Counterfeit Buddhism – Current Mainstream Buddhism

Counterfeit Buddhism (mainstream Buddhism today) appears like Buddha’s teachings but has deviated much from the original teachings. The Buddha foresaw that, as we discuss.

June 30, 2023; Revised February 25, 2024 (#6)

Counterfeit Gold – Buddha’s Analogy  

1. The Buddha stated that his teachings tend to “go underground” quickly because there is a tendency to replace more profound concepts with simple/mundane interpretations that most people can easily understand. Unfortunately, as discussed below, that prediction came true only 500 years after the Buddha.

  • The tendency to deviate from the profound teachings became clear even during the life of the Buddha. During the first 20 years, the Buddha did not declare any Vinaya (disciplinary) rules for the bhikkhus. Even after the Buddha started enacting Vinaya rules (they grew to 227 for the bhikkhus and 311 for bhikkhunis before the Parinibbāna of the Buddha), many started behaving inappropriately and also misinterpreting Buddha’s teachings. 
  • Thus, after the initial “surge” of Arahants, the progress slowed even during the latter years of the Buddha. 
  • One time, Ven. Mahākassapa asked the Buddha why fewer Arahants were produced even with established Vinaya rules. 

2. That question and Buddha’s answer are in the “Saddhammappatirūpaka Sutta (SN 16.13).” Here, “saddhamma” (“sath” + “dhamma“) means the “good/true teachings,” and “patirūpa” means “imitation” (something that looks like the original but is not.)

  • Ven. Mahākassapa asked the Buddha, “There used to be fewer training rules but more Arahants (bhikkhū aññāya). But now there are more training rules and fewer Arahants. Why is that?

The Buddha explained as follows (only the meaning): “Those who could easily grasp my teachings attained Arahanthood in the early days. It is more difficult for those remaining to comprehend this profound Dhamma. Even with more Vinaya rules (sikkhāpadāni,) it is difficult for them to tame their minds and grasp the deep teachings.”

Then the Buddha predicted that it would get worse: “The true teaching will go underground when a counterfeit of the true teaching appears. It’s like genuine gold going underground when counterfeit gold appears because most cannot distinguish between pure gold and counterfeit gold. Only a few will be able to make the distinction between my Dhamma and the counterfeit Dhamma.”

Buddha Did Not Provide a Time Limit

3. There is a widespread belief that Buddha Gotama’s Buddha Sāsana will last 5000 years. However, I have not seen it in the Tipiṭaka. It could be in a later Commentary, but I have not seen such a commentary either.

  • In the above, the Buddha stated that his teachings would go “underground” gradually as “fake teachings (that look like the true teachings)” take hold.
  • That happened around 2000 years ago (or roughly 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, with the emergence of “Mahāyāna Buddhism” in India. 
  • Thus, the Buddha foresaw the upcoming decline, but he stated that as long as there are at least Sotapannas among the humans, his teachings will survive “in the underground” where those who can understand and appreciate its value.
The Emergence of Mahāyāna With Counterfeit Dhamma

4. Around 100 BCE, some in India started translating Pāli suttās into Sanskrit. Some of those Sanskrit translations have survived in other countries, even though no literature related to Buddhism remained in India after about 1000 AD. The following is one of the suttās translated into Sanskrit: “The Questions of Nālaka.” There seems to be only a handful of such suttās translated into Sanskrit that have survived, and they are at the Sutta Central: see “Sanskrit Canonical Discourses.” 

  • Starting around 100 BCE, a group of Mahāyāna philosophers started compiling Sanskrit sutrās; these were not even translations of the Pāli suttas but were “new interpretations” of Buddha’s teachings. They asserted that old interpretations had become obsolete and needed to be “upgraded” with new concepts. 
  • The only consolation is that it is easy to distinguish the Mahāyāna versions because they are sutrās (Sanskrit term for suttās). If you see a sutrā, that is one compiled by a philosopher like Nagarjuna. Of course, the exception is the handful of surviving direct translations; but those can be identified as translations. Furthermore, they clearly show the direct translation of anicca, dukkha, and anatta with the Sanskrit words anitya, duḥkha, and anātma. I will discuss that in the next post.
  • All original suttās remain intact in the Pāli Tipiṭaka. Yet, most current translations of those Pāli suttās are incorrect because Theravāda adopted SOME of the Mahāyāna distortions (including the replacement of anicca, dukkha, and anatta with the Sanskrit words anitya, duḥkha, anātma) during the peak of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India. 

5. In the analogy provided above, when counterfeit gold appears, it becomes widely used because it is cheaper, and most people cannot distinguish the difference. 

  • In the same way, when the deeper meanings of Buddha’s fundamental concepts are replaced by easy-to-understand (but incorrect), superficial, and mundane explanations, most people latch on to such incorrect explanations. That is why Theravadins readily adopted some of the “proposed improvements” put forth by Mahāyāna philosophers.
  • For example, anicca and anatta are complex Pāli words that CANNOT be translated into any language as single words. Yet, they were first translated to Sanskrit as anitya (pronounced “anithya”) and anātma (pronounced “anāthma”) only 500 years after the passing away of the Buddha.
  • Just like now, most people quickly adopted those simpler explanations. They were praised as “new interpretations for the obsolete teachings,” as the historian Edward Conze pointed out; see “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze.”
The Buddha Predicted the Timeline

6. The Buddha also foresaw the timeline of the “emergence of counterfeit Dhamma.” In the “Gotamī Sutta (AN 8.51),” he stated that his teachings, in their “full glory,” would last only 500 years. That matches the emergence of Mahāyāna roughly 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.

  • The Buddha made that prediction after the establishment of the bhikkhuni order. The Buddha first declined to establish the bhikkhuni order. After establishing the bhikkhuni order, the Buddha told Ven. Ananda that instead of lasting for 1000 years after his passing away, it would last only 500 years.
  • As the Buddha predicted, the “peak period” lasted only about 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha to roughly 100 AD. The emergence of Mahāyāna Buddhism started gradually around 100 BC and peaked around 400-500 AD; see the “Mahāyāna Buddhism” section in the Wikipedia article “History of Buddhism.”
  • However, the Buddha also emphasized that his teachings (among humans) will not disappear as long as there are at least Sotapannas among humans who can keep passing down the teachings to the next generation.
  • That is in the “Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16)” toward the end: “Yasmiṁ kho, subhadda, dhammavinaye ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo na upalabbhati, samaṇopi tattha na upalabbhati. Dutiyopi tattha samaṇo na upalabbhati. Tatiyopi tattha samaṇo na upalabbhati. Catutthopi tattha samaṇo na upalabbhati. Yasmiñca kho, subhadda, dhammavinaye ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo upalabbhati, samaṇopi tattha upalabbhati, dutiyopi tattha samaṇo upalabbhati, tatiyopi tattha samaṇo upalabbhati, catutthopi tattha samaṇo upalabbhati. Variant: ca → idheva (mr)Imasmiṁ kho, subhadda, dhammavinaye ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo upalabbhati, idheva, subhadda, samaṇo, idha dutiyo samaṇo, idha tatiyo samaṇo, idha catuttho samaṇo, suññā parappavādā samaṇebhi aññehi. –Ime ca, subhadda, bhikkhū sammā vihareyyuṁ, asuñño loko arahantehi assāti.”

    That means: “Subhadda, in whatever teaching and training the noble eightfold path is not found, there is no true Sotapanna, no Sakadagami, no Anagami, and no Arahant found. In whatever teaching and training the noble eightfold path is found, there is a true Sotapanna, a Sakadagami, an Anagami, and an Arahant found. The noble eightfold path is found in this teaching (Buddha Dhamma) and training (Vinaya).
    – As long as bhikkhus maintain the Ariya lineage, this world will have Arahants.”

Historical Timeline by Edward Conze

7. The historical timeline is also discussed in detail by Edward Conze in his book,  “A Short History of Buddhism” (1980; last edition 2008). According to Conze, the history of Buddhism can be conveniently divided into four periods:

  1. The old Buddhism largely coincided with what later came to be known as Theravāda.
  2. Rise of Mahāyāna,
  3. Rise of the Tantra (Vajrayāna) and Ch’an (Zen),
  4. No further divisions.

8. During the heyday of Mahāyāna, it became highly influential for about 500 years. As Edward Conze put it, “The creation of this literature is one of the most significant outbursts of creative energy known to human history, and it was sustained for about four to five centuries.” 

  • I highly recommend reading the post “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze,” where I discussed Conze’s book.
  • Even though no trace of Buddhism was left in India by the time Europeans took control in the 1800s, the damage had been done, and the consequences have lasted to the present time. 
Mahāyāna Influence Led to the Distortion of Theravāda Buddhism

9. I have discussed the fact that even the mainstream Theravāda Buddhist texts today — which are the closest to the teachings of the Buddha compared to Mahāyāna, Vajrayana, Tibetan, and other versions — interpret many of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha incorrectly. See “Incorrect Theravāda Interpretations – Historical Timeline.”

  • When the Europeans discovered Buddhism in the 1800s, they found that contaminated version. With the newly discovered printing press, that version got firmly established worldwide. Details in “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.” 
  • However, the Pāli Tipiṭaka has been faithfully preserved by a generation of a small number of bhikkhus. As discussed in the post “Preservation of the Dhamma,” they kept re-writing the whole Tipiṭaka on ola leaves every 100-200 years (lifetime of manuscripts made of ola leaves.) That also served the unintended benefit of taking into account the changes in the Sinhalese alphabet over 2000 years. 
  • How could Buddha’s teachings get distorted so quickly? The Buddha addressed that in his first discourse: The worldview he discovered during the night of his Enlightenment was radically different from any known worldview. 
The inability of Many to Comprehend the True Teachings

10. The Buddha explained the root problem of the inability of most people to comprehend the profound — and unimaginably different — worldview he realized during the night he attained the Buddhahood.

  • Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta was the first sutta delivered by the Buddha just after attaining Enlightenment.
  • The following verse appears in the “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)” twelve times: “..pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu.” It means “this Dhamma that I just discovered has not been known to the world previously.”
  • It is a teaching that goes against all mundane views/perceptions about our world. Because of that, there is a high probability that many deep concepts would be easily replaced (and accepted) by people who cannot grasp those more profound meanings. This is the root cause for the vulnerability of Buddha’s teachings to be “easily distorted.” People tend to drift toward “simple and mundane concepts.” The obvious example is the currently deeply-embedded view that Ānāpānasati is “breath meditation.”

11. The Buddha has repeatedly emphasized the need to pay serious attention to comprehending his Dhamma.

  • As we know, Ven. Ananda had an excellent memory (he had memorized the whole Sutta Piṭaka and recited it at the First Buddhist Council.)
  • Yet, when he told the Buddha that it was easy for him to understand Paṭicca Samuppāda, the Buddha admonished him not to take it lightly: “Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15.).”

12. The difference between Buddha’s worldview and any other worldview ever proposed by a human can be stated simply as follows: “Humans perceive that happiness is in the material world; they are delighted when able to acquire “valuable worldly entities,” whether in desirable partners or expensive things like gold, cars, houses, etc. However, the Buddha’s newfound worldview says pursuing those worldly things will — without any doubt — lead to suffering. That suffering manifests not only in future lives but also in this life. The relief from suffering can be experienced in this life itself by comprehending Buddha’s true teachings.”

  • One truly comprehends the “anicca nature” upon seeing the truth of that last part. Then one would realize how silly it is to translate “anicca” as “impermanence.”
  • Thus, “Nibbānic Bliss” can be experienced in this life! The way to get there is to become a Sotapanna and diligently practice Satipaṭṭhāna/Ānāpānasati (practically the same; Satipaṭṭhāna is a longer systematic version.) I will write more in the coming months.
  • Understanding “Paṭicca Samuppāda During a Lifetime” is critically important; also see “Paṭicca Samuppāda in Plain English.”
Unimaginable Harm Inflicted by Mahāyāna Buddhism

13. The Buddha had prohibited even translating the Tipiṭaka to Sanskrit; see #13 of “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.” However, Theravāda bhikkhus started learning Sanskrit during the peak of Mahāyāna in India.

  • During that time, Mahāyāna (based on Sanskrit sutrās) became so influential even in Sri Lanka that the bhikkhus at the Theravāda Center of Mahāvihāra in Anuradhapura had to take some controversial steps to stay relevant. One time, the Mahāvihāra was burnt to the ground by a King under the influence of the Abhayagiri Vihāra, which adopted Mahāyāna teachings; it was rebuilt later.
  • Those details are discussed in the Introduction to “The Path of Purification” by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli (BPS Pariyatti, 1999.) The pdf version of the complete book is available in the link provided; the Introduction section extends from p. 36 to p. 111 and is a MUST READ for those who like to “dig in.” I have separated the Introduction to a separate pdf that you can view/download: “The-Path-of-Purification-Introduction.
  • In the following, I present a few extractions from that Introduction section by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli.
A Few Highlights from the Introduction section by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli

14. Starting at the bottom of p. 36 through the top of p. 38: “Before dealing with those facts, however, and in order that they may appear oriented, it is worthwhile first to digress a little by noting how Pāli literature falls naturally into three main historical periods.

The early or classical period, which may be called the First Period, begins with the Tipiṭaka itself in the 6th century BCE and ends with the Milindapañhā about five centuries later. These works, composed in India, were brought to Sri Lanka, where they were maintained in Pāli but written in Sinhalese. By the first century CE, Sanskrit (independent of the rise of Mahāyāna) or a vernacular had probably displaced Pāli as the medium of study in all Buddhist “schools” on the Indian mainland. Literary activity in Sri Lanka declined and, it seems, fell into virtual abeyance between CE 150 and 350, as will appear below.

The first Pāli renascence was underway in Sri Lanka and South India by about 400 CE and was made viable by Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa. This can be called the Middle Period. Many of its principal figures were Indian. It developed in several centers in the South Indian mainland and spread to Burma, and it can be said to have lasted till about the 12th century. Meanwhile, the renewed literary activity again declined in Sri Lanka till it was eclipsed by the disastrous invasion of Magha in the 11th century.

The second renascence, or the Third Period as it may be termed, begins in the following century with Sri Lanka’s recovery, coinciding more or less with major political changes in Burma. In Sri Lanka, it lasted for several centuries, and in Burma for much longer, though India lost all forms of Buddhism about that time or soon after.” (My comment: Unfortunately, Buddhaghosa only made the situation worse. He misinterpreted Ānāpānasati as “breath meditation” in his Pāli compilation, Visuddhimagga“; see “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis.”)

On p. 46:In the first century CE, Sanskrit Buddhism (“Hīnayāna,” and perhaps by then Mahāyāna) was growing rapidly and spreading abroad. The Abhayagiri Monastery would naturally have been busy studying and advocating some of these weighty developments while the Great Monastery had nothing new to offer: (Comment: highlighting mine; note that Bhikkhu Ñānamoli specifically called the altered Hīnayāna  “Sanskrit Buddhism”) the rival was thus able, at some risk, to appear go-ahead and up-to-date while the old institution perhaps began to fall behind for want of new material, new inspiration, and international connections, because its studies being restricted to the orthodox presentation in the Sinhalese language, it had already done what it could in developing Tipiṭaka learning (on the mainland Theravāda was doubtless deeper in the same predicament). Anyway, we find that from the first century onwards, its constructive scholarship dries up, and instead, with the reign of King Bhātika Abhaya (BCE 20–CE 9), public wrangles begin to break out between the two monasteries. This scene indeed drags on, gradually worsening through the next three centuries, almost bare as they are of illuminating information. King Vasabha’s reign (CE 66–110) seems to be the last mentioned in the Commentaries as we have them now, from which it may be assumed that soon afterward, they were closed (or no longer kept up), nothing further being added. Perhaps the Great Monastery, now living only on its past, was itself getting infected with heresies. But without speculating on the immediate reasons that induced it to let its chain of teachers lapse and to cease adding to its body of Sinhalese learning, it is enough to note that the situation went on deteriorating, further complicated by intrigues, till in Mahāsena’s reign (CE 277–304) things came to a head.

  • The excerpts end here.

15. Note that Abhayagiri (which readily adopted Mahāyāna concepts) had been a rival to the Theravāda Center of Mahāvihāra (Great Monastery in the above quote) for a long time.

  • Reading the whole Introduction section (pp. 36-111) is necessary to get a good idea.
  • Also, note that the periods mentioned in Conze’s book (and also in other sources like Wikipedia) can vary. The first written historical record was in the Sinhalese Mahāvamsa, compiled around 450 CE. Thus, there are many “unverified historical accounts” up to at least 400 CE. 
True Teachings Must Be Pursued by Those Interested

16. After spending several years on internet forums trying to explain the glaring contradictions with current “mainstream Buddhism,” I recently realized that such “engagements” are stressful, a hindrance to my progress, and also can be harmful to those who are on the “other side” (believing their interpretations are correct.) I will focus on posting on this website and not get involved in any “debates.” Buddha Dhamma cannot be understood by engaging debates; it is fruitless to engage in debates. My only regret is not realizing it sooner.

  • It is up to each person to decide which version is correct. My responsibility is to present my understanding to the best of my ability.
  • How can someone decide which version is correct? As the Buddha pointed out, anyone should be able to figure that out by checking for consistency within the three Piṭakas: Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.
  • Only the Pāli Tipiṭaka remains faithful to Buddha’s teachings because it has remained in Pāli, unaltered for 2000 years. Most current translations have grievous errors, and many of my posts point them out. I even started a new section, “Elephants in the Room,” to point out the apparent logical contradictions that even an intelligent child can see. Also see “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
  • The sequel to the current post: “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Distortion Timeline.”
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