“Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?” by Bhikkhu Sujato

Bhikkhu Sujato, a young Australian monk with a background in philosophy, is one of my heroes because of his ability to think critically about the Buddhist tradition, and especially for his thinking on the relation between samatha and vipassana approaches to meditation. I admire his geekiness.

Anyway, here he is on the question of the authenticity of Mahayana sutras:

One of our commenters asked about whether the Lotus Sutra was considered authentic according to the Theravadin view.

To answer this from the traditional Theravadin point of view, all the Mahayana Sutras are inauthentic in the sense that they were not spoken by the Buddha. Historically, Theravada has tended to take a dim view of Mahayana, regarding it as a mere degeneration of the pure teachings.

That the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana Sutras were not spoken by the Buddha is unanimously supported by modern scholarship. I don’t know of a single academic in the last 150 years who has argued otherwise. The basic historical background is given in Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Lotus Sutra was composed over a period of time, or in a number of stages. The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 CE. This makes it one of the earliest Mahayana Sutras (and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana).

So there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in. They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations. Of course the same is true of many Theravadin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.

Why were the Mahayana Sutras phrased as if spoken literally by the Buddha? This is a difficult question, and there is unlikely to be one answer. Partly it was just how the literary form evolved. But I suspect, given the visionary nature of many Mahayanist texts, that they often stemmed from meditation experiences; visions of the Buddha, memories of ‘teachings’ received while in samadhi. Perhaps the authors of these texts believed that the Buddha was really present to them in some sense – and this is indeed the theme of many Mahayana sutras. Or perhaps they more humbly believed that they had gained insight into the Dhamma in some direct way.

This has obvious relevance for those interested in Fake Buddha Quotes. From a certain point of view, all Mahayana Sutras are Fake Buddha Quotes. But this doesn’t undermine their spiritual relevance or usefulness. I’ve never claimed that the message of any Fake Quote is diminished because it the words don’t happen to stem from the Buddha. In saying that a quote isn’t from the Buddha, I am not automatically saying that the quote isn’t valid. The validity of the quote is a separate matter.

Here’s a link to Bhikkhu Sujato’s blog. It’s worth a visit.

39 thoughts on ““Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?” by Bhikkhu Sujato”

  1. The Dharmaguptakas argued that the original teachings of the Buddha were lost. The language and texts that recorded the Dharmaguptakas, the Gandharan texts, are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts every found, millennia older than anything in the Pali canon. So, in a sense, all Buddha quotes are fake Buddha quotes.

    1. If you look at the “About” page for this site you’ll see I’ve argued there that there’s nothing we can safely classify as a genuine quotation from the Buddha. I’m skeptical of the argument from Dharmaguptaka claims, however. It’s not exactly uncommon for one school to argue that their texts are the most authentic 🙂

  2. However, there is a significant number of people who have developed a fundamentalist line of interpretation regarding the Pali scriptures of the Theravada without any critical survey of their own claims. The Theravada are on even shakier ground than the Dharmagutaka!

    1. Yes, it’s interesting looking at Bhante Sujato’s analysis of the various versions of the Satipatthana Sutta, which show that the Theravadin version has been messed around with more than any of the others. This of course may just be a function of the Theravada being a living tradition, and thus in a position to keep editing texts.

  3. I think it’s a dirty secret of every tradition that they innovate. If you look at any tradition, not just in Buddhism (I just spent several years in the Middle East where ‘innovation’ is a dirty word/fighting words, but it’s there, everywhere, just some choose to not see), you’ll find that there are differences after several generations. I don’t think it’s damning at all. Perfectly human. Look at how even languages change. We see differences in usage and pronunciation when grandparents grumble about grandchildren! However, if you are a fundamentalist of some kind, and you want an infallible bit of scripture to rest your interpretation of the true, good and beautiful, then it is rather damning. Oh, well. I enjoy reading your site! Thank you for your efforts!

    1. I’m glad you enjoy the site, J. I’m not sure if, in using the word “you” in “if you are a fundamentalist of some kind, and you want an infallible bit of scripture…” you’re addressing me or using the generic “you.” Anyway, my concern is here is just to distinguish inaccurate citations from legitimate ones. Later (innovative) scriptures can be more profound than earlier ones…

  4. Are you ‘sure sure’? 😉 That’s a lovely typo, especially seeing that English does use reduplication of that sort! (“Are you just sure, or are you sure sure?”)

    I thought ‘indefinite you’ was obvious from context. I could have written ‘if one is a fundamentalist…’, but that sounds a little too formal for a blog!

    Yes, I agree with you about legitimate quotes, profound quotes, and everything else! I’m sure sure! 😉

  5. The problem with this view, is that it’s actually a very weak argument when actually examined. All scriptures of the Buddha were written down hundreds of years after his death. The Theravadan view is essentially: “Our favorite scriptures were were written down first, therefor all others are invalid!”

    That’s really a weak view. And, I might mention it’s a view not supported by the vast majority of the Buddhist world, the majority of whom are Mahayana (Theravadan’s are a minority) and honestly, it doesn’t really hold water, especially in light of enormous archeological evidence for a strong tradition of Mahayana Buddhism in early India.

    I mean Theravadan’s reject some of the most important of the Buddha’s teaching, such as Bodhisattvahood, transfers of merit, Bodhicitta, and Buddha Nature.

    There’s a great article here, by someone who lived for some time as a Theravadan monk, that is really worth reading by anyone who spends a lot of time quoting access to insight quotes, and Bhikkhu’s that really gives a lot more understanding of what Theravadan Buddhism is like from the inside.
    http://www.buddhistische-gesellschaft-berlin.de/downloads/brokenbuddhanew.pdf

    1. You are of course correct, Sara, that the Theravada’s scriptures were passed on orally for hundreds of years before being written down.

      One problem with your view is that the Pali scriptures of the Theravada were not the only early scriptures that were preserved in this way. There are Sanskrit originals and also translations into Chinese that are from the same period of early Buddhism and that come from other early schools. And the content of these various bodies of scripture are very similar. There are variations in how the scriptures are arranged, and even minor changes in wording within corresponding suttas/sutras, but they clearly all belong to the same body of teaching and have the same oral characteristics.

      Which brings us to the second problem, which is that with very few exceptions the Mahayana scriptures do not have the same oral characteristics and have very different doctrinal content. They were created in a literary culture beginning after the Nikayas/Agamas were committed to writing — and in some cases many, many centuries after. And the doctrinal content is very different. The Mahayana scriptures in some cases did take things (like emptiness) that were in the early scriptures and explored them more deeply. In other cases the doctrines were innovations. So when you say “Theravadan’s reject some of the most important of the Buddha’s teaching, such as Bodhisattvahood, transfers of merit, Bodhicitta, and Buddha Nature,” this is not accurate. These things were not part of the Buddha’s teaching.

      Of course just because a scripture wasn’t taught by the Buddha but was composed by others centuries later doesn’t mean that it is invalid. Something doesn’t have to have been taught by the Buddha in order to be profound.

      As for Broken Buddha, I’m very familiar with that. But the deficiencies of the modern Theravada have no bearing on whether the Mahayana scriptures were taught by the Buddha, does it? If you need to attack another school in order to feel better about your own, perhaps there’s some sectarian clinging going on that you would benefit from examining?

      1. So I think first of all, you’re not understanding that the Mahayana Sutras are also from Sanskrit sources, and they too are from oral tradition. In fact, when translated into Chinese and Tibetan they were so meticulously done over many years, that you can actually compare the two different versions and there’s very little difference between them. And in fact there’s also plenty of archeological evidence of strong Mahayana practice in early India such as ancient statues of Avalokiteshvara and other figures found only in Mahayana Sutras.

        As far as difference in doctrinal teaching, the Buddha actually explained that he gave different sets of teachings to different people. He gave what you could call more beginner teachings to some people that focused mainly on ethics (most of the Therevadin teachings include these). He gave other teachings that focused very heavily on meditation and aspects of meditation as well as compassion for others (most of the Mahayana teachings include these) and he also gave Tantric teachings on working of energy and things like that (and these also come from Sanskrit sources, some of which still survive) that he gave to a few students.

        So, the idea that all of the Buddha’s teachings have to be the same is really just a Theravadin view. It’s not supported by scholarly research or by evidence.

        The Broken Buddha thing is worth pointing out, because it points out (and it is not alone in this, Bhikkhu Bodhi does also) that most Therevadins really don’t have much education when it comes to Buddhist scripture. Most of them don’t even read the Pali Cannon, as Dhammika writes: “Go to any monastery from to Rangoon to Phnom Penh, from Korat to Kandy and if there is a copy of the Tipitaka at all it will be sitting in quiet neglect in its locked and dusty cabinet.” And even Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that there is a such a severe shortage of of Buddhist education in the Theravadin world, that there’s almost nobody who has the education or experience to embody a “messenger of Dhamma”. Most Theravadins don’t even meditate.

        If you contrast this with the Tibetan Universities who have the most expertise on Buddhism in the world, monks and laypeople there are sometimes expected to study for decades not just the intricacies of Dharma scripture, but also Buddhist history, Buddhist philosophy, and have a well-established Buddhist practice. They have a huge amount of very high expertise in Buddhist textual history and they very much do consider the Mahayana teachings to be teachings of the Buddha.

        So the credibility matters, and it’s worth pointing out that when the best Buddhist experts in the world, validate something, whereas when people who have very little expertise in the matter criticize something, that those opinions have very different weight. It’s worth pointing out that the Thai modernist
        Chatsumarn Kabilsingh says that many of the monks in her country are just “simple uneducated farmers in yellow robes.”

        So when someone like that has an opinion on the validity or lack thereof of Dharma, and then their opinion is compared with people who have decades of detailed, highly trained education on the matter… That’s not an equal comparison.

        So I’m not saying that Theravadins are bad or anything but it is valid to point out that their opinion on this matter does not really come from a great deal of education or experience with the subject (they often don’t even read the scriptures that they do consider valid), and is more just a fundamentalist view that has been repeated with very little basis in fact.

        1. “You’re not understanding that the Mahayana Sutras are also from Sanskrit sources…”

          First, and I say this gently, please do not presume to tell me what I understand. I’m fully aware that (most) Mahayana Sutras were composed in Sanskrit, although some were composed in China.

          “…and they too are from oral tradition.”

          No. With a few minor exceptions they are not. They lack the distinctive character of works that are passed down orally.

          “The Buddha actually explained that he gave different sets of teachings to different people … the Mahayana teachings … Tantric teachings on working of energy and things like that … he gave to a few students.”

          No. No, he did not. Mahayana teachings purport to be from the Buddha, but they’re not; they were composed many centuries after the Buddha died. And the claims that they make about the Buddha having taught Mahayana and Tantra to a few disciples are fiction, designed to lend them authenticity.

          “In the Theravadin world, that there’s almost nobody who has the education or experience … contrast this with the Tibetan Universities who have the most expertise on Buddhism in the world.”

          This is just silly. There are scholars like Bodhi, Analayo, and Sujato who, practice in the Theravada tradition and who have a deep understanding of the Dharma and the history of its transmission, and there are scholars in the Western academic tradition who also have a deep understanding of the texts and their history. And I very much doubt you could find one of the latter who would agree with your assertions that the Mahayana Sutras and the Tantras were taught by the historical Buddha.

          You talk about fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a tendency to uncritically accept the claims made within religious texts, combined with a tendency to disparage those who practice in other traditions. Does this ring any bells?

    2. Hi Sara,
      I have read all Mahāyāna scriptures and the Pali Canon. I myself come from Mahāyāna branch. Indeed the Pali canon was passed down by oral and was written later, the style is simple, repeatable and unity; Most Mahāyāna scriptures were written later by intellectuals who had contemplated mind and gained knowledge from The Pali Canon and redeveloped . All were written in Sanskrit from different groups using Hinduism and Iranian devas, gods… Lotus metaphor which had had long before Buddha (Hinduism and Vedas )had been developed as a bodhisattva. The heart sutra (Guang Ying) the compassionate goddess is the metaphor from Hindu god, as well as mother figure of the world . She has thousand eyes and hands which can hear every pray and give hands to who chant the Sūtra. Just look around you and you can see between the sky and the earth is SPACE, SPACE can cover and reach everywhere, and hear everything; only a mother’s love can give an unconditional love to her children and reach to them immediately when they need. Read the whole Prajnaparamitahrdaya The Heart of The Perfect Wisdom sutra and figure out The verse “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” . Jason

  6. So the view that the Mahayana Sutras were “composed” (i.e. fabricated) many years later really is just an opinion. And one not supported by plenty of evidence. They were *written down* later, but that does not mean that they were inventions.

    What scripture was written down first, does not have any bearing on something’s validity.

    As far as the view that they “lack a distinctive character” for being oral, that’s really silly considering that the Mahayana Sutras were required to be memorized for years in Buddhist monasteries around the world as standard. “Distinctive character” is a subjective aesthetic opinion.

    That’s like someone saying that Sicilian sauces lack the “distinctive flavor” of pasta sauce that the northern sauces have. And so therefor aren’t pasta sauce. It’s silly. It has no bearing on the validity or lack therof of something. It’s pure opinion.

    Further, According to David Kalupahana, Scholars have noted that many key Mahayana ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism.

    Additionally, the Pali Cannon itself was written down some 300 years after the death of the Buddha, and only a hundred years later, there was significant opposition to the idea that they were the only “valid” scriptures, and great Masters like Nagarjuna and other composed entire lists of Sutras that included not just the Pali Cannon but many others.

    I mean somebody with a Geshe degree has to have anywhere between 12 and 40 years of Buddhist study before the degree is conferred. How many Geshe’s would agree that Mahayana teachings are not teachings of the Buddha? Secular scholars also have found plenty of evidence linking Mahayana to early India. And again there’s also archeological evidence of this.

    Also the view on Tantras is bizare considering that Tantric texts were widely taught and practiced by Vedic and Brahmanic practitioners which the Buddha learned as well.

    My point is that there is plenty of both valid evidence, and valid expertise that casts doubt on this claim.

    1. So the view that the Mahayana Sutras were “composed” (i.e. fabricated) many years later really is just an opinion. And one not supported by plenty of evidence. They were *written down* later, but that does not mean that they were inventions.

      It’s not “just an opinion,” but an opinion based on evidence, and one held universally by scholars of Buddhism.

      What scripture was written down first, does not have any bearing on something’s validity.

      Exactly. Something can be spiritually valid no matter when it was composed. However, when something was written down can have a bearing on whether it’s likely to have originated with the Buddha. If something is first written down a millennium after the Buddha, in a style that’s completely dissimilar to the earlier scriptures, and introducing concepts that aren’t in those earlier teachings, then it’s not reasonable to assume it originated with the Buddha.

      As far as the view that they “lack a distinctive character” for being oral, that’s really silly considering that the Mahayana Sutras were required to be memorized for years in Buddhist monasteries around the world as standard.

      There’s a difference between a scripture having originally been oral, and later written down, and something having been originally written down and later memorized. The styles of both forms of literature are very different.

      According to David Kalupahana, Scholars have noted that many key Mahayana ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism.

      Of course some of them are. There are early suttas on emptiness, for example, which is something that the Mahayana developed and explored. And I’m glad they did. No one is arguing that there’s a complete discontinuity between earlier and later forms of Buddhism. The Mahayana didn’t invent the concept of emptiness. But it did also introduce new teachings and emphases that aren’t found in the earlier scriptures, and that were innovations.

      great Masters like Nagarjuna and other composed entire lists of Sutras that included not just the Pali Cannon but many others.

      Nagarjuna lived some 600 years or more after the Buddha died. The fact that he referred to scriptures that were not in the early canons (not just the Pali canon) is therefore unsurprising. And it says nothing about whether those scriptures are records of what the Buddha actually taught. It’s “canon,” not “cannon” by the way.

      How many Geshe’s would agree that Mahayana teachings are not teachings of the Buddha?

      You might want to talk to western Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor and Stephen Schettini, who trained as Geshes under Tibetan masters and who came to the conclusion that the point of their education was not to question skeptically, but to learn to be uncritical and to adhere to orthodoxy. Most Tibetans, even Geshes, aren’t even particularly aware of the early scriptures. They certainly don’t engage in the kind of close textual analysis, history, and archaeology that western scholars do.

      Anyway, to get back to the main point: although some Mahayana scriptures elaborate on things that the Buddha taught, they are later creations and do not come directly from what he said. There’s always doubt about whether particular teachings in the early Nikayas and Agamas reflect what the Buddha actually said, but when it comes to the Mahayana scriptures there is no such doubt.

      1. Friend, Stephen Bachelor and Stephen Schettini are not Geshe’s. They never were Geshes. Lots and lots of people train to perhaps be a Geshe and don’t become one because the training to do so is so rigorous, that very few people make it.

        Bachelor and Schettini aren’t even Buddhists. (Schettini by his own admission, and Bachelor in leu of the fact that he simply makes things up, and claims a great many things that the Buddha himself said are wrong view).

        Honestly, this whole idea that you have that western scholars know more about Buddhism than people who have studied it in detail for decades is laughable. It’s very typical of an old Western Colonial attitude that asians are just these backwards superstitious people, whereas Westerners are the smart ones.

        Schettini spent 8 years as a monk and didn’t even understand the purpose of what rituals were for. He probably had very little metaphysical experiences and so had no idea what he was doing, and just thought he was engaging in superstitious nonsense. Bachelor likewise went from teacher to teacher, not getting certification in any school, and then went on to proclaim himself a self-appointed teacher of Buddhism.

        These people are not credible, I don’t know any Buddhist circle where Bachelor is taken seriously, most people just roll their eyes at him, and go “Oh is he still writing books?”

        But I mean I don’t think there’s any point in talking to you about this. You’re just going to go on and on, and say that black is white, and truth is false, and the most credible people are not credible and that a small minority of people is a consensus, that there is no doubt of your views when there’s plenty of doubt and indeed evidence to the contrary, etc, etc. I mean pretty much everything you’re saying on here is outright false.

        It really is like talking to a fundamentalist or a Trump supporter. Like no amount of reasonable discussion or evidence will persuade a Trump supporter that his polices are bad: no to them he’s a hero. So good luck to you! Hopefully in a few more lifetimes you’ll open your mind!

        1. Stephen Bachelor and Stephen Schettini are not Geshe’s. They never were Geshes.

          I never claimed they were. I pointed out that they had started Geshe training and abandoned it, seeing it as deficient. You appear to be setting up a straw man argument.

          Bachelor and Schettini aren’t even Buddhists. (Schettini by his own admission, and Bachelor in leu of the fact that he simply makes things up

          It’s so interesting that you call other people fundamentalist and yet feel you have the power to say who is and isn’t a Buddhist. As I said before, “Fundamentalism is a tendency to uncritically accept the claims made within religious texts, combined with a tendency to disparage those who practice in other traditions.” So this still isn’t ringing any bells with you?

          Honestly, this whole idea that you have that western scholars know more about Buddhism than people who have studied it in detail for decades is laughable. It’s very typical of an old Western Colonial attitude that asians are just these backwards superstitious people, whereas Westerners are the smart ones.

          I did not make the claim that western scholars know more about Buddhism than people who have studied and practiced it in a traditional setting. That’s another straw man argument on your part. The claim I made is that western scholars of Buddhism know more about the historical development of Buddhist texts. They don’t simply take claims made in Buddhist texts at face value but examine all the evidence critically. To do this — to look at actual evidence — is the opposite of fundamentalism, which is what happens when people uncritically believe what is written in their scriptures. For example to believe that a text was taught by the Buddha simply because the text makes that claim is fundamentalism.

          I don’t know any Buddhist circle where Bachelor is taken seriously

          You need to get out more. I know plenty of Buddhists who have respect for Batchelor, although largely they also are critical of him in some respects.

          I don’t think there’s any point in talking to you about this. You’re just going to go on and on, and say that black is white, and truth is false, and the most credible people are not credible and that a small minority of people is a consensus, that there is no doubt of your views when there’s plenty of doubt and indeed evidence to the contrary, etc, etc. I mean pretty much everything you’re saying on here is outright false.

          I find myself wondering if you are aware of the phenomenon of psychological projection.

    2. “Somebody with a Geshe degree has to have anywhere between 12 and 40 years of Buddhist study.” You should qualify that to mean 12-40 years of studying primarily Mahayana and Tantric texts that falsely attribute certain teachings to the Buddha. So what?

  7. I LOLed.. You do need a little entertainment after serious stuff, just to refresh your mind.. Thanks Sara!

  8. Hi,
    I am not a Buddhist scholar and I will not write a reply myself because of my lack of knowledge about historical facts and the Tipitaka. Instead I will write some links from a website that I think is very promising (no in terms of popularity, but in terms of good Dhamma).

    I am posting some links to some posts of that website that I think can fit in this post and discussion. All the links are to the same website, then it can be said that it is not a very objective reply, and I will agree.

    Also, I would like to know what is your thought about what it is said in the posts. Especially (if possible) Bodhipaksa or any other monk thought.

    Historical Background:
    https://puredhamma.net/historical-background/
    It contains many links with information about the Dhamma and its misinterpretations and degradation (both in the Mahayana and Theravada traditions).
    Some of the links it has are:

    Key problems with Mahayana Teachings:
    https://puredhamma.net/historical-background/key-problems-with-mahayana-teachings/

    Lotus Sutra, a focused analysis:
    https://puredhamma.net/historical-background/saddharma-pundarika-sutra-lotus-sutra-a-focused-analysis/

    What is sunyata-emptiness:
    https://puredhamma.net/historical-background/what-is-sunyata-emptiness/

    Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis:
    https://puredhamma.net/historical-background/buddhaghosas-visuddhimagga-a-focused-analysis/

    Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars:
    https://puredhamma.net/historical-background/misinterpretation-of-anicca-and-anatta-by-early-european-scholars/

    1. Hi there. Thanks for posting links to that site, which I’d never come across. To be honest the guy that writes these posts seems very quirky, and I didn’t find anything of value there.

  9. I feel like there’s some validity to the views that rejecting Mahayana/Vajrayana Sutras and Tantras is a more Hinayanist view. (Not meaning Hinayana in a derogatory way btw, simply referring to the schools of Buddhist thought including Theravada that use only the Pali Canon). It’s not that that’s wrong (there are lots of views in Buddhism), however I agree that it’s fair and right to explicitly aknowledge that. The Heart Sutra is probably the most famous Buddhist Sutra in existence, and so not including that, or in the case of this thread; the Lotus Sutra, as “words of the Buddha” seems a bit… unbalanced? Perhaps? Regardless of whether someone personally views them as “authentic” or not, the fact remains that millions of Buddhists accept them as such and as others have mentioned, they are canonical for most of Buddhism. I can understand this may createvproblems for a website such as this, as the Pali Canon is easier to search using such through as websites such as Access to Insight make it easy to search through the Pali scriptures; whereas Mahayana Sutras tend to be more scattered (and some are only available in print). However it does seem to be a bit preferential, to say that the Sutras that most of the Buddhist world uses are not authentic. Again, even if one strongly views this to be the case, it still remains that they are “authentic” to millions of Buddhists throughout the world. Many of those Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists no doubt run across this site and also wish to see if a meme they ran across is something someone just made up in a hippy book, or if it actually comes from the Diamond Sutra or something. However if only Pali sources are used, that makes this site unreliable for many Buddhists who are Mahayana Buddhists as the Sutras they chant every day may not be included as a source. Again, it’s not that a particular view is wrong, it’s just that it does limit the audience of such a website to do that.

    1. Hi, Megami.

      I appreciate what you’re trying to do here. For the record, I regard quotes as “fake” only if they can’t be traced in the Buddhist scriptures of the early Buddhist traditions or from the Mahayana. However I do note whether or not a particular teaching could conceivably be ascribed to the historical Buddha or whether it’s a more recent creation.

      With regard to the term “Hinayana,” I appreciate that you don’t mean it to be derogatory, but it does literally mean “Inferior Vehicle,” so its use is inherently problematic. It would be better to refer just to the Theravada or to the early Buddhist schools. Incidentally, the Pali texts are, as far as I am aware, unique to the Theravada. The other early schools had their own canons. You’re right in thinking that these schools did (and the Theravada still does) reject the Mahayana teachings as not being the teaching of the Buddha. Historically speaking they’re correct. Very few Theravadins are interested in the contents of the Mahayana Sutras, or teachings by Nagarjuna, etc., which is a shame, since there’s a lot of value there.

      It’s interesting that you mention the Heart Sutra. Historically speaking it’s not even a sutra. It was composed in China and later a Sanskrit forgery was created — the very bad Sanskrit suggesting that that too was created in China. Jayarava has been working for years on studying this texts and he and other scholars have completely changed our understanding of the Heart “Sutra.” The link in the previous sentence is to his Facebook group.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

  10. Hi Bodhipaksa,

    It seems like you’re saying Devas and such beings from the Subtle realms, aren’t real. The Pali scriptures say that Devas and such beings were present when Shakyamuni taught. If a Deva who was present at the time were to come to you and give you a first-hand account of what the Buddha said, directly spoken by someone who was there, would you consider such teachings invalid, even though it was a first-hand account?

    There’s no right or wrong answer to this, however I believe it goes to the heart of this discussion. If a person is inclined to disregard all or most aspects of the Subtle realms as fake, then such teachings are de-emphasized. However if one regards such things as authentic, then they take on great importance. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, however it’s worth noting how one views this matter, greatly changes one’s perspective over this conversation.

    1. It seems like you’re saying Devas and such beings from the Subtle realms, aren’t real.

      You might regard this thing (which I didn’t say) as a game-changer in this conversation, but I’m afraid I would see any possible answer I might give as being irrelevant and unproductive speculation.

  11. Well it really comes down to what one considers “authentic” sources of the Buddha. If one only considers physical texts, then the age/archeology of those texts becomes all-important. However if one considers Devas and other beings from the Unseen realms as valid sources, then the earliest time something was written down becomes much less important, and what matters more is the Deva or other being who is conveying it.

    This is one of the main differences between the Hinayana and Mahayana view points. The Hinayanists, (including Theravada), primarily focus on physical texts, whereas Mahayanists are more interested in tapping into that “Storehouse Consciousness”, as well as more Sambhogakaya teachings which are the source of all these teachings in the first place.

    To a Mahayanist, a Deva, or other deity conveying a teaching of what the Buddha said (from the traditions on their end) is just as valid as an old physical text.

    1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you meet any devas who can pass on the words of the historical Buddha, please send them over to me. I’d be very interested to ask them a few questions.

    2. To put it another way, if you were on trial for something you hadn’t done and the prosecutors introduced a witness who said, “A deva told me that Magami is guilty,” would you be happy for the judge and jury to consider that as evidence?

  12. Well for me, the “evidence” is in the effectiveness, in spiritual matters. It’s not like a court case for murder or something where physical evidence is what’s needed. In this case what we’re talking about is spiritual matters which take place in the realms of the unseen anyway. If practices work, they are effective. If they actually solve one’s suffering. From a Mahayana perspective, “The Buddha” isn’t just Shakyamuni also. It’s the “Buddha Mind” which anyone (including Shakyamuni) can tap into. But even that aside, in the Pali texts themselves it says Shakyamuni Buddha taught to devas, etc. I’ve never seen it considered “extra”-ordinary that such things were the case in Buddhism, it seems to be the norm. Both in the Buddha’s time and throughout Buddhist history. For a physical court case, I’d want some evidence against me if someone were accusing me. But for the cessation of suffering, the “evidence” I’d want is to see that the teachings worked: that the person sharing them had actually had solved, or significantly solved their personal suffering. That to me, would be the “proof” I’d seek.

    But that’s me personally, each person has to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with. And I would certainly say that if you feel intuitively you should trust things a certain way that you should go with that intuition.

    1. You were initially arguing that Mahayana sutras could be considered to be the word of the historical Buddha, if we were prepared to accept that devas passed on those teachings. That’s an argument that it seems even you don’t believe in.

      The effectiveness of Mahayana sutras is evidence only of the spiritual wisdom of the authors. It says nothing about whether they were taught by the Buddha. So it seems you’ve come around to my point of view, which is that the Mahayana sutras do not come from the historical Buddha, but may be spiritually effective.

  13. I believe you’re misunderstanding what I´m saying. The Mahayana view is that Shakyamuni was not a separate, isolated person with his own wisdom. He was essentially channeling a greater wisdom of the Buddha Mind that did not belong to him solely, and that anyone can tap into. The Theravada/Hinayana view is of a single Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, who provided these teachings. Something akin to the Christian Jesus: someone who lived, died, and left behind something. That’s not the Mahayana view.

    The Mahayana view is that Shakyamuni Buddha is still here! That his energy isn’t gone, and is inseparable with all beings. Even science tells us this, that energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. The Buddha is still with us, and never left.

    The Hinayana view is that Shakyamuni Buddha only taught while his physical body was still alive in that life, and then stopped. From a Mahayana view, the Buddha never stopped teaching, and is still here with us. Someone can talk to Shakyamuni right now, in deep meditative states. Mahayanists view that people have three bodies: a physical body, an energy body, and a universally interconnected body that all beings equally share together. That third body is where wisdom comes from, including the Buddha’s.

    So from a Mahayana perspective, both views are just as equally as valid. It’s not considered an either/or but both. It’s considered that yes, he taught these things while he was alive, however to a Mahayanist it would be irrelevant whether he did or not, because the energy of someone does not disappear simply because their physical body is broken up. It’s still here and we can listen to it. When someone speaks to a Buddha today it’s not “John’s wisdom” it’s the Buddha’s wisdom. Both views are simultaneously true.

  14. Hi,
    I am not a scholar by any means but I can honestly say I am a seeker of truth. In just the short time I have been reading the comments on this website I have learned a lot. I had read that the Pali Canon was written approximately 300 years after the Buddha lived. I love Buddhism but shy away (strongly) from fundamentalism. I was born into a cult, managed to leave it when I was 16, but still had to spend years breaking free from controlling people and religious dogma.I connect the freedom of thought which I enjoy now with my determination to find deeper and deeper levels of truth. For that reason, I love to read these discussions/debates. I have some questions and I would deeply appreciate some clarification on this: Are there similarities between the idea of Brahman(in Hinduism)and the mystic law? After reading this discussion, I think that the historic Buddha probably never even spoke of the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra. That was in the Mahayana teaching, wasn’t it? However, was there some idea of an Eternal Law of the Universe that the historic Buddha did mention? If so, was it similar or the same as the Hindu idea of Brahman?

    1. Hi, Leslie.

      You will indeed find some “fundamentalist” Buddhists — in the sense that they believe that the Buddhist scriptures are the unerring word of the Buddha. Both Theravadin fundamentalists and Mahayana fundamentalists ignore the historical evidence in order to stick by that claim. As you’ll have gathered, I’m not one of them.

      The concept of Brahman was a metaphysical teaching: an eternal and unchanging truth that lay behind all transitory appearances. The metaphysical self, or Atman, was the manifestation of Brahman within an individual — an unchanging essence. And both Brahman and Atman were bliss. To find lasting happiness you know your Atman and thus you could know Brahman. (At least that’s my understanding, but bear in mind that I might be mistaken and also that there were and are many different interpretations of these concepts.)

      The Buddha rejected the concept of the Atman (atta in Pali) because everything that constitutes what we are is subject to change, and therefore incapable of providing permanent happiness. And so all things we can experience as ourselves are anicca (changable), dukkha (not capable of giving permanent happiness) and don’t define us (in other words they are an-atta, not who we are). The Buddha used the term atta, but for him it didn’t mean “metaphysical self” but was simply the ordinary term for “oneself” — as when we might say “you should take care of yourself.” It didn’t have the connotation of being a “soul.”

      Some early discourses make “nibbana/nirvana” sound like metaphysical teaching pointing to an underlying permanent reality similar to Brahman, but my understanding is that nibbana mainly means the “blowing out” (the literal meaning of the word) of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. And since greed, hatred, and delusion are what cause our suffering, this nibbana is blissful and free from suffering.

      The Buddha did talk about certain principles, which you could call laws. These were characteristics of how things are, which are true whether or not anyone recognizes them are true. Those are the three “marks” (anicca, dukkha, anatta) that I referred to above. But that has a very different feel from the metaphysical concept of “Brahman.” It’s a practical description of how things are, rather than an underlying metaphysical reality. It’s not a description of who we really are, or what we unite with or have an experience of. These are principles to be observed operating in our lives.

      Anyway, I prefer my practice of Buddhism to be as free of metaphysics as possible and think it’s best to stay with what’s actually practical.

      I hope this is helpful, even though I can’t really answer your question!

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      1. I total agree with you. I am a Taoism, Mahāyāna and Theravada practitioner. I can speak Chinese , Vietnamese and English. I did spend my time studying both The Pali Canon and all Mahayana scriptures. It is indeed that The Pali Canon was written couples hundred years after Buddha died, and there might be some text were added up in the Pali Canon. But at least the teaching of Pali Canon is unity , and realistic. The Mahāyāna scriptures all used imagery interpret combined the teaching of The Pali Canon and developed in later state,. I can tell you that all Mahāyāna scriptures were written by intellectual who were on the samadhi stage ,experienced contemplated mind and composed those scriptures. For examples, the Lotus sutra, you can observe the lotus yourself and find out the lotus was born in dirt, but purity. It’s leaves are round and untamed from dirt like the heart of bodhisattva, like the moon shining to the dark. It’s roots stay under the water, dirt soil, is the wows of bodhisattva always reborn to this earth to save the world. Its half body raises above the water mean bodhisattva can lift to higher level at the same time. It’s white flower and scene represent bodhisattva preaches the Buddha teaching. And the lotus itself , roots, body, flower, and seed can serve as food, medication to humans mean bodhisattva acts. You can also look at Amitabha ( the god of light in pure land in Iranian history) . Look at sun how compassion it is shinning to every corner, and giving lives to the pure land nourish plants and animals. All in all , iconically imaginary metaphors, but still serve the purpose to teach people to do good deeds ; however, truth is the truth. Jason

    2. Buddha is a wise man, he tried to distinguish Buddhism from Hinduism and Brahman (torture oneself to be enlightened. He teaches the middle way , you discover life yourself and you set yourself free from suffering from emotions.For instance, Being born, age, sick and died, you won’t attach yourself to both mental and physical through your five senses (eyes, nose, ears, touch and taste) and process by your monkey mind .It is very simple and helpful. You can consider it as philosophy of life. Jason

  15. I will say for myself. I use my inquiry mind to learn and practice. No magical, no mystic , no supernatural, no super power , nor pure land and neither nirvana. I live in present and breath in every moment. I try to do good deeds and I don’t mind the outcome in my next life. One friendly remind, if one’s practices Mahāyāna, one needs to be careful not to fall into mystic and wait to be blessed by someone. I am the light , the way , and the blessed myself. I will suggest one should practice samadhi, it will open one’s mind. Jason

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