What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

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Coyote
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What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby Coyote » Sat May 12, 2012 3:32 pm

I ask this not from a perspective of what is historically verifiable, but from the position of the Classical Theravada. Are the commentarial sources of the Buddha's life, and the early Sangha after his parinibbana possible fallible? Or are they to be treated as the historical truth of the matter?
A also ask if it is the position of Classical Theravada that the Suttas are all literally the words of the Buddha and literally accurate, or if they are rather more like summaries of what the Buddha said on a certain occasion.

Thanks,

Coyote
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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby cooran » Sat May 12, 2012 8:34 pm

Hello coyote,

These previous discussions might be a place to start:

Venerable Mahá Kassapa, the elected head of the First Council. Cúlavagga Xl,1,1 (ii,284) reiterated:
"Come, friends: let us recite the Teaching and the Discipline before what is not the Teaching shines forth and the Teaching is put aside, before what is not the Discipline shines forth and the Discipline is put aside, before those who speak what is not the Teaching become strong and those who speak what is the Teaching become weak, before those who speak what is not the Discipline become strong and those who speak what is the Discipline become weak."
The Commentaries are unreliable: I know better

viewtopic.php?f=19&t=7562

The Suttas are teaching vehicles whose meanings are densely packed layer on layer. They are not to be read as an ordinary page of print, but require 'unpacking' by someone learned in the Dhamma. This condensed form was necessary in order that the Teachings would not be lost in the years before they were finally put into writing ~ engraved on leaves in Sri Lanka. It allowed them to be memorised by the large groups of bhikkhus (bhanakas) assigned to each portion of the Tipitaka. They are not verbatim reports of chats and conversations. This memorisation is said to have commenced before the parinibbana of the Buddha. Anything that is repeated is to be seen as something important which was highlighted by the repetition.

The Suttas are rather like the memory prompts - the dot points of the most important information to be transmitted - similar to those a public speaker carries for reference.
"Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata -- deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness -- are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.' That's how you should train yourselves." (Ari sutta).

.... with regard to the accuracy of oral traditions ... Anthropologists agree that oral teachings are generally more accurate and less prone to "improving" than are written teachings

The Pali Suttas are summaries of what the Buddha meant to be passed on - and great care was taken, while he was alive and afterwards, to memorise them in a form that could not be distorted, and by a method that did not allow of deliberate alterations to meaning and content. The recitations were going on for the forty five years of the Buddha's teaching life. The repetitions in the suttas are pointer to the most important parts.

Venerable Mahá Kassapa, the elected head of the First Council. Cúlavagga Xl,1,1 (ii,284) reiterated:
"Come, friends: let us recite the Teaching and the Discipline before what is not the Teaching shines forth and the Teaching is put aside, before what is not the Discipline shines forth and the Discipline is put aside, before those who speak what is not the Teaching become strong and those who speak what is the Teaching become weak, before those who speak what is not the Discipline become strong and those who speak what is the Discipline become weak."

So the system was in place before the Buddha passed away. The Pali suttas are extremely condensed summaries of the Buddha's teachings, packed with meaning, which need to be unpacked by those learned in the Dhamma. They were preserved in that form to aid memorising and chanting by the large groups of Bhikkhus called Bhanakas (Reciters) i.e. Majjhima-bhanakas, Digha-bhanakas etc. Each group was allocated a small portion of the Tipitaka to keep pristine and pass on. This began even while the Buddha was alive.

It was only hundreds of years later in Sri Lanka, in a time of famine and warfare, with many bhikkhus dying, and with Buddhism all but wiped out in India, that the MahaSangha decided the Teachings needed to be written down. They were engraved on Ola Leaves. Many of us have been to Sri Lanka and have had the inestimable good fortune to have seen demonstrations of this being done at the ancient rock temple of Aluvihara Temple (where the Tipitaka was originally written down) in the Matale district 26 km from Kandy.
viewtopic.php?f=13&t=2948&p=42626

with metta
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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby alan » Sun May 13, 2012 5:20 pm

It could not have been said any better. :goodpost:

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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby Coyote » Sun May 13, 2012 6:39 pm

Thank you Cooran :anjali:
Just to clarify, the idea of the Suttas being summaries rather than the verbatim words of Buddha is the teaching of the Classical Mahavihara Theravada?
I ask about the reliability of the commentaries because they often contain information about the context of the suttas, practices, and the life of the Buddha and history of the early Sangha that is not in the Suttas, and I want to be sure of the Classical position on their reliability. I will read through the thread and come back if there is anything I need to clarify.

Metta,

Coyote
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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby mikenz66 » Sun May 13, 2012 7:42 pm

The Classical position is that the Tipitika takes precedence if a Commentary is in contradiction with it. Similarly with a later teaching (Tipitika and Ancient Commentaries take precedence if there is a contradiction).

Of course, what is considered a "contradiction" is a rather slippery concept. Arguments about that issue would generally belong in threads such as:
viewtopic.php?f=16&t=2169
not the Classical section.

However, it seems significant that the intent of the Classical position seems to be to promote a living, though Conservative (in a positive sense!), tradition. New thought is not considered to be suspect simply because it is new, and commentaries (or subcommentaries) on the Suttas, Vinaya, and Abdhidhamma may continue to be written.

:anjali:
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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby BKh » Sun May 13, 2012 8:10 pm

cooran wrote:The Suttas are teaching vehicles whose meanings are densely packed layer on layer. They are not to be read as an ordinary page of print, but require 'unpacking' by someone learned in the Dhamma.

I'm also wondering if you could explain what you mean by "layer on layer." Are you talking about the use of technical terms that are not always defined when they are used? Or are you referring to a comentarial layer?
Last edited by BKh on Sun May 13, 2012 10:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby manas » Sun May 13, 2012 9:01 pm

Hi Coyote

regarding 'unpacking' the meaning and intent of the suttas, I have found Ajahn Kukrit's advice very helpful: to keep comparing what we read in one sutta, with what we read in another, always comparing what we read with our personal experience, with a clearer picture emerging over time:



:anjali:

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Re: What can we be certain of in the Buddha's life?

Postby mikenz66 » Sun May 13, 2012 9:40 pm

Members: Please be mindful that this is the Classical Theravada Forum.

Please stick to discussions elucidating the intention of the Classical Theravada.

:focus:

:anjali:
Mike


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