The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Anagarika
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The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by Anagarika »

I am interested in opinions on the issue, as Prof. Rita Gross has presented so well over the years, on how to manage the possible conflicts between what we have understood from the earliest suttas and Vinaya as to the Buddha's actual teachings, and what teachings developed later, particularly in the Mahayana. One of the elephants in the room that I feel is that some of Mahayana is patently a fabrication, and while we are earnestly as Buddhists using our knowledge, wisdom and Right Speech, the elephant of history seems to loom large in the room. As Prof. Gross has pointed out in a number of articles (she being from the Tibetan Vajrayana lineage herself), when history collides with traditions, people get uncomfortable, even angry.

"That is to say, Buddhist understandings of cause and effect could be employed to explain that a movement such as Mahayana Buddhism developed because of social, cultural, and historical events. Most Mahayanists ignore such explanations, preferring a story whose empirical validity is highly questionable. According to legend, in the presence of the historical Buddha, Avalokiteshvara instructs Shariputra on emptiness. If the story is taken literally, Mahayana Buddhism originated during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha, a claim that historians find unconvincing. Furthermore, Shariputra is a historical character, but Avalokiteshvara is not, and so they did not coexist in historical time and space, that is, in India in the fifth century B.C.E. Many students become intensely upset when the story they have usually been told about the origins of Mahayana Buddhism is critically evaluated. It is very difficult for them to understand that I am not asking them to question the validity of these stories, only their historicity." Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners Prof. Rita Gross, Tricycle, 2010

I have recently become interested in what a Theravada sangha in Japan has been doing...essentially bringing the teachings of the Buddhadhamma to the people of Japan, with some success. http://www.j-theravada.net/ Does it seem obnoxious, or offensive, to make efforts to correct the misunderstandings that may be present in some of the later ("Great Vehicle") traditions, or is it Right Speech to stay silent and let people practice a form of Buddhism that is valuable, sincere, but historically and textually incorrect? Should scholars and interested practitioners make some effort to bring the Pali Texts to western Mahayana? If the Dhamma is medicine for a sick society, are people being harmed by ingesting a placebo?

I truly applaud what Prof. Gross is presenting, but at the end of the day, will her words just bring anger or confusion?

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lyndon taylor
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by lyndon taylor »

Irrespective of what actually happened any of the scriptures that were originally written in Sanskrit COULD have been written in the Buddha's lifetime, as quite likely the Buddha or at least many of those around him could have recorded them in sanskrit as Sanskrit was the principal written language of the period. At least from scholars accounts, Pali, the common language of the lower Nepali/Indian castes, had no written alphabet, and I have never heard of anyone claiming pali could have been written down using the Sanskrit alphabet. It wasn't til 4-500??? years later when Buddhism reached modern day Burma, that the pali chanted scriptures were written down by adopting the Burmese language's alphabet. So thats 400 years of only oral memorization transmission of the 77 volumes of the pali canon, hardly a good case for a 100% accurate transmission of scripture IMHO. However we know very long books like the Holy Koran have been memorized cover to cover by 10s of thousands of devout Muslims, they may be one in ten thousand, but there are people with photographic phenomenol memory, which could account for a huge amount of Dhamma being accurately transmitted orally, I'm just not willing to go with 100%, but some people of really devout faith can believe in that. Now i'm not a 100% expert on this either, so for those of you that know even more about this, please correct any mistakes I have made, thank you.

While the Buddha spoke he would only teach in the language of the common citizen, Pali, the Mahayanists believe that in his old age realizing that none of this was actually written down, decided to write or transcribe some teachings in Sanskrit, and that these Sanskrit scriptures, carefully translated into Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese langauges etc became the mahayana teachings we have today, I have also heard the mahayana traditions considered some gurus just as or almost as highly as the buddha, the living Buddhas, and that much of the mahayana scriptures come much later from these sources. How much of this is true or not, I really have no idea.
18 years ago I made one of the most important decisions of my life and entered a local Cambodian Buddhist Temple as a temple boy and, for only 3 weeks, an actual Therevada Buddhist monk. I am not a scholar, great meditator, or authority on Buddhism, but Buddhism is something I love from the Bottom of my heart. It has taught me sobriety, morality, peace, and very importantly that my suffering is optional, and doesn't have to run my life. I hope to give back what little I can to the Buddhist community, sincerely former monk John

http://trickleupeconomictheory.blogspot.com/

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cooran
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by cooran »

The Buddha was very aware of the preciousness of his Teachings and the need to ensure they were not altered deliberately or accidentally.
The Bhanakas ensured the Teacings were accurately passed down to our time.

What can we be certain of in the Buddha's Life?
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=12412

With metta,
Chris
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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Kim OHara
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by Kim OHara »

lyndon taylor wrote:Irrespective of what actually happened any of the scriptures that were originally written in Sanskrit COULD have been written in the Buddha's lifetime, as quite likely ... How much of this is true or not, I really have no idea.
Hi, Lyndon,
Many of the language issues have been discussed at length in the Early Buddhism forum, http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewforum.php?f=29. I haven't go time now to track down specific threads, but :reading: and ye shall find. :smile:

:namaste:
Kim

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Kim OHara
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by Kim OHara »

BuddhaSoup wrote:I am interested in opinions on the issue, as Prof. Rita Gross has presented so well over the years, on how to manage the possible conflicts between what we have understood from the earliest suttas and Vinaya as to the Buddha's actual teachings, and what teachings developed later, particularly in the Mahayana. One of the elephants in the room that I feel is that some of Mahayana is patently a fabrication, and while we are earnestly as Buddhists using our knowledge, wisdom and Right Speech, the elephant of history seems to loom large in the room. As Prof. Gross has pointed out in a number of articles (she being from the Tibetan Vajrayana lineage herself), when history collides with traditions, people get uncomfortable, even angry.

"That is to say, Buddhist understandings of cause and effect could be employed to explain that a movement such as Mahayana Buddhism developed because of social, cultural, and historical events. Most Mahayanists ignore such explanations, preferring a story whose empirical validity is highly questionable. According to legend, in the presence of the historical Buddha, Avalokiteshvara instructs Shariputra on emptiness. If the story is taken literally, Mahayana Buddhism originated during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha, a claim that historians find unconvincing. Furthermore, Shariputra is a historical character, but Avalokiteshvara is not, and so they did not coexist in historical time and space, that is, in India in the fifth century B.C.E. Many students become intensely upset when the story they have usually been told about the origins of Mahayana Buddhism is critically evaluated. It is very difficult for them to understand that I am not asking them to question the validity of these stories, only their historicity." Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners Prof. Rita Gross, Tricycle, 2010

I have recently become interested in what a Theravada sangha in Japan has been doing...essentially bringing the teachings of the Buddhadhamma to the people of Japan, with some success. http://www.j-theravada.net/ Does it seem obnoxious, or offensive, to make efforts to correct the misunderstandings that may be present in some of the later ("Great Vehicle") traditions, or is it Right Speech to stay silent and let people practice a form of Buddhism that is valuable, sincere, but historically and textually incorrect? Should scholars and interested practitioners make some effort to bring the Pali Texts to western Mahayana? If the Dhamma is medicine for a sick society, are people being harmed by ingesting a placebo?

I truly applaud what Prof. Gross is presenting, but at the end of the day, will her words just bring anger or confusion?
Hi, BuddhaSoup,
There are at least three different kinds of problems lurking behind words I have bolded in your valuable post.
One is that Westerners (and presumably nowadays westernised Asians) make a far bigger distinction between "fact" (historical and scientific) and "myth" than earlier societies, East or West, ever did. If we forget that myth is just as true as history and science, although in a different way, we mis-read many pre-scientific texts, seeing fabrication and error where we should be seeing non-literal truth.
Another is that Buddhism - of all schools - clearly has succumbed to cultural drift. I believe that all traditions have become more faith-based and less insight-based than the Buddhism of the suttas. Also, elements of other religions (Bon, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, animism) have quietly become accepted as part of Buddhism.
A third is that, once we have accepted the historical truth that some texts are later than others, we have to decide whether Buddhism is a developing knowledge domain, as per (e.g.) Medicine and History, or a Revealed Truth as per (e.g.) the Koran.

My feeling is that we in the modern world (in the West or in Asia) are, between us, shaping our own Buddhism from the traditions which have come down to us. I don't think we can avoid doing so. Fwiw, the Christians are having to do the same thing :tongue: and for the same reasons. "Genesis" was literal truth to mainstream Christians 200 years ago; it's now myth to nearly all of them.

:namaste:
Kim
[edit: formatting was messy :embarassed: ]

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lyndon taylor
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by lyndon taylor »

Kim OHara wrote:
lyndon taylor wrote:Irrespective of what actually happened any of the scriptures that were originally written in Sanskrit COULD have been written in the Buddha's lifetime, as quite likely ... How much of this is true or not, I really have no idea.
Hi, Lyndon,
Many of the language issues have been discussed at length in the Early Buddhism forum, http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewforum.php?f=29. I haven't go time now to track down specific threads, but :reading: and ye shall find. :smile:

:namaste:
Kim
Thank you kim, I was just trying, since I have studied in both Therevada, and Mahayana or vajarana Tibetan traditions, to point out there seem to be inbuilt prejudices, one school about the other, from both sides, North and South, for instance therevada say the mahayana scriptures were not written down till after the pali scriptures, Mahayana claim they were written down in the Buddhas lifetime, who knows which view is correct, its hard to gather scientific data from 400BC, my point simply being because some scriptures were recorded in sanskrit, it COULD have happened some 400 years before Pali spoken language first aquired an alphabet, because sanskrit but not pali was a written language with an alphabet in the Buddha's lifetime.

The recently discovered oldest Buddhist scriptures in existence around 100AD??????, which are not recorded in pali or sanskrit but rather an afghan???? language, have I believe recognized scriptures from both the Therevada canon, and the mahayana scriptures, and no, they are not word for word the same scripture as we have today, neither the mahayana ones or the Thervada ones, but they are close enough to be recognized as versions of scripture we still have preserved.
18 years ago I made one of the most important decisions of my life and entered a local Cambodian Buddhist Temple as a temple boy and, for only 3 weeks, an actual Therevada Buddhist monk. I am not a scholar, great meditator, or authority on Buddhism, but Buddhism is something I love from the Bottom of my heart. It has taught me sobriety, morality, peace, and very importantly that my suffering is optional, and doesn't have to run my life. I hope to give back what little I can to the Buddhist community, sincerely former monk John

http://trickleupeconomictheory.blogspot.com/

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tiltbillings
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by tiltbillings »

lyndon taylor wrote:. . . .
Some comments I saved from the still very dead E-Sangha:
Loppon Namdrol:
  • Likewise, while the Mahayana sutras were inspired by the blessings of the Buddha, I don't believe he actually taught a single one of them. Nevertheless, I think the teachings in them are profound and stand on their own. I apply the same standard to gter mas. Some are more profound than others. That has to do with the realization of the gter ton, and very little to do with their imputed source of authorship.


  • "So for example, it is spiritually meaningful that the PP sutras are set on Vulture's Peak-- but it sure is not a historical reality. Even though Shakyamuni Buddha certainly never actually taught Mahayana, nevertheless, Mahayana stands on its own and is valid as a spiritual path and practice because the folks that wrote the Mahayana sutras down were realized persons. The source of these teachings are all realized beings-- their assumed historical settings are merely skillful means to instill faith in the teachings in those person's who need to crutch of historical literalism."
  • In general, if a sutra is crucial to one's own schools exegesis, but is of questionable provenance, it cannot be used in a general discussion to bolster one's own school's position since the text upon which one is basing one's position is not accepted as a valid text by all parties.
Namdrol, Malcolm Smith, is a recognized teacher and translator within the tradition in which he studied and practiced. The above comments are quite reasonable.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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tiltbillings
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by tiltbillings »

lyndon taylor wrote:because sanskrit but not pali was a written language with an alphabet in the Buddha's lifetime.
Classical Sanskrit was not the original language of the Mahayana texts, and it post dates the Buddha. The Mahayana texts were likely written in a prakrit then "back-translated into a version of Sanskrit sometime later. There are number of solid scholarly reasons to place the Mahayana sutras, even at their earliest, later than the Nikaya/Agama texts.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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lyndon taylor
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by lyndon taylor »

tiltbillings wrote:
lyndon taylor wrote:because sanskrit but not pali was a written language with an alphabet in the Buddha's lifetime.
Classical Sanskrit was not the original language of the Mahayana texts, and it post dates the Buddha. The Mahayana texts were likely written in a prakrit then "back-translated into a version of Sanskrit sometime later. There are number of solid scholarly reasons to place the Mahayana sutras, even at their earliest, later than the Nikaya/Agama texts.
Thats really just an opinion, which came first the chicken or the egg, the earliest texts of SOME Mahayana scriptures MIGHT have been written down in the Buddha's lifetime, either written in sanskrit or translated from pali to sanskrit very early. The texts you speak of are the earliest EXISTING texts, not the earliest texts, I assume, unless you are saying Sanskrit didn't exist in 450BC I'm not absolutely certain about that, I'm just going off memory of reading about early scriptures from Tibetan sources, Therevada sources tend to downplay any authenticness or ancient nature to anything Mahayana, In the same negative way Mahayana condecendingly call Therevada, The lesser vehicle. I'm pretty much A therevada now, that's why I'm here, but that doesn't mean I'm going to get involved in Mahayana bashing, anymore than I would get involved in therevada bashing when I was tibetan Buddhist.
18 years ago I made one of the most important decisions of my life and entered a local Cambodian Buddhist Temple as a temple boy and, for only 3 weeks, an actual Therevada Buddhist monk. I am not a scholar, great meditator, or authority on Buddhism, but Buddhism is something I love from the Bottom of my heart. It has taught me sobriety, morality, peace, and very importantly that my suffering is optional, and doesn't have to run my life. I hope to give back what little I can to the Buddhist community, sincerely former monk John

http://trickleupeconomictheory.blogspot.com/

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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by cooran »

Hello all,

This may add a little.

What language did the Buddha speak
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=24&t=4630

With metta,
Chris
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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lyndon taylor
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by lyndon taylor »

cooran wrote:Hello all,

This may add a little.

What language did the Buddha speak
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=24&t=4630

With metta,
Chris
The most quoted experts in that thread seem to offer tenous at best arguements(like talking about taking written texts to Sri Lanka before written texts existed), there were at least two languages the Buddha had to know, the dialect we think of as Pali today, which was not written, no alphabet, and the elitist only upper upper class brahman which is at least related and has the alphabet of what we know as sanskrit, I remember talking to someone that told me sanskrit was a written not spoken language, but lets just call that a rumour.

I think if we are going to start posting links, how about doing some google searchs and posting links to authoratative scholarly works on the subject, not links to Forum threads populated by armchair philosophers(like myself) who may be right, but even more likely may be completely wrong, again how are we supposed to know????
Last edited by lyndon taylor on Mon Jul 29, 2013 7:16 am, edited 1 time in total.
18 years ago I made one of the most important decisions of my life and entered a local Cambodian Buddhist Temple as a temple boy and, for only 3 weeks, an actual Therevada Buddhist monk. I am not a scholar, great meditator, or authority on Buddhism, but Buddhism is something I love from the Bottom of my heart. It has taught me sobriety, morality, peace, and very importantly that my suffering is optional, and doesn't have to run my life. I hope to give back what little I can to the Buddhist community, sincerely former monk John

http://trickleupeconomictheory.blogspot.com/

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lyndon taylor
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by lyndon taylor »

Here's a much more scholarly sounding discussion on the languages of the Buddha, partly from the Pali text society, with, at the bottom, brief mention that Pali or magadhi did not have an alphabet, and in being written down for the first time some 400 years afer the buddha, had to rely on using the alphabet of other alphabetic languages, (like those of Burma or Sri Lanka, my comment) It calls Sanskrit a spoken and written langauge; hope this is a bit more helpful;

http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/pali ... nguage.htm

I've been googling i had at least one thing ass backwards, sanskrit is no longer a spoken lanuage, not sanskrit was not a spoken language
Last edited by lyndon taylor on Mon Jul 29, 2013 7:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
18 years ago I made one of the most important decisions of my life and entered a local Cambodian Buddhist Temple as a temple boy and, for only 3 weeks, an actual Therevada Buddhist monk. I am not a scholar, great meditator, or authority on Buddhism, but Buddhism is something I love from the Bottom of my heart. It has taught me sobriety, morality, peace, and very importantly that my suffering is optional, and doesn't have to run my life. I hope to give back what little I can to the Buddhist community, sincerely former monk John

http://trickleupeconomictheory.blogspot.com/

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tiltbillings
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by tiltbillings »

lyndon taylor wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:
lyndon taylor wrote:because sanskrit but not pali was a written language with an alphabet in the Buddha's lifetime.
Classical Sanskrit was not the original language of the Mahayana texts, and it post dates the Buddha. The Mahayana texts were likely written in a prakrit then "back-translated into a version of Sanskrit sometime later. There are number of solid scholarly reasons to place the Mahayana sutras, even at their earliest, later than the Nikaya/Agama texts.
Thats really just an opinion, which came first the chicken or the egg, the earliest texts of SOME Mahayana scriptures MIGHT have been written down in the Buddha's lifetime, either written in sanskrit or translated from pali to sanskrit very early. The texts you speak of are the earliest EXISTING texts, not the earliest texts, I assume, unless you are saying Sanskrit didn't exist in 450BC I'm not absolutely certain about that, I'm just going off memory of reading about early scriptures from Tibetan sources, Therevada sources tend to downplay any authenticness or ancient nature to anything Mahayana, In the same negative way Mahayana condecendingly call Therevada, The lesser vehicle. I'm pretty much A therevada now, that's why I'm here, but that doesn't mean I'm going to get involved in Mahayana bashing, anymore than I would get involved in therevada bashing when I was tibetan Buddhist.
It would really help if you spent some time leaning some actual history of Buddhism. I can suggest a couple of decent books.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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lyndon taylor
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by lyndon taylor »

Here's a brief, not really biased overview of the origin of mahayana scriptures from www.dharmanet.org

Mahayana sutras began to be compiled from the first century BCE. They form the basis of the various Mahayana schools, and survive predominantly in primary translations in Chinese and Tibetan of original texts in Sanskrit. From the Chinese and Tibetan texts, secondary translations were also made into Mongolian, Korean, Japanese and Sogdian.

Unlike the Pali Canon, there is no definitive Mahayana canon as such. Nevertheless the major printed or manuscript collections, published through the ages and preserved in Chinese and Tibetan, each contain parallel translations of the majority of known Mahayana sutra. The Chinese also wrote several indigenous sutras and included them into their Mahayana canon.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that the Mahayana sutras, with the possible exception of those with an explicitly Chinese provenance, are an authentic account of teachings given during the Buddha's lifetime. However, Theravada Buddhists believe them to be later inventions of monks striving to change the original teachings of Buddha, and consider the Mahayana sutras apocryphal.

While scholars agree that the Mahayana scriptures were composed from the first century CE onwards, with some of them having their roots in other scriptures, composed in the first century BCE, some Mahayana Buddhists believe that the Mahayana sutras were written down at the time of the Buddha and stored secretly for 500 years, uncovered when people were ready for these "higher teachings."
18 years ago I made one of the most important decisions of my life and entered a local Cambodian Buddhist Temple as a temple boy and, for only 3 weeks, an actual Therevada Buddhist monk. I am not a scholar, great meditator, or authority on Buddhism, but Buddhism is something I love from the Bottom of my heart. It has taught me sobriety, morality, peace, and very importantly that my suffering is optional, and doesn't have to run my life. I hope to give back what little I can to the Buddhist community, sincerely former monk John

http://trickleupeconomictheory.blogspot.com/

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Kim OHara
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Re: The Difficult Intersection of History and Tradition

Post by Kim OHara »

lyndon taylor wrote:Here's a brief, not really biased overview of the origin of mahayana scriptures from http://www.dharmanet.org

Mahayana sutras began to be compiled from the first century BCE...
Yep ... that's pretty much the starting point for the thread. :smile:
BuddhaSoup's question, to oversimplify it, is whether those of us who know this history should try to tell those who don't know it that a lot of what they believe is not historically correct.

:namaste:
Kim

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