Friday, August 16, 2013

The Frowning Buddha, Part 1

From the July 2010 E-Block.
In Sweden, the name of Roger Viklund has associations that we might have in English with names like Earl Doherty: Viklund is a Christ-myther, and of the worst sort, one who accepts such sources as Acharya S as valid; he also believes such things as that Secret Mark is a genuine ancient document. He presents little in the way of serious argumentation; for example, the reference to Jesus by Tacitus is simply dismissed in a mere two sentences because it is “too late” and because Pilate is called a procurator (arguments, of course, we have answered). A reader in that part of the world has also told me that Viklund is aware of my own work and that of others who refute the Christ-myth, but that he simply prefers to believe sources like Acharya S are correct.

But though the material we are about to examine in this series originates with Viklund in terms of where we found it, he is hardly unique in using it, and not only for the purpose of supporting a Christ-myth thesis. Therefore his name will not be mentioned again after this paragraph.

The subject is “copycat” material, and the “copycat Christ” is Buddha. In the past, we referred primarily to Glenn Miller on this particular figure and “copycat” claims, and did a little original research of our own. Now we will take a closer look at some claims of imitation, to determine whether they are of any worth. In Part 1 of this series we will look at alleged parallels in moral teachings.

It is worth pointing out what we have in other contexts, as a preface to examining claims of parallels in moral teachings: Namely, that such parallels are seldom meaningful, reflecting the natural contexts of human life and principles. Thus for example, it means little to show that both the Law of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi forbade theft or murder; would we expect such laws to be missing in the first place? (If they were missing from Biblical texts, critics would then ask why God didn’t include such things!)

For each teaching, we will ask three questions:

  1. Does a true parallel exist?
  2. Is the parallel meaningful?
  3. Which came first, chronologically?
Of course, if the answers to 1 and 2 are negative, then any answer to 3 becomes superfluous, but we will consider the matter anyway for completeness.

Loving Neighbors

“Consider others as yourself.” (Dhammapada 10:1)
“ your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 19:19)

Does a true parallel exist? Not exactly. The fuller context of the Dhammapada indicates a specific reason why this was brought up. Here are three versions from various Buddhist websites:
  • All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
  • All tremble at the rod. All fear death. Comparing others with oneself, one should neither strike nor cause to strike.
  • All fear violence, all are afraid of death. Seeing the similarity to oneself, one should not use violence or have it used.
    Rather than being a command to love others, the appeal is a parallel to Hillel’s “Silver Rule,” appealing to one’s own experience and consequences as a reason to not commit some act.

    Is the parallel meaningful? As the allusion to Hillel’s Silver Rule suggests, obviously not. Skeptics have accused Jesus of not being original here, but as we have pointed out, a credible teacher in Jesus’ social world would normally reiterate widely accepted moral teachings; “originality” was not a critical means value as it is today, in a time when television rules our lives. Jesus did not have to be original for the sake of his contemporaries, and he need not have been original for us, our petulant demands to be entertained notwithstanding.

    Still and all, appeal to “what others feel/do” is the sort of object lesson we would expect from a collectivist, group-oriented society, such as existed in the time of both Jesus and Buddha, and exists worldwide in all but Western nations: In such circumstances, “others” are always a fundamental frame of reference, and a “Golden/Silver Rule” formulation is a natural one. Indeed, even we as individualists will use, “think how so and so feels when you do that” as a corrective, and who in the world thinks we borrowed that sentiment from Buddhism? There is thus not the slightest indication that the parallel here ought to be regarded as meaningful. Both could be expected to emerge independently.

    Which came first? Given the above, it really does not matter, and any answer will have nil effect on a case for or against a historical Jesus. But for the sake of completeness, which did come first?

    To answer, we're going to begin with an excursus.

    Dating the Dhammapada

    We of course place Jesus’ words in 30 AD or so, in a document authored between 50-60 AD. What about the Dhammapada? Adherents of Buddhism would suggest that Buddha’s words were spoken in the 6th century BC, but what does the evidence say?

    Regrettably, even books written by Buddhist scholars seem to be indifferent to establishing matters of textual authenticity that New Testament studies has long taken for granted as necessary to determine. Open any decent Biblical commentary, and there will be a discussion of authorship and date of the subject book; finding such discussion in commentaries on the Dhammapada is nearly impossible.

    The most thorough discussion of the date of the Dhammapada is badly out of date. In the late 1880s, Max Muller, in Sacred Books of the East v. 10, said:
    The only means of fixing the date of the Dhammapada is trying to ascertain the date of the Buddhist canon of which it forms a part, or the date of Buddhaghosa, who wrote a commentary on it. This, however, is by no means easy, and the evidence on which we have to rely is such that we must not be surprised if those who are accustomed to test historical and chronological evidence decline to be convinced by it.

    The age of our MSS. of the canonical books, either in Pâli or Sanskrit, is of no help to us. All Indian MSS. are comparatively modern, and one who has probably handled more Indian MSS. than anybody else, Mr. A. Burnell, has lately expressed his conviction that 'no MS. written one thousand years ago is now existent in India, and that it is almost impossible to find one written five hundred years ago, for most MSS. which claim to be of that date are merely copies of old MSS. the dates of which are repeated by the copyists].'

    Nor is the language, whether Sanskrit or Pâli, a safe guide for fixing dates. Both languages continue to be written to our own time, and though there are some characteristic marks to distinguish more modern from more ancient Buddhist Sanskrit and Pâli, this branch of critical scholarship requires to be cultivated far more extensively and accurately before true scholars would venture to fix the date of a Sanskrit or Pâli text on the strength of linguistic evidence alone.
    The Buddhists themselves have no difficulty in assigning a date to their sacred canon. They are told in that canon itself that it was settled at the First Council, or immediately after the death of Buddha, and they believe that it was afterwards handed down by means of oral tradition, or actually written down in books by order of Kâsyapa, the president of the First Council. Buddhaghosa, a learned and in some respects a critical scholar, living in the beginning of the fifth century A.D., asserts that the canon which he had before him, was the same as that fixed by the First Council.

    Several European students have adopted the same opinion, and, so far as I know, no argument has yet been advanced showing the impossibility of the native view, that some collection of Buddha's doctrines was made immediately after his death at Râgagaha, and that it was finally settled at what is called the Second Council, or the Council of Vesâlî. But what is not impossible is not therefore true, nor can anything be gained by appealing to later witnesses, such as, for instance, Hiouen Thsang, who travelled through India in the seventh century, and wrote down anything that he could learn, little concerned whether one statement tallied with the other or not. He says that the Tipitaka was written down on palm leaves by Kâsyapa at the end of the First Council. But what can be the weight of such a witness, living more than a thousand years after the event, compared with that, for instance, of the Mahâvamsa, which dates from the fifth century of our era, and tells us in the account of Mahinda's missionary journey to Ceylon (241/318), that the son of Asoka had to spend three years in learning the Tipitaka by heart from the mouth of a teacher? No mention is then made of any books or MSS., when it would have been most natural to do so.
    In the end, Muller allows that there is nothing improbable about a first century BC date for the writing of the Dhammapada, and says that he cannot see any reason why we can’t give these texts and their origins early date. But I cannot help but notice that Muller is far, far more generous than any critic of the New Testament in this regard. If the best witness for New Testament books were in 1030 AD, apologetics concerning the reliability of the NT would be regarded as a laughable travesty, and it would never be accepted to say that there is “nothing improbable” about a first century date, or that we “can’t see any reason” for a later date.

    Does any more recent author get specific? Not many do, and some even continue to use Muller’s assessment as though nothing has changed. Amaresh Datta in The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature, Volume 2 [992] admits that it is “difficult to fix the date of the Dhammapada with any definiteness” and that “there is no evidence to ascertain in what form the Dhammapada was compiled in the first council or revised in the second.” He takes for granted a general written date of the first century BC as a “lower limit” and of adequately preserved oral tradition earlier than that. Yet Datta provides no hard evidence to support this view, and one cannot help but be bemused by how much more demanding NT scholars have been on their assigned text when it comes to proving itself authentic.

    A significant external factor is a commentary on the Dhammapada that was written by Buddhagosa, c. 450 AD. This certainly would assign a firm “upper limit” to the contents of the Dhammapada. But far more significant -- and something these works may be forgiven for missing -- is relatively recent find of Buddhist manuscripts written on tree bark: These are dated variously between the first century BC and the third century AD (see summary here and project hub here).

    As it stands, scholars are still sorting through this find, which is compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls in terms of its importance. Do they include portions of the Dhammapada? Yes, they do. But lest the Christ-myther get too excited about this finding, there's a certain number of problems with using it for their thesis, and we'll discuss those shortly. But as a rule, evidence like these birch bark texts are not made light of in commentaries on the Dhammapada. The authenticity and antiquity of the Dhammapada is merely taken for granted. Manuscript, authorship, and dating evidence, which is routinely discussed for NT books, is not even whispered about in the over two dozen Buddhist works I consulted. Why is this so? A comment I found by Buddhist Thanissaro Bhikkhu here provides a hint as to why, perhaps, I did not, and may not in the future, find such discussions at all:  

    As the Buddha himself pointed out many times, he did not design or create the Dhamma. He simply found it in nature. Anyone who developed the pitch of mental strengths and abilities needed for Awakening could discover the same principles as well. Thus the Dhamma was by no means exclusively his.

    This attitude was carried over into the passages of the Vinaya that cite four categories of Dhamma statements: spoken by the Buddha, spoken by his disciples, spoken by seers (non-Buddhist sages), spoken by heavenly beings. As long as a statement was in accordance with the basic principles, the question of who first stated it did not matter. In an oral culture, where a saying might be associated with a person because he authored it, approved it, repeated it often, or inspired it by his/her words or actions, the question of authorship was not the overriding concern it has since become in literate cultures. The recent discovery of evidence that a number of teachings associated with the Buddha may have pre- or post-dated his time would not have fazed the early Buddhists at all, as long as those teachings were in accordance with the original principles.

    To whatever extent Buddhists may find this acceptable, for a Christ-myther looking to achieve a pre-Jesus parallel, it undercuts any and all efforts to use any Buddhist text that does not surely date before Jesus: If authentic attribution is not that important, then it is clear that Buddhist scribes are the ones more apt to add things in from other sources – not Christian scribes.

    In the end, as noted, our answers to 1 and 2 mean that it makes little difference which of the two teachings came first. But we can say that our answer to 3 is icing on the cake. We'll discuss more of the relevance of those birch-bark texts momentarily; first we will consider another Dhammapada citation.

    Overcoming Evil

    "Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good". (Dhammapada 1:5 and 17:3)
    "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." Matthew 5:44)0

    Since this Buddha saying is from the Dhammapada, we have already answered for 3. What about questions 1 and 2?

    Does a true parallel exist?

    Arguably, yes, in general terms: Both teachings are about a positive response to a negative actions or attitude. Other translations like these are more or less the same, and there is no further defining context as in our last example:

    1:5 Hate is not overcome by hate; by Love (Metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.
    Never here by enmity are those with enmity allayed, they are allayed by amity, this is the timeless Truth.
    17:3 Conquer the angry man by love; conquer the ill-natured man by goodness; conquer the miser with generosity; conquer the liar with truth.
    Anger conquer by amity, evil conquer with good, by giving conquer miserly, with truth the speaker of falsity.

    Is the parallel meaningful? No. The principles in question are universal; both Buddha and Jesus were preceded in this by Prov. 15:1, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” The idea here is that one can change the tenor of an exchange by taking the lead – and that’s something people have always recognized, from Buddha to the boardroom. This instance also contributes nothing to a "copycat" case.

    Which came first? And now we may discuss the relevance of those birch-bark texts to these two Dhammapada citations, and it must be said that our discussion is provisional, for as of this writing, scholars are still sorting through those texts. But in the present state, they provide no support either way for these last two claims, for the actual amount of Dhammapada material found in these texts (so far) amounts to a mere 15 verses -- and none of them matches with either of these two texts above. (On this, see Timothy Lenz, A New Version of the Gandhari Dharmapada and a Collection of Previous-Birth Stories, 15). Is this definitive? No, for in fairness, we permit ourselves as well to use a scrap of John like P52 to argue that the whole of John was around; so likewise a Buddhist (or copycat theorist) could argue the same. On the other hand, the philosophical fluidity expressed by Bhikku -- which finds no correspondence in Judeo-Christian philosophy -- also warns against too much certainty.

    And yet, as with Muller, we are struck again by how little evidence scholars demand of these texts in order to date them early. Richard Salomon, a leading Buddhist texual scholar, notes in Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara that apart from these bark texts, no manuscript of Buddhist scripture is more than a few centuries old -- so that indeed, apart from the bark texts, Muller's assessment apparently remains just as valid as it once was. But in terms of those bark texts, Salomon offers the following as evidence for the dating of this manuscript material to an early date:
    • First, he notes that the manuscripts refer to two particular historical figures known to have lived in the first century. This he offers as a hard earliest possible date while acknowledging that it does not permit us to set a hard latest possible date. [150]
    • For a latest possible date, Salomon is reliant not on the evidence of the manuscripts themselves, but rather, the dates assigned to the pots within which the manuscripts were found. Tests using thermolumiscence dated one pot to between the first and the eighth century, and an analysis of the style of the pots assigns them to the earliest part of that period. Finally, Saloman notes that the style of a single letter on one of the pot inscriptions [152] is characteristic of the first century.
    Is that it? Yes, that is it. Of course Saloman is aware that it is not really possible to assign the manuscripts a date based on the pots they were found in, but he concludes that "given their general similarities in script and language, it is not likely that the difference in age is very great."

    There's a little more data to be had, though it also does not help much. Carbon dating tests have been done on some of the fragments by Dr. Mark Allon of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (though not on the particular fragments of the Dhammapada), and one sample offered a date between 130-250 AD (which does not help copycat theorists), and other tests gave a wide-ranging date of between the first and fifth century. (See a summary from an Australian governmental source here.)

    So what may we say of this? Well, we may again remark as we did before that it seems that Saloman's assessment if far more generous than any NT critic would be willing to make for something like, say, P52. One can imagine a Buddhist-critic version of Robert Price saying that Saloman is engaged in "apologetic spin-doctoring" and so on, or a Buddhist-critic version of Earl Doherty claiming that even with these finds, it could be that these were "free floating traditions" later assigned to the text. But in all of this, we aren't of necessity dismissing Saloman's analysis. These texts can date from 1000 years before Jesus and it would still prove nothing for copycat theorists, because of the findings for questions 1 and 2. Nevertheless we remain with some interesting food for thought about the differences between Saloman's methods and those of many "critical" NT scholars.

    No Striking

    If anyone would strike you with his hand, with a stick or cut you with a knife, you should restrain yourself and say no evil. (Majjhimanikâya 21:6)
    But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39)

    Does a true parallel exist? This one’s the most distant yet. The Buddha saying is from a story called the Parable of the Saw which intends to advocate wholesale non-violence. Despite what some Christian pacifists say of Matthew 5:39, that was not Jesus’ intent here; the turning of the cheek was a response to a personal insult (not to physical violence) and was in its own way as much an insult as the original blow.

    Is the parallel meaningful? For the reason stated above, there is none, so we don’t need to answer this one.

    Which came first? On this one -- the evidence of the birch bark texts is unhelpful for copycat theorists, for I see no indication in Saloman's catalog of the texts that the Majjhimanikaya are part of the collection. Thus, based on his own indications regarding the state of Buddhist manuscripts otherwise, there is so far no evidence that Buddha's saying came first.


    The faults of others are easier to see than one’s own (Udânavarga 27:1)
    Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)

    Does a true parallel exist? In the most general sense, yes; both are admonitions having to do with hypocrisy. It’s a least common denominator parallel.

    Beyond that, this is just a slice of what Buddha said, which goes on:

    The faults of others are easier to see than one's own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one's own faults are hard to see. This is like the cheat who hides his dice and shows the dice of his opponent, calling attention to the other's shortcomings, continually thinking of accusing him.

    The imagery used is quite different (a speck and a plank, versus a dice player), but at any rate, the answer to the next question:

    Is the parallel meaningful? -- is obviously NO. Teachings against hypocrisy are a staple because hypocrisy is a universal sin. There is no need to deliver any assessment of borrowing, or derive any conclusions about Jesus existing as a person because of this. There are also plenty of OT teachings on hypocrisy which would have been a better antecedent for Jesus (see the handy list here).

    Which came first? I see no indication that the Udanavarga is one of the texts found among the birhc bark manuscripts, so as with the last entry, there is no evidence that it preceded the Matthean text.

    Rise and Shine

    Even as the great cloud, Kâsyapa, after expanding over the whole universe, pours out the same water … As the light of the sun and moon, Kâsyapa, shines upon all the world, upon the virtuous and the wicked, upon high and low … as their beams are sent down upon everything equally, without inequality (partiality); so, too, Kâsyapa, the intellectual light of the knowledge of the omniscient, the Tathâgatas, the Arhats, the preaching of the true law proceeds equally in respect to all beings in the five states of existence... (Saddharma-pundarika 5)
    ...that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

    Here the parallel seems to be not really a moral one, but having to do with an image used – that of meteorological elements as an image for the effect of divine activity. But there’s a serious short in the parallel: The Buddhist one, in the first part, has to do with a report of a creation account. Here’s the fuller text:

    It is a case, Kâsyapa, similar to that of a great cloud big with rain, coming up in this wide universe over all grasses, shrubs, herbs, trees of various species and kind, families of plants of different names growing on earth, on hills, or in mountain caves, a cloud covering the wide universe to pour down its rain everywhere and at the same time. Then, Kâsyapa, the grasses, shrubs, herbs, and wild trees in this universe, such as have young and tender stalks, twigs, leaves, and foliage, and such as have middle-sized stalks, twigs, leaves, and foliage, and such as have the same fully developed, all those grasses, shrubs, herbs, and wild trees, smaller and greater (other) trees will each, according to its faculty and power, suck the humid element from the water emitted by that great cloud, and by that water which, all of one essence, has been abundantly poured down by the cloud, they will each, according to its germ, acquire a regular development, growth, shooting up, and bigness; and so they will produce blossoms and fruits, and will receive, each severally, their names. Rooted in one and the same soil, all those families of plants and germs are drenched and vivified by water of one essence throughout.

    The second part comes from much later in the text, and is an illustration of reaching Nirvana:

    And further, Kâsyapa, the Tathâgata, in his educating creatures, is equal (i.e. impartial) and not unequal (i. e. partial). As the light of the sun and moon, Kâsyapa, shines upon all the world, upon the virtuous and the wicked, upon high and low, upon the fragrant and the ill-smelling; as their beams are sent down upon everything equally, without inequality (partiality); so, too, Kâsyapa, the intellectual light of the knowledge of the omniscient, the Tathâgatas, the Arhats, &c., the preaching of the true law proceeds equally in respect to all beings in the five states of existence, to all who according to their particular disposition are devoted to the great vehicle, or to the vehicle of the Pratyekabuddhas, or to the vehicle of the disciples. Nor is there any deficiency or excess in the brightness of the Tathâgataknowledge up to one's becoming fully acquainted with the law. There are not three vehicles, Kâsyapa; there are but beings who act differently; therefore it is declared that there are three vehicles.

    So this leads to question 2:

    Is the parallel meaningful? No – because Jesus uses the metaphor in an entirely different way, as an encouragement to treat other people with fairness. The metaphor is hardly one we’d except to not occur independently in any cultural context, since sun, rain, etc occur universally.

    Which came first? Muller, in his Saddharma Pundarika Or the Lotus of the True Law, supposed this work to be heavily edited and to have reached a final form around 250 AD. He supposed that it was “impossible” to be more precise than this for any earlier versions, though he did say that such versions existed “centuries” earlier [xxii]. I find no indication that it is among the birch bark texts.


    When it comes to these moral texts, the copycat theorists fail even if they manage to get manuscripts early enough to argue that they predated the NT texts; and they only get that potentially in 2 out of 5 examples.

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