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 His Holiness the 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.

Modern historical studies show the contingency and historicity of developments in religions, something that traditional religions dislike intensely. Historical study of religion undercuts the claim that any specific form, any practice or verbal doctrine, could be unmediated, completely definitive, and one hundred percent an absolute truth. Instead, it fosters the view that all religious expressions and forms are relative, that is to say, they are partially the result of specific causes and conditions found in their specific environments. Even a religion such as Buddhism, which affirms impermanence as completely central, doesn’t really like to hear that its core teachings and institutions have changed over the years. Additionally, despite their emphasis on reasoning and the importance of experience, Buddhists don’t like to have valued “miracle stories” challenged. But modern historical studies of religion are based on methods that do not take stories of supernatural intervention into historical processes literally, even though they take them seriously. Thus, this project of teaching Buddhist history for Buddhist practitioners is essentially about bringing appreciation for modern historical consciousness into the Buddhist shrine room.

Artwork by Leigh Wells
Artwork by Leigh Wells

My attempts to convince Buddhist practitioners that historical consciousness regarding Buddhism is both helpful and necessary emphasize that there is no radical disjunction between traditional Buddhism and the results of modern scholarship. Instead, I emphasize that despite adjustments to how one interprets some central narratives of one’s tradition, traditional Buddhism and the results of modern historical scholarship are deeply consonant. I delineate five aspects of historical consciousness that are crucial for understanding what modern historical studies contribute to an accurate, nonsectarian history of Buddhism. I also argue that each of these five can deepen one’s dharmic understanding.

The first principle is that all relevant sources must be considered and none can be prioritized. In other words, familiar lineage stories are only part of the database that must be taken into account, and these familiar sources cannot automatically be deemed more authoritative or relevant than other sources. When studying history, it is hard to imagine a criterion by which one would exclude any source, whether near or far, familiar or unfamiliar, that would shed light on any aspect of Buddhist history. Two things should be emphasized here. First, accurate Buddhist history cannot be different for different Buddhist denominations, though different parts of the whole story of Buddhism will be highlighted by different denominations. Thus historical studies could be a gathering point for Buddhists across sectarian boundaries. Second, no living form of Buddhism possesses all the sources needed for a full and accurate history of Buddhism. Working within a sectarian Buddhist context, one can derive only a partial history of Buddhism, a version of Buddhist history that most scholars would regard as deficient.

What traditional Buddhist values and teachings would encourage widening the canon and critically reexamining familiar sources? I locate them in right speech and right view, two elements of the Eightfold Noble Path. Basic to right speech is telling the truth, which involves including all relevant information. We can’t omit material just because it is unfamiliar, nontraditional, or would upset previous conventions. The connection with right view may be less direct. Fundamentally, if we lack curiosity and are unwilling to look afresh, without preconceptions or fixed, ideological opinions, it is impossible to develop right view.

The second axiom for those who work with historical consciousness concerns change, or what Buddhists call impermanence. Both for Buddhists and for historians, change should be regarded as normative, to be expected. However, there is often a marked contrast between the attitudes of traditionally religious people, Buddhists included, and those with developed historical consciousness. Religions often present themselves as offering protection from the change and vicissitudes that are characteristic of life, and they fiercely resist any internal change, such as new wordings of familiar liturgies, new translations of authoritative texts, or the development of new movements and practices. Historical consciousness, on the other hand, regards change as inevitable and does not evaluate that reality either positively or negatively. Given the easily observable fact that living religions are always changing, it is evident that historical consciousness is more cogent and realistic on this point.

Buddhist resistance to the reality of historical change commonly emerges as the firm conviction that whatever form of Buddhism “we” practice is the best version of teachings of the (historical) Buddha. This is the basis for Mahayana and Vajrayana claims that they were actually taught by the historical Buddha during his lifetime and for Theravada rejection of those forms of Buddhism because they were not. In both cases, it is presupposed that Buddhism cannot and should not ever change from what was established by Shakyamuni Buddha in India in the fifth century B.C.E., that there should be no Buddhist history at all but only the constant presence of the same forms lasting for all time. This strongly held view seems a bit odd in a religion that also teaches that resistance to all-pervasive change is a root cause of misery.

By contrast, Buddhists thoroughly informed by historical consciousness would not use a Buddhist sect’s age as the basis for accepting or rejecting it. Historical consciousness frees us from the common prejudices that whatever is newer is better or whatever is older is better. Different schools are just different, and the date of inception does not make one better or worse, higher or lower. With historical consciousness intact, Buddhists would not have to resort to ahistorical arguments that attempt to make their form of Buddhism older than it is, nor would they feel compelled to regard newer forms of Buddhism as invalid or irrelevant. Knowledge of Buddhist history can go far to counteract Buddhist sectarianism, especially the mutual misunderstandings so prevalent among both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists. An overarching Buddhist history would have to be the same for both, meaning that with such a history in place, each could understand how one came to deviate from the other without either the rancor of Mahayana supersessionism or Theravada dismissal of non-Theravada Buddhists. If change, impermanence, is as basic as the Buddhadharma proclaims it to be, then one should expect that new movements, such as Mahayana, would develop from time to time.

Historical consciousness frees us from the common prejudices that whatever is newer is better or whatever is older is better.

Change in religious forms is so constant that I correlate this dimension of historical studies with central Buddhist teachings about all-pervasive impermanence, which some consider the lynchpin of all Buddhist teaching. Thus, regarding change and impermanence, there is not even the slightest conflict between traditional Buddhist teachings and historical consciousness. In fact, they are deeply consonant. Not accepting all-pervasive impermanence is the root cause of suffering according to all forms of Buddhism. We suffer even more when we forget to apply this core teaching of impermanence to Buddhist forms themselves. If the reality of impermanence applies to all phenomena, then it applies to Buddhism’s forms—its institutions, practices, and verbal formulations of the dharma.

The third point that is affirmed by historical consciousness follows closely from the second: accepting change as inevitable and normative brings the realization that diversity is also normative and inevitable. Not only do things change, but in a large, geographically and socially varied region such as that covered by Buddhism, they change in different ways and at different rates. The internal diversity of Buddhism is therefore to be expected. Though the point may seem obvious, it has profound implications. Religions, including Buddhism, have long suffered and caused suffering because of their illusion that if people would only behave and think correctly, we’d all practice the same religion. Simple observation of phenomena should convince us that religious diversity is here to stay and that our task is to learn how to live well with it. The only other option is perpetual sectarianism— the mutual aggression, hostility, and competitiveness— that has long plagued religions. Religious diversity itself is not a problem, but sectarianism is.

At the heart of sectarianism is the tendency to regard difference as deficiency. If difference equals deficiency, then ranking will occur—some different things are better and others are worse. While discriminations are necessary and appropriate in some cases, discrimination between groups of people leads to feelings of superiority by people who regard themselves as better and denigration of those whom they regard as inferior. Conflict inevitably results.

For many Buddhists, including most Mahayanists, several deeply entrenched habits of speech must be relinquished if we are to move beyond sectarianism. Almost all Mahayana Buddhists regard themselves as practicing a superior form of Buddhism, the “large vehicle” of greater aspirations, higher view, and deeper compassion, which they contrast to a so-called “Hinayana” or smaller, inferior vehicle. Many Theravadins regard themselves as practicing a “pure” or “original” form of Buddhism, rather than degenerate Mahayana. Because the term “Hinayana” originated in Mahayana sectarian polemics and has never been a self-designation used by any Buddhist group, I make a special effort to discourage use of this term whenever I teach Buddhist history in a Mahayana or Vajrayana context. Many Westerners who practice a Tibetan-based form of Buddhism find it difficult to accept and assimilate this change into their speech habits no matter how many times the reasons for doing so are explained. Nevertheless, I continue to argue that the term “Hinayana” simply needs to be dropped from our vocabulary. In a pluralistic, diverse Buddhist world that is informed by an accurate understanding of Buddhist history, the term “Hinayana” is deeply inappropriate. I also suggest that the idea of progressive stages of development from “lower” to “higher” may not be the best way to understand Buddhist internal diversity.

Knowing how to let things be different without needing to rank them is a highly valuable skill, given that religious diversity, both external and internal, is inevitable. Letting things be, without obsessing to change or improve them, could be seen as a highly developed form of compassion, one of the most central of all Buddhist virtues. Many wise people have commented that praising one’s own sect and disparaging that of another does nothing to improve our own denomination and may actually harm it. For those of us who have thought deeply about how to become more at ease with religious and cultural diversity, it is painful to witness the hurtful, ignorance-based sectarianism so often found in Buddhist sanghas. Accurate, nonsectarian histories of Buddhism could go far to explain how Buddhism became so diverse and also provide tools for regarding that diversity as a virtue, not a problem. The need for mutual understanding and respect in a religion that values friendliness and compassion as much as Buddhism does should be self-evident. Its connection with right speech should be so obvious as not even to need explanation or comment.

The fourth intersection between traditional Buddhism and historical consciousness also involves change. Here, the emphasis is on explaining change—specifically, to call upon the fundamental Buddhist tool of pratityasamutpada, or “conditioned genesis,” to explain the development of new lineages and movements within Buddhism rather than citing supernatural intervention into historical processes. That is to say, Buddhist understandings of cause and effect could be employed to explain that a movement such as Mahayana Buddhism developed because of social, cultural, and historical events. Most Mahayanists ignore such explanations, preferring a story whose empirical validity is highly questionable. According to legend, in the presence of the historical Buddha, Avalokiteshvara instructs Shariputra on emptiness. If the story is taken literally, Mahayana Buddhism originated during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha, a claim that historians find unconvincing. Furthermore, Shariputra is a historical character, but Avalokiteshvara is not, and so they did not coexist in historical time and space, that is, in India in the fifth century B.C.E.

Many students become intensely upset when the story they have usually been told about the origins of Mahayana Buddhism is critically evaluated. It is very difficult for them to understand that I am not asking them to question the validity of these stories, only their historicity. Fortunately, modern ways of discussing myth/legend and history provide tools for appreciating the vast corpus of Buddhist legend while, at the same time, recognizing that a legend is not the same thing as empirical history. For both, the overarching, major category is “story,” or narrative. History and legend/myth are different kinds of stories, but both are stories. While philosophy is important for all religions, story or narrative is also central to communicating what the religion is about. Stories are easier for most people to “get” than philosophical teachings. However, for religions, the most important thing about a story is its message, its meaning, not its empirical verifiability. Its “truth” lies in the meanings it communicates, not in the facticity of the events used to communicate those meanings. Because the story communicates profound meaning, its empirical verifiability is somewhat beside the point. Thus the same story could be empirically false, in that it did not happen that way in empirical space and time, but also true because of what it means. In addition to invoking the Buddhist notion of the two truths (absolute and relative perspectives on a single reality), in this context one could also invoke the common Buddhist distinction between words and meaning.

One could ask why Buddhist practitioners need to assimilate this somewhat complex method of understanding the relationship between traditional legends and modern history. I would respond that all Buddhists who are deeply affected by the paradigm shift engendered by the European enlightenment need to become clear about the relationship between symbolic legends and empirical history. People educated in cultures in which this paradigm reigns become empiricists by default. As a result, they tend to assume that traditional narratives are empirically accurate descriptions of events, which explains the modern heresy of fundamentalism. For many Westerners, “truth” is highly valued but is also limited to what is empirical. But demanding that sacred narratives be literally “true” is a losing proposition. When people focus too much on the empirical truth or falsity of the story, its sacred meanings, which should be the main point of the story, are lost. The relevance of Mahayana Buddhism does not rise or fall on the empirical accuracy of the Heart Sutra narrative but on whether or not the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism are in accord with the foundational teachings of Buddhism.

Finally, we come to the fifth and final point, which is where traditional Buddhadharma and historical consciousness find their deepest resonance. For historians, the present consensus about historical development is a hypothesis subject to revision as new information and perspectives become available. In other words, historians are eminently flexible and willing to change their conclusions in the light of new evidence. Flexibility of mind, rather than rigidity, is also regarded as a supreme virtue for meditators. Thus, both historical consciousness and Buddhadharma stress the importance of being comfortable with an open-ended, unfinished version of how things are. Both recognize that true confidence lies in being comfortable with process rather than needing a fixed, final conclusion. Attaining this flexible, nonideological, nonfixated state of mind—what Zen practitioners might call “beginner’s mind”—is the whole point of meditation practice.

Rather than being something that detracts from our commitment to Buddhadharma, to some almost a heresy, an accurate, nonsectarian history of Buddhism can enrich and improve one’s dharma practice immensely. This alone is a sufficient recommendation for such study. But the study of Buddhist history brings other benefits as well, such as providing tools to appreciate Buddhist internal diversity and thus promote greater communication within the greater Buddhist community. Perhaps most important, it allows us to develop a seamless account of Buddhism and modernity. For nothing is sadder than a religion’s demand that we turn off our critical intelligence when its traditions conflict with well-established results of modern science and history. The depth of Buddhadharma does not need such mindless acquiescence to convention.