[Buddha-l] Is this true?

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Wed Aug 25 01:12:14 MDT 2010

Dear Justin,

Thanks for emphasizing that Gombrich has more to say on the subject than 
just that passage.

The passage that Shen Shi'an passed on to us is online at
but no attribution is provided.

In fact, it comes from Gombrich's How Buddhism began: the conditioned 
genesis of the early teachings, Cambridge U Press, 1996, pp 8-9. So this is 
something he did indeed write, albeit roughly fifteen years ago.

I did read What the Buddha Thought a little while back, and my impression is 
that what you say, viz. that he also embraces the idea of Buddha himself as 
the origin for much of what is in the Pali canon, etc., is indeed the case; 
but he utilizes an uncomfortable shifting of registers to do so. These were 
originally lectures, yes? Latitude is allowed in oral presentations, since 
documentation can be tedious and ineffective in front of a live audience, 
while some rhetorical flourishes can keep an audience alert.

He does, for instance, almost as an article of faith, confidently assert 
that "the Pali version of the suttas and Vinaya stand unrivaled as our 
oldest evidence..." (99) And he does point out that "In Burma in the twefth 
century grammarians systematized Pali grammar and prosody, thus exercising 
considerable influence on how the language was written thereafter, both in 
Burma and elsewhere." (ibid) As I suggested, I think this likely happened 
numerous times, including during Buddhaghosa's day, a good seven or so 
centuries earlier. On the same page he complains -- rightly -- that current 
scholarship has not done enough rudimentary philological work on the texts 
(e.g., determining stemma, etc.) to advance an answer on how "modern" (his 
word) the received versions are (and he even wonders if they ever will be 
able to decide that). He then largely reiterates the traditional account of 
the canon formation (Buddha or monks speak, the "councils" or recitations 
recite, eventually put down in writing, etc.). He offers the possibility of 
accurate oral transmission, citing what others have said about the Vedas, 
and so on.

He then discusses K.R. Norman's piece on the first sermon, Norman 
demonstrating that it could not have been an introductory sermon at all 
since (1) it rhetorically presupposes that the audience is already familiar 
with the main topics, and (2) is presented in a style that "reeks of the 
systematizers who produced the abhidhamma and before that certain 
doxographical texts like the last two suttas of the Digha Nikaya." (p. 103)

Here is how Gombrich resolves this for himself: "In my view, it was 
remembered [by the Buddhist redactors -- DL] that the Buddha began his 
preaching with the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold 
Path; this can never be certain, but it is perfectly plausible. However, 
what he said about them on that occasion was not clearly remembered, for 
surely no one at that stage made a 'text' of it. Moreover, the 'first 
sermon' that has come down to us is chock full of metaphors and technical 
terms which the Buddha at that stage has not yet explained." (ibid)

That, I guess, is his own middle way -- between admitting it is a later 
constructed fiction and accepting it as an historical transcript. But other 
scenarios and explanations are also "plausible". (e.g., Middle Way, Four 
Noble Truths, etc. had BECOME, at some point, central teachings for the 
community of redactors but have nothing to do with whatever might have been 
Buddha's initial teachings, long forgotten, since it would be years before 
Ananda, Sariputta, Moggalana, etc. would join up and listen, and the last 
two mentioned died before he did, so they would have had no input into the 
"council" recitations, but I digress...).

He makes some further assertions (that the received version is from the time 
of the Second Council), but the curious can read this for themselves. (p. 
104) What he says about the Lotus Sutra in contrast to the Pali texts can be 
found on p. 165.

He offers as one of his arguments for accepting the early authenticity of 
the canon the fact that commentaries reiterate the root texts. But if, as 
pointed out above, the commentators were the redactors, tweaking and 
updating the texts as they went along writing their commentaries, this would 
hardly constitute convincing evidence.

I think the passage in question could have been expressed in a more prudent 


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