“Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?” by Bhikkhu Sujato

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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 When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were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.

18 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?

  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.

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

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