What the Buddha REALLY said

We don’t know—and we have no way to find out.

Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon

In the 1980s, I practiced Wicca. Wicca is the original, pre-Christian, goddess-centered nature religion of Europe. Despite centuries of persecution and the burning of millions of Wiccans as “witches,” it survived underground to modern times. When the British Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951,1 courageous Wiccans began, cautiously, to practice their religion in public.

Well… that’s all hogwash, of course. It was obvious to skeptical Wiccans in the 1980s that our religion was an invented tradition, devised sometime in the twentieth century. It has only the vaguest of connections with pre-Christian European paganism. What we didn’t know, and had no way to find out, is whodunnit, and how, where, why, or quite when. Wicca’s inventors justified the religion as “ancient wisdom,” and they covered their tracks thoroughly. Their fabricated history was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of Wiccans. The inventors of other Neopaganisms adapted the Wiccan “unbroken secret tradition” mythology to their own systems. But as far as we skeptics were concerned, Wicca was a wonderful religion, regardless of where it came from.

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, published in 1999, was a breakthrough. Ronald Hutton, a serious non-Pagan historian, made key discoveries about Wicca’s twentieth century invention, and found suggestive evidence for broader hypotheses. His treatment was sympathetic and respectful—but facts are facts.

Not surprisingly, Hutton’s work was vitriolically rejected by many practicing Neopagans. Somehow, ancientness is proof of rightness for many people. I seem to lack the brain circuits for this. I can see no reason a 75-year-old religion is, on that account, any less valid than a millennia-old one. (Was Buddhism bogus when the Buddha taught it?) On the other hand, understanding how a religion was invented, and successively re-invented, helps understand how it functions now. Some aspects of Wicca that made sense in the 1940s make no sense now.

Despite Hutton’s discoveries, and further historical research, there is much that is still not known about how Wicca came about. Some key questions probably can never be answered.

Discordia: God is a crazy woman

Discordianism is a newer Neopagan religion, which worships Eris, the Goddess of Chaos. I first learned about Discordianism from the novel Illuminatus!. (I discussed that in “Illuminatus, Voegelin, and the politics of SBNR monism.”) Like most readers, I assumed that the religion, and its central scripture, the Principia Discordia, were fictional—like the Cthulhu worshippers and Necronomicon of H.P. Lovecraft. I was wrong.

The Principia Discordia, first published around 1965,2 is an exploration of the play of nebulosity and pattern—the actual topic of everything I write. It is one of the oddest books ever written, and one of those that have most influenced me.

The Principia Discordia claims to have been divinely revealed by the goddess Eris to “Malaclypse The Younger,” who is a character in Illuminatus!. Robert Anton Wilson, the author of Illuminatus!, insisted that he was not Malaclypse, and told some mainly preposterous stories about how the Principia came to be.3 However, until last year, it seemed that the early history of Discordianism would forever remain largely fictional. We didn’t know where it came from—and we had no way to find out.

By chance, Malaclypse The Younger kept an obsessively complete archive, which was narrowly saved from destruction when he died in 2000. It was eventually passed to Adam Gorightly, a non-academic independent historian, who published excerpts as Historia Discordia in 2014.

Despite many revelations from the Malaclypse archive, the questions about Discordian origins I would most like answered remain largely obscure. I am sympathetic to visionary history; I think terma scriptures’ claims to divine inspiration are true in some sense. From the Principia:

[Interviewer]: Is Eris true?
[Malaclypse]: Everything is true.
Even false things?
Even false things are true.
How can that be?
I don’t know man, I didn’t do it.

Without rejecting the divine intervention of Eris (whose unquestionable nonexistence does not negate her inspiration), I would like to know where the Principia’s ideas came from. There was some influence from Zen (whose Zen? how?) and from Korzybski’s Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (whose importance in mid-20th-century intellectual history baffles me). These explain little of the Principia’s content, though.

Was there any influence of Wicca on Discordianism? No sign of that. Yet they share several themes: goddess worship, among others. What was their shared origin? (Buddhism influenced both, but makes much less use of goddesses than I would like.) Or did the two systems somehow independently discover somewhat similar solutions to mid-twentieth-century spiritual problems, despite the very different cultures they arose in?

In a recent blog post, Gorightly discusses his discovery of what may be the earliest version of the Discordian scriptures, in the archives of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, created by the United States Congress to investigate the murder of JFK. It ended up there for unimaginably eldritch reasons, with esoteric details still unknown. It is historically certain that Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst, who co-founded Discordianism with Malaclypse, was subpoenaed and charged as a possible JFK co-conspirator.4 Some texts of the Principia claim that it was first printed on the Xerox machine of Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s JFK), the New Orleans district attorney who investigated the (probably-nonexistent) conspiracy. Improbable as it sounds, this may actually be true.

Gorightly’s post applies methods of historical textual criticism to try to determine the relationship between the version in the Congressional archive and the earliest version in Malaclypse’s personal archive. As is typical of text-based scriptural analysis, the goal is to try to determine which is the earlier version. His tentative conclusion is that Assassination Committee’s version has historical priority (and that it was, indeed, printed in Garrison’s office). Apparently both are quite different from the earliest version that had previously been known—which is the typical finding of scriptural scholarship in all religions.

Is it time to get to my point?

The point is that Neopaganism is a major contemporary religion, invented in living memory, yet key questions about its pre-1951 history remain in doubt, and what “the original version” was like is an open question. Some questions can probably never be answered, because the inventors destroyed evidence in order to perpetrate the “ancient tradition” myth.

The point is that Discordianism was invented in my lifetime, by people who made only token efforts to hide its history; yet the extensive archive of the primary inventor leaves most important questions unanswered, and probably unanswerable. We have only a vague idea of what Discordian practice in the early 1960s was like. Reading the Principia Discordia gives almost no insight. Gorightly has collected oral accounts from people who were involved and are still alive, but they are conflicting and vague.

The point is that we have no clue what early Buddhism was like. There are no historical records apart from the scriptures. We know that most of those were written much later, and expound doctrines and practices quite different from those of early Buddhism. Historians do not agree on which scriptures, if any, reflect the Buddha’s teaching. There’s no well-founded method for figuring that out.

We are never going to know. We are not going to find the Buddha’s personal archive in a cave on Vulture Peak Mountain. If we did, it would be fascinating, but it wouldn’t answer the most important questions, any more than Malaclypse’s archive does.

Contemporary Buddhist teachers, including some who position themselves as skeptics, are still teaching that what the Buddha really said was so-and-so; and because he really said it, that is The Right Way To Do Buddhism. But much of it, they just made up themselves; and nearly all the rest comes from the late 1800s and the past century.

In fact, the actual sources of modern Buddhism, and its actual history, are fascinatingly parallel to the actual sources and history of Wicca. Both were created from a dynamic mixture of Romanticism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Christianity. Both address the spiritual problems of modernity. None of this is now in factual doubt.

So WTF, dudes? Why are you still putting your words in the Buddha’s mouth? Why do you think you have to pretend? Aren’t you confident that your Buddhism is good enough, judged by its own merits, without lying about its origins?

  1. See Wikipedia. The last witchcraft conviction in Britain was in 1944. The 1735 Witchcraft Act is still in force in Israel and South Africa, whose legal systems were inherited from Britain. 
  2. Various sources give the first date of publication as 1963, 1964, and 1965. The book explicitly rejects copyright and has no ISBN number, and later editions claim only five copies were printed of the first, so it’s nearly as difficult to date as the scriptures of any other religion. 
  3. Wilson’s claims, although preposterous, were largely true. Some details seem to have been wrong, but that was likely inadvertent. 
  4. Lord Omar (legal name Kerry Thornley) is said to be a co-author of Principia Discordia by its fifth edition, but not by the fourth. They are textually identical except for the front material. I don’t have copies of earlier ones. Gorightly suggests that it was actually “a collaborative art project” of many authors. As with the sacred texts of other religions, we may never know the details of who wrote it. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

21 thoughts on “What the Buddha REALLY said”

  1. Fascinating, David. And your last paragraph is spot on.
    To add weight to words that lack weight, we need authority: ancientness, gurus, gods or “science”.
    And even to get people to try something that actually works, we need to trick them.
    And now, with so many begging us try their wares, it the guy with the most focus advertizing that wins, eh?

  2. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough. The same could be said of religions, which are disreputable cults until they are a few hundred years old, or claim to be. There is some logic to this — if a religion manages to last a long time that is a signal that its belief system is workable, that it give back some value from what it rakes in from believers.

    So the dynamic that leads people to claim roots in antiquity for various institutions or beliefs is strong, and common. I bet there’s a word for it, but the best I could come up with by quick googling was antiquity frenzy.

  3. Amod Lele — Yes, a most pertinent question. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested that the pretense no longer fools anyone, so it is collapsing, and Consensus Buddhism is dissolving into secular mindfulness. I’ve also suggested that a plausible strategy would be for Consensus Buddhism to rebrand itself as a liberal Protestant Christian sect, and to find common cause with others of those.

    On the other hand, I don’t care so much what people call things, as about how they claim things work. Calling the Consensus “Buddhism” is factually questionable, but the more important issue is what principles and functions it shares with previous Buddhisms (if any). The “ancient wisdom of The Buddha Himself” trope is a way to avoid asking or answering that question.

    mtraven — That’s a good point! Thanks for the link—great article.

  4. Well, yes, it would be a move of desperation! But possibly Consensus Buddhism and liberal Christianity have some complementary strengths and could support each other. It wasn’t a serious proposal on my part, though. (Also not entirely unserious.) Realistically, I expect both to continue to dwindle into irrelevance.

    In some ways, that’s too bad. They are weak and silly, but mostly well-intentioned and harmless. Secular materialism is less wrong but arguably more harmful, and fundamentalism is more wrong and more harmful, and those seem to be the major existing alternatives.

    I hope we can do better than that.

  5. I don’t think most Buddhists are “lying” about their connections to the Buddha. Making up connections to the Buddha has a long history (eg. the Zen “lineages” made up in medieval China). It’s a more a problem of receiving a tradition which describes itself as connected, i.e. being badly informed, and making no effort to disconfirm it.

    As we know, without formal training (and even with it) most people do not set out to disconfirm what they know, they set out to confirm it. Reasoning doesn’t even kick in until we have someone else to disagree with. And we have little motivation to disagree with the religious tradition in which we find a home. Many of us have made considerable sacrifice to be members of our religious community (I know I have). Don’t expect anyone who has given up sex, for example, to be rational about such things as they have too much to lose from disconfirmation.

    So, to give the benefit of the doubt, I think it is ignorance and confirmation bias rather than disingenuity. But the more of us that say we really don’t know what the Buddha said, and make the case, the better. It needs to become a commonplace observation.

  6. There is a long history of people pointing out ignorance (confirmation bias, investment and all the rest), and yet it persists. I am skeptical that self-skepticism will become “commonplace”. We live short lives — we reproduce and reinforce each other too readily.

    Here we are just talking about the myths of Buddhism — patriotism, clanism, and all the other bonding “isms” (family included), keep us tied together and competitive — tis our nature — as the scorpion said to the frog (another origin puzzle – where the origin does not affect the value [good or bad]).

    Amod asked “why call it Buddhism”, the same is asked of the Liberal Christians who aren’t Christian by majority opinion and now we read much of the “Muslim” label. In my younger years it was “true American”. The reason tantrist Buddhists, liberal Christians and all of us use the labels because they motivate us and others. It is manipulation. And it won’t stop. Even the supposedly most enlightened buy into it.

    Am I too cynical?

  7. Jayarava — Yes, “lying” is not the right word. However… I’m not sure what would be, and suspect there’s no concise way of talking about what they are doing. That could be a long blog post in itself!

    Some lamer, newer Consensus Buddhist teachers are simply ignorant and swallow the whole story as they learned it. But the older and/or smarter ones certainly have all the facts they need to recognize that what they are teaching is very far from the early texts (let alone whatever the Buddha may have said). So, failing to draw obvious conclusions must involve extensive double-think. At best, it’s motivated ignorance. Or, compartmentalizing, so different bodies of knowledge and understanding are kept separate in order to avoid thinking about their contradictions—because you know that one is going to clobber the other.

    This double-think seems to me not innocent. “Lying” isn’t quite the right word, but there is an intention to deceive, which gets justified because it’s in the service of sacredness.

    There’s a section of the Meaningness book about this kind of thinking, “Eternalist ploys.” It has a bunch of subsections, which are all incomplete, but have enough draft text to make sense I hope. “Pretending” and “Colluding for eternalism” and “Kitsch” and “Thought suppression” (and so on) seem to be ways people manage to half-believe they are teaching “what the Buddha said” when they also know it isn’t.

    There’s been some illuminating recent work on this business of religious “beliefs” that aren’t actually belief in the normal sense. (As you probably know!) Some people call them “credences.” One difference between beliefs and credences is that people apply common sense rationality to beliefs, and not to credences. Humans suck at reasoning under the best of circumstances, but we choose not to do even that when it comes to credences. Different sorts of thinking get used.

    Sabio — Yes, I agree that skepticism is unlikely to catch on. It’s not in human nature, nor in most people’s interest!

    However, particular facts can become known as facts. Then people believe the fact. Some who are stubborn simultaneously “believe” its opposite as a credence as well. (Interesting example: American Midwestern farmers who staunchly deny anthropogenic global warming (credence) while engaging in an expensive lobbying effort to get Congress to give them financial protection against it (belief).)

    I think we could get commonly known as a fact that what the Buddha taught is unknowable. Then some Buddhists would accept that and modify their teaching accordingly. Others would stick to “what the Buddha really said” as a credence, explicitly denying the unknowability.

    I tend to think this isn’t worth the effort, because this sort of Buddhism is collapsing anyway.

  8. “In the 1980s, I practiced Wicca. Wicca is the original, pre-Christian, goddess-centered nature religion of Europe.”

    Cooked up by Gerald Gardner wasn’t it ?

    Anyway, as Americans, you’re supposed to have broken with Olde Europe and done your own thing. Why not go native American religion instead ? At least it’s got a genuine tradition rather than a plastic concoction by English gentlemen.

  9. Cooked up by Gerald Gardner wasn’t it ?

    That was my guess in the 1980s. The recent research suggests that the story is considerably more complicated and interesting. This Wiki article covers some points. Whether the New Forest Coven existed or not, it’s clear that Gardner collaborated with many people, some of whom (Doreen Valiente, e.g.) probably contributed at least as much as he did.

  10. Fascinating. On a small detail, I’m not convinced that Hutton is a ‘non-Pagan historian’. He is very careful about how he presents himself but people who know him tell me he is actually very involved in Wicca (possibly even a High Priest).

  11. Most religions claim to begin with a Magical Man or Magical Woman worthy of emulation and obedience. My sarcastic simple minded Buddhist evangelistic message – In Buddhism the Magical Man Buddha dumped his wife and child and other responsibilities to find a way to feel better about things, after arduous effort he finally felt better about things (enlightenment?) and went on to be a revered leader of a mass religious movement, the Magical Man all deferred to. He taught an eight item to do list that if applied will enable you to also feel better about things and be a Magical Man or as is now allowed a Magical Woman . Of course currently as you have noted the traditional version of that list has been tweaked and modified to fit a leftist secular approach. And who really knows what the Magical Buddha really did and said as everything was written down long after the Magic happened.

    Full disclosure – My Magical Man is Jesus, according to textual analysis and the manuscript record over 99 percent of the New Testament has been preserved as written. The questionable words and passages don’t impact any New Testament teachings unless you’re into snake handling. In addition it can be strongly argued that the great majority if not all of the New Testament was written during the life times of people who witnessed the Magic. For instance Paul, the undoubted writer of 1 Corinthians which has been reliably dated to the early 50’s CE(about 20 years after Jesus left the scene) gave descriptions of resurrection appearances of Jesus and mentions that eyewitnesses were still alive. He also had lived in the Jerusalem area, and speaks of returning there and speaking with the Peter and John and other early followers of Jesus in Galatians. Something very interesting happened back then.

  12. OK, I generally enjoy your essays about Tantra.
    I’ve gotten a clearer idea of the purpose of Tantra from your simple, straight-forward writing than I’ve had from many other expositions.
    Generally, I am what you would call a “Sutra” Buddhist, but I now see the relevance and elegance of Tantra as an alternative path.

    However, I have to disagree with the thesis of this particular essay.
    It is a valid philosophy to have, but, imo, an irresponsible approach to the practice and teaching of Buddhism.
    Yes, one does not have to ascribe ancient origins to a set of teachings to prove their validity, and in some cases it is virtually impossible to truly know what the original teachings were like,
    but that does not mean we should give up trying to find out or acknowledge what the original teachings were like.

    From your essays about Roach & McNally, I see that you do believe that there is an authentic and proper way to transmit Tantra.
    Imagine if someone tells you that Roach & McNally’s approach was just as valid, because we don’t know what original Buddhist Tantra was “really” like, so why bother pointing to any way as “authentic” and “proper”? For example, why bother distinguishing between “Hindu” and “Buddhist” Tantra? Just mix them up!
    The dangers of unauthentic and improper transmission of Tantra which you had warned against will come to pass, if people do not bother to find out and acknowledge what the original teachings were like.
    The situation is similar for Buddhism in general.

    Furthermore, while we do not have a complete direct record of what the Buddha said (in the sense of literally video-recording all the Buddha’s sermons), we do have an idea of which form of Buddhism is the most primitive.
    Namely, the form of Buddhism as described in the pali Suttas, and by extension, their Sanskrit counterpart, the Agamas.
    The archaeological evidence alone would be interesting to talk about, but for now perhaps I’ll leave such a discussion to someone who has actually worked directly on such evidence.

    Let me say something else:
    I’m not concerned about whether direct evidence of what the Buddha taught exists.
    That problem exists in most traditions and is thus trivial. We also have no video-recording of Karl Marx himself expounding his philosophy. So did he really write the Communist Manifesto? Well, what can we do? We just infer from the best sources we have and stick with that understanding until evidence arises to the contrary.

    The real problem I see is that a lot of people assume they know what the best sources say, without having REALLY perused and understood those sources.
    From my experience, it is rare to find anyone (including proponents of Mahayana and Vajrayana) who have actually read and understood the Suttas and still believe that there cannot be any clear idea of what original Buddhism was probably like. I would recommend that you read them as well, if you haven’t.
    Anyway, they are worth reading not just because they are purported to be the “oldest” Buddhist scripture but because they contain a lot of pleasant surprises.
    When I started reading them, I realised that, among other thing, some of the prevalent assumptions about “early Buddhism” (or Buddhist practice in general) are unfounded,
    and Buddhism started to make a whole new layer of sense to me.
    I even got more out of my meditation practice, by following the instructions in the Suttas, than by following the instructions of my meditation instructors! Whether or not they were transmitting the exact words of the Buddha, those who composed the Suttas clearly knew what they were doing.

  13. I wonder… Why is so much of the “thought-space” in American Buddhism taken up with such overly earnest, intellectual and verbose man-‘splaining?? And is it really necessary to invent words like ”meaningness”? I find this tendency for mind-numbing critical acrobatics to be the norm in my home sangha as well.

    I’m sure you guys mean well, but have you thought about coming up for air? (Or maybe going out and talking to a tree…). You’re really overthinking this stuff. Buddhism doesn’t require a PhD in philosophy or rhetoric. If the Buddha were reading all this stuff on his iPad, I think he’d have a good belly laugh and suggest (in a nice way) that you all take a chill pill and a deep breath.

    Yours –
    Baby Boomer Lady Prof

  14. You know, on another page you write – “Voegelin classed both Nazism and Communism as “Gnostic” movements that attempted to immanentize the eschaton. ”

    which is exactly what I thought when I read Alfred Rosenberg – that it reads like the Germans were due a mass enlightenment.

    Didn’t really work out for them.

    And it reminds me I still have to read Nature’s God to finish the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles trilogy. I have to say that Sir John’s encounter with the Royal Society over the matter of the meteorite is fucking great.

  15. “We are never going to know. We are not going to find the Buddha’s personal archive in a cave on Vulture Peak Mountain.”…. Dead Sea Scrolls…. just sayin’

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