The Pali Canon is the source must people rely on when discussing Buddhism or the Buddha, but few people acknowledge the lack of integrity of its content. The Pali is not the Bible which one takes as is by faith.
In the Pali Canon you will find NOTHING original, only an approximation to what the Buddha said. So, how can we discern in it what is a truthful ‘approximation‘ and what is fiction? First, find from Buddhists and lay scholars the history of how it was created. When people read the human history of the Bible, they tend to take a different attitude to it, whether accepting or rejecting it, in whole or in part. Same with the Pali. Second, consider the following.
A: How to read the Pali Canon: cheat sheet
The Pali quotes the Buddha as saying that the truth of his teachings is to be put to the test of efficacy by each follower’s own experience; he can’t make miracles for you to believe in the teachings, and just because he said it should not be enough for anyone. So, it is in the Canon where you expect to find his teachings stripped of religion; there it is simply a science of the mind, a moral psychology that can be put to the test. Religion can NOT be put to the test, and the Buddha did not create a religion. It’s just logical, isn’t it?
I consider anything that reads like Greek mythology in the Pali as added throughout the centuries by the factions that turned Gautama into a god. Also, anything that shows the Buddha as a hateful and sexist ‘god’ was certainly added by his unenlightened sexist and hateful followers. A Buddhist ‘god’ can’t be taken seriously if he preaches love as remedy against hatred while acting with hatred (verbally or physically) towards a particular group of people, women in this case. This is not a Catholic god known for his holy rage.
To recognize the religion in the Pali from the ‘science’, it helps knowing the historical divisions in the sangha to decide which teachings to include or leave out of the Canon, how material was added centuries later to some sutras already accepted to change their meaning.
For followers who have chosen to believe that the Buddha is a god or superhuman, and to see the religious aspect of Buddhism, faith will be the criteria. It’s your prerogative to have a need for salvation and religion. For that, you don’t need ‘material’ evidence of the efficacy of the teachings, you just have to wait until you pass away, behind the Christians waiting on the line to see if there is life after death in the kingdom of God.
I have chosen to understand Buddhism based on a study of its social, political, psychological and philosophical background. When I take all that into account, I see its origins as a stand against religious believes. That’s my prerogative, to see in Buddhism a moral science of ‘psychology’ and philosophy.
- Variance in sutras style and content. Some sutras in the Middle Length Teachings portray the Buddha as a sexist s.o.b (literally, not kidding), others as totally ‘progressive’ on issues of gender and class inequality.
- Different meaning of words, e.g., personality, enlightenment vs awakening. With these last two words in particular, one (enlightenment) reflects religious and shamanistic undertones (power to fly, read minds, power to see the other life; powers exhibited by the shaman of many less ‘sophisticated’ tribal religions, e.g., Mexican and American Indian shamans); the other doesn’t.
- Elimination of content that would have contradicted one view or another.
Whether Buddhism is a religion or not is a matter of interpretation. At the end, logic is the only guide…or faith.
Bibliography: These books are excellent sources for in-depth understanding of the history of the Pali Canon. Knowing how it came to be will greatly help you decide what to make of Buddhism, if you are new to it. For this first part I relied mostly on them.
The Buddhist Religion (Richard H. Robbinson) – good historical background.
Selfless Persons (Steven Collins) –
The Literature Of The Personalists Of Early Buddhism (Bhiikshu Thích Thién Cháu) This book, from the Buddhist Tradition Series (find at Amazon) is extremely interesting.Great historical discussion about origin of the ‘personalism’ theory in early Buddhism and the Pali Canon.