17 November 2023

Why Did Buddhists Abandon Buddhavana?

I doubt there is a Buddhist alive today who does not revere the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana), at least in some form. The extent to which Buddhist doctrines are considered authentic is the extent to which they are considered to have been enunciated by the Buddha, whether we think this means an historical person or some form of deity.

While academic historians argue against the historicity the Buddha (e.g. Drewes 2017), Buddhist theologians produce apologetics for the authenticity of the Pali suttas as buddhavacana (e.g. Sujato and Bramali 2014). Indeed, the idea that the Pāli suttas are the word of the Buddha is still current in many Buddhist sects. There is a kind of consensus that if early Buddhist texts don't contain all the words of the Buddha, they at least preserve some of them. This is accompanied by varied speculations about which words those are. Accompanying this are various arguments about what the Buddha's "original teachings" were, including some that seek to exclude well-known Buddhist doctrines about karma, rebirth, and ātman.

Despite the different opinions about how it is constituted, everyone seems agreed that the highest value can be assigned to buddhavacana and that the fact of being spoken by the Buddha is still the most important measure of authenticity. I don't think there is anything controversial about this statement, but it does raise some interesting questions.

That said, readers may be puzzled by my title today. Did Buddhists really abandon buddhvacana?

Evolution of Doctrine

Despite the forgoing argument, it is a notable fact of Buddhism that Buddhist doctrines evolved both gradually and, at times, suddenly. By the beginning of the Common Era we see multiple competing versions of the major genres of Buddhist text: Sutra, Vinaya, Abhidharma, and śāstra. While there is some inter-sect commonality in the Sutra genre, the seven extant Vinaya texts show considerable differences, while the extant Abhidharma texts have very little in common except for the general idea of cataloguing dharmas.

At the level of sect we see the emergence of competing heterodox interpretations of doctrine such as sarvāstivāda and pudgalavāda. Both of these are now routinely represented as being Buddhist heresies but, in their own time, were entirely mainstream and respectable. And this is only with respect to texts produced by India. Outside of India far more radical changes occurred as Buddhism was syncretised with local worldviews and beliefs.

As far as I can see, all Buddhist sects gradually moved away from buddhavacana and adopted novel doctrines over time. Even the venerable Theravāda tradition—whose own mythology includes the claim to have preserved the entire oeuvre of the Buddha in the very language that he spoke—moved substantially away from those texts. Modern Theravāda is actually based on the writings of Buddhaghosa, a fifth century commentator, and on medieval sub-commentaries on Abhidhamma, such as the Abhidhammattha Saṅgaha. The practice of meditation died out in Theravāda sects and had to be reinvented in the eighteenth century. Indeed, some Theravādins have argued that liberation from rebirth is impossible in the absence of a living Buddha.

We also see radical departures from early doctrines, such as the Madhyamaka metaphysics of Nāgārjuna. Basic Buddhist ideas such as the distinction between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa (roughly the distinction between continuing to be reborn and not being reborn) are replaced by slogans like "saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are the same thing". To be very clear, this makes no sense in general Buddhist terms. The whole idea of Buddhist soteriology turns on the difference between being reborn and not being reborn. If we repudiate this, then we repudiate Buddhism. And those who study Nāgārjuna's gnomic utterances seem to revel in this repudiation and take this to be a higher form of truth which they grandiloquently name paramārtha-satya "the truth of ultimate meaning".

Note that although Prajñāpāramitā is routinely presented as a radical break in the Buddhist tradition along with Madhyamaka, recently several scholars (esp Huifeng and I) have begun to see considerably more continuity than the historically dominant explanations allow. The idea of withdrawing attention from sensory experience so that it ceases, leaving the practitioner in a state of contentless alertness, is central to Aṣṭa. And we can find ample parallels to this in Pāli. Many of us have now commented on the parallels with the Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121), for example. It now seems wrong to me to think of Prajñāpāramitā as culminating in Madhyamaka. Note that, as far as anyone can tell, Nāgārjuna does not cite any Prajñāpāramitā texts. Nor do they appear to have the same message.

Thus, while Buddhists certainly do valorise buddhavacana, at least some of them strenuously repudiate it and claim we should replace it with Nāgārjuna-vacana; at the same time trying to convince us, despite the obvious contradiction, that buddhavacana and Nāgārjuna-vacana are one and the same thing despite apparently making contradictory claims. Either saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are the same or they are not, and Buddhist soteriology (that is to say the possibility of escaping from saṃsāra by not being reborn) is dependent on them not being the same.

Whither Buddhavacana?

It is a brute fact of Buddhist history that, for all the high-toned talk about buddhavacana, no Buddhist sect in history was ever satisfied with it. Whether they drifted away or were propelled at speed, all Buddhist sects gradually replaced buddhavacana with their own doctrines.

We partly know this because the sects all moved in different directions and some of the vehement polemics that they composed denouncing each other have survived. The Pāḷi Kathavatthu, for example, records Theravāda complaints against other Buddhists and was probably composed at a time when they themselves were decisively moving away from buddhavacana and developing their unique and distinctive Abhidhamma tradition.

After many years of consuming Buddhist studies literature, including hundreds of articles and dozens of books, I cannot recall a single account of Buddhist history that did more than note the evolution of the doctrine in various directions. The well-documented, centuries-long, intra-Buddhist conflicts over doctrine are played down, if they are discussed at all. And no explanation for the changes ever seem to be offered. Scholars seem to say "things changed" and then have nothing to say about why things changed.

I would be very surprised indeed if changes in Buddhist doctrine could not be related to causes. This is what historians do, after all. Just listing a series of changes is not very interesting if we cannot say anything about what led to the change and how the change was reflected in other aspects of the attendant culture.

Why are modern Theravādin bhikkhus like Sujato and Brahmali so anxious about the issue of authenticity that they go to the trouble of publishing a lengthy quasi-scholarly defence of the authenticity of the Pāli suttas? Is there some real possibility of inauthentic Buddhist teachings? Well, yes there is from a Theravāda point of view; almost every other sect of Buddhism could be seen as inauthentic if they believe (as the bhikkhus seem to) that the Pāli represents buddhavacana and other Buddhist texts do not.

The issue is addressed head on in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Aṣṭa). The first thing that happens is that the Buddha asks Elder Subhūti to deliver a sermon on Perfect Insight to the bodhisatvas (which here seems to mean the monks assembled in the audience since no other people are present). Elder Śāriputra wonders whether Subhūṭi will speak from his own insight, or whether he will rely on the anubhāva of the Buddha. Elder Subhūti replies that everything a disciple of the Buddha says is a product of the Buddha's anubhābva

The word anubhāva is difficult to translate since the etymology is unhelpful (it means something like "after-being". However, the word is clearly used in a sense that suggests that the Buddha has a kind of puissance or power by which words spoken by his disciples are, in effect, buddhavacana. Every word that Elder Subhūti speaks, in this view, is something the Buddha might have said.

So the open question is this: If early Buddhists genuinely believed themselves to be in possession of authentic buddhavacana, and they thought this included (by implication) a complete and nuanced description of the Buddhist path, why do we now have a massive plurality of versions of the the Buddha path?

Or, more simply, why did Buddhists come to feel unsatisfied with buddhavacana and replace it with the ideas of lesser figures who came later. How did some Buddhists come to substantially repudiate buddhavacana. Why did Buddhists abandon buddhavacana?

I don't know the answer and I'm not aware of any salient discussions.

A Suggestion

Some time ago, I tried to publish an article which gave a unified explanation for why doctrines that sought to explain karma proliferated. This was knocked back by a stout Theravādin defence from the editor and reviewers and I felt so disheartened that I let it drop. I don't think I was wrong, I think that causal explanations are not seen as valid in Buddhist Studies, so it seemed pointless to continue trying to offer one.

I think Buddhists noticed certain problems in early Buddhist doctrine and responded. In particular I noted that there was a problem I called "action at a temporal distance". Let's say that I make a great donation to a Buddhist monastery and earn a vast amount of merit (puṇya, aka "good karma") in the process. Some Buddhist texts say "I am the heir of my actions", i.e. the person who experiences the consequences is the same as the one who acts. And this can stretch across lifetimes. This is the main theme of the Jātaka and Avadāna literature and one of the main ways that Buddhists talk about morality.

At the same time, however, most readings of the doctrine of dependent arising say that I am not the same person from moment to moment, let alone from lifetime to lifetime. So the one who experiences the consequences is not the same as the one who acts, but only arises in dependence on their actions.

If the action of giving is a discrete event which lasts for a few seconds (maybe) and then ceases, how can that be the condition for some effect in the future given dependent arising? The standard formula is

This being, that becomes. When this arises, that arises.
This not being, that does not become. When that ceases, this ceases.

I argued that this means that the condition has to be present for the effect to arise, and if it is absent the effect ceases or never arises in the first place. The Theravādins in academia disagreed with this extremely enough to reject my article outright, but it is undoubtedly how proponents of sarvāstivāda understood it.

Thus Buddhist morality tales and Buddhist metaphysical texts tell a very different story about continuity over time. Standard modern interpretations of karma don't acknowledge this dichotomy and thus do not explain it. When I looked at historical accounts of karma I did not find a good explanation, but I did perceive a pattern.

In my rejected article I tried to show how various historical Buddhist sects responded to this problem. For example, the Sarvāstivādins took a fundamentalist view of dependent arising.

In this view, if something is able to act as a cause, it must be present. That is to say, if my past actions are causing me to experience something (or anything) now, then they must still be present in some form (the nature of this presence is not discussed). Interpreted metaphysically, which is not obligatory, this means that a past condition must still exist (asti) if it is functioning as a condition. And if something I do now is to have future consequences, then it must continue to be present. Again, this is just a literal reading of the dependent arising formula, albeit it in an optional metaphysical framework. Hence the doctrine (vāda) of always existent (sarva-asti) phenomena (dharma).

Nowadays, I would separate out "presence" and "existence" because I think the discussion was probably intended to refer to the presence or absence of sensory experience, which is only loosely connected to the existence of objects.

In the article, I made similar arguments for pudgalavāda, kṣanavāda (doctrine of moments), and śūnyavāda (doctrine of absence). And I argued that they were all solutions to the same problem: how karma can operate at a temporal distance (how can consequences manifest if the condition has ceased).

It is precisely this kind of explanation that is absent from Buddhism and from academic Buddhist Studies. And the response I got from academia suggested that my attempt to give such a causal explanation of doctrinal evolution was unwelcome. I dropped the article and didn't even bother to put it on academia.edu along with my other failures, though several blog posts leading up to the article are still here.

Assuming that there is any merit in this suggestion (and I remained convinced that there is), we can say, in some cases and to some extent, why early Buddhists abandoned buddhavacana (as they all did). In this case it was because there was a conflict between Buddhist morality and Buddhist metaphysics.

If I am right about this conflict (which no one else seems to have noticed), then the idea of a big bang origin to Buddhism from the insights and utterances of one man is undermined. There is an expectation of great religious figures that they present a coherent set of ideas, attitudes, and practices. Whether this is expectation is reasonable is debatable, but here we see problematic incoherency in what passes for  buddhavacana.

It is simply a mistake to think of ideas like karma and rebirth as emerging from the mouth of the Buddha fully formed without any interactions with other religions. We know that Buddhists absorbed and adapted ideas from Jainism and Brahmanism, for example. It seems to me more likely that Buddhists operated in a milieu in which karma and rebirth were givens, and proposed new explanations of these phenomena that were not initially coherent. After a centuries long process of winnowing (assisted presumably by the decline and disappearance of heterodox sects), Buddhists settled on the best explanation available and retrospectively called that buddhavacana.

As a result I would say that we have to acknowledge that buddhavacana os a contested term, in the sense that Buddhists fought over what counted as buddhavacana. There is no general agreement, whether historically or presently, on what constitutes buddhavacana. The concept is also contested in the sense that Buddhists found the buddhavacana they inherited unconvincing or otherwise unsatisfactory and replaced it with other words that they labelled buddhavacana, a practice that is arguably still current. 

And if there is this level of ambiguity and conflict about buddhavacana, where does that leave arguments about the historicity of the Buddha which is so closely tied to it? I submit that, for historians at least, David Drewes' contention that we should stop talking about "the historical Buddha" because the idea is incoherent, is on the right track. And I add that the concept of buddhavacana is also incoherent in practice.


P.S. It occurred to me after I wrote this yesterday to spell out that any example of so-called buddhavacana could well have attained that label post hoc (after the fact): the text was composed, by whoever, and then attributed to the Buddha. 

This also led me to consider the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, i.e. since Y follows X in sequence, X is the cause of Y (also stated amongst scientists as "correlation is not causation"). It made me think about the proposition: a text is called buddhavacana by Buddhists, therefore it must be "words spoken by the Buddha" (the caveat being... except when we have reason to think it isn't). In other words, we know it's not true that every text labelled buddhavacana by Buddhists could possibly be buddhavacana. We know, for example, that Buddhists continued to apply the label long after the time we guess that the Buddha might have lived. And to find justifications for doing so, including inventing new Buddhas, making the Buddha an eternal deity, and so on. We have no idea when the label was first used. 

P.P.S. Thanks for reading. I'm not blogging much these days because I'm mainly focussed on publishing peer-reviewed articles on the Heart Sutra at present. I do post more often on my Facebook Heart Sutra group. Any day now, I'm expecting galley proofs for two companion articles, one of which presents revised editions and translations; the other compares the Sanskrit and Chinese texts in unprecedented detail and tries to explain why they are different. Next up is a major article on the dates of the Heart Sutra (hopefully in 2024) and then I think I'm done. I'd like to put it all in a book, but not sure about who the audience would be anymore since I no longer have any sense of who would be interested in an accurate history, reliable editions, and a coherent interpretation of this weird little text that has come to dominate my life. 


Drewes, David. (2017). "The Idea of the Historical Buddha". JIABS 40: 1-25.DOI: 10.2143/JIABS.40.0.3269003

Sujato and Brahmali (2014). The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Self-published via Lulu.com

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