The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

I’m proud to announce that the short book that Ven Brahmali and myself have finished, called The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts, is out now and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

The book is essentially a collection of short articles that gather much of what we know about the historical background of Early Buddhism into one place. We believe that the debate on the authenticity of the texts in academic circles has been badly skewed by an unscientific emphasis on extreme scepticism, and it is time for the pendulum to swing back. Anyway, enjoy!

The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts


29 thoughts on “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist texts

  1. Really interesting, I am going to start right now reading it 🙂
    Thanks for the no-copyrights, so everyone can read it.

  2. Thank you – I have downloaded and look forward to reading this. Will also share this post in the Buddhism in Action group that I manage on Linked In for wider sharing with Buddhists interested.

  3. I don’t think anyone doubts that the texts are authentic – the question is “What do they authentically represent?” And I have to say that, scientifically speaking, a couple of bhikkhus were never going to come up with the position that the texts that form the foundation of their religious beliefs are not authentic. That was never going to happen. The book starts off by saying: “A sympathetic assessment of relevant evidence shows…” In fact as a “fully ordained” bhikkhu you are a bit more than merely sympathetic aren’t you? A lifelong celibate ordination leaves you with a bit more than an academic interest in this discussion. If the texts turned out to be inauthentic, you and all your colleagues would have wasted your lives! Why pretend to objectivity when your argument is fundamentally tendentious?

    No doubt this work will be welcomed by other Buddhists.

    I suppose what really interests me about the apologetics that a few prominent Western bhikkhus have been producing in the last couple of years is the mere fact of them. In some ways I take it to be a good sign that traditionalists are fighting back – it means the critiques are starting to bite. The view is now that the authenticity of the texts and the dogmas of karma and rebirth *need* a substantial public defence. That’s progress!

    • I don’t think anyone doubts that the texts are authentic – the question is “What do they authentically represent?”

      We define authenticity as being “they are what they say they are”. The texts say they are the teachings of the Buddha, and there are plenty of people who deny that they are, or who deny that we can know anything; we refute both forms of denial.

      As for the rest of your comment, it starts by saying “science” and then is pure ad hominem. We could have made (equally meaningless) ad hominem criticisms of the denialists, but we didn’t, because it is unscientific.

    • Jayarava, despite your conspiracy theories, the fact remains that The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts was accepted and published by the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Oxford. Now, if you yourself have any conducted any relevant studies that were peer reviewed and published by an organization of equally high academic standards, feel free to point them out. Otherwise, any sensible academic is going to take this study more seriously than your completely unsubstantiated opinions!

    • BTW, Jayarava has also been published by the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies…

      Not, I should add, that that is relevant: it’s just another ad hominem criticism. The point is not whether he has been published and peer reviewed or not, but whether his arguments are cogent.

    • I don’t think pointing out the confirmation bias inherent in your work is ad hominem – there is a bias and such a bias is an important feature of your published work, so far as I have read it, it is everywhere evident. The first rule of science is to acknowledge one’s biases and try to eliminate them. Inherent in the process of science is the attempt to eliminate bias. Buddhist Studies is far from scientific in any of its manifestations. That you are an apologist for the Theravāda is also hardly an ad hominen – the book mentioned is an apologia for a religious point of view. This is just a simple fact. It would be more surprising if a Theravāda bhikkhu was not biased and not an apologist. Perhaps Anālayo might qualify, but I think you’ll agree that he is very unusual.

      You say that you refute the arguments that speak against taking the texts on their own terms. But you can only do this by taking the texts on their own terms, because there is no other evidence. The earliest archaeology appears centuries after the period in which the texts are said to have been composed. There’s literally no other evidence from the time. There’s no evidence, outside the texts, that the Buddha even lived. So the fact that you are arguing for authenticity is itself evidence of bias.

      As for your followers attacking me as a member of the TBO, I’m happy to be judged on my own published work including my blog. Judge away.

  4. Too late, Bhante! I already had the book on my tablet at least two weeks before you posted this, tsk tsk. Someone posted a link to this on Dhamma Wheel and of course on the Dhammaloka website.

  5. Says Jayavara: “A lifelong celibate ordination leaves you with a bit more than an academic interest in this discussion. If the texts turned out to be inauthentic, you and all your colleagues would have wasted your lives!” I hardly think this to be true. The Dhamma itself is a foundation upon which a very good life is built. The evidence is that these Bhikkhus applied scholarship to the issue of the historicity of the Pali primary texts. The evidence is quite clear that the core teachings of the historical Buddha can be discerned from these texts. There is wheat in the Pali Canon and the Agamas, and chaff, but the wheat has been largely discerned by Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars ; the chaff may be later additions, or hagiography, but the independent scholarship is able to largely discern between the wheat and the chaff. What “scholars” like Jayasaro wish to claim is that so long as any chaff exists, then it all can be considered chaff. That kind of approach has been disregarded by any serious scholar of the primary Pali Suttas, and seen as, as was in this case above, (unfortunately) ad hominem and lacking in evidentiary foundation. What Vens. Sujato and Brahmali have done is not apologetics, but serious work by two men who by their nature are skeptics and scholars. Calling the book ‘apologetics’ was a cheap shot, but not surprising considering the source (Triratna Buddhist Order? Sangharakshita??) I’m going to bite my tongue now before I say something (ad hominem-ish) I will later regret .

    • I probably shouldn’t have commented at all. I didn’t care for Jayarava’s tone and the nature of his comments. The history of the TBO and its founder are easy to research, the allegations very serious, and I felt that Jayarava might be a bit more circumspect before he makes ad hom comments. The issue of the Buddhavacana qualities of the EBTs will be interesting fodder for discussion among kalayana mitta of good faith, and I am deeply grateful for the scholarship that Vens. Sujato and Brahmali put into their book. Their positions ring very true to me, but in the west, these scholarly positions will be received with some degree of resistance. Even Einstein took some shots before some of his theories were verified. 🙂

    • Hi Michael,

      I understand your concerns, it’s just important to bring them up in an appropriate way, that’s all. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

    • Yes, Bhante, and having myself taken lifetime anagarika (8 precept) ordination, I need to be mindful to be circumspect about publishing my own opinions about others’ comments or behaviors. Right Speech Is as defined (and mine divisive and harsh), and I need to work at being more faithful to these precepts.

  6. That’s a really great collection of information and I have already got lots of use out of it. The internal links are a great convenience.

    One thing: doesn’t the claim that most of the four Nikayas were spoken by the historical Buddha and his immediate disciples contradict Yinshun’s theory of the primacy of the Saṁyutta Nikaya (quoted approvingly in the book and developed in detail in your History of Mindfulness) ?

    I think you successfully explode the ‘we can’t know anything about Early Buddhism’ myth, I’m just not sure about that final jump to the Buddha. Or, if I were to make the jump to the first council, I’d go with a speculative ‘pātimokkha+core of Saṁyutta Nikaya’ (I think that’s what Yinshun proposed, off the top of my head) rather than with the contents of all four Nikayas.

    • Hi Qianxi,

      The “Samyutta” theory (or as I called it, the “GIST”) doesn’t say that the texts in the Samyutta are necessarily more authentic than other collections; it says that the structure of the Samyutta is likely to be the oldest formal canonical collection. The relationship between the age of the collection and the age of the texts within the collection is a complex and indirect one. The Samyutta includes some late texts, just as other collections include some early texts. But the idea is that when the early Buddhists thought to gather their main, most important doctrines in one systematic form, the Samyutta is what they came up with. The main significance of the theory from the point of view of learning more about early Buddhism is that it allows us to infer some of the principles that went into organizing the texts, and from there to extrapolate back in time to what an even earlier collection, namely the angas, might have been like.

      I should add that the GIST is really one competing theory among several, and is by no means widely accepted in the West (although, thanks to Yin Shun, it is in Taiwan). Nor does it explain everything; it is much weaker when it comes to understanding the Anguttara, for example. The things we are establishing in the Authenticity book are much more general and more broadly based and, I think, more widely accepted.

    • >>and is by no means widely accepted in the West..<<
      Why should acceptance in the West be of any consequence to anything at all?

  7. Dear Bhante, I enjoyed the book, which shows that it’s extremely likey that most of the writings of the Pali Canon originate from the time of the historical Buddha. Since however it is also clear that these writings do not reproduce the words of Shakyamuni but are renderings of them by his contemporaries (in a form that is easy to memorise), I am still not sure of the extent to which they express his original thought. I remember a Dhamma talk in which the speaker (it might have been you or perhpas Ajahn Brahm) said that when giving a talk there are as many talks in reality as there are people listening, since everyone in the audience hears the talk differently, according to their different preoccupations, biases etc. In a similar way, when Ajahn Chah died I heard that his followers could not agree on what he had thought, because, as Ajahn Jagaro explained to the disciples to put an end to the controversy, everyone had ‘heard’ his teachings differently (and a recent visit to Amaravati showed me how different the interpretation of the Dhamma can be even amomgst Ajhan Chah’s followers). So is it not possible (likely?) that the Buddha’s thought was deformed before being petrified (or during petrification) into the form of the Suttas, and from then onwards it indeed was transmitted with hardly any alteration? Kind regards

  8. Excellent work with the new book. I’m enjoying it very much, and I appreciate the clear and direct approach. It also appears to be very useful as a reference. 🙂

  9. Bhante, the only problem I have with this book is that it only reaches out to a very niche audience. I doubt many other people besides those who are familiar with you, Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Brahmali and BSWA will have heard of this book. That’s a tiny subset of the Buddhist world.

    Maybe one way to reach out to a broader audience would be to put the book on the Amazon Kindle store? Any price can be set at anything from $0.00.

    • Hi Nibbida,

      Yes, and our publishers (OCBS and BPS) have very kindly allowed us to publish without any copyright restrictions. So in fact anyone can republish anywhere. For my part, I would rather wait a little out of respect for the publishers before putting it up elsewhere, but there is nothing stopping anyone else from doing so.

  10. Sujato

    I have just finished reading this and I think it is a valuable piece of work.

    Many thanks to you and



  11. The link to your book has moved on…
    I am struggling to keep up with Buddhism on the Inetrnet.
    Could someone send me a PDF of the book? This format suits me. The subject matter suits me.

    • @Reg Cunneen: Do you mean you can’t download the book following that link, provided above: ?
      It works just fine for me. Might it have been just a temporary server outage by chance? I would suggest to simply try again.

      Struggling to keep up? But what is there to keep up with? Perhaps it might be more in keeping with the Buddha’s message to slow down a little. 🙂

      Then the thought occurred to Angulimala, “These Sakyan contemplatives are speakers of the truth, asserters of the truths, and yet this contemplative, even while walking, says, ‘I have stopped, Angulimala. You stop.’ Why don’t I question him?”

      So Angulimala the bandit addressed this verse to the Blessed One:

      “While walking, contemplative,
      you say, ‘I have stopped.’
      But when I have stopped
      you say I haven’t.
      I ask you the meaning of this:
      How have you stopped?
      How haven’t I?”


      Anyway, I hope you can download it now if you have nothing better to do. For sure it’s an interesting piece of scholarly work for a good leisurely reading time.


  12. Bhante, regarding this passage from page 138 : “Several Chinese monks around the 5th century rejected some or all of the Mahāyāna Sūtras: Hui-tao doubted the Pañcaviṁśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra; T’an-le disparaged the Lotus Sūtra; Seng-yuan belittled the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra [3, 124].

    I wonder if you have ever read this book: The Collection for the Propagation and Clarification of Buddhism

    “This work is a compilation by the Vinaya master Shi Sengyou (445–518) of discourses, critical responses to Anti-Buddhist discourses, correspondence, reports to the emperor, family codes, and written appeals by Buddhist laypeople and monks, dating from the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) through the mid sixth century of the Liang Dynasty (502-557). These writings were intended to protect the Buddhist Dharma from criticisms by Confucians and Daoists and the political powers of the time, as well as in order to promulgate Buddhism. By collecting literary works from distinctive scholars of former ages that were intended to dispel wrong views toward Buddhism, Sengyou hoped to disperse doubts in his own time.”

    I ordered BDK’s volume 1 of the Madhyama Agama and this translation stems from that same project. I have not yet recieved the above mentioned book but from the description it seems it may be along a similar vien to the Chan monks detailed in your book.

    Best regards,


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