I cannot comment on Mahayana understandings and practices. Nor can I comment on whether there is sufficient basis to assert unambiguously that the Buddha existed as a historical mortal being. What I would like to share, however, is how the question of historicity has become so important for contemporary, and especially, 'Western' Buddhists.
What I write below is a very brief summary of ideas articulated by postcolonial research on the historical trend of 'modern Buddhism' or 'Buddhist modernism'. You make look up on this if you wish to explore further; or PM me and I could you point you to specific sources (but I only check in here occasionally).
As I'm sure you are already aware, the term 'Buddhism' was a Western invention. It was coined by Orientalist scholars of the early 19th century who had assumed that the shared iconography of colonised Asian lands (and non-colonised ones like Japan and Thailand), indicated that their diverse sacred traditions could all be traced to the same founder. This was a time when many artefacts (texts, statues, coins, etc) in Asian lands were being excavated - or a good case could be made that they were plundered
- by colonialists and brought back to Europe to be studied. It is widely accepted today by many historians (especially those mindful of the continuing subjugating, minoratising after-effects of Western imperialism on the world) that this served a political function: to own another's cultural artefacts is a form of control, a way to assert ideological dominance.
So under such conditions, the search for the historical origins of the Buddha and the writing of his biography became a central task. Early Western Buddhist scholars, of course, required the help of native translators. But there wasn't exactly mutual respect and recognition in the working relation between them. It was not uncommon for European scholars to be very selective in what the native Buddhist presented to them, picking what appealed to their own views, and ignoring others that may require them to rethink their own views. Very often there was no acknowledgement of the native Buddhists' contribution - sometimes they were even disparaged by their European counterparts. And so it was, a historical biography of the Buddha as Gautama was pieced together. There are at least two problems to be noted about this process:
- These pioneering European scholars, who set the wheels in motion for the production of Western Buddhist knowledge, were working according to the prevailing *Biblical* scholarly norms of the time. According to the Christian paradigm of textual and historical analysis, Jesus of Nazareth was the founder of Christianity, a founder who must have been a mortal man. Could such assumptions simply be transposed onto the various expressions of the Dhamma found across Asian cultures? (We could note here that the earliest representations of the Buddha were NOT anthropomorphic - I cannot say with certainty what this means, but at the very least, it does indicate that things are not so straightforward).
- The Dhamma texts which the European scholars consulted - or those they deemed worthy of attention, at any rate - were composed for very different purposes and could not be interpreted in the same way as the texts of European civilisation. They also do not easily meet the European criteria for a biography. Yet, the task of identifying the mortal origins of Gautama was completed (as per above, by way of selective and decontextualised readings).
Armed with a textualised and supposed more 'original' and more 'authentic' Buddhism that is divorced from the reality of embodied on-the-ground practices
- practices which the Europeans didn't think much of in the first place; otherwise why all the hoohah about portraying colonisation as a 'civilising' mission? - it didn't take long before Western critics began to denigrate traditional Asian Buddhist thought and practice as 'debased' or 'corrupted'. Such criticisms were articulated by colonialists and Christian missionaries, and served to perpetuate the ideological subversion of colonised peoples - since a key way to justify domination is to say, 'I know better than you. tsk tsk. Let show you the light, let me "enlighten" you.'
I better finish off.Contemporary 'Western' Buddhist understanding developed out of this colonial history, the after effects of which (sometimes violent) are still playing out today. But let me be clear. I am not saying that the ideas we are working with today are 'bad' or 'wrong'. Nor am I saying that there is no merit in exploring the historicity of the Buddha. What I'm trying to point out is the need to be mindful:
- The question of historicity - the task of identifying a more 'original' or 'authentic' Buddhism - is always and already enmeshed in a network of power relations and struggles.In other words, there are implications: the continuing marginalisation of postcolonial lifeworlds is one implication.
- To pursue this question of the historicity of the Buddha or 'original' Buddhism WITHOUT being reflexive about the history of this question itself - well, is one really being historically reflexive? Is one really engaging with historicity?
I think it is important to be mindful of these, so as to not conflate views with understanding.