Perhaps the question that scholars of Buddhism are most often asked is, in effect, whether we have an authentic record of the Buddha’s teachings. While there are many aspects to this problem, and scholars disagree about most of them, the tendency in academia has been increasing scepticism. In the late nineteenth century, when the Pali Canon became known in the West and began to be printed and translated, western scholars more or less accepted the claim of the Theravadin tradition, which had preserved that Canon, that it did indeed contain the Buddha’s words. Later, they became aware that most of those texts had also been preserved in Chinese versions, and some in Tibetan too, but with variations ranging from the major to the trivial.
Over the last half century or so, scepticism has rapidly increased. It seems very unlikely that writing existed in India during the Buddha’s lifetime; it is sure that originally the texts were handed down orally; and it is no less sure that no manuscript of a Buddhist text has been preserved from before the Christian era, half a millennium after the Buddha. This has led some scholars to assume that where a text exists in more than one version we cannot know which is the earliest. Others – perhaps under the influence of postmodernism – have gone further and declared that we should stop even asking that question, and simply study the diverse material which has come down to us. Recently some American scholars have even argued for what they call “a hermeneutics of suspicion”: that since every text and interpretation we have has come to us through a specific Buddhist school, we should not ascribe it to a period before the existence of that school.
I consider this a mistake. Anthropologists and other students of culture, when they find striking similarities between cultural artefacts – whether material, such as crops or buildings, or immaterial, such as customs or stories – assume that they have either been inherited from a common ancestor or spread through diffusion. Structural similarities between languages as far apart as Sanskrit and Welsh are due to inheritance, but the use in English of words such as karma and nirvana is a result of diffusion.
The same distinction operates in textual scholarship. Philologists have long been reconstructing original texts, with a fair degree of certainty, from the evidence of manuscripts many centuries later than the original. If two or more manuscripts agree, it can normally be assumed that they have been copied from the same source, i.e. have a common ancestor, and especially so if they share an omission or other error. This enables extant manuscripts to be arranged in a kind of family tree, known as a stemma. Sometimes, however, manuscripts which belong to different branches of the tree will share an unlikely error, and here one assumes what anthropologists call diffusion, but in philology is technically called contamination.
The majority of the texts in the Pali Canon have close parallels in the versions of the Canon preserved in Chinese. To argue that this enormous set of strikingly similar texts does not go back to a common ancestor but has arisen entirely or predominantly through contamination strikes me as utterly irrational.
There are often other grounds on which, I believe, one can make out a good case that one Buddhist text is older than another similar text, whether one is comparing versions preserved in the same or in different languages. However, in this piece, written for this website, Alex Wynne is concerned with the authenticity of the Pali Canon in general.How old is the Suttapiţaka? The relative value of textual and epigraphical sources for the study of early Indian Buddhism
Alex Wynne is a Junior Research Fellow at St. John’s College. His doctoral thesis on the origins of Buddhist meditation is finished and awaiting examination.http://www.ocbs.org/research.php