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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
7 spring 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Western convert Buddhists may know a few “family” legends unique to the particular type of Buddhism they practice, but many lack systematic training in the history of their newly chosen religious path. Many do not understand how their chosen lineage fits into the larger picture of Bud- dhism, an old, far-flung religion with many regional and his- torical variations. Each of the myriad Buddhist subgroups has its own story about how, when, and where Buddha gave the teachings on which its view and practices are based. These stories make claims that are difficult to reconcile with one another. Making sense of these stories can be difficult un- less one has tools with which to understand the relevance of legend and myth. The Dalai Lama has argued for years that Buddhism and modern science are compatible and that if science could definitely disprove some traditional Buddhist assertion, Bud- dhism would have to accommodate the new information. I would make the same arguments regarding modern historical knowledge. In its traditional literature, no form of Buddhism possesses a complete account of Buddhism’s entire historical development and its various cultural and sectarian permu- tations. This means that without some input from modern historical studies, no form of Buddhism can provide accurate historical knowledge for its practitioners. All forms of Buddhism can welcome historical study as relevant and useful. Buddhist teachings have always told us that impermanence is a great, unalterable fact of our experi- ence and that it is crucial for us to become comfortable with that fact. History is simply the study of how things change and develop, which is to say that history studies changing institu- tions and ideas. History studies impermanence, including the impermanent characteristic of Buddhist institutions, practices, philosophical systems, and sacred narratives. Some practitioners claim that historical knowledge is irrelevant to them because they only want to meditate. But without knowledge of Buddhism’s rich and diverse history, practitioners and communities are vulnerable to fundamental- ism and sectarianism. They assume that sacred narratives and legends are composed of historical facts and that the familiar stories found in their specific Buddhist tradition should be taken literally. Those accounts often contain a sectarian edge. They claim special relevance—based on tales of miraculous accomplishments—for the texts and teachers associated with a specific Buddhist tradition. While asserting superiority for their favorite form of Buddhism, these tales denigrate other forms of Buddhism. For example, some versions of Mahayana Buddhism tell stories claiming that the historical Buddha himself taught Mahayana and even Vajrayana Buddhism to selected supe- rior students. Those teachings were purported to have been hidden for centuries, after which they came to light amid claims that they represented superior teachings of the Bud- dha. Buddhist lineages that did not accept these stories were dismissed by some Mahayanists as incomplete and inferior. Mahayana polemicists gave those Buddhists the derogatory name “hinayana,” which can be translated as “the inferior way.” Unfortunately, this term is still widely used by some Buddhists, despite its sectarian origins and negative meaning. In fact, when I have taught the history of Buddhism at dharma centers, some practitioners have been quite disturbed, both by my suggestion that the term “hinayana” is not appropriate in the context of pluralistic Buddhism and by the probability that the historical Buddha did not teach Mahayana or Vajrayana during his lifetime. When sacred narrative and history are each taken at face value, they seem to be at odds with each other. Historical knowledge challenges the empirical accuracy of sacred nar- ratives. A crisis of faith can result if the differences between legend and history are not understood and the relevance of each is not appreciated. If it is assumed that legends are factually accurate, then the entire basis of one’s spirituality can be endangered if it is proved that the events narrated in the sacred story did not happen in empirical space and time. However, the modern study of religions has recognized for EllIESTRAND commentary Why We Need to Know Our Buddhist History By rita gross Rita M. GRoss is a longtime student and teacher of shambhala Buddhism and a senior teacher in the community of Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. she is teaching a multiyear course in Buddhist history at Lotus Garden, Khandro Rinpoche’s North american center. ➤