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What People Say the Buddha Said

So I guess I really am basically nuts. I really don't need another project.


As I was writing my morning pages this week, I was pondering the Kalama Sutra we looked at last week, and it occurred to me that there was a need for "readable" versions of the sutras, at least some of them. Not that the various translations aren't good, or aren't readable -- they're far better than some of the Victorian atrocities I've railed at before -- but what if the sutras were redone more as they might be written down today? So today's column is a little experiment.

As best anyone can tell, the historical buddha lived in the 5th-to-4th century, in the plains around the Indus and Ganges Rivers, mainly in what we now call northern India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Roughly 100 years later, Asoka the Great conquered nearly all of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other random small countries. He then had a "moment of clarity" looking at piles of dead people; he became a student of, and then a convert to, the teachings of the Buddha. Asoka adopted or adapted those teachings, becoming for his time a very "liberal" and enlightened king.

As interesting a fellow as Asoka is, though, he comes into this story mainly because he erected a series of monuments memorializing events in the historical Buddha's life, and a series of 50 foot stone pillars with the Edicts of Asoka, the rules he established for running his kingdom. Those rules speak of the Dharma, and they're pretty much the first written record of the Buddha or his teachings.

But we get the sutras by another route. Shortly after the Buddha's death, there was a Great Council convened where the Buddha's followers decided to agree on how they could remember and retain the Buddha's teachings. His cousin Ananda, who had been the Buddha's attendant and sort of his "chief of staff" who was with the Buddha every day, either had a perfect memory (as tradition says) or was one hell of a storyteller. In any case, he recited the stories of the Buddha's life that became the foundation of Buddhism.

When they were written down 500 years later, between Ananda's time and when the sutras were first written down, they were transmitted word of mouth. And they show it -- they are full of poetry, repetition, all the things that make epic poetry easy to remember.