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The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article



1 Introduction

(A review article of The Dating o fthe Historical Buddha. Die Datierung des Historischen Buddha.Edited by Heinz Bechert. 2 Vols (of 3). (Symposium zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 1-2) pp. xv + 525; x + 530. Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991-2. DM 310, 256.)

In the fifteenth century the author of the Blue Annals wrote: ``In general (it must be observed) that there exists a great disagreement in the statements of scholars regarding the years of the Birth and Nirvana of the Teacher. [note] Presented with well over a thousand pages on the subject in two volumes (with a third to come), one might be excused for supposing that not much has changed in the last half millennium. In fact that would be somewhat illusory. Even if we have not yet been able to fix the exact dates of the Buddha and Mahavira, considerable progress has of course been made, as even a cursory look at the traditional dates of the past makes quite clear.

Within the Eastern Buddhist tradition of China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan (especially the latter two countries) the traditional date for the Mahaparinibbana (death) of the Buddha was 949 B.C., although a variant giving 878 B.C. is also possible. Earlier and down to the fifth century A.D. a date of 686 B.C. seems to have been fairly common. Although they may in part have been motivated by a desire to place the Buddha earlier in time than Lao-tse, these and other such dates were created by relating such events in the life-story Chinese records - a clear enough testimony that no very definite chronological information was brought to China by the early Buddhist missionaries.

In the Northern Buddhism of the Tibeto-Mongolian cultural area the Mahaparinibbana was officially dated to 881 B.C., the origin of which is not clear. Both Chinese and Tibetan scholars were, however, well aware that many other dates had been advanced. This is in sharp contrast to the Southern Buddhist tradition, which has retained no memory of any disagreement over the basic chronology of events since the Buddha's lifetime. (There have of course been slight differences as to the exact moment at which the year one commences.)

The era they preserve places the Buddha's Mahaparinibbana in 543 B.C. This is certainly much closer than the more widely accepted of the alternatives; so it is not surprising perhaps that it has tended to spread in modern times: it seems to have been adopted in Vietnam and Indonesia as well as by such modern organizations as the World Fellowship of Buddhist. There is some evidence also to suggest that it had been widely accepted in Kashmir, India and Nepal in the last period of Buddhism there (after the twelfth century or earlier). [note]

The volumes reviewed here stem from a conference held near Göttingen in 1988 under the auspices of Heinz Bechert. Indeed the modern revival of interest in this topic is very much to the credit of Bechert who wrote a number of articles on this subject prior to the conference. [note] Undoubtedly, even without the further source materials promised for the final volume, this is a major contribution to research in the field and for a long time to come will be essential for any serious study of pre-Mauryan chronology or early Buddhist history.

In fact these volumes are not limited to the specific question of the date of the Buddha. A proportion (over 120 pages) is devoted to the history of research while another large section (about 60 pages) reprints a number of relevant sources, some of them not otherwise conveniently accessible. A considerable space is in effect devoted to the history of the use of the various chronological systems in particular Buddhist countries. This is certainly of great interest for the history of Buddhism in various areas, but no doubt the greatest interest lies in the papers which relate directly to the dating of the Buddha.

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