Facing facts about the Buddha’s words

Some Buddhists believe it is necessary to view the nature of the transformation that the Buddha experienced under the bodhi tree exactly as described in the early sutras, known as the Pali canon. You must accept it on faith, and if you do not, or as one blogger recently suggested, if a teacher should qualify the Buddha’s enlightenment in a way that is different from the Pali accounts, it’s no longer Buddhism.

Then, we have the other extreme, represented by folks like Stephen Batchelor, who are busy deconstructing Buddhism and dismissing basic concepts such as karma and rebirth.

I don’t favor a fundamentalist approach, and yet, I certainly think it’s possible to stray so far from the core teachings that what you are presenting may be something based on Buddhism, but cannot be considered as Buddhism per se.

I prefer the Middle Way, the path between extremes.

In regards to this proposition about the Pali canon account of the Buddha’s enlightenment, I think we first have to ask which account are we referring to, because there are several and they differ. In one account, Discourse on the Noble Quest (Ariya-pariyesana Sutta), supposedly related by the Buddha to his followers years after the event, he explains that he awakened to the truth of anatman or no-self. Another account, found in the Middle Length Sayings, relates how the Buddha progressed through various meditative stages in which he first saw all of his previous existences, then awoke to the law of karma, and finally, discovered the Four Noble Truths. In other versions, the Buddha awakens to pratitya-samutpada or interdependency.

Which version should we accept? Are all three the literal truth? Alternatively, could they be mythology, literary narratives woven into the sutras long after the Buddha’s passing?

And what about concepts such as nirvana, are we expected to rely only on the words of the Buddha in some literal sense, without the possibility of further interpretation, which ignores some other words attributed to the Buddha about seeking the truth for ourselves and not relying solely upon the words of “the Teacher”?

The Buddhist sutras are not history, nor are they immutable religious scriptures revealed from some otherworldly being, as in the case of the Bible. Furthermore, modern scholarship has identified many items in the Pali canon added after the Buddha’s time, including some that come from sources outside the Buddhist tradition.

Actually, when we look at the matter objectively, it is difficult to say that any words in any of the sutras can be attributed directly to the historical Shakyamuni. As Kogen Mizuno, in Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission, notes:

Because it was more than three or four centuries after the Buddha’s death that the Agama sutras [the earliest sutras], which we call primitive sutras, were compiled in the form in which we know them today, strictly speaking they cannot be called the Buddha’s direct teachings.

This is even more the case with the Mahayana sutras which were composed some four to five hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.

I say, big deal. So what if the Mahayana sutras were not taught by the Buddha himself? So what if there are things in the Pali canon that were added on at a later date? What difference does it make? Does it negate the truth contained in these teachings?

I don’t think it does. Mindfulness is still mindfulness, compassion is still compassion, and emptiness is still empty. It doesn’t alter any of the core teachings on suffering, the Four Noble Truths, or anatman. It changes only the context in which we see the teachings, offering us a more realistic, historical perspective.

There is much to be gained from learning the real history behind the Buddhist sutras. Mizuno’s book is a great place to start. He tells the story of how the sutras were developed, transmitted to China, and shares with us the hardships of the “intrepid pilgrims” who journeyed to India from China in search of Buddhist writings. When I read the book some fifteen years ago, I was not able to put it down. Published in 1989, it’s still in print, and reasonably priced.

I suppose it comes down to a matter of whether you are more interested in learning the facts about the philosophy you follow, or if you just want to engage in religious indoctrination. If it’s a question of faith, then I have to question what kind of faith relies so heavily on mythology and ignores historical facts. Not a very mature kind, to my way of thinking. As far as I am concerned, faith in Buddhism is not “because the Bible tells me so” kind of faith.

Misunderstanding the use of mythology in the sutras, reading them as though they were history books, and taking a stand over the literalness of each word and event, does not contribute anything positive. Rather, it only cements further polarization between Buddhists of different traditions.

I had my fill of that in the Nichiren tradition, which holds the Lotus Sutra to be the actual words of the Buddha, and in fact, the only valid Buddhist teaching in the modern age. Any form of Buddhism not based on the Lotus Sutra is considered heretical, or at the very least, provisional. Some Nichiren schools are more vocal about this than others are, but the attitude is nonetheless prevalent throughout the tradition. Indeed, today many Nichiren followers exhibit the same disparaging spirit expressed in their founder’s infamous maxim: “Pure Land leads to hell; Zen followers are devils; Shingon ruins the nation; Ritsu [Vinaya] is treason.”

The Nichiren tradition is not the only school that considers their teachings to represent “True Buddhism.” One finds this same sort of attitude in one form or another elsewhere. In Theravada, for instance, some believe it to be the “original” Buddhism, making it superior to all others, and subscribe to the theory that the words of the Buddha found in their sutras are in fact the actual, true words he spoke.

It’s popular nowadays to pose the question, “What would Buddha do?” I think he would shake his head and tell us to grow up. I think he’d ask if we were truly interested in knowing truth. If we wanted to see reality “as it really is.” Then I think he remind us of something that Joseph Campbell once said:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.

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2 thoughts on “Facing facts about the Buddha’s words

  1. Thank you for this. I think people tend to get caught up in old=authentic; but as you said here, even the earliest texts didn’t appear for a few centuries after the Buddha died! Could you imagine today writing down a series of teaching from a Native American mystic that died in 1700 that had been preserved through oral tradition?

    1. Doesn’t seem so hard to imagine “writing down a series of teaching from a Native American mystic that died in 1700 that had been preserved through oral tradition”. Nor to imagine writing down the teachings of a Judean mystic centuries previously. And starting wars based on finding other accounts ‘heretical.’ Tragic, maybe– but not hard to imagine.

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