Generations of scholars, from the inception of the modern study of Buddhism, have established a long-lasting and relatively stable consensus regarding the texts and history of early Buddhism. While inevitably subject to the usual kinds of uncertainty, incompleteness, and evolution, this consensus has provided a framework for the positive development of our understanding of the Buddha, his teachings, and his community. This consensus has been challenged by the prominent Amercian academic, Gregory Schopen. His essays have been the most influential reassessment in the history of Buddhist studies. Many of his ideas are regarded as virtually canonical in modern academia, and have permeated far beyond the normal reach of Buddhist academic work. However, his arguments are far better regarded among non-specialists than among those who actually study early Buddhism. This essay shows a number of flaws and problems with Schopen’s work on early Buddhism, by implication supporting the traditional consensus.
Devadatta is depicted as the archetypal villain in all Buddhist traditions. Reginald Ray has argued for a radical reassessment of Devadatta as a forest saint who was unfairly maligned in later monastic Buddhism. His work has been influential, but it relies on omissions and mistaken readings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no overlap between the Mahāsaṅghika treatment [of Devadatta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is untrue. On the contrary, the manner in which Devadatta is depicted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly similar to the Sthavira accounts. Such differences as do exist are literary rather than doctrinal. The stories of Devadatta’s depravity became increasingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a normal feature of the mythologizing process, and has nothing to do with any antagonism against forest ascetics. In any case, the early sources are unanimous in condemning Devadatta as the instigator of the first schism in the Buddhist community.
The foundations of modern understanding of Buddhist history have been challenged by skeptical scholars like Gregory Schopen, who allege that the methods of the ‘higher criticism’ are so dubious as to be worthless. However, Schopen’s critique badly misrepresents how text crticism has been used, and his influence has led to a worrying decline in scholarship of early Buddhism.
The search goes on for something that we can identify as the earliest Vinaya, the principles of monastic conduct that have set the standard for Buddhist monastics from the Buddha until now. For scholars this is part of the enigmatically meaningful need to search for the origins of things. For myself as a practicing monk, it …