Core Buddhist Suttas - judging from the back story

One aspect of the suttas I usually don’t pay attention to is the back story. I just skip to the teaching, not caring much about who was there etc. Recently I re-read MN118 and was impressed:

  • all major disciple arahants were there
  • a lot of teaching by the theras has been going on
  • 100s of developed monks
  • the Buddha was pleased with the progress of the sangha
  • the Buddha announces that he will even stay another month
  • so the word spreads and even more monks come
  • and so I guess that everyone expects a fantastic full moon discourse in front of all those revered and Buddha-satisfying monks

Not THIS I call an introduction of a sutta that screams importance. My tendency goes to say that the editors marked it this way to stress the importance, and I realize that introductions are a way to tell the reader what is core fundamental essential buddhist teaching. And so we can get a glimpse into the priority of early buddhist editing.

Now my question: Are you guys aware of other nikaya/agama suttas that through their introduction are marked to be important?


I wonder whether that’s a useful heuristic…

For example, the content of MN 118 can also be found elsewhere, e.g. SN 54.6, 54.8, and so forth throughout the Anapana Samyutta. The presence of a whole Samyutta dedicated to anapanasati & related issues seems to me to be a better indication of importance, as is any teaching repeated throughout most/all of the Nikayas.

Furthermore, there is no similar introduction at the front end of MN 10, yet satipatthana is a core skill which is taught first. So I think MN 118 probably received extra narrative attention, similar to DN 16 & others, and this probably reflects the social context more than it does the importance of a given teaching.

Agreed, and that’s the whole point. This is not at attempt to find core teachings but to see how certain editors - or the social context as you say - valued specific suttas

Maybe it’s just a feature of the MN & DN?

Personally, I have my doubts the Buddha even taught MN 10, given the list of disconnected dhammas in MN 10 do not following a path progression like the majority of sets dhammas.

Personally, not only do I not regard MN 10 as important, I also personally regard it as an obstacle.

For me, MN 118 is obviously an important sutta in respect to the noble path because it describes the natural unfolding from one satipatthana into the next satipatthana ; and one bojjhanga (factor of enlightenment) into the next factor enlightenment.

Where as MN 10, for example, includes the five hindrances in the final satipatthana, which is, for me, illogical; and also includes painful feelings in the second tetrad, which is also illogical for me (given when the breath is calmed, rapture rather than pain arises).

To me, MN 10 seems to be a list of various meditations compiled at a later date and certainly provides a basic introduction to meditation rather than a guide to the unfolding of the noble path.

In short, in my opinion, the auspicious introduction to MN 118 is warranted.

Yes, there are other suttas like this, however the literary means vary considerably. Consider, for example, MN 147. Since this also appears in the Samyutta, it is not limited to MN and DN.

DN 1 and DN 2 could also be included here. Of course, the situation is different in each of these texts, so it is inevitably somewhat subjective.

I would also include MN 10 here. Since it is a compilation, the ekayana intro is taken from the Samyutta; it’s purpose is to assume the support of Brahma. The ending, which is a stock trope, is likewise there to establish its importance.

Such texts are, however, somewhat rare, so it’s hard to say what conclusions could be drawn from this. Perhaps a more detailed study would shed some light.

While I agree that the text is a complication, and most of the items in the final satipatthana are later additions, it is very likely that the original was the five hindrances and seven awakening factors. This is established by the agreement of multiple independent lines of reasoning:

  1. The group satipatthana/hindrances/awakening factors is well established elsewhere in similar contexts.
  2. The Samyutta (and its commentary, and its Chinese parallel) at SN 47.42 says the origin of dhammas is “attention”, which can only apply to the hindrances/awakening factors (this is found throughout SN 46).
  3. They are the only two found in the Abhidhamma at Vb 7; this is significant since the Abhidhamma always expands things, never contracts them.
  4. They are the only items common to (virtually) all sources.

Taken together, this amounts to a very strong text critical argument.

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I don’t have any confidence that MN 118 is necessarily an important sūtra, or even one sūtra! To the best of my knowledge, there is no clear parallel for it in Chinese (EA 17.1 is more appropriately a parallel for MN 62).

Is MN 118 just not found at all outside the Pali Canon? Well, as far as I can tell, all the major “parts” of the MN 118 are already found in the Ānāpānasmṛti Saṃyukta of the Saṃyukta Āgama—as completely separate sūtras!

  • Uposatha Intro: SA 815
  • Sixteen Practices: SA 803
  • Four Bases of Mindfulness: SA 813
  • Seven Factors of Bodhi: SA 810


We have no problem to agree what an important sutta is - its content, internal consistency, relevance for the buddhadharma, clarity and practical usefulness of its exposition.

the back story is to me totally irrelevant. BUT, as you well know, if throughout history editors of the nikayas/agamas wanted to promote concepts or practices that seemed overwhelmingly important to them at that time, they could well have adjusted phrases, wordings, added stock formula at different places - and changed/added the back story to give the sutta a context and specific significance:
Here the Buddha spoke to a brahmin, here to reprimand a bhikkhu, here to Sariputta, here to Brahma Sahampatti, here to a king, here to his son, here to 10.000 monks, here to a critic.

And these kinds of contextualizations could have become relevant in future history when monks referenced what they learned to be key content or practice.

So what I’m trying to find out is if we have suttas like MN118 that give us a hint, that not necessarily the Buddha, but future generations/editors framed that sutta as a very important one.

Since we like ‘people’ key disciples play an important role here. Suttas where the key disciples became arahants - suttas where key disciples passed away - key disciples making first contact with the dhamma (e.g. Sariputta with Assaji) - Buddha’s enlightenment, first/second/third discourse, passing away - all this can make us look closer independent from the content.

I don’t know how revealing such a research can be, but comparative studies and examples like Brahma Sahampatti convincing the Buddha to teach, missing in the Chinese version can show us how context can mingle with content…

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[quote=“llt, post:8, topic:3195”]
I don’t have any confidence that MN 118 is necessarily an important sūtra…EA 17.1 is more appropriately a parallel for MN 62)…[/quote]
I think what is important is not MN 118 itself but its structure, the same being found in SN 54.13.

I do gain an impression, rightly or wrongly, that many suttas in the MN are ‘dressed up’, which may include the introduction to MN 118. This is possibly because they were designed to stand out in the MN, similar to how MN 10 was probably designed to standout in the MN. It is notable how both MN 10 and MN 118 are paired with suttas about Right View (MN 9 & MN 117).

Returning to MN 118 & SN 54.13, what distinguishes them and (to me) makes them more important than MN 62, for example, is the small commentaries found within them, such as:

Kāyesu kāyaññatarāhaṃ bhikkhave, evaṃ vadāmī: yadidaṃ assāsapassāsā.

I tell you that this — the in-&-out breath — is classed as a body [group] among bodies [groups]…

Vedanāsu vedanaññatarāhaṃ bhikkhave, evaṃ vadāmi: yadidaṃ assāsapassāsānaṃ sādhukaṃ manasikāraṃ.

I tell you that this — [from] close attention to in-&-out breaths — is a certain feeling among feelings

Nāhaṃ bhikkhave, muṭṭhassatissa asampajānassa ānāpānasatibhāvanaṃ vadāmi

I don’t say that there is mindfulness of in-&-out breathing in one of confused mindfulness and no alertness…

So yaṃ taṃ abhijjhādomanassānaṃ pahānaṃ taṃ paññāya disvā sādhukaṃ ajjhupekkhitā hoti.

He who sees clearly with discernment the abandoning of greed & distress is one who oversees with equanimity…

From my own personal interpretation (having not heard the following views from others, apart from the 1st), these commentaries provide insight & explanation of the respective satipatthana.

For example, breathing being a ‘kaya’ among other ‘kaya’ supports a translation of ‘sabba-kaya’ in stage 3 of ‘all-kaya’ rather than ‘the whole body [of the breath]’. Since the breath is a kaya, the physical body is a kaya & the mind is a kaya, the translation of ‘sabba-kaya’ as ‘experiencing all kaya’ leads to an interpretation that stage 3 is about experiencing a three-way conditioning relationship (idappaccayata-paticcasamuppado) between the mind, the breath & the physical body (rather than a mere concentration exercise of knowing the beginning, middle & end of the breath).

My interpretation of the small commentary about the 3rd satipatthana is the citta is observed with concentration in a profound way (rather than the common view that the 3rd satipatthana is practised whenever any kind of mental state, such as a hindrance, is experienced).

Then of course there is the excellent explanation about how not only each factor of enlightenment (bojjhanga ) forms the foundation for the next, but there is also the important explanation about how each well practised bojjhana is supported by seclusion (viveka)… dispassion (viraga)… cessation (nirodha), resulting in relinquishment (vossagga).

In SN 48.10, for example, it is said jhana is developed by making vossagga the object.

While MN 62 has the excellent introduction on the elements (dhatu), in my opinion, in respect to explaining the practise of anapanasati, MN 118 & SN 54.13 are more complete.

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I have the impression that there were much smaller Sutta-snippets in circulation for a while alongside some auto-commentary, and this is what got put together in various degrees to form up proto-SN & -AN, and proto-MN & -DN grew from those roots.

Within this process, most narratives grew in both popularity and details as the person of the Buddha ceased being first-hand knowledge by anyone, whereupon the hagiography of the Buddha began to grow. I recall there being ‘updates’ to DN 16, for example, and a few Suttas composed entirely post-Buddha, and I see only cultural updates & reframings & added flourishes in these sorts of things.


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I just wanted to note that the background story does not need to be complex for this to apply. Throughout SN, and probably elsewhere, significant suttas are often marked simply by including the standard “So I have heard” background. This is found in only a tiny percentage of suttas in these collections—unlike the Chinese collections, where it is always present—and seems to be consistently applied to a sutta that is noteworthy in some way.


Has anyone collected all the evam-me-suttam suttas?
In the meantime here are the very few suttas that include "very well known elder disciples"
MN 32 - mahagosinga sutta
MN 118 - anapanasati sutta
AN 10.72 - kaṇṭakasutta

Suttas with Rahula, considering the importance father-son connections had in India. Strange Rahula only appears once in the huge Anguttara.
MN 61 - sila sila sila !
MN 62 - anatta in the khandhas, anatta in all internal and external elements, brahmaviharas, asubha, anapanassati [strange narrative]
MN 147 - anicca, dukkha, anatta in … basically everything + Rahula nibbana
SN 18.1 - SN 18.22 - Rahulasamyutta: tilakkhana and anatta
SN 22.91 - anatta in all khandhas
SN 22.92 - anatta in body and all consciousness
SN 35.121 - anicca, dukkha, anatta in … basically everything + Rahula nibbana
AN 4.177 - anatta in all internal and external elements

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