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I am in search for some academic work on critical methods to analyze Buddhists’ texts.

There exist numerous jātakas and avadānas. Many representations in Buddhist art visualize these legends. E.g. Maya’s dream about the white elephant with his six tusks, or several reliefs at the gateways of Sanchi.

I assume that most of these stories are fiction. Therefore my question:

• Do these texts or figural representations raise any truth claim?

• If yes: Which claim? How can one validate the truth claim?

• Which groups and which interests triggered the texts and their dissemination?

Is there someone to recommend some academic papers from Buddhist or secular authors about the historical-critical study of the content of Buddhist texts? Or point to some journals devoted to the subject?

Note. My question relates to

Is this forum a place for Buddhist Hermeneutics?

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  • There are scholarly evidences but the main evidence is derived by studying Tipitaka. If one realized that the fundamentals described in Tipitaka are true, then he will reasonably trust the stories comes in Tipitaka for the most part.
    – Blake
    May 9, 2023 at 11:06
  • @Blake I learned from the book "The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts", quoted by ruben 2020 in his/her answer, how results about "early Buddhist texts (EBT)" can been obtained and what has been obtained. Pointing just to Tipitaka does not answer my question. But I agree: The nikayas and the vinaya are the main source. Thanks for your answer.
    – Jo Wehler
    May 9, 2023 at 14:28

3 Answers 3

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The book entitled "The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts" by Venerables Sujato and Brahmali is the best starting place for an overview of academic studies on the Pali Sutta Pitaka. There are many other research papers and books referenced in this book.

Academic writings of Ven. Dr. Analayo like "Oral Dimensions of Pāli Discourses: Pericopes, other Mnemonic Techniques and the Oral Performance Context" and "The Dawn of Abhidharma", would also be very useful. He has also done comparative studies of suttas in Pali against their Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan counterparts e.g. in "A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya".

Other useful books and writings include "The Composition and Transmission of Early Buddhist Texts with Specific Reference to Sutras" by Mark Allon, "The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation" and "The Oral Transmission of Early Buddhist Literature" by Alexander Wynne.

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  • I think the OP was especially interested in "jātakas and avadānas" -- and whether these "raise truth claims". Ven. Yuttadhammo wrote that the Jataka Stories as often fantastical and that it's "more common for Theravada Buddhists to accept the stories far more at face value than they really should".
    – ChrisW
    May 2, 2023 at 20:25
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    +1 for pointing out to the book of Sujato and Brahmali.
    – Jo Wehler
    May 3, 2023 at 13:02
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There are studies but they are conjecture for the most part. The conclutions derived are based on historicist philology that can hardly be applied with confidence. No one will accept this method (for example) in a Criminal Investigation.

• Which groups and which interests triggered the texts and their dissemination?

The Buddha mentioned "Jataka" as part of the Navanga-satthu-sasana (ninefold dispensation of the teacher) in Suttas.

I assume that most of these stories are fiction. Therefore my question: • Do these texts or figural representations raise any truth claim?

The Theravadins have slightly different stories. Many of Jatakas and Apadanas have been sensibly dated back to the Buddhas time by many scholars.

• If yes: Which claim? How can one validate the truth claim?

Robert E. Buswell (2004). Encyclopedia of Buddhism: "Jātaka tales may be quite ancient. The term appears as part of a schema of Buddhist literary forms called the nine component genres of the Buddha's teaching (navaṅga-buddhasāsana), and depictions of them appear in early Indian art (as early as the second century BCE)."

Straube, Martin. Narratives: South Asia in Silk,"Brill's Encyclopedia of Buddhism": "While these texts cannot be dated in a precise manner, "the fact that many narratives are passed on in almost identical form within the canons of the different schools shows that they date back to the time before the schisms between the schools took place."

There are scholarly evidences, but the main evidence is derived by studying Tipitaka. If one realized that the fundamentals described in Tipitaka are true, then he will reasonably trust the stories comes in Tipitaka for the most part.

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The jātakas and avadānas are obviously untrue because the word 'jati' & 'nivasa' found in the suttas do not mean 'physical birth' or 'past lives'. 'Jati' is defined in SN 12.2 as the birth of a class of beings and the word 'beings' is defined in SN 23.2 & SN 5.10 as a 'view'. Therefore, 'jati' refers to 'mental/conceptual birth' rather than 'physical birth'; as clearly expressed in MN 86, where the Buddha said to Aṅgulimāla his becoming a monk was 'birth into the noble birth' . Similarly, the word 'nivasa' means 'home', 'abode' or 'dwelling' and SN 22.79 makes it literally clear that recollection of 'past abodes' (generally mistranslated as 'past lives') is recollecting in the past when the mind ignorantly regarded one or more of the five aggregates to be 'self'.

Its important to recognise, due to its own internal perversions & external social mischief, Buddhism became extinct in India. Since the Jains continued to exist after the Muslim conquests, obviously the Hindu (political vassals) & Muslim (rulers) decided to end Buddhism because Buddhism kept appropriating Hindu doctrines & deities for mischievous worldly purposes. The Buddhist laypeople of Western & Eastern India were converted to Islam; but Hinduism & Jainism remained.

The evolution of the Buddhist texts & sects is clear. The jātakas and avadānas (such as the Buddhavaṁsa, Therāpadāna & Therīapadāna) redefined the meaning of "jati" and resulted in the addition of perverted suttas into the Sutta Pitaka; such as Iti 22, SN 22.96, AN 3.15, AN 9.20, MN 81, MN 83, MN 50, DN 19 & MN 123. Most of these suttas about literal past lives contain the term “ahaṃ tena samayena”, which is found at least 22 times in the Buddhavaṃsa, twice in the Therāpadāna and once is the Therīapadāna.

The supernatural MN 123 shares the term mātukucchismiṁ with other obvious late texts such as DN 15, DN 28 & DN 33. This notion of mātukucchismiṁ & the Theravada idol DN 15 appear not found/discussed in later early commentaries, such as the Paṭisambhidāmagga or Abhidhamma Vibangha; which support the view these are late & non-essential suttas.

I could recommend my own critical studies of Buddhist texts called Is “rebirth” a misconception of the Pali suttas? and Dependent Origination from the Pali Suttas but this used to be against the rules of this forum therefore I will not recommend these critical studies.

For very superficial theories ('studies'), you can try the authors named Brahmali, Sujato & Analayo, such as: The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts

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  • Unfortunatelyl I am not a member of scribd. Would it be possible for you to email the two papers to me: "joachim.wehler at gmx.net". Thank you.
    – Jo Wehler
    May 1, 2023 at 20:55
  • no problem. regards DD May 1, 2023 at 20:58
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    FYI people are allowed to reference their own studies/texts which are published elsewhere -- see the Help topic How to not be a spammer -- 1) you must disclose your affiliation (i.e. say that you're the author, generally writing "my" is enough); 2) Not too much/often 3) An answer should be more than only a link (e.g. answer the question or summarise or quote from the reference here on this site, and add a link for reference or further details).
    – ChrisW
    May 1, 2023 at 21:11
  • Great answer. I find the 'actual rebirthing' schools to be at odds with what I later came to understand. In the ancient frame of reference, the notion of rebirth was presented as a way to reference past and future. In modern day terms, we call this 'time.' - which doesn't exist. So simple!
    – user17652
    May 5, 2023 at 8:00

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