Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism

By Prebish, Charles S. | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Cooking the Buddhist Books: The Implications of the New Dating of the Buddha for the History of Early Indian Buddhism


Prebish, Charles S., Journal of Buddhist Ethics


Introduction

During the last half-century, scholarly Buddhological inquiry has produced a series of utterly stunning publications on the period immediately following the Buddha's death, focusing especially on the early councils. Through the work of Paul Demieville, Marcel Hofinger, Erich Frauwallner, Etienne Lamotte, Andre Bareau, and myself, (1) the once mysterious history of the early Buddhist councils became clearer. Bareau's Les premiers conciles bouddhiques and my own "A Review of Scholarship on the Buddhist Councils," carefully detail all the specific events of the first, second, and third councils, as well as the non-canonical council which occurred between the second and third council, and which was the occasion for the beginning of Buddhist sectarianism. Further work by Janice Nattier and me refined Bareau's presumptions in Les sects bouddhiques du petit vehicule, and offered what has now become the definitive statement of the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism, arguing that the initial sanghabheda focused solely on matters of Vinaya, but rather than representing disciplinary laxity on the part of the future Mahasamghikas, resulted from attempted Vinaya expansion on the part of the future Sthaviras ("Mahasamghika" 237-272). (2)

In 1988, however, all the hard sought certainty that the above research seemingly promised disappeared in the aftermath of a major Buddhist symposium convened by Heinz Bechert at the University of Gottingen. Bechert had become convinced that the widely accepted dating of the historical Buddha, placing his life between 563 and 483 B.C.E., was incorrect. His symposium brought together scholars from throughout the world to examine this issue from every position, discipline, and language imaginable. Anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, philosophers, and historians compared their perspectives. Epigraphical evidence was examined. Although the symposium participants offered dates for the Buddha's death ranging from 483 B.C.E. down to 368 B.C.E., most participants suggested that the Buddha died within approximately a few decades on either side of 400 B.C.E. Eventually three volumes entitled Die Datierung des Historischen Buddha were produced, diligently edited by Bechert.

On the surface, this new dating for the Buddha's death doesn't seem ter-ribly earthshaking, either for Indian Buddhist history or for ancillary stu-dies such as a consideration of Upali and his lineage of Vinayadharas. Yet it is. Because of this new date for the Buddha's demise, virtually everything we know about the earliest Indian Buddhism, and especially its sectarian movement, is once again called into question. Dates for the first, second, and third canonical councils--once thought to be certain--must now be reexamined. Kings who presided at these events must be reconsidered. Most importantly, the role of the great Indian King Asoka, from whose reign much of the previous dating begins, needs to be placed under the scrutiny of the historical microscope again.

During my research on this topic, I have been in contact with many of the scholars who attended the Gottingen symposium, as well as other leading scholars of early Indian Buddhism. What has slowly emerged from my investigation is an altogether new and revolutionary picture of early Indian Buddhist history. As my work has proceeded, events from previous research that had hitherto seemed contrary or problematic now appear to be part of a logical historical progression that explains the early Indian Buddhist sec-tarian movement, and even Upali's role in it, in a far more plausible way.

This paper explores the above issue in detail, citing all the pertinent, applicable sources, and additionally, investigates the degree to which the traditional Anglo-German and Franco-Belgian schools of Buddhist Studies disagree with each other based on the sources utilized as primary by each group.

A Brief Review of the Literature

It is quite common for publications involving any treatment of the life of the Buddha to refer to the few classic studies of the topic, invariably citing works such as Edward J. …

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