May 26, 2011

Whose Buddhism is Truest? No one’s—and everyone’s, it turns out.

This is just what we hoped for: Buddhist bloggers picking up on Linda Heuman's article on the discovery of long-lost Gandharan scrolls and its ideas getting around and having an impact. This post from American Buddhist Perspective is informed, thorough, and has a very positive discussion.

Justin Whitaker writes:


Many a time I've seen Tibetan Buddhists claim to have perfectly categorized and analyzed the Buddha's teaching, including developing and standardizing the "faster way" of tantra. Chinese Buddhists claim a widening and deepening the Dharma by connecting more deeply with the compassion (karuna) missing from the "lesser vehicle" (hinayana). And of course the Theravadins aren't left out, blithely dismissing the "fabrications" of all non-Pali based traditions. Oh and Zen. Certain Zen folks like to take the haughty stance of being above all the scholarly foolishness, prefering instead to "express their perfect Buddha Nature..." by just sitting (Shikantaza, 只管打坐). Modern Western scholars, of course, escape all of this (j/k). We scholars, insofar as we are human, tend to fall into one or more of these—or other—pitfalls on a regular basis. And these are just a few that I've personally observed.

Based on findings from newly unearthed Buddhist scriptures in Gandhara, the above article does a great deal to debunk at least some of these sectarian squabbles, namely claims to primacy or originality.

Here are some of the key points and my thoughts:

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.”

Even at the time of my work on my MA thesis (2005), it was drilled into my head that the Pali canon couldn't be claimed to be the earliest scriptures, but could still be seen as the most complete original-language (even this is contested) body of the Buddha's teachings. As Anne Hanson wrote in 2003:

As Steven Collins has persuasively argued, the equation made by earlier scholars between the notion of a preexistent Pali canon and "original" or early Buddhism can hardly be historically supported. Rather, present-day versions of the Pali canon, he suggests, are the product of the Sinhalese Mahaviharin sect's efforts at self-preservation and legitimation during periodic downturns of  royal patronage for the sect in Sri Lanka. These efforts resulted  in the introduction of the concept of the Tipitaka as a closed and authoritative body of Theravadin scriptures (1990, 75-102). —In "The Image of an Orphan: Cambodian Narrative Sites for Buddhist Ethical Reflection," The Journal of Asian Studies.

And "Pali" is not what the Buddha spoke - the word itself means "text"—but rather it is guessed that he spoke Magadhi or Magadhan, an Indo-Aryan language of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha, which spanned present day Indian states of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bengal.

So what the Buddha spoke, and taught, was stretched in various directions after his death. And none of that process begins to be recorded for at least 300 years. Therefore to claim to have this or that "original" teaching or thought of Buddhism is a fiction. But a useful fiction—at times.


Read the rest of Whitaker's take on the Gandharan scrolls here.

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bhikshuni's picture

While Whitaker has a basic idea of what happens in the monastic sangha on our views within our own traditions and those ourside our groups and our views and training are much different. It's not the western idea of separating who has what true view of the Tripitaka nor is it who is right, it's about the path. We tred it, and study as much as we are capable of, training as hard as we can, and we get really happy when we get a chance to discuss among ourselves and find other monastic sangha in our progress on the path, what we have had the chance to study and who is studying what. It's hardly about who is right, it's about communicating among ourselves; chancing upon a common or shared interest. I am a translator of the Chinese Mahayana Tripitaka which is inclusive of all traditions and their versions often including several under a same category; it's hardly been touched by non-Chinese persons. But the scholarship among the Chinese is quite good, and worth a read if you can, unfortunately much is not in Western languages. Commentaries profide much insight inton the Tripitaka and the Tripitaka itself is ripe for a massive translation effort.

BTW there are several leading Buddhist Tripitaka storehouses in various countries and languages already, mostly Asian. It's very important for you readers to realize that much has been studied just not translated out into English or another Western language. We are definitely shortchanged on the centuries of scholarship already out there by language and ignorance. Maybe this article will inspire someone to start their translation efforts. If so, let me know.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As Sam notes, "Bloggers (are) picking up on Linda Heuman's article...and its ideas (are) getting around and having an impact". It may be that this same exact thing happened after Shakyamuni began speaking to other people about his historically unprecedented realizations regarding life and the universe. First one person, then another, and another come to Shakyamuni's same awakening.
Of course, at some point it then doesn't matter who said what first, or "whose Buddhism is truest". The point is that each individual human being possesses the same life condition (buddhahood) as Shakyamuni himself. What's important is how he or she can activate it and start doing something with it to help the rest of humankind "wake up and smell the coffee".