The Patterns That Link Founders, Disciples and Followers

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2018


Instructions for final and portfolio

Choose a topic for the final paper. Do research and get ready to present your project. This will be your final paper as well as the signature assignment

Required Readings:

The Textbook (pages 37-76)

The Questions of king Milinda (Chapter 1) - posted on Canvas

No Self (a chapter posted on Canvas)


"Yeah... but what did he really say?"

"It's in the book. But does it matter? I'm telling you what he really meant. That's what matters."

There is often a lot of discussion among followers about what the founder of a philosophy or religion really said and really meant by what he said. There is often a lot of disagreement.

The result of this is that in popular religions that also become exportable there is not much relation between the religion that becomes popular and what the founder said. Instead there is a lot of relation between what the subsequent interpreters of the founder say the founder said and what the religion comes to stand for.

As an example, in the case of Buddhism there were four formal councils between The Buddha's death in the third century BCE and the second century CE. Each of these was convened to formalize the interpretation of what The Buddha said, and each of these came up with different answers.

Again, this is a common pattern in the popular exportable religions. In the case of Christianity there was the Council of Nicea in 325 CE and various Vatican Councils since then, the most recent being in 1965. For Islam the breakup into Shia and Sunni factions began with Mohammed's death in 632, with Abu Bakr becoming caliph of the Sunni faction while the Shia faction followed Ali.

So, the pattern for popular and enduring religions seems to be as follows:

o There is a founder. This founder speaks in a way that is popular with contemporaries.

o After the founder dies there are a handful of enthusiastic followers, disciples, who interpret what he said for other contemporary followers. This interpreting begins immediately with the founder's death and is then ongoing. If the philosophy or religion becomes influencial it is because the number of followers keeps growing substantially over the next few centuries.

One of these first generation disciples becomes particularly influential in shaping the religion or philosophy's subsequent evolution. In the case of Christianity it was Paul. He made Christianity distinct from Judaism. In the case of Buddhism it was Nagarjuna. He was one of the founders of the Madhyamaka school, he popularized The Middle Way concept, and he explained The Perfection of Wisdom (The Buddha's writings) in a popularizable way.

o This pattern of contemporary disciples doing the interpreting of what the founder and ancient writings mean continues on, generation after generation. Each generation of disciples comes up with interpretations that are relevant to contemporary worshippers.

o There are dissenting disciples who argue with their contemporaries about the meanings of the founder and the ancient texts. Some will break away from the contemporary interpretations. They will argue that contemporary interpretations have it wrong, and what they are saying is going back to the basics of what the founder really meant.

This dissent and spinning off can begin at the founder's death. The split between Shia and Sunni in Islam is an example of founder's death splitting. Founder's death splitting in Buddhism began with the Theravada and Mahayana factions.

Most of these dissenters become voices in the wilderness and are soon forgotten... but not all. Following the founder's death, and any early splitting, every few centuries a dissenter becomes popular and a new wave of the religion is founded. Two examples in Christianity are Martin Luther and Joseph Smith. In the case of Buddhism the splitting didn't wait, only a hundred years after the Buddha's death there were 18 recognized Buddhist schools.

The result of a dissenter getting popular is a new wave of interpretation that is more relevant to contemporary popular thinking. As an example Joseph Smith's revelations which produced the Book of Mormon have a flavor that resembles early science fiction such as that produced by his contemporaries HG Wells and Jules Verne. This new interpretation style makes the ancient concepts comfortable to understand for contemporary audiences.

Why alleviate human suffering?

One of the common themes expressed in the Asian Philosophies book is that the religions and philosophies discussed have a goal of eliminating human suffering -- there are many paths described but the goal is common.

Where does this common goal come from?

My explanation is that it comes from instinctive thinking. Instinctive thinking is thinking that simply feels good -- there isn't a lot of learning or logic behind it. Another example of instinctive thinking is falling in love.

This being instinctive means that it is hardwired into human thinking processes, and that hardwiring means that it is a product of evolution. Being a product of evolution means that it is thinking that has served humanity well for thousands of generations.

How has this particular thinking style served humanity well?

Eliminating human suffering is part of cooperating, and it is the cooperating that has served humanity well. Seeing someone suffering brings out thoughts of helpfulness because if the person recovers then they will be able to cooperate in the future and both parties will benefit. Another similar instinctive feeling that supports cooperating is seeing beauty. If someone (or something) looks beautiful, this brings out an instinct to cooperate with him/her/it. A beautiful child who grows up to become a healthy, cooperative adult benefits the community.

So, religions and philosophies which support helping those who are suffering are encouraging cooperation, and that cooperation will benefit the community if the person being helped recovers and then cooperates with the community.


Who will become a famous, popular and enduring religious or philosophical leader is hard to pick out ahead of time. But once such a person has been picked by destiny, the pattern of how they, their disciples and followers interact becomes easier to see. And the pattern of how their disciples and followers will interact over the many succeeding generations becomes even stronger.

This is what this essay has been describing.



--The End--