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Jay Forrest Suttavadin Buddhist Blog

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Four Stages of Buddhist History

There are many ways to divide the history of Buddhism. There is no one right way. Each way is devised with a certain objective in order to accomplish certain tasks.

My concern is with understanding early Buddhism. That means that I will divide the history of Buddhism accordingly. This division is made in order to shed light on the period I am calling early Buddhism.

Original Buddhism (449-404 BCE)

Original Buddhism is the Dharma taught by the historical Buddha and his authorized disciples.

As Bhikkhu Sujato rightly notes, “Dating of Buddhist events is painfully complex and doubtful matter” (150). Almost all dates are based on the passing of the Buddha. Since I have already explained my reasoning elsewhere, I will not repeat it here. I will merely tell you that I date the Buddha’s birth at 484 BCE and his passing away at 404 BCE.

Original Buddhism can be dated from the awakening of the Buddha in 449 BCE to his passing into nirvana in 404 BCE. This is the pure Dharma taught by the fully enlightened Buddha.

But sadly, original Buddhism is lost from us forever. That means the Dharma that has come down to us is imperfect, flawed, and not without error. That means there is no inerrant and infallible Buddhist scripture. In other words, there is no Bible.

I might mention that even the Christian Bible is not inerrant and infallible, despite blind faith to the contrary. Such belief was only possible, and is still only possible, through ignorance. An honest assessment of the textual evidence would destroy any such false beliefs.

I, therefore, feel it is better for Buddhists to be honest with the evidence. Original Buddhism is gone forever. It ended with the passing away of the Buddha. What we have now is oral transmissions, fallible and errant, of that original teaching. This leads us to stage two.

Early Buddhism (403-200 BCE)

After the passing of the Buddha, the sangha of fully enlightened arahants gathered to recite the monastic rules (vinaya) and the discourses (suttas) of the Buddha. We can date this to about 403 BCE, less than a year after the Buddha’s passing away.

This is the stage of Buddhism that interests me most. The Dharma of this time, I believe, has been preserved. These are still the authentic teachings of the Buddha, though fallible and errant. They are being molded and shaped to make them easy to recite and remember.

It should be noted that writing was not in general use in India at this time (Rhys Davids 111ff). All important messages were remembered and recited. The Hindu Vedas were remembered and recited by the Brahmins, and they date to thousands of early earlier than Buddhism. And it should be noted that when these Brahmins converted to Buddhism they brought their skill in memorization with them.

It is important to determine when early Buddhism ended. Bhikkhu Sujato ends it at the beginning of the common era. But I find it more useful to end it with the schism of Buddhism and the rise of the various schools of Buddhism.

The Eighteen School Schisms (About 200 BCE)

But this gets us into a very knotting problem. When did the schisms take place?

We can place the 1st Buddhist Council at 403 BCE. And I think we are fairly safe at placing the 2nd Buddhist Council 100 years later, at about 303 BCE. We can also give, in fact, the only sure dates, that Asoka reigned from 268 BCE to 232 BCE.

Now the question, not easily answered, is did the schism happen before, during, or after the reign of Asoka. There is no general agreement. I partly agree with Bhikkhu Sujato, “I think this event must be placed after Asoka” (153).

However, there does seem to be tension between the Mahasanghika and the Sthaviravada (Pai, Theravada). And Hirakawa Akira says that “the schism clearly did occur a little more than a century after the Buddha’s death” (82). “The most probable date,” writes A. K. Warder, “is thus some time after Vaisali and some time before the period of Asoka Maurya” (207). This would put the date sometime between 300 BCE and 268 BCE.

What we can be a little more sure about is that schism did not take place during Asoka’s reign. “The Asoka edicts,” writes Hirakawa Akira, give little evidence that Asoka ruled during a period when Buddhism was fiercely sectarian” (113).

I would like to distinguish between the division into the two original schools and the schisms into the eighteen schools. I place the end of early Buddhism to the schisms of the eighteen schools. To quote Hirakawa Akira again, “The phrase ‘the schisms into the eighteen schools,’ which is found in a number of Buddhist texts, refers to the eighteen schools produced by these later schisms, but not to the two original schools” (111).

Dating the arising of the eighteen schools is doubtful and we may need to revise it as more evidence comes in. We know the eighteen schisms probably happened after the reign of King Asoka, which ended in 232 BCE. I am tentatively giving the date of 200 BCE, with the understanding that it took several decades for the schisms to develop.

I give the date of the 3rd Buddhist Council as 132 BCE. As Hirakawa Akira states, “the Third Council… must have occurred in the second century BCE” (110). And I agree with him, that this Third Council was not universal but “was probably held… within the Theravada School” (110).

Mainstream Buddhism (200-1 BCE)

Now we enter the problem of terminology. What to call the eighteen schools collectively. There have been many suggestions. The Mahayana Buddhists call them Hinayana, which means the inferior vehicle. Which is a pejorative word and should not be used by scholars.

John Strong has said, “Hinayana is a pejorative term meaning ‘Lesser Vehicle.’ Some adherents of the ‘Greater Vehicle’ (Mahayana) applied it to non-Mahayanist schools such as the Theravada, the Sarvastivada, the Mahasam Ghika, and some fifteen other schools. This encyclopedia uses the term Mainstream Buddhism.” And so I follow suit.

It should be noted, writes Eric Cheetham, that “there is a remarkable degree of consensus about basic aims, methods, and topics among all of these original schools of Buddhism” (xv). But there were differences, which should not be ignored.

What is important about mainstream Buddhism is that its writings still exist. The Theravada Pali canon comes from this time. It is by comparing the existing canons from the various schools that we can get back to early Buddhism. It is by this comparison and historical research that we can determine which texts in the Pali canon qualify to be called Early Buddhist Texts. See my article on that.

Later Buddhism (1-2022 CE)

When does mainstream Buddhism end and later Buddhism begin? Technically mainstream Buddhism lasted way into the tenth century CE in India, and still survives today in Theravada Buddhism (the only mainstream Buddhism to survive).

But for the sake of my interests, I call later Buddhism anything after the turn of the century (1 CE and later). This is purely pragmatic and not historical. It singles that my primary interest is in early Buddhism and in getting as close as possible to the teachings of that time period.

Another reason is that near the turn of the century, some Buddhists began creating forgeries, false sutras that claimed to be the word of the Buddha. These changed the original teachings of the Buddha and turned the Buddha into a God. Whether they are true or not can be debated, but that they did not come from the historical Buddha can not be doubted.

Conclusion

It is important to emphasize that this division is useful for the study of early Buddhism. Historians would have different ways of dividing Buddhist history that would be just as valid.

My purpose is to first, point out that original Buddhism is lost for good. Any claim to be representing the indisputable word of the Buddha needs to be dismissed. All we have is what his followers say he said. It is important to remember this.

My second purpose is to facilitate the recovery of early Buddhism through the uncovering of the Early Buddhist Texts. These have levels of development. Textual criticism in Buddhism is still in its early stages. There is much work to be done and it is underfunded and understaffed.

The third purpose is to show the importance of studying mainstream Buddhism in order to better get at early Buddhism. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done. The Chinese agamas need to be translated into Pali, since that has the only complete canon. The other languages as well. Then, and only then, can a real textual comparison take place.

And finally, my purpose is to exclude later inventions of the Mahayana and Vajrayana. They are not usually relevant to the study of early Buddhism. And it is early Buddhism that is my primary concern here.

References

  • Akira, Hirakawa. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2007.
  • Cheetham, Eric. Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism. Boston: Charles E. Tittle Co., 1994.
  • Forrest, Jay. “Early Buddhist Texts.” Suttavadin Buddhist Blog. February 23, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/early-buddhist-texts/
  • Forrest, Jay. “The Dating of the Buddha.” Suttavadin Buddhist Blog. March 30, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/the-dating-of-the-buddha/
  • Rhys Davids, T. W. Buddhist India. United States: Theravada Tipitaka Press, 2010.
  • Strong, John. “Hinayana,” Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., ed. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 2003.
  • Sujato, Bhikkhu. Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools. n.p., Santipada, 2012.
  • Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000.

Suttas vs Sutras

What is the difference between suttas and sutras? Sutra is the Sanskrit word and sutta is the Pali word that refers to a “discourse” attributed to the Buddha.

So to most people, these words are equivalent, just as the Sanskrit Dharma and the Pali Dhamma both refer to the “teaching” of the Buddha.

But the Sanskrit sutra and Pali sutta are not equivalent to me. Let me explain.

Authentic Discourses

During Buddha’s lifetime and shortly after his passing away the community of Buddhist monastics collected and began reciting his discourses. They taught others these discourses. And this continued for almost 500 years.

Then something new happened. A group of monastics with liberal leanings began to invent new discourses that the historical Buddha never said. Instead of attributing them to themselves, they thought that the only way to get others to accept their new ideas, was to claim that the historical Buddha said them.

But they had a problem. It had been almost 500 years since the Buddha passed away. How could they get people to believe their radical claim?

Crafty Deceptions

They devised a number of crafty deceptions. First, they would claim that the original disciples were not ready for the full truth and could only handle a little of the truth. They then appealed to their audience’s vanity. But you, dear reader, are more mature and are ready for the full truth about the Great Vehicle (Mahayana).

When asked how these Sutras were preserved for 500 years, they said that dragons held them in safekeeping under the ocean. But now was the time for them to be revealed to this generation.

From about the turn of the century, hundreds upon hundreds of these sutras were invented, all claiming to be the authentic word of the Buddha. Most Buddhists in India never accepted these sutras, it was only when they went to other lands did they become popular. Mainly because they didn’t know of the crafty deception that originated in India.

Mahayana Buddhism

The fact that the majority of Buddhists today are followers of these early forgeries shows just how crafty this monastics’ deception was. Today it is politically incorrect to point this out. And so I do not emphasize this here. But I have to tell you the truth.

All the counterfeit discourses of the Buddha are called by the Sanskrit name sutras. All the authentic discourses of the Buddha are called by the Pali name suttas. So I use suttas to refer to the Early Buddhist Texts.

Not That Simple

But it is not that simple. There are texts in Sanskrit that are authentic, these are the Agamas (Dīrgha, Madhyama, Saṃyukta, Ekottara, and Kṣudraka). These texts can be traced back to the time before the rise of Mahayana and their forgeries.

Theravada Buddhism is much closer, but it is not perfect. There are also texts in Pali that are not part of the Early Buddhist Texts. The whole basket known as the Abhidhamma is of later origin. And even within the suttas scholars can detect layers of development.

Most scholars believe that the closest we can get to the original discourses is through a comparison of the Agamas (Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and others) with the Pali Nikayas. All of these date to the earliest times of Buddhism. All of these discourses I refers to as suttas, in order to distinguish them of the later forgeries – sutras.

References

  • Forrest, Jay. “Early Buddhist Texts.” JayForrest.org. February 23, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/early-buddhist-texts/
  • Forrest, Jay. “The Mahayana Sutras are Forgeries.” JayForrest.org. February 18, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/the-mahayana-sutras-are-forgeries/

Life is Suffering

You have probably heard that Buddhism teaches that life is suffering. Bodhipaksa rightly points out that the Buddha never said, “Life is suffering.”

Here is what the Buddha actually said:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. (SN 56.11 Bodhi).

Meditation teacher Bodhipaksa rightly points out that “there are a lot of things here that are pointed to as being sources of suffering—in life. But life itself is not one of them….” However, the dictionary does define life as “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death” (OED).

Notice that life includes change. And according to the Buddha, there is “suffering due to change” (SN 45.165 Bodhi). And isn’t birth the beginning of life, and death the end of life? In fact, all the “things here” deal with life. You can’t separate them from life. Take away birth, aging, and the five aggregates and you certainly can’t have life. So I think Bodhipaksa is partly wrong.

Since everything the Buddha lists could go under the heading of life, they could be categorized under the word life. But we know that the Buddha and the awakened disciples of the Buddha did not experience suffering. So it is only a certain kind of life that is suffering, the unawakened life.

So the unawakened life is suffering. But this still is not quite right. For the unawakened enjoy moments of happiness and joy. And so we come back to the Pali word dukkha, which is translated as “suffering.” This is a poor translation.

This is how I translated the passage:

Now this is the noble truth of dukkha. Rebirth is dukkha; old age is dukkha; sickness is dukkha; death is dukkha; association with the disliked is dukkha; separation from the liked is dukkha; not getting what you want is dukkha. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are dukkha (SN 56.11).

The unawakened life is dukkha. That is, it is a bad situation. It is a bummer. It is unsatisfactory. Why? Because birth ends in death. Attachment ends in loss. Good times always come to an end. Every relationship ends. Nothing lasts and everything is unreliable. And when everything is said and done, you get to repeat it over and over again. Sorry, but the unawakened life sucks.

So the Buddha never said life is suffering, but rather that the unawakened life is a bad situation. Admittedly that is a paraphrase and not a quotation. But it is the most accurate paraphrase of the Buddha’s meaning.

References

Bodhipaksa. “Life is suffering.” Fake Buddha Quotes. https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/life-is-suffering/

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