The Buddha of the canon and “the Buddha in all of us”

More Buddhas than you can shake a stick at.

I received this interesting email yesterday.

Dear Sir, Your collection is interesting, but also somewhat counterproductive, in my mind. To me, the whole point of buddhism is its lack of a canon, its spirit of welcoming continuous exploration, and its fundamental revelation that individuals are part of a much greater consciousness. The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings. Even the exercise of debating whether something is “real” or “fake” by attributing origination to a “legitimate” source seems to defy the singlemost important lesson from Buddhism, at least in my mind. I hope you take no offense: I just wanted to humbly and respectfully offer my opinion.

There are things here I agree with, and some I don’t.

The statement “the whole point of buddhism is its lack of a canon” is rather odd, since Buddhism does indeed literally have a canon. It has more than one, in fact, a “canon” being a (closed) list of religious books being accepted as genuine. There’s the Pali canon, which is just one survivor from among many canons found in a variety of languages and belonging to different schools. There are also Tibetan and Chinese canons, among others.

Of course these canons have evolved, and some of the teachings, especially the Mahayana ones, have only an indirect connection with the words the Buddha taught, so the notion of a “canon” is questionable. But there is a canon.

Buddhism does indeed have a “spirit of welcoming continuous exploration.” Buddhism is a living practice tradition in which individuals seek to put into practice the teachings embodied in the various canons in order to attain awakening. And there is a whole body of secondary and tertiary teachings growing out of these explorations, right up to the present day. Those later teachings are not canonical, however. There’s a clear difference between teachings historically ascribed to be Buddha and, say, a book that I wrote about Buddhism. You’d be wise to read my book in the light of the canonical teachings, since that’s one way of checking whether my teachings are genuinely part of the process of enquiry that leads to the kind of awakening the Buddha was talking about, rather than some other goal.

I’m not sure what to make of the rather packed statement, “The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.”

Even in the relatively early days of Buddhism it seems to have been believed that the historical individual that we call Shakyamuni, or Siddhartha Gotama, or simply The Buddha, was one of a line of enlightened individuals who had preceded him. But there was no confusion about which was which. President Obama is one of a line of individuals known as “the President,” but it would be unwise to confuse him with Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln. So the fact there are many Buddhas has no bearing on the matter of the attribution of quotes.

“Buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.” The Buddha certainly seems to have had no view that “Buddha is in all of us,” although (reading between the lines) he did seem to see his teaching, and the goal it led to, as applicable
to everyone. But again, this has no bearing on whether quotations are correctly attributed.

If we’re to say that “Buddha is in all of us” and therefore (although I see no therefore) that anything anyone says can be meaningfully attributed to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, then the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, has said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” although conventionally speaking we would attribute this to John F. Kennedy; and “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which was spoken by the Buddha, along with many other wise statements, in his novel Anna Karenina; and “It is not truth that matters, but victory,” although some would insist that that was actually Adolf Hitler.

Personally, though, I do not see the logic in saying “Buddha is in all of us” and therefore we can ascribe anything we want to the historical individual, Shakyamuni, because it makes no sense as an argument and because it leads to the absurdities I’ve highlighted above.

We can’t tell whether the Buddha said all the things ascribed to him in the Pali canon (which is our best bet for literal authenticity), but we can tell when things ascribed to him were actually said by someone else, or are in some way foreign to the canon. And that’s what I attempt to do here.

One thought on “The Buddha of the canon and “the Buddha in all of us””

  1. How things like this make sense:

    “The most profound wisdom is that there was no single buddha but that buddha is in all of us and that awakening is a journey for all human beings.”

    I think such a take on Buddhism, and especially on skirting the issue of proper attribution of citations, is driven by the desire to gain the upper hand in an interpersonal interaction.
    (It helps to read some George Orwell now and then, to get a better grasp on double-talk.)

    As long as all participants in a conversation keep to the same source and acknowledge it as the source of their citations in the arguments they make, this long the playing field is even, and none of them can claim to “know better than the others” or get the upper hand.
    Keeping to the Pali canon thus functions as the great equalizer for all involved.

    Some people don’t like this, though, and they manifest this dislike in different ways. One of them is to introduce new authorities.

    It’s when someone comes in claiming to have a new source that is more authoritative than the previous one that a power hierarchy between the participants can begin to be established.

    (There are some modern Buddhists who are “here, now” and who as such believe they do not need the Pali canon (and even see no need for reading it).
    Oh well: )

    I think this is a very important issue to research, as it goes back to the canonical point on how seeing oneself either as worse than, better than, or equal to others, is problematic.

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