A good example of why I find unitary theories to be a problem.

By unitary theories, I mean theories that propose there is a single something, usually you get this in connection with the origin/purpose of religion. Oh religion came from fear of death, religion provides social cohesion, religion is a neurosis, religion came from the soul which came from somebody’s contemplation of dreams and death, and so on. My thought is that religion, or any human sphere of endeavor for that matter, is far too complicated to admit of a single point of origin or reason for being. As an example, people believe in religions for various reasons, not simply assuaging their fear of death.

Enter this article on Buddhist scripture.

http://www.tricycle.com/feature/whose-buddhism-truest?page=0,0

We have with Buddhist texts a similar idea, if we go back far enough, there will be a single correct set of Buddhist texts. In a way this makes sense, if the texts are the recorded words of a founder, we’d expect there to be a single accurate version, because the founder only said one set of words. But think of any story, or a family, which the article gives as an example.

I might tell one story, but I might tell it differently at different times. Different people will tell it in their own way, likely capturing all of the salient details, but using their own wording. Likely some of that wording will come from me, if I tell it particularly well, but certainly not all of it. I’m not proposing a game of telephone here, where the story gets corrupted, let me make that perfectly clear. I am saying there are multiple versions of the story, both from myself and others.

By this point, the application to any textual tradition should be clear, but it also applies to other sorts of questions, hence the title of this post. I think the situation of Buddhist scriptures perfectly illustrates why, unless we have good reason to think otherwise, seeking a single reason for something’s origin, persistence, somebody’s beliefs, and so forth is wrong.

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4 Responses to A good example of why I find unitary theories to be a problem.

  1. David says:

    Given that, even according to Buddhist tradition, the earliest ‘records’ of the Buddhavaacana were oral — and given, furthermore, that there were a number of contentious early Buddhist ‘councils’ which led to the division of early Buddhism into a variety of sanghas with (slightly) different practices and (eventually) different philosophical traditions, this is really no surprise. While I’m sure it sheds much light on the history of early Buddhism, it doesn’t exactly imply that there wasn’t *something* that the Buddha taught; only that, by the time it got written down (centuries later) there was some disagreement both as to words and meaning. But it also ought to be added that there are huge areas of overlap. Scholarly ideas about the content of early Buddhism are enriched by these texts, but not overturned.The conclusion I’d draw is not so much that there cannot be single origins, but that nature of that origin inevitably gets obscured by time, and is, perhaps, not as all-important as all that. Perhaps it’s better that, rather than having a fixed wording and a fixed interpretation of an original ancient text, there are three or more different incarnations of that text, which give it greater depth and dimensionality.

  2. Henry Emrich says:

    1. I wouldn’t put this down to an issue of it being "obscured by time" — more like obscured by illiteracy. The fact that there was any lag-time between the original teachings, and what was written down necessarily means that we don’t HAVE access to whatever the hypothetical "original" teachings of the Buddha (or Jesus, for that matter) might have been. Instead, we get fifth-hand (or worse) re-tellings/paraphrases/deliberate alterations which, unfortunately, gain respectability more from the fact that they happen to be old, than from whether they accurately reflect what Siddhartha Guatama (or Jesus, for that matter) actually said.2. At least in the case of Islam, there are a few verses in the Koran which have been deprecated. Read up on the "Satanic verses". The rationalization for this (at least according to one of my introductory books on Islam), is that Muhhamad was "tricked" by Satan into writing those verses, and they didn’t actually come from Allah. Now, a more plausible explanation, is that Muhhamad changed his mind in regard to the subject matter covered by those verses (wine, moon-goddesses, etc.) How far-fetched is it to think that "The Buddha" may have changed his mind/rephrased things, at different points? I realise people (both within and outside of Abrahamic monotheism) love the notion of a "changeless" scripture/message, but really…if the "KJV ONLY" protestants are stupid for doing it, then it’s equally stupid if Buddhists do it.

  3. khomus says:

    <blockquote> <br/>The conclusion I’d draw is not so much that there cannot be single origins, but that nature of that origin inevitably gets obscured by time, and is, perhaps, <br/>not as all-important as all that. Perhaps it’s better that, rather than having a fixed wording and a fixed interpretation of an original ancient text, <br/>there are three or more different incarnations of that text, which give it greater depth and dimensionality. <br/></blockquote> <br/> <br/>This is sort of what I was aiming for. The Buddhist scriptural example was just to demonstrate how questing for a single origin, i.e. a single thing/reason/whatever, obscures the actual complexity of the situation. Of course there was something the Buddha taught, or, at least if there wasn’t, we need a lot more evidence to demonstrate such a thing. <br/> <br/>But there probably wasn’t "one thing" the Buddha taught, see my example with versions of stories. In other words, even if we could go back in time and record all of the Buddha’s words, there would be no "correct text", because the Buddha would use different words on different occasions and to different audiences. So immediately when we begin to write a text, we’d be picking and choosing. <br/> <br/>So that’s more what I was going for, sure the Buddha taught, but there wasn’t "one text", that he taught, he didn’t say a sutra the exact same way every single time. The textual examples just help illustrate this point. The parallel to say, theories on the origin of religion is that, just as we have multiple related streams of Buddhist texts, it is much more likely that religion originated for multiple and possibly related reasons, not because of a single factor, e.g. societal cohesion Ala Durkheim, a collective neurosis Ala Freud, and so on.

  4. khomus says:

    Or, you know, the explanation could be that it never happened in the first place, which is the contention of modern Islamic scholars. Part of this is because they feel that Allah’s prophet wouldn’t have been mislead, but part of it is based on what is, essentially, a lack of historical evidenced based on the transmitter(s) of the Satanic verses story. <br/> <br/>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanic_verses <br/> <br/>In any case, I don’t think attempting to declare group A B and C stupid serves much purpose. Looking for fixed forms of wording, either in definitions or personal statements, is hardly unique to the religious, the stupid, the religiously stupid, or the stupidly religious, for that matter.

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