Anachronisms in Buddhist Śrāvakayāna Literature

In the Classical Chinese Buddhist canon there are four Āgamas 四阿含 which correspond, albeit not entirely, to the Pāḷi Nikāyas. They constitute Śrāvakayāna (otherwise called Hināyāna) literature in contrast to Mahāyāna developments. The four Āgamas and their translation details into Chinese are as follows:

Dīrghāgama 長阿含經 – Buddhayaśas 佛陀耶舍 and Zhu Fonian 竺佛念. 412-13.
Madhyamāgama 中阿含經 – Gautama Saṃghadeva 瞿曇僧伽提婆. 397-398.
Saṃyuktāgama 雜阿含經 – Guṇabhadra 求那跋陀. Between 435-443.
Ekōttarāgama 增一阿含經 – Gautama Saṃghadeva. 397.

For the historian, the Āgamas are a useful parallel to the Pāḷi Nikāyas and aid in understanding the textual development of the early Buddhist canon. Explaining such evolution requires securely dated sources and it is actually only from this period – around the late fourth century – that we can begin to definitively determine the content of the early canon. Gregory Schopen explains as follows:

We know too that the earliest source we have in an Indian language other than Pāḷi – and this, according to Norman, is a translation – appears to be the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, the manuscript of which may date to the second century C.E. Of our Sanskrit sources, almost all from Central Asia, probably none is earlier than the fifth century, and the Gilgit Manuscripts, which appear to contain fragments of an Ekottarāgama, are still later. Our Chinese sources do not really begin until the second half of the second century, and it is, in fact, probably not until we arrive at the translations of the Madhyamāgama and the Ekōttarāgama by Dharmanandin1 in the last quarter of the fourth century that we have the first datable sources which allow us to know – however imperfectly – the actual doctrinal content of at least some of the major divisions of the nikāya/āgama literature. It is from this period, then, from the end of the fourth century, that some of the doctrinal content of the Hināyāna canonical literature can finally be definitely dated and actually verified. Not before.2

This effectively means that the Āgamas at best represent how Buddhism was understood in said period. It would be naïve to assume Śrāvakayāna texts would remain internally free of tampering and creative content development, or even accurately record the full sayings of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha.

The Āgamas, like the Pāḷi Nikāyas, are not historical documents detailing his actual words. They are bardic texts meant for edification – full of sacred narratives, myths and ideas which only loosely reflect an earlier historical reality. This means they were based on earlier developments, which in turn were ostensibly based on the inherited teachings and sayings of the Buddha. The Āgamas incidentally also entail an additional obstacle in that they are extant only in Chinese translation.

It can further be demonstrated that Śrāvakayāna literature is in fact problematic if read as historical records. One element that identifies a text as ahistorical is the presence of anachronistic elements, and we find such things in the Ekōttarikāgama where Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa are gathered together with various gods and Maitreya Bodhisattva. Ānanda tells Uttara, “I now entrust this Ekōttarāgama to you. Fully memorize and recite it well. Do not lose any of it!" (我今以此增一阿含囑累於汝,善諷誦讀,莫令漏減 ). There is further reference to the canonical division of the four Āgamas. See the following:

《增壹阿含經》卷11 序品〉:「迦葉問言:「何等偈中出生三十七品及諸法?」時,尊者阿難便說此偈:「諸惡莫作,諸善奉行,自淨其意,是諸佛教。所以然者,諸惡莫作,是諸法本,便出生一切善法;以生善法,心意清淨。是故,迦葉!諸佛世尊身、口、意行,常修清淨。」迦葉問曰:「云何,阿難!增壹阿含獨出生三十七品及諸法,餘四阿含亦復出生乎。」阿難報言:「且置。迦葉!四阿含義,一偈之中,盡具足諸佛之教,及辟支佛、聲聞之教。」(CBETA, T02, no. 125, p. 551, a10-21)

When Mahākāśyapa asked, “In which verses are the thirty-seven factors of awakening and Dharmas produced?” the Venerable Ānanda then stated this verse: “Do no evils. Carry out virtues. Purify one's mind. These are the teachings of the buddhas. Why is this so? To do no evils is the root of Dharmas, which then produces all saddharma. As saddharma is produced, the mind is purified. Therefore, Mahākāśyapa, the activities of body, speech and mind of the buddhas the World Honored Ones are constantly cultivated as pure.” Mahākāśyapa asked, “How, Ānanda, does the Ekōttarāgama alone produce the thirty-seven factors of awakening and Dharmas? Do the others of the four Āgamas also produce them?” Ānanda replied, “Mahākāśyapa! As to the meaning of the four Āgamas, the teachings of the buddhas and those of the pratyekabuddhas and śrāvakas are completely endowed within the single verse. ...”

Here we see a Śrāvakayāna text referencing and justifying itself while mentioning other divisions of a canon that came to exist long after the Buddha passed away. One might argue that the divisions (Āgamas and/or Nikāyas) were established at the first council where the sūtras and vinaya were compiled, but as far as I know there is no evidence for this. In fact it is unclear how far even the Pāḷi canon be traced back as Schopen explains:

We know, and have known for some time that the Pāḷi canon as we have it – and it is generally conceded to be our oldest source – cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first century B.C.E., the date of the Alu-vihāra redaction, the earliest redaction that we can have some knowledge of, and that – for a critical history – it can serve, at the very most, only as a source for Buddhism of this period. But we also know that even this is problematic since, as Malalasekera has pointed out: “ … how far the Tipiṭaka and its commentary reduced to writing at Alu-vihāra resembled them as they have come down to us now, no one can say.” In fact, it is not until the time of the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapāla, and others – that is to say, the fifth to sixth centuries C.E. – that we can know anything definite about the actual contents of this canon. We also know that there is no evidence to indicate that a canon existed prior to the Alu-vihāra redaction.3

The authors of the Ekōttarikāgama, like authors of Mahāyāna scriptures, were interested in justifying and moreover propagating their texts, and such a strategy as employed above is but one example of such efforts. Nevertheless, such remarks immediately identify the text as having been composed numerous centuries after the Buddha's death when Buddhist canons had come to exist. These are not the words of Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa, but rather the ideas of Buddhist bards recast in the two men who now act effectively as literary figures.

Mahāyāna literature, which has long been identified as having emerged many generations after the Buddha, also often refers to itself. One famous example would be the Kumārajīva (344-413) translation of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese where the merits of copying the sūtra are often proclaimed. However, it is also true that at least some Śrāvakayāna literature does this as well (see below), which, setting aside the other issues, leads one to wonder if such literature is any more historically credible. This incidentally has real life implications today as the Theravāda school often prides itself on being the true and perhaps sole representative of the historical Buddha and his teachings, even though the chronological development of their canon brings many questions. Nevertheless, such beliefs are easily undermined by critical secular scholarship.

The Ekōttarikāgama also mentions the merit of copying out the sūtra.4 Maitreya himself also mentions in verse form the act of writing.5 Assuming these references to writing were not inserted during the Chinese translation, we see an Indic text with figures from the Buddha's age speaking about writing, which in actuality did not exist in the Buddha's age. Contemporary scholarship generally agrees that Magadha in the Buddha's time did not have writing. The early sangha was illiterate and memorized the teachings of the Buddha until they were written down perhaps around or after the time of Aśoka (reigned c.269-232 BCE) when the first actual evidence of writing in India appears in the archaeological record.

One noteworthy figure in this respect is Megasthenes (c.350-290 BCE), ambassador of Seleucus I of the Seleucid dynasty to Candragupta of the Maurya Dynasty, who is said to have visited India, though his account is somewhat questionable. The Greek author Strabo (64/63 BCE - c.24 CE) preserved the following statement of Megasthenes (Strabo XV 1.53): “…, and this notwithstanding the fact that they use unwritten laws. For they do not know the script, but they administer everything from memory.” This is understood to mean that people in India at the time at least did not employ writing. However, it seems probable they would have been aware of it given their contact with Persian culture and, after Alexander (356-323) Hellenic culture. Regardless of the criticism against Megasthenes, his statement is supported by the earliest extant samples of securely dated writing in India after the end of the Indus Valley civilization (3300–1300 BCE): the edicts of Aśoka (see here for Dhammika Bhante's translation). Other specimens proposed to be pre-Aśoka are of uncertain dating, though Nearchus (c.360-300 BCE) attests to the existence of writing in India before Alexander, though this might have been Aramaic whose use was monopolized by guilds.6

It is therefore unlikely that any writing actually existed in the Buddha's age (fifth century BCE). Consequently, the Buddha's disciples mentioning the act of writing would constitute an anachronism, i.e., “ the representation of an event, person, or thing in a historical context in which it could not have occurred or existed.” The presence of such an anachronism clearly means the text in question, or at least this part, cannot be considered a historical document or even an accurate record of anything from the Buddha's age.

One also encounters such anachronisms in other Śrāvakayāna texts from later periods. For example, the Vinayavibhaṅga (Derge, 'dul ba Cha 154b.3-155b.2) of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school has the following procedure for bhikṣus wanting to draw up commercial contracts:

The Blessed One said: “Taking a pledge (ādhi/bhandhaka) of twice the value (dviguṇa), and writing out a contract (likhita) that has a seal and is witnessed (sākṣimat), the perpetuity is to be placed. In the contract the year, the month, the day, the name of the Elder of the Community (saṃghasthavira), the Provost of the monastery (upadhivārika), the borrower, the property, and the interest (vṛddhi) should be recorded. When the perpetuity is placed, that pledge of twice the value is also to be placed with a devout lay-brother who has undertaken the five rules of training.7

Given the absence of writing and actual monasteries (vihāra-s) in the Buddha's day, it seems unlikely that the Buddha would have established such regulations for loan contracts. Again, Schopen remarks that the “earliest 'monasteries' that are known in India – and none of these are pre-Aśokan – are not 'monasteries' at all. They are either only barely improved, unorganized, natural caverns or caves, or poorly constructed and ill-organized shelters built of rubble and other cheap materials.”8 This would therefore mean that any mention of the Buddha or his contemporaries residing in any vihāra of notable scale would be anachronistic. In fact, Bronkhorst quoting Schopen points out that the earliest references to a vihāra system appear “only in Kharosṭḥī records of a little before and a little after the Common Era, about the same time that the first indications of permanent monastic residential quarters begin to appear in the archaeological record for the Northwest, and this is not likely to be mere coincidence.”9

Most vinaya literature providing complex rules and regulations for running monastic institutions can be understood as a much later development by clergy with quite different lifestyles from their predecessors. Consider for example how the Buddha is quoted in sūtra suggesting a śramaṇa does not sleep under the same tree twice10 with the clearly later vinaya literature which regulates living arrangements in large monasteries with slaves and taxed peasants (the vinaya recognizes the institution of slavery, which is why slaves cannot join the sangha).

It seems probable that the early sangha had house rules similar to what we see with the Jains (celibacy, non-violence and so forth), though later authors had to justify such rules plus additions by crafting tales to accompany each one where the Buddha, who possesses dictatorial powers within the sangha in the vinaya literature, is made to consent or forbid certain activities (under penalty of the hell realms). One interesting example I encountered comes from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Carma Vastu, translated into Chinese by Yijing 義淨 (635-713), where Ānanda takes a trip to Nepal without any shoes.

《根本說一切有部毘奈耶皮革事》卷2:「惡生太子以迷癡故。殺劫比羅城諸釋種。時城中或有走向西者。或有投泥婆羅。入泥婆羅者。皆是具壽阿難陀眷屬。後室羅筏城商人。持諸貨物。向泥婆羅。釋種見商人已。問曰。我今遭斯困苦逼。阿難陀聖者。豈不來此看我等耶。時諸商人一心憶念。交易既了。還至室羅筏城。具報阿難陀。聖者眷屬在泥婆羅。作如是言。聖者阿難陀。於諸商人。聞是語已。情懷愴然。即往泥婆羅國。國極寒雪。阿難陀手脚劈裂。迴還室羅筏城。諸苾芻見已。問言。阿難陀。汝先手脚柔軟。猶如於舌。因何如是劈裂。答言。泥婆羅國。地近雪山。由風雪故。令我脚手如是。又問。汝之眷屬。於彼云何存活。報言。彼著富羅。又問。汝何故不著。報言。佛未許著。時諸苾芻。以緣白佛。佛言。有寒雪處應著富羅」(CBETA, T23, no. 1447, p. 1057, a15-b1)

Virūḍhaka (Viḍūḍabha) out of ignorance slaughtered the Śākya clan in the city of Kapila. At the time in the city, some ran west and some fled to Nepal. Those who went to Nepal were all kinsmen of the Long Lived Ānanda. Later, merchants of Śrāvastī carried goods to Nepal. The Śākya clan saw the merchants and asked, “We now face this misery. Would not the Noble Ānanda come here and look after us?” The merchants at the time sincerely remembered this. After concluding their trading they returned to Śrāvastī and reported to Ānanda. They said, “Noble one – your kinsmen are in Nepal.” The noble Ānanda having heard these words from the merchants became full of sorrow and immediately went to the country of Nepal. The country was extremely cold and snowy. Ānanda's hands and feet became cracked and split. Upon returning to Śrāvastī the bhikṣus saw him and asked, “Ānanda, your hands and feet are soft like a tongue. Why are they cracked and split?” He replied, “The country of Nepal is close to the snowy mountains. The wind and snow made my feet and hands like this.” They again asked, “How do your kinsmen survive there?” He replied, “They wear pula [short boots].” They again asked, “Why did you not wear them?” He replied, “The Buddha has not permitted them to be worn.” At the time the bhikṣus asked the Buddha about this. The Buddha said, “In cold and snowy places one should wear pula.

Assuming here that Nepal means the Kathmandu valley and nearby regions (the border area of modern Nepal with UP and Bihar in India is far away from snowy mountains), Ānanda took a lengthy trip on foot through the foothills of the Himalayas barefoot. Such imbecilic and emotional behavior is sometimes characteristic of Ānanda in Buddhist literature as he is often made to look foolish or weak, such as at the first council where he gets escorted out by the arm by Mahākāśyapa because he has yet to achieve arhatship (conversely in Mahāyāna literature it is Śāriputra who is mocked, such as in the Vimalakīrti Sūtra). While it is possible Virūḍhaka indeed massacred the Śākya clan, the additional part of Ānanda foolishly walking barefoot through cold and snowy lands to see his kinsmen and suffering frostbite because of it, though still ardently maintaining his precepts, is an example of Buddhist bards crafting a story to justify or explain precepts or their revisions. Note here how it is a silly Ānanda and not any of Śākyamuni's other relatives who suffer easily preventable frostbite. It might be an amusing story, but it is fiction.

Another set of examples of anachronisms in a sūtra, attributed to the Buddha and in the Śrāvakayāna canon, is in the Śāriputrapariprcchā Sūtra 舍利弗問經. While it is technically a Mahāsāṃghika sūtra, the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī does make an appearance (the Mahāsāṃghikas and Sthaviravāda were the two primary lineages of early Buddhism, the former often being favorable to mysticism and Mahāyāna scriptures). It provides a prophecy detailing the various sects that would arise long after the Buddha passed away. It states that the Mahāsāṃghika school will wear yellow robes, the Dharmagupta school will wear red robes, the Sarvāstivāda school will wear black robes, the Kāśyapīya school will wear dark-brownish robes, and the Mahīśāsaka school will wear blue robes.11

Such prescriptions reflect later monastic uniforms which the author of said sūtra felt the need to justify and legitimize, hence the Buddha foresees and explains such developments long before they unfold. However, monks wearing pure colored uniform robes contradicts other areas of vinaya literature which proscribe wearing pure colors. Also, there are supposed to be multiple sources of clothing (or cloth, bearing in mind that such attire was basically akin to a toga as single long pieces of fabric), which would likely preclude the possibility of everyone being in uniform attire. For instance, the Dharmagupta Vinaya lists the following ten types of permitted clothing:

1. Clothes that have been chewed by cows.
2. Clothes that have been gnawed upon by mice.
3. Clothes that have been burnt.
4. Clothes made from menstrual rags.
5. Clothes made from towels used in childbirth.
6. Clothes from a “deity-house” (Skt. deva-kula). These may be used if they have been carried off by the wind or birds.
7. Clothes from burial mounds (death shrouds).
8. Clothes that have been solicited.
9. Clothes made from the cloth used to transport corpses.
10. Clothes made from cloth discarded after a regal enthronement.12

Additionally the color must be “broken” or dyed and marked with additional colors. The Dharmagupta Vinaya further states that “breaking the color is to dye it blue, black and kāla-śyāma.”13 The idea is that the cloth is not to be of a single color, but marked with multiple colors which thereby makes it pure for the bhikṣu to wear (it seems later on the marking became a mere formality with regulations provided for the required size and shape of the dyed area). If the early sangha was in fact a group of mendicants acquiring cloth from the aforementioned sources, then presumably uniform robes would have been unfeasible given that some sources of cloth might have been from royal functions while others from death mounds and funerals.

Historical figures influential in the Buddhist movement in India were also written into the canon in creative ways, such as Kaniṣka (c.78-144) of the Kuṣāṇa dynasty in northern India. Kaniṣka was a patron of Buddhism and is famous for his Kaniṣka Stūpa in present day Peshawar, Pakistan. In the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Bhaiṣajya Vastu the Buddha foresees said king and his stūpa:

《根本說一切有部毘奈耶藥事》卷9:「世尊復至渴樹羅聚落。於此村中。有一童子。以土為塔。而作戲劇。世尊見已。便告金剛手。汝見此童子以土為塔。而作戲不。金剛手白佛言。我今已見。佛言。我滅度後。迦尼色迦王(此云淨金)於此童子戲造塔處。建大窣堵波。號曰迦尼(上聲)色迦塔。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1448, p. 41, b25-c1)

The World Honored One returned to the village of Kharjūra. In this village there was a boy making a stūpa from earth and playing. The World Honored One saw this and then said to Vajrapāṇi, “Do you see this boy making a stūpa from earth and playing?” Vajrapāṇi said to the Buddha, “I have now seen him.” The Buddha said, “After I pass away, King Kaniṣka here where the boy playfully builds a stūpa will build a great stūpa. It will be called the Kaniṣka Stūpa.”

Coin from reign of Kaniṣka I.
Assuming the author had the same stūpa in mind, the historical Buddha is positioned in what is now modern northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, which is far from Magadha in what is now largely Bihar state in India. Kaniṣka was famous and influential enough to merit having a prophecy about him on the part of the Buddha in canonical literature (recall that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was in use in Nālandā). Again, this just illustrates the fact that Śrāvakayāna literature is full of anachronisms which demonstrate it to be ahistorical and fictional.

In modern times with the scholarly consensus that Mahāyāna literature long postdates the death of the Buddha, a number of figures, perhaps predominately connected with Theravāda, have condemned Mahāyāna traditions for putting words into the mouth of the Buddha, yet in reality Śrāvakayāna literature, be it sūtra or vinaya, did the same thing. One of the leading scholars on early Buddhism in the western world Johannes Bronkhorst even states the following:

It is not easy to get a clear picture of the Buddha's original teaching. Certainly, its aim was to stop suffering and rebirth. To achieve this, the Buddha taught a path in which consciousness played a major role. This is clear from the awareness practices and from the four stages of meditation. In the highest stage of meditation, it is somehow possible, with the help of wisdom (prajñā), to bring about a decisive transformation. Once this happens, the goal is attained.14

The brief discussion above concerning evident anachronisms in the literature supports Bronkhorst's conclusion: it is difficult to ascertain the Buddha's original teachings.

I would also add that this extends to the matter of ecclesiastical discipline in the early sangha. The extant vinaya literature at best reflects the concerns and conceptions of a small minority of literate monastery-dwelling clerics in different time periods and locations long after the Buddha's time. Put simply, the vinaya of any tradition is mostly fiction probably based loosely on inherited śramaṇa customs and sangha folktales. As Schopen has demonstrated in his works, there is no evidence that vihāra-s existed until a few centuries after the Buddha's death (all are post-Aśoka). Following their gradual establishment, they developed disciplinary codes and associated taxation systems for the peasants under the monasteries, and often attributed relevant decrees to Śākyamuni Buddha himself. In practice this is no different than Mahāyāna sūtras using the Buddha as a literary figure to propagate their own ideas and practices.

This effectively undermines any claim by living Buddhist traditions to having the true tradition of the historical Buddha. This is unlikely to be easily accepted, but nevertheless it is increasingly the consensus of specialist scholars in the field of Buddhology, like Bronkhorst as quoted above. Secular scholarship in any case is effective at challenging Buddhist beliefs about their own textual and lineage histories, though few Buddhists seem to really appreciate and accept this.



1 This is likely an error on Schopen's part as the Taishō clearly states the translator is Gautama Saṃghadeva 瞿曇僧伽提婆 from Kashmir.

2 Gregory Schopen, “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2010), 25.

3 Ibid., 23-24.

4《增壹阿含經》卷11 序品〉:「若有書寫經卷者...(CBETA, T02, no. 125, p. 550, c5)

5《增壹阿含經》卷4448 十不善品〉:「若有書寫經...(CBETA, T02, no. 125, p. 789, c3)

6 For further details see Richard Salomon, “On The Origin Of The Early Indian Scripts: A Review Article” in Journal of the American Oriental Society 115.2 (1995): 271-279.

7 Translation by Gregory Schopen. See “Doing Business for the Lord Lending on Interest and Written Loan Contracts in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited), 48.

8 Gregory Schopen, “The Good Monk and His Money in Monasticism of 'the Mahāyāna Period'” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited), 1-2.

9 See Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 18-19.

10 See the Sūtra in Forty-Two Chapters 四十二章經:

The Buddha said, “Removing beard and hair he becomes a śramaṇa. He receives the Dharma of the path, does away with worldly wealth and takes what is sufficient from begging. He eats a single meal at midday, sleeps one night under a tree and is careful not to repeat either of these! It is clinging and desire which make people foolish.

11《舍利弗問經》卷1:「摩訶僧祇部。勤學眾經宣講真義。以處本居中。應著黃衣。曇無屈多迦部。通達理味開導利益。表發殊勝。應著赤衣。薩婆多部。博通敏達以導法化。應著皂衣。迦葉維部。精勤勇猛攝護眾生。應著木蘭衣。彌沙塞部。禪思入微究暢幽密。應著青衣。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1465, p. 900, c12-17)

12《四分律》卷39:「糞掃衣有十種。牛嚼衣。鼠嚙衣。燒衣。月水衣。產婦衣。神廟中衣。若鳥銜風吹離處者。塚間衣。求願衣。受王職衣。往還衣。是謂十種糞掃衣。」(CBETA, T22, no. 1428, p. 850, a24-28)

13《四分律》卷16:「壞色者。染作青黑木蘭也」(CBETA, T22, no. 1428, p. 676, c11-12)

14 Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhist Teaching in India (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2009), 58


John_Barrett said...

Indrajala! Thank you for this. I touch on this sort of thing in different dharma centers around the U.S. and it's just extremely difficult to meet the resistance that I get from the resolutely (or pathologically) pious. John Makransky and I were discussing the inclusion of critical textual analysis in teaching in dharma center contexts and he said he's been openly vilified ("yelled at" in his words) across Asia. I didn't ask him about in the states.

A bit off-topic, but have you read Cleary's translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra? I find it quite lovely, but as with most of his translations, there's very little bibliographical reference or historiography in his work. I have a huge amount of respect for the amount of work he's done, particularly in making available Daoist works that would otherwise (perhaps) not have found their way into English but - for some reason - I'm a little more circumspect regarding his Chan/Zen translations. I'm also not sure that I quite "trust" them. He's mentioned that he's more interested in getting the sense of the text across, but I find that, well, kind of sloppy from an academic perspective (which perspective he eschews, I believe.) Anyway, just curious.


Indrajala said...

Hi John!

In Singapore I said in front of some Theravada proponents that the Amitabha Sutra was never taught by the Buddha. They liked that, but didn't like the idea their Pali canon is not entirely historical either. Many base their identity on the historicity of the canon in contrast to everything else extant in the Buddhist world today.

But then similarly I've had the same experience in Taiwan. I once in a meeting room of rather educated Buddhists mentioned the Buddha never taught the Mahayana, and the room went entirely silent and the topic quickly changed.

I have read his translation and there's a lot of issues with it. His vocabulary is also sometimes ugly -- like not using bodhisattva. There's a new version by Dharmamitra coming out now.

Translating many Zen texts isn't easy as the vocabulary and expressions allude to things not really existent in English, and/or everything is quite laconic. To do it accurately you need tons of footnotes and commentary really. It won't be smooth reading in English (it isn't in Chinese either).

Merle Langlois said...

This makes me curious Indrajala, from the reading you've done, what would be your educated guess (and I know it's a guess) as far as what the oldest teachings of the Buddha were? Seeing as I'm not an academic, I don't have the knowledge or resources at my disposal to answer that question. The only way I could even try to guess would be to start with texts that have certain dates and then search for doctrinal complexity, with more complexity generally indicating newness and simplicity generally indicating oldness. When I was reading the Majjhima Nikaya some of the sutras in there were so plain and simple and succinct, without supernatural type stuff, I assumed those ones were older, and some of the sutras seemed a bit flowery and unrealistic, I assumed those were newer.

Indrajala said...

The oldest teachings are undiscernible as far as the evidence goes. Let me cite Bronkhorst here:

"It is not easy to get a clear picture of the Buddha's original teaching. Certainly, its aim was to stop suffering and rebirth. To achieve this, the Buddha taught a path in which consciousness played a major role. This is clear from the awareness practices and from the four stages of meditation. In the highest stage of meditation, it is somehow possible, with the help of wisdom (prajñā), to bring about a decisive transformation. Once this happens, the goal is attained."

Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhist Teaching in India (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2009), 58

The earliest physical specimens go back to around the Common Era (the Gandhari texts).

Also, a text without supernatural materials is not necessarily more historical or older than those with it. There's a mistaken perception that the Buddha was a rationalist and subsequently later people corrupted things by getting into supernatural things or attributing these things to the Buddha, but that's more western scholars of old trying to make Buddhism into a rational religion.