Ben wrote:I think most, if not all visions of Buddhism are distortions. Some visions more distorted than others.
So how do we assess the level of distortion in a particular approach?
Unfortunately we have no perfect way apart from practicing the best we know and reaping pragmatic results. What is left is living tradition and guidance of living, or recently deceased Ajahns (through writtings of their teaching
). The Buddha didn't leave video or audio recordings. I don't even know that He existed, though I do believe despite the lack of hard evidence.
The best thing we can do is to get close to what the early Buddhists believed, hoping that they didn't unintentionally distort Buddha's message like Sati or Arittha did (even though these two lived under the Buddha
Here are the problem areas:
1)a) As Buddha was teaching some monk, ven. Ananda heard the lecture ONE time.
b) Some other monk heard the lecture one time and had to tell it to ven. Ananda who then remembered it.
2) How accurately word-for-word did ven. Ananda remember?
3) What did Ananda recollect 20 years later at the First Council.
4) How accurate was the teaching that was verbally being spread from generation to generation of monks for few centuries.
5) Teaching was then written down centuries after the Buddha during Fourth Buddhist Council (1st century BCE
6) Copying books for centuries until today.
The climate of Theravāda countries is not conducive to the survival of manuscripts. Apart from brief quotations in inscriptions and a two-page fragment from the eighth or ninth century found in Nepal, the oldest manuscripts known are from late in the fifteenth century,
 and there is not very much from before the eighteenth
The Ashoka's pillars (supposedly built centuries after the Buddha
) contain very little, and very general Dhamma.
The Gandhāran Buddhist texts are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered, dating from about the 1st century CE. They are written in Gāndhārī, and are possibly the oldest extant Indic texts altogether. link
Gāndhārī is not pāli and neither is it Theravādin, it is Dharmaguptaka school. And it is still ~5 centuries after the Buddha's death.
We have very little (if any
) hard evidence about the Theravāda and pāli teaching prior to 15th century. That is about 2000 after the Buddha!
Lots of places for typos, omissions, and mistakes!