The Buddha said:
Practitioners, be your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the Dharma be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge (SN 22.43 PMT).
According to the Buddha, we are to take refuge in the Dharma, which is referring to the teaching he taught. As Buddhists, we can rightly say that the Buddha told us to trust in the truth of his teachings.
So us Buddhists believe that the Buddha taught the truth, that the truth is conveyed by his Dharma, and that his Dharma is contained in the suttas. Therefore the Early Buddhist Texts are of primary importance.
This is admittedly a religious position. Although I am a scholar of early Buddhism, I am a Buddhist first and a scholar second. I make no claims of objectivity or impartiality. I believe the Buddha really was fully awakened and had full knowledge of the way to nirvana.
Gregory Schopen’s Complaint
This brings me to the complaint by Gregory Schopen about modern Buddhist studies. He says that “‘Real’ or ‘correct’ religion, we are given to understand, and it is assumed, resides in scriptural texts, in formal doctrine. It is precisely this curious assumption concerning the location of real religion that lies behind the equally curious history of the study of Indian Buddhism” (9).
Of course, if the Buddha taught the truth, and the truth is conveyed in the Dharma, and the Dharma is contained in the suttas, then true Buddhism does “resides in scriptural texts.” The explicit, not merely implicit, judgment, to use his words, is that “real Buddhism is textual Buddhism” (9). And I confess that this is a religious position (13). It is a statement of faith that the Dharma is “the location of true religion” (13).
Historical vs Doctrinal
Having freely expressed my belief that the Dharma is my refuge, I do not think Gregory Schopen’s other observations should go unheeded. There is a problem when “Textuality overrides actuality” (7). The disregard for archaeological and epigraphical material is real.
If we want to know what actual Buddhists believed and practiced in history we must look at the archaeological and epigraphical evidence. The Early Buddhist Texts tell you what the Buddha most likely taught, not what the Buddhist community after his passing actually knew, what they believed, or what they actually practiced.
There are two approaches to early Buddhism. The first is historical. It seeks to know what Buddhism was like in the past. It wants to know what Buddhism was like on the ground. The second approach is doctrinal. It wants to know what the Buddha taught.
One should not confuse the two, even though there is overlap. Historical questions should primarily be answered by archaeological and epigraphical evidence, while doctrinal questions should primarily be answered by textual evidence. Of course, historical accounts in the textual record count in historical questions. By doctrine taught in the suttas cannot be assumed to have been known and practiced by Buddhists in history.
A good example exists even today. Although the West is under the assumption that all Buddhist practice meditation throughout the world, the facts is completely opposite. Most Buddhists in Buddhist countries do not practice meditation. Here the texts seem to imply a reality that does not actually exist.
Although secular and non-religious scholars aim for objectivity, as a Buddhist I am committed to the Dharma. I cannot pretend to question the reliability of the Buddha and his Dharma. I am a believer. I trust in the Dharma. That is, after all, what taking refuge in the Dharma means. It means trusting it.
- Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.