Did the Buddha Exist? Contemporary scholarly debate about the historical Buddha


I remember the first time I heard someone doubt the existence of God. I was on a school bus, and Robert Neil said he didn’t believe in God. We were ten. I was shocked, as everything I knew about the Christian religion I had been brought up in depended on God’s existence. But even at that age I was vaguely aware that God’s existence was a strange thing. You couldn’t prove he existed but you could believe in Christianity in such a way that God had to exist. It wasn’t quite the same with the existence of Jesus of course. It seemed harder to believe that Jesus didn’t exist, since people had seen him, recorded his words, remembered basic facts about his life, and so on. He was a historical figure. Whether that historical figure was also God was of course a different matter. Buddhists have likewise generally believed that the Buddha existed, since the early Buddhist texts record his words, remember basic facts about his life, and feature people who knew him. Whether the Buddha was fully and completely enlightened is of course a different matter, a matter of faith. In the case both of Jesus and the Buddha it is easily possible to subtract the miracles and exaggerations and still have a historical figure.

Or is it that easy? The scholar David Drewes recently published an article, ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’, that begins with the striking claim that

the Buddha is universally agreed to have lived; but… more than two centuries of scholarship have failed to establish anything about him.[1]

Drewes’ argument is that the idea of the historical Buddha, meaning, a historical figure known through his life and words as recorded by his contemporaries, was a key claim of early Buddhologists, but the evidence for this historical Buddha has never materialised. Drewes blames Eugène Burnouf, the great French scholar whose pioneering work, Introduction à lhistoire du buddhisme indien, was published in 1844. It was Burnouf who first argued for the Buddha’s historical existence; but, despite the many powerful claims made about the Buddha’s historicity by later scholars, no clear evidence has been produced to back them up. The idea of the ‘historical Buddha’ remains merely a bold assertion without proof.

I like Drewes’ article because it makes me think. If, like me, you appreciate the work of Richard Gombrich, who pushes back against scepticism about the Buddha’s existence, and writes instead about him as

one of the greatest thinkers… of whom we have record in human history,[2]

then the idea that there is no proof at all that the Buddha existed makes one sit up straight and try to sort out why one thinks the Buddha did exist. The easiest answer is the argument from likelihood: which is more likely, that the Buddha existed and taught his Dharma as it has come down to us; or that later Buddhists invented a coherent system of thought and successfully attributed it to a fictional teacher?

This year has seen articles by two Buddhist scholars that defend the historicity of the Buddha against Drewes’ denial. Alexander Wynne argues that, given the likelihood of the Buddha’s existence, Drewes needs to provide proof that he is merely a fantasy of the ‘Orientalist imagination’.[3] He goes on to examine the wealth of evidence that the Buddha did exist, from surviving early Buddhist texts to archaeological remains. An interesting piece of evidence he discusses is a rock-cut inscription from Deorkothar, in Madhya Pradesh, discovered only in the 1990s, and now analysed by scholars.[4] This inscription, dated to just after the time of Aśoka, in the 2nd c. bce, presents two lineages of Buddhists. One runs from the Buddha, through disciples called Uttaramitra, Bhaṇḍu and Nandi, down to the donor of the inscribed pillar, whose name is lost. The other runs from the Buddha’s disciple Anuruddha, through Sarvānanda and Disagiri, to the donor, whose name is also lost. This extraordinary discovery gives us an insight into the sense of lineage, of going back to the Buddha, the teacher, that was felt by early Buddhists. For Wynne this is vivid evidence for the Buddha’s historical existence. For Drewes, however,

there is no way to know the extent to which these lineages may have been fabricated…  unsubstantiated lineage claims cannot be treated as historical evidence, as has clearly been shown, e.g. by studies of early Chan lineages.[5]

Bryan Levman has also recently responded to Drewes.[6] Like Wynne, he takes up what early Buddhist texts say about the Buddha and his teaching, as well as the personality of the Buddha as represented in these texts. According to both Wynne and Levman, there is massive amounts of evidence for a historical personality of the Buddha behind the testimony of early Buddhism. Reading both Levman and Wynne, one cannot help thinking that Drewes must have known about all this evidence, at least in principle, and that somehow it does not convince him. Considering this, I’ve come to think that two very different versions of what counts as knowledge, evidence and proof, are involved here.

In Drewes’ article, what he means by knowledge is made clear by his concluding sentence:

If we wish to present early Buddhism in a manner that accords with the standards of scientific, empirical inquiry, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Buddha belongs to [a] group [of mythological personages such as Agamemnon or King Arthur]’ (my italics).[7]

By ‘scientific’ standards, Drewes evidently has in mind a positivistic ideal of historical knowledge: the kind of knowledge that is based on evidence directly available to our senses (hence ‘empirical’). The only kind of evidence that will count are positive facts, verified by reason, and not dependent on assumptions. It is rather obvious that, if one holds these standards for what counts as knowledge, one will certainly have to conclude that we know nothing about the historical Buddha. The evidence is just too weak. We would need the remains of his robe complete with his name-tag, or a cache of letters between him and Sāriputta, but unfortunately there was no writing in those days.

Wynne and Levman, however, cannot produce that kind of evidence. Instead, writes Wynne:

by adducing the relevant facts and making significant arguments, we will build up a general picture which proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Buddha did indeed exist and that we have a good record of his teaching.[8]

Wynne calls his method ‘inductive and empirical’, but actually it is neither. Instead, we should say that it is an abductive method, reasoning from the evidence to the best explanation. It has to be said, however, that abductive reasoning cannot prove that the Buddha existed. It can only argue that the existence of the Buddha is the best explanation for the evidence. Bryan Levman similarly presents the Buddha’s existence as the best explanation for what we know about him through his teaching. He concludes that he does not understand why Drewes does not even attempt to account for these teachings; he goes on:

nor do I understand what he means by “standards of scientific, empirical enquiry” to which he refers.[9]

I will conclude with two thoughts. One is that a bit of epistemology, the study of knowledge, can help us see how these scholars are talking across each others’ assumptions about what would count as knowledge about the Buddha’s historical existence. The second is that we should be careful about using the phrase ‘the historical Buddha’. It might be taken as implying that there is solid, factual, positivist, empirical evidence for the existence of the Buddha. But there isn’t. And if we mean that our best explanation for all the evidence we have is that the Buddha was a historical figure, we should also say, ‘though we can’t know for sure’.

[1] David Drewes (2017), ‘The Idea of the Historical Buddha’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 40: 1–25. Available online at https://umanitoba.academia.edu/DavidDrewes. This article is based on a talk given at the JIABS conference in 2014 and had been made available in the form of a conference paper soon after.

[2] Richard Gombrich (2009), What the Buddha Thought, London: Equinoxe, p.1.

[3] Alexander Wynne (2019), ‘Did the Buddha Exist?’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 19: 98–148. Available online at https://independent.academia.edu/AlexanderWynne.

[4] Oskar Von Hinüber and Peter Skilling (2013), ‘Two Buddhist Inscriptions from Deorkothar (Dist. Rewa, Madhya Pradesh)’, Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 16: 13–26; Richard Salomon and Joseph Marino (2014), ‘Observations on the Deorkothar Inscriptions and Their Significance for the Evaluation of Buddhist Historical Traditions’, Annual Report of the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 17: 27–39; both available online athttp://iriab.soka.ac.jp/publication/aririab.html.

[5] David Drewes, ibid., p.16, n.8, discussed in Alexander Wynne, ibid., p.114–6.

[6] Bryan Levman (2019), ‘The Historical Buddha: Reply to Drewes’, Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, 14: 25–56. Available online at https://thecjbs.org.

[7] David Drewes, ibid., p.19.

[8] Alexander Wynne, ibid., p.100.

[9] Bryan Levman, ibid., p.49.