I’m surprised at how so many people speak such excellent english on this site!! It is amazing to me how well we can all communicate given the complexity of the issues, and the fact that the majority of people would probably not be native english speakers.
Besides, that is the beauty of asking questions, when something isn’t clear we can all just ask
With due respect for the fact that such discussion is not necessarily very productive, if I may very briefly respond to the purely factual and logical claims made in the piece, leaving aside the many sweeping assertions.
This is incorrect, and is based on an ad hominem and reductive argument. The fact that people have a certain perspective does not invalidate what they say. As a rule, you find that it is the people who are themselves blinded by ideology who assume that everyone else must be just as blind. They cannot understand how it is possible to set aside one’s beliefs, or make allowances for them, in order to understand the facts.
It is also erases the contributions to the ideas of early Buddhism made by Asian scholars in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, India, and elsewhere, who have been a part of this conversation since the beginning.
Confused, irrelevant, and incorrect.
Theravada is not the same as Early Buddhism
What the school is called does not matter.
The Sri Lankan Buddhists did indeed call themselves Theravadin, among other names.
For example in a commentary to the Visuddhimagga, in the “refutation of the Vetullavada”, we find the following, with a very rough summary/paraphrase:
Vohārakatissarañño kāle (758-780-bu-va) abhayagirivāsino dhammarucinikāyikā pubbe vuttappakārena sāsanavināsanatthāya bhikkhuvesadhārīhi vetullavādibrāhmaṇehi racitaṃ vetullapiṭakaṃ sampaṭiggahetvā ‘‘idaṃ buddhabhāsita’’nti dassenti. Taṃ mahāvihāravāsino theravādikā dhammavinayena saṃsandetvā adhammavādoti paṭikkhipiṃsu
In the time of king Vohārakatissa those of the Abhayagiri, the Dhammaruci Nikaya, seeking to destroy the dispensation taught in earlier texts, got hold of the brahmanical Vetullavada Pitaka and promoted it as the word of the Buddha. The Mahaviharins, the Theravadins, rejected that as being against the Dhamma.
Misleading: no scholar argues that linguistic variation among Indic dialects creates serious problems of meaning, except in certain specific and largely well-understood cases.
Irrelevant. The age of a manuscript tells us nothing about the age of the text, except that it must predate the manuscript. Arguments for the primacy of Early Buddhist texts have never been based on the primacy of the manuscripts.
False: this ignores the role of comparative study, among other things.
Straw man: students of Early Buddhism do not believe this (although Theravadins might.)
False: the balance of evidence argues against the existence of sects in the time of Ashoka. (See my Sects and Sectarianism)
Misleading. As Mahayana was emerging it was not explicitly recognized as a distinct school, so many texts developed that had characteristics that were later attributed to the Mahayana school (such as the Bodhisattva doctrine.) But the chief texts regarded as core to Mahayana teachings are quite distinct.
He just, what, made it up? Of course the texts on which a commentary are based are older than the commentary.
Exaggeration. The Chinese have indeed kept alive many texts of early Buddhism, but only a small fraction of what was.
I don’t know where to start. Just, no.
Absolutely false and baseless.
Many centuries after Ashoka.
False, this is well known in studies of Early Buddhism, it is one of the basic facts of the field.
False, the manuscripts that exist date from around 500 years after the Buddha, and they include a range of the kinds of texts you would expect from that era, including early suttas and Mahayana texts.
Well, that settles it: I must be insane.
I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Hopefully we can avoid such disinformation. If anyone is interested to see a perspective of how a modern Mahayanist reconciles their beliefs with the reality of Buddhist history, I would recommend the writings of Master Yin Shun.
I feel that even if i take the Buddha as a mythical figure, my interest in the teachings would not change much.
“For a long time, Lord, I have wanted to come and set eyes on the Blessed One, but I had not the strength in this body to come and see the Blessed One.”
"Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.
Why the search for a historical figure is different than the search for a vile body?
For instance, it is not quite clear if Socrates is a real figure or the product of Plato’s imagination. From memory, the existence of Lao Tzu is also disputed. This seems to have a very little effect on the validity of their message.
I don’t deny that a common belief in the existence of a historical figure has its utility in the formation of organized religions (as a coherent body of knowledge), or can serve as a basis for a unified approach towards the teachings. It can also be useful especially to those who have aversion towards eclecticism.
If we take intention (rather than historical accuracy) into consideration, scholarly work can be a way to accumulate merit especially if the scholar’s intention is helping himself and others to find the truth.
However, it is the nature of our search that makes me question the importance and relevance of historical truths to the individual seeker. I tend to agree with Schopenhauer’s following illustration:
The ephemeral generations of men are born and pass away in quick succession. Individual men, burdened with fear, want and sorrow, dance into the arms of death. As they do so they never weary of asking: what is it that ails them, and what the whole tragic comedy is supposed to mean. They call on heaven for an answer, but heaven stays silent. Instead of a voice from heaven, there come along priests with revelations. But he is in his childhood who can think that superhuman beings have ever given our race information about the aim of its existence and that of the world. There are no other revelations than the thoughts of the wise, even if these are often clothed in strange allegories and myths and are then called religions.
The so-called sutra-anga portion of SA/SN is considered to be fundamental to the Mahayana Yogacara and Madhyamika traditions. See p. 62, “Problems and Prospects of the Chinese Samyukta-agama: Its Structure and Content” by Choong Mun-keat: Problems and Prospects of SA SN 2010.pdf (973.8 KB)
The sutra-anga portion of SA/SN is discovered by Master Yin Shun (see pp. 57-60, in the above-mentioned article).
It’s good that SuttaCentral doesn’t put forward such a view. At the same time it’s fairly self-evident that the Buddha’s teachings are special.
Consider the talks I and others give at Dhammaloka centre in Perth. These talks are widely listened to and sometimes made into little booklets. These booklets are in many respects the latest commentary on Buddhism. Yet it be would be ludicrous to claim that these teachings are in some way equivalent to the word of the Buddha. The Dhammaloka teachings are based on the word of the Buddha and can only be understood in that light. Without the word of the Buddha, these teachings couldn’t even exist. It is just bleeding obvious that the value of the word of the Buddha is immeasurably greater.
The point, of course, is that the history of textual Buddhism is really just the history of such commentary on the Buddha’s teachings. Starting with the Canonical commentaries, continuing with the Jātakas, the Abhidhamma, the commentaries proper, the Mahayāna Sūtras, or indeed anything else that has been written about Buddhism, it all owes its existence and meaning to the teachings of the Buddha. It’s all commentary, mostly anonymous commentary. Again, the idea that such anonymous commentary is somehow equally significant or worthwhile of study as the teachings of the Buddha makes no sense, from almost any perspective.
The word of the Buddha is special because it is the fountainhead from which the rest of Buddhism has sprung. We could debate endlessly whether later Buddhists knew what they were talking about—in other words, whether they were awakened, and all that—but we all base our confidence on the belief that the Buddha had the root insight that started it all. If the Buddha did not have an awakening experience, it all falls apart, including all the later commentaries. The word of the Buddha is special, super-duper special. It’s the gold standard for what Buddhism truly is about. Without it, we would be fumbling in the dark. This is why we have SuttaCentral.
And yes, we do know what the Buddha taught. In most instances not verbatim, but his revolutionary and profound spiritual ideas have been well preserved up to the present day. Enjoy!
The word of the Buddha is special, super-duper special
Sadhu bhante, Sadhu!
For a faithful disciple who is practicing to fathom the Teacher’s instructions, this is in line with the teaching:
‘satthā bhagavā, sāvakohamasmi; jānāti bhagavā, nāhaṃ jānāmī’
‘The Buddha is my Teacher, I am his disciple. The Buddha knows, I do not know.’
For a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, the Teacher’s Dispensation is nourishing and refreshing. For a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, it is natural that he conduct himself thus:
‘Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up on my body, but my energy shall not be relaxed so long as I have not attained what can be attained by manly strength, manly energy, and manly persistence.’
For a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, one of two fruits may be expected: either final knowledge here and now or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-return. MN 70