What Did the Buddha Really Teach?
First of all, I would like to assure anyone who reads this that I am not trying to weaken your faith in Dhamma. A few months ago I was told by a monk who lives in England that my articles are interesting and thought-provoking, but perhaps not suitable for those whose faith is not yet strong. Yet what I am trying to do is to investigate Dhamma in such a way that a critical Western mind with some appreciation for wisdom can find an approach to it that can stand up to careful scrutiny, something that does not require much dogmatic faith, but can stand on its own feet (so to speak). For those of us who need more than the authority of tradition to persuade us, this sort of investigation may make the difference between accepting what is useful Dhamma or rejecting most of the system (throwing out the baby with the bathwater) because we cannot think in a traditional Asian way. For some the dogmatic approach is acceptable and very useful; so I have no desire to dissuade them from their path to awakening. However, it does not work for everybody, especially here in the West where most of us are not born Buddhists and view spiritual philosophies with a fair amount of skepticism. Perhaps some of the skeptical ones may find something helpful in what I write. At least I hope so.
Also, although I may have taken a step or two in the direction of actual scholarship in the following essay, its purpose is not to satisfy scholarly academic types. What evidence I produce in support of my hypotheses is mainly for the purpose of illustration, of giving examples for consideration. Scholars may consider my approach to be inadequate and unpersuasive, but I am mainly concerned with provoking thought in those who are not opposed to having their thought provoked on the issue of What the Buddha Really Taught. If it helps anyone to find an acceptable and fruitful orientation to Dhamma, then the aim of this essay will be fulfilled.
When I first became a Theravada Buddhist, which was not long before I became a Theravada Buddhist monk, I was very naive and idealistic about Theravada. I believed that the Theravadins were so conservative that they were afraid to change anything in the teachings of the Buddha, and thus that Theravada represented the original, pristine form of Buddhism. However, the more I studied the Pali texts, and the more I looked around me at the traditional Asian ways of interpreting and practicing Dhamma, the more this belief was shaken. To give an obvious example, there is a genre of ancient Buddhist literature called Jātaka, or "Birth Stories," which are supposed to be tales of the Buddha's previous lives, before he was born into the Gotama clan of Kapilavatthu and attained enlightenment. Many of these stories read like Aesop's Fables, with talking animals, fish kings, monkey kings, and the like. Although most of these stories are not canonical, not official "scripture," some are, like the following one: Once there was a wise quail who had two friends, a monkey and an elephant. Sometimes these three friends would come together and discuss Dhamma. But one day they decided that they should have consideration for who was the eldest among them. None of them, however, knew his own age precisely. So, as a rough way of gauging how old he was, the elephant said, essentially (I am going by memory here), "You see that huge banyan tree over there? Well, I remember long ago when I was quite young I could walk over it with the topmost leaves just brushing my belly." Then the monkey said, "Well, I remember when I was quite young I could sit on the ground right next to that very same tree and reach the top of it with my hand without having to stand up." Then the quail said, "I remember, my friends, when I was very young flying over the spot where that huge banyan tree stands now and relieving myself after eating some banyan fruit elsewhere. That old tree must have sprouted from a seed in my own droppings." Because of this the three realized that the quail was the eldest, and the other two began treating him with greater reverence befitting his greater age. The Buddha, after telling this story to the monks (and according to tradition that wise quail was the Buddha himself in a previous existence), then exhorted them always to pay respect to any senior member of the Sangha, since if even wise animals conduct themselves in this way, it should be appropriate for humans also. I have found that most Burmese Buddhists have no difficulty in accepting stories like this as historical fact; but, being a Westerner, with a university degree in Biology besides, I found them very difficult to believe.
Another example, a rather notorious one, is the Abhidhamma philosophy. For those who are innocent of it, Abhidhamma is the third portion of the Pali Tipiṭaka, or "Three Baskets" of the Canon. It is a very complex intellectual system of philosophy which claims to explain all reality in ultimate terms---or at least devout Eastern Theravada Buddhists are liable to make this claim on its behalf. However, for various reasons most Western scholars are inclined to believe that the Abhidhamma Piṭaka does not represent the original, authentic word of Gotama Buddha. One reason for this judgement is that the evidence indicates that most ancient Indian schools of Buddhism did not share this group of texts with the Theravadins; either they had their own very different versions of elaborate philosophical attempts to explain Everything, or else they had only two Piṭakas. For me, also, there was simply the issue that I could not believe it; it did not ring true or resonate with me. I have always intuitively felt that Ultimate Reality is absolutely simple; so texts that divide reality into 82 categories and 24 relations that do not seem very convincing to someone trained in science anyway were never very inviting. Before long I read in a book by a Burmese sayadaw that Abhidhamma is the most advanced teaching of Buddhism, so one should master the rules of Discipline and the Discourses before tackling it. That was good enough for me, and I jumped at the opportunity to disregard it---as most Western monks disregard it. Although orthodox Theravadin tradition is very Abhidhamma-oriented, perhaps as many as 75% of non-Asian monks have little regard for it or use for it. Certainly more than half, as far as I can tell. Some openly deride it.
But even in the discourses attributed to the Buddha, the Suttas of the Sutta Piṭaka, challenges to arid Western faith arise. I remember as a junior monk studying the Majjhima Nikāya and coming across the remarkable case of the Cūḷasaccaka Sutta: In this discourse a man named Saccaka, a follower of the Jains and a renowned master of debate, goes to debate with the Buddha. Before the encounter he boasts of how even a wooden post would tremble if confronted with his debating skills, promises essentially to mop the floor with the philosopher Gotama, and even invites five hundred people to witness the spectacle. He then begins his debate with an assertion on the nature of the self that is rather questionable Jainism, after which the Buddha asks him a simple question which appears to follow from this assertion---and this renowned master of debate crumbles. He cannot answer. He loses the debate almost immediately, after putting forth the feeblest of efforts. Then he humbly offers food to the Buddhist Sangha the following day. I remember feeling rather dissatisfied and dubious at this ironic anticlimax. A similar case can be found in the introductory prose portion of the Vasala Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta: in it a brahmin named Aggikabhāradvāja sees the Buddha approaching in the distance, and he apparently not liking shaven-headed non-Vedic philosophers, the following interchange takes place…
Seeing the Blessed One he said, "Stop there, skinhead! Stop there, little philosopher! Stop there, outcaste!"
When this was said, the Blessed One said to the brahmin Aggikabhāradvāja, "Do you know, brahmin, what an outcaste is, or the qualities that make an outcaste?"
"No, sir Gotama, I certainly do not know what an outcaste is, nor the qualities that make an outcaste. It would be very good for sir Gotama to teach the Dhamma in such a way that I would know what an outcaste is, and the qualities that make an outcaste."
"Well then, listen, brahmin, and bear it well in mind, for I shall tell you."
"Yes sir," replied the brahmin Aggikabhāradvāja to the Blessed One.
What happened here? Once I pointed out this seeming anomaly of human psychology to an American monk I knew, and he said that he had no difficulty at all in imagining that it really happened like that---in fact he considered it likely, considering that the Buddha's perfection of loving-kindness could easily soften the hardest heart by his mere presence. I do admit that it is not impossible to the extent of involving a logical contradiction, but even so, it seems a rather bizarre about-face. In Biology it is taught that the behavioral traits of an animal are just as much a diagnostic trait for the species as is physical morphology; and the behavioral traits of Saccaka and Aggikabhāradvāja seem out of keeping for the human animal. At this point I cannot resist a similar case I once saw on a cartoon show called "The Flintstones." A caveman named Fred winds up in modern America via a time machine, or some such. By the sheerest coincidence he appears in a Stone Age theme park. Fred sees a concession stand and orders some food. The vender, seeing Fred's caveman appearance and assuming him to be an actor at the park, jokingly says the food costs "two rocks." Fred, in all seriousness, puts two rocks down on the counter…whereupon the vendor immediately becomes distraught and begins shouting for the police. Would somebody really act that way? I suppose it is possible, but such cases are hard for me to believe.
There are other doubt-inspiring complications. For example, there are a great many discourses like the Ratana Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta in which the Buddha emphasizes his own magnificence and essentially encourages his followers to make him the object of a devotionalistic cult---practically to worship him. It is easier to imagine his later followers encouraging devotionalism toward the Buddha than the Buddha himself encouraging it. After all, he was without conceit, without the view of a self. Also there is the very dry, repetitive style of the discourses, the purpose of which was to make memorization easier in an age before written texts, but which at the very least distort the Buddha's manner of speaking. And then there is the equally dry technical systematization, like the multitude of lists: the five of these and the eight of those and the thirty-seven of the other.
All of this combined in my mind and started me wondering.
One breakthrough, which occurred after I had been a monk for several months, was reading the book Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda. In it the author puts forth a very persuasive argument on the real meaning of the Pali word papañca, and incidentally demonstrates that the commentarial tradition, and thus classical Theravada in general, is mistaken in its interpretation of the term. The author's reasoning is so sound and well-supported that even Buddhist conservatives are inclined to accept it, and it opens the door to the idea that classical Theravada may be mistaken. If the system can be unsound with regard to one point it can be unsound with regard to others.
A bigger breakthrough, however, occurred after my arrival in Asia, when I was in India, a little less than two years after my ordination. At a Maha Bodhi Society bookstall in Sarnath I acquired a copy of Studies in the Origins of Buddhism by G.C. Pande (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1983). I consider it to be the best book I have ever seen for one who wishes to understand what very ancient Buddhist teachings were likely to be like. The book demands some familiarity with Theravada Buddhism, however; for example, many Pali philosophical terms go untranslated, and the first part of the book involves some slightly technical analysis of the Sutta Pitaka. Consequently a reader who cannot tell the Saṁyutta Nikāya from the Aṅguttara, or who has no idea what the word anāgāmī means, might be at sea throughout much of it. Some later scholars of Buddhist Studies have criticized Pande's work as not being systematic enough, but Pande more than compensated for lack of methodology by possessing a deep, intuitive grasp of Dhamma, or at least of Dharma with an "r." Most Western Buddhistic scholars, it seems to me, have a broad but shallow approach to Dhamma; most of them are not Buddhists and do not live the lifestyle or practice much meditation, and so they have little deep appreciation for the purpose of Enlightenment which is what Dhamma is all about. They are primarily scholars exploiting an interesting and hopefully lucrative intellectual field of study, and who use modern Western "common sense" to interpret a system that they cannot fully relate to. G.C. Pande, on the other hand, was a high-caste brahmin who had a deep appreciation for the Indian vision and practice of spirituality. Or perhaps I am just biased in his favor because we agree so much of the time. Being a Hindu, he does tend to have a rather Vedantist orientation toward Buddhist philosophy, however.
There are other books by Western authors on the subject of what the origins of Buddhism were probably like, for example Richard Gombrich's How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, But in my opinion Studies in the Origins of Buddhism is the most useful and valuable of those that I have seen. (His theory on the origin of the Pali language, though, appears to be obsolete.)
Of course, if one wishes to understand what the Buddha really taught, as opposed to simply accepting a dogmatic tradition, it helps to have some sort of methodology, some way of separating sheep from goats, so to speak. One preliminary method, a way of preparing the ground for careful study, is to compare the origins of Buddhism with the origins of Christianity. After all, human nature is human nature all over the world, and people are likely to do similar things under similar circumstances. Furthermore, the origins of Christianity are much better documented, and much more is written in the English language on the subject. Strangely, though, Buddhists are often reluctant to try it, possibly because of the depressing results it can lead to.
For example, I have read that it is the official position of the Vatican, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church, that probably no more than about 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are likely to be authentic representations of what he actually said. (Although this is their official position, they obviously do not advertise it much.) In Christian Bible commentaries---not written by anti-Christians or non-Christians, but written by Christian clergy---one can find such information as: that most of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel according to John are really the words of John himself stuffed into the mouth of Jesus for the purpose of refuting the theories of Gnostic sects that had become popular in the early 2nd century C.E.; that the virginity of Jesus's mother and his immaculate conception are based on a misunderstanding of an ancient mistranslation of the Book of Isaiah from Hebrew into Greek; that St. Paul's Second Epistle to the Thessalonians is probably a forgery written years after Paul's death; and that 666, "the number of the Beast" mentioned in the Book of Revelation, really is a numeric code for "Neron," the Greek way of spelling and pronouncing the name of the Roman emperor Nero, the prophecy in effect being a false one, predicting that the world would end very soon, probably within the lifetime of the prophet himself.
Further, it should be considered that the New Testament of the Bible was written down within 100 to 120 years after the time of Jesus of Nazareth, and that the Hellenized Hebrews who composed it lived in a culture (a combination mainly of Jewish, Greek, and Roman) which had a strong sense of objective history and accurate record-keeping. The scribes mentioned in the Gospels, for example, had a very exacting method for reproducing texts: it required two scribes, one to transcribe the text and another to go over both texts, the original and the copy, searching for errors in transcription.
Compare this to the early Buddhist texts. According to tradition, they were not put into writing until about five centuries after the time of the Buddha. Also, ancient Indian culture was much less objective and exacting in its historical record-keeping. It has been remarked that Indian History as a field of study did not even exist until the British conquered the country and invented it for their own purposes. There was no standardized era for dating anything in India, except for terminology like, "in the 14th year of the Great King Chandragupta," and there may have been more than one Great King named Chandragupta. Furthermore, Indian culture being rather more surreal in its interpretation of reality, historical events were often mixed up with mythology and legend almost immediately---much more so than in the early Roman Empire.
Taking all this into consideration, if the recorded words of Jesus have only about a 20% reliability rate, then the recorded words of the Buddha in the Pali texts would probably rate less than 10%, and very possibly less than 5%. And the Mahayana texts, which even Mahayana Buddhist scholars admit were invented, for the most part, hundreds of years after the time of the Buddha, could plausibly be estimated to represent the teachings of the historical Gotama Buddha with a reliability of less than 2%, profound though many of them are, and teaching in many cases a Dharma that the Buddha probably would have endorsed. There is one great advantage, though, that the Buddha apparently had over Jesus: he was apparently much more successful as a teacher. It is evident that even Jesus's chief followers did not understand him very well, or at best few of them did; while the Buddha lived to a ripe old age and had many wise, presumably even enlightened, disciples. (One of the many reasons for this is that the Buddha had the good fortune of living in a relatively enlightened culture which was much readier to receive him than first century C.E. Palestine was ready to receive Jesus.) So, all of this considered, I would estimate the probable reliability of the Buddha's word as recorded in the Pali Tipiṭaka at around 10%. This one tenth of the texts would not consist of exact quotes, however, but would be at least a pretty fair paraphrase or gist of what he said, modified by inaccurate memory, inability to fully comprehend the more mind-blowing philosophical ideas, and of course the necessity to frame everything in a dry, repetitive style for the sake of rote memorization.
One methodology that is invaluable for weeding out much that is extraneous is comparison of the Pali Tipiṭaka with the remains of the texts of other ancient Indian Buddhist schools. Many Theravada Buddhists idealistically assume that Theravada was the school of Buddhism before the advent of Mahayana around the beginning of the Western Christian Era, but there were many schools, Theravada being not even the most popular one much of the time. The rival schools were wiped out by the Muslim invaders of India and Central Asia, and later of Malaysia and Indonesia, or else were merged into the Mahayana movement in China and its cultural satellites; the Theravadins were fortunate (i.e. had the good karma) to inhabit countries that were spared an Islamic conquest or to avoid absorption into a more "politically correct" religious system. Theravada, it is safe to say, is one of the most conservative of the ancient Indian schools of Buddhism, and it is a very good thing that it was spared and survived in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. At any rate, the scriptures of other ancient schools of Buddhism do exist, in fragmentary form in their original languages, and in fuller form as Chinese and Tibetan translations. It is evident that the following parts of the Pali Tipiṭaka had correlating texts in the canons of most if not all of the other sects: the first four books of Vinaya, the first four Nikāyas (Dīgha, Majjhima, Saṁyutta, and Aṅguttara), and much that is in the first several books of the fifth Nikāya, the Khuddaka. This reduces the material in the Tipiṭaka to roughly half, completely doing away with the third Piṭaka (Abhidhamma), some books of legends and fables such as the Jātaka and Ghost Stories, and a considerable amount of technical commentarial literature, such as the Niddesa and the Paṭisambhidā Magga. The half that remains is often referred to as "The Core Texts."
Yet this narrowing down does not necessarily take us back to the original Buddhism as it was recited at the First Council, as some Western monks and Western scholars assume. All we know is that it takes us back to some approximation of the Canon as it existed before the first schism of the Community, around one hundred years after the time of the Buddha. And as the history of early Christianity shows, quite a lot of relatively explosive change can occur in a fascinating new system over the course of a century. Also, comparison of the Pali texts with their equivalents in other systems shows that there is not 100% agreement even between these sets of core texts. Comparison of texts shows perhaps an 85% agreement between, say, the Pali Majjhima Nikāya and the Chinese translation of the Sarvastivadin Madhyama Āgāma, or between the Theravada Vinaya and its Mahasanghika equivalent. Some of the differences no doubt are due to sloppy translating into Chinese, for example, but most of it is not. Most of it consists in obviously different things being said. Thus determining what the core texts are is not sufficient for determining what the Buddha really, originally taught.
Another method is philology, or in plainer terms, examining the language used in the Vinaya and the Suttas. For example, some texts contain what are sometimes called "magadhisms," archaic word forms which apparently predate the form of Pali used in most of the Theravada Buddhist Canon. These anomalies are mainly found in old poetry, partly because poetry is more conservative, and changes made to it may mess up the poem, or at least bother those who like it the older way. Presumably prose that could be more conveniently changed was converted into the more standardized, streamlined Pali of a Great Council postdating the first one. Texts which contain these archaic word forms, for instance the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga of the Sutta Nipāta, are considered by Western scholars to be more "primitive," and thus probably closer to what the Buddha originally taught. (One problem with this, however, is that the "primitive" texts occasionally teach something so different from standard orthodoxy that scholars become confused and choose to disregard them as anomalies, preferring that to starting essentially from scratch in their theorizing.)
Another way of examining language is looking for anachronisms---the mention of countries that did not exist in the Buddha's time, for example, or mentioning situations, like the kingship of the young Gotama's father in a country that, according to historians, was an oligarchic republic without a sovereign king. Sometimes there are only hints, suspicions of something like an anachronism; for instance in the Assalāyana Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M93), where the Buddha mentions the Yonas, or Greeks (literally, Ionians), as having only two castes, masters and slaves. It is possible that people in the Ganges Valley in the 5th century B.C.E. were familiar with Greeks; but it seems much more likely that they became familiar with them only after Alexander the Great conquered Persia and northwestern India in the 4th century B.C.E., thus causing Greeks and Indians to become next-door neighbors, so to speak.
Anachronisms of a sort may be doctrinal also, for instance when terms which have a standardized definition in most texts are found in an old text with a different meaning. Examples of this could include such cases as the first suttas in a compilation called the Itivuttaka, in which the word anāgāmitā, "non-return," appears from the context to mean the same as full enlightenment; and the suttas in which the term nāmarūpa seems to have the early Upanishadic meaning of "name and appearance" (as in the case of the Kalahavivāda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta) instead of the later, standardized Buddhist meaning of "mind and matter." Of course one of the main "methodologies" for weeding out unenlightened and unenlightening teachings in the texts is to follow the largely intuitive and subjective method of seeking what seems simple and inspired, what resonates with one's own deepest center, and to set aside what does not. Often when reading a spiritual book there is a feeling of "Yes! That's right!"---a feeling of recognizing something profound and moving that one has always known deep down, but had never consciously articulated to oneself. It may not be wise to dismiss apparent duds altogether, however, as their truth and/or usefulness may become manifest as one's own wisdom develops; but much of it may be set aside provisionally. Even simple common sense combined with some confidence in the wisdom of the presumably enlightened Founder of the system (the Buddha) can much reduce the bulk of texts to something more manageable. This method is much neglected by Buddhistic scholars in the West, many of whom really do not care whether or not the Buddha was a great sage, or whether or not right practice of Dhamma really can lead to the cessation of delusion and suffering. Even if they come upon statements that are obviously nonfactual or trivially uninspired, they may simply assume that the Buddha was just a charismatic social reformer anyhow, and may very well have boasted, encouraged his followers to worship him, told talking animal stories as factual accounts, or contracted his message down to dry-as-dust lists of formulae to be memorized. A combination of Western critical thought and Eastern veneration for wisdom, leavened with some prudent intuition fostered by a quiet, meditative mind, can get one very far in an understanding of spiritual systems, including ancient Buddhism.
Such an approach requires a balance of faith and understanding as explained in the Pali texts themselves: In the theory of the five powers (bala) or the five faculties (indriya), an overabundance of faith (saddha) can result in one believing just about anything, no matter how absurd, while an overabundance of understanding or discernment can result in one hardheadedly scorning even profound truths, and causing one to be, as the Visuddhimagga explains it, like a sick person whose sickness is caused by the medicine he takes. The Western scholars tend to err on the side of hardheaded reason, while the Buddhists, both Eastern and Western, ofter err on the side of dogmatic faith. There are plenty of ordained monks out there with university degrees, who are devoted to cultivating wisdom, and yet who act as though pointing out scriptural oddities such as the idea that the earth is flat and floats on water, or that animals in ancient times, including fire-breathing dragons, spoke fluent Pali, is the crassest of bad taste. They close their eyes to what is unbelievable and pretend it is not there; they do not want to know. Sometimes in such cases it is best to let sleeping dogmatists lie. Then again, as I have already mentioned, if a path based on unquestioning dogmatic faith works for them, then I have no desire to dissuade them from it. I am mainly trying to address the skeptics and those who have not yet made up their mind.
My own investigations, as well as those of people like G .C. Pande, lead to some tentative general conclusions, which may be conveniently divided into Theory and Practice. Theory, being of greater difficulty and probably of lesser importance, will be discussed first.
As Pande has observed, "Buddha saw Truth intuitively as a whole and did not care for definitions and formulae. Philosophers and schoolmen tried to define his synoptic vision, and succeeded in elaborating fragments, creating 'views.'" (p.412) Also,
"It will, however, be a mistake to suppose that Buddha taught the Dharma in neat and precise formulae. Like Jesus, Gotama provided his followers with parables and exhortations. The Dhamma which he left behind was an inspiration, not a detailed handbook. He knew that treading the spiritual path is nothing mechanical and formal. His followers as naturally sought to encompass the Dhamma intellectually and create the Abhidhamma out of it. The very breadth of the founder's vision led them to a variety of different and even conflicting conceptions, for the practical teaching of the Buddha varied according to the need and capacity of the individuals whom he addressed." (p.514)
We may assume that most of the lists of doctrinal terms found in the Pali texts---the 5 of these, the 8 of those, the 37 of the other, etc.---were not taught by the Buddha himself, but were developed by monks later on mainly for didactic purposes, and probably also out of an eternal Indian passion for technical systematization. Falsely putting words into the Buddha's mouth may seem so blatantly dishonest that many devout Buddhists would hesitate to accuse ancient monks of such a thing, but it appears to be a common method, not only in Buddhism but in almost all religious systems. Also, most of these lists (and much other apocrypha) probably started out as teaching aids, circulated until their origins were lost in obscurity, and then honestly, naively assumed to be authentic teachings of Buddha. Considering that the ultimate goal of Buddhism is not complicated at all, and that the practical life of monks, as will be discussed later on, is supposed to be very simple, it would seem unlikely that the Buddha would teach a Path that is a mind-boggling technical scholastic system, as many scholars, ancient, medieval, and modern, suppose it to be.
Some of the shorter lists concerning basic fundamentals may very well be authentic, for example the list of the Four Noble Truths. It has been observed by some scholars that this sort of fourfold analysis of a problem was a standard method in ancient India, especially in the field of medicine---to specify the problem itself, the cause of the problem, the cause of the end of the problem, and the course required for arriving at that end. The first three of the Noble Truths are quite simple and straightforward; but the fourth Noble Truth, as Pande points out, may not necessarily have been originally eightfold. There are different versions of the Eightfold Path which suggest that its eightfoldness may have developed over time, and after some adjustments had been made. There is, for example, mention of a tenfold Path in some suttas: the standard eight plus Right Knowledge and Right Liberation; in other suttas there is mention of a sevenfold approach to enlightenment, for example in the Rathavinīta Sutta (M24) and in the Gaṅakamoggallāna Sutta (M107); and in at least one sutta (cited as A.4.40, although the Burmese numbering is apparently different) the first seven factors on the standard Eightfold Path are unusually described as accessories (parikkhāra) to concentration, the stock eighth factor of the Path. None of these are absolute proof of anything, of course, but they are anomalies suggestive of scriptural "prototypes" of the standardized version.
Another fundamental teaching very likely to be original is the Middle Way. Although there is certainly more than one interpretation of it in the suttas, the one given in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, traditionally the Buddha's first formal Discourse after his enlightenment---i.e. the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-torture---is not necessarily the main Middle Way, nor the most important. Another important interpretation of it will be discussed subsequently.
One teaching likely to be original, and an extremely important innovation in Indian philosophy, is the idea that karma is a mental state; and thus to a profound degree our mind creates our reality. It is evident that before the time of the Buddha karma was viewed by the non-Brahmanistic philosophical systems more materialistically, as though it were some externally-imposed Law of the Universe; whereas the idea of karma among the Brahmins began as a ritual act (karma literally meaning "act"), especially during a fire sacrifice. Only if the ritual act were performed perfectly would the gods be compelled to grant the prayers of the sponsor of the sacrifice. For example, if a Brahmin priest stuttered his lines during the ritual chanting the whole ritual, or at least that part of it, would have to be started again from the beginning. Apparently it was the Buddha who first identified karma with volition (or at least he was the first famous Indian philosopher who did). This idea radically affected Indian philosophy, and helped to open the door to metaphysically Idealist systems like Vedanta and the "Consciousness Only" school of Mahayana Buddhism.
One well-known teaching of Buddhism that does not appear to be a likely candidate for the original Word of the Buddha is the Four Stages of Sainthood. Some evidence given by Pande for this judgement is that in some very old texts like the first several suttas of the Itivuttaka the word anāgāmitā, "non-return," is used in the non-technical sense of someone who simply does not return to this world, possibly meaning here even a fully enlightened being, an arahant; that the word sakadāgāmī, "once-returner," is not found at all in texts considered on other grounds to be very old; and that the entire system of the Four Stages is not mentioned at all in cardinal texts like the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, which describes the successive stages of spiritual development. For me personally, however, the clincher is the fact that no other spiritual system known to me acknowledges the existence of these Four Stages. I do not believe that Buddhism has a monopoly on enlightenment, and would not be at all surprised if there have been as many enlightened Hindus as enlightened Buddhists, with maybe even some enlightened Christians and (who knows?) even some enlightened Stone-Age Animists. To complicate the issue of the Four Stages a little more, some cardinal Mahayana texts interpret the Four Stages differently than the Theravadins do. Many Theravada Buddhists would not bat an eye when they assert that, although practitioners of other systems may attain some Heaven realm after death, only Buddhists (or only Theravada Buddhists) may attain Nirvana. I just cannot swallow it. I consider it quite possible that both Ramana Maharshi and Saint John of the Cross were fully enlightened sages, despite the fact that the latter worshipped the Virgin Mary and the former worshipped a hill. It is interesting, though, that Saint John did endorse a system of three stages of development---the beginner, the proficient, and the perfect, which corresponds nicely with the informal Theravadin system of common person (puthujjana), one in training (sekha), and one no longer in training (asekha). The three stages of one who is asleep, one who is waking up, and one who is fully awake are endorsed by more than one sage from more than one religious system, and so it may have been endorsed by the Buddha too, based on his own experience. (The fact that thousands of Buddhist meditators have claimed to have attained some or all of these Four Stages is no real proof of anything in particular. It is common for meditators to misinterpret intense, profound, and unusual meditative states, or simply to interpret them in accordance with their religious conditioning, and most of the people I have met who considered themselves to be ariyas, or Buddhist saints, were pretty obviously mistaken. Besides, as the Diamond Cutter Sutra states, a true "stream enterer" (one at the lowest stage of sainthood) would not go around saying "I have attained this," as one of the first things that an ariya leaves behind is a belief in self.)
There are many possible examples of plausibly inauthentic doctrines in the ancient Buddhist texts, but one very good, illustrative, and convenient example is in relation to the cardinal Buddhist tenet of paṭicca-samuppāda, or Dependent Co-arising. In the words of Pande,
"All schools of Buddhism are agreed on the central importance of Paṭiccasamuppāda which has been identified with Dhamma and Buddha in ancient sayings as well as later texts, Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. The universally recognized importance of the idea, its equal obscurity, and its occurrence in some of the most ancient passages of the Nikāyas testify to its authenticity. The authenticity of the general idea of Paṭiccasamuppāda does not, however, imply the authenticity of the term itself, or of the meanings read into it later, nor of that puzzling formula of Twelve Links. We can only say that the principle is generally termed Paṭiccasamuppāda, though it is also called Idappaccayatā and Majjhena Dhammo." (p.412)
In a famous ancient legend, the Buddha, shortly after his enlightenment, seriously considered keeping his mouth shut and not teaching Dhamma because he felt that nobody would understand Dependent Co-Arising. Despite the fact that thousands of scholastic Buddhist monks memorize a list of twelve factors and believe that they understand the doctrine, there certainly was some reasonable cause for the Buddha to doubt, and probably some kernel of truth to the legend.
There are two chief "official versions" of Dependent Co-Arising: a long version and a short version. We will begin with the long version, which is shown in the first column of Figure 1. According to the orthodox Theravadin interpretation, the twelve links of the "stock" formula of Dependent Co-Arising refer to phenomena extended over three lifetimes. Ignorance in a previous life results in the making of karma, which results in rebirth-linking consciousness, i.e. the first conscious moment, in the present life. This in turn conditions the development of "name and form," interpreted as the mind and the body, which serves as the foundation for the organs of sense, which of course allow sensory contact and the resultant feelings, leading to craving, clinging, and bhavo, interpreted as the making of karma in this life. This karma results in birth in a future life, followed by inevitable aging, death, grief, and so on. That is the orthodox Theravadin interpretation. Some ancient Indian schools of Buddhism interpreted the twelve links differently, for example by referring them all to a single lifetime; and even some modern schools of thought in Theravada itself apply all twelve links to a single life or even a single moment, interpreting them as all simultaneous. (As the famous 20th-century English monk Ñāṇavīra pointed out, the texts say "This arising, that arises"---not "This ceasing, that arises.")
This stock 12-link version of Dependent Co-Arising is the one that appears most often in the Pali texts. There is an entire section of the Saṁyutta Nikāya (the Nidāna Saṁyutta) dealing with the doctrine of Dependent Co-Arising, and most of the suttas in this collection of texts feature the 12-link version, even though this version may not fit the context very well. For example, there is the rather unusual Lokāyatika Sutta (S.12.48), which is interesting and short, so I will quote it here at greater length than it is usually found in the Pali texts themselves, divided into four sections A-D for convenience:
A) Thus have I heard: At one time the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthī, at Jeta's Grove, in Anāthapiṇḍika's Park.
B) At that time a brahmin who was a worldly philosopher (lokāyatiko) approached the Blessed One…and sitting to one side that brahmin worldly philosopher said this to the Blessed One: "How is it, sir Gotama, does everything exist?"
"'Everything exists'---indeed, brahmin, this is the oldest philosophy of the world."
"Well then how is it, sir Gotama, does nothing exist?
"'Nothing exists'---indeed, brahmin, this is the second philosophy of the world."
"Well then how is it, sir Gotama, is everything a unity?"
"'Everything is a unity'---indeed, brahmin, this is the third philosophy of the world."
"Well then how is it, sir Gotama, is everything a multiplicity?"
"'Everything is a multiplicity'---indeed, brahmin, this is the fourth philosophy of the world.
C) "But not tending to either extreme, brahmin, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the Middle---Dependent on ignorance there are karma formations; dependent on karma formations, consciousness…And thus is the arising of this whole mass of Unease. And from the fading away and cessation without remainder of this very ignorance there is the cessation of karma formations; from the cessation of karma formations, the cessation of consciousness…And thus is the cessation of this whole mass of Unease."
D) When this had been said the brahmin worldly philosopher said this: "Excellent, sir Gotama! Excellent, sir Gotama! Just as, sir Gotama, one would set aright what had been tipped over, would reveal what had been covered, would explain the road to one who was lost, or would hold up an oil lamp in the darkness so that those with eyes could see what is visible, even so, the Dhamma has been shown by sir Gotama in many ways. I go to sir Gotama for refuge, and to the Dhamma and to the Community of Monks. May sir Gotama consider me to be a lay supporter; from this day on, for the rest of my life, I have taken refuge.
If one considers this discourse, one may see that the theory of the 12 links is somewhat anomalous: First the Buddha dismisses multiplicity as an extreme and then rattles off a stock list of terms which clearly implies multiplicity! If the 12 nidāna theory is true, then it would seem that multiplicity is also true. (In fact, orthodox Theravada clearly asserts multiplicity with, for example, the 82 ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma philosophy. On the other hand, orthodox tradition has nothing resembling the unity extreme which could balance out this apparent multiplicity of the system.) A plausible explanation of this sutta is that the dialog of section B existed more or less as it exists now before the stock formula of section C was added. The very unusualness of the dialog is one bit of evidence that it is very old, as it would hardly be added after the patently pluralistic teachings of later Theravada had become standard. The stock formula could easily have been plugged in to replace some other explanation after it had come into vogue. Section C above is exactly the same in many suttas, as are sections A and D, with the sole exception of the name of the person who is converted. Section D is especially noteworthy in this regard, and I fully expanded it from the abbreviated form in which it was found in the sutta; obviously it is a stock formula artificially plugged into the discourse, as it is hardly likely that almost any non-Buddhist the Buddha converted was likely to respond in exactly these same words. It seems even less likely that so many people would utter this exact same speech when one considers that other schools of ancient Indian Buddhism had their own stock conversion speech for laypeople and non-Buddhist philosophers. Considering this, the idea that section C also was artificially plugged into the sutta after the 12 link theory became official dogma appears very possible if not downright likely. This method of inserting blocks of standardized text, or even of cobbling together whole suttas from such building blocks, apparently ran rampant during the formulation of the early Buddhist Canon.
But getting back to the stock 12-link formula of Dependent Co-Arising, even before studying such texts as the Lokāyatika Sutta the standard list seemed a bit suspicious. First there is the fact that it contains a short circuit---there are two terms which mean the same thing, namely saṅkhārā and bhavo, both of them interpreted as meaning essentially karma. Also, it always seemed to me that there should be another link between feeling and craving, something like perception or thought. This is a particularly important link, as in the orthodox interpretation it is here that the chain is broken and one becomes free of the bondage of Samsara.
But there are other long versions. One of the most famous is found in the Mahānidāna Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya (D15), which is represented by the second column of Figure 1. This sutta is the longest and most detailed discourse specifically on the subject of Dependent Co-Arising, and is considered to be authoritative on the subject, despite the fact that it strays from the stock formula somewhat---or rather the stock formula strays from it, as its own rendering of the nidāna theory appears to be an older version of the same list. As can be seen in Figure 1, it does not begin with ignorance and karma conditions but with a kind of vicious circle of consciousness and name and form. Also, it omits (or does not yet contain) the six sense bases. Aside from these differences, the only other anomaly is a long alternate list of phenomena branching out at craving, signified by the red x.
Figure 1. Four Versions of Dependent Co-Arising
Another important alternate version is found in the Kalahavivāda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, shown in the third column of Figure 1. It is interesting that this version is never specifically called paṭicca-samuppāda, and most monks at the Buddhist universities of the Buddhist lands never study the sutta, or if they do they do not notice that an unusual version of Dependent Co-Arising is contained in it. A comparison of the Kalahavivāda series with the two previously considered, however, shows some remarkable resemblances, and can leave little doubt that they are closely related philosophically. Instead of ignorance and saṅkhārā, which may not have originally meant karma, but possibly something more like "mental constructs," the Kalahavivāda series begins with perception and differentiation---although in very early Buddhist philosophy these two beginnings are not so different from each other, and some less divergent variations on the stock version also begin this way. The next links, nāmarūpa and phassa, are the same as in the preceding lists, omitting the sense bases as in the Mahānidāna version. The next link is pleasant and unpleasant, which clearly resembles feeling---in fact feeling is very often described in the Pali texts in terms of pleasant and unpleasant. Then comes chanda, preference or desire, which is practically a synonym for taṇhā, craving. And what is loved and uptake both have the common quality of attachment. The series ends with a different combination of unpleasant results, but still a combination of unpleasant results. It may be significant that this sutta is contained in the aforementioned Aṭṭhakavagga, a group of texts considered to be very ancient, possibly even pre-Buddhist, by many Western scholars. Thus I consider it reasonable to assume, hypothetically, that this series of terms represents a relatively primitive prototype of the developed stock version of paṭicca-samuppāda. Before leaving the Kalahavivāda Sutta I would like to mention in passing an interesting branch in the series of causes and effects: the text states that phassa, stimulation, not only is the origin of pleasant and unpleasant but of vibhava and bhava, nonexistence and existence, as well.
Perhaps an even more primitive prototype of the developed theory can be found in the interesting Sakkapañha Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya (D21), represented in the fourth column of Figure 1. The sutta itself is a strange combination of information, containing mythology, erotic love poetry, and profound ethical philosophy. It begins with the story of Sakka, King of Gods, (alias Indra of the Vedic pantheon) wishing to meet with the Buddha. But knowing the Buddha's love of meditation, silence, and solitude, he sends a heavenly musician named Pañcasikha to warm up the Buddha and make him more amenable to a visit. Pañcasikha complies by approaching the Buddha and singing a passionate love song inspired by a fairy princess that he (Pañcasikha) happens to be madly in love with (incidentally rendering this discourse the Theravadin counterpart to the biblical Song of Songs). The Buddha consents to a visit from the King of Gods, transitioning into the nucleus of the sutta which is yogic philosophy plain and simple. The only mythology apparent in this part is that it is Sakka who is asking the Buddha a number of deep questions. The sutta ends by returning to the tale of Sakka and Pañcasikha: Sakka rewards him for his services by giving him the girl of his dreams. The purpose of this odd combination of themes appears to be propagandistic: a piece of good, old wisdom literature being inserted into a juicy story demonstrating to the Vedic non-Buddhists that their own patron deity was on the side of the Buddhists! This kind of propagandizing is actually quite common in the Pali texts, but this is beside the point at hand. At any rate, in the sutta the Buddha gives a series of answers to a series of questions which can be assembled into a chain similar to that found in the Kalahavivāda Sutta. The chain begins with the same two links which begin the other, except in this case combined into one; with thinking, the next link, possibly being more of an elaboration on the theme of differentiating perception than an equivalent of name and form. The next link skips over stimulation and feelings and goes directly to chanda, preference or desire. The next link, what is loved and what is unloved, bears an obvious similarity to the corresponding link in the Kalahavivāda, and finally we have the standard mess of unpleasant effects of the foregoing phenomena. The list is much simpler, but obviously similar, to other versions of Dependent Co-Arising. Like the Kalahavivāda Sutta variant, it also is never called by that name specifically, but appears to be another early version of it. Incidentally, another piece of evidence that the philosophical nucleus of the sutta (but not necessarily the surrounding story) is very ancient, even primitive, is that the word pāṭimokkha, which in later literature usually refers to rules of monastic discipline, is here defined very differently, as is also the case in the Aṭṭhakavagga.
Before moving on to the short version of Dependent Co-Arising I will again quote Pande:
"We find in the Nikāyas a number of short, though significant, utterances relating to the origin of Dukkha [i.e. unease, suffering]. These are generally similar, though varying in terms, emphasis, complexity and profundity.
Sometimes a number of them are grouped together to form a sequence of cause and effect. Through the gradual fusion of more than one such sequence appears to have arisen the law of Paṭiccasamo with twelve "links". It is in a way a 'hyper-series', and this accounts for much of its apparent inconsistency." (p.428)
I would add that another cause for the apparent inconsistency that is not specifically mentioned in the quote above is probably gradual changes in the meanings of old terms as the philosophical system gradually became more developed.
The short formula for paṭicca-samuppāda referred to previously, also found in stock form throughout the suttas, although not as frequently as the 12 nidāna series, is: imasmiṁ sati idaṁ hoti; imassa uppādā idaṁ uppajjati; imasmiṁ asati idaṁ na hoti; imassa nirodhā idaṁ nirujjhati---"This being, that is; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that is not; from the ceasing of this, that ceases." It may be seen that this short version of Dependent Co-Arising could be interpreted as a logical statement, and does not necessarily imply a sequence of causes and effects. In fact this short formula is one reason why some Buddhist philosophers have attempted to interpret paṭicca-samuppāda as occurring simultaneously: this arising, that arises; not this ceasing, that arises. After all, it is called Dependent Co-Arising, that Co- being generally ignored. (The orthodox interpretation is that the prefix sam- in the name of the principle is merely an intensifier, like the sam- in sambuddha, "Fully Enlightened One"; but the Pali prefix sam- etymologically corresponds to the Greek sym- and the Latin com-, and literally means "with," and is usually used in that sense.)
It seems likely to me that Dependent Co-Arising was originally intended to be interpreted more logically and psychologically than causally, more like a conditional if/then statement: If we perceive this to exist, then we must also perceive something else to exist. It is a matter of existence through contrast with something else, of relation. Good cannot exist without bad to compare it with: if all bad were eliminated good would become meaningless---it would be simply average, the way things are. This goes for all pairs of opposites. Up is up only because there is down to compare it with, beauty is beauty only because there is ugliness to compare it with, difference is difference only because there is sameness to compare it with, and so on. But even an empirically observed object which appears to have no opposite, say, a stone, cannot be perceived to exist without at least contrasting it with some surrounding background or context. Without something with which to contrast it, it would have no outline, no form, and thus would not be "a stone." Everything in the world is like this, and its existence or nonexistence depends upon what sort of comparisons we make. There must be creation of an artificial, logical duality in order to perceive anything, even nonexistence, even nothingness. Thus the universe we live and operate in is a creation of mind, of perception. Even perception itself exists artificially in this way. This is the nature of Samsara. This interpretation explains how Dependent Co-Arising can be the Middle Way between existence and nonexistence, unity and plurality. But it is very subtle and very difficult to understand, and consequently the legendary Buddha's doubt that anyone would "get it." Very simple and fundamental, yet very difficult to understand. It was much easier to transmogrify it into a list of terms connected by presumed causal relationships and to memorize them by rote. Remember that the two early prototypes of the causally interpreted paṭicca-samuppāda sequence mentioned above are not called paṭicca-samuppāda in the texts themselves, and were probably not originally considered to be such. But that is what Buddhist Dependent Co-Arising developed into. Or so runs the hypothesis.
Incidentally, it was this rather mechanistic interpretation of Dependent Co-Arising by the "Hinayana" that the great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna tried to correct some 2000 years ago with his system/unsystem of Madhyamaka. Although he gave lip-service to the established 12-link formula common to all of the early Indian schools of Buddhism (the development of the traditional formula apparently predating the first schism of the Sangha approximately 100 years after the Buddha's disappearance from this world), his school of "Centrism" mainly endorsed an interpretation of Dependent Co-Arising that steered a middle course between existence and nonexistence, is and isn't, true and false, yes and no. He equated Dependent Co-Arising with Voidness, meaning not that the world is completely unreal, but that it is only virtual and relative to some point of view or other. A primary reference for his most important book, the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, is the "Kātyāyanāvavāda," a Sanskrit text corresponding to the Pali Kaccāyanagotta Sutta (S.12.15), of the same Nidāna Saṁyutta previously mentioned in relation to the worldly philosopher, in which the Buddha explains the Middle Way between being and nonbeing. As it turned out, the older schools of Indian Buddhism rejected Nāgārjuna's attempted reform, while the rising Mahayanists accepted it eagerly, even posthumously awarding Nāgārjuna with the status of a great patriarch of Dharma, and a virtual second Buddha.
This rather involved example of Dependent Co-Arising illustrates some of the subtleties and complications of the challenging endeavor of sorting through the Pali texts in search of what "philosophical theory" the Buddha really taught. It is easy to see why simply adopting the dogmatic point of view and accepting the entire Tipiṭaka, or perhaps just the core texts, as Gospel Truth would be more emotionally satisfying for most. One may work for years on the subject of deducing the most ancient and reliable texts, and all one can hope to attain is plausible hypotheses. Yet assuming the Gospel Truth of the texts as a whole is also essentially a hypothesis, and perhaps not a very plausible one. As the old saying goes, "You pays your money and you takes your choice."
Summing up this matter of original Buddhist Theory before moving on to the refreshingly simpler matter of Practice, the gist of the Buddha's philosophy as taught to his most serious and advanced disciples, the monks and nuns, was evidently a kind of radical, almost intellectual, almost pure mysticism stripped of as much legend, system, and theory as possible. What thinking there was, was largely for the purpose of showing the ultimate futility of thinking. I remember long ago reading in some Mahayana sutra or other something like, "The purpose of Lord Buddha's teaching is to liberate us from our thinking by means or our thinking." This pretty well sums up the situation. The fundamental principles of very early Buddhist philosophy were a minimum foundation for guiding practice---for example the idea that, karma being a mental state, we create our own "reality," and thus the freedom of our existence depends upon the freedom of our mind---and also a kind of "metaphilosophy" similar to that of Kant or the ancient Greek Skeptics, examining and illuminating the limitations of perceptual thinking in general, and philosophy in particular---which is virtually the antithesis of the Abhidhamma system of analysis. In the words of the ancient texts themselves (giving just one of many possible examples):
Having abandoned what was acquired (including the notion of "self"), not taking up anything,
He (the wise person) would not be in dependence even upon knowledge;
He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen;
He does not rely on any view at all.
(---Paramaṭṭhaka Sutta, v.5, of the Sutta Nipāta)
The practical guidance given by the Buddha is much easier to determine, as ancient Indian Buddhist tradition with regard to practice was much more conservative than with regard to theoretical philosophy. Scholar-monks were presumably less inclined to dwell on practical technique and work out their own systematizations of it; and the early schisms were motivated mainly by differences of theory, not practice. Much of the code of conduct was standard protocol for the wandering ascetics of the Ganges Valley in the 5th century B.C.E.: homelessness; celibacy; avoidance of sensual pleasures in general; minimal physical possessions, with no money at all; the patient acceptance of heat, cold, hunger, thirst, sickness, pain, loneliness, and enmity; etc. Also there was much emphasis placed on constant mindfulness and meditation. The lifestyle followed the traditional Indian ideal of radical renunciation of the world, for the sake of the greatest Indian spiritual ideal of full enlightenment and complete liberation, preferably in this very life. The texts of the ancient schools are in agreement on this, and also agree on the idea that renunciation and austerity lead to purer morals, which in turn lead to a more peaceful mind and deeper meditation, which in turn can more easily lead to liberating insight. It appears likely that for the laity who were less able to dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to intensive practice, the Buddha did recommend the keeping of five precepts (also standard for the various spiritual systems of ancient India, with little variation between the systems), plus the encouragement to be generous, open-minded toward the teachers and followers of all religions and philosophies, etc.
There is, however, evidence which suggests that the literally thousands of precepts laid down for the monks and nuns did not necessarily originate with Gotama Buddha himself. There can be little doubt that the Buddha did exhort his most dedicated followers to avoid certain modes of behavior, such as killing animals, buying and selling, consorting with village damsels, getting embroiled in philosophical arguments, and so on; just as he also very likely encouraged these same followers to favor other behaviors, such as wearing rags, eating almsfood, and practicing plenty of meditation. On the other hand, this is not the same as saying that he declared breaking a rule of such and such category entails expiation through such and such ritual of expiation.
In the books of monastic discipline (Vinaya) there are two explanations of how the Buddhist monastic code came into existence. The traditional, official story is that the Buddha himself laid down each and every rule himself, case by case, in response to the inappropriate behavior of some monk or nun. This in itself seems rather unlikely, as many of the rules are pretty picayune, involving correct procedure for using the toilet, bathing, cleaning one's room, and so on, and also such trivialities as allowable materials for ointment-smearing sticks and allowable colors for sandal straps. Also, some of the stories describing the circumstances leading up to the Buddha's decree of a new rule are apparently made up after the fact and do not seem very historical---for example the story of the fire-breathing cobra dragon (nāga) who assumed human form and was ordained as a monk, leading up to the requirement at a monk's ordination ceremony for the question to be asked, "Are you a human being?" Another of many possible examples is the story introducing the first pārājika rule, i.e. the very first rule of discipline, which is verbatim the same story as is found in the Raṭṭhapāla Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M82), with the exceptions of the very end of the story and the identity of the protagonist. It appears very likely that one story copies the other, or else they are both copies of a common precursor. Furthermore, some rules are apparently just anachronistic, for example the ones explaining the correct procedure for Theravada monks interacting with Buddhist monks of other sects (nānāsaṁvāsakā---"of a different community"). Yet there is another canonical explanation of how the rules of monastic discipline came to be: In the history of the First Council, contained in the Pali Tipiṭaka in the second-to-last chapter of the Vinaya Cūḷavagga, "The Chapter of the 500," the story is told of how after the Buddha's death many of the monks were understandably grieving. At this an old monk who was ordained when he was old said, essentially, "Hey, why all the long faces? Now we don't have the Blessed One telling us "Do this, don't do that," all the time. Now we can do as we please!" The venerable Mahā Kassapa, senior monk in the Sangha after the Buddha's death, happened to hear the old monk saying this and was alarmed. He then decided to convene a convocation of monks to establish a standardized system of discipline for the sake of the stability of the monastic tradition. Thus the First Great Council has been called the Vinaya Saṅgīti, The Convocation on Discipline.
As some Western scholars have been opining for more than a century, like Hermann Oldenberg way back in the 1800's, the probable purpose of the First Council, assuming it to be a real historical event, was to establish a code of monastic precepts, the pāṭimokkha, plus some protocols for the perpetuation of the Sangha such as formal ordination procedure. There may very well have been some agreement on basic points of theoretical Dhamma also, although it is hardly likely that the entire Tipiṭaka or even the whole of the "core texts" date as far back as this. This primitive pāṭimokkha would not have included the section called sekhiya in Pali, as this group of rules varies among the ancient Indian schools, and therefore was probably added to the code after the schisms in the Sangha had already begun.
There are other scraps of evidence that the original Buddhism taught by Gotama Buddha did not involve an organized system of rules for monks and nuns to follow. For example, in the introduction to the rules of monastic discipline (at the beginning of the Vinaya Pārājika) it is pointed out that some former Buddhas, previous to "our" Buddha, did not formulate rules of monastic discipline for their monks to follow---which thereby resulted in their dispensations dying out within a relatively short time. This could plausibly be a kind of apology for introducing these rules as an expedient for preserving the Dhamma and Sangha. (This portion of the text is evidently anachronistic, as it also describes the divisions of the Buddhist scriptures into categories which could hardly have existed in the Buddha's time.) Another considerable scrap of evidence is the very ancient idea that a monk should not be caught up in sīlabbata-parāmāsa, adherence to morality and observances. The Theravadin commentarial tradition interprets this to mean the rather ludicrous practices of imitating the behavior of cows or dogs, which some ancient ascetics actually did; thereby leaving the door open to adherence to the precepts and observances prescribed by orthodox tradition. However, very ancient texts like the Aṭṭhakavagga imply that a monk should not commit himself to any morality or observances, including of course the ridiculous ones. Following is some testimony from the Aṭṭhakavagga itself, which may actually predate the First Council:
Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by (inner) knowledge,
(Māgandiya, said the Blessed One,)
Nor by morality and observances (sīlabbatenāpi) is purity said to be;
By absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge,
By amorality, by nonobservance---also not by that;
So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything,
A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.
(---Māgandiya Sutta, v.5)
Those who think morality is supreme say purity is by self-restraint;
Having taken upon themselves an observance they are dedicated to it;
"Let us train ourselves right here and now, and then there would be purity"---
Claiming to be adepts, they are led up to further existence.
If he is fallen away from his morality and observances
He is agitated, having failed in his action (kamma);
He longs for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong
Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.
But having abandoned all morality and observances,
And that action that is criticized or uncriticized,
Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace (santimanuggahāya).
(---Mahāviyūha Sutta, vv.4-6)
It may be observed from the context that "morality and observances" here are not limited to the imitation of dogs and cows. It is evidently referring to setting up an ideal and trying to live up to it, setting up an ideal which may be in dissonance with the way things actually are, and thus to some degree alienating oneself from Reality by insisting that Reality be a certain way. If this interpretation of the case is correct, then the Buddha's instructions with regard to moral conduct may have more closely resembled the moral teachings of Krishnamurti or even Paul of Tarsus than the teachings of the commentator Buddhaghosa. The radical renunciation practiced by monks in the Buddha's time helped to keep them out of trouble anyway; but, more importantly, the sincere willingness to live such a life for the sake of Enlightenment has a profound purifying effect on one's conduct. Simply experiencing one's own feelings and urges without giving in to them or reacting by pushing them away is pure enough; and besides, if one is sincerely living a spiritually oriented life, then one spontaneously lives in accordance with virtue. "The letter killeth; the spirit maketh alive." Even so, it may really have been a necessary evil, or at least a realistic expedient, to devise rules for the sake of worldly-minded monks of later times who would have dragged the monkhood down to a worldly level---and in many cases have done so regardless by not following the rules of monastic discipline. (There have been times in the past when I wished that there were more rules, so that it would be easier for me to behave myself.)
It is questionable whether such a lifestyle could be lived by many Buddhists in modern times, especially in the West. Buddhism arose in a very different world than exists today. The world of the ancient Ganges Valley had its armies, criminals, hedonists, prostitutes, and sociopathic kings; nevertheless, the culture was a veritable miracle of spiritual inspiration, the likes of which are virtually unimaginable now. One example which has lingered in my mind for many years is the story of a man named Jambuka in the Dhammapada Commentary (in the origin story to Dh70): He goes to a community of Ājīvaka ascetics for the purpose of entering their Order, whereupon the first thing they do is to place him in a hole up to his neck and lay two planks across his shoulders, and then some of the ascetics sit on the planks while another uses a special comb designed to grip hair and rips out the fellow's hair and beard by the roots. And this was before he had even joined up! This was just to get him ready! The story may sound extreme, but there really were many thousands of people in ancient India who desired the attainment of Liberation so strongly that they were quite willing to torture themselves to death in the attempt. It was an accepted part of the culture. This is of course hardly the case nowadays in the West; such people would very probably be considered insane.
This leads to the idea that even if we could somehow determine exactly what the historical Buddha actually taught to his disciples, the Dhamma in its historically pure and pristine form---which, however, would be a virtual impossibility---we still would not have arrived at the pure, true essence of the Path to Enlightenment, because we would still have the situation of this true essence being thoroughly mixed up with ancient Indian culture. The Buddha was constrained to teach his disciples something resonant enough with their cultural conditioning that they would be able to understand it and accept it; and what was understandable and acceptable to wandering ascetics of the Ganges Valley 2500 years ago may be largely incomprehensible and unacceptable to modern Westerners, even to those who are sincere and resolute seekers. It seems rather likely that if the Buddha were alive in the West today he would be constrained to teach something at least a little different from what he taught in ancient India, even though he would no doubt have the integrity to teach the few who could hear it a message undiluted and undefiled by consumerism or political correctness hysteria.
What would be the result of distilling down the essence of Dhamma from 2500 years of Asian cultural conditioning, including the original ancient Indian cultural conditioning, and then inoculating it into a modern Western system? That is a very good question, and a very important one for modern Buddhists in the West. It may be that the austerity and detachment would be more psychological than physical, more in the form of intense spiritual interpersonal relationships, possibly within communities intent on that purpose. The feedback, the unpredictability, the continual challenges to detachment and Waking Up could be deeply experienced in this way, thus continually nudging seekers toward greater consciousness. But that may be the topic of a different article than this.
In conclusion, it seems that the best we can do if we wish to follow the teachings of the Buddha is to follow the advice of the Aṭṭhakavagga, and consider what we find in the texts without accepting or rejecting it. If it works, we keep doing it, and if it doesn't, we set it aside for the time being. But firmly grasping an idea as The Truth, or firmly rejecting it as not The Truth, is locking oneself into a box; and the whole point of ancient Dhamma is getting out of the box. Thus we shouldn't even hope to get beyond the level of mere hypotheses in our understanding of what the Buddha taught. Beyond the hypothetical is dogma, and dogma is attachment, suffering, and Samsara. So let us move forward carefully, as though on thin ice. And may all who sincerely try to follow Dhamma succeed in their noble endeavor, and become Free.