By David Jones
Like other ancient religious movements, Buddhism started off with oral teachings.
That’s great for a teacher because you can read the room (or hillside or mountain top) and decide on the fly if you need to tweak things a bit.
As the book Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sutra puts it, “The various accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment… acknowledge that the Buddha adapted his teachings to his audience, that he did not teach the same thing to everyone.”
And that’s good. That’s how Wisdom Teachers did things back in the day—they tailored teachings to the moment and the audience. Honestly most of them weren’t too concerned with consistency.
But their followers absolutely were. Over time those teachings evolved into an Oral Tradition which folks memorized so they could get it right each time. That required consistency.
But you know where things start to go south? It’s when two different versions of the same teaching collide. As different versions crop up, each supported by folks who sincerely believe theirs is the correct one, it causes distress.
Monk #1: “In the Teaching of the Wide Shadow, our teacher said that the best way to lose weight is through The Single Footstep of a Better Diet.”
Monk #2: “What? No he didn’t! The Teaching of the Wide Shadow clearly says the right method is The Two Foot Path of Exercise and Hydration!”
Lay Person: “Maybe the correct teaching is The Threefold Course of Better Diet, Exercise, and Hydration.”
Monk #1. “Zip it, Danny!”
Monk #2: “Always going on about your Threefold Course!”
So while variations (and even contradictions) are a natural part of any living Wisdom Tradition, at some point it irritates folks. They start wondering which one they’re supposed to believe.
Farmer: “Look! All we want is to know exactly what the Buddha said and exactly what he meant. We just want someone to nail all this down and let us know.”
Lay Person: “Yeah, no problem. It’s….”
Farming community, in unison: “NOT YOU, DANNY!”
And this is where religions begin the process of becoming Institutionalized.
Sure, things start with a person strolling around teaching others, but then the teacher dies, and after a while folks begin clamoring for the whole teaching. After hearing that enough times, someone (or a bunch of someones) get together and hammer out the Definitive Account.
Eventually that means writing stuff down, replacing the Oral Tradition with an authoritative, “unchanging” Written Tradition. It’s formalized, finalized, settled—a consistent written text folks could refer to as the real representation of the teacher’s authority.
Eventually everyone would have the same written thing—a textual canon.
Of course if there’s a canon there must be things outside of it. For some, outside things are simply not authentic or acceptable.
Schism. Sects. New schools, new traditions, new texts. Oh yes, new texts that purport to relate other things the teacher genuinely said, perhaps claiming to be earlier than Sermon A (earlier, so supposedly a better representation of the oral tradition) or later than Sutra Z (on the teacher’s deathbed, spoken to just a limited number of the most trusted confidants).
Some people just don’t like having so many teachings running hither and yon.
They want a definitive authority—preferably one that makes it easier to discern the validity of specific teachings. That’s hard to do that if the teachings are… I don’t know … impermanent.
And here’s the punch line: the very notion of the impermanence of teachings is so uncomfortable to some that they insist on cementing teachings into a cornerstone authority they can base their lives on. They try to make the words of impermanent teachings permanent.
So in time the Oral tradition often passes away, along with its variations. But that’s okay because it invites people to write commentaries on the now-standardized text, replacing “variation of teaching” with “variation of understanding” and “variation of application.” One way or another, impermanence still wins.
It happened with Buddha. It happened with Jesus. It happened in Hebrew history, and in Arab history, and in other cultural histories. It’s how Wisdom Traditions mature.
But the process doesn’t always happen at one time, or in one place. That’s why, despite the best efforts to have one authority, textual variants might be discovered which get the whole ball rolling again. It’s why cataloging textual variants of Bible books helped launch an entire field of study.
There’s also the matter of language and translation, which inevitably leads to even more variation.
Buddhists around the world can choose their textual authority, not just by choosing a particular scripture collection to focus on, but also choosing whether their authority will be based on writings in Pali, in Sanskrit, in Chinese, etc., then maybe translated again into their own language.
And while all this might feel threatening, it should be reassuring and humbling.
As much as someone claims they know exactly what a teacher said, it’s just not that easy. “Well Jesus said….” Really? Which Jesus? The Jesus in the Gospel of Mark doesn’t seem like the exact same Jesus in the Gospel of John, or the Jesus in the Gospel of Judas. “Well Paul said….” Oh? Which Paul? The apostle who wrote Galatians, the guy who wrote Ephesians, or the Paul we read about in The Acts of Paul?
“Well Buddha said….” Hmm. Which Buddha? The historical Buddha of the Kesamutti Sutta? Maitreya (eventually)? Akshobhya? Tanhankara? The Celestial Buddha of the Lotus Sutra? The Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra?
Pursuing Wisdom (including enlightenment) takes work. It’s not supposed to be simple. And it’s not the same for everyone because everyone is different. Buddha said, “As natures and desires are innumerable, sermons are innumerable, and as sermons are innumerable, meanings are innumerable.” (The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings page 34, translated by Gene Reeves)
It’s really not a big deal unless you need all of your scriptures to be completely unified and invariably consistent. You know, permanent.
And if that’s frustrating, blame Danny.
Editor: Dana Gornall