There’s been a lot of talk among Buddhism-related bloggers lately about an article in Tricycle, by Linda Heuman. Heuman recounts the discovery, in 1994, of some very old scrolls – known as the Kharoṣṭhī fragments – in the the old Buddhist land of Gandhara, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Richard Salomon of the University of Washington has spent a great deal of time poring over these manuscripts. And what might we get out of them now? What difference might they make to Buddhists today?
Salomon argues that the manuscripts disprove an earlier model of Buddhist history – according to which there was an original council of Buddhists which established the first Buddhist canon, transmitted to disciples more or less verbatim. Instead, they show us that very different Buddhist texts were transmitted in very different places from very early on; the evidence doesn’t give us a first text that we can come back to.
The question is: what does that point imply? Heuman quotes Salomon to the effect that “none of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures—not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, nor even the Gandhari—’can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.’” (The first part of the quote, with the italics, is Heuman’s.) Heuman uses this claim to argue against Buddhist sectarian disputes: “Sectarian authority claims assume solid essentialist ground. That type of ground is just not there.” Let us assume for the purposes of this post that Salomon’s historical conclusions are correct. Does Heuman’s critique of sectarianism really follow?
Heuman claims: “Every school of Buddhism stakes its authority, and indeed its very identity, on its historical connection to this original first canon,” the canon established by the First Buddhist Council. But do they really? It is not the Council that was taken to have the perfect knowledge that liberates us, but rather the Buddha himself. Every tradition of Buddhism claims that its core teachings were taught by him.
And we have long known that the Mahāyāna claim to this effect is hogwash. I briefly discussed the evidence for this point before, and I am aware of no scholar with any training in historical methods who seriously contests it. Heuman quotes Paul Harrison to the effect that the Mahāyāna is much older than we had previously thought – but even he doesn’t buy the claim that the Mahāyāna was actually an esoteric teaching preached by the Buddha himself.
Rather, Salomon’s claims question further the ability of the Pali canon – the Theravāda sacred texts – to accurately represent the words of the Buddha. We have long known that the Pali texts were compiled several hundreds of years after his death by the Sri Lankan philosopher-monk Buddhaghosa (whose name, perhaps aptly, means “Voice of the Buddha”); the Kharoṣṭhī fragments cast further doubt on the accuracy of the texts he compiled. So the Pali texts are probably further from the claims of the historical Buddha than we might have thought.
But what does any of this do to undermine sectarian differences? Well, perhaps this evidence provides a way for Mahāyānists to proclaim to Theravādins: “Nyah-nyah!” They can turn the historical evidence that favoured the Theravādins on its head: maybe our texts weren’t really spoken by the Buddha, but neither are yours.
But what follows from such a point? Definitely not the “anti-essentialist” view that Heuman tries to argue, according to which “all Buddhists are 100 percent Buddhist.” That claim begs the big question: who counts as really Buddhist in the first place? As I’ve said before, if all people who call themselves Buddhists are Buddhists, then Dick Cheney can be a Buddhist simply by calling himself a Buddhist, even as he continues to promote mass murder and environmental pillage for the sake of oil profiteering. What that comes out to meaning, in the end, is that it matters not a whit whether you’re a Buddhist or not. Buddhism, on such a view, means nothing at all. And yet somehow the people who say these sorts of things still seem to call themselves “Buddhist practitioners,” as if the Buddha and his words actually mattered and were important somehow. The Heumans of the world want to have it both ways: following the Buddha matters, except that it doesn’t.
In discussing Heuman’s article, Justin Whitaker quotes Richard Gombrich to this effect: “The exegesis of the Pali canon has not yet advanced much beyond where the exegesis of the Bible stood in the middle of the 19th century…” This quote, I think, is correct. And what follows from it is that anyone who cares about the teachings of the historical Buddha should support textual studies like Salomon’s that will help us piece together the difficult task of reconstructing his ideas as best we can, just as biblical criticism has helped us to show how far the New Testament diverges from the words of the historical Jesus. What doesn’t follow is our saying: “Well, hey, we can’t actually know what the Buddha really said anyway, so we might as well just accept everything called Buddhism as genuine Buddhism.” As soon as we say this, we are saying that Buddhism doesn’t matter and there is no reason for anyone to bother calling themselves a Buddhist or engaging in any sorts of Buddhist practice.
The whole point of being a Buddhist or doing Buddhist practice is that that practice is better than other things one could be doing, or that those ideas are truer than others one could believe. (If one didn’t believe that, one would have no reason to be a Buddhist.) If one can accept that Buddhism is better than not-Buddhism, why is it so hard to accept that one kind of Buddhism could be better than another?
Now there are plenty of grounds other than connection to the historical Buddha on which one could argue for one tradition over another. It can sometimes be puzzling why the founder’s words are privileged so much – although I think there are some valid reasons to do so. By all means, say that Mahāyāna or Yavanayāna are an improvement over the teachings of the historical Buddha. Perhaps even try to argue that the Mahāyāna is closer to the Buddha’s words than we might have thought. Or make the theological claim that the different traditions are different skillful means, as long as you understand that that is a theological claim which goes against the self-understanding of most practitioners. Just don’t pretend that crucial questions which divide Buddhist practitioners from one another – should we seek our own liberation or everyone’s? Were there other buddhas after Gotama Buddha? – don’t matter.