Are Chinese Agamas less reliable than Pali Nikayas?

Just poking in to say thank you for this conversation! So many Theravadins all the time are like, “Pali texts are the most reliable and authoritative because they’re the oldest” and I’m like:


Look on the bright side: a decade or two ago, almost no-one had even heard of the Agamas. The only reason Theravadins can even have an opinion about the Agamas is because there are those who took an interest.


Very true. And, it’s natural to stick to one’s own canon, and classical Chinese bedevils everyone who tries to translate it. It’s amazing how easy it is to read it as we’d like it to read because it leaves so much to the reader to decide.


And I found what Bhante @sujato wrote years ago, which I have read it but I forgot it, this is the answer of question “why we bother studying the Chinese Agamas?” raised in this topic:

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.

What the Buddha Really Taught – Santipada



Last night I read Kuan’s Legends and Transcendence: Sectarian Affiliations of the Ekottarika Āgama in Chinese Translation, and it reminded me of how much we owe to the translations that exist in Chinese. Being able to compare the different sectarian vinayas, as one good example, makes it clear just how much sharing and cross-sectarian influence must have taken place in the ancient Buddhist world. The firewall that the Theravada seem have built to pretend that never happened aside, Buddhists were really very open about what constituted the “Buddha’s teaching” as they struggled to maintain it as best they could.


Whilst the age of the Pali suttas and the aṭṭhakathā is attractive and does add some weight to their authority, that isn’t the only reason for accepting them. Personally, for me, it’s because all I see outside of the Mahāvihāra is a tragic lapse into heresy.

My simple strategy having failed, please would you mind expanding your use of ‘Mahāvihāra’ for the general readers of this site?

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Sorry, yes. By Mahāvihāra I was refering to the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya, the old centre of Theravādin orthodoxy. Mahāvihāravasin (Dwellers in the Great Monastery) being another name for Theravāda. By saying I see doctrinal error outside of the Mahāvihāra what I mean is that all of the other early schools bar Theravāda adopted what I consider to be anti-Dhamma views. Another way of putting it would be that only Theravāda remained true to the Buddha’s word.


I think this is out of topic, please @moderators to split it into new topic because the topic is not to discuss whether Theravadin is the one and only true Buddhist sect and others are corrupted.

Thank you :anjal:

Hi Seniya,

Ceisiwr was answering a question posed by Gillian as to the use of a specific term in a prior post. If discussion veers away from the original question we can revisit a possible topic split.



The Vaibhasika heresiologist Venerable Saṅghabhadra is like your mirror-image oppositely. He takes the separatist Vibhajyavādins to task in ways they never really succeed in responding to, it seems.


Not sure if that is a compliment or not :smile:


It was a complinsult.


How about Mahayanist-influenced teaching like paramis? Or tradition which is not found in the suttas like pattidana (merit transfer)? This late doctrinal development is also found in nowadays Theravada…

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Or tradition which is not found in the suttas like pattidana (merit transfer)?

We do see this in the suttas:

“Sir, last night I rose at the crack of dawn and recited the verses of ‘The Way to the Beyond’, and then I fell silent. Then the great king Vessavaṇa, knowing I had finished, applauded me, ‘Good, sister! Good, sister!’

I asked: ‘But who might you be, my dear?’

‘Sister, I am your brother Vessavaṇa, the great king.’

‘Good, my dear! Then may my recital of the teaching be my offering to you as my guest.’

‘Good, sister! And let this also be your offering to me as your guest. Tomorrow, the mendicant Saṅgha headed by Sāriputta and Moggallāna will arrive at Veḷukaṇṭa before breakfast. When you’ve served the Saṅgha, please dedicate the religious donation to me. Then that will also be your offering to me as your guest.’

And so, sir, may the merit and the growth of merit in this gift be for the happiness of the great king Vessavaṇa.”

Nandamātā Sutta (AN 7.53)

How about Mahayanist-influenced teaching like paramis?

Or perahps it was Mahāyāna that adopted it.

This can be seen as mere someone ask you to do giving in his/her favor. There is no merit transfer indicated here as in pattidana tradition where the recipient can be only petas.

This is more like you agree that this later development is inherent in Theravada so they are not as pure as it claims to be.

Its a dedication of merit.

This is more like you agree that this later development is inherent in Theravada so they are not as pure as it claims to be.

I said perhaps it was Mahāyāna that adopted it, as in these concepts were already around when Mahāyāna was developing.

8 posts were split to a new topic: How does the dedication of merit work, according to the texts?

Even if they are less reliable, that doesn’t mean they are not worth studying at all!

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I agree. One of the major benefits to come from studying the Agamas is to see how successful the Sangha was in transmitting the Buddha’s core teachings. Putting everything else to the side, as long as we have the core teachings and practicing virtuous monastics then there is still hope for full awakening.