THE QUESTIONABLE ACCURACY OF BUDDHIST TEXTS
by Tara Carreon
Did the Buddha really exist? Did he really get "enlightened" and find out everything there is to know about the past, present and future? Did he really teach all that was written in the first Buddhist books? And if we follow his teachings, can we really become a Buddha just like him? To answer these questions, we need to know first, who recorded Buddha's teachings, second, whether they recorded them accurately, and third, whether the Buddha's teachings as thus recorded, are correct.
Unfortunately, because it all happened so long ago, there is no accurate history for us to consult to answer these questions. But we can look at what we know of human nature to put together a story that makes sense. It's not improbable that a person named Gautama was born in Northern India in 563 B.C., and that he was a prince. But it's a lot harder to believe he was radically fundamentally superior to his contemporaries, many of whom would very likely have disputed the claim. Obviously, his family, friends, students and countrymen would all have very different perceptions regarding his life, his enlightenment, and teachings. What is certain from history, however, is that from the time the Buddha was born until now people have disputed with each other about every single thing that they knew, saw or heard about the Buddha. And what is most amazing is the certainty with which some people will tell you the life story of the Buddha with all the breathless wonder of a child, and the serene confidence of one who witnessed it all directly himself. They will tell you with perfect earnestness the name of his mother, the name of the lady who gave him his bowl of milk-rice, and all kinds of details. These same people cannot remember their own child's birthday.
Centuries after the Buddha's death, several councils were convened in order to recite "approved" scriptures and settle doctrinal disputes, but there is little reliable evidence as to who attended, what they discussed, or when they convened. In fact, different Buddhist traditions recognize different councils. Often, these councils resulted in schisms within the Buddhist community over such basic Buddhist doctrines as what is the nature of enlightenment. Practitioners of the Buddha divided into schools and sub-schools, each holding different views and discipline. At first the Buddha's teachings were transmitted orally, but when the teachings were finally committed to writing, at the command of King Vattagamani of Sri Lanka in 35 B.C., the Buddha had been dead for 450 years. Undoubtedly the King's version was not a universally agreed-upon text, but being the King's project, there were probably many good reasons for his subjects to give it considerable weight. We can ascribe what weight we wish to the King's achievement, and certainly from an orthodox perspective it would be heretical to question its divine character. But aside from ascribing supernormal powers of retention and recollection to 15 generations of people of whom nothing is known, there is no reason to believe that the Buddhist scriptures provide an accurate record of what Gautama said.
How can we believe the fabulous stories of the Buddha's life that are based on mythology, mystery and miracles? The story of the Buddha's life reads like a childhood fable: his mother, Queen Maya, who had been childless for 20 years, dreamed that a white elephant descended from heaven and entered her womb. The baby was born from her side as she reached out to a branch of an asoka tree. When the Buddha sat under the enlightenment tree on a full moon, demons came to terrorize him in the form of a huge army of soldiers, but he turned their weapons into flowers, and the earth made a deafening roar and frightened the demons away. When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he attained a supernatural ability to remember all his previous lives. Then the Buddha was visited by the god Brahma, who told him to teach.
Reason tells us that religion should be a matter of truth, not mystery. To believe these stories, we have to believe that all kinds of things happen to people that we have never seen happen before, and that nature goes off course on sacred occasions. It would be a mistake to decide that these beliefs are harmless, and don't affect the core teachings themselves, because when a system of religion is made to grow out of a myth that is not true, and when we are required to abdicate reason to accept its doctrines, then religion demands more than it returns in value, weakening a strong mind with fanciful notions that lack all meaningful support.
These stories also contradict the core teachings of the Buddha. They give to Buddha the power of a God, when the Buddha taught there is no God, and deprive ordinary people of the opportunity to get enlightened unless they are gods too. They give rise to superstitions when the Buddha taught us to reason based on the evidence of the senses in the here and now.
Studying the ancient texts in Pali or Sanskrit doesn't make anything clearer. The best you can get is a clear understanding of a really unclear story. Additionally, you encounter the problems that arise from the language being dead, the pronunciation being entirely lost. In the process, there is the very real danger that your original inspiration towards Buddhism will be lost as you become immersed in the tedious work of a translator. The best that you can accomplish is to contribute to the communication of knowledge, but plenty has been written about Buddhism already, and studying dead languages may exhume information, but is not likely to provide us with the most reliable information about anything concrete. Perhaps some mystery has been lost in the mists of time, but if so, it is lost indeed. Only in the living languages can new knowledge be found. One may respond that the mind is timeless, and that the mental experiments of 2,000 years past are still relevant; however, the real mental laboratory is the world of present experience. A child can learn more of a living language in one year than he can learn a dead language in seven; more importantly, he'll find more friends to speak with in the living language.
Why didn't the Buddha have his speeches transcribed at the time? Writing had existed in India since 1,500 B.C., so the Buddha, who was also a prince, probably knew how to write. But Buddha wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or anything else. Not a line of the Buddhist canon is his own writing. If the Buddha's intention was to establish a new religion, he would probably have written the system himself during his lifetime. Maybe he didn't want a Buddhist religion. Maybe he knew that written or human language was a flawed vehicle for expressing the ideal of enlightenment. Maybe he didn't want anything to get between a person and his own pursuit of enlightenment. Maybe by not writing anything down, the Buddha was expressing his intent to keep the door open for each person to look for enlightenment in their own minds. Maybe the self is the real and ever-existing Buddha nature, in which we cannot be deceived and wherein lies all power, wisdom and goodness.
There is no proof at all that Buddha's teachings are being accurately presented. What's left? Only that which is inspiring, beautiful, self-evident, credible, and independent of authorship, time, place and circumstance. As best we can tell, Buddha looked at a world governed by the same laws that govern our own, and applied his mind to unearth the meaning hidden there. He did not act from compulsion, and accepted no one's creed as doctrine. Like the Buddha, we should each decide our own path.
* Librarian's Note: For a humorous essay on why the Buddha ordered his disciples to make no written records of his teachings, notwithstanding the availability of writing instruments and access to literally an army of scribes, read "The Sutra of the Leaves," by Baksheesh the Madman.