As part of the Authenticity Project, I’ve been going back over the Asokan edicts. Here at the Buddhist Library in Sydney, they have the original publication of the edicts, with pictures, text, translations, and everything: a wonderful old resource, much better than anything available on the web.
I’ve looked into the question of the texts recommended by Ashoka in the Bhabra edict. As is well known, Ashoka recommends a list of texts for the Sangha and lay followers to study. The texts are all obviously part of the early Buddhist canon, yet it is not possible to identify them all easily. This is because the Suttas have never had universal, unique names.
Several attempts to identify them have been made. Probably the best known in Buddhist circles is that of Ven Thanissaro, who did a nice discussion and translation some years ago. As I reviewed them, however, I have become convinced that he is mistaken in his identification of the first of the texts, and that earlier scholars had it right.
The text is the “Vinayasamukase”, which could be rendered the “Extract of Vinaya” or the “Praise of Vinaya”; the root meaning is something like “drawing up”. Thanissaro says that the term vinaya-samukkamsa occurs only once elsewhere in the canon, in the obscure Parivara. With no explanation in the text itself, he relies on the commentary, which identifies these with the “four great standards”, which were laid down originally as a guide to what may be considered as allowable foods in the afternoon. The commentary makes this identification, no doubt, because the following sets of dhamma deal with allowable types of food. But this is a very weak link, as the text in question, the Ekuttarikanayo, is just a list of often unrelated numerical sets; and the term sāmukkaṃsā has nothing to do with the four great standards, a problem that the commentary and sub-commentary address with a convoluted explantion.
Moreover, the text does not even mention the vinaya-sāmukkaṃsā, merely the cattāro sāmukkaṃsā. At least, that is what the VRI text has, perhaps Thanissaro had a different reading. Regardless, one should not rely on such a doubtful text.
It is curious that the term is not further explained, unlike almost all the other terms in this section. I suspect this is because the author expected the reader to be familiar with it and thought no explanation was necessary.
This brings us back to the frequent use of sāmukkaṃsā in a quite different sense: the sāmukkaṃsikā teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, origin, cessation, path (yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ). This is part of a standard passage, where the Buddha gradually leads a person on to higher and higher teachings and reveals the Four Noble Truths when they are ready. In this context, the meaning of sāmukkaṃsā as either “extract” or “exalted” fits well.
Several early scholars (e.g. H. G. A. van Zeyst in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. II, Fascicle 2, S. 178 – 187) identified the vinayasamukase with this passage, and further, with the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, of which the passage may be regarded as a “summary”. This identification is made in the commentary to the Nettipakarana: Idaṃ dhammacakkanti yāyaṃ bhagavato catusaccavasena sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, idaṃ dhammacakkaṃ.
This is a far more plausible suggestion than Thanissaro’s idea that the very first of Ashoka’s recommendations for the Sangha is how to work out what they can eat in the afternoon!
The question arises, then, as to why this is called the “Vinaya”-extract. Well, the text in question occurs several times in the Vinaya in the period just after the Buddha’s Awakening, which is a very famous passage. More generally, though, vinaya only gradually came to have its specialized meaning of “monastic discipline”, and in early texts means “education”, “training”, and often just means the same as “dhamma”.
The “four noble truths” fit in well with the “four sāmukkaṃsā” in the Parivara, and there is little wonder that such a well-known term should have needed no explanation.
All in all, then, the early scholars were right: Ashoka recommended that the Sangha and laity “frequently listen to and reflect on” the four noble truths as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta.