Chinese Translations vs. EBTs

Somehow, I really feel this must have already been addressed here; but, searching the archives, I’m not finding anything. (Maybe I’m not all that good at searching.)

Tonight, in my class on early Chinese Buddhism (we are reading History of Buddhism in the Han, Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties by Tang Yongtong), for the second time now, my teacher essentially scoffed at the idea of Pali texts being more authoritative than Chinese texts, or really even being considered EBTs at all.

His stance was that they date from the 5th century–the time of Buddhaghosa–and that, to that extent, they post-date the earliest (and, for that matter, even the not-so-early) Chinese texts. Basically, he maintains that they are not really reliable as records of early Buddhist anything.

I simply said that that was different from what I had been taught. He asked me what I’d been taught and I said I’d get back to him next week.

I am away at school, and so don’t have my copy of The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts on hand. Can someone help me out? I’ve got a firewall that severely limits what I can get from the outside and I only have a week to come up with something.

(BTW, I gotta get this off my chest: it’s like this everyday here among the vast majority of these “scholars.” And I really go out of my way not to strike up any conversation with anyone on anything which would cause Chinese Buddhism and Pali Buddhism to be mentioned in the same breath: because it will inevitably turn awkward at best and, possibly, much worse. But, sometimes, trouble looks for you.)


Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts can be found for free online here:


Just today, I got permanently banned from the Buddhism subreddit because the moderator kept warning me that I am not allowed to say that the EBTs are more representative of the Buddha than the later texts of all three sects and questioning whether Mahayana sutras were even spoken by the Buddha would be considered “sectarian.”

He or she said “there is no evidence at all that the EBTs were spoken by the Buddha” - or something to this effect - and said that me saying so is the equivalent of saying “my texts, teachers, sect, etc. is better than yours” - and thus sectarian.

In situations like this, I often “don’t even know where to begin.”


I guess it misrepresents the state of affairs. The Pali EBTs are believed to date from the time of the Buddha or shortly after if we consider that the standardisation was completed after his death.
Even the commentaries are earlier than the 5th century since Buddhaghose translated them from Sinhala to Pali at that time.
What date from the 5th century is things like the Vissudhimagga, original works from Buddhaghosa.

The Chinese EBTs are as old as the Pali EBTs but since they have been translated from an indic language to Chinese, they are arguably a bit less authoritative than the Pali ones which are still in an ancient indic language (whether or not Pali was the language of the Buddha or not).

Seems like there is some national pride in play here. Both Pali and Chinese EBTs are as authoritative as you get, particularly when studied together as is done more and more now.


Here is direct download from this forum: authenticity.pdf (1.4 MB), just in case the original URI is blocked for the OP.


In a pinch, you can also check out the wikipedia page which also lists various sources and arguments on the EBTs authenticity


Good idea (the wiki article is a nice short readable summary). However, I suppose wikipedia itself could be blocked by the firewall (well, if you’re in somewhere like China). Just in case, I’ve saved the wiki page to PDF and uploaded it here.Early_Buddhist_Texts.pdf (337.8 KB)

EDIT: If you are actually in China, I suppose these days national pride and politics may tend to trump cool logic, especially if trying to run up against a “China is better” type argument! :slight_smile:


This doesn’t make much sense to me. Most of the Chinese translations date from the 5th century, too, so then they would be only on equal footing if the Pali dates from the 5th century. Sure, there are some earlier translations, but only of a select few texts like those of Lokakshema and Anshigao. So, I guess you may be dealing with some bias here.

Is there a basis to the claim that the Pali canon dates to the 5th century? I’ve often wondered what the dating is, not counting the assertions about the oral tradition. Sure, there was an oral tradition; there apparently were several. Their history is murky at best based on accounts about the different councils, but when was the Pali canon actually written down and set into its present form? In Chinese Buddhism, there’s a clear history that was documented, but I’ve yet to see something like that for Pali (which may be simply my own ignorance, of course).

I’ll add this to possibly explain why Chinese scholars might have an attitude towards a Pali or Sanskrit scholar:

For a long time in Buddhist studies, Chinese translations were often considered suspect by Indic scholars compared to Tibetan or extant Sanskrit and Pali. This was because the Chinese is difficult to understand, has a different and less explicit grammar, and they read differently than Indic texts. So, the assumption was that they weren’t reliable sources. The Chinese translators were often blamed for this. The original texts couldn’t have read like that in the Indic scholar’s mind. So it must been that the translators were doing a poor job of it.

An example: Kumarajiva was for a long time accused of abbreviating his translations because the Prajnaparamita Sutras in Tibetan and Sanskrit were more overwrought than his texts. The Diamond Sutra is a case in point. It turns out when his translation is compared to Central Asian fragments that date back his era, his translation looked fine.

There’s been some correction of the attitudes thanks to discovery of older fragments and the realization that the extant Sanskrit is not the same as a 5th century text and that the Pali is just one version of the EBTs. Still, I myself have seen the biases in action. There’s sometimes an assumption that Chinese must be wrong if it differs from the extant Indic texts. It may well be, but on the other hand it’s also an attestation of how someone read them in ancient times. And ancient texts varied wildly sometimes from one edition to the next before the printing press was invented.


The wiki page itself has a quote which shows that there are older excerpts of the pali material:

Canonical fragments are included in the Golden Pāli Text, found in a reliquary from Śrī kṣetra dating to the late 3rd or early 4th century AD; they agree almost exactly with extant Pāli manuscripts. This means that the Pāli Tipiṭaka has been transmitted with a high degree of accuracy for well over 1,500 years. There is no reason why such an accurate transmission should not be projected back a number of centuries, at the least to the period when it was written down in the first century BC, and probably further.
from: Wynne, Alexander. Did the Buddha exist? JOCBS. 2019(16): 98-148.

This is not to mention the fact that if one does comparative studies, there is Gandhari and Chinese material that very closely agrees with the Pali texts that goes back even earlier.


I guess non-sectarianism is now a new Buddhist sect.


There’s a defensive way of doing “non-sectarianism” which basically goes like this: the historical method makes my religious sensibilities uncomfortable, so it must be sectarianism.


There’s also Alex Wynne’s paper on the topic

Here’s a copy in case ocbs is blocked for you: Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature - Alex Wynne.pdf (272.4 KB)


Thank you to all for the responses thus far–and I welcome any more which may be forthcoming.

And, yes, I could not get to the wiki page (though I got to an “Encyclopedia of Buddhism” page which seems to be a copy of the wiki page); and the links on the ocbs page are all dead.

@cdpatton, I get your point, but, actually, I was sort attempting to defend Chinese Buddhism. The book by Tang Yongtong is very critical of early Buddhism as far as of the early Chinese Buddhists’ ability to even understand dhamma and their subsequent sinicization of it viz Daoist philosophy and so on (a point which has been–rather persuasively, in my opinion–countered by Eric M. Greene here: Healing_Breaths_and_Rotting_Bones_On_the.pdf (609.0 KB)) I was trying to say that many of the points which Tang brought up as proof of ancient Chinese misunderstandings of dhamma also appear in the suttas and, thus, date back to the time of the Buddha himself. Oh, did that set it off!

Anyway, I thank you all for your assistance. I shall continue to fight the good fight. If there’s anything else any one can think of, please, I’m all ears.

Thanks again.


Us both. Maybe Venerable @sujato can help here?

There are no manuscripts from the 5th century for sure. Apparently, if we go by surviving manuscripts alone (an absurd methodology) we determine the Pāli Canon to be from ~1700. I’ve also heard the 5th century dating. How this date is got to, I don’t know.

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Thanks for the website on Early Buddhist Texts. It is useful.

One page error is found:

In the webpage, footnote 11. Hirakawa, Akira (1993) A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna, Motilal Banarsidass
Publ. p. 36.
correct to: … p. 38.


Oh, I see. I was just speculating, but criticizing the textbook sometimes goes badly. That article by Greene is a good read. I have to check my own assumptions about early Chinese Buddhism sometimes. It’s easy to slide into the view that Chinese understandings were superficial because of the use of native terminology, in the same way I think happens today when we argue over English translations. The reality I think was that early Chinese Buddhists were converts receiving oral teachings from missionaries, so they can’t have been completely in the dark.


:grin: Imposition of any idealised system invariably becomes what it tried to avoid. Because the key word is ‘imposition’. I am beginning to be more and more convinced only way to avoid this is to give up all alliances and become truly independent. The middle way runs through each person it can’t seem to be implemented in the outside world.

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Hi, Again:

Thanks, again, to everyone for your support. Quick question:

The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature by Erich Frauwallner: I’ve always heard a lot of good things about it, but never had the chance to read it.

Anyone have any personal experience with it? Is it relevant to this discussion?

Thanks, but it was @Javier that first linked to the wikipedia page. I merely thought it might be wise, for firewall reasons, to give it in PDF form too (something easily done in wikipedia). I’ve a fuzzy recollection that @Javier might actually be set up as a wikipedia editor. So perhaps he can easily enough make your suggested change?

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If someone comes from an ideological standpoint (“prove to me that I’m wrong!”) it’s almost impossible to disprove it. Also EBT Buddhists are not free from this :slight_smile:

What clearly disproves that Buddhagosa ‘invented’ the suttas is the Gandhari texts that date from the first century BCE onwards. The suttas found there are in overwhelming agreement with the Pali suttas. But also Prajnamaramita suttas are found there if I recall correctly.

So if someone takes a radical standpoint (pro suttas or Chinese or Mahayana) and dismissed linguistic comparative research we can still say “Okay, the earliest carbon dated texts from Gandhara are x,y,z. What does it tell us, and let’s take it from there”.

But again, if someone is not interested in changing their position it’s futile to even start and not worth the eventually ensuing trouble.