When we go to see a medical doctor in time of need, we want to know that the doctor has good credentials—that he or she is not just making things up or guessing based on faulty data. We take great care to make sure our bodies are in good health. When it comes to our spiritual health and our spiritual needs, why should we look for less? Based on the longevity of our spirit, in contrast to our temporary body, we should be taking greater care to make sure that we are taking refuge in a “Doctor” with truly impeccable credentials.
In Buddhism three basic refuges are offered—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (the community of monks). The Dharma (Dhamma in Pali) consists of the teachings of the Buddha. In this paper I’ll examine the historical transmission of those teachings and show why these are lacking in any credentials worthy of our trust. I hope to show not only the negative side, but also to offer historical credentials of a “Doctor” who is worthy of our trust.
What follows is a semi-technical look at Buddhist history. If you are interested in the simpler version of this paper, please skip ahead to the “Short Summary” section:
The Dharma—Exemplified in the Pali Canon
The Buddhist scriptures of the Pali Canon were written down very late, and the scriptures of other schools of Buddhism were formed and written down even later. According to Veidlinger, professor at California State University, Chico, the Pali Canon was written down about 70 BC in Sri Lanka (23): “Most scholars currently believe that the texts of the Pali Tipitaka [Pali Canon] were transmitted orally for about four hundred years, from the time of their genesis until the first century BCE” (Veidlinger, 2).
In the 2004 edition of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism the date given is even later. Pennsylvania State University professor Charles Prebish wrote, “A Theravada council was held under King Vattagamani of Sri Lanka in 25 B.C.E…. The meeting committed the Pali Buddhist scriptures to writing, thus ‘closing’ the three baskets of scriptures in the Theravada tradition” (188). This also agrees with the dates K.R. Norman (former professor at Cambridge University) gives for King Vattagamani’s reign (29-17 BC), the reign in which the Pali Canon was written down (Norman, 10).
There is a huge time gap from the time of writing to the time of the earliest surviving manuscripts. Veidlinger writes: “…the bulk of traditional chirographic Pali texts in the Theravadin world exist in nineteenth-century manuscripts. The oldest Pali manuscript yet found dates back to the sixth century and is from Sri Ksetra, once a major Pyu center in Burma; it consists of a selection of passages written on gold plates and fashioned to look like palm leaves… The earliest extant manuscript from Sri Lanka is of the Samuttanikaya from 1411 CE and the oldest Pali manuscript from Lan Na is part of a Jataka from 1471 CE” (14-15).
This time gap is also confirmed by the Pali Text Society: “…no manuscripts from anywhere in India except Nepal have survived. Almost all the manuscripts available to scholars since the PTS [Pali Text Society] began can be dated to the 18th or 19th centuries C.E.” (https://www.palitext.com/subpages/lan_lite.htm)
Von Hinuber, professor at Freiburg University, likewise confirms this time gap: “The continuous manuscript tradition with complete texts begins only during the late 15th century. Thus the sources immediately available for Theravada literature are separated from the Buddha by almost 2000 years” (4). The words “complete texts” here mean individual texts from the Pali Canon. If we date the Buddha’s death to about 410 BC, according to modern scholarship (Keown, 14), then the gap between the Buddha and a complete Pali Canon in manuscript form is over 2000 years.
We have then about a four hundred year gap from the time of the Buddha to the writing down of the Pali Canon, almost two thousand years from the Buddha to the earliest complete individual manuscripts (though there are some fragments before then), and more than two thousand years from the time of the Buddha to the earliest complete Pali Canon manuscripts!
The Languages of the Pali Canon
K.R. Norman states of the Buddha that, “…it is generally agreed that he did not preach in Sanskrit, but employed the dialect or language of the area where he was preaching” (3). Oscar von Hinuber sheds some more light on the question of the Buddha’s teaching language: “It is even unknown which language the Buddha may have used in his discourses…. an early form of the eastern middle Indo-aryan language Magadhi would be a likely guess” (von Hinuber, 1996; 5).
The Pali Canon shows evidence of being composed in various languages: “An examination of the Pali Canon shows clearly that portions, at least, of it were either composed or transmitted through one or more other dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan, before being turned into the version which exists at present…. It is clear, therefore, that the statement that the canon is in one dialect, whether Magadhi or anything else, cannot be true of all of it” (Norman, 2-3).
Later Additions to the “Three Baskets”
The modern day Pali Canon has three “baskets.” There were only two baskets in the Pali Canon, also called “Tipitaka” (meaning 3 baskets) at first. The Abhidhamma (currently the 3rd basket of the Tipitaka) was not originally included: “Again, only the Pali Canon contains a complete Abhidharma (in Pali, Abhidhamma) Pitaka in an Indic language. Its current form can be dated no earlier than the Third Council (approximately 250 B.C.E.)” (Robinson, 54).
Before there were three baskets, there were the “nine limbs” of the canon: “The Threefold Basket is, however, not the oldest division of the canonical texts. An earlier division into nine limbs (nava anga) was abandoned at a very early date, most likely when the collection of texts grew into a large corpus and had to be regrouped following different principles” (von Hinuber, 2004; 626).
Other sections of the Pali Canon, are admitted to have been added only during the second Buddhist council (von Hinuber, 1996; a section of the Majjhimanikaya-- 34; some Vatthus--51).
The Khuddakanikaya of the Suttapitaka (part of the second “basket”) has both “old” and “young” parts, and the modern version is different from a version used by the commentator Dhammapala: “It is important to note that Dhammapala’s sequence of Khuddakanikaya texts deviates from the one common in the Mahavihara, and that he used a different recension of two texts, suggesting that he was following traditions of South Indian Pali literature, which probably flourished through the first millennium C.E., but is now almost completely lost” (von Hinuber, 2004; 627-628).
“The shape of the Theravada-vinaya [the first basket] too cannot be taken back prior to the fifth century—its actual contents can only be dated from BUDDHAGHOSA’s roughly fifth-century commentary on it, and even then both this commentary and the canonical text are known almost exclusively only on the basis of extremely late (eighteenth- and nineteenth-century) manuscripts.… Regardless, then, of how one looks at it, the material we now have represents vinaya literature in a uniformly late stage of its development, and it can tell us very richly what it had become, and very poorly what it had earlier been” (Schopen, 887).
Concerning the Jataka verses and stories, officially speaking, the verses are canonical and the stories are more on the level of commentary, but practically speaking, many Buddhists do take the stories to be “true.” Supposedly the Buddha was various animals in past lives, such as a giant snake (Naga), an elephant, a horse, a monkey, etc. Other aspects of the Jataka stories also leap out of the realm of historical and into the realm of hagiographical.
Prapod Assavavirulhakarn of Chulalongkorn University states, “The collection [of Jataka stories] that we now have is no older than the fifth century, and probably was not finalized until much later, given the fact that the order and number or even the titles of the tales do not absolutely agree even among the Theravada collections of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand” (Assavavirulhakarn, 99).
To summarize, the Pali Canon went from being “nine limbs,” to “two baskets,” to “three baskets,” to having various sections added in later, including Jataka stories as late as the fifth century AD. In addition, when a comparison is made between the modern Khuddakanikaya and that which Dhammapala used, differences also emerge. The so called “Buddhist Dead Sea Scrolls” also show great differences between the modern Pali Canon and these first to third century manuscripts.
The Buddha’s Life
Concerning the biographies of the Buddha, Juliane Schober of Arizona State University writes, “Each of the major branches of Buddhism offers a different version of the life of the Buddha; these biographies are informed by doctrines specific to each school or lineage…. There are differing versions of the Buddha’s biography, and scholars cannot identify a single or ‘original’ source in Buddhist literature. It took some five centuries for the Buddha’s biographical accounts to become standardized and formalized.” (45).
Heinz Bechert of the University of Göttingen narrows down the date for the historical Buddha: “Although the available information does not allow scholars to arrive at an exact dating, it is safe to suppose that the Buddha passed away some time between 420 B.C.E. and 350 B.C.E. at the age of approximately eighty years” (82).
Bechert further explains, “The existing texts include a multitude of legendary stories that crept in and, step by step, changed the original character of the biography of the Buddha. These compilations were written down in their final form centuries after the Buddha’s death and only after a long period of oral transmission. Although there is no coherent biographical text of the life of the Buddha in the early canonical works,
later texts provide full biographies, and such works are available from various Buddhist traditions. In these works, the Buddha’s biography is extended by a multitude of myths and legendary accounts” (85).
One example of at later addition to the Buddha’s biography are the supposed four encounters with suffering which led the Buddha to leave his father’s palace: “This story of the four sights definitely does not belong to the earliest traditions of the life of the historical Buddha, but it became a constituent of all biographies of the Buddha at an early date” (Bechert, 85)”
Concerning his birth, “The bodhisattva [his title before he became a “Buddha”] is said to have entered into the womb of Maya through the right side of her chest in the shape of a white elephant” (Bechert, 85).
Also, after his birth a “prophecy” was made that he would become either a Buddha or a cakravatin (wheel-turning king/universal ruler). However, this or any other “prophecy” is hardly an impressive “prophecy,” when the Pali Canon was not written down until the 1st century BC and we don’t have complete manuscripts of that until the 18th and 19th centuries AD. As stated by Bechert the early canons did not contain a coherent biography anyway. As for the later biographies, “Complete biographies of the Buddha seem to have been compiled no earlier than the second century C.E.” (Bechert, 86).
Concerning the concept of a “cakravartin” (universal king) mentioned in the Buddhist “prophecy” above, Pankaj N Mohan of the University of Sydney points out, “…at the time of Asoka the Buddhist ideal of cakravartin was not yet systematized, otherwise Asoka would have demonstrated his affiliation with it in his inscriptions” (425-425). Aside from the Buddhist texts being too late to qualify as “prophetic,” King Asoka’s death was in about 232 BC, making this Buddhist concept of the cakravartin, relating to the Buddha at his birth, at least 200 years too late to be “prophecy.”
Inventiveness and imagination played an ongoing role in authoring various Buddhist “biographical” accounts: “Such stories are already found in later parts of the canonical collections of Buddhist scriptures, but many new stories of this kind were invented up till the medieval period. Similarly, the Buddha’s supernatural powers are also described in early canonical texts, but many additional supernatural faculties are described in later texts…. The mythical biographies of six buddhas of antiquity are described in a sermon preached by the historical Buddha…. Later Mahayana texts and Theravada literature have increased the number of buddhas of antiquity more and
more” (Bechert, 86).
Richard Cohen of the University of California, San Diego, summarizes, “Historians accept that Sakyamuni [the Buddha] lived, taught, and founded a monastic order. But they cannot easily accept most details included in his biographies…. Textual sources cannot be fully trusted, since even the earliest extant texts date to five centuries after Sakyamuni’s death” (352). Many later texts put words into the Buddha’s mouth, “In the centuries after Sakyamuni’s nirvana, members of the nikayas [various schools of Buddhism] composed (or edited) sutras, but they presented their work as the Buddha Sakyamuni’s” (Cohen, 356).
First Council: The Beginnings of a Long Oral Tradition
“Whether the early councils were truly historical events has long been a matter of contention in Buddhist communities. While most Asian Buddhists believe that the first council was a historical event, its historicity is questioned by virtually all Buddhist scholars. They argue that while it was not unlikely that a small group of Buddha’s intimate disciples gathered after his death, a council held in the grand style described in the scriptures is almost certainly a fiction” (Prebish, 187-188).
Speaking of the centuries during which the Pali Canon was handed down orally, von Hinuber says, “…the texts were in constant danger of being changed or tampered with by individual monks such as Purana, who came too late to attend the first council [the Pali Canon was not written down until the Fourth Council in Sri Lanka] and refused to accept the received version of the text, but preferred to stick to the wording as he had heard it personally from the Buddha (Vin II 290, 6-8). This is the first hint at a split of the text tradition” (von Hinuber, 1996; 6).
Second Council: Designer Buddhism
About one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, “A council was convened in Vaisali to address nine points of discipline and the one point of principle that underlay all of the Vaisalian practices: that it was permissible to take one's personal teacher's practices as a guide.… The manner in which the western elders conducted the council indicated that the texts should be taken as one's final guide, but apparently the majority of eastern monks did not concur. Shortly thereafter, they held a separate council of their own at which they formed a separate school, the Mahasanghika (Great Assembly). Historical records differ as to exactly what issues precipitated this move, but a survey of the later doctrines of the Mahasanghikas and their offshoots indicates that the general thrust was against accepting the Sutras and Vinaya as the final authority regarding the Buddha's teachings. Some Mahasanghika offshoots argued that arhants were fallible and thus could not be fully trusted to have remembered the Buddha's teachings correctly…. Despite the wide differences, the common denominator running through the Mahasanghikas' positions was that the texts were not the sole authority in determining the Buddha's true teachings…. they agreed that there was the possibility of transmission outside of the texts…. The positive side to this approach was that it opened the door to a personal transmission of the Dharma, free from the tyranny of scholastics, patterned on the personal approach the Buddha himself used. The negative side was that it provided an opening for what has been termed ‘designer Buddhism,’ in which parts of the tradition are suppressed or denigrated because they do not fit with principles derived either from outside the tradition or from personal preferences and a mere partial reading of the texts.… All accounts indicate that the Mahasanghikans' liberal attitude toward the tradition eventually engendered the Mahayana movement, which asserted that the early arhants may have not only misunderstood certain details in the Buddha's original teachings, but actually missed the entire point” (Robinson, 57-58).
Third and Fourth Councils
The Third Council, organized by Asoka (according to the Pali Mahavamsa) is not a well substantiated council, since the Sanskrit Asokavadana does not even mention it—but according to the Mahavamsa, Asoka had all of the non-Theravadin heretic monks (no less than 60,000) ousted from the Sangha at that time.
“Pali canonical texts were not written down until the fourth council…. Thus the teachings were handed down orally even in the days of Asoka, the great third-century BCE Buddhist king who helped to spread the religion through much of South and possibly Southeast Asia” (Veidlinger, 23).
Eighteen to Thirty Schools
“Traditional accounts list eighteen schools of Buddhism that existed before the rise of the Mahayana school, which are divided into two main groups: the Sthavira and the Mahasamghika” (Assavavirulhakarn, 6). Collett Cox, of the University of Washington, puts the number of schools at more than 30: “Traditional sources maintain that eighteen schools emerged following the first schism, but since more than thirty school names are recorded, the number eighteen may have been chosen for its symbolic significance” (503).
In-House Critique of the Pali Canon
Even the so called words of the Buddha himself (in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon) point out to Ananda, one of his chief disciples, that his teachings (dhamma in Pali; dharma in Sanskrit) will not be preserved uncorrupted if women are ordained into the Buddhist order as nuns. If women are ordained, according to the Buddha, “…true dhamma will endure only for five hundred years” (356).
Since women were ordained and five hundred years have already passed, by his own statement, the dhamma has already expired. If we say it is a false prophecy, then the authority of the Pali Canon is undermined and the Buddha is a false prophet. If we say it is a true prophecy, then it is still false, since five hundred years have already passed, and thus “true dhamma” (including this prophecy if it were true) would not have endured.
Shravasti Dhammika, although a committed Buddhist himself, has written a devastating critique of Theravada Buddhism. He even confesses Christianity’s strengths several times in his book: “Although Christians make up a tiny minority of Thailand’s population they do a significant percentage of its non-governmental social work. The same is true in other Theravadin lands.” “The funds for the little Theravadin social work that does exist often comes from beyond the community and such social work is usually done by either Western or Christian influences…is in imitation of Christian social work or is done to counter the social work Christians do.” “What is it in Christianity that has made love so central to the life and practice of its followers? What is it in Theravada that has retarded this from happening?”
In spite of this though, he has not recognized that the Pali Tipitaka itself is defective. He still asserts, “The tragedy is that the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali Tipitaka are probably better able to address contemporary problems and needs than any other ancient teachings.”
Only a few pages later though, he contradicts himself in undermining the authority of the Pali Tipitaka and using his own opinions rather than the Tipitaka to address a contemporary problem: “Whatever the Buddha said or is supposed to have said, Buddhayanists would believe that it is wrong to exclude women from the monastic life, that it is inappropriate in the 21st century to require them to always take second place to a male and that it is degrading to treat them as if they had some sort of contagious disease. They would take as their guide on this and several other issues the Kalama Sutta in which the Buddha says; ‘Do not go by tradition…do not go by the sacred text … But when you yourself know that certain things are right, good, skillful and when followed or practiced results in happiness and benefit, then follow them’ (A.I,188).
First he exalts the teachings of the Buddha, and then he undermines his authority in saying, “Whatever the Buddha said or is supposed to have said…” and in relation to women’s roles does not follow the teachings of the Buddha (the “whatever” teachings). In this case he does exactly what he criticized the 5th century AD commentator Buddhaghosa, and modern Theravada Buddhists of doing: “Most Theravadins will side with Buddhaghosa’s interpretation even where it contradicts the Buddha’s words.” (see website above). Dhammika has done the same thing in coming up with a modern interpretation which contradicts the teachings of the Buddha. Then Dhammika comes back to the Buddha’s teachings as an authority only to undermine its authority, “…do not go by the sacred text...” Why not go by the sacred text? Because the sacred text says so. This is self-defeating logic. It really shows that he has no authority at all except his own opinions. He can pick and choose anything that is right in his own eyes.
The real problem here is not finding a suitable interpretation or even adhering strictly to the letter of the Pali Canon. The problem is that the source itself is defective and incapable of giving answers to people’s deepest spiritual needs. Looking beyond the unreliable history of the Pali Canon, the more important question to ask is, “Did the Buddha have authority to teach on spiritual subjects in the first place?” Being only a man (with very limited knowledge), and currently a dead man, he is woefully underqualified to give advice on any ultimate topics (e.g. where will you spend eternity? What is your purpose in life? Where did you come from?).
The Buddha often took people’s attention off of these important topics only to focus their attention on temporal rather than eternal topics. Of course modern monks who seek reform have no greater claim to authority than did the Buddha. Based on evidence that the Bible is true (presented towards the end of this paper), only God who knows everything, and who has power over death, and who created and owns the world, has the authority necessary to teach people spiritual truths. Here are two stories which show some of the exaggeration used in the Pali Canon:
In the Vinaya of the Pali Canon, an incredible story is told to explain why candidates for the monkhood must be asked whether or not they are a human being. According to this story a naga (a giant snake, like the one which supposedly shielded the Buddha from rain with its cobra-like hood), changed its form to look like a human and became a monk: “Then one day, that other monk got up at night, toward dawn, and stepped outside to practice walking meditation. The naga, feeling certain that his cellmate had gone off, fell asleep, and in his sleep he took on his natural form. His snake’s body filled the whole room, and his coils came out through the windows. Then, his roommate, thinking he would go back inside the cell, opened the door and saw the whole room filled with snake…. Terrified at the sight, he screamed” (Strong, 1995; P. 62).
Another incredible phenomenon in the Pali Canon, which is supposed to be in existence even now (more specifically- “as long as the world lasts”)- is a roofless house, which never takes in rain: “…there is a story in the Majjhima-Nikaya (Middle Length Sayings) of some monks who ‘borrowed’ the roof of a potter’s house for the repair of their monastery. But rather than being angry at this appropriation of their roof, the potter and his blind parents were suffused with ineffable joy for 7 days. Then in accordance with the law of Cause and Effect a strange phenomenon come into being. Drench the whole village or the whole country by immense rainfall, but not a single drop of rain falls into this roofless house. And it is ordained that this site of Gati Kara’s house be in such state as long as the world lasts” (King, 121).
The author goes on to make a contemporary application of the above account:
“This place must be somewhere in the vicinity of the eternal town of Benares. The Indian Government should find out, especially Mr. Nehru who seems to venerate Buddhism. It is an easy task. Within a radius say of a hundred miles around Benares each and every headman of the village tracts can enquire minutely and try to seek for this marvelous place. Once it is found the impact of Buddhism upon humanity will be enormous and the tourist income of India will be magnificent” (King, 121).
The Pali Canon contains large sections of legend. Since these scriptures did not get it right when it comes to physical reports of “the way things are,” then why should we trust them when it comes to our eternal souls? An eternal soul is also denied in the Buddhist Scriptures, but it shouldn’t be too surprising to find spiritual inaccuracies present in a book that has historical inaccuracies. Sadly and ironically, instead of this lack of authority in their scriptures, making Buddhists search for God, they tend to depend more on themselves-- the very thing which according to their own teachings is non-enduring and ever changing.
Emperor Asoka (304-232 BC)—Who Was He Really?
Asoka inherited the Indian/Mauryan Empire. Although Asoka was not explicit in speaking about some of the main Buddhist doctrines, it seems clear that he did convert to Buddhism in some form.
There are two main sources giving details about Asoka's life, in addition to the Edicts. The Sanskrit Asokavadana, which is Hinayanist, but non-Theravadin, was likely compiled in the 2nd century AD in Northwest India (Strong, 1989; xi-xii). The Pali Mahavamsa was compiled sometime in the 5th century AD in Sri Lanka. Both the Asokavadana and the Mahavamsa relate the story of King Asoka, but with great variations. Here are some of these differences:
“In the Asokavadana, Asoka is said to have been born one hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha; in the Mahavamsa, however, he is said to have been consecrated king 218 years after the parinirvana” (Strong, 1989; 21).
According to the Asokavadana, even after Asoka’s conversion he still retains his penchant for killing: “…Asoka shows no mercy toward Candargirika, his former executioner-in-chief, and has him tortured to death. Or again, later on, he flies into a fury and has eighteen thousand heretics [Ajivikas] killed…and then launches a veritable pogrom against the Jains, setting a bounty on the head of any heretic. Still later, he announces with relish all the tortures he is going to inflict on his wife Tisyaraksita, and carries through with her execution…” (Strong, 1989. P. 41).
On the other hand, “As one might expect, in the Sinhalese chronicle [the Mahavamsa], most of the negative side of Asoka’s personality has been dropped” (Strong, 1989. P. 67). It is not because the Mahavamsa is opposed to bloodshed though that this is the case, as will be seen under the topic of the 1st century BC.
From the makers of Mahavamsa we also have the incredible story of a queen who had “children” by cohabiting with a lion (https://hettiarachchi.tripod.com/dipa.html). Is this history? In Buddhism people are often subdued by fantasy rather than empowered by truth.
The Edict Inscriptions
Some of Asoka’s inscriptions are also in contradiction to him killing heretics: “…he [Asoka] even donated artificial caves in the Barabar Hills, near modern Gaya, to the Ajivikas, opponents of the Buddhists” (Basham, 468).
“In one important point Asoka’s inscriptions differ from, and reflect an earlier stage in the development of Buddhist theology or metaphysics than, the Dhammapada: they do not yet know anything of the doctrine of Nirvana, but presuppose the general
Hindu belief that the rewards of the practice of Dharma are happiness in this world
and merit in the other world. See the rock-edict IX, M, N (Kalsi)…. Instead of ‘merit in the other world' Asoka often uses the term ‘heaven,’ (svarga)…. The Dhammapada (verse 126), however, distinguishes Nirvana from Svarga” (Hultzsch, liii-liv).
Concerning the Bhabra (a.k.a Bhairat) inscription, Gregory Schopen of the University of Texas wrote, “We also know that there is no evidence to indicate that a canon existed prior to the Alu-vihara redaction [c. 25 BC]. Although Asoka in his Bhabra Edict specifically enjoined both monks and laymen to recite certain texts, which he named, he nowhere in his records gives any indication that he knew of a canon…. We also know that at least seven texts (dhamma-paliyaya) were known to Asoka since he refers to them by name in his Bhabra Edict, but unfortunately only three of these have been identified with anything approaching unanimity.... and even these are not certain” (Schopen, 24-25).
This also confirms that the Buddhist texts were still in oral tradition at the time of Asoka, since they were to “recite” them. Another translation of this edict has Asoka urging people to “listen” to and “remember” these texts. But, as pointed out by Schopen, there is no mention of a canon; four of the recommended texts are unknown today, and three of them are “not certain.” Even so, the three texts which are in question are small texts, and so would account for only a tiny fraction of the whole Pali Canon, and only the titles are given, so we have no way of knowing whether the content of those texts was the same.
“Artifacts dating to the reign of ASOKA, ruler of the Mauryan dynasty (third century B.C.E.), provide the oldest extant evidence for Buddhism in India” (Cohen, 355). This is the oldest evidence, but as stated above, what Asoka left behind does not prove doctrinally what kind of Buddhism he adhered to.
Asoka sent Edict 13, addressing five Greek rulers: Antiochus II Theos of Syria (261- 246 BC), Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt (285- 247 BC), Antigonus Gonatos of Macedonia (278- 239 BC), Magas of Cyrene (300- 258 BC), and Alexander of Epirus (272- 258 BC). Based on the dates of their respective rules, Edict 13 must have been written between 261 and 258 BC.
“Sri Lankan chronicles attribute the introduction of Buddhism into Southeast Asia to the mission sent from India during Asoka’s reign. However, there is no indisputable evidence to support this claim, either from archeological or epigraphic sources” (Assavavirulhakarn, 45).
“It is uncertain whether or not the Asokan mission was sent; or if it was sent, for lack of evidence, it cannot be said that the mission represented the Theravada school” (Assavavirulhakarn, 159).
The picture of Asoka’s life is quite different depending on whether we consult the Mahavamsa, the Asokavadana, or the Edicts. In the Edicts, Asoka mentions heaven three times, but never Nirvana. He also does not mention the Four Noble truths. His attitude in the edicts is ecumenical rather than sectarian. We have three contradictory pictures of Asoka’s life.
2nd Century BC-- The Debate of King Milinda
King Menander I "Soter" (reigned from ca. 165-130 BC), a Greek king who began ruling in Bactria (northern Afghanistan), and later expanded his kingdom, is thought to be Milinda, who is spoken of in the Pali Milinda Panha (the debate of king Milinda). Von Hinuber writes, “Although Menandros [Menander] is a historical personality, Mil [Milinda Panha] is an ahistorical text: Milinda talks to the six heretics, who were contemporaries of the Buddha” (1996; 83). Menander was separated in history from the Buddha by about 250 years! In Myanmar (Burma), this text is considered to be canonical (Norman, 112).
1st Century BC-- Ceylon (Sri Lanka): Roots of a Modern Conflict
The Mahavamsa of Ceylon (5th century AD text) relates how Buddhist Prince Dutthagamini overthrew the non-Buddhist Tamil government, in 101 BC, and records how Duttagamini killed one million Tamils, with monks accompanying the troops into battle. According to Dhammika, “Eight arahats [“enlightened” Buddhist monks] assured him that he had made very little bad kamma [karma in Sanskrit] because he had only killed passim, i.e. animals; nonbelievers being no more than animals.... by any standards Duttagamani’s struggle would qualify as a religious war” (www.buddhistische-gesellschaft-berlin.de/downloads /brokenbuddhanew.pdf).
“…Dutthagamani (107–77 B.C.E.) placed a relic of the Buddha on his spear to sacralize his war against the Tamil invaders” (Mohan, 425).
Donald Swearer, of Swarthmore College, points out that this age old conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils of Sri Lanka is still unresolved (as of 1995 anyway), "His [Bandaranaike's] espousal of a Buddhist civic religion, however, contributed to a Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism that exacerbated the communal conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority populations on the island. In 1983 the conflict erupted into a still unresolved fratricidal conflict" (Swearer, 1995; 117-118).
AD 1st-3rd Centuries
“In light of archeological and epigraphic data from different regions throughout Southeast Asia, we can conclude that by the first or at least by the second century CE [AD], Buddhism was already known in Southeast Asia” (Assavavirulhakarn, 68).
“Buddhists Dead Sea Scrolls”
The Gandhari manuscripts, mostly found in the 1990s in Afghanistan, are sometimes called the Buddhist Dead Sea Scrolls. Richard Salomon, of the University of Washington, points out, “Gandhari is closely related to its parent language, Sanskrit, and to its sister language, Pali…. The Gandhari manuscripts date from about the first to third centuries C.E. They include the oldest surviving manuscript remains of any Buddhist tradition….” (Salomon, 299).
“The Gandhari sutras are broadly similar to the parallel texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, but they differ significantly in structure, contents, and
wording…. the majority of the Gandhari texts have no known parallels in other Buddhist traditions... The doctrinal content of the Gandhari Buddhist literature
is consistently representative of mainstream or HINAYANA Buddhism. With a few possible exceptions among the Schøyen fragments, which represent a slightly later phase of Gandhari literature, they contain no reference to MAHAYANA texts or ideas…. some of the British Library scrolls probably represent the literature of the DHARMAGUPTAKA school…” (Salomon, 300).
Here we have the oldest Buddhist manuscripts of any Buddhist school, but they “differ significantly in structure, contents, and wording” from the Pali Canon, which was put into writing about 75-325 years previous to these Gandhari manuscripts. The doctrine in these oldest Gandhari manuscripts is Hinayana, but not Theravadin (which is what the Pali Canon promotes). The oldest complete manuscripts of the Pali Canon are from the 18th and 19th centuries AD! Also, “the majority of the Gandhari texts have no known parallels in other Buddhist traditions.” The Gandhari texts are not a confirmation of the Pali Canon, but rather a testimony to a partial record of a different school of Buddhism.
AD 4th Century
“According to the evidence thus provided, the Theravada sect remained the main creed in the Pyu and Dvaravati regions, that is, in central Burma and most of present-day Thailand. The oldest evidence are inscriptions in Pali dating from around the fourth century CE at the earliest” (Assavavirulhakarn, 107). “In central Burma and central Thailand, Theravada Buddhism was already flourishing as early as the fourth century…” (Assavavirulhakarn, 193).
AD 5th Century
“In paleographic terms, the Pali inscriptions of the Pyu and Dvaravati traditions date from the fifth century on” (Assavavirulhakarn, 73). “Canonical texts were quoted in inscriptions, which leads us to the assumption that the Pali canon existed in some form in the Pyu and Dvaravati regions by the fifth century CE at the latest” (Assavavirulhakarn, 111).
Ceylon (Sri Lanka): Altered States of Consciousness
Buddhaghosa, who according to the Sri Lankan Mahavamsa was a Brahmin from India, who converted to Buddhism, wrote a very thorough commentary on meditation in the 5th century AD, called the Visuddhimagga. This is a standard work for Theravada Buddhists. Winston King summarizes some of Buddhaghosa's commentary: "Jhana... signifies a state of trance in which all sensory input, aside from the subject of meditation, is totally excluded from awareness. At the higher jhanic levels the meditator is also incapable of speech or movement, and in the highest possible, attention is said to be without ordinary consciousness and to reach the trance of cessation.... In this eighth jhanic-type state of awareness the meditator has erased all awareness of subject-object distinctions and is one with his awareness.... The trance of cessation (nirodha-samapatti), the very highest meditative state.... In this state the meditator is without perception or feeling and appears to be dead; such a state can last for up to seven days" (King, 88).
Looking at the underlined words in the above quote, which are recommendations by Buddhagosa, based on his extensive knowledge of the Pali Canon, it would be wise to question why such altered states are desirable. And, looking at the less than reliable history of the Pali Canon we’ve seen thus far, following this advice would be like going to see a doctor who bases prescriptions on hear-say or harmful methods.
“As a final claim to primacy [in Burma], the Mon identify the great Pali commentator BUDDHAGHOSA as a native son” (574, Pranke). The Mon account is questioned by modern scholars, and it seems to be one example of many in Buddhist chronologies to enhance the reputation of a local region. Regarding the Mon claim, Thai scholar Assavavirulhakarn points out that, “…there is no mention of the old kingdoms of Burma in the Sri Lankan Pali chronicles or in the commentaries written around the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries…. Ray’s last point is at odds with his assertion that Buddhaghosa was a native of Burma” (Assavavirulhakarn, 110).
As with the chronicles, the various Buddhist biographies were often exaggerated also. John S. Strong, professor at Bates College remarks, “Buddhaghosa’s life story may also be found, greatly embellished, in a late Pali chronicle known as the Buddhaghosuppatti” (Strong, 2004; 75).
“…Malalasekera has pointed out: ‘...how far the Tipitaka and its commentary reduced to writing at Alu-vihara [AD 25] resembled them as they have come down to us now, no one can say.’ In fact, it is not until the time of the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala, and others-that is to say, the fifth to sixth centuries C.E.-that we can know anything definite about the actual contents of this canon” (Schopen, 23-24). This is not a confirmation that the 5th century AD Pali Canon is in agreement with the modern Pali Canon. The words used by Schopen are “anything definite.” Through Buddhaghosa’s and Dhammapala’s commentaries, some comparisons can be made with the modern day Pali Canon, but again, we only have complete manuscripts of the Pali Canon from the 18thand 19th centuries AD.
Many claims have been made by various regions in Southeast Asia that their particular region is the Suvarnabhumi referred to in the Pali chronicles, linking them to a supposed mission sent by King Asoka in the 3rd century BC. These claims to have a link to an ancient mission, and thus a long heritage of Buddhism, fall short though. Similar claims are found in some of the later chronicles of various Southeast Asian regions, even claiming that the Buddha himself supernaturally flew to their region, and in some cases left footprints (many of which are superhuman in size).
“The connection between Suvarnabhumi and Buddhism or, to be more precise, the introduction of Buddhism into Southeast Asia is found not in Indian literature, but in the Pali literature of Sri Lanka: the Dipavamsa [AD 350], the Mahavamsa [at the end of the fifth century AD], and the Samantapasadika [either the 4th or the 5th century AD]” (Assavavirulhakarn, 59). The dates in brackets are from “A Handbook of Pali Literature (von Hinuber, 1996; 89-91; 104).
“Suvarnabhumi could not be the Mon kingdom of lower Burma, because the Mon kingdom [in that region] did not come into existence until the ninth or tenth century” (Assavavirulhakarn, 55). “The confusion did not originate in Sri Lanka but in Burma, where the effort was made to equate Suvarnabhumi with the Mon kingdom, as no Sri Lankan source interprets Suvarnabhumi to be Southeast Asia” (Assavavirulhakarn, 62-63).
“…there is no supporting evidence for an Asokan mission to Sri Lanka or Suvarnabhumi, regardless of whether or not it indeed means Southeast Asia” (Assavavirulhakarn, 62). Claims are made in various chronicles, but not backed up by evidence. Besides Burma, there are other regions that have claimed to be Suvarnabhumi, such as Suphanburi province of Thailand and Sumatra. This topic brings to light one small aspect of a more pervasive practice in Buddhist history in general—chronicles that are a mixture of myth and fact.
6th and 7th Centuries
In the Far East, Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century AD, and Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7thcentury, though the first designated Dalai Lama was born in the 14th century. “The early bas-reliefs found in the Dvaravati [lower Siam] area can be dated from around the seventh century CE. None of those in Burma has been reported to be older than the eleventh century” (Assavavirulhakarn, 97).
The Tais of Nan-Chou raided both the Mon and Pyu kingdoms: “…although they were able to sack one or two Mon cities, their raids were generally repulsed…. They gave the death blow to the already dying Pyu power, however, by sacking the new capital and taking away some three thousand of its inhabitants as captives” (Aung, 21). The Mon, although devoutly Buddhist, also raided their Buddhist neighbors, the Pyus: “…Sri Ksetra [belonging to the Pyus] was often raided by Mons from the south and the east…. The seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries constituted the period of Mon power and glory in southeast Asia” (Aung, 25).
“…the sangha [of Ceylon] was reunified after its demise by south Indian Cola invaders who had demolished Anuradhapura in the late tenth century…” (Holt, 796).
“…the Cholas of south India conquered Ceylon, and with their powerful navy they played the role of champions of the resurgent Hinduism. The fall of Ceylon to the Hindus was disastrous to the cause of Theravada Buddhism in southeast Asia” (Aung, 27). Further to the East, Hinduism was also about to get the upper hand.
At the very beginning of the 11th century, after a 10 year war, the Buddhist Mon Dvaravati conquered the Khmer empire (modern day Cambodia). The conquering king was not loyal to Buddhism though. He had taken the throne at a time when Lower Siam (Dvaravati) and Upper Siam (Haripunjaya—modern day Lamphun) were at war with each other. The line between Buddhism and Hinduism was often blurred, but the Khmer leaned more towards Hindu ideas. This opportunistic king (who was actually a Malay) had a Khmer queen and sided with the Khmer devotion to Siva. The final result was a Khmer empire which included large parts of what are now Thailand, and which like Ceylon was now under Hindu dominance (Aung, 27-29).
A new king in Burma would work to reverse that trend: “…the final triumph of Theravada Buddhism in the Menam Valley and the first acceptance of Theravadin ideas by the Khmer populace dated from Anawrahta’s time [more about him below] …. On the request of the king of Ceylon, then locked in a desperate struggle for supremacy with the Cholas, he [Anawrahta] sent money and other valuable gifts to help re-equip the Sinhalese armies” (Aung, 34-35).
“Burman kings often waged war in the name of Buddhism, and Anawrahta invaded the Mon kingdom in lower Burma in 1057 with the justification that the Mon king had refused to give him a copy of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures. After sacking the Mon capital, he moved large numbers of Mon scholars and monks back to his capital in Pagan to disseminate Theravada Buddhist teaching and culture” (Fink, 11).
Patrick Pranke of the University of Michigan gives an overview of this time in Burmese and Sri Lankan history: “In 1057 C.E., the Bamar king of Pagan, Anawrahta (Pali, Anuruddha), conquered the Mon kingdom of Thaton in Lower Myanmar, inaugurating the first Burmese empire (1057–1287). Tradition states that he carried off to his capital Pali texts, relics, and orthodox monks, and that he adopted Theravada Buddhism as the sole religion of his domain. To prepare for this, Anawrahta suppressed an already established sect of heretical Buddhist monks known as the Ari…. Whatever the historical accuracy of the legend, epigraphic and archaeological evidence indicates that Anawrahta was more eclectic than portrayed. He assisted the Sinhalese king Vijayabahu I to reinstate a valid Theravada ordination line in Sri Lanka; at the same time he circulated in his own kingdom votive tablets adorned with Mahayana imagery. Anawrahta also supported a royal cult of nat or spirit propitiation dedicated to the very deities said to have been worshipped by the Ari monks” (575).
In the chronicles there is no consensus for exactly what happened in Anawrahta’s (Anuruddha in Pali) reign and his obtaining the Pali Canon. In the Jinakalamali, written in Chiang Mai, Thailand in the 16th century AD, this account is given: “This king [Anawrahta]…being desirous of having the Tipitaka [Pali Canon] written down asked the learned men,’Is the Tipitaka found in our land free from errors or not?’ On hearing the reply given by them that it contained errors and that what was found in the island of Lanka was free from error, he went to the island of Lanka travelling through the sky mounted on his thoroughbred horse, thinking of obtaining the Tipitaka from there. And his followers went by ship” (Veidlinger, 34-35)
Veidlinger contrasts what the Jinakalamali (JKM) recorded, with what the Sasanavamsa (SV) recorded, which was written and finalized in Burma in the 19th century: “This lends credence to the SV account of the Pagan king Anuruddha, which differs from the account in the JKM in asserting that he sacked the Mon city of Sudhammanagara and wrested from there (and not from Sri Lanka) several copies of the Tipitaka” (38).
12th Century: From Three Sets of Texts Down to One Set
In Sri Lanka’s history (where the Pali Canon was first written down around 25 BC, and where its commentaries were composed around 500 AD), the texts went through a purging in the 12th century: “Traditionally there were three Theravada fraternities in Anuradhapura in Ceylon based in three monasteries, each of which once possessed texts of their own. When Parakkamabahu I. (1153- 1186) reformed Buddhism in Ceylon during the 12th century, the monks of the Abhayagiri- and the Jetavana-vihara were reordained according to the Mahavihara tradition. Consequently, their texts gradually disappeared, and the only Theravada texts surviving are those of one single monastery, the Mahavihara” (von Hinuber, 1996; 22).
One of those three monasteries which had their own texts, which are now lost, used not Pali, but Sanskrit: “…the Mahayana school was not the only one to use Sanskrit as a sacred language. To further complicate the issue Sanskrit was sometimes used as a sacred language by the Abhayagirivihara in Sri Lanka” (Assavavirulhakarn, 90).
“In 1165 the Sinhalese king Parakkamabahu I reformed the Theravada SANGHA of Sri Lanka by abolishing the Abhayagiri and Jetavana monasteries and compelling all worthy monks to be reordained in the Mahavihara fraternity. Within two decades, this reformed Sinhalese tradition was established at Pagan and elsewhere in the Burmese empire…. the Burmese monastic community split into two groups, an indigenous unreformed faction called the Myanma sangha, and the reformed Sinhalese faction called the Sihala sangha. The Sihala sangha was revered for its discipline and scholarship, though it fractured repeatedly, giving rise to a pattern of sangha disunity that has been characteristic of Burmese monasticism ever since” (Pranke, 575).
We see then that the revisions made to the Pali Canon in the 12th century affected not only Sri Lanka, but also Burma. Thailand was also brought under this Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) influence: “Somewhat earlier, the rise to power of the Sinhalese monarch Parakkama Bahu I (r. 1153–1186) in Sri Lanka and the subsequent dominance of the
Mahavihara monastic fraternity led to the missionary expansion of Sinhalese Theravada into Burma and Thailand. A 1287 C.E. inscription at Sukhothai records
that Ramkhamhaeng patronized monks of the Lanka order (lankavamsa), whom he invited from Nakon Sithammarat…. Thai monks ordained in Burma and Sri Lanka brought lineages of Sinhala Theravada to Thailand in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Under Tilokarat (r. 1441–1487) monks of the Mahavihara reformist tradition at the Red Forest Monastery (Wat Pa Daeng) in Chiang Mai gained a religious and political prominence that led to a council under royal sponsorship to regularize monastic teaching and practice” (Swearer, 2004; 831).
“In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, new waves of reformed Theravada Buddhism emanating from Sri Lanka were introduced into Southeast Asia via Lower Myanmar. In 1476 Dhammazedi, the Mon king of Ramanna, adopted these reforms, compelling all monks in his realm to be reordained in the new more stringent Sinhalese order…. In 1791 the Burmese monarchy ordered Dhammazedi’s reforms imposed uniformly throughout the empire…. all contemporary monastic fraternities in Myanmar trace their lineages back to Dhammazedi’s reforms and share a common interpretation of the monastic code” (Pranke, 575).
“In 1568, the Burmese king Bayinnaung [also spelled Bayin Naung] laid siege to Ayudhya [in Thailand], having extended his military power over the north as far as Laos. The city [Ayudhya, also spelled Ayutthaya] fell in 1569 and was destroyed” (Church, 162) "...the most warlike of all, Bayin Naung [king from AD 1551-1581] evidently saw himself, as Hall puts it, 'as a model Buddhist King building pagodas where ever he went, distributing copies of the Pali scriptures, feeding monks..." (Ling, 29) In 1593 the Thais attacked Burma and took two cities.
The Thais of Ayutthaya invaded Burma from 1662-1664 and took control of Martaban, Pegu, and Rangoon. About a hundred years later, “The Thai/Burmese rivalry was strong and often bitter. In 1767, Ava [of Burma] was strong enough to dispatch an army to Ayudhya. The capital was sacked…and tens of thousands of Thais were captured and transported back to Myanmar as slaves” (Church, 110)
In the 19th century the Pali Canon was written in stone in Burma: “Mindon introduced the first machine-struck coins to Burma, and in 1871 also held the Fifth Buddhist council in Mandalay. He had already created the world's largest book in 1868, the Tipitaka, 729 pages of the Buddhist Pali Canon inscribed in marble and each stone slab housed in a small stupa…” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindon _Min) Although “written in stone” is an idiom for something absolute and steadfast, Trevor Ling writes of King Mindon’s project, “Mistakes in the carving of the text had made necessary a revision…” (124). This revision took place during the Sixth Buddhist Council from 1954-1956 in Burma.
“Legends of the founding of Buddhism in other lands are typically tied to miraculous events. In Sri Lanka, it is said that the Buddha himself visited the island at a time when it was dominated by demons. Traveling directly to a grand meeting place of these demons, the Buddha hovered above them in the sky, calling up rain, winds,
and darkness, and thereby terrifying the demons to such an extent that they conceded dominion of the island to him” (Kieschnick, 542).
Assavavirulhakarn gives a case in point from Burmese historian Htin Aung of how even modern writers go astray by trusting the local chronicles. Aung wrote, “The chronicles claimed that the Buddha visited both lower and upper Burma. Many countries in Southeast Asia and Ceylon also made the same claim. Because of the distance, the sea, the terrain, those countries explained that the Buddha came flying using His supernatural powers…. From this the modern historian could conclude that in B.C. 505 a group of adventurous monks penetrated Burma…” (201).
Assavavirulhakarn cautions, “However, Htin Aung gives no evidence beyond the chronicles to substantiate his assertion, so the date cannot be verified” (201). “The tradition that the two Theras [in Asoka’s time] traveled to Burma and converted the people is no older than the fifteenth century and is not found in any sources other than those from the Mon-Burmese tradition” (Assavavirulhakarn, 63). “Scholars of Southeast Asian origin assert that their ‘national’ Buddhism descended in a direct line from the Buddha, or at least from the Sangha of the Third Council in Asoka’s reign. We have shown that there is insufficient evidence to support such assertions” (Assavavirulhakarn, 190).
“…religious diversity was the rule in every part of Southeast Asia, and wherever Buddhism was present, Hinduism was also there” (Assavavirulhakarn, 112).
Throughout Buddhist history in Southeast Asia, there were times when contradictory doctrines of various schools of Buddhism (and ideas from Hinduism) were held in “symbiosis,” and people did not worry about how to reconcile these tensions. These eclectic attitudes are still commonplace today. But, there were other times when doctrinal differences led to sharp disagreements and to kicking heretics out.
The well-known Thai Buddhist scholar P.A. Payutto has said, “No matter where Buddhism spreads to, or how distorted the teaching becomes, this emphasis on human endeavor never varies. If this one principle is missing, we can confidently say that it is no longer Buddhism” (38). According to this quote, many forms of Mahayana Buddhism are “no longer Buddhism.” Even in the early schools of Buddhism there were debates on some of the fundamental doctrines of Buddhism—each side claiming they had the true words of the Buddha on the matter.
One early school of Buddhism made claims that are also very much opposed to modern Theravada doctrine: “The Pudgalavadins were attacked vociferously
by other Buddhists schools for violating the most basic of Buddhist teachings, namely, that no self is to be found (anatman). The opponents of the Pudgalavadins argued that animate beings exist only as a collection of components or SKANDHA (AGGREGATE), which are conditioned and impermanent” (Cox, 504).
According to Richard Cohen, based on information recorded by a Chinese pilgrim in the seventh century AD, non-Mahayana Buddhists in India were the majority, and of those, almost half of them belonged to the Pudgalavadin school (also called Sammitiya).
Collet Cox also brings to light disagreements in early Buddhism: “Further, the image of a harmonious early community from which distinct sects or schools emerged
through gradual divergence in practice and in teaching must be questioned. Traditional sources attest to discord among the Buddha’s disciples even during his
lifetime, and relate that at the Buddha’s death one monk, Subhadra, rejoiced since his followers would now be free to do as they liked. Similarly, accounts of the first communal recitation or council held soon after the Buddha’s death record that one group of practitioners led by Purana rejected the consensual understanding of the Buddha’s teaching and preferred instead to transmit it as Purana himself had heard it” (502).
If the Sanskrit Asokavadana is to be believed, even after his conversion to Buddhism, King Asoka had 18,000 heretics killed. If the Pali Mahavamsa is to be taken as historical, King Asoka kicked out 60,000 heretical monks from the Sangha. Either way, heresy was not just brushed aside as unimportant.
According to modern scholarship, the Buddha lived from about 490-410 BC (Keown, 14), although those dates are still debated. Heinz Bechert gives the range for the Buddha’s death as sometime between 420-350 BC (82).
The Pali Canon was written down in about 25 BC by people in Sri Lanka more than 2000 kilometers away from where the Buddha died (Kusinagara), by people who had never met the Buddha, because they lived about 400 years after he died—these are our first red flags—the location, the time, and the non-eyewitnesses.
Of the three “baskets” in the Pali Canon, the third one (Abhidhamma) was not added until the Third Council (100-218 years after the Buddha’s death). The Pali Canon did not begin as three baskets, but began with nine “limbs,” which shows even the form of the canon was not established from the beginning. In King Asoka’s time (100-218 years after the Buddha’s death) he did not mention any canon, but only mentioned seven short texts in his edicts—he mentioned only the titles of the texts, and even these are debated as to whether they are the same ones from the Pali Canon or not.
Some of the early Buddhist commentators even admit that there were later additions to the Pali Canon. In the second “basket” of the Pali Canon, the section called Khuddakanikaya has been shown to differ from another version used by an early commentator. The Jataka tales (supposed stories of Buddha’s previous lives) of the Pali Canon, although officially more on the level of commentary, are accepted and believed by many Buddhists today, even though they date from the 5th century AD and later. These were written almost 1000 years after the Buddha’s death, and cannot be called historical stories in any sense of that word.
The earliest Buddhist manuscripts of any school are from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. However, “…the majority of the Gandhari texts have no known parallels in other Buddhist traditions” (Salomon, 300). The Gandhari texts are not a confirmation of the Pali Canon, but rather a testimony to a partial record of a different school of Buddhism. Even so, they are 400-700 years after the time of the Buddha’s death.
The Buddha’s actual life-- no doubt he was a historical person—has also been embellished terribly. No complete biography of his was written until the 2nd century AD—about 600 years after his death!
In the 12th century, the texts from two monasteries in Sri Lanka were made to conform to the texts of one monastery favored by the king at that time. This is the version that was brought to other Southeast Asian countries. We don’t know how accurately modern day Pali Canons are, even in comparison to the 12th century manuscripts, because we don’t have any complete manuscripts from the 12th century—these date only from 18th and 19th centuries.
Even if we were to imagine that the Buddha’s words are perfectly preserved today, which is very far from being the case, this still does not answer the more pressing question of whether the Buddha is someone to be followed in spiritual matters. Is “awakening” really the goal for people? Putting it another way, should our goal be to enter into an altered state of consciousness? The Buddha was just one among many gurus who came out of India? Why should he be followed, and why should a person subject themselves to an altered state of consciousness—any information gained therein would not be accepted in a court of law.
This is subjective rather than objective. Sometimes Buddhism places emphasis on the ability to experience something, but not everything that CAN be experienced SHOULD be experienced. A drug pusher might describe their product as offering an “awakening,” but that doesn’t mean it’s something that should be sought after. I’ve shown numerous red flags that should tell us the Pali Canon is not a reliable source of advice.
Furthermore, there are many fantastical claims made in the Pali Canon, such as the 32 marks of a great man—which apply to either a Buddha or a Cakravartin (universal ruler)—that such a great man would have 40 teeth and that his tongue would be so big it could cover either his forehead or his ears. The Pali Canon speaks of a time when human life spans were as high as 80,000 years, and as low as 10 years. The Pali Canon also speaks of fish in the ocean which are 500 yojanas long (about 3500 miles in length!). These are just some examples of the unrealistic claims made in the Pali Canon. When it comes to our souls we need objectively true advice from a book which has the marks of a historically reliable source.
Considering that a Buddha is supposed to have perfect knowledge, the books his followers left behind are sorely lacking in following that supposed example, “The term buddha (literally, ‘awakened’) refers to a fully enlightened being who has attained perfect knowledge and full liberation from REBIRTH” (Bechert, 82)
The evidence presented in this paper shows that Buddhist history is contradictory, the scriptures of various schools are far removed in time from their origins, and they contain many cases of invented fables. Therefore, those scriptures are fundamentally lacking in any authority in spiritual matters as well—not a “doctor” I would want to subject myself to, who follows unreliable and contradictory manuals.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Gandhari manuscripts are quite different from the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel, which confirm the Old Testament-- comparing the Masoretic text of the 10th century AD and the Dead Sea Scrolls of the 2nd to 3rd centuries BC.
The author of “God-Breathed: The Undeniable Power and Reliability of Scripture,” Josh McDowell, reports on the Dead Sea Scrolls: “Every book of the Old Testament was represented, except for the book of Esther, and the earliest copies dated from about 250 BC.” (154) These manuscripts were found near the Dead Sea from 11 different caves. McDowell quotes Dr. Peter Flint, “The biblical Dead Sea Scrolls are up to 1,250 years older than the traditional Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic text…. Our conclusion is simply this—the scrolls confirm the accuracy of the biblical text by 99 percent” (155-156).
McDowell points out that most variations between the Masoretic text of the 10th century and the Dead Sea Scrolls are spelling variations: “For example, of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, only seventeen letters are in question. Of those, ten are a matter of spelling, and four are stylistic differences; the remaining three letters comprise the word light, which was added to Isaiah 53:11…. more than one thousand years of copying the Old Testament had produced only very minor variations, none of which altered the clear meaning of the text or brought the manuscript’s fundamental integrity into question” (155).
Craig Davis, in his book “Dating the Old Testament,” further points out that, “The oldest texts of Isaiah are 21 Dead Sea Scrolls. Scroll 1QIsaa, the Great Isaiah Scroll, contains every verse of the book. Perhaps more significant for dating purposes is scroll 1Q8, or 1QIsab, a proto-Masoretic text containing portions of 44 chapters of Isaiah and dating to 150 B.C. In addition, six Dead Sea Scrolls are commentaries on Isaiah…. Isaiah 1-66 was placed in its final form by about 680 B.C. or shortly afterwards, and is all the work of Isaiah, the son of Amoz” (255).
Prophecies of the Old Testament
Even the most liberal scholars would place the Old Testament at a date of about 150 BC. Internal evidence based on the historical information in each book, linguistic considerations, archeological confirmations, etc. place the dates of each book much earlier than 150 BC. But even using a date of 150 BC confirms the manifold prophecies given by various Old Testament prophets.
Just looking at the book of Isaiah; Isaiah prophesied by God’s foreknowledge of Jesus’ virgin birth, that He would be a stumbling stone/cornerstone, that He would have a ministry in Galilee and be as a great light, that He would be God in the flesh, yet born of the line of Jesse in His body, that He would do miracles and have a forerunner preparing His way (John the Baptist announced His coming), that He would submit to being beaten and spit upon, that He would have a lack of physical attractiveness and be rejected, that He would be acquainted with grief and bear wounds and bruises on our behalf, that He would be silent before His accusers and His sacrifice would be for our sins, that His death would be with the wicked and His burial with the “rich” (Joseph of Arimathaea), that He would be anointed and sent to preach good news, bind up the broken, proclaim liberty, open prisons, and comfort mourners. This was all prophesied of His first coming (not to mention many other prophecies from other Old Testament books). Isaiah also prophesied of Jesus’ second coming.
By way of comparison with the Buddhist scriptures, nothing of this quality can be proven about the Buddha’s prophetic insight, especially when the texts are shown to be late, with various additions, and not written by eyewitnesses. Various local chronicles from cities in Southeast Asia pretend that the Buddha prophesied about their city, but these are also very late compositions, mostly from the 10thcentury AD onward.
Archeology, Manuscripts, and the Oldest Biblical Passage
Davis reports, “The handwriting on the amulets contains the Priestly Blessing of Num 6:24-26, written in Paleo-Hebrew script in the archaic fashion. The amulets date to
around 600 B.C., making them the oldest biblical passage yet found” (78).
The verses recorded on the amulet from 600 BC are these: “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, “Most of the chapters in Samuel are represented, particularly by 4Q51, which is very extensive. Scroll 4Q52 is dated to the third century B.C., making it the oldest or second oldest Dead Sea Scroll, and therefore perhaps the oldest biblical scroll in existence” (201).
Josh McDowell summarizes, “Archeology has established the historicity of the people and events described in the Bible, yielding more than twenty-five thousand finds that either directly or indirectly relate to Scripture” (158).
A “Doctor” Worthy of our Trust
Unlike the Buddhist Scriptures, The New Testament was written by people who knew Jesus and were eyewitnesses, who lived at the same time as Him, and who lived in the same geographical location. Furthermore, 10 of the 12 disciples sealed their testimony with their own blood, being willing to die for this testimony rather than renounce it.
Sir William Ramsay was a skeptic of the Bible. In 1873 he went to the University of Göttingen, in Germany to study Sanskrit. From there he continued his education at Oxford University. “In 1885 Ramsay became the first Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at Oxford. The following year he was appointed Regius Professor of Humanity, as the Latin professorship is called, at his alma mater, the University of Aberdeen. There he remained until his retirement in 1911” (Gasque, 16).
Of his skepticism regarding the book of Acts, Ramsay wrote, “I had read a good deal of modern criticism about the book and dutifully accepted the current opinion that it was written during the second half of the second century by an author who wished to influence the minds of people in his own time by a highly wrought and imaginative description of the early Church. His object was not to present a trustworthy picture of facts in the period of about A.D. 50…. He cared nought for geographical or historical surroundings of the period A.D. 30 to 60. He thought only of the period A.D. 160-180, and how he might paint the heroes of old times in situations that should touch the conscience of his contemporaries” (Gasque, 22-23).
Ramsay reversed his position after decades of archeological findings which placed Luke, the author of the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke squarely in the first century as an eyewitness: “After more than thirty years of close study of the milieu of first-century Christianity, he [William Ramsay] penned these words: ‘You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s, and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment, provided always that the critic knows the subject and does not go beyond the limits of science and of justice” (27)
Luke’s accounts in the Bible have been verified even after intense historical and archeological examination by those hostile to the accounts. A semi-technical book on this is Colin Hemer’s book: “Acts in a Setting of Hellenic History.”
Jesus is the “doctor” who is worthy of our trust: “But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:30-32). By God’s standards everyone is a sinner and in need of Jesus’ healing.
Other Evidences Supporting Jesus’ Claims in the New Testament
Frank Turek and Norman Geisler have written a book entitled “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” In that book, many other evidences are given concerning the reliability of the Bible. Here are some related to the New Testament: “Just how many non-Christian sources are there that mention Jesus? Including Josephus, there are ten known non-Christian writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life…. Some of these non-Christian sources—such as Celsus, Tacitus, and the Jewish Talmud—could be considered anti-Christian sources. While these works do not have any eyewitness testimony that contradicts events described in the New Testament documents, they are works written by writers whose tone is decidedly anti-Christian. What can we learn from them and the more neutral non-Christian sources? We learn that they admit certain facts about early Christianity that help us piece together a storyline that is surprisingly congruent with the New Testament.”
“Piecing together all ten non-Christian references, we see that: 1. Jesus lived during time of Tiberius Caesar. 2. He lived a virtuous life. 3. He was a wonder-worker. 4. He had a brother named James. 5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah. 6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. 7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover. 8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died. 9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead. 10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief. 11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome. 12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God” (222-223).
“At last count, there are nearly 5,700 handwritten Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. In addition, there are more than 9,000 manuscripts in other languages (e.g., Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Arabic). Some of these nearly 15,000 manuscripts are complete Bibles, others are books or pages, and a few are just fragments…there is nothing from the ancient world that even comes close in terms of manuscript support.” (Geisler & Turek, 225)
“Not only does the New Testament enjoy abundant manuscript support, but it also has manuscripts that were written soon after the originals. The earliest undisputed manuscript is a segment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 known as the John Rylands fragment…. Scholars date it between A.D. 117–138, but some say it is even earlier…. Even earlier than the John Rylands fragment are nine disputed fragments that date from A.D. 50 to 70, found with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some scholars believe these fragments are parts of six New Testament books including Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and James. While other scholars resist this conclusion they have not found any other non–New Testament texts that these fragments could be” (Geisler & Turek, 225-226).
“The Iliad has the next shortest gap at about 500 years [about 400 years now with recently discovered manuscripts]; most other ancient works are 1,000 years or more from the original. The New Testament gap is about 25 years and maybe less…. How old are the oldest surviving manuscripts of complete New Testament books? Manuscripts that are complete New Testament books survive from about A.D. 200. How about the oldest manuscripts of the entire New Testament? Most of the New Testament, including all of the Gospels, survives from 250, and a manuscript of the entire New Testament (including a Greek Old Testament) called Codex Vaticanus
survives from about 325…. If these numerous and early manuscripts were all scholars had, they could reconstruct the original New Testament with great accuracy. But they also have abundant supporting evidence from the ancient world that makes New Testament reconstruction even more certain…. the early church fathers—men of the second and third centuries such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and others—quoted the New Testament so much (36,289 times, to be exact) that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations” (Geisler & Turek, 227-228).
Josh McDowell in 2015 wrote, “Today, there are more than twenty-four thousand New Testament manuscripts in libraries, universities, and private collections throughout the world…. We have more than thirteen times as many New Testament manuscripts in existence today than we have for Homer’s Iliad” (165-167).
“All New Testament Books Were Written Before A.D. 100 (About 70 Years After the Death of Jesus)…. in letters written between A.D. 95 and 110, three early church fathers— Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp—quoted passages out of 25 of the 27 books in the New Testament. Only the short books of Jude and 2 John were not referenced, but they certainly had been written…. But that’s just the latest they could have been written. Most were probably written much earlier. How much earlier? Most if not all before 70 [AD]” (Geisler & Turek, 235-237).
“This is the situation we find in the New Testament. Luke, the medical doctor, meticulously records all kinds of details in Acts, which chronicles the early church (a listing of 84 historically confirmed details is in the next chapter). Luke records the deaths of two Christian martyrs (Stephen, and James the brother of John), but his account ends with two of its primary leaders (Paul, and James the brother of Jesus) still living. Acts ends abruptly with Paul under house arrest in Rome, and there’s no mention of James having died. We know from Clement of Rome, writing in the late first century, and from other early church fathers, that Paul was executed sometime during the reign of Nero, which ended in A.D. 68. And we know from Josephus that James was killed in 62. So we can conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the book of Acts was written before 62” (Geisler & Turek, 239-240)
“But it’s not just conservative scholars who believe these early dates. Even some radical critics, such as atheist John A. T. Robinson, admit the New Testament documents were written early. Known for his role in launching the “Death of God” movement, Robinson wrote a revolutionary book titled Redating the New Testament, in which he posited that most New Testament books, including all four Gospels, were written sometime between A.D. 40 and 65” (Geisler & Turek, 243)
Here are two acronyms which, from the evidence we’ve seen, which summarize the evidences of Buddhism and Christianity respectively. The word “hooded” was chosen for Buddhism, as this is narrated in the Pali Canon (in the Muccalinda Sutta of the Udana) and depicted in some idols, when the Buddha was “hooded” by a giant snake from the rain, while attaining “enlightenment.” The word “camper” seems appropriate for Christianity, as this world is only a temporary dwelling, and our focus is supposed to be toward that which is eternal:
Buddhist Uncertainty (HOODED)
Christian Evidence (CAMPER)
Highly impersonal beginning
Over a 2000 year Scripture gap
Devoid of prophetic insight
Experience is the subjective test
Dead and absent leader
A senior Buddhist monk once admitted to me that he thought about half of the Pali Canon consists of fables and legends. In the absence of a reliable Dharma, meditation was promoted by him and also many other Buddhists I’ve talked with. Supposedly this is the proof of the Buddha’s teachings, because it “works.” I have no doubt that an experience could be achieved in meditation and that altered states of consciousness could be reached. Such experiences and altered states of consciousness are promoted by a multitude of religions ranging from Hinduism to Jainism and even Sufism. But, these experiences are the opposite of what is recommended by the “doctor” whose credentials are reliable and who has preserved His Words for us.
Shravasti Dhammika acknowledges, “Indeed it is not unknown that some people who spend time in these meditation centers end up having serious mental problems. A joke circulating in certain circles in Sri Lanka in the 1990’s went ‘One month in Kanduboda, six months in Angoda,’ Kanduboda being a well-known meditation center in Colombo and Angoda being the city’s main mental asylum.”
Robinson and Johnson, in their book, “The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction” describe the meditation process, “The content of Awakening is thus two-thirds shamanism, ethically transformed, and one-third phenomenology…” (19). Robinson defines shamanism: “In the simplest terms, shamanism is the effort to gain knowledge or power from altered states of consciousness.” (290).
Jesus Christ, the Messiah, whose life was prophesied over 300 times in the Old Testament, is God the Creator, who is omniscient, who came in a human body, and is the “doctor” who recommends that we are set free by knowing the truth. He has taught that He Himself is the truth. In other words it is by coming into a relationship with Him that we are set free. This is done with our wits about us, admitting we have sinned against Him by ignoring His role in creating us; and thus we have followed after our own sinful ideas, instead of coming to learn from Him. He is the Creator, and He is also the Savior of all who will truly turn away from their sins and call on the name of Jesus Christ in faith to become a follower of Jesus. This is the glorious gospel—that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, so that we can be reconciled to the One who loves us the most and who knows what is best for us.
John 8:31-32 “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
John 14:6 “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
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Pali Canon Manuscripts…
Shravasti Dhammika’s book…
Mahavamsa lion legend…
Sri Lanka's Civil War...
Pali Canon in Stone…