Some thoughts on the “historical” Buddha & “authentic” Buddhism

One might reasonably expect the long history of scholarly endeavours to have shed some light on the Buddha’s life and teachings.  Unfortunately, the evidence such as it exists is inconclusive and liable to provoke scepticism and hostility even among Buddhists. The historical Buddha remains  an enigmatic figure and it raises a number of questions that need untangling and addressing…







One might reasonably expect the long history of scholarly endeavours to have shed some light on the Buddha’s life and teachings.  Unfortunately, the evidence such as it exists is inconclusive and liable to provoke scepticism and hostility even among Buddhists. The historical Buddha remains  an enigmatic figure and it raises a number of questions that need untangling and addressing.

Did the Buddha actually exist?

Frankly, there’s little if any hard evidence of Siddhartha Gautama – the “historical Buddha” – ever having lived.

Archaeologists have apparently discovered a Buddhist “tree shrine” (c. 600 BCE) at the Maya Devi temple at Lumbini, in Nepal, widely believed to be the Buddha’s birthplace.  The discovery team believes that this shrine “predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.” [1]

Scholarly accounts of the Buddha’s life and teachings are based primarily on textual analysis. Although most scholars seem willing to acknowledge the possibility of his historical existence “there is no complete agreement among scholars and Buddhist traditions regarding the dates of the historical Buddha.” [2] A biography of sorts has been “pieced together by comparing early Buddhist texts from different traditions.” [3] These accounts are an extensive mixture of myths and legends, philosophical discourses, and ritual practices; they were transmitted orally for centuries before being committed to writing and subjected to a visible process of interpretation and editing  and translation that began sometime around the first century BCE and is still ongoing today. [4]

As Hans H. Penner reminds us –

“when we read about this subject, we must constantly keep in mind that these texts are dated at least five hundred years after the supposed life of the person scholars keep insisting ‘must have lived,’ and claim that ‘the bare outline’ of his life is a fact.” [5]

None of the claims that scholars and devotees have made about the Buddha appear to have been accepted unanimously.  My own inclination, therefore, is to adopt an attitude similar to that expressed by David Drewes –

“Of course, it is possible that there was some single, actual person behind the nebulous ‘sramana Gautama’ of the early texts, but this is very far from necessarily the case… There may similarly have been an actual person behind the mythical Agamemnon, Homer, or King Arthur; Vyasa, Valmiki, Krsna, or Rama, but this does not make it possible to identify them as historical. If we wish to present early Buddhism in a manner that accords with the standards of scientific, empirical inquiry, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Buddha belongs to this group.” [5]

For me, the names “Siddhartha Gautama”, “The Buddha”, and “Early Buddhism” are synonymous. The Buddha who appears in Buddhist scripture was most likely a literary device of the ancient monks who were living in India sometime between 600 BCE and the first century BCE. Against all the odds, some of their ancient oral tradition has survived a turbulent history spanning more than 2500 years. The cultural beliefs and practices of the early Buddhists are now accessible to a world-wide contemporary audience. Whether or not this incredible achievement stems from one extraordinary mind, or many minds working together, hardly seems to matter!

Do we know what the Buddha thought and taught?

Common sense would suggest that the answer to this question is, yes. We do know. It’s just like Eisel Mazard says –

“We know the same way we know how Plato thought, and how Aristotle thought, and how all kinds of philosophers from the Han Dynasty in ancient China thought. We know it because somebody wrote it down!”  [6]

Try researching the lives of Confucius or Virgil or any other ancient philosopher and it soon becomes obvious that there’s little hard evidence for much of what we believe we know about them. So why should it be any differnt for the Buddha? Why give him a rougher ride?

What are the ‘Canons’ of Buddhist scriptures?

Rupert Gethin identifies three principal ‘canons’ of Buddhist scriptures surviving today –

“The Pali or Theravada canon of the southern tradition of Sri Lanka and South East Asia, the Chinese Tripitaka of the eastern tradition of China, Korea, and Japan, and the Tibetan Kanjur… or Tenjur… of the northern tradition of Tibet and Mongolia. [7]

Furthermore –

“The original north Indian provenance and relative antiquity of much of the Pali Canon seems guaranteed on linguistic grounds… The Pali Canon is the only one to survive apparently complete in an Indian language. Of the other ancient Indian versions of the canon, we have only isolated fragments and portions in the original Indian languages. More substantial portions are, however, preserved in translation especially in the Chinese Tripitaka. This, along with what Buddhist literature as a whole reveals about its own history, allows us to know something of the content of these other ancient Indian canons.” [8]

If I understand Gethin correctly, the three canons have in common a core of sutta texts (the four Nikayas or Agamas) and vinaya texts (the Buddhist monastic code) that constitute “the essential common heritage of Buddhist thought.” This ancient core material is “close in time” to the First Buddhist council that is widely believed to have been convened in Rajaghra shortly after the Buddha’s death (c. 400 BC) in order to establish Buddhist doctrinal orthodoxy.  The subsequent history of Buddhism may be understood as a “working out” of the implications of this ancient core material. And while these ancient texts do not encapsulate all of Buddhism, they are nonetheless “a convenient starting point” for an understanding of Buddhist philosophy and practice. [9]

What’s so special about the Pali Canon?

As said above, the Pali Canon is the only one to survive apparently complete in an Indian language. We might reasonably assume therefore that the Pali Canon is a recording of Buddhist philosophy and practice in ancient northern India.

Having myself read not one Pali sutta in its original format I can only trust the expertise of scholars like Alexander Wynne, who have studied this textual evidence and do believe it tells us something about Buddhism in India prior to the reign of Asoka. As Wynne himself puts it –

 “… the Pāli canon…  can be taken as a record of Buddhist thought and practice from the time of the Buddha (c. 484-404 BC) until the first century BC at the latest.”  [10]

“… a careful examination of early Buddhist literature can reveal aspects of the pre-Aśokan history of Indian Buddhism. The claim that we cannot know anything about early Indian Buddhism because all the manuscripts are late is vacuous, and made, I assume, by those who have not studied the textual material thoroughly.”  [11]

Notice however that Wynne isn’t saying the Pali Canon is a verbatim record of the Buddha’s actual teachings. He’s only saying that the Pali Canon can reveal aspects of early Indian Buddhism.  I accept this modest claim of his as probably the most that can objectively be said about the Pali Canon.  To say anything more would appear to be straying into the realms of hope and faith.

So, the significance of the Pali Canon isn’t that it records exactly what the Buddha said (even scholars like Richard Gombrich [12] or Bhikkhus Brahmali and Sujato, [13] who are favourably inclined towards the Theravada tradition, only go so far as to say the ancient core material appears to originate from a common source and probably does contain some authentic sayings of the Buddha). The Pali Cannon is significant because it gives us a substantial insight into the beliefs and practices that the Early Buddhists in India most likely had in common. So, for example, within the Pali Canon that has become synonymous with Theravada Buddhism we can find a Bodhisattva tradition that is commonly regarded as a Mahayana invention. [14]

How reliable is the Pali Canon?

An objection I see frequently made against the idea of authentic Buddhist doctrine relies on the fact that the most ancient material of the Pali Canon was transmitted orally for centuries until written down for the first time around 100 BCE. The assumption appears to be that oral transmission is inherently unreliable and successive generations of Buddhist monks would quite naturally have bent and shaped the received orthodoxy either by accident or on purpose – as illustrated by the following comment made by Buddhist critic Vexen Crabtree:

“Everything we know about the religion comes from fallible human sources, and, the earliest collections of writings on the religion have profoundly contradicted each other… The founders of major sects are given much credibility and all of this lasts on one big claim: that the teacher passes on the religion as he himself received it. But this model never works. In all instances, Buddhist doctrine and practice vary greatly.” [15]

Crabtree is just one among many critics who believe in “the poor accuracy of oral transmission” and therefore insist that the canonical texts can tell us nothing about the Buddha or early Buddhism.  However, I believe there are good reasons for assuming that the oral transmission of Buddhist doctrine was reliable enough and that the “problem” has been exaggerated.

Even in our age of modern technology (and low attention spans!) ordinary people are able to demonstrate extraordinary feats of memory by learning mental tricks. As memory champion Joshua Foer says, “Once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today.” [16]  How much more important would it be to memorise chapter and verse in a time and place where writing was a rare skill and political and religious authority depended very much on being able to recall the “facts” without hesitation? According to Bhikkhus Bramhali and Sujato, the reason why so many Buddhist suttas are repetitive and formulaic is to assist devotees in accurate oral transmission.  [17]

Can we differentiate between authentic Buddhism and revisionist Buddhism?

The Theravada tradition relies primarily upon the Pali Canon as its source of doctrinal authority, whereas the Mahayana tradition also embraces sutras that were apparently crafted much later (c. 100 BCE). There also appears to be some serious doctrinal differences between the two traditions. For example, the Mahayana teachings on “non-duality” appear to have strayed closer to the Vedic notion of “oneness”, whereas the Theravada tradition maintains a more dual-like emphasis on the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena in accordance with the Pali Canon. [18] These and other apparent differences persuaded me initially that the Theravada tradition must be more authentic and the Mahayana tradition must be more revisionist.

However, my opinions on the issue of Buddhist authenticity versus Buddhist revisionism softened considerably after I read Linda Heuman’s review of archaeological and manuscript data that was unearthed a couple of decades ago in North-West India. [19]

According to Heuman, this “Ghandhari canon” dates from the first century BCE to the third century CE and contains “the oldest extant Buddhist manuscripts.” The scrolls and fragments constitute “an entirely new strand of Buddhist literature” that “reach[es] back into an era when the oral tradition of Buddhism probably first began to be written down.” More to the point, the Ghandhari texts appear to undermine a long-standing and widely held assumption about Buddhist textual transmission that has privileged the Pali Canon as most authentic and closest to the original words of the Buddha.

With reference to the diagram below, Heuman explains how scholars have traditionally likened Buddhism to a tree; the various texts of the different Buddhist traditions are like branches converging into a trunk of common teachings with a single ancestral root. (Fig 1 below)

The Ghandhari texts were viewed initially as a potential antecedent to the other three Buddhist canons – a missing link in the tree-like model of Buddhist canonical evolution. However, when scholars compared the Ghandhari texts with Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese versions, they realised that this new collection of ancient Buddhist material was not a canonical forerunner but a parallel development alongside the other three canons.  The Ghandhari scholars now believe that these texts are evidence that another Buddhist tradition, with an entirely different language to the language of the Pali tradition, existed in a separate region of India around the first century BCE. Additional evidence, in the form of monuments and inscriptions, point to other potentially literate Buddhist cultures having existed elsewhere in India.

Agreeing with the Ghandhari scholars, Heuman believes that diversity was most likely a characteristic of Indian Buddhism right from the start. Monks living in the different geographical regions of ancient India belonged to different language traditions and they traded ideas and influenced each other in complex ways.  A more elaborate model of Buddhist textual transmission is therefore required – one that resembles a braided river instead of a simple tree. (Fig 2 above) It seems we have to give up the assumption of a single original and authentic Buddhist canon and assume instead a plurality of early Indian canons all proclaiming the word of the Buddha.


If we take the surviving physical remains of the four Buddhist canons at face value we must acknowledge that the Ghandhari scrolls and fragments were written early in Buddhist history (c. 100 BCE) and the oldest known Pali manuscripts were written much later (c. 1400 – 1800 BCE). [20] Moreover, if we accept the findings of the Ghandhari scholars we must admit the possibility that other ancient Indian Buddhist canons are either waiting to be discovered or have been irretrievably lost in the era of oral transmission. The Ghandhari scrolls and fragments suggest a more complicated process of Buddhist textual transmission that resembles a braided river rather than a tree. All four Buddhist canons now appear to be authentic and none of them can be regarded as a superior or inferior version.

On the other hand, we should also keep in mind Oskar von Hinüber ‘s observation that “the age of the manuscripts has little to do with the age of the texts they contain.” [21] If we adopt a reasonable attitude to the problem of oral transmission we can believe the linguists who tell us that the extensive collection of sutta and vinaya texts in the Pali Canon are stylistically consistent enough to have originated from a single source much closer to the era of Siddhartha Gautama – the historical Buddha.  This orally transmitted material is found to a greater or lesser degree in all of the surviving canons we know today. It seems likely therefore that ancient Indian Buddhists belonging to other language traditions would have recited their own language versions of the same suttas and vinaya.  If we take “authenticity” to mean closer in time to the Buddha and common to all Buddhist traditions then I believe we can view this ancient core of Buddhist doctrine as most authentic.  In saying that I’m not of course suggesting we should regard all other doctrinal developments in the long history of Buddhism as less important or extraneous.

So, does any of this intellectual stuff really matter? Yes, of course it matters! It should matter to anyone who wishes to understand early Buddhist philosophy and practice. It should matter to anyone who is currently investing time and energy in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, or thinking about doing so. It certainly matters when the Buddha’s name is used around the internet to endorse fake quotes and prejudicial views that have little or no relevance to the Middle Way such as can be discerned through legitimate study and practice!

As Abraham Velez wisely says –

“The truth of Buddhism does not depend on the historicity of certain events in the life of the Buddha. Rather, the truth of Buddhism depends on the efficacy of the Buddhist path exemplified by the life of the Buddha and his disciples. In other words, if the different Buddhist paths inspired by the Buddha are useful to overcome existential dissatisfaction and suffering, then Buddhism is true regardless of the existence of the historical Buddha.” [22]

I believe that a thorough understanding of the issues around these kinds of frequently asked questions  in the quest for Buddhist nirvana prevents unnecessary frustration and heartache.



[1] ‘Archaeologists’ discovery puts Buddha’s birth 300 years earlier’ by Elizabeth Day. The Guardian, Sunday 1 December 2013.

[2] ‘Buddha (c. 500s B.C.E.)’ by Abraham Velez. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] ‘Siddhartha Gautama’ by Christian Violatti. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 9 December 2013.

[4] ‘The Pali Language and Literature’. Pali Text Society

[5] Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation by  Hans H. Penner. Oxford University Press, 2009. (p.125.)

[5] ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’ by David Drewes. (Presented at the XVIIth IABS Congress, Vienna, 2014)

[6] ‘Buddhist Philosophy, Known or Unknown?’ by Eisel Mazard. YouTube, Aug 2014.

[7] The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin. Oxford University Press, 1998. (p. 40.)

[8] Ibid (p. 42.)

[9] Ibid (p. 43.)

[10] ‘The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation’, by Dr. Alex Wynne. Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies Volume 49, 2005. (p. 47.)

[11] Ibid (p. 66)

[12] ‘What The Buddha Thought’ by Richard Gombrich. Equinox, 2009, (p. 5.)

[13] ‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’ by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali, Supplement to the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Volume 5, November 2013. (p. 4.)

[14] ‘The Bodhisattva Ideal of Theravada’ by Shanta Ratnayaka in The Journal Of The International Association Of Buddhist Studies: Vol 8 No 2, 1985.  (pp. 88-89.)

[15] ‘Criticisms of Buddhism: Its History, Doctrine and Common Practices’ by Vexen Crabtree, 2011. The Human Truth Foundation.

[16] ‘Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do’ by Joshua Foer, TED, May 2012.

[17] ‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’’ by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali (p. 51)

[18] ‘Dhamma and Non-duality’ by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 April 2011.

[19] ‘Who’s Buddhism is Truest?’ by Linda HeumanTricycle Summer, 2011.

[20 ] ‘The Pali Language and Literature’. Pali Text Society

[21] A Handbook of Pāli Literature by Oskar von Hinüber, Indian philology and South Asian studies: v.2, 1996. (p. 4)

[22] ‘Buddha (c. 500s B.C.E.)’ by Abraham Velez.




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