Why Devadatta Was No Saint

A little while ago we had some discussion about Reginald Ray’s controversial and popular idea that Devadatta was really a forest saint, unfairly maligned in later Buddhism. I read his work many years ago, and it has always bugged me, so I decided to do a bit of fact checking. Here is the essay that results. Short version: the theory is wrong.

The whole essay is a little too long for a blog post, so you can download the pdf, or read it over on Santipada. Here’s the abstract:

Devad­atta is depic­ted as the archetypal vil­lain in all Buddhist tra­di­tions. Regin­ald Ray has argued for a rad­ical reas­sess­ment of Devad­atta as a forest saint who was unfairly maligned in later mon­astic Buddhism. His work has been influ­en­tial, but it relies on omis­sions and mis­taken read­ings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap between the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devad­atta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is untrue. On the con­trary, the man­ner in which Devad­atta is depic­ted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly sim­ilar to the Sthavira accounts. Such dif­fer­ences as do exist are lit­er­ary rather than doc­trinal. The stor­ies of Devadatta’s deprav­ity became increas­ingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a nor­mal fea­ture of the myth­o­lo­giz­ing pro­cess, and has noth­ing to do with any ant­ag­on­ism against forest ascet­ics. In any case, the early sources are unan­im­ous in con­demning Devad­atta as the instig­ator of the first schism in the Buddhist community.


19 thoughts on “Why Devadatta Was No Saint

  1. Bhante,

    I thought this was an interesting exchange between Bhikkhu Brahmali and Glenn Wallis. (Wallis holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies). I can provide the source if requested.

    Brahmali: In sum, on the best evidence available, it seems clear to me that, although it is generally impossible to reconstruct verbatim the word of the Buddha, we have a quite precise picture of his core teachings.

    Wallis: In sum, on the best evidence available, it seems clear to me that, although it is absolutely impossible to reconstruct verbatim the word of the Buddha, we have a quite precise picture of the teachings as they looked about 500 years after his death.

    My question is: how do we decide between the two positions?

    Wallis also asks Brahmali an interesting question: do you need your version of the statement to be true?

    What are you thoughts on these two questions?

    Much appreciated


    • This is all a bit stupid. Wether or not the suttas are the original teachings of the Buddha is not even a little bit important because these teachings are all that is available. Without them there is no Buddha to speak of, his only meaningful presence is found in these texts. The real question should be; do the practical instructions in these texts work? I definately think and know so. Does Glenn Wallis hold a Ph.D. in practicing meditation, not-killing, metta etc.. That is all that is relevant here really.

    • This is indeed important as Bhante has demonstrated above. Teachers, gurus, authors, monastics, laypeople can make all manner of claims regarding the Buddha’s teachings and if we do not at least develop some level of critical reflection and preferrably a respected (if imperfect) methodology of scrutiny then people can simply get away with their own interpretations which are full of wrong view, cultural blinders, discriminations and all kinds of nonsense and thereby knock us completely off the right path and do considerable harm while they are at it.
      If we have learned nothing else from Bhante’s three years of elucidation of the Bhikkhuni and several other questions, it should be that.
      As for Reggie Ray, I usually refrain from remarking on things I find I would rather leave aside but when I sat with him in Vancouver, a few years ago, there was a photo of himself at the altar. Whether this was common practice or a mistake by one of the lay followers, this is something which is an immediate alarm bell for me to receive all that follows from and is associated with the teacher – with caution and a healthy dose of skepticism.

  2. what about Angulimala ?? – not a saint all his life – but was able to turn that around just by knowing the buddha….

  3. Gotamist

    “The real question should be; do the practical instructions in these texts work?”

    I quite agree.

    (I was going to say more but I’m interested in Bhante’s thoughts.)



    • If i may mention one more thing concerning your question to venerable bhikkhu Sujato. Glenn Wallis just seems to discredit the oral tradition concerning the teachings. Just because the teachings were written down centuries later does not make them less reliable in a historical context. In fact there might be some advantages to this kind of transmission. The fact that the form of the suttas clearly show that they were designed to be remembered trough a repetitive formula shows they are deeply rooted in an oral tradition. So evidence of an preceding (most likely much older) source to the suttas is found in the formulation of the written material.

    • Maybe we can take the time while Bhante is on retreat to read the article and come back with specific questions pertaining to it. _/\_

  4. Lisa

    Maybe we can take the time while Bhante is on retreat to read the article and come back with specific questions pertaining to it.

    So we lob Bhante some underarms on his favoured turf (ie focussing on the minutiae of textual analysis) rather than asking him some more fundamental questions related to faith?

    Eg do you also need Brahmali’s statement (below) to be true?

    In sum, on the best evidence available, it seems clear to me that, although it is generally impossible to reconstruct verbatim the word of the Buddha, we have a quite precise picture of his core teachings.



    • Greetings Geoff

      My _/\_ to your persistence and perseverance in your questions and willingness to stay on course to understand the teachings of the Buddha.

      It is indeed important to question and analyze any teacher or teachers on their understanding of Buddha Dhamma. Looking at history, blind faith could be a very dangerous thing sometimes… That’s why arming oneself with the Kalama Sutta comes in very handy ;-).

      Personally, i’d rather refer to;
      DN 16 PTS: D ii 137 chapters 5-6. Maha-parinibbana Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Total Unbinding (excerpt), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1998–2012
      Alternate translation: Vajira/Story

      Then the Blessed One said to Ven. Ananda, “Ananda, the twin sal-trees are in full bloom, even though it’s not the flowering season. They shower, strew, & sprinkle on the Tathagata’s body in homage to him. Heavenly coral-tree blossoms are falling from the sky… Heavenly sandalwood powder is falling from the sky… Heavenly music is playing in the sky… Heavenly songs are sung in the sky, in homage to the Tathagata. But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practicing masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage. So you should train yourselves: ‘We will keep practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, we will keep practicing masterfully, we will live in accordance with the Dhamma.'[2] That’s how you should train yourselves.




  5. Geoff,

    You obviuosly consider yourself to be so probing and insightful – How do you do it? consider yourself to be probing and insightful that is?

    …. don’t you have to have at least abit of understanding of the topic before you “act” like you know what you are talking about

    maybe not probing or insightful… just disburbed and full of ill will maybe … or just plain f******* boring!

    oh hum

  6. Dear Ajahn Sujato,

    I would like to raise a point about the story of Devadatta which seems to get misinterpreted often. This is regarding the Buddha describing Devadatta as a “gob of spit” when Devadatta asked the Buddha to retire and let Devadatta take over the Sangha. It is not possible that the Buddha spoke out of anger or resentment. He made such a candid description of Devadatta because he had a very clear idea of Devadatta’s tendencies and motivations. The Buddha also knew that Devadatta would persist in his unwholesome efforts. The Buddha wanted to make it abundantly clear to the Sangha and the lay followers that he was not in favor of Devadatta taking over the Sangha, so that later on Devadatta would not be able to misrepresent facts and claim the Buddha had retired leaving him the leader of the Sangha. The Buddha also wanted to make it clear that despite Devadatta’s psychic powers, he was not qualified to become a leader of the Sangha, so that people did not become Devadatta’s followers impressed by his powers (Ajathasattu is an example of what can happen when people follow a Devadatta). As the only way of preserving and transmitting the Dhamma in the India of 2500 years ago was by memorization and word of mouth, the Buddha could not afford diplomatic language and the distortions and ambiguity it often leads to.

    It is very admirable that the Buddha often spoke so bluntly and did not beat around the bush or sugarcoat his words under the rubric of skillful speech. He was in fact making very skillful speech, aimed at the long term welfare of generations of the Sangha and lay followers. Unfortunately, in western culture skillful speech has come to mean speech that does not rub the conceits and delusions of listeners the wrong way. So teachers tend to describe the “gob of spit” as a possible later addition and not something the Buddha actually said, in order to conform to this distorted definition of skillful speech (for example in this Dhamma talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=subPhMwKvC8#t=974s). But we can clearly see the Buddha’s speech was very skillful without having to categorize it as a possible later addition, if we merely free ourselves from this distorted definition of skillful speech.

    IMHO, the risk of determining passages in the Pali Canon as possible later additions is that it can open up a Pandora’s box down the line – anyone who does not like a teaching in the Canon or finds a Vinaya rule inconvenient will simply dismiss it as later addition; probably not something the Buddha actually said, so it doesn’t have to be followed.

    • Hi Arun,

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the sentiment, and I agree that we have to be very careful about what we say is authentic and why. It is, in my opinion, unwarranted to infer from one simple phrase, spoken 2500 years ago, that the Buddha had anger, ignoring all the hundreds of times he said he did not, as well as the many times he displayed extraordinary patience.

      However, we also have to be careful about attributing authorship of statements to the Buddha. The fact that we find a statement to be unreasonable is not, in and of itself, grounds for dismissing something; on the other hand, the fact that we find it to be reasonable is not sufficient to establish that the Buddha said it. Plenty of people who are not the Buddha say reasonable and wise things!

      This is why the science (or art, if you prefer) of text criticism was developed. We use a wide range of criteria, some small, some large, some obvious, some subtle, some sure, some dubious, and, after examining and reflection, we tentatively make an assessment. My little essay on the Pacetana Sutta, though more in the way of some preliminary notes than a detailed study, gives an example of this.

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