What’s all the hubub, bub?

Bugs Bunny, munching on a carrot, says to Elmer Fudd: “Eh, what’s all the hubub, bub?”

It’s interesting how the recent story about the new discovery at Lumbini in India has been inflated into a sort of Goodyear blimp of news. As I wrote last week, it’s really a great deal of wishful thinking on the part of these scientists. This headline from The Guardian, a UK newspaper, demonstrates how out of proportion it’s getting: “Archaeologists’ discovery puts Buddha’s birth 300 years earlier.” Even the National Geographic has jumped on the bandwagon with “Oldest Buddhist Shrine Uncovered In Nepal May Push Back the Buddha’s Birth Date.”

This team of archaeologists  claim they’ve discovered “a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.” Yet, they really don’t if the shine is Buddhist or not. Let’s say it is, and that it does date from the sixth century BCE.  That would make it the oldest Buddhist shrine discovered by 300 years all right, but that’s about it (not to say that is insignificant). The traditional Buddhist calculation puts the Buddha’s birth at around 623 BCE, while some modern scholars lean toward 500 BCE. The sixth century BCE ended on the last day of 501 BCE, so assuming the shrine is Buddhist, it doesn’t change much in regard to the Buddha’s dates.

Some Buddhists believe the Buddha lived 3000 years ago. But not any reputable historians. Here’s how that got started: When Buddhism was first introduced to China, the Taoists felt threatened by it. So they went around saying, well this Buddha guy is just an emanation of our founder Lao Tzu (604-531? BCE). Some Buddhists got together and decided to push the Buddha’s date back so far that he couldn’t possibly be the emanation of anyone. 1000 BCE sounded good, and indeed, that fixed the Taoist’s wagon. The date was set in stone, so to speak, until modern scholarship came along and rendered it highly unlikely.

So how do historians determine the date for the Buddha? Actually, nothing has  been determined because it’s all guesswork, and it all depends on the dates for King Ashoka, who lived 304 to 232 BCE. Maybe. Last time I checked no one was positive about that either. Solid evidence of Ashoka’s historicity did not emerge until the 19th century.

According to a Harvard University paper, there are three issues considered:

“The question of the dates of Emperor Ashoka (especially the date of his “anointment” or “coronation”),

The differences among various sources and traditions on the question of how many years separated the Buddha’s death from Ashoka’s ascension to the throne,

The various lists of kings and Vinaya Masters (i.e., monks recognized by the tradition as authorities on the code of monastic discipline) who were said to have lived during the years between the Buddha’s death and Ashoka’s coronation.”

The team of archaeologists who made this latest discovery also claim to have definitively established Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace, but this is old news that must be considered speculative. It’s based on the presence of a stone pillar King Ashoka erected proclaiming Lumbini Gardens as the Buddha’s birthplace. The marker was discovered over a hundred years ago. We have no idea of what evidence Ashoka had. It’s possible he might have simply relied on the traditional tale of the Buddha’s life, which may be a bunch for hooey for all anyone knows.

Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent. He was sort of an Indian version of Constantine. Both were very bad guys until they found religion and saw the light. The story goes that following his bloodthirsty conquest of the state of Kalinga, Ashoka repented and adopted Buddhism, after which he practiced non-violence. Thereafter, he also ruled in a more humane manner, gave state support to Buddhism, and dispatched monks all over India, and even to foreign countries, to spread the dharma (dhamma).

And he issued “rock edicts.” These were proclamations on various subjects he had inscribed on stone pillars erected throughout the land. They were mostly moral exhortations to his subjects and many of them promoted Buddha-dharma. In the edicts, Ashoka often refers to himself as King Piyadasi. Here are some excerpts:

“In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased. But now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dhamma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dhamma. The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years. But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father and elders, such sightings have increased.

These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dhamma practice. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dhamma practice until the end of time; living by Dhamma and virtue, they will instruct in Dhamma. Truly, this is the highest work, to instruct in Dhamma. But practicing the Dhamma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable.

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation.”

– First rock inscription at Girnar

“Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken. I consider it proper, reverend sirs, to advise on how the good Dhamma should last long.

These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech — these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember. Likewise the laymen and laywomen. I have had this written that you may know my intentions.”

– Third Minor Rock Edict

“Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”

– First Minor Pillar Edict

This last edict is the one at Lumbini. It is believed that the pillar was erected during the 3rd century BCE, but it was buried from the 15th to the 19th century when a group of archaeologists unearthed it in 1896.

And now, back to our show . . .

Elmer Fudd, replying to Bugs: “Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I am digging for an ancient wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Wabbit swine? Some sort of crossbreed, Doc?”
Elmer: “No, a swine was were the ancient wabbits worshiped.”
Bugs: “Oh, you mean a rabbit shrine.”
Elmer: “That’s what I said, a wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Gee, what a maroon.”

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Buddha’s Birthplace Found?

I ran across a number of articles on the Internet about a claim that scientists have confirmed the Buddha’s birthplace and discovered the earliest Buddhist shrine. This research, published in Antiquity Journal (accessible by subscription or pay per view only) may be significant. However the headlines are a bit misleading.

It is widely held that Lumbini in Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and where he lived until the age of 29. There are a couple of reasons why many believe this. First, according to Buddhist tradition, his mother Maya gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini. Secondly, there is a marker dating from the time of King Ashoka (304–232? BCE) proclaiming Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace. Up until now, almost all so-called hard evidence we have about the Buddha’s life dates from the Ashoka period. However, as in the case of the birthplace marker, none of it is conclusive. It only tells us that this what people who lived some 2 or 3 hundred years after the Buddha believed.

Today, Lumbini is a pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recently, a team of archeologists uncovered the remains of a previously unknown timber structure in the Maya Devi Temple. Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation, said in a press conference Monday, “What’s interesting is we identified a roof tile … all around the edges of the temple and not in the center. This indicated something that was very special about the center of the temple. When we started excavating we found another early temple below.”

Within this new temple, they found ancient tree roots, evidence, they say, of a “tree shrine.” Coningham links this to the story about the Buddha’s mother holding the tree branch, which seems like quite a leap of faith for a scientist to make. Not to mention that it is possible that this inner structure has nothing to do with the Buddha. However, if all this is correct, and it is at least the earliest the earliest Buddhist shrine, if not the actual birthplace, it could push the Buddha’s birth back 100 or so years to 623 BCE. It might have significant implications for historians, although that’s not something to go into today.

If you are an Antiquity Journal subscriber or have some extra $ to spend, here is a link to the report. And, if not, you can read this article from Discovery.com.

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