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Baha’is believe that Buddhism constitutes a vital part of the divine plan, representing a strong link in the chain of progressive revelation throughout the ages. But how can a religion with scant reference to God be part of the same overall system as the theistic religions? To answer these questions we need to investigate Buddhist history and scripture.
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born sometime around 500 BC, give or take 100 years, at Kapilavastu in Nepal. Of the Buddha’s early life a Buddhist scholar writes:
The traditional life story handed down largely in common among all Buddhists is quite full. We may be fairly sure that it contains much accurate information of a historical kind. We are quite sure that it contains later elaboration and additions. What we often do not know is which is which. – L.S. Cousins, A Handbook of Living Religions.
Some of the stories told of the Buddha sound like myths — but it is always easier to spot the myths of another religion than the myths of one’s own. The greatness of the myths, however, do reveal the greatness of the Buddha in the hearts of His followers. The Buddha, without doubt, was a great being, the Founder of one of the world’s great Faiths, revered and respected around the globe.
As with the stories told of the Buddha, the authenticity of Buddhist scripture has problematic aspects, too. Buddhist teachings were not written down until the first century before Christ – a period of at least 300 years from the time Buddha himself lived. The oldest Buddhist texts were salvaged from Sri Lanka and were written in a language that has come to be known as Pali — though the word just means “text.” The Buddha did not speak Pali; he spoke Magadhi. Pali is a synthetic language, an amalgamation of several dialects, including the one the Buddha spoke. It is not spoken by anyone today save Buddhist devotees and scholars, like Latin from a Western perspective.
Originally, the Buddha’s teachings were divided into nine categories (spellings below vary): sutra (prose), geya (prose and verse), vyakarana (answers to questions), gatha jataka (stories of past births), udana (inspired utterances), itivrttaka (memorable sayings), vedalla (catechism) and adbhutadharma (marvelous qualities), but sometime after the Buddha’s death, a simpler categorization took effect and scripture was divided into nikayas (“volumes” in Pali) or agamas (“scriptural collections” in Sanskrit).
The first volume in those scriptural collections is called the vinaya (in both Pali and Sanskrit) and it contains instruction about monastic discipline. The second is called the sutta in Pali and sutra in Sanskrit. It contains records of the Buddha’s public discourses or teachings (dhamma in Pali and dharma in Sanskrit). Eventually a third volume appeared, called the abhidhamma in Pali and the abhidharma in Sanskrit. These discourses on dharma reflected different understandings of the Buddha’s teachings. Initially many different versions were probably produced, but only two complete versions have survived: one from the Sarvāstivāda school which became dominant in northern India, and central Asia; and one from the Sinhalese school that spread south and eventually to southeast Asia. Together, these three huge volumes of scripture are called Tipitaka in Pali (tripatika in Sanskrit) literally “three baskets.”
We can glean a sense of the immensity of the problem of the authenticity of the Buddhist scriptures from the awareness that the discourses alone make up many thousands of pages, many times larger than the Christian Bible, taking up the equivalent space of at least 50 volumes in modern editions. It is inconceivable that such a huge volume of material could be orally transmitted without modification, alteration or error for hundreds of years before being written down.
Baha’is believe that Buddha was a Manifestation of God, like Christ, but that his followers do not possess His authentic writings. This problem of authenticity plagues many Faiths, including Judaism, Christianity and (to a lesser extent) Islam. But despite that problem, and the parallel problem of the gradual corruption of the authentic and original teachings of each of the Prophets over time, the core teachings of these great religions have a remarkable consistency and congruity:
The real teaching of Buddha is the same as the teaching of Jesus Christ. The teachings of all the Prophets are the same in character. Now men have changed the teaching. If you look at the present practice of the Buddhist religion, you will see that there is little of the Reality left. Many worship idols although their teaching forbids it. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 63.
Of course some forms of Buddhism are not focused on idols, but Buddhism, like all religions, is in need of renewal.