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This question is motivated by a comment from another user. Highlights in the quote are made by me. It's written:

"You have no reason to believe that any words of the Buddha are preserved except uncritical acceptance of traditional narratives. There are some Buddhist words, but to attribute them to the Buddha is simple, blind religious faith. If your criteria is practical application, then your question is meaningless in any case. You can verify the truth of the quotations by putting them into practice. Why have you not done so?".

My questions are:

  • What reasons are there for believing that the words of the historical Buddha are preserved?

  • What reasons are there for not believing that the words of the historical Buddha are preserved?

  • Do these reasons apply equally to all "words" or, for example, is it more believable of the suttas than of the Jataka tales, or of some suttas more than others?

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  • Perhaps to avoid asking a 'leading question', I suggest rewording this to ask three questions: 1) What reasons are there, for believing (that some words of the historical Buddha are preserved)? 2) What reasons are there for not believing ...? 3) Do these reasons apply equally to all "words" or, for example, is it more believable of the suttas than of the Jataka tales, or of some suttas more than others?
    – ChrisW
    Aug 20, 2015 at 14:19
  • Thanks Chris. I have reworded the question using your examples.
    – user2424
    Aug 20, 2015 at 14:29

6 Answers 6

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What reasons are there for believing that the words of the historical Buddha are preserved?

I can think of three reasons:

  1. blind faith - believing it to be true without any rational reason to believe.

  2. argument from authority - believing it to be true because of the authority of the tradition that has preserved the teachings

  3. argument from the nature of the teachings - believing it to be true because the teachings accord with expectations of the calibre to be expected from a Buddha

I think only the third argument holds much weight in this instance. It can be divided into two categories as well:

  1. that the teachings are so ostensibly profound as to convince one who reads/listens to them that only an enlightened being could have being their author;

  2. that the teachings, when practiced, lead one to enlightenment, thereby providing evidence to the practitioner of the enlightenment of their author.

Either of these seems a reasonable argument for claiming that Buddhist teachings come from the Buddha himself.

What reasons are there for not believing that the words of the historical Buddha are preserved?

It's easy to find reasons for doubting if you're looking for them... even if they are not actually there.

Of course, all of this ignores that fact that historical authenticity isn't really of any intrinsic value. What is important is the quality of the teachings; that is what should really be up for debate. As the Buddha said, "Come! See!"

Do these reasons apply equally to all "words" or, for example, is it more believable of the suttas than of the Jataka tales, or of some suttas more than others?

I don't think the jataka commentaries claim to be the words of the Buddha; they are retellings of the stories that the verses (which are claimed to be the words of the Buddha) are supposed to be based upon. Same goes for the dhammapada stories.

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    It seems to me that this answer is unbalanced. You say "It's easy to find reasons for doubting if you're looking for them" but you don't engage with any of them. Thus your answer gives the appearance of suggesting there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Buddhist texts, when in fact there are many quite valid reasons. If the historical authenticity of the texts had no "intrinsic value" the question would come up repeatedly, but of course it does. People ehipassiko, but apparently none become arahants. Hence the questions.
    – Jayarava
    Aug 25, 2015 at 11:19
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The goal of the Buddhist councils is to preserve the word of the Buddha and to remove alien elements. They are headed by enlightened monks. So the faith in the scriptures isn't blind.

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I summarised the problems with Buddhist history in an essay entitled The Very Idea of Buddhist History.

  1. There is only one reason to believe that Buddhist text are the words of the Buddha. It is because the Buddhist tradition says they are. There is no other reason.

  2. Reasons for not believing are more numerous.

When we talk about the historical Buddha for example there is no corroborating evidence from another tradition that he existed. Buddhist texts mention the Jain leader, Mahāvīra, or at least we think they do. They never use the name Mahāvīra but do refer to a person called Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta whose views are very similar to the early Jains. See The Dictionary of Pali Names sv Nigantha. However Jain texts don't return the favour. Nor do the late Vedic texts record anyone called "Buddha". They do record many Gautamas, since the original Gotama was one of the ṛṣis who wrote the Ṛgveda, but not our Gautama. This is particularly surprising since Brahmins were frequently mentioned in Buddhist texts and they were actively composing new texts at the time. The first solid evidence for Buddhism is a brief mention in one of the inscriptions left by Asoka, ca. 250 BCE.

As far as the name Siddhartha Gautama is concerned, the Pāḷi version of the first name Siddhattha is never used of the Buddha in the Pāḷi Suttas. The name is a later invention. Indeed it had competition in the early Sanskrit Buddhist texts like the Mahāvāstu and Lalitavistara which tended to call him Sarvarthasiddha instead. What's more, as mentioned, Gautama is a high status Brahmin gotra (roughly "clan") name. Gotra names were used to mediate exogamous marriages. There is no obvious way that a non-Brahmin of that time, and of that culture which was not even part of the Vedic milieu, could have had a name like Gautama. If the name was adopted by the family, then it is strange that neither the Buddha's father nor any of his male relatives are ever called Gautama. It is even more strange that the Buddha's mother and maternal aunt were called Gautamī. Māyā wouldn't have changed her name at marriage. So it's possible that she as Prajāpatī were called Gautama and married into the Śākya family. Both Māyā and Prajāpatī are also distinctively Brahmanical names. The suttas have nothing to say on these matters. But the upshot is that we do not know with any certainty what the name of the historical Buddha was. I discuss this at length in an as yet unpublished article: Siddhārtha Gautama: What's in a Name?

What's more there are at least two biographical traditions about the early life of the Buddha. The standard narrative says that he is a prince, married with a child, his mother is dead, and leaves home in the middle of the night. And the alternative in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta tells us he is a youth, does not mention any wife of child, and his parents are both still alive and present when he leaves. Since it is less familiar here is the Paḷi, with my translation.

So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, aparena samayena daharova samāno susukāḷakeso, bhadrena yobbanena samannāgato paṭhamena vayasā akāmakānaṃ mātāpitūnaṃ assumukhānaṃ rudantānaṃ kesamassuṃ ohāretvā kāsāyāni vatthāni acchādetvā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajiṃ. [M i.163]

At a later time, though still only a boy, with much black hair, in the first stage of life, and endowed with youth and good fortune; with my mother and father unwilling, tearful and wailing, I cut off my hair and beard, donned brown robes, and went forth from home, into homelessness.

The contraction cannot be easily revolved. I've discussed the contradiction and it's implications in an essay called: The Buddha's Biography.

A minor point is that the Pāḷi Canon is almost certainly a translation. No one spoke Pāli as a mother tongue, it was a lingua franca created for the purpose of recording the Buddhist texts. Of course it was probably very like the Prakrit or vernacular languages spoken in the region at the time. The Canon has quite clearly been edited and added to at different periods. Another problem is that by their own admission the texts were preserved orally for something like three centuries before being written down in Sri Lanka, ca. 100 BC. In other words the texts were preserved as stories told and retold. The dynamics of this kind of transmission are explored by Bhikkhu Anālayo in a paper called: Oral Dimensions of Pāli Discourses: Pericopes, other Mnemonic Techniques and the Oral Performance Context. It's clear when one reads the suttas that they are made up of modules - a bit like lego bricks. One meets the same bricks again and again in different contexts. This is typical of a story telling tradition. But it does not guarantee verbal fidelity. The best we could hope with three centuries of oral tradition, is that the suttas contain the gist of the what the Buddha, if he existed, might have said.

Another problem is that the Pāḷi Canon is inconsistent in some respects that make it unlikely to have been composed by one philosophical genius. For example dependent arising says

imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti... imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati.

when this exists, that exist... when this ceases, that ceases.

This means that when the condition ceases the effect must cease at the same time or immediately afterwards (this is implied by the grammatical form of the statement - a locative absolute using present participles). However for karma to work the effect (vipāka) must manifest long after the action (kamma) has ceased. This problem was noticed by Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 17.6). Another (topical) inconsistency is that between metaphysics and morality. The metaphysical insistence on the impossibility of personal continuity because there is no substantial entity to persist (anattā) contracts with the explicit personal continuity in the Jātakas and some suttas. These inconsistencies undermine the idea of the historical Buddha was we read about him in the texts.

Most of the innovations in Buddhist theory and practice have been because Buddhists have found the earlier accounts intellectually flawed and practically unworkable. The question of authenticity comes up constantly. Modern day Buddhists still compose apologetics for the authenticity of the suttas.

Over all what we see when we look with an open mind is a series of not entirely consistent stories about a traditional, legendary figure. His name is unknown, nor the language he spoke. Details of his biography are sketchy and contradictory. The literature which we take to be authoritative are characteristic of an oral, story telling body of traditional stories. The doctrines that we take to be the unifying factor of Buddhism on closer inspection turn out to be internally inconsistent (according to Nāgāruna anyway). We note that the Buddha was protagonist in our stories performed magic and miracles at times and that such stories are not distinguished from historical facts. And there is no external corroborations for any of the facts (which ever version of events we think are the authentic version).

If we are intellectually honest we have to admit that we know nothing at all about the Buddha for certain. There is doubt about every detail, about every word.

There are those who claim that we can trust the word of the Buddha because when put into practice the techniques work, for example Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo makes this claim in his answer to this question. In fact this is also rather doubtful. After 2500 years of practising what purport to be the very techniques employed by the Buddha, places like Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand ought to be overflowing with arahants and every other person ought to be a stream entrant. But in fact there are at present no confirmed arahants in the world (I'm reliably informed that Daniel Ingram has recanted his claim). In which case the techniques in the suttas clearly do not work. Or at best they work rather partially to make people more relaxed about being unenlightened. If the suttas "worked" then many people would be arahants presently. So this argument from experience fails.

In the final analysis those people - both lay and scholars - who argue for the authenticity of the Buddhist texts either have to redefine "authenticity" to mean something less than 100% authentic; or admit that they are not willing to accept the facts and simply believe it to be so. In which case they are the same as religious people everywhere who just happen to believe that their teachings are the God's Honest Truth.

Which is not to say that the methods of Buddhism are not valuable. They are valuable. Extremely so. Just not in the way that the tradition or Traditionalists claim they are.

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  • There are several references to the Buddha in Hinduism. In the Ariyapariyesana sutta, the Buddha was referring to his step mother Mahapajapati Gotami who breastfed and raised prince Siddhartha as her own child. It is said that during the Anuradhapura era, there were many Arahants in Sri Lanka. But as time went by, those who can understand the Dhamma quickly and easily have already attained enlightenment. Also, there's no scientific way to prove enlightenment. So even if you meet an Arahant face to face, you wouldn't know Aug 30, 2015 at 2:29
  • Hinduism is the invention of the British in the 19th century. The word Hindu before that simply meant "Indian". And these references are all in late texts. They are mostly talking about Viṣṇu, as the Vaiṣṇava cult has assimilated Buddhism, and this happened very late. In the Ariyapariyesana the Buddha is clearly not refering to his "aunt", but to mātāpitā 'mother & father' - there's a word for stepmother and he doesn't use it. Indeed Pajapati is not mentioned. Explaining away the apparent absence of Arahants just proves my point.
    – Jayarava
    Aug 30, 2015 at 7:14
  • Pali was the mother tongue of people of Magadha kingdom and nearby kingdoms around Magadha at the time of Buddha. It was not created later. The point is historically incorrect and misleading. The comment that we know nothing at all is also extremely misleading. There is undeniable archeological and historical evidence about Buddha and his teachings. In fact, there is more evidence about Buddha and his teachings than almost any other tradition (philosophical and religious) of that time period. Jul 9, 2023 at 11:12
  • Lies don't help, @HomagetoManjushri, please stop spreading them.
    – Jayarava
    Jul 10, 2023 at 12:31
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OP asked:

  • What reasons are there for believing that the words of the historical Buddha are preserved?

  • What reasons are there for not believing that the words of the historical Buddha are preserved?

  • Do these reasons apply equally to all "words" or, for example, is it more believable of the suttas than of the Jataka tales, or of some suttas more than others?

The first good news is that a whole book has been written to answer these questions.

It's The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts by Venerables Ajahn Sujato and Ajahn Brahmali.

The second good news is that the whole book is available for download, for free, in the PDF format.

The Abstract states:

This work articulates and defends a single thesis: that the Early Buddhist Texts originated in the lifetime of the Buddha or a little later, because they were, in the main, spoken by the Buddha and his contemporary disciples. This is the most simple, natural, and reasonable explanation for the evidence.

Our argument covers two main areas:

  1. The grounds for distinguishing the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) from later Buddhist literature;

  2. The evidence that the EBTs stem from close to the Buddha’s lifetime, and that they were generally spoken by the historical Buddha.

Most academic scholars of Early Buddhism cautiously affirm that it is possible that the EBTs contain some authentic sayings of the Buddha. We contend that this drastically understates the evidence. A sympathetic assessment of relevant evidence shows that it is very likely that the bulk of the sayings in the EBTs that are attributed to the Buddha were actually spoken by him. It is very unlikely that most of these sayings are inauthentic.

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  • A book written by a couple of Buddhist monks which, miraculously, "proves" that their faith is True, is not worth the paper it is written on. What else were they going to say? They, for example, assume that "the historical Buddha" is a meaningful phrase. In what sense is the Buddha "historical" when we cannot link him to any historical event or fact. Rather, the Buddha is the protagonist in a series of religious stories, written by generations of religious fanatics who give up sex, family, work, eating after midday, and wearing trousers.
    – Jayarava
    Aug 8, 2023 at 14:46
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The question placed an unrealistic burden on the answerer. It is couched in the context of modern society where it is possible to have high fidelity/authenticity with regards to what’s been said and done. To insist that one can only trust a body of knowledge when it is captured verbatim or written down by the original founder/discoverer/inventor do a great deal of injustice to all the knowledge accumulated throughout history.

Similarly, our concepts of authenticity and fidelity by modern standards would be strange and bewildering to the people who lived during the Buddha’s time. If I go back in time to confront a villager who claimed to have heard the Buddha’s sermons and insisted that he guaranteed what he heard is word for word from the Buddha, he’ll probably think I’m mad.

Much of Greek philosophy survived in part due to Arabic translations. Even algebra would not be acceptable if one insists on believing this knowledge if, and only if, we can verify the original sources. As we know that the Arabs got much of their inspirations on algebra from different civilizations like Greek, Egyptian and Indian.

Nonetheless, why are ancient Greek philosophy and algebra important and why can they be trusted? They are important because of their contributions to modern civilisation (science, philosophy, arts and politics). They can be trusted because they can be validated.

To establish authenticity in a dogmatic manner requires either a time machine or technology that captured audio-video recordings of the Buddha and is passed on till modern days (you can replace the Buddha in this statement with Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras and so on). Above all, authenticity is not the most important concern, a knowledge should also be evaluated on its contribution to humanity. We should borrow the examples of philosophy and algebra above by asking a) what is the Dharma’s contributions to modern civilization and b) can it be validated?

I leave the above questions to those who think they are the final authority on the matter. Lastly, I believe to know if a student understand algebra, you should be able to solve algebraic questions yourself in order to test the student. Would a skeptic to a particular body of knowledge fall under this category? I have my doubts.

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  • Beautifully highlighting a problem with a question like this via precise counter/mirror questioning. Jul 9, 2023 at 11:16
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Its always interesting to observe how few internet Buddhists have taken formal refuge in the Dhamma. If a person has taken refuge in the Dhamma, they understand the following Refuge verse is all that matters.

‘svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattaṁ veditabbo viññūhī’ti;

‘The teaching is well explained by the Buddha — visible in the here & now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, leading onwards, to be experienced individually by the wise for themselves.’

AN 10.92

Pali morning chanting here

Again, from MN 38

Inappropriate Questions Avoided

"Knowing thus and seeing thus, would you say, 'The Teacher is our respected mentor. We speak thus out of respect for the Teacher'?"

"No, lord."

"Knowing thus and seeing thus, would you say, 'The Contemplative says this. We speak thus in line with the Contemplative's words'?"

"No, lord."

"Is it the case that you speak simply in line with what you have known, seen & understood for yourselves?"

"Yes, lord."

"Good, monks. You have been guided by me in this Dhamma which is to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the observant for themselves. For it has been said, 'This Dhamma is to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be by the observant for themselves,' and it was in reference to this that it was said.

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