Proximate words

January 16, 2007

There is great wisdom in some Buddhist scriptures, but nothing that can reliably be traced back to the Buddha himself. This is the conclusion of Edward Conze, the translator and compiler of the Penguin selection of scriptures. In his introduction, he makes it clear that there is no "original gospel" (his words) in Buddhism. "All attempts to find it are based on mere surmise," he explains. The major reason for this is that many of the traditional texts were written down between 100-400 A.D. (Conze doesn't use C.E.), that is, 600-900 years after the Buddha's life. That is not to say that the words of the Buddha have not been preserved, just that at the moment we have no reliable way of finding them.

Christianity has its traditional texts, too, but it is much easier to identify the source of the traditions—the writings of the followers of Jesus, in particular the four 'biographies' (gospels) written within 70 years of Jesus' life on earth. There's potential for slippage there, too, but the proximity of Jesus' life to its earliest written records helps us to understand why Christians can hold the New Testament in such high regard as a genuine source of knowledge about their leader.

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