The historical Buddha lived 25 or so centuries ago, in a time before the concept of “history” had been separated from mythology. For this reason, the Buddha’s life story preserved through the ages is more myth than biography. This is not to say the story isn’t true. As Joseph Campbell said, “Mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.” However, we don’t know how factual the story might be.
Here in the 21st century, we may believe that we have evolved beyond myth-making. But in fact, today new myths are being created to make the Buddha more palatable to our postmodern sensibilities.
For example, today it is widely claimed that the Buddha was opposed to all rituals and ceremonies, and that rituals and ceremonies performed by Buddhists today are a corruption of the original teaching. Is that true?
The Buddha’s Objection to Rituals
First, let’s define “ritual.” A ritual can be the prescribed order of any ceremony, religious or otherwise.
The Buddha disparaged rituals in several of his sermons. He was critical of the Brahmins of his day, whose chief function was performing rituals. The path is better walked with mental discipline and ethical living than with rituals, he said.
Yet according to the Vinaya-pitaka, the Buddha initiated some rituals and ceremonies himself. There was a brief ceremony that marked a disciple’s admission into the sangha, for example. Other ceremonies believed to date to the Buddha’s time include Kathina (the robe ceremony) and the observances at the beginning and end of Vassa, the rains retreat.
In the Vedic religions that pre-date Buddhism, the times of the full and new moons had long been set aside as holy days and observed with rituals and teaching. The Buddha and his disciples adapted this practice by making full and new moon days a time for public confession and atonement.
The Vinaya also spells out how to bow (and whom to bow to) and the proper way to fold one’s robe and put away one’s bowl. It even explains in detail the correct way to manage one’s robe while using a latrine. The disciples’ lives were ruled by protocols and rituals, it seems.
Is it possible some of these protocols and rituals were added after the Buddha’s life? Yes, that is possible. In the case of the eight Garudhammas — restrictive rules that apply only to nuns — I think it is probable. But it’s impossible to know for certain. And if we toss out the entire Vinaya, we’re tossing out a large part of the recorded teachings believed to have originated with the Buddha.
It’s tempting to declare the parts of the old scriptures that conform to our views as “original” and discard the other stuff as something added later. But without objective evidence, that’s not an honest way to read the old scriptures.
One distinction about the Buddha’s rituals and protocols is that they have practical purposes. An initiate’s vows to keep the Precepts; bowing to one’s seniors; the ritual handling of Kathina cloth all functioned to maintain commitment and promote group harmony. Unlike the rituals of the Brahmins, these rituals were not based on magical thinking or meant to bring about a supernatural result.
In the many centuries since the time of the Buddha, it’s certainly true that many rituals have been performed by self-identified Buddhists that were and are based on magical thinking and meant to bring about a supernatural result. The intelligent response to this is not to avoid rituals entirely but to discern which rituals may have practical applications and which do not.
The Buddha also advised his monks to not become attached to the taste of food. He was not telling them not to eat.
For more on what makes a ritual useful, see “Ritual and Buddhism.”
Did The Buddha Begin a Religion?
Another story I’ve seen kicking around on the Internet is that, on his deathbed, the Buddha directed his monks to “not turn my teachings into a religion.” I find this claim problematic on several levels, including the simple fact that there are no such words in the Parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka, which I believe is our only record of the Buddha’s last days.
“Religion” as most of us understand it is a western concept. The Buddha would have had no word for it. The closest word to “religion” in the Sanskrit or Pali of his day is dharma, or dhamma. And the Buddha asked his monks to preserve the dharma with great care. He certainly never said “don’t turn my dharma into a dharma.”
Some of this confusion about religion may date to the Kalama Sutta, in which the Buddha advised his listeners to not place blind faith in teachers or scriptures. This one piece of the sutta often is quoted out of context to claim the Buddha advised us to apply “common sense” or “reason” to determine truth. But if you read the entire sutta, it’s clear that’s not what he meant at all. What was most important was discerning wisdom, or direct insight. And this, he often taught, came from practice of the Eightfold Path.
Since the 19th century, when western scholars began to take Buddhism seriously, westerners often have treated Buddhism as a blank slate on which they could project their ideals of what a spiritual tradition ought to be. Historian David McMahan said of this,
“Orientalist scholars located ‘true Buddhism’ in the texts of the ancient past and delimited it to carefully selected teachings, excluding any consideration of living Buddhists, except reformers who themselves were modernizing their tradition in dialogue with western modernity. … sympathetic Orientalists presented the Buddha as a protoscientific naturalist in his own time.”
You’ve heard the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” This means that if the Buddha you see conforms too neatly to your own desires and expectations, he’s not “real”; he’s a projection of your own desires and expectations. At the very least, when you meet such a Buddha, don’t get too attached.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]