The History and Unity of Buddhism

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni taught us that impermanence and change are intrinsic to life. Life is an ever changing flow of conditioned events. Phenomena come into existence in dependence upon conditions and when those conditions change, phenomena change, and disappear. Such is the Buddha’s law of conditionality or dependent origination (known as pratitya samutpada in sanskrit).

Buddhism itself is subject to the law of conditionality. Historical studies document the impermanence and change in buddhist institutions, practices, philosophical systems and sacred myths and legends. Not understanding the history of Buddhism can lead to confusion and even fundamentalism and sectarianism within Buddhism. This happens when buddhist practitioners and communities confuse sacred myths and legends with historical fact.

This is the argument put forward by Rita M. Gross, a well-known American practitioner of Buddhism and an academic specialist in Buddhism. She is a disciple of the leading Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and is now herself a senior teacher in the community of Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Rita Gross particularly draws our attention to stories in later Buddhism that the historical Buddha Shakyamuni taught Mahayana and even Vajrayana Buddhism to selected superior students. These teachings to selected superior students were then supposed to have been hidden for centuries until they emerged into the open at an appropriate time, being presented as higher teachings than those previously available.

Those buddhists who did not accept these stories of higher teachings, were dismissed by some Mahayanists as inferior. They were given the name „Hinayana“, which is a derogatory term, meaning the „lesser“ or „inferior way“. The term „Hinayana“ is sectarian and it is not therefore appropriate, argues Rita Gross, to use this term. It is especially inappropriate, she goes on, because historical studies show us that it is unlikely that the historical Buddha Shakyamuni ever gave Mahayana or Vajrayana teachings during his lifetime. Instead Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings developed later in history in response to particular causes and conditions.

But, Rita Gross continues, this does not mean that the teachings contained within the sacred myths or stories of the Mahayana and Vajrayana are not relevant, or have a lesser value, because they are not historically or literally true. Sacred myths, stories and legends have their own kind of truth that does not depend upon historical accuracy.

They may not be higher teachings but they still have great value as restatements and reworkings of the historical Buddha’s original teachings.

But why did the Mahayana and Vajrayana claim that their teachings were hidden, higher teachings given by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni? Even if Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings are not higher teachings, how can we be sure that they still have value? To answer these two questions we will turn first to another American buddhist practitioner and academic, Lama John Makransky. Later we will elucidate the views of Urgyen Sangarakshita, founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly Western Buddhist Order).

John Makransky is a lama in the Tibetan tradition of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche and Lama Surya Das. He argues that a teaching does not have to come from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni to be true. As long as the teaching emerges from the wisdom of enlightenment itself – that is from another person in the buddhist sangha who has attained the same enlightenment as Buddha Shakyamuni – then the teaching has the same authority as the teachings originally given by Shakyamuni. When Shakyamuni gained enlightenment he gained access to a body of truth that has always existed, the Dharmakaya. And in the same way, another enlightened being, whether becoming enlightened at the same time in history as Buddha Shakyamuni or later in history, has access to the Dharmakaya and it is this that gives their teaching authority.

But why then did Mahayana and Vajrayana texts claim that they were taught by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and that they were higher teachings than those previously available?

Because, according to John Makransky, when Mahayana teachings began to emerge, some conservative buddhists refused to accept them and attacked them precisely because they were not the word of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. In response to this, the authors of Mahayana texts evolved various devices to give their texts legitimacy, including presenting the text as if it had been given by Shakyamuni Buddha, (or by a disciple whose teaching is then given the stamp of approval by the Buddha). In other words the authors of the new Mahayana texts mythologised history. Over time these literary devices used to gain authority for a text became something that was taken as being literally true.

And because the Mahayana was not a uniform or cohesive movement, when new texts or teachings emerged, each of these new teachings was forced to claim that it represented another hidden teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha (or of a disciple of the Buddha) that was higher than those previously revealed. In this way new texts not only claimed to be a higher teaching than those collected and taught within Early or Nikaya Buddhism (or the so-called „Hinayana“) and collected together in the Pali Canon, but also claimed to be a higher teaching than previously known Mahayana texts. For example, one Mahayana text that emerged around 500 to 700 years after the Buddha Shakyamuni’s death (sometime during the 1st to 3rd centuries C.E.), the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, presents the Buddha as having given three successively higher levels of teachings known as the „three turnings of the dharma wheel“; the first and lowest level being the teachings of Early Buddhism as found in the Pali Canon; the second and middle level being the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras; and the third and highest level being the Yogacara. Some Mahayanists even claimed a fourth level of teaching; Buddha nature.

Lama John Makransky says that this misleading habit of claiming a higher level of authority for the teachings or texts of one’s own school or tradition became widespread in the Mahayana and Vajrayana, in Tibetan treasure or terma texts, and in the origins of Zen. Each school or tradition claimed that it had the authentic highest level of teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Clearly not all could be right in their claims. Unfortunately such claims still persist today.

So how are we to make sense of the history of Buddhism? What teachings can legitimately be regarded as emerging from the Dharmakaya?

The founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Urgyen Sangharakshita, provides us with a way to approach these questions. Having himself studied and practiced within the Theravada tradition of Early Buddhism of the Pali Canon, and within the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, Sangharakshita’s approach and that of the Triratna Buddhist Order can be described as „critical ecumenicism“; an approach that values all Buddhist traditions but views them from a critical and historical perspective. Like Rita Gross and Lama John Makransky, Sangharakshita’s view is that there is little or no historical basis for the claim that all Buddhist scriptures come directly from Buddha Shakyamuni. Nor is there any basis for the claim that the Buddha gave different levels of teaching to people of different capabilities. There are no higher or hidden teachings.

Instead, when we examine all Buddhist traditions, Sangharakshita argues, we can see a common core of teachings. These teachings, originating within the Pali Canon of Early Buddhism, cover the classical doctrinal formulae of Buddhism such as dependent origination (pratitya samutpada), the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, and the three marks or characteristics of conditioned existence (impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality). As long as texts are consistent with these original classical teachings there is no problem. Such texts can legitimately be seen as coming from the Dharmakaya, from the mind of an enlightened being.

Of course, over time the original spirit and meaning of Shakyamuni’s teachings were sometimes lost sight of. And in response to this, new and vibrant restatements of the Buddha’s teachings emerged. Thus, when some Buddhists lost sight of the Buddha’s original teachings on insubstantiality, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras emerged, not as a higher teaching but as a corrective to a mistaken interpretation of the Buddha’s original teachings. And, when some Buddhists began to be adversely affected by a perceived nihilism in the Perfection of Wisdom approach, the Yogacara emerged as another corrective. Such restatements were consistent with the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s original teachings. Indeed Nagarjuna, a major proponent of the concept of emptiness and the perfection of wisdom approach, explicitly argued that his approach was totally consistent with Shakyamuni’s teaching of pratitya samutpada or dependent origination.

This is why in the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community when we study and practice Buddhism, we study and practice all three yanas; the Early or Nikaya Buddhism of the Pali Canon, as well as the Mahayana and Vajrayana. Because, as we have shown, there are sometimes incorrect claims made about Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, it is tempting to try and leap ahead and get misleadingly called higher teachings, missing out the Pali Canon of early Buddhism. But because the foundational teachings of Buddhism originated in the Pali Canon it is vital that study of the Dharma includes a substantial component from this source. Having a firm foundation in the Pali Canon allows us then to bring a critical and historical perspective to assessing the teachings found in the later Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.

As the Dalai Lama has written, the teachings of the Pali Canon… „lay the basis for all subsequent Buddhist literature“. And study of the Pali Canon is „especially valuable for reinvigorating and clarifying understanding of many fundamental buddhist doctrines.“

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
Tallinn, December 2009


  • Rita Gross „Commentary: Why We Need to Know Our Buddhist History“ Buddhadharma, Spring 2009
  • John J. Makransky „Historical Consciousness as an Offering to the Trans-historical Buddha“ Ch. 6 in „Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars“ published by Routledge-Curzon
  • Subhuti „Sangharakshita: a new voice in the Buddhist tradition“ published by Windhorse Publications
  • Dalai Lama „Foreword“ in „In the Buddha’s Words“ edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi, and published by Wisdom Publications