Sunday, November 19, 2006


I just finished Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It's all about how the Bible has been changed over the years by the various scribes whose job it was to copy the thing in the days before Xerox machines. Ehrman was once an evangelical Born Again Christian who believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. But when he started studying the scriptures and their history he discovered that the Bible had gone through countless revisions between the time the various books were written and today. It was a major shock that led to him seriously questioning his faith.

This book details many of those changes and looks into who made them and why. It's pretty fascinating stuff. But what's more interesting to me is that while Biblical scholars have been writing about and cataloging these revisions since the 18th or 19th century it has taken until the 21st century for a popular book to be written about the subject. I've never been a Bible scholar of any sort, so a lot of this stuff was really surprising. I didn't know, for example, that the Gospels were among the last things to be written for the New Testament and not the early first hand accounts they appear to be. I also didn't know that Mary Magdelene is only mentioned a few times in the Bible and never identified as a prostitute, or that she is not the famed "woman taken in adultery" who the crowd wants to stone, or that that entire scene was not originally even in the gospels, or even that she was not the composer of the hit single "I Don't Know How to Love Him."* I don't think most people who've grown up in Christian societies know this kind of stuff.

One of the interesting differences between Buddhism and most other religions is the fact that Buddhism lacks any kind of Holy Scripture equivalent to the Bible, the Koran or even the Bhagavad Gita. People sometimes talk about a Buddhist canon, but, really, not much Buddhist wrting was ever canonized as such. The closest you get is the Tripitika, which contains the written record of the earlier Buddhist oral tradition of teachings of Gautama Buddha. See, for the first 200 or so years after Gautama died, no one ever bothered to write down what he had said. Instead, they committed it to memory. Monks learned to recite his most famous speeches. Since no one could memorize them all, sometimes certain monks in a temple were assigned certain parts to memorize, while others memorized different sections. Of course, over two centuries a lot of variations in the tradition emerged and these had to be ironed out when it came time to write it all down.

The reason Buddhism never developed a set of holy writ goes back to old Gautama himself who said, "Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' When you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them." When the founder of the religion himself says "don't trust scriptures" it makes it hard to develop a set of scriptures that claim to embody his teachings.

Buddhism has always been essentially an oral tradition. This is why sometimes even Buddhist teachers get their scriptures wrong. You'll often hear some Buddhist teacher say in a lecture, "Buddha said this" or "Dogen said that" and when you try and search out that quote, you never find it. They're prone to paraphrase and not much care whether they've gotten the quotation just right or not. They might not even know exactly where it came from. While in some religions this would be seen as unforgivable sloppiness, in Buddhism it's just part of the way things are done. My own teacher takes this even further than most, often mentioning quotations from people who aren't Buddhists and often have never even heard of Buddhism and saying, "This is just Buddhism."

Ehrman's book is fascinating to me because it makes a very good case for the Buddhist approach to scripture without even trying to do so. At the end of the book (spoiler alert, for those of you who may not want to know how it ends!) he says that at first he felt a deep resentment towards those who had changed the texts of the Christian scriptures. But upon later reflection he realized that, even in the very act of reading a text we, the readers, revise the texts in our minds. Just as you are revising what I've written right now. There is no such thing as a written teaching that means exactly the same thing to whoever reads it no matter how hard you try to preserve the words. People are different, societies change, what a certain set of words meant to Israelites 20 centuries ago cannot be the same as what it means to people in Omaha in 2006. And you'll even have a hard time getting two guys from Omaha to agree on what it means.

I've found that in this blog I'm trying to follow the basically orally transmitted face-to-face tradition I studied in a new realm. I'm not sure how well I'm doing. Probably not very well. And I can see a lot of misunderstandings arise because of trying to adapt to this form of communication.

But that's the way things go, I suppose...

* Kids, go ask someone who lived thru the 70's to explain this joke.


MikeDoe said...

I used to study the bible and to some extent its history. In the end I did too wonder if they had forgot to include the disclaimer.

People are never going to read the words you thought you wrote or that you meant to write they are always going to read the words they thought you wrote. That's just life.

I think I enjoy reading the words that I thought you wrote!

Anonymous said...

life is the snow falling on the is the longing for that special someone whom one thinks is the absolute is worrying about law school exams that are weeks away...aint life grand.

The Very Left Reverend said...

Oh, please, let's not turn this into another of those ever so popular "Buddhism is better than Christianity" things.

We all have our dogma. Gautama gave you yours in the quote to not trust anything he said...but do trust in what he said about to not trusting anything he said.

Ah, postmodern buddhist gotta love it.

- 0 - said...

The reason Buddhism never developed a set of holy writ goes back to old Gautama himself who said,

And how, pray tell, do you know he said this?Didn't you just run over your own point?

babbles said...

"Oh, please, let's not turn this into another of those ever so popular "Buddhism is better than Christianity" things."

Maybe I missed something, but I failed to see where Brad was being critical of Christianity and making arguments why Buddhism is "better." To me it appears that Brad is just giving some background information in regards to the oral traditions of Buddhism, and arguably more importantly, how transmission of exact scripture/quotes is not really all that important in Buddhism.

I think you must be looking for some sort of conflict that just simply doesn't exist.

The reason Buddhism never developed a set of holy writ goes back to old Gautama himself who said,

And how, pray tell, do you know he said this?Didn't you just run over your own point?

I don't think he 'ran over' his own point, simply because it doesn't matter if Mr. Gautama said it or not. That was a one of the points Brad was making when he made an example of Gudo Nishijima attributing quotes to whomever regardless if they actually said it or not.

If Shakyamuni Buddha said it or not really doesn't matter.

Drunken Monkey said...

"The reason Buddhism never developed a set of holy writ goes back to old Gautama himself who said,

And how, pray tell, do you know he said this?Didn't you just run over your own point?"

In the end it really doesn't matter whether Buddha said it or not, but whether it makes total sense or not.
And Buddhas quote made total sense. Wouldn't you agree?

"We all have our dogma. Gautama gave you yours in the quote to not trust anything he said...but do trust in what he said about to not trusting anything he said."

Why does there need to be trust or faith for that matter? We need to investigate thoroughly and objectively like scientists. Trust implies a certain leaning, which is prejudice.

Wolf said...

Buddhism is better than Christianity... Heck, people saying those things drive me nuts. Or people claiming that this was just said or even intended because it sure as hell was not.
Okay, sorry for the emotional outburst, I'm back to earth again.
First of all there is no Christianity and there is no Buddhism. All just opinions in the different heads of different people. Nobody believes the same things (and even if you did, how could you ever be sure?). My God and your God are probably different, as well as my Nirvana and your Nirvana.
That being said, just one more point: The good thing about not trusting the Buddha about what he said isn't that it involves a parodox. It's a funny mind twister, nothing more. The good thing about it also isn't that the Buddha said it. Probably he didn't. Probably it was made up by some monk in a monastery. But that doesn't matter, since it's a good thing to questions ones beliefs, which is what the statement tries to tell us. That's the central point, not if the Buddha said it or if in this form it implies another form of the Cretan parodox.
By the way, Christians have their share of parodoxes too, which follows from their (should I say our?) beliefs about God as almighty (Can an almighty God create a stone He can't lift?), allknowing and allgood (Why is there suffering in the world?).

okay, just had to get that off my chest


- 0 - said...

In the end it really doesn't matter whether Buddha said it or not,

Actually it does. Why not merely make the assertion himself rather than make an appeal to authority... using a quote he cannot prove was ever uttered, as part of an argument against using such appeals....

Uncle Weasel said...

" In the end it really doesn't matter whether Buddha said it or not,"

Actually it does. Why not merely make the assertion himself rather than make an appeal to authority... using a quote he cannot prove was ever uttered, as part of an argument against using such appeals....

Rather an amusing and tortuous turn of phrase. But not why I'm commenting.

This is the second mention of Ehrman's book in as many days that I've run across on the Net. I'm quite interested in the Bible, since my background is Christian, and I read it as a child and young man. Lately I've been thinking about how it is that people can be so absolutely certain in their religious beliefs as given by their elders, even though those teachings change from time to time.

My Zen teacher replaces Ignorance in Greed, Anger, and Ignorance with Certainty. After mulling it over, I have to agree that the most willfully ignorant people I've met have been the most certain.

Erhman's book might be a nice tool to crack a little of that certainty.

oxeye said...

"I've found that in this blog I'm trying to follow the basically orally transmitted face-to-face tradition I studied in a new realm."

As realms go, the blogosphere is just ok. but your talks recorded as mp3's are pimping. they work out great for me. Your Oct. 21/22 talk was very nice. I hope you don't give up on that form. I want to load up my player.

Wolf said...

[quote]Actually it does. Why not merely make the assertion himself rather than make an appeal to authority... using a quote he cannot prove was ever uttered, as part of an argument against using such appeals....[/quote]

I think we don't really understand each other yet ;)
But you are right, in theory it should be enough to make a good point yourself in order to open someone up to an argument about the subject. But in practice it all sounds so much cooler if you let a Buddha say it. Which is a problem if you let the Buddha say crap, but isn't really if the piont is good and fits in with the rest.

As hinted at in Brad's post that only becomes a problem when people start to brood over scriptures and see them as "words of god", "essences of the dharma" or something like that. Then every single word and every interpretation starts to become a matter of life and death... which makes it a little problematic when things are changed.

In Buddhism AFAIK the attachment to scriptures is the case less often than in many other religions, implying that the point of a story means more than the exact words....
but i'm brabbling again


Prof Wes said...

Buddhists focus on the spirit of the words.

Christians focus on the letters.

Just an observation.

A Strange Day said...

I think the point being made here is that when the scriptures themselves say "Hey, don't worry about the scriptures", we can pretty easily infer that the message and truth behind the words is more important than the authenticity of the words themselves.

JasonDL said...

O seems to be actually giving the buddha more divine status than buddhists do!

If I said "My Plumber says to look to yourself for guidence and not holy books" we wouldnt be having this converation at all, the fact that brad referenced buddha gave O the 'authority figure" he needs for his argument.

Ive been told to 'question authority' by lots of folks, none of them were gautama, but all were buddhas.

IF true words come from my plumber they are just as true as if they came from god.

Pull your head out O and start listening for the truth behind the words instead of the words themselves. You can point at the moon but your finger isnt the moon and you dont need a finger to see the moon.

Anonymous said...

There's a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that illustrates how people mis-hear language.

Calvin wants a cookie. He is up on a chair, reaching into the cookie jar.

To cover himself, he called to his off stage mother, 'Mom, can I have a snack?'

His mom calls back, 'Yes, you can have an apple or an orange from the fridge.'

Meanwhile, Calvin has one cookie in his mouth and is holding a second one.

He walks off, saying to Hobbes the tiger,

'We are using the same words but are not speaking the same language.'

Jinzang said...

It's true that Buddhist sutras aren't as important to Buddhists as the Bible is to Christians, especially Protestants. But they're still pretty important. Any scholarly Tibetan work will contain extensive quotes from Buddhist sutras to support the position of its author. Though sutras are less important in Zen, this is because scholarship is less important. They certainly are still quoted.

Anonymous said...

There might be an element of
experiential mistranslation and/or
intentional revision going on in
the history of religion as well.
Here's one quickly found link:

Entheogens and Religion

Misunderstanding is inevitable
amongst those who have not tasted
the various Eleusinian Mysteries*,
but why the intentional revision?
Well, because the elites in a
society don't want those below
them to get too uppity.

*Wasson, Ruck, Hofmann,
"The Road to Eleusis"
(Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978)
ISBN 0151778728

PS to Brad: Just because you had one
bad trip doesn't mean that all trips
are bad. Also, different drugs have
different effects, so if you haven't
tried one responsibly in the right
circumstances, then you are in no
position to judge it honestly.
Psychoactive substances may have
nothing to do with Buddhism, but
that doesn't mean they have no
positive value whatsoever (if used
responsibly and not abused). In
fact, they may be the origin of
many of today's watered-down
religions -- diluted and deluded
textual misapprehensions of the
original experience.

Also, at least two Nobel prize
winners attribute some of their
creativity to LSD:

Francis Crick (for DNA)
Kary Mullis (for PCR)

(although maybe Mullis took one blotter
too many -- moderation in everything ;)

Anonymous said...

Hmm, sounds like

true religions empower people;
false religions enslave them...

truth versus opiates of the masses.

Many of those who accumulate
extemely concentrated wealth
through unjust means depend
upon mass distraction to prevent
the hoi polloi from starting a
revolution. Take for example the
recent 9/11 coup d'etat.

MikeDoe said...

It is more a change of emphasis.

The point of Buddhism is that you can see for yourself what is true, you don't need to believe in absolute terms but instead have some patients.

Thus it is written "The sky is blue and contains clouds".

You can take that to be a belief because Buddha or a Buddha Buddy (TM) said it or you can just learn how to look up at the sky.

That is the fundamental difference.

Heaven and Hell may both exist in some other realm but it does appear to be a one-way trip with no holiday brochures and so it is a matter of belief as to whether or not such places exist. If instead the bible claimed that heaven and hell "were two blocks south of Walmart on 67th street" then you might have that as a belief that you hold or you could choose to go and look.

Anonymous said...

Apropos of religion and politics
(two sides of the same coin):

The Church (religion, mass media)
seeks to control your mind through

The State (bribery apparatus of the very rich)
seeks to control your body through

Democrats or Republicans makes no
difference; it's the old
good-cop/bad-cop routine...
mommy and daddy are in bed together.

If you want to be
free from force and fraud
consider voting libertarian:

socially liberal, fiscally conservative

(As Kodo Sawaki might say:
neither left nor right ;)

Isn't practicing zazen nothing more
than practicing laissez-faire?

Or as the Beatles might say:
Let it be.

Anonymous said...

This might be helpful for beginners:

The Libertarianism FAQ

oxeye said...

"The sky is blue and contains clouds".

As I read these words, the sky was black and cloudless..

Just because it is written, and just because we can observe it, does not mean that it is true.

Heaven and Hell are only words until one has gathered certain expectations. The expectations become the problem, not the nature of Heaven or Hell.

Drunken Monkey said...

Wow anonymous, you really suck donkey balls. Drugs shouldn't even be discussed in our realm of practice. No debate, not even a peek. Just shut your trap. :D

earDRUM said...

I think that some of you people enjoy arguing as a pastime, for its own sake.

Hey Brad, thanks for the recommendation about that book. I will look for it. I am fascinated by this area of history/religion too. After all, Christianity has a pretty big influence on our lives, whether we believe in it or not.

I picked up a similar book called "The History of God", by Karen Armstrong.
It looks really interesting.

Jules said...

I find it amusingly ironic how many "entheogen" abusers mindlessly and uncritically adopt the whole Robert Anton Wilson worldview, while at the same time spouting his think-for-yourself rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Drunken Monkey,

You rail against intoxicants "in your realm of practice" (as if it belonged to you) yet you dub yourself Drunken Monkey. How ironic.
Maybe you're the a-hole. Why not shut up and listen, instead of revealing your immaturity every time you post a comment.

Drunken Monkey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Drunken Monkey said...

Drunken Monkey is a martial arts style.
I will not shut up when a clueless idiot stumbles upon zen and thinks that drugs and zen are somehow compatible. Drugs are anti-zen, which ever way you look at it.

Especially when its coming from the same idiot who believed the 911 incident was the mastermind of the Bush administration.

You really need to get your head checked mate. Im serious. Drugs can do much harm. Like impairing the ability to think along the line of common sense.

Anonymous said...

"You really need to get your head checked mate. Im serious. Drugs can do much harm. Like impairing the ability to think along the line of common sense."

It seems you do quite a nice job in that regard without the assistance of drugs.

Jesus said...

Sarah Brightman wasn’t a prostitute, what?

A Strange Day said...

How could anyone think the experiences tripping on acid are anymore worthwhile or important than any other experience you come across in everyday life?

No matter what your perceptions are, you're always just right here.

Anonymous said...

Unless, of course, you're over there!

(You've obviously never had an
out-of-body experience ;)

"People are strange when you're a stranger..."
--The Doors

Anonymous said...

I first encountered 9/11-questioners
several years ago when the Frenchman
Thierry Meyssan suggested that
whatever hit the Pentagon, it was
NOT a Boeing 757. At the time I
thought: that's weird, sort of like
those Area-51-tin-foil-hatters.
Then I forgot about it; I didn't
have time for such nonsense.

About a year ago, I ran across the
website of an intelligent computer
scientist whom I respected wherein
he posted his essay questioning
the Official 9/11 Story. Hmm, I
felt some cognitive dissonance,
but still brushed it off -- I've
got bills to pay and little time
for others' kookiness.

Finally, about six months ago, while
looking over some programmer's
free software, I noticed he had a
9/11 link in the middle of all his
software links. That's odd, I thought,
but just for kicks, out of curiosity,
I clicked on it...

What happened next is that I fell
down the rabbit hole. Here were
photographs and videos which I
had NEVER seen in magazines or on
TV... WTC7... WTF?... an immaculate
lawn in front of a tiny hole in
the Pentagon (BEFORE the roof
collapsed)... Holy shit! How come
the mainstream media never showed
*these* pictures. Something ain't

Okay. Fine. No problem. I'm gonna
prove the nutjobs wrong. I'm not
gonna drink the Kool-Aid. But
then the more I found out in order
to prove them wrong, the more
unanswered questions I had --
questions that the 9/11 Commission
simply ignored. "When the evidence
doesn't support your story, just
ignore it."

Anyhow, until certain questions
are answered and glaring anomalies
explained, it appears that the
earth is indeed round, and not flat
like The Church says. "Pay no
attention to the man behind the
curtain. I am the Great and All-
Powerful Oz!"

Anonymous said...

"Good evening fellow Americans. I’d like to
share a quote from George Washington:

‘Government is not reason. Government
is not eloquence. It is force, and
like fire, it is a dangerous servant
and a fearful master.’

If you lived in a log cabin, you’d require
fire for your survival. You’d use the fire
to heat your home and to cook your food.
Fire is such a necessary part of your
survival that you’d create a special place
for fire. It is called a fireplace.

Government is necessary for our survival.
We need government in order to survive.
The Founding Fathers created a special
place for government. It is called
the Constitution.

Anytime the fire is in the fireplace, it
is a good fire. Anytime a fire gets outside
of the fireplace, it is a bad fire.
Conversely [sic], anytime the government
stays within the limits of the Constitution,
it is a good government. Anytime the
government is outside the Constitution, it
is a bad government, and it is time
to stomp it out."

--Michael Badnarik,
Libertarian Candidate for President 2004

Anonymous said...

Government, guns, drugs...
they are all like fire,
which in a fireplace can warm us up
or uncontrolled can burn us down.

The Beatles probably benefited
from LSD; without it, there would
be no "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts
Club Band" or "The White Album".

Others were not so lucky; for example,
Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and
Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac
(the original blues band, NOT the late
'70s crap ;)

Kids, don't try this at home!
Some drugs are overwhelmingly
powerful, like surfing a 600 foot
tsunami, you're not entirely in
control. They're definitey not
everybody's cup of tea, but for
those who are willing to take
the risk, there might be some

Powerful tools should be used
skillfully and appropriately;
only fools would take such things

Personally, I'm content experimenting
just with zazen. But that doesn't
mean I don't respect those who
try something different. Although I
might learn something from listening
to those who risk their lives climbing
Mt. Everest, that does not mean that
I myself would choose to undertake that
particular endeavor.

Like the Buddha supposedly said:
"Do those things which you find to be
beneficial; don't do those things which
you find to be harmful -- oh yeah, and
think for yourself; don't trust anything
but your own experience and reason."

Anonymous said...

Or as Robert Aitken (who tried acid
long after becoming a Zen teacher)

"What a wonderful waste of time!"

Anonymous said...

hey other anonymous(es?),

although drunken monkey thinks
i'm an idiot, i actually enjoy
his "immature" posts.

btw, thanks for backing me up in
the ring. it's not easy playing
playing Devil's Advocate -- i
need all the moral support i can

cheers :)

Lone Wolf said...

I heard the author speak on "Misquoting Jesus", it was really interesting to hear his story.

It gives me a chuckle when people think the Bible is the "absolute word of god."

oxeye said...

Just watched the Michael Richards anger meltdown on youtube. he later apologized for the racist outburst on letterman and said he was sorry to everyone offended and then offered that the funny thing is that he is not really a racist. He believes that and it is probably true as much as it can be for anyone. His reaction to the heckling in the audience was to lash out and to try and hurt the hecklers as much as they were hurting him. He was being as vile as he possibly could be using words.

When someone hurts me in some way I find myself wanting to hurt them in kind. Much like what a couple of people are doing here on this blog.. I can see myself in both of them. But what is interesting to me are the seemingly benign things that will set off anger and then the later realizations that it was not the outside people/things that caused the hurt, but that the hurt was already there inside and not yet identified, and the possible embarrassment that maybe someone else already had seen it. Brad hinted at something in his Oct. 22 talk that struck me. He was talking about maintaining balance and the things that can disturb it. Those things that can make you emotional are not balanced. The unbalanced actions of others can throw us out of balance. And, even seeing someone else in perfect balance, that can unbalance us.. That last one really hit home.