Historicity of the Buddha

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.

Historicity of the Buddha

Postby barryevans » Thu Apr 08, 2010 8:44 pm

I've been looking for actual evidence that there really was a person we call Buddha.

As I understand it, the earliest written references we have are around 100 CE, i.e. somewhere between 1000 years and 400 years after he was born, depending on which tradition you start with. If this is correct, it seems incredible that what was supposed to have been a vibrant, evangelical religion wasn't written about for hundreds of years after it started and expanded throughout the subcontinent (unlike every other religion I know about).

As far as Ashoka's edicts are concerned, they're silent on the topic of "Buddha" despite the usual story that he was a (the?) "Buddhist Emperor." (Assuming we can discount Minor Rock Edict #3, which doesn't fit at all with the "Beloved-of-the-Gods" style of all the other edicts, it's undated and seems an obvious forgery.)

What am I missing here?

thanks, barry
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby David N. Snyder » Thu Apr 08, 2010 8:57 pm

The Edicts of Ashoka are very close in time to the parinibbana of the Buddha.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... el386.html

Buddha is mentioned about 5 times in the edicts and Dhamma is written about 100 times. The Buddha said something to the effect of "he who sees the Dhamma sees me." The mentioning of Dhamma is sufficient without even mentioning Buddha.

The events and places mentioned in the Pali Canon correspond to archeological evidence, including Vulture Peak, Bodh Gaya, Neranjara River, Kapilavastu, etc.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby bodom » Thu Apr 08, 2010 9:06 pm

Whether there was a historical Buddha or not does not change the fact of Dukkha and the ending of Dukkha.

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The heart of the path is SO simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice. Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. Of course, there are dozens of meditation techniques to develop samadhi and many kinds of vipassana. But it all comes back to this - just let it all be. Step over here where it is cool, out of the battle. - Ajahn Chah
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby SDC » Fri Apr 09, 2010 1:43 am

barryevans wrote:What am I missing here?


What is taught is what's important. And as you dig deeper and deeper into the teachings you begin to see that whoever discovered the practice, whether it was one man or many, was beyond incredible. Although I highly, highly doubt the original teachings were the work of several people. Why would that be something to cover up and claim that it was one man? What would be the point of that? Really, what would be the point? Who is benefiting from this spectacular lie? Would it have gone like this? "Hey everyone, we just figured out all this incredible stuff together. I have an idea, lets say it was one guy instead of all of us." If anyone can explain the logic in that I would love to here it. Maybe I'm missing something.

What are you hoping to hear? That there is a theory you have presented that no one can disprove with a 100% accuracy? Well then...you got it. We can't. The time that the Buddha was said to have lived is long gone. So you got that one.

Or are interested in the teachings and wish to pursue, but feel that without this proof you can't trust it? That is not a problem. The teachings encourage that type of questioning. Investigate. Look for holes and inconsistencies. Don't follow blindly. But save it for the actual teaching, don't get hung up on this. Its a waste of time. No one can answer either way.

I however believe he did exist. I 99.999999999999999999% guarantee it, bud. :smile:
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Kim OHara » Fri Apr 09, 2010 1:52 am

barryevans wrote:I've been looking for actual evidence that there really was a person we call Buddha.

As I understand it, the earliest written references we have are around 100 CE, i.e. somewhere between 1000 years and 400 years after he was born, depending on which tradition you start with. If this is correct, it seems incredible that what was supposed to have been a vibrant, evangelical religion wasn't written about for hundreds of years after it started and expanded throughout the subcontinent (unlike every other religion I know about).
What am I missing here?

thanks, barry

Hi, Barry,
Your dates are far too vague: the Buddha lived c. 480 - 400 BCE according to recent (sound, historical) research. The edicts of Asoka date from between 262 and 232 BCE. The gap between his passing and the first written evidence is therefore only about 150 years.
And then you call it a 'vibrant, evangelical religion'. I think all three of those words are hard to justify - but particularly the middle one.
And you don't seem to consider that the culture was basically non-literate. Hardly anything was written down in those days.

What are you missing? I'm not sure, but suspect it's cultural perspective. You compare Buddhism to 'every other religion [you] know about' but I doubt that those include Taoism, Hinduism or Mithraism, all of which are significantly older than the Abrahamic religions. Can you cite contemporary written evidence of their origin?

Trust the dhamma we have. :smile:

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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Wind » Fri Apr 09, 2010 2:28 am

Even though the Teachings were written down centuries later, it has been passed down orally by his disciples since the Buddha's passing. Oral transmittance are as credible as written in those days.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Paññāsikhara » Fri Apr 09, 2010 4:04 am

barryevans wrote:I've been looking for actual evidence that there really was a person we call Buddha.

As I understand it, the earliest written references we have are around 100 CE, i.e. somewhere between 1000 years and 400 years after he was born, depending on which tradition you start with. If this is correct, it seems incredible that what was supposed to have been a vibrant, evangelical religion wasn't written about for hundreds of years after it started and expanded throughout the subcontinent (unlike every other religion I know about).

As far as Ashoka's edicts are concerned, they're silent on the topic of "Buddha" despite the usual story that he was a (the?) "Buddhist Emperor." (Assuming we can discount Minor Rock Edict #3, which doesn't fit at all with the "Beloved-of-the-Gods" style of all the other edicts, it's undated and seems an obvious forgery.)

What am I missing here?

thanks, barry


I don't know where you get "100 CE ... 1000 yrs ... after". Earliest evidences are the Asokan, and this is either 200 yrs or 100 yrs after the Buddha (depending on which dating method on uses, the southern or northern, resp.)

There is little reason to assume that it was a "vibrant, evangelical religion". So lack of evidence is not so "incredible". However, not being a "vibrant, evangelical religion" doesn't prove the non-existence of the Buddha, either.

Probably missing some perspectives other than "hard evidence" take on history. :)
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Ben » Fri Apr 09, 2010 4:19 am

Nicely put Bhante.
I think one thing that may be problematic for some people is that in this period in history, the practice of recording historical events via oral transmission. Discrediting the existence of this or that person because of a lack of documentary evidence, in a period where written records were rarely if at all created, isn't logically consistent.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Apr 09, 2010 7:23 am

From the Milinda Pañha, circa 1 B.C.

Did The Buddha Exist?

1. “Have you or your teachers seen the Buddha?”
“No, great king.”

“Then, Nāgasena, there is no Buddha!”
“Have you or your father seen the River Ūhā?¹ in the Himalayas?”

“No venerable sir.”
“Then would it be right to say there is no river Ūhā?”
“You are dexterous, Nāgasena, in reply.”

¹ The source of the Ganges.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Apr 09, 2010 7:36 am

barryevans wrote:It seems incredible that what was supposed to have been a vibrant, evangelical religion wasn't written about for hundreds of years after it started and expanded throughout the subcontinent (unlike every other religion I know about).

During the Buddha's own lifetime, and in the early centuries after his demise, the teachings were maintained by the oral tradition. Writing was used for business purposes in the Buddha's time, but was not considered reliable enough for preserving sacred texts. Even after the texts were first committed to writing on palm leave manuscripts, the oral tradition continued and still continues to this day.

Those unfamiliar with the oral tradition think that writing is a more reliable way to transmit a teaching. It is not — if it was, the Buddha would surely have had the teachings written down during his life time. If you learn some text verbatim, and can recite it on demand in front of an audience, then you know it in detail. The oral tradition is still alive and thriving especially in Burma, and in other Buddhist countries. Regular examinations are held to test knowledge of the Pali texts.

The late Sayādaw U Vicittasāra, Mingun Sayādaw, was the first monk to be awarded the title of Tipitakadhṝa Sayādaw for achieving the predigious feat of memorising the entire Pali Canon and being able to recite it verbatim under rigorous test conditions.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby BlackBird » Fri Apr 09, 2010 8:04 am

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Those unfamiliar with the oral tradition think that writing is a more reliable way to transmit a teaching. It is not — if it was, the Buddha would surely have had the teachings written down during his life time.


Indeed, the trained human mind is far more durable than any piece of paper. Furthermore, while written scripture can be adulterated without much complaint on behalf of the parchment, it would be very very difficult to adulterate an oral tradition when there are companies of reciters dotted all over a continent all reciting the original.

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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby PeterB » Fri Apr 09, 2010 8:08 am

See " Ancient Beliefs And Modern Superstitions " in which the author Martin Lings posits the concept that the development of a written language results in a loss of certain faculties which are commonly found in ancient pre-literate culture.
These include powers of concentration and retention which would be considered prodigious by a modern, characterised as we are by ever more scattered consciousness.
His thesis is that our view of a literate culture as superior, is undermined by linguistic, artist, and cultural evidence that indicates that many ancient cultures had a degree of sophistication in their psychological functioning and in their aesethetic sense that we cannot approach without a good deal of unlearning'
Our culture being rooted as it is in immediacy and a sense of self distorted by an over developed valuing of individuality, which gives rise to a coarsening of sensibility.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Bankei » Fri Apr 09, 2010 1:30 pm

Not that this helps, but I recall reading of one Buddhist scholar who doubted that the Buddha was an actual historical person - but I cannot remember who the scholar was now.
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby PeterB » Fri Apr 09, 2010 1:37 pm

No Bankei you are quite right. It doesnt.. :smile:
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby barryevans » Sun Apr 11, 2010 3:05 pm

Thanks everyone for your responses, much appreciated. I meant no offense asking the question—I think some responders may have thought I did.

For instance, Ben writes, “Discrediting the existence of this or that person because of a lack of documentary evidence, in a period where written records were rarely if at all created, isn't logically consistent.” I have no interest in discrediting anything, Ben. And anyway, as one of my teachers said long ago, “If you take Christ out of Christianity, you’re left with nothing; but take the Buddha out of Buddhism and it wouldn’t make any difference!”

I am, however, very curious about what seems to me to be the elephant in the room—when I hear, “The Buddha said...” or “The last words of the Buddha...” I wonder if we really have any evidence at all for what he said or even if he lived. (Of course, claiming oral history is accurate isn’t evidence, it’s hearsay.) I once heard a theory, for instance, that the Buddha was a Greek invention—has anyone else heard that? (And I don’t just mean the “Alexandrian” curls in his hair!)

In the recent PBS special on The Buddha, almost everyone narrated “facts” of the Buddha’s life as if they were uncontested.

So specifically:
Asoka’s edicts—the ones that are accepted (Major Pillar, Major Rock) don’t mention “Buddha” at all. (The two mentions in the Minor Pillars are obviously not Asokan—totally different style—and the Bairat rock edict again is very dubious, with a totally different style, and undated.) The many references to the dhamma mean nothing, since that word is used in Hinduism all the time. So to me this is weird, that Asoka is pretty well accepted as a follower of Buddha, but that he doesn’t acknowledge him in all his accepted edicts.

(Another problem with Asoka = Buddhist is that he’s big on paying respects to Brahmins, whereas Buddhism is usually presented as a reaction against Brahminism.)

I guess I thought I'd just have to google, "Historical Buddha" and the information would jump out at me! But even his birth-death dates, for instance, is all over the place. Kim says, “the Buddha lived c. 480 - 400 BCE according to recent (sound, historical) research.” (can you pls. reference, Kim?). On the other hand, “In Sri Lanka, 483 BC is accepted as the date of his nirvana while in Burma 544 BC is accepted. In Tibet it is believed to be 835 BC, while in China, 11th century BC is the accepted date. Buddha was an Indian and the Indian Puranic tradition believes that the nirvana took place in 1793 or 1807 BC.” (Bharateeya Historiography, http://www.hindubooks.org/hist_ssathe/b ... /page4.htm).

Kim writes, “You compare Buddhism to 'every other religion [you] know about' but I doubt that those include Taoism, Hinduism or Mithraism...Can you cite contemporary written evidence of their origin?” I think it’s pretty well accepted that at least some of the Vedas are Bronze Age, 1000 BCE at least (and we certainly have very old statuary). Mitra (one of the members of Zoroaster’s trinity) is mentioned 1400 BCE in the extant Mitanni treaty. Don’t know much about Taoism—Wikipedia sez, “Laozi received imperial recognition as a divinity in the mid second century B.C.E.”

I was hoping for something more concrete about historical Buddha. Any takers?

gassho, barry
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby bodom » Sun Apr 11, 2010 3:31 pm

If you want to find Buddha look within your own mind. Other than this you wont find him, and I really doubt anyone will be able to help you further than just providing obscure dates and locations that have already been debated endlessly by scholars.

:anjali:
The heart of the path is SO simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice. Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. Of course, there are dozens of meditation techniques to develop samadhi and many kinds of vipassana. But it all comes back to this - just let it all be. Step over here where it is cool, out of the battle. - Ajahn Chah
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby David N. Snyder » Sun Apr 11, 2010 3:51 pm

barryevans wrote:So specifically:
Asoka’s edicts—the ones that are accepted (Major Pillar, Major Rock) don’t mention “Buddha” at all. (The two mentions in the Minor Pillars are obviously not Asokan—totally different style—and the Bairat rock edict again is very dubious, with a totally different style, and undated.) The many references to the dhamma mean nothing, since that word is used in Hinduism all the time. So to me this is weird, that Asoka is pretty well accepted as a follower of Buddha, but that he doesn’t acknowledge him in all his accepted edicts.


Dhamma is a specifically Vibhajjavada / Theravada term. The Sanskrit Dharma can refer to Hindu Dharma, Jain Dharma, Mahayana Dharma, etc.

Choosing to look at only the Ashoka edicts that match your view is probably an example of the cherry picking logical fallacy.

There are Ashoka edicts that mention Buddha and mention Dhamma in terms of what the Buddha taught. But I doubt I can convince you, based on your posts.

Ven. Dhammika notes in his book on the edicts that the edicts mirror specific Buddhist teachings in the Pali Canon, including Digha Nikaya, Discourse No. 31, Anguttara Nikaya, II:282

I guess I thought I'd just have to google, "Historical Buddha" and the information would jump out at me! But even his birth-death dates, for instance, is all over the place. Kim says, “the Buddha lived c. 480 - 400 BCE according to recent (sound, historical) research.” (can you pls. reference, Kim?). On the other hand, “In Sri Lanka, 483 BC is accepted as the date of his nirvana while in Burma 544 BC is accepted. In Tibet it is believed to be 835 BC, while in China, 11th century BC is the accepted date. Buddha was an Indian and the Indian Puranic tradition believes that the nirvana took place in 1793 or 1807 BC.”


Different dates for many historical figures is not un-common. There are many different dates given for Jesus, Muhammad, and many other figures. That does not mean they didn't really exist, just that there was not the complete written record we have today with newspapers, internet, books, etc. for accuracy. I have no doubt that Jesus existed, but that doesn't mean that I believe he was some kind of son of a god. (Not saying that you feel one way or another on that or about Buddha.) In the same way, the Buddha definitely existed in my opinion, based on all of the evidence, and his teachings allow us to come and see if they make sense and work.

I was hoping for something more concrete about historical Buddha. Any takers?


I'm not offended, but somehow I don't think any amount of evidence will convince you. It appears you have already made up your mind before even posting. Best to just follow the good advice provided by bodom. :smile:
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Monkey Mind » Sun Apr 11, 2010 4:40 pm

barryevans wrote: I once heard a theory, for instance, that the Buddha was a Greek invention—has anyone else heard that? (And I don’t just mean the “Alexandrian” curls in his hair!)

In the early days, Buddha was not represented with statuary, it was not the custom. When the Greeks encountered the Buddhists, they could not conceive of a "religious" leader who was as revered as the Buddha was who did not have statuary. So the Greeks created Buddha statues, and modeled the Buddha in the image of Apollo. So the Greeks did not invent the Buddha, but they invented a certain Buddha image.

And P.S. the Greek historians did keep historical records of their first encounters with the Buddhists, so this is might be the type of evidence you are looking for.

And PSS- I am glad you asked the question over here. I don't think the crowd over at the other site was prepared to give you any real answers.

In the interest of citing sources: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX2f6QHkU-I
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as others are, so am I."
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby Bankei » Sun Apr 11, 2010 10:51 pm

There is an old article out there arguing that Asoka wasn't a Buddhist. He just patronised all of the common sects around at that time,. I think the article may have been authoried by AL Basham.

Yesterday I watched the movie the Life of Brian again. It is such a great movie, funny etc, but you can see from it out religions really start. 'The life of Gotama' would make a good movie too!
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Re: Historicity of the Buddha

Postby SDC » Mon Apr 12, 2010 12:54 am

bodom wrote:If you want to find Buddha look within your own mind. Other than this you wont find him, and I really doubt anyone will be able to help you further than just providing obscure dates and locations that have already been debated endlessly by scholars.

:anjali:


:thumbsup: Well said.
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