Author Topic: Is Pali Primacy Warranted?  (Read 1571 times)

Offline Dharma Flower

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Is Pali Primacy Warranted?
« on: April 15, 2019, 06:42:23 pm »
The Lotus Sutra was the first Buddhist text to be translated from its original Sanskrit into a European language. What is the significance of that? In 1836, Brian Hodgson, then British Resident at the court of Nepal in Kathmandu, sent 24 Sanskrit manuscripts to Paris. Among them was the Lotus Sutra.

A young French scholar, Eugène Burnouf, chose the Lotus almost at random and started translating it, probably because he liked the parables. He had no idea of its importance in the history of Buddhism.

He ended up translating the entire text, but did not publish it because he thought he needed to write an introduction to it first. That huge work, published in 1844 as Introduction à l’ histoire du Buddhisme indien, is today considered the founding text of the academic study of Buddhism in the West.

In fact, as Burnouf continued to read Buddhist texts, he grew to dislike the baroque style and fantastic imagery of the Mahayana sutras, including the Lotus.

He preferred what he called the “simple sutras,” which he felt more accurately reflected the Buddha’s life and original teachings. In some ways, the prejudice in favor of the Pali canon as more authentic comes from this time. Meanwhile, Burnouf kept putting off the publication of his translation of the Lotus: it was issued only after his death, under the title Le Lotus de la bonne loi (1852)…

However, the fact that scholars of Buddhism do not regard the Mahayana as having been taught by the Buddha does not mean that they necessarily see the Pali canon as more authentic. Burnouf’s prejudice in favor of the “simple sutras” has also been called into question.

Although it is possible now to establish a chronology of texts using historical linguistics and other methods, it does not follow that such a chronology can be confidently traced back to the Buddha himself. For many scholars of Buddhism, a definitive answer to the question, “What did the Buddha teach?” cannot be answered. Or at least it has not yet been answered convincingly.

Offline Pixie

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Re: Is Pali Primacy Warranted?
« Reply #1 on: April 16, 2019, 01:03:57 am »

Hi DF,

This is from the blog website of Bhikku Sujato from Sutta Central. (I think you post at SC yourself with a different name) :


Is the Lotus Sutra authentic?

One of our commenters asked about whether the Lotus Sutra was considered authentic according to the Theravadin view.

To answer this from the traditional Theravadin point of view, all the Mahayana Sutras are inauthentic in the sense that they were not spoken by the Buddha. Historically, Theravada has tended to take a dim view of Mahayana, regarding it as a mere degeneration of the pure teachings.

That the Lotus Sutra and other Mahayana Sutras were not spoken by the Buddha is unanimously supported by modern scholarship. I don’t know of a single academic in the last 150 years who has argued otherwise. The basic historical background is given in Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Lotus Sutra was composed over a period of time, or in a number of stages. The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 CE. This makes it one of the earliest Mahayana Sutras (and it is even argued that the earliest form of the sutra may not have even been Mahayana).

So there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in. They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations. Of course the same is true of many Theravdin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.

Why were the Mahayana Sutras phrased as if spoken literally by the Buddha? This is a difficult question, and there is unlikely to be one answer. Partly it was just how the literary form evolved. But I suspect, given the visionary nature of many Mahayanist texts, that they often stemmed from meditation experiences; visions of the Buddha, memories of ‘teachings’ received while in samadhi. Perhaps the authors of these texts believed that the Buddha was really present to them in some sense – and this is indeed the theme of many Mahayana sutras. Or perhaps they more humbly believed that they had gained insight into the Dhamma in some direct way.

and also there's :

The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts

by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali


« Last Edit: April 16, 2019, 04:36:39 am by Pixie »
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Offline Chaz

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Re: Is Pali Primacy Warranted?
« Reply #2 on: April 16, 2019, 10:18:46 am »
I often wonder about this issue.  It seems that the question of authenticity is based on a standard of the Pali canon being authentic and the Mayahana sutras, not being in the Pali canon, are inauthentic.  That's fine, except no one ever demonstrates how the contents of the Pali canon are, themselves, authentic.  It's like no proof is needed; authenticity is a forgone conclusion and it's left to the Mahayana to prove authenticity.

I don't even know what "authentic" means.

By authentic, do we mean that the words in the Pali were actually spoke, where, when and by whom we say.  If so, what "proof" is there?  How can we say, with any assurance, that these sutras weren't just cobbled together over the centuries to put a face on the teachings of the path to enlightenment?

It occurs to me that enlightenment has nothing to do with authenticity.  It has to with faith in the effacy of the teachings, not their "authenticity".

Offline MarasAndBuddhas

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Re: Is Pali Primacy Warranted?
« Reply #3 on: April 16, 2019, 05:03:20 pm »
Chaz is making a good point above, there is just no way to establish authenticity.

Many buddhists tend to think that we all have a "buddha nature", so fallowing that logic scriptures themselves are either secondary or irrelevant, buddha nature transcends historical eras. It doesn't matter what time period you live in: there should be elements of buddha in each one, and buddha wisdom can be found in average people.

I personally do want to learn the pali scriptures thought, it's all fascinating to me.

Offline stevie

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Re: Is Pali Primacy Warranted?
« Reply #4 on: April 17, 2019, 03:15:06 am »
Dear Dharma friends

From my perspective all buddhist teachings are equally valid and it is wonderful that the variety of Dharma can meet the needs of every individual.  <3


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