(wiki: transcription checking) How to avoid falling into Early Buddhist fundamentalism / a very short transcript of a part of a Venerable Sujato’s Workshop

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Etymology of fundamental, fundamentals (much older)

and fundamentalist, fundamentalism.


Lol I can tell you’re a fan of John Shelby Spong, Bhante :slightly_smiling_face:. That’s fine, but let me give a word in defense of the Christian fundamentalists on this point — the virgin birth is in the New Testament gospels of Luke and Matthew. This gives it the same historical attestation as the Beatitudes, which few liberal Christians would reject. I think that’s the point the fundamentalists were making — liberal Christians (or at least many of them) were rejecting miracles like the virgin birth on modernist/rationalist grounds (e.g., “It couldn’t happen! It’s scientifically impossible!” etc.), as well as theological creeds, while accepting aspects of Jesus’ life that accord with their “social gospel” message. Here is a good blog post on this topic by a Christian who self identifies as neither fundamentalist or liberal. Another way of thinking of it is that the fundamentalists’ opponents are like the Christian equivalent of Buddhists who deny/downplay rebirth and emphasize “social justice”-oriented aspects of the Buddha’s teachings (like his denial of caste).

IMO both camps are flawed insofar as they are trying to create their religion in their own image….a tendency we ALL have to check ourself against. Of course, not all Christians (or even most necessarily) fall neatly into the “fundamentalist” or “miracle-denying liberal” camp. Likewise, I hope Buddhists are able to carve out a middle ground as well. It’s good that Buddhists aren’t hamstrung with the yoke of scriptural inerrancy, at least (tbh for me scriptural inerrancy was always the weak point in the fundamentalist worldview, because it requires circular reasoning).


But the Beatitudes are not listed among the “fundamentals”. Which is the point, theologically speaking. Whether the virgin birth is real or not is one thing, whether it is textually supported is another, but whether it is a “fundamental” teaching is quite another.

All around me I see spiritual teachers telling people to be kind. I don’t need special evidence to conclude that it’s likely that a teacher in the past also had a similar message.

On the other hand:

  1. I have never seen nor heard reliable evidence for a virgin birth in the present day.
  2. Virgin birth contradicts much of what we know of human biology and genetic inheritance, which is a well-established and rigorous science. Therefore,
  3. The hypothesis that that virgin birth happened in the past requires special pleading.

This is empiricism, not reading biases into sources. Don’t forget: I used to be a hard-core annihilationist, and I changed my mind because I concluded that the evidence pointed to something different.

I am perfectly happy to apply exactly the same standard to the question of rebirth in Buddhism.

  1. There are thousands of cases of people who appear to have reliable memories of past lives. I have met and spoken with several such people myself.
  2. There is no robust or established science of consciousness.
  3. To conclude that rebirth is a plausible hypothesis does not require special pleading.


@sujato — You gave an argument for saying why YOU don’t believe in the virgin birth, and why you think the evidence for rebirth is more persuasive. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean the fundamentalists are “wrong” (your word choice) to argue that the virgin birth is a fundamental of the Christian faith. They have their reasons, namely scriptural support and the creeds of the Christian community going back centuries. Whether or not these are good reasons for actually believing something is a different matter, but those may in fact be valid criteria for determining whether or not something is “fundamental” to a religion.

A question to you: suppose there were no scientific evidence for rebirth (including anecdotal evidence of past lives, etc.). Would you consider rebirth a fundamental of the Buddhist faith (this is a genuine question, not rhetorical)? Assume all the Nikaya references to rebirth are still there. I’d argue it still would be (though in that situation I’d be less likely to be a Buddhist). IMO the “fundamentals” of a religion aren’t those that “are best supported, according to our Post-Enlightenment era criteria” but “those that have been widespread and accepted from the early days of the religion.”


Also, the Manichaeans and many Gnostic sects also believed in the virgin birth, indicating a cultural sprachbund of “Virgin Birth Belief” among early Christian populations as diverse as the Valentinian, the Sethite, the Manichaean, and the Pauline, these sects spanning from “mostly confirming with modern orthodoxy” to “utterly heterodox.” Clearly, much like the 32 marks, the dubious story of the virgin birth “meant something” to these early communities.


An interesting comparison. The 32-marks might be a good example of an early Buddhist teaching that “early Buddhist fundamentalists” would insist on taking seriously and literally, but non-fundamentalists would be content to dismiss (or at least interpret non-literally).


Rebirth (samsara) is part of the early Buddhist adaptations of general Indian religious beliefs, but not a fundamental of the Buddhist faith. The term samsara is not found in the fundamental teachings of early Buddhism, such as the four noble truths, conditioned arising. Instead of samsara, it is better to say “dukkha” is the central focus of the early Buddhist teachings.

It seems the criteria for “fundamentals” of a religion do not fit in well in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism is also not regarded as a religion in the general definition of religion, such as belief in and worship of God/gods or any external superhuman controlling power.


Taṇhā dutiyo puriso,
dīghamaddhāna saṃsaraṃ;
saṃsāraṃ nātivattati.
Craving is a person’s partner
as they transmigrate on this long journey.
They go from this state to another,
but don’t get past transmigration.

(AN 4.9)

There’s possibly a reason these early communities might have taken the virgin birth seriously/literally even if they were “non-fundamentalists,” namely, it fulfills a prophecy in the Septuagint, the dominant recension of the Torah among Hellenized Jews of the period in question, and that prophecy was likely very important for them both geopolitically (freedom from Rome) and in terms of how they viewed their salvation.

It is possible the 32 marks were involved in a similar prophecy, but no proof of that.


I think the idea of the 32 marks is not a fundamental of the Buddhist faith, though it is mentioned in the Pali text. The Dhammas (of the Buddha) contributing to bodhi/enlightenment are the foundation of Early Buddhism.


I think the idea is that they are supposed to prove that the Buddha was a remarkable, rare and “wheel turning” spiritual leader.

However I will note that according to Analayo, the 32 marks were originally seen as imperceptible to the average person, and required very special religious training to detect. And of course, there is contrasting evidence from the Ebts which depict the Buddha as looking just like any other bald Indian monk and thus others cannot tell him apart from other Bhikkhus.


I recently read a Biblical studies monograph that argues something along similar grounds— that for Jews living in the Roman Empire, fulfillment of prophecy was considered far more persuasive than physical proof (which could be chalked up to sorcery, fraud, trickery, etc.). The monograph was focusing, not on the virgin birth, but on the resurrection and the way the gospels accounts emphasize scriptural citations to “prove” the case for it. Here is an excerpt:

As we have seen in Chapter 3, the vast majority of proto-orthodox apologists refrain from
appealing to the physical proofs. One reason for this was the notion that miraculous events such as Jesus’s resurrection were in themselves unreliable as proofs. 6 The main problem was that naysayers and skeptics could dismiss miracles, including Jesus’s resurrection, as nothing more than illusion or sorcery.7 Therefore, rather than reciting the physical demonstrations from Luke and John, the apologists appealed to the fulfillment of prophecy, which they held to be a superior form of proof. Here again we are confronted with the gap between ancient and modern worldviews. Modern readers whose worldview entails the presupposition of a closed universe may too readily assume that the physical demonstrations in Luke 24:39-43 would have themselves been sufficient proof, whereas ancient readers who believe in a variety of supernatural phenomena might assess these elements in Luke’s narrative differently.

(from “The Doubt of the Apostles and the Resurrection Faith of the Early Church” by J.D.Atkins)

It’s a good warning about how we need to be careful about projecting our modernist biases on the ancients — they might have had completely different criteria for what was considered important. Perhaps this discrepancy in worldview can result in discrepancies about what is considered “fundamental” to a religion or not.

Interesting thoughts.


I am sure you realise that this is not in line with what EBT scholars say, and the topic of many discussions here . However, by stating it in this fashion it sounds as though you are declaring it to be a truth rather than your opinion.


For anyone interested in an overview here is a link


This makes sense. After all, there is still the extant antecedents of a parallel first century Judaean baptizing sect from Palestine, the Mandaeans, the long-embattled dispensation of John the Baptist, a pet passion of mine to research, who think the Christians worship, idolatrously, a syzygy of Hermes Trismegistus in the form of an avatar of the planetary luminary Mercury, who worked wicked magic to copy some of John the Baptist’s miracles.

Off-Topic Meanderings

Comparing Mandaean and Christian accounts of the baptism of Jesus:

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.
14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:13-17)


John teaches in the nights, John in the evenings of the nights
John teaches in the nights
Splendor shines upon the worlds.
Who said to Jesus
To Jesus the son of Mariam?
Who said to Jesus
So that he came to the bank of the Jordan
And said to John:
“Baptize me with your baptism
By the name which you pronounce, pronounce over me
If I become your disciple
I will mention you in my written decree
If I do not become your disciple
Erase my name from your scroll”

John spoke to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and said,
“You lied to the Jews
and you have deceived the men, the priests.
You cut the seed from men
and childbirth and pregnancy from women.
You loosed the Sabbath that Moses ordained.
In Jerusalem you lied to them with horns
and sounded tooting with a trumpet.”

Jesus Christ said to John in Jerusalem,
“If I lied to the Jews
Let flaming fire consume me.
If I deceived the men, the priests
May I die two deaths in one.
If I cut off the seed from men,
May I not pass to the great day of the end.
If I cut off childbirth and pregnancy from women,
May a judge be established in my presence.
If I loosed the Sabbath
Let flaming fire consume me.
If I lied to the Jews,
Let my path be through thistle and thorn.
If I sounded with a tooting trumpet,
Let my eyes not fall on Abatur.
You, baptize me with your baptism,
From the name that you pronounce, pronounce upon me.
If I become a disciple
I will mention myself in my written decree.
If I do not become a disciple,
Erase my name from your scroll.”

John spoke to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, saying,
“A deaf man does not become a scribe
And a blind man does not write a letter
A desolate house is not fruitful
And a widow does not become a bride
Putrid waters are not pleasant
and a stone in oil does not get wet.”

Jesus Christ spoke to John in Jerusalem and said,
“A mute person becomes a scribe
And a deaf person writes a letter
A desolate house is fruitful
and a widow becomes a bride
Putrid waters are pleasant
and a stone in oil gets wet.”

John spoke to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and said,
“If you can explain these things to me,
You are wise, Christ.”

Jesus Christ spoke to John in Jerusalem and said,
A mute person becomes a scribe :
the child that comes from a woman who gives birth
grows big and strong
he consecrates gifts and alms –
gifts and alms he consecrates –
and he ascends and comes to the place of light.

A deaf person writes a letter :
The son of the wicked became the son of the good
He forsook adultery and forsook theft
and believed in the Mighty Life.
A desolate house shined;
The son of might submitted,
he forsook treacheries and forsook beds
and the house was built in a day
– in a day, the house was built –
and two doors were opened,
so that if someone came down,
he came and opened the door and welcomed him,
and if someone came up,
he came and opened the door and welcomed him.
If he seeks to eat, a dish is set up in truth.
If he seeks to drink, bowls of mixed wine.
If he seeks to sleep, he spread a bed in truth.
If he wishes to go, roads of truth he treads.
– he treads roads of truth and faith –
and he rises up, he sees the place of light.

A widow who becomes a bride :
A woman who from her youth was a widow
grasped the shirt (of a man) and married the world,
which they nurtured, a son as he went yonder.
Her face will not be destroyed by her husband.

Putrid waters which are pleasant :
A prostitute who becomes a lady
goes up to town and goes down from town
and the crown is not removed from her face.

A stone gets wet in oil :
A Manichaean who was from the mountain
forsook sorceries and forsook witchcraft
and believed in the Mighty Life.
He found an orphan and an old man and an army full of widows.

You, John, baptize me with your baptism
In the name that you pronounce, pronounce upon me.
If I become a disciple,
I will mention myself in my written decree.
If I do not become a disciple,
Erase my name from your scroll.
You will be held responsible for your sin
And I will be held responsible for my sin.”

When Jesus Christ said these things,
A letter came to John from the House of Abatur:
“Baptize the deceiver in the Jordan.
Bring him down into the Jordan.
Baptize him, do not be grieved.”

He brought him back up to the shore.
Spirit took the form of a dove.
She made a cross in the Jordan
and she lifted up the waters in colors,
and said to the Jordan,
“You defile me and you defile my seven sons.”

The Jordan in which Christ the deceiver is praised
is turned into a gutter.
The communion bread which Christ the deceiver takes
is made infernal.
The communion wine which Christ the deceiver takes
is turned into a sacrifice.
The turban which Christ the deceiver takes
is made into Jewish priesthood.
The staff which Christ the deceiver takes
is made sickly.

Guard me, oh woe, guard my friend.
[The Romans are like unto a cross, which they affix to walls,
and they stand and worship a crucifix]
Guard me, my brother, from the god fashioned by a carpenter!

(Drāšā D-Yaḥyā 30, “Jesus Comes to John to be Baptized”)

Endlessly fascinating.

Some early depictions of Jesus that run contrary to the source you quoted sometimes even show Jesus with a wand with which he may work his magical miracles.

So there’s diversity all around. Certainly a lot of Church Fathers downplay his miracle-working like what you quoted suggests too.


The term, samsara, is certainly found in EBTs, and is closely linked to karma/kamma. But the idea of samsara in the texts only indicates the Buddha’s, or the early Buddhist adaptation of the general, local Indian religious beliefs. Similarly, other general terms of the local Indian religious beliefs, such as deva, Maara, Brahma, are found in EBTs.


If I have misunderstood you I apologise. I focused on the following part of your statement (in bold) and this is what I was responding to :slight_smile:

Note, opinions are all fine, as long as it is clear.


Agreed. Today’s mordernist worldviews will surely become very ancient next several hundred years or so; and yet, Buddha’s teachings will always be new for each and every interested and able worldling of every era, if and only if the teachings are not cumulatively destroyed by successively reckless discardings of what one cannot understand or accept, imo.



I’d appreciate a pre-Buddhist attestation of such ideas, if you know of one.


The following website on the idea of samsara may be useful:


Thanks, but the citations on there aren’t very useful, most of them are to secondary sources. I’m aware that there are hints as to the idea of samsara before the Buddha, I was looking for direct attestations in pre-Buddhist texts. The Upanishads have multiple theories of rebirth.


My two baht on some of this is that for fundamental beliefs, one has to apply test of reason and evidence to each claim, and then people need to determine for themselves whether these claims make sense, or carry weight. In my work, we have this idea that evidence is evaluated based on its weight and probative value. As fact finders, we weigh the value of the evidence to determine what is more or less likely to be true.

I have mentioned in another post that I (like others here) am pursuing chaplaincy as a Buddhist. One aspect of this path of education is the ability to study other religions and ancient religious texts, and to exchange ideas with a cohort of students from a variety of religions and spiritual practices. One of the old jokes around M.Div. students is that the more they study their religions, and the ancient texts, the less “religious” or dogmatic, or fundamentalist they get. In other words, if you want a Christian to “lose their religion,” have them study the origins, and early texts from Christianity.

Conversely, at least for me, the more study and scrutiny that is applied to the EBTs, measured against modern scientific scrutiny, the more confidence that I have in these early teachings and practices. For me, this is part of the value of studying the early texts, and the historicity of the Buddha. The more that we weigh and evaluate the evidence, the stronger one’s confidence in these teachings becomes. By way of example, rebirth is integral to the Buddha’s taught Path, and if we really look at the evidence of rebirth, it has probative weight. It is not at all akin, IMO, to a belief in a virgin birth, or even the resurrection of a man named Jesus who was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher (among hundreds of that time) from Nazareth (and likely born in that one-horse town of ancient Nazareth, not Bethlehem.) Even the Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel, as I recall, makes no claim of a resurrection of a dead man. If there was a Jesus of history ( and there likely was) he was a rebel orthodox Jew who railed against Roman occupation, and was crucified as a punishment and warning by the Romans ( as was done to many like him). The idea of a resurrection seems not reasonable given both science, and the study of the ancient texts.

So, if we apply science and reason to each religion, or philosophy or teaching, we can determine what weight to give to these claims. In my view, the more we study and evaluate religions and the ancient texts, the less we can give probative weight to some, and more to others.