Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?

One of our commenters asked about whether the Lotus Sutra was considered authentic according to the Theravadin view.

To answer this from the traditional Theravadin point of view, all the Mahayana Sutras are inauthentic in the sense that they were not spoken by the Buddha. Historically, Theravada has tended to take a dim view of Mahayana, regarding it as a mere degeneration of the pure teachings.

That the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana Sutras were not spoken by the Buddha is unanimously supported by modern scholarship. I don’t know of a single academic in the last 150 years who has argued otherwise. The basic historical background is given in Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Lotus Sutra was composed over a period of time, or in a number of stages. The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 CE. This makes it one of the earliest Mahayana Sutras (and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana).

So there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in. They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations. Of course the same is true of many Theravdin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.

Why were the Mahayana Sutras phrased as if spoken literally by the Buddha? This is a difficult question, and there is unlikely to be one answer. Partly it was just how the literary form evolved. But I suspect, given the visionary nature of many Mahayanist texts, that they often stemmed from meditation experiences; visions of the Buddha, memories of ‘teachings’ received while in samadhi. Perhaps the authors of these texts believed that the Buddha was really present to them in some sense – and this is indeed the theme of many Mahayana sutras. Or perhaps they more humbly believed that they had gained insight into the Dhamma in some direct way.

61 thoughts on “Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?

  1. “The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 BCE.” Bhante did you mean 200 CE rather than 200 BCE?

    In comparison to Theravadin suttas the Mahayana sutras come with grandiose descriptions of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. And the Buddha was frequently described as being accompanied by great assemblies comprising hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas, arahants and monks, The composers seem very inspired.

    • Hi Ajahn Sujato,

      Thank you for your reply.

      I know that people say that these Suttas were historically late and historians have proved this, as you state “so there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in.”

      That does not though take into consideration that the Mahayanists argue that the (lotus?) Sutta (whether it is this one or all of them I don’t know much about it) was actually spoken by the Buddha BUT that the Buddha didn’t think people where capable of “getting” it at that time, so it was hidden away until such as time as he felt they humankind were ready for it.

      So what they seem to say is that it was still spoken by the Buddha, at the time of the Buddha but was hidden away.

      What do you think about this?

      Regards

      Unknown

    • ..also Ajahn Sujato,

      (1) what do you mean “and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana”

      (2) would it be correct to say that Mahayanist believe the Buddha is a person ie

      “Another concept introduced by the Lotus Sutra is the idea that the Buddha is an eternal entity, who achieved nirvana eons ago, but willingly chose to remain in the cycle of rebirth (samsara) to help teach beings the Dharma time and again. He reveals himself as the “father” of all beings and evinces the loving care of just such a father. Moreover, the sutra indicates that even after the Parinirvana (apparent physical death) of a Buddha, that Buddha continues to be real and to be capable of communicating with the world” (Wikepeida)

      (3) Theravardens believe (I think I read this in a book by Ajahn Chah) that the Dhamma is the Buddha, but they don’t believe people are Buddha’s

      (4) would you think 2 and 3 are the same thing, could be the same thing or are in no way the same thing

      Thanks

    • Hi again unknown,

      Your question number 1 actually relates to question 2. The Lotus sutra is, as you say, moving away from a ‘human’ Buddha towards a cosmic, eternal Buddha. This development started within the early schools. In particular, one school called the Sarvastivada, tended to argue that things were in some sense eternal. It has been argued that the early forms of the Lotus Sutra emerged as a philosophical development of the Sarvastivadins. I am not an expert in this area, so I can’t say how strong this argument is.

      The general understanding these days is that the Mahayana gradually emerged as a philosophical/devotional/meditative movement within the early Buddhist community. It can first be traced to around the first century BCE. For quite some time, those who developed these ideas need not have thought of themselves as belonging to a separate school or movement – more like a special emphasis or approach to the Dhamma. Only later did the Mahayana become conscious of itself as a distinct wing of Buddhism, although the monastic community to this day traces its roots to the early schools.

      It would take too long to look in depth at the notions of Buddhahood in the different tradtions. In general however, it is true to say that all schools tended to move towards a more transcendental, cosmic, divine Buddha and away from the historical man. The Mahayana took this tendency to an even greater degree. By distancing themselves from the ‘historical’ Buddha, they opened up the way to a more flexible, innovative approach to Dhamma practice.

      I hope this helps!

    • Hi Unknown,

      It’s not that the historical consensus has not taken into account the traditional legends of how the Mahayana came to be. Scholars are well aware of these stories – they just don’t believe them. They are treated as legends created after the fact in order to lend authenticity to late texts. Exactly the same kind of strategy was used by the Theravadins, for example, in claiming that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tavatimsa heaven. This is an absolutely normal part of any religious literature, one that can still be observed today.

      On the contrary, everything about these texts reveals that they have been produced and transmitted by perfectly ordinary means. The lateness of the Mahayana scriptures is not a tenuous or problematic notion – it’s really quite obvious. The problem is that these texts don’t come with a date stamped on them, so someone who is unfamiliar with the context, the history, and the literature can readily accept a legendary date.

      In order to establish the date of a text, we need to work with a variety of different means of inquiry. Essentially, scholars subject a text to whatever tests they can and compile the results. Texts are looked at in terms of such criteria as:

      • Language (Sanskrit is later than Pali)
      • Philosophical evolution (texts often argue with other ideas, showing that the ideas that they are arguing against must already exist)
      • Textual evolution (there are frequently more than one version of a text, and comparing different versions tells us something of how the text formed and grew)
      • Geography (what places are mentioned in the texts – this can be correlated against archeology and history)
      • State of technology (particularly the widespread adoption of writing, which numerous indications suggest was a little before the start of the Common Era – Mahayana sutras constantly mention writing, Pali suttas don’t)
      • Cultural development
      • Parallel movements in other religions and philosophies
      • Intertextual references (quotations from other sources – the Prajnaparamita Sutra, for example, quotes from the Satipatthana Sutta)
      • Literary styles

      And so on. Any one of these indications is, of course, uncertain. But when a whole range of indications points in the same direction, and there are no indications pointing in another direction, we can be secure in our conclusions. The general scenario of the dating of the Mahayana texts was established over a century ago, and since then, all our discoveries in terms of new texts, archeology, and so on, have tended to confirm this picture.

      What has changed is the evaluation of the Pali texts: once thought to be a reliable record of the earliest Buddhist canon, they are now recognized as being just one among many recensions of early material, all of which have undergone an extensive process of editing and organizing.

    • Hi Albert,

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake – indeed, it should be 200CE (corrected in the post now).

      Yes, the composers were inspired, no doubt about that. There’s a passion, a vivacity in the Mahayana sutras which is quite different from the measured, technical abhidhamma texts of the early schools. Of course, the early schools had their devotional exuberance as well, but it seems to have been somewhat more separated from the ‘academic’ side of things. One of the great tendencies in all Mahayana is towards synthesis and integration, and that applies here, in bringing together the devotional and philosophical wings of Buddhist practice.

  2. I’ve just read Gombrich’s “What the Buddha Thought”. Excellent book. That and my own readings and experience shows that as you say there is a core of original statements by the Buddha Himself, plus interpretation and mythical additions to the Pali Canon, so careful interpretation is required.

    As you’d know in the Tibetan tradition there is the whole concept of “Ter” or discovery of hidden teachings which can be thoughtforms as well as physical teachings. It must be similar to the concept of continued revelation in the Abrahamic traditions, and I think the attribution to the Buddha is to give it authenticity but is viewed mystically and not literally. Well not meant to, people obviously do.

    Maybe the question should be whether the meaning of the Lotus Sutra is helpful and meaningful and in keeping with what the Buddha taught?

    • Ben said “Maybe the question should be whether the meaning of the Lotus Sutra is helpful and meaningful and in keeping with what the Buddha taught”?

      Absolutely.. that is a better and more meaningful and helpful way to put the question thanks for that. Surely there can be no doubt that it can be helpful and meaningful or that there can be no doubt that (to a certain point) at least Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism helps alot of people, especially considering the patriarchal and selfishness that seemed to infest like a disease the Theravarden Schools of buddhism (not obviously referring to Ajahn Brahms of course, I hope).

      I did not mean to sound like it didn’t I was just asking whether these teachings are from the early Buddhist teachings and if Ajahn Sujato or anyone else new whether it is true or could be true that as they say these teachings were “hidden away” or something and were actually spoken by the Buddha at the time of the Buddha.

    • Oh now, that’s not true – Tibetan Vajrayana particularly is highly schismatic and patriarchal. Look at the history of conflict between the various schools & also linkages to political and armed conflict.

      The way it is practiced in the West is full of middle class people who think they’re working toward enlightenment “for all sentient beings” but in reality are very comfortably adopting a spiritual practice alongside their consumerist lives. Not everyone but it’s a bit factor.

      Also there is a lot of equation of Theravada with “Hinayana” and comparison to the Mahayana and Vajrayana approach, which is totally wrong

    • Hi Ben,

      Yes, and there’s a strong basis for this in the very nature of the Buddha’s revelation. He perceived the timeless truth of the Dhamma, and said that others could also realize the same truth. There is, accordingly, nothing surprising about the fact that later Buddhists should claim to speak from the same wisdom as the Buddha – maybe they were. What is perhaps a more interesting problem is to consider the reverse process: how the Buddhist community came to consider the Buddha’s teachings as the ‘gold standard’, and to create an ideal of one true, consistent, ‘canonical’ doctrine. It is always problematic to move in such a way, especially when we consider that the Buddha’s teachings were very much a product of context, time and place, given to specific people in specific needs.

      As far as the Lotus Sutra goes, I must admit that of all the major Mahayana sutras, it is the one I find least appealing and most problematic. Leaving aside any questions of authenticity, I find some of the main tendencies of the sutra itself to be dubious; especially what is perhaps the main argument of the text: that it is permissible to lie as a skillful means to reveal lesser truths to those not ready for the real truth.

    • Well yes for sure – sorry my comment could have been better written. “Skillful means” can be used to justify a whole lot of stuff that is entirely against the Buddha’s teachings.

  3. Whilst I also wondered about this:

    what do you mean “and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana”

    — I am very grateful to have your comments. I had more or less come to the “view” that much of the Buddhadhamma/dharma was piously composed by those who had (or whose teachers had) clearly understood the word of the Buddha. It is, however, much better to have your well informed view than to simply limp along in my own understanding.

    Many thanks

  4. None of the Buddhist sutras, early or late, Theravadin or Mahayana, are historical documents and they should not be considered as such. They are spiritual works and all of them contain a certain amount of mythology, legend, and as well, include stories and concepts that came from sources outside of Buddhism.

    The Mahayana sutras represent an evolution of the Buddha’s dharma, while at the same time, in certain respects, they also represent an attempt to return to the original spirit of the historical Buddha’s teachings, for example, the sense that nirvana is actually found in the here and now, and not some other place or unimaginable time in the future.

    • David,

      “They are spiritual works and all of them contain a certain amount of mythology, legend, and as well, include stories and concepts that came from sources outside of Buddhism.

      I understand that Buddhism needs to be adapted to the present time and place, but if there are no historical documents or they are not historical documents how to we even know what Buddhism is or was…surely the Buddha would have provided some resource that functions as a reliable reference or guide to enlightenment and is not just other peoples interpretations?

      Regards

    • Hi David,

      It’s quite true that the Buddhist texts are primarily spiritual scriptures, and this needs to be the main focus of understanding them. But I think it’s going to far to say they are not historical documents. In fact, they do purport to tell of many real world, actual events; and while some of the texts are obviously inventions, much of what is described may well have happened in fact.

      Now, we can say that the historicity of them is unimportant – which as you say is the tendency in the Mahayana – but this sidesteps the fact that the compilers of the texts quite clearly thought that the history was important. Otherwise they would have omitted all the introduction and setting materials, and just kept the abstract teachings, as in the Abhidhamma. Context matters, and considering the Buddhist texts in time and place greatly deepens our understanding. Of course, I’m talking about a genuine historical inquiry, not a fundamentalist insistence that every word in the texts must be literally true.

      I agree completely that the Mahayana on the whole was a reformist movement, whose purpose was to rediscover the liberating essence of the Dhamma. The problem, really, is that they were once a fresh new relevation of the Dhamma, but now they’re as stale as any other ancient, endlessly analyzed text. I have my doubts about some of the teachings in the Mahayana texts, but I think its essential that we recognize the liberative and courageous energy that underlies them.

    • Hi Ajahn Sujato,

      Thank you for that, I am still “digesting” what you said (umm my brain hurts) ..but also need to know in line with what you said regarding this, did the Mahayanists have good reason to do that or do you know whether their was a reason for going off on a sort of tangent like that; was it because they thought thervardens had become/were being selfish? Most of the Mahayana teachings (although in theory but doubt in practise this is true ) seem to think they are a more compassionate form of Buddhists.. so was this why they did it.

      Also (Albert etc) I don’t really see submission or obedience as devotion; although possibly a healthy respect and trust could lead to a sense of devotion and therefore willingness to “follow the leader.”

      metta

    • Hi Unknown,

      Yes, that is a major theme. There must be some basis for this: the Mahayana sutras are reacting to a monastic culture that had grown inward looking, concerned with its own doctrinal elaborations, and out of touch with the spirit of the Dhamma. Or at least that’s how they saw it – no doubt there are other ways of seeing…

    • Bhante Sujato

      The compilers of the text may have added context as a tool to aid memorization and to add interest to those who listen. Combining fact with details that a more ambiguous
      is a common practice within storytelling, who knows?

      As spiritual scriptures and teachings the Buddhist texts are wonderful and can be picked up and put down as appropriate. In my opinion as soon as a practitioner starts to overly relate to the scripture as historical “fact” you start off down that ugly road.

      Best wishes

      P.S Hope you had a good vassa.

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes, that’s true to an extent – there is no doubt that the background events were often added in a mechanical fashion, and some Vinayas even give instructions how to do this. I’m not so sure this is a mnemonic device, though. The Vedas have no such context, nor does the Abhidhamma, and they got memorized just fine. I think it’s more to do with understanding the context of the teachings.

    • I suppose it depends on what you consider a “historical document.” I doubt there are any scholars who consider the sutras as such. It’s the same case for the Bible. There is very little material, if any, in any of the suttas or sutras that are verifiable. I think you are laboring under a misunderstanding in regards to the notion that the compilers of the texts (I assume you mean the early suttas) were interested in history. This is the opposite of what most scholars believe, which is summed up by Prof. Ling, who wrote, “. . . for the earliest Buddhists it was the word of the Buddha rather than the life of the Buddha which seems to have been of paramount importance . . . His life-story was not in itself a matter of intrinsic interest . . . since the canon of the Theravadin school . . . contains no continuous narrative of his life.”

      I’m not sure what you are referring to when you mention the “introduction and setting materials” but if you are referring to accounts of the Buddha’s royal background, we now know that that was largely exaggerated, and stories like the one about being born from his mother’s side, etc. surely fall in the realm of mythology. Furthermore, the only so-called “biographical” narrative in the Pali Canon, Mahaparinibbana Sutta, an account of the Buddha’s last days, is questionable as history, since again none of it can be verified. Indeed, scholars such as Andre Bareau, Prof. Ling and many others have concluded that there is little that can be called history in any of the Buddhist scriptures.

      Finally, the staleness of spiritual literature is largely a matter of perspective. Personally, I find the Mahayana sutras charged with a vitality that persists to this day.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the comments. Yes, it very much depends on what we mean by a ‘historical document’. Obviously the Buddhist texts are not intended to be a history. On the other hand, most of history is derived from things that are not themselves history or interested in history. The early texts are a source material that historians can use judiciously to help in understanding history.

      Is there much in the suttas that is verified? Well, let’s restrict ourselves to material rather than spiritual matters, as these are more easily tested. The crucial question, it seems to me, is: of those things that can be verified, how much has been verified? And the answer is, so far as I can see, pretty much everything. Rajagaha really is where it says it is, and it is surrounded by hills were sages go. Pataliputta really is a fortified city on the Ganges. Savatthi really was a major city. Vesali really was a republic on the north shore of the Ganges. And so on. I am not aware of a single archaeological or geographical detail in the early scriptures that has actually been proven incorrect (leaving aside, of course the legendary tales of Uttarakuru and the like).

      Similarly with the state of culture in the time of the Buddha. The depictions of the Brahmans, the Jains, and the rest are of course colored by odium theologicum and mistakes and misrepresentations do occur; but on the whole, and in many details, they do depict these religions accurately. The Brahmans really do rely on Vedic rituals, and the Jains really do practice self-mortification. Similarly, the state of technology, political realities, climate, food, and so on seem to be pretty much accurate when placed in the wider context of Indian history. Even a minor detail like the manjitthika (‘red rot’) mentioned in one passage as a disease afflicting sugar cane has in fact been confirmed as a common sugar cane disease in the area.

      You claim that ‘none’ of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta can be verified. I’m afraid I have to disagree. The sutta starts with a political situation, the aggression of Magadha against Vesali, and history does suggest that this was accurate. The Buddha is shown to walk on a detailed journey: many of the stops on the way can be identified, and there are where the text says they are. And indeed, the scale of the journey is such that a fit 80 year old could achieve it. (BTW, congratulations to Fauja Singh!) The Buddha’s tomb is indeed in Kusinara. The Vajjis, Mallas, and so on were in fact peoples in the area. The Buddha’s relics, as confirmed by the Ashokan edicts, were distributed.

      What more can we reasonably ask for? No-one had a CCTV camera or a recorder to verify all the conversations and teachings that took place. I can’t look up the records of a hotel to confirm whether “Mr. Buddha” checked in for the night. We can’t look up the health records to confirm the nature of the Buddha’s illness. It’s decidedly unscientific to make unrealistic demands, and then dismiss the material because it doesn’t meet them.

      This is why I am resistant to an excessive skepticism, which it seems to me to be merely a reaction against excessive credulity. Actually the Pali canon is full of historical detail; of those things that we can verify, most has been verified; and most of what remains unverified is simply because we don’t have any evidence one way or the other.

      I always remember the case of Troy: generations of scholars assumed that the Iliad was a historical account; growing skepticism then threw the whole thing out and decided that Tory never existed; but then it was dug up, and now it is widely accepted that the Iliad does contain much that is historical, even if the narrative is fanciful.

      The redactors of the canon were clearly interested in time and place. They began every discourse with “At one time the Blessed One was staying at…”. This is the very foundations of history, the notion that events occur in specific times and places, but have a relationship with wider events that give them meaning. And of course the wider event in this case is the Buddha’s Awakening and his subsequent establishing of the Dhamma.

      I disagree with Ling’s assessment that the early Buddhists were not interested in the life of the Buddha. The suttas are full of biographical events. Virtually every sutta is an event in the life of the Buddha. Fair enough, the bulk of these are stereotyped and give little real information, but even just taking the texts that have a substantive narrative framework there is a lot of biographical material.

      What we can say, I think, is that the Buddha himself wasn’t that interested in biography. Most of the biographical detail is found in the background narratives supplied by the redactors. There are only a few suttas where the Buddha speaks of his own life story in any detail.

      But this doesn’t tell us what the Buddhist community felt. In fact, one of the earliest major literary efforts in the Buddhist community went into constructing a lengthy biography of the Buddha. In addition to the Mahaparinibbana material, there is also the corresponding Catusparisat Sutra material, telling from the Awakening to the establishing of the Sangha. And this material was loosely organized, together with many other biographical matters (Devadatta, bhikkhuni ordination, the councils, etc.) into the Khandhaka framework.

      This was an incredibly ambitious and innovative work, without precedent in Indian literature. I’m not sure what Ling expects to find: someone’s going to sit down and just write a biography based on journalistic sources? No-one had ever composed a biography in India before. The very idea of an extensive narrative of the life of a historical figure was, so far as we know, first arrived at in the Buddhist community.

      By the ‘introductory and setting materials’ I’m not referring to the Buddha’s royal background or to his birth from his mother’s side, both of which belong to the later development of myth, as you say. I am referring the nidanas, or settings, for each of the Suttas. Yes, these do vary from version to version, and it seems very likely that the early community was less concerned with preserving these details than they were to preserve the teachings. Still, there is no reason to think that the settings, on the whole, are not based on actual events.

      Regarding staleness, perhaps I was not clear: it is the way texts are held and related to that tends to become stale. Any genuine spiritual literature contains the seeds of wisdom, and each new generation can rediscover these for themselves; but to do so they have to free themselves from the dead hand of doctrinal orthodoxy. If you find this in the Mahayana literature, then terrific. I think a lot of the Mahayanist texts are revolutionary, bold, and refreshing; but I also find all too much of this kind of thing.

    • David said “. for the earliest Buddhists it was the word of the Buddha rather than the life of the Buddha which seems to have been of paramount importance”

      I guess that is all people are looking for in wanting a historical record of what the Buddha said..not really all the forced subserviance and forced hieriachy to Gurus etc that seems to be Mahayana/vajrayana Buddhism..although this can be made to be attractive vibrant and desirable ; or all the stories of walking on lotus flowers and etc..

      You know …just to actually read for themselves what the actual Buddha said or at least meant even if written down by the disciples of the Buddha at the time of the Buddha., …rather than having it told to you filtered through the very ordinary mind of a so called student of a guru or something or someone who has been to a few Buddhist talks etc and has decided to “become a Buddhist” and therefore thinks they know what Buddhism is about because they have labelled themselve a Buddhists.

      I will agree with you though that Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist put intense effort and will to make it all seem desirable.

    • Hi Ajahn Sujato

      Ajahn Sujato said””Yes, that is a major theme. There must be some basis for this: the Mahayana sutras are reacting to a monastic culture that had grown inward looking, concerned with its own doctrinal elaborations, and out of touch with the spirit of the Dhamma. Or at least that’s how they saw it – no doubt there are other ways of seeing””

      Such as…If you have time I would like to know what other ways of seeing it there are??
      ____________________

      Whatever it seems stupid to think that there can be something called Buddhism taught by a man called the Buddha that wasn’t somehow recorded or taught to people he trusted as having right view etc so it could be past onto others; not that this couldn’t or wouldn’t be adapt abit over time but still you would think the teachings would remain close to their original form so that they could be taught to the people who like to call themselves Buddhists

      If we don’t read and understand these actual teachings of the Buddha would we not just be labelling ourselves “buddhists” or following along blindly hoping the people we are with are going the right way.

      It is abit like saying I am a Doctor but I have decided that what they teach at university may be wrong so I will just call myself a doctor because it sound like a worthwhile job.

      Mahayana and Vajrayana do though cover the basic of what the Buddha taugh though don’t they?

  5. Venerable, when you say ;

    “Of course the same is true of many Theravdin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.”

    What collection of the early suttas are you specifically referring to? The four main Nikayas/Agamas? If so, what portion of the four Nikayas/Agamas would you say are legitimately from the historical Buddha?

    Has any new information become available? Thanks,

    Lars.

    • Hi Lars,

      Yes, I’m thinking mainly of the Nikayas/Agamas, and early portions of the Vinaya such as the patimokkha and certain kammavacas.

      Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly what came from the Buddha. Text-critical inquiry only takes us so far, and after that we rely on faith. At the root of the thing, though, is the brute fact of existence. Buddhism exists, Buddhist scriptures exist, and there is nothing quite like it anywhere else. (Other religious traditions stem from texts written by a sage (e.g Confucius), from a long cultural tradition (Hinduism or Judaism), or the texts are much later (Jainism, Islam)). Something must have happened, and the most reasonable explanation, it seems to me, is that there really was a teacher called the Buddha, and his followers made great efforts to preserve his teachings. Preserving and transmitting vast quantities of information is difficult, but by no means impossible.

      When you study the early suttas regularly on a comparative basis, the most outstanding feature, present with almost absolute consistency, is that the different versions vary considerably in inessential details like setting, background, and sometimes the structure of the text. But the actual teachings, the core message attributed to the Buddha himself, is found with a very high level of consistency. It is these essential teachings from the Buddha’s lips, repeated consistently in all versions of early Buddhist literature, that I take to represent what the Buddha himself taught. I can’t prove that: but neither can I imagine any alternative scenario that would explain that situation.

      The other aspect of faith, one that is not so easily incorporated in academic discussion, is that the teachings in the Suttas actually work. Meditation, for example, actually does what it says on the box. This is somethings that probably everyone reading this can verify from their own experience, and which is borne out by countless studies.

      No, the effectiveness of meditation does not prove that the Buddha walked from Rajagaha to Vesali before he passed away, or any of the other historical details. However it does suggest that a genuine spiritual insight underlies the teachings. If we over-emphasize the idea that the scriptures were redacted by committees of scholars, whose purpose was to establish authority for a long-lasting religious order, we miss the purpose of the Dhamma. Editors edit; redactors redact; committees – umm well, commit I guess. Sages, on the other hand, emerge with a radical range of insight that questions everything and overthrows our limited, mundane view of things. And that is what we find all through the Nikayas/Agamas.

      Regarding new information, there are always new details, although nothing revolutionary. Yesterday I had a coffee with Mark Allon of Sydney Uni; he told me that there has recently been a new carbon dating of a Buddhist text fragment placing it in the first century BCE. That would be a century or more older than the next oldest texts (Gandhari texts carbon-dated at ANU by Mark himself). The dating is, however, not confirmed.

    • Thank you for the reply bhante.

      Interesting, are you familiar with a group of sutras in the Agamas known as the mahasutras? I think most have corresponding suttas in the Pali collection but i believe there are two, the “mahasunyata-paryaya” and the “paramartha-sunyata-paryaya” that are not found in Pali. Both were cited by Nagarjuna from the Agamas and seem to interchange dependent origination with emptiness.

    • Yes, I’m vaguely familiar with them – are these the Mahasutras that have been studied in such detail by Peter Skilling? That was a group of texts in Tibetan translation, mostly consisting of early Agama-style sutras, which were used as a kind of paritta or protection chant in Tibet. It’s been a while since i read Skilling’s study – I’m not even sure if he’s published the final volume yet.

      As far as dependent origination and emptiness, there are, as you say, a couple of Agama sutras that state that dependent origination is equivalent to emptiness. These were studied some years ago by Choong Mun-keat.

      These sutras show that when Nagarjuna equated dependent origination with emptiness, he was not making any kind of innovation, but merely reminding his audience of something they would have already been familiar with. The lack of this identification in the Pali suttas is interesting; I don’t think there’s any particular doctrinal reason for their exclusion. Perhaps just a loss in transmission. Of course, it could be the other way around: the early suttas did not equate dependent origination with emptiness, so as this notion became prominent new suttas were authored or edited to bring this out.

  6. Bhante Sujato,

    I’m metaphorically clapping (very loudly) as I read your statements on this thread so far!

    I hope you had a lovely Rains Retreat.

    Metta

    • Hi Ajahn Sujato,

      This is uh way off this topic and not probably the type of question you ask a Buddhist Monk but I have never come across any reference to the Buddha ever expressing any views on what sort of karma is created by marrying (and procreating) with cousins, even distant cousins; does this carry bad karma? Obviously first cousins might but beyond that?

      I am not referring to rape or incest but knowingly marrying and procreating with first cousins and beyond?

      Sorry for the question and is there a place to put new questions?

      Metta

    • Hi Unknown,

      That’s fine to ask a question here. From time to time i invite people to put random questions, otherwise you can just leave them in a comments page. If it’s a substantial answer, I’ll make a new post out of it.

      But for this one, no I’m not aware of any specific taboo on marrying cousins. We don’t have much information on these details from the Buddha’s time, but it seems that in the Buddha’s family marriages between cousins may have been allowable. This is not unusual, especially in the aristocratic strata of society; the origin myth for the Sakyan tribe even has the Sakyan ancestors marrying brother to sister. The aristocrats often follow different rules… However the details of family relations of the Buddha are so uncertain and variable that it would be wise not to make too much of this. The Suttas have quite extensive lists of acts that are considered to be unethical, and marrying cousins is never included in them.

  7. Hi Ajahn Sujato,

    Thank you for that…so much for lunch!

    I actually read too that even today in some Buddhist countries they “arrange” marriages (or should I say force women) say one women to marry two (or even more) brothers …apparently it is to keep the “family money” safe.

    Thank you again

    Metta

  8. HI Ben

    Yes Tibetan Vajrayana – the gelupas seem to be “dominating” this white middle class form of so called (democratic?) Buddhism. I guess having the Dalai Lama as their figurehead probably helps their subtle belief in their superiority while outwardly appearingly democratic and selling compassion and their forcing of all groups into one… with of course them as the “main” ones forcing all under their control.. no doubt??
    best of luck too them

  9. Maybe should remember Buddha’s instructions regarding the authenicating of Dharma? He taught us clearly to use discernment before we accept a teaching for our practice.

    I also support the view that the Vinaya teachings are older and perhaps can provide the framework for the rest of the collections. I’ve got loads of editing at present so please have some sense of respect for us robes ones who are working daily to help improve translations so everyone scholar or otherwised can find it easy to read dharma texts.

    I’m a translator of the vast collections of the Chinese Mahayana Tripitaka. It’s inclusive of all the present and past schools and traditions. There are many others like me who are working from the Triipitaka languages of various countries like Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

    I welcome you to join this effort. http://www.cbeta.org has a downloadable complete Tripitaka for free, the commands are in english once it’s downloade but to get it online the website text is only in Chinese. I think they are on Facebook, isn’t everyone these days?

    There are a few online sites starting to grow the English sutras translated. I’ve got them bookmarked if you wish let me know.

  10. Bhante Sujato,
    Some say that the Lotus Sutra is the Buddhist work closest to the Bible. Considering that it evolved over centuries, it might well have been influenced by Christianity (just thinking out loud). I have also come across at least one scholarly article that compared Guanyin holding a child as reflecting the image of Mary of Guadelupe. This reminds of how the Hindus absorbed Buddhism in India by inventing new myths such as the avatars. If we take the Lotus Sutra in the same spirit as we enjoy Star Wars, it can give us some useful insights into Buddhist living. This is of course putting such a great Mahayana classic into just a few words, totally unjustified.

    • Hi Piya,

      The Lotus Sutra is full of startling imagery, and no doubt it has varied sources. I haven’t researched the details, but as always the specific imagery takes on meaning when understood in its context.

      And the Star Wars analogy is, in its way, perfect. In both cases a startlingly new, powerful phenomenon arose with the conjunction of old truths (for Star Wars, the Hero’s Journey, for the Lotus Sutra, Buddhism) and casting it in a radical new form made possible by technological innovation (for Star Wars the FX, for the Lotus Sutra, the literary possibilities opened up by the development of long physical manuscripts). In both cases this conjunction serves a specific purpose: to make old truths meaningful for a new generation. And – if you will allow me to stretch the analogy even further – the history after the event shows how it all moves from the transformative shock of discovery to something rather more complex and rather less inspirational… Perhaps that’s just growing up.

  11. I think people can argue that Mahayana is this or that and the same for Theravarden..people can theorise and intellectualise but in practise personally I can confidently say that there is absolutely no difference between the Theravarden, Mahayana and Vajrayana paths

    The Theravarden are no more selfish that the Mahayana, or should I say the Mahayana and Vajrayan while making claims as “the compassionate ones” are everybit as selfish, out for themselves, control and power as the Theravarden and the Theravardens while on the surface seem to be theorically correct is this really any different in practise what the Mayayana and Vajrayana teach… I seriously doubt it!

    Best wishes.

    • Hi Unknown,

      I have just tried to contact you offlist regarding some of your recent comments. It turns out that both the email addresses you registered under are fake. If you want to continue to take part in this forum, you will need to use a valid email address.

  12. Well the email works for me? I may have left off an au or put one on accidently but I can login so don’t know why you can’t send?

  13. Anjali, Bhante. In listening to your class on the Mulpariyaya Sutta, you had mentioned a sort of “redactive principle” with regard to place and name;particularly with the Agamas and the Pali correlatives(the Agamas being a bit of a conceptual diminutive).
    That being said do you know of any writtings that explore this “Redactive Principle” as being the crucial, organic component to the very exsistence of Mahayana itself?
    I would posit that, if none can be found, YOU yourself can maybe one day consider collating your mastery of disparate studies into a comprehensive approach to this(as I am just a painter/construction worker from Ann Arbor Michigan only beginning to learn Pali I’m afraid I’ve a bit of a deficit in meeting my own musings in this matter with any alacrity. LOL).

    Anjali

    • Hi anlashok44,

      Thanks for the comment, but I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at. For those not familiar, the redaction principle he mentions is the idea that when the Buddhist scriptures were compiled, it became customary to preface them with a location, and to identify certain characters. In some cases these were unknown. The very mechanical nature of such introductory details shows that in many cases they must have been simply added on by editors; and in at least two Vinayas there are instruction for the monks in how to go about that.

      I don’t think this would be something critical to the emergence of Mahayana – i believe Mahayana arose primarily from spiritual needs and insights. However it would surely have influenced the form that Mahayana Suttas have taken. Since they were used to the idea that sutta settings can be manufactured and are therefore not ‘historical’ in the sense that we understand them, it would only be natural to extend this notion. The introductions to the Mahayana Suttas are typically far more florid and complex than the early texts. As it is, in fact, very easy to manufacture “old-style” settings by using a few formulas, it seems to me that the authors of the Mahayana Suttas were deliberately using this revised style to distance themselves from the early texts, not to imitate them. In other words, they never expected anyone to take them literally.

      As to compiling a comprehensive approach – thanks for the encouragement! I’ve just recovering from completing a massive writing project, and am not looking to attempting anything so large again soon, or ever… In a way, I’m also a bit suspicious of comprehensive approaches: they always miss something crucial. I kind of like the idea of showing different, perhaps enigmatic, sied of a complex thing, and leading people on to discover the whole for themselves…

    • Anjali Bhante

      Thanks for the quick response and clarification. I guess I was just extending the concept into something like maybe “Memetic Mutations”, ie. subtle variances in the fidelity of copy over time, having invariable influence on culture.
      Anyhow, it’s just really curio whilst on a 40ft ladder or on a roof. Between that and not looking down the days go by safely. lol.
      Joking aside, it’s been thru your Dhamma talks and publications that my own predilections have shifted to the Theravadin. I harbor the notion of making it to Santi when scheduling permits.Forgive me if this is not the proper venue for what, admittedly, comes off as fan mail; but you ARE indeed a treasured resource.

      Respectfully yours in the Dhamma, Orlando Anthony Martinez

  14. This email that I put in the email section I just used to login, so it should work…if you cannot view it from your end I will put in in a comments box.

  15. Hello,

    As a Nichiren Shu follower, a school revering the Lotus Sutra and Siddharta Gautama as a manifestation of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni, I would like to make some statements.

    First of all, it is true that many descriptions of the Buddha and the boddhisattvas attending Him, are quite extraordinary, but it is completely wrong to judge the Mahayana thought and especially the Lotus Sutra, focusing just on these descriptions. It does not matter whether they are literan or not. If they are, then we have a wonderful cosmic revelation. If not, then we have a beautiful metaphor of Buddhist ecumenism, egalitarianism and Mahayana cosmology.

    Secondly, except for these description, many key concepts of Mahayana are presented in it. Just a few of them: expedient means, Eternal nature of the Tathagata, inherent Buddha-nature, sunyata, Bodhisattvahood, Anutara-samyak-sambodhi as the ultimate goal of the practicioner, Enlightment freely available to both women and non-human beings, the paramitas, the concept of the Pure Lands, the promise of Enlightment for all the people who have formed a bond with the teachings of the Buddha etc.

    Thirdly, as a Sutra supposed to be the supreme teaching of Buddha Shakyamuni, it unites all other schools of Mahayana through the concept of the One Vehicle of the Buddha. A statement that gave rise to Tian Tai (Tendai in Japan) and Nichiren Shu.

    If this is the case, even if it is not truly a Sutra spoken by the Tathagata, it still is the King of the Mahayana Sutras and school of thought. Personally, I do believe that it was expounded by Buddha Shakyamuni, but even if someone doesn’t, Lotus Sutra remains an inspiring writing for millions of people.

    Thus, the real question here, is the differences between Mahayana and Theravada.

    Gassho

  16. When you say, ” historically late”, this confuses me. I was under the impression that no sutras were comitted to writing until many centuries after the Buddha’s death. Perhaps you can explain.

    • Hi Mike,

      Yes, all of the suttas were committed to writing somewhat late. The Sri Lankan chronicles give a date around 20BCE, so around 400 years after the Buddha. This is, in any case, a few centuries before the Lotus Sutra. More importantly, the writing down of the early canon is merely a matter of the form in which it was transmitted. It was not composed at that time, whereas the Mahayana sutras were quite clearly composed at a later date, with later language, literary style, ideas, and so on. There is no evidence that the oral tradition is any less reliable than the written. In fact, the evidence is all to the contrary. The ancient Brahmans and Buddhists transmitted through the oral tradition large volumes of highly accurate and complex texts. It was when writing became popular that large quantities of entirely new suttas were written. The obvious explanation for this is that it is much easier to compose a new text in writing than it is to create and sustain an oral text, which requires the co-operation of a large community. So for the period of oral transmission, the emphasis was very much on the conservative and accurate transmission of the traditional texts, and when writing emerged it brought with it an explosive development of new texts and ideas.

  17. What wonderful insights! Unlike the majority of you on here, I am not a scholar…just a simple lay person relying on belief, study and practice. I love the Lotus Sutra…it has changed my life/lives.

    In my humble opinion…I believe that:

    The Essence of Buddhism lies in one’s behavior as a human being.

    Buddhism is an evolving religion/philosophy/way of life. A “Buddha” is an enlightened person. There were Buddhas before Shakyamuni and there will be/are Buddhas after Shakyamuni. We do not study/practice Shakyamunism…we, and I am speaking for myself as a practicing Nichiren Buddhist, practice Buddhism.

    I believe that the Lotus Sutra represents the craftsmanship of many pious Buddhists writing and translating over the centuries.

    The two main themes in the Lotus Sutra are: (1) Everyone has the potential to be a Buddha…in this present lifetime! (2) We are eternal.

    Since Buddhism teaches the eternity of Life, the idea of rebirth is implicit.

    The Buddhism of Shakyamuni was refined and enhanced by Nichiren Daishonin, and Nichiren’s Buddhism has been refreshed and interpreted for today by Daisaku Ikeda.

    Bottom line: Buddhism evolves and adapts to suit the environment in which it flourishes.

    Peace

    • what’s the behaviour with which people want the teachings of the Buddha (Dhamma) evolving but not maintained the way taught by the Buddha? Buddha didn’t teach expecting His teachings would become inaccurate later. He did warn about the Disappearance of His Sasana, but He also said ‘If monks practice accurately, the world would always see arahants’. Some people want to follow Buddhism but it must be their Buddhisms.
      They wanted Buddhism be like Hinduism – always evolving and eventually the Buddha would be replaced with god like figures? And this is what they expected their generations to follow?!

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