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It was a delight to attend the American Academy of Religion conference this year – and not only because it was in Montréal, possibly my favourite place in the world. There were many interesting presentations and conversations. I was particularly happy to attend a session of the Buddhist Critical-Constructive Reflection group, a group whose area of interest is quite dear to my heart. (A little while ago I published a paper on constructive Buddhist studies in a book for Deepak Heritage Press.)

I was particularly excited by Rita M. Gross‘s presentation, on the connection between academic historical work and Buddhist communities. Gross noted that in many Western “dharma centres” – centres of Yavanayāna Buddhist practice, such as monasteries and meditation centres – Buddhists uncritically accept the claims of Buddhist texts, even on historical matters. Most startlingly, they’ll accept the claim of the Mahāyāna sūtras that they were preached by the historical Buddha in his lifetime: if a sūtra says it was a discourse given by the historical Buddha in Rājagṛha, India, then it must be exactly that.

In the centres she works with, Gross has rightly tried to raise awareness of scholarly historical understanding. And scholars are clear that the Mahāyāna sūtras did not appear until long after the Buddha’s death. A.K. Warder’s book Indian Buddhism sums up the evidence: the earliest dateable manuscripts of Mahāyāna sūtras are Chinese translations from the first centuries CE, several centuries after the historical Buddha would have died; more importantly, the language and style of every extant Mahāyāna sūtra is comparable more to later Indian texts than to texts that could have circulated in the Buddha’s putative lifetime. Warder also notes a suspicious claim from the Tibetan historian Tāranātha, to the effect that the Buddha taught the sūtras but they then disappeared from the world of men, circulating only in the world of dragons until adequate human teachers appeared in the second century CE. To Warder, “This is as good as an admission that no such texts existed until the 2nd century A.D.” (336) Warder’s conclusions are far from eccentric: I have yet to meet, or hear of, any scholar who seriously attempted to research the date of the Mahāyāna sūtras and still believed that they were taught by the historical Buddha.

What happened when Gross tried to inform Western Buddhists of this well established historical fact? She met with considerable resistance, including cultural relativist arguments: “Western academic methods have no place in Tibetan practice.” Quite appropriately, Gross insisted that they do: Western empirical methods are reliable for telling us about history, and a mature practice can accept someone telling the truth. In such a mature practice, we learn that the value of the stories in the s?tras lies in their symbolic meaning, rather than their historical accuracy.

To this point I’m in agreement with Gross. This part of her talk echoes the strengths of her book Buddhism After Patriarchy, which acknowledges the unfortunate patriarchal character of premodern Buddhism as part of the project of moving beyond it. But I disagree with a further part of her talk. Because Buddhist historical claims contradict each other, she said, she was looking for a larger arena to adjudicate them and get beyond mere sectarianism. An important principle informing her understanding is that there is “no point” to claiming one form of Buddhism as the highest or best.

Here, I raised an objection. Between traditional scripturalism and Western academic methods, Gross did not advocate a “live and let live” pluralism; unlike the centre member who wanted to separate Tibetan practice from Western academia, Gross was ready to say that on historical questions Western methods (like stylistic analysis) were reliable. Why then must we enforce pluralism on questions of philosophy and liberation (soteriology)? If modern historical methods give us better and more reliable access to historical truth than relying on the accounts of scripture, why can’t Mahāyāna give us better and more reliable access to truths of liberation than Theravāda – or vice versa? To dismiss sectarianism, it seems to me, is to throw out one of the most important forms of constructive Buddhist studies. If we’re going to seriously grapple with Buddhist claims and apply them in life, we need to include the claims that we should seek universal liberation, or seek only our own.

In reply, Gross told me she sees various forms of Buddhism as different skillful means: “one lands in each because of different karmic affinities, not because one is better than another.” But the concept of skillful means (upāya-kauśalya) is itself a Mahāyāna invention, intended to explain why the Buddha taught early (“Hīnayāna”) Buddhism when it is not true. If the different traditions are to be understood as skillful means, one must mean one of two things: either this traditional usage, in which an inferior tradition is a clever subterfuge for those whose understanding is too poor to understand the superior tradition; or an invented modern usage in which they are all “paths up the same mountain,” all ultimately teaching the same truth in different ways. I presume Gross means the latter. But this is an extraordinary theological claim to make, not merely a historical one; a claim that goes against the self-understanding of most practitioners in either tradition. That’s not to say the claim is necessarily wrong, but if one intends to make it, one must make it explicit, not merely smuggle it in as an unmentioned assumption. There are reasons why Mahāyānists see their practices and ideas as superior to the “Hīnayāna”; there are also reasons why Theravādins see Mahāyāna as a distortion of the best practices of the Buddha. In any serious attempt to do constructive Buddhist studies – to think with Buddhist claims and take them seriously – those reasons matter.

EDIT: changed “not reliable” to “reliable” in discussing Gross’s view of historical analysis, two paragraphs up. Thanks to Elisa Freschi for catching that. (18 Nov)