Posted in Dharma Books, On the Path, Precepts Holders, Vinaya

Sangha view Buddhist history different than western scholars

Gandhari Mahayana scroll jar many found in a marketplace in Peshwar, buried and located in a dessert from the 1st c. BCE to 3rd c. CE

Whoes Buddhism is the Truest? by Linda Heuman

Tricyle has published another article on the gandhari sutras found in the dessert.  I do believe this tipifies how westerns try to view Buddhism and it’s history:  For some of these ideas are taken as fact when they are only one-sided viewpoints with limited approaches to the idea of valuing what the historical development actually was; well it’s all opinion due to the fact nobody living was there, and nothing we have now gives us the whole picture only fragments of ideas touching the edge of truly what took place.

Many false ideas are here presented in this article from Tricycle as authoritative fact. Starting with this line in the first paragraph.

Ven. Hong Yang

“Every school of Buddhism stakes its authority, and indeed its very identity, on its historical connection to this original first canon. Buddhists of all traditions have imagined that our texts tumble from the First Council into our own hands whole and complete—pristine—unshaped by human agency in their journey through time. This sense of the past is deeply ingrained and compelling. If our texts don’t faithfully preserve the actual words of the Buddha in this way, we might think, how could they be reliable? Isn’t that what we base our faith on?”

Tricycle article writer.

Grossly over-generalized statement in the first line.  Buddha taught use to use our wisdom to analyze his words testing them for ourselves and our ability to walk the path with our own feet, and what we have that is written down and accessible now are known not to be his exact words; how can we base our faith on what’s written and commented on without trying it out ourselves?  We cannot but we do need to study it, recite it, practice it’s lessons. The Sangha have two traditions, the oral one that is never writtten down and comes with actually living, practicing and studying as monastic Sangha for a lifetime and another that is changing, translated, commented on, repeated over and over again orally for private and public study developing into what we know today as the sutras/suttas. The written tradition is usually used the most to teach Buddha dharma for it’s convenience and is an easy method to transmit.

As a new monastic in the Buddhist Sangha nobody every comes up to you and states that the First Council is the one and only source of infallible unchangeable actual words of Buddha as he spoke them, ever and you don’t accept out words for that being the truth then your not really going to be Buddhist nor a Buddhist Sangha member.  Ludricrous, we are actually taught to live in harmony, learn the sutras that are recited in the temple, learn the daily service; carry out our studies concentratively, perform mundane but necessary tasks for health and harmony in the temple and learn how to be monastic in the temple preparing for the higher ordination in a careful step by step manner to be able to transmit buddha dharma in the future as requested.  Buddhist monastic Sangha does not base its identity on anything but the Vinaya which is varied in language, slightly varied in a few word or order of precepts in different traditions and gender and the collection of sutras/suttas is undestood as varied as there are leaves of grass, written, recorded, translated according to the times of the school of the translator’s and in accordance with their striving on the path, study of the sutras, and gender; undestanding of the solemity of the future needs of the readers of the sutras being worked on.  All the sutras/suttas in the first couple of lines are clearly identitfied with some or all of the names of monastic and laity clearly written as scribe, copyist, translator, editing monastic elder and the location and time of the translation.

The idea of the Tripitaka as whole in content and  pristine is a western fabrication, rather a Christianization of Buddhist thinking of a very narrow type. Infallibility of the bible is imported into the Tripitaka with this wholly fabricated viewpoint mostly by Christian or western secularists.

Ven. Hong Yang

“But as we’re about to see, history works otherwise. And having a view more in line with the facts here frees us from chauvinist views and gives us grounds for respecting differences between and within diverse Buddhist schools. As for undermining our basis for faith, not to worry. To get in line with the facts, we’re not going to abandon Manjushri’s sword of wisdom. We’re going to use it.”

Not really facts, just opinions, theories and guesses.  Without even undestanding what Buddhists do and practice, that sword of Manjusri would be impossible to wield by scholars of this view.

Ven. Hong Yang

“Religious orthodoxy wants to claim that one’s own tradition is the best. To do that, one needs to point to something unique to make it so. Having the sole true version of a singular truth is just such a foothold. And not only for Buddhists. Elaine Pagels, the scholar of religion who brought to light the Gnostic gospels, told Tricycle in 2005:

The Church father Tertullian said,
Christ taught one single thing, and that’s what we teach, and that is what is in the creed. But he’s writing this in the year 180 in North Africa, and what he says Christ taught would never fit in the mouth of a rabbi, such as Jesus, in first-century Judea. For a historically-based tradition—like Christianity, and as you say, Buddhism—there’s a huge stake in the claim that what it teaches goes back to a specific revelation, person, or event, and there is a strong tendency to deny the reality of constant innovation, choice, and change. “

This is wholly out of place and demonstrates what I often say about these types of people claimiing authority on Buddhism, it’s history and Sangha.  They don’t understand how it’s praticed and often delude themselves with ideas of they know what is Buddhist and what is not. You cannot take a western model based on Christianity and view an Eastern religion like Buddhism.  You must view with Buddhist eyes, a Buddhist heart, and Buddhist practice and study. This way of approaching Buddhism from a western Christian influenced academic approach is very poorly done.
Ven. Hong Yang

“The Buddhist canons as they exist today are the products of historical contingencies. They resound with the many voices that have shaped them through time. But orthodoxy requires the opposite, a wall you can’t put your fist through: singular, unchanging, findable truth. Buddhism’s textual root wasn’t singular, and it wasn’t unchanging. As it turns out, it wasn’t so findable, either.

The Buddhist Tripitakas are culminations of practice, translations, study and unending gathering of sutras/suttas by monastic Sangha who travelled, studied and preserved to the best of their ability what they found, studied, and worked on in translations.  There is no orthodoxy, no one group oversaw this process and pronounced it as correct but some of recorded history survived that scholars have access to wrote down that some councils that were occuring in one or a few countries.  This idea of orthodoxy is not the norm, most of what we have today is the result of concentrated self-sacrificing individuals who tried their best to produce good translations and seek out sutras/suttas stored in other coutries, temples, monasteries, collected by the curious and merchants, etc.

Ven. Hong Yang

“That’s the further step that we’re taking, to dispense with the idea of the original because that is a kind of pipe dream or figment of the imagination,” says Paul Harrison, a professor of religious studies at Stanford University and a member of the editorial board for the Schøyen Collection (another recently discovered collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts). Harrison is also a translator. As such, he gives us a hands-on report of how texts weather the practicalities of translation. To the extent that we are still holding onto that tree model, Harrison is about to pull the last leaves from our hands. Translators used to be guided by the notion, he explains, that if you put enough different versions of a sutra together, kept the overlap, and eliminated all the variance, eventually you could reconstruct the prototype. “According to that model,” he says, “it’ll all narrow to a point. But basically what we are finding is that it doesn’t narrow to a point. The more we know, the more varied and indeterminate it is right at the beginning.” Trying to reconstruct the original version of any early sutra—the one that is unmediated, accurate, and complete— is now generally considered, in principle, futile. Indeed, Harrison asks, “What are you aiming at?” Looking for such an original is ingrained, essentialist thinking, he says.

He points out, “We often say, ‘Tibetan translation, Chinese translation, Sanskrit original. As soon as you say Sanskrit original, you drop back into that sloppy but entirely natural way of thinking, that this is the original so we can throw away the copies. But in fact, that Sanskrit original of whatever sutra is just again another version. So the idea that one of them is the original and all the others are more or less imperfect shadows of it has to be given up. But it is very hard to give it up. It’s almost impossible to give it up.” And the irony is not lost on Harrison, who adds, “This is what the teaching of the Buddha is all about.”

This is a laughable viewpoint, there has never been a predominent language in sutra/sutta translations like the one that tries to ascribe first language as recently offered in the west by westerners.  Translation monasteries in the ancient past were few and far between as they required considerable patronage by king/emperorers and time, and most efforts were done mostly in history as they are now word by word, alone and solitary near or absolute hermit/ess of poor economic means. No glory or reward for their work beyond a lucky few who had Buddhist benefactors.

Ven. Hong Yang

One problem with the traditional model of textual transmission, according to Harrison, is that it doesn’t take into account cross-influences—the very real cases of text conflation when scribes or translators might have (for example, when standardizing) copied features from multiple differing versions, thus producing a new version. He continues: “If everything just proceeds in its own vertical line, and there is no crossways influence, that is fine; you know where you are. But once things start flowing horizontally, you get a real mess. Having something old, of course, is valuable because you are more likely to be closer to an earlier form. But notice I’m careful to say now ‘an earlier form’ and not ‘the earliest form.’ A first-century B.C.E. [Gandhari] manuscript is going to give you a better guide to an earlier form than an 18th-century Sri Lankan copy will. But that’s not an absolute guarantee, just a slightly better one.”

Neither can we draw a solid line around different schools. Harrison reports that looking backward in time, already by the first century C.E. boundaries between the Mahayana and non- Mahayana begin to blur. The Gandhari manuscripts probably reflect content of early monastic libraries, and the texts seem to have been intentionally buried. Mahayana and mainstream Buddhist sutras were recovered together and presumably buried together. Harrison believes that the monks who engaged in Mahayana practices were most likely Vinaya-observing; they likely lived in monasteries side by side practitioners of more mainstream Buddhism.

Pure guesses, there has been nothing known about early Buddhism much beyond guesses.  Records of damanged remenents of a few monasteries that have school names are a little more reliable and are the finding of these Mahayana texts, just the last line is a horrible and vague assumption of a sravaka as defined by current schools of Theravada or western view of Theravada history and practices.  Mahayana has always included all schools in it’s collection of sutras. If a school existed that was sravaka nearly like what is the current practice of Theravada most like then it was not unusual to do so then. Chinese Mahayana Tripitaka is inclusive of all available records of sutras from all schools.

Ven. Hong Yang

“These first-century Mahayana texts in the new collections are already highly developed in terms of narrative complexity and Mahayana doctrine. They couldn’t be the first Mahayana sutras, Harrison says. “The earlier stages of the Mahayana go far back. The Mahayana has longer roots and older roots than we thought before.” (Not roots all the way back to the Buddha, though—Harrison agrees with the general scholarly consensus that the Mahayana developed after the Buddha.) Nonetheless, he says, “Probably lying behind these Mahayana texts there are others with much stronger mainstream coloration, where it is not so easy to tell whether it’s Mahayana or Shravakayana.” [Shravakayana means literally ‘the way of the hearers’; those who follow the path with arahantship as its goal.]

Sravaka is a very general term and occurs in Mahayana sutras very often. It’s onlly new to Western scholars and those with curisory knowledge of the richness of variations and commonalitys of all the schools teachings.

Ven. Hong Yang

“During this period of early Buddhism there were many different strands of practice and trends of thought that were not yet linked. “We could have the Perfection of Wisdom strand and a Pure Land strand and a worship of the Buddha strand, and all sorts of things going on,” Harrison remarks. Only later did these threads coalesce into what we now consider “the Mahayana.”

There was no delination into early schools only to teachers who attracted students enough to be able to afford to be in one place and devleop a community.   That is really how it has always been in monastic Sangha commuities.  It’s a fluid situation for many monastics are enroute to seeking a specific teacher they heard about to study a sutra/sutta or a practice that they wish to learn.  This is still how it actually occurs.  All the views for Westerners have been based upon repeated later accounts of schools by the schools themselves after they had reach prominence or in some cases dominance in their geographic area or political situation.  Much later have some of these schools merged into and continues to grow in practice and development of new schools and offshoots as it’s always been. Finally gaining the attention of the Western scholar.

Ven. Hong Yang,2

Reply by bhikshunion May 27, 2011, 11:34 pm

The article is interesting.  However, from a translator’s view and a monastic Sangha member myself, a bhikshuni. I would like to offer another opinion.  Don’t use the models to understand the development of the Tripitakas; there are already many versions out there now.  That’s the way it was and it in Sangha history. Think of what you already discussed.  History provides ideas of what we found out that many schools existed starting with Buddha’s inner circle of disciples who had already started teaching forming schools when Buddha was alive.  Buddha mentions this many times in the sutras giving guidelines of dharma teaching and advice on how one is to view dharma.  Upon his death, many disiciples had their schools already and their students had schools actively as well; then some succeeded, failed, merged; and new ones became popular.

What we have now written down is not the same as the Buddha taught, we know that it’s just various popular schools who have set up standards where there were none and some Sangha Councils voted on it, but not all of them…we know that from many scholarly reports already.  Yet only among Sangha we have very few of us who pull it out of our bags to pronounce it as true, really the only version of correct eact words of the Buddha.  Very, very few do this. Because we have been taught in the Vinaya how to appraoch dharma and Dharma teachings of the Buddha.  The article misreports how Sangha deal with this; it’s usually western people who fight over who is right, and some very devout laity in all the traditions do infact do the same.

Vinaya Sangha are respectful of other traditions and are taught to study as much as they can all the schools that they have access to, they do not promote division among Sanghans (monastic) by touting on as superior over another, those that do this are unsual and maybe using it for platform for personal reasons.

Western articles that I’ve read over the years here and elsewhere with comments claiming secularism in tradtional views as negatives, tradtion, superstition, etc; are not fully understanding or embraced all the Buddhist culture and teachings.  Having different versions or partial versions of the Tripitaka does not make the ones we have at the present time wrong nor invalidates them in any way. In all cases, we know that oral tradition which is accessible to residing monastic Sangha is not available to laity or even to scholars, this oral tradition hasn’t died out, it’s protected by ourselves, we also preserve in our various languages and schools has been handed down very well from our honored monastic elders to us monastics now, that’s our privaledge as monastic Sangha to have received and pass along in the next generations.

Gandhari scroll fragments 1st c. BCE Mahayana earliest written sutras/suttas


I am a Bhikshuni ordained in Mahayana Chinese Buddhist tradition. I'm currently translating Vinaya sutras from the Chinese Mahayana Tripitaka.