What are the Pali texts and how reliable are they?

What are the Pali texts and how reliable are they?

Our best estimate of the historical Buddha’s life has him passing away around 400 BCE at the age of eighty. (This makes him a contemporary of Socrates.) Immediately after the Buddha passed away at Kusinara, a First Council gathered to formally rehearse the core elements of his teachings, and a Second Council took place somewhat later to reaffirm the content of the first. There are good grounds to conclude that the body of literature we are working with in this course, the Pali Tipitaka, was fixed in its current form at the Third Council, convened by King Ashoka in India about 250 BCE. In the intervening 150 years, there was no doubt a good deal of compiling and editing going on, and it is likely that some material was lost while clearly other material was added (for example, the poems of the monks and nuns—the Therīgāthā and Theragāthā—who died after the Buddha).

It is significant, however, that by the time of the Third Council eighteen different schools of Buddhism had emerged and vigorously debated with one another, yet there appears to be no disagreement over what the Buddha said, only about how to interpret it. The overall effort of the community seems to have been directed to preserving for posterity the teachings as accurately and completely as possible, out of respect and veneration of the teacher. There was no intention to try to change these teachings. The oral tradition of the entire culture, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, was to pass on what had been heard, and to gradually include new material that the tradition was producing (such as the record of the debates—Kathāvatthu—of the Third Council).

The assumption in our culture is that written material can be counted upon to be accurate, while anything oral is unreliable. Just the opposite was true in ancient India. Some forms of writing existed, but there was no supporting infrastructure (paper, ink, libraries, etc.) and writing was only used for secret messages and accounting purposes. Anything valuable, such as literature, myth, religious instruction, and learning of all types, was considered too important to be written down, and was preserved orally for centuries. They were very good at oral preservation, as the Veda attests. The writing down of texts of all sorts began in India around the first century BCE, and this is when the text were recorded in both Sanskrit (in India) and Pali (in Sri Lanka). Interestingly, the texts then became more corrupted by various minor scribal errors.

We are used to thinking of the telephone game, wherein something is whispered to one person, passed around the room from person to person, and winds up at the end of the chain in a very different form. But in India oral tradition was held collectively, not individually. When dozens or even hundreds of people at a time hear the the same teaching, when that teaching is highly structured with such conventions as numbering and repetition, and when it it rehearsed regularly (every fortnight in Buddhist tradition) by the group, it retains its fidelity and does not get garbled. The Pali texts we have now are extremely consistent, coherent, and by and large represent a unified body of work.

While it is likely that people spoke somewhat differently in the various regions of north India and among the various social classes, these variants are similar enough to one another that we never hear of any problems of communication or translation, even though people travel from one end of that world to another. Pali is a language that seems to incorporate several different local variations, and served as a sort of universal language of the region at the time of the Third Council. This would have been slightly different from the form of the language spoken by the Buddha himself, a hundred and fifty years earlier, but the differences would have been minor. This means that we have in these Pali texts an extraordinary window into the past and very likely, an extraordinarily authentic record of the Buddha's teachings.

While it has been fashionable to question the reliability of the tradition in general and of the Pali texts in particular, I think the matter has been demonstrably addressed in a recent work by Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali in a freely-distributed work called The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts.

—Andrew Olendzki