Yesterday someone pointed me at a wonderful article in Tricycle. It's the story of the discovery of the oldest extant Buddhist texts, which surfaced within the past 15 years. These sutras were written in the Gandhari language on birch bark between the first century BCE and the third century CE and (for what reason, we do not know) buried in clay pots in the desert along the modern-day borderland of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These texts give new insights into the way the dharma was transmitted in the early sangha, and the way in which the Buddha's teachings gave rise to the various kinds of Buddhism we see today. For instance, the roots of the Mahayana traditions are shown to be old and sturdily connected to the Therevada traditions.
However, these texts suggest that we can never hope to reconstruct the singular teaching of the Buddha, word for word. Instead of being able to trace back the branches of Buddhist teaching to a single root, we are probably always going to be faced with multiple, intersecting branches. This is how the article illustrates this state of affairs:
This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with analysis of ancient texts. Nor should it be an occasion for worry or frustration.
The dharma spent a couple of generations, at least, being transmitted orally before the first written versions (which we probably do not have, never will have). Probably some inaccuracies crept in, but there is fundamental agreement between the various sources. And even to someone like me, who has barely dipped a toe into the large corpus of Buddhist teaching, the character and ideas of the Buddha leap off the page. He is an unforgettable person, even encountered at such a distance of time and in translation.
The Buddha taught for more than 40 years, during which he walked back and forth across a large region in what is now northeastern India and southern Nepal. He spoke to everybody, and he didn't recite lessons like a parrot. Instead, he suited his message to each person he met. To a musician, he explained practice in terms of tuning a lute. To a charioteer, he compared practitioners to different kinds of horses. His teaching is full of all kinds of similes -- to dying cloth, to barley-cutting, carpentry, and many other daily tasks. (You can see an index to the Buddha's similes here.)
Doubtless the Buddha listened to those who came to question him -- how else could a man born into the highest levels of society know so much about the work and thoughts of lowly peasants, craftsmen, even butchers and street sweepers and other outcastes?
Is it surprising, then, that when the sangha began to collect and write down all he had said, each person remembered what had made the greatest impression?
We do not see things more poorly because we have two eyes rather than one. On the contrary. Similarly, we see the dharma, the Buddha and the sangha more clearly precisely because we learn from many witnesses.