The question of how we know what we claim to know about the Buddha and his teachings may be interesting only to people like me who have a fixation on all things historical. We should recall, however, that one of the things the Buddha allegedly said was not to take what he said as authoritative just because he said it. We’re supposed to try it out and see if it works for ourselves. On one hand, this could militate toward complete indifference to the authenticity of the texts, since we’re not supposed to take any of it on faith, anyway. I take it that the reason some people claim that the bible is the revealed word of god is that they want to be very sure of the authority of their sacred text. This is not an issue in the same way for Buddhism.
On the other hand, the Buddha’s injunction to examine everything seems to invite an interest in the scholarship behind what we claim to know about his teachings. Also, as we will see in the next chapter, what texts one accepts as canonical is a major division in schools of Buddhism. One authority put it this way:
No one can prove that the Tipitaka contains any of the words actually uttered by the historical Buddha. Practicing Buddhists have never found this problematic. Unlike the scriptures of many of the world’s great religions, the Tipitaka is not regarded as gospel, as an unassailable statement of divine truth, revealed by a prophet, to be accepted purely on faith. Instead, its teachings are meant to be assessed firsthand, to be put into practice in one’s life so that one can find out for oneself if they do, in fact, yield the promised results. It is the truth towards which the words in the Tipitaka point that ultimately matters, not the words themselves. Although scholars will continue to debate the authorship of passages from the Tipitaka for years to come (and thus miss the point of these teachings entirely), the Tipitaka will quietly continue to serve — as it has for centuries — as an indispensable guide for millions of followers in their quest for Awakening.
All canonical Buddhists texts consist of sutras. “Sutra” is a Sanskrit word meaning “thread.” Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions use the word. There is a major collection from proto-Hinduism called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is a compendium of the philosophy of yoga. The sutras that we can most closely attribute to the Buddha himself are called the Pali Canon, which consists of the Tripitaka, a Sanskrit term we have seen before, which means “three baskets.” You may also see “Tipitaka,” which is the Pali version of the Sanskrit word. The baskets are the Vinaya, which consists of the rules for monastic communities; the Abidharma, which consists of interpretations and analyses; and the Sutra pitaka, which consists of the discourses the Buddha himself actually uttered during his lifetime. Allegedly.
As with the bible, the Tripitaka is a post hoc compilation, the most authentic parts of which date to roughly two hundred years after the Buddha’s death. The claim that the Buddha’s chief disciples convened soon after his death and wrote down what they remembered is likely a myth. Even so, as a result, many of the sutras begin, “Thus have I heard….”
There are at least two other compilations of teachings purportedly from the Buddha, one from China, the other from India, both of which show a great deal of overlap with the Pali Canon, which militates in favor of the authenticity of the whole lot.
One suspects that people at the two ends of the knowledge spectrum have the fewest concerns about these issues. If you’ve never thought about it at all, you may not care, and again, if you have a regular meditation practice and behave yourself, it should not matter. I suspect you will notice changes from the meditation practice, especially if you practice regularly, and within a specific tradition according to their suggestions, which should be all the authentication one could ask for.
At the other end of the spectrum, those of us who have done research at the Ph.D. level in nearly any discipline are likely accustomed to the fact that most of what we know rests on a less solid foundation than most people realize. I am very confident of the claims that I make about past events on the basis of research in Presidential libraries and comparable collections, but I realize that the luxury of amassing and maintaining huge collections of documents primarily for their historical value is a mostly modern phenomenon and that historians of other periods and other cultures do the best they can with what they have. The whole enterprise depends on a willingness to trust the good faith and ability of the people doing the work, which I have no problem with.
In the middle, there are likely those persons who are plenty smart enough to wonder about the authenticity of texts (which is not to imply that you’re not smart if you don’t wonder, just less nervous), but who lack the sort of academic training that would prompt them to be blasé about issues of authenticity. If you fall into that category, I would point you to the ends of the spectrum. Believe me when I, with my Ph.D. in history, assure you that the scholarship is as good as it gets, or develop a regular meditation practice, which you should do anyway, and rest content with the fruits of that. Also, in the section on suggestions for further reading, there are links to web sites that discuss the authenticity of the sutras at much greater length, offering informed opinion about the relative authenticity of various sutras and explanation of the basis for the opinion.
But, again, do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. In the end, what really matters is not the texts themselves, but the ideas that the texts convey. If tomorrow, by some extraordinary circumstance, definitive documentation appeared proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the long-standing story of who the historical Buddha was turned out to be a myth that someone had fabricated out of whole cloth, it would not much trouble me because my commitment to Buddhism rests on my experience of meditation and the fact that, as a matter of simple logic, Buddhism makes more sense to me than any of the other options. May it be so for you as well, if you choose to become Buddhist.