31 May 2024

Oldest Heart Sutra Inscriptions

I'm just finishing up a translation of an article from modern Chinese using ChatGPT: "Early Versions of the Heart Sutra" by Hè Míng and Xù Xiǎoyù was published in a collection of essays about the Fangshan collection of inscriptions. In this post I want to briefly go over the evidence presented by He & Xu and make a few remarks. The original citation is:

贺铭 续小玉 (2017) “早期《心经》的版本”. 石经研究. 第一辑. 房山石经博物馆, 房山石经与云居寺文化研究中心, 12-28. 北京 : 北京燕山出版社.
Hè Míng and Xù Xiǎoyù. (2017). "Early Versions of the Heart Sutra." In Stone Scripture Research Vol 1, edited by the Fangshan Stone Scriptures Museum, and the Fangshan Stone Scriptures and Yunju Temple Cultural Research Center, 12-28. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Publishing House.

The authors went to quite a lot of trouble to identify early versions of the Heart Sutra in China. For each text identified they supply an image. I'll include some images, but mainly just want summarise the text. Most of the images are of "rubbings": the process is in fact similar to lithographic printing. One smears ink on the stone surface and pressed paper against it, to obtain a negative image (hence the white text on a black background in most of the images).

Inscriptions from Fangshan

The authors noted 26 instances of the Heart Sutra amongst the Fangshan Stone Sutras 房山石经, of which only four could be securely dated. Hè & Xù only give specific details for the first two.

Yáng Shèshēng 楊社生 stele, 661 CE.
  1. sixth year of Xianqing (661 CE) (Cave Eight, number 770).
  2. second year of Zongzhang (669 CE) (Cave Three, number 238).
  3. second year of Tiānshòu 天授 (691 CE)
  4. first year of Yánzài延载 (694 CE)

The first two are found in:

中国佛敎协会, 中国佛敎图书文物馆编. (2000). «房山石经,隋唐刻经2» 华夏出版社.
Chinese Buddhist Association and Chinese Buddhist Library and Museum. (2000). Fangshan Stone Sutras, Sui and Tang Engraved Scriptures. Vol. 2, Huaxia Publishing House.

[There are no copies of this publication in the UK.]

The first inscription was commissioned by Yáng Shèshēng 楊社生 (date unknown) on 13 March 661 CE. My understanding was that this stele was one of 10,000 votive texts buried in a courtyard in Yunjusi ca. 1100 CE. However, He & Xu's information puts the stele in one of the storage caves. A minor point, but significant since it was stored rather than disposed of by burial. Though this doesn't explain how badly damaged the stone is or where the missing piece is (and I always thought that burial did explain these things). Unfortunately we now have conflicting sources and I have no way to resolve this.

The Yáng Shèshēng 楊社生 stele is the oldest known text of the Heart Sutra, and more or less conforms to the standard canonical text (T 251) with some minor character substitutions (which have the same phonetic value). As far as I know, my investigation of this artefact (Attwood 2019) is still the only English-language study of it.

The Beilin Stele

Beilin Stele

Originally from the ancient capital, Chang'an, this famous stele is now on display in the Stele Museum 碑林 in Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi 陕西. The artifact is known as

Táng jí wángxīzhī shèng jiào xù bēi. «唐集王羲之圣教序碑»
“The Preface to the Holy Teaching by Wang Xizhi in the Tang Collection”

In his comprehensive study of this object, Pietro De Laurentis (2021: 1, n. 1) notes that although all scholars cite the date as 672 CE and the compilation of characters began some years earlier: “the actual date of the stele’s erection falls on the first day of 673”.

On the other hand the project was many years in the making. This object is remarkable because each character was first individually copied from extant works of the celebrated calligrapher Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (307-365 CE). The style of script varies considerably from character to character, giving this text a very unusual look and feel. The stele is 226 x 94 cm. There are 30 columns of text, each of which contains up to 84 characters. Each character is about 3.5 cm in width and 4 cm in height. The Heart Sutra occurs in three columns on the left of this artefact (followed by the names of donors at the far left).

The Beiline stele image is from the Harvard University Library collection of Chinese rubbings (numbering over 5000 items, with 9 Heart Sutra texts).

Gaoyang County

This artefact is only mentioned in passing, the whole entry can be translated as:

"The National Library 国家图书馆 holds rubbings from the stele Fú shuō Mílè púsà dōu lǜ tiānxià shēngchéng fójīng bēi «佛说弥勒菩萨兜率天下生成佛经碑» “The Sutra of the Buddha Pronouncing the Advent of Maitreya Bodhisattva and His Attainment of Buddhahood”, from the third year of Tang Yifeng (678 CE) in Gaoyang County 高阳县, Hebei Province 河北 . On these rubbings, the translation of the Heart Sutra by Master Xuanzang can also be observed."

The stele is ca 206 x 95 x 24 cm, with writing covering front, back, and the sides. The Heart Sutra is on one side. He & Xu don't supply an image of this inscription, but images are online in any number of places. This image from an auction house is the only one I could find which included the side panels. I can just make out part of the Heart Sutra on the left side panel.

Inscriptions from Longmen

The authors identified three datable Heart Sutra texts in the Longmen Grottoes 龙门石窟, in Henan 河南 Provence. This is the site of the other ancient capital of Tang China, Luòyáng 洛阳.

Two copies of the Heart Sutra were found in the Liánhuā dòng 莲花洞 “Lianhua Cave”, both dated by He & Xu to ca 700 CE. One was inscribed by Huángfǔ Yuánhēng 皇甫元亨. This is all the detail that the author's give. However, from a forthcoming article by Claudia Wenzel we learn:

The Heart Sutra inscription below niche 37 is followed by a date corresponding to July 11, 700 (久視元年八月廿一日).

It seems that the other inscription (below niche 43) is in fact undated, and that He & Xu simply assumed it was from the same period. I don't have enough information to know if this was valid, but Wenzel had access to He & Xu (2017).

A third copy found in the Leigutai Zhong Cave 擂鼓台中洞, dates from the reign of Wǔ Zétiān 武則天 (690-704 CE) [aka Wǔ Zhào 武曌; 624–705 CE].

Rubbing of a Heart Sutra from Liánhuā dòng 莲花洞

The source that He & Xu cite for these inscriptions is

王振国 (2006) «龙门石窟与洛阳佛教文化» 中州古籍出版社

Wáng, Zhènguó (2006) The Longmen Grottoes and Buddhist Culture in Luoyang. Zhongzhou Ancient Books Publishing House.

Earliest Dated Manuscript

Pelliot Chinois 2884

In addition to noting the oldest inscriptions, the authors also attempted to identify the oldest Heart Sutra manuscript in China. This is a manuscript, dated 771 CE, from the Dunhuang cache. It was acquired by Paul Pelliot and is now held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: catalogued as Pelliot Chinois No. 2884. The paper is ripped and pieces are missing.

The last line of the colophon reads:


This may be translated as:

"On the 8th day of the 4th month of the 2nd year of Jingyun, Kǒng Dàoshēng's 孔道生 wife, née Zhāng 張, respectfully had this copy made for her son Sīzhōng 思忠 ." [Based on the BnF translation].

The date in question, 景雲二年四月八日 "Jǐngyún 2.4.8", corresponds to 30 April 711 CE (De Laurentis 2021: 111).

Note: I used a colour image from the BnF site rather than the monochrome image from the article.

Spurious Claims to Antiquity

The authors note some minor variations in the various inscriptions. More significantly they also track down some rumours of older texts that are, to my knowledge completely unknown in the English language Heart Sutra literature.

The first is a claim that a copy of the Heart Sutra was made by Ouyang Xun 欧阳询 in 625 CE (a date that would confound my own theories). The image of this calligraphy has been published numerous times (and can be found in many places online),

The authors dismiss the date as spurious:

However, this is impossible because it was not until the twenty-third year of the Zhenguan 贞观 era (649) on May 24th that Master Xuanzang translated this sutra in Cuìwēi gong 翠微宫 ”Cuiwei Palace” on Zhōng nánshān 终南山 “Mount Zhongnan”.

While this fact is widely cited, it is certainly not accurate. 

The 649 CE date only occurs in the hagiography of Xuanzang composed by Yàncóng 彥悰, brought out in 688 CE (24 years after Xuanzang's death). The fact is not corroborated by any contemporary document or official records (Kotyk 2019; Attwood 2020). Furthermore, it occurs in the context of a standard Chinese miracle tale. The same story asserts that Emperor Taizong made a deathbed conversion to Buddhism, which mainstream historians have universally expressed doubts over (he was famously anti-Buddhist). All of which cast doubt on the 649 CE date.

My work on the history of the Heart Sutra suggests that the text was not composed until after 654 CE, when the text containing the Heart Sutra dhāraṇī—Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀羅尼集經» (T 901)—was translated by Atikūṭa. Thus I come to the same conclusion as He & Xu, for slightly different reasons.

The upshot is that the date on the Ouyang calligraphy is (still) not creditable. The authors note several other claims that copies or inscriptions were made much earlier than 654 CE and dismiss these for the same reason. My rationale for rejecting these claims is the same.

Another spurious claim is that a Heart Sutra text was inscribed in stone by Zhāng Ài 张爱 "at Shàolín sì 少林寺 'Shaolin Temple' in August of the twenty-third year of the Zhenguan era (649)." While this "fact" is also widely cited, the authors could find no evidence that it ever existed: there is no extant inscription and no rubbing of it. They concluded that Zhēnguān 贞观 may have been a mistake for Kāiyuán 开元 (some centuries later).

I note that the Shaolin Temple is now a Chinese government-run tourist attraction focused on martial arts and the link between martial arts and Buddhism has always seemed tenuous for the simple reason that Buddhists universally espouse non-violence.

And finally the authors investigated the claim that on “August 27, 657", Zhuāng Níng inscribed a blessing for Husband Zīfú” (显庆二年八月一日庄宁为夫资福书) and included the Xīn jīng «心经»). And they concluded that the texts were actually fabricated by Gù Nányǎ 顾南雅 (1765-1832).

Thus none of the stories of early copies Heart Sutras in China stand up to scrutiny. Which is something of a relief for me. My thesis on the date of composition survives a major test.


My thanks to Ji Yun 纪赟, who first alerted me to this article in 2018. And thanks to Michael Radich for allowing me a preview of Claudia Wenzel's forthcoming article.


On Chinese epigraphy generally see the Stone Sutras project which will eventually reproduce the fine, large-format printed volumes from Harrassowitz Verlag and the China Academy of Arts Press.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). "Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele." Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32, 1–30. https://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/article/xuanzangs-relationship-to-the-heart-sutra-in-light-of-the-fangshan-stele/

———.2020. "The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest." Pacific World, Series 4, no.1, 155-182. https://pwj.shin-ibs.edu/2020/6934

De Laurentis, Pietro. (2021). Protecting the dharma through calligraphy in Tang China : a study of the Ji wang shengjiao xu 集王聖教序 , the preface to the Buddhist scriptures engraved on stone in Wang Xizhi's collated characters. Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica.

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). "Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci'en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳." T'oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Wenzel, Claudia. (forthcoming). Buddhist Stone Sutras: Shaanxi 3. Wiesbade: Harrassowitz Verlag – Hangzhou: China Academy of Arts Press.

19 April 2024

Early Buddhism as an Orientalist Construct.

European scholars did not at first realise that the many religious sects of East and Southeast Asia were closely related. So different were the extant forms of Buddhism from each other that they seemed like totally different religions. However, it soon became apparent that they all claimed to have been founded by a figure called "Buddha" (A story now told several times: Almond 1988, Bluck 2006, Franklin 2008).

It was apparent that all the different forms of Buddhism must have some common history. In the early decades of the 1800s, scholars assumed that the history of Buddhism would follow the same course that all (true) religions were believed to follow. They believed that the history of European Christianity was an ideal to which the history of other religions would conform. European imperialists saw their own nations, as well as their own self-views and values, as reflecting universal ideals. And they set about fitting Buddhism into this mould. There was, at that time, no critique of his monolithic, Eurocentric view. European imperialism was at its peak. From initial speculations about primitive Buddhism, eventually emerged the idea that we now call "early Buddhism" (I drop the quotation marks from this point, but in my mind they are always applicable to this phrase). The idea of early Buddhism is that we can and have rediscovered the origins of Buddhism within the Pāli suttas. 

Since taking those early faltering steps, recovering primitive Buddhism or early Buddhism has become a Holy Grail for Buddhist Studies. Buddhist modernists even seem to believe in the possibility of re-enacting early Buddhism.

And yet we can say with some confidence that, before the 19th century, no Buddhist in the world was concerned with early Buddhism. Until their encounters with European imperialists, Buddhists around the world simply did their thing -- in the many and various ways that Buddhists do. As far as Buddhists were concerned, they were already following the ancient ways of their ancestors, which could be traced back to the Buddha. Even now, most Buddhists take this view of their own traditions. The mythology of the Buddha's life was always part of this tradition, but the story was steeped in magic and superstition. The Buddha was known, for example, to have been born from his mother's side (rather than her vagina), and immediately after this he took seven steps and spoke some lines. And this is the story that Buddhists told until very recently. 

This is not to say that Buddhists did not adopt reform movements from time to time. But these reform movements were seldom if ever based on literal readings of texts. Reform mostly emerged from personal experiences of awakening and this usually led to entirely novel formulations of Buddhist doctrines.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Pāli suttas reflect real life to some extent, the simple fact is that over time, gradually perhaps but inexorably, all Buddhists abandoned those teachings we find in Pāli suttas. Significantly, these are the very same teachings that supposedly constitute early Buddhism. Buddhists themselves, all Buddhists everywhere, abandoned the lifestyles, attitudes, and practices that we find described in the suttas. All Buddhists everywhere chose to believe other, newer, ideas; chose to perform new types of rituals; to practice a new (communal) form of monasticism. Buddhists stopped memorising and copying those texts and they memorised and copied other, newer, texts. They stopped doing this kind of practice and they started doing that kind. And so on, right across the board. Later Buddhists abandoned early Buddhism. Presumably for what seemed like good reasons at the time.

What this means is that the various versions of early Buddhism identified by scholars, and more recently by religieux, have almost no relationship with any modern form of Buddhism. For example, Sujato (who now describes himself as "not Theravādin" but somehow still a "bhikkhu"), has self-published a (relatively conservative) list of differences between early Buddhism and Theravāda to emphasise the discontinuity.

Buddhists did not just adopt new teachings across the board, they also repeatedly disagreed about which of the new teachings were better and splintered into competing sects that began to change things in different ways. This process was already well underway by the time Buddhist beliefs began to be documented (and thus became a historical phenomenon for the first time).

Early Buddhism is an answer to a question that no Buddhist in the world before about 1840 would have thought to ask.

Jonathan S. Walters (1998) has contested terms like "Buddhism" or "early Buddhism". The problem is that such terms hypostatise and take agency away from what Buddhists think and do. This causes us to think of "Buddhism" as a transcendental essence. We start to see phrases like "Buddhism says..." or worse "Buddhism teaches...", giving the impression that Buddhism is monolithic and has its own agency. In the final analysis, "Buddhism" is an abstraction. Abstractions don't have agency; agency is a product of sentience. For the purposes of this essay, agency is human. When we focus on, for example, what actual Buddhists teach (as opposed to what Buddhism teaches), we see that they teach a huge range of ideas, attitudes, and practices that don't form a single, coherent whole. In many cases what one group of Buddhists does and says qua Buddhists may seem totally unrelated to what another group does. Different Buddhist groups are not necessarily comprehensible to each other (though this is more and more downplayed as we head into the 21st century).

That said, Walters notes that Buddhists tend to present a united front when interacting with non-Buddhists, even while they argue vehemently when dealing with other Buddhists who accept a different orthodoxy. Scholars have played along, presenting Buddhist history and doctrine in terms of "What Buddhism says..."

As noted, once some more coherent views on early Buddhism began to emerge from the mining of the Pāli Canon, it became clear that Buddhists in Pāli suttas behaved in ways that were unlike anything being practised by living Buddhists (as already noted, Buddhists moved on from early Buddhism and adopted late Buddhism). When early Buddhism emerged as an idea, no Buddhists anywhere still practised anything like what we now think of as early Buddhism. Notably, this included all of the various Theravādin sects (some of whom don't even recognise each other's ordination lineages).

Joseph Walser (2022) has emphasised this kind of disconnect. An example of a monolithic "Buddhism teaches X" scenario, found in virtually every scholarly account of Buddhism, is the idea that Buddhism teaches the anātman doctrine (for brevity's sake I will set aside the ongoing dissensus on what this doctrine actually means). Walser notes that if you go to traditionally Buddhist countries and ask about their beliefs, almost no one has heard of the anātman doctrine that features so prominently in textbook accounts of Buddhist belief. And, on the contrary, almost everyone in traditional Buddhist countries accepts some kind of ātmavāda.

Such inconvenient facts are usually absent from textbooks and encyclopaedias on Buddhism because they don't fit the idealised account of hypostatised "Buddhism". The hypostatized account of early Buddhism, which is widely promoted in academic studies of Buddhism, is based on reading certain suttas literally while excluding those suttas that resist a literalist reading. What can be read literally, is taken as a factual, and can be used without any further caveats to reconstruct early Buddhism, while what cannot be read literally, is not read.

If Buddhists were not asking these questions, then who was? Jonathan Walters (1998) has argued that it was Protestant European imperialists. That is to say, people who believed that Europe (not to say England) represented humanity in the ideal, and who sought to impose European values wherever they went, andwithout any irony at allat the same time, expropriating indigenous peoples' lands and murdering those who resisted. Moreover, they saw Protestant Christianity as the ideal religion. So when they met Buddhism in, say, Sri Lanka, British scholars interpreted the history of Buddhism on the model of European Christianity (and ultimately on the history of Rome). It was this parallel that motivated them to try to identify and valorise the origins of Buddhism as portrayed in Buddhist normative texts and hagiographies.

Lacking modern historical training, the Victorians simply ignored questions about the provenance and dating of the Pāli texts. Rather, they proceeded as though these religious documents were exactly what they purported to be: the very words of the Buddha.

This innocence regarding historical theories and methods of inquiry has remained a feature of Buddhist Studies down to the present, much to the annoyance of those with historical training. I also picked up these bad habits because I taught myself Buddhist Studies by reading publications. It wasn't until I decided to educate myself in some basic approaches to historical inquiry that I realised the problems with the standard accounts of what Buddhism says. Now my thinking is undergoing a paradigm shift.

Outside of the academe, we regularly find that Buddhists have a religious conception of Buddhist history. Ironically, the Buddhism that many modern Buddhists believe in and assert is an idealised account of ancient Buddhism that emerged from the European imperialist project in the 19th century. Many Buddhists believe that early Buddhism was a more authentic form of the Buddhist religion and, importantly, that it can be again. Some even believe that we should try to re-enact early Buddhism. Indeed, my impression is that some Theravādins believe that they are re-enacting early Buddhism.

The Buddha's historicitythat is, the question of whether the Buddha was a historical figureis particularly vexed because common sense and folklore are not aligned with the academic field History. Those with no education in History routinely take statements like "the Buddha is not a historical figure" or "the Buddha is a figure of Buddhist mythology", to mean that "the Buddha didn't exist". To be historical, in this view, is to be real. And to be mythological is to be unreal.

The resulting confusion is projected so that people confused in this way see the confusion as a fault of historians writing in counter-intuitive ways. In trying to discuss these issues in a Buddhist forum, for example, promoting the historian's approach attracted waves of hostile criticism. Users denounced the view that the Buddha was not historical based on an uneducated layperson's understanding of "historical". Some also vehemently denounced what they saw as the whole corrupt enterprise of academia which produced this view.

To try to bridge the gap between historians and Buddhists, I want to go over in brief how historians approach history. What follows is an outline of some basic historical methods based on about a dozen modern accounts of what History is and how historians approach learning. 


The theory and methods of History are hotly contested, especially following the emergence of the postmodernist critique in the 1960s and the publication of Edward Said's (1978) critique of "Orientalism". Some lay people are aware of these criticisms and like to use them as a club to beat academics with. Lay people often forget that the post-modernists and Said were themselves academics. Said was professor of literature at Columbia University. These criticisms came from within academia.

It's not the case, for example, that uneducated lay people are driving some intellectual movement away from the benighted past towards a more enlightened view. With respect to academia, even well-read laypeople are spectators at best. So lay people writing vicious critiques of academia that no academic ever reads make no difference whatever. As I have discovered, even publishing in academic journals is no guarantee that academics will take one seriously.

Said's target was mostly 18th and 19th-century historians. And, by the way, Said had no problem with the term "oriental" (he uses it throughout the book), he just wanted European historians to address their evident biases. This they did and continue to do. One sometimes sees the suggestion that Orientalism is still prevalent in academic writing, but the story of Orientalism in academia did not stop in 1978. Edward Said was taken very seriously by European academics, as were the critiques emerging from mid-20th century France which undermined many aspects of historical methods at the time. Historians wrestled with these new ideas and incorporated what was useful into their approach.

The irony here is that "early Buddhism" is itself an Orientalist construct. It's part of the attempt to describe ancient Indian religions by shoehorning them into idealised European moulds. It relies on assumptions introduced by those early 19th century Indologists, such as the idea that Pāli suttas can be mined for history by ignoring everything that cannot be read literally. If the Buddha meets a king, it can be read literally and taken as historical, despite the absence of any corroborating historical facts related to that king; whereas, if the Buddha meets a god such as the Vedic creator, Brahmā, that cannot be read literally and can be considered mythological. Those involved in early Buddhism re-enactment societies tend to see "mythological" as synonymous with "irrelevant".

This historical/mythical distinction is not a distinction that the authors of the Pāli suttas made or would even recognise. This distinction belongs to the European Enlightenment, not the Buddha's enlightenment. For the authors of the Pāli canon, all these stories are on the same level. Traditionally, all suttas are buddhavācana. Suttas are not traditionally divided into "real" and "imaginary".

There is some use of allegory in Pāli. There are extended similes. Some suttas are obviously not meant to be taken literally. But they are mixed in with all the other texts and they are not marked in any way. When the topical collection of the Saṃyutta Nikāya was composed, sometimes more obviously mythological suttas were clumped together (such as the Devatā Saṃyutta SN 1). Still, at other times they were simply mixed in with the rest. The process of curating the canon of Buddhist writings never seems to have made a distinction between texts we can take literally and those we cannot. Nor, to the best of my knowledge is this distinction found in modern-day traditional Buddhist countries. This is a modernist, European distinction.

Despite ongoing debates about historical theories and methods, there are some ideas and practices that are commonly taught and applied by all historians (though not by all people who have written histories of Buddhism).

Historians study documented events. And thus ancient history effectively begins when writing begins. In India, evidence of the use of writing slightly precedes the appearance of coherent documents (Asoka's edicts). See Strauch (2024) for a recent overview of this issue. But the first documents in writing in India are precisely the Asoka edicts. These do mention the Buddha, but they provide only very scant information and it is mixed in with a lot of propaganda. 

Archaeology allows us to see what people did in antiquity but we get little or no information about why they did that (and not something else). Lay people seem to think of History as simply telling the story of the past. Historians, by contrast, see History as an attempt to explain the past. Historians prefer causal explanations that tell us why people did what they did. Such explanations require that we have access to the thought processes involved. It is not until people start writing things down that we begin to get clues about why events unfolded the way they did.

In the sense that historians seek causal explanations, History is similar to science. However, in scientific discourse, causal explanations generalise, and can often be expressed in mathematical form, such as Newton's laws of motion, or the various gas laws. Scientific laws enable us to make statements like: F = ma. What this means is that if a force of 1 N is applied to a mass of 1 kg, that mass will accelerate at 1 ms-2 in the same direction as the force operates. Such equations can be used to predict the future. 

Causal explanations in history don't generalise in this way, since they concern the motivations of people, and people are vastly more complex that a simple 1 kg mass. We can explain history only retrospectively, and even then such explanations don't easily extrapolate for the deeper past or the future. 

So a historical figure (a figure who possesses historicity) is someone who is described in writing by someone who met them and wrote about it at the time. Such first-hand accounts are referred to as "primary sources". Without primary sources, there is no history.

Popular or general accounts of history may simply narrate the past and rely on secondary sources; that is to say documents written later and/or by people who did not personally witness the events. A good example of this approach is Sally Wriggins' (2004) popular book of Xuanzang's journey to China. Wriggins summarises historical research, sometimes making use of relatively obscure secondary sources, but she does not contribute anything new to our understanding of Xuanzang and does not use any primary sources. This is not the same as historical research which is how we produce new explanations of the past. Wriggins is merely describing a journey, and provides us with no causal explanations for the events she narrates. Wriggins is referred to as "a writer and and lecturer", rather than "a historian". And this is fine. Her book is well-written, very entertaining, and conveys such facts as were considered "known" at the time. But if you want to read critically about Xuanzang, then you need to turn to, for example, the oeuvre of Max Deeg and especially his forthcoming multi-volume commentary on Xuanzang's Records of the West (Dà Táng Xīyùjì 大唐西域記; T 2087). 

Historians take documents as reflecting views at the time of writing, since, even when someone is ostensibly writing about the past, they do so from their own point of view (note that this orientation is at least partly a result of the postmodern critique of History). This is especially true in the ancient Indian world when historical awareness was often lacking. On the other hand, in China, for example, writing and historical awareness both arose much earlier than in India. So I can say with confidence that the oldest Heart Sutra artefact was commissioned on 16 March 661 CE, by Yang Shesheng 楊社生, a minor aristocrat serving in the military with the rank of Guoyi duwei 果毅都尉 (Courageous Commander). Because such things were recorded for posterity in China.

Another basic point is that historians require a fact to be corroborated. A single source does not suffice to write a history. Ideally, in writing a history we have access to multiple primary sources written from different points of view. That said, ancient written documents inevitably reflect the concerns of a literate elite. When Asoka wrote his first edict, there cannot be been more than a handful of literate people within 5000 miles of his capital, Pataliputta. So, while the edicts reflect his views, they are not corroborated by other documentary sources and they are not a general account of the history of India. Rather, they are primary sources that have to be interpreted with care. 

In explaining these simple facts to Buddhists, I have often seen the complaint that this "places far too many restrictions on us". Historians are concerned that their work has integrity. The limitations help to ensure this. That such limitations are routinely ignored by Buddhist Studies scholars is an indictment of the intellectual integrity of the field.

I want to now return to the topic of Pāli and the Buddha. 

—Buddha and Pāli—

No documents were written at the time of the Buddha for the simple reason that writing was not in use at that time, in that place. Writing came into use slightly before Asoka's edicts in the mid-3rd century BCE, but the earliest documents with written texts are the edicts themselves. And the Buddha is supposed to have died ca 400 BCE, if not substantially earlier. For this reason, the Buddha is not a historical figure. This is not at all controversial. Amongst historians, there is no dispute over this. Rather the disputation comes from academic philologers and Buddhist apologists (with considerable overlap) who don't understand the theories and methods of historians.

Presenting this material to Buddhists—especially to (Pāli-worshipping) Theravādins—inevitably raises a storm of protests. Though they don't come right out and say it, the main message seems to be: "How dare you say the Buddha didn't exist?"

But existence and being a historical figure are distinct issues. No one, I think, is denying that the Buddha existed. Given the way that religions work, it is certainly possible that Buddhism had a founder. Indeed, to most historians, a founding figure seems both plausible and likely. Of course, we cannot be certain because there is no documentary evidence of the Buddha during the period in question and no corroboration from other sources. All that we know was part of a religious tradition that was passed down orally for many centuries before being written down, and that by the mid-3rd century, Buddhists attributed their religion to Buddha.

Nor is there any archaeological support for the Buddha. While archaeology confirms that cities such as Sāvatthī and Rājagaha did exist, and when they began to exist, there is no physical sign of Buddhism before Asoka, let alone a person called Buddha.

Much of the dissent is focused on the Pāli suttas. On one side we have a group of positivist-historicists who claim to be able to prove that the Pāli suttas are "authentic" records of the Buddha's teaching from that time. Some on this side are happy to reassert the old Theravāda conceit that the Buddha spoke Pāli (whereas I have argued that we will never know what language the Buddha spoke).

On the other side are historians who point out that the oldest extant Pāli documents are from the 5th century CE. The earliest corroborating evidence for a canon of Pāli texts is also from the 5th century CE. There are much older manuscripts in Gāndhārī and much older texts in China, there is no Indian canon in either place. The Chinese had to curate a canon of their own. So did the Tibetans.

Buddhist myth tells us that the Pāli canon was written down in the first century BCE, but again, this is from sources composed in Sri Lanka in the fifth century CE. As documents, the Pāli suttas are primary sources for 5th-century Sri Lankan Buddhism.

The corollary of this is that, despite the elaborate special pleading, the Pāli texts can tell us little or nothing about "early Buddhism", using the methods that have been adopted. From the historian's point of view, we can date the written Pāli texts to the 5th century CE. And as such the Pāli texts are primary texts for Sri Lankan beliefs in the 5th century, and they are not primary sources for Indian beliefs in the 5th century BCE.

This is not to say that nothing happened in India in the 5th century, or that Indian beliefs were not encoded in this way. Sri Lankan Buddhist converts obviously adopted and developed a form of the Indian religion. But Sri Lankan Buddhism is far from simple or straightforward. Antagonism and competition between the great monasteries is a defining feature of Sri Lankan Buddhism. And in the end the most conservative monastery won out and got to define Sri Lankan Buddhism down to the present. In practice, this involved purging Mahāyāna and Tantric forms of Buddhism which were popular at the time, as well as purging sects of Theravāda that did not conform to the Mahāvihāra ideal. The Pāli texts are not simply Sri Lankan in origin, they are the records of the Mahāvihāra.

Indian Buddhists were already diversifying by this point, but Pāli obscures this on the whole. The Kathavatthu is an exception and shows how much the Theravādins were at odds with other Buddhists about the correct interpretation of the Buddha's doctrines; the disagreements were fundamental and vehement. Buddhists were not unified even at this early stage of Buddhist history (and likely this reflects trends from Buddhist pre-history, though here we enter the realm of speculation).

Historians are bound to respect the epistemic horizon represented by the advent of writing and to remain silent about the history of places and time for which there are no primary sources (such as pre-Asoka India). While historians may indulge in speculation, as we all like to do, historians are bound to make a distinction between what happened, which is unknown, and their speculations about what might have happened.


Buddhists emerge onto the stage of history as members of several related and competing religious movements and alongside some other religious movements with similar methods and concerns. We get a sense of these new religious movements being partly a response to the emergence of relatively belligerent city-states along the middle Ganges Valley, and partly to the influx of Brahmin migrants from the west. Why did Brahmins migrate into lands that they had previously described, e.g. in the Śatapatha Brahmaṇa, in disparaging terms? No one seems to have an explanation for this.

In addition to the two groups of Indic-speaking peoples in the region, North Indian people spoke a range of languages from at least two other families, Dravidian and Munda, as well as many "tribal" languages, which in modern times include a number of language isolates. And Buddhism clearly shows influence from a range of cultures. Yakkhas, for example, are definitely not Indo-European.

As Walters (1998: 247) has said:

Buddhologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion have raised serious doubts about the naïve use of the suttas as sources for reconstructing Theravāda Buddhist history.

The whole idea of early Buddhism emerged from Orientalist, imperialist European scholarship. That it has been taken up by Buddhist Modernists should not distract us from the orientalist nature of the project.

Buddhist Modernists have taken the re-enactment of early Buddhism as the ultimate solution to Buddhists' long-standing over the authenticity of their teachings. In this view, ultimate authority is vested in the person of the Buddha, and in the "records" of his sermons. A living Buddhist authority is thus an expert in Pāli (with a sideline in Chinese and/or Gāndhārī). One can see this being played out in, for example, the remaining Buddhist online forums.

It is interesting that this move to co-opt the scholarly conceit of early Buddhism is paralleled by the widespread emergence of openly enlightened teachers. When I started blogging it was still widely considered a major faux pas to "claim" that one had any kind of attainment (including even first dhyāna). There was a lot of discussion of "claims". Fast forward to the present and many Buddhists now openly talk about enlightenment from their personal experiences. Such Buddhists may or may not refer to Pāli texts, but the point is that they don't need to refer to any text because they know from experience. A sentiment, incidentally, that we find peppered throughout the Pāli suttas but which is mostly downplayed by Modernist Buddhists.

The focus on Early Buddhism has led to a hypostatisation of the idea. This gives agency to an idea and removes it from Buddhists themselves. 

There is no "early Buddhism" apart from what actual Buddhists did and said in that period. Knowledge of this type requires writing. And there was no writing at that time. And of this period we can know little and do know less.

The reconstruction of early Buddhism relies on privileging Pāli suttas that can be read literally and rejecting those that cannot be read literally. A sutta that can be read literally is assumed to reflect history. However, the authors of the suttas did not think this way.

The Buddhism that is reconstructed by this method does not resemble any extant Buddhist tradition. This is partly because Buddhists abandoned early Buddhism in favour of newer doctrines. This is no surprise to anthropologists, but it rather undermines the claim to authenticity that accompanies this reconstruction.

Discussing this with Buddhists is more or less impossible because they are not aware of how historical enquiry works nor what words like "historical" mean in this context. This is reinforced by Buddhist apologists and allies in academia who are also (apparently) ignorant of the methods of the field of History.

There are numerous caveats on using Pāli suttas for historical research. The oldest extant Pāli documents are from the 5th century CE. The idea that they were written down earlier is based on 5th-century Sri Lanka texts. There is no corroboration for a canon of Pāli texts until the 5th century. The impression is that no such canon was known in Gandhāra (where the surviving texts are far more eclectic, and largely standalone or part of smaller collections). The Chinese and Tibetans had to invent their own canons, which they did in very different ways.

There is no archaeological support for the existence of Buddhism until Asoka. And the evidence we get from Asoka is thin at best. Substantial evidence for Buddhism emerges a little later in the form of elaborate stupas with narrative friezes illustrating the Buddha's life story (including Jataka stories). No figure from the Pāli canon has ever been linked to a historical fact or event. Not even the kings are historical figures.

The early Buddhist narrative is largely focussed on valorising Pāli texts, and other texts only when they reinforce the monolithic, hypostatised view of early Buddhism.

Early Buddhism (as currently presented) is a fantasy that is only plausible in ignorance of the theories and methods of history. Having belatedly studied these methods, I find my attitudes have substantially changed. In fact, we know nothing and can know nothing about early Buddhism because there are no primary sources relating to those times and places. Adopting the practice of treating suttas that can be read literally as though they are factual documents, is not consistent with the best practice adopted by historians.

Early Buddhism probably never existed in the form that it is presented, and even if it did exist, we'd have no way of knowing how accurate the portrayal is. What the modern accounts of early Buddhism seem intended to do is to salve the constant anxieties that Buddhists feel about the authenticity and authority of the copies of copies of copies of 5th century Buddhist documents that they have inherited. When one has no personal experience of awakening to fall back on, religious literature takes on a much greater significance as an arbiter of orthodoxy.



Almond, Philip C. (1988). The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.

Bluck, Robert. (2006). British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice, and Development. Routledge.

Carter, John Ross. (1977). "A History of Early Buddhism". Religious Studies 13(3): 263-287. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20005420

Franklin, Jeffrey J. (2008). The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire. Cornell University Press

Lillie, Arthur. (1881) Buddha and Early Buddhism. London: Trübner & Co.

Strauch, Ingo. (2024). "Aśoka and the Use of Writing in Ancient India". In The Ancient World Revisited: Material Dimensions of Written Artefacts. Edited by Marilina Betrò, Michael Friedrich, and Cécile Michel. De Gruyter.

Walser, Joseph. (2022). "Buddhism without Buddhists? Academia & Learning to See Buddhism Like a State". Pacific World. Series 4, Vol. 4: 103-170. https://www.shin-ibs.edu/documents/pwj4/3/4-3-4-Walser.pdf

Walters, Jonathan S. (1998). Finding Buddhists in Global History. American Historical Association.

Wriggins, Salley Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. (Rev Ed.) Icon Editions, Westview Press.

12 April 2024

Notes on Finding Buddhists in Global History

Jonathan Walters was kind enough to correspond with me and send me a pdf copy of his extended essay in book form: Finding Buddhists in Global History (1998). The book has three chapters

  1. Problematizing the Buddhological Construct
  2. Historicizing the Buddhological Construct
  3. Beyond the Buddhological Construct

Walters is a historian, and thus his work can be bracketed with other historians of Buddhism such as David Drewes, Bernard Faure, Charles Hallisey, Frank Reynolds, Gregory Schopen, and Joseph Walser. All of these historians have been critical of how the history of Buddhism has been handled within Buddhist Studies. Note that the book and its argument are aimed at historians who wish the see Buddhists in their global context. Other approaches to history are available and valid.

What follows are my notes on reading this essay (thus my understanding of Walter's argument). Numbers in parentheses, e.g. (4), are page numbers in Walters 1998. My comments are in [square brackets].

Note that the preface has footnotes but the main text uses endnotes.

Problematizing the Buddhological Construct

The Buddhological Construct is a master narrative of Buddhist history in five key moments:

  1. The historical Buddha founded Buddhism
  2. Early Buddhism
  3. Asoka and general propagation through Asia
  4. Medieval decline
  5. Early modern revival (19th and 20th Centuries)

Within this framework, various Buddhological arguments have raged over:

  1. The dates of the Buddha and the authenticity of the texts
  2. The character of early Buddhism
  3. The chronology of Buddhist missions
  4. The causes of medieval decline
  5. The details of the modern revival

This master narrative was a product of nineteenth-century European colonialism (5). It produced massive overviews of Buddhism [such as Etienne Lamotte's History of Indian Buddhism]. Since then Buddhological scholarship has become increasingly specialized, but it has continued to presuppose the master narrative. Walters is critical of this narrative:

"The Buddhological Construct is a crude and misleading interpretation of the evidence, and we now need to move beyond it... the Buddhological Construct obscures [the global significance of Sri Lankan texts and monuments] with pat generalizations that have little or no relationship to the evidence itself." (4)

Rather than being updated due to more specialized studies that undermine it, the Buddhological Construct has remained in force and become a dogma.

Historicizing the Buddhological Construct

Many of the ideas and concepts that seem basic to Buddhist Studies—such as "Buddhism" and "the historical Buddha"—were invented in the period 1820–1840. By the 1840s Europeans had discovered that Buddhism was a religion, though they saw it as "moribund" [i.e. dead] (8). In the 1850s, Buddhists themselves were challenging the idea that Buddhism was moribund.

19th-century scholars were far from systematic in their approach.

Scholars did not begin by deliberating about what should be asked of the primary evidence, which questions should be answered on the basis of which evidence, nor what sort of evidence it was in the first place. Instead, being thinkers of their age, these scholars dived right into the evidence as though its nature and the questions to which it represented answers should be transparent and obvious. (8).

The Buddhological Construct reflects 19th-century preoccupations. Walters suggests that it "was little more than the extrapolation to Buddhist history of 19th-century Protestant historical self-understanding." (9). So the five key moments of Buddhist history are modeled on a Protestant understanding of the history of Christianity, i.e. founder, original church, missions, decline, and revival (9). The history of Buddhism was shoehorned into this model by 19th-century Buddhologists.

Walters suggests that this outline of history was so ingrained in 19th-century European scholars that it was presupposed before they ever opened a Buddhist text. And the "discovery" of this same pattern in Buddhist history was more or less inevitable. This led to subsequent questions about Buddhist history being framed in the same Christian terms. Walters suggests that Buddhologists and Theologians were concerned with more or less the same questions, with only the names being different. (10)

At the same time, Buddhologists insisted that their methods were "strictly historical", though this relied on "that nineteenth-century oxymoron 'scientific history' (also known as empiricism, historicism, or positivism)" (10). This approach "entailed numerous presuppositions about the nature of historical evidence and historical knowledge."

[I think Walters could have expanded on what these presuppositions were because they are not obvious to me. OTOH, it's obvious, for example, that Wynne (2019), Hinuber (2019), and Levman (2019) are all still operating largely in this 19th-century positivist mode when they write about the "historical Buddha"].

The problem with this is that Buddhist texts were not written with history or historicism in mind. The questions that concerned nineteenth-century scholars were, on the whole, completely unrelated to the concerns expressed by the authors of the Buddhist canonical literature.

This question has led an increasing number of Buddhologists today to argue that we are gravely mistaken to read Buddhist texts as though they had been written by nineteenth-century Europeans. (10)

In a note (41 n.4), the only name that Walters cites is Gregory Schopen, particularly his 1991 article "Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism".

[Given the "increasing number" I would have expected more citations here, but see also note 3.]

If Buddhist literature is conceived of as a series of answers to questions, then the questions asked in that literature are utterly unrelated to the questions being asked by 19th-century European historians. Moreover, European historical methods have changed significantly in the meantime. As Walters (11) says: "Our questions, presuppositions, historiographies, and sociopolitical realities are drastically different than those early nineteenth-century European men."

The classic example of this is the mining of Buddhist texts for historical details, while at the same time excluding any and all non-historical details as examples of "self-edification", "bias", "superstition", and appeal to "the psychological needs of the masses" (11). The insistence on this approach, Walters argues, "was rooted in one of the most basic Enlightenment European presuppositions: What I call the imperial dogma of universal human nature." (11).

This involves Europeans taking themselves to be exemplars of universal human nature; and assuming that "all people ask the same basic questions because all people experience the same basic reality in the same basic way" (11). And this goes to explain why European historians saw their own history as paradigmatic of world history.

[This view of history is still prevalent in "scientific" works of history such as Yuval Harari's Sapiens. It is directly challenged by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their book The Dawn of Everything (2021), which makes the argument that European culture is very far from being representative.]

Moreover, the picture of Buddhist history that premodern Buddhist texts do present varies wildly (12). Different Buddhist groups had different ideas about questions such as the dates of the Buddha and never arrived at a consensus (unlike modern scholars). [This section of Walters' essay—Philosophical and Political Problems—is more difficult to follow and understand]

Walters again argues that a majority of Buddhologists have left behind these outdated methods, embracing modern approaches to Buddhist literature and art, while leaving the "historicists" to argue about the details of their anachronistic approach.

[And again, I wish he had thought to provide some evidence to support this sweeping generalization because it's not self-evident].

Walters asserts that the "stale and unresolved debates of 19th-century historicists" effectively stymie efforts to place Buddhist history in a global context. (13)

He then returns to consider the epistemological presuppositions of the Buddhological Construct and the "scientific" paradigm in history.

[The latter is important because both Drewes and his recent detractors refer to taking a "scientific" approach to history.]

Walters makes a strong claim: that "Buddhism" did not exist before the nineteenth century. At one level he is talking about the term "Buddhism", coined by English-speaking scholars. On another, he points out that 19th-century accounts of global history did not see Buddhism as significant. He argues that, around the 18th century, there was a sea change in the way European writers refer to Buddhism and how they see it in a global context. Before this time, Buddhism is seen as serving the agency of Asian kings and their subjects. Afterward, Buddhism becomes a "transcendental essence" (13) with its own agency that followers merely enact. Again this reflects the idea of European Christianity as the model for all religions. As a result, Walters says: "I avoid the term Buddhism whenever possible" (13).

For Walters, the term Buddhism represents a hypostatization of a complex social phenomenon. We see this in phrases such as "Buddhism teaches that life is impermanent and without essence" (14). In this view, "Buddhism" is conceived of as a monolithic agent. Walters would rather that Buddhists, in all their diversity be seen as agents, rather than

[The obvious parallel for me is the routine hypostatization of science, in phrases like "Science says that the supernatural doesn't exist" (which is something I might have said). To my mind, this hypostatization is not peculiar to Buddhism but reflects a general pattern in European thinking. Walters (14) notes the same pattern in religious concepts like God, the Church, and the Holy Spirit as the agents of Christianity].

[I think here Walters is presaging Joseph Walser's (2022) idea of "Buddhism without Buddhists". Walser notes that while scholars assert that "Buddhism teaches anātman", if you go to Buddhist countries and ask Buddhists about this, they (A) have not heard of this doctrine, and (B) assert some kind of doctrine that would be considered ātmavāda.]

Next Walters draws attention to the political consequences of "hypostatization of 'Buddhism' as the agent of Buddhist history" (14). This view sees Buddhists as "passive victims of their own beliefs and practices".

The overwhelming evidence that Buddhist thought and practice were closely tied to political fortunes in separate kingdoms and across the premodern interregnal Buddhist world---Buddhist wars and warriors, Buddhist economies and monopolies, Buddhist courts and diplomacy, royal sponsors of Buddhist activities and Buddhist participants in royal activities---was dismissed as "un-Buddhistic", a mere accretion of what "Buddhism" was essentially supposed to be. (14)

The depoliticization of "Buddhism", or its deliberate dislocation from its socio-political context served the ends of European Christians and politicians. Since where Buddhists were involved in politics, this could be portrayed as a degeneration of the pure religion and contributed to the "decline" narrative.

What Buddhologists did for "empire" (wittingly or unwittingly)—providing its intellectual justification because Buddhist political statements and actions are not really political, or else they are not really Buddhist—they simultaneously did for Christian Mission. Making Buddhist agency into a "religion", showing that Buddhists do not really live up to their own "gospels" and insisting on the decadence and dormancy of contemporary "Buddhism" at that time, all dovetailed quite nicely with missionary goals. (15)

The Buddhological Construct obstructs the historian. It fails to answer historical questions [e.g. What was the relationship of Buddhists to their polity/king?] but it prevents such questions from even being asked by placing them out of bounds.

The invention of Buddhism was thus part and parcel of colonialism, the intellectual counterpart to a military regime that denied the sovereignty of those who were imperialized. (14).

As a historian, Walters is concerned to know how specific Buddhists saw themselves fitting into the world. He's interested in knowing how they saw themselves in relation to competing groups of Buddhists. Was there, in fact, a sense of shared identity amongst Buddhists? And so on. The standard kinds of questions that modern historians ask, but which never seem to have occurred to the scholars who constructed and promoted the Buddhological Construct.

Beyond the Buddhological Construct

For Walters, the way to go beyond the constraints and obstruction of the Buddhological Construct is provided by the British philosopher and archaeologist, R. G. Collingwood. Walters recommends reading An Autobiography and An Essay on Philosophical Methods rather than the better-known The Idea of History (this was published posthumously against Collingwood's wishes and supplemented with one of his student's notes that are "quite out of line with Collingwood's larger systemic writings" (40-41 n. 4)

Walter's essay undergoes a major change in style in this last chapter. The precise criticisms of the formation and application of the Buddhological Construct are replaced by more impressionistic statements about "global history" and "global perspective".

We need to bring a global perspective to bear on each bit of primary evidence we study, rather than to expect to cobble all the bits together into a global perspective. (18)

[This chapter introduces a suite of novel ideas and practices, along with several neologisms for concepts (whether they need them or not). For anyone unfamiliar with Collingwood, which I suspect is the majority of us, the endnotes provide important contextualisation. A lot of these notes could have been included in the body of the text]

Interregnal Buddhism

A term that is important for Walters is interregnal Buddhism (20-23). It is used several times before it is defined (on p. 20), which is confusing for the unfamiliar reader. Interregnal is being used where we might have expected to find international and reflects relations not between modern nation-states but between medieval kingdoms. However, "interregnal" and "global" are somehow not the same thing and the two terms continue to be used.

Walters argues that the societies in which Buddhism thrived, and for which we have primary sources, were kingdoms marked by constantly shifting relations (20). He argues that (unnamed) "orientalists" viewed the changing nature of the political landscape as evidence of disorder. Curiously, here, Walters introduces an emic concept "Buddhists... described change itself as a form of order" (20) and suggests that this is the key to seeing order in ever-changing Asian kingdoms.

At times we are deep in an unfamiliar jargon:

At any particular point in time, this "medieval" Asian world can be understood as a scale of forms being constantly revised across space, within which the entire interregnal Buddhist world... was but one large part. (20)

But what is a "scale of forms"? This is presumably evident to those who know Collingwood. The rest of us have to go back to the Preface and consult footnote 1.

The scale of forms, embodying hierarchical relationships of kind and degree among overlapping classes, is a technical term in R. G. Collingwood's philosophy of history. (xv n.1.)

But there is still more information in the endnotes (44 n 4). Here we find that the term "scale of forms" refers to the way an individual is embedded in overlapping social units:

An individual always acts as a member of a family, a resident of a village or town, a participant in a region or district, a subject-citizen of the king, of the king's circle of allies, and ultimately of the entire world. (44 n.4)

Note that in use, Walters defines "the scale of forms" and in his text "a scale of forms". The former suggests something monistic, the latter something pluralistic. Which is it? It's not clear to me what we gain from using this unfamiliar, rather counter-intuitive, terminology for facts that seem to be self-evident because, for example, I'm familiar with the works of Robin Dunbar, who has attempted to put upper limits on the size of these categories for human societies. Given this, the "scale of forms", which tells us nothing at face value, is a poor choice.

What is the point of this? (Unnamed) "Scholars" who take the view that there is something called "Buddhism" (qua hypostatized transcendental essence with agency) see "Buddhism" as all the claims to be Buddhist. Walters wants to contrast this with his concept of the "interregnal Buddhist world" which is...

a shifting, dynamic context within which Buddhists were the agents of their own history and their essence was contested, to be fully known only on the basis of what particular Buddhists in particular times and places thought and did. (21)

Walters asserts that every individual action reveals its global context (22). For example:

Each particular claim made by whatever particular Buddhist about one of the countless areas of contestation among Buddhists themselves and between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, when taken seriously as an informed action of a self-conscious human mind, reveals its global context wherever and whenever we look for it. (22)

[I think this is similar to my feeling that Buddhist history is written in isolation from world history. For example the periodisation of Buddhism doesn't relate to any periodization of Indian history more generally. Buddhist histories often play down the extent to which Buddhists were still embedded in wider social dynamics. It's almost as though Buddhists existed in a hermetically sealed environment in which external forces play no role. When examining changes in doctrine over time, we see descriptions and generalizations but not explanations: positivists work inductively to produce generalizations; historians work abductively to produce causal explanations.].

On the other hand, Walters notes that most particular Buddhists were not involved in the production of texts and thus we know little or nothing about them (22). This is important because the people who produced texts were an educated elite who could be expected to have a broader interregnal (perhaps even global) perspective of where Buddhists fit into the world.

Shared Paradigms and Opposing Interpretations.

As important as Buddhist interregnal interactions, were intra-Buddhist conflicts in which both sides were "claiming to represent the Buddhist whole". Walters notes that "Buddhist sources greatly disagree on virtually every topic of interest to historians, including the topics that constitute the five key moments of the Buddhological Construct" (23). Note that through this section, Walters works through each of the moments in the Buddhological Construct one by one.

  1. The historical Buddha founded Buddhism
  2. Early Buddhism
  3. Asoka and general propagation through Asia
  4. Medieval decline
  5. Early modern revival (19th and 20th Centuries)

1 & 2. The Buddha and Early Buddhism.

The 19th-century approach to this pluralism was to attempt to adjudicate between them. In practice, this usually meant championing one of the medieval Buddhist polemics. But no evidence from the historical Buddha or early Buddhism as imagined by Buddhologists survives, so there is no historical basis for adjudicating. "Given that none of the evidence survives from the 'historical Buddha' or 'early Buddhism' as imagined by Buddhologists."(23).

Moreover, rather than trying to eliminate the contested nature of Buddhist history, we should be focused precisely on conflict:

When we ask what this contestation was intended to achieve, what rules made it possible, and how it proceeded in any particular instance, we are well on the way to finding Buddhists in global history (23).

Rather than take Buddhists at face value, and a pluralistic community riven by internal and external conflicts, 19th century historians sifted Buddhist documents for the one true Buddhism. Modern historians should focus on those periods for which we have reliable, dateable primary evidence, since the kinds of questions that historians ask can only be answered by documents of how Buddhists thought. And such documents as we have date from the "medieval" period (24).

3. Asoka.

Similarly, with respect to the variety of Buddhist stories about Asoka, Walters asserts

Rather than ask which version [of many] depicts "the historical Ashoka", we should wonder what it meant to be talking about Ashoka at all many centuries after he and his entire empire had crumbled to dust. The global historian should ask: Why did all Buddhists maintain their own version of the Ashoka Maurya story? (24-25)

[It annoys me that people use the Sanskrit form of the name Asoka Moriya, given that we know the man himself communicated in Prakrit and Buddhists did not use Sanskrit until several centuries after his death. Sanskrit in this context is an anachronism at best.]

Walters introduces a spatial metaphor for the five key moments identified as constituting the Buddhological Construct. We should think of these as "sites" (25). He argues "Viewing the five key moments... as key sites in the interregnal Buddhist world is to take seriously the contestation over them." (25). [On 34 Walters confusingly gives a completely different list of "five key sites": see "Conclusion" below]

Rather than focusing on the content of conflicting Buddhist accounts of Buddhism, we should stay with the fact that there were conflicting versions of these stories. Noting that Buddhists have argued amongst themselves about such issues, and trying to explain why, is what should interest the historian. The fact that Buddhists (one-sidedly) recorded intra-Buddhist debates and composed polemics should not be glossed over. 

[No historian would think of taking the approach of adjudicating which of the different Greek myths was the most accurate version of history].

Walters notes that all the various sects tended to claim to be the one true Buddhist path and criticized or even denigrated the others. They vied with each other to be the official representatives of Buddhism. They all claimed that their identity as Buddhists was the only true Buddhist identity. Walters points to a shared paradigm with contested interpretations.

The claim to be Buddhist was always a particular claim about the Buddha; which Buddha claimed was a vital factor in the sociopolitical import of those claims. All others may have lesser or even heretical understandings of the details, but even they share in taking the Buddha as the paradigm of all authentic human existence. (26).

The many contradictory biographies of the Buddha are not "windows into the time of the historical Buddha", which is itself restricted to a brief period in Northern India. Rather, such competing stories reflect medieval Buddhists attempting to define their identity and their place in the world.

As such the Buddhological Construct is not helpful because it projects the global Buddha back in time to "an ultimately irretrievable and decidedly nonglobal situation" (26). The Buddha imagined as a man living during the second urbanization is diminished compared to the medieval Buddha. [Note that this approach is exemplified in Bernard Fuare's (2022) recent book on the life of the Buddha].

In this manner, the Buddhological Construct distracts from one of the most central bodies of evidence we have for reconstructing the roles Buddhists played in global history. (26)

Much the same can be said for the subject of the number and chronology of the Great Buddhist Councils, the contents of the authentic Tripiṭaka. Common standards of ethics and etiquette, common "church" languages, and shared epistemic frameworks (like karma and rebirth) made a broader Buddhist identity possible, and this, in turn, created pan-Asian institutions (like Nālanda), artistic movements, economic exchanges, and the justification for empires (via the idea of the cakravartin). But the study of these well-documented aspects of Buddhist history is minimized by the Buddhological Construct and the focus on "early Buddhism", a non-global history which Walters again refers to as "irretrievable" (27).

Stories about Asoka vary but there is a common core to the story. Asoka presents us with the first global paradigm for a Buddhist ruler. And yet Buddhists contested the details. Walters makes the comparison with different interpretations of the intent of the "founding fathers" of the USA.

...the agreement that there is a (more or less potential) Buddhist imperial claim of which Ashoka is the ordinary paradigm, made championing one's own version of the Ashoka story consequential, generating a potentially imperial prize worth fighting for. (28)

[It's rare to see ancient Buddhists being described in such human terms. It reminds us that they were human beings.]

4. Decline

A similar case can be made for the idea that the Buddhist teachings will one day disappear. Note that this belief seems to have been ubiquitous amongst Buddhists. Again, the details are contested, but the decline narrative is also different from the previous three aspects of the Buddhological Construct. (28)

Ideas like the decline of Buddhism became more prominent when Buddhists felt their world to be in decline, be it a natural disaster, military invasion, or a loss of status for the saṅgha under a non-Buddhist king (and most kings in Indian history were not Buddhist), or simply a perception of declining standards of morality within the saṅgha.

Walters argues that all these kinds of calamities tended to make Buddhists unite (rather the disagree). He notes that a sense of decline in China drove Chinese Buddhists to visit India, where they witnessed the decline of Indian Buddhism. However, he also asserts that Buddhist kingdoms often existed in relative isolation from each other:

The main reason for disagreements in Buddhist accounts of the Dharma's decline may be a lack of much interaction of any kind. Buddhist kingdoms became entities unto themselves, exercising the potential political agency of the claim to be Buddhist, if at all, only in the limited region. (29)

[This is by far the weakest point in the article. Walters begins by arguing that the Buddhological Construct reflects 19th-century preoccupations. But now he tells us, and I agree, that the decline of the Dharma is a pan-Buddhist concern over an extended period of time, and as well as leading to the usual divergent accounts, it also led to a kind of trans-sectarian unity in the face of a common enemy].

5. Revival

The last plank in the Buddhological Construct is the revival of Buddhism beginning in the 19th century. This revival is conceived as coming out of the blue: "it has no premodern precedent" (29). The putative "revival" supposedly takes the same form as revivalist Protestant Christian movements from 19th-century Europe and the USA. In fact, we "are hard-pressed to find any premodern counterpart" (30). In essence

The revival of Buddhism is thus the impossible revival of something ("Buddhism" itself) that did not previously exist. (29)

This reflects Walters' earlier contention that "Buddhism" per se was an invention of the 19th century.

On the other hand, Walters argues that the changes we see in Buddhist doctrine and practice in this period reflect attitudes that are evident in the earliest evidence: Buddhists asserting that they are the Buddhists.

"Revivals" of the premodern sort did not just happen; rather, the powerful complex agents consisting of kings, courtiers, monks, and nuns set out to make them happen, articulating and effecting the particular shared vision of the interregnal Buddhist world, and their own place within it, which proved true at the particular place and time in the interregnal Buddhist world in which they found themselves. (30)

The point seems to be that Buddhists were constantly evaluating their attitudes and practices and changing them in response to changing conditions. Buddhists have pursued "revivals" throughout global history, and these have to be understood in their own context. Walters again emphasizes that change is not random or imposed on Buddhists by "Buddhism" qua "transcendental essence". Agency resides in people, not institutions.

Changes were made not as an inevitable result of creeping "Jesuitism" but as a result of reasoned argument, multireligious debate, political realism, enforced submission, and wished for and realized power. Human agency, Buddhist agency, made such "revivals" happen. (31).



Walters' concern throughout is with global history, the broadest view of human history. Buddhists clearly played an important role in this history. But the study of Buddhists in global history is hampered by the insistence on the 19th-century imperialist Buddhological Construct because so much effort goes into shoring it up and the results tell us nothing about global history.

He contrasts the Buddhological Construct with the records left by Chinese pilgrims who visited India.

The Chinese pilgrims cataloged the interregnal Buddhist world as a system of overlapping pictures of the whole—the whole Buddha's corpse and its worship, the whole sangha and its divisions, the whole potential empire and its constituent kingdoms—whose landmarks were the actual stupas, monasteries, and royal courts that the visited and described. (34)

From the pilgrim's accounts, we can say that Buddhist identity is twofold: to the outside world, Buddhists typically present as members of a single unified religion. At the same time, amongst themselves, Buddhists incessantly debate and negotiate what it means to be "Buddhist".

[There is a confusing use of "five key sites" on p 34 that are not the "five key sites" of the Buddhological Construct. But when "the five keys sites are mentioned again on p.35, it seems that the original set is indicated]

To understand the role of Buddhists in global history we have to take this into account. However, the global context is seldom so explicit. And recovering it is not easy. For his part, Walters endorses the view of Collingwood.

We cannot access the past; we can only imagine it, which is an activity of the present that will be as rich or poor as the imaginations of the historians who engage in it. (35)

Walters tries to address a potential criticism by stating that the Buddhological Construct is also a product of the imagination.

[The Buddhological Construct] is an interpretation of the very same evidence that all Buddhologists now know, and from the perspective of global history, it is not a particularly believable or well-thought-out interpretation at that. (35)

For Collingwood, according to Walters, the only hard facts that historians have are artifacts. The rest is a matter of interpretation. Collingwood's approach is not the only one, but it is a lot better than the "dead-end" Buddhological Construct. Moreover, not everyone need be concerned with global history. But for those who are concerned with seeing the place of Buddhists in global history, this approach allows primary sources to suggest answers to our questions. This is in contrast to the Buddhological Construct which aims to limit which questions can be asked and to provide standardised answers to those questions.

Still the global cannot simply be reduced to the particular and vice versa. One has to see the stupa both as a reflection of Buddhist soteriology and as a product of the (usually royal) patronage that paid for it. Building a stupa to worship has global ramifications.

Buddhist philosophy was both a quest for truth and a quest for power, each quest making the other more pressing; religious experiences were not only transcendent human realities but also self-conscious enactment of human agency, even on a global scale. (37)



Walters' essay makes a compelling case for rejecting the (19th century) establishment view of Buddhist history which hypostatizes Buddhism, giving it agency over Buddhists. He makes the case that agency resides in human beings; in this case, in Buddhists themselves. And that Buddhists were in constant dialogue with both non-Buddhists and other Buddhists over what it meant to be Buddhists.

Buddhists have played an important role in global history, but this role is effectively obscured and the history of Buddhists has been cut off from the global context by the imposition of the Buddhological Construct by 19th century imperialists.

That said, I think Walters (writing in 1999) has missed the extent to which reconstructing "early Buddhism" has become a Buddhist project, with prominent Theravāda bhikkhus and Tibetan Lamas taking leading roles within academia. The infiltration of Buddhist Studies by religious Buddhists since Walters composed this essay has only further entrenched certain biases and fallacies. While not entirely in sympathy with their imperialist predecessors, they nevertheless use the idea in the classic way that Walters describes: that is to say they use the construct of "early Buddhism" to mount a defence of an original "pure" teaching and claim to be representatives and defenders of that original teaching.

Rather than the idealized picture of unified Buddhism that Buddhists themselves present to non-Buddhists, historians should pay attention to what Buddhists were saying about each other in writing. And the most reliable sources we have are "medieval" (or at least post-Asoka).

I noted that Walters can be bracketed with other historians, amongst whom there has been a paradigm shift away from the Buddhological Construct and arguments based on it. Amongst the things these historians insist on is that a "primary source" is a first-hand account, written down by someone who lived through the events in question. There are no such sources for Buddhism before Asoka. Importantly, the idea of "early Buddhism" also known as "primitive Buddhism" is an invention of the non-Buddhist European scholars who first presented Buddhism to a modern European audience. (My next blog post will be a deeper exploration of this issue).

Whether or not Walter's use of Collingwood's ideas and the associated jargon moves us forward is moot. Looking at citations of Walter's essay I don't see any great enthusiasm for Collingwood.

For me, the great value of this long essay is that it speaks in a new voice about a new paradigm for doing Buddhist history that actually takes historical theories and methods into account. In the last few months, it has become apparent to me that this is rare in Buddhist Studies. Many of the combatants in the conflict over the historicity of the Buddha, for example, seem to have no idea that their methods are at odds with the whole field of history (see my critique of Levman 2019, which is representative of the positivist-historicist approach).

Ironically, this whole conflict, while being mainly carried on by people with doctorates in Buddhist Studies or Philology, pivots on approaches to history—primary sources, corroboration, etc—that are taught explicitly in high school, and have become background assumptions even in undergraduate history courses. Countering the Buddhological Construct in terms of (the field of) History is difficult because historians are not interested in publishing high-school level critiques of their professional colleagues in Buddhist Studies, and those professionals in Buddhist Studies are not interested in History because it contradicts their articles of faith (which combine religious and scholarly conceits).

I am already following up on some of the recommended reading and processing the change in paradigm that is demanded by paying attention to historians. What I found during this exercise is that it deflated my belief that we know anything about "early Buddhism". I've come around to seeing arguments over early Buddhism as an imperialist European conceit.


Faure, Bernard. (2022) The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha. University of Hawai'i Press.

Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Everything. Allen Lane.

Harari, Yuval Noah. (2011). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House.

Schopen, Gregory. (1991). "Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism". History of Religions Journal 31(1): 1-23. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1062872

Walser, Joseph. (2022). "Buddhism without Buddhists? Academia & Learning to See Buddhism Like a State". Pacific World. Series 4, Vol. 4: 103-170. https://www.shin-ibs.edu/documents/pwj4/3/4-3-4-Walser.pdf

Walters, Jonathan S. (1998). Finding Buddhists in Global History. American Historical Association.

16 February 2024

History as Practiced by Philologists: A Response to Levman's Response to Drewes.

In 2017, David Drewes published an article that is now famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint. Drewes argued for the thesis that we cannot connect the Buddha to any historical facts and concludes that historians should stop referring to "the historical Buddha". His article has no abstract, so let me cite a passage from his introduction that seems to sum up his argument:

On one hand, the Buddha is universally agreed to have lived; but, on the other, more than two centuries of scholarship have failed to establish anything about him. We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. Stuck in this awkward situation, scholars have rarely been able to avoid the temptation to offer some suggestion as to what was likely, or ‘must’ have been, true about him. By the time they get done, we end up with a flesh and blood person – widely considered to be one of the greatest human beings ever to have lived – conjured up from little more than fancy. (2017: 1)

When Drewes says that "the Buddha is not linked to any historical facts", he means that there is no contemporary documentation of the Buddha. There are no eyewitness accounts of the Buddha, and there are no contemporary coins, inscriptions, or documents of any kind. There was no writing anywhere in India prior to the mid-third century BCE. This is indisputable. However, Drewes' article has engendered much disputation, of which Bryan Levman's (2019) response in the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies is a prominent example.

In this essay, I will review Levman's (2019) response to Drewes. I will let Levman introduce his own argument. The abstract of his article says:

This article is a response to David Drewes’ hypothesis (2017: 1-25) that the Buddha was a mythic figure who did not necessarily exist as a historical fact. The article suggests that there are four criteria by which the Buddha’s historicity can be established, none of which were discussed by Drewes: 1) the historical facts presented in the Buddhist canon which are corroborated by non-canonical sources, 2) the fact that there is no plausible alternative explanation for the provenance of the teachings 3) the humanness of the Buddha as presented in the canon belies the purported mythologization which Drewes asserts and 4) a core biography of the Founder can be discerned in the Buddhist canon, once later interpolations are removed.

Bryan Levman is an expert philologist who has specialised in the history of language in India. He has quite a chequered past, however, we are concerned here with his writing as a Buddhologist. 

One of the notable features of Levman's vehement disagreement with Stefan Karpik over what language the Buddha spoke was that, amidst deploying abstruse arguments and accusing each other of incompetence, neither of them expressed any doubt whatsoever about the Buddha as a historical character. They both took the historicity of the Buddha for granted.  

Both Drewes and Levman reference "historical facts" but in retrospect it's clear that they are using this phrase very differently from each other. Indeed, I would say that they are operating in quite distinct epistemes. So my first task is to define a "historical fact". I will take a historian's view of this issue. 

Historical Facts

Historians argue about methods and aims a great deal but they all broadly agree that history is the study of people and societies through documents. As historian, John Vincent (2006: 9), puts it:

"Historical study requires verbal evidence, with marginal exceptions. And this verbal evidence, with all respect to the fascination of oral history, is nearly all written evidence."

Documents are defined as broadly as possible. Any form of written evidence can be considered, including coins and inscriptions. Vincent (2006: 10), again, says: "History is about literate societies, and strongly tilted, at very least, towards literate people in literate societies".  Richard J. Evans (1997: 75) cites Sir Geoffrey Elton's definition:

A historical fact was something that happened in the past, which had left traces in documents which could be used by historians to reconstruct it in the present. 

Evans (1997: 76) notes that this view was expressed in direct contrast to E. H. Carr's view that "a past event did not become a historical fact until it was accepted as such by historians." Carr's view turns out to be untenable since he confuses "fact" with "evidence". This gives us a useful distinction: a fact is something that happened, and evidence is an attempt to use that fact to argue for a particular view of history. Evans (1997: 80) again:

What is at issue, therefore, is how historians use documents not to establish discreet facts, but as evidence for establishing the larger patterns that connect them. 

A "historical fact", then, is a documented fact. To be a historical fact about a particular time requires that the document be authored by someone who lived at that time. In effect, historical facts are eyewitness accounts preserved in documents. Determining the veracity or trustworthiness of such accounts is bread and butter for historians. 

Alexander Wynne (2019: 100) suggests that "Good evidence for the Buddha would perhaps be his mention in a non-Buddhist document from the fifth century BC." This is an example of someone confusing "facts" and "evidence". To provide us with facts about the Buddha, presuming he lived in the fifth century CE, a document must be from the fifth century BCE. Wynne admits that no such documents exist. If he were a historian he would admit that the absence of documents of any kind means that we cannot write a history of India in the fifth century. We have to step aside and let archaeologists and anthropologist do their work. Wynne continues to argue sans any relevant facts for another fifty pages. 

NB: Historians don't typically refer to facts or evidence as "good" or "bad". A fact may be true or false, but not "good" or "bad". Similarly a fact may constitute "salient" or "relevant" evidence for a particular argument or not. 

Importantly for this discussion, an inference is not a fact. At best an inference is an interpretation based on a fact or facts. Moreover, logical inferences are validated or invalidated against sets of axioms. It's all too obvious that for Levman, Karpik, and Wynne, the existence of the historical Buddha is axiomatic. Each of their projects is tendentiously seeking to prove what they take on faith. And each erroneously takes their own inferences, validated against their article of faith, to be "historical facts". 

Long before Drewes joined the fray, historian Jonathan S, Walters (1999: 248) wrote:

I think it fair to say that among contemporary historians of the Theravāda, there has been a marked shift from attempting to say much of anything at all about "early Buddhism". Whereas earlier scholars tended to ignore post-Aśokan Buddhist history as corrupt, more recent scholars have tended to regard early Buddhism as unknowable.

The Buddha lived in a pre-literate society and thus in a prehistoric society. A history of a pre-literate society or person is a contradiction in terms. In the context of history as a field or discipline, what Drewes says is entirely uncontroversial and in keeping with the theory and methods of modern historiography. (Note: I take historiography to mean "the act of, and methods used in, writing of history")

It is surprising that anyone who knows anything at all about historiography would take issue with this. It turns out that those who disagree with Drewes don't seem to know about historiography. In my conclusion, I will offer a possible explanation of why philologists and linguists, in particular, might disagree with historians' definition of "historical facts". However, we have first to address Levman's attempts to prove Drewes wrong.

Levman's Arguments Against Drewes.

1. Corroboration.

Levman's first objection is "the historical facts presented in the Buddhist canon which are corroborated by non-canonical sources". Leaving aside, for the moment, the problem of what, if any "historical facts" are presented in the Buddhist canon (and when they refer to), let's look at Levman's examples of corroboration:

"The Asokan rock edicts for example, contain numerous references to the Buddha, the earliest going back to shortly after his coronation in 268 BCE." (28).

However, even if the Asokan corpus does refer to the Buddha, it was composed after 268 BCE. Most scholars guess that the Buddha died around the year 400 BCE (see Norman 2008: 50-52) but this is far from certain and in conflict with all the existing Buddhist traditions which place his death at 486 CE or earlier. The Asokan documents reflect a view from a least 170 years after the putative lifetime of the Buddha (possibly considerably more). This is not an eyewitness account or even a second-hand account. Something that no one seems to have remarked on is that, by the time the edicts were composed, Asoka was a Buddhist convert who appeared to have a certain amount of convert zeal

The Asokan edicts are not evidence of the historicity of the Buddha. At best, they reflect beliefs about the Buddha from a later period, as expressed by a latter-day Buddhist convert, who dedicated his early life to brutal wars of conquest and had a lot of bad karma to make up for.

This is a clear example of Levman making a hypothetical inference based on the Asokan corpus and treating his inference as a "historical fact" based on his pre-existing belief in the historicity of the Buddha. By the way, no one argues against the idea of a community of Buddhists existing in the third century BCE. This is a historical fact. Levman's (2019: 29) next argument is:

The presumed historical existence of the Buddha is reflected in many of the early suttas where the Buddha is situated in actual historical places alongside real historical figures.

Note the phrase "presumed historical existence of the Buddha". This is Levman's presumption, not mine. As an example, he continues:

"We know, for example, from other sources, that the kings (Ajātasattu, Bimbisāra, Pasenadi) the Buddha meets with were real historical figures."

It is simply not true that Ajātasattu, Bimbisāra, and Pasenadi are historical figures. As with the Buddha, there are no contemporary documents connected with any of these names. As kings, they left no trace of historical evidence, because there was no writing in India at that time. Given this, Levman's attempts to back up his assertion are surprisingly half-hearted. For example, Levman casually mentions references to Bimbisāra and Ajātasattu in "Jain texts" (without any citation). However, this is to completely ignore the history of Jain literature. Johannes Bronkhorst (2020) comments:

Our most important sources of information regarding early Jainism are found in the canon preserved by the Śvetāmbara Jains. Unfortunately, this canon was given its definitive form at a late date, some 980 years after Mahāvīra according to a Jain tradition, that is, 454 or 514 CE.

The Jains themselves tell us that all of their early literature was lost and then later reconstructed. Jain literature is all considerably younger than, and owes a difficult-to-quantify debt to, Buddhist literature. Bronkhorst (2020) again:

We have already seen that the Sūtrakṛtāṅga Sūtra is one of the oldest texts contained in the Śvetāmbara canon. However, the contents of even this relatively old text date from long after Mahāvīra. This is clear from the following: the Sūtrakṛtāṅga Sūtra shows acquaintance with the innovations that had taken place in northwestern Buddhism in the 2nd century BCE. 

Jain literature can tell us nothing at all about the putative lifetime of the Buddha because, although it mentions events in the past, it was written down much later even than Buddhist literature. Moreover, the references Jain literature makes to the Buddha are vague. As Bollée (1974: 27) says:

It is only in the post-canonical period, and especially when the Jains begin to write in Sanskrit, that in our sources the railings at undefined opponents with more or less ambiguous statements about their views make way for more concrete philosophical arguing with different schools, among whom the Buddhists gradually come to the front to such an extent that śākyādayaḥ as a comprehensive expression for various heretics becomes dominating.

Similarly, Levman cites "Sanskrit genealogies... [in] Purāṇas, and so forth." Levman does not give an example from or even the name of a Purāṇa text, so it's difficult to know what he is referring to here. As far as the Purāṇa literature goes, it is impossible to accurately date the composition of any given Purāṇa text. The most plausible dating scenarios suggest they were composed well into the Common Era. 

So Levman's examples "corroborated facts" are not factual and are not corroborated. And the whole article follows this pattern. 

Levman goes on to discuss stories from various suttas as though they were evidence of historicity, but we've already seen that historians have long considered this to be folly. The suttas are not documents from the fifth century BCE. At best they reflect beliefs from the late first century BCE, but more likely even later. That idea the suttas reflect an earlier time is not a fact, it is an inference. Inferences about the past are not historical facts. 

There is another caveat here. The oldest extant Pāli document of any kind is a partial manuscript from the fifth century CE (Stargardt 1995). The next oldest is a fragment from the ninth century. There are no Pāli manuscripts from the first century, though there are Gāndhārī texts from that period. 

The idea that the Pāli texts were written down in the first century is based on uncorroborated claims made in the Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvāṃsa, which are relatively late texts composed in Sri Lanka. The Mahāvaṃsa (33.100) states that the canon and its commentaries were committed to writing in the reign of King Vaṭṭagāmiṇi (29-17 BCE) at the Alu-vihāra in Sri Lanka.

The authors of the Mahāvaṃsa lived thousands of miles and hundreds of years distant from the events they purport to describe. Moreover, as Jonathan Walters (2000) has pointed out:

Scholars who have treated the Vaṃsas as history have ignored the indications that they were written within (and should be understood within) a temporal and causal framework different from that which we know in the modern West.

In other words, Levman is guilty of the fallacy of presentism since he apparently assumes his own, modern, linear sense of time and causality applies to this ancient religious text. Similarly, Kristin Scheible (2016) has cast doubt on the naive use of the Mahāvaṃsa as a historical source. The clear trend in scholarship on the Vaṃsa literature is towards dehistoricizing it. The majority of modern historians don't consider the Mahāvāṃsa to be a straightforward record of history anymore. To some extent, Levman anticipates this objection and his response is telling:

The alternative, that somehow a pseudo-historical figure was fabricated out of whole cloth or evolved on its own does not make rational sense. (Emphasis added)

This is an example of the informal fallacy of argument from incredulity. Wynne (2019) and others are similarly incredulous. We don't even learn why Levman thinks that it "does not make rational sense". Presumably, this is because the historicity of the Buddha is a given in his view. It's not irrational to believe that human storytellers might have invented a heroic figure to be the protagonist of their stories. Since this is exactly what storytellers do, it would be more surprising if Buddhists did not do it (as I will argue below, we see them doing exactly this at every stage of Buddhist literature). That such stories might have evolved as they were repeated orally for centuries, is exactly what I expect.  

Levman finally finds some purchase on historical facts seven pages into his article when he introduces the issue of how accurately the Pāli stories present geographical information, and accurately reflect the flora and fauna of the Ganges Valley. This strategy is also employed by Wynne (2019). However, the fact that Sāvatthī, for example, was a real city is not evidence that the Buddha was a real person. Rather, it is evidence that the Pāli authors knew Sāvatthī from first-hand experience or got reliable second-hand descriptions. 

2. Aetiology

Levman's second argument is to ask: "If the Buddha is indeed a mythic figure, how did his teachings arise?" He argues that if we say his explanation is not the explanation then we are bound to offer an alternative explanation. This is not the case.

The drift of Drewes's argument is to say that in the absence of historical facts (i.e. contemporary documentation) there is nothing that we can interpret to create a historical narrative. The absence of historical facts means that historians have to accept that they are ignorant and stop talking. Moreover, the old Roman legal principle applies:

Onus probandi incumbit ei qui dicit, non ei qui negat.
The burden of proof lies with the one who asserts, not the one who denies

Levman is making assertions, so the burden of proof lies with him. We've already seen that the standard of the "evidence" Levman cites is insufficient to make his case. Indeed, although he repeatedly mentions "historical facts", Levman has presented none. Rather he presents his speculations about what the facts might have been, validated against his axiomatic belief in the historical Buddha, and treats this mess as "facts". There is no documentation from the time he wishes to historicise. Historians don't engage in the reconstruction of facts. They use facts as evidence to construct a story about the past. 

In making the observation that there are no contemporary documents from which to construct a history of that period, Drewes has done his job as a historian. Explaining prehistory is not the job of historians; it is the job of archaeologists and anthropologists. For example, there are interesting archaeological accounts of the second urbanisation based on the distribution of pot-making technology, which gives us the "two cultures hypothesis" (see e.g. Samuel  2008: 48 ff.). Neither Levman nor Karpik mentions this hypothesis. 

Levman (36) continues

Over the twenty-five centuries since the Buddha lived and taught, billions of people have responded to his teachings of relief from suffering through the realization of selflessness; the four-fold saṅgha of upāsakas and upāsikās, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis has lasted in an uninterrupted continuum from then to the present day. Are we to say that these teachings were simply invented or evolved? Is that even possible?

It's apparent here, again, that for Levman the historicity of the Buddha is not in question. It is something that he takes for granted. He's not making an argument from facts, he is stating a belief about what the facts might have been. And there are at least two other fallacies involved here. 

"Billions" is probably an exaggeration. The fact that a million people believe a myth is not a reason to consider it historical. This appeal to the authority of the masses is called the bandwagon fallacy. Moreover, millions of people (more often than not, the very same millions of people) have also believed that the Buddha performed miracles. Levman does not consider this other testimony from the same source to be a "historical fact". If the bandwagon fallacy applies, then Levman should be arguing that the historical Buddha did miracles as a matter of historical fact. 

In "Is it even possible?" we also have another argument from incredulity. Levman has twice now asked his readers, "Could the teachings have been invented and then evolved?" So let's look at how we might answer him. 

From Buddhist literature, we know that Buddhist teachings evolved constantly while there was life in Indian Buddhism (and also that it continued to evolve outside of India). Even within the Pāli texts, we see clear evidence of the evolution of Buddhist doctrines, from archaic formulations later refined or abandoned, to the emergence of abhidharma-style lists. This evolution is frequently used as evidence for the antiquity and authenticity of the Pāli suttas. In fact, every documented Buddhist sect in history eventually abandoned Buddhavacana in favour of new doctrines.

We also know that ancient Buddhists invented new buddhas. We know, for example, that Buddhists invented the "buddhas of the past" to compete with the Jains and their lists of tīrthaṅkaras. And this happened early enough to become canonical. We also know that, before the Common Era, Buddhists were busy inventing new buddhas ex nihilo, e.g. Amitābha, Akṣobhya, and Bhaiṣyajagūru. In addition, they invented a whole new class of ahistorical awakened beings, i.e. bodhisatvas such as Mañjuśrī and Avalokitasvara (later Avalokiteśvara).

Since the invention of both doctrines and buddhas are observed at every point in documented Buddhist history, it makes no sense to argue that such processes were unknown before the advent of writing. Here we see how Levman's a priori beliefs skew his arguments towards tendentious conclusions. If later mentions of the Buddha are "evidence", the later inventions of buddhas are also "evidence" in the same way. Levman considers the former to be factual and does not consider the latter at all. 

Interestingly, Roy Norman (2008: 47), notes that the words buddha and jina are common to both Buddhism and Jainism, meaning that "there were buddhas and there were jinas before the beginning of both Buddhism and Jainism". If buddhas predate Buddhism then it is entirely possible, for example, that the protagonist of the Pāli suttas is a composite of numerous buddhas. This might explain variations in terminology. 

In answer to Levman's question—Is that even possible?—then, I would answer, that it is not only possible that Buddhists invented doctrines and that those doctrines evolved; it was the norm. The invention of buddhas was also normative. The Buddha and his doctrines could easily have been "fabricated out of whole cloth" and this would have been entirely in keeping with trends we see everywhere in Buddhism and in other world mythologies. So Levman's incredulity is not probative; it's just an expression of his ignorance. 

Levman finishes this section by recapitulating his assertion that the bandwagon fallacy applies. This tells us that his invocation of this fallacy was not a mistake. He appears to genuinely think that the bandwagon fallacy is a valid historical method.

3. The Humanness of the Buddha

Levman's third argument is that amongst all the many supernatural features of the protagonist of the Buddhist suttas, are some human details. These details he draws from Pāli texts that were not written down until some 400-500 years after the events that they purport to describe. Detailing all of the fallacies that this argument involves would be tedious, however, there is one informal fallacy here that it is worth focussing on since it also cropped up earlier. 

On any given page of the Pāli canon, we are likely to encounter both human details and superhuman details attributed to the Buddha by the author(s). By "superhuman" here, I mean qualities that involve magic or the supernatural, such as miracles, psychic powers, visiting god realms, and so on; anything that breaks the laws of physics as we know them.

From this body of literature, Levman cites examples of one type of detail and not the other, and the only examples he cites are those that support his view. But he does not tell us why or how he made this distinction and doesn't admit that there are a huge number of passages that don't support his view. In using selected examples that are not representative of the whole literature, he appears to believe that what fits his presuppositions is positive evidence for his conclusions and what does not fit is not evidence at all. This is called the cherry-picking fallacy.

In fact, the Pāli authors almost always included both kinds of details and there is little or no sign that they made the kind of distinction that Levman takes to be a given. The authors apparently didn't think in terms of "historical facts" and "extraneous magical thinking that can safely be ignored". As far as the authors of the Pāli Canon were concerned, it's all undifferentiated buddhavacana, including the miracles and magic. Levman seeks to impose his modernist distinctions on an ancient literature that definitely did not make that distinction. So this is also an example of the presentism fallacy.

All stories contain human details, even when they are about non-humans because this is how stories work. Drewes (2017: 19) notes that many other mythic figures are fleshed out by storytellers:

There may similarly have been an actual person behind the mythical Agamemnon, Homer, or King Arthur; Vyāsa, Vālmīki, Kṛṣṇa, or Rāma, but this does not make it possible to identify them as historical.

After many pages of fallacious argument in this style, we find Levman asserting:

If the Buddha were indeed a mythic character, surely this kind of human material, where the Founder is portrayed as old and weak, would be the first to go (44).

In Christian hermeneutics, unflattering details about Jesus—such as being betrayed to his death by his own followers—are given extra significance because of the principle of embarrassment (c.f. Meier's Historicity Criteria). Stories about real people would be expected not to include unflattering details unless they were true, so such details can be taken to be more likely to be factual. This is not a criterion that can be applied in isolation and we would want to see documentary corroboration from another source but, still, the inclusion of negative qualities makes a protagonist seem more real, not less. 

Compare some examples from Greek mythology. I think of the myth of Prometheus—almost certainly not based on a real person—who creates humans and steals fire from Zeus for us. Zeus doesn't take fire away from us, but he does punish Prometheus for eternity and creates Pandora's box (which introduces evil into the world via women's curiosity about the world). Zeus himself was guilty of numerous rapes and other forms of brutality. I think also of Hephaestus who was born lame, rejected by his mother, fell hopelessly in love with Aphrodite, and experienced overwhelming jealousy towards Ares. Or think of  capricious Yahweh who, enraged by human conduct, wiped out humanity and started again from Noah and his family, but who apparently still applied the doctrine of original sin to justify oppressing humanity with difficulty and pain. 

Does myth-making always exclude the negative? By no means. The gods have all of humanity's foibles, often in extreme forms. Suppose the inventive storyteller wanted us to believe in the historicity of the Buddha. The little negative details are exactly the kind of qualities they would include, be it historical fact or pious fiction. Human details make fictional characters relatable and memorable. 

So there is no reason to assume that human details attributed to the Buddha reflect historical facts. 

4. Biographical

Finally, Levman argues "But discoverable in the canon is evidence of an early, core biography preserving the authentic history of a real person in an unembellished state. Is this also invented?" (26).

Note again the incredulity. We have already established that the only documented history can be "authentic" and the documents that Levman cites are from at least 400 years after the period he wishes to historicise (and probably much longer). Levman's method here is no more than the interpretation of scripture, a procedure already long discredited amongst historians when Drewes wrote his article. Much of what Levman writes in this section takes the form of "hand waving", e.g.

This may or may not represent something close to the actual words of the historical Buddha; the simplicity and candor of the statement do seem to reflect a “certain genuineness” on the part of the speaker (47).

The idea of "a certain genuineness" is vague and subjective and Levman's use of scare quotes here suggests that he was aware of this. It's all too apparent that Levman finds passages to be "genuine" when they confirm his belief and when he does not find that confirmation he does not discuss them at all (cherry-picking fallacy). 

More importantly, how would anyone know if any words from any source reflected the "actual words" of the "historical" Buddha? Given the lack of contemporary documentation, what is the yardstick here? No one disputes that the Buddha was a non-literate person living in a non-literate society. There are no possible corroborating sources from the fifth century BCE. 

Identifying common elements in versions of a story does not make them truer, if anything it just makes them seem older. How old, we have no idea. The idea that older = truer is a fallacy known as appealing to tradition. The "simplicity" of an idea has never been a criterion for its historicity.

The problem here is that the further back in time we go, the more partial and fragmentary are our witnesses to history. Fewer and fewer sources may well give the illusion of increasing simplicity, when in fact it's just a paucity of sources. There is no a priori reason that the past should be any less complex than the present (at least in historical terms). As Graeber and Wengrow (2021) have amply demonstrated in their first two chapters, those people the Europeans described as "simple" and even "savage" were usually anything but. Arguably the indigenous Americans encountered by Europeans were far more socially and politically sophisticated than their European counterparts. Notably, it was Europeans who adopted American ideas—like individual liberty—rather than the other way around.

How does Levman know that any statement in Pāli is "candid"? He claims to be concerned with rational conclusions, but what rational criteria can he possibly apply to arrive at this "insight"? This is all just confirmation bias. This section finishes with a flourish of hand-waving

Of his true roots we know very little, beyond the few snippets which are buried in the canon, or can be reasonably surmised based on the evidence. All of the material I have been able to find is summarized in my 2013 article. But though his background has been mythologized, this does not make him a mythological character, just someone whose true roots have been obscured and excised for purposes of social and political acceptance.

This is what Drewes was referring to at the outset when he said, "scholars have rarely been able to avoid the temptation to offer some suggestion as to what was likely, or ‘must’ have been, true about him."

In point of fact, of the Buddha's "true roots", we know nothing. The snippets that conform to Levman's views are dwarfed by an avalanche of passages that do not. Levman systematically ignores the vast bulk of the Pāli canon because it doesn't support his argument. There are literally no documentary facts upon which any reasonable surmise might be based. And Levman has not introduced any new facts and inferences are not facts. 

Levman sums up by repeating the numerous fallacies already listed. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Levman doesn't understand the theories and methods of modern historiography. He completely misses the significance and importance of Drewes's argument. 

Summing up

At this point, I would characterise Levman's article as an example of what historiographer Carl R. Trueman (2010: 45) calls the aesthetic fallacy: “if it looks scholarly, then, agree or disagree with it, it is scholarly and must be taken seriously and allowed a place at the scholarly table”. Levman's article looks scholarly, but his methods are not scholarly. At least not from the point of view of a historian. 

History is the study of documents. There are no Indian documents before Asoka because writing was not used in India until he created his famous edicts. Attempting to write a history of a preliterate society is a contradiction in terms, at least as far as historians are concerned. This is the historian's episteme. This is how historians try to ensure the validity of their use of historical facts as evidence for reconstructing knowledge of the past. The epistemology of history is still a live topic and the impact of postmodernist critiques of the use of texts is still being felt. Still, the centrality of contemporary documentation has never been problematised. 

Levman appears to fundamentally miss Drewes' point and makes a series of irrelevant arguments. For example, Levman appears to be convinced that certain presumptions and subjective judgements about stories recorded in Pāli amount to historical facts about the Buddha. Or that his inferences about the past amount to historical facts. In his arguments, Levman relies heavily on unexamined assumptions, skimps on citations, makes factually incorrect statements, and employs numerous informal fallacies including, presentismargument from incredulitycherry-picking, the bandwagon fallacy, and confirmation bias.

Fallacies and biases aside, it's clear that Levman, Karpik, and Wynne are all doing something similar when they argue for the historicity of the Buddha. And I think I can shed some light on this. 

Two Epistemes

Most Buddhist Studies scholars are educated in the theories and methods of philology and/or historical linguistics; not in the theories and methods of history and historiography. Philologers routinely reconstruct lost ur-texts from surviving witnesses and historical linguists routinely reconstruct long lost proto-languages. My thesis is that, given these prominent activities it might seem natural for philologists and historical linguists to use similar methods to attempt to reconstruct historical facts via inferences. 

Nineteenth-century linguists, especially in Germany, were able to analyse the way that phonology changes over time and observe that only certain changes and certain types of changes occur. This allows philologists to define descriptive "laws" which limit how any Indo-European language is permitted to change. So we get Bartholomae's Law, Grimm's Law and so on. Since phonological change follows regular patterns that apply across locations and times, we can apply descriptive laws prescriptively and retroactively to reconstruct a universal mother tongue for all of the Indo-European family of languages. Given modern languages and a set of rules, the sounds of ancient languages can be retrospectively reconstructed with considerable confidence. The reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European is an awesome achievement. 

The practice of textual criticism has its roots in the interpretation of legal and religious documents. Formalised methods of recreating the ur-text of the author developed over centuries. Whether they know it or not, modern scholars rely on the method of Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), especially as expressed by his student Paul Maas (1927). As manuscripts are repeatedly copied, errors and amendments build up. By carefully comparing witnesses using Lachmann's method, the textual critic may restore the "original text" even though none of the surviving documents reflects that text. 

In both cases, scholars can infer reliable knowledge of the past based on extant documents. This should sound familiar because it also describes the method of Levman, Karpik, and Wynne (other biases and fallacious arguments aside). They are all making inferences about the past and treating these as historical facts. However, this is not a sound methodology for historiography. 

In contrast to the situation in which we have complete descriptions of dozens of modern languages and extensive descriptions of ancient languages, the Pāli texts don't constitute anything like a complete description of a culture or society. They are normative religious texts that are, for the most part, mythological in character, and only look "historical" after some very restrictive cherry-picking. There is no historical analogue of the lawful changes in phonology (or grammar). 

Historians have long acknowledged that history is not governed by laws analogous to those that govern phonological change. It is a truism that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. However, it is also a truism that knowledge of the past does not enable one to predict the future. Indeed, in history knowledge of the present does not allow us to predict the past either. If it did then we could simply observe Buddhists in the present, formulate some laws that govern change, and infer facts about the past. This method does not work for history. 

It's notable that in the absence of any general laws, Levman appears to substitute "common sense". I point, for example, to his repeated argument from incredulity and his use of subjective terms like "candour" or "genuineness". Even though Drewes pre-warns him that this is not a credible method, Levman goes ahead and does it anyway.

In effect, historians and philologists have different views on epistemology based on different methods applied to different bodies of knowledge. In this view, philologists appear to believe that the kinds of methods that allow them to reconstruct a proto-language or an ur-text can be applied mutatis mutandis to historical facts. Levman repeatedly treats his inferences as facts. 

While the philological approach to history fails, and fails badly, in terms of historiography, at least this explanation of Levman's method as rooted in philology and historical linguistics rather than history and historiography makes a certain kind of sense. I'm not sure this is correct, but this is the most charitable interpretation of Levman's method that I have been able to come up with. 

This view may also help to explain the (undeniable) controversy that Drewes' article caused amongst Buddhist Studies scholars and religieux. Perhaps Drewes's invocation of historical methods, while obvious to any professional historian, was a bit too casual for an audience of philologists and linguists with no background in historiography. Philologists confidently resurrect lost texts and linguists resurrect dead languages all the time, so resurrecting the Buddha may well seem straightforward to them, more especially if his historicity is axiomatic for them. Historians in their turn expect facts to emerge from documents of that time. They are puzzled that the evidence presented is all 500 years too late and of very mixed provenance and doubtful veracity. One side is shouting "What about the facts?" and the other is shouting back "What facts?". As far as I know, no one has previously observed that the two sides define the word "fact" in different ways. 


In the arena of academic historiography, Drewes is right to say "my argument is really a minor one" (19). In the context of modern historiographical methods, there is no such thing as "the historical Buddha" because there are no documents from that time. Drewes is absolutely right that historians should stop using this phrase. 

I think it's fair to say that the dispute over the historicity of the Buddha has been framed in ideological terms, i.e. as a conflict between traditionalists and modernists. This is unfortunate because ideological disputes are extremely resistant to resolution. Ideologues don't change their minds. The dispute is better framed as a dispute over methodology and epistemology. 

This is to say, the dispute hinges on the ability of different methods to give us reliable information about the past. Historians, who specialise in explaining the past, universally agree that history begins with contemporary documents, with the broadest possible meaning of document as any form of writing. A historical fact is a documented fact. 

The problem is that Levman is not a historian. Levman does apply a historian's methodology and does not cite any authorities on the theories or methods of historians. Rather, where Levman is not relying on some fallacy or other, he relies almost entirely on treating inferences as historical facts (analogous to PIE or some ur-text). The raw materials for his inferences are documents from a much later period, after writing began to be used. The validation of such inferences seems to rest on his axiomatic belief in the historicity of the Buddha (the same can be said of Karpik and Wynne) and appeals to incredulity, common sense, and so. 

As compelling as the rhetoric of a "middle way" might be at this point in trying to resolve a dispute, it's clear that historians have already established a "middle way". This is to restrict themselves to contemporary documents. This means that historiography is necessarily limited in scope and reach. 

In fact, the method of treating inferences as facts, as adopted by philologists like Levman, is not a reliable way to get information about the past. It works in the case of proto-languages and ur-texts, but it does not work in historiography. That Levman's attempt to apply this method is plagued by fallacious reasoning and bias should not distract from the problem that his method is fundamentally unsound. 

This is also an answer to the philosopher/philologer colleague who accused me and Drewes of practising "positivism" because we refuse to accept the philological method of treating inferences as facts. We are not "positivists" demanding scientific facts, we are historians using generally accepted methods in historiography to assess the salience and veracity of facts in documents. 

That said, I do not think the idea of a founder of Buddhism is impossible or unreasonable (as I understand Drewes he thinks the same). It actually seems quite plausible that the mythology of Buddhism might be based on a real religious leader. The problem here is that history is not about what we surmise or guess to be true. Inferences are not facts. 

History deals with documented facts and prioritises facts that can be corroborated. As such history is extremely limited in scope. As John Vincent (quoted above) says, "history leans towards literate individuals in literate societies". The Buddha is not a historical figure by any definition of "historical" used by historians precisely because he is not a literate figure and was not from a literate society. In attempting to historicise the mythical Buddha using other methods and without reference to the long history of historiography, Levman ignores the accumulated wisdom of historians. 

Notwithstanding the possibility of his being based on a real person, the Buddha as presented in Buddhist documents is clearly a mythological figure, who has human traits, but also does miracles and has supernatural powers. The term mythological is not intended to have any pejorative connotation. Myths are how preliterate societies encoded their views about the world and their values before the advent of writing. 



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