Author Topic: is buddhism true without the buddha?  (Read 2005 times)

Offline katersy

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is buddhism true without the buddha?
« on: August 16, 2010, 06:33:18 am »
If it were somehow shown, or if sufficient evidence was found to suggest that there was no such person as Siddhartha Gautama, that the historical Buddha never existed, and that what we see today as his teachings were just made up by a load of very intelligent but unhappy, existentially depressed people over several hundred years, would you continue to practise? Would you still have "faith" ? Where would it leave you on the question of taking refuge in "the Buddha" ?

In other words, to what extent does your practice depend on the existence of the historical Buddha?
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Offline Jikan

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #1 on: August 16, 2010, 06:41:19 am »
As a matter of historical fact, we have no conclusive proof that Shakyamuni Buddha existed or uttered the words recorded in the Suttas, Sutras, or Tantras.  History is difficult like that; standards of proof are really excruciating with historical evidence. (I'm a cultural historian by training; my point here is a professional one rather than a doctrinal one.) 

However, it's entirely plausible to assume that there was someone named Siddhartha Gautama who presented some teachings that have something to do with something we now characterize as Buddhism today given the evidence we have at hand.  That's a separate matter from the more challenging part of your question, though, which is:

Bracketing the question of whether anyone in history has ever been enlightened, or if enlightenment is even possible, can one still find reason to practice Buddhism anyway, to take refuge in this set of practices and teachings?

I would say yes, on the grounds that there's nothing in mainstream Buddhist practice that will get you into trouble.  Think about it:  be generous, live an ethical life, be patient, be persistent in your endeavor to be kind, cultivate some mental stability, try to develop some wisdom:  the six perfections are a good way to avoid getting yourself in a jam and a great way to live an examined, useful life.  It's not a bad way to go!

There's another approach to this question but I need a minute to think of a helpful way to put it.  More from me later.  I hope this squirt of stuff is useful to you though.

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Offline Spiny Norman

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #2 on: August 16, 2010, 06:50:26 am »
In other words, to what extent does your practice depend on the existence of the historical Buddha?

Only to the extent that the dharma must have come from somewhere.

Spiny

Offline Bodhicandra

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #3 on: August 16, 2010, 07:10:54 am »
I've found that, following a Dzogchen path, one only needs a 'short-term faith' to motivate you to get started. Once you practice enough for Dharma effects to start to become apparent, you don't need so much 'faith' - you begin to know the practice is working and you gain confidence in the Reality of Dharma.
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Offline Jikan

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #4 on: August 16, 2010, 07:38:11 am »
I tried to post this earlier this morning but FreeSangha at my homework.  :bigtears:  Here's the short version;

I have some friends whom I trust and respect (http://senshin.dk). These friends have never lied to me but their ways sometimes confuse me. For instance, they insist they are from a place called Denmark. I have never been to Denmark and I have no physical evidence that Denmark exists. All I have to rely on is the testimony of my friends, some recordings of the very vowelly Danish language, some butter and furniture and shoes that may have been designed by people from Denmark, some comments from Hamlet on the subject of rot: nothing hard and fast.

However, I have also come to understand that there is a way for me to see Denmark first hand. I will need to apply myself diligently to the task of swimming, sailing, or flying (three vehicles...); I may have to accept some formal practices that seem a bit bureaucratic; I may have to accept a temporary layover in an implausible bardo state such as Iceland or, worse, Heathrow; and I have to accept that my friends know the way. In short, I need to trust people who have more first-hand knowledge than I have, and I need to trust the guidebooks they suggest to me. Since I have an open invitation to visit Denmark and see for myself, what do I have to lose if I try?

Buddhahood is like Denmark in this analogy. (Danish readers: Find a different analogy.) It is not something you can get a handle on in ordinary terms. You need to experience it first hand, and in order to experience it, you need to put some trust in your guide and your friends. You have to take a chance on it. This means you must admit that you don't have all the answers before you start to learn. Beginner's mind! And as it happens, you will find as you proceed that you had the potential in you all along to visit this Denmark place, that Denmark is fundamentally the same place you have always been all along.


you can get the total burrito here at the blog.

http://dctendai.blogspot.com/2010/08/buddhism-with-no-buddha.html
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Offline Bodhicandra

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #5 on: August 16, 2010, 07:44:49 am »
I've thought of a different angle on this.  Our group follows the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, in which teachings (terma) can re-emerge from the minds of special people (tertons) - usually with some kind of physical discovery involved as well.

When first told about these, I asked our teacher: "How can you tell if a teaching is authentic?" The reply: "Because it works!"
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Offline katersy

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #6 on: August 16, 2010, 08:16:26 am »
I tried to post this earlier this morning but FreeSangha at my homework.  :bigtears:  Here's the short version;

I have some friends whom I trust and respect (http://senshin.dk). These friends have never lied to me but their ways sometimes confuse me. For instance, they insist they are from a place called Denmark. I have never been to Denmark and I have no physical evidence that Denmark exists. All I have to rely on is the testimony of my friends, some recordings of the very vowelly Danish language, some butter and furniture and shoes that may have been designed by people from Denmark, some comments from Hamlet on the subject of rot: nothing hard and fast.

However, I have also come to understand that there is a way for me to see Denmark first hand. I will need to apply myself diligently to the task of swimming, sailing, or flying (three vehicles...); I may have to accept some formal practices that seem a bit bureaucratic; I may have to accept a temporary layover in an implausible bardo state such as Iceland or, worse, Heathrow; and I have to accept that my friends know the way. In short, I need to trust people who have more first-hand knowledge than I have, and I need to trust the guidebooks they suggest to me. Since I have an open invitation to visit Denmark and see for myself, what do I have to lose if I try?

Buddhahood is like Denmark in this analogy. (Danish readers: Find a different analogy.) It is not something you can get a handle on in ordinary terms. You need to experience it first hand, and in order to experience it, you need to put some trust in your guide and your friends. You have to take a chance on it. This means you must admit that you don't have all the answers before you start to learn. Beginner's mind! And as it happens, you will find as you proceed that you had the potential in you all along to visit this Denmark place, that Denmark is fundamentally the same place you have always been all along.


you can get the total burrito here at the blog.

http://dctendai.blogspot.com/2010/08/buddhism-with-no-buddha.html



Hiya Jikan

I like your analogy, but I think it has several problems with it.

1. Nobody has ever seriously questioned the existence of Denmark. There are no other large groups of intelligent, educated people who are convinced, and would like to convince other large groups of people, that Denmark is non-existant and the true country, is in fact Sweden. (replace 'the existence of Denmark' with 'Buddhism' and 'Sweden' with any other major world religion of your choice).

2. Unless you're from Denmark, I can't see any good reason why people would particularly want or need Denmark to exist, so why pretend to yourself and others that it does? There are some extremely good reasons why we humans, aware of our mortality, terrified of it and thus plunged in a conundrum about what to do about the whole matter of existence, would like the potential of Buddhahood to be true. In other words, there's no good reason to invent Denmark. There is a good reason to invent salvation!

3. Visiting Denmark in order to see for yourself that it exists is, at worst, a waste of a weekend. What's that compared to a waste of a life pursuing something that may not exist?


NB: I'm not saying that it doesn't exist - I'm just pointing out some of the flaws in this rather shaky comparison between Denmark and Buddhahood.

And by the way, Denmark does exist. I've been there. It's not what you think though...
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Offline Ron-the-Elder

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #7 on: August 16, 2010, 08:51:45 am »
The most succinct answer to your question, katersy, is yes.  The reason for yes as the answer is that The Dhamma (The Truth, things as they really are) exists regardless of what anyone thinks about them.  Now, there may be many reasons why we don't prefer to know the truth, but most people I have known, including myself, want to know it and want to operate in accordance with it.

The second part of my answer to your question is that there are many more than one Buddha.  Apparently there are an infinite number of them.  So, if this specific one, Sakyamuni Buddha, didn't or never existed then there would be others.  Hopefully, you and I and the next guy and gal over will eventually reach that attainment as well.

Later,  Dudette!

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Offline Jikan

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #8 on: August 16, 2010, 12:05:01 pm »
Hi Katersy,

I take your points on weakness of the analogy (although I'm not convinced the majority of the world's inhabitants are particularly bright or well-educated and hence capable of distinguishing Denmark from Narnia on a map... I don't mean that as a dig but as an observation on the intense poverty that prevails among most of the world's inhabitants), but those weaknesses don't really affect the point of the illustration:  

you don't need first-hand knowledge of something in order to try to learn more about it.  In the case of Buddhahood, you won't get that first-hand knowledge until you're willing to give it a go in practice.  And to do that, there's an element of trust that you're not being misled by those who are teaching you how to practice.  That's the point I was flailing around at.  
« Last Edit: August 16, 2010, 12:08:29 pm by Jikan »
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Offline Caz

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #9 on: August 16, 2010, 01:50:05 pm »
Well through personal experience what i practise works very much  :D
For me the existance of the historical Siddartha Gautama isnt much of an issue, If he didnt exist that would very much undermime the refuge teachings which are the begining of any serious practise of Buddhism, But however the historical existance of the person known as Buddha isnt particularly questioned. Not to mention you would have a difficult time in proving who lived 2500 years ago in India anyway.  :pray:
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Offline catmoon

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #10 on: August 16, 2010, 04:06:22 pm »
Well, if someone proves to me Buddha never existed, no problem. I would simply go on to venerate the teachers and explorers who came up with Dharma. Ultimately it's almost the same thing anyhow. A buddha by any other name would smell as sweet.
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Offline Lazy_eye

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #11 on: August 17, 2010, 03:46:32 am »
It would impact my view of the Pali suttas, not so much the Mahayana sutras -- because the suttas present themselves as the record of a particular teacher's life and teachings, whereas the Buddha in the Mahayana texts is more of an exalted, cosmic figure.

Theravada defines itself as being the the closest approximation to early Buddhism and it rejects the later sutras as inauthentic. Dhamma talks in the Theravada tradition present the Buddha as a real person, almost as though he were in the next room. If the persona who we meet in the Pali Canon turned out to be a fabrication, then it would be hard to make any claims about Theravada authenticity.

The foundations of Mahayana, on the other hand, are steeped in mythology about secret teachings and gods and nagas, and the historical Buddha's life story is already regarded as an illusion conjured up for the sake of unenlightened beings -- he only "appeared" to grow up in the royal palace, only appeared to be seeking enlightenment, etc. So if none of it turned out to be literally true, why would it matter?
« Last Edit: August 17, 2010, 03:59:36 am by Lazy_eye »

Offline Ron-the-Elder

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #12 on: August 17, 2010, 04:03:47 am »
Thank you for the honest assessment of how different cultures inevitably reflect their underlying beliefs when adopting and integrating new teachings.  The analogy which seems to fit is the mind experiment of creatures of various dimensionalities.  For example a two dimensional creature cannot see what a three dimensional creature can see.  The same is true for a four-dimensional creature trying to relate/understand the balance of the eleven dimensions.  Each culture adds their layers based upon the underpinnings of their culture.  It explains the culture shock between practitioners from opposite sides of the world, raised in different environs.  The greater the differential between cultural richness, the greater the embellishments upon The Dhamma.

However, the fundamentals appear to remain the same:  Four Noble Truths, DO, Imipermanence, Self/Not-Self, Noble Eight Fold Path, Nibbana, which gives us all a common focus for understanding and acceptance of each-other's practices.
What Makes an Elder? :
A head of gray hairs doesn't mean one's an elder. Advanced in years, one's called an old fool.
But one in whom there is truth, restraint, rectitude, gentleness,self-control, he's called an elder, his impurities disgorged, enlightened.
-Dhammpada, 19, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Offline Bodhicandra

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #13 on: August 17, 2010, 06:43:52 am »

The foundations of Mahayana, on the other hand, are steeped in mythology about secret teachings and gods and nagas, and the historical Buddha's life story is already regarded as an illusion conjured up for the sake of unenlightened beings -- he only "appeared" to grow up in the royal palace, only appeared to be seeking enlightenment, etc. So if none of it turned out to be literally true, why would it matter?

Hmm. I'm not sure that our  tradition (Mahayana Maha Ati) would support the view that the (entire) life story was an illusion.
I think we are quite delighted to accept the historical fact of his life and deeds.

As I understand it, however, many Mahayana followers would broadly support  the Lotus Sutra teaching that the historical Buddha was already enlightened before birth, and went through the whole 'performance' (my wording) of life, suffering, awakening and death as a teaching for us all.

His point was, I think,  that every Buddha was originally a human like us - that awakening is available to all of us; his emanation as a human demonstrated the Way to achieve it.
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Offline Lazy_eye

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Re: is buddhism true without the buddha?
« Reply #14 on: August 17, 2010, 06:07:14 pm »
Sure, I don't disagree. I guess I'm just thinking that if we see it as a "performance" or "illusion", then the historical facts are less of an issue.

Theravada, by nature, has more invested in authenticity. If the historical figure of Siddartha Gautama disappears or turns out to be someone very different from the persona in the Pali Canon, then the basis for the tradition would be undermined.

I'm always impressed by the very real and personal way in which Theravadin teachers often refer to the Buddha, as though he has just stepped out for the alms-round and will be back any minute to resume teaching.

 


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