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A Buddhist Conspiracy Theory: The Struggle for Succession after the Buddha’s Death
A conspiracy theory is the idea that something more, perhaps sinister, is taking place behind the scenes than is acknowledged in the “officially” sanctioned version of an event. A conspiracy might be at work if a text or narrative appears to be deliberately obscuring an aspect of the proceedings. For example, Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code capitalized on the popular idea that the early Catholic Church suppressed knowledge of a marital relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Sometimes a conspiracy theory is unverifiable and can never be proved or disproved, while the premises of others can be simply ridiculous, hence their dubious reputation.
Other conspiracy theories, however, can be shown to contain compelling elements of truth, even despite attempts to discredit them by “mainstream sources.” The theory surrounding Jesus and Mary has no smoking gun, but the existence of apocryphal gospels means that the truth remains open. If proposed in good faith (and not simply to elicit an emotional reaction) or through genuine concern over a cover-up, a conspiracy theory is not only worth considering, but can make for a gripping thriller. At their best, conspiracy theories can offer us a deeper understanding of issues we once thought straightforward, adding greater possibility and mystery to our perspective on the past, the present, and even the future.
It is in this spirit that I mention the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta (Digha-Nikaya 16), which is commonly recognized as the scripture detailing the final events of the Buddha’s life and his Parinirvana. Some of the most dramatic passages are those describing the Buddha’s actual passing and his funeral. But within the text are also hints of an attempt to mask a major controversy following the Buddha’s death. This conflict involves none other than the Buddha’s chief disciples Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the Buddha’s cousin Ananda, and Kashyapa, the man who would lead the sangha after the Blessed One’s passing.
I learned about this a year or so ago thanks to my good friend Eisel Mazard, who currently lives in Canada. His life is far more interesting and eventful than I can relate here, but he spent many years in Southeast Asia as a social worker and has studied Pali and Southeast Asian languages as well as Chinese and Cree, among others. In his blog and YouTube channel Eisel describes himself as a proponent of the Socratic method, the philosophical skill of directed inquiry and debate that can sometimes be more penetrating than participants may anticipate.
If we view the Mahaparinibbana Sutta as a historical text of particular events, we see some nagging incongruences. The first evidence of conspiracy consists of omissions. We know that Shariputra and Maudgalyayana were the most valued of the Buddha’s students, and that for all intents and purposes they should have been his successors. Yet the Mahaparinibbana Sutta does not mention Shariputra’s death (Samyutta-Nikaya 47.13) or Maudgalyayana’s dramatic martyrdom (Milinda-panha 5.4.1), which most Buddhist traditions claim took place six months before the Buddha died and within a fortnight of one another (Shariputra is peculiarly still alive in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta).
The deaths of the chief disciples should have been significant news for a sutra about the Buddha’s death, but the words attributed to the Buddha in this text make no mention of these events, which strains credulity. This is even more peculiar given that the Buddha confesses elsewhere that he misses his dead disciples, according to the Ukkacela Sutta (Samyutta-Nikaya 47.14): “Bhikkhus, this assembly appears to me empty now that Sāriputta and Moggallāna have attained final Nibbāna. This assembly was not empty for me earlier, and I had no concern for whatever quarter Sāriputta and Moggallāna were dwelling in.”
Why did the author(s) of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta not record (or even make up, for the sake of believability) a reaction from the Buddha to the deaths of his two most important disciples, and what that might have meant for the future of the sangha? Their absence at the funeral also surely should have been noted, whether they were dead or alive.
The second piece of evidence comes from the clumsy narrative written to justify Kashyapa’s succession. When the Mallas, one of the families at the Buddha’s funeral, attempt unsuccessfully to light the pyre, the senior monk Anuruddha explains that the gods are keeping the wood flame-retardant until Kashyapa arrives. Only when he graces the funeral can the Buddha’s body be cremated. But if the author(s) had wanted a much stronger endorsement of Kashyapa as the leader of the post-Shakyamuni sangha, they could have just written the words into the Buddha’s mouth before his death: that Kashyapa deserved to be the successor to the sangha. Yet this does not occur. Furthermore, the author(s) chose to insert the endorsement of Kashyapa in a very indirect way via Anuruddha, who claimed that Indra and other gods were waiting for Kashyapa to arrive. However, these Vedic deities are not accorded legitimacy by Buddhists anywhere else.
As Eisel writes in his blog: “The canon preserves an incongruous and ambiguous situation at the time of the Buddha’s death, despite the mythological and grandiose tropes that are built into the narrative. Nobody who studies the Pali Canon as a whole could have the sense that Mahā-Kassapa’s [Kashyapa’s] accession was obvious or uncontroversial.” It also seems to me that there might have been multiple hands working on this story, perhaps negotiating with great difficulty a narrative that would accord Kashyapa the succession. The incomplete story “veiled” by the scripture suggests that that there was definitely some manner of struggle for succession. This is a possible explanation for why the Buddhist canon contains so much criticism about the candidates to the sangha’s leadership, including Kashyapa. Something clearly didn’t go smoothly.
The drama that might have accompanied the controversies after the Buddha’s death does not escape Eisel. “Within the Pali Canon, Mahā-Kassapa emerges as a very interesting and very human character . . . Mahā-Kassapa offers us some of the most striking examples of ‘dissent from the top’ within the canon: he complains very directly about what he perceives to be wrong and corrupt within the religion.” There are also hints that there was real tension between Kashyapa and a man he notoriously disliked: Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin. As the Australian monk Venerable Sujato points out, despite differing emphases in the Pali texts (Samyutta-Nikaya 16.10–11) and the Chinese agama (Taisho 15.1.10–11), we can tell from both that Kashyapa felt that Ananda was too young to enjoy the privilege of being the main preserver of oral memory (after the Blessed One’s Parinirvana).
If the Buddha’s two choices for inheriting his Order were dead, excluded from power, or somehow absent, then Ananda should have been a candidate for the leadership succession or at least a kingmaker, with his endorsement wielding real weight. He was the Buddha’s attendant and had a legendary memory. However, there is so much criticism against Ananda preserved in the canon that it is suspicious and seems to serve as justification for why Ananda did not enjoy more influence after the Buddha’s Parinirvana. The hints are tantalizing, but we simply don’t know for certain what happened.
Unfortunately, this conspiracy theory can be neither proved nor disproved. Although the Mahaparinibbana Sutta seems to deliberately hide something, we cannot know for certain what is being hidden or why. We can’t use logic or Occam’s Razor (the principle that the simplest explanation is the most likely). People’s motives can be simple, complex, stupid, or insane. We don’t know whether this story was really written to conceal anything. So after all this suspense and the certainty that something happened, we do not even know if we have a real conspiracy to show for it.
But perhaps it is not so bad. Similar to the Hollywood trope of the treasure hunter who searches for a lost secret or relic, only to realize that the secret was already within him (or perhaps the relic exists but should be protected from human knowledge and tampering), the secret we seek might not even be a conspiracy. Perhaps the point of this exercise has simply been to show us the need to be comfortable with uncertainty—even within the history of our own tradition. Though we might cherish our sacred texts and revere their heroes, we need to have the courage to explore the texts’ mixture of revealed truth and human hands, which are always prone to error and deceit.
I remember a fellow Buddhist Studies student who once told me she didn’t want to deal with history because struggling with historical questions would undermine her faith in the truth of the tradition. To me, this reasoning is not valid at all. The contingencies and treacheries of human history are tests of faith that we should embrace. They challenge us to accept the Buddhist truths even as we are forced to accept that the texts preserving them were written by all-too-human hands. But how can we take on as daunting a task as knowing the intentions of a holy text’s author or editor? As Matthew Gumpert wrote: “. . . we are born to be readers. We have been cut off from the truth; hermeneutics is our only way back. . . . At the heart of the hermeneutic method is this recurrent elegiac fantasy: not to read the text but to speak with its author” (Gumpert 2012, 109). Hermeneutics, far more than solving any conspiracy theory, is our real challenge.
Gumpert, Matthew. 2012. The End of Meaning: Studies in Catastrophe. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Buddhist Philosophy 08, Dissent from the Top (Eisel Mazard)
The Death of the Buddha, Facts and Mythology (YouTube)
Kassapa and Ananda—after the Parnibbana (Sujato’s Blog)
Cunda (Sutta Central)
The Murder of Moggallāna (Sutta Central)
Ukkacela (Sutta Central)