Three ‘Endangered Species’ in Theravada Buddhist Studies

Tilakratne A.


This paper proposes to study the current situation of an ancient field of study which dates back almost to the time of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Although the traditional Buddhist studies go to the antiquity, the modern western Buddhist studies started in the middle of the 19th century, a milestone of which is the start of the Pali Text Society in England in 1880s by Rhys Davids who studied Pali language in (then) Ceylon where he was an officer in the Colonial civil service. According to the tradition, Theravada was considered the most authentic Buddhist tradition which traced its origin to the immediate disciples of the Buddha, and Pali language in which the Theravada canon was written is considered the language spoken by the Buddha. The concept of ‘early Buddhism’ was used by the pioneering scholars such as Rhys Davids to refer to the form of Buddhism found in the Pali canon. The traditional belief about Theravada as the most authentic Buddhism and Pali language as the one spoken by the Buddha were questioned by the modern scholars from the beginning. With more recent discoveries of many different versions of the Buddhist scripture, the concept of early Buddhism is no longer applied exclusively to what is contained in the Theravada canon. This paper assesses the arguments for and against the validity and antiquity of these three phenomena; Theravada, Pali and early Buddhism, and shows that the debate is far from being conclusively over.

Keywords: Theravada, Pali, early Buddhism, relativism, skepticism