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How were the Suttas distorted over time?

LOTUS69LOTUS69 Boston New
edited January 6 in Buddhism Basics

Let me preface this by stating I have great reverence for the Buddha and believe he was exactly what he said he was, the Tathagata, which is why I want to know what the man actually taught.

When you study the history of Buddhism, you find a very sordid history of schisms, power struggles, political agendas, sectarian in fighting, just like every organized religion, with many ancient schools of Buddhism wiped off the face of the earth by Muslim invaders in India.
The divisions began to split the sangha almost immediately after the Buddha died. This idea that all the monks got together and orally fixed the original teachings of the Buddha in perfect form and passed it on unaltered for 2,500 years strains credibility. In fact, the discoveries of scholars investigating the Pali Canon have brought a massive reassessment of what the original Buddha actually taught, in the same sense scholars studying the the Gospels of the New Testament shed a new light into what Jesus actually taught and how the Gospels were composed.

What these scholars observe when they go into the Pali texts are clear indications that there are multiple layers of suttas that were added over time and a high degree of editing has occurred by monks with a particular agenda.
They are like a ruins of an ancient temple overgrown by jungle and one must approach the suttas like an archaeologist, stripping away the jungle overgrowth to get to the real truth of the matter.

When you read the suttas you come across all sorts of illogical contradictions, changes in linguistic styles and composition, bizarre references to multilevel realms (31 of this, 27 of that etc.) filled with fantastical beasts and beings that seem right out of Tolkien, ridiculous and clearly fictional tales of Buddha's past lives etc. You also find strikingly anti-family attitudes, mean spirited judgments of hapless "worldlings", advice not to have "dear" ones or love anybody, that it is in fact a stain on your soul and will lead you to hell if you...gasp...have sex or raise a family, and shocking misogynist tendencies that are ascribed to the Buddha.

How could the incarnation of love and compassion have such delusional hateful views!

In summary, many scholars have concluded the original teachings of the Buddha were in fact life affirming, pro-family, pro love, hopeful, focused on becoming and growth, on reuniting with loved ones after death, on finding the way to immortality and true happiness, on awakening desire in human beings to constantly grow and become more and better. Most importantly it was a rebellion against the priestly class of Brahmanism with it's caste system, animal sacrifice and empty rituals that had robbed the Vedic tradition of all spiritual vitality and he directed his gospel (good news) it to the everyday lay person so that they could find a direct experience with spirit/soul.

It is sad that Buddha's rebellion was coopted by a new exclusive priestly class who distorted the teaching to fit their own agenda, namely, winning converts, taking down sectarian rivals, entrenching their power and superiority over the laity, debasing "becoming" and turning it into the ultimate sin, debasing soul and spirit, embracing nihilism and pessimism and turning life into a big dung heap, ignoring the concerns of the world, debasing family life etc.

Here is a great article the lays it all out and a couple of great books by 2 giants in Pali scholarship which further deep dive into the subject matter. May you find the true path to awakening and yes, the Buddha wants you to love you dear ones dearly:

https://palisuttas.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/the-life-and-legacy-of-mrs-c-a-f-rhys-davids/

http://elibrary.ibc.ac.th/files/public/Original_Gospel_Buddhism.pdf

http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/Studies in the Origins of Buddhism_Pande.pdf

JaySonDakini

Comments

  • JaySonJaySon Everywhere in the Cosmos Veteran
    edited January 5

    What I find fascinating are interpretations of the Anapanasati sutra by modern Buddhist teachers.

    Reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Ajahn Brahm's versions are like night and day.

  • personperson Where is my mind? 'Merica! Veteran

    Yes I think many western Buddhists realize this. It seems an unavoidable conclusion that biases by ancient monks made their way into the teachings. I feel there is an effort to understand where these biases have influenced the Dharma. I would urge that in doing so though we do our best not to insert our own modern biases in there in the process. I also feel that Buddhism has done a brilliant job of handing down the living tradition in terms of not the words but the personal, subjective meaning or the realizations that the words have pointed to.

    In regards to lay practitioners in particular, it seems there are suttas that speak to them and in the Mahayana there have been teachings by masters directed more towards laity, I'm thinking in particular of Nagarjuna's Precious Garland. The tradition has been preserved and handed down by monastics though and even if they didn't intentionally suppress lay teachings it might not have been very relevant to them and they fell away more due to neglect. I don't know enough about it to say for certain, I just read your words @LOTUS69 and I get a feeling of a real lack of generosity in interpreting why and how distortions occurred.

    lobster
  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    I don't think much of anything can be passed down over millennia, centuries, decades and then from language to language without being skewed. The general foundation is usually carried through, however and like @federica said, it's all about investigating and scrutinizing and arriving at our own conclusions. Likely Buddha said so because he knew how things would go. The thing is that Truth doesn't vary. Truth doesn't waiver. Truth doesn't change with the centuries. Buddha didn't give his teachings to lay out a map for how to do everything the way he did. He shared his story and invited people to find that Truth for themselves and to be cautious in everything he said and adopting it as their own. The finger is not the moon, remember. And likewise written words are not the Truth, nor are they meant to be. They can only barely contain the essence of Truth, which has to be experienced.

    May I suggest that when you have a long post, use paragraphs. They are extraordinarily helpful to the readability of your posts. If I were reading this on a phone or tablet, I'd not make it through the first bit because I'd lose my place a million times. Just hit enter a couple of times and it'll make a space.

    lobsterJaySonperson
  • JaySonJaySon Everywhere in the Cosmos Veteran
    edited January 6

    Lotus makes a good point, I think, at the end of his post. Buddhism is definitely about loving kindness. This being a moral universe, how could it not be?

  • DakiniDakini Veteran

    @JaySon said:
    What I find fascinating are interpretations of the Anapanasati sutra by modern Buddhist teachers.

    Reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Ajahn Brahm's versions are like night and day.

    Could you elaborate, please? Summarizing TNH's and Ajahn Brahm's interpretations, so we can see how they're night and day?

  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited January 6

    @LOTUS69 , please post in paragraphs, to facilitate reading, thanks.

    Much of that sounds fascinating; how priestly classes changed the texts to suit their agendas. I don't know anything about that, but what I have read that fascinates me is about the discovery and translation of the Gandhari scrolls. Scholars say that the beginnings of Mahayana and Hinayana (as it was called back then) were already there when the Buddhha was alive; different monks or groups of monks, emphasized different aspects of the teachings, and that's what eventually evolved into two separate schools.

    I agree that one can learn a lot from examining these historical processes.

    Moderator edit I took care of the original post. But as you rightly point out, paragraphs help. :)

  • JaySonJaySon Everywhere in the Cosmos Veteran

    @Dakini said:

    @JaySon said:
    What I find fascinating are interpretations of the Anapanasati sutra by modern Buddhist teachers.

    Reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Ajahn Brahm's versions are like night and day.

    Could you elaborate, please? Summarizing TNH's and Ajahn Brahm's interpretations, so we can see how they're night and day?

    Sure. TNH's interpretation can be found in his books Breathe You Are Alive and Awakening Of The Heart. Brahm's can be found in Mindfulness, Bliss, And Beyond.

    Their interpretations are identical at the beginning of the sutra, for the first few steps. Then everything changes.

    TNH expands awareness from the breath and into the body, and creates the connection of oneness of body and mind. He denies the Buddha taught jhana. TNH says jhana isn't supposed to be in the sutra at all, that it was mistakenly put there.

    Brahm keeps awareness on the breath throughout and goes into jhana.

    About 2/3 of the sutra are completely different. The first 1/3 the same, and then one goes left while the other goes right.

  • DakiniDakini Veteran

    @JaySon said:

    About 2/3 of the sutra are completely different. The first 1/3 the same, and then one goes left while the other goes right.

    OK, so each of the teachers has a completely different take on a certain point. You're saying that Brahm takes the sutra at face value, while TNH says the latter part of the sutra was a later addition?

    There's a lot of that in Buddhism. There's Stephen Batchelor saying that about a lot of sutras. There are people who say the end-of-life sutras, the Buddha's Parinirvana teachings about Buddhanature and True Self were not original teachings. The presence of controversies like that can give rise to cherry-picking, since no one can agree on what the Buddha actually taught.

    Hmm.....

    JaySon
  • JaySonJaySon Everywhere in the Cosmos Veteran

    @Dakini said:

    @JaySon said:

    About 2/3 of the sutra are completely different. The first 1/3 the same, and then one goes left while the other goes right.

    OK, so each of the teachers has a completely different take on a certain point. You're saying that Brahm takes the sutra at face value, while TNH says the latter part of the sutra was a later addition?

    There's a lot of that in Buddhism. There's Stephen Batchelor saying that about a lot of sutras. There are people who say the end-of-life sutras, the Buddha's Parinirvana teachings about Buddhanature and True Self were not original teachings. The presence of controversies like that can give rise to cherry-picking, since no one can agree on what the Buddha actually taught.

    Hmm.....

    Interesting huh?

    I believe there may be a major difference between the Anapanasati sutta in the Thai Forest Tradition and Zen tradition.

    I read Buddhism Without Beliefs back in 2002. It was actually the first Buddhist book I read, given to me by a friend in college. I remember him saying something like Buddhism was meant to be secular, that it adopted a lot from Hinduism.

    It used to drive me crazy trying to figure out "what is the real teaching." But I've let that go and found that each school is right in its own way. I mean... Both TNH and Brahm seem to be happy and compassionate, one drunk on jhana bliss and the other dwelling in the solidity of oneness of body and mind. I guess.

  • dhammachickdhammachick crazy Aussie BUJU Sydney, Australia Veteran

    @LOTUS69 - Dude, we weren't there. You can pontificate and theorise to your heart's content, or DO Buddhism and find out for yourself, which the Buddha actually advised us to do - not take his word for it but to try it for ourselves.

    Sink or swim buddy, that's the only way in the end.

    person
  • Steve_BSteve_B Far southwest corner of Indiana, USA Veteran
    edited January 6

    Different aspects of Buddhism are interesting to different people. This is of course true in other realms as well. Engineers design the airplanes, factory workers build them, pilots fly them, mechanics maintain them, and those groups have very little in common in culture or vocabulary. Fortunately, Buddhism has accumulated many centuries of study and literature, so no matter your predispositions and interests you're likely to find some aspect worthy of your attention. A few thoughts:

    Buddhism does not offer us direct contemporaneous verbatim quotes. Insights have been lost, insights have been added.

    What we do have is as close as we'll get. And fortunately it is very rich in both wisdom for the practitioners and insights for the scholars.

    We of practitioner bent owe much to your ilk of scholarly bent. We would not have the written wisdom in our modern language and cultural interpretation conveniently available to us if not for those who passionately immerse themselves in the minutiae of the historical literature.

    lobsterperson
  • SpinyNormanSpinyNorman It's still all old bollocks Veteran

    @JaySon said:

    @Dakini said:

    @JaySon said:
    What I find fascinating are interpretations of the Anapanasati sutra by modern Buddhist teachers.

    Reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Ajahn Brahm's versions are like night and day.

    Could you elaborate, please? Summarizing TNH's and Ajahn Brahm's interpretations, so we can see how they're night and day?

    Sure. TNH's interpretation can be found in his books Breathe You Are Alive and Awakening Of The Heart. Brahm's can be found in Mindfulness, Bliss, And Beyond.

    Their interpretations are identical at the beginning of the sutra, for the first few steps. Then everything changes.

    TNH expands awareness from the breath and into the body, and creates the connection of oneness of body and mind. He denies the Buddha taught jhana. TNH says jhana isn't supposed to be in the sutra at all, that it was mistakenly put there.

    Brahm keeps awareness on the breath throughout and goes into jhana.

    About 2/3 of the sutra are completely different. The first 1/3 the same, and then one goes left while the other goes right.

    I have read a number of commentaries to the Anapanasati Sutta, and they vary widely in interpretation of the four tetrads. The more traditional commentaries describe a progression through the jhanas, culminating in pure insight in the fourth tetrad. Meanwhile the more contemporary commentaries describe the four tetrads more like a satipatthana practice. The four tetrads do correspond to the four frames of satipatthana, on the other hand the first three tetrads do seem to be describing the factors of jhana.

    JaySonlobster
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