Some quick thoughts about the essay:
Buddhist tradition maintains that after his awakening, the Buddha taught for some 45 years throughout eastern India. Among his disciples were a few, including his attendant Ananda, who had highly trained memories and could repeat his words verbatim. . . . Every school of Buddhism stakes its authority, and indeed its very identity, on its historical connection to this original first canon. Buddhists of all traditions have imagined that our texts tumble from the First Council into our own hands whole and complete—pristine—unshaped by human agency in their journey through time. P 2
This is pretty much the traditional point of view; however, this has been questioned by scholars for decades.
If our texts don’t faithfully preserve the actual words of the Buddha in this way, we might think, how could they be reliable? Isn’t that what we base our faith on? P 2
And that can be a very scary question for some of us.
But as we’re about to see, history works otherwise. And having a view more in line with the facts here frees us from chauvinist views and gives us grounds for respecting differences between and within diverse Buddhist schools. P. 2
I wonder who this essay is really directed at.
It was a mistake to assume that the foundation of Buddhist textual tradition was singular, that if you followed the genealogical branches back far enough into the past they would eventually converge. P. 3
But in a real sense, it has to be singular if there were a person that we call the Buddha.
Because early Buddhism was an oral tradition, tracking any Buddhist text back in time is like following a trail of bread crumbs that ends abruptly. So for us looking to the past, a critical moment in history occurred when Buddhists started writing down their texts rather than transmitting them orally. That is when the Buddha’s words moved into a more enduring form. P.4
She is way overstating this. The fact that we have two complete canons and partial bits of others, and the fact that there are strong correspondences among these canons, points to a commonality in the source material. It must be kept in mind that the canon(s) translated into Chinese was separated by considerable time and distance from that of the Pali. We need not overplay or underplay this. A comparison of the various canons is not going to give us an ur-canon, but it will show that the monastics did take seriously the need to preserve the texts and points to a commonality.
If we were looking for a single ancestral root of all Buddhist canons, the moment the teachings got written down would be the first possible point in time we could find their physical record. P. 4
The various canons were well separated by time and distance before the need for writing.
We now know that if there ever was a point of convergence in the Buddhist family tree—the missing link, the single original and authentic Buddhist canon—it is physically lost in the era of oral transmission. We have not yet found, and probably will not ever find, evidence for it. P. 5
I find this attempt at dismissing a “point of convergence” interesting. Again, if there was “the Buddha” who taught, there is that point of convergence. Will we be able to get to it directly? No, but what we can get is a pointing towards it.
But even more significant is what we have found: that is, difference. These scrolls are incontrovertible proof that as early as the first century B.C.E., there was another significant living Buddhist tradition in a separate region of India and in an entirely different language from the tradition preserved in Pali. P. 5
There is not a thing surprising in this.
[Colette] Cox suggests that “rather than asking the question what single language did the Buddha use and what represents the earliest version of his teachings, we might have to accept that from the very beginning there were various accounts of his teachings, different sutras, and different versions of sutras transmitted in different areas. At the very beginning we might have a number of different sources, all of whom represent or claim to represent the teaching of the Buddha.” P. 5
We would not have that at the very beginning, but we would have it very quickly after the death of the Buddha as the various groups of Buddhist became separated by time and distance.
Clearly, Buddhist monks of different language traditions in early India were in contact, and they traded ideas and influenced each other in complex ways. P. 5
Yes and no. That is a bit too glib.
If a multiplicity of traditions is what we have now, and as far as the record goes back in time, multiplicity is what we’ve always had, maybe we’re not finding a single root Buddhism because there wasn’t one in the first place. Ps. 5-6
No; however, the multiplicity did happen soon after the death of the Buddha.
First of all, there are certain practical difficulties of oral transmission in a time before digital recording. How could 500 monks have agreed on 45 years of the Buddha’s words? P. 6
An interesting question, which seems to assume that the texts/suttas were compiled after the Buddha’s death. There is enough evidence within the suttas themselves that points to the teachings being organized and memorized during the Buddha’s lifetime, which seems only reasonable.
The Buddhist canons as they exist today are the products of historical contingencies. They resound with the many voices that have shaped them through time. But orthodoxy requires the opposite, a wall you can’t put your fist through: singular, unchanging, findable truth. Buddhism’s textual root wasn’t singular, and it wasn’t unchanging. As it turns out, it wasn’t so findable, either. P. 7
It is not going to be finable as a written document, but does it have to be? And yes, the canons do show signs of being handled. There is no reason to deny it.
believe their tradition possesses or other traditions lack: not a “one-of-many-versions” canon but “the real one.” P. 2
An important point. The Pali Canon is one among many. Its virtue is that it is preserved in an Indic language close to what the Buddha likely spoke, but it is, indeed, one among at a couple of others.
Mahayana and mainstream Buddhist sutras were recovered together and presumably buried together. Harrison believes that the monks who engaged in Mahayana practices were most likely Vinaya-observing; they likely lived in monasteries side by side practitioners of more mainstream Buddhism. P. 8
These first-century Mahayana texts in the new collections are already highly developed in terms of narrative complexity and Mahayana doctrine.
Bit of an exaggeration.
They couldn’t be the first Mahayana sutras, Harrison says. “The earlier stages of the Mahayana go far back. The Mahayana has longer roots and older roots than we thought before.” (Not roots all the way back to the Buddha, though—Harrison agrees with the general scholarly consensus that the Mahayana developed after the Buddha.) Nonetheless, he says, “Probably lying behind these Mahayana texts there are others with much stronger mainstream coloration, where it is not so easy to tell whether it’s Mahayana or Shravakayana.” P. 8
The seeds of the bodhisattva notion were planted by the Mainstream Buddhists who did “Buddha-ology” after the Buddha’s death.
During this period of early Buddhism there were many different strands of practice and trends of thought that were not yet linked. “We could have the Perfection of Wisdom strand and a Pure Land strand and a worship of the Buddha strand, and all sorts of things going on,” Harrison remarks. Only later did these threads coalesce into what we now consider “the Mahayana.” P. 9
This is a bit misleading. “We could have what would become the perfection of Wisdom strand, etc.” probably starting about a century or so after the Buddha’s death, but even that is conjecture.
Harrison suggested we consider a braided river as a better metaphor than a tree for the historical development of Buddhist traditions. A braided river has a number of strands that fan out and reunite. “Its origin is not one spring, but a marsh or a network of small feeder streams,” he told me. According to this model, the Mahayana and Vajrayana “are merely downstream in the onward flow of creativity. They are activities similar in nature to early Buddhism—not radically different. And a lot of current in their channels has come all the way from the headwaters,” he says. “Whether it all has the single taste of liberation is another question.” In such a picture of textual transmission—fluid, dynamic, and intermingled—where and how could one stake a territorial claim? Sectarian posturing is based on having the actual words of the Buddha—complete, stable, unmediated, and self-contained. Once all one can have is a complex of versions of the Buddha‟s words—partial, changing, shaped, and commingled with other versions—in what sense would it be authoritative if one;s own version was bottled upstream or down? P. 9
This does not do justice the richness and complexity of the development of the various Buddhist lines of thought.
So, those who liked Linda Heuman’s essay, what is it point?