The Buddha you never knew – a response
Posted on April 21st, 2017

By Chandre Dharmawardana, Canada.

The Buddha you never knew, and parts of the Tripitaka that never survived. Bhante Dhammika of Australia, writing in the Island Newspaper (21st April 2017) presents a valuable and timely reminder that what is often believed to be “core facts”of Buddhism cannot in fact be confirmed by linking them to credited original sources. This is of course a well-known problem with many ancient religions. We have to remind ourselves the great quest of Albert Schweitzer (“to find the historical Jesus”) where he authored a set of highly erudite volumes to conclude that there was perhaps no such historical figure, but possibly a confluence of many such teachers! The short article by Bhante Dhammika omits a key fact, and gives the unwary reader the impression that the Tripitaka contains at least the deliberations of the first council of monks, held shortly after the passing away of the Buddha.

In reality, the Tripitaka was written down in Sri Lanka at Alu-Vihara, Matale in the 1st century BCE(see, e.g., Russell Bowden, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka New Series, Vol. 55, 2009, pp. 115-167) during the reign of King Walagamba (Vatta-Gamin Abhaya), some 4-5centuries after the Buddha’s time (Note that different scholars have put the Buddha’s passing away from the 7th century BCE to as late as the 4th century BCE). This was a time when the country (and indeed the south Asian subcontinent) suffered a severe drought known as the “Baeminitiya saaya” that lasted at least a dozen years. The long famine affected even the usually well-fed Sangha society as well as the aristocrats. Some 25,000 monks either perished or went to the virtually impenetrable central hills (“Malaya rata”), or to other host countries like “”siyam rata”. In addition, the country had to face a south Indian invasion.

Once the invasion was repelled, less than a hundred monks who had survived in the Matale hills decided to write down the Tripitaka on Ola leaves, translating them from the Sinhala of the era (Elu, a language close to Asokan Prakrit) to Pali. The decision to write down the Buddha’s teaching, until then transmitted orally and held in memory was launched because the learned monks themselves were perishing at an alarming rate. The first sermon of the Buddha, the Dhamma-chakka-pavattana sutta, which according to tradition had taken a whole night of exposition is today only a very short sermon! Some parts of it were presumably lost because those who knew those parts were already dead! Clearly, when Bhante Dhammika finds many stories and anecdotes missing from the Tripitaka, it may be that they were simply not recorded at Alu Vihara because the monks who knew those parts by memory had already perished, or regarded those anecdotes as being less important than the main teaching.

Scholars interested in the history of science know of the “Gnana Sutta” of the Tibetan tradition which is missing from the Tripitaka of Theravada. It is referred to by Stcherbatsky in his Buddhist Logic, vol.1, p 77. The most well-known quotation from this sutta is in the best empiricist tradition of early Buddhism and strengthens the position exposed in the Kalama Sutta. According to Ven. Kamalasila (Buddhist philosopher of the 8th century CE), the Buddha had stated the following. “O Brethren, never do accept my words from sheer reverential feelings (Bhakthi). Let learned scholars test (as gold smiths are doing by all the three methods) of fire, of breaking (the golden object into pieces) and of the touch stone”. This statement, made some 26 centuries ago is the earliest expression of the scientific method that I know of.

The reference to the touchstone is particularly interesting as it implies the use of an instrument for testing. There is every reason to believe that these Radical Buddhist ideas flowed West along the silk route to Greece, and resonated with contemporary thinkers like Heraclitus (who also taught a doctrine of impermanence), and possibly influenced Aristotle through Plato and Socrates. Socrates believed in rebirth and Karma of the Orphic tradition. The experiments of Archimedes, some three centuries after the Buddha’s discussion of testing for gold, and the story of his shouting “Eureka” (when he succeeded in determined if the king’s crown was of quality Gold or cheap alloy) comes to our mind. We see that the Greco-Western Scientific tradition that lay dormant during medieval times and “woke up” during the renaissance had its roots in the North Indian enlightenment of the 5- 6th centuries BCE. I have in fact alluded to some of this in my book, “A Physicist’s view of Matter and Mind (World Scientific, 2013).

It should be noted that famines like the “Baeminitiya saya” that prompted the monks to write down the Tripitaka in the 1st century BCE were not exceptional. It was noted in the chronicles because of its impact on Buddhism. Other famines did not get noted so explicitly. Contrary to the popular belief, the ancients, in spite of their marvelous hydraulic civilization, never really had food security. This is a subject researched by Professor Siriwira of the Rajarata University. The country lurched from famine to famine until modern agriculture arrived in the 20th century. The first rice-growing area around the Mannar Peninsula around Yodha Weva near Adaikkalmoddai (Haedigal-motte), Mannar (Manthota of ancient times) was gradually abandoned probably with the depletion of soil nitrogen. The center of agriculture moved increasingly southwards, but remained in the dry zone as steel implements needed to penetrate the thick vegetation were hardly available. The tanks were vulnerable to easy destruction by invaders, giving rise to Malaria and other diseases. The current epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) in the North Central Province, (now known to be caused by a confluence of hard water and fluoride of geological origin) must have surely existed in ancient times as well. But CKD is very hard to detect without modern medical methods. Like almost all perils, CKD in ancient times would have been attributed to the wrath of local gods, as is done even today by some invalids. It too would have added to the pressure to move south.

Today Buddhism in Sri Lanka has moved far away from the tenets of the Gnana Sutta or the Kalama Sutta and has embraced obscurantism, divine revelation even from God Natha, astrology and fake Arhants that wallow in luxury. According to Stcherbatsky, in the Kalama Sutta and the Gnana Sutta the Buddha has “declared that there are two principle sources of knowledge (at least for ordinary people), i.e.,…. sense perception (observation) and inference”. Observation is implied by noting the effect of fire on the piece of metal being tested, while the use of the touchstone implies not only observation, but inference as well. However, the Buddha’s interest did not lie in the exploration of the physical world. In the well-known parable of the arrow he focused on the need to alleviate suffering as the foremost objective; he prescribed a program for developing one’s control of the mind to achieve this objective.

Meanwhile, the scientific method that the Buddha so clearly exposed some 26 centuries ago has developed into modern science, and enable man to rise above the misery of everyday existence. It has for the first time in history provided means to “fill his belly”. A hungry man must be fed before one can attempt to control one’s mind. That too is in the Tripitaka (Chapter 15, Dhammapada).

2 Responses to “The Buddha you never knew – a response”

  1. Senerath Says:

    “Today Buddhism in Sri Lanka has moved far away from the tenets of the Gnana Sutta or the Kalama Sutta and has embraced obscurantism, divine revelation even from God Natha, astrology and fake Arhants that wallow in luxury.”

    If so, cannot blame Tripitaka for that. Tripitaka did not contain ‘God Natha’ nor Astrolory and it gave no indication of self-declared Arahants living in luxury.
    Also Bhante Dhammika is not the only monk to listen to.
    Latest trend is use facts to attack innocence.

  2. Dr.K Says:

    ??? ???

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