True Buddhism

When I was involved with the Soka Gakkai, they used to call the teachings of Nichiren, “True Buddhism.” I imagine they still do, and they are not the only ones to describe their brand of Buddhism that way. However, such sectarian claims are now quickly crumbling in light of new scholarship.

Last week there was an interesting article published on Tricycle.com entitled “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” It’s about the discovery of some birch bark scrolls in an area of eastern Afghanistan/northwest Pakistan that was once known as Gandhara. This locale at one time was also the center of a Buddhist civilization. Gandhara art is mostly Buddhist, done in the Greco-Roman style, and includes not only the earliest known oil paintings but also some of the earliest representations of the Buddha’s likeness. The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan were a part of this incredible legacy, and sad to say, Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era are still being destroyed by the Taliban.

Somewhere around 1994, the aforementioned birch bark scrolls were discovered and eventually wound up at the British Library. It was soon apparent that these were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence. Perhaps the first thing researchers noticed was that the manuscripts were written in a language previously unknown. Not Pali, not Sanskrit, or any other Indian language. This led to the conclusion that not only were they the oldest Buddhist manuscripts, but they were “the oldest surviving manuscripts of South Asia, period. They reach back into an era when the oral tradition of Buddhism probably first began to be written down.” What’s more, some of the material is new.

You can read all the details in the article here. In the meantime, here are some excerpts to give you an idea of the impact of this discovery:

[These] scrolls and scroll fragments are a stunning find: an entirely new strand of Buddhist literature.

[Scholars traditionally thought] that if they traced the various branches of the tree of Buddhist textual history back far enough, they would arrive at the single ancestral root . . .

As scholars scrutinized the Gandhari texts, however, they saw that history didn’t work that way at all . . . It was a mistake to assume that the foundation of Buddhist textual tradition was singular, that if you followed the genealogical branches back far enough into the past they would eventually converge. Traced back in time, the genealogical branches diverged and intertwined in such complex relationships that [the model] broke down completely . . .

It is now clear that none of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures—not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, nor even the Gandhari—‘can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”

These scrolls are incontrovertible proof that as early as the first century B.C.E., there was another significant living Buddhist tradition in a separate region of India and in an entirely different language from the tradition preserved in Pali.

In other words, there is more to Buddhist history than we know. Well, it’s not news to me and if you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I have said as much on several occasions.

The story of Buddhism that has been handed down to us has many gaps in it and has been spun in order to legitimatize tradition and solidify the monastic/priestly power base. The question folks should ask themselves is this: If we are to follow the teachings and try to cultivate an enlightened mind, a mind that is open and vast like space, shouldn’t the vehicle for these teaching also be open and vast? When I say open and vast here, I chiefly mean in the sense of being non-fundamentalist and inclusionary.

One thing is for sure, it is time to lay down sectarian posturing. For example, the Theravada tradition claims that the Buddha spoke Pali (which he didn’t) and that their Buddhism is the original Buddhism, and so they expect everyone else to bow down to them. On the other extreme, we have the Nichiren schools who claim that the historical Buddha actually taught the Lotus Sutra and yet, in some amazingly convoluted reasoning, the Buddhism of the historical Buddha is invalid and only dharma based on the Lotus Sutra should be practiced. Both claims are ludicrous and between those two poles there are quite a few variations of the same kind of dogma.

As we pry open the dharma gates to make Buddhism more accessible, reasonable and understandable to greater numbers of people, we come face-to-face with one prime point.

In The philosophy of the middle way: Mulamadhyamakakarika By Nagarjuna, David J. Kalupahana writes,

Myths of huge proportions have developed around the spiritual and philosophical stature of various personalities in almost every school of Buddhism. Often these myths were inflated by sectarian rivalries that continued to plague the history of Buddhism, especially the rivalry between the two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana. These prejudices tended to polarize the philosophical teachings of these two traditions though, in fact, they are similar if not identical. They are similar in being faithful to the basic teachings of the Buddha; they are also comparable in the way in which they rejected certain metaphysical ideas that continued to creep into the teachings . . .

The continuation of certain sectarian prejudices among the faithful adherents of Theravada and Mahayana may be understandable. Critical scholarship, on the contrary, has a responsibility to remain unsmeared by such sectarian prejudices. Modern scholarship in Buddhism, which began with the recognition of this sectarian rivalry as representing a major split in Buddhist philosophical and religious ideology, has come a long way in asserting its untenability. However, scholars are now beginning to realize that the Theravada/Mahayana distinction is an exaggeration and that the fundamental teaching of the Buddha has remained intact throughout the centuries.”

In the final analysis, once we remove the veils of sectarianism and have debunked all the myths, we come down to the clear fact that the message and the goal of Buddhism is essentially the same despite whatever name you give it or however you spin it.

I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”

– The Buddha

It’s all meat on the same bone.

Transcending suffering and being of benefit to others, that is True Buddhism.

Everything else is flavoring.

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