Just Because It’s Not Historical Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Dharma

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Buddhism for All

Soryu often points out one type of debate that modern Buddhists tend to get into, a new type of argument: disagreements about whether certain Buddhist texts are historical.  Modern people often think that if something is not historical, it cannot be true Dharma.  They also think that if it is true Dharma, then it must be historical.

This debate comes up often in reference to Mahayana texts.  The vast majority of Mahayana texts are almost certainly later in composition, historically speaking, than the vast majority of the early Buddhist texts.  They are more like a historical drama about the Buddha’s teachings, whereas the early texts are more like a documentary. That is easy to see.  One illustration of this is in extreme embellishment.  Here is, for example, the typical opening of a discourse in an early Buddhist text:

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Exalted One was living at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. There he addressed the monks thus: …

In contrast, here is the opening of a Mahayana text, the Maha Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, well actually, just a small fraction of it:

Thus have I heard. At one time the Exalted One dwelt at Rājagṛha, on the Vulture Peak, together with a large gathering of monks, with one thousand two hundred and fifty monks, all of them Arhants—their outflows dried up, undefiled, fully controlled, quite freed in their hearts, well freed and wise, thoroughbreds, great Nāgas, their work done, their task accomplished, their burden laid down, their own weal accomplished, with the fetters that bound them to becoming extinguished, their hearts well freed by right understanding, in perfect control of their whole minds — with five hundred nuns, laymen, and laywomen, all of them liberated in this present life — and with hundreds of thousands of millions of Bodhisattvas. … etc …

Thereupon the Exalted One on that occasion put out his tongue. With it he covered the great trichiliocosm and many hundreds of thousands of millions of rays issued from it.  From each one of these rays there arose lotuses, made of the finest precious stones, of golden color, and with thousands of petals; and on those lotuses there were, seated and standing, Buddha-frames demonstrating dharma, i.e. this very demonstration of dharma associated with the six perfections. They went in all the ten directions to countless world systems in each direction, and demonstrated dharma to beings, i.e. this very demonstration of dharma associated with the six perfections. And the beings who heard this demonstration of dharma, they became fixed on the utmost, right and perfect enlightenment … etc …

Thereupon the Exalted One exhibited his own natural body in this great trichiliocosm. The gods of the world of sense desire and of the world of form, in this great trichiliocosm, saw that glorified body of the Tathagata. They took celestial flowers, incense, perfume, garlands, ointments, powders, robes, parasols, flags, banners, and streamers; they took celestial lotuses – blue lotuses, night lotuses, water lilies, white lotuses- they took Kesara flowers and Tamala leaves; and they approached with them the glorified body of the Tathagata. Likewise the human beings in this great trichiliocosm took land and water flowers and approached the Tathagata’s glorified body. Both gods and men then strewed these flowers, etc., over the body of the Tathagata. By the sustaining power of the Buddha all these flowers, etc., formed high in the firmament one single pointed tower, which had the dimensions of the great trichiliocosm … etc …

Yeah.  Wow.

The main reason masters teach from those texts is that they contain immensely valuable wisdom that either clarifies or expands on the teachings in the Nikāyas.  For example, the Nikāyas teach non-self and compassion, but do not address a question faced by a practitioner who is becoming very advanced at both practices: can we harmonize non-self-ness with great compassion, and if so, how?  The Diamond Sūtra, one of the most important of all Mahayana texts, shows the Buddha in conversation with his disciple Subhūti, addressing it head-on:

[To cultivate a mind that harmonizes non-self and compassion, one should abide thus:] ‘However many living beings there are … I should bring all of them to final Nirvana … But after I have brought immeasurable living beings to final Nirvana in this way, no living being whatsoever has been brought to Nirvana.’  What is the reason for that? If, Subhūti, the idea of a living being occurs to a bodhisattva, he should not be called a bodhisattva.  Why is that? Subhūti, anybody to whom the idea of a living being occurs, or the idea of a soul or the idea of a person occurs, should not be called a bodhisattva.[1]

This passage offers an important teaching, that a bodhisattva (the model of an ideal practitioner) must aspire to have the type of infinite compassion to save all beings, while at the same time, fully knowing that all beings are without self.  It also alludes to another important teaching, that the total letting go of selfness is exactly where great compassion arises from.  Immensely valuable stuff.

The Chinese Diamond Sūtra, the oldest printed book in the world. [source]

As you can get a sense from the above example, the Mahayana texts have a tendency to address issues that come up for highly advanced practitioners, so the more advanced your practice, the more valuable you will find them.   That is their main upside, and it is a huge one.  The main downside is that for the vast majority of people, especially those without a deep foundation in samadhi, those texts are mostly incomprehensible.

The wisdom contained in those texts is equally applicable to an advanced practitioner regardless of whether the texts are historical. That is why the true masters do not fight over their historicity.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • An extract was given in this post of a typical opening in a sutta from Early Buddhism, versus a more extensive opening in a Mahayana sutra. What insights arise as you contemplate the Sutra openings from these examples? 
    • For me, my takeaway is that I appreciate the Buddha’s teachings even more, as it is so beautiful to hear teachings from different angles.


[1] Diamond Sūtra (Chinese: 金刚经), more formally known as the The Diamond Cutter of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra (Sanskrit: Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā), (Chinese: 金刚般若波罗蜜经).

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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