By Jagath Asoka –
I am writing this article because I want to learn about early Buddhism from those who are knowledgeable in early Buddhism, based on historically verifiable facts, not speculation or faith. When I wrote my last article “Balloth Ekka Bae” I was in a facetious mood, but my state of mind is somewhat solemn now.
I am interested in the origin of the Buddhist Scripture and the oral tradition that led to the compilation of the Pali canon. Are there any examples in Buddhism that are similar to pseudepigraphy, the false ascription of a piece of writing to a well-known author? This phenomenon is common in other religions. My interest in this subject is purely historical, not theological. Since the oral tradition was common in many religions, is it possible that something similar to pseudepigraphy that we see in various written texts of many religious traditions also happened in the oral tradition of Buddhism that led to the Pali canon? In other words, how can we say with certitude that we are reading the original and authentic words of the Buddha since he did not write a single word for posterity? I am not questioning the validity or the practicality of the sutras—sutras work for those who live their lives by following them. But what evidence do we have to support that these sutras contain the original words of the Buddha? For most Buddhists, this is not an issue. But if you are a historian or if you firmly believe that these are the inerrant words of the Buddha, you might not agree with the majority. When these sutras are taught, often, we are told that these are the words of the Buddha himself. I know that this is a very sensitive subject to many Buddhists, but my questions are sincere, and I have no intention of mocking any religion, let alone my own; I personally believe that all of us are Buddhist after all, but we just do not know it.
Even though I just have a rudimentary historical knowledge in early Buddhism, I know a bit more about early Christianity. I do not know much about the origin of the Pali canon, but the origin of the New Testament began with the Letters of Paul, around 50 CE, and the Gospels—Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John—were written from around 65 CE to 100 CE. Canonical Gospels—Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John—and some non-canonical Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas that was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, contain sayings of Jesus, which were not written by Jesus but were written, at least, 20 years later, by others, based on oral traditions. As far as I am aware, it took more than 200 years for Buddhists to write down the words of the Buddha. We simply do not know how accurate and reliable these words are because the monks who memorized these words are not alive today for me to question them and interrogate them to find out whether they added their own words.
Pseudepigraphy, the false ascription of a piece of writing to a well-known author, was used by unknown writers who wanted to promote their own beliefs by using a name of a well-known writer. For example, in the New Testament, authorship of six letters ascribed to Apostle Paul is considered as “pseudoepigraphical letters” by scholars. Since I have an enormous interest in the phenomenon of religion, the first question that came to my mind was related to my own religion, Buddhism. We know that pseudepigraphy happened in the written tradition because there are books to compare. But we cannot question the Buddhist monks who memorized these Buddhist sutras to find out whether they inserted their own thoughts into the sayings of the Buddha.
I once tried to read, with alacrity, a book—the Magic of the Mind—written by Katukurunde Ñāṇananda, a well known Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar, who is knowledgeable in concepts and reality in early Buddhist thought. But my rudimentary knowledge in Buddhism was not enough to understand the concepts and the key message in this book. So far, this book has been the only book that I tried to read but could not comprehend; however, I have not given up, yet. So finding good books written for the general public is a real problem in Buddhism. Most scholars do not know how to communicate and write books for the general public.
I firmly believe that Buddhism encourages asking questions, but I have not found anyone who is capable of having a cohesive, intelligible discussion and providing reasonable fact-based, historically accurate explanations to my questions. I have been reading comparative religion since I earned my doctorate in chemistry in 1994, and have written a book, not for scholars but for the general public with the intention of promoting tolerance and harmony through understanding of other peoples’ religions, which I think is the best way to understand the phenomenon of religion.
I am looking for your recommendations and guidance to learn about early Buddhism, the origin and creation of the Pali Canon, and the practice of pseudepigraphy in Buddhism, which scholars have studied meticulously in Christianity.
The Pali canon, which is so vast, makes it impossible for a novice to get a rudimentary knowledge and understanding of Buddhism. Even though I am not a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, my knowledge in these religions is sufficient enough for me to have my own opinions about these religions. I think having books such as the Bible and the Koran, which do not require a truck to carry them around, has made these religions much more accessible to the general public.
So, recommend me some books, preferably in English, because I do not know any Pali or Sanskrit, and my knowledge in my own language is rudimentary: I have read only one book in the Sinhalese Language for the last 35 years, a book by Amaradeva, Gee Sara Muwarada.
Yes, I was raised as a Buddhist but like others who were reared as Buddhists in a country where Buddhism is not just a religion but its heritage, I know almost nothing about Buddhism.
There are two Buddhist temples in New Jersey, which are closer to Pennsylvania, where I reside. But I don’t feel comfortable having a discussion with the Buddhist monks here in New Jersey or in New York because I never got the impression that scholarly activities are in the realm of their interests.
If Bodu Bala Sena wants to do something positive, here is your chance. From the comments that I got, it is evident that some members who are affiliated with this group are excellent writers, but malice has become their driving force. If you want to promote and protect Buddhism, which is both our religion and heritage, then help people learn Buddhism by providing historically accurate information or by living according to the teachings of the Buddha; otherwise, you will be known as the Buddhist-Taliban in Sri Lanka.