The oldest form of Buddhism is called Theravada Buddhism. This form of Buddhist meditation and monastic culture is the one that developed from the relative chaos after the Buddha passed away. Books on Buddhist history relay there were as many as 17 different schools of meditation before the broad tradition coalesced into the Theravada school, which is also known as the Way of the Elders.
Yet the way most Vipassana commentators relay the story, there was a council called after the Buddha’s death. At that council his assistant Ananda, recited from memory the various talks given by the Buddha and produced what is called the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the collection of all the important Suttas and regulations of the monks in the Pali language. To say this was a remarkable feat of memory is an understatement. This would mean Ananda had memorized the equivalent of many thousands of pages.
There is no consensus as to the exact dates of the Buddha’s birth and death. He may have lived in the 6th century BCE or the Fifth.
There is also no consensus as to when the council was called were agreement was hammered out as to what constituted the official record and the main features of the Theravada school. The myth is this happened fairly soon after Buddha’s death, but that is unlikely.
There is no consensus as to when the Pail canon was written down but it was at least 2-3 centuries after the Buddha’s death.
The first primary error of the Buddhist tradition is the way Theravada teachers seek to portray the process of preserving Buddha’s teachings as though we have an accurate record of what he taught.
This is a very common error for religious cultures to make. For example, it was long believed that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament which are called the Torah or Pentateuch. It was only after the Renaissance that scholars began to realize the first five books of the Old Testament were not written by a single author. Also they did not achieve their current form until approximately 800 years after Moses died.
There are similar issues with the New Testament. There is no way for scholars to know what Jesus said personally as compared with those quotes written by the biblical authors that they attributed to Jesus. Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the gospel of John and the book of Revelation.
Regrettably, Buddhist teachers have the same problem. There is no way to discern which parts of the ancient Suttas were said by Gautama and which passages were added or were heavily edited centuries after he died.
Still, even the highest integrity Buddhist scholars still cite the various sayings of the Pali canon as though they are quoting the Buddha, when in truth the passage cited may never have been said by him.
Buddhism is still relatively a new religion or philosophy to the west. While many of the Buddhist texts have been known to western scholars for two hundred years, it is only in the past generation that very high quality translations have been made into English and the other European languages.
The European scholarly tradition of technical analysis of ancient documents to try to discern when they were actually written and if possible to determine by whom, has not yet been applied to the Pali Canon.
This is even more true of the Suttas used as primary texts of Tibetan Buddhism most of which were not written until over twelve hundred years after the Buddha died.
I am not saying that the Pail canon is not worth reading. I am also not saying we cannot get a pretty clear sense of what the Buddha actually taught versus those kinds of teachings that were attributed to him by others. What I am saying is that some real work is needed to sort out the core of what he probably said from some of the very misleading comments less gifted teachers added later.
What I am also saying is that the effort for scholars to begin to examine the historicity of the Pali Canon is overdue. What I am also saying as that there is no need for Buddhists to repeat the kinds of mistakes with their scriptures that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Fundamentalists are making with theirs.
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com
will at meditation practice dot com (spelled out to limit spam)