What did the Buddha actually say?

Posted by on Jul 18, 2013 in Buddhism | 2,541 Comments

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you’ll know I spent some time last week at the UK Association of Buddhist Studies (UKABS) annual conference.

I listened to a bunch of lectures from professors and PhD students and got up to speed on some of the latest research in the field.

One of the lectures was about the Chinese Buddhist canon and what went into it.

A ‘canon’ is a body of work recognised as the real deal. A set of texts that is considered authoritative.

The Pali Canon, for example, is considered by the Theravada school to be the words of the historical Buddha. It’s not open to be added to or played about with. It is what it is.

There were other schools with other recollections when the Theravada was emerging.

None of the texts from those schools still exist in their entirety in their original language, but there are enough chunks available (much of it preserved in Chinese) for us to know that the Pali Canon is an accurate enough representation of early Buddhist thought and practice. The details might change from version to version, but the teachings and practices attributed to the Buddha are remarkably similar.

This is kind of amazing when you think that the tradition was oral for the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death.

What that means is the people who memorised it did an awesome job. Quite an achievement. I struggle to remember what I wrote on the blog last week!

Different takes on the truth

The thing I found interesting from the Chinese canon was that it included various translations of the same text. Within the same canon.

Normally a canon is a ‘this is the truth’ type of deal. They don’t go in for alternate versions. They don’t have director’s cuts.

Perhaps the Chinese approach was a reflection of the fact that, by the time Buddhism arrived in China, there was already a sophisticated culture in place. There was a pre-existing philosophy or two (Confucianism and Taoism) and a well-documented, written-down history.

In that light, perhaps it’s not surprising that the Chinese thinkers of the time were able to hold various versions of a text as all having merit.

A postmodern Buddhism

I think we’re in a similar position in the contemporary West.

It seems daft to me to be trying to fit yourself into one school of Buddhism, while knowing full well that a whole bunch of others exist.

I think it’s totally fine to decide that you’ll follow one particular school’s approach if it resonates with you or you’re attracted to it for whatever reason. Each school is a full path in my opinion.

But if you’re like me, you’ll be wanting the actual truth. You’ll want to know about historical developments, as well as non-religious factors that shaped the Buddhism of the historical Buddha and the Buddhisms that developed in the centuries after he died.

Maybe you’ll want to compare and contrast different Buddhist and non-Buddhist tools and philosophical perspectives.

Maybe you’ll want to arrive at your own take on it all, because you’re actually looking for liberation or a way to live that makes sense to you, instead of just looking to join the best gang.

Personally I think looking at the breadth of material that’s available to you is a necessary and healthy approach. So long as you don’t spend your entire life thinking and reading without doing any actual practice!

Buddhism is primarily a thing to do, not a thing to think about.¬†You need enough perspective in order to do it effectively, sure, but don’t wait to begin.

Life is short! You can modify as you go along.


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