand that it is a natural one. For me I start from the point that the Buddha was who we say he was and that there are going to be things that seem wrong to us but we are in no way in a position to make judgements on this. I would much rather a framing of “How do we understand the difficult bits.” Or “How can it be right when it seems so wrong.”

It would probably be good to have an understanding of this phrase in AN4.77. Acinteyyasutta

Buddhānaṁ, bhikkhave, buddhavisayo acinteyyo, na cintetabbo; yaṁ cintento ummādassa vighātassa bhāgī assa.

“Mendicants, these four things are unthinkable. They should not be thought about, and anyone who tries to think about them will go mad or get frustrated.
What four?
The scope of the Buddhas …

I would imagine that having the omniscience of a Buddha is something that I cannot possibly imagine. I mean, even what it would be like to be able to read others minds and how I would function in the world if I did that. I believe that the Buddha acted primarily in a way that would be helpful to others, even if he could have taken some short cuts by just using his Buddha abilities.

I have before heard a senior monk propose that the Buddha “didn’t know how to teach” at first because of this interaction with Upaka. But I don’t see anything in the suttas that support the idea that the Buddha only became anuttaro purisadamma sarati sometime later. On the contrary there is lots of support for the simple idea that not everyone had the required conditions to attain enlightenment.

I think this would make for a wonderful second thread. (although personally I don’t think there is much that can be substantiated, but I’m sure other people do!)

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The Vinaya often mentions how “before there were few rules, and later on there were many.” I (personally) wouldn’t frame this as the Buddha “learning” as he goes, but rather the Buddha demonstrating how to skillfully lead an organization of different sizes. In fact, the maturing of the Sangha is the whole narrative structure of the Vinaya, no? From the Buddha himself, to the first arahants, to the sasana thriving more and more independently. And the Buddha’s responses changed over that period: from first punting on making any rules, to eventually outlining complex legal procedures.

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Perhaps this from Kd.6:

At that time Pilindavaccha had arthritis of the hands and feet.

“I allow treatment through sweating.”

He did not get better.

“I allow sweating with herbs.”

He still did not get better.

“I allow heavy sweating.”

He still did not get better.

“I allow water with herbs.”

He still did not get better.

“I allow a bathtub.”

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Teaching body contemplation that leads to monks’ suicide was a big one – another reference is SN 54.9 / SA809. And I think because of this SN / SA actually edited out meditation on the ugliness on the body (I recall that is not in SN47, but somehow that crept back in MN 10 / DN 22.

I don’t see “getting the time for pindapata wrong” in SN12.24 - sorry what does pindapata mean?