The Very Idea of Buddhist History

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Huseng
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The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Huseng » Sat Feb 21, 2015 11:43 am

Jayarava recently posted an interesting essay highlighting the issues of extracting history from Buddhist texts. The traditional narrative suggests that the canonical scriptures of 'early Buddhism' do in fact accurately relate a historical reality, though many leading members of the academy reject this and suggest there's no evidence available to accurately reconstruct the history of the early sangha (Schopen in particular is representative).

I recommend reading it:

http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2015/02/th ... story.html

His summary which he posted on Reddit is as follows:
  • In this essay I try to ascertain how much history we can extract from Buddhist texts. I'm quite critical of the methods of mainstream Buddhist scholars. This is because as I got deeper into my own studies, I realised that many flaws in Buddhist doctrine are plastered over with collusion between Buddhists practitioners and scholars. There's a kind of loose conspiracy to present Buddhism as smooth, when it is in fact lumpy. There is altogether too much confirmation bias in the field of Buddhist Studies.
    This makes me more sympathetic with Schopen and other sceptics who criticise the methods of scholars who reinforce traditional narratives. I give examples from my own research which illustrate that narratives that point to simplicity and unity are simply false impressions that hide complexity and diversity.
    The question of the authenticity of the texts seems wide open to me. And yet the question itself is mainly one of identity and has little bearing on how most of us get one with practising Buddhism
Perhaps we can discuss this here.

I personally agree that the traditional narrative is highly problematic, which is evident when you see anachronisms in literature which is supposed to represent the teachings of a historical Buddha and early sangha (like mention of writing in the Ekōttarikāgama).

Sujato, however, has argued against such a position in his book The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts:

http://dhammaloka.org.au/files/pdf/authenticity.pdf

Unfortunately, some of his remarks from page 145 sound more like emotional arguments wrapped up in analysis rather than refutations of critics:
  • Critics of Early Buddhism have adopted a rhetoric of scepticism in order to dismiss the notion of authenticity. Their arguments are apparently intended to be hard-nosed and unsentimental, but when examined closely they are reminiscent of arguments by denialists of various types, such as those relating to the harmful effects of tobacco, creationism, or the reality of man-made climate change. Just as sceptics characterise the search for authenticity as “Protestant Buddhism”, it seems appropriate to describe this form of scepticism as “Denialist Buddhism”.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Admin_PC » Sat Feb 21, 2015 5:21 pm

I thought it was a very interesting article.

One issue that gave me pause for thought was the statement that the 12 links of dependent origination are incompatible with the teachings on karma. I am fairly sure that my disagreement on this issue is due to the fact that he and I have a fundamentally different understanding of karma. I know I presented what I was taught on the subject, face to face, at a temple, from the monk who was/is my teacher and he rejected it outright. I don't think he ever clearly provided any references for his understanding of karma, he only said something to the effect that it was superstitious.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Kaccāni » Sat Feb 21, 2015 5:22 pm

Dear Indrajala,

I will look into this article as soon as there is the time to. Unfortunately, I'm very busy this weekend.

Best wishes
Kc
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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Malcolm » Sat Feb 21, 2015 6:42 pm

Indrajala wrote: I personally agree that the traditional narrative is highly problematic, which is evident when you see anachronisms in literature which is supposed to represent the teachings of a historical Buddha and early sangha (like mention of writing in the Ekōttarikāgama).

Anachronisms in a text do not necessarily point to a late, original composition — case in point, the Illiad.

Certainly the Illiad is filled with anachronisms, nevertheless, the basic facts presented in the Illiad have been born out by archaeological findings.

Then of course there is the issue of whether something some scholar judges to be anachronistic is actually anachronistic.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Huseng » Sat Feb 21, 2015 6:43 pm

PorkChop wrote: One issue that gave me pause for thought was the statement that the 12 links of dependent origination are incompatible with the teachings on karma.
There's several classical theories on karma bear in mind.

For example, the early Theravadins asserted that actions persisted in an unripened state until meeting with the causes for fruition, though they failed to account for a link of continuity between the cause and effect.

The Sarvāstivāda school in Kashmir conceived of the result of karma persisting like a debt.

The Sautrāntika school of thought said that actions created traces (vāsanā) within the continuum of mind, whereby they came to fruition when the mind encountered specific circumstances which enabled the ripening of a past action.

The Saṃmitīya school taught the existence of a dharma which they called “indestructible” – while not mental, it followed the mind until it came to fruition via cause and condition, or death. When an individual died, one special “indestructible”, based at the moment of death on the state of mind of the dying, would determine whether they took rebirth in a higher and lesser realm.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Huseng » Sat Feb 21, 2015 6:48 pm

Malcolm wrote: Anachronisms in a text do not necessarily point to a late, original composition — case in point, the Illiad.
At the very least they indicate that the text in its present form postdates the period which it purports to describe. At that point you need to try to distinguish fact from fiction, if that is even possible.

Archaeological evidence only goes so far. In the case of the traditional Buddhist narrative, there indeed might have been a fortress city of Rajgir near Vulture's Peak, but that doesn't mean the Buddha was really friends with King Bimbisara. There's nothing supernatural about such an account, but hagiographies have a tendency to blow out of proportion the details of a sage's life.

Then of course there is the issue of whether something some scholar judges to be anachronistic is actually anachronistic.

It all comes down to evidence. You can contest anything, but in the absence of evidence it means nothing.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Malcolm » Sat Feb 21, 2015 6:56 pm

Indrajala wrote:
Then of course there is the issue of whether something some scholar judges to be anachronistic is actually anachronistic.

It all comes down to evidence. You can contest anything, but in the absence of evidence it means nothing.
And you can propose anything, even an anachronism, but in the absence of evidence it means nothing.

As far as Jayravava's article goes, there is a least one instance of playing fast and loose with the facts. He writes:
I've also discussed the contradictory biographical traditions in the suttas (see The Buddha's Biography). There are at least two biographies of the Buddha. In one he is a unmarried youth when he leaves home and his mother is still alive. In another he is a man of 29 whose mother died in childbirth. The youth is found in the Pāli version of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta and the 29 year old in the Chinese counterpart of the same text. Both stories cannot be true and we have no objective way of knowing which is. All we have is a general historical principle that Buddhist stories become more elaborate over time (there is clear evidence of this in the accurately dated Chinese translations). Thus, we usually assume that a less elaborate version of a story is (relatively) earlier than the same story in a more elaborate version.
However, this is incorrect. There is no specific mention of Buddha's mother in this sutta. There is this, however:
"So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.
For example, my father remarried, and has a wife who is not my mother. But I often refer to them as my "parents" out of convenience, though only one of them is actually my parent.

Thus, when Jayarava claims that there are two conflicting bios in the canon, when his claim is closely examined, it is at best a reach based on how he wants to read the term "parents" and "youth". Thus, Jayarava is conjuring up contradictions where none are to be seen, in this case.

Then there is this:
There is the fundamental incompatibility of karma and pratītyasamutpāda. The former demands effects long after conditions have ceased, and the latter forbids it.
This is nonsense, it almost bears no rebuttal since he adduces no reasoning to buttress his absurd claim.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by daverupa » Sat Feb 21, 2015 7:13 pm

Indrajala wrote:At the very least they indicate that the text in its present form postdates the period which it purports to describe.
This is true of all texts... every single one...
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:05 pm

Malcolm wrote: Anachronisms in a text do not necessarily point to a late, original composition — case in point, the Illiad.

Certainly the Illiad is filled with anachronisms, nevertheless, the basic facts presented in the Illiad have been born out by archaeological findings.

Then of course there is the issue of whether something some scholar judges to be anachronistic is actually anachronistic.
Anachronisms do not demonstrate that the entirety of a text is late, correct. But they do indicate that the particular example of the text which contains them is.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Malcolm » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:17 pm

Bakmoon wrote:
Malcolm wrote: Anachronisms in a text do not necessarily point to a late, original composition — case in point, the Illiad.

Certainly the Illiad is filled with anachronisms, nevertheless, the basic facts presented in the Illiad have been born out by archaeological findings.

Then of course there is the issue of whether something some scholar judges to be anachronistic is actually anachronistic.
Anachronisms do not demonstrate that the entirety of a text is late, correct. But they do indicate that the particular example of the text which contains them is.
And that of course says nothing about the antiquity of the given text in question, merely the example presented.

In any case, everything that Jayarava presents is nothing but one huge ego-flamed speculation.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:19 pm

Hmm. On my first skim of the blog post one paragraph stuck out at me.
I've also discussed the contradictory biographical traditions in the suttas (see The Buddha's Biography). There are at least two biographies of the Buddha. In one he is a unmarried youth when he leaves home and his mother is still alive. In another he is a man of 29 whose mother died in childbirth. The youth is found in the Pāli version of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta and the 29 year old in the Chinese counterpart of the same text. Both stories cannot be true and we have no objective way of knowing which is. All we have is a general historical principle that Buddhist stories become more elaborate over time (there is clear evidence of this in the accurately dated Chinese translations). Thus, we usually assume that a less elaborate version of a story is (relatively) earlier than the same story in a more elaborate version.
This seems pretty weak sauce to me to be honest. The passage in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta says:
So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html
I think it's a stretch to say that because the text says "my parents" instead of "my father and my stepmother" automatically means that the Buddha's birth-mother was alive at the time. It's just natural that he would have referred to them this way, especially if King Suddhodhana married Maha Pajapati while Siddhartha was still young.

That's not to say that this isn't an important text however. It does contradict the common image of Siddhartha sneaking out in the middle of the night, which shows one of the many historical problems with some of the latter biographies for example.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Jayarava » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:33 pm

Malcolm wrote:However, this is incorrect. There is no specific mention of Buddha's mother in this sutta.
The Pāḷi reads: mātāpitūnaṃ assumukhānaṃ rudantānaṃ

Mātā is mother. Mātāpītūnam is the genitive plural of the dvandva compound mātā-pitā "mother & father". So what I said is in fact quite correct. "Parents" is only a shorthand.
Malcolm wrote:Thus, when Jayarava claims that there are two conflicting bios in the canon, when his claim is closely examined, it is at best a reach based on how he wants to read the term "parents" and "youth". Thus, Jayarava is conjuring up contradictions where none are to be seen, in this case.
And this is the problem with basing your opinions on translations instead of original texts. There really is a contradiction, but the translation you were reading hid it from you. A bit deceptive, eh?
Malcolm wrote:
There is the fundamental incompatibility of karma and pratītyasamutpāda. The former demands effects long after conditions have ceased, and the latter forbids it.
This is nonsense, it almost bears no rebuttal since he adduces no reasoning to buttress his absurd claim.
But I do adduce reasons in an earlier essay. My bad for not linking to it. I can sum that argument up for you in a few quick words. Pratītyasamutpāda says:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati;
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati. (My emphasis)
None other than Nāgārjuna points out the problem with any version of karma that requires effects to ripen after the conditions have ceased:
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
> niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK_17.6 //
Which translates as:

"If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?"

Now, Nāgārjuna has a particular solution in mind when he makes this criticism. And Indrajala has already pointed out that other Buddhist sects had their own solutions. Which goes to show that this is not something I've simply made up. It was a problem widely acknowledged in the Buddhist world and many solutions were proposed, and polemics were written criticising them all by Buddhists of different sects. Far from being a shocking modern discovery, this is a boring 2000 year old argument. Though in my view it was never settled satisfactorily.

So I'm sorry that you felt the need to go on the offensive, but you are simply mistaken. The facts are very much on my side. Does this change your mind at all?

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Jayarava » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:46 pm

Bakmoon wrote:I think it's a stretch to say that because the text says "my parents" instead of "my father and my stepmother"
Just to repeat the clarification given to Malcolm, the Pāḷi text clearly says mātāpīta "mother and father". Now some translator has given you a false impression of the text, has mislead you. This is what some translators do at times - when the text says something that conflicts with the received story they tacitly change it to fit. It's dishonest, but it happens.

I recall the stepmother argument but I can't recall where I saw it. But it's simply false to argue that mātā means stepmother. The word means "mother". It only means one thing and it is entirely unambiguous. The word is powerfully embedded in the Indo-European languages and our word "mother" is simply the Germanic reflex of the Proto-Indo-European word mātér- Latin māter, Sanskrit mātṛ, Slavic mati, Old Irish, máthir etc.

It's thought to represent the baby talk syllable with the usual female kinship suffix which is -tṛ in Sanskrit and becomes - in Pāḷi.

So I wonder if this changes your view at all?

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:46 pm

Jayarava wrote:
Mātā is mother. Mātāpītūnam is the genitive plural of the dvandva compound mātā-pitā "mother & father". So what I said is in fact quite correct. "Parents" is only a shorthand.
The word for mother is there, yes, but does the use of the compound Mātāpītūnam really contradict the death of the Buddha's birthmother? Why wouldn't he refer to his stepmother as mother, especially if she had raised him?

Jayarava wrote: And this is the problem with basing your opinions on translations instead of original texts. There really is a contradiction, but the translation you were reading hid it from you. A bit deceptive, eh?
That's not really fair. The term Mātāpītūnam is a compound that refers generically to one's mother and father as a pair. It doesn't specifically single out either one's mother or father, but treats them as a single unit.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:49 pm

Jayarava wrote:
Bakmoon wrote:I think it's a stretch to say that because the text says "my parents" instead of "my father and my stepmother"
Just to repeat the clarification given to Malcolm, the Pāḷi text clearly says mātāpīta "mother and father". Now some translator has given you a false impression of the text, has mislead you. This is what some translators do at times - when the text says something that conflicts with the received story they tacitly change it to fit. It's dishonest, but it happens.

I recall the stepmother argument but I can't recall where I saw it. But it's simply false to argue that mātā means stepmother. The word means "mother". It only means one thing and it is entirely unambiguous. The word is powerfully embedded in the Indo-European languages and our word "mother" is simply the Germanic reflex of the Proto-Indo-European word mātér- Latin māter, Sanskrit mātṛ, Slavic mati, Old Irish, máthir etc.

It's thought to represent the baby talk syllable with the usual female kinship suffix which is -tṛ in Sanskrit and becomes - in Pāḷi.

So I wonder if this changes your view at all?
The word itself means mother, yes, but does that mean that every use of the term mātā automatically means that the speaker is referring to one's biological mother? I don't think so. Would it really be so strange to refer to one's early adoptive mother and stepmother as mātā?

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by krodha » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:54 pm

Jayarava wrote:But I do adduce reasons in an earlier essay. My bad for not linking to it. I can sum that argument up for you in a few quick words. Pratītyasamutpāda says:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati;
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati. (My emphasis)
None other than Nāgārjuna points out the problem with any version of karma that requires effects to ripen after the conditions have ceased:
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
> niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK_17.6 //
Which translates as:

"If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?"

Now, Nāgārjuna has a particular solution in mind when he makes this criticism. And Indrajala has already pointed out that other Buddhist sects had their own solutions. Which goes to show that this is not something I've simply made up. It was a problem widely acknowledged in the Buddhist world and many solutions were proposed, and polemics were written criticising them all by Buddhists of different sects. Far from being a shocking modern discovery, this is a boring 2000 year old argument. Though in my view it was never settled satisfactorily.

So I'm sorry that you felt the need to go on the offensive, but you are simply mistaken. The facts are very much on my side. Does this change your mind at all?
I see you're revisiting this misconception yet again, Jayarava... you and I [krodha] were just discussing the absurdity of this conclusion (of yours) yesterday on reddit.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Malcolm » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:55 pm

Jayarava wrote:
And this is the problem with basing your opinions on translations instead of original texts. There really is a contradiction, but the translation you were reading hid it from you. A bit deceptive, eh?
It still does not necessarily mean what you intend it to mean. It does not indicate that Buddha's birth mother, who supposedly died when shortly after he was born of a caesarean section, was the "mother" referenced in the passage.



None other than Nāgārjuna points out the problem with any version of karma that requires effects to ripen after the conditions have ceased:
Yes, ultimately. Still, Nāgārjuna accepts karmic ripening conventionally, and even presents his favored presentation of how karmas ripen, the position of the Sammityas.
Now, Nāgārjuna has a particular solution in mind when he makes this criticism. And Indrajala has already pointed out that other Buddhist sects had their own solutions. Which goes to show that this is not something I've simply made up. It was a problem widely acknowledged in the Buddhist world and many solutions were proposed, and polemics were written criticising them all by Buddhists of different sects. Far from being a shocking modern discovery, this is a boring 2000 year old argument. Though in my view it was never settled satisfactorily.
See above.
So I'm sorry that you felt the need to go on the offensive, but you are simply mistaken. The facts are very much on my side. Does this change your mind at all?
That facts are not on your side.

One, your reading of that sutta passage involves a large number of unfounded suppositions.

Two, your reading of Nāgārjuna conflates relative and ultimate. What Nagārjuna opines is the idea that the effects of actions are "imperishable", even after the action itself has ceased. In other words, he presents the āvipraṇāśa, his preferred theory. This chapter is sole place in the whole of the MMK where he expressed an preference of opinions.

Now, you might personally feel that Karma and dependent origination are in contradiction, but it is slipshod to invoke Nāgārjuna in defense of your theory, since Nāgārjuna, strictly speaking, ultimately negates arising altogether.
Last edited by Malcolm on Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Bakmoon » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:56 pm

Jayarava wrote: But I do adduce reasons in an earlier essay. My bad for not linking to it. I can sum that argument up for you in a few quick words. Pratītyasamutpāda says:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati;
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati. (My emphasis)
None other than Nāgārjuna points out the problem with any version of karma that requires effects to ripen after the conditions have ceased:
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
> niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK_17.6 //
Which translates as:

"If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?"

Now, Nāgārjuna has a particular solution in mind when he makes this criticism. And Indrajala has already pointed out that other Buddhist sects had their own solutions. Which goes to show that this is not something I've simply made up. It was a problem widely acknowledged in the Buddhist world and many solutions were proposed, and polemics were written criticising them all by Buddhists of different sects. Far from being a shocking modern discovery, this is a boring 2000 year old argument. Though in my view it was never settled satisfactorily.

So I'm sorry that you felt the need to go on the offensive, but you are simply mistaken. The facts are very much on my side. Does this change your mind at all?
How is this a contradiction? Just because the earliest texts don't give an explicit formulation of how the process of Karma works in regards to time doesn't mean that there is a contradiction. It just means that the texts never discuss the matter.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by Malcolm » Sat Feb 21, 2015 9:58 pm

Bakmoon wrote:
Jayarava wrote: But I do adduce reasons in an earlier essay. My bad for not linking to it. I can sum that argument up for you in a few quick words. Pratītyasamutpāda says:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti, imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati;
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti, imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati. (My emphasis)
None other than Nāgārjuna points out the problem with any version of karma that requires effects to ripen after the conditions have ceased:
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
> niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK_17.6 //
Which translates as:

"If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?"

Now, Nāgārjuna has a particular solution in mind when he makes this criticism. And Indrajala has already pointed out that other Buddhist sects had their own solutions. Which goes to show that this is not something I've simply made up. It was a problem widely acknowledged in the Buddhist world and many solutions were proposed, and polemics were written criticising them all by Buddhists of different sects. Far from being a shocking modern discovery, this is a boring 2000 year old argument. Though in my view it was never settled satisfactorily.

So I'm sorry that you felt the need to go on the offensive, but you are simply mistaken. The facts are very much on my side. Does this change your mind at all?
How is this a contradiction? Just because the earliest texts don't give an explicit formulation of how the process of Karma works in regards to time doesn't mean that there is a contradiction. It just means that the texts never discuss the matter.
It is just more of Jayarava's Adharma.
Last edited by Malcolm on Sat Feb 21, 2015 10:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Very Idea of Buddhist History

Post by krodha » Sat Feb 21, 2015 10:03 pm

Malcolm wrote:Yes, ultimately. Still, Nāgārjuna accepts karmic ripening conventionally...
Jayarava rejects the two truths, and therefore robs himself of the ability to comprehend Nāgārjuna's reasoning (and then when Nāgārjuna's expositions no longer make sense, Jayarava places the fault with Nāgārjuna rather than himself, which is quite convenient).

http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2011/08/no ... ruths.html

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