Aspects of Early Transmission / Ruminations on 1st Sutta-Pitakas

Our reliable knowledge about the transmission during the Buddha’s time and directly afterwards is thin, and I think it’s important to develop probable scenarios and to compare them with the material we have in order to see where our knowledge is lacking.

Please take this essay as an amateurish contribution. It is not a proper scholarly article with footnotes, a part of the material is not mine but picked up from many different sources. For the many things I didn’t include or didn’t think of I count on your additions. I hope to contribute to a discussion and am well aware of the flaws and lack of knowledge and reasoning…


If basic biographical information is more or less right then the Buddha was teaching for about 40 years. Apart from the Buddha there would have been right from the beginning eight groups of people spreading Buddhist knowledge:

  • Arahants
  • Non-arahants in good faith
  • Professional reciters
  • Missionaries
  • Devoted laity
  • Pragmatic laity
  • Critics

The Buddha would have - in one way of categorization - spoken in three ways:
(1) Emphasizing core aspects of the teaching, in a repeated, consistent way but probably with some variation - especially taking into account the long years of his mission
(2) teaching spontaneously according to the situation and his interlocutor in a novel ‘Buddhist’ way
(3) teaching with the novel use of culturally and conceptually already existing common knowledge, images, metaphors, concepts in order to be easily understood by his audience.

Arahants would have spoken in two ways:
(1) Repeating the words of the Buddha that they heard, and
(2) spontaneously generating true teaching due to their realization. The process of confirmation of the teaching of an arahant by the Buddha is mentioned quite often in the nikayas. We expect arahants to teach in a non-competitive, non-aggressive, modest, measured way

Non-arahants in good faith could
(1) at best reproduce correct memorized content engage in honest right speech without claiming ultimate truth.
(2) Mid-case non-arahants would have been attached to their necessarily flawed understanding, take part in debates, trying to outshine each other, trying to get reputation and admiration.
(3) Worst-case non-arahants would have had character flaws and even creatively add material to what they heard, either because of faulty memory or in order to gain a personal advantage or reputation, or to ‘enhance’ the story

Professional reciters might have existed already during the Buddha’s time. It might have been for example that Sariputta, Ananda or Upali passed on their memory to special students with similarly developed memory in case they died prematurely or due to sickness. These bhikkhus - arahants or not - would have spent special time to memorize, systematize and travel to existing communities to support their practice with ‘authorized’ words of the Buddha. The more the movement spread the less the Buddha could have taught all of the geographically spread sangha. Some communities would have had no arahant in direct proximity to guide them and it makes sense that there would have been some support system for them, either through traveling arahants (which might have become rare even in the Buddha’s time) or traveling reciters. Later on these reciters were referred to as bhanakas or dharmabhanakas. The scope of these reciters would have been broad so to be equipped for diverse questions of the bhikkhus.

Missionaries are sometimes mentioned in the nikayas. They would have had a good general knowledge of the dhamma, and be suited to represent the dhamma in unfavorable environments. They must have been equipped for debates and be charismatic/charming, probably with strong metta.

Devoted lay people would have had limited knowledge of the dhamma and would have retained it to the best of their abilities. They would have discussed it among themselves and with non-devoted lay people with more or less right speech, memory and skill.

The ‘pragmatic laity’ would have been people not too strongly attached to any tradition, not fully convinced by the dhamma but still implementing some aspects of it to their world view and philosophical and/or spiritual practice. They would have wildly mixed all sorts of ideas without caring about conceptual clarity. Eager to learn new things they would have had already some knowledge of brahmanic, jain and other sects’ ideas and would have creatively included aspects of the buddha-dhamma into their views. An important part of pragmatic laity would have been kings and rulers. As rulers always depend on the acclamation of the population, military and influence groups they most probably are more ‘pragmatic’ than ‘devoted’. As much as Buddhists for example like to claim Asoka as ‘their’ king, the pillars that he erected actually only spread his own simple and vague dhamma, not the buddha dhamma.

Critics would have been at best impartial, at worst spreading over-simplified, wrong, defaming information about the Buddha/dhamma/sangha.

##Purity of Transmission

It is essential to see that the end-product of any fixed sutta pitaka was due to the varying influences of those eight groups and their interests at the specific time of fixation/edition. To assess the purity of the suttas we would have to know the strength of their influences - a goal that we can scholarly approach, but never satisfyingly resolve.

Since the Buddha was most probably aware of these groups of transmitters, what were the structures of transmission that he installed? Most certainly he authorized his (chief) arahant disciples to teach. Apart from that, did he use or train arahants or non-arahants with special mnemonic talents to specifically support the transmission by learning diverse dhamma and spreading it to monastic communities or as missionaries? Apart from the pattimokha, did he institutionalize communal recitation already in his lifetime? If he did, it would have been very limited material. These are open questions, but it makes sense to assume that a teacher so concerned with future generations would have tried to minimize the transmission of dhamma through the non-authorized groups of transmitters and installed specific systems to minimize their naturally corroding effect on the spread and maintenance of the pure teaching.

Turning to the actual fixation/edition of the first big written compilation of nikayas. We have to keep in mind that this final edition of the first written buddha-dhamma (with or without the abhidhamma) must have been an enormous effort that could not have been done by a few monks in a cave. Not only it must have needed a large number of monks, an hierarchical structure, lead by a selection of the most influential monks, but there was an economic aspect to it as well. A proper large construction/monastery was necessary, scribes, food, the production of leaves, bark, color, lamps, fuel, basic necessities for the bhikkhus involved, probably for months or even years - in short, a reliable patronage with the means and logistics of worldly power was necessary.

##The Goals of fixed written nikayas
Such an undertaking comes with tension and different conflicting interests. Some of them are

  • record the Buddha’s teaching as faithfully as possible
  • balancing diversity and systematization. The more diversity of material is included, the higher the possibility for inauthentic texts. The higher the systematization, the higher the risk to lose authentic words of the Buddha
  • identifying core teachings and agreeing on authoritative pericopes from the different available versions
  • including the ‘right’ contributors and excluding the ‘wrong’ ones
  • securing royal and lay support, specifically: pleasing the patron’s needs if there are any
  • quieting monastic centrifugal forces of dissent / sectarianism
  • commenting on and addressing contemporary competing spiritual/ascetic movements, mostly Brahmanism and Jainism

##The Process of creating a Buddha-dhamma edition

Once the goal was set among a few key figures, several things had to be done

  • Try and secure the support of the most important figures of Buddhism at that time
  • Excluding the attempts of controversial figures/sects to influence the process/content
  • Collect existing written material: sending out scribes to communities to make copies of their texts, or asking them to make copies and bring them to the edition center
  • Inviting and coordinating the contribution and support of bhanakas
  • Once secured, organizing scribes to sit down with them and record their suttas
  • Figuring out how to systematize and group the material
  • After collecting and grouping the material, deciding on if/how to distill representative material out of it.
  • Define goals and material for these ‘distillations’

Just as examples here are a few simple theories about the purposes of the different nikayas

  • The digha nikaya was meant as a tool for missionaries to impress and convert people to Buddhism
  • The majjhima nikaya is a selection and edition, a ‘best-of’ for monastic communities
  • The samyutta was a thematic repository for teachers to generate teachings from authentic material
  • The anguttara might have been a collection of proto-sutta-material as the numerical lists represent an old form of retained sutta material

##Voices not heard in the nikayas
No matter who in the end organized and executed this huge task of the first nikayas, it makes sense to assume that not everyone with old buddha-dhamma material was involved in the process. A lot of it depends on which bhikkhus were heading the endeavor. If he/they were arahants, beloved by everyone, uncontroversial and pleasant, then more people, communities and bhanakas would have been inclined to support the process. The more it was seen as a cause of special interests or groups, with suspicions about desire for power and influence of individuals or groups of monks, the less people and communities would have been inclined to participate.

Given the long perspective of this project there would have also been rumors and gossip about what was happening. Again, this would have influenced people to participate more or less.

Apart from the question if certain groups or sects were systematically excluded I would single out two groups of bhikkhus: non-arahant bhanakas and arahants.

Non-arahant bhanakas who knew a vast number of suttas must have been very influential figures. Due to their mnemonic skills communities depended on their knowledge or confirmation of their communal recitation of selected suttas. They would have entertained schools of students, traveled with their entourage and would have been used to exceptionally reverential behavior as they would have seen themselves as the true sources of the buddha vaca. I assume they would have been in competition with some other bhanakas with different doctrinal nuances. The question is would all of such influential bhanakas contributed to a communal effort to fix the nikayas? I can imagine that some would have not, depending on their social standing and if they saw the project as increasing or decreasing their status. Also it would have meant to spend a considerable time in the edition monastery. The might have insisted to send their disciples, or that scribes come to them instead of residing in the monastery.

The second probably under-represented group of bhikkhus were arahants, especially if they were ascetic and reclusive. Meditation masters loving the solitude of the forests might have been not inclined to join such a (in their eyes maybe) decadent undertaking, maybe even of doubtful reputation. Maybe their sutta knowledge was even limited or not exceptional if they focused on practice and individual, spontaneous teaching. The Thai forest tradition can serve as a model here.

##Assessment of the existing nikayas and missing voices
It is noteworthy that the nikayas as we have them today are very clear on certain points and relatively silent on others. For example we have little doubt about sila practice. But when it comes to the meditation and liberation practice we have an astonishing lack of material and a few often-repeated pericopes. There are many things we can deduce with a lot of scholarly erudition, but this is far away from a clear ‘open hand’ teaching from a Buddha who, after all, didn’t gain liberation by sila but by sati, samādhi, upekha, ñāṇa and vimutti, samatha and vipassana. No pericope for example says how sati exactly leads to jhāna and samādhi. In the classic jhāna pericope we ‘establish sati’ and suddenly we are already in jhāna. And the last part of the path is very obscure. We know almost nothing about how to proceed from the fourth jhāna to the knowledges, and from knowledge to liberation. We know that avijja is destroyed, the asavas have ceased, the 4NTs and nibbāna realized - but how this is about to happen is not conceptually clear.

My assumption is that the Buddha spoke about specifically these aspects a lot to his practicing bhikkhus - the different lists of different saññā practices without further details and the four satipatthānas are a testament of it. My conclusion is that at the time of the fixation of the nikayas this specific knowledge either was lost, or more probably not represented. My guess is that the endeavor was not enough beyond doubt to interest or include the meditation masters, maybe they weren’t even asked to participate.

This essay is a product of reasoning with little backup by sources. It’s basically a list of hypotheses, so it’s not necessary to point out that I can’t prove most of it, because this is obvious. Other than that please feel very free to add, refute, comment and correct!


Interesting and provocative thoughts.

My initial reaction is to think that we may be expecting way to too much and looking in the wrong places. The Buddha was a spiritual teacher; not a college professor or philosopher such as Aristotle. And he was not trying to preserve timelessly magical words with magical powers that had been inspired by the gods. He thought words were rough and provisional guides to the stages along an intuitive process, and were ultimately dispensable. My guess is that he would think that his many later followers, pouring over massive volumes of words, were making things much too complicated, and he would describe the teaching fairly simply in something like the following way:

"You want to know what the dhamma is? Go retire to a secluded place, sit under a tree and cultivate mindfulness of body and mind. That’s where the dhamma is - inside your body and mind. Pay attention to the kinds of suffering you experience, try to discern what causes those kinds of suffering, and try to attain release from the suffering by improving your growing intuitive insight into what’s causing it. I could tell you a bit more about how to achieve these results, but frankly, you kind of have to work it out on your own. But I can vouch for the fact that release is possible, and if cultivated far enough, culminates in the total extinction of suffering. That’s your goal. So have faith, and put in some effort!

"This takes some time, so while you are doing it avoid doing things that are going to cause you a lot of guilt, remorse, restlessness, anxiety about the future, anger, and perturbation. Be friendly to everyone and avoid conflict, live simply and don’t waste your life on an awful and stressful job. Don’t eat too much, get drunk or mess with your neighbor’s spouse. If you feel a lot of sensory craving arising in you? … Well, stop it.

“As you progress, and manage to liberate yourself from more and more varieties of mental shittiness, you will find yourself deeper and deeper states of calm and concentration. I could try to describe what is involved in all of these levels, but honestly it will be pretty obvious to you when you are in a deeper and more peaceful state than you were in before. At each stage though, try to recognize what is good about that state and what you did to get into it, but also try to discern the more subtle forms of suffering and defilement that only become really apparent once you have cleared away the coarser rubbish. And so then work on that next level of suffering. Keep going.”


It wasn’t very skillful to make my first comment a critical one. There are many other ideas in your carefully thought-out piece, Gabriel, which are very interesting and that I have been thinking about since I first read it today.


Hi @Gabriel,

Thank you for the thoughtful post.

I’d like to pick up on that by recalling what I think I originally heard from retreat talks on Patrick Kearney’s site:
If the suttas had recorded all kinds of minute details, then there would have been no room for teachers and students to vary the practice to suit the backgrounds, aptitude, and level of the students.

My impression is that the suttas are much more clear about the results than the techniques. So, for example, it seems quite clear that the aim of breath meditation is (to put it as simply as possible) to become calm. However, details about how or where to watch the breath, how long to sit, and so on are left to the practitioner and teacher. Would the suttas be better if they contained instructions like: “you should focus on the touch of the breath at the nostrils”, or “you should focus on the motion of the abdomen”, or “you should just know whether you are breathing”? Probably not. The vagueness means that the student can try any (or none) of the above, and see how they work for them.

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This is possible. But it makes me think of the experience in meditation groups. For many beginners all the different approaches, methods, differences in understanding etc. are just too much. The lack of clarity conditions doubt and thinking. And after a while, if they had no experience of peace or joy, they just stop. It’s not much different for monks. If after many years joy or calm has not emerged out of practice they settle into a non-meditative life style or disrobe altogether. For a teacher this must be tragic, it lies in the nature of being a teacher to try a lot to prevent that.

Yes, they would, because it reduced doubt, less people would give up frustrated or hoping for the next teacher to help them. But even if you’re right, there’s nothing easier than to make it explicit, e.g. “Wherever a monk focuses on the breath there he perceives it” or “Whether he focuses on one point or follows the breath, if he establishes sati there, gladness arises”. It doesn’t have to be specific to be helpful and to reduce doubt - it just has to be addressed.

Or to have a sutta where - as we have it so often - the monks argue, but why not about some meditation practice for once? about how to do anapanassati, or kasina, or maranassati, or whatever. Then they would decide to ask the Buddha, and he would agree with all of them, or just one of them - nothing easier than to imagine a sutta like this, but we don’t have it, the topic is simply very rarely touched at all on a practical level.

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Hi Gabriel,

I agree, which is why I prefer to stick mostly to one approach. I’m not sure why people feel the need to find “the next teacher”. Perhaps I’m just lazy, but the suttas seem to indicate that one should find a teacher one has confidence in and lean from them…

Perhaps if the suttas contained instructions at the level of detail that is in the Visuddhimagga, or modern books by teachers such as Ajahn Brahm, etc, it might give us more confidence that we are practising correctly. On the other hand, it could be problematic if one’s practice didn’t unfold exactly as in those texts, and there was no scope for variation.

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