Are Chinese Agamas less reliable than Pali Nikayas?

Yes, I think so. The diference is just Mulasarvastivada has different Vinaya text from Sarvastivada, which incorporated Jatakas and Avadanas, but the their doctrinal view are the same…

My impression from other articles is that it’s not fully understood yet. There’s a theory that the Mulasarvastivada was essentially a later evolution of early Sarvastivada and that the differences might have be significant. Scholars have found some evidence that Mulasarvastivada might have been influenced or had absorbed the Mahasamghika that dominated a particular area of India, resulting in their vinaya surprising us at times. So, I’d be very interested in reading Analayo’s article comparing SA and MA and this theory about the two schools.

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Here’s the article. Ven Analayo argues that, while it is clear that the Vinayas are distinct representations of specific lineages in ways that the Agamas are not, a meaningful distinction can still be made between Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada in the Sutta texts as well as their Vinaya. He concludes

Due to the nature of oral tradition, different ordination lineages tend to encourage the formation of separate communities of reciters and thus distinct lineages of textual transmission (which at times might coincide with the regional use of certain conventions in diction and stock phrases). These lineages in turn also impact Āgama texts. For this reason, it is meaningful to refer to Āgama texts by the name of the nikāya in which the respective reciters appear to have been ordained and within whose institutional container the recitation and transmission of the texts would have predominantly, though not exclusively, taken place.

Mulasarvastivada.pdf (587.5 KB)


According to Yinshun’s The Formation of Early Buddhist texts (Yuanshi fojiao shengdian zhi jicheng, 1971), p. 77 (cf. pp. 68, 72), Mulasarvastivada Vinaya and Sarvastivada Vinaya are the same origin, but just different transmission. He does not say they are two different schools.

I read both classical Chinese and Pāli, and I previously worked in literary and other specialist translation. I would say that the Chinese Āgamas do have some issues around back-influence from commentary and abhidharma, and, very rarely, from Mahayana concepts. The same is also true of some Pāli sutta material in respect of influence from Abhidhamma and commentary. I also have the following comments about the Chinese canon as a whole.

While the translation can sometimes be a problem in reconstructing the Indic original, on the other hand, it can sometimes be helpful. Two words come to mind: 覆肩衣 Fùjiānyī (a shoulder cover, for sankacchikā?). This is an example of a word in the Chinese canon with no identifiable Indic origin (although arguably, it may come from glossing sankacchikā as angikā). In this case, the Chinese semantic translation is intrusive: it stands between us and the Indic source text. But the Chinese canon is not a single-author work, and other translators have done better in giving us more transparent renderings, like the transliteration 僧祇支 Sēngqízhī. Multiple translations are one of the fun points of the Chinese canon.

The opposite case is where a semantic translation in Chinese can help us decipher phonetic loss/variant readings in the Pāli. The word “padālatā" in the Aggañña Sutta at DN 27 comes to mind. As a word with only one occurrence in Pāli, it’s the classic example of a translator’s nightmare- the dreaded hapax legomenon! For low frequency words like that, you want ALL THE DATA YOU CAN GET YOUR HANDS ON. While the Chinese translation, 林藤 línténg, will definitely not solve all our problems with this word, it does suggest Indic original"vanalatā (banalatā)", which might hint to us to resolve padā as badda meaning “forest”, compare Sinhalese baedda).

So yeah. Keep on studying both sets of texts if that’s something you can do. It’s the 21st century, it’s the age of “big data”. The more data the better.

*Post edited for diacritics.


A similar issue is found in the Chinese version EA 27.8 on the term “iron-fork tree” (tiecha shu 鐵叉樹).

In the following article (pp. 45, 47, note 13), the author indicates that only the Chinese version, EA 27.8: T2, 646a-b (= SN 29.1, SN 30.1-2), mentions the iron-fork tree (tiecha shu 鐵叉樹) is used by garudas (suppanna) in hunting nagas for food. No corresponding Indian term or story is found for the iron-fork tree. The author suggests “It is a question whether this kind of tree originated in China.” (p. 62). This is an interesting question. One may consider: Is it possible the iron-fork tree refers to Simbali tree (see Malalasekera, p. 755 about Garuda)?

Choong Mun-keat, “A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of Nāga Saṃyutta, Supaṇṇa Saṃyutta, and Valāhaka Saṃyutta, early Buddhist discourse collections on mythical dragons, birds, and cloud devas”, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies , 2020 (18): 42-65.
Website: Vol 18


Just throwing it out there, but I wonder if the iron-fork tree might be the type of Simbali tree that grows in hell, (the simbali’s evil twin) the koṭisimbali (the spiky simbali), which has thorns as long as a finger…Jatakas seem to be the leading botanical source.


I am thinking whether the hell you mentioned is Indian or Chinese hell?

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Is that the iron thorn tree (鐵刺林) in the Ayaḥśalmalīvana Hell that has thorns that face upwards and downwards depending on whether a person is climbing up or down it? I remember that story from a list of hells in the DZDL. And, yes, that’s an Indian description of a Buddhist hell. The DZDL follows Sarvâstivāda lore pretty closely.


Do you refer to Dà zhìdù lùn ?

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Yes, it’s the sixth hell in the list of 8 lesser hot hells.

Just for botanical identification purposes. Pretty sure it’s the same thing as in the KoṭisimbaliJātaka, where the garudas hang out in this tree.


Could you tell us the origin, source of the painting/picture? Where the painting came from?

Only one bird is shown in the painting. It seems the painting presents naked girls, women are being attacked, hunted by men and dogs? Why?

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The story in DZDL says it’s a hell where lascivious adulterers are punished. The story only mentions men being tempted by sexy women, whereas here it looks like both men and women are among the punished. The guys with spears would be the wardens of hell also attacking the damned to make them climb the tree. It’s a little different from the DZDL account, but these stories vary from source to source.

I have to say, I still remember the month I spent drafting the DZDL’s section detailing all the hells, and I felt almost traumatized visualizing all the horror scenes they described. It’s just as bad as the modern horror genre in film and fiction.


Many thanks for your explanation.

It’s just a random Cambodian one I pulled from the internet. Probably a temple mural. Credits to

@thomaslaw, I noticed that this topic was something you were interested in on dharmawheel as well. I would like to give a brief hypothesis about what has happened with the iron-fork tree, to explain a little what is going on. You’re right to notice that it doesn’t seem to be about garudas. It’s not.

In the standard version of the garuda story, the garudas live in the kūṭa-simbali on the slopes of Mt. Meru. This kūṭa means “slope”. The image is divine, auspicious eagles that live in lovely silk-cotton trees. (The “good” simbali twin). Our friends on dharmawheel pointed this out already, but it doesn’t explain the term iron-fork tree.

In the second, definitely less standard version of the story, the garudas live in the koṭi-simbali. This koṭi means a spike or lance. The image is more like eagles with razor claws that live in…ummm…somewhere very, very remote. (The “evil” simbali twin). This is the basic meaning of iron-fork tree, but it doesn’t explain why there is this second, non-standard garuda story floating around (in both Theravāda and the Chinese EA).

To go out, “on a limb”, on the basis of what I know from about 5 minutes of web surfing, I would say that the conflation (a) most likely happened in India, due to the fact it is present across both Theravāda and the Chinese EA and (b) is purely phonetic from the phonetic similarity of kūṭa and koṭi. Purely Chinese origin material is something we tend to see more in the digest and apocryphal material…I would give the translators a break. :slightly_smiling_face:

*edited to reflect the fact I don’t really know the sectarian identity of the EA, which is possibly not Sarvastivada.


I had heard that it was Mahāsāṁghika, but AFAIK people only think that because of the occasional expounding of a Mahāyāna-like Buddhism in it. Whether it is authentically Mahāsāṁghika or not would depend on when the Māhāyānika elements were introduced and whether or not those elements are actually Mahāyāna Buddhism or if they are Mahāsāṁghika Buddhism being misidentified.

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The sect affiliation of EA is still a mystery in Buddhist study until now. But perhaps this paper is worth read:


In regard with this, there are inscriptions at Sanchi and Barhut which mention “pancanekayika” (reciters of five Nikayas) and can be dated from middle of 2nd century BC. This is proposed by many Theravadins as a historical fact that five Nikayas of Pali Canon is the oldest Buddhist scriptures than others, whereas there is no mention of Agamas in ancient Indian inscriptions as a historical evident of their early existence… :sweat_smile:

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The four Nikayas were called Agama, not Nikaya, according to the Pali tradition, Dīpavaṃsa (see pp. 888-889, in Choong Mun-keat “Ācāriya Buddhaghosa and Master Yinshun 印順 on the Three-aṅga Structure of Early Buddhist Texts”):

[14] Assembled in the beautiful Sattapaṇṇa Cave, the five hundred theras, arranged (pavibhajati) the ninefold teach­ing of the Teacher (navaṅgaṃ satthusāsanaṃ). [15] The ninefold teaching of the Teacher are: sutta, geyya, veyyā­karaṇa, gāthā, udāna, itivuttaka, jātaka, abbhuta, vedalla. [16] The theras who arranged this true imperish­able teaching according to chap­ter (vagga), collection of fifty (paññāsaka), connected col­lection (saṃyutta) and section (nipātaka), composed the Basket of Āgamas ( Āgama-piṭaka) which is known by name of Sutta (suttasammata).