Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.
But what really made it hard was that also I had to identify and change a fundamental background picture I had about the nature of Buddhist history within which I construed those beliefs and assimilated those facts. I had to cut down the genealogical tree. And that was not easy, because I was sitting in it.
One thing we must realize is that Buddhist traditions are largely oral with canonical backing. The vinaya, sūtra and śāstra are all studied, but in actual practice contemporary conventions take precedence. The customs one learns from seniors in the tradition are generally followed even if they are contrary to scripture. In that sense the canon is secondary to the living tradition one is a part of. Now, of course, in discourse some Buddhists will assert their canon is the most legitimate or their teachings are the true word of the Buddha, but in reality it comes down to the contemporary oral tradition with the canon only deferred to when necessary.
That means finding the "truest" Buddhism is somewhat of an intellectual's game.
Pali tradition reports that Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition started writing down texts in about the first century B.C.E. The manuscript record in Pali, however, doesn’t begin until about 800 C.E. But the Gandhari manuscripts date from as early as the first century B.C.E. If monks were writing in one part of India, they could likely have been writing in other parts of India as well—so this would seem to add credence to the Pali claims.
We have Buddhist texts in Chinese dating from the 1st century CE, which would only be a few decades from this period. In all likelihood the texts were transmitted from Central Asia or perhaps the areas in what is now Xinjiang in the far western corner of the PRC. That certainly speaks about the proliferation of Buddhist scripture in that period. The Tocharian language might have also been in use for Buddhist scriptures.
Interesting, though, that we have Chinese Buddhist texts on record centuries prior to the beginning of the Pali manuscript record. Unfortunately the Chinese Āgamas tend to be viewed as insufficiently authentic.
But even more significant is what we have found: that is, difference. These scrolls are incontrovertible proof that as early as the first century B.C.E., there was another significant living Buddhist tradition in a separate region of India and in an entirely different language from the tradition preserved in Pali.
Again, what about Central Asia? If the Chinese could have Buddhist scriptures in the 1st century CE, then they were probably getting them from somewhere in Central Asia and not India proper. A lot of scholars look to India as the sole possessor of authentic early Buddhist scriptures, meanwhile you had large Buddhist communities in Central Asia.