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? Continue reading