I have had a quick look at your essay, and I jotted down a few random comments as I went along. Your review is very useful, at least until we have a proper translation of this into English. I noticed on the way that there is a lot in common with the Pali, especially in the Saṃyukta. This is true in regard to individual suttas, but also more generally in regard to the ideas expressed. As usual it is hard to avoid the feeling that the Pali and the Chinese are different recensions of the same original teachings.
Hopefully you will find something useful in this.
With metta from Oz.
This section should give us sūtras that are generally older and more likely to be shorter, simpler, and earlier than those in the other āgamas.
Perhaps, but the extent to which this is true is still up for debate. One of the issues here is how much older. It seems reasonable to think that the suttas would have evolved within the lifetime of the Buddha. He would probably have started off with simpler and shorter suttas, of the type we normally find in the Saṃyukta/Saṃyutta. The suttas would then have evolved in both content and length throughout his career. It seems reasonable to think that many of the lengthy but oft-repeated suttas would have been spoken by the Buddha himself, such as the gradual training (e.g. MN 27 or DN 2). And if a sutta originated from the Buddha, its relative age is not all that significant.
Another important issue is the fact that the same sutta was often either placed in different Nikāyas/Āgamas to begin with, or moved around the various Nikāyas/Āgamas. We know this because a Pali sutta found in a particular Nikāya is often found in a different Āgama in the Chinese. So even if the Saṃyukta as a container is old, this does not necessarily mean that the content is older than that of the other Āgamas/Nikāyas. To me it seems that there is too much uncertainty around this to make any general statements about age.
In my opinion, a better and more reliable method of relative chronology is to look at linguistic criteria. For instance, you can tell that the Abhidhamma is later than the suttas simply on the basis of the language used. The vocabulary is different, and so is the style. When you look at the four Nikāyas/Āgamas, the language is very similar across the board, and this should mean that they all stem from roughly the same period. It is true that we still need better research in this area, and it is quite possible that we might be able to relatively date certain suttas, even collections, on linguistic criteria. But the general outline is clear enough: the differences within the four Nikāyas are relatively minor. All this is of course much easier to ascertain with the Pali suttas than with those translated into Chinese, where such minor linguistic details often got lost in translation.
… only form of explicitly seated meditation …
So far as I am aware, ānāpānasati is the only form of explicitly seated meditation anywhere. Seated meditation is also mentioned in the gradual training, but in connection with the abandoning of the hindrances, not with a specific meditation technique.
… the Four Bases of Mindfulness …
This is similar to the common translation “the four foundations of mindfulness”: both of them imply that mindfulness arises as a consequence of this practice. However, mindfulness is needed at the outset of satipaṭṭhāna practice: the practice is described as satimā, which implies the presence of mindfulness as the practice is done. I would prefer a translation such as “the four applications of mindfulness”, or even “the four focuses of mindfulness”. The purpose of satipaṭṭhāna, as you point out further down, is samādhi, not mindfulness per se.
The Smṛtyupasthāna Saṃyukta also contains a strong narrative element that includes illustrations, for example, about a small bird and an eagle (SA 617), monkey hunting (SA 620), acrobats (SA 618), a chef (SA 616), and the most beautiful woman in the world (SA 623).
All of which are found in the Pali as well.
This highly detailed approach to meditation is unique within the Saṃyukta Āgama, and perhaps reflects the ideas of a certain group of authors who had strong opinions and particular ideas about how this type of meditation ought to be practiced, and who believed that each detail was important enough that it should be memorized and followed.
I see no reason why this should not have come from the Buddha. I agree with you that the degree of detail is striking – the same is true of the Pali – but I would see this as an indication of the importance the Buddha placed on ānāpānasati. Apart from the Ānāpānasati Saṃyutta, the sixteen steps together with the introductory instructions are found in a number of places in the Pali canon (MN 62, MN 118, AN 10.60; in addition you find the introduction together with the first tetrad in MN 10, MN 119, and DN 22). Moreover, ānāpāna is mentioned in brief in number of other places. It seems unlikely to me that such an important teaching should not stem from the Buddha.
The authors of the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta …
May we not assume that this is the Buddha, unless proved otherwise? This is the sort of language used by academic scholars, and to me it is the result of academic over-caution and fashion. I feel it would be good for Buddhists to take a stand on where these teachings come from.
The impression left by the texts in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta is that its authors were exacting, demanding, opinionated, eremitic, avoidant, and puritanical. They do not seem to have been particularly creative, tolerant, flexible, or sociable. They did not care much about entertaining others or communicating their message in a charismatic way. They were simply concerned about the details of their practice, and how it should properly be carried out.
Gee, you are really going for it! To me the point is that there is a time for solitude, especially when one wants to develop samādhi. There is also a time for communicating the message, but that should be at a different time from when you practice samādhi. I don’t really see the division in personalities that you seem to see.
… nectar of immortality (得甘露究竟甘露) …
Would it not be better to translate this as “nectar of the deathless”, or even “the nectar of freedom from death”, as is customary for the Pali? “Immortality” is not a very Buddhist idea.
… in accordance with separation (依遠離), in accordance with desirelessness (依無欲), in accordance with cessation (依滅), tending towards abandonment (向於捨).
The Pali equivalent is vivekanissitaṃ virāganissitaṃ nirodhanissitaṃ vossaggapariṇāmiṃ, which means “dependent on seclusion, dependent on fading away, dependent on cessation, ripening in giving up”. Virāga can mean both “without desire” and “fading away”.
… Bodhi factor of pliancy (修猗覺分)
The Pali is passaddhi, which means “tranquillity”. This is how other translators have also translated the Chinese, e.g. Marcus Bingenheimer’s translation of MĀ 42 in the recent BDK translation of the Madhyama-āgama.
… he obtains equality and abandonment (得平等捨).
Should this not rather be “equanimity”, as in the Pali?
He then cuts off craving and affection (斷世貪愛), and develops purity apart from desires (離欲清淨). He then severs ill-will (瞋恚), drowsiness (睡眠), restlessness and remorse (掉悔), and doubt (疑).
This is interesting. In the standard exposition of the gradual training, the abandoning of the five hindrances is always mentioned just before the attainment of the four jhānas, but without specifying any particular meditation topic. I have always thought that this referred to satipaṭṭhāna, since it is mindfulness that is everywhere the cause of samādhi. Since satipaṭṭhāna is primarily exemplified by mindfulness of breathing, I decided a long time ago that this was the preeminent method for abandoning the hindrances, that is, the refined remnants of the hindrances that are still present at this stage.
It seems likely that SA 813 originally came from the smṛtyupasthāna camp, since much of the style and terminology seem much more at home within that saṃyukta.
I don’t find the idea that there were different camps particularly convincing. Satipaṭṭhāna is more of an overarching framework, whereas ānāpānasati is a quite specific technique within satipaṭṭhāna. It is perhaps not so strange that ānāpānasati should be described in such a detailed and rather dry fashion, compared to satipaṭṭhāna. I don’t think a two camp thesis is required, and I would say it is all likely to stem from the Buddha.
… the destruction of outflows (成盡漏心)
This is interesting. Does the Chinese literally mean “outflows”?
Outside the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta, there is only one sūtra in the entire collection that mentions the practice at all (SA 746). It is almost as if the practice is invisible to the rest of the Saṃyukta Āgama.
But isn’t the point with the saṃyukta principle that it collects suttas of the same category in the same group? Should one really expect to see many suttas on this topic outside of its dedicated Saṃyukta?