Dissent from the Top: Reading Ancient Buddhist Texts as Historical Evidence.
“[Buddhism] is a religion that preserved dissent as part of its [canon] (including some of the reasons that would-be converts stated for rejecting the teaching of the Buddha, the words of ex-monks who formerly accepted but later rejected the teaching, as well as the arguments of rival philosophers who criticized the Buddha). As in the case of Mahā-Kassapa, we even have evidence of dissent from the top.”
(This article first appeared as Buddhist Philosophy Part 08, in Dec. of 2012, on my blog, here.)
Suppose someone formed their opinion of Buddhism based solely on the articles on my blog (a scenario only slightly stranger than meeting someone whose opinion of Buddhism is based entirely on Kung-Fu movies… and yet much less common). The question might then be asked, “Given all of this supernatural material in the canon (that you complain about other western interpreters selectively ignoring, etc.), why does anyone think of these texts as records of specific historical events at all?”
In a roundabout way, questions of that kind do reach me. I received an utterly unexpected response from an established, PhD-wielding, career academic (specialized in Buddhism) who felt that my work supported his own conclusion that the Pali canon contained no description of the Buddha as an historical figure at all, nor (in his opinion) did the texts depict him as a human being. This was both astounding and hilarious, as I then had to provide this professor with a link to one of my prior articles in reply: I had already written “The Buddha was Bald” to discuss the descriptions that we have in the Pali canon that do indeed make the Buddha seem like a normal human being (with nothing supernatural about his appearance, etc.). I have never heard back from that professor again. Socratic method is dead, apparently.
The question of whether the the Buddha is described as natural, supernatural, or alternating between the two, is a fairly narrow issue; we have a broader problem in questioning his status as an historical figure (in any of the texts, or in accordance with any possible archaeological evidence, etc.). Even so, the latter question is still narrower than the universal problem of why anyone regards any of the ancient texts as “real historical evidence” (as opposed to religious fables), and why other texts in the same canon are disregarded (as mere fables). In effect, modern interpreters end up selectively disregarding some texts, while insisting on the importance of others.
One of the great ghosts haunting “popular philology” is the criterion of embarrassment. This is not a technical concept: its origin is in a book that sold in airport lobbies, and it was neither narrowly defined by academics nor by religious authorities. If you look around the internet for debates employing the term, you’ll find that they both demonstrate a diversity of (implicit) definitions of what it means, and you’ll also see that the authors (often enough) debate amongst themselves the problem of how exactly this criterion should be used.
Given that the term is legitimately contestable in its meaning, it is easier for me to give an example of how it applies to Buddhist studies than to define it. Mahā-Moggallāna was one of two monks who were expected to inherit the leadership of Buddhism (as a then-new religion) at the time of the Buddha’s death; this didn’t happen. Despite the fact that both of these monks were younger than the Buddha, they both pre-deceased him; and Mahā-Moggallāna was reportedly murdered.
The texts concerning Mahā-Moggallāna are full of the magical and the supernatural, and the events surrounding his death are further embellished upon in the commentaries. Modern readers tend to regard the death of Mahā-Moggallāna as an historical fact, even if they regard all of the stories told about it as mythology. How is that possible? If your only evidence is myth, why would you suppose that you have evidence of anything other than mythology?
Well, there is this dubious thing called the criterion of embarrassment: in general, modern readers suppose that the untimely death of both of the monks who had been appointed to inherit authority was a subject of “embarrassment” (in the peculiar sense that it required further explanation and justification). Even if the myths are largely fiction, modern readers tend to suppose that the reason for creating the myth was real: the supposition is that a story needed to be invented to “explain away” an inconvenient fact. However, this whole attitude remains one of supposition.
Many people who don’t use the term “criterion of embarrassment” nevertheless share in this basic attitude toward textual evidence (and many people complain that the word “embarrassment” itself is poorly suited to the meaning of the phrase, and is an unwanted distraction, etc.). The point here isn’t that ancient Buddhists were embarrassed by the death of Mahā-Moggallāna itself; rather, the assumption is that modern readers can infer that the invention of the myth served as a type of compensation for a real historical event (and that we can further infer what that real event was that the authors are compensating for). It all seems so obvious and yet it is really very dubious.
Was Mahā-Moggallāna really murdered by Jains? If we have a myth stating that he was, couldn’t this text reflect tensions between the two religions (Buddhism vs. Jainism) at the time of the myth’s authorship, rather than recording a prior historical event? Can we really “selectively disregard” supernatural elements of a story (that would tend to categorize it as myth) simply because there are other elements that seem (to us, with modern eyes) to indirectly reflect real events?
Could it be, conversely, that these myths cover over something completely different that we can’t guess at from the mere supposition that something is concealed? Human nature being what it is, we might say, at least hypothetically, that there could have been a power-struggle to determine who inherited the control of the religion around the time of the Buddha’s death. As such, it could be that the myth isn’t concealing the “inconvenient fact” of Mahā-Moggallāna’s death, but, instead that the “convenient fact” of death itself was the myth.
If we started from the skeptical assumption that Mahā-Moggallāna might not have been dead prior to the Buddha, we would then interpret the written myths as offering an explanation of his absence (i.e., exclusion) from power thereafter. That would be wholly speculative; however, the problem with the criterion of embarrassment is that every theory it supports is wholly speculative.
We cannot reduce the degree of speculation even if we employ Occam’s razor: there is absolutely no reason why the simplest available explanation for the invention of a myth would be more true than a convoluted one.
Unlike the pure sciences (or even the medical sciences), neither mythology nor history are susceptible to Occam’s famous principle: the simplest explanation for why Napoleon went to war with Russia may be utterly false (his real reasons may have been extremely convoluted, etc.) and the simplest explanation for various myths that have been made up about the ensuing war may also be false (propaganda isn’t counted as one of the pure sciences). Given that we’re looking at an uncertain mix of mythology and history, “the principle of parsimony” is doubly misleading.
Unlike the laws of physics, we’re investigating a story that intentionally conceals something: the motives of the authors may be complex, and we don’t even know to what extent they regarded themselves as writing fact, fiction, or a mixture of the two. In the 21st century, if we were to speculate as to the inspiration for a particular song’s lyrics, the simplest explanation has no reason to be more true than a convoluted one. In looking for historical facts that may be masked within a work of art, simplicity need not correlate to accuracy (although simplicity may make our analysis seem more logical, our conclusions are not any less speculative for that reason).
Returning to the question that opened the essay: why does anyone regard any of this stuff as historical evidence of anything at all? Well, as a broad aesthetic tendency, I think that most of us (i.e., modern readers) really do share in the mentality of the criterion of embarrassment, and the canonical texts offer us various critical and self-critical remarks about the (imperfect) development of early Buddhism that seem all-too-easy to believe in. It isn’t the case that all of the monks in the canon are paragons of virtue; instead, we have many acrimonious dialogues preserved in which the monks disagree about philosophy, or, sometimes, accuse one-another of ethical lapses and moral misconduct. There is no real reason why we should regard a story about a bad monk as more historically real than a story about a good monk; however, we should be aware of this tendency of thought that elects to do precisely that. We tend to treat texts as factual if they contain criticism, self-criticism, conflict, and explanations for what seem to be “inconvenient facts”; we tend to regard the absence of these things (in an otherwise grandiose narrative) as mythical.
If the canon described everyone as levitating and radiating magical beams all the time, etc., nobody today would believe any of it, nobody would really be interested in it, and the whole canon would probably be thought of as quite boring, in contrast to the human drama of other ancient sources, such as the myth of Heracles. However, the canon does preserve very down-to-earth reflections on the state of the religion, alongside the supernatural narratives (and sometimes mixed in with them indifferently). This is the sense in which Buddhism is (frankly) more interesting than the myth of Heracles: the religion was intensely aware of its own corruption from the outset, and it was intensely concerned about the misunderstanding of its own philosophy even within its first group of core followers. The canon preserves a record of many of those concerns (debates, complaints, remonstrations, etc.) — although these are not separate from the mythological material in the texts themselves, and they definitely do not comprise an “earlier stratum” whereby anyone could/should disregard the mythological material as “later strata”. More fundamentally, we should admit to ourselves that we have no clear “criterion” as to what may be called a myth anyway (nor of how/why anything would be separated out as a non-myth); instead, readers just operate on the basis of their own sentiment, and something like the criterion of embarrassment.
Returning to the question of who inherited power at the time of the Buddha’s death, I would look very briefly at the example of Mahā-Kassapa. Whereas the two monks appointed to inherit power did not do so (reportedly due to their untimely demise), Kassapa was the man who actually did take over control of the religion. Was he appointed to do so from the Buddha’s death-bed? No, reportedly, he wasn’t present. However, as the myth goes (in the MPNS), the fact that he was intended to take over the leadership was indicated magically by the fact that the wood stacked up for the Buddha’s funeral-pyre refused to burn until Mahā-Kassapa arrived to attend the funeral. No, I’m not making this up. The question is, who did, and why?
Yes, theoretically, it is possible that this is an actual historical event, but I don’t think that anyone alive today interprets the text in this manner (not even the most pious of monks, and I’ve met many). Conversely, if the point of the myth were to legitimate the power of Mahā-Kassapa, the question deserves to be asked: why didn’t someone simply fabricate a decision on the part of the Buddha (on his death-bed) saying that Kassapa should take over control of the religion?
It may also be noted that the wood on the pyre does not speak with its own voice: another important monk, Anuruddha, offers the explanation that the gods were preventing the fire from alighting until Kassapa could arrive. Again, it is tempting to imagine that this myth preserves Anuruddha’s support for Mahā-Kassapa inheriting power, and that it is indirectly depicting the fact that Anuruddha wanted to delay the funeral proceedings until Kassapa and his supporters could arrive to advocate for his leadership. However, we don’t know this: it is speculation of the crudest kind.
Mahā-Kassapa isn’t even mentioned in the text (the MPNS) until after the Buddha’s death; he enters the narrative with the description of his absence, explained in reference to this issue of the funeral-pyre remaining mysteriously flame-retardant.
Conversely, Sāriputta, one of the two monks who definitely was appointed to inherit power, is mentioned in the same text as speaking to the Buddha shortly prior to the Buddha’s death — yet more than 3 months before, apparently (when the Buddha is still in Nalanda). So, incongruously, we have the Buddha praising the wisdom of Sāriputta as part of the Buddha’s death-narrative, and then Sāriputta simply disappears from the story, with no mention of the fact that he was supposed to take over the leadership, nor any statements of the Buddha’s disappointment that this wouldn’t happen. Sāriputta isn’t mentioned again (neither as alive nor dead nor dying), nor is he present at the funeral, nor is his absence at the funeral mentioned as significant. Meanwhile, Mahā-Moggallāna isn’t mentioned even once in the whole story, although he was the other man appointed to inherit the leadership, and he allegedly died subsequent to Sāriputta, but still prior to the Buddha.
In terms of the chronology, wasn’t Sāriputta supposed to be dead all along? In retrospect, we are supposed to believe that both Sāriputta and Mahā-Moggallāna died just a few months before the Buddha’s own funeral, and that news of this shocking turn of events reached the Buddha, and yet their deaths aren’t mentioned within the same text. If all of those deaths transpired in such rapid succession within the last three months of the Buddha’s life, why would there be absolutely no mention of such an important drama in the midst of the very myth that details the last three months of the Buddha’s life?
These were the two “chief disciples”, who were supposed to be in command after the Buddha’s death; are we expected to imagine that their own deaths are simply omitted as unimportant from this narrative?
It seems almost irresistible to imagine that we can unravel what the myth means, and also what it conceals. The truth is that we can’t. We don’t know whether or not it was written to conceal anything, and we can never verify what it is concealing in particular.
If these myths were written to serve a simple political purpose, Mahā-Kassapa would instead be mentioned in the Buddha’s final orations, and he would be unambiguously named as the intended successor throughout the canon (but he isn’t). Instead, the canon preserves an incongruous and ambiguous situation at the time of the Buddha’s death, despite the mythological and grandiose tropes that are built into the narrative. Nobody who studies the Pali canon as a whole could have the sense that Mahā-Kassapa’s accession was obvious or uncontroversial. We’re left with fragments of many strange controversies, and that inescapable feeling that we’re looking at an imperfect record of real historical events, even though we’re only looking at myths that we suppose to very indirectly reflect those events.
Within the Pali canon, Mahā-Kassapa emerges as a very interesting and very human character (who deserves to be written about at greater length than I would do here). Mahā-Kassapa offers us some of the most striking examples of “dissent from the top” within the canon: he complains very directly about what he perceives to be wrong and corrupt within the religion. This, also, tugs at our sense of the criterion of embarrassment: although we really have no evidence at all, the nature of the complaints themselves just seem so human, and so believable, that we easily take them as indirect evidence of something actual.
One of the most interesting complaints offered to the Buddha was in the Saddhammapatirūpaka-suttanta (SN, PTS vol. 2, p. 223–4) where Mahā-Kassapa laments the decline of the religion, still within the lifetime of its founder (see the Pali text displayed in the first illustration). In the past, he complains, the number of rules was few, but the number of monks who became properly trained was many; now, by contrast, there are many rules, but few of the monks are really becoming accomplished in the training. This is dissent from the top: one of the foremost monks (and the one who eventually took over the leadership of the religion) is complaining that the rules don’t work. Buddhism is a religion built on rules: the complaint against the (prolix) monastic code from one of its foremost proponents is significant. The fact that the canon preserves dissent of this kind (mixed in with supernatural narratives and all the rest of it) is even more significant.
This is a religion that preserved dissent as part of its bible (including some of the reasons that would-be converts stated for rejecting the teaching of the Buddha, the words of ex-monks who formerly accepted but later rejected the teaching, as well as the arguments of rival philosophers who criticized the Buddha). As in the case of Mahā-Kassapa, we even have evidence of dissent from the top.
So, “is this stuff historical evidence of anything at all?” In general, people answer that question in accordance with their own evaluation of human nature: although it is easy to imagine that a religion would invent myths to glorify itself, it simply seems difficult to imagine that they would invent myths to criticize themselves (within their own canon). Conversely, there is absolutely no distinction between myth and historical fact within the texts (of “the core canon”, as I choose to put it) and we need to be keenly aware of the subjective and emotional nature of the decisions we make in disregarding some texts as fictional, and in historicizing others.