However, with the exception of the Mahāyānist interpolations in the Ekottara, which are easily discernible, the variations in question [between the Nikāyas and Āgamas] affect hardly anything save the method of expression or the arrangement of the subjects. The doctrinal basis common to the Nikāyas and Āgamas is remarkably uniform.

–Étienne Lamotte

What the Buddha Really Taught

When I go into a Buddhist book­shop or li­brary, I’m of­ten struck by how many books there are. Shelves crammed full of people’s opin­ions about ‘what the Buddha taught’. But try to find some­thing that ac­tu­ally con­tains the Buddha’s teach­ing and you’re in for a much harder time. It seems to be okay to be a Buddhist, at­tend talks, read books, med­i­tate, chant, and go on re­treat, with­out ever both­er­ing to ask one­self the ques­tion: what did the Buddha re­ally teach?

For the rare and brave seeker who dares to in­quire be­yond what their teach­ers tell them, it will not take long be­fore they hear of the Pali Nikāyas. Here, we are told, is the orig­i­nal unadul­ter­ated Teaching. The Buddha’s words in their pris­tine pu­rity. We are in the en­vi­able po­si­tion of hav­ing many ex­cel­lent trans­la­tions of these texts avail­able in English, both in books and on the web. Anyone with suf­fi­cient time and in­ter­est can, with a lit­tle per­se­ver­ance, gain a rea­son­able un­der­stand­ing of these teach­ings. The Pali Nikāyas have been one of my for­ma­tive in­flu­ences, right from my first days as a Buddhist. The Dhamma they em­body is clear, ra­tio­nal, bal­anced, gen­tle, and pro­found – every­thing one could hope for.

But it is easy to fall into a kind of ‘Pali fun­da­men­tal­ism’. The texts and lan­guage are so pure and pre­cise that many of us who fall in love with the Nikāyas end up be­liev­ing that they con­sti­tute the be-all and end-all of Buddhism. We re­li­giously ad­here to the finest dis­tinc­tion, the most sub­tle in­ter­pre­ta­tion, based on a sin­gle word or phrase. We take for granted that here we have the orig­i­nal teach­ing, with­out con­sid­er­ing the process by which these teach­ings have passed down to us. In our fer­vour, we ne­glect to won­der whether there might be an­other per­spec­tive on these Dhammas.

Perhaps most im­por­tant of all, we for­get – if we ever knew – the rea­sons why we are jus­ti­fied in con­sid­er­ing the Nikāyas au­then­tic in the first place. While it is good enough for most faith-based Buddhists to be­lieve that their own scrip­tures are the only real ones, this will not suf­fice for a dis­in­ter­ested seeker. Any re­li­gious tra­di­tion will try to val­i­date it­self by such claims, and they can’t all be right. These con­flict­ing claims led the early re­searchers in the mod­ern era to ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence more ob­jec­tively.

When the mod­ern his­tor­i­cal study of Buddhism be­gan in the mid-19th Century there was con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion. In a burst of ra­tio­nal­ist en­thu­si­asm, schol­ars were pre­pared to ques­tion whether the myth of the Buddha had any fac­tual ba­sis at all. Was there any his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween the dif­fer­ent re­li­gions prac­ticed in far-separated places like Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Japan? Did the Buddha re­ally ex­ist? Was he just a sun-god? Was he an Ethiopian prophet? 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 (Chinese, Tibetan, Pali, and other Indian lan­guages such as Sanskrit).

But grad­u­ally the ev­i­dence was as­sem­bled. The tra­di­tions were com­pared; ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings con­firmed key facts. 1500 year-old Sri Lankan chron­i­cles men­tion the names of the monks Kassapa, Majjhima, and Durabhisara sent in the Asokan pe­riod as mis­sion­ar­ies from Vidisa to the Himalayan re­gion; a stupa is ex­ca­vated in Vidisa and the names of these monks are found there, in­scribed in let­ters dat­ing to the Aśokan era. By the be­gin­ning of the 20th Century, in works by such schol­ars as T.W. 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 1882 a scholar called Samuel Beal pub­lished a se­ries of lec­tures un­der the ti­tle of Buddhist Literature in China. This in­cluded in­for­ma­tion on the process of trans­lat­ing into Chinese, as well as sam­ple trans­la­tions from some of the main strata of Buddhist lit­er­a­ture – the early Suttas, the Jātakas, and a Mahāyāna text. He stated the fol­low­ing:

The Parinibbāna, the Brahmajāla, the Sigalovada, the Dhammacakka, the KasiBhāradvadja, the Mahāmangala; all these I have found and com­pared with trans­la­tions from the Pali, and find that in the main they are iden­ti­cal. I do not say lit­er­ally the same; they dif­fer in mi­nor points, but are iden­ti­cal in plot and all im­por­tant de­tails. And when the Vinaya and Āgama col­lec­tions are thor­oughly ex­am­ined, I can have lit­tle doubt we shall find most if not all the Pali sut­tas in a Chinese form.

Over a cen­tury later, the thor­ough com­par­a­tive study urged by Beal is still want­ing. However, some progress has been made. In 1908 the Japanese scholar M. Anesaki pub­lished his ‘The Four Buddhist Āgamas in Chinese: A con­cor­dance of their parts and of the cor­re­spond­ing coun­ter­parts in the Pali Nikāyas’. This was fol­lowed in 1929 by Chizen Akanuma’s The Comparative Catalogue of Chinese Āgamas and Pali Nikāyas, a com­pre­hen­sive cat­a­logue of all known ex­ist­ing early dis­courses in Pali and Chinese, as well as the few early texts avail­able in Tibetan and Sanskrit. These find­ings were in­cor­po­rated in full-scale his­tor­i­cal stud­ies such as Étienne Lamotte’s History of Indian Buddhism and A.K. Warder’s Indian Buddhism.

These stud­ies have largely con­firmed Beal’s ini­tial hy­poth­e­sis – the Chinese Āgamas and the Pali Nikāyas are vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal in doc­trine. They are two 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 in the pop­u­lar mind these texts are thought of as ‘Theravāda’ teach­ings, this is not so. Eminent scholar David Kalupahana went so far as to de­clare that there is not one word in the Pali Nikāyas that rep­re­sents ideas pe­cu­liar to the Theravāda school (al­though I think this is a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion.) Lamotte com­ments:

However, with the ex­cep­tion of the Mahāyānist in­ter­po­la­tions in the Ekottara, which are eas­ily dis­cernible, the vari­a­tions in ques­tion [be­tween the Nikāyas and Āgamas] af­fect hardly any­thing save the method of ex­pres­sion or the arrange­ment of the sub­jects. The doc­tri­nal ba­sis com­mon to the Nikāyas and Āgamas is re­mark­ably uni­form. Preserved and trans­mit­ted by the schools, the su­tras do not, how­ever, con­sti­tute scholas­tic doc­u­ments, but are the com­mon her­itage of all the sects.

The con­tri­bu­tions of the schools are mostly lim­ited to fix­ing the fi­nal arrange­ment of the texts and stan­dard­iz­ing the di­alect. Interpolations of sec­tar­ian ideas are few and usu­ally read­ily rec­og­niz­able. To pick one ran­dom ex­am­ple of an ap­par­ent sec­tar­ian state­ment, let’s con­sider what the Saṁyutta of the Theravādins and the Saṁyukta of the Sarvāstivādins tell us about how the four no­ble truths are re­al­ized in time. The Theravāda says that one who sees any one of the four no­ble truths also sees the oth­ers (SN 56.30). This sutta, which has no coun­ter­part in the Sarvāstivāda, im­plies that the four truths are re­al­ized all at once. In con­trast, a num­ber of Sarvāstivāda sut­tas, which have no Theravāda coun­ter­parts, say that one will come to know each of the four no­ble truths in se­quence, one af­ter the other (SA 435-437). This re­lates to the dis­puted ques­tion of sud­den (ekāb­hisamaya) ver­sus grad­ual (anupub­bāb­hisamaya) at­tain­ment. Appropriately, the Theravāda was a clas­sic ekāb­hisamaya school, and in their Abhidhamma they de­vel­oped the the­ory that all the four no­ble truths were re­al­ized in one mind mo­ment. The Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma ar­gued the con­trary po­si­tion, that the truths were re­al­ized grad­u­ally. This dis­pute be­came one of the ma­jor sec­tar­ian bat­tle­grounds in later Chinese Buddhism, but its roots ap­pear al­ready in the Saṁyuttas. Notice that, while the two schools do dif­fer on this point, the very fact that they share the doc­trine of the four no­ble truths is what makes this di­a­logue mean­ing­ful. If they didn’t share the ba­sic teach­ings in com­mon, they couldn’t ar­gue about the de­tails of in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

We must, how­ever, re­main cau­tious when draw­ing con­clu­sions from ap­par­ent dif­fer­ences. Even the best schol­ars can make mis­takes, es­pe­cially as new ma­te­r­ial is con­stantly com­ing to light. For ex­am­ple, Thich Minh Chau, one of the great pi­o­neers of Āgama/Nikāya stud­ies, no­ticed that the Jīvaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (MN 55) was ab­sent from the cor­re­spond­ing Sarvāstivādin Madhyama Āgama, and in­deed was not found any­where in the Chinese Āgamas. This sutta deals with the ques­tion of meat eat­ing. As is well known, Theravāda monas­tics usu­ally al­low meat eat­ing, while Mahāyanists gen­er­ally do not. The Theravāda sutta, con­sis­tent with the prac­tice in Theravāda cul­tures, per­mits meat eat­ing. Thich Minh Chau sug­gested that its ab­sence from the Sarvāstivāda in­di­cated that, even from such an early time, the prac­tice of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was favoured by the Sarvāstivāḍa. This con­clu­sion was a rea­son­able one at the time. But since then, the Sarvāstivāda Dīrgha Āgama has been dis­cov­ered and partly ex­plored. That col­lec­tion has a ver­sion of the Jīvaka Sutta (along with sev­eral other im­por­tant Majjhima sut­tas miss­ing from the Sarvāstivāda Madhyama Āgama). So its ab­sence from the Madhyama is not be­cause of a sec­tar­ian dif­fer­ence, but sim­ply be­cause the Theravādins chose to place it in their Majjhima, while the Sarvāstivādins chose to place it in their Dīrgha.

It is easy to for­get that, in our times, the rea­son why the Nikāyas carry such pres­tige is largely due to the dis­cov­ery that they are very sim­i­lar to cor­re­spond­ing col­lec­tions of su­tras found in Chinese trans­la­tion. The logic is pow­er­ful: the Southern (Theravāda) school and the Northern (Chinese) schools have been sep­a­rated by vast dis­tances, with only oc­ca­sional con­tacts over the past 2000 years. Even be­fore that, within India her­self, the schools had sep­a­rated and passed down dis­tinct ver­sions of their canon­i­cal scrip­tures. Yet de­spite this sep­a­ra­tion, their root canon­i­cal scrip­tures are doc­tri­nally al­most iden­ti­cal.

These con­clu­sions were ar­rived at by the early gen­er­a­tions of cross-cultural Buddhist schol­ars, both Western and Eastern. Their find­ings gave strong im­pe­tus to the au­thor­ity of the Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Āgamas and the im­por­tance of study­ing these col­lec­tions on com­par­a­tive ba­sis. These find­ings have been taken to heart in mod­ern Buddhist stud­ies es­pe­cially in Taiwan and Japan. However in the English speak­ing world, the Chinese Āgamas have been com­par­a­tively ne­glected. This seems to be due to a num­ber of fac­tors, not least the prac­ti­cal dif­fi­culty of learn­ing to read Chinese.

There is also the as­sump­tion that the Chinese trans­la­tions will be more ‘fuzzy’ and hence less re­li­able than the Indic texts. In many psy­cho­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal con­texts, the pre­ci­sion of the Pali is ob­scured in Chinese trans­la­tion; and some­times the vague­ness of Chinese gram­mar makes the prob­lem worse. But while this is true in cer­tain cases, it re­ally de­pends what one is look­ing for. Often we can tell with a fair de­gree of cer­tainty what Indic term the Chinese trans­la­tor had be­fore him. And the ‘fuzzi­ness’ of trans­la­tion is only rel­e­vant at a close fo­cus, when con­sid­er­ing the mean­ing of a par­tic­u­lar word. At a greater dis­tance, for ex­am­ple con­sid­er­ing the mean­ing of a whole sen­tence, there is of­ten lit­tle dif­fer­ence. And when we look at larger tex­tual blocks, for ex­am­ple a whole para­graph, the dif­fer­ence dis­ap­pears al­to­gether.

As an ex­am­ple of this, con­sider the term 覺 (jue2). This can carry a va­ri­ety of mean­ings, usu­ally con­nected with bodhi, awak­en­ing or en­light­en­ment. But what are we to make of this term when it ap­pears in the for­mula for the first jhana: 有覺有觀 ‘with 覺, with in­ves­ti­ga­tion’? Here 覺 can­not stand for bodhi or any­thing sim­i­lar. Now, the jhana for­mula is very com­mon and stan­dard through­out the Nikāyās/Āgamas. We can be fairly cer­tain that 覺 must stand for the cor­re­spond­ing Pali term vi­takka (‘thought’, or ‘ini­tial ap­pli­ca­tion of mind’). This is con­firmed when we see that in Sanskrit texts that closely re­late to the orig­i­nals from which the Chinese was trans­lated, the term used is in­deed vi­tarka. Having es­tab­lished this, when­ever we see the term ap­pear­ing in the jhana for­mula, we know that it means vi­takka, and we know this with as much cer­tainty as if we had read the Indic orig­i­nal. So in such cases, the Chinese trans­la­tions are just as ac­cu­rate and au­thor­i­ta­tive as the Pali, and some­times may even be more re­li­able.

Another pos­si­ble rea­son for the rel­a­tive ne­glect of the Āgamas in the English-speaking world is the per­cep­tion that they are later than the Nikāyas. This im­pres­sion has been re­in­forced by no less an em­i­nence than Étienne Lamotte, whose opin­ion has been of­ten re­peated. But his main rea­son for this con­clu­sion was that the Chinese Saṁyukta Āgama in­cluded a long pas­sage from a late ‘Life of King Aśoka’. However, Japanese and Taiwanese schol­ars have long rec­og­nized that this is an alien in­ter­po­la­tion into the Saṁyukta, prob­a­bly noth­ing more than a fil­ing er­ror by a care­less li­brar­ian some­time in China. A closer ex­am­i­na­tion of the con­tent of the Āgamas sug­gests that they are gen­er­ally speak­ing nei­ther ear­lier nor later than the Nikāyas, but rather both sets col­lected ma­te­ri­als over roughly the same pe­riod of time.

It is be­yond the scope of this lit­tle es­say to ex­am­ine the var­i­ous col­lec­tions in de­tail, but we can re­view the ba­sics. Here is a ta­ble of the main ex­ist­ing col­lec­tions. The ‘T’ num­bers re­fer to the su­tra num­bers in the stan­dard Taishō edi­tion of the Chinese canon.

Āgamas & Nikāyas
Theravāda Nikāyas Sarvāstivāda Āgamas Other Āgamas (in Chinese)
Dīgha (Pali) Dīrgha (Sanskrit) T1 Dīrgha (Dharmaguptaka, trans. Buddhayaśas)
Majjhima (Pali) T26 Madhyama (Chinese trans. Gotama Saṅghadeva)
Saṁyutta (Pali) T99 Saṁyukta (Chinese trans. Guṇabhadra) Two ‘other’ Saṁyuktas (T100, T101, un­known schools)
Aṅguttara (Pali) T125 Ekottara (Mahāsaṅghika? trans. Gotama Saṅghadeva)

The Sarvāstivāda Dīrgha is an ex­cit­ing find: an an­cient Sanskrit man­u­script, two-thirds of which have mys­te­ri­ously ap­peared from Afghanistan in re­cent years. It has not yet been edited and pub­lished. When this is avail­able, it will be seen that we have a nearly com­plete col­lec­tion of su­tras from the Sarvāstivāda school. In ad­di­tion there is the Dīrgha from the Dharmaguptaka school. The school of the Ekottara is re­ally un­known, though some schol­ars ten­ta­tively as­sign it to the Mahāsaṅghikas. These are all early schools of Buddhism that thrived in an­cient India. The fifth Pali Nikāya, the Khuddaka, is a mis­cel­la­neous col­lec­tion, con­tain­ing a mix of early and late ma­te­r­ial. While there is oc­ca­sional ref­er­ence in the Chinese and Tibetan canons to a Kśudraka Āgama there is no ex­ist­ing coun­ter­part of the col­lec­tion as a whole. Nevertheless, there are many ex­ist­ing coun­ter­parts to sec­tions of the Khuddaka, in­clud­ing the Dhammapada, Jatakas, Aṭṭhakavagga, and so on.

The Tibetan canon does not con­tain any ma­jor Āgamas of early su­tras. This seems to be be­cause by the time Buddhism went to Tibet, from around 700CE, there was not much in­ter­est in study­ing the Āgama su­tras. Nevertheless, there are fair amounts of early su­tras scat­tered through the vast Tibetan col­lec­tion, in­di­vid­u­ally or in small groups. In ad­di­tion, there are a fair num­ber of quotes and ref­er­ences to Āgama su­tras found em­bed­ded in later trea­tises. So al­though the Āgamas them­selves are sadly ab­sent in Tibetan, they are ac­knowl­edged and ac­cepted as canon­i­cal.

By ex­am­in­ing the col­lec­tions of texts side by side, we can de­ter­mine to what ex­tent the schools may have in­tro­duced their own ideas into the canons. This process, hap­pily enough, re­veals that sec­tar­ian ideas are al­most com­pletely ab­sent. Only here and there, search­ing with a crit­i­cal eye, can one ten­ta­tively dis­cern mi­nor sec­tar­ian in­flu­ences. The most rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion for this sit­u­a­tion is that these texts were al­ready ac­cepted across the Buddhist com­mu­nity as canon­i­cal well be­fore the pe­riod of schisms.

This does not mean that every­thing found in these texts is lit­er­ally the ‘Word of the Buddha’. The first schism was over 100 years af­ter the Buddha’s parinib­bana, which al­lows plenty of time for ed­i­to­r­ial funny busi­ness. The texts them­selves re­mind us that what is es­sen­tial are ‘those sut­tas spo­ken by the Tathagata’. Much of the ma­te­r­ial in the early Nikāyas/Āgamas is not ‘spo­ken by the Tathagata’, for ex­am­ple, back­ground sto­ries and nar­ra­tive. This should not be re­garded as au­thor­i­ta­tive in the deep sense. And in­deed, com­par­i­son be­tween cor­re­spond­ing su­tras in the Nikāyas and Āgamas fre­quently re­veals that, while the doc­tri­nal mat­ter is very sim­i­lar, the set­ting and other in­ci­den­tal de­tails may be dif­fer­ent. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but shows a ten­dency in the com­pi­la­tion of the canon to re­gard doc­tri­nal mat­ter as the heart, and treat in­ci­den­tal mat­ter more freely. There are even in­struc­tions in two Vinayas on what to do if one for­gets the set­ting of a su­tra. These more-or-less in­struct the monks to just say it was at Sāvatthī!

Perhaps an­other rea­son for the rel­a­tive ne­glect of the Āgamas is their very close­ness to the Nikāyas. We have to go to a lot of ef­fort to dis­cover what we think we know al­ready: the core Buddhist teach­ings re­ally are the four no­ble truths, the eight­fold path, de­pen­dent orig­i­na­tion, and so on. Although there are oc­ca­sional in­struc­tive vari­a­tions, the main fruit of this study is not in the con­tent of the teach­ing, but in the method. Rather than as­sum­ing that the scrip­tures of just one school are the first and last word on what the Buddha taught, we are search­ing in the root teach­ings shared in com­mon be­tween the schools. Such an ap­proach will not only help us to get ‘back to the Buddha’, but it will pro­vide the best plat­form for an im­proved un­der­stand­ing be­tween the Buddhist schools we find alive to­day.

I started out this es­say by crit­i­ciz­ing ‘Pali fun­da­men­tal­ism’; but we must also be­ware of be­com­ing ‘pre-sectarian’ fun­da­men­tal­ists! The teach­ings of the var­i­ous schools are not just a sheer mass of er­ror and mean­ing­less cor­rup­tion, any more than they are iron-clad for­mu­la­tions of ‘ul­ti­mate truth’. They are 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 re-acculturation of the Dhamma in time and place. And in our times, so dif­fer­ent from those of any Buddhist era or cul­ture of the past, we must find our own an­swers. Looked at from this per­spec­tive, the teach­ings of the schools of­fer us in­valu­able lessons, a wealth of prece­dent be­queathed us by our an­ces­tors in faith. Just as the great Theravādin com­men­ta­tor Buddhaghosa em­ployed an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of the Nikāyas, many of the great­est ‘Mahāyāna’ schol­ars, such as Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, and Asaṅga, based them­selves se­curely on the Āgamas. By fol­low­ing their ex­am­ple and mak­ing the ef­fort to thor­oughly learn these Teachings we can un­der­stand, prac­tice, and prop­a­gate the liv­ing Dhamma for the sake of all sen­tient be­ings.

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