Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4.More Meditations

Chapter 12.Buddhist historicity

Buddhism emerged in northeast India about 6thor 5thCent. BCE. It did not, of course, emerge in a cultural vacuum. India already had a rich religious culture, based on the Vedas and Upanishads, which gave rise to other religions, notably the Hindu.

It seems to be historical fact that Buddhism was founded by a man called Siddhartha Gautama, though historians disagree as to the exact dates of his life; most of them, in India and the West, suggest he lived in 563-483 BCE, others, in Japan, suggest 448-368 BCE.[1]

Whatever the case, it seems reasonable to assume that Buddhism began with this single man’s teachings, and over time expanded and evolved. It does not follow, of course, that all the stories that have come down to us concerning him are historically true, nor that all statements made in his name were indeed made or implied by him.[2]

More significant philosophically is the issue as to whether this man’s claim of “complete enlightenment and liberation” is true or not. No historian can ever answer that question. It is not inconceivable that such a metaphysical experience and event is humanly possible, but it would be hard to prove or disprove it. The one claiming such “Buddha” status can only be truly understood and justified by another person with the same privilege; and all others can only take it on faith, or refuse to do so.

It is as with any witness – the witness was there and saw and heard what he claims; but others, who were not present, have still to decide whether or not to believe his say-so. His testimony supports but does not definitively prove the hypothesis. We have to take into consideration the possibilities that he misunderstood or deluded himself, or exaggerated or lied to impress or manipulate others, or that reports concerning him were or have become distorted. These things do happen, even today; and in olden days, the boundary between fact and fiction was perhaps more tenuous still.

Notwithstanding the speculative presuppositions, it seems fair for us to still conventionally call this man the “Buddha” (meaning the enlightened one). Insofar as the doctrine of Buddhism depends on faith in certain metaphysical possibilities, it must be regarded as a religion. Even so, it includes some very philosophical insights and discussions, and so may also be regarded as a philosophy.

This philosophical tradition is very broad and varied, and subject to very divergent interpretations. I do not claim to know more than a small fraction of this field of study, but nevertheless feel justified in sharing my reflections concerning the little I do know. For a start, this could be viewed as a record of one man’s gradual assimilation or rejection of Buddhist ideas. But moreover, I feel impelled to comment by virtue of the original and extensive logical tools I bring to bear.

I have sometimes been criticized concerning my criticism of Nagarjuna’s philosophy, through arguments that I did not exactly represent it. But my answer is always this: though I cannot vouch that my arguments are perfectly applicable to Nagarjuna’s philosophy as it really is, I stand by my arguments with regard to their applicability to the ideas I presented under the label of ‘Nagarjuna’s philosophy’. From a philosophical point of view, my arguments are interesting and valid, even if from a historical viewpoint some issues may be left open. In any event, historians have varying interpretations, too.

Philosophy is concerned with ideas, and the issue of who precisely proposed them and when exactly is not so important. A philosopher (X) may represent, analyze and criticize an idea, without having to be absolutely accurate as to whether his formulation of the idea is exactly identical to its original formulation by some historical person (Y). So long as we understand that it is the idea as here and now represented that is being considered and discussed, the account given is philosophically respectable. Historians may debate whether X’s account corresponds exactly to Y’s initial idea, and to what extent X’s discussion is relevant to Y’s philosophy, but this is historical debate, not philosophy.

Concerning the credibility of Buddhism, we may also ask questions from the specific point of view of Judaism (and its derivative religions: Christianity, Islam and their derivatives in turn). A crucial question would be: if the claim of Buddhism to enlightenment and liberation is true, how come such a major human breakthrough to spirituality was never predicted or mentioned in the Jewish Bible and later books? Another question would be: if the Buddha went so high, how come he did not meet or mention meeting God?

These are of course questions for those who choose to adhere to Jewish (or Christian or Moslem) beliefs, for the Buddhist would simply regard the failure of the Judaic traditions to foresee or notice the Buddha’s attainment, or the failure of the Buddha to acknowledge God, as a problem of theirs and not of his.

Personally, I prefer to keep an open mind in both directions, and emphasize the positive teachings on both sides, rather than stress conflicts between West and East. It is a historical fact that different segments of humanity have evolved spiritually in different ways – and that may well be God’s will. Our evolutions are still ongoing, and we may yet all come to an agreement. We can surely learn from and enrich each other, and the current historical phase of globalization can profit us all spiritually.

[1]According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[2]The following illustrates of the inaccuracy of transmission of information by tradition: Dogen writes at one point (p. 242): “It has been twenty-two hundred years since the Buddha’s pari-nirvana”; assuming this is not an error of translation or a typographical error, and considering this text was written in 1246 CE, Dogen was mistaken by some 500 years!

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