July 21, 2011

The Braided River of Buddhism

In our Summer issue, we published a piece by Linda Heuman entitled, Whose Buddhism is Truest? about recently unearthed Gandharan scrolls. These scrolls, which had been buried in a desert and lost for some two-thousand years, once discovered and analyzed called into question many long held ideas about how Buddhism developed. It is a fascinating piece.

Recently, a friend of mine remarked that she felt that one image in the piece was itself an important teaching, for it "perfectly exemplifies the new prevailing view Buddhist history." She went on to say, "they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but this one is worth a hundred thousand at least!"

It is this image of two diagrams:

The first is the "tree model of early Buddhist textual transmission." This model explains Buddhist history as being like a tree, starting with historical Buddha and then branching out as Buddhism spread and took different forms. Makes sense doesn't it? The Buddha started it all, his enlightenment was the seed, his life of teaching was the base of the trunk, and everything since is the growth, which 2,600 years later is now the many-branched Buddhist tree we know today. Yet as we learn from Linda's piece, it was not that simple. It turns out that early Buddhist sanghas influenced and affected each other much more than was previously known, and therefore a better model is the "braided river," which more accurately depicts the complex interweaving of Buddhist development.

To learn more about this revelation and what it may imply for Buddhists everywhere, I recommend reading the article.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

>The drawing is missing a coherent display of the starting point, if we are giving it to the Buddha as the sole originator.<
Somewhat agree, if you limit yourself to the notion of "the buddha" as being that person formerly known as Prince Siddartha who lived some 2,500 years ago in what is now Nepal.
But if you understand the teachings of Buddhism as transcending historical time and space, then the horizontal "root" (cropped from the diagram above) from which each human being draws "dharmic sustenance" would be the universal law of life, i.e. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

Dharma Sanctuary's picture

This is indeed a most helpful illustration of how traditions develop. If more people could embrace this understanding, sectarianism would lose its foundation and with it, the intolerance it breeds.

This is where we're headed as free thinking individuals, busting away at the old myths. We are deconstructing the long-governing centralization of power through control of ideas. There are many viable spiritual paths. We no longer need to fight over who's absolute truth is more correct.

Perhaps the 'root' aspect of the Buddha's teachings could be represented as a horizontal line at the bottom, and the various interpretations of his teachings by different students emanating from this line at different points. The drawing is missing a coherent display of the starting point, if we are giving it to the Buddha as the sole originator.