"before my enlightenment..."

Every now and then we come across suttas that contain ‘before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisatta…’ I was interested in their occurrences in the nikayas…

Digha Nikaya, 0x

Majjhima Nikaya, 8x
MN 4, MN 14, MN 19, MN 26, MN 36, MN 85, MN 100, MN 128

Samyutta Nikaya, 10x
SN 12.10, SN 12.65, SN 14.31, SN 22.26, SN 35.13 (SN 35.14), SN 35.117, SN 36.24, SN 51.11, SN 51.21, SN 54.8

Anguttara Nikaya, 4x
AN 3.103, AN 5.68, AN 8.64, AN 9.41

Even without going into the content I think the numbers have something to say. The frequent appearance of the formula in the MN can not be a coincidence. Here 8 of 152 suttas have it, whereas the Samyutta and Anguttara have respectively +2000 suttas. The Digha doesn’t have the formula at all.

This can mean several things. It could be that it was an important criteria for suttas to be included in the MN. Or it was included in some cases to give the sutta a more pedagogic spin. Or both.

Following my impression that the MN was meant as a best-of- collection for monastics it might have served the purpose of encouragement - “The Lord Buddha was a normal human too, he was not always enlightened, you can get there with practice as well”.

On the other hand, if the Digha was used more for lay people or as an aid for missionaries in order to captivate a population that was listening to maybe contemporary stories of the ramayana, mahabharata and puranas - then it makes sense not to point out that the Buddha was a normal human being, but rather the opposite.

Some other thoughts on this?


It’d make sense to refrain from mentioning the Bodhisatta period if you were extolling His Omniscience to a brahmin audience; I would expect more Jataka-style stuff.

The MN seems to have detailed, highly explicative Suttas surrounding the Bodhisatta:

MN 4 - renunciate fear & dread, overcome via morality, supports the Bodhisatta’s attainment of the jhanas & the three knowledges.

MN 14 - the importance of jhana for overcoming sensuality, and attraction/danger/escape re: sensuality ad infinitum

MN 19 - two types of thinking and suitable energy support the jhanas & the three knowledges

MN 26 - the Bodhisatta’s striving under his two teachers, his own attainment in detail, and his approaching the group of five and a detailed summary teaching.

MN 36 - a bunch of similes demonstrating proper development of the body to a Jain (?!) after describing ascetic exertions as a Bodhisatta.

MN 85 - similes & other details are related to a prince about the renunciate life

MN 100 - previous MN templates are delivered in response to criticism by a brahmin woman

MN 128 - the Buddha leaves arguing monastics for a quieter place, and there extols three ardent practitioners, blended like water & milk, using his time as a Bodhisatta to clarify supports for higher mental training.

The contexts here all include comprehensive doctrine, but in general the Bodhisatta period as used in the MN seems to emphasize the values of renunciation and refined meditation & their supports.


I’ve got the impression (from Bodhi, I think) that in general the DN was for evangelization, the MN for scholastic work, the SN for meditation, & the AN for encouraging others - though, each collection was peppered with both introductory & advanced topics alongside these emphases.

Prior to this, a different structure can be seen which underlies the Samyutta Nikaya, one based on the Four Truths & which would’ve received a number of embellishments prior to & during the early Nikaya period. So I thought I’d look at the SN topics connected with these phrases and see how they might’ve been ordered back then:

SN 22.26 - gratification/danger/escape re: aggregates
SN 35.13 (SN 35.14) - gratification/danger/escape re: internal/external senses
SN 35.117 - guarding the senses & the base where they cease
SN 36.24 - arising/ceasing/attraction/danger/escape re: (contact–>) feeling (–>craving)

SN 12.10 - conditions for aging-&-death etc. (death --> … --> ignorance)
SN 12.65 - conditions for aging-&-death etc. (death --> … --> ignorance)
(SN 14.31 - gratification/danger/escape re: elements - this one wouldn’t be included)

SN 51.11 - four bases for spiritual power
SN 51.21 - four bases for spiritual power
SN 54.8 - anapanasati, embellished

Seems to fall into a Gradual Path sort of structure, including a practical shorthand & catechetical version of paticcasamuppada as well as some rather advanced meditation instruction.

Suppose I was going to encourage others?

AN 3.103 - gratification/danger/escape re: the world
AN 5.68 - bases for spiritual power & liberation "there being a suitable basis"
AN 8.64 - purification of the knowledge and vision of higher devas re: kamma-vipaka
AN 9.41 - being progressively enthusiastic about the renunciation lifestyle & then various jhanas

Rather comprehensive…


yea Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta = Mahāvīra

I would suggest the reason it occurs more often in the Majjhima is that the suttas there are more fully formed than those in the Saṃyutta or Aṅguttara. Only a small minority of the suttas in these last two collections have a proper narrative introduction and conclusion, and it’s in the narrative that this formula occurs.

It’s absence from the Dīgha may be explained by the fact that this formula only seems to occur in autobiographical suttas, and these are absent from this collection (the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta is biographical, not autobiographical, and the Mahāgovinda, being a past life story, is more mythological than autobiographical). This ties in with your point that the Majjhima sutta largely serve the purpose of inspiring monastics, in which case the Buddha’s autobiography would be particularly powerful: “I did it like this; you should do the same”.


I avoided to get into the content, because then it necessarily gets more complex. On a simple level the numbers are interesting in themselves.

While there are some MN suttas with a clear biographical story that logically includes a ‘before my enlightenment’ (MN 4, MN 26), not all of them are. MN 14 for example clearly doesn’t. Actually every doctrinal point can be easily turned into a ‘before my enlightenment…’.
e.g. ‘before my enlightenment I didn’t understand suffering… impermanence… the seven limbs of awakening… the destruction of the asavas… the powers… the satis’ etc. etc.

I wonder if there is any way to decide the following question: Were suttas put into the MN basket because they were already fully formed as they were transmitted? Or were suttas put together from pre-existing shorter sutta-material, and purposefully developed in order to have a nicely formed collection with basic narratives?

I lean towards the second because I frankly can’t imagine it to be different, but I understand the possibility of the first of course. Probably it’s a mix.

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There are some obvious examples of the second approach, but in the main the evidence points towards the first. If this was not the case, you would not expect such large overlap between the main content of the vast majority of Majjhima suttas and their parallels.

Personally I discover again and again how complex a process it might have been before we came to the collections we have today. In different feedback loops content, memorization, edition, memorization of that version, collection etc. could have been going on for different suttas differently. In contrast many models are (for me too) simple.

For example the different editorial decisions in which collection to include a sutta
MN 4 is in EA
MN 14 in MA (and partly EA)
MN 19 in MA
MN 26 in MA (and partly EA)
MN 36 partly in EA, partly in DA
MN 85 -
MN 100 -
MN 128 in MA (and partly EA)

So in 4/8 the Chinese has the material in the same collection, in 5/8 at least partly in the EA, and 2/8 don’t have a Chinese parallel at all.

The SN suttas are also a wild mix, about half without parallel, some in SA, few in EA
The AN suttas have: 3 no parallels and 1 in MA (AN 8.64)

So it’s really a fragmented picture with all possibilities for pali --> agamas: parallel in same collection, parallel in other collection, no parallel.

It would be interesting to see how it looks like for agamas --> pali - maybe a Chinese speaking friend could search for the characters representing ‘before my enlightenment’ and give it a sutra-search?

So in this micro-study we don’t get a clear picture - lots of the material (not all of it) is to be found in Pali and Chinese, and about half of it in the corresponding collection (MN–>MA, SN–>SA).
There must have been reasons for the correspondences as well as for the differences.

In Gandhara they didn’t seem to care yet about collections, at least I haven’t read that the manuscripts contained a reference to a collection. Buddhagosa already has the full sutta pitaka. Does it mean that there were traditions with and without pitakas?