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Thus, according to the 1989 Britannica Book of the Year, Buddhism claims a worldwide membership of some 300 million, with about 200,000 each in Western Europe and, North America, 500,000 in Latin America, and 300,000 in the Soviet Union. Most of Buddhism adherents, however, are still found in Asian countries, such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Japan, Korea, and China. Who, though, was the Buddha? How did this religion get started? What are the teachings and practices of Buddhism?

What is known of the Buddha’s life is based mainly on the evidence of the canonical texts, the most extensive and comprehensive of which are those written in Pali, a language of ancient India,” says the book World Religions—From Ancient History to the Present.

What this means is that there is no source material of his time to tell us anything about Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of this religion, who lived in northern India in the sixth century B.C.E. That, of course, presents a problem. However, more serious is the question of when and how the “canonical texts” were produced.

Buddhist tradition holds that soon after the death of Gautama, a council of 500 monks was convened to decide what was the authentic teaching of the Master. Whether such a council actually did take place is a subject of much debate among Buddhist scholars and historians. The important point we should note, however, is that even Buddhist texts acknowledge that the authentic teaching decided upon was not committed to writing but memorized by the disciples. Actual writing of the sacred texts had to wait for a considerable time.

According to Sri Lankan chronicles of the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., the earliest of these Pali “canonical texts” were put in writing during the reign of King Vattagamani Abhaya in the first century B.C.E. Other accounts of the Buddha’s life did not appear in writing until perhaps the first or even the fifth century C.E., nearly a thousand years after his time.

Thus, observes the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, “The ‘biographies’ are both late in origin and replete with legendary and mythical material, and the oldest canonical texts are the products of a long process of oral transmission that evidently included some revision and much addition.” One scholar even “contended that not a single word of the recorded teaching can be ascribed with unqualified certainty to Gautama himself.” Are such criticisms justified?

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