The Problem of Original Buddhism

A history of Buddhist thought might be expected to begin with an account of the teachings of the Buddha himself, or at least of the beliefs current in the most ancient community. The nature of our literary documents makes such an attempt fruitless and impossible. 1 The documents, as we have them, date back no farther than the Christian era, that us to say they were fixed five hundred years after the Buddha’s life on earth.* Some of their contents must surely be quite early, while others are certainly fairly late. IN order to single out the earlier layers, we must compare the recensions of the different schools, principally the Pali Canon of the Thravadins, the Sanskrit scriptures of the Sarvastivadins agree almost word by word, we can assume that they were composed at a time antedating the separation of the two schools, which took place during Asoka’s rule, roughly about 250 B.C . where they do not agree, we may, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, infer their post-Asokan date. In those cases where we can establish a close similarity also with the Mahasanghika texts,we are carried back one more century, to c. 340 B.C , within 140 years of the Buddha’s Nirvana, when the Mahasanghikas separated from the Sthaviras who were the ancestors of both Theravadins and Sarvastivastivadins. This can be done with some of the Vinaya texts. 2 The material for a history of Buddhist thought must, however, come not from the Vinaya, but from the Sutras, and their Mahasanghikas version is unfortunately lost. So the situation is rather unsatisfactory, and we should constantly remain aware of the limitations of our knowledge.

* Assuming that to have taken place about 560-480 B.C. This assumes, of course, that the Theravadins can be identified with the Vibhajyavadins-a particularly thorny and unrewarding problem of Buddhist history.

We can now define more precisely what is meant by the ‘Archaic Buddhism’ to which the first part of this book is devoted. It is not the ‘original’ doctrine of the Buddha which is the fountain-head of all later thought, but which, like most catalysts, cannot be isolated and described as it was by itself. It precedes the ‘scholastic’ Buddhism of the Abhidharma period, and is laid down mainly in the Sutras. It is a ‘dogmatic’ doctrine in that it has for its backbone a great number of numerical lists which were in all probability later elaborations of the Buddha’s teaching. It represents the common doctrine of all Buddhist monks* as it may well have existed about 300-250 B.C. My description of it is based on lists, formulas and statements found in the writings of all schools, and therefore likely to form part of the undifferentiated, pre-Hinayana and pre-Mahayana, Buddhism of Asoka’s time. They views I describe in part I were common to all Buddhists. They were accepted not only by Theravadins and Sarvastivadins, but also shared by the Mahayanists who were the linear descendants of the Mahasanghikas. 3 Their basic formulation is taken from the Sutras, but in actual fact I have made much use of later commentators. For the bare statements of the Sutras often become intelligible only with the help of the commentatorial literature. It is here that my treatment is most open to criticism. In a probably excessive reaction against some of my predecessors who, like K.E. Neumann, regarded the Buddha’s message, I am inclined to believe that they generally caught his meaning fairly correctly. In consequence it may well be argued that much of what I ascribe to ‘archaic’ Buddhism really belongs to the scholastics of part II or to the Mahayanists of part III.

In our survey of Archaic Buddhism we first (ch. 3) consider the features of the world around us which make it into a most unsatisfactory place to live in, although we are rarely aware of their full significance. Dissatisfied with this world, we try to get out of it. In order to do so we must first of all generate five cardinal virtues, which are described in chapter 4. When these have done their work over a long period of time, we arrive (ch. 5) at the final stages of the process of deliverance, which ends up in Nirvana. By way of an afterthought

*This book deals exclusively with the monkish elite and their life of meditation. As a religion, Buddhism had also to make provision for the masses, whose bhaktic and magical beliefs are only lightly touched upon here. The Tantra, which is a literary elaboration of the Stupa-worship of the laymen, therefore also falls outside the purview of this book .

a few words must then (ch. 6) be said about the four virtues of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and impartiality, which to some extent stand outside the other Buddhist methods of achieving salvation. Finally (ch. 7-8) we come to the ‘Dharma-theory’ which, logically speaking, should have been discussed first of all, but which is so difficult that for pedagogical reasons it has been kept to the last.

Most of the problems and ideas which interested Buddhist thinkers are discussed on three different levels in the three parts of this book, i.e. as they appeared to archaic, scholastic and Mahayana Buddhism. If only for reasons of space the philosophical arguments are treated as self-sufficient lines of thought, related only to the meditational practices of the monks. The connection between Buddhism and Hindusim is left wholly untouched. Although the Buddhists were in constant interaction with their Hindu environment, it is nevertheless quite possible to treat Buddhism as an autonomous system which is perfectly intelligible on its own premises. Nor has any attempt been made to relate Buddhist thought to the society within which it developed. The historical framework has been left out, partly because I have described it elsewhere, and cannot repeat myself indefinitely. 4 There are few dates, few names, hardly any references to Indian history, and the bewildered reader may at times clutch for a few hard facts. There are none. He is here asked to take the Buddha’s doctrine as something which, like other great religious systems, came out of the blue, why we know not, independent and irrespective of the historical context (ch. P. 8) Like the holy Dharma itself, this approach is in conflict with the accepted canons of present-day historiography. It will nevertheless be seen that the survey of Buddhist ideas by itself makes a fascinating story, the mere recital of which must exhilarate everyone who can think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.