Are Chinese Agamas less reliable than Pali Nikayas?

Hi there,

I have translated some Chinese Agamas into Indonesian, most of them are from Analayo’s English translation. When I introduced these texts to an online Buddhist communities which most of the members are Theravadins, they said these Chinese Agamas are less realible than Pali Nikayas for studying early teachings of the Buddha because:

  1. Chinese Agamas are incomplete set of texts. Compared with Pali Nikayas which are a complete set of texts from the same affiliation, we don’t have complete set of 4 Agamas from the same sect, i.e Chinese Dirgha Agama is from Dharmaguptaka sect, but we don’t have their other Agamas; it’s true for Madhyama Agama and Samyukta Agama which are from Sarvastivada sects and Ekottarika Agama which is from Mahasanghika sect (?)

  2. Agamas are translated into Chinese at a later period of Buddhism (about 4-5th century AD) than Pali Nikayas which are written at 1st century BC and still intact nowadays.

  3. Agamas suffered some late doctrinal infiltration in their transmission into Chinese, for example: Mahayana influence in Ekottarika Agama (which according to Analayo are evident only in China), and possible loss meaning of words translated from Indian language into Chinese context (which is a problem to reconstruct its’ original Indian word and meaning).

So why we bother studying the Chinese Agamas, which most of them have parallels in Pali Nikayas? They said. What do you think, guys? Are Chinese Agamas less reliable than Pali Nikayas as a source for early Buddhism study?

Thank you :anjal:


Other than Ekottarika agama , i dont find that the other agama are somehow influenced by mahayana .
Actually , without other schools different version of texts one could not do a comparison hence not knowing how true is their own texts if they were already corrupted .
It is one-sided to say that agama are less reliable than nikayas unless one personally already delved into it and studied them extensively without bias . Many theravadins would equate agama to mahayana which appears very erroneous .


Maybe look at Ven. Anālayo’s A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya, Vol I & Vol II.

Early Buddhism is only at the very start of doing comparative studies, and this book is an important step on this path. What they find so far is not so much a general statement like “This tradition is right, and that tradition is wrong”, or “This tradition is more reliable than others”. It’s rather that the interesting stuff lies in the details. Some Suttas or passages seem to be earlier in the Pali tradition, others in the Chinese tradition.

Much work in this field remains to be done, and the more and better translations we have of these texts into modern languages the more likely this will happen.

Therefore: Sadhu for making Indonesian translations of the Chinese texts! :pray:

From the foreword by Roderick Bucknell:

The Conclusion, and with it the entire work, finishes up with a simple but significant observation: the study has revealed no evidence that any particular line of transmission has preserved the discourses more faithfully than the others. An implication of this is that the researcher should not rely exclusively on any one version of the Nikāyas/Āgamas. In particular, study of the Pāli Nikāyas alone can yield only a partial and imperfect picture. For a maximally complete and clear picture, the Pāli suttas must be compared with their available Chinese and other parallels.


Hi , perhaps you may find this helpful .

This is the second volume of proceedings of the Āgama seminars convened by the Āgama Research Group at the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts (formerly Dharma Drum Buddhist College). On this occasion, the Āgama Research Group met to discuss the early collections of long discourses transmitted by the different Buddhist schools. Thanks to the discovery and ongoing publication of the incomplete Sanskrit Dīrgha-āgama manu¬script from Gilgit, three different versions of the Collec¬tion of Long Discourses are now avail-able for comparative study: the Pali Dīgha-nikāya transmitted within the Theravāda tradition, the just-mentioned Dīrgha-āgama in Sanskrit, identified as Sar¬vās¬ti¬vāda or Mūlasarvāstivāda, and the Chinese translation of an Indic Dīrgha-āgama (長阿含經), generally considered to be affiliated with the Dhar¬ma¬¬guptakas. The six papers collected here focus on research on these various incarnations of the collections of long discourses in comparative perspective.


This is the third volume of proceedings of the Āgama seminars convened by the Āgama Research Group at the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts (formerly Dharma Drum Buddhist College). It collects academic contributions on various aspects related to the Middle-length Collec¬tions of discourses (sūtras, suttas) transmitted by different early Buddhist lineages of reciters, preserved in their Indic originals in Gandhari, Pali and Sanskrit as well as in Chinese and Tibetan translations.


Again you may find this of interest .



Here is ven yin shun works on early buddhism texts and Sabbatthivāda treatise and scholasticism research .

  1. 印順法師,(1968),《說一切有部為主的論書與論師之研究》,正聞出版社,台北市,台灣。

  2. 印順法師,(1971),《原始佛教聖典之集成》,正聞出版社,台北市,台灣。


Yes, this is a good point to have other sects texts compared with the Pali version.

It’s true. When I introduced the Chinese Agamas, they are suspecting me teach a Mahayanist texts. It’s so biased. :sweat_smile:

Indeed this field of study is still new and need more research to prove it worth :grin:


Dear @Gene,

Thank you for your link, but too bad I cannot read Chinese :grin:


I think the starting point is to leave aside blanket statements and instead focus on the suttas themselves. If we take any sutta and examine its content to see how it accords with the dhamma as a whole as well as match it with all of the extant parallels then we can make better hypotheses on what might be closer to what the Buddha said and what might have come later.

I’ve studied most of Venerable Analayo’s books and papers and listened to many of his online lectures. His approach seems to be consistently careful and fair to examine the material we have available in Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit and other sources and to state possibilities and probabilities. Sometimes there will be suttas with perhaps four parallels; three will closely match and one will translate a word in such a way that it changes the message of the sutta. In those cases, that might be an indicator that there could have been an error in transmission or something else.

It’s been about 2500 years since the Buddha spoke the Dhamma. There are many suttas in the Pali canon where it’s pretty obvious that there are later additions, errors in transmission and influences of tradition. And the Agamas are not perfect either. I think that the more material we have to examine and compare, the better, as long as it’s all held as valuable in order to see a bigger picture. I would love to see a future where we could have a canon based more on the most probable word of the Buddha rather than bent towards one tradition here and another there.


The parallels are all different when you read them side by side, and the Theravada version is sometimes the outlier. Sometimes, it agrees with the others well. We can’t really make blanket statements about it without studying them.

As for reliability, some of those arguments are on point and some are wishful thinking. Translation issues do exist, but the fact that the Theravada tradition didn’t keep any historical records about their canon beyond “It was first written down in 1st c. BC” doesn’t make the Pali canon more original than the Agamas.


Good question Seniya, I get the same thing too!

The most important thing is that it is not about one or the other. It is that taking both is better than taking just one.

Comparative studies give us a unique angle into the suttas, one that reveals things that might otherwise have been hidden. As other commenters have noted, you can’t know the value of research until you’ve done the work. This whole field is still very much in its infancy, and we don’t know what we don’t know. If there is some chance that something might be learned from the Agamas, isn’t it worthwhile?

Let me just state the elephant in the room. :elephant: Theravadins take their own Pali scriptures as the be-all and end-all of Buddhism, and for the most part are too attached to their own sectarian identity to consider anything else. Which means—and I know this may come as a shock—that Theravadins are human! That’s not a bad thing. It’s better to be attached to something beautiful and profound like the Suttas than to some hateful rubbish. Still, being human, there is a possibility for growth, too.

Let’s address each of the specific points in turn.

True. And this is relevant if your purpose is to understand the entire sutta doctrine of a specific school. However, in reality no-one apart from a few specialists ever does this. Practically speaking we almost always want to know what the meaning of a specific passage is, and the existence or otherwise of other texts of that school is irrelevant.

It’s worth noting in passing, incidentally, that we have a mostly-complete set of Tipitaka texts from the Sarvastivadins: DA (Incomplete and largely unpublished Sanskrit manuscript), MA, SA, part of EA (?), several Dhammapada, Jataka, and similar collections; Vinaya; and all seven of their Abhidharma texts.

The Pali texts will always remain the foundation of our understanding of early Buddhism. I pointed this out in my essay on the Nikayas. But if we can learn from other sources, why wouldn’t we take it?

This is kind of meaningless. The dates tell us little by themselves, and all the evidence suggests that the traditions were pretty good at preserving things.

Which we only know because people did not accept the sectarian notion of scripture, but actually did the work to find out what is going on.

What we should take away from this situation is this. Almost all of the Agamas contain exactly the same doctrines as the Pali canon. And the few occasions where later ideas do appear—which are almost all limited to the EA—are easily identified and well-known to scholars. This shows us two things:

  • The schools were reluctant to add new doctrines to the suttas. Like the Theravada, they put their new teachings in separate books.
  • Where they did insert things, they did it clumsily, so it is easy to identify.

Sure. But this is well-known to scholars, and is what they work with every day. One point that this overlooks is that understanding of words is the lesser part of textual analysis. Meaning in texts arises at a higher level; and at those higher levels, there is very often no ambiguity at all.

Consider, for example, a stock phrase like the jhana formula. This is found hundreds of times in Pali, so often that it is frequently abbreviated almost entirely. Translation of certain terms in the formula are tricky (kāma, vitakka, etc.) and scholars have different takes on that. In the Chinese texts, there are various renderings, just as there are in modern translations. And if what you want to do is to specifically figure out the meaning of these terms, obviously the Pali is your primary focus of research.

But here’s the thing. There is no doubt that it is the same formula. When it occurs in a Chinese translation, we know just as certainly that this is the jhana formula as we do in Pali. And it frequently turns out that this higher level view is very interesting. For example, the same sutta might contain the jhana formula in a Pali version, but omit it in a Chinese version.


If you dont mind , let me take an example to show how the comparative studies i came across reveals . If you ever read chinese there appear the agama comprised of two version regarding the type of fetters , one version mentioned 5 lower fetters but without the 5 higher fetters , one version include the 5 higher fetters but those texts only to be found in those (considered) to be of later works .

Another thing , i have a question here , perhaps bhante or anyone could help to answer . That the four rupa jhana is right concentration according to the suttas but does this means other ascetics with four rupa jhana also has the attaintment equivalent to right concentration ?

Hmmm, does it mean the 10 fetters version found in Pali canon is an advanced doctrinal development?

AFAIK, right concentration is one-pointness of mind based on right view and other 6 path-factors (because Chinese Agamas don’t strictly define right concentration as 4 jhanas as Pali Nikayas do). So, it doesn’t matter how the concentration comprise, but it matters whether right view is there or not.


They do , you might want to take a look at it . Both have a mixed versions .



SN 45.8

And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.”



MA 189. 聖道經

云何正定?比丘者,離欲、離惡不善之法,至得第四禪成就遊,是謂正定。[/quote] and what is right concentration , bhikkhus that is secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states…up to attaining the four jhana is right concentration .



SA 784:

何 等為正定?謂住心不亂、堅固、攝持、寂止、三 昧、一心。
What is right concentration? That is abiding with unperplexed mind, firm, focus, with tranquility, samadhi, one pointness [of mind]


Hi seniya , my question was do you think if other ascetics also has one pointedness mind ?

Dear @Gene,

As I point out before, if the ascetics have right view and one pointness of mind, then yes they have right concentration.

What, bhikkhus, is noble right concentration with its supports and its requisites, that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness? Unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right concentration with its supports and its requisites.
(MN 117)


I have pretty much steered my mind away from equating samadhi with concentration. When I see samadhi I conceptualize it as something more like what Venerable Sujato’s presents in his essay on defining samadhi:


We can’t really do that when we translate Agama passages that actually say it means concentration, though. When it’s described as focused, unified, undistracted, and one-pointed, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that concentration is pretty close to what it means. On the other hand, there’s passages that drop these definitions, like the Madhyama passage @gene is bringing up. In those cases, samadhi has essentially lost that meaning and become an synonym for dhyana. I’m not sure, myself, whether that’s the older meaning. It’s seems to be the more overwrought texts that turn samadhi into another word for dhyana.


MA 31 defines right samadhi as abiding in jhana (in singular, means meditation in general), where Bhikkhu Analayo translated it as jhanas (in plural) to indicate 4 jhanas, but it’s proved not quite correct here:

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Yes, that’s the way I read it as well, and I wasn’t aware of this controversy re: Analayo’s translation. It’s to me another example of how he and other academics who come from the Theravada perspective force Pali-like readings onto the Agamas.