Why can't LBTs be Authentic?

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“That does not tell us anything about the worth of the teachings…”. Well, if the fact, that something claims to be the teaching of the Buddha but is not, does not tell us more than “the historical origins” then I don’t know to valuate about posturing instead of reflecting true experiences and, finally, truth. So in one word, if one postures, he/she breaks trust. And that’s k.o. for his/her messages. In my rational/emotional machine…


It is a good point to be made to ask what the texts themselves claim to be. Yet, for my taste you over-emphasize the coherent aspects of the Pali suttas while downplaying the inconsistencies of the texts.

It would be worthwhile to reflect on your points in “The Authenticity…” in detail, but eh, it’d be a lot of work. Just a few points:

You mention that the suttas are more consistent than for example the Upanisads. But the Upanisads don’t claim to come from one source, one teacher. The BU for example has distinct chapters, sometimes with named characters, sometimes not. As a genre they rather are clearly collections, transmitted by family lines. So I don’t think the comparison is fair. Rather I would compare the suttas with the Acaranga Sutra of the Jains - I would say that the latter fares at least as good as the Buddhist suttas in terms of consistency. Also if you compare the suttas with individual books of the Rgveda you’d find the Indian texts at least as consistent.

The ‘flavor’ of individual authorship is also disrupted by the different Nikayas, especially the differences between SN and the AN. These are not simply the same contents in different coating. While of course there are many formulas, passages etc. shared by the two, they also have formulas and doctrines specific to them.

A simple path to investigate this would be for example to take the matikas of DN 33 and DN 34 and see if their elements are equally found verbatim in all collections. A more complex way would be to go through the major matikas of the AN or the gathas of the SN and check if they also appear in the other collection.

I’m not saying that the major doctrines would differ considerably - but ‘the flavor of authorship’ sure expresses itself in the consistent use of certain words, formulas, and pericopes; different authors have different favorite words, expressions, and formulas. And again, while many are the same, there are also many which are rather special to either the AN or the SN.

Another level that belongs here is the ‘Evam me suttam’ which alters the claim of the respective text. The claim is not any more that the Buddha said this - but that someone heard this (and we don’t know with which time distance). Which is quite a difference I’d say. The claimed consistency would thus not be in the first place in the authorship, but in the audience/ transmission.


There’s other ways to interpret those claims than simple posturing, that is, there are other options besides the dichotomy that “either the Mahayana sutras are true or they are bald faced lies, meant to mislead”.

For example, one of the theories is that they arose from visionary experiences of Buddhist meditators and dream experiences which were then interpreted as teachings from Buddhas. For example, Mahayana texts such as the Arya-svapna-nirdesa deal with dreams and others deal with visionary experiences in samadhi, like the Pratyupanna.

A lot of this stuff reminds one of the tales of visions from the forest tradition for example. It doesn’t mean they didn’t “happen”, its just that one doesn’t have to interpret them literally.

And of course, not all Mahayana texts are sutras, others like the philosophical works of Nagarjuna etc do not claim to be.

So, I think that one can critically engage with these texts, and learn from them, without seeing them as literally true. A lot of them contain interesting and fresh perspectives on the dhamma, perspectives which aren’t necessarily false. But again, I think that one must study them with a critical and historical understanding.


As a text critical historian this is certainly true. We somehow have to make sense of late suttas which claim to be spoken by the Buddha. But from a spiritual perspective there is not really a good way to spin it. Spiritual paths have such a high standard of truthfulness that it’s simply an extreme difference between “The Buddha said” and “I had a vision that the Buddha said”!

It’s even worse if a meditator is so delusional to mistake the vision for reality. It would just mean that someone has a fancy religious skill to delude themselves in religious visions. How can you trust someone who can’t distinguish between a vision and a real experience?

There are still several possibilities to save the day. Just imagine that a teacher had a vision and communicated it as such, and then their disciple - in order to enlarge the teacher’s reputation - simply left out the vision-part. Or it was left out at another point of transmission or edition. These processes are very plausible.


Yes, that’s one way to think about it.

Of course, Mahayana philosophy also has different views on what a Buddha is. They think a Buddha is a supranormal being. Another view is that Buddha refers to some kind of sacred consciousness (the Dharmakaya, Buddha nature, etc). So if you happen to believe those theories, then it makes perfect sense.

This is why I think that you miss the point when you say:

It’s even worse if a meditator is so delusional to mistake the vision for reality. It would just mean that someone has a fancy religious skill to delude themselves in religious visions. How can you trust someone who can’t distinguish between a vision and a real experience?

This presupposes that the visions are not “real” or are not from the Buddha. But from the perspective of Mahayana, they are.

Of course, it falls to those who make such claims to support them with good arguments, I haven’t seen any so far, so I remain unconvinced. But I still value some of those texts, even if I don’t accept everything in them.


It’d be interesting to see how tightly the Saṁyutta and Aṅguttara connect in terms of known parallels (by to-be-specified metrics), and compare that with, say, the same metrics applied to Saṁyutta-Saṁyuktāgama parallels. But:

  • How to account for unidentified parallels?
  • What methodology to use?
  • What’s available in the EB literature?


Nicely said :slight_smile:
Well, I’ve discussed this whole problem ad nauseam years ago, with a ironic twist which I’ll give here although it is a bit longish…
In a german usenet discussiongroup I engaged as a “freshman”; had come with a string to the Osho-side of things, and initially been ignated by the Tao-Te-King in a reflective phase about my pressing job. Having, after Osho, read with much emphasis from Master Hakuin and thus brought a sympathy for Zen, and in general a sympathy for the width of the spectrum of accesses to that what I only could envision so far what Buddhism is at all.

There was one guy fiercely verbally abusing any “mahayanies” and their lies and fabrications… Someone rather old age with periods of his life living in Sri Lanka in a quest to become monastic and even living in a cave in some raw landscape in germany… He was translating the pali-scriptures by own engagement to recover the true EBT …
In the beginning I had much interest in what he had to say but it needed not many weeks and exchanges and claims to have authority to explain some difficult question - until I sensed: this one cannot have a deeper understanding.
The result for that time: when I engaged in discussion then often I opposed to his abusing the “mahayanis”: “why not let people try all that famous 84000 doors to the dharma” or so…

Then I began myself to read the Pali-canon suttas and got profound sympathy for “the historical buddha” (also the title of a monography which I honor very much since).

A couple of years later another agenda occured in that forum: someone who openly claimed the Buddha had not only allowed to kill (in the sense of military action) but even advised to and took the “Maha Parinirvana Sutra”(MPNS) as proof. I read into that and now another fierce discussion developed - with me as the one who rejects that “transcendent buddha”-concept and scriptures based on this and especially of that MPNS which puts its own message/agenda in the mouth of the Buddha. (this exchange can be found via google groups on 2007, but is in german) Yes, somehow I find that a much ironic track in my spiritual life … :wink:

But this is no more discussion for me; the arguments about legitimacy of putting words in the mouth of the buddha - whether claiming to have had visions or not - are only ringing my bells: “spiritual carelessness around!”, “not good for you”, “don’t mix too much with that!”

One bit more background: In a short but much intense basic retreat in “Plum Village” I even myself got dream and vision: first a dream, that in a very special and very sensitive situation a butterfly tenderly arrived and took contact - and I firmly “knew” that this was the form how “the Buddha came to me”. In a second retreat I’d a vision of a completely human/personal Buddha, accidently(?) passing my way in a summerly day (he and me wearing sandals …), befriending with me, taking place with me sitting back-to-back and helping me sharing my sorrows and luckies like a good friend from school-time. And indicating by this what analoguously I could do to help my contemporary friends in their suffering…
But should I tell such a story, the words of the Buddha in my vision, without mentioning that this is of course my own vsision, my own mental fabrication, or mental “resonance” if at best?

Of course, after that I’m no more able to buy arguments of “transcendence” or so for putting words in the Buddha’s mouth. But of course I also acknowledge that this is only my own story.

Last remark at moment: I find it authoritative how the Pali Canon reports the Buddha’s reaction on when some bhikkhu was wrongly referring to his teaching and that he called him immediately and made things straight again, openly before his folks. (I’ll add the sutta-reference when I find it). Also interestingly, at one place he is reported to have said, that the decline of the dharma (or the greater danger for the dharma, or so) shall come from inside. Which indicates the importance the Buddha assigned to the correct transmission of his words.

Hmmm. In the beginning of this comment I use the term “ad nauseam”. That means, I really did not (and do not) intend here to ignate (or engage in) the discussion which I’ve been involved in too many times without convergence. I just thought I give some additional personal story - - -
– - to improve the socializing here :slight_smile:


As a psychiatrist used to seeing presentations of psychosis and having to determine reality vs hallucinations, meditative experiences as well as aberrations of ‘normal experience’, I find some guidance helpful:

  1. Presence of psychotic mental illness.
  2. Hallucinations happen when stressed or more unwell
  3. Hallucinations cannot be controlled, and can be controlling, often critical or unpleasant.

The absence of the above… unless we are to deny all spiritual experience…


That would be assuming that the authors themselves made this mistake. I think it it’s more reasonable to treat the Mahayana sutras, with their florid and anti-historical settings, as deliberately conveying to the audience that they were not historical teachings. No-one brought up on the early texts could fail to see the difference. Only later were they taken seriously as “history”. (But I haven’t done the historical research to properly back this up!)


I’ve always held the view that the authentic teachings of the Buddha were so important, and later authors and later sects that developed (especially in the West) have done a really good job of diluting and obscuring what the Buddha actually taught. So, a real premium should be placed on figuring out, from the EBT’s, what is likely the teachings of the Buddha to his Sangha and the lay folk.

The analogy, to me, would be the theories of Einstein. Einstein was a visionary genius, and he came up with some theories about the universe that have been proven to be pretty valuable to understanding how our world works. If, in theory, people came around in a few centuries and began to make stuff up about Einstein’s theories, and to distort them, to fashion Einstein as a god, and then to lead an entire generation of physicists astray, that would be a crime. It would just be wrong. The same thing seems to have happened with the Buddha’s teachings.

And so, some real weight should be placed on what the Buddha actually taught. Here it is, 2019, and I still see on Facebook quotes of the Buddha (from some Theravada sources, for gosh sakes) that are not found anywhere in the Suttas. People just make stuff up. This is a crime, insofar as the Buddha’s Dhamma is equally valuable, if not more so, than Einstein’s theories. Imagine if some group began to make stuff up about Einstein’s theories. They’d be pilloried. Yet, in the West, we let this go on in Buddhism without a blink.


There’s already quite a gap between Einstein as a historical person and Einstein as the mythologized genius to whom various inauthentic quotes and legendary stories are attributed.

Because of the meritocratic and empirical nature of physics, his gifts to the field stand on their own, independently of the words of their creator—which retain only historical significance—and as a result, his contributions to theoretical physics have been well-preserved. In Buddhism, we deal with more than lifeless matter alone; as practitioners, we are dependent on personal testimony, wheater orally or in writing—and with writing I include the suttas—and unfortunately, personal testimony is not only significantly less reliable than empirical research in principle but is invariably bound up with the quality of transmission and dependent on the reliability, experience, and credentials of the person who testifies, first and foremost of whom, the Buddha, whose experience we can only access through a distorted lens: a telephone game of two-and-a-half millennia.


This really does seem to be the central point. Inasmuch as the Buddha’s original teachings were transmitted orally, to the extent the EBTs reconstruct his words in ways that are true to the meanings he intended, later efforts to convey those teachings should try to “figure out,” using the words of @UpasakaMichael, what those meanings are. If we simply assume that nothing uttered after the EBTs can accomplish this task, then we might as well not bother listening to Dhamma talks, which few people would advocate. Rather, the goal of any attempt at conveying the Buddha’s teachings should be to stay as close to the Buddha’s teachings as possible at the same time that those teachings are made intelligible and accessible to those who seek to learn from them.


@Robbie, I appreciate your comment. Perhaps my analogy is not a perfect one, but it seems close enough. In any case, I do think we have a better record of the Buddha’s Dhamma than a mere “game of telephone,” which by definition is unreliable and wholly inaccurate. And, I do think that there is an argument that personal testimony is no more or less reliable than other kinds of evidence. We need only evaluate the quality and weight of the testimony, do some forensics on it, and come to an opinion as to its veracity and reliability. Bhante Sujato cited in his comment the Sujato/Brahmali Authenticity text, which really does a fine job of illuminating this issue. Part of the pleasure of the exercise of reading the Pali translations, and listening to talks from Gombrich, Vens. Sujato, Brahmali, and others, is understanding for ourselves what resonates as Dhamma, and what might be an interpolation or later fabrication.

Like Einstein’s theories, as you well point out, they are subject to forensics and can stand on their own, independent of the source. To me, what gives weight to the Dhamma is that what we find to be authentic really seems to work. The later stuff does not resonate and does not lead to the kind of liberation that the core source Dhamma does. Gombrich has made the point that even if we couldn’t pinpoint the actual existence of the Buddha, the Dhamma resonates as a unique single source teaching, and itself is magnificent in its originality and genius.


Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Ang Michael. We mostly agree.

Each EBT has gone through various reciters, editors, and transcribers to reach us, similar to an actual game of telephone. Luckily, there are thousands of EBTs. Though we cannot rely on any single EBT, we can perform hermeneutical analyses on the set of EBTs as a whole—analogous to thousands of telephone games with a shared history—and achieve a much more reliable understanding of the Dhamma. The unreliability of individual EBTs does not mean the EBTs as a whole are unreliable, and indeed, I find Authenticity’s thesis convincing.

There’s a more subtle difference between testing, say, the theory of general relativity, and a sutta, in its meaning of a short doctrinal statement spoken by the Buddha. It has to do with verification. The primary method of verifying a sutta is by applying it in our own lives. We can verify it for ourselves, but often only for ourselves, as is the case with profound meditation experiences. This process is fundamentally different from testing general relativity, where everyone involved can readily see the empirical data flowing out of the experiment, and work out the implications for the credibility of general relativity.

Again, there seems to be a paradox. Even though there is no fundamental difference in reliability on an individual level, there is a difference on the collective level. For personal, profound spiritual experiences of one person to be accepted by someone else, there needs to be trust, evaluation, and forensics. I’ll leave it as an open question which consequences this has.


I would be careful in making such assumptions, after all you’d be painting millions of Buddhists with the same brush by affirming this


ِAuthenticity is not when the text …

… not in the rigour of science was this ever regarded as what constitutes authenticity. For who can ever tell if the text is honest and accurate or not! In the rigour of science, authenticity is what is common or similar in more than one manuscript that are independent from and not based on each other, and are written at a sufficiently proximate time to the events they describe, before too much imagination becomes mingled with too little memory! That is what authenticity is, in the rigour of science. In the rigour of science, that is what authenticity is!

In order for a …

to present “facts”, that “research” must be in accordance with the rigour of science; and whatever it is that is conjectured independently from the rigour of science, and however much rational or convincing it may be, does not amount to represent the truth or the facts; not in the rigour of science does it thus amount.

And there are two kinds of …

… a mundane wisdom which we arrive at through the rigour of science, and that of the spiritual or transcendental domain. These two wisdoms may and do interlap; but they are not identical, and they do not follow the same path and do not have the same conditions.

In the transcendental realm, there are no …

… for if there were any such “facts” as stable and self-evident, self-justifying cosmic realities, every one would have agreed on them. When it comes to transcendental wisdom, there are no “facts”, but only “beliefs”; that’s why there are many philosophies and religions, even contradictory ones, and many versions and interpretations of the same philosophy and religion, and again, even contradictory ones. There is no way to explain this by any means other than to realise that what represents itself as “fact” to one mind, does not do so to another mind, and that as such it is only the mind that regards something as “fact”; there are no facts out there, independently from the mind that sees them as facts.

The search after an original authentic fact-like reality about a religious teaching is a mundane [academic] affair that is possible only through the demonstrable rigour of science, which is not only basically lacking in our case, but, more importantly, has no bearing whatsoever on “wisdom” in the transcendental sense. You can be both extremely wise in Dhamma and utterly ignorant about the very existence of the text, let alone its authenticity; just as the text itself presents a Buddha whose knowledge about the simplest facts of physical reality are at best lacking, and at worse erroneous; but whose transcendental wisdom is incomparably developed.

To think that a mundane fact-finding wisdom is in any way akin or contributes to that by means of which one also arrives at transcendental wisdom, is the very definition of fundamentalism, and is the very practice of identifying the significance and worth of spiritual teachings with the historical authenticity of the text that retains them. For no argument is stronger in its denouncing effect than to proclaim a teaching or practice, or interpretation thereof, as based on apocryphal sources; even if one does not intend to denounce or glorify anything and is conducting the research in an ethical dispassionate fashion (which is not really always the case!). Why else would monastics and religious believers be either too enthusiastic or neurotic about such academic findings on historicity and authenticity, had it not promoted or challenged the vitality and authority of what they believe in and regard as true, and not just individually, but with regard to the entire communities in which they operate.

And the trouble is not confined to Theravada vs. Mahayana authenticity claims, which may possibly be supported by a somewhat more proper scientific foundation; but rather extends to Theravada vs. “early Buddhism” claims, which have no real scientific leg to stand on, and which are both given to basically rely on the same non-historical text to denounce one another’s presumed deviations and excesses! Such practice is already visible in the many Vinaya debates that we have seen unfolding around the bhikkhuni ordination matter for example, and where the fundamentalism of one party that argues on the basis of inauthenticity, only reinforces the fundamentalism of the other party which instead argues on the basis of authenticity!

Such is the danger of fundamentalism, the belief that an objective fact-like reality exists, without doubts, and that one is in possession of it whole and complete, and that it is readily available for one to use to attack and destroy not only what one opposes, but also the very liberty of contemplation and interpretation. The history is filled with examples of how this was an attitude that eventually couldn’t tolerate a different understanding or accommodate alternative practices; an attitude from which arisen egotism and condescension when one deigned to accept and accommodate the “others”, or else gave rise only to affliction and cruelty when one did not. And all of which, just as we see here through out this discussion, sincerely began with “good intentions”, for “noble purposes”, and in the name of scientific research, progress, wisdom, and guiding those who need guidance!

The answer is simple: Stop arguing from authority. Stop arguing from authority. Stop arguing from authority. Instead argue from “necessity”; reflect the necessity which compelled you to believe something as both true and worthwhile; stop rationalising or justifying it with reason; instead show its functionality, that it worked out for you. That alone on the long run will force others to accept your position, and will likewise force you to understand clearly that others are likewise mobilised by an identical necessity, their necessity, which happens to lead them into a direction other than that in which you are faring: A happy end! <3


Just to reinforce @Javier aviers point above, I may just tell of a wonderful experience I had today. I met a truly wonderful nun, originally from the Mahayana tradition, who asked for permission to convert to Theravada, in order to help support her Theravada sisters. Such a spirit of generous, selfless giving, for the benefit of the growth of the Dhamma!! This is such an inspiring example of so much of the Buddhas teaching - putting into practice the very core teachings, by a skilled Mahayana practitioner. Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu!

Myself, I feel well chastened and ashamed for any thought or thoughtless word I may ever have had placing one set of teachings above another.

So just to reiterate, that we be very mindful and respectful of all the practices and teachings that have helped seekers of the true Dhamma :anjal:


Isn’t there a way though to be respectful of people and at the same time critically investigate ideas?

If a ‘Mahayanist’ says “This sutra that means so much to me and has helped me on my path so much, without which I couldn’t have found a shelter in this world - this sutta surely must have been spoken by the historical Buddha” - is this claim now immune to criticism because of the meaning it has to the individual?

I can’t say I’m decided on this. But I have a tendency to believe that somebody on the spiritual path should be mature enough to get their attachments questioned. On the other hand, yes, faith is a tremendous power, and maybe we shouldn’t touch any core beliefs and let each other bathe in our convictions to get the maximum out of that faith faculty.

There is an in-between somewhere but I find it difficult to see where, especially when I perceive a proselytizing intention (myself included).


Just my 2 cents worth - I think that it is when we start attaching judgements of good, bad and right and wrong, better than etc etc that we get into trouble. As you indicate, it is easy to slide into proselytising. Perhaps being aware that this is a danger here, should make us all more mindful not to slip in this fashion which I’m afraid may have non-beneficial consequences, even if the intention was initially a good one.