An Epiphanot Concerning EBTs

Epiphanot: An epiphany which, in retrospect, is neither particularly insightful, novel, nor groundbreaking, in retrospect, an epiphany which was simply an obvious fact.

I used to be very skeptical and suspicious about EBT studies (and, by extension, anything labelled “early” in Buddhism) because of my suspicions surrounding the perceived hubris of the term “Early Buddhism”.

Who are we, us moderns, that we are so wise that we can finally untangle the mess that these uncivilized (and probably not European) past societies got their Buddhavacana tangled in? Lucky we moderns are here to teach these uneducated “the unsuperstitious Dhamma”.

These may be hard words, and I would never be so hasty as to apply them to the whole EBT community as a whole, but they do reflect a way that I once felt about EBT studies, and by extension, those sentiments reflect a way that EBT studies can come off to anyone I suspect, who is primarily only exposed to what I call “Buddhist Textual Fundamentalism”, or what might more readily be called “sectarians who hijack EBT studies to engage in polemics rather than to practice mettā”.

I am sure we have all met one of these, so there is no need to go into great detail compiling a composite picture of the “standard” EBT fundamentalist.

I had something of an epiphanot recently concerning the goal and purpose of inquiry into posited EBTs: EBT studies, including within it the studies of parallels in EBTs, is a methodology designed to show us “what the Buddha taught for sure (within a “reasonable” window of doubt)”, not “what the Buddha taught exhaustively”.

This might seem to be a small and insignificant detail in how one frames participation in EBT studies, but it is endlessly useful in guarding against forming a new sectarianism altogether: EBT sectarianism.

Many of the “outlying” teachings, the parallel-less teachings, are completely reasonably Buddhavacana (can anyone argue that Thag 14.1 is “unBuddhist” despite it not being “provable” to be an EBT?), and as such, the process of identifying EBTs is not to create an “exhaustive and exclusive account of Buddhavacana”, instead, it is to create an account of Buddhavacana that, itself, is “provable to be authentic”, but not claimed to be exclusive necessarily.



I see the EBTs as historical artifacts, and a rich mine of potential information about all manner of interesting historical events and processes occurring over several hundreds of years. Extracting this information from the texts is a complex project requiring the expertise of historians, linguists, philologists, cultural anthropologists, and many others kinds of specialist. Learning what the Buddha said directly to his immediate disciples is only one aspect of that project. I think we can still look forward to many exciting discoveries and analyses about the creation of the EBTs and the light they shed on historical events, including the events surrounding the lives of the earliest Buddhist communities.

And of course, learning what the Buddha said is not itself a sure-fire path to the truth. The Buddha might have been wrong about a variety of things. Scholars might debate, for example, the meaning of some measurement term in order to decide whether the Buddha said there were fish in the sea that were 23 meters in length or 23 kilometers in length. But if we find out the Buddha said there were fish in the sea that were 23 kilometers in length, that doesn’t give us any reason to believe in such things, simply because they are the words of the Buddha. The Buddha was a spiritual sage and teacher, not a deep sea explorer.

Nevertheless, I hope continued textual analysis can help resolve the apparent inconsistencies and incongruities in the texts.

1 Like

I’ve real sympathy for the core points you touch on. For me though, I’m not sure I’d approach it using a “moderns vs. …” model and instead might think of it a little more as a timeless question that every generation has to re-ask.

Sure we might have come up with some fancy-pants methodologies by comparison to this age and that (and naturally later generations to our own may well come up with even more sophisticated / crude approaches), but I think the basic endeavour is the same at all times - how can we meaningfully relate to these teachings that have come to us right now [insert a given socio-cultural-technological-epistemic context]?


I like epiphanot very much and will begin using it forthwith, if not sooner.

I think we make an assumption that in the Buddha’s time they used numbers in the same way we utilise them now. We use it to accurately measure and communicate that measurement to others. However while they had and used number sometimes far bigger than what we use now (not to mention inventing ‘0’) they don’t seem to use it for accuracy, especially with very large numbers. So rather than saying ‘a very long duration of time’ or big, bigger, even bigger they seem to use numbers.

That just begs the question. For you to say thag14.1 is inline with buddhist doctrine or in line with EBT entails that you already have some conception of what buddhist doctrine is. But that just begs the question: where do you get such a conception?

We still do it. How many times we hear people using indefinite and fictitious numbers like gazillion:


Quite correct. Then there is the broader agenda of the Buddha approving any teaching that agrees with the Buddha-dhamma. Therefore we cannot ‘just’ discard anything that was written afterwards. But then I doubt if that was ever the purpose of EBT. I also doubt whether it was ever the purpose of EBT to rid the scriptures of the supernatural.

the purpose of EBT…

…yet does not invalidate those texts with lesser degrees of ‘evidence’.

In medicine a trend called Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) emerged. This allowed patients to have better treatment. Politicians were able to insist on EBM to be delivered as were patients. Junior doctors could point out the errors of senior consultants. It created a democratization of power, which was healthy all around. However it meant that consultants decades of practice and experience was slightly devalued. However when it came to applying the EBM guidance to individual patients it was more complicated than the broad guidelines could satisfactorily cope with. Consultant then had enough experience to weave a tailor made package of care to their patients. Similarly, EBT are useful to establish the ‘heartwood’ of the dhamma, IMO. However the practice … still requires a living practicing teacher.

with metta