On authenticity

In the past few weeks, I’ve started a project with Bhante Brahmali, which we call “The Authenticity Project”. We have heard skeptical voices that doubt the authenticity of the early Buddhist texts, while among traditional Buddhists the question is rarely even raised. Yet we have not found any source that collects and analyzes the many and varied reasons for regarding them as authentic. So we decided to do it ourselves. The project is developing, and will possibly end up on Wikipedia, and perhaps as a journal article in some form. I’ll share it with you when it is in better shape; at the moment it’s very rough.

The problem is exemplified by the Wikipedia page on the Pali canon. I noticed that the scholars who affirmed the authenticity of the texts were all experts in the field, while the ones who doubted were scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan tantra. Yet if you are not familiar with the field, it just seems as if scholars do not agree. So I changed the page to acknowledge the backgrounds of the relevant scholars.

I am interested to hear your ideas on this topic. Clearly authenticity matters, as people in all different traditions and religions get very excited by it. But it is not so obvious why this is so: for many people, if it works, it’s good enough. The Buddha in the Sandaka Sutta even warned against over reliance on the authenticity of the texts, saying that, since the teachings may be ‘well heard or badly heard’, one’s spiritual life should not depend on this.

It’s also interesting to hear what different people regard as persuasive. When speaking to various people, almost always they will come up with some different perspective on why the texts should be seen as authentic, or not. We’re interested to gather as many such perspectives as possible, and present them with appropriate analysis and documentation. So, what do you think?


120 thoughts on “On authenticity

  1. Bhante – I’m speaking as a lay Zen practitioner who’s not even all that comfortable identifying as a Buddhist, and as someone who has studied historiography and is pretty comfortable with the practice of source criticism.

    I’m less interested in authenticity in the traditional sense than in coherence and meaning. Vasubandhu’s teachings, for example, are clearly not as authentic in the source-critical sense as the most primary parts of the Pali Canon. I find them extremely valuable, however, because in my admittedly limited view they align well with those more primary sources, they provide interesting and insightful perspectives on them, and they supplement them with some valuable and original ideas.

    I believe that a historical view of the evolution of various branches of Buddhist thought is an extremely valuable way of looking at them. In order to really understand an idea, you have to know where it comes from. The study of authenticity is a part of this. However I think it would be a mistake to conflate authenticity with value – i.e., that the most primary/authentic texts be automatically be considered more valuable/truer/wiser/etc. than later texts. Not that I suspect that’s what you’re after.

    • Thanks, his work is of course a touchstone in this area. Ultimately, the best thing is to do what he has done: make the texts available in a clear and cogent form.

  2. Excellent idea. [for the scholar]
    The point about basic teachings being the best route is valid, though.
    It seems all groups need to have extra structure to work in ‘the real world’ so the simple Arahat approach is probably the best for many lone travellers on the path.
    If only people just stuck to the Ten Commandments, Beatitudes or 8Fold Path they would be better off – than by judging the relative merits of historical approaches..
    For the structure of Buddhist thought a review on its historical perspective would seem to be needed in order to settle arguments on the various traditions.
    Quite a task!

  3. I’ll be very interested to see this. Coming from a Tibetan background, I gradually realized that most of Vajrayana history is fiction, and its heroes imaginary. It seems to be pretty much uncontroversial that the same is true for Mahayana. So my default assumption has been that this is likely also true for the Pali material—but I’m not at all familiar with that.

    Being curious, I have done some reading. For example, I read Gombrich’s recent book (prominently cited in the Wikipedia article). I found it utterly unconvincing. He has a chapter on methodology, roughly in the middle of the book, which boils down to “I made it up; if you disagree, get lost.”

    Since he is one of the most respected scholars in this area, I tentatively concluded that there is no basis for taking the Pali scriptures as other than fictional. Maybe there is someone else who has some more rigorous reasoning than “it likely to me”?

    • Hi David,

      Ow, that’s harsh! I wouldn’t dismiss Gombrich’s methodology so quickly, but as I haven’t read the chapter in question I can’t comment directly.

      There are never exact methods; we are dealing with induction from scarce and scattered information. Nevertheless, the basis for the Pali canon is quite different than the Mahayana texts. In the latter case, they claim to have been spoken in extravagently impossible circumstances, preserved in the naga realm, and so on. The ground of the Pali suttas is perfectly straightforward, the means of preservation are well-known, the historical background is coherent, and so on. Our task is to assemble the various pieces of information and show their relevance. Whether you find that any more persuasive is, of course, up to you!

    • Yes—much of what is in the Pali Canon could have happened, so far as we know; whereas most of what is in Mahayana and Vajrayana scripture is clearly not factual. For me, this is irrelevant, because I find the Pali material uninspiring (regardless of its provenance), and I find some Vajrayana scriptures inspiring precisely because they are outrageous, absurd, and horrifying. However, I can understand why “the Buddha actually said this” could be important for some.

      There may be a key burden-of-proof issue here. In cases where the Pali Canon is not obviously fiction, should we assume by default that it is factual? Or should we accept it as historical only when there is specific evidence for that?

      This matters because, as far as I can tell, there’s very little evidence for Early Buddhism outside the Canon itself. So in most cases it is going to come down to what your default is.

      I come down on the side of “fictional until shown historical.” This is not a sectarian Vajrayana point of view; it’s a Western skeptical point of view. However, I suspect it would also be the view of anyone who is not a Theravadin (or highly sympathetic to Theravada).

      I encourage you to read Gombrich’s chapter. I found it oddly surly. He seems to have often argued with academics who said “aren’t you just making personal, subjective judgements here? why should we accept any of this?” And he says: “Yes, dammit, I am making personal, subjective judgements—and I’ve been doing that for a long time, and I’ve a read a lot, so my judgements are worth something.” Maybe I missed something, but if that’s the best Pali scholarship can do, I don’t see why outsiders should take it seriously.

      I’m assuming here that you do want to persuade outsiders, using non-religious criteria. Of course, using religious criteria to argue religious authenticity is most of what Buddhist scholars do, and it’s fine, but it’s a different kind of project.

    • Perhaps the surliness, if you have read it right, comes from the plethora of ignorant voices that opine on the topic. It is somewhat annoying to spend years studying something very seriously, and then be subject to the bloggerati for whom their own opinion matters just as much as any expert.

      Leaving that aside, there is a substantial amount of early evidence, but little of it is direct. At the end of the day, it still comes down to your assumptions and perspectives. As an inductive argument, however, I think that when you see the wide range of evidence, none definitive but all relevant, that harmonizes with what is depicted in the EBTs, and the absence of contradictory evidence, it becomes harder and harder to imagine how anyone could possibly have faked it all.

      There are many details that people have picked up over the years as signs of lateness, but it is possible to show for many cases that the arguments are not valid. One example is the mythos of the “Wheel-turning Emperor”. Skeptics argue that there was no pan-Indian kingship before Ashoka, so this idea must be Ashoka. But the pre-Buddhist Horse Sacrifice is a central Brahmanical rite that establishes soveriegnty from sea to sea, and the symbolsim of this shares significant features in common with the Buddhist “Wheel-turning Emperor”. This is just one example among dozens.

      Re the burden of proof, on the whole we follow the principle of “extraordinary claims require extraordianry evidence”, the basis for empiricism, which is found in the EBTs themselves. The full answer to this is the project itself; but in brief, I would say that the very existence of the early Buddhist Texts is an extraordinary fact, which demands an explanation better than, ‘We don’t know”.

    • You’re quite right, these stories are similar, and I suspect that they have influenced each other. I am not aware of any historical study on this, but it is interesting to note that, while the idea that the Buddha taught his mother in Tavatimsa seems to be widespread, not everyone agrees that he taught the Abhidhamma there. In White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes I discussed one such passage.

    • Venerable,
      Similar to the theory of non-mystical origins of the Abidhamma, I think Nagarjuna probably picked up the Prajnaparamitas from one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries at Taxila in the land of the Naga Rajputs. Don’t think either Mahayana sutras or Abidhamma to be direct words from the “historical Buddha”, both more of commentaries and reinterpretations based on the existing Sutta Pitaka, with possibly some added personal experience. Much like the Vinaya of the Sarvastivadans: where the people asking the questions for the rules and the places where the questions were asked were typically filled in with templated information, as opposed to historically accurate information – the same goes for Mahayana Sutras (and this system of metaphor is explicitly described in commentaries such as Hsuan Hua’s).

      I guess I’m responding to the prevalent trend in the west that Mahayana is just made up stuff – or as Brian Ruhe likes to say, “the work of Mara.” If we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, I just don’t have a problem taking refuge in the Sangha of the past, who were much closer to the culture and the time period. Even the existing Sutta Pitaka wasn’t compiled until the first council, so even that is a product of the Sangha.

      Good luck on your project though. I’d be interested to see what you find comparing the Pali Suttas with the Agamas. I understand that the Agama version of the Kalama Sutta may not be quite as pro-empiricism. Would also like to see what you can dig up as far as actual, quoted words versus narration.

    • I’m a bit late – but I look forward to hearing/reading results of this work (and would be happy to assist during its unfolding if and however I can). I’m a student of a student of Gombrich (both with Paul Williams and Damien Keown) and I’ve spent time with Gombrich myself. He has two articles that is in P. William’s “Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies” that touch on this issue. Both were previously printed in journals:

      Gombrich,”Recovering the Buddha’s Message,” in T. Skorupski (ed.) (1990) The Buddhist Forum: Vol. I. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, pp. 5-30.
      Gombrich, “The Buddha’s Book of Genesis,” Indo-Iranian Journal 35 (1992): 159-78.

      Alexander Wynne’s The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation – Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies (Vol XLIX/2005) may be of use and is generously available via the OCBS website:

      Click to access awynne2005wzks.pdf

      (OCBS probably has other articles/books/lecture audio that can be helpful as well).

      Lastly, I just came across another student of Gombrich, Torkel Brekke, who has a book on the origins of Buddhism in which he mentions that:
      Chapter 1 is based on the following article: ‘The Skandhaka of the Vinaya Pitaka and its Historical Value’, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens und Archiv für Indische Philosophie, XLII, 1998: 23–40. This chapter is an argument for the use of the Khandhaka section of the Vinaya Pitaka in the study of the origins of Buddhism. The argument is that these texts are likely to be very close to the life of the Buddha and therefore their historical value is greater than previously assumed.

      So that article/book: “RELIGIOUS MOTIVATION AND THE ORIGINS OF BUDDHISM: A social–psychological exploration of the origins of a world religion” might be good.

      Good luck!

    • Hi Justin,

      Thanks so much for the offer of help. at the moment Ven Brahmali and myself are finalizing the initial draft. Our plan is to approach various scholars and invite their feedback and contributions when this is ready, probably in a few weeks. So if it’s okay we’ll get back to you then.

      Thanks for the links and articles. Most of these I am familiar with. Our aim is to be as comprehensive as possible, however, so all suggestions and recommendations are welcome.

      I was not familiar with the work of Brekke, so we will follow this up. As it happens, Ajahn Brahmali and Brekke are both Norwegian, so it looks like we may have an Uttarapathaka revival!

  4. I think it would be useful to first clarify what you mean by “authenticity”. I see the Buddha’s dhamma as something that travels through time and it’s authenticity is constantly manifested through the practice/practitioners.

    If by authenticity you mean the validating of historical records I’m not sure if that does really matter? I also think there is a danger in creating a perceived accuracy. I don’t think a real accuracy can be created because context has gone and our tool of interpretation has also changed.

    • Hi Peter,

      In this context, we define authenticity as: the texts are what they say they are, i.e., spoken by the Buddha.

      Like any simple definition, it gets more complicated as we try to apply it, but at least we know what we’re talking about. The more subtle form of spiritual authenticity that you allude to is, of course, important, but not what this study is about.

      Whether it matters or not is subjective. It matters to me, and to some others, so that’s why we do it.

      As for perceived accuracy, this is a good point. There are many articles that confidently say, for example, that the Buddha died in 483BCE, whereas in fact the date is highly uncertain.

      One of the arguments we are developing is that the theory of authenticity is an inductive theory, that is, it is inferred from countless pieces of evidence, none of which is decisive by itself, but taken all together are best explained in this way. This is the same kind of theory as, say, global warming, or evolution. In this kind of theory there is a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to individual details–was that storm caused by global warming?–but a great deal of certainty in the general picture. We argue that skeptical voices are anti-scientific, in the same way as gloabl warming denialists or creationists, and that they use much the same form of argument (“It’s uncertain!”).

    • Hi Bhante Sujato
      I imagine that historical authenticity is deeply important to you. You had initially posted that “Clearly authenticity matters”, which I took to be beyond the subjective. I think that the importance of historical authenticity is an interesting question. And personally I can think of a number of reasons to avoid over emphasizing the importance. I would be interested to hear why you feel it is important, if you have time.

    • Well, I guess it matters simply because it matters to people; that’s enough to at least give it some attention. How much it matters obviously varies greatly; I don’t have any real theory about why authenticity should (or should not) matter. That is, beyond the simple problem of being truthful in what we say. If we are to say, this is what the Buddha taught, we should at minimum avoid saying this of things that he clearly did not teach; and acknowledge uncertainty where it exists. This is already a pretty challenging standard for most Buddhist (and other religious) practitioners. I suspect there is more to it than this; perhaps I will explore this more some day. But for the moment we are content to simply accept the fact that it matters to us (and some others) and treat it as a topic worthy of attention.

    • The problem arises here between authenticity of languages vs authenicity of Dhamma. Take MN 117 as an example, with recent attempts to debunk its authenticity based on the language structure contained within. Whilst the language structure may not match the stock phrases found in the Nikayas, MN 117 is without doubt foremost in Dhammic authenticity.

  5. The term “authenticity” has to be qualified. The question of what teachings can be attributed by means of historical methodology to the Buddha who lived around 2500 years ago has to be explicitly separated from the question of what is believed by many to be authentic teachings of the Buddha or Buddhas regardless of historical methodology and from the question of whether it matters at all for those seeking to grow spiritually. The latter questions are irrelevant to the first question.

    One assumption that you will have to deal with is the assumption that oral transmission of knowledge is less reliable than textual transmission of knowledge prior to the 16th century CE. There is a lot of work on scribal errors and/or deliberate “corrections” that were regularly made during the centuries of transmission of medieval European manuscripts that you can take a look at. Anyway, this assumption seems to be common among so-called secular Buddhists.

    Tibetan Buddhists would not argue that the Pali canon is not authentic so much as they believe that they are incomplete. This belief goes back at least as early as the 11th-century Lamrim teachings of Atisha in the A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa). Most Tibetan teachers I’ve encountered incorrectly assume that, of the three scopes and motives as presented by Atisha, the teachings like those found in the Pali Canon and presented by Theravada are those of the most limited scope and motives, that the teachings of the Mahayana in general are those of the medium scope and motives, and that the teachings of the Vajrayana in particular are those of the highest scope and motives. From what I can tell of what Atisha actually presented, the teachings like those found in the Pali Canon and presented by Theravada are the medium scope and motives and the teachings of the Mahayana (of which Vajrayana is believed to be superior) are those of the highest scope and motives. The incorrect assumption of most Tibetan teachers I’ve encountered seems to come from their complete misunderstanding of the scope and goals found in Theravada teachings. In any case, nothing you say regarding which texts are authentic according to any historical methodology will convince them that their texts and the Vajrayana are not authentic teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhas.

    • Hi Brc, thanks for the interesting comments.

      Re the oral tradition, there is some interesting recent work by Analayo. Do you have any references for the transmission studies in western literature?

      You make an interesting point about Atisha, I was not aware of this. Again, references would be nice….

      Of course, our goal is not to persuade anyone that their religious path is “wrong”, but to gather and analyze historical information for those who are interested. It is an interesting sideline that many of the scholarly critics of early Buddhism are, in fact, primarily Tibetan scholars, but this is not an essential part of our thesis.

    • Dear Bhante,

      Websites that might be a good places to start:




      Go down to “Scribal errors” and then down to “Of Alteration” (unwitting and deliberate). There are other parts of the website that are worth looking at.

      In addition to these kinds of problems, there were a few centuries (Merovingian period between the 6th and 8th centuries CE) when the script was so bad that 9th-century monks developed a new Carolingian miniscule that was legible. Gregory of Tours (d. 594 CE) wrote at the beginning of History of the Franks about the decline of writing and the corruption of texts in his time. The point is that errors entered manuscript lines because, among other common problems, the texts were so difficult to read!

      I’ll find a few more references for you.

    • There is a confusion here of the “three scopes” with the “three yānas.” They are not the same. The root text for the teaching of the three scopes is Atiśa’s Bodhipathapradīpa, a short text of around 40 verses, of which there are numerous translations in circulation. This teaching became the foundation for a whole genre of later works in the Tibetan tradition, particularly in the Kadam and Geluk schools. The most famous example is Tsongkhapa’s “Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.” The “three scopes” are three levels of Dharma motivation–the first strives for rebirth in the higher realms, the second strives for nirvana, and the third strives for complete enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. The higher scopes include the practices of the lower scopes.

      Unlike the yānas, which are about doctrines and practices, the scopes have to do with one’s motivation. Thus, one could be doing what appear to be esoteric Vajrayāna practices, but one’s motivation may be of the first scope–or not Dharma at all!

    • Interesting point about the difference between three scopes/motives and three doctrines/practices. The confusion was part of the teachings of an American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who was ordained in 1978 and has been teaching Buddhist philosophy and practice in FPMT centers for three decades and of a Tibetan-born lama who was sent to the West by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa and has also been leading and teaching in the US for three decades. In both cases, they clearly and unequivocally conflated the two such that, to them, the teaching of Theravada are limited and those who follow it do so because they have “limited intelligence” (this last point was literally in the published text that the nun was reading from as she explained the Lamrim, which can be found at: http://shop.fpmt.org/Lam-Rim-Outlines-Extended-Beginners-Meditation-Guide_p_424.html).

      In other words, while they would agree with you that “one could be doing what appears to be esoteric Vajrayāna practices” while “one’s motivation may be of the first scope,” they would not agree that it is possible to follow Theravada teachings with what they believe to be superior motivation. The lama I mention talked about Theravada by name as he spoke of the first yana and detailed the motivations of Theravada practitioners as he described them as narrow and limited.

    • Clarification: The term “limited intelligence” in reference to the first was in the text. The conflation of the three scopes/motives and the three doctrines/practices may have just been her interpretation of the text. She used the term Hinayana (which seems to me to be a non-existent straw-man that many Tibetan Buddhists seem to enjoy putting down), not Theravada.

    • Hi BRC. Theravāda cannot be conflated with the first scope, since the goal is nirvana–the second scope. And both Mahayana and Vajrayana must be third scope, since they have identical bodhicitta motivation and the same philosophical view.

      You might be confusing the three scopes with the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma?

    • I agree that Theravada should not be conflated or confused with what is called the first scope in Lamrim. And yet it often is conflated and confused with the first scope by many Mahayana/Vajrayana teachers and presented as the first scope in their published manuals. That’s my point.

  6. Yes i think it would be good, as long as people didn’t then start to only follow those texts fanatically (ie not being able to put the teachings into practise or understanding from the heart as well as the head), or condeming others for not being able to recite the texts from memory, speaking pali fluently, and/or being able to do those funny sized letters and could still see as important putting the texts into practise.

    Guru worshipping in lay life is “so last decade”….. although I wouldn’t mind hanging around Ajahn Brahma all the time 🙂

    so yes I think it would be good

    • Good points once more. Early Buddhist fundamentalism is alive and well, and just as deadening as any other fundamentalism! Texts are just texts, and we should never lose sight of that.

  7. It’s my personal opinion that the closer we get to the authentic teachings of the Buddha the better, and the more likely people will be to benefit re: actually reaching stages of enlightenment. putting the scriptures through the rigors of critical analysis, especially when this analysis is done by experienced practitioners (which is severely lacking), can only serve the enhance peoples practice and better our understanding of what the Buddha himself taught.

    Myself personally, my faith is in the Buddha & I am only interested in practicing what the Buddha actually taught not simply ‘what works’… so any efforts that can further that are much appreciated. I’m sure there are those that will criticize and say its not important, or that we can never really know for sure… I’m sure people criticize the importance of the work of, for example, Bhante Analayo and his comparison of the Agamas and Nikayas… but this work IS important. removing subjectivity, opinion, dogmatic traditional views as much as possible from what we understand to be the teachings of the historical Buddha is IMPORTANT!

    Sadhu to you and Bhante Brahmali for this most important work.


  8. Dear Bhikkhu Sujato,

    Thank you so much for devoting your efforts to the original teachings of the Buddha! Aside from my teacher, Bhikkhu Aticca, you, and Bhikkhus Analayo and Brahmali are the sources I rely on the most.

    I don’t know whether you are familiar with the work of Bhikkhu Vupasama from the Original Buddhism Society (www.arahant.org). You may find his work very helpful. Bhikkhu Vupasama spent the last forty years researching this very topic, among others, continuing the research of Yin Shun. If you’d like, I can put you in touch with his disciple and my teacher, Bhikkhu Aticca (Bhikkhu Vupasama speaks Mandarin, and very limited English).

    I wish you the best in all of your efforts.


  9. Tibetologists may be skeptical due to having discovered only in the past 15 years how thoroughly fake the Tibetan history is. Accordingly, they may be embarrassed and annoyed to have mistakenly accepted so much of it for so long, and may tend to extend this cynicism to all Buddhist history. Anyway, that is my tendency; I’m quite willing to be proven wrong, however.

    In any case, I think your project will be enormously valuable in making the case as well as possible, and then readers can make up their own minds.

    Regarding experts and the ignorant bloggerati: it could be useful to look, early in the project, at exactly how much agreement there is among actual Pali experts. If they mostly agree on what is historically authentic (with, inevitably, minor disagreements around the margins), that would be somewhat reassuring. If, on the other hand, there are substantial disagreements, then there is a problem. Your project could not summarize the evidence for a scholarly consensus. It would (at best) have to take sides in an academic controversy, and this would not inspire confidence in anyone outside the field.

    • I have thought about the issue of scholarly consensus, and wondered whather it would be worthwhile to do a survey of academic opinion.

      One of the systemic problems is simply the size of the literature. There is nothing even vaguely approaching a methodical attempt at discerning all the earlier/later passages. Such a project has been done word by word in the Bible by the Jesus Seminar, which builds on centuries of detailed analysis. We don’t even have translations of the majority of the Early Buddhist texts.

      Having said which, there is consensus on many things. The general stratification of the texts (4 Agamas & patimokkha>Khuddaka (mostly) & Vinaya>Abhidhamma>Mahayana) is well established. Of the texts within the 4 Agamas, late ones are widely agreed on (Anupada, Sangiti, Dasuttara, Mahasudassana, Lakkhana… To this list should be added the (Maha)Satipatthana, but there is no consensus on this). In general, I would say that there is a long lasting, fairly well accepted agreement on what are early and late texts, but with plenty of room for disagreements in details and method.

      I don’t think the position of the Tibetologists has to do with any recent discoveries in Tibetan history. It has more to do with the history of Buddhist studies as a discipline in the West. The early western scholars were pretty harsh on what they saw as the decadent, superstitious Buddhism of Tibet, which they contrasted with the more “pure” Buddhism of Theravada, and even more so with that reconstructed from the Early Buddhist texts. This is one reason why it has been apologists for Mahayana (Conze) and latterly Tibetan Buddhism who have most enthusiastically leaped on the “Ha! Pali texts are late, too!” bandwagon. In other cases it is the secularists (Schopen) who seem mostly interested to stop criticize religion generally.

      It doesn’t have to be this way. In modern Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, while there is still controversy in these areas, it is widely accepted among scholars that the Agamas and other Early Buddhist texts have a strong claim to authenticity, while the Mahayana suttas do not. While there is still a tendency to relativize claims to authenticity, this has not stopped the thriving of research into these texts, and latterly, the practical application of them in developing meditation as well.

  10. I have always found the arguments of TW Rhys Davids based on geographic references and social context to be the most persuasive. His ‘Buddhist India’ where he puts forth his basis of identifying the various layers in the Pali canon,though more than a century old, seems to me to be the sanest.. Thanks for doing this Bhante..

    • That’s a very good point, and in fact is the starting point of our project. The geographical argument is very strong for many reasons, and has only got stronger since his day.

      One of the newer developements that we take into account is the pretty-much-consensus acceptance of the Rhys Davids/Gombrich “median chronology”. This brings the date of the Buddha’s parinibbana down to 400 BCE or so. This means that the gap in time between the Buddha and the Greek sources, Chandragupta, and Ashoka is halved; which throws in stark relief the very dramatic changes in the Indian political landscape from what is depicted in the early Buddhist texts to what we know was the case 80 years or so later.

  11. I am looking forward to reading what you come up with; much needed.

    The primary reason I have for hoping the world recognizes the high probability that the canon actually does represent the teachings of one man with a great mind is so that we will be willing to give the canon and those teachings the close examination they deserve. If the perception of what’s in there is that it was written by a committee then the expectation is that it is a confusing mish-mash of differing people’s ideas representing a variety of agendas, so few will bother to take the time to look at the texts deeply. And while there is undoubtedly some mish-mashing and bending of texts to agendas it doesn’t seem to me to be all that difficult to begin to separate out the strands because the majority of the material is consistent.

    As for what constitutes evidence, clearly that’s different for different people. The reasons I have for suspecting that there really was a Gotama who really did say things pretty much as we have them in the canon, is in part because the story has continuity though no particular effort seems to have been made to preserve a timeline; the voice is very consistent with a rare few exceptions that are such sour notes that they stand out as corruptions; the crystalline structure of the suttas which are put together with such astounding precision that the more deeply one looks the more they teach (and the more carefully planned their structure can be seen to be). I can barely imagine a committee nowadays capable of such meticulousness across a huge volume, never mind one in the early days of “literature”. Some comparison of the structure of these stories to others around the same time might be revealing as well.

    • Thanks, Linda, good points here. The intricate structure of the suttas over such a massive scale is indeed quite incredible. Some modern scholarship has emphasized inconsistencies in the early texts; but while there may be some, this distracts from the overwhelming fact of the astonishing consistency and coherence of the vast bulk of texts. This is far different than any other comparably early literature. I have done a little by way of comparison, using the Brihadarannyaka as the nearest point of contrast. And the difference is astounding. The Brihadarannyaka never lets you forget what it is: a compilation of various texts by various people on various topics, with little more than a vague philosophical theme to unify it.

      In the early Buddhist texts, the unity is so strong that, as you say, variations stand out like sore thumbs.

      One aspect that I believe has not received enough attention is the, for want of a better word, “fractal” nature of the early texts. If you look at, say, the repetitions, you find them at the level of the word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, the passage, and the whole text. At every scale, the same principle is at work. To me, this is such a strong indication of an organic growth, not an artificial re-composition.

  12. Bhante, I still prefer the corrected long chronology for two reasons. Both swetambara and digambara Jain traditions are unanimous in giving the interval between Mahavira and Bhadrabahu(contemporary of Chandragupta Maurya) to be about 160 years. Next there is the reference, if I remember correctly from a sammitiya source, that 167 years after nibbana arose the 5 points controversy during the reign of Nandas and 33 years later(200 after nibbana) Vatsiputra propounded puggalavada. This would make Moggaliputta and Vatsiputra elder contemporaries of Asoka as you yourself suggest. Nandas also occupy the right place as per the corrected long chronology. How are these explained away by the median chronology which is based on possibly incomplete vinayadhara succession? Also, I found Taranatha’s text specifically mention the confusion among schools on the interval between Buddha and Asoka which seems to reinforce the 218 year gap..

    • Hi Ravi,

      These are good points, I should go back and look at the argument for the median chronology once more. But my initial response to the dates you mention are that: 1) the Jaina sources are maybe a thousand years later; 2) the Puggalavada sourse is in Bhavya, also about a thousand years later; 3) Taranatha is of course even later. Still, this does not mean we should discard their dates, but it does suggest why the English scholars give precedent to the much earlier Sinhalese tradition.

      You can read the account by Bhavya here.

    • Dear Bhante,
      Thanks for the link to Bhavya and your quick reply. I also found that Bhavya’s opinion is repeated by two later tibetan sources as well.Here is the link to the article.


      (I had mis-typed the years as 167 & 33 instead of 137 & 63, in my earlier post.)

      Of course, it doesn’t matter if Buddha lived in BC 400 or BCE 400 but I am always fascinated by the jig saw puzzle that is history….

      Please do let me know where I can find arguments for the median chronology. I have read Rhys davids-gombrich arguments based on the acariya parampara of dipavamsa and I am not really convinced..

      Independently, the Cantonese dotted record would have no value but together with the jain, Bhavya and Sinhalese evidence(218 years gap as per mahavamsa) and taranatha’s references, I would say it all adds up to about BC 483 being Buddha’s nibbana date…
      But I guess this is a big and possible unwanted digression while investigating the authenticity of the pali canon. Apologies for that!

    • Hi, yes the Gombrich paper is the basic argument.

      The relevance for our project is that if we adopt the median chronology the period between the Buddha and the Mauryans shrinks drastically. This means that anything pre-Mauryan can be no more than a couple of generations after the Buddha.

  13. Venerable, thanks for raising the most interesting questions once again — here’s my take on it, for what it is worth — when I started my ‘spiritual journey’, ( mid to late 80s) ‘orthodoxy’ was very important to me, and I sought out the guidance of very experienced monks only, and rejected all else. But regarding authenticity of texts — as long as I saw the teachings therein could be incorporated into a genuine practice, as sanctioned by the monks I respected, and as long as it had been given the ‘stamp of approval’ by Sangha teachers I respected a lot — that was enough for me to take it seriously.

    Secondly, the texts have to resonate ‘instinctively’ and on a ‘deep level’ for me — that is also more important than verifying who actually said them ( or didn’t say them), many centuries ago.

    I think humans are endlessly creative and inventive, and will weave meaning out of the most basic of sources if there is a powerful cultural, personal, spiritual or aesthetic need, longing and yearning to do so — to choose a ‘non Buddhist’ example, look at the Abrahamic faiths — some of their verses from their Holy Texts are quite basic, but centuries of commentary will extricate quite beautiful meanings from the basic words, and the centuries of commentary from Imams and scholars can reach towards profound and very transcendent wisdom, extracted from rudimentary ‘hints’ within the texts — for example, look at the extraordinary wisdom of the Persian Muslim scholars, who have taken the most fundamental words from the Holy Books, and produced texts that would rival the greatest insights of the Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Chinese or Indian Buddhist scholars.( See the works of English Imam Martin Lings and Iranian scholar, Syed Hosein Nasr, and scholar Anne Marie Schimmel for exhaustive studies of the heights of Islamic mysticism) The same could be said of the Christians, where basic , rudimentary texts will be studied to extraordinary heights, as can be seen in the works of Angelus Silesius.


    So, my perspective is ( for what it is worth, regarding Buddhism and all spiritual schools ) I am more interested in what people actually do with the texts, rather than worry about whether a real historical person actually said them or not.

    An example is the Saddhatissa translation of The Sutta Nipata – I seem to remember in the late 80s and early 90s, that a lot of Pali scholars and monks were not at all happy with the text – they said it had been ‘fancifully translated’, even falsely so at points, and it was said that key Pali terms had been wrongly rendered in English to appeal to a new audience.

    I don’t know if the book is badly translated – but I do know that it had an enormous effect on me, and transformed my understanding of life.

    That is enough for me.

    Thanks Venerable Sujato — great topic.

    • What an unfortunate way of viewing holy books, as though the origin of spirituality is somehow primitive, inferior, debased, but through centuries of commentary, meaning and beauty was finally extracted from it. This statement shows a great ignorance of how religion develops out of spirituality, not the opposite. This is certainly not the Buddhist view.

  14. Dear Venerable,
    I read all your posts with great interest, although I usually have nothing to add so I remain silent. But while I was reading this one I related the problem at hand with a similar situation in another context. Maybe what follows is useless and out of context, or maybe it may help the debate.

    I work on computer sciences and lately I have been working on a subject called AAA (Triple A), which stands for Authentication, Authorization and Accounting. I will go through the Authentication term, explaining what it means on IT, and how I related it to the subject of your post.

    Authentication. When two systems (A and B) communicate through messages the destination system (B) must be able to evaluate that messages came from the originating system (A), and that they were not tampered in the pipeline. A method to do this evaluation must be agreed by both systems before any message go through the pipeline, and system B must be able to implement such method to validate that the message was created by system A. The usual way to do so is by adding a token to the message, this token is usually ciphered in a way that only systems how know the authentication method will be able to interpret. When the destination system is not able to do this evaluation itself, it will need to rely on a third system to validate this authenticity. This third system is called Authentication Authority.

    I equated each Sutta with a message, each of us as system B, the Buddha as system A, and scholars as Authentication Authorities.

    Some questions pop in my mind: How can I (system B) identify that one Sutta (message) is authentic, and originated on the Buddha (system A)? Is there any method agreed between A and B? Can I apply such method?

    As far as I know the only method expressed by the Buddha is, even for scholars, based on heuristics. If one single message is not line with the rest of the messages, then its authenticity is questionable. “In line” is an evaluation performed in several axis, like chronological sequence, content, style, existence in different locations/traditions, etc. This heuristic method implies that system B has a minimal amount of knowledge on the universe all the Suttas, otherwise system B won’t be able to determine if one Sutta is in line with the typical Sutta; because most readers don’t have such extensive knowledge knowledgeable scholars is granted authority to establish Sutta’s authenticity.

    Again, as far as I know, this is the best method we have. Meaning that system B must accept this non-optimal, not deterministic, method to establish authenticity. If system B does not accept this method, then the communication is not authentic and system B can refuse all messages (a person how is not a Buddhist). If system B accepts this method it can read messages and use them internally, but it has to acknowledge the limitations of an heuristic method.


    • That’s very interesting and clear, thanks so much. I will have to think some more how it applies, but it definitely is relevant. It has often struck me how the Early Buddhist texts use methods in common with digital information techniques, for example, lots of backups, standardized language, compressability. The medium has changed, but the methods for accurate information transmission and storage still share much in common.

  15. I am happy to hear of your project, for reasons that, I think, are important in the suttas themselves. I am moved by the description of how people come to the Dharma:
    ‘A Tathagata arises in the world. He teaches the Truth that is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end, both in its spirit and in its letter. He makes clear the spiritual life in all its perfection. A householder gains faith in the Tathagata [and] reflects: ‘Living in a house is restricted and cluttered, going forth is a life wide open.’
    ‘Secular Buddhist’ approaches validate practice with reference to its efficacy in personal experience. But all the major Buddhist traditions add to this that the perspective of a Buddha offers something that one cannot grasp through personal experience. That’s why saddha is so important.
    To approach the suttas in this way is to seek to open oneself to their influence and also to establish a certain sort of personal relationship with the voice that runs through them, and therefore with the speaker. That’s what I feel about the Buddha of the canon, though I feel it unevenly as I read the suttas. I am grateful for the guidance I have already received in locating the earliest strata of those texts because it helps me identify and hear that voice more clearly, as well as sensing how the teachings developed over time.

  16. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    You have mentioned (in at least one talk December 2003) that there is some disagreement between various early schools as to the first sutta recited at the Second Council, namely Brahmajāla (DN 1) or Dhammacakkappavattana (SN 56.11) suttas. I have experienced bewildering conversations with students of Asanga, Yogacara, Tibetan schools as to anatta. I must admit I have doubt as to the authenticity of Brahmajāla; Its inclusion as the first sutta of the digha could very well represent a controversial assertion of the Theravada (or its ancestors).

    I would therefore like to see side-by-side comparison of the Pali and BH Sanskrit of DN 1 and SN 56.11. Perhaps even translations of or the original Chinese.

    Furthermore, the Mahā parinibbāna (DN 16) seems at best an agglomeration of different suttas but at worst.. well certain sections appear to be worse. I would therefore like to see a thorough comparison of this sutta compared with that of other schools.

    Sincerely yours,

    • Hi Alex,

      Yes, although it’s the first council that has the diasgreements. The basic situation is that all the school record that the Suttas and the Vinaya were recited (half add the Abhidhamma). While they are all obviously referring to the Early Buddhist Texts in one form or another, they describe the collection in accord with their own canon; the Theravadins saying that the Brahmajala was first, the Sarvastivadins saying the Dhammacakka was first, and so on. This doesn’t imply a difference in content, or that the schools were deliberately falsifying the record. They simply assumed that the canon they had was the correct one and this must have been recited.

      I suspect the mention of the Brahmajala and Samannaphala in the Theravada is related to the Third Council, which mentions the 62 views explicitly; this would imply that the Theravadin version of the First Council was altered around the Third Council; but once again, this doesn’t imply that there was a change in substance, merely in organization.

      I would therefore like to see side-by-side comparison of the Pali and BH Sanskrit of DN 1 and SN 56.11. Perhaps even translations of or the original Chinese.


      As for the Mahaparibbana sutta, there are various studies, but I’m not aware of a comprehensive one. There is a lot of material to cover. Here, however, is an analytic study of at least the Pali version:

      You’re welcome!

  17. Eager to see this project take shape, this is an ongoing challenge to all of us with a practice informed by the Pali canon. We may never know “for sure”, but it’s nice to see some applied reason to this effort.

  18. Bhante, I wonder if you might be willing to be interviewed about the project for The Secular Buddhist podcast? I’ve admired your scholarship for years — A History of Mindfulness is a favorite! — and your kindness has always been very inspiring throughout some of the very challenging topics you’ve addressed here. You can email me if this is something you’d like to talk about more, thank you for your consideration.

  19. Sujato
    Having struggled to read some of your past works due to a difficult wordiness, I would suggest that you either enrole in an Arts degree and thus get used to having to live with a WORD COUNT LIMIT or set one on yourself. That way you don’t drown us in words, be emphatically more concise and easier on your readers.
    Your opinions are interesting….but dude you drown in words.

  20. All evidence aside; that the buddha suffered from back pain and died from messy food poisoning is already a reason to have faith in these texts. Because in our simple minds that is not how heroes should die. That is not something that people who are propagating a teaching of faith would make up. If they were forging a teacher and his teachings you would probably end up with some heroic death on a cross.

    • Yes, that’s a good point: we mention the back pain, but food poisoning is another one.

      Many elements of the Buddha’s life are similar to events in the classic Hero Cycle, which doesn’t mean they didn’t happen (because many things that a great person accomplishes are, in fact, depicted in that story) but at least it should make us question whether what is depicted is fact or imagination.

      I’m trying to think of a case where a hero dies of food poisoning: Hercules died of poison, although it wasn’t food. Medea killed several people with poison, in fact. Mythically, however, poison is the weapon of choice for women, and the Buddha’s last meal was served by a man. And, of course, it was an accident, which is much less dramatic.

    • It is not just in the poisoning but also in the realistic unglorified description: the blessed one suffered from acute bloody diarrhea.

    • Yes, that’s a good point; actually, there was a medical analysis of this account by Mettanando a few years ago. As a doctor by training, he showed that the symptoms and course of the disease well fitted an actual illness, acute mesenteric infarction. Not a death anyone would imagine for their religious leader…

    • What about this episode from the Ariyapariyesana Sutta:

      When this was said, Upaka said, ‘May it be so, my friend,’ and — shaking his head, taking a side-road — he left.

      This seems almost embarrassing and could easily have been left out. The Buddha seems to be regarded as a nut by the ofcourse deeply mistaken Upaka in this incident. Schumann also notes this as a quality of authenticity in his historical Buddha biography.

    • Yes, it does have a realistic air too it, although there is a problem with this episode considered as history. The name of the wanderer, Upaka, can be read as meaning “Nearly there”, or “Close but not quite”, and hence could be simply invented for the story. If I remember right, he might have different names in other versions, I will have to check. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning.

    • I read them many years ago, too many to be able to recall them in any detail.

      Of course, the crucial aspect of his interpretation was his reading of dependent origination, which is clearly wrong. He insisted that DO was, not merely one lifetime, but was literally “timeless” in the sense of being a structural analysis of experience at any one moment, rather than an unfolding over time; a vertical rather than horizontal causality. In this, his interpretation is completely different and incompatible with the other famous one-life interpretation, that of Buddhadasa, for whom DO unfolded over a short period of time, a few seconds or minutes.

      But DO is obviously meant to apply to a process unfolding over time, to “birth, ageing, and death”. To make his reading have even a semblance of plausibility he had to insist on a number of non-standard readings and interpretations. In the seventies Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote an essay showing how Nyanavira’s special interpretations were untenable.

    • “DO is obviously meant to apply to a process unfolding over time, to “birth, ageing, and death”. Yes & no. The process of becoming & (mental) birth, i.e., manifesting identity, occurs over time. But once birth (the solidification of identity) occurs, the suffering due to aging & death happens in a mind moment. The mind has established identity based on one or more of the five aggregates. As soon as those aggregates change, i.e., experience aging & death, dukkha immediately occurs. Thus it only takes an occurance of sense contact for aging–death-dukka to occur. For example, you are phoned & advised your mother has died & you immediately cry. This is all the time it takes for aging-death-sorrow-lamentation-etc to occur. I would suggest reading the Nakulapita Sutta.

  21. Hi

    Just checked out the Santi website. Was quite surprised to find the the nuns are having to take cold showers due to lack of funds for hot water?

    With all this talk of environmental concerns, is Santi Monestry not set up with solar powered electricity, even if just for times when money is short – or at least some support for these costs?


    • No, I think it’s just a practice!

      Santi does indeed have solar, although not enough to supply all needs. The hot water comes from a sophisticated system, which relies on solar, then the wood fireplace in the house, and finally gas if these are inadequate. The energy costs are low, and the main building is warm!

    • Dear Sister Dhee,

      That would be a pity and I do not know if this is true or why that would be, but your comment prompted these reflections, be they related or unrelated.

      Some practitioners still believe that a large table can stand on three legs. Because that is what they have seen and that is what they know. They have not known or experienced the solidity of a table with four strong legs.

      If I may, I would like to share what it was like when, in October 2011, I took the 14 Mindfulness Trainings with Thich Nhat Hanh and his community. There were about 20 of us in the centre of the hall. On our left we were flanked by about 100 ordained lay women. On our right, we were flanked by about 100 ordained lay men. At the front of the hall, on the left, were at least 30 Bhikkhunis, facing at least 30 Bhikkhus, on the right, and Thay, with the Bhikkhus.

      It is almost impossible to put into words, but I try: the experience of completeness, the feeling of harmony, balance, superficially, profoundly, energetically and karmically, the full expression of human potential, the feeling of a gentle but powerful and empowered human family, and most of all, the full dispensation and honouring of the Blessed One and his heritage, his intentions for us. In that togetherness, there was a wholeness, an unbrokenness, an undividedness, a solidity that has to be experienced, and it is so worth working towards, regardless of how long it takes, how hard we have to work, how many wounded friends, conversations, ways of living, being speaking sharing interacting, working, walking, waking – we have to heal, how many sacrifices, how many ups and downs, it doesn’t matter. It is so worth it. It is what the Blessed One taught and wished for us, it is right, it is true, and I wish for everybody to experience it even just once in his or her lifetime.

      Sometimes I feel we (practitioners; and the world) are clinging to that last leg, it’s all ready to finally fix properly onto the table, but perhaps we feel, if it is finally fixed, then I will have no more excuses, no more drama, no more reasons to argue or to suffer or to perpetuate these wounds and these wounding habits, we will have no more excuses not to do what is to be done.

      So we try to keep that last leg hidden, or we keep it from being polished, or we keep the tools and the toolbox closed and locked, or we chase away the skilled and courageous carpenter when he comes and says, here, you’ve been struggling with that for 10,000 years, let me help you with it.

      For what then, when we all got a taste of that incredible solidity, what then…that would mean this is all real, the Buddha wasn’t joking when he said it’s possible, it can be done…what then…what then…what then…

    • Yes, very true: in fact he said that it was completely obvious to anyone who read even a little of the Pali canon that the Buddha did teach rebirth. He just said that this was not connected with dependent origination. This is another difference between him and Ajahn Buddhadasa; it is still not clear to me whether he actually believed in rebirth or not.

  22. Dear Bhante,

    Was thinking about how the initial transmission of the pitaka was an oral transmission which got specialised into digha bhanakas, Majjhima bhanakas etc. While it is extremely useful to compare the tipitaka of different schools, has any comparison been made among the doctrines of one nikaya/agama with another? Accretions/interpolations could have happened,in say the Majjhima school and not in the samyutta…

    An additional tool could be using the Kathavatthu(while disregarding its commentary). I got this from reading some works of David Kalupahana. Clearly for example, Kathavatthu is against offerings for the departed, maintains that form(rupa) ,salayatana, earth,voice etc are not kamma vipaka which seem to be contradicted by certain suttas(saddha janussoni, cula kammavibhanga etc). So it could be that those suttas are late additions… Are these points of doctrine treated uniformly in all the nikayas and also all schools?

    Also, i am sure you would have read it already , but I just loved the point raised in the Kathvatthu that buddhism was ‘made new’ in the councils and the fine rebuttal that follows. Basically it says that all the essential points of doctrine like the four satipatthanas and the seven bojjhangas have not been changed..

    Eagerly awaiting to hear more of the authenticity project!

    • Hi Ravi,

      This is a good point, as the essential problem is not the existence of separate schools as such, but of separate lines of transmission. It is easy to imagine that the various bhanakas, often in different monasteries, following different teachers, would evolve different doctrines in part. There has been some work done on comparing the teachings between Nikayas/Agamas. For example, there is no full 12-factored version of dependent origination in the Digha Nikaya. Some scholars have used this to argue that dependent origination evolves, or that there was a disagreement among the early Sangha. I don’t find these arguments compelling, for a variety of reasons I will not go into here. In general, there seems to be a slight difference in perspective and emphasis between the Nikayas/Agamas, but few if any doctrinal differences. Bhikkhu Bodhi has discussed these differing orientations in his introduction to the Majjhima Nikaya, if my memory serves me well. Actually, this congruence between the Nikayas should be mentioned in the Authenticity Project!

      The Kathavatthu is extremely useful in this regard. Basically, it is full of disagreements about the interpretation of the Suttas, while there is agreement on the content of the Suttas, an agreement that is even more powerful for being unspoken.

      I’m giving a presentation on the Authenticity Project this evening for the Australian Association of Buddhist Studies. Hopefully we’ll get some good feedback.

  23. Dear Bhante,

    I was not sure where else to post this but A.K. Warder passed away on Feb. 15, in Toronto. I happened to find out a few days ago. May we send him loving kindness and support on his journey and hope he turns up again soon to continue Pali scholarship… 🙂

    On that note I have always been curious as to how monstics study Pali. Having taken the intensive course with Professor Gombrich last summer, I realsed how important it is to understand the language of the texts and how differently one translator can interpret from the next.

    I also notice how some individuals can be revered for all the translation work they have done, and I am so grateful so much is available to us in English, yet those same translations may not be of such good quality. (At what point do we start to say that affects authenticity?)

    Although we can let some of it go, imagine the multiplication of errors over time, across so many languages, continents and centuries and it becomes difficult to fathom how the content of texts from Sri Lanka and China spanning millenia manage to be in as much concordance as they are.

    For this, we have our scholars to help navigate us through, thankfully, but only if their work is continued, and it meets the work of monastics and practitioners as you are doing…

    Heartfelt thanks for your wonderful projects.


    • Hi Lisa,

      I heard of Professor Warder’s passing. A great loss to all of us who care about what the Buddha taught. I remember about ten years ago speaking with Prof Dhammavihari, another luminary of Buddhist studies now sadly departed. He had recently visited Prof Warder in his home. Even though he was retired, of advanced years, he answered the door with a big Sanskrit tome in his hand! He just couldn’t bring himself to put it down.

      Translation is a critical issue. We must, must, must always do what the Buddha said: teach and study the Dhamma in our own language, not insisting on local usage. But the Pali remains as an anchor. I am working on ways to integrate these two aspects online.

  24. I would suggest interpretation & comprehension take priority over claims to authenticity. What is the point, for example, to agree on the authenticity of Paticcasummuppada, if it is not interpreted/comprehended in a way that results in liberation? Take Ajahn Brahmali’s commentary to AN 8.83 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Both the translation & commentary are incorrect. Although the Pali is authentic, the translation & commentary are not necessarily so. This is because the interpretation & comprehension are incorrect.

    • We are not trying to make any claims about how important authenticity is relative to anything else. We are merely saying that it has some importance to some people, and therefore should be looked at carefully.

      We will always disagree about interpretation. But what is important is to understand how the means we use for understanding Dhamma lead us to the goal of understanding.

  25. I personally find the suttas translations from Pali to English in access to insight good enough for our understanding & practice as they are believed to be direct translation of utterances of Buddha & his disciples & the best part is that they preserved the originality & manner of those utterances of 2600 years ago & unadulterated in its simplicity not in fancy English & by this it is enough to prove its authenticity. To prove something more authentic than what is already regarded by most theravadas as the original text would create more distortions & arguments and more dissension. Don’t understand why the need to prove further. What’s the purpose or intention? Equanimity to all.

    • Sadhu!

      Some like to prove it, without trying it. We could even call that mainstream 🙂
      How ever, maybe it’s a good alternative practice to train mindfulness and concentration, even the object is a worldly and with it not samma yet. What would we do if things are done. Actually we fear such terrible and so there must be an alternative way. We hope and so we try.
      No actually its good and great to have such works as long as it is leaded by somebody who has the qualification to lead and guide.


  26. Here is a brain teaser for people (Bhante – maybe you could have a section for buddhist philosophy questions ??) There is the well known chant “i am heir to my kamma etc – But because of the anatta-lakkhana sutta, are we really ? The anatta-lakkhana sutta says we have no control of the sankharas
    because they are impermanent and liable to sickness……

    • If you dump pollution in a stream, it messes up everything downstream, and that’s precisely why you can’t control it. Under a “self” theory, you should have dominion over your self, otherwise what is it? But we can’t simply say, “Kamma be gone!” and have it disappear. The choices you make determine the quality of the “stream of consciousness”, and that will all be experienced “downstream”.

      Hope that helps.

  27. The Pali texts have been studied for a hundred years. I also heard a right-wing German Vajrayana Buddhist (ex-NKT) claim that the Pali Canon is an Occidental invention. I think the Thais and Burmese would be amused to hear this. He referred me to an article that he claimed proved this, but wanted $35 for the article. I find the suggestion that the Pali Canon is anything other than what it purports to be utterly ridiculous. No Western scholar of whom I am aware has ever even hinted at such a view. I assume the view is based on the lateness of the surviving mss., but this is a common problem in any study of ancient literatures and proves nothing. Similar claims were made about Gnostic texts, until they were proved to be contemporaneous with the most ancient Christian literatures.

    • Hi Alexander,

      The view you speak of is probably a dumbed down version of the sceptical ideology that has dominated American Buddhist studies for the past decade. The basic strategy is to demand evidence that you know doesn’t exist (such as old manuscripts), and then claim that their absence proves that the canon is a recent invention.

      The particular strand that possibly inspired your ex-NKT friend may have been one of several articles that discuss the role of the canon in pre-modern Buddhism; see, eg. Collins’ “On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon“. Early western scholars did some surveys of various monasteries and found that the Pali canon was usually not there, or was partial, and in any case largely unread. This is, of course, no surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with Theravada Buddhism as actually practiced, but was a much-needed reminder to academics that the texts they are studying are not necessarily what is considered “Buddhism” by traditional Buddhists.

      This reshaping of how the Pali canon has merit in its context, but it has nothing to do with the question of whether these texts hark back to what the Buddha taught in a meaningful historical sense. It is more about the role that the canon plays as authority within the culture of Theravada. It is very apparent that the Pali Canon (or the canons of other schools) is much less present in the community than is, say, the Bible. A large part of that is simply down to size: you can’t put the Tipitaka in your pocket! So inevitably communities use selections and later summaries, rather than the unwieldy canonical collections. In this sense, the canons, while powerful as ideas, play a very limited practical role.

  28. This is a great initiative and Sadhu X 3 to you Bhante. This Authencity Project is reminiscent of the life-long effort of the great contemporary Chinese Mahayana teaher, the late Ven. Master Yin Shun from Taiwan, who dedicated his entire life to writings and research into the Chinese Mahayana text with the objective of helping Buddhist practitioners discern what the Buddha did really teach as opposed to what are cultural, social and political infiltration and contamination so commonly found in the Chinese Mahayana suttas. Unfortunately, very few of Ven. Master Yin Shun’s work have been translated into English.

  29. I am not sure, but when I call the teachers of both in mind, I would rather call it not much faith and a kind of “mutiny of the occupiers” in what is going on here around this group.

    The more I read this blog and get the work known here I really doubt if people here have even the basic saddha in what is taught and delivered and simply seek for justifications for they unrighteous ways. I “could” be very wrong in my “assuming” but there is actually less space to see it otherwise.

    So I guess I am out of here and may you find the way to real peace and happiness for your self with ease.

    Slaves serve Slaves and in return and its very seldom that some would have the faith to walk the actually simple, given and long lasting delivered path out.

    I am sure that many here will have a share of a historical change in the tradition and you can guess your self what this change will be. Long will they talk and tell about this group and I am sure it will be mentioned in the next edition of the suttas a mass of years away, if you know what I mean.


  30. Could authenticity be about whether there is any benefit to the practitioner with regards to the applied practice that brings about an unmistakable experience, and subsequently intimate insight? There comes a point whereby the practitioner will him/herself know the true authenticity of the practice directly, beyond words.

    Translations and language will definitely change, but they just point to that which is ‘unchangeable’ or ‘unconditioned’. Over grasping to the idea of authenticity perhaps may be due to the building up and investing of the self on ‘my’ intellect. Pointers are just pointers, and we should not mistake descriptors for that which is being described(paradoxically indescribable). Perhaps what needs to be authentic is the practitioner, an authentic investigation into the ‘self’. For most of the texts, the fundamental points and practices are definitely there, so splitting hairs about whether one is more authentic than the other is like arguing whether this particular set of words is better and more effective that another set of words to describe that same thing..Once you get the idea, forget the words? Once the message is ‘got’, put down the phone? =D

    The focus perhaps in the current culture of ‘Buddhism’ may need to be turned towards authenticity of practice, rather than authenticity of texts.

    • Hi Jimmy,

      Obviously the practice is the most important thing. This is, surely, so basic that it does not need to be spelled out every time. And the practice, that is, the eightfold path, starts with right view. Right view, in this preliminary sense, is not about any special insight into the Dhamma, it is about learning, listening, reflecting, and discussing the teachings. Insight in the higher sense is beyond this, not beneath it.

      If we imagine that we can just go away and meditate and all our questions will be answered, we are committing the fallacy that Ken Wilber calls “elevationism”. Any preliminary development gets disparaged and sidelined, and the practitioner just goes for the high stuff.

      This distortion of the path is absolutely pervasive in contemporary Buddhism. Indeed, I would say that if we want to make one change to contemporary practice that will have the greatest possible effect, it would be to encourage the solid grounding of all practitioners in right view, as taught by the Buddha, as a basis for ethics and meditation. Otherwise it goes all kinds of sideways.

      Once you get used to the tortured language of the elevationists, something becomes remarkably clear: the Buddha never does this. There is not one single instance in the Early Buddhist Texts where someone approaches the Buddha with a question, and he says, “You think too much”, or “Just go and sit and let go of doubts”, or they complain about a problem in the community and he says “It’s bad kamma to be critical”, or any of the many and florid forms of Dhamma bullshit that, it would often seem, have become the mainstay of whole traditions these days.

      No: the Buddha always kindly, compassionately, and reasonably addressed the issue directly before him. If there is a problem with understanding the Dhamma, this is addressed by learning, asking questions, reflecting, and discussing. Not by going away and sitting and meditating the problem away. A tip for practitioners: if a teacher says this, consider the heretical possibility that they don’t know the answer but are too conceited to admit it.

    • Greetings Bhante,

      The definition of practice perhaps is the combination and coming together of meditation + Sutta study, rather than practice being meditation alone.

      In the observations gathered over the years, I agree that in some situations there has been too much emphasis on meditation being the panacea for ignorance. Having met people that have embedded their sense of self into how long or well they can meditate has made me reflect on it with regards to the journey.

      Agree that meditation is not the only way, and that it is only part of the equation, a ‘tool’ perhaps that promotes clarity of the mental faculty, and at the same time provides sense data(varying through individuals) that help to shatter/challenge the rigid grasping onto the idea of self embedded within the 5 aggregates. The flipside to that is that I have met many people too that approach the Suttas without sufficient clarity of mind which is gained from meditation, therefore when they approach the Suttas or abide in the company of the noble ones, the teachings may not have a chance to sink in yet, and they get sidetracked by other mystical descriptions that occupy their minds, blinding them to the fundamental teachings. Bear in mind this is not a judgement but one of a continued observation.

      And yes the basic fundamentals of right view definitely needs to be ingrained, and that it’s the leader in terms of where the practice will go from there. In a way that will set the subsequent 7 other right factors in place and create a ‘feedback loop’.

      I have been in a place where I had questions with regards to meditation and the Suttas but have been told in a dismissive way to just not bother with them and just meditate. That definitely spurred me on to delve deeper in to the Sutta studies myself, and I definitely do not believe in the dismissive approach.

      To end off, perhaps the authenticity of practice that I am interested in discussing is the middle approach that balances out meditation and Sutta studies. In fact I do think that the basic fundamentals of practice need to be clearly laid out to prevent people from swaying too much to either side. Somewhat akin to building a good solid foundation for a brickhouse.

      As for your initial question as to whether the authenticity of texts really matter, I would say yes to the extent that it provides the basic fundamental knowledge that sets up right view with regards to the path of practice (meditation + Sutta study/knowledge) so as to enable authentic seekers to find their own insights in relation to the texts, and verify the authenticity for themselves. Returning to the basics is definitely an important message.

      It’s like someone that has tasted a mango has no doubt about the taste of it, he gives it the label ‘sweet’ and using words to describe as best what sweet is and is not, he sets forth a manual on how to find, prepare, and eat a mango. Subsequently, two people come about and find the text, one follows it and manages to eats the mango and verifies the authenticity of the manual in relation to it’s sweetness, the other just sits and ponders about whether the manual is lying to him or not, and doesn’t even take the first step to put it into practice. The one who has eaten the fruit will find it to be authentic, the one who hasn’t will never know what authenticity is as he has no reference point.

      Also, I would love to be able to connect through email with you Bhante as I have questions with regards to ordination and the current Buddhist climate.


      Miles of smiles,

    • Dear Bhante,

      “The Buddha was always kindly, compassionately, and reasonably addressed the issue directly before him.”

      During the past several weeks, Thai people have been depressed or dispirited about a series of news of bad monks in Thailand (the latest is jet setter Nen Kham’s fathering a child 11 years ago with a 14-year-old girl while in robes, apart from owning incredible lots of assets, which are being investigated for possible money-laundry).

      We do have news of bad men in robes from time to time, but it seems last June is the worst.

      I know this issue is irrelevant to the topic here, but reading that you said the Buddha

      “never said, ‘It’s bad kamma to be critical’, or any of the many and florid forms of Dhamma bullshit that, it would often seem, have become the mainstay of whole traditions these days when laypeople complained about a problem in the community.”,

      I wonder if it is possible for you to start a new post on the role of laypeople regarding the bad behavior of monks and that of monks regarding problems in the community.

      With great respect,


    • Excellent idea, I will think about this.

      It is terrifying to hear of this kind of predatory pedophile in robes. It is a problem I have been made aware of for several years now. We have done what we can in Australia: I have addressed the Australian Sangha Association on this topic every year, when I can, and we posted an extensive discussion on our website. In addition, we have reported monks suspected of pedophilia to the Australian and US authorities. But in some countries, I fear, the problem is much worse.

    • Dheerayupa,

      Don’t worry it will be even worse soon, so a good time to learn the benefit of becoming dis-attached. I am pretty sure that meditation on the unattractive is one of the most practiced meditations of today and we have so many samples and object. So as long there are no corps and cemeteries next to it, use it to develop a nimitta.

      You will not find authenticates in robes easy and as this main body of transferring the Dhamma has already nearly left, we just focus on collecting some papers. Maybe later on, there will be a generation which is not totally fallen into the animal realm.

      You have a whole blog here for bad behavior of Monks and plenty of samples, but don’t think that you will find a monk who seeks for the guardian in the Vinaya. If a monk today is reading the Vinaya, he does it like laypeople read laws. He/she just looks how to justify bad behavior and seeks for higher reasons in the scripts.

      So there will be not much as to secure one of the last manipulated copies of Vinaya and just train your self according to it. It’s actually pretty enough if you would know for your self, what is not good for you and in regard to a question like “should laypeople make criticism on monks behavior” there might be a useful story. It’s not always that it is others bad behavior, but often the effect of our own bad actions: Issa – Abhidhamma In Daily Life By Ashin Janakabhivamsa

    • Dear Bhante,

      I’m embarrassed to report that the girl’s family, including her grandma, knew about and condoned this as they have been well provided for by the man.

    • Dhammapada I.9-10:

      9. Whoever being depraved, devoid of self-control and truthfulness, should don the monk’s yellow robe, he surely is not worthy of the robe.

      10. But whoever is purged of depravity, well-established in virtues and filled with self-control and truthfulness, he indeed is worthy of the yellow robe.

      As I understand it, this monk was no longer a monk from the moment the act was committed, even if he does not acknowledge it and continues to wear robes.

    • Absolutely. The only question that remains is whether the Sangha will continue to tolerate him, or will cast him out, “like the ocean casts out a corpse”, to quote the Buddha.

    • Brc,

      nevertheless, it is good that Vinaya is not based on the foundation of retaliation justice. It is good if you try to help them, but you can not change them as you wish. Heedless is heedless. You need to find the right moment to get there proper attention. Till then, do not worry to much and think: “If they would know it, they would not do it.” and let go.
      Estimate how much work for uncountable eons you would have to spend to be able to put all a little on a better way. You will for sure give up soon, and that is all it is about. Let go.

      If the monks would not spend and preach closely connected companionship with laypeople, they would not need to play judge on other monks.

      Lay folk, learn about Vinaya and you will neither meet fakes nor come in conflict with fakes deeds and there usual problems.

      There are even monks who make a livelihood out of incriminate others playing “police” rather than to sweep their Vinaya a little.

  31. A comparison between Nikayas and Agamas, can demonstrate what are the early Buddhist texts.

    An interesting source, I found, is the testimony of Kumarila Bhatta (founder of the school Vedic Mimamsa). He lived in the seventh and eighth centuries CE, and studied Buddhism, probably in Nalanda and other centers of his time. Kumarila argued that the Vedas were more “reliable” and “accurate” in his spiritual terminology, because they were written in Sanskrit. But Jainism and Buddhism had their original scriptures in prakrit dialects.

    “With the aim to prove the superiority of Vedic scripture, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa presented several novel arguments:

    1. “Buddhist (or Jain) scripture could not be correct because it had several grammatical lapses.” He specifically takes the Buddhist verse: ime samkhada dhamma sambhavanti sakarana akarana vinassanti (These phenomena arise when the cause is present and perish when the cause is absent). Thus he presents his argument:

    The scriptures of Buddhists and Jains are composed in overwhelmingly incorrect (asadhu) language, words of the Magadha or Dakshinatya languages, or even their dialects (tadopabhramsa). Therefore false compositions (asannibandhana), they cannot possibly be true knowledge (shastra) … By contrast, the very form itself (the well-assembled language) of the Veda proves its authority to be independent and absolute.”

    Regardless of our modern speculations, someone who studied Buddhism in the eighth century CE, in the best Buddhist schools of his time, is telling us that there they taught, the oldest Buddhist scriptures were not written in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit! This is one more argument in favor of the Pali Canon. In my view, the Mahayana scriptures, written in Sanskrit Buddhist Hybrid postdate the Nikayas. Were written in Gandhara and even suffered influence of Persian thought and Chinese.
    The Chinese thought, typically poetic and subtle, as found in the Dao De Ching. Confucius and in his poetry, is similar to some aspects of the Prajnaparamita literature.The literary form of the Pali canon and the Agamas is more primitive. Already the Mahayana sutras is more poetic, symbolic and metaphysical.

  32. Another interesting source I found, are two articles in Spanish, written by Buddhist scholars Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti: “El conflicto del cambio en el Sutra del Loto: La reacción Hinayanista (The conflict of the change in the Lotus Sutra: The reaction Hinayanist)”.

    “The first part examines the reaction of the adherents of the Hinayana form of Buddhism against the spread of the doctrines of a new form of Buddhism, Mahayana, which appeared later, around the beginning of the Christian era. The study is based on analysis of a series of Sanskrit texts, Pali, Chinese and Tibetan, whose translation is given and that relate to the Buddhist communities in India, Ceylon, Central Asia. The article concludes by pointing out what were the charges that Hinayanists argued against Mahayanists.

    In the second part analyzes the passages of the Lotus Sutra that provide information on the reactions of the Buddhists, who belong to sects that emerged in the centuries following the Buddha’s death, against the doctrines advocated by the Mahayana. The article states that, conflicts and reactions similar to those that occurred between the Hinayana and Mahayana, occurred in the case of many religions (though often with a violence that Buddhism did not know).

    The Sutra says emotions and Hinayanists sentimentos that occurred in the rise of Mahayana and Hinayana the main charges against the Mahayana. It concludes that, with its generous universalist message that all men without exception can become Buddhas Sutra strives to harmonize the various doctrinal positions that were manifested in the course of the long history of Buddhism.”


    Two other interesting books I read are: “Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism”, by Adrian Kuzminski, and, “Indian esoteric Buddhism: a social history of the Tantric movement”, by Ronald M. Davidson.

    In “Pyrrhonism”, we can see that Pyrrhus of Epirus, who accompanied Alexander the Great on his expedition to India (327 BCE) , found Buddhists of his time, and brought to Greece, the philosophy of Emptiness, about 500-600 years before Nagarjuna! The Pyrrhonism, Skepticism, Stoicism, Neoplatonism and other Greek schools, received a strong influence of Buddhist and Hinduism thought.
    The “Questions of King Milinda” of Nagasena also demonstrate that the doctrine of Anatta or empty (Sunyata), it was applied to both people and objects long before the emergence of the Mahayana, which developed the doctrine of the Bodhisattva starting Jatakas and the Tipitaka. Including criticism of Nagarjuna, against the Abhidharma scholars, clearly demonstrates that the Mahayana arose after “Hinayana” Buddhism based on the three baskets.

    • Thanks for these recommendations. The book on Mahayana/Hinayana sounds interesting, alas for my lack of Spanish!

      Regarding the various Greek/Indian interchanges, the best work I’ve read on the subject is Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought. It’s a very detailed, wide-ranging survey, which examines in detail that philosophical and cultural connections between Greece (primarily) and India from before the Buddha until the medieval period. Its main flaw, as with many such works, is that the author is far better acquainted with the European traditions than he is with the Indian. As seems to be almost universal among American academics, he hardly seems to be aware of the existence of the Pali canon. Not that this undermines his arguments: in fact, in many instances the Pali (and other early Buddhist texts) would have given him even stronger support.

  33. In the book, “Indian esoteric Buddhism”, by Ronald M. Davidson, it proves that tantra is a development of Hata Yoga, occurred only during the Indian’s Middle Age. At this time the use of mantras, elaborate rituals, and visualization techniques, using magic to protect kingdoms became the fashion of the time. Not to get lost royal favor, which supported temples, Buddhist monks developed his tantra to compete with rivals yogis Hindus. Tantra starts to be drafted in the later texts of Upanishad. When Xuang Zang, the famous Chinese pilgrim Mahayana, met with South Hinayana monks, he was told that the tantric doctrines taught in Nalanda, were identical those taught by heretics Kapalikas. They were referring to the decay of Nalanda and the left-hand tantra (Vama Marga) as taught by Tibetan School Niyngma. While the Gelug school of Tsong Khapa and other tantric schools of China and Japan taught only the right-hand tantra (Dakshina Marga).

    The point is that even the Dalai Lama, says that according to scholars of the oldest Tibetan School, Gotama the Buddha never taught anything about tantra in life (font: “The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An Overview of Its Philosophy and Practice”, Dalai Lama, Wisdom Publications). And tantra is therefore a late development based on Shivaistic Indian tantra.

    Who wants to read the books “Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism”, by Adrian Kuzminski, and “Indian esoteric Buddhism: a social history of the Tantric movement” by Ronald M. Davidson, I can provide them via email in eBook (. Pdf) at no cost.

    The importance of seeking the original teachings or teachings “authentic” of the Gotama Buddha, lies in the fact that the many layers of translations, and reviews of the reviews may have obscured the original teaching more than explain it. My personal practice and my insights over the years, has led me to confirm this truth. The more we move away from the source of a river is more polluted this. Whereas if returned to its source, we find again in its waters pure. While the awakening, can be understood more easily and we can see more clearly that this is accomplish-able in our lives. And it nearly impossible or far, as “gods” over clouds on a distant world.

    I’m not saying that the path becomes easier, but a misunderstanding of what we accomplish and what is enlightenment, may even discourage us, or lead to false perception that such an achievement is impossible. In thus ruling out the way.

    I met Buddhism, through its Mahayana forms, but with the passage of time, the more I studied and practiced, but I perceived that complicated and elaborate rituals, as well as techniques to visualize as something that you are not in essence or other inventions after the Buddha. Made me lose more time than I sped the way. the path that promised to be as “fast” actually was what made ​​me lose more time with insignificant details, when the essence of the way I was just watching my own mind. Be sincere in your analysis and try to eradicate his faults, addictions, negative habits. ‘Destroy’ your kilesas.

    My surprise to know the suttas delivered by the Buddha himself, is that the path became clearer and simpler, rather than more complicated when I read only the various layers of followup comments. Because each school later, especially Mahayana, they added hundreds of other techniques, interpretative visions, metaphysical systems and classification systems of their own doctrines.

  34. Find interesting and enriching, even for a practicing Theravada, knowing the thought of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu. And I see in Buddhism Chan / Zen precisely an attempt to return to the original Buddhist practice, very similar to Theravada. Emphasizing Samatha and Vipassana meditation, as the original practice of the Buddha, instead of tantric elaborations. Somehow, the Chan / Zen tried this return to the essence of the Buddhist path, through meditation, and the critique of sterile intellectualism that had fallen the Chinese Mahayana. Later, Dogen fed the same critical path in Japan.

    Greetings from Brazil Venerable Sujato, and all buddhist present here from all parts of the world. I hope I have not offended anyone with my personal and historical settings.

    The wheel of the Dharma can be rotated again, in all parts of the world, thus benefiting all those who are fallen beings in samsara! That there is virtue!

  35. Here’s a little chesnut for people – how similar are the traditions of yogis such as ramana
    and other Indian traditions – to buddhist self enquiry – does it some under the gamut of
    “indian” traditions….the examination of the “self” and ego transcendence…..I think there is
    or always was for the committed seeker…..

  36. It was a very old discussion in buddha’s time – the nature of the Self….He often left the question unanswered…in that it was a
    matter of experience…

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