I was wondering: I have seen/heard many times that the Buddha's teachings were not written down until several hundred years after his death, and that until then, they were passed down from generation to generation of practitioners, monks etc through speech.
How, then, do we know that the suttas are really what the Buddha taught? How can we be sure to take them word-for-word, when the people who put them down on paper were most likely unenlightened beings who spoke a different language from the Buddha himself, half a century after he lived?
I don't mean this as a criticism - it's just something that's bugging me.
Any answers would be most lovely.
Read a lot, especially the suttas if you can. Meditate regularly. Listen to the wise. Think about what you read, see for yourself, and hear, and practice, practice, practice.
I believe that what the Buddha taught had complete internal consistency with no need for complicated explanations*. If you look for truth that fits together seamlessly, and practice it in your life and find it works, you'll find the dhamma underneath all the confusion, and that's what really matters.
* This is, of course, the dhamma I am referring to, not the suttas. The suttas, now, were first transmitted orally for about 500 years. They were first written down in about 100 C.E. Our oldest copies are not nearly that old. The language the Buddha spoke was thought by some to be "Magadhi" (named for the most powerful state at the time he lived) and it is quite close to the Pali, though Pali is a simple, clean language that was, if my understanding is correct, designed specifically to convey the suttas.
It's not reasonable to think that understanding will not have changed in even 100 years of oral transmission, much less 500 years. Heck, the Buddha was scolding his own monks for spreading wrong information even while he was still alive -- how likely is it then that after he died, everyone got everything exactly right? There's even a rule in the monk's books of discipline that says, "if you can't remember where a sutta took place, say 'in Savatthi'" which is a good rule for something minor like setting, but what did they do when they forgot more important things?
And then transcription comes along, and it's sometimes hard to read the copy you have when you're transcribing, so you make the best sense of it you can. Richard Gombrich also points out that when it comes to organizing who is going to remember what sutta, or copy it down, the ones no one really understands, or perhaps the ones they feel are in some way "wrong" -- disagreeing with their understanding of what the Buddha taught -- will not get memorized or copied as being "too low priority". Our oldest copies of Pali texts, Gombrich says, are about 500 years old, giving 2000 years of human error to creep in, of what was written down to possibly narrow to few copies at some points, and then what's left to be copied and spread again when the authors saw the danger of losing all that treasure.
There is a remarkable consistency in what we have, both across different tradition's versions of the same sutta, and in the suttas themselves. I went into reading suttas expecting them to be thoroughly corrupted but am frequently astounded by how much of what's there is clearly remaining from the earliest days. The whole seems to almost make a hologram.