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In this answer to my question about why we keep referring to antiquated old parables and similes, Inzenity wrote,

"The scriptures are part of the teachings, the source of the teachings. It makes sense that to learn the teachings, what you call true Buddhism, they must go to the source material."

The source material is not really straight from Buddha's pen, is it; nor is it even from the pens of his contemporaries or his disciples. What anybody may call source material was first committed to writing many centuries after the death of Gautam Buddha.

Isn't that's a bit like a whole bunch of us on this forum sitting down to commit to writing what was said by some guru who lived 10 generations ago, after about 500 years of oral transmission at least?

And then all that was translated from Pali into English -- possibly not in a single step either. And in between, there were commentaries in many languages, and many diverse traditions of speech and thought...

So, is it really "source material", just because it has bits and pieces of Pali tradition and ancient similes attached to it, imparting a certain quaint orientalism to the whole conglomerate? And if this body of work somehow acquired bits and pieces of Nordic or Mayan similes, parables etc, then would it stop suddenly being "Buddhist source material"?

Inzenity also wrote (about use of original explanations and logical arguments, as against the old well-worn ones from various Buddhist texts),

When they go to another person's teachings, are they still Buddhists or followers of the new guru? New religions are created this way.

True that! Being original about it may mean that we may drift away from Buddhist teachings, and end up starting new religions or, alternatively, following new religions.

Are we hanging on to quaint old parables and similes and Pali aphorisms translated painfully into English, for the luxury of calling ourselves Buddhists, instead of, say, "Robertists" or "Umeshists" or "followers of Osho Rajneesh"? How sure are we that we haven't unknowingly gone to "another person's teaching" already -- those persons being numerous disciples and commentarists who willy-nilly added their own substantial philosophical DNA to Buddha's teachings, or alternatively, excised crucial teachings from Buddha's body of thought? What is Buddhism about, anyway? Is Buddhism about learning precepts about the nature of existence "at the feet of a master" as it were? Or is it about a fearless enquiry into the nature of existence, guided by numerous masters who broadly follow Buddha's school of thought, but not enchained to the philosophies of these masters?

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    This sounds a lot like opinion posing as a question... are you really looking for an answer, or are you just trying to promote your own ideas? I'm afraid the latter is more likely to lead to argumentation rather than conclusive answers, in which case this site is ill-suited for such activity. – yuttadhammo Sep 7 '15 at 15:50
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    @yuttadhammo -- Guilty as charged. I do of course hold many opinions, and I am of course trying to promote my own ideas, and looking for intelligent and well-reasoned arguments. Presumably, I am not alone in such an activity. and presumably, such an activity is at least as legitimate on this forum as posing questions to which there are definitive answers. Am I wrong in so presuming? – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 8 '15 at 14:56
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    @yuttadhammo I opened a new meta-topic, "May I post an opinion posing a question?" (so people can discuss this further on meta instead of here). – ChrisW Sep 8 '15 at 15:21
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+50

I think there are some very good and apposite questions here. I find I meet two kinds of Buddhists online. Those committed to the idea that the Pāḷi Canon is something like the Bible, the words of the Buddha and thus an ultimate authority. These kind are mostly, but not only, Theravādin Buddhists. To a lesser extent one also sees this kind of ideological commitment from Mādhyamikas about Nāgārjuna as well. The second kind take the opposite view. That the texts are worthless and that apart from the some of the practices that there is nothing worth saving.

There is a kind of middle way. No modern historian treats the Pāḷi Canon as historically accurate any more. Apologetics which argue for the authenticity of the suttas tend to come from establishment figures within one or other Theravādin movement. Thanissaro and Sujato have both written apologetics in recent times for example. But this is what we expect of men who have made a strong commitment to a Buddhist sect (especially one which involves life-long chastity).

However many of the stories in the texts are still of considerable interest for their insights into the historical development of Buddhism and the changes that Buddhist doctrines undergo over time. I am particularly interested in these kinds of changes. And of course some stories are timeless. This is why we preserve and retell stories from the distant past: the Mahābharat in India and the Greek myths in Europe are good examples. Good story telling is timeless and fictional characters no less moving and educative for being unreal.

It's widely acknowledged, by scholars at least, that Buddhism is syncretic from the first evidence we have of it. The earliest records of Buddhism show influence from a number of other cultures not limited to Brahmanism, Jainism, local animistic cults, and Zoroastrianism (the latter discovery is relatively old, my own contribution to the field has been to put the case more systematically). Such syncretism continues throughout the life of Buddhism in India and outside it, right down to the present. With more or less success. Usually the process involves subordinating the assimilated material to Buddhism in some explicit fashion, though sometimes the process is implicit, and often it is transparent to Buddhists (e.g. the Vedic myth in the Agañña Sutta quoted time and again as a "Buddhist" creation story).

That said I think the identity of "Buddhist" is meaningful for many people in many ways. The history of Buddhism is not one in which everyone is a full-time practitioner devoted to awakening. Such people were and will continue to be relatively rare. Most of us aspire to more than we can achieve. This does not invalidate the aspiration or the achievement. Most of us require positive conditions to flourish, and a positive experience of Buddhist community can contribute to that. As such membership of a Buddhist group is a necessary facet of life as a Buddhist for many of us. And part of group membership is conformity to group norms, including taking on the jargon and mythology of the group. Being able to recite popular stories is a mark of membership.

That said I think there is a problem in Buddhism with people not correctly assessing their own limitations. The wide availability of Buddhist texts to lay people with no training in linguistics or critical thinking has led to a glut of uncritical opinions. The internet has only exacerbated the trend. Some of us have very limited experience of living a Buddhist life, but full access to multiple translations of Buddhists texts. With no basis for assessing the value of translations or other sources of information, they tend to be cited indiscriminately (to support views). I notice it is routine in this website to cite Thanissaro's translations, which happen to be the easiest to get hold of because they are online for free. But Thanissaro is an eccentric translator, to say the least. All his translations need to be carefully assessed before being cited - but they never are. I would put Access to Insight on a par with Wikipedia as a source. Use with caution.

It is good to see some hard questions being asked of Buddhists.

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    Do you have any evidence to support these claims: "No modern historian treats the Pāḷi Canon as historically accurate any more." and "It's widely acknowledged, by scholars at least, that Buddhism is syncretic from the first evidence we have of it." – Adamokkha Sep 7 '15 at 18:01
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    Also, do you have any instance of a Thanissaro translation, e.g., being significantly different in meaning from some other translator, e.g., Bodhi or just any example of a translation in which you think the meaning in Pali is significantly distorted? – Adamokkha Sep 7 '15 at 18:03
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    For the first comment you can see my published works. For the second Thanissaro translates "dukkha" as "stress". To the best of my knowledge he is the only one to do so. Dukkha does not mean stress. See any good Dictionary. Now we've dealt with the trivia. – Jayarava Sep 8 '15 at 11:23
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    The PTSD must be used with caution. It was written in a hurry and by non-experts in lexicography. It is far from definitive (one of my first published articles concerned an incorrect definition of a word in PTSD). Margaret Cone's Dictionary of Pali is far more authoritative, though as yet incomplete (d is covered). But in the end dictionaries only get you so far. A dictionary is no substitute for wide reading in Pāli. – Jayarava Sep 8 '15 at 13:25
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    @Jayarava -- Thank you for a completely honest answer. I am floored by your clarity. – Krishnaraj Rao Sep 8 '15 at 15:31
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Contrary to popular misapprehension, Buddhism is not a cult of "source material". It is not actually the case that the point of Buddha's message has been lost, and now generations after generations of practitioners try to deduce it from texts.

Buddhism is a living tradition, that at large has never lost the path. Sure, there were some misunderstandings here and there over the centuries, small and large. In fact, every student goes through the phase of gross confusion, until they hopefully see the light.

As any area of human activity, such as politics or academia, Buddhism has layers, and if you explore the populations of practicing representatives, you will always find a wide gamut of sophistication, from the most superficial to the most profound.

All this is to say that the texts are not alpha and omega, interpretation and application are. The texts do have their place though:

  1. They create a structure, the game rules, within which the practice may take place, and
  2. They dress the naked truth in some feathers to make it more presentable to a normal human practitioner. There is some charm in the ancient mystique, don't you find?
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    @KrishnarajRao I wonder, maybe you could say the same about "Mathematics" (which has also been studied for millennia). – ChrisW Sep 8 '15 at 15:27
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    @KrishnarajRao they are just different metaphors, only contradictory at literal level, not when you know what they refer to. – Andrei Volkov Sep 9 '15 at 0:17
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    @KrishnarajRao I'm sorry but I was taught, at school, Pythagoras' theorem and Newtonian mechanics, Ohm's law, Maxwell's equations (which I've since forgotten), Einstein's relativity, Heisenburg's uncertainty, Euclid's geometry, etc., etc. If you ask about "Buddhism" I think it's not too surprising if some people try to recount the teachings of the historical Buddha, to the extent they're known. There are even some apparent contradictions (Euclidean versus non-Euclidean, Newtonian versus relativistic), but "only contradictory at literal level". – ChrisW Sep 9 '15 at 12:16
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    And how is it different with Buddha's point that attachment is the root of suffering? – Andrei Volkov Sep 9 '15 at 16:57
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    Sure, because attachment is not the cause of suffering, it is its root. When suffering is present, it depends on attachment as it's necessary condition, but if there's attachment, suffering may not come until it's material cause (vs. Psychological root!) comes in effect. In your example, is until one of the two dies. – Andrei Volkov Sep 9 '15 at 18:43
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Buddhist scriptures are not as sacrosanct as in the way the Quran is where the Quran is divinely guaranteed to be incorruptible till the end of time and cannot be questioned. However, at the same time, there is a distinction between what is Buddhavacana (words of the Buddha) and what isn't. The Buddha's own stand on this matter is reflected in the Kalama Sutta where he says about discerning teachings:

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness" — then you should enter & remain in them.'

It appears that Buddhists of the Theravada tradition do take the Tipitaka and especially the Buddha's teachings in the Sutta Pitaka very seriously for study, while Buddhists of some other traditions, especially Zen, may focus more on practice, rather than conceptual study. But this is not to say that the Zen practitioner does not have any scriptural study whatsoever.

From the perspective of syncretism, Buddhism is not as syncretic as Hinduism but is more syncretic than Christianity or Islam. Hinduism has soaked up very diverse and even conflicting schools of thought and modes of worship, under its vast umbrella, as long as the Vedas, Brahman, karma and reincarnation are not rejected. On the other hand, Islam and Christianity are intolerant, sometimes even violently, to those who diverge from the mainstream.

Buddhism of the times after the Buddha's parinibbana, on the other hand, takes the middle path of practising syncretism to the extent that sectarianism is tolerated, but within a minimum boundary of framework. You can take a look at the situation of sectarianism among the Early Buddhist Schools and of course the later traditions of Mahayana and Vajrayana. During the time of the Buddha of course, creating schisms was strongly reprimanded and is a reason for expulsion from the sangha, showing the Buddha's own preference for the sangha to remain united under the same dhamma and vinaya.

I mentioned that there are different preferences to practice and conceptual study, different sects etc. and also different sets of canons between traditions, but there is definitely a minimum boundary of framework by which any teachings, texts or sects are accepted as coming under Buddhism. Falling outside this boundary means definite rejection. This is analogous to the Christian Nicene Creed or Islam's Five Pillars of Practice and Six Pillars of Faith.

  • The Four Noble Truths
  • The Noble Eightfold Path
  • The Triple Gem
  • The Three Marks of Existence
  • Dependent Origination
  • Kamma and Rebirth

The Buddha's own stand on the matter is found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

the Blessed One said, "In any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is not found, no contemplative of the first... second... third... fourth order [stream-winner, once-returner, non-returner, or arahant] is found. But in any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is found, contemplatives of the first... second... third... fourth order are found. The noble eightfold path is found in this doctrine & discipline, and right here there are contemplatives of the first... second... third... fourth order. Other teachings are empty of knowledgeable contemplatives. And if the monks dwell rightly, this world will not be empty of arahants."

The Noble Eightfold Path is like a summary that contains the whole boundary of framework for the "right teachings" and the Buddha is fine with other doctrines and disciplines, taught by others, as long as it is compliant with the Noble Eightfold Path. And as far as I can see, the main traditions of Buddhism are definitely compliant, though appearing divergent on the details of concepts and practice.

In fact, if I were to reduce the doctrinal framework to the bare minimum, it would be:

  • The Four Noble Truths
  • The Three Marks of Existence
  • Dependent Origination
  • Kamma

When we compare Buddhism to other traditions of India (Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism), it is clear that anatta separates them from Buddhism. But anatta is common between the various Buddhist traditions.

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There are a few reasons.

  1. There's the religious aspect. To most Buddhists, Buddhism is a religion and the texts are sacred. They are so sacred, that simply chanting them is believed to bring merit. So you've got people chanting Pali (which they don't understand) in the belief that merely saying the words will bring supernatural benefit.

  2. Even outside of religion people venerate older texts. For instance, people still read the works of Plato today, even though he was wrong about a lot. Schools require reading literature from hundreds of years back, even though there's a lot of excellent literature that's been released since. Others insist on reading original works from authors (like Kant) even though the works are widely acknowledged to be poorly written and even though excellent third party sources exist.

  3. The Buddha was believed to be enlightened, and since he got there, he's seen as the best source of information on that subject. Well certain texts are believed to be closer to his words (e.g.: because they're closer to his time or part of a school that claims it's closer to his vision, etc...) so by their perceived proximity to the source, they are seen as more accurate.

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