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What the Buddha Taught: SuttaCentral

posted by Greg Zwahlen
by Greg Zwahlen

Let’s say you’re interested in discerning which teachings can most reliably be attributed to  ??kyamuni Buddha, the historical man. Seems reasonable enough–after all, it’s been a primary concern of Buddhists and scholars over the last two hundred years. You’re not interested in tantras or even Mah?y?na s?tras. That leaves you with the P?li Suttas, right? Sort of . . but the picture is more complicated than that.
Prof. Richard Salomon, on the faculty of the Department of Asian Languages & Literature at the University of Washington and an expert on early Buddhism, writes:

Most if not all modern scholars have  . . . given up any hope of reconstructing . . . an
original [Buddhist] canon by means of comparing the earliest surviving versions of the texts. . . the essential problem is that by the time of the earliest available testimonia, Buddhist tradition had already differentiated into several, perhaps many regional divisions with significantly diverging texts and doctrines, no one of which can legitimately be privileged as the “oldest” or “most authentic.”
When one compares, for example, the Chinese versions of the major non-Mah?y?na s?tra collections . . .one finds . . a considerable degree of agreement between them and the corresponding Sanskrit and P?li collections, but also significant differences in the contents, arrangement and location of a great many of the s?tras. Depending on one’s preconceptions and point of view, one may emphasize the broad correspondences over vast ranges of time and space and understand them to show the overall unity of the Buddhist s?tra literature even to the point of assuming that they ultimately derive from a single archetypal collection; or, one can stress the extensive discrepancies in contents and arrangement and take this as an indication of the fundamental diversity of the different Buddhist traditions, suggesting that they cannot be traced to any unitary source [ie an original canon]. (“Recent Discoveries of Early Buddhist Manuscripts and Their Implications for the History of Buddhist Texts and Canons,” in Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, edited by Patrick Olivelle. pgs 350-51 )
So let’s say you take the first position he describes. You’re optimistic that despite whatever sectarian differences may have crept into the various recensions of the earliest material, there is a broad, shared core of truth to mine. How would you do it? At the highest level, you’d have to consult not only P?li sources, but also compare them with material preserved in G?ndh?r?, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, and maybe even Uighur! Quite a task. 
Fortunately, technology will make this ever-easier. Here’s an example of how this is starting to happen. About a week ago I stumbled upon a site called Sutta Central. It is bare bones, and there isn’t a lot by way of description, but as the site describes, it
enables one to identify the Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit ‘parallels’ or ‘counterparts’ to the suttas of the four main Pali Nikayas – or vice versa. It is designed for those whose interest in the Early Buddhist discourses extends beyond the limits of the Pali Sutta-pitaka to include the extensive corresponding materials found elsewhere: the Agamas and individual sutras preserved in Chinese, the occasional sutra translations contained in the Tibetan Kanjur, and the numerous published fragments of sutras in Sanskrit and related languages.  As well as showing the correspondences as described above, Sutta Central allows one to access the texts directly in their original language (Pali, Chinese, etc.) and, where available, in modern language translation (e.g., English, French, German, Spanish).

Pretty amazing! At this point it looks like something only scholars will avail themselves of, but eventually the insights generated by this kind of work will inform the understanding of what the Buddha taught of students at all levels. 

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posted December 15, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Hmmm, and people say the New Testament is unreliable and uncertain, when even the most ardent academic skeptic will admit that a good number of the Pauline letters are indisputably Saint Paul’s, and have been transmitted accurately, that the earliest ones were written less than twenty years after Christ’s departure, that Paul knew the original disciples, and that Paul spoke of encountering the Risen Jesus in these writings. Also these same academics (non-christian) will acknowledge that the rest of the New Testament, even if you dispute the authorship, was written down within the life time of at least the longest living witnesses or earlier and that from the science of textual analysis and comparison we know we have close to 100 percent of the original written words and any disputed portions don’t affect the teachings of Christianity. And finally the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi, beloved of those who can’t abide the words of the New Testament, have an obviously later date of composition, past the lifetimes of the disciples in the 2nd century AD.

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posted December 16, 2009 at 8:19 pm

thanks greg for another interestng post.
@jeff – gospels?

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Joseph ZIzys

posted December 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Thanks for the great post Greg!
It so happens :) that I have written a blog post that lists the places on the web that give access to Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit and Gandhari versions of the Sutras, as well as some of the tools one can use to explore, translate and learn from these wonderful resources. its at if you would like to check it out!

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posted December 17, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Hello, ??,
I’m not sure what you were asking with “jeff – gospels?” But I’ll take a shot at it. In my comment I focused on the undisputed authorship of a good number of the Pauline letters, the accuracy of the transmission of vast majority of the New Testament’s words, its composition before AD 100 within the lifetime of the disciples and the lives of the witnesses to Jesus’s life. I also referred to the later composition of other documents besides the New Testament people may refer to as sources for the roots of Chrsitianity. While I think the New Testament was composed by Jesus’s disciples or by immediate companions (Luke, Mark, James) and I think there are good arguments for that position, I realize this is disputed so I stressed areas of universal or near universal agreement among scholars, as the Greg’s post had to with the scholarship side of manuscript analysis. I believe based on the testimony of the New Testament and my own personal experience that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior as shown by his historical resurrection and his giving of spiritual life and awareness of God’s presence (what is called the gift of the Holy Spirit by Christians) to me in the here and now. I think the New Testament gospels contain the actual words and actions of Jesus and I think this can be cogently argued and defended as being the case. A good book to read on this subject is The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? By F.F. Bruce. I realize these issues can’t be settled to everyone’s satisfaction this side of death, but I am satisified I have made a reasonable and spiritually fruitful decision in this area.
Blessings and grace!!!

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Zen Master Flash

posted December 17, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Greg, what is the self before the empty kalpa?

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posted December 17, 2009 at 9:35 pm

There is no such consensus as Jeff claims. Just read any of Bart Ehrman’s books for a more accurate view of modern Biblical scholarship. There is another difference. For Buddhism the main point is to follow practices that are helpful for oneself and others. The Buddha himself is quoted as saying that you should not accept anything just because somebody wrote it. You have to try it out for yourself first and if you find the truth in it then accept it. Buddhism does not depend on any one text being true. It is a tradition that has changed and adapted with the times and will still change in the future to better fit the current issues and local culture. Even if Jeff’s claims that we have a better idea of what Jesus (If he existed) actually said than what the Budhha (If he existed) said. This does not really matter. What matters is what helps you live better in the real world.

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posted December 18, 2009 at 8:28 am

Greg, my brother in the Daruma, when will move beyond these academic distractions and simply chant the Titsang sutra with me?

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Anan E. Maus

posted December 18, 2009 at 10:23 am

The academic scholarship on the issue may come up with one idea or another, however the mystical truth of the Buddha’s existence, even the specific details of His life, is always available to every single person…through light received during meditation.
The very highest saints can go into a meditation and see, directly, any event from history. Of course, only the rarest of individuals has that kind of capacity. But even if we don’t have that kind of direct spiritual/occult knowledge, we can know, and know directly, through the light of intuition in meditation.
We can directly sense and feel the peace, beauty, purity, wisdom and compassion. That is coming through meditation all the time.
If one receives that light and then approaches the scriptures, one can very easily determine the Buddha’s intentions. It is only when those scriptures are approached without inner light that there is difference, debate and confusion.
And the Buddha’s intentions are very simple and very direct…constant love, kindness, compassion, caring, gentleness…every manner of expression of everything divine. That is the Buddha. As far as the wisdom and spiritual knowledge of the inner realms…that, in its entirety is subservient to the realm of love. Love is the be all and end all of spirituality and produces all spiritual results. Austerities, power, insight and etc. are all a far lower realm.
If we stay with simple loving kindness we will never go wrong or lose our way on the path. Yes, there is a time for austerities and sometimes in the midst of austerities, there is little gentleness left…however that love is always our source and our goal.

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posted December 18, 2009 at 11:37 am

@Yun-Feng – I wonder why you suppose I don’t chant sutras?
Gaining a deeper understanding of Buddhism through all available means is never a threat to the possibility of awakening to greater compassion and wisdom. To the contrary, it brings out that possibility further by foreclosing the possibility that the satdharma will be displaced by a thin gruel of pop-psychology, New Ageism, charismatic manipulators, and half-digested teachings.
When this is better understood, people will feel less threatened by the work coming out of the academic world.

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posted December 18, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Greg, the essence of Buddhism is not found in an academic’s footnotes. Academics, with a few exceprions, are notoriously shallow practitioners. If what you truly want is a deeper understanding of Buddhism, then spend a day with me reciting the Lanka from sun up to sun down, rather than wasting your time with some academic’s limited perspective on the Daruma. I guarentee that the experiences of meditating and reciting will bring you further along than some academic’s desperate grab at recognition in a publish-or-perish world.
Come with me, Greg, and sing the Daruma rather than turn into the stale words of an academic.

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posted December 18, 2009 at 5:31 pm

I agree with Greg that academic discourse and knowledge pose no threat to awakening, but *only* under specific conditions: 1) that the reader of the academic discourse has a sound knowledge of the history of Buddhology, is well-grounded in the intellectual debates, and possesses a research skill base comparable to those he or she is reading; and 2) that the reader resists the temptation to turn the pursuit of academic knowledge into the end, as opposed to the means, of illumination.
It appears Greg is an outsider to the academic world who is easily wowed by the intellectual pyrotechnics of scholars. I’ve looked back at his posts of the last year, and they appear marked by the superficiality of the neophyte scholar who has not yet intellectually metabolized his readings. But I certainly applaud him for publicly displaying his current shallowness, and for perhaps moving others to deepen their scholarly reading. I have yet yet to be totally unsurprised when long-time practitioners confess that they haven’t read any (or very few) sutras, have read no scholarship, and (even) only a handful of contemporary writers who provide us with the Gerber-baby-food versions of the Dharma (e.g., Salzburg, Kornfield, Brach, et al.).
Keep at it, Greg.

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posted December 18, 2009 at 9:44 pm

@alan – really helpful tone. thanks.

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posted December 20, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Alan, if there are particular points of mine that you’d like to characterize as “superficial” and “shallow” I’d be happy to discuss them. Otherwise, as ?? noted, I don’t see the point of making such remarks in response to a pretty mild and unprovocative post.
Yung-Fen, I actually do a lot of meditation and recitation in addition to study. I’ve found them very complimentary – sorry to hear that you haven’t gotten as much out of it.

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posted December 20, 2009 at 8:00 pm

And, how have the academic work enlightened you, brother Greg? I studied for 12 years at a Buddhist university and have the equivalent of two American PhDs. But as my teacher always said, “All your books are so much used toilet paper.” it sound better in Mandarin, but my point stands–you have not actually shown the value of scholarship but instead you have only asserted it.
As for your meditation, how many year long retreats have you done? Have you lived with your teacher and met eith him daily for years? If not, don’t talk to me about your “lot of meditation.”

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posted December 21, 2009 at 10:59 am

@Yung-Fen: Greg chose to ignore your learning because you presented a strong position against his celebration of academic drivel–an excellent example of his superficiality if ever there was one. He believes that his own scant bookishness propels him ahead of the “mere” practitioners who shun or, as in Yung-fen’s case, have superceded reliance on and fascination with the words of scholars. There are two conclusions to draw from Greg’s displays: 1) for the insecure such as Greg, Buddhism devolves into a game of one-upmanship and 2) this arrogance precludes one from seeing that many practitioners simply don’t need to rely on the fads of scholarship to enhance their devotion to the Dharma. Greg appears to have missed the Buddha’s words to Ananda in which he empasized that Bodhisattvas do not tie themselves to any dharmas.

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Ethan Nichtern

posted December 21, 2009 at 11:40 am

@Greg: I love your balance of scholarship and practice. Not sure why you drew this ire in the comments, but our blog seems to bring out a random ornery strand in folks from time to time.
Keep this great blogs coming.
@Yung-Fen and Alan: I think the root of practice and the greatest mark of an advanced practitioner, for me, is kindness. Don’t know you, but i know Greg is an exemplar of kindness, both through his scholarship and his meditation practice.
I wish you the best of luck! Sure greg does too.

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Humbert H

posted December 21, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Lay off greg, people! We like him. He’s our blog’s version of Alan Watts. Entertaining but we don’t take him seriously.

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posted December 21, 2009 at 3:50 pm

@Yung-Fen and Alan – if SuttaCentral is of no interest to you, by all means don’t bother with it. All the best.

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posted July 10, 2010 at 7:23 pm

There is a saying among Vietnamese Buddhist practitioners that: “The person who learns but does not put his knowledge into practice is just a bag of books. The person who practice without learning is a blind practitioner.” So learning scriptures and following the path described in the book(s) or by teacher(s)is a safe and ‘middle way’ approach to Buddha’s Dhamma. Practicing deepen one’s knowledge and learning broaden one’s view.

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