It’s Time

It’s time. We need a new par­a­digm. Buddhism is suf­fer­ing from schiz­o­phre­nia; there is a split in con­scious­ness be­tween the his­tor­i­cal and the mythic con­cep­tions of the ori­gin of the Dhamma. For 2500 years Buddhism has been con­stantly chang­ing, adapt­ing, evolv­ing; yet the myths of the schools in­sist that the Dhamma re­mains the same. All ex­ist­ing schools of Buddhism jus­tify their idio­syn­cratic doc­trines mytho­log­i­cally; this is what all re­li­gions do. Thus the Theravada in­sists that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tāvatiṁsa heaven dur­ing his sev­enth rains re­treat. The Mahayana claims that the Mahayana su­tras were writ­ten down in the time of the Buddha, pre­served in the dragon world un­der the sea, then re­treived by Nagarjuna 500 years later. Zen claims au­thor­ity from an es­o­teric oral trans­mis­sion out­side the scrip­tures de­scended from Maha Kassapa, sym­bol­ized by the smile of Maha Kassapa when the Buddha held up a lo­tus. All of these are myths, and do not de­serve se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion as ex­pla­na­tions of his­tor­i­cal truth. Their pur­pose, as myths, is not to elu­ci­date facts, but to au­tho­rize re­li­gious con­vic­tions.

What is myth? In my opin­ion, all the old myths – and here I’m speak­ing pri­mar­ily of those orig­i­nat­ing be­fore the 1st mil­le­nium BCE – were orig­i­nally in­spired by true events. They were the news, the gos­sip, the fam­ily sagas of the day. They came to life in the hands of the sto­ry­tellers and bards. The sto­ries that sur­vived were those that struck a chord in con­scious­ness. Each time they were re­told, the tellers would em­bell­ish or al­ter a lit­tle; and when the changes res­onated with the au­di­ence they would be passed on, and so the myths evolved by a sort of nat­ural se­lec­tion of thought, a lit­tle bird of story soar­ing in the sky of the mind. There was no ques­tion of any in­di­vid­ual de­lib­er­ately cre­at­ing their own sto­ries. The myths were com­mu­nal cre­ations. This is why they of­fer such won­der­fully di­rect in­sight into the con­scious­ness of the times. There seems to not yet have been the idea of an ob­jec­tive stan­dard of truth; no dis­tic­tion be­tween how things could be, or should be, and how they re­ally are. There was, there­fore, no ques­tion of the myths be­ing taken as lit­eral, ob­jec­tive truth – the tellers of the sto­ries would not have un­der­stood what that meant. The myths were pro­jec­tions of the people’s fears, de­sires, hopes, joys, and an­guishes into the world out­side.

But in the ‘ax­ial age’ around the mid­dle of the 1st mil­le­nium BCE a new idea be­gan to be born. Knowledge be­came some­thing that was not just in­her­ited, but re­flected upon and con­sciously re­vised. A new ra­tio­nal con­scious­ness emerged, sup­plant­ing the old mythic con­scious­ness. The most bril­liant of the ra­tio­nal cul­tures were the Greeks, spe­cial­iz­ing in ex­ter­nal sci­ence, and the Indians, spe­cial­iz­ing in in­ner sci­ence. Both re­al­ized that truth is an elu­sive thing and so they de­vised spe­cial tech­niques for its ap­pre­hen­sion; in Greece, rea­son and logic; and in India the sci­ence of med­i­ta­tive in­sight. Either way, myth would never be the same again.

The fields of cul­tural en­deav­our in the West be­came split in two. One branch, loosely called ‘sci­ence’, dealt with the ob­jec­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ex­ter­nal, ma­te­r­ial world. The sec­ond branch, loosely called ‘the arts’, dealt with the ex­pres­sion of in­ner feel­ings and per­spec­tives. ‘Fiction’ was born, the de­lib­er­ate cre­ation of sto­ries that both the au­thor and the reader re­al­ize are not true. Fiction is a pri­vate un­der­tak­ing. It can never be free from irony, self-consciousness, and per­sonal quirks; thus its use­ful­ness as a psy­cho­log­i­cal record is of a dif­fer­ent or­der than myth.

But now that the orig­i­nal do­main of myth be­came split in two, it be­came pos­si­ble to in­ves­ti­gate myth with sci­ence, to in­quire as to what ex­tent myths were lit­eral, ob­jec­tive his­tory. Again, the field split in two. For those com­mited to the search for the real, it soon be­came ob­vi­ous that the myths are highly un­re­li­able quides to his­tory, and that new, non-literal, sym­bolic meth­ods of in­ter­pre­ta­tion must be de­vel­oped in or­der to tease out the truth. This process started early; by the 5th cen­tury BCE in both Greece and India the old myths were be­ing ques­tioned, de­nied, or even ridiculed. In fact, the his­tory of hu­man­ity is al­most by de­f­i­n­i­tion the his­tory of the end­ing of the myths, the slow and ag­o­niz­ing death of God.

Inevitably the re­ac­tion set in. Threatened and fear­ful, some in­sisted that the myths were lit­eral ob­jec­tive re­al­ity – a claim that I be­lieve would have been in­com­pre­hen­si­ble in the age the myths were born. So came the great re­ver­sal. After the ax­ial age wit­nessed the flow­er­ing of the spirit of rea­son in humanity’s most bril­liant cul­tural in­floures­cence, we fell into the Dark Ages. Across both Europe and Asia the me­dieval pe­riod saw the trans­for­ma­tion of de­mo­c­ra­tic ex­per­i­ments into ab­solute au­toc­ra­cies; the spirit of in­quiry into dog­matic or­tho­dox­ies; free­dom of speech and thought into creedal con­for­mity; the ex­pe­ri­ence of lib­er­a­tion into the rote learn­ing of scholas­tic cur­ric­ula; spir­i­tual life as a ‘call­ing out’ to tran­scend petty bound­aries of self, of tribe, of na­tion into re­li­gion as bu­reau­cratic, pa­tri­achal, hi­er­achi­cal in­sti­tu­tions for the but­tress­ing of na­tional iden­tity and state power.

As time goes on, and the events por­trayed in the myths re­cede fur­ther into the con­ve­niently mys­te­ri­ous past, the myths be­come more and more in­con­gru­ous. They must be main­tained by an ever shriller in­can­ta­tion. Exclusivity gives way to in­tol­er­ance; in­tol­er­ance leads to alien­ation and tribal prej­u­dice; then comes hos­til­ity, blind ha­tred, and ul­ti­mately mur­der­ous fury. The mythic con­scious­ness be­comes so out of touch with re­al­ity that it is not merely dys­func­tional, but ac­tu­ally in­sane. A well doc­u­mented case of this in Buddhism is Japanese Zen. The hi­er­achy evolved a myth that iden­ti­fied the Emperor, the Sun-god, as an em­a­na­tion of the pri­mor­dial Buddha. The bulk of the Zen es­tab­lish­ment for a hun­dred years en­cour­aged the no­tion that to kill or die for the Emperor was a sa­cred act. This was a key sup­port for the war­rior cul­ture that erupted in the bar­barism of the Pacific the­atre of the Second World War, leav­ing tens of mil­lions dead, prob­a­bly more than the cru­sades or ji­had, amid some of the worst atroc­i­ties imag­in­able.

Yet we see that while Europe, in re­vul­sion at the acts per­formed by an os­ten­si­bly Christian na­tion, re­acted by aban­don­ing Christianity in droves, Buddhists are still largely in de­nial of the role that Buddhism, es­pe­cialy the male Sangha, has played in pro­mot­ing holy war. They still ro­man­ti­cize about Tibetan ‘dharma war­riors’, or Chinese mar­tial arts monks. ‘Martial arts’ means ‘arts of war’ – how to kill peo­ple! Even to­day in Sri Lanka much of the Sangha ac­tively sup­ports holy war against the Tamils while the gov­ern­ment sup­presses ques­tion­ing of the is­sue. Interestingly enough, I have learnt of this de­plorable state of af­fairs en­tirely through sec­u­lar sources.

So while the Buddha es­tab­lished the Sangha as a de­mo­c­ra­tic col­lec­tive in the midst of mainly au­to­cratic na­tions, now the Sangha is an au­toc­racy in the midst of de­mo­c­ra­tic na­tions. While the Buddha es­tab­lished an egal­i­tar­ian com­mu­nity in a caste-based so­ci­ety, now in an in­creas­ingly egal­i­tar­ian world the Sangha still clings to its pompous ti­tles, its hi­er­achies, and in Sri Lanka – in­cred­i­bly – ad­mis­sion to some of the monas­tic tra­di­tions is open only to those of high caste. While the Buddha, though in a sex­ist so­ci­ety, ac­knowl­edged the spir­i­tual equal­ity of men and women, now the Sangha is one of the last bas­tions of pa­tri­achal prej­u­dice in a world that in­creas­ingly cel­e­brates the unique qual­i­ties of women. And while the Buddha es­tab­lished Buddhism as an in­ter­na­tional, non-sectarian move­ment reach­ing out to all, now in a glob­al­iz­ing world the Sangha still in­sists on its di­vi­sive na­tional sec­tar­i­an­ism.

It is one of the great lessons of his­tory that rea­son dis­places myth. There is some­thing about the hu­man mind that can­not con­tinue to be­lieve in a mythic ex­pla­na­tion for some­thing that can be un­der­stood though rea­son. Mythic ex­pla­na­tions ful­fill a pur­pose; they cre­ate a sense of un­der­stand­ing that is very grat­i­fy­ing and self-affirming. But rea­son too is a pos­i­tive force, since it as­sumes that the hu­man mind is ca­pa­ble of ar­riv­ing at some­thing like truth. And the un­der­stand­ing gained through rea­son is much more flex­i­ble and pow­er­ful; rea­son opens win­dows, myth closes them. As ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tions for re­li­gious claims are pro­gres­sively ad­vanced, it be­comes more and more try­ing to sus­tain two be­lief struc­tures side by side. The myths fall into dis­use. Being no longer in­her­ently con­vinc­ing, they be­come re­dun­dant and even­tu­ally pass away. This is the in­ex­orable tide of time.

When the se­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal study of Buddhism be­gan in the mid-19th Century there was, as a re­sult of these com­pet­ing mytholo­gies (not to men­tion the even more mis­lead­ing Hindu myths), con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion as to the true his­tor­i­cal pic­ture. Did the Buddha re­ally ex­ist? Was he just a mytho­log­i­cal sun-god? What did he teach? Can we know? Which tra­di­tions are most re­li­able (or least un­re­li­able)? Since the tra­di­tions had been largely sep­a­rated due to the forces of his­tory – es­pe­cially the de­struc­tion of Buddhism in India – they had lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about each other, and each as­serted its own pri­macy. Each school pre­served its tra­di­tions in vast col­lec­tions of ab­struse vol­umes of hard-to-read man­u­scripts in wildly dif­fer­ent lan­guages (Pali, some Sanskrit, an­cient Chinese, and me­dieval Tibetan). But grad­u­ally the ev­i­dence was as­sem­bled. The tra­di­tions were com­pared; arche­o­log­i­cal find­ings con­firmed key facts. By the be­gin­ning of the 20th Century, in works by such schol­ars as TW Rhys Davies, whose writ­ings re­tain their value to­day, ac­cu­rate out­lines were drawn. There was still con­tro­versy in the early half of the 20th Century, though, as ev­i­dence was still be­ing ac­cu­mu­lated, new texts were edited, and new stud­ies done.

However, as early as 1929 the Japanese scholar Chizen Akanuma pub­lished his find­ings re­gard­ing the con­cor­dance be­tween the Pali Nikayas and the Chinese Agamas. These find­ings be­came the ba­sis of full-scale his­tor­i­cal stud­ies such as Etienne Lamotte’s History of Indian Buddhism and AK Warder’s Indian Buddhism. The ba­sic con­clu­sion is that the Chinese Agamas and the Pali Nikayas are iden­ti­cal in doc­trine. They are two slightly vary­ing re­cen­sions of the same set of texts. These texts – pop­u­larly re­ferred to sim­ply as ‘the sut­tas’ – were as­sem­bled by the first gen­er­a­tions of the Buddha’s fol­low­ers, be­fore the pe­riod of sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions. They are pre-sectarian Buddhism. Although they are usu­ally con­sid­ered by all schools to be ‘Theravada’ teach­ings, this is not so. Eminent scholar David Kaluhapana went so far as to de­clare that there is not one word of Theravada in the Pali Nikayas (Although I think this is a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion.) The con­tri­bu­tions of the schools are mostly lim­ited to fix­ing the fi­nal arrange­ment of the texts and stan­dard­iz­ing the di­alect.

All other texts, in­clud­ing the later works of the Pali Khuddaka Nikaya, the Jatakas, the Abhidhammas of the var­i­ous schools, the Mahayana su­tras, and so on, were writ­ten later. Virtually none of these teach­ings are held in com­mon be­tween the schools; that is, they are sec­tar­ian Buddhism. Using the sci­en­tific ap­pli­ca­tion of his­tor­i­cal crit­i­cism, the emer­gence and de­vel­op­ment of these teach­ings can be traced quite clearly, both in the in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics of doc­tri­nal evo­lu­tion and in Buddhism’s re­sponse to the chang­ing cul­tural, so­cial, and re­li­gious en­vi­ron­ment. There is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that any of the spe­cial doc­trines of these texts – that is, the doc­trines not also found in the early sut­tas – de­rives from the Buddha. Rather, these texts should be re­garded as the an­swers given by teach­ers of old to the ques­tion: ‘What does Buddhism mean for us?’ Each suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tion must un­der­take the del­i­cate task of hermeneu­tics, the reac­cul­tur­a­tion of the Dhamma in time and place. And we, in our own tu­mul­tuous times, must find our own an­swers. Looked at from this per­spec­tive, we can see that the teach­ings of the schools of­fer us in­valu­able lessons, a wealth of prece­dent be­queathed us by our an­ces­tors in faith.

Below I list some of the rea­sons sup­port­ing the claim that the Nikayas/Agamas are pre-sectarian Buddhism, while other texts be­long to the sec­tar­ian pe­riod.


  • The doc­tri­nal con­tent of the Nikayas and Agamas is nearly iden­ti­cal, and the ac­tual texts are very close. The sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion for this is that they both de­rive from the same stock of pre-sectarian teach­ings.
  • There is arche­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence dat­ing per­haps 200 years af­ter the Buddha that men­tions some sut­tas by name; refers to such col­lec­tions as the ‘Pitakas’; and de­picts scenes, ti­tles, and a frag­ment of verse from the Jatakas.
  • All schools of Buddhism ac­cepted the Nikayas/Agamas and the Vinaya as au­then­tic.
  • The sut­tas and vinaya re­fer to them­selves and to each other, but not to the ab­hid­hamma or to any other lit­er­a­ture.


  • The lan­guage, style, and doc­trine of the ab­hid­hamma clearly pre­sup­pose the sut­tas.
  • The ab­hid­ham­mas of the schools are al­most to­tally dif­fer­ent. Not only did other schools re­ject the Theravada ab­hid­hamma, but some schools re­jected the whole ab­hid­hamma move­ment.
  • The early sources, both tex­tual and arche­o­log­i­cal, know noth­ing of the texts, the spe­cial doc­trines, or the mythic ori­gins of the ab­hid­hamma.
  • The sutta pas­sages that have been in­voked by ab­hid­ham­mikas past and present to au­tho­rize the ab­hid­hamma are ei­ther late or ir­rel­e­vant.
  • The Abhidhamma Pitaka it­self does not claim to be the words of the Buddha. This claim orig­i­nated in the chron­i­cles and com­men­taries.

Mahayana Sutras

  • The Mahayana su­tras were com­posed in Sanskrit, which was not in­vented un­til about 500 years af­ter the Buddha. Note that, while the Mahayana su­tras were com­posed in Sanskrit, the early sut­tas of some schools (in­clud­ing those pre­served as the Chinese Agamas) were trans­lated around the same pe­riod from a sort of Pali into Sanskrit.
  • The lit­er­ary style, ge­o­graph­i­cal knowl­edge, so­cial con­di­tions, tech­nol­ogy, etc. por­trayed in the Mahayana su­tras also at­test a sim­i­lar date.
  • The teach­ings of the Mahayana su­tras can be shown to emerge from a his­tor­i­cal process of doc­tri­nal evo­lu­tion among the early schools.
  • The myth of the Mahayana as­serts that the su­tras were pre­served for 500 years in the dragon realm, which as­sumes the ex­is­tence of writ­ten texts in the Buddha’s time. There are also ref­er­ences to writ­ten texts within the Mahayana su­tras them­selves. Unfortunately, schol­ars are agreed that no sut­tas were writ­ten down un­til about 400 years later.
  • The Mahayana su­tras were re­jected by the early schools as later in­ven­tions.

These con­clu­sions are now firmly es­tab­lished. But it is still nor­mal in tra­di­tional Buddhist cir­cles to re­gard all the Buddhist scrip­tures as hav­ing sprung full-blown from the Master’s lips. Recently a bright, learned young monk told me that it is ‘evil’ to even ques­tion whether the Abhidhamma was spo­ken by the Buddha. This is fun­da­men­tal­ism. Behind this de­fen­sive­ness lies fear: fear dis­guised as faith, fear that our cher­ished re­li­gious con­vic­tions will be un­der­mined. And if our Buddhism is iden­ti­fied with the teach­ings and in­sti­tu­tions of mod­ern dog­matic schools, the end prod­ucts of 2500 years of evo­lu­tion whose claim to rep­re­sent the orig­i­nal teach­ings is but­tressed only by flimsy fa­bles, our fears may well be jus­ti­fied. But if we seek the truth, we need fear no in­quiry. The sin­cere ap­pli­ca­tion of crit­i­cal method­ol­ogy can only take us closer to the Buddha’s mes­sage, clar­ify the process of tex­tual for­mu­la­tion, and re­veal how that mes­sage was adapted by the schools.

In the ap­pli­ca­tion of historico-critical method­ol­ogy Buddhism lags way be­hind Christianity. Although the his­tory of Christianity has been of­ten marred by se­vere, vi­o­lent re­pres­sion of heresy and a re­fusal to sub­ject its dog­mas to scrutiny, in mod­ern times the sci­en­tific study of the Bible has made great strides. My own his­tor­i­cal study of Buddhist teach­ings has been sub­stan­tially in­formed by my in­ter­est in con­tem­po­rary Bible stud­ies. The fun­da­men­tal­ists and some of the main­line churches are still sus­pi­cious of such meth­ods; yet their scep­ti­cal find­ings have reached a wide gen­eral au­di­ence and ac­cep­tance. It is past time for Buddhism to do the same. We need less courage than they. We have never re­lied so heav­ily on our myths, and so we have less to lose as the myths crum­ble away, like an­cient for­got­ten mon­u­ments to a past that is no more.

Historical crit­i­cism is al­ways un­cer­tain, its find­ings rang­ing be­tween ‘pos­si­ble’ and ‘prob­a­ble’. But we have no choice. The only al­ter­na­tive is blind ad­her­ence to tra­di­tion. I re­gard this as a re­fusal to ac­cept our re­spon­si­bil­ity as cus­to­di­ans of the Dhamma, the sti­fling of the liv­ing spirit of in­quiry by the dead hand of or­tho­doxy. I be­lieve it would be wrong to urge a ‘mod­er­ate’ ap­pli­ca­tion of these cri­te­ria. After 2500 years of myth-making, mod­er­a­tion would be im­mod­er­ate. Traditional Buddhist in­sti­tu­tions are in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant even in their own coun­tries, and have never been rel­e­vant out­side. Authenticity to the core of the Buddha’s rev­e­la­tion will surely prove a more solid foun­da­tion for a new, global Buddhism than ad­her­ence to na­tion­al­is­tic tra­di­tions. The other ex­treme is where ‘Buddhism’ be­comes so vac­u­ous as to lose all mean­ing. A bit of hard-headed ra­tio­nal crit­i­cism is a good an­ti­dote to both these ex­tremes. When the dust set­tles we should have a clearer view of what ‘Buddhism’ means in the new mil­le­nium. And when we make mis­takes along the way, as we must, we can con­sider them as of­fer­ings to the tra­di­tion­al­ists, who will surely de­rive much joy from point­ing them out!

Below I list a num­ber of cri­te­ria that I have found use­ful. Obviously each cri­te­rion taken in­di­vid­u­ally is a highly im­per­fect tool. But they are syn­er­gis­tic: where sev­eral cri­te­ria agree, the con­cur­rence mul­ti­plies our con­fi­dence in our con­clu­sions – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So in these stud­ies it is im­per­a­tive to use as wide a va­ri­ety of cri­te­ria as pos­si­ble, sen­si­tively ap­praise the re­li­a­bil­ity of each cri­te­rion in the relevent con­text, re­main alive to any con­trary in­di­ca­tions, and make our con­clu­sions no more cer­tain than the ev­i­dence war­rants.

Simplicity: Shorter, more ba­sic teach­ings are likely to have ap­peared ear­lier than com­plex, scholas­tic elab­o­ra­tions. This is one of the fun­da­men­tals of his­tor­i­cal crit­i­cism.

Multiple Attestation: Teachings ap­pear­ing more of­ten are likely to be more au­then­tic than those less fre­quent. This of course only ap­plies to in­de­pen­dent at­tes­ta­tion, not mere rep­e­ti­tion.

Similarity: Teachings con­gru­ent in style, form, or con­tent with known early teach­ings are more likely to be au­then­tic than het­ero­dox pas­sages.

Dissimilarity: Teachings dis­sim­i­lar to other tra­di­tions, whether pre-Buddhist or later Buddhism, are un­likely to have ap­peared through as­sim­i­la­tion or re­vi­sion and thus are likely to be au­then­tic. Notice that this prin­ci­ple does not say that teach­ings held in com­mon with other tra­di­tions are in­au­then­tic; it sim­ply can’t tell.

Concordance be­tween Nikayas and Agamas: The es­sen­tial con­gru­ence of the Nikayas and the Agamas is prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant find­ing of mod­ern Buddhist stud­ies, and should be­come a stan­dard cri­te­rion in all mat­ters con­cern­ing early Buddhism. Although the ba­sic find­ings are in, there re­mains much work to be done in sort­ing out the finer de­tails.

Unfavourability: some pas­sages re­flect badly on the Sangha (eg. the quar­rel at Kosambi), in­di­vid­ual monks (eg. when they are ad­mon­ished by the Buddha), or even on the Buddha him­self (no­tably the bizarre story of the mur­dered monks, which raises se­ri­ous doubts as to the Buddha’s om­ni­science even in a lim­ited sense). These are un­likely to be later in­ven­tions.

Reading out, not in: We should not as­sume that we al­ready un­der­stand the Dhamma when read­ing the sut­tas, and feel that the sut­tas need ‘read­just­ing’ to ac­cord with our ideas (or the ideas of our school). We should ap­proach the sut­tas as hum­ble stu­dents, as empty ves­sels open for the Dhamma to pour in. It is of course one of the ba­sics of Dhamma to re­al­ize that our pre­con­cep­tions dis­tort our view of re­al­ity; yet this is what com­men­ta­tors do time and again. The ideas of com­men­ta­tors dat­ing cen­turies later be­come buried al­most in­vis­i­bly in the dic­tio­nar­ies, trans­la­tions, foot­notes, ex­pla­na­tions, and from there into our Dhamma con­scious­ness. In this predica­ment, the rea­son­able course is to adopt, as a tem­po­rary cor­rec­tive, a neg­a­tive cri­te­rion. When the com­men­taries of­fer an ex­pla­na­tion that is not clearly sup­ported by the text, we should as­sume as a work­ing hy­poth­e­sis that it is prob­a­bly wrong.

Internal Attestation: This is the most ba­sic rea­son for even rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that the sut­tas are the Buddha’s words – they say so. Obviously not every­thing that claims to come from the Buddha is gen­uine. But it is safe enough to as­sume the re­verse: if a text does not claim to be the Buddha’s words it is prob­a­bly not.

Extracting mean­ing from vari­a­tion: Typically the tra­di­tions as­cribe vari­a­tions in the Buddha’s teach­ing to the Buddha’s un­doubted skill in suit­ing his teach­ing to the pro­cliv­i­ties of in­di­vid­u­als. But of­ten this is not so much an ex­plain­ing as an ex­plain­ing away. Most of the sut­tas seem to have been de­liv­ered to large, gen­eral au­di­ences, so un­less the text specif­i­cally in­di­cates that it is tar­geted for a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual or group we can as­sume they were meant to be gen­er­ally ap­plic­a­ble. Variation, there­fore, should be analysed in terms of tex­tual or doc­tri­nal de­vel­op­ment. We should not as­sume that the sut­tas are in­ter­nally con­sis­tent; this is an­other hy­poth­e­sis to be tested. After 2500 years of in­ter­preters who as­sumed con­sis­tency with­out ques­tion, we may well ar­rive at more in­ter­est­ing re­sults by adopt­ing a very lit­eral hy­poth­e­sis that sur­face vari­a­tions do in­deed im­ply deep level con­tra­dic­tions. If such analy­sis pro­duces mean­ing­ful re­sults the ar­gu­ment from the ‘pro­cliv­i­ties of in­di­vid­u­als’ be­comes re­dun­dant.

Form over con­tent: Although for­mal analy­sis of tex­tual mat­ters of­ten ap­pears pedan­tic and ir­rel­e­vant, it is ac­tu­ally very use­ful. We have less deeply in­grained bias and emo­tional in­vest­ment in for­mal mat­ters than in Dhamma is­sues, so for the sake of ob­jec­tiv­ity it is use­ful to rely pri­mar­ily on for­mal cri­te­ria, and then in­fer to doc­tri­nal mat­ters.

Doctrines of the schools: Each of the schools evolved its own doc­tri­nal pe­cu­liar­i­ties. Where these trends are dis­cern­able in the sut­tas it can in­di­cate late­ness.

Sources: The sut­tas (that is, the lit­er­ary texts known by that ti­tle to­day) were as­sem­bled from the mass of oral teach­ings float­ing about in the early Sangha. The process of sys­tem­at­i­cally or­ga­niz­ing them only re­ally got go­ing af­ter the Buddha’s pass­ing away. The source ma­te­r­ial would have in­cluded: ba­sic doc­tri­nal state­ments (eg. the four no­ble truths); frame­works or­ga­niz­ing such state­ments (eg. the grad­ual train­ing); mis­cel­la­neous verses and say­ings; di­a­logues and dis­courses ut­tered on spe­cific oc­ca­sions; an­a­lyt­i­cal elab­o­ra­tions of ba­sic teach­ings; back­ground, anec­do­tal, and his­tor­i­cal data. Obviously there is a hi­er­achy of au­then­tic­ity here. Since the de­veleloped lit­er­ary forms com­menc­ing with the words ‘thus have I heard’ post-date the Buddha, it is le­git­mate to en­quire how they came to their present form. In some cases, fol­low­ing the pece­dent of Biblical crit­i­cism, we may re­con­struct ‘source’ texts no longer ex­tant. It is use­ful to con­sider these sources as man­i­fest­ing in the fi­nal ‘sut­tas’ in three main lev­els. I give ex­am­ples from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Level 1 – Pericopes: Basic doc­tri­nal state­ments (eg ‘It is just this no­ble eight­fold path, that is: right view, right in­ten­tion, right speech, right ac­tion, right liveli­hood, right ef­fort, right mind­ful­ness, and right samadhi.’)

Level 2 – Discourses: The as­sem­blage of doc­tri­nal state­ments in a par­tic­u­lar form as a teach­ing at­trib­uted to the Buddha. (eg from ‘There are these two ex­tremes…’ to ‘My de­liv­er­ance is un­shake­ble. This is my last birth. Now there is no re­peated ex­is­tence.’)

Level 3 – Final text: The com­pleted lit­er­ary en­tity. (eg from ‘Thus have I heard’ to ‘And that is how Aññā Koṇḍañña re­ceived his name.’)

Although I re­luc­tantly fol­low con­tem­po­rary us­age and re­fer to level 3 as ‘sut­tas’, this is very mis­lead­ing, as the Buddha had ob­vi­ously never heard of the level 3 texts. The term ‘sutta’, when used self-referently in the sut­tas, can re­fer only to level 1 or 2. The meth­ods of his­tor­i­cal crit­i­cism gen­er­ally will pen­e­trate to lev­els 2 and 3 only, leav­ing the key doc­trines un­touched.

Language: Vocabulary and style are key cri­te­ria. There is a move from the more nat­ural lan­guage of the early sut­tas to the repet­i­tive and ar­ti­fi­cial forms of the Abhdhamma pe­riod. Later Pali was char­ac­ter­ized by long com­pounds. The evo­lu­tion of met­ri­cal forms pro­vides some ba­sis for dat­ing verses, and might pos­si­bly be car­ried over into prose, too. As an ex­am­ple of vo­cab­u­lary chang­ing from level 2 to level 3 we can note that bhikkhave (monks!) and bhante (ven­er­a­ble sir) of level 2 of­ten be­come for­mal­ized into bhikkhavo and the slightly pompous bhadante in level 3. Bhikkhave is not stan­dard Pali, so it is likely that it was a col­lo­quial word so closely as­so­ci­ated with the Buddha him­self that it re­sisted stan­dard­iza­tion into bhikkhavo.

Formation of the Nikayas: It seems that usu­ally monks would spe­cial­ize in study­ing one or the other of the four Nikayas, so the Nikayas are arranged so that key teach­ings are found in each Nikaya. Teachings found in only one or two Nikayas, there­fore, should not be re­garded as cen­tral. Each of the four Nikayas, how­ever, has its own flavour. It seems that each was de­signed to ful­fill a cer­tain func­tion within the emerg­ing re­li­gion, and this should be seen to re­flect the per­son­al­i­ties of those who chose to spe­cial­ize in a par­tic­u­lar field. The Digha em­pha­sizes leg­endary and anti-brahmanical ma­te­r­ial, and was likely used for pro­poganda and con­ver­sion. The Majjhima con­tains a deep and broad doc­tri­nal range, and prob­a­bly served as the main monas­tic syl­labus. The Samyutta is more tech­ni­cal and would have been the do­main of the in­tel­lec­tu­als and doc­tri­nal spe­cial­ists. The Anguttara is sim­pler and more lay-orientated, and would have been used for preach­ing. Each Nikaya also in­cludes much ma­te­r­ial con­trast­ing with its over­all flavour.

Contexts: Any re­li­gious, spir­i­tual, or philo­soph­i­cal move­ment must in­evitably emerge in a cer­tain historical/cultural/ideological/linguistic con­text. Early Buddhism main­tained a close, con­scious in­ter­change with the many other re­li­gious schools in the vi­brant in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture of the time. The teach­ings can best be ap­pre­ci­ated as a re­sponse to these con­di­tions. The Buddha knew the Vedic and Jain tra­di­tions, but he had never heard of the Abhidhamma, the Visuddhimagga, or the Mahayana su­tras.

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