Buddhist Scriptures – Part I – Their Veracity

[Summary: A brief look at the formation of the Buddhist scriptures – since the New Atheists claim that all religious scripture is nonsense, and worse, dangerous nonsense. ]

I can’t stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity or who is a person of faith.

says Christopher Hitchens, whose book God is Not Great was the topic of a blog last week. He was talking about his own brother, who despite the same parents and upbringing, takes the opposite view. Peter Hitchens believes in God. [Reference article]

I bring this up since it shows that however logical, reasoned, or common sense an argument may be on this topic, it is still a topic. A topic that is open to discussion, and is far from proved either way.  The New Atheists would not agree of course, saying that any belief in religion is an embarrassing form of mania. All religious scriptures are,

pieced together from fragments and contradictory sources and then given claims for a spurious unity: Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world (Dawkins).

Regarding the Buddhist scriptures

The primary set of scriptures in Buddhism is in the form of the Pali texts. Pali, unless you want to get excessively technical about it, is the language the Buddha spoke, and is a derivation from its more complex cousin Sanskrit. After the death of the Buddha, his plentiful disciples set about recording the scriptures via chanting, the primary form of record keeping at the time. Groups of monks would learn by heart certain batches of the teachings (called ‘suttas’) by recitation – and this was a form of record keeping that is in fact, highly accurate. The story has it that this first happened a few months after the Buddha’s death in the First Council, and twice more in the Second and Third Councils at which time the “official” Canon was officially recognised and closed to change or adaptation. This is what we know as “Theravada” or the way of the Elders, and is likely the closest record we have of what the Buddha actually taught. It would be several hundred years later that the texts were systematically organised with their commentaries and explanations and written down.

However we do know that there were a number of schools which arose directly after the Buddha’s death, some with very different interpretations. Some of these schools canons were recorded by the Chinese, and are still in existence today textually. Much work remains to be done comparing these records with the official Theravada one. Mahayana Buddhism grew up in the same environment, but never made an official closed version of the teachings, and so many of its suttas are, beyond reasonable doubt, later additions. That is not to say they are not accurate or useful to practise, but for now we are just looking at the Theravada version of events, since this is the form of Buddhism that we have in Thailand.

All modern scholars agree that there was some reworking and reorganisation of the scriptures, which opens the probability that many parts are later fabrications which somehow got inserted. Who really believes the Buddha was born while his mother was standing up, landed on his feet and walked several paces in either direction declaring that this would be his final rebirth? Or that lotus blossoms sprung up miraculously in his freshly vacated footprints? For each and every sutta we have to ask if it is concordant with the truth, and if it can be tested and verified by individual practise, while keeping in mind that we do not have sufficient skills in meditation to follow the trail all the way to enlightenment. In this sense the suttas hold up very well. They are remarkably consistent (if you pass over a lot of the miraculous stuff) and pragmatic. The message remains clear across the different versions of the scriptures, and provides a guide for interpreting existence in such a way as to foster wisdom.

Regarding the New Atheist’s attack on anyone who believes in ancient scripture when we have such fabulous and intricate explanations for our material world provided by science there are several points to be made.

  • The Buddhist scriptures (called the Tipitaka) are not revealed by God. These are the teachings of a man on earth who claimed to have rediscovered an ancient truth of enlightenment.
  • This Enlightenment is the nature of beings, including Gods. Thus there are Gods in Buddhism, but even the Gods are subject to death, rebirth and suffering, and can become enlightened too.
  • There is an ultimate Goal – nibbana (nirvana), enlightenment, which is the summum bonum of life, which is a natural law independent of any man or god. Pointing out the way to this is the purpose of the teaching.
  • Buddhist scriptures spend little time discussing the material world (which is best described by science these days), but focus on the internal laws of the mind, which has only just begun to gain recognition in psychology.
  • The Buddha consistently said his claims are verifiable – i.e. not a revelation from a higher being that is to be believed and worshipped.
  • He consistently entreated his followers to ‘taste and see’ for themselves, and not to believe anything blindly.

There are probably a number of further points to add to that list, but it will have to do for now. In Part II we will look at the accuracy of the chanting method of record, and in Part III look at the famous Kalama sutta where the Buddha taught that he should not be believed blindly.

On to Part II – Buddhist scriptures, the Record

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About Cittasamvaro

Auto blogography of an urban monk
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