Was the Buddha a Buddhist? (Part One)

Essay One: Scripture and Chronology

There is a general acceptance in Buddhism that the scriptures we have written of The Buddha’s teachings are factual, verbatim and unquestionable; that the Sutra’s are the words or direct accounts of The Buddha. Not all Buddhists believe this, but it seems to have been the dominant orthodoxy for millennia.

Some Buddhists, the “nonliteralists”, take the scriptures as not being perfect accounts but subject translation and other glitches, but I suspect, if you agree with my essay’s conclusion, you will agree that its not just a matter of a few glitches but the evident possibility of an entirely divergent doctrine. I believe that even amongst nonliteralist understandings of the Scriptures there is a significant lack of appreciation of the real extent of the discontinuity between what we have now as “Buddhist Scriptures” and what The Buddha discovered and taught in his lifetime.

This essay investigates this discontinuity, in subsequent essays we will look at the Philosophical and scientific discontinuities between the self-evident Dharmic truths and the supernatural religion of Buddhism we have today.

Does it matter?

Buddhism offers something that it seems has been pretty consistent throughout it’s history. This thing it offers is also corroborated by psychology, sociology and the emerging science of “happiness studies”. This thing it offers is called Magga, or “The Noble Eightfold Path.” I know a Shinyoen Nun (A modern Japanese variant), a Tibetan lama and a Therevadan scholar and though there views may differ on many crucial matters, all will equally be practicing Magga. To be a Buddhist in the important sense means to Follow the Eightfold Path.

But if you are the kind of person who likes to know “Why this?” or “WEhy that?” then these kind of questions present themselves:

  1. Why did the Buddha believe that The Noble Eightfold was the right path?
  2. Did he really believe in Rebirth or the supernatural?
  3. Why is the Kalama Suttra such an epic (and early) statement of reason and scepticism and yet so in contrast with the “blind faith” aspects of later Buddhism?

Many Buddhists are happy to accept The Buddha’s teachings as they stand, to not question them and to reap the demonstrable benefits of following The Noble Eightfold Path, cultivating compassion, insight and mindfulness. If you are one of these Buddhist’s who simply isn’t interested in the Philosophy and reason that comes before the Practice then this essay isn’t for you. This essay starts by trying to answer the question:

“Is the Buddhism we find in the Scriptures the same as that taught by the Buddha during his life?”

The Development of Buddism

Before the Buddha

In India, For thousands of years before the time of The Buddha, there was a rich culture that was replete with mathematics, literature, philosophy, science, advanced architecture and art.

The predominant cultural mores was one that today would be considered Hinduism, with its antecedents in the Braman, Janeist and even further back, the Vedic systems, which scholars are starting to think predates the Sumerian “first civilization” by thousands of years.

It is important to see this, to see that Buddhism developed in the midst of a religious and cultural world where supernatural and “afterlife” concepts where the norm.

500 BC Prince Sidhartha Gotama was Born in Northern India

Nobody really knows the exact date of the Sidhartha’s birth. In fact there seems to be no evidence from ancient India that the Buddha even lived, though it is clear that a great mind discovered and elucidated Dharma. Let’s assume, as we Buddhists do, that he lived and his life was as described, at least approximately, as in the texts.

He spent the first years of his life pretty much imprisoned in his Father’s palace. His Father, we are told, wished to keep the young prince away from all the negativity and suffering in the world. One day Siddhartha left the palace and encountered suffering for the first time (He saw illness, death and poverty...) and it changed him profoundly.

470 BC Prince Sidharta leaves his palace

At the age of thirty Siddhartha gave up his privileged life of leisure and luxury and went out into the world to seek Enlightenment and understanding about Suffering. For about six years he wandered a beggar and a hermit, trying all manner of extreme practices in his quest. He practiced mediation, starvation, self mortification... as did many at the time. But nothing seemed to work for him, nothing gave him the profound insight he sought. Nothing could answer the simple question, “Why is there suffering?”

470 BC Prince Sidharta becomes The Buddha.

At the age of 35 something changed. The Buddha, whilst meditating and contemplating, discovered a set of grounding truths about reality and following these truth he arrived at his Enlightenment. He saw not only how the Dharmic truths were necessary to all possible realities but crucially he saw the moral and psychological effects of entailed by these truths on all possible sentient beings.

After his enlightenment The Buddha is said to have travelled around a relatively small area of the subcontinent teaching his discoveries. We are told that countless people became enlightened after being taught the nature and practice of Dharma, often after a matter of hours with The Buddha. It was this fact about the Scriptures that first piqued my interest in the idea that something was amiss.

If the Buddha could teach Dharma in a matter of minutes, and if the people he taught could also teach Dharma to others, then it follows that whatever it is being taught, it cannot be that intractable and, almost by definition, it cannot be something that necessarily requires a life of meditation outside of society.

Let’s call this the “Abundancy of Enlightenment” argument:Enlightenment was abundant at the time of the Buddha whereas now its so scarce that, (And I have asked this of many Buddhist) nobody seems to be able to answer the question “When was someone last enlightened?”

The next hint that there is a discontinuity can be found within the same acounts. We know that many people were enlightened at the time and we know about the importance of the discovery of Dharma. If the teaching was as complex and intractable as it appears today, then the question is raised, “Why was this hypercomplex, world changing system not written down at the time?”

The answer, I believe, is that there was simply no need. Dharma could be taught and transferred without any need of inscription because it was so simple. Let us not forget that at this time, and for millennia before, writing was an established means of communication and recording.

Let’s call this the “Simplicity of Enlightenment” argument: Enlightenment was considered to be so simple at the time of the Buddha that there was simply no need to write it down.

The “Abundance and Simplicity arguments” are the first two reasons why I believe we should be sceptical about the claim that the texts we have now capture the Dharma the Buddha discovered and taught during his life. But let’s move on to what happened after his life, here things become really dubious.

425 BC The Buddha Dies

In his eighties the Buddha passed away and left behind the close band of enlightened followers to continue his teachings. In addition, we are told that there were many others who knew Dharma and conveyed these teachings to others but were no longer connected with the Buddha’s followers.

For seven days, we are told, many came to pay respects to The Buddha, as would be expected. But what is unexpected is there seems no mention of what was to be done with his teachings. As we shall see, when they came to write down the Teachings they took months to recite, yet for seven days, there is a clear cataract in the path of the doctrine from Buddha to Buddhism. I think the answer to this mystery is, again, The Simplicity of Enlightenment. I can think of no other reason.

(One may counter that the reason for this seven day cataract is Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal attendant and himself enlightened, is said to have a “perfect memory” of the Buddha’s life and teachings and this is how the dharma could be preserved intact. Even granting this implausible possibility we are left with decade long chunks of The Buddha’s life in which Anaanda wasn’t with him)

424 BC The First Council

A few months after the Death of The Buddha the First Council was held. We are told that the reason for the First Council was to settle squabbles between the monks about the lifestyle and rules they must follow.

Five Hundred Monks took part in the First Council which lasted a number of months during which their rules and the doctrine was agreed upon and shared verbally. Nothing was written down during this period, rather it was supposedly amalgamated and communicated verbally.

The Verbal Verbatim Method

To believe that the Buddhism we have today is the Buddhism the Buddha taught there is no possibility but to accept that the verbal method stated after the First Council and continued for centuries was free from errors. Today we are very aware of the error prone nature of oral traditions but lets lay aside these obvious doubts and look at how this amazing feat was supposedly achieved with Dharma.

I’ll call it the Verbal Verbatim Method, i,e , the ability to maintain, in time and space, a very longmessage (The teachings and accounts of The Buddha’s life) with zero noise (The errors, additions, corruptions... that would make the message inaccurate) using just spoken words and human memories.

In theory the Verbal Verbatim Method isn’t as preposterous as it might sound because the Monks employed a strategy of high redundancy, that is, there were hundreds of monks maintaining and communicating the message. If a monk made a mistake, the idea was that there would be many monks to correct him. If a monk forgot something, there would be many monks to remind him.

So it seems feasible that, assuming an accurate and intact starting point (Which I do not, for reasons above) the Verbal Verbatim methodcould keep the message accurate. One way to see how this could work is to imagine five hundred games of Chinese Whispers with the same starting message running concurrently. It is plausible that if were there errors they could be discovered and corrected thus preserving the accuracy of the initial message in totality.

But there are a crippling problems with the Verbal Verbatim Method.

Firstly, the message we have now (The Tripitaka) is an immense collection of work that comprises scores of volumes, far bigger than the full Bible or a large encyclopaedia. So although the Verbal Verbatim method with its “error checking” has some plausibility this dwindles when the reality of the messages size is taken into account.

Secondly, we know (and should expect) that the Verbal Verbatim method took months to establish and unify, but how can this be. How can there be any error checking in parts of the message that must have been separated by weeks at least using the Verbal Verbatim Method to get started, let alone in the centuries after the cannon was established.

Thirdly the Verbal Verbatim Method has no mechanism for inner comparison and checking because there is no single correct version to compare against at any single time. If a Monk made a mistake in one place the only way that mistake could be corrected is if there are enough Monks witness to that mistake at the same time, but we know this cant have been the case (This problem becomes amplified massively when you consider the spread of the message over time).

I know that some Muslims memorise the entire Koran but the crucial difference is they have the extant text to work from. We are asked to believe in the case of Buddhist scriptures that it could be done with a larger book and with no written reference work ever existing. I remain to be convinced such a feat isn’t impossible.

I am sure that information theorists would be able to find many other issues that show the absurdity of the claim that such an immense message could be maintained using the Verbal Verbatim method without addition or error. But let’s put these doubts aside and look to the next milestone in the development of Buddhism.

380 BC The Second Council

Two generations after the Time of The Buddha the second Council was called. As with the First Council, the reason for the Second was to settle squabbles about the Rules for Monks rather than to establish any doctrinal consistency.

Seven hundred Monks attended and as far as I am aware there was no change in the doctrine other than relevant to the rules applicable to Monks (The Vinaya).

250 BC The Third Council

Nearly three centuries after the death of the Buddha the Third Council was called for. This is when, in my view, the certainty of the discontinuity becomes clear.

The Third Council was called because it was considered that the teachings, which has been passed on for centuries by the Verbal Verbatim method, contained heretical doctrines within them. This is huge, because it’s an admission by the Buddhist’s of the time that the three century old message they understood was not the same as the message when it started three centuries ago.

Also relevant to this investigation (especially the next two essays I will write) is the fact that we know that heretical doctrine was censored from the Buddhist doctrine and thus what we have today is unquestionably not the original doctrine. Moreover there is some uncertainty as to what this censored doctrine could have been.

The authentic position is ever more untenable but, as we have been doing through this essay, let’s ignore the obvious issues and assume, as literal Buddhists have to, that even after the Third Council we still have the original teachings of The Buddha intact.

100 BC The Fourth Council

One hundred and fifty years after the Third Council and at least four hundred years after the death of The Buddha the fourth council took place in Sri Lanka. The reason for this council wasn’t to do with squabbles or heresy but because of the recognised difficulty of memorising the teachings that had been passed down. This is very compelling evidence that, even at the time, the monks realised the error prone Verbal Verbatim methodology that had been used for four centuries. To me this is an another tacit admission that the oral system couldn’t possibly transfer the teachings without corruption.

As a reminder of how big the message was, we are told it took three years to transcribe from the memory of the Monks, a process which in itself is hugely susceptible to error. The teachings were written in the Pali script (which exists today) on palm fronds (none of which survive today).

Let us assume that right up until the first line of the Tripitaka was transcribed onto a palm leaf twenty one centuries ago the doctrine of Buddhism was that taught by the Buddha. Forget the implausibility of the Verbal Verbatim Method. Overlook the issues of the cataract, the memories of the monks and the other arguments discussed. If we ignore these issues can we at last have some certainty?

No, I believe we cannot. For three more reasons:

Firstly, not only was the first Council so distant in time from The Buddha, it was 1500 miles away in space. This raises the question, how could the doctrine cross this vast distance using the Vocal Verbatim method? The key to the Verbal Verbatim method is the assumed large redundancy weeding out inevitable errors. But for the method to stand a chance of working the participants need to remain together in some systematic sense. To reuse the Chinese Whispers analogy, the participants are not only passing the message onwards, they are moving (in themselves and/or over generations) an immense distance at a time when travel was immeasurably more difficult than it is now.

Secondly, the language that the doctrine was first written down in was Pali whereas the Buddha probably spoke a language called Magadhi Prakrit, certainly not Pali. Moreover there were no translation dictionaries at the time, so how could there be any claim to doctrinal accuracy between what the Buddha spoke and what the Fourth Council spoke? Again, it seems highly improbably that there could be consistency or accuracy.

Thirdly, and this is a composite of the last two points, in the 1500 mile journey the doctrine necessarily took over 400 years it would have passed not direct from Magadhi to Pali but through a vast linguistic landscape of languages and dialects.

An analogy will illustrate the scope of the issue. Imagine the encyclopaedia Britanica was memorised by a group of people four hundred monks years ago in Mosscow in an obscure Slavic dialect. Then over the generations it travelled west by word of mouth, through Croat and Maygar languages and then German and French and Dutch. When it eventually arrived in it was transcribed, in English, on a huge amount of paper. How sure would you be that the English version was an accurate facsimile of the original Russian encyclopaedia?

After the Fourth Council

Its absurd to think there would not be vast amounts of errors, corruptions, omissions and augmentations. But for the every Buddhist in the world, this is what our written starting point is like. I simply cannot believe that the first written doctrine is what the Buddha taught, it must by quantity alone have additions. And remember, this is just the written starting point, it would be centuries before it split (in often very significant ways) from the doctrine of the Pali into Mayhana, Zen, Tibetten, Chinese, Shinyoen and so on.

If there is no possible way the first written bedrock of Buddhism can be considered what The Buddha taught then it follows that, necessarily, neither can any of the later schools make any claim to authenticity.


The claim made in this essay is a pretty big one, and one I’m sure will be rejected outright by many Buddhists. But if you have got this far then, like me, perhaps you see that the demonstrable discontinuity of Buddhism raises many more questions. I shall outline these in short bullet form here and expand on them, later.

Is there thing I have missed out in terms of my understanding of the development the of Buddhism which would serve as a counter-argument?

  • For example, a fact about written corroboration of the first Buddhists texts (The Pali Cannon) that predates 100BC.
  • Is there a demonstrably significant linguistic pathway from the language the Buddha spoke to the Pali the Sri Lanakn monks wrote?
  • Are there other any cases where such a vast amount of text has been preserved

If any of the text is considered divergent (from what The Buddha taught), is there any way we can know which parts of the text are divergent? Is there some yardstick we can use to delimit the divergent from the original?

I believe that there is such a yardstick, in fact there are three:

  1. Logical Necessity: Much of the dharma can be established logically using the first principle of dependent origination as I outline here.
  2. Empirical consistency: Much of Dharma and it’s practice can be shown to be the case just by experience (corroborated by reason), but this is not true of vast swathes of Dharma.
  3. Scientific consistency: Much of Dharma is supported by science (HH Dalai Lama’s “The Universe in a Single Atom” is good on this) as any scientist who thinks about the first principles of Dharma will tend to agree. However science pretty much refutes the possibility of Rebirth (Whatever any “quantum Buddhists” may try reason (I have tried, see here)).

If we cannot separate the original from the divergent must we abandon Buddhism as being anything more than a legend? A legend with a remnant practice (Magga) that just happens to be beneficial?

Not at all, I believe. We need to start where The Buddha started and follow the path he followed. We start with nothing and use reason and experience (Not one, but both!) to recreate the first truths of Dharma.

For example, we might consider the following to be true in all possible realities:

1. All events are causes.(Pattica samupada)

2. All causes are events. (Patitca sampuada)

3. All systems are impermanent.(Annica)

4. All systems are interconnected. (Annataman and Sunnata)

5. All systems inevitably converge towards negative states. (Dukka)

6. All sentient-intelligent systems will experience this convergence negatively. (Dukka as suffering.)

7. The cause/propagator of this suffering is misunderstanding/misapprehending the inevitable negative and because of this refusing to stop the conscious and subconscious decisions that pursue the negation of the inevitable negative(Phew!) (Tanha and Samudaya)

8. The degree to which a system can stop pursuing the negation of the inevitable negative is proportional to a decrease in the negative states experiences by the system. (Nirodha)

9. Causation and interconnectivity operate at all complexities thus moral/psychological/social causes have moral/psychological/social effects at all complexities. (Karma)

10. Understanding the inevitable negative and its effects on all systems will produces emergent benefits at more complex levels of abstraction (Behavioural, psychological, social, moral...). (Magga I’m not at all sure how it fits together re Magga, but I’m thinking about it.)

Can we imagine a system that can be shown to be more positivising than the application of these Truths? (beneficial, stable, productive... or whatever level of abstraction one wishes to choose?)

I cannot, if you can, I’d love to hear it or any other points about this essay (mat at salted dot net)

Thanks for reading!