People have always made sense of the present through understanding the past. Usually, we arrived at the past through a blend of myth, legend, spoken accounts of actual events, and perhaps written records. While historical study is often said to have begun in ancient Greece, with Herodotus and Thucydides, it is only in the modern period that its methods have matured to become our definitive way of knowing, well, history.
For religions that trace themselves back to a specific person, revelation, or event, modern historical study presents profound challenges. Contemporary practitioners of such religious traditions know the past in a way that our predecessors could not. We are far less free to project onto the past the face of the present; indeed, the narrative structures that give coherence to our traditions have been shown to rest on shaky ground, if they rest on any ground at all.
Traditionally in Buddhism, for a school or doctrine to be regarded as authentic, it must be traceable back to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Most often this has been done through scripture: schools or movements based themselves on particular texts said to be the Buddha’s teachings. This was seldom only a matter of establishing legitimacy; it was usually tied as well to sectarian polemics about superiority. If, for example, you were a member of Japan’s Tendai school, which is based on “The Lotus Sutra,” you would know, based on the teachings of the sutra itself, that Shakyamuni, using skillful means, taught the path of the arhat, the so-called Hinayana or “lesser vehicle,” to those of inferior capacity, and the path of the bodhisattva, the Mahayana or “great vehicle,” to those of greater capacity. In “The Lotus,” which, according to students of the Tendai school, is the fulfillment and most perfect expression of his teaching, the Buddha reveals the Ekayana, the One Vehicle that embraces and transcends all others. In Tendai, then, “The Lotus” provides a hierarchical model by which all the teachings attributed to the Buddha can be affirmed, categorized, and integrated. Not incidentally, it is said that only through the teachings of “The Lotus Sutra” can one come to grasp this. One finds a similar notion in Vajrayana— or “diamond vehicle”— Buddhism. Here, one again finds an idea of three vehicles, but it is not in a single sutra that the Buddha’s teachings find their highest expression—in fact, it is not in a sutra at all. It is, rather, in a body of texts, the Tantras. According to Vajrayana tradition, the Buddha turned the wheel of the dharma three times—that is, he established three main categories of teachings: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Like the Tendai scheme, Vajrayana provides an integrative and hierarchical model for organizing the full range of those teachings it recognizes as authoritative. It is a different model from the Tendai one, but it is shaped by an internal logic that is much the same.
Like other Buddhist schools, Zen sought to establish its legitimacy, and its preeminence, by tracing itself back to Shakyamuni Buddha. Zen did this, however, not through scripture but through a direct “mind to mind” transmission, “outside the scriptures” and “beyond words and letters,” which began when the Buddha recognized Mahakashyapa as the sole heir to his true and complete teachings, and which continued in an unbroken lineage down to Bodhidharma, who is said to have brought Zen from India to China.
The problem with these and other such accounts—at least the historical problem—is that they are simply not true. The Buddha did not expound “The Lotus Sutra,” he did not turn the wheel of the dharma three times, and he did not transmit his dharma to Mahakashyapa. We know today, because of the findings of historical scholarship, that, other than in a mythical or visionary sense, these things simply did not happen. But we should not conclude that learned Buddhist masters of the past (and many of the present) doubted the stories they were citing to establish the legitimacy and authority of their traditions. Quite the contrary: given the traditional link between spiritual authenticity and the historical Buddha, and absent the modern historian’s methods for discerning fact from legend, it would be inevitable, I think, that engagement with the teachings of a particular school would strengthen one’s conviction in the account of their provenance.
If one is trying to discern what Shakyamuni Buddha might actually have taught, the best place to look is in the Pali canon, the body of scriptures of the Theravada school, as they are the oldest complete extant collection of Buddhist texts. According to Theravada tradition, the canon, naturally, represents the actual teachings of the Buddha. Not surprisingly, historical scholarship shows a more complex picture. We know that considerable portions of the canon—for example, the Abhidhamma, or “higher teaching”—did not originate with the Buddha. As for the suttas (Skt., “sutras”), historians agree that the Buddha’s discourses were mediated through processes of collection, systemization, editing, formalization of style, and four centuries of oral transmission before they were ever written down. Some feel that it is nonetheless fair to refer to at least some of the suttas as being, in substance if not precisely in form, the teachings of the Buddha; others feel that “the teachings of the Buddha” is really more of a figure of speech that refers to the earliest strata of teachings. There is, however, consensus among historians that when someone cites a saying attributed to the Buddha, what that person is quoting are not the words spoken by a single person but a text that was produced by many.
While its claims to authenticity are hardly unassailable, history shows that, based on Buddhism’s own criteria, the Theravada tradition holds the most authoritative body of teachings—that is, the earliest texts are the closest thing we have to what the Buddha actually taught. Upon closer examination, however, history also shows that this very model for assessing authenticity and authority is outmoded and unsuited to the world in which we live.
For Buddhists, like Christians or Muslims, a crucial article of faith has always been that the founder’s life is the pivotal event in human history. But we now know that this very way of understanding a founding figure was in each case historically produced: shaped over time by interpretations within particular communities, with their own perspectives, interests, and ambitions. Religion says that the founder establishes the tradition; history shows how the tradition, in turn, establishes the founder. The tradition not only preserves, however effectively, the teachings of the founder; it also constructs the narrative that explains why those teachings are worth preserving in the first place. Religions that trace their authority back to a founder are looking at a figure that is, for the most part, their own creation. And like each tradition itself, the founder is always changing.
History shows that religions constantly reinvent themselves as they move forward through time, perhaps never more so than when they believe themselves to be returning to their roots in the past. Religion is and always has been a creative, evolving realm of human endeavor, always linked to the past, but always working out its meanings in the present.
This points to how critical historical study can open one up to a dialogue with Buddhist tradition. In exploring the context in which texts, persons, and events arose, critical historical inquiry can also reflect back and help one see past one’s own culturally specific presuppositions. Historical study can, as well, open up Buddhist tradition to a dialogue with the contemporary world. In seeing how the tradition has continually adapted, renewed, and re-created itself, we can better know how to set aside old sectarian arguments and anachronistic views and engage the serious challenges posed by our own best knowledge of the world, a world transformed by pluralism, science, and history.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.