Aside

The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

I’m proud to announce that the short book that Ven Brahmali and myself have finished, called The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts, is out now and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

The book is essentially a collection of short articles that gather much of what we know about the historical background of Early Buddhism into one place. We believe that the debate on the authenticity of the texts in academic circles has been badly skewed by an unscientific emphasis on extreme scepticism, and it is time for the pendulum to swing back. Anyway, enjoy!

22 thoughts on “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

  1. Thank you – I have downloaded and look forward to reading this. Will also share this post in the Buddhism in Action group that I manage on Linked In for wider sharing with Buddhists interested.

  2. I don’t think anyone doubts that the texts are authentic – the question is “What do they authentically represent?” And I have to say that, scientifically speaking, a couple of bhikkhus were never going to come up with the position that the texts that form the foundation of their religious beliefs are not authentic. That was never going to happen. The book starts off by saying: “A sympathetic assessment of relevant evidence shows…” In fact as a “fully ordained” bhikkhu you are a bit more than merely sympathetic aren’t you? A lifelong celibate ordination leaves you with a bit more than an academic interest in this discussion. If the texts turned out to be inauthentic, you and all your colleagues would have wasted your lives! Why pretend to objectivity when your argument is fundamentally tendentious?

    No doubt this work will be welcomed by other Buddhists.

    I suppose what really interests me about the apologetics that a few prominent Western bhikkhus have been producing in the last couple of years is the mere fact of them. In some ways I take it to be a good sign that traditionalists are fighting back – it means the critiques are starting to bite. The view is now that the authenticity of the texts and the dogmas of karma and rebirth *need* a substantial public defence. That’s progress!

    • I don’t think anyone doubts that the texts are authentic – the question is “What do they authentically represent?”

      We define authenticity as being “they are what they say they are”. The texts say they are the teachings of the Buddha, and there are plenty of people who deny that they are, or who deny that we can know anything; we refute both forms of denial.

      As for the rest of your comment, it starts by saying “science” and then is pure ad hominem. We could have made (equally meaningless) ad hominem criticisms of the denialists, but we didn’t, because it is unscientific.

    • Jayarava, despite your conspiracy theories, the fact remains that The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts was accepted and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Oxford. Now, if you yourself have any conducted any relevant studies that were peer reviewed and published by an organization of equally high academic standards, feel free to point them out. Otherwise, any sensible academic is going to take this study more seriously than your completely unsubstantiated opinions!

    • BTW, Jayarava has also been published by the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies…

      Not, I should add, that that is relevant: it’s just another ad hominem criticism. The point is not whether he has been published and peer reviewed or not, but whether his arguments are cogent.

  3. Too late, Bhante! I already had the book on my tablet at least two weeks before you posted this, tsk tsk. Someone posted a link to this on Dhamma Wheel and of course on the Dhammaloka website.

  4. Says Jayavara: “A lifelong celibate ordination leaves you with a bit more than an academic interest in this discussion. If the texts turned out to be inauthentic, you and all your colleagues would have wasted your lives!” I hardly think this to be true. The Dhamma itself is a foundation upon which a very good life is built. The evidence is that these Bhikkhus applied scholarship to the issue of the historicity of the Pali primary texts. The evidence is quite clear that the core teachings of the historical Buddha can be discerned from these texts. There is wheat in the Pali Canon and the Agamas, and chaff, but the wheat has been largely discerned by Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars ; the chaff may be later additions, or hagiography, but the independent scholarship is able to largely discern between the wheat and the chaff. What “scholars” like Jayasaro wish to claim is that so long as any chaff exists, then it all can be considered chaff. That kind of approach has been disregarded by any serious scholar of the primary Pali Suttas, and seen as, as was in this case above, (unfortunately) ad hominem and lacking in evidentiary foundation. What Vens. Sujato and Brahmali have done is not apologetics, but serious work by two men who by their nature are skeptics and scholars. Calling the book ‘apologetics’ was a cheap shot, but not surprising considering the source (Triratna Buddhist Order? Sangharakshita??) I’m going to bite my tongue now before I say something (ad hominem-ish) I will later regret .

    • I probably shouldn’t have commented at all. I didn’t care for Jayarava’s tone and the nature of his comments. The history of the TBO and its founder are easy to research, the allegations very serious, and I felt that Jayarava might be a bit more circumspect before he makes ad hom comments. The issue of the Buddhavacana qualities of the EBTs will be interesting fodder for discussion among kalayana mitta of good faith, and I am deeply grateful for the scholarship that Vens. Sujato and Brahmali put into their book. Their positions ring very true to me, but in the west, these scholarly positions will be received with some degree of resistance. Even Einstein took some shots before some of his theories were verified. :)

    • Hi Michael,

      I understand your concerns, it’s just important to bring them up in an appropriate way, that’s all. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

    • Yes, Bhante, and having myself taken lifetime anagarika (8 precept) ordination, I need to be mindful to be circumspect about publishing my own opinions about others’ comments or behaviors. Right Speech Is as defined (and mine divisive and harsh), and I need to work at being more faithful to these precepts.

  5. That’s a really great collection of information and I have already got lots of use out of it. The internal links are a great convenience.

    One thing: doesn’t the claim that most of the four Nikayas were spoken by the historical Buddha and his immediate disciples contradict Yinshun’s theory of the primacy of the Saṁyutta Nikaya (quoted approvingly in the book and developed in detail in your History of Mindfulness) ?

    I think you successfully explode the ‘we can’t know anything about Early Buddhism’ myth, I’m just not sure about that final jump to the Buddha. Or, if I were to make the jump to the first council, I’d go with a speculative ‘pātimokkha+core of Saṁyutta Nikaya’ (I think that’s what Yinshun proposed, off the top of my head) rather than with the contents of all four Nikayas.

    • Hi Qianxi,

      The “Samyutta” theory (or as I called it, the “GIST”) doesn’t say that the texts in the Samyutta are necessarily more authentic than other collections; it says that the structure of the Samyutta is likely to be the oldest formal canonical collection. The relationship between the age of the collection and the age of the texts within the collection is a complex and indirect one. The Samyutta includes some late texts, just as other collections include some early texts. But the idea is that when the early Buddhists thought to gather their main, most important doctrines in one systematic form, the Samyutta is what they came up with. The main significance of the theory from the point of view of learning more about early Buddhism is that it allows us to infer some of the principles that went into organizing the texts, and from there to extrapolate back in time to what an even earlier collection, namely the angas, might have been like.

      I should add that the GIST is really one competing theory among several, and is by no means widely accepted in the West (although, thanks to Yin Shun, it is in Taiwan). Nor does it explain everything; it is much weaker when it comes to understanding the Anguttara, for example. The things we are establishing in the Authenticity book are much more general and more broadly based and, I think, more widely accepted.

    • >>and is by no means widely accepted in the West..<<
      Why should acceptance in the West be of any consequence to anything at all?

  6. Dear Bhante, I enjoyed the book, which shows that it’s extremely likey that most of the writings of the Pali Canon originate from the time of the historical Buddha. Since however it is also clear that these writings do not reproduce the words of Shakyamuni but are renderings of them by his contemporaries (in a form that is easy to memorise), I am still not sure of the extent to which they express his original thought. I remember a Dhamma talk in which the speaker (it might have been you or perhpas Ajahn Brahm) said that when giving a talk there are as many talks in reality as there are people listening, since everyone in the audience hears the talk differently, according to their different preoccupations, biases etc. In a similar way, when Ajahn Chah died I heard that his followers could not agree on what he had thought, because, as Ajahn Jagaro explained to the disciples to put an end to the controversy, everyone had ‘heard’ his teachings differently (and a recent visit to Amaravati showed me how different the interpretation of the Dhamma can be even amomgst Ajhan Chah’s followers). So is it not possible (likely?) that the Buddha’s thought was deformed before being petrified (or during petrification) into the form of the Suttas, and from then onwards it indeed was transmitted with hardly any alteration? Kind regards

  7. Excellent work with the new book. I’m enjoying it very much, and I appreciate the clear and direct approach. It also appears to be very useful as a reference. :-)

  8. Bhante, the only problem I have with this book is that it only reaches out to a very niche audience. I doubt many other people besides those who are familiar with you, Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Brahmali and BSWA will have heard of this book. That’s a tiny subset of the Buddhist world.

    Maybe one way to reach out to a broader audience would be to put the book on the Amazon Kindle store? Any price can be set at anything from $0.00. http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks/b?ie=UTF8&node=154606011

    • Hi Nibbida,

      Yes, and our publishers (OCBS and BPS) have very kindly allowed us to publish without any copyright restrictions. So in fact anyone can republish anywhere. For my part, I would rather wait a little out of respect for the publishers before putting it up elsewhere, but there is nothing stopping anyone else from doing so.

  9. Sujato

    I have just finished reading this and I think it is a valuable piece of work.

    Many thanks to you and
    Brahmali.

    Regards

    David

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