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Hunting Original Buddhism

2009.04.26. 22:08 Astus

Looking for the original Buddhism actually presupposes one's prior knowledge of Buddhism as we have it now. And since one cannot take the existing teachings at face value accepting the living tradition as it is, one searches for a non-existent form while denying the existing ones.

There are two ways to search for original Buddhism. See we pre-suppose that we already know something about Buddhism, and can tell that it is not the original (actually how could one ever tell it's not the original without knowing the original?), can search for the original in two ways. 1: taking Buddhism and Buddhist methods 2: taking a different philosophy and method to do the research.

The first option is similar to those people in the past who started new traditions or reformed existing ones. The second is the so called scholarly method. Going with the first option one is actually looking for enlightenment and the best way to present the Dharma in the current era. That could be called a noble quest of a bodhisattva. As for the second, it can mean two things. It is, on one hand, a simple scientific project classifying according to a chronological order different texts. On the other hand, it is subjecting Buddhism to Western materialist concepts. While with the first part there's little if no problem, the latter is against Buddhism because it means integrating (eating and consuming) it into another system, thus destroying it (similarly to the integration of Buddhist elements into Confucianism and Taoism, or into the philosophy of Schopenhauer).

The whole concept that we can find the historical Buddha is certainly a Western idea. Actually, the way we understand history is not like that of other cultures'. What matters is how we use this approach inherited from our ancestors. It can be either constructive or destructive.

For instance, look at how Zen approaches the question of original Buddhism. What is Buddha? What is the Path? Why did Bodhidharma come from the west? These are common questions in the Zen tradition. But while we could interpret it in a way to think that they were looking for some proof of the true teaching, that's not how they understood it. In Zen original Buddhism means enlightenment, the mind of the Buddha. With attaining realisation one can know the true Dharma, because it is not found in the texts. Texts are only pointing to it.

At the same time modern scholars ask the same question: "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?" They're looking for the historical Bodhidharma who lived about 1500 years ago. Well, they couldn't find Bodhidharma so far. Maybe he never existed. Or he was quite different from what people think about him. Nobody can tell. What they can tell is that there's little proof, while at the same time there is evidence about the development and changing of the Bodhidharma story over many centuries.

We know that Zen appeared about a millennium later than Buddhism. Still, scholars cannot tell when, where, and how Zen became, neither can they tell what Zen looked liked originally. The point of origin is unknown. It's the same with Buddhism.

What can we learn from not knowing the origin? That things are impermanent and dependently arisen. No single creator, no one true source. History is empty.

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