According to the twentieth century scholar of Buddhism Erich Frauwallner, “That the Buddha actually existed is a relatively well established historical fact” yet “questioning his existence is occasionally done” (1).
Siddhārtha Gautama, known to most as the Buddha, is one the most influential religious and philosophical teachers of history, and although some have treated information on his life as constituting mere myths there is little doubt according to scholars and historians of religion that the Buddha existed as a historical figure. However, serious skepticism and doubt do exist concerning what can be known with certainty about him; religion scholar Terry Muck explains that,
“… much uncertainty still prevails as to the several facts about his life and his doctrine… His birth and death dates are debated – there is no consensus. The words of his teachings recorded in the Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese canons are surely edited and amended, and some attempts have been made to recover a core” (2).
Although there exists no consensus concerning when the Buddha was born, most scholars date this somewhere within the fifth century BCE. The Buddha himself did not compose a text or write down any of his teachings. Instead, they were passed down orally from generation to generation for at least 300 years, which means that the material on the Buddha’s life comes from much later sources, such as the Pali Canon (first century BCE), Mahāvastu (first century CE), Lalitavistar (first century CE), and the Aśvaghoṣa (second century CE).
All of these sources include a mass of legendary information and a close investigation shows that only a small part belongs to ancient tradition. The earliest information on the Buddha is in the Vinaya, one of the three “baskets” that makes up the Tripitaka (also known as the Pali Canon, the most important source for biographers of the Buddha), which dates to roughly one hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Although the author of the Vinaya included legends, it can be shown that he founded his story on ancient material and that it forms a coherent story of the Buddha’s life. The Sutra pitakam, which is a collection of the Buddha’s speeches, also has tradition dating back to the same period; according to Muck,
“As in the case of the facts about the life of the Buddha so here again among the most ancient ascertainable tradition and the period in which the Buddha lived there is an interval of about one hundred years” (3).
Also, a challenge to the scholar is that for centuries after the Buddha’s life his teachings and traditions were handed down orally. They were not written down, which leads Frauwallner to claim that there is no hope of discovering “new sources relating to that most remote period, for at that time the tradition was an oral one and has been irremediably lost for us in all those cases in which it has not crystalized in later texts” (4).
Three to four hundred years of oral tradition suggest that distortions and the possibility of embellishment were limitless. Yet despite this possibility, there does appear a discernible consistency within some of the traditions, which itself suggests that some of these teachings might go back to a single historical figure. For example, the teachings of the four noble truths, of causal origins, and the description of the path to liberation always recur in the same fixed form, although sometimes with variants, and suggest consistency. The most ancient Buddhist traditions unanimously ascribe these teachings to the Buddha. Although there is admittedly much uncertainty about the historical Buddha in terms of the finer details, it is ultimately the individual who questions his existence, says Frauwallner, who must bear the burden of proof,
“He who under such conditions refuses to place trust in an ancient and sound tradition, is the one who should be called on to furnish evidence of the reasons for which it should be held unreliable… The most ancient tradition unanimously ascribes these teachings to the Buddha and it seems to me quite arbitrary to refuse credence to this tradition” (5).
If the historical Buddhist tradition alongside historical sources suggests that a single founder is behind the core of Buddhist teachings, one can accept that such a founder existed in the absence of a reason to the contrary. As Frauwallner contends, if a skeptic wishes to doubt the existence of the Buddha, he then needs to bear the burden of proof and provide a plausible explanation as to why the Buddha was a later invention or has been entirely lost to legend.
1. Frauwallner, Erich. 1957. “The historical data we possess on the Person and the Doctrine of the Buddha.” East and West 7(4): 309-312. p. 309.
2. Muck, Terry. 1999. “The Buddha.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 19:105-113. p. 108.
3. Muck, Terry. 1999. Ibid. p. 109.
4. Frauwallner, Erich. 1957. Ibid. 310
5. Frauwallner, Erich. 1957. Ibid. 310