I am convinced that an accurate, nonsectarian study of Buddhist history can be of great benefit to dharma practitioners. As a scholar and practitioner, I have for many years worked to bring the findings of historical scholarship into dharma centers in Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan lineages. While many students deeply appreciate this opportunity, others find the approach unnerving. Modern historical studies challenge assumptions commonly held in Buddhist traditions, though those assumptions differ in the different forms of Buddhism.

Let me illustrate my point with an example. For four years, I have been teaching a multipart course in Buddhist history at an intensive study program, or shedra, at Lotus Garden, the headquarters of Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche. Several of the other senior teachers, because of their concern that the perceived conflict between history and traditional lineage stories was too difficult for many students to resolve, urged me to desist entirely with the project. One year, I received an email after shedra informing me that a senior student had indeed left the meditation center because of what I had recently taught. I was asked what I could possibly have said that would be so upsetting. I could only guess, but I assumed that this student was upset by something that had figured large in my teaching that year, namely, the origins of the Mahayana teachings. I had said that the historical Buddha had not taught the Mahayana during his lifetime on earth; rather, those scriptures had developed, because of causes and conditions, some four hundred years later. For this student, that information meant that Buddhism was no truer than Christianity, and for the same reason: some of its beloved narratives did not hold up to historical scrutiny.

Later that summer, Khandro Rinpoche addressed the issues herself, and she gave her complete support to the project of teaching history to her students. The student in question, who was experiencing personal difficulties at the time he left the center, eventually returned. The incident itself, however, indicates how important it is for Buddhist centers and groups to educate their students well and not to continue to teach legends as if they were factual accounts of history. For many, finding out that their teachers have confused legend with history and have not taught them to appreciate that legends are about meaning, not factual accuracy, can bring about a loss of confidence in dharma itself.

My sense of urgency about teaching these courses at dharma centers is fueled by two concerns. First, I am concerned about the growing tendency toward fundamentalism in North American sanghas. Fundamentalism, briefly and broadly defined, is the urge to interpret literally the words of favorite narratives—to assume that those narratives are empirically accurate descriptions of physical occurrences. Literalists dismiss the suggestion that these stories are legends that teach profound dharma that is independent of the narratives’ empirical veracity. Second, I feel dismay at the sectarianism of many North American Buddhists, who eagerly praise their own lineage yet make disparaging remarks about others. Fundamentalism and sectarianism often combine in highly unpleasant ways. Some Buddhists readily dismiss other forms of Buddhism because, they claim, these other forms developed later and thus are not really the Buddha’s teaching. Other Buddhists claim that the teachings followed by some are not the Buddha’s full and final teachings but were merely provisional teachings intended for those with lower potential.

Artwork by Leigh Wells
Artwork by Leigh Wells

Many Buddhists, including the His Holiness Dalai Lama, are keenly interested in modern science. Many claim with no small amount of pride that Buddhism is compatible with modern science and like to quote the Dalai Lama’s famous statement “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Given this high regard for squaring Buddhism with findings derived from rigorous modern scholarship, I find it curious that there have been few such comments about the immense contributions Western and Japanese historians of Buddhism have made and how little impact their work has had on Buddhist self-understanding. Why is this? I suggest that it is because the findings of modern historical studies are far more challenging to some traditional Buddhist perspectives than is modern science.

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