Alexander Wynne

Alexander Wynne returns to speak with us about historical authenticity of the Buddha.

What would it mean to your practice if we discover our historical understanding of Buddhism was not correct? Not in a little way, getting someone’s name a little wrong, but something larger, something that might change the accuracy of the teachings themselves? Would that matter to you? When I think about this question, to me it really doesn’t change anything because my secular approach is one of exploration, of testing for myself, and not accepting holy writ as without error. But what if you happen to place a large portion of your identity as a Buddhist into a vested interest in the accuracy of the Pali canon?

Alexander Wynne is currently a lecturer in Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University, and also a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and Associate Fellow of the Dhammachi Tipitaka Project (at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Thailand).

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Not Your Father’s Root Beer.


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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.

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  1. Doug Smith on September 26, 2016 at 8:00 am

    Thanks very much Alex and Ted for another excellent podcast. You’re both right to point out that the historical material is important for illuminating the essentially human aspect of the Buddha’s life and work. While this material does not constitute the entirety of the canon, it certainly constitutes a preponderance: material that strikes us as coming from a real place, inhabited by real humans discussing real issues of the day, rather than as an idealized formalism for establishing and authenticating abstruse philosophical claims. In this, the early work found in the Pāli Nikāyas is perhaps more easily compared with the Platonic dialogues than any other premodern work.

    It may also be illustrative to compare the case with that of Christianity, around the issue of the so-called ‘Jesus myth’. The notion that Jesus’s existence is simply a later myth constructed out of whole cloth is not one that has any academic support, but nevertheless it has become something of an item of faith (as it were) for some in the secular community. Eminent scholar Bart Ehrman has a through takedown of this approach in his recent book Did Jesus Exist? Interestingly many of the same claims are made in both the case of the Buddha and Jesus, basically along the lines of the paucity of extra-canonical data about these figures until well after their deaths. (With the Buddha the elapse is somewhat greater than with Jesus, amounting to about a century or so of difference between them).

    In the case of Jesus, his existence and status as son of God is of course more or less central to his (post-Pauline) religious importance, while in the case of the Buddha an argument can be made even on traditional grounds that his existence isn’t strictly speaking essential to the truth of his message. Nevertheless I think some Buddhists take this a bit too far in leaving aside study of the early work as unnecessary or even counterproductive. While such study is a matter of personal interest, and isn’t for everyone, nevertheless even taking into account that we do not require existence of a historical Buddha, there are many aspects of his life and approach to awakening that can be useful to us today. Not least of these is that by contemplating his historical milieu we come to realize that A person living in a cave ten thousand years ago could have been wise, even while he could not, by modern standards, have been scientifically knowledgeable. That is, we come to be aware that wisdom is subtly different from knowledge, and requires a different approach to that of simply piling up relevant facts.

    Alex mentioned Stephen Batchelor. I hope that my work on this site, like Stephen Batchelor’s, helps uncover some ways in which the Buddha’s ancient message may resonate today.

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