Whose Buddhism is Truest?

Here’s a generally excellent article on the current trends of how early Buddhism is conceived, with special reference to the Gandhari texts, and reflecting on how this impacts the current state of things.

My only quibble would be that the author somewhat overstates the importance of the Gandhari texts in this context. Of course they are important, but they mostly confirm previous theories that have been influential in the past generation or two of scholars, rather than overthrowing any orthodoxy.

i think there is no doubt that the basic principle here is true: the Buddhist texts, from the earliest times, existed in multiple variants. In fact every monastic would have memorized the texts somewhat differently. This diverse tradition is engaged with by the centralizing tendency represented by the Councils, which attempted to create a monolithic canon. But at no stage was there ever a single body of texts universally accepted by all Buddhists.

As usual, however, i feel the need to issue a caution in that these findings are often mistakenly assumed to disprove the usefulness of text-criticism and to overthrow the orthodoxy. This is not the case. In fact they only contradict certain of the conclusions of earlier generations of scholars, conclusions which had already been substantially modified by later text scholars. The Gandhari texts are simply one more source, albeit a uniquely valuable one, to help aid our understanding of early Buddhism. In fact, without the background knowledge of the texts established by conventional text-criticism, it would not be possible to really understand what these few texts are and how they relate to each other.

11 thoughts on “Whose Buddhism is Truest?

    • Dear Daisy,
      It seems you feel dissolusioned with Buddhism, and I do hope your faith in the Dhamma gets restored.
      About the Kalyana Mitta group, I know for a fact who started the group since she is a friend of mine. It was not formed by Ajahn Brahm. In fact, he had nothing to do with it. The group meets regularly and Dhammaloka is one of the places. They have several different guest speakers, AB is only one of them. He is an occasional guest and not a founder. The founder is a person who just wanted to form a group which can discuss Dhamma and support eachother in the Buddhist path.
      I remember in the suttas that the Buddha never assumes or criticizes anyone from gossip he hears. He always asks the people involved if it’s true what he heard. There is always a benefit of the doubt and no jumping to conclusions. I hope the Buddha’s attitude would inspire you too to not jump at conclusions or assume the worse in people. There is a lot of goodness in people and in the world and remember, whatever you look at grows:) I think it’s a beautiful thing where groups of people discuss Dhamma and it’s praiseworthy and can be rejoiced:)
      Remember there is a pleasure in negativity yet the danger is much greater so please be careful not to get caught into negativity 🙂 it’s not a wholesome mind state to have 🙂

  1. I had read the article and it’s supporting blog in the Tricycle magazine. I do not think it’s a representation of good scholarship in either article. I found it odd that they propose a weak statement about the existince of variations in sutras/suttas and localized ancient collections and then say often strongly that they only support one view anyway. It’s perhaps a style of this type of approach with scholars to refute, refuse and deny while supporting their fixed positions on something that the Sangha has been very involved in for generations like sutra/sutta preservation. My ideas are simliar to yours in that there was a rich mix according to those memorizing the Buddha’s teachings, even while Buddha was alive each of his inner circle of disciples were teaching and probably had rudimentary followings as well. My information is based upon reading suttas/sutras and what I know living a monastic life, being a translator. Reading articles like in Tricycle and elsewhere I am reminded that while they write with certainty and convinced of their clarity they base everything on best guesses on the motivations and lifestyles of the un-named unknown ancient groups of monastics and are voluminously firmly rigorously rejecting the ‘trappings of ritual and monastic life’ at the same time, in order to make their story believable! 🙂 Amitufo!

    • Dear ven,

      Thanks for the comment. However, i couldn’t quite understand the objection you were raising to the original article. You say, “they propose a weak statement about the existince of variations in sutras/suttas and localized ancient collections and then say often strongly that they only support one view anyway.” I’m not sure what you mean by ‘one view’ – do you mean the view of the scholars, i.e. they are interpreting the evidence to support just their own view when in fact there may be other interpretations? Or do you mean that there is only one basic Dhamma viewpoint in the various sectarian texts themselves?

      I’ve read your comment on the original article, and was very happy to hear you say:

      Vinaya Sangha are respectful of other traditions and are taught to study as much as they can all the schools that they have access to, they do not promote division among Sanghans (monastic) by touting on as superior over another

      This is, of course, how it should be, and I have found such open and warm attitudes among many monastics, especially from the east Asian traditions. In my experience, however, it’s hard to find a Theravadin monk who has studied Mahayana or any other Buddhist schools at all, and such study is pretty much frowned on.

    • Ven. Sujato thank you. one view is supposed to be own view. Yes they weakly hypothesize about the early Buddhist times and plainly guess about life in the monasteries in those times. They talk with opinons and very little facts, but try to present themselves as authoritites. The are making gross jumps in logic to favor their viewpoint without basis in fact, or full assessmetn of history.

      There is infact a weak sloppy pattern emerging from this article and others I have read, forming that is the rejection of Sangha role in Buddhism and/or Buddhist history because they obvious wore/wear robes, did/do rituals and perform chanting in their monastic life so lets ignore that group of useless people and their role in Buddhism entirely because we really don’t relate to them; THEN they pick a camp to support, saying the other is wrong …… because not enough evidence, timeline etc.

      Then says briefly … in this article outright well darn or something like “oh sorry we were wrong” there were many variations in early Buddhist history; but we still think that proper scholarship should be that it just has to be the way we envison it and my favorite side is the truest anyway. With no supporting evidence showing us the contridiction presented in light of the Ghandhari material.

      How is this way even scholarship? How can a key group like the Sangha be ignored like that when we are aware of past elders who preserved and kept collecting suttas/sutras all over the place travellign to get more added to their own monastic storehouses? Much commentaries has yet to be translated by from native languages to English for us all to learn a little more our own history but it does exist. Oh if only we could acesss all the surviving available commentaries written down already, I am sure much of history has yet to be learned of yet. They demonstrate they don’t undestand Sangha’s roles one of which is the preservation and study of the Buddha dharma. I hope they change their approach it’s distorting history …. ours.

  2. This article Bhante posted is great: http://www.tricycle.com/feature/whose-buddhism-truest?page=0,1
    it really brings home the point that there is no “one & only Buddha’s teachings” like the holy grail that we can find through scholarly work, but all these discourses shed different light on the teachings. So it seems like it’s all pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. I found this article quite helpful in understanding different traditions and support of different approaches to buddhism. It also helps bring together different traditions and harmony since it’s impossible to find the true and only teaching.

    Another important and fascinating point: all the suttas we have today are NOT actually spoken by the Buddha!
    They nearly all begin with ‘thus have i heard’, so it’s from disciples; memories’ of the Buddha’s teachings, not from the mouth of the Buddha himself. Even at the first council the monks disagreed on how others remembered the teachings. If he would have typed out his book or if we would have recorded his teachings, it would have been different. Very interesting and good for Buddhists to keep in mind. http://www.tricycle.com/feature/whose-buddhism-truest?page=0,1

    However a relief is that apparently all traditions still have in common the 4 Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, so at least we can rely on that:)
    Also, what i noticed so far in the online Agama/Pali course with Bh Analayo is that the Agama & Pali discourses are so similar- nearly identical for only few minor differences. This brings much relief as to the accuracy of the discourses I read, that indeed they can be trustworthy 🙂

    So although i found the article helpful, I would like to challenge the author’s conclusion that everyone is 100% Buddhist, since we can look at similarities between different parallels and base more trust on those teachings which are in common and repeated over and over again. Those would bear more weight than a few obscure passages. So assuming there was a Buddha and he taught Dhamma which leads to ending of rebirth, there are teachings that lead to this goal and others which don’t.. Therefore not all teachings in the name of Buddhism should be relied upon in the same way…

    A question though: what are Gandhari texts anyways?

  3. Hi Dania,
    Although the eightfold path is common there are different interpretations. There are those who believe that if you are not achieving specific meditative states you are not really following the eightfold path. They are of the opinion that to attain these states you must be spiritually advanced and this advancement would more than likely depend on past life practice. This is the belief that they hold and they use to judge. Their justification is scripture.

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