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 . . . anoriginal [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.