What if Buddhism were a Myth?

This post is for Buddhists.  It is an exercise in heresy!  Given that Buddhists don’t consider themselves to be creatures committed to doctrine, I am sure “heresy” must also be something they don’t worry about.  So I am hoping this thought-experiment will be fun and instructive:

Imagine that the four noble truths were never uttered by the Buddha.  Let’s just say that some wayward Buddhist monks actually preferred the ascetic, renunciative life.   These heretical monks felt that:  “Life is bad, we must forsake the body.  The mind is everything,  Sex, food, and property are all distractions causing attachment and suffering. We must forsake these all to escape and cleanse our minds of attachment to anything so as to escape suffering”.

Let’s say those guys made up the Pali scriptures and made the Buddha into their puppet to say the four noble truths in hopes of propagating their favored life of renunciation.  What if the actual Buddha just discussed ways to more fully enjoy life and to embrace even pleasures and indulgences?  Let’s say the actual Buddha found methods to sparkle the mind — he didn’t see life as suffering at all but as ripe opportunity for pleasure.  But after he died, those Pali-speaking renunciates became considered orthodox and bang! that becomes standard Buddhism with the 4 spiritual laws (ooops, I mean 4 noble truths).

OK, so that is the thought experiment’s presupposition. If you discovered that what I just said was true, would your meditation practice change?  Would your view of why you do meditation change?

Bottom line — do those 4 nobel truths really matter?

Actually, I am sure many Buddhist readers will be very savvy at telling us all sorts of creative ways to interpret the four noble truths so as to make such a though experiment seem naive.  For those people, then, let me offer a more radical thought experiment:  What if the Buddha was a total myth?  How would that change your meditation practice, would your view of why you do meditation change?  You see, the questions remain the same.

Note:  This is a similar thought-experiment to my post to Christians entitled: “Trading Jesus for God“.  Give it a look.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

27 responses to “What if Buddhism were a Myth?

  1. I’m not a Buddhist, but I don’t understand why it would matter whether or not there was an actual Buddha. It’s not like Buddhism claims to reveal anything you cannot discover on your own — anything that you must take on faith from an authority figure.

    Besides, isn’t there a Zen saying, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

  2. JSA

    Shows how ignorant I am! I thought that a significant percentage of Buddhists considered Buddha to be mythological, and that it didn’t affect the truth of the religion one bit.

  3. @ JSA,
    Wow, or it shows how ignorant I am — I thought most would not only think he was a real person (though many would acknowledge the fluff), they would also find it somewhat important that he was real though they may say otherwise. The Conquerer/Hero-Leader, as you know, is so important to human consciousness. But you bring up an empirical question — it would be fun to see if anyone has done that research. I wonder how those number change between country, education and such. I still wager in all circles it is very high. But I could be very wrong.

  4. @ Paul Sunstone,
    Part of my point here (both in the post, and in my comment to JSA) is that I think it matters to many Buddhists to a greater degree than those Buddhists perhaps consciously know. I don’t say that critically or self-righteously. I just think that is how we work. And I don’t think our psyche is united. We can hold many contradictory thoughts, feelings and approaches all at the same time!

  5. I don’t generally doubt that the Buddha existed, but I am very skeptical of claims made that the Pali cannon is somehow the verbatim teachings of the Buddha. Often I refer to the sutras or some such teaching, rather than simply “Buddha said”. I don’t think it really matters if the Buddha ever lived or not, rather when it comes to Buddhism, the proof is in the pudding. I see a lack of appeal to authority because it doesn’t matter whose mouth the dharma came from, as long as it points to the truth.

    That being said, if the Buddha was some type of hedonist pleasure seeker (!) it wouldn’t change my practice as a Buddhist one bit. The focus of my practice at the time being revolves around the devloping the ten perfections (paramitas), and trying to not identify with the skandhas.

    Really, if it was somehow proven that the Buddha never existed, I wouldn’t care much. I’m wondering if that’s because i focus on Zen, and the historical Buddha doesn’t matter as much as a person in the Zen tradition.

    And if it turned out that Buddha thought that life was ripe with pleasure, I don’t know that I’d follow those teachings so much, though it depends on how those teachings were framed I suppose. The whole goal of the release of samsara is a pleasant experience (though those aren’t the right words if any fundies are reading) after all, one that is without end, and not conditioned to change.

  6. It is irrelevant whether the Buddha was a historical figure or a myth. There are arguments for both positions. Similarly there are arguments regarding the Pali canon’s reportage as well. The only thing that matters to me is the answer to the questions “Does the teaching hold up when practiced as described?” “Does it deliver?” “Has my initial faith-for that is all a beginner has before proof arrives-been well placed in this path?”

    Thus far I’d have to say yes.

    As for doctrinal commitments I am committed to doctrine insofar as it describes the methodology as well as provides some philosophical and psychological justification and explanation for that methodology. The question of heresy is one I look at more as a question of withholding or misleading or mistaking regarding the scope of the teachings. Mindfulness meditation alone, for example, is not the whole of Buddhism. It is one element of eight, of one quarter of the four noble truths. It’s like saying the wheels are the same as the car. A good portion is missing. Heresy is too strong a word for that kind of thing.

  7. @Sabio Lantz:

    I don’t think our psyche is united. We can hold many contradictory thoughts, feelings and approaches all at the same time!

    OK I see where you’re coming from now. I was a bit surprised at first because it has been my understanding that the existence of the Buddha is largely irrelevant to the truth or falsity of Buddhism — Especially in Mahayana Buddhism.

    By the way, I forgot about this when writing my earlier comment, but I have heard that the Buddha has at times come close to being deified by the Theravadists. That might seem to support your position.

  8. The Maha-Saccaka Sutta clearly shows that eating rice pudding is the means to awakening. There are a few a sentences in the same passage that may also be interesting (it’s the Buddha speaking, right before his awakening) :

    “I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities…”

    Seeing the chaos that rules in the Pali Canon I would not be surprised at all to find no single person behind the concept of the ‘historical Buddha’. Reading the Vinaya certainly puts the piety of the Sangha in perspective. 🙂

  9. @ Adam
    Great reply. Thank you. Your perspective may be uniquely Western Zen, I am not sure. It would be fun to do a survey.

    @ NellaLou
    Thanks for stopping in. Superb reply — as Adam implies, if the proof ain’t in the pudding, throw out the pudding.
    If I remember correctly, you have travel a great deal in Asia. What sort of importance does an actual Buddha have for the Buddhists you have met?
    I liked the wheels of the car analogy.

    @ Paul Sunstone
    I think this can be discussed from several levels:
    (a) Do many Buddhists — Mahayana and Theravada: view the Buddha as a real figure and are those views infused with a magic notion. I think yes.
    (b) Do many intellectual Buddhists hold the view of Adam and NellaLou. I think yes.
    (c) Do to the funny nature of our minds, do many folks hold both (a) and (b) — I’d say yes.

    I hope that is a little more clear.

    @ Roni
    I have Christians who occasionally drop Bible verses on threads. At least I can read the short verse and see how it applies. You tend to drop who Sutras — ouch. They are long reading (I read this one too) and hard to understand without studying.
    So a little summary with connection to the point you are making would be most helpful. I wasn’t sure what your first two paragraphs were saying. But I agreed with your second to last sentence. And again, I didn’t understand your last sentence.
    Lots of good stuff there (and I like the Suttas) but I need a bit of help.

  10. @ Sabio
    The suttas I have linked so far have been only for reference, I have not intended to say more than I have written myself.

    The first sentence is a kind of insider joke (after having done those harsh ascetic practices without any progress towards awakening, the Buddha started eating again, this rice pudding is what he ate, and then… tra raaa… he attained awakening). This event is accompanied by the words about not being afraid of pleasure/happiness, which does not really fit in this big picture about suffering (so I thought it was something that supported your fantasies about the Buddha’s alternative teachings). (This passage about happiness seemed so disturbing for the Hungarian translator of this sutta, that he simply omitted it.)

    In your post you bring up the notion of renunciates, preferring this ascetic life. The picture you get from the suttas (or the images that you see on the websites of monasteries) are of these pious monks and nuns, but if you read the rules (that are supposed to be based on precedents) you get a very ‘human’ picture.

  11. @ roni
    Fantastic points — thanks for spelling it out.
    Concerning your last paragraph about the rules, I went to that great link on the Vinaya that you provided and found these rules giving a “very human picture”. 😉

    Vinaya Rules:

    No Dancing, cracking nuckles or wiggling fingers or toes. (Sekhiya 10:5-6)

    No Laughing loudly (Sekhiya 10:11-12)

    I will not slurp when I eat (Sekhiya 10:51) = ouch, most for most of Asia

    I will not defecate or urinate while standing (Sekhiya 10:53)

    Tickling with the fingers is to be confessed (Pācittiya 52)

    The act of playing in the water is to be confessed. (Pācittiya 53)

    Should any bhikkhu bathe at intervals of less than half a month, except at the proper occasions, it is to be confessed. (Pācittiya 57)

    Intentional emission of semen, except while dreaming, entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.(Sanghādisesa 5:1)

  12. @ Sabio I’m glad it has got across.

    One more insider joke then. The Buddha states many times that the monastics should either talk about his teaching or keep ‘noble silence’. But the Vinaya (this code of discipline) contains all the stories of sex, murder, treachery, black magic etc. that led to the formulation of those particular rules. So the monastics can entertain each other by these stories from the Vinaya, and be still ‘talking about the Buddha’s teaching. 🙂

  13. Laurance

    I call myself a “Renegade Buddhist”. I don’t give a good goddamn if the Buddha existed or not. All that matters to me is that the propositions I accept be able to stand up under scrutiny. And that acceptance is subject to change if scrutiny shows me to be wrong.

    (Oh, and it’s not the Theravadins who practically deify the Buddha. That’s a Mahayana thing.)

  14. @ roni: That is funny! Thanx.

    @ Laurance: Indeed, “scrutiny” is critical. I looked up the word “scrutiny”: to search through trash:
    scruta (L): “trash, rags”
    scrutary (L): “to examine, search”
    scrutinum (L): “a search, inquiry”

  15. @ Sabio But I have no idea if this actually happens. 🙂

  16. jimmy

    Good post Sabio. A while back I posed a similar question to a (liberal) Protestant minister. I asked her if it could be proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus didn’t exist, how would her practice (not necessarily *belief*) change? My own answer was “not at all”. For me, that was the beginning of the end of what little Christian faith I had.

  17. Skeptnik

    There is no way to know, but, I think what you propose is probably closer to the actual facts than what has come down through the traditional narrative, which is of course, hearsay and rumor.
    As far as meditation, I think it is actually more free and beneficial without the distraction of trying to live up to someones expectation of you.

  18. @ Jimmy & Skeptnik : Agree. Thanx for the comment.

  19. If I find something that works, I use it. I listen to what people have to say. I try, fail, try again. I look for a way that is natural to me.

    The historical-or-not Buddha is helpful, but he is dead.

    I change my mind.

  20. CRL

    And yet, I doubt very many Christians would have the same reaction if we were to suggest that Jesus may have been a myth, or that Jesus’ teachings may the work of some other teacher. Goes to show what a rigidity of mind the belief in a supernatural/all powerful god tends to bring.

  21. @ Mark:
    Good strategy

    @ CRL:
    Indeed, Western Buddhists are very cool (for the most part) of letting go of doctrine. But I think many hold on in odd ways that they may not think they do also. But you are right — of the on-fire Christians I know, 90% are dogma freaks.

  22. CRL

    Yeah. That said, I wonder what the results would be if you asked this question to a group of Eastern Buddhists. From what I understand from this blog/friends parents, the reactions would be considerably less accepting.

  23. I have no attachment to this post one way or another.

  24. Totally off topic but connected to the header of the blog (I would guess that Sabio knows it, I have just come across it), enjoy: The Known Universe (animation by AMNH)

  25. @ Roni,
    Yep, off topic — but fun video!

  26. Ryusan

    Doesn’t matter if Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) existed or not to us Shin Buddhists… we HONOR both Buddhas… Amida Buddha… the mythical Buddha that was the precurser to his reincarnation… the Buddha you refer to here… bottom line is that the truth is the truth… we are told to try it for 10 years and see if it changes our lives or not.. if so.. great… if not.. great.. leave and find what works for you… Buddha is not a God or Saviour or anything like that.. he is honored not worshiped… respected not sacrificed to.. and no matter where the four noble truths, the eightfold path, or any of that came from… it works… Period!!
    While I’m on my soapbox, the same holds true for Jesus… he didn’t start out to for a religion !!!! if you read the new testament (espeiclally the Aramaic one) and look at what he was trying to teach through his actions you will see that the TV preachers and their cronies have gotten it all wrong… just sayin..

  27. @Ryusan,
    You preach it brother!

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