The triumph of Buddhist denialism: Buddhism without the Buddha

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to attend the American Academy of Religions annual conference. As has become the norm, there was hardly anything in the two days, with hundreds of presentations, that discussed Early Buddhism, or indeed anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism. There were a couple of papers, but these dealt with extremely minor issues in an almost apologetic way, as if the very idea that we could talk about the Buddha was embarassing; and it was notable that they were given by European scholars.

We’ve just been sent the latest round of topics, and this time, I can’t find a single mention of anything at all to do with Early Buddhism. Perhaps it might be squeezed in under one of the other headings, although I kind of doubt it. Here’s the list of sessions organized by the AAR Buddhism Section itself:

A23-105 Buddhism Section and Japanese Religions Group
Theme: Committed Scholars: Buddhist Studies and Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

A23-205 Buddhism Section and Confucian Traditions Group
Theme: Collaborative Arenas: The Seventeenth-Century Intersection of Buddhist-Confucian Philosophizing, Politicizing, and Publishing

A24-105 Buddhism Section
Theme: Millennialism, Eschatology, and the Latter Day of the Dharma

A24-311 Buddhism Section and Religion in Southeast Asia Group
Theme: Material Culture, Politics, and Religion in Burmese and Tibetan Buddhisms

A25-103 Buddhism Section
Theme: Buddhist Masculinities: Rhetorics and Representations

A25-211 Buddhism Section Quadsponsorship
Theme: Self-Immolations in the Tibetan Buddhist World

A26-106 Buddhism Section
Theme: Vision, Text, and Image in Buddhism

There’s a long list of other miscellaneous sessions that are of potential interest to people doing Buddhist studies. These include the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies on Deep Listening and Spiritual Care; Seen and Unseen: Revelation through Science Fiction (which I would totally attend!); Urban Buddhism in Modernizing Asia, 1850–1950; and so on.

There is nothing at all that mentions anything in the first 500 years of Buddhism.

How on earth has this happened? How has an entire academic discipline so completely lost the plot? How is it possible that we can even begin to speak about “Buddhism” while studiously avoiding paying any attention whatsoever to the Buddha?

It seems to me there are a number of influences we can identify.

  • The pragmatic tendency of American philosophy, as opposed to the classical, pure-knowledge approach of Europe;
  • The prevalent influence of Sino-Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism in America, as opposed to the colonial experience of England, which exposed it to the Indic cultures (but Germany is also a major player in early Buddhist studies);
  • Trends in academic approaches, specifically postmodernism, with its distrust of overarching narratives (except, of course, the overarching narrative of postmodernism!), and focus on the local, diverse, and specific;
  • The jobification of education, which prioritizes fields with immediate financial opportunities, and marginalizes disciplines such as early Buddhism, which require long disciplined study in obscure languages with little prospect of employment;

There are, of course, more specific things, such as the influence of particular academics.

One thing that I have suspected, but am not sure about is funding. I know that most universities struggle to get funding, and that the more obscure humanities are the worst hit. In Australia, universities sometimes make up their funding by support from Buddhist institutions. In some cases this is unproblematic: the funding is supplied without any attempt to influence the academic priorities. In other cases, especially when Dhammakaya is concerned, there has been serious concerns regarding academic objectivity, which has resulted in their funding being rejected by at least one major Australian university. I wonder whether American universities receive funding from Chinese/Japanese/Tibetan sources, and whether this influences the direction of their studies?

Within the academic communities, of course, the putative reason for the neglect of Early Buddhism is because of none of the above, but because the attempts to study early Buddhism have failed, and the entire field is discredited. This is exemplified by a remark in a recent essay by Steven Collins:

It is my view that, given the complete impossibility of knowing what ‘early’ Buddhism was, the practice of offering speculative pictures of it inevitably casts all subsequent Theravada history in a pejorative light, which is a bad thing.

I find this quote to be very revealing. Knowing anything about early Buddhism is “completely impossible”. This is despite the existence of, perhaps, 10 million words of text, as well as the substantial archeological finds of Ashoka and the like. Most of this text has never been translated or studied in modern academia. Frankly I think it just seems too hard, so rather than getting on with the job, it’s easier just to issue some ex-cathedra proclamation that it’s all useless.

All the attempts to make a description based on this vast volume of textual and ther evidence are dismissed by Collins as “speculative”. This is a standard form of denialist rhetoric. There is no attempt to meaningfully distinguish between valid and invalid forms of inference, no discussion of what can be known with greater or lesser degrees of certainty; the entire field is just dismissed outright.

And most astonishingly of all, Collins claims that the attempt to understand Early Buddhism is immoral, because it makes later forms of Buddhism look bad. Indeed it does: the Buddha was the greatest spiritual leader of humanity, and Buddhist cultures have struggled to live up to his ideals. This is common sense, and is accepted as axiomatic by all Buddhist traditions.

The very notion of a Buddhist culture is defined by this dynamic, by the idealization of a certain way of seeing the “Buddha”, in a more or less historical sense, as an exemplar for how to live life here and now. The tension between the ideal and the reality is the crucial source of energy that has fuelled the creation of “Buddhist” cultures. And we can’t understand this without a sense of the historical situation of Early Buddhism.

It’s not impossible to understand Early Buddhism; in fact, it’s not that hard. What’s impossible is understanding any later form of Buddhism while ignoring its origins.

One of the things that really strikes me about the list of topics at the AAR is how old-fashioned it is. It seems to be stuck in some 1980s postmodernist timewarp. Surely we have moved on? The defining feature of culture in the past couple of decades has been the spectacular revolution in digital technologies. This is probably the most radical and important shift in human culture since the invention of writing; possibly, in fact, since the invention of language itself. Yet there is nothing in the AAR conference that explicitly adresses digital culture and the many, many issues relevant to Buddhism that it raises. Among many other questions, our evolving capacities to deal with natural language processing (NLP) gives us the potential for unprecedented forms of analysis and insight into early Buddhist texts. Yet as far as I know there is nothing being done in this field in Buddhist academia.

Rather than expanding our potential for knowledge, too many academics have become stuck like a broken record telling us that we can’t know anything. This nihilistic, destructive dogma has way outlived any purpose it may once have had.

97 thoughts on “The triumph of Buddhist denialism: Buddhism without the Buddha

  1. Bhante,

    Thank you for raising this point and for your work. For some of us, what you described is the source of daily frustrations. I speak as a devoted practitioner and future graduate student in Buddhism.

    I have just taken an undergraduate upper-level course at a CUNY school. As you have observed, the course covered most trends in the history of Buddhism, EXCEPT for the first 500 years. I did voice my opinions, however, did not want to be perceived as disrespectful.

    • Hi Kamil,

      Can you tell us more about your experiences? I have my own very limited sense of what is going on, but I’m interested to hear how someone trying to work within this system experiences it. What is the justification that is used for excluding the entire early period from consideration?

      In replying to this comment, I developed my ideas further, and rather than make this comment overlong, I’ve included them in a revised version of the original post.

    • From when I studied at USYD and got to know a few good academics (in the sense you mean) it seemed if there was a reputational angle combined with funding and publicity opportunities (Mark Allon’s collaboration with University of Washington I think it is) on the Ganhari texts) it was good. But (luckily for me as I wasn’t affected by it) the best people were marginalised – he wasn’t teaching Buddhist studies, but Pali. But the fundiong is a double edged sword, as it were, because the Dhammakaya funding I assume is USYD brought by Dr Crangle, and from then on what I see is a total change in emphasis to his understanding (which was definitely simpatico with DK), Peter Oldmeadow a totally superior academic not teaching undergrad Buddhism A or B any more and in recent times from the outside, an emphasis judging from publications on feminist theory for example as a lense to interpret and basically judge texts. Still teaching (in my case in a music department) same essential trends are happening and one hears it is the case everywhere i.e. a general dumbing down. But isn’t it exactly the same thing K.R Norman wrote in his ‘A Philological Approach to Buddhism’: he’d present at conferences and find the majority of academics attending considered HIS field marginal or irrelevant. One observation if you’ll permit me – or a question – well, both, and I’ve wondered for a time. Since you aren’t an academic associated with a university, and you make an effort to keep the cost low (previously all free) for your writings and research, wouldn’t that mean it isn’t peer reviewed or potentially that the material isn’t so widely know outside university circles? Which means work like yours may have less influence within the academic circles (filtering to conferences) while careerist academics with less knowledge and skill with basics such as language etc. and with emphasis on trendy disciplines or just nonsense like Batchelor ends up steering the agendas of the conferences.

    • Hi Brad,

      Thanks for these remarks. In my limited experience of the academic study of Buddhism it seems to me your are quite right. I was first alerted to this many years ago by Rod Bucknell. He mentioned that language-based studies were out of fashion, and I asked what do people do in Buddhist studies? He said that it’s things like, go to your local Korean temple and ask people what they do there. I thought he was being a bit tongue in cheek, but I was surprised to find that that’s precisely what happens. Multiple papers deal with things like the results of a questionnare given at a vipassana retreat, while nothing at all is said about the first 500 years of Buddhism.

      I have little experience as to why this is so, although I suspect the overriding issue is that Universities have become mainly job training centers.

      As to your questions, I’ve done a few things via peer review, and have reviewed a paper myself. The papers I have submitted have been accepted with only minor corrections. While I do support the idea of peer review, I don’t think it works all that well in Buddhist studies. There’s simply so few people in such a large field that its difficult to find someone who can genuinely assess your work. Usually its about checking that the paper makes sense, the referencing is okay, and so on, rather than a serious assessment of the argumentation.

      And yes, I am concerned about the ridiculous fees that are charged for academic articles. It’s a scandal. I’d like to see something like for Buddhism…

    • Ajahn, you write of the ” existence of, perhaps, 10 million words of [early Buddhist] text” that has not been translated. Where are these texts? What are they called? In what language are they written?

      I assume you do not mean the Gandharan texts which are later than the first 500 years of Buddhism.

    • The vast bulk is in Chinese. Probably 10 million is an oversestimate. We recently counted the Chinese Vinaya texts, and we have about 2 million words, although this is incomplete. So maybe around 5 million might be closer.

  2. It saddens but doesn’t surprise me Bhante. In this case academia seems to mirror the situation in the culture at large, at least here in the U.S. I was at Powell’s Books in Portland, one of the great English language bookstores this summer, and the Buddhism section takes up one side of a large aisle – with the shelf space devoted to suttas and other teachings of the historical Buddha occupying perhaps two feet of the total!

  3. Hi Sujato

    I have very mixed feelings about what you’ve written. On the one hand you argue for more academic study of Buddhism and on the other reject out of hand the results of that study. Seems to me you’re trying to have your cake and eat it.

    Buddhists around the world are simply not interested in academic study of Buddhism. And why? Because our leaders have drummed into us that academics do not and cannot understand Buddhism. And what you are doing here is both lamenting this and reinforcing it.

    Collins is a fine, insightful scholar with an impressive track record of publications, and what you cite above (out of context) and dismiss out of hand (with the ever popular “no it isn’t” defence) is very much the mainstream view of careful and sincere historians. Collins is hardly Greg Schopen for example! If you want more academic study – which is to say dispassionate, critical weighing of evidence – then I cannot imagine a worse way to encourage your flock to enroll than to attack a scholar in this way. And if they don’t enroll as undergrads, then funding for graduate programs is not available, and so on. What it looks like is that you want scholarship, but only if it confirms what you think you know. Which is not scholarship at all. Is it?

    It’s all very well blaming post-modernism (in fact the pendulum is well on the way back from pomo, and it never held much sway in Buddhist Studies anyway) or funding bodies or other external factors, but I think we must look closer to home. Why is there a dearth of Buddhist studies? Because Buddhists themselves are not interested in studying Buddhism at university. As our numbers increase, admissions to programs fall and departments shrink. And are we offering scholarships? Of course Mr Numata has ploughed huge amounts of money into funding academic study. And there is the Khyentse Foundation on a much smaller scale. But where are the other scholarships and endowments?

    Collins is right btw that we know next to nothing about early Buddhism. Our witnesses are all from centuries after the putative dates for the Buddha. Yes, we can see a kind of core structure of beliefs and practices, but looking more closely at any point causes the coherence to dissolve in my experience. This is the downside of learning Pāli and looking critically at our texts. The basis for faith must shift if it is to survive.

    For example I now know from my own research that we don’t know the Buddha’s name, and that the traditional names for him and his family were all invented later to sound pleasing to *Brahmin* ears. That the traditional extended family relationships were invented in Sri Lanka. That the bodhisatta didn’t have a wife and son. That his mother didn’t die in child birth. That in effect the traditional Buddha is a pious fiction of the last couple of centuries of the previous era. Maybe there was an historical Buddha, but we know *nothing* about him for certain. My faith has had to shift in response to these discoveries.

    But almost nothing of this is news to the academy. And there’s the rub. Buddhists just aren’t interested in scholarship and continue to deny anything that contradicts cherished beliefs and traditions. Religieux are more than averagely affected by confirmation bias. We don’t want to know that the study of history almost always undermines our traditional narratives. Ironically, we Buddhists resist change.

    What we need is for prominent Buddhist leaders (and bloggers) to stop openly rejecting academia – to encourage all of their students to enroll in universities and study Buddhism. And for wealthy Buddhists to fund scholarships and endow chairs. We need to say to Buddhists “if you aren’t studying for a degree then you ought to be donating to a fund that promotes scholarship.” Then those same leaders have to engage with the results of scholarship, embrace it, and *change what they teach* in accordance with it.

    Chances of this happening? Approximately zero. So prepare for continuing decline, or at best for the interests of non-Buddhists to dominate the field as at present.

    FWIW, I’m preparing to enroll in 2014 for an MPhil and will be applying for funding. Fingers crossed.

    • Interesting post! It’s refreshing to see the frustration of both your experiences voiced so frankly.

      Jayarava, could you please point me toward where you got the info in paragraph 6. It seems to me that most of this list are not definitive. Of course, that makes your point almost as well. As an academic myself, I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties of being a scholar. Still, I think you have to admit that for whatever reason, the dearth of scholarship in early Buddhism is not just a matter of economics. Anyone expressing a modicum of “faith” is a potential laughingstock at an academic conference, sad to say.

    • Hi J.M. the sources are all found in my as yet unpublished article: Siddhārtha Gautama: What’s in a Name.
      Any critical comments are welcome. I’m trying to decide which journal I might submit it to – again any thoughts on this are welcome.

      BTW As a Buddhist publishing in academic journals, and as someone who hangs out with Indology/Sanskrit academics quite regularly I’ve never been laughed at and have in general been taken seriously. Indeed I’ve been praised for my pursuit of the truth. My faith is stronger than ever – but it has had to shift as new information has become available. I’m sure no one is laughing as someone like Bhikkhu Anālayo.

    • Hi Jayarava,

      For now, just thanks for the several replies. I’ll read them and respond in good time!

      In an later comment you mention the 10 million words things. This is pretty much off the cuff, and refers to the entire corpus of the early period of Buddhism, rather than the limited corpus of early Buddhist texts as such, ie. all Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma material in all languages. When we have finished asembling the texts on SuttaCentral, we will be able to give a better estimate. (There’s around 2 million words in the Mahasangiti edition of the Pali canon). One million, perhaps a little more, sounds about right for the early Agama material. The point is not that all this material is early, but that there is early material included in this corpus.

    • Jayarava:
      That’s an interesting article. I haven’t gone through the whole thing yet but here’s a little bit of trivia. In the article you say

      A one-off passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya refers to a group of monks attending the Buddha while he stays in Kapilavatthu as ‘Gotamas’ plural (S iv.183 abhikkantā kho gotamā ratti)… this appears to be the only time the plural is used in the Pāli Nikāyas or Vinaya.

      Interestingly, the phrase you refer to in the Pali is found in almost the same form in the Mulasarvastivadin Samyuktagama preserved in Chinese.

      Pali (Bhikkhu Bodhi translation) The Blessed One then instructed, exhorted, inspired, and gladdened the Sakyans with a Dhamma talk through much of the night, after which he dismissed them, saying: “The night has passed, Gotamas. You may go at your own convenience.”
      Chinese 爾時,世尊為諸釋氏廣說要法。示、教、照、喜已,語諸釋氏:’瞿曇!初夜已過,於時可還迦毘羅越。’
      (my translation) The Blessed One then explained in detail to the Sakyans the main points of the Dharma. Having instructed, exhorted, inspired and gladdened them, he said to the Sakyans: “the first third of the night has passed, Gotamas. You may return to Kapilavatthu now”.

      Firstly, that such an anomaly is faithfully translated into the Chinese is testament to the accuracy of some of the Agama translations.

      Secondly, and more to the point of this comment thread, that the ‘Gotamas’ anomaly appears in both the Mulasarvastivada and Tāmraparṇīya(Theravada) transmissions suggests that it might be quite old.

      A pre-Asokan anomaly, perhaps!

    • Thanks Prof. Jayarava for adding an intriguing perspective and sparking a lively discussion. In two comments you mentioned that your faith has changed and deepened to accommodate the findings that you described; please say more about that. I faced a similar challenge just trying to keep up with Ven. Sujato’s cheerful shattering of many Theravada fundamentalist beliefs, but this is more stark. (I imagine that you have shifted more towards faith in the results of following the practices associated with the Buddha, perhaps?)

      Bhante, please kindly comment on this news from Nepal, the identification of a more ancient Buddhist shrine:

    • Collins is a fine, insightful scholar with an impressive track record of publications, and what you cite above (out of context) and dismiss out of hand (with the ever popular “no it isn’t” defence) is very much the mainstream view of careful and sincere historians.

      I don’t think he was quoted out of context. Collins’ essay is avaliable here:
      Collins says you cannot find out about pre Asokan Buddhism by looking at the Theravadan tradition. That’s right, you find out about pre Asokan Buddhism by comparing different transmission lineages preserved in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Gandhari, Chinese etc. Collins doesn’t seem aware of this.

      RE this comment from Collins:

      the practice of offering speculative pictures of [early Buddhism] inevitably casts all subsequent Theravada history in a pejorative light.

      It’s not inevitable at all. One of the pioneering 20th century scholars of pre Asokan Buddhism was a Chinese monk called Shi Yinshun. He spent several years writing a 800 page classic on pre Asokan Buddhism (原始佛教聖典之集成) and 1,500 pages on the structure of the Saṃyuktāgama (雜阿含經論會編) and so on, and still remained committed to Mahayana and to a consciously Chinese form of Buddhism. If Shi Yinshun can manage to ‘offer speculative pictures’ of early Buddhism without feeling that it takes away from his modern practice, I think someone from the Therevada tradition should be able to too.

    • Thanks for the remark on Yinshun. I’m not sure that this completely establishes your point, though. True, Yinshun did work out a synthesis that placed the early Mahayana in a meaningful historical connection with early Buddhism, seeing it as an organic growth and re-expression of ideas rather than a radical break. However, he also—and please correct me if I’m wrong here—argued that some later forms of Mahayana lost sight of this and did end up diverging substantially from the ideals of Early Buddhism. Still, in any case he is a wonderful example of how the careful and committed study of Early Buddhism can enrich and deepen our understanding of the Dhamma, while undermining the rigid dogmatics of sectarianism.

    • Yes that’s right. Things get complicated when you try to characterise Yinshun’s thought in detail because he lived for 100 years and published articles and books almost every year for 75 years. But he certainly did favour Madhyamaka thought over the Buddha Nature thought that became standard in China. When I said Yinshun “remained committed to a consciously Chinese form of Buddhism” I should have said “a Buddhism founded on the resources of the Chinese Tripitaka” – he certainly wasn’t satisfied with Chinese Buddhism as it was in the 1930s and 40s.

      What I was getting at with the example of Yinshun is just that, contra Collins, the study of early Buddhism doesn’t necessarily make you view all subsequent developments as corruptions.

      Here are some approximate translations of extracts from Yinshun’s essays.
      我在『印度之佛教』(1942)的「自序」中說:「立本於根本(即初期)佛教之淳樸,宏闡中期佛教之行解(梵化之機應慎),攝取後期佛教之確當者,庶足以復興佛教而暢佛之本懷也歟」!那時,我多讀「阿含」、「戒律」、「阿毘達磨 」,不滿晚期之神秘欲樂,但立場是堅持大乘的(一直到現在,還是如此)。…大乘佛法,我以性空為主,兼攝唯識與真常。
      60 Years Wandering in the Sea of Dharma (1984)
      In the preface to ‘Indian Buddhism'(1942) I said: “With the purity and simplicity of Early Buddhism as our basis, promoting the explanations and practices of Middle Period Buddhism (while being careful of Brahmanisation) and making use of appropriate elements from later Buddhism, we should be able to revive Buddhism and communicate the Buddha’s original intent!”
      In those days I often read the Agamas, the Vinaya and the Abhidharma. I was dissatisfied with the mysticism and sensuality of later Buddhism, but my standpoint was always Mahayana (it always was, and it remains so today)…. In terms of my approach to Mahayana, I take Madhyamaka thought as the guiding principle, while also taking elements from Yogacara and Tathagatagarbha.

      我不是復古的,也決不是創新的,是主張不違反佛法的本質,從適應現實中,振興純正的佛法。所以三十八年完成的《佛法概論》﹝自序﹞就這樣說:「深深的覺得,初期佛法的時代適應性,是不能充分表達釋尊真諦的。大乘佛法的應運而興,……確有他獨到的長處。……宏通佛法,不應為舊有的方便所拘蔽,應使佛法從新的適應中開展。……著重於舊有的抉發,希望能刺透兩邊(不偏於大小,而能通於大小),讓佛法在這人生正道中,逐漸能取得新的方便適應而發揚起來」—— 這是我所深信的,也就是我所要弘揚的佛法。
      A Humanistic Buddhism in line with Buddhist theory and with the needs of the present moment (1989)
      I don’t want to go back to the past nor do I want to create something new. What I advocate is the revival of Buddhism in response to the present moment, while remaining in line with the essential qualities of Buddhism.
      In my 1949 work ‘An Introduction to Buddhism’ I put it like this: “I deeply believe that the specific temporal instance of Buddhadharma found in Early Buddhism does not fully represent the ultimate message of Sakyamuni Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism flourished due to various contingent factors… but it does have unique strong points. In promoting Buddhism we should not be held back by the ‘skillful means’ of the past. We should allow Buddhism to develop from a new response to the present moment. We should critically investigate the past so that we can break the dichotomy (by leaning towards neither Mahayana nor Hinayana, but transcending both),so that, as we follow this Humanistic path, Buddhism can gradually adopt new ‘skillful means’ and thereby flourish.”
      This is my firm belief, and this is the Buddhism that I promote.

    • Hi Jayarava,

      Thanks for the careful comment; however you start off on the wrong foot.

      In fact I couldn’t really care less whether people did more or less academic study of Buddhism. What I do care about is that people who are on a spiritual path—and here we are talking in a Buddhist context, but it applies generally—should take the time and effort to be informed, careful, and intelligent in how they go about it. Too often a spiritual path is divorced from any meaningful grounding in reality. It’s possible to learn from the results of academic study in a way that makes a profound and very positive impact on spiritual practice and understanding.

      My gripe is that this potential has been squandered in recent decades of Buddhist studies, especially in the US. The largest English speaking academic community, with the largest Buddhist community outside Asia, has decided that the most useful thing we can do with one of the world’s great spiritual literatures is to snark at it.

      This is irresponsible and irrational, which is why I have characterized it as Buddhist denialism.

      The hallmark of denialism, such as creationism or climate change denial, is that it claims to be a legitimate approach to a field of study, yet it makes no substantial contribution to that field. This is exactly the situation with the Early Buddhism denialists. The only legitimate outcome of their doctrine is to give up trying. Which, as the schedule at the AAR conference shows, is exactly what has happened.

      You argue that Buddhist leaders have created an environment that is antagonistic to academic study. There is some truth to this, although it is not the whole picture, as you acknowledge; in fact in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan academic studies are highly valued and common among both ordained and lay practitioners; in Sri Lanka too there is some academic interest; likewise among certain circles in the Tibetan sphere. But these are just details. The main problem is that this is not the question I was addressing. If I say that ‘”x” is a problem’ then to argue that ‘”y” is a worse problem”‘ is simply a red herring.

      Collins is a fine, insightful scholar with an impressive track record of publications,

      I call ad hominem!

      and what you cite above (out of context)

      I have read all of Collins’s essay and I have looked for the context and can’t find it. Like all the similar claims that I have seen, he makes huge, sweeping generalizations about an entire field of study without bothering to cite even a fraction of what could be considered adequate support.

      and dismiss out of hand (with the ever popular “no it isn’t” defence)

      This is unfair and misleading. In fact I have worked hard with Ven Brahmali on a detailed response to the denialist position, and have taken far greater care to address the issues in detail and depth than I have seen from any of the denialist scholars. When doing this research I made genuine attempts to understand the position of the denialists, to read their arguments, and to incorporate them when it was useful; but I just found, again and again, that there really was nothing, or at best a “no it isn’t”. However, it’s unreasonable to expect me to include all this in a brief blog post.

      is very much the mainstream view of careful and sincere historians.

      I could not disagree more. In fact, the denialist theory is a product of scholars who specialize in Tibetan and other later forms of Buddhism, and most scholars of Early Buddhism reject it. The feeling among some academics who specialize in the field is that the denialist position is so lightweight that it is not worth responding to. Others recognize the harm it has done to the field, and have argued against it. In either case it has had virtually no creative impact on the study of Early Buddhism.

      Regarding what we know about Early Buddhism, allow me to restate: we know lots and lots. And the arguments you make here are what I would call “irrational” in the most literal sense: there is no “ratio” between one thing and the other, between the evidence you adduce and conclusions you draw from that evidence.

      We don’t know the name of the Buddha’s mother. So what? This makes absolutely difference for understanding what the Buddha taught. I don’t know the name of your mother: this is completely beside the point in understanding what you say in your blog posts, or you views on the Dhamma. You don’t mention you mother’s name, like i don’t mention mine, when discussing Dhamma, for the very good reason that they are not relevant.

      However, if a biographer comes along, as they surely should, and writes “Jayarava: the extraordinary life and unprecedented death of a Buddhist innovator” then they will be interested to find out the name of you mother and include it in your story.

      This is exactly the situation we find in the Early Buddhist texts. Those texts spoken by the Buddha, which describe what was important for him, the Dhamma, are very light on personal details. Later biographies fill these in, with greater or (usually) less plausibility. Such findings are the outcome of careful text-critical study. They do not discredit the field, but clarify what is and what isn’t reliable. And the outstanding and overwhelming conclusion is that what is reliable is the Dhamma, not the personal details.

    • HI Sujato

      When you complain about a decline in Buddhist studies it does seem as though you are concerned with academic studies. But the academy has never really been interested in the “spiritual path” so the complaint is difficult to understand. So now I’m confused about the purpose of your article.

      “Too often a spiritual path is divorced from any meaningful grounding in reality.”

      Which is exactly what historians are offering you, but you reject it when it comes. Collins is not the first scholar you’ve attacked in this way. You given Greg Schopen the treatment as well. And yet Schopen is talking about the reality of Buddhism as it is seen in the archaeological record. Too much reality?

      “Regarding what we know about Early Buddhism, allow me to restate: we know lots and lots. And the arguments you make here are what I would call “irrational” in the most literal sense: there is no “ratio” between one thing and the other, between the evidence you adduce and conclusions you draw from that evidence.”

      We know only what the texts tell us. And we both know that the consensus amongst scholars across the range of fields that are encompassed by Buddhist Studies no longer regard the Pāḷi texts as reliable historical witnesses. 4th and 5th century Chinese translations are not much help here, nor are the 1st-2nd century Gāndhārī texts. We have precisely zero *evidence* before the Asokan pillars that Buddhist existed at all, and Asoka provides us with a very brief and narrow glimpse some 150 years after the purported date of the death of the Buddha; or 250 or 350 years depending on which chronology (all entirely based on the Pāli texts) one accepts. The first actual evidence is all from the common era.

      We cannot truthfully say the texts were “spoken by the Buddha” for example. That is an *article of faith*, not an *historical fact*. I don’t mind it as an article of faith. It’s a good story. But it’s only a story, it’s not something we know. If you can’t make the distinction then this is a discussion that cannot ever make progress because it is fundamental to the very concept of knowledge since the European Enlightenment.

      Of course we can infer what kind of society might have come up with the Pāli texts as their idealised version of life, but on closer examination there are still sacred cows to be slaughtered such as the overwhelming influence of Vedic culture in the received life-story of the Buddha.

      For someone only interested in the spiritual path none of this matters. For anyone interested in history it does. Clearly you are interested in history or you wouldn’t be taking the time to write about it and then to defend your points.

    • Briefly:

      “Too often a spiritual path is divorced from any meaningful grounding in reality.”

      Which is exactly what historians are offering you, but you reject it when it comes.

      No, I don’t reject the reality. If you look, for example, at my critiques of Schopen, they are based precisely on the plain fact that he gets it wrong. This is not an opinion: look at the details of his essays in the relevant points, and he simply gets the crucial facts wrong, in, so far as I can see, every single substantive argument he makes about Early Buddhism. And, despite this, I have never seen a single substantive concession by him or any of those of similar ideas that actually acknowledges these mistakes and withdraws them. What’s left is ideology. I don’t have a problem with reality. I have a problem with ideology dressing up as truth.

    • I have worked hard with Ven Brahmali on a detailed response to the denialist position, and have taken far greater care to address the issues in detail and depth than I have seen from any of the denialist scholars.

      Has this been published on the web? If so, could you say where? (I made some effort to find it with Google and could not.) Thank you very much.

    • Hi Venerable Sujato – This looks really interesting. Quick question – obviously putting it up online gets it out there immediately. But will this be released as a print on demand hard copy as your other writings are (more convenient for me). Thanks Brad

    • Hi Jayarava,

      So “we Buddhists reject change”. Of course we do, as does everyone else. This is part of the human condition, although the degree to which it happens will vary considerably from person to person. And you don’t need to be a Buddhist to acknowledge this.

      It seems to me that your point is to level this charge at Ven. Sujato. Since he is human, there is no doubt some truth to what you say. At the same time, by sharing his views with all and sundry, he is likely to be interested in feedback and thereby furthering his own understanding and develop his thinking. These are not the typical traits of someone who is resistant to change.

      No doubt there are lots of Buddhists out there who are defensive and suffer from severe confirmation bias, but the important point must be that there is great variety among Buddhists, as there is in the general population. Recognising this is much more important than making generalisations.

      And do you really think that the academic community is all that unbiased? Allow me to share with you a quote from relatively recent scholarship:

      … common among contemporary scholars is the role of … the guardian of ‘secular authority’ … I refer to the scholar’s interest in undermining the authority of the tradition he or she studies.” [Gómez, Luis O. 1995: “Unspoken Paradigms: Meanderings through the Metaphors of a Field”, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies,vol. 18 no. 2 pp.183-230.]

      Does this sound like unbiased scholarship? What we need to do is to to evaluate both scholars and Buddhists on an individual basis.

    • Hi Brahmali

      No, the charge of resisting change was not specifically leveled at Sujato – I encounter it regularly amongst internet Buddhists who often reject my ideas on Buddhist history with shocking vehemence at times. It’s a general observation. But if the shoe fits….

      I think unbiased scholarship always aims to undermine the authority of tradition. And where would we be if it did not? Back in the stone age. “Unbiased” means taking the evidence on it’s own terms and trying not to view it through the lens of tradition – to see every afresh all the time (which I take to be a principle of Buddhism as well as of Science).

      Of course the counter-argument is that we always have biases. That historians and scientists do interpret through paradigms and traditions. The difference is that in order to make one’s name as a scholar one must undermine the old paradigm and propose a better explanation for the observed facts. The great scholars – of any age or tradition – are remembered for precisely this reason. The famous Buddhists of the past, are generally reformers rather than conservatives. Even a conservative like Buddhaghosa puts his stamp on Theravāda so that it is never the same afterwards and Theravāda is synonymous with Buddhaghosavāda. Even if one disagrees with Buddhaghosa one must always address his point of view before moving on.

      But the main counter to the charge of bias is that scholar is a collective endeavour – we check each other’s biases. Someone publishes their ideas only after some scrutiny from peers, and even then the ideas will either be taken up or rejected by the community. Paradigms are hard to shift, but they always do shift given a hard enough push.

      Buddhism faces a very great challenge from history, more so than from science in my view. Much of our history is bunk. A good story for a pre-scientific era and for mostly uneducated people. But not relevant to the current era. So we must change or become irrelevant. Hence I am so critical of reluctance to change. And we are the religion that says “sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā”. If we cannot embrace change, then who will?

    • Hi again Jayarava,

      Here are my replies to some of your points.

      I think unbiased scholarship always aims to undermine the authority of tradition.

      There is too much of an assumption in this that tradition must be wrong. It seems to me that the purpose of scholarship should not be to undermine tradition across the board, but to separate truth from fiction. A typical example might be the practice of acupuncture. For a long time this was considered bunk by Western medicine, but in recent times Western medicine has become more accommodating. Alternative medicine may turn out to be useless or it may in fact work. The job of science should be to find out which, not to start off with a particular view or agenda.

      Paradigms are hard to shift

      Indeed, and this is obviously important. Our thoughts are shaped by the collective understanding, and paradigms may be very sticky. The evidence needs to reach a certain threshold and only then will it be taken seriously. So even if there were a paradigm, we should not accept it uncritically.

      But in the present case we don’t even have a paradigm. The field is open and there is major disagreement about how much we can know about early Buddhism. Many of the academics who are specialists in this area, such Richard Gombrich, Rupert Gethin and Oskar von Hinuber, are in fact positive that we can know quite a bit.

      It seems the pendulum, in certain academic circles, has swung to an extreme position. I believe it is bound to swing back. Only time will tell how far.

      Buddhism faces a very great challenge from history, more so than from science in my view. … If we cannot embrace change, then who will?

      Many Buddhist will regard Buddhism as a search for truth. Truth is the bedrock on which any kind of progress must rest. For a sincere Buddhist it is essential to embrace both history and science. To shut one’s eyes to established facts is never going to lead us to a worthwhile goal.

      But in the present case we have strong evidenced of what the earliest form of Buddhism looked like. Here are some of the points:

      The corpus that I would label as the “early Buddhist texts” (the EBTs – that is, roughly the four main Nikayas of the Pali and their parallels in other languages, and some parts of the Vinaya) is linguistically homogeneous. Their vocabulary and style are different from all other Buddhist texts. The same is true, although perhaps to a lesser degree, for grammar and metre. The EBTs constitute a united whole that stands apart from the rest of Buddhist literature. The only reasonable explanation for this is that they were composed separately, at a different time and possibly in a different place, from other Buddhist scriptures.

      Buddhist literature has a clear evolution in ideas. The basic ideas on which all the rest of Buddhism is based are found in the EBTs. The EBTs do not refer to other Buddhist ideas, but non-EBT Buddhism (Abhidhamma, Visuddhimagga, commentaries, Mahayana Sutras) almost invariably refer back to ideas in the EBTs. The EBTs are the foundation and they must have existed before any of the other literature.

      One of the most important sources for our knowledge of the EBTs is, as Qianxi points out, comparative study across different transmission lineages. Just in the last couple of weeks we have had the first ever publication of a translation into English of the Madhyanma-agama in Chinese. I would recommend you to get a copy; it is available here:‎. It is astonishing how close it is to the Pali, even identical in certain passages. What we have, then, are lineages of transmission that have been separated since the time of Ashoka, and yet most of the crucial detail, as far as Buddhist doctrine is concerned, is unaffected. What this means is that individual schools must have been very conservative in how they treated the core doctrines. And where did this conservatism stem from? It seems to me that the obvious answer is that this must have been the attitude of the early Buddhist community. The distance from Ashoka to the Buddha is only about 150 years (perhaps less), which is insignificant compared to the 2,300 years of confirmed reliable transmission.

      There is more, but I think this is enough for starters.

    • If I may ask a couple of questions as a fellow musician as it happens, who has also undertaken academic comparative religious studies and am now cautiously re-engaging with some Buddhist practice but in an openmindedly sceptical fashion. i.e. no agenda. But I’m thinking through philologists, anthropologists and archeologists and I’m not certain of (other than Schoppen and others with similar biases) definitively stating we can know nothing at all. Obviously there are limits, but I’d understood that in combination the Asokan pillars, discovery of key archeological sites, textual commonalities between almost every extant tradition (partly – so those sections with cognates), comparative philological study etc. suggested we can know the basic understanding of what the early Buddhist ideas were, at least what a relatively early Buddhist understadnign was (analogous to the gospels in Christianity revealing what early 2nd generation Christians understood, contextualised by archeology and broader contemporaneous Jewish documents. Just saying that’s a huge leap to saying we can know nothing, and taking that as an assumption. I’ve personally corresponded with Joseph Walser on this, for example (he takes Schoppen’s views as a guide) and it’s obvious this assumption is made a priori. Isn’t that just as problematic? Thanks, Brad

    • Jayarava, there hardly seems to be information available to the general Buddhist public about what universities have programs in which studies in very early Buddhism could be funded.

      Please list some programs (university, department, profs’ names) which already have the expertise to educate students in translating and interpreting very early Buddhist texts.

  4. I’ve kind of been waiting for someone to point this out. And I’m glad you mention this, specially in what concerns digital technologies helping in textual analysis. I’ll share some thoughts I’ve had on this:

    The second paragraph from the end stroke a cord in me, as I totally agree with it. I’ve been thinking & searching for quite a while now of a way to build a semantic network or a visual thesaurus of the Pali Canon. I figured that since it has so much valuable redundancy, it would be great to see a conceptual\semantic patterns of the Canon (something like the brain of the canon!) with there appropriate relationship strengths bolded out. Although every time I think about pali compounds and all of the aspects one would have to take in consideration, it just boogles my mind of how one would do something like that.

    This kind of endeavor could have the benefits of improving translations, help with the understanding of the Buddha’s teaching by bringing the most important patterns to the front and seeing their implications clearly. It could possibly avoid many single-sutta based arguments by showing more strengthened relationships. One would have the possibility of extracting meanings only from the early texts for example without taking in consideration later ones. These are just some of the benefits that I thought about superficially.


    • Hi Nuno,

      That is very interesting: I’ve been contemplating similar ideas, except not just with the Pali canon, but with the entire corpus of early Buddhist texts. This is something that’s I’d love to look into in more detail once the basic corpus is fleshed out.

      What I have gradually come to realize is that SuttaCentral offers a powerful tool for this kind of analysis, because it is built on genuine semantic relationships between texts. We can use all the tricks of NLP, but they are enhanced by being applied to a corpus where the links represent carefully curated human insight.

      There are a number of tools that do this kind of thing with the Bible. I’d love to open up our platform, when it is complete, and see what innovations and new perspectives the IT geeks can tease out.

    • Definitely! SuttaCentral would be a great platform to implement something along these lines and I’d love to see it one day.

    • Well, I don’t have enough background knowledge to develop something, but I’ve searched and found a tool that could possibly do the work. I’ve only messed around with it a bit and haven’t ventured into all the intricacies since I’m doubtful about it being capable of fulfilling the purpose in the Pali language. So, for the time being, this endeavor is in stand-by. Nevertheless, I’m just sharing what I’ve thought and found, in case it could help you or someone else who thought about a similar kind of project.

  5. Dharma Drum College in Taiwan seems to be bucking the trend here, notice how many of their Agama Research Group are involved in IT related projects
    Marcus Bingenheimer is not listed there but he has worked at Dharma Drum College and has written a lot on digital analysis of the Chinese Agamas.

    They also offer a Buddhist Informatics graduate program
    here are some of the tools they have already developed:

    I’m not so familiar with what is going on on the Indic side of things. But there is this site collecting digitised Gandhari texts

    • Thanks, some great examples here.

      Dharma Drum is doing great work, and at SuttaCentral we are in frequent contact with them. Other thriving areas include some of the English Unis, gradual progress with Sanskrit texts by mainly German scholars, the astonishing output of Ven Analayo, the recent Numata publication of the Madhyama Agama translation by Rod Bucknell and Analayo (vol 1; the rest by 2015), more detailed studies in Agama materials in Tibetan by Ven Dhammadinna and Yao Fumi, and the Gandhari studies by Salomon, Mark Allon, and others.

      So it’s not that nothing is happening. It’s that the real work in the field has become disconnected from the ideology of American Buddhist studies, which has a chilling effect on the field as a whole, and diverts the energies of what could, and should, be a vital source of innovation.

  6. Another insightful commentary by a man obviously dedicated to the teachings. Buddhism in America is too complex for me to offer an intelligent comment on it. As to why we should be interested I can offer a specific concern of my own. As usually presented the Jivaka Sutta states a monk should not consume meat if he hears, sees or suspects the animal was killed (specifically for him). In the opinion of the Buddhist scholar Tony Page the portion in parentheses is an interpolation, a later addition.

    Personally I have no interest in consuming flesh foods but am not infrequently accused of trying to be holier than a monk for abstaining. The common interpretation has never made any sense to me- someone killed the animal and violated the first precept. But if no one wishes to explore the early days of the Dhamma there will never be anything close to a resolution or even a discussion. I fear Bhante’s observations are all too true.

    • Hi Fred,

      I haven’t read Tony Page’s analysis, but bear in mind that the phrase in question is found in several places, most significantly in the Vinaya, which means we will have multiple Chinese sources. Without taking into account all available texts, such opinions should be taken with several spoons of salt.

    • Can’t say that the repetition of something illogical strikes me as making it more convincing. I’m aware there are situations now where the slaughtering is done by non-Buddhists, but then or now it still comes out as passing the bad penny (khamma) along. If a cache of early material were discovered one wonders how interested the current scholars would be. The (Mahayana) Dunhuang scrolls ended up scattered around the world before Suzuki, et al could find and translate them. One can only hope for a change of orientation amongst scholars.

  7. To try to turn Buddhism into some dry “scholarly” path must be equal to becoming a mindless follower of some guru.

    Trying to label Buddhism as something either a religion or science or scholarly path must be a great waste of time and effort for those that do.The Buddha never even went to University did he?

    Surely following the Buddhist path is following the middle way ie having an enlightened teacher of Buddhism and studing the texts.

    There is only one person who does that and that is Ajahn Brahm – if you claim to be a Buddhist but overlook a Buddha because you are too busy adding labels, titles and self importance attached to learning and knowledge to your life them you are missing the whole point of Buddhism.

  8. Obvioulsy there has to be research and studies by academics in Buddhism and there will be packaging, labelling in with being called a religion, science, philosopy etc but if Buddhism is turned into something only for academics above that of certain people then from my limited knowledge of Buddhism this is not what the Buddha wanted. This hierachy happened when I was at University whereby a area of learning was completly exploited by academics for their own purpose and financial gain and power or superiority over others – the flow on effect to teh sector it effects is quite scary when it involves children.

    People who are not educated can turn to other means to survive and ignorance is possibly worse than to much intellectual reliance but I think to line is a fine on. Academics can just use knowledge in such a bad way, to bully, for power.

    Education or educational achievement seems to be becoming something of nightmare in our society; really something has to be done about it but what can be done. When you think that the batman murderer was accepted into a Phd, the young good looking middle class man who created successful website to sell drugs had a masters or Phd, a nurse studying law burnt down a nursing home killing quite a gew people and they are just the obvious ones who didnt get away with what they are doing the purely intellectual side of things cannot be the answer.

    it is obvioulsy the very important aid to support for mediation but not the cause for enlightenement, and mediations is how you get enlightened isn’t it- if anyone can really do it that is. The Buddha ultimately taught Buddhism for people to seek enlightenment so getting too reliant on teh technical side of the issue seems to be a divergent – having said that without it we would just be following “gurus” hoping they are Buddhas., when probably they are not sojust as much of a divergent.

    The absolute prejudice and discrimination I have seen in the I work based on alleged academic
    chievements is something that is horrific and causes extreme much suffering I find it hard to believe myself that education is causing such harm when it should be supporting the good.

  9. At the risk of opening up too many fronts on which to argue maybe it’s worth exploring what we mean by “early Buddhism” or “Early Buddhism”. I don’t think Sujato and I use it the same way. It’s not a traditional term, and it’s not a well defined scholarly term. Most US scholars seem to prefer “Mainstream” which is no less problematic.

    • It’s worth pointing out that Collins, in his article, explicitly states that he is using “early Buddhism” to mean pre-Aśokan Buddhism– in other words, precisely that period concerning which we have no direct evidence.

  10. When I said the quote from Collins was taken out of context here’s what I meant. On page 9 of the article Collins gives a very brief outline of the historigraphical problems of trying to talk about pre-Asokan Buddhism. He makes reference to several works on this subject (and is himself well known as the author of a long article in the Pali Text Society Journal On the Very Idea of a Pāḷi Canon). For an audience of scholars, such as he is addressing, he has a particular reputation and can assume knowledge of the body of work on Buddhist historiography that has emerged recently in his intended readership..

    At the bottom of page 9 and over into p.10 Collins gives a brief but telling example of the kind of problem he is talking about (it is one amongst many). It involves the Buddha talking to various deities – devas, asuras, yakkhas etc. And he points out “But if later generations could invent gods for the Buddha to talk to they could also invent what he said to them. We have no way of distinguishing between transmission and invention.”

    And this was my point about the Buddha and his family – not his mother mind you – my point was we don’t know the name of the *Buddha* – the name Siddhārtha Gautama is extremely unlikely to be what the Buddha was called if the other conjectures about him are true. There is a fundamental contradiction in our witnesses and we don’t have any way of sorting the problem out. We have no way of distinguishing between transmission and invention. The Buddha himself may well be entirely an invention. How would we know one way or the other? We simply cannot know.

    This then is the context of the remark. Not a very deep context for those who don’t know the literature, but taking into account the intended (inhouse) audience it is sufficient. For Sujato it boils down to valid or invalid inference. But we can never know if our inferences about pre-Asokan Buddhism are valid or not because we only have the texts as witnesses and they are all, rather ironically, late compared to early Buddhism. Several *centuries* late. Imagine that your family had a tradition that an ancestor knew Queen Elizabeth the First personally. It was written down only in living memory, perhaps in response to the vast loss of life in the world wars. It’s a great story and you have every reason to believe it’s true, but there’s simply no evidence. Then imagine that you start reading history books and certain details of your family story don’t add up. Enough doubts accumulate so that you can’t believe that it happened as set down in writing. You want to believe it’s true, but you have doubts and no way to find out the truth. That’s more or less the position we’re in as Buddhists but over a much longer time scale.

    One can certainly make plausible inferences. But these require careful judgement. We don’t conjecture the real existence of both Vedic and Chthonic gods for example just because they appear in our texts. That would be implausible. But where do we draw the line? What do we do about the many contradictions that show up on close inspection? Try working through the various definitions of nāmarūpa for example!

    The validity of an inference rests on our ability to test it. As plausible as an inference is, it ain’t “valid” until it has been tested. And there is simply no way to test inferences made on the basis of the so-called early Buddhist texts. There is no archaeology prior to Asoka. There are no artefacts, no inscriptions, no remains. Asoka himself reveals very little about Buddhism, and has recently been reassessed as offering less information than was previously thought (presumably Collins’ audience are familiar with K R Normans insightful series of articles on Asoka). The earliest physical texts are Gāndhārī and date from the 2nd century CE – fully 600 years after the conjectured death of the Buddha (our current best guess based on the revised short chronology).

    Now when someone who has a major investment in tradition (such as a life long *celibate* ordination) makes a truth claim about that tradition in the absence of any evidence, the scholar takes that with a grain of salt. As I’ve said – as an article of faith, fine. But as a fact? Sorry there are no facts here. Only conjectures which can never be tested.

    I love the conjecture game as much as anyone. I plan to try to publish more conjecture on the Iranian origins of the Śākyas for example. If I can get more publications it will start to seem more plausible. People will take the idea seriously and it may open up new avenues of research and discussion. I might get associated with that idea (though really the credit belongs to Michael Witzel). But it will probably never be an established fact that the Śākyas were Iranian.

    The figure of 10 millions words is interesting. Do you have a source for that Sujato? Seems to me that you have zero words than can definitely dated to before Asoka. How many can really be conjectured to date from before the common era, let alone validated? Maybe a million in the combined nikāya/āgama corpuses?

    It *is* impossible to say anything about early Buddhism. Though this does not stop us from coming up with plausible stories.

    Where we don’t have to rely on historical evidence for validation is in the practice of techniques attributed to the Buddha. We can find out for ourselves what happens when we do things like focus on the sensations of breathing for long periods. The fact that something remarkable happens when we practice is all the validation we need really. History is bunk. Experience is the only authority.

    Apologies for being so prolix. This has made me think.

    • I would say that one can’t talk about the first 500 years of development of the Pali canon or about the extent of our knowledge of early Buddhism without reference to the range of early Buddhist schools, the range of early Buddhist canons and the half dozen complete Vinayas and half dozen complete Agamas preserved in Chinese.

      So, most of Collins’ “On the Very Idea of a Pāḷi Canon” is very interesting, but his account of the first 500 years of the Pali canon is about a century out of date because he doesn’t mention any other early Buddhist schools. You only learn about the processes at work during the oral transmission of the canon when you compare two copies of the same text passed down by schools that diverged before anything was written down. You only learn about the early history of the structure of the canon by comparing the structure of large chunks of the canon passed down by schools that diverged before anything was written down.

      If the Mahāsāṃghika, Mahīśāsaka, Sarvāstivāda, and Dharmaguptaka Vinayas had been translated into Pali in 400ce and had been preserved until today would it be acceptable for Pali scholars to give an account of early Buddhism without reference to them? By a quirk of fate they were translated and preseved in Chinese instead.

      One can’t expect all Pali experts to read Chinese, but there’s plenty of secondary literature and you’ve got to deal with it directly if you want to make an assessment of the scope of our knowledge of the first 500 years of Buddhism.

      If Collins (or yourself!) would like to make the argument that comparative study can’t tell you anything about first 500 years or about pre-Asokan Buddhism, that would be interesting. But to ignore the field entirely is a little odd.

    • Hi Qianxi

      As it happens I have studied several suttas in their Chinese versions. And I’ve read a a good number of the published comparative studies of these and other more fragmentary witnesses in Sanskrit and Gāndhārī. My article comparing 4th century Chinese translation strategies with those of 20th/21st century English will appear in JOCBS Vol5 (due out any time now). So be careful of straw-man arguments – I for one am not ignoring the field, but am an active participant in it!

      Looking at the Chinese we know that the texts were translated in the 4th century CE because the Chinese recorded dates. This is 800 years after the putative death of the Buddha and some 400 years after the Pāli Canon is supposed to have been closed. These texts are not so different to the Pāḷi individually but have clearly been collated into āgamas on a different principle. Indeed the Āgamas are all associated with different sects of so-called early Buddhism. The Chinese Āgama collections are each from a different sect.

      For example when I looked at the block of 12 texts in the Chinese MĀ dealing with the lokuttara-paṭicca-samuppāda I noticed that they had obviously been edited for greater uniformity than their Pāli counterparts, and while dispersed in the Pāḷi Canon were gathered together in MĀ. Thus they represent a period after the closing of the Pāli Canon or sometime in the common era if the narratives about the Pāli Canon can be believed. They are certainly not the product of pre-sectarian Buddhism.

      The constant assumption here seems to be that the texts represent a reliable basis for making historical inferences, and those historical arguments are then used to make inferences about the texts. This involves *two* logical fallacies: appeal to an inappropriate authority and circular reasoning.

      The question arises as to when the formal splitting into sects came about. Again we only have the texts as witness to this – inscriptional evidence is all post-Asoka is it not? It seems to me that sectarian Buddhism as you describe it is a feature of post-Asoka Buddhism, not pre. Do you for example have a sutta/sutra reference to any other sect? I’m not aware of any. Isn’t the big split supposedly at the 3rd council during Asoka’s time?

    • Hi Jayarava,

      Just to respond briefly on the date of the schism, which was the topic of my Sects & Sectarianism. There are some sources that clearly have at least some connection with the Ashokan period (the edicts, of course, but also the Sinhalese Vinaya commentary in its Chinese and Pali versions). These sources do not speak of the existence of schools or the occurence of schism at this time. There’s a range of other texts that date the first schism either before, during, or after the time of Ashoka. Probably the earliest and most reliable of these is the Mahasanghika Sariputrapariprccha. This and a range of other texts place the schism a couple of generations after Ashoka, and I think this is our best bet. There is no plausibility to the Dipavamsa’s claim that the schism is connected with the Second Council.

      However the date of the schism bears only an indirect relation to the date of the texts. Clearly there were Buddhists in far flung regions, from Kashmir to Sri Lanka, by the time of Ashoka. So the lineages of textual transmission (which were, of course, in the memories of the monks) were separated from the time of Ashoka, in fact probably earlier (because it would have been a gradal process of separation.)

    • I for one am not ignoring the field, but am an active participant in it!


      There are all sorts of complexities and layers, but I find quite convincing the basic idea that commonalities between eg. the Madhyama Agama and the Majjhima Nikaya can be traced back to at least the time of Asoka.

      I don’t think “it’s only texts” quite captures the situation, because we have texts that can act as independent witnesses, and their stories match up.

      The question arises as to when the formal splitting into sects came about.

      Exactly. I’ll defer to Sujato on that, seeing as he wrote a book on it.

      One of the interesting complexities might be in exactly how independent these witnesses are. I seem to remember a comment in Yinshun’s book on the compilation of the early buddhist canon 原始佛教聖典之集成 speculating that although such and such a group belonged to a different developmental branch than another one, a certain part of their Vinayas showed more similarities than expected because the groups were active in the same area of India.
      But that would just be an anomaly against the general picture of independendent development since Asoka, suggested by the fact that the Vinayas give very similar accounts of the first two councils and widely varying accounts of the third.

    • It’s me again Jayarava. Just a comment about Collins’ article.

      And he points out “But if later generations could invent gods for the Buddha to talk to they could also invent what he said to them. We have no way of distinguishing between transmission and invention.

      This is the only proper argument in the whole article that he makes in support of his contention that we can know nothing about early Buddhism. And it is a flawed argument. Collins’ has not done his homework. Here is a rejoinder that I wrote a few weeks ago.

      From the perspective of a modern reader, the early Buddhist texts may seem to contain a number of supernatural elements that diminish the historical value of the whole genre. Steven Collins comments:

      In the texts of the Pali Canon the Buddha is very frequently depicted as interacting with gods and other supernaturals, often giving them doctrinal talks. Many modern historians, who of course must be professionally at the very least agnostic about the existence of supernaturals, assume that one can ignore the nature of the Buddha’s interlocutors but still accept what he is depicted as saying as evidence of ‘his ideas’. But if later generations could invent gods for the Buddha to talk to they could also invent what he said to them. We have no way of distinguishing between transmission and invention.” [1]

      The assertion on which Collins’ argument rests, that the Buddha is depicted in the Pali Canon as “often giving them (the ‘supernaturals’) doctrinal talks,” is simply not true. Of all the 186 Suttas of the Dīgha and Majjhima Nikāyas, there is only a single one of which this is true, the Sakkapañha Sutta, DN 21.

      The truth is almost the exact reverse of what Collins would have us believe. Apart from the significant evidence from the Dīgha and Majjhima Nikāyas, an analysis of one of the main sections of the Canon that deals with supernormal beings, the Sagāthā Vagga of the Samyutta Nikāya, shows that they are almost exclusively confined to circumstantial material found in the narrative sections. The Sagāthā Vagga contains over 200 Suttas in which the Buddha is seen in conversation with divine beings. However, in only 21 of these does the actual conversation, as opposed to the surrounding material, suggest that one of the parties is non-human. Further, 15 of these 21 are conversations with Māra. But since Māra in the EBTs is often just a name for a psychological state, it is likely that this is so in the majority (perhaps all ?) of these cases too. This leaves us with only 6 Suttas out of more than 200. But even this number does not give an fair representation of the state of affairs. All of these 6 Suttas consist of no more than the exchange of a few inspirational verses. They either lack doctrinal content completely or it is very limited. That is, we are probably not dealing with the sort of core doctrinal material that might be considered untouchable.

      The above quick survey does not cover all the Suttas in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha is seen conversing with supernormal beings, but it probably comprises the vast majority of them. What we find, then, is that supernormal beings are no more than peripheral and mostly mentioned either in stories or in the narrative material that surrounds the core doctrinal content. In other words, whatever ‘enhancement’ the EBTs underwent at the hands of redactors was limited to the circumstantial material and did not affect the core message of the Buddha’s teaching.

      The above is not to deny that the EBTs subscribe to a world-view of which supernormal phenomena are a part. Indeed, it is likely that this very world-view was partly responsible for the inclusion of such material in the narrative sections. That, and the prestige that this may have given the Suttas in the eyes of the intended audience, is sufficient, it seems to us, to explain why it is there. There is no good reason for thinking that the existence of these elements shows that the transmission of the core doctrinal content has been unreliable.

    • Splitting hairs is hardly refutation of the point Collins makes.

      “There is no good reason for thinking that the existence of these elements shows that the transmission of the core doctrinal content has been unreliable.”

      This is just confirmation bias – you define his reasons and “not good” and your reasons as “good”. You have no basis for this except the texts themselves. What good reason do you have for believing the texts to be reliable witnesses?

    • Hi Jayarava,

      This is not splitting hairs; it is a fundamental distinction in the way the texts have been edited. All schools accept that the narrative material was added after the core doctrinal content. This is what the first council/communal recitation was about. All versions of the first communal recitation tell us that Ananda was asked to supply the narrative material. This means that this does not have canonical status in the same way as the doctrines. It is for this reason that we see much more variety across the different traditions in the narrative than in core doctrines.

      What are these core doctrines? A good place to start is with the 37 bodhipakkhiyadhammas. The texts themselves, in several places (MN104, DN16, DN29), refer to these as the core teachings. Just yesterday I was comparing the jhāna formulas of the Pali with those in the new translation of the Chinese Madhyama-āgama, these being an important component of the set of 37. The astonishing thing is that the two are almost verbatim the same. For the first and second jhāna they are, as far as I can tell, identical. For the third jhāna there are a couple of minor differences, one of which seems to be a clear case of mistranslation from the Indic into Chinese. For the fourth jhāna there is a again a slight variation, which to me looks like no more than a different way of translating the same underlying Indic.

      This is astonishing since we are comparing lines of textual transmission that have been separated since roughly the time of Ashoka. This is not just about separate schools (for which our sources are generally imprecise), but about geographical separation. It seems well established that Buddhism was spread over a very large part of India by the time of Ashoka, or at least this happened as a result of his policies. I am not aware that there are any reasons to doubt that Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka at this time (in fact I think it is likely it was already there) and that other Buddhists, the Sarvāstivādins or their precursors, arrived in Kashmir at roughly the same time (again, they may have been there even earlier). The distance between Kashmir and Sri Lanka is about 3,000 km. What we are seeing is the development of different textual lineages, even if school affiliations hadn’t yet crystallised at this stage.

      What this amounts to is 2,300 years of separate transmission. This would have included at least a couple of centuries of oral transmission before the texts were committed to writing. The Sarvāstivādin text of the Madhyama-āgama was then translated into Chinese in the late 4th centuiry AD. (And this was done through oral recitation, not from a manuscript. This shows the complexity of the relationship between oral and written preservation of the texts.) In the meantime the Mahāvihāravāsins of Sri Lanka (the precursors of the Theravādins) preserved their texts in Pali, first orally and then in written form. Yet despite the significant differences in how the texts were transmitted, when you compare core doctrinal elements, as I have done above, they are still virtually identical. This is nothing short of astonishing and it shows the extreme conservatism with which the texts were preserved. And, yes, it means that we have a record of pre-Ashokan Buddhism.

      A similar, but perhaps even stronger case, can be made by comparing the contents of the pātimokkha rules. In this case we still possess the full pātimokkhas of 6 or 7 different schools. And although there are occasional differences in wording, the overall agreement is nothing short of astonishing (with the exception of the most minor category of rules). This concerns the Vinaya, disagreement over which, according to MN104, is trifling compared to disagreement over the 37 bodhipakkhiyadhammas.

      But I would go even further. We need to ask where did this conservatism stem from. The obvious answer, since it seems to concern all Buddhist schools, is that is must be an inheritance from pre-dispersal Buddhism. The distance from Ashoka to the Buddha is probably no more than 150 year, perhaps less. If Buddhism in this period was conservative, there seems to be every reason to believe that we still possess the essence of what the Buddha himself taught.

  11. University of Queensland investigates fresh claims of research misconduct by former academicsABC Online ‎- 4 days ago
    The University of Queensland is investigating new concerns of possible academic misconduct by two former academics. Dr Caroline Barwood …

    I think there is more bias or “mateship” in some Universities than most people realise – maybe standards have dropped

  12. It’s not like this is a new idea. For example:

    “But, during the present century, and especially during the past several decades, Buddhologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion have raised serious doubts about this naive use of the suttas as sources for reconstructing Theravāda Buddhist history. Thus it is now recognised that the form in which the suttas survive today, like Pāli itself, is the result of grammatical and editorial decisions made in Sri Lanka centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha… More important still, historians and anthropologists have pointed to the rift between Buddhism constructed as ‘canonical’ on the basis of the teachings in the suttas and the actual practices and ideas of contemporary Theravāda Buddhists. As similar divergences from this ‘canonical Buddhism’ are evidenced as early in Buddhist history as our evidence itself, namely the time of Aśoka Maurya (third century B.C.), the question emerges whether the reconstructed ‘early Buddhism’ ever existed at all.

    … I think it fair to say that among contemporary historians of the Theravāda there has been a marked shift away from attempting to say much of anything at all about ‘early Buddhism'”

    – Walters, Jonathan. S. (1999) ‘Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the Sermon on the Noble Quest (Ariyapariyesana Sutta).’ History of Religions 38.3: 247-8.

  13. Katuviya Sutta: Putrid

    I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Varanasi in the Game Refuge at Isipatana. Then early in the morning the Blessed One, having put on his robes and carrying his bowl & outer robe, went into Varanasi for alms. As he was walking for alms near the fig-tree at the cattle yoke, he saw a certain monk whose delight was in what is empty, whose delight was in exterior things, his mindfulness muddled, his alertness lacking, his concentration lacking, his mind gone astray, his faculties uncontrolled. On seeing him, the Blessed One said to him: “Monk, monk, don’t let yourself putrefy! On one who lets himself putrefy & stink with the stench of carrion, there’s no way that flies won’t swarm & attack!”

    Then the monk — admonished with this, the Blessed One’s admonishment — came to his senses.

    So the Blessed One, having gone for alms in Varanasi, after the meal, returning from his alms round, addressed the monks [and told them what had happened].

    When this was said, a certain monk said to the Blessed One, “What, lord, is putrefaction? What is the stench of carrion? What are flies?”

    “Greed, monk, is putrefaction. Ill will is the stench of carrion. Evil, unskillful thoughts are flies. On one who lets himself putrefy & stink with the stench of carrion, there’s no way that flies won’t swarm & attack.

    “On one whose eyes & ears
    are unguarded,
    whose senses
    are unrestrained,
    flies swarm:
    resolves dependent on passion.
    The monk who is putrid,
    who stinks of the stench of carrion,
    is far from Unbinding.
    His share is vexation.

    Whether he stays
    in village or wilderness,
    having gained for himself no
    he’s surrounded by flies.
    But those who are consummate
    in virtue,
    who delight
    in discernment & calm,
    pacified, they sleep in ease.
    No flies settle on them.”

    metta & mudita

  14. Sujato, you say “This is pretty much off the cuff, and refers to the entire corpus of the early period of Buddhism, rather than the limited corpus of early Buddhist texts as such, ie. all Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma material in all languages. ”

    OK this helps to clarify how you are using “Early Buddhism”. I only include the Suttas as the products of early Buddhism, with the Vinaya being so much more divergent across versions it’s clear that the production of rules and commentary continued for some centuries after the early period. It is transitional having a foot in the early Buddhist camp, but clearly extends out of that time period. Vinayas are post-sectarian documents. The various versions of the Abhidharma are so different that they aren’t very close related at all and clearly date from quite a bit later. I would not include any Abhidharma texts under the label “Early Buddhism”.

    One of my friends has called me, half in jest, a Sautrānatika. I would qualify that as I don’t subscribe to the traditional beliefs ascribed to them – Navasautrāntika.

    The problem with such a definition is that it overlaps substantially with the early Mahāyāna period – so a text like the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra would have to be included in your definition as an early Buddhist text, let alone some of the texts like Ugraparipṛcchā that Jan Nattier has studied. I would also probably add the Sukhāvativyūha texts.

    Such a broad definition of “Early” (i.e. one that includes elements that are clearly late) isn’t very useful.

    • Hi Jayarava,

      I’m trying to get to yours and others comments in what little time I have, so forgive me if these are somewhat piecemeal.

      I agree with most of what you say, and that’s not how I normally use Early Buddhism; normally I use it to refer basically to the Sutta period. I agree with you that the Vinaya is substantially later, although this does not apply to the patimokkha rules and certain other aspects of Vinaya, which show a high degree of uniformity across traditions (more than the suttas in the main).

      My point was simply that there may be some early Buddhist material in this corpus; for example, I have argued that even in the Abhidhamma Vibhanga we see some signs of features earlier than the comparable suttas. Development doesn’t proceed smoothly, and at all stages we find early passages, quotes, or ideas embedded in later texts.

    • Sujato, you write “I agree with most of what you say, and that’s not how I normally use Early Buddhism; normally I use it to refer basically to the Sutta period”, and I think that this is important– as I mentioned in an earlier comment, Collins makes it quite clear that he is using the phrase “early Buddhism” to mean the pre-Aśokan period, so his claim about “the complete impossibility of knowing what ‘early’ Buddhism was” is a much more narrow, and less controversial, claim.

    • Hi Michael,

      Yes, I’m really wishing I hadn’t used the term in such a broad way earlier, it has obviously caused a lot of confusion, whereas it was intended to be merely a reflection of a scope of texts. I’ve always understood Collins’ usage in the way you explain it, and that is also how I use Early Buddhism, pretty much.

      But I disagree with Collins’ statement no less. On the theoretical level, it pivots on the ambiguity of how we use “know”. Sometimes we use “know” to mean “doubtless certainty”. And in this sense what he says is trivially true, but of course it applies to pretty much everything, so it’s meaningless. In the weaker sense of “knowing”, which is obviously what we intend, we can know lots about Early Buddhism, in the same way that we know lots about any field of study.

      This rhetorical sleight of hand is a basic principle of denialist argumentation, whether it be creationism of climate change denial or whatever. Evolution is, after all, “just a theory”!

      In this conference, during one talk I was sitting next to someone who was criticizing the speaker, based on a misunderstanding, while the speech was still going on! That’s how short it takes. So of course there are problems in understanding Buddhist texts. But to dismiss an entire field of study of one of the world’s great spiritual literatures, on the grounds that there are uncertainties, is sheer madness. It’s like saying that we think some of the stage directions in Shakespeare were added by a later editor, so no-one should read or perform the plays, and to do so is morally wrong. And the outcome is, as we see, that the field is neglected, standards of knowledge decline, and no new advances are made.

      And this is the most important feature, to my mind, of a denialism. It purports to be about a certain field, whereas it is in reality an attempt to end that field; and we can see this because it makes no contributions to the field. Creationism has added nothing to our understanding of biology; climate change denial has added nothing to our understanding of climate change; and the denialists of Early Buddhism have added nothing to our understanding of the Buddha or his teachings.

  15. Brahmali,

    I have to restart this thread since we’ve run out of layers.

    I accused you of hair splitting because none of the distinctions you draw address Collins’ (and my) central concern: *we cannot distinguish transmission from invention*.

    The claim is to knowledge of the period before textual standardisation happened, but we literally have no idea what was added or (importantly) subtracted. At least not in total, because we can clearly see some of the bits that have been added – such as my example of the Vedic inspired life-story of the Buddha in which he and his family all have Brahmin names and behave like high caste Hindus. Thus we know with some certainty that parts of the Canon are invention, just not how much. But as time goes on historians and archaeologists are showing that more and more is invention.

    As I said to Sujato – we simply have no evidence that predates the Asoka inscriptions. There is no way to test the propositions you are putting forth. So put them forth as conjectures instead of facts and the argument will be over. Stop acting like you know what happened when you are actually guessing. This is what concerns me.

    BTW the consensus has shifted away from Asoka actively spreading Buddhism – more likely the dhamma he was advocating was the asoka-dhamma. He was not involved in sending out Buddhist missionaries for example. Asoka sent political ambassadors and the Buddhist establishment independently sent out missionaries. History has been revised – by K R Norman’s series of articles on the inscriptions.

    The Chinese translations date from the 4th century CE – more than enough time to have been translated, in writing, from an unknown Prakrit into Gāndhārī and edited for consistency, and then edited again by the Chinese translators (they did that). Just as the Pāli Canon was translated from some unknown Prakrit into what we now call Pāli. Once Sanskrit became the literary language Sanskrit translations – whose idiom seems to have closely matched the Gāndhārī – were also made. That the underlying language was once Prakrit can be seen, for example, in some puns on the word brāhmaṇa that require it to be spelled bāmaṇa when Pāli *always* spells it with an initial conjunct. See

    So comparisons with Chinese texts tell us nothing at all about early Buddhism that we don’t already know. Which is precious little.

    “If Buddhism in this period was conservative, there seems to be every reason to believe that we still possess the essence of what the Buddha himself taught.”

    If if if… It’s a weak argument when you concatenate a series of untestable conjectures the uncertainly increases exponentially – the uncertainty in each claim is multiplied rather than added. The conclusion is just what any bhikkhu could be expected to believe without any evidence. When a weak argument leads to the expected conclusion the rest of us are allowed to be suspicious that reason itself has been subverted. Confirmation bias is a feature of reasoning (See and is usually only avoided when arguing against a cherished belief.

    At what point does the exponentially increasing uncertainty devalue the conclusion so much that we stop believing is makes sense as a truth claim? Clearly that line has been crossed for the vast majority of historians and anthropologists who study Buddhism. The truth claims have so little basis in fact, and more recently have been actively undermined by historical, textual and archaeological discoveries, that they are not worth making. But the line has yet to be crossed by some believers who, for obvious reasons, have a much lower standard of proof. If a plausible story supports what we passionately believe (enough to vow *lifelong poverty and chastity*) then it is an easy (and understandable) step to accept the plausible as true. That those scholars with less invested in the outcome abandoned the enterprise decades ago is also not surprising – their livelihood is not based on plausible story telling, but on making progress in knowledge and teaching and publishing that knowledge.

    The upshot is that I think Sujato’s attacks on the academy are bogus. He refuses to accept the conclusions because of his beliefs, not because he has evidence to the contrary. I think it reflects poorly on an otherwise intelligent and engaging writer. He could simply say that he chooses to believe this or that because it suits his faith or sense of aesthetics, I’d happily accept that. But he wants to make a factual point about history, and on historical grounds he is simply wrong.

    Hyperbole aside, every scholar worth the name dreams of making a discovery that overturns the paradigm that oppresses their discipline. Paradigms are always oppressive to innovators and reformers.

    As a scholar my constant question to authorities is “how do you know that?” And no scholar can fake the answer to this question and expect to be taken seriously. I’ll finish with a quote from Noam Chomsky. Here I would argue that any claim to knowledge not backed by evidence is a form of deceit, and in a religious context such deceits are almost always in the service of power.

    “The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms.” – Noam Chomsky

    • The Chinese translations date from the 4th century CE – more than enough time to have been translated, in writing, from an unknown Prakrit into Gāndhārī and edited for consistency, and then edited again by the Chinese translators (they did that). Just as the Pāli Canon was translated from some unknown Prakrit into what we now call Pāli.

      It wouldnt matter how much the Chinese and the Pali texts had been edited and translated, their commonalities would still reflect their common source.

      As it happens, we find similarities everywhere from overall organisation to precise phraseology. Even strange things like the “Gotamas” anomaly (referenced above) seem to have sometimes passed unscathed through the translation and editing filters you mention.

      So, taking the Majjhima Nikaya and the Chinese Madhyama Agama as an example, we have two texts showing remarkable parallels at every level. Their differences (looking beyond the Chinese translation to the Indic text it was based on) seem to be a result of differences in oral transmission rather than conscious written errors or written addition (oral divergences include certain lists remembered in different orders, locations of sermons remembered differently, mistakes of memory such as reciting an inappropriate stock phrase.). I seem to remember Analayo commenting in one of his essays that neither the text behind the MA nor the MN seemed obviously older than the other.
      So given their similarities, the MA and the MN clearly come from a common origin. Most scholars seem to think that origin was at the time of Asoka.

      I think if you’re going to say we know nothing about early Buddhism, you’ve got to raise doubts about part of this story.

    • Possibly around the time of Asoka (we don’t know, but it is accepted by many as a reasonable guess) attempts were made to standardise Buddhist texts. It was largely successful but still resulted in a number of distinct canons, organised along different lines and with distinctly different wording in most cases, even when the message remained the same. As Jan Nattier’s work on the Heart Sutra makes clear this is a feature of translated literature. There can’t have been one prototype canon because the differences are too large for that.

      The standardisation only affected the suttas – the Vinaya portions of the canon are far more divergent and distinctively sectarian. The Abhidharmas are so different as to eliminate any possibility of a common root text.

      The Pāli Majjhima-nikāya (MN) and Chinese Madhyāgama (MĀ) contain an overlapping but very different group of texts. Many of the correspondences are fragmentary – as if the texts are mash-ups of smaller units that were assembled in different ways by different groups.

      If you, as I have done, take section 5 of the MĀ and track down all of the counterparts (which are scattered mostly in AN and SN, with many merely partial correspondences) then you can clearly see that MĀ §5 has been organised on a different principle to any part of the Pāli Canon (because the texts in MĀ §5 are a thematic collection on lokuttara paṭiccasamuppāda). The MĀ texts are more uniform and more extended than the counterparts in Pāli, indicating that they developed a little further before being finalised – whether before or after being written down is anyone’s guess.

      So the differences here are considerable. So much so that they cannot have had a single common source. They must have drawn in different ways on a body of uncoordinated source material. The compilers felt free to change which texts were in which collection and where, and to edit the texts themselves to ensure more uniformity. We see a similar phenomenon in the various versions of the Dharmapada – a loose collection of aphorisms drawing on an unsystematic pool of source material in different ways (some of which also ended up in the Mahābhārata and Jain texts). No doubt a close examination of the other Āgamas will show a similar pattern (and judging by the secondary literature and some dabbling in texts like the Kaccānagotta Sutta this is borne out).

      So your version of the relationship does not really stand up to closer inspection. Again we see what appears to be confirmation bias. Highlighting continuity and downplaying contradictory discontinuities in order to make the case seem stronger than it actually is. In fact discontinuity is at least as prominent and cannot be explained by a conjectured common origin text.

      Ironically and as interesting as all this is, none of this has much bearing on the point that Collins made, and that I have been repeating ad nauseum to little effect.

      The point is that whenever these texts were composed and compiled, and however well they were preserved by later generations, *they are not reliable guides to history*. Looking at the texts we cannot tell, in Collins words, what is invention and what is transmission. Though again I have several times pointed out that the bulk of the biographical details of the Buddha appear to be invention and that the scale of invention is much greater than most religieux will admit.

      That Buddhism as we first meet it is a development from something is not in doubt either – my own published work has argued for an Iranian/Zoroastrian influence, in addition to Vedic and Jain, for example. We can of course make conjectures about what that Buddhism might have been like. We can concoct edifying stories – and the Theravāda has been good at this and used it to great effect to argue, against all historical evidence, that Theravāda is synonymous with “original” Buddhism. But we have no evidence to support any of these conjectures. As has been repeatedly pointed out now, where we do have early archaeological evidence it actually contradicts the texts (Greg Schopen has made a career of pointing this out).

      The texts, whether Pāli, Sanskrit, Gāndhārī, Chinese or whatever, cannot be used to re-create pre-sectarian Buddhism as it was. Thus Collins’ remark is uncontroversial.

    • Yes, I shouldn’t have implied that MA and MN can be compared in isolation and traced to a single original collection of middle length discourses. I was remembering that during Analayo’s course on the MA almost every sutra seemed to have a close Pali parallel. Looking now at , although most of the sutras do have a Pali parallel, over 100 of those are in the Anguttara Nikaya and just under 100 in the Majjhima Nikaya.
      This doesn’t take away from the basic points that there is a high degree of similarity between most sutras in the MA and sutras in the Pali canon, and that this similarity must have an explanation.

      *these texts are not reliable guides to history*. Looking at the texts we cannot tell, in Collins words, what is invention and what is transmission.

      I don’t think the invention/transmission distinction works, it’s all transmission _and_ elaboration, from the beginning, even in the Buddha’s lifetime with disciples teaching on his behalf (this supposition accords with the suttas and with common sense). Then transmission of the elaboration, systemisation of the transmission of the elaboration, transmission of the systemisation of the transmission of the elaboration, elaboration of the transmission of the systemisation of the transmission of the elaboration…!

      It also depends what you mean by ‘history’. By comparing the texts of different early schools I think you can make fairly accurate guesses at the layers of texts that were being transmitted at a certain time. To go from that to a description of how Buddhism looked in the material world at that time is obviously a big step.

      You seem to imply that only archeological evidence is real evidence, which is a bit strange. By that standard you could say we have no evidence for the existence of Plato or Jesus.

    • May I just add to this, archeology has a strangely exalted status in recent Buddhist studies, mainly thanks to Schopen who has, to my knowledge, no archeological training and who has never even visited India. The works of actual archeologists, such as Allchin, speak again and again of the uncertainty of the evidence, the inadequacy of the excavations, the disturbance of the ground, and the tenuousness of the interpretations. I mentioned to an archeologist once that in Buddhist studies archeology is seen as the gold standard of reliable facts. He just laughed. Archeology is great, but it is just one more strand in a complex web, to be used sensitively and carefully with all other sources of inquiry.

    • Jayarava,

      You keep on arguing along general lines rather than addressing the specifics I have raised. Moreover, you are side-stepping the main issue of the agreement of the texts and bringing up irrelevant material, as Qianxi has already pointed out. Could it be that the good Jayarava, too, has confirmation bias? I can think of a number of reasons why the argument that we can know nothing about early Buddhism would suit your predilections.

      If if if… It’s a weak argument when you concatenate a series of untestable conjectures the uncertainly increases exponentially

      My argument compares ancient texts and concludes that the schools must have been conservative in preserving them because their essence is virtually identical. This is hardly conjecture. I then suppose that this must mean that the pre-dispersion Buddhism was also conservative. Ok, this is not fact, but it is hardly wild speculation either. If there is a better explanation, I would of course consider it. To paraphrase Richard Gombrich, you are making mountains where there is hardly a molehill.

      I would like to repeat that any sincere Buddhist would need to accept both scientific and historical fact. It is madness to base one’s life on a lie.

    • Hi Brahmali

      I don’t engage with your specifics because they are not relevant. The points you make all refer to matters after the period that Collins is writing about. You want to have a different discussion. Though in fact I have addressed the matter of Chinese translations now at least twice. They are 4th-5th century CE translations of *written* texts already translated into Gāndhārī from an unknown substrate language. Copying written texts is a relatively conservative practice. Conservatism in an age of written texts is hardly a revelation. But later conservatism is not evidence of earlier conservatism.

      The same Gāndhārī speaking region ca. -100 to +200 produced some of the quintessential Mahāyāna texts and saw a number of innovations in Buddhist art and literature. The early texts were far from the first choice of text to transmit to China – more of an after-thought really. And by that time they seemed not to have complete Canons so all the āgamas are from different sects. So perhaps the Gāndhārī speaking people simply *lost interest* in the earlier texts once they were copied? Certainly there’s not much evidence of interest in pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism in China where the copies are preserved.

      You seem to take your own conjectures as facts. It’s this kind of naivete that I am criticising. Just because a conjecture is plausible doesn’t make it a fact. And this I believe is consistent with the Buddhist approach to knowledge. As my own mentor says: “thoughts are not facts”.

      I think it is you, and Sujato, who are making a mountain out of a molehill. Where there is no evidence you claim that conjecture counts as evidence (especially when it confirms your preconceptions). Where there is a little evidence you claim to have a lot. And where there is a lot of evidence you wish to argue that there is none. Funny way of going about scholarship if you ask me.

      There is, quite simply, a broad consensus amongst scholars that early (i.e. pre-sectarian or Pre-Asokan) Buddhism is almost entirely a matter of conjecture. The Pāli texts certainly don’t represent this period any more than later translations do. And this is all Collins has said. Not only Collins, but other scholars including Walters who I cited at some length above, say this. It is uncontroversial. By extending early Buddhism to include all sorts of late productions you and Sujato have only confused matters.

      BTW I do have confirmation bias. We all do. But research has shown that it is far more problematic when seeking to justify a proposition than when arguing against it. I have written about this on my blog: And I’m not making a personal point here – I’m restating a broadly accepted conclusion in the field in which I work. One that has been weighed quite carefully over decades.

    • Just one point here. There is no consensus among scholars such as you say. Most of the scholars who dismiss the study of Early Buddhism are not themselves experts in the field. And most of the experts in the field affirm the authenticity of the texts, with greater or lesser degrees of confidence.

    • Hi Jayarava,

      There are a number of indisputable facts about the Buddhist corpus, including:

      1) There is considerable linguistic evolution within it;
      2) There is considerable philosophical evolution;
      3) There is agreement between some texts of different lines of transmission, whereas there is much less agreement, or none, between other texts.

      These facts demand an explanation, an explanation that must take into account all relevant information. Schopen’s ideas of harmonisation and levelling are not up to the job. The suggestion that there is a common source for the common material is. If there is any other theory that can explain why distinct textual transmissions have common elements and at the same time considerable differences, then let it be heard. As far as I know, there is no such theory.

  16. It would be difficult to see how anyone not reasonably enlightened ie career scholars could transcribe texts properly because they would be filtering it through their own defilements, biases wouldn’t they? or not?

  17. Qianxi I’m continuing our thread here after running out of layers.

    What I’m seeing from you is a complete unwillingness to even engage with any evidence that conflicts with your view. Any objection I present is simply batted away. Such evidence ought to at least raise some doubts. The fact that you refuse to entertain any doubt makes the discussion a closed loop. And while it has been entertaining to some extend to go around these little circles with you it is starting to lose it’s appeal.

    “You seem to imply that only archeological evidence is real evidence, which is a bit strange.”

    Oh don’t be ridiculous. I’ve spent half of my life studying and writing about Buddhist texts, taking the time to learn Pāli, Sanskrit and (some) Chinese along the way precisely so that I may read the texts without an intercessory translator. There are currently _341_ essays on my blog (about half a million words) most of which are about Buddhist texts. Plus I have half a dozen published articles on the history of Buddhist ideas as found in the texts (and 3 more currently being reviewed by journals), and 3 books on various subjects. Don’t take the piss.

    The question is what kind of evidence are Buddhist texts? And to what period are they a window?

    You seem to have a fixed view on this and no amount of factual criticism seems to be able to shift it. For example we have an absolute date for the Chinese texts that you insist on denying – taking them to represent a period some 400-500 years earlier. When I point out discontinuities you set them aside and focus on continuities, as though discontinuities don’t need to be accounted for. As I say this is technically known as confirmation bias. See my link to Mercier & Sperber below.

    Sometimes when the discussion is bogged down, as here, one must move to a meta-discussion about why progress on that level is impossible. To treat the discussion as anthropological fieldwork.

    The questions that begin to interest me are: Why do facts fail to convince? Why are religious people particularly impervious to facts? Drawing on work by Antonio and Hanna Damasio I’ve synthesised a way of talking about this problem that I think sheds light on it. For example here:

    For you the facts I present seem to have no salience. You give them only cursory attention before dismissing them even when they have the weight of a professional consensus behind them. And in response to specific criticisms you simply shift the discussion away from an area that might encourage doubt, to one where you feel sure of your ground. It’s fascinating to watch this happening and to reflect on the processes that might be taking place. It very much seems to be what Mercier & Sperber describe in their argumentative theory of reason.

    • My “you seem to imply that only archeological evidence is real evidence” was aimed at what you had written here rather than at what you have written in other places! Especially:

      We have precisely zero *evidence* before the Asokan pillars that Buddhist existed at all, and Asoka provides us with a very brief and narrow glimpse some 150 years after the purported date of the death of the Buddha; or 250 or 350 years depending on which chronology (all entirely based on the Pāli texts) one accepts. The first actual evidence is all from the common era.

      (for the length of time from Buddha to Asoka, there’s also a 116 year dating in the Sarvastivadin Asokavadana in Sanskrit and Chinese and Samayabhedoparacanacakra in Chinese.)
      I think we just differ on the definition of ‘evidence’ and on whether one should emphasise consistency or difference. Looking at a little of what you have written, you obviously think it _is_ worth trying to talk about early Buddhism. It was Collins’ suggestion that it was not worth it that I was disagreeing with.

      On the subject of academic opinion on the value of comparative studies for looking at early Buddhism, I thought I’d paste these in here for anyone interested:

      from Richard Salomon ‘Recent Discoveries of Early Buddhist Manuscripts: And Their Implications for the History of Buddhist Texts and Canons’ in Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, 2006, p.351

      Moreover, most if not all modern scholars have also given up hope of reconstructing such an original canon by means of comparing the earliest surviving versions of the texts.

      I don’t think that the ‘reconstruction of an original canon’ is necessarily the aim of comparative studies on early Buddhism, it’s more about identifying stages of development.

      There are various technical and methodological reasons why this comparative method is apparently doomed to failure,

      Salomon then inserts a footnote: “See, eg., comments in Schopen 1985:14-22”
      The reference is to Gregory Schopen 1985 “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism: the layman/ monk distinction and the doctrine of the transference of merit” in Studien zur Indoligie und Iranstik 10:9-47, reprinted in Bones Stones and Buddhist Monks, pp 23-55.
      At first glance Schopen’s essay seems to be more a warning against simplistic assumptions rather than evidence that the comparative method is ‘doomed to failure’. However, I haven’t gone through it in detail yet.
      Salomon continues

      but the essential problem is that, by the time of the earliest testimonia, Buddhist tradition had already differentiated into several, perhaps many, regional divisions with significantly diverging texts and doctrines, no one of which can legitimately be privileged as the ‘oldest’ or ‘most authentic’.

      I think this misses the point. Calling commonalities between eg. Sarvastivadin Agamas and Pali Nikayas ‘Asokan’ relies on the hypothesis that these two traditions had not significantly influenced each other since Asoka. It doesn’t rely on assuming that the Nikaya is the oldest and using that as a ruler by which to measure the agama.

      On the other hand there is the Ven. Analayo’s defense of comparative studies + references to comments by de Jong (1993), Lamotte (1988), Bareau (1974), Frauwallner (1953), Oldenberg (1898) in the final section of

      Click to access ReflectCompAgama.pdf

  18. Bhikkhu Brahmali – again we’ve run out of layers. On the subject of indisputable facts, you suggest these 3:

    1) There is considerable linguistic evolution within it;
    2) There is considerable philosophical evolution;
    3) There is agreement between some texts of different lines of transmission, whereas there is much less agreement, or none, between other texts.

    Agreed – more or less, though like our friend Qianxi you seem more than willing to play down discontinuities. The linguistic evolution is slight. A few archaisms are found in Suttanipata but the *language* of the Canon is fairly standard. Stylistic evolution is far more pronounced, and given the literature probably spans 500 years this can hardly be surprising. The agreement between different lines of transmission is often fragmentary or partial. One line could easily be a translation of another from one Prakrit to another, or from Prakrit to Sanskrit – i.e. lines are not necessarily parallel.

    But so what?

    1. We have no idea where in time or space that any putative convergence happens. Indeed the earliest absolute dates we have are for Gāndhārī manuscripts from ca. 0-200 CE – and they have no evidence for āgamas or anything other than ad hoc collections, and are mainly Mahāyāna in any case. So if our guesses (and they are only guesses) about the dates of the Buddha are correct then the convergence *might* have happened at any point from ca. 600 or 400 BCE to 200 CE. Or a span of some 600-800 years! All Asoka’s pillars tell us is that there were Buddhists in ca 250 BCE. At best that narrows the range of time down to 250-450 years – with a terminus ad quem well into the common era. Before Asoka, the terminus a quo, there is no evidence at all and no way that I know of to test the conjecture.

    Contrast the Big Bang theory. The fact that all galaxies are moving away from us points back to a time when everything was much closer together. We know of no perturbing force so assume it just all goes smoothly back. We can calculate the effects of gravity (using mathematical models of the universe we see that are now a bit wonky) and thus make predictions about how the universe much have looked at various times. But what is different here is that we can make predictions that are testable – by observing very distant galaxies, but using particle accelerators, by observing the background radiation of the cosmos.

    As far as I know there is no *testable* prediction that a Buddhist textual convergence theory can make. All evidence pre-Asoka that we might have used is entirely absent to date. Please do update me if there is some new way of testing any of these conjectures.

    2. In Buddhism we seem very reluctant indeed to discuss areas with a lack of convergence at different points both within and without the Pāḷi Canon (e.g. my account of MĀ §5 above; or the case of the Dharmapada). The very many texts which partially overlap suggesting not a single text but a collection of aphorisms or fragments that are collated into texts at different times and places, before being subsequently anthologised at a later date. In fact once one begins to study the texts in detail the lack of convergence appears in many ways. But the very idea of convergence seems to swamp the brains of people thinking about the history of Buddhism and wipes out any trace of non-convergence – so there appears to be no attempt to account for it.

    One of the discontinuities I have pointed to is the invented name of the Buddha. This seems not to have made any impact at all around here. Sujato simply swats it aside as irrelevant. But Buddhists not knowing the name of the putative founder of their religion strikes me as sensational. Buddhists must have _forgotten_ his name and then had to make one up, and done so in a strongly Brahmin influenced culture. This suggests that the name found throughout the Pāli Canon was probably an invention of the post-Aoksan period.

    Such discontinuities are hard to explain in a convergence model. And so few people are looking for discontinuities or writing up the discontinuous results in the literature that it’s easy to get the wrong idea. If only those with strong opinions would actually have done the work required to be so certain!

    Generally speaking the development of Indian culture defies a tree model of evolution and looks more like a braided river with many branches and confluences over time. Large scale convergence is actually quite an unlikely scenario if you look closely at how ideas develop in India. And if you take into account the trading of influences between groups. Indeed, the popularity of cladistics not withstanding, the tree structure of evolution is something of a Victorian conceit that doesn’t wholly apply even in the evolution of species.

    3. We have no idea what any putative convergence signifies (is it, in Collins words invention or transmission?).

    Of course if we believe in a founder figure to start with, and we believe the stories about how transmission worked before the evidence is firmly established (and the two are entirely different) then we see in the texts a confirmation of beliefs that are based on a naive reading of the texts in the first place. And so around we go again.


    Once again nothing you put forward as argument in any way impacts on what Collins and Walters (et al) have said. We can certainly make conjectures, I have never denied this, but there is no way to _judge between conjectures_ as to what is the case and what isn’t. In Sujato’s terms we have no way to know what is a valid inference and what is not. We simply don’t know and as things stand we can’t know. At this point professional historians are forced to wait the discovery of new texts or new archaeological finds before saying anything more.

    The only people who continue under such conditions of ignorance are those with a vested interest in a particular version of history. Funnily enough, my opponent in this discussion is a frocked and tonsured member of the Buddhist clergy with a lifelong vow of chastity, whose identity and social status is completely tied up with a particular version of history. Might he be influenced by this? Is his pretence to neutrality and objectivity really credible? I wonder.


    On this small point…

    “Schopen’s ideas of harmonisation and levelling are not up to the job.”

    This is part of the problem with you guys. The detailed work of a highly qualified and experienced scholar, a dazzlingly original thinker and brilliant polemicist (if appalling show-off at times), who has examined the evidence at first hand and published many peer reviewed articles and books, can be written off in a dozen words without giving any argument against it. Maybe he is wrong. But if you want to make it a clash of opinions then I would take Schopen’s opinion against the opinion of a bhikkhu I’ve never heard of. Any day of the week! Either step up and make the argument, or point to your own published work which refutes Schopen, or drop the bluster. This is the kind of lazy, thoughtless attack on academia which poisons the well and contributes to the decline of Buddhist Studies as a subject.


    By way of homework I leave you with a challenge. Take the various definitions of nāmarūpa found in Nyanatiloka’s dictionary (or if you can find the time dig them out of the Pāli texts themselves because that would be more profitable) and try to resolve them. A couple of years ago I tried to do this and concluded “What is clear is that once we move away from simplified popular presentations of Buddhist doctrine, there is no single and coherent understanding of what this term means or represents.” In other words I could find no simple explanation of nāmarūpa which could have evolved into the various concurrent explanations found in the Canon. Or in other words textual definitions of nāmarūpa do not converge. Let me know if you can do better.

    • I just wanted to let you know that I finally had a chance to read “Siddhārtha Gautama: What’s in a Name?” It’s a fascinating read! It strikes me as a bit along the same lines as people who think his given name was Christ, Jesus. Or the little girl who thought Obama’s first name was President. I have to admit, though, that the last two pages are a staggering departure from the previous 12. It went from well argued academic paper to blogpost in a flash. I do indeed hope you find a suitable journal soon!

    • Oh, I’ve found two places where he explains the idea of ‘levelling’.
      Gregory Schopen “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism” in Bones Stones and Buddhist Monks, p. 27
      Gregory Schopen “Ritual Obligations and Donor Rules” in Bones Stones and Buddhist Monks, p. 80
      Bones Stones and Buddhist Monks available online in a pdf of dubious copyright status.

    • In fact, looking around this blog, I notice the Schopen view of the development of the canon and critiques of it have been quite comprehensively discussed before. Sujato’s critiques of Schopen’s view:
      Another critique of Schopen: Alexander Wynne, “How old is the Suttapiṭaka?”
      I think I’m going to stop posting and get reading! This is an argument that could run and run, as the newsreaders say.

    • Ok, Jayarava, here we go.

      1) Academia, including Schopen and Collins, will sometimes tell you that we can know nothing about the Pali Canon until the 5th century CE, i.e. the time of Buddhaghosa. One implication of this is that there is no internal evidence within the corpus itself that might help us in stratifying it. But as you have agreed this is untenable. The Pali commentaries are linguistically and philosophically very different from the Abhidhamma, which in turn is very different from the four main Nikāyas. Anyone who reads the Abhidhamma in Pali will see this straight-away: style and vocabulary, as well as certain ideas, are very different. From the Abhidhamma to the commentaries we see a similar shift. One has to conclude that the Nikāyas came first, then the Abhidhamma, and then the commentaries. The suggestion that we cannot know anything from the internal evidence of this vast corpus is therefore misleading. One would have expected better from a well-known scholar like Schopen. Or perhaps he just doesn’t know enough about these texts, in which case he would do well to keep quiet.

      The second important point regarding linguistic and philosophical evolution is that we can pin down with significant accuracy the sequence of textual production and point to the source from which all the other texts sprang. When you look at the texts in this way, it becomes clear that the fountainhead of the Buddhist textual tradition must be roughly equivalent to the four main Nikāyas. On the one hand, these four Nikāyas never refer to any other Buddhist texts (with the exception of the occasional reference to the pātimokkha and tiny parts of the Khuddaka-nikāya). On the other hand, all other Buddhist literature refers back to the four Nikāyas, and it is clear that the entire tradition depends on these texts. (Further down you speak of convergence and discontinuities, and it is obviously highly significant that most of the convergences are found precisely in this earliest textual stratum.)

      To the above you can add the high degree of homogeneity among these Nikāyas, as well as their revealing political and geographical content. There can be no doubt, then, that these texts stand out. They are the roots of the Buddhist tradition. It is in the light of this that I strongly object to Collins’ statement that it is impossible to know anything about early Buddhism.

      The above also shows why your suggestion that the commonalities between different Buddhist textual traditions may stem from as late as 200 CE cannot be correct. The Pali commentaries are a product of Sri Lankan Buddhism, specifically the Mahāvihāravāsins. These enormous works, which comment on the whole Sutta Piṭaka, as well as the Vinaya and the Abhidhamma, and which include the immense Visuddhimagga, would have taken a long time to reach their final form at the time of Buddhaghosa. They are a witness to the long development of Buddhism in Sri Lanka before Buddhaghosa. The Abhidhamma, by contrast, is an Indian phenomenon. It is established that many of the Buddhist schools (though possibly not all) had an Abhidhamma Piṭaka. Our present knowledge of this vast literature is very limited, but a comparison of the two extant Abhidhammas, that of the Sarvāstivādins and that of the Theravadins, shows that they have enough similarities to make it clear that they must have a common source (see Frauwallner). If we accept that Buddhism became firmly established in Sri Lanka at the time of Ashoka, we must conclude that the common source is pre-Ashokan. And this is for the Abhidhamma, which presupposes the existence of the four main Nikāyas.

      2) As regards continuities and discontinuities, it is misleading to say that the texts were collated out of “aphorisms and fragments”. The majority of the long suttas of the Majjhima and Dīgha Nikāyas have clearly identifiable parallels in the Chinese, and sometimes also in Sanskrit and Tibetan. Yes, there is sometimes a rearrangement of the material, as can be seen from Analayo’s comprehensive comparative study of the Majjhima Nikāya, but the similarities are usually extensive. Often the suttas are virtually interchangeable.

      One of Analayo’s interesting contributions to scholarship is that he shows quite persuasively that many of the differences between the Majjhima suttas and their parallels can be attributed to slips in the oral transmission. This takes us back to the point I was making earlier: Buddhism was widely dispersed in India by the time of Ashoka, and different lines of textual transmission, including those of the proto-Sarvāstivādins in Kashmir and the Sri Lankan Sangha, must be rooted in this period. This is deeply into the period of oral transmission. Analayo’s study therefore shows us what sort of mistakes we have inherited from this period. It also shows us what sorts of faults that can be expected from oral recitation and what sort of mistakes are unlikely to occur. One of the things that emerges is that pericopes, that is, standardised textual units, are likely to be transmitted with great fidelity even in an oral culture. So conservatism is not just a result of writing, as you suggested earlier, it is part of the Buddhist oral culture too.

      You mention a reluctance among Buddhists to discuss discontinuities. It seems to me that the existence of discontinuities is so obviously explained by the vast time spans and geographical spreads over which this literature was composed that it is hardly worth mentioning. It is the continuities that are unexpected and that need to be explained. And, as I mentioned above, a crucial point is that the main convergences are found in the earliest layer of texts.

      3) The suttas themselves speak of a single individual as being their source. We cannot just dismiss this unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, as in the case of the Mahayana Sutras. The suttas of the four main Nikāyas are not generally fantastical (with the exception of occasional super-normal events), and they are grounded in all sorts of everyday detail and realistic descriptions of human behaviour. It also includes place names (e.g. Kosambi) that we know from archaeology existed in the middle of the first millennium BCE. This sort of realistic literature deserves the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion we should assume that the texts are speaking the truth until the evidence compels us to do otherwise. And, even if you are right about this, I am not convinced that uncertainty about the name of the Buddha is sufficient.

      Moreover, the uniformity in style and content of the four main Nikāyas is suggestive. It is certainly not a cacophony of voices. That this should be the work of a committee or a number of individuals seems inherently implausible to me. The contrast with the Upanishads is instructive.

      4) Once again you bring up the spectre of confirmation bias among Buddhist monastics. An obvious counter to this is that most Western monastics (although I cannot give any exact figures) end up disrobing. And there is virtually no shame involved. Since it is possible to leave the monastic life at any time, and even reject Buddhism if you wish, the confirmation bias should not be much different from the general population. The priority must be integrity in one’s search for truth, otherwise one is doing a disservice to everyone, including oneself.

      5) Regardless of how “dazzling” Schopen may be in certain respects, he will make mistakes just like everyone else. One of his spectacular failures is precisely where he argues for his harmonisation and levelling idea. He has been criticised by number of scholars, including Gombrich, Wynne, Analayo and Sujato, for his shoddy scholarship in this particular case. His main argument in support of his thesis has been thoroughly demolished by Analayo in a recent article in the Indo-Iranian Journal (vol 55, 2012), which is one of the top journals in the field.

      But it is not just that his supporting argument fails, the whole idea is in fact seriously flawed. It doesn’t fit with the sort of similarities and differences that we find across the different traditions. How do you explain, for example, that the pātimokkhas are very similar across all extant textual sources, but the material in which these rules are embedded often varies considerably? With the idea of “levelling and harmonisation of earlier existing traditions” one would have expected the degree of harmonisation to be roughly the same within the same text. But this is not what we find. The suggestion, however, that we are dealing with a common core that was later expanded does fit the facts very well. The later material, or at least some of it, would have been added after Buddhism had started to disperse over a large area, and thus uniformity would no longer be feasible. This would especially be so after the beginning of the sectarian period, when rivalry would have made distinct textual lineages a matter of necessity and perhaps pride. If Schopen really is as great a scholar as you seem to think, then let’s stand on his shoulders rather get stuck in his shadow.

    • Thanks, Ven.

      “Dazzling” is an interestingly precise term. There’s a lot of flashy light, but it serves to obscure, not to illuminate.

    • Greetings in Anjali

      Could Bhante please quote the sutta where the Buddha Dhamma could be traded?

      And could also Bhante help to explain why all the Buddhas were called Buddhas?

      If not mistaken only 4 requisites were to be provided for the monks who were teaching or learning the Buddha Dhamma. Were there other items that was suppose to be provided?

      🙂 i was told by a very senior monk who doesnt hold any grand university endorsements that those who practice do not normally write and those who write do not normally practice. Your wise comments on this statement please …

      Danke schön


  19. Jayarava wrote, “Many of the correspondences are fragmentary – as if the texts are mash-ups of smaller units that were assembled in different ways by different groups.”

    From my own (limited) experience translating a few texts from the Chinese Agamas and checking their parallels, this seems correct. Many of these texts marked as “parallels” are basically different texts which just happen to share a few common elements. Such parallels may be convincing for people who “want to believe,” but not for disinterested readers.

    • Can you give us some examples? It certainly doesn’t seem this way from my own studies. Admittedly, though, when we come to the shorter texts it becomes harder distinguish between somethings that is clearly a variant of the same thing, and something that shares elements in common.

      However there are two quite distinct issues here. One is the extent to which different texts can be said to have been historically descended from a common ancestor, or at least to have some kind of meaningful historical relationship (they might, for example, have originated when different monks retold the same teaching in their own way, in which case there would be no common ancestor as such). The second is the extent to which they can be said to share a common doctrine. On the whole, comparative studies show that the doctrines are virtually indistinguishable; while the literary expressions of those doctrines show a somewhat greater degree of variation.

      Incidentally, using SuttaCentral I hope that we will be able to develop analytic tools that can help investigate these issues using statistical language analysis. Perhaps we might even solve some problems! (Just kidding!)

    • One example that comes to mind is the Buddha’s first teaching at the Deer Park, and some of its parallels. At one point I compared the doctrines a number of different editions of this text (an English translation of SN 56.11, along with seven versions in Chinese), and found that basically the only points of agreement in all of them were (1) some framing materials, and (2) the names of the Four Noble Truths.

      I would consider the major doctrinal elements here to simply be the ones that most people are accustomed to in SN 56.11: (1) the Two Extremes, (2) the Middle Way, (3) the Four Noble Truths, (4) definitions of those truths, and (5) mention of the Eightfold Noble Path. In many of the “parallels” to SN 56.11, some or even most of these doctrinal points are not shared. For example, SA 379, T. 110, and T. 1435 only have the Four Noble Truths (without definitions), and none of the other major doctrinal points.

      In other cases, it appears that SN 56.11 has had some additions to it. For example, in seven Chinese translations of the text, there is a refrain that the Four Noble Truths produce vision, knowledge, understanding, and Bodhi. However, SN 56.11 adds “tranquility” (upasamaya) and “Nibbana” in the list, effectively separating Bodhi from Nibbana, and portraying Nibbana as a separate stage after Bodhi. The Chinese translations do not contain these two items (e.g. Yijing uses: 能生眼智明覺).

      Since so much emphasis has been placed on this text as presenting the quintessential teachings of early Buddhism, I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned the huge amount of variation between these versions. Another example is MN 62, which has a parallel with EA 17.1. There are a few elements in these texts that are clearly parallel, but at least 50% of the basic content must be different. In that case, simply listing these as parallels does not tell the entire story.

      I agree that there are many interesting things that could be done with analysis of the language, even comparing the Pali to the Chinese directly.

    • Okay, I see better where you’re coming from.

      This case is somewhat unusual, since we have a very large number of variants. There has in fact been a reasonable amount of scholarly work done on this text, as for example this study, by a former student of Rod. This was in fact one of the first detailed comparative studies that I read, in the days before Ven Analayo began his work.

      I don’t have time to comment much on it right now, except to say that there are a number of distinguishing features of this particular text which justify the very large number of parallels (such as the setting). At the same time, there was clearly a tendency to leverage the prestige of this text by including various passages (such as the “devas” passage). And the inclusion of the text in greatly varying contexts means that unsual editorial pressures are applied. I am thinking of the situation in the Catusparisat Sutra, where the doctrinal teachings are broken up within the narrative, a process that is handled differently in different versions. There may also be, of course, various relations between the plain versions of the text (in the samyuttas, etc.) and the versions embedded in narrative. In addition to all this, one of the Chinese versions is included in the Ekottarika Agama, and that’s always an outlier.

      So this is not to dismiss the variations, or to minimize their importance in the context of this teaching. It is simply to say that the situation with this particular text is not very characteristic of the majority of suttas.

      And in the end, despite this very heavy level of editorial changes, we still find that the doctrines are basically the same. The four noble truths, the eightfold path, and so on, are the same everywhere. They may be present or absent in different editions, or arranged differently, but none of the changes make the slightest difference to the content.

    • LLT: “simply listing these as parallels does not tell the entire story”

      Absolutely, but I think it’s a useful starting point.

      Analayo has written a couple of articles on the Chinese Agama+Vinaya accounts parallel to the Pali Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta.
      “The Chinese Parallels to the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta (1)”, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2012, vol. 3 pp. 12-46.
      “The Chinese Parallels to the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta (2)”, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2013, vol. 5

      The first, on the (Mula)Sarvastivadin accounts, is available for free online. The second has been published in the journal but is not yet available for free.

      One way of analysing parallelism in more detail is identifying components of a sutra and seeing how they appear elsewhere in different combinations. Like picking parallel sutras, this is inevitably quite subjective.

      So you could say the three basic blocks of the Pali SN 56.11 are an explanation of the middle path (‘MP’), then an explanation of the meaning of the four noble truths (‘4NTExpl’) and then a talk on the three turnings (‘3T’): MP, 4NTExpl, 3T.
      In the Chinese (Mula)Sarvastivadin accounts of the first discourse we get:
      SA 379: 3T only
      Sanghabhedavastu of the MulaSarv Vinaya: MP, 3T, 4NTEXpl
      Ksudrakavastu of the MulaSarv Vinaya(1): 3T only
      Ksudrakavastu of the MulaSarv Vinaya(2): 3T, 4NTExpl
      Sarvastivadin Vinaya: 3T only
      (References in the Analayo article above). It seems the Sarvastivadins placed lots of importance on 3T. Apparently there is a different pattern when you look at the Chinese versions from other early schools, detailed in paper (2) in the series.

      Analayo argues that the shorter 3T-only accounts were not supposed to be complete accounts of the first discourse, they are simply extracts.

      On MN 62-EA17.1: the extra parts of MN 62 not talking about mindfulness of breathing may make more sense as a separate teaching to Rahula on a different occasion, as pointed out by Analayo and summarised in this article by Piya Tan:

      Click to access 3.11-Maha-Rahulovada-S-m62-piya1.pdf

  20. This analysis of 17 versions by Joseph Norman Smith is really excellent. I wasn’t aware that such an exhaustive study of this text was out there. I find it particularly interesting that he considered the simpler version used by the Sarvastivada to be more archaic, which was something that I had wondered about as well (doctrinally it contains just the three turnings).

    I find myself most curious about the relationship between the early agama texts (e.g. sutra anga of the Samyukta Agama), and other texts that are purportedly very early such as the Sutta Nipata and the Jatakas. I also question exactly how the texts were developed, and by whom, but it appears that our ability to know that is somewhat limited at the moment.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think there is so much to worry about. If it turned out that the Buddha as we know him was just a myth, then it’s not the end of the world. After all, most Hindus wouldn’t believe in the historicity of Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna at Kurukshetra, yet that doesn’t affect the popularity of the Bhagavad Gita.

    • Hi Llt,

      If it turned out that the Buddha as we know him was just a myth, then it’s not the end of the world.

      I think this is a very important topic. We need more clarity around this issue and a bit of debate is therefore welcome.

      First of all, what is a Buddha? From a Buddhist point of view, the issue, in the end, is not whether the Buddha is this or that historical personality – where he was born, his social standing, his life story, or even his name. The only point that really matters about him is whether he had a particular insight, an insight known among Buddhists as Awakening.

      It is in the light of this that the earliest discourses (the EBTs) gain their true significance. For many Buddhists they are the very expression of a Buddha’s Awakening. If these teachings are not a reflection of the profound insight of a particular person, then they are no more than a rational philosophy, and there would be little to set them apart from the rest of humanity’s history of ideas. Without its radical promise of Awakening, Buddhism loses much of its appeal, at least in my eyes.
      As I have argued above, the whole Buddhist tradition looks back to the EBTs and takes them as its reference point. One well-known scholar of early Buddhism, Rupert Gethin, has in fact argued that the history of Buddhism can be regarded as an attempt at working out the implications of the early discourses. It follows that if the early discourses are not what they claim, the rest of Buddhist history stands on a very shaky foundation.

      For Buddhism to make sense it must be based on a deep understanding of the nature of existence. It doesn’t matter who had that understanding, but it matters immensely whether it is reflected in the teachings a Buddhist follows. It is quite possible that this Awakening is reflected in other teachings apart from the EBTs, such as the teachings of certain individuals, but if it is not the impetus behind the EBTs, the rest too must be doubted.

    • “If these teachings are not a reflection of the profound insight of a particular person, then they are no more than a rational philosophy, and there would be little to set them apart from the rest of humanity’s history of ideas.”

      All Indian religious traditions hold that their sacred texts are passed down from one sage or another. We need not accept a dichotomy that either the EBTs came down from the historical Buddha himself or that they are simply rational philosophy. There has to also be some acknowledgement of Buddhism as a living tradition with empirical methods.

      “The only point that really matters about him is whether he had a particular insight, an insight known among Buddhists as Awakening. […] It doesn’t matter who had that understanding, but it matters immensely whether it is reflected in the teachings a Buddhist follows.”

      Surely there must have been some “arhats” or “bodhisattvas” in the Buddhist tradition since the time of the Buddha? In this sense, haven’t the EBTs been tested for over 2000 years?

      Yet, if there are contradictions and additions that did not come from the earliest teachings of Buddhism, are we really ready to put the EBTs on the chopping block? How many people could serve as a neutral party for this type of work?

    • LLT,

      Yes, I think it is likely that most religious traditions are rooted in the insights of its founder. The Upanishadic tradition, for instance, would seem at least to some extent to be based on the experiences of certain sages. In this context it is interesting that the EBTs seem to portray the Buddha as rejecting the insights of these sages. This is very different from the present day when the ideas (presumably based on insight) of a number of well-known Buddhist meditation teachers are hard to distinguish from Upanishadic/Vedantic ones; at least this is how it seems to me. Without the EBTs there is nothing to ground the Buddhist practice on, and it becomes very hard to make meaningful distinctions between one type of insight and another. If we want to avoid the kind of guru worship which is so rampant in many Buddhist circles, we need a base against which meditation and insight can be measured. This is what the EBTs give us. So, again, it seems to me that the authenticity of the EBTs is a matter of great, indeed vital, importance.

      This is not to deny that Buddhism has produced heaps of meditation masters over the millennia. This is in fact the promise of the EBTs. The problem is that without the EBTs it is hard to know exactly what these masters have achieved. Is it really the end of suffering? Or is it just a wonderful attainment, which in the end does not release one from the round of rebirth? In other words, we need to be careful we don’t grasp onto what the Buddha seems to have rejected as insufficient for true liberation.

      And I do agree with you that empirical methods are important, including, of course, one’s own experiences. Without making this teaching one’s own, it is quite pointless. And one should, as is already done, extend the empirical methods to include proper science. Perhaps even the idea of rebirth can one day be either confirmed or dismissed through empirical findings.

      Yet, if there are contradictions and additions that did not come from the earliest teachings of Buddhism, are we really ready to put the EBTs on the chopping block?

      I believe most of these contradictions and additions can be recognised for what they are with careful scholarship. This is what Ven. Analayo is already doing, and this work is only in its infancy. As a general rule of thumb, those teachings that occur again and again, across all the different traditions and textual sources, are likely to be genuine. Rare teachings, however, can more easily be a result of, or subject to, lapses in the traditions.

  21. Bhikkhu Brahmali,

    It is true that the EBTs can give us a unique and important frame of reference, but I don’t think referring to texts is quite sufficient for judging meditative accomplishments. Otherwise, it is a matter of intellectualism, subject to the interpretations of scholars and academics who may have no experience in meditation. Are the principles of one tradition fundamentally different from another, or are they just different expressions of the same thing? Only someone who has first-hand experience with the matter is truly qualified to say.

    Eventually the study of early Buddhism will pick up more, but the field of Buddhist Studies is not really so big at the moment. When considering the subjects at the AAR conference, it seems that they are all fairly narrow and specific when compared to the monolith that is “early Buddhism.” It may simply be that academics are shying away from the more difficult matters. This is nothing new, though. Consider how many scholars are doing gender studies or something related to current events, versus the number doing monumental work like a translation of the Mahavibhasa. The difficult material is all sitting on the shelf collecting dust.

    From what I have seen, though, there are two different approaches to the study. When confronted with differences between texts, secular scholars tend to point these out as differences, while scholars associated with a monastic tradition sometimes go to great lengths to assure the reader of continuity and to “smooth over” any differences. I’m all for the academic study of early Buddhism, but it should be done without bias from traditional mythologies about the matter.

    • LLT,

      Indeed, there are always going to be problems of interpretation. However, there are a number of low hanging fruits that almost anyone will be able to see by reading the suttas. One of these is the importance of samatha/samādhi on the Buddhist path. Another is the degree to which rebirth it integral to the Buddhist world view. Moreover, as you imply, I think the content the suttas tends to become clearer when they are properly practised. Certain interpretations become hard to justify in the light of one’s experiences. The purely academic study of the texts is particularly prone to misinterpretation.

      It also seems clear to me, however, that interpretation is far more difficult, often impossible, if we have no agreed standard with which everything else can be compared. A living tradition is certainly very important, because it brings the texts alive and it gives us confidence that the texts are genuine. Yet without something to measure them against, it seems to me that it is very difficult to find one’s way through the tangle of experience. It is where a strong tradition and experience intersect that the spiritual path becomes particularly potent. Although I would agree with you that experience is essential, both as a living tradition and for oneself, I also believe that without a textual arbiter it is almost impossible to fully evaluate spiritual experiences, whether one’s own or those of others, and one’s progress on the spiritual path.

      Regarding differences and similarities in the textual corpus, I’ve recently been reading some of the suttas in the new English translation of the Madhyama Agama in Chinese. The reality is, and I really cannot see how this can be disputed, that these suttas are generally very close to their Pali parallels. It is not just matter of them having a few ideas in common; all the significant doctrinal content is usually indistinguishable in the two versions. Yesterday I was reading the MA version of MN61. The difference between this and its Pali parallel is that the Chinese has added a few verses and that the setting is slightly different. Occasionally the wording of the text is different too. But I was not able to see any doctrinal difference at all. In my experience this is generally true for most of the early suttas, with the partial exception of the Ekottara- Agama. Yes, of course we should leave out traditional mythologies. There is, in fact, no need to invoke such things when the direct evidence is so strong.

  22. Guys
    I have just stumbled upon this (now 3 month old) blog and subsequent lengthy, detailed discussion. I just want to share with you all:
    I really hear the passion you have for these issues. How beautiful that you have such a deep interest in these things. I hope you will give as much attention to the state of your hearts and minds, as you do to the content you discuss.
    I may be wrong, but it seems that you are engaging repeatedly in arguing with each other – asserting, defending, rebuking, attacking, justifying, disagreeing etc. Is this wise? Is the divide and disagreement between you really worth this agitation? Is this really bringing clarity, freedom and and happiness?
    I hope the way you use your time and energy today bares good fruit for you and our world.
    Ancient words attributed to the Buddha:
    “Let not a person revive the past,
    Or on the future build his hope,
    For the past has been left behind,
    And the future not been reached.
    Instead, with insight let him see
    Each presently arisen state.
    Let him know this,
    And be sure of it,
    Invincibly, unshakably.
    Today the effort must be made.
    Tomorrow death may come – who knows? …”
    Meditation practice is available here and now. May you practice regularly and may it bare fruit.
    May you bring the practice into your discussions whenever you engage in them. May you know the state of your mind as you engage.
    May your discussions be free of ill will – in all its subtle manifestations.
    May you and all beings be well and happy.
    Warm regards
    (A friend on the way)

  23. Greetings Venerable Sir,

    First let me thank you for your excellent written scholarship and dhamma talks. The BSWA is a huge benefit to me, being in the US with no English speaking temples nearby.

    I am listening to your talk on this very subject and I agree completely. I spent years reading “Buddhist” books in an effort to understand what the religion is about. I knew I was on the right track but just was lost in the huge array of Buddhist gurus preaching doctrine that was, what I considered to be, for the most part incomprehensible. I’ve met many people who consider themselves to be Buddhist, none of whom could explain to me what Buddhism was about nor what the Four Noble Truths and Nobel Eightfold Path were.

    I was lucky enough to stumble on Ajahn Chah and the Thai Forest Monks and knew I was getting closer. And that leads me to what I believe is part of the problem. The only books I have ever found, to this day, to explain the dhamma in a concise, complete, and understandable manner accessible to the beginning student are “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness” by Bhante Gunaratana, and “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula. Yet I’ve never heard a monastic recommend either of these. The suttas are really not for the beginner in my opinion.

    I’m wondering if someone asked you how they could learn about Buddhism what would you say?

    A quick look at Wisdom Pubs website yields literally hundreds of book from later schools and a couple dozen from the Theravada tradition. Why? I can only guess that it is because the dhamma is simply incompatible with western consumptive mentality which appears to be sweeping the globe. As Ajahn Brahmali says, they hear the dhamma and don’t want anything to do with it.

    Just one man’s thoughts.


  24. Bhante, I sympathize with your main point in the article (I have not read all of the comments following, so I offer no opinion on later additions to that point), but I would add something on the human dimension of the problem –at human scale.

    The failure of Buddhist studies addressed to “the first 500 years” as you say (i.e., my own area of past interest and research, also) has involved a very small number of people at a small number of institutions. One of the most influential names in that story was (e.g.) A.K. Warder, who was attached to my own university; the dramatic collapse of his department (that had been the largest department of anything remotely connected to Sanskrit outside of India) left such a huge shadow over the university, that nobody wanted to touch anything like Sanskrit or Pali for decades. I know this both directly (from interviews with people involved) and “factually” in the sense of things seen on paper.

    While you can say that is “just one department” at “just one institution”, the reality is that this single institutional failure was (and is!) of tremendous significance for a tiny field, with very little institutional support anywhere in the world. Likewise (e.g.) the less dramatic collapse of Pali studies in Copenhagen is important, and you could make a pretty short list that would exhaust all of the salient institutions from the last 50 years –and, yes, failure in places like Toronto and Copenhagen really do matter.

    Of course, I myself have been one of the few people to write about institutional failure within Theravada Asia, also, from Sri Lanka to Bangkok (etc. etc.), but I think that’s not the subject under examination here.

    If you have a moment, you can take a look at my recently posted video that reflects on some related issues (including A.K. Warder himself):

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