How Do We Know?

William B. Turner
5 min readFeb 20, 2020

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…