Did the goal posts get moved after the Buddha?

Whenever I see the following I cannot help but think someone after the Buddha moved the goal posts.

  1. Nibanna/paranibanna distinction
  2. Mundane/noble distinction with regard to right view
  3. Wrong view that is not implied or simply the negation of right view

Are these found in the EBTs or are they later additions?

They are found in the Pāḷi Canon, but I think your intuition is correct that they took on a bit more importance in the later, philosophical texts.

What do you mean by “moving the goalposts?”

Moving the goal posts is a sports metaphor that basically means changing the criteria for success or when something is deemed to happen.

How do you think “the criteria for success” in Buddhism has changed?

This was really meant to be a relatively simple question about where in the history of Buddhism these three things first appeared. Not that I mind it becoming a discussion, but I do not have my sources available at the moment.

Based on my reading of academic books on Early Buddhism, it appears that nibanna started off as something achieved during one’s lifetime. Paranibanna came later. Likewise, distinctions tended to be made later. I believe that mundane and noble Right view distinction falls into this category. Wrong view appears to me to have been a backdoor for sectarian beliefs to be added to right view and become canon. I was looking for any evidence that these things came into existence early or later. Goal posts moving was just a way to say that things changed from what they were originally.

I do believe the goal posts were moved, especially with regard to (though not limited to) how long it takes to reach nibbana or the far shore, addition of more Vinaya rules or vows, and expectations of omniscience or greater gnosticism.

Before we ask the question if the goalposts were moved after Gotama, we can also investigate if the Buddha moved or at least changed the goal posts of the Samana culture of his time.

We can divide these into 5 (non-exhaustive) categories: The Far Shore, Dukkha-Nirodha, Nibbana, Prajna/Vipassana, and Abhijñā.

Since brahmins and ascetics ask Gotama how to reach the far shore (of all phenomena), at minimum, we can conclude the concept of the far shore predates Buddhism as non-buddhists are depicted as strongly familiar with the idea of it, going from teacher to teacher they believe crossed the ford/flood. Of course, Gotama may have (and likely did) offered a different interpretation to what the Far Shore and the Flood is, what is needed to reach it, than those of other sects etc. But it wasn’t only brahmins that had the concept of flood-crossers. The Jains do to, with their tirthankara concept. Since Jainism and the tirthankara pre-date Buddhism, since there were many Jain converts to Buddhism, and since Gotama practiced Jain practices (like starving himself) prior to abandoning them due to their futility, it’s likely that Early Buddhism co-opted the concept of flood crossers from Jainism or that the concept of flood crossers and the Far Shore had already become a mainstay within general Sramana culture of Greater Magadha. I don’t think Gotama moved the goal posts here, as they appeared to be in place long before him.

The Sutta Nipata’s Parayana vagga is the best source for matters concerning reaching the far shore, since we note that in them Gotama doesn’t just recommend meditation practices, but also gives the brahmins points of wisdom which are meant to be used in tandem with the cessation meditation practices they presumably are already familiar with. Also, and I’d be happy if others chime in here, but when viññāṇa is used in the Parayanna vagga, it logically seems to have a different connotation than other buddhist texts where it means consciousness or mind. In the Parayanna vagga, it’s likely that the definition or connotation of the term is one adopted by/used by those (Brahmins) familiar with the early Upanishads, where the sanskrit equivalent to viññāṇa would be translated as knowledge, cognition, intelligence, or understanding. Any other thoughts/opinions on this?

One interesting question is whether the emphasis on the pursuit of dukkha-nirodha actually pre-dates Buddhism. It likely does (Martin Whiltshire makes an argument for this in his study of ascetic figures before the buddha), and we know that there are brahmanical practices which lead to the (temporary) cessation of feeling/perception which Gotama practiced and learned from his two teachers, before deeming these practices incomplete. Nevertheless, it appears certain metaphors regarding dukkha (like the arrow/barb/dart in the heart, poisoned arrow, two arrows) were entirely buddhist inventions. The arrow metaphor in particular makes sense also given Gotama’s Kshatriya and military family background. So this appears to be another case of Gotama not moving the goal posts.

The second hardest one is with regards to nibbana/nibbuto, where we see scholars like Bushwell and Cousins disagree with scholars like Collins. Some have suggested the term is pre-buddhist, and I’m sympathetic to this view. If it is pre-buddhist, I think we can all agree Gotama offered a unique interpretation or take on it or expanded upon it. Since Gotama is constantly seen defining or being asked what nibbana is, it’s very likely that the concept of nibbana pre-dates Buddhism. That said, I don’t think any other Sramana philosophy associated nibbana with the quenching of self. Rather these other philosophies were solely concerned with the quenching of passions and aversions. *I define nibbana as quenching here, but I understand that in certain suttas, a translation of unbinding (as suggested by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) makes more sense.

It is here we arrive at where Gotama may/may not have diverged from his contemporaries and changed the goal posts… and that’s the role of awakening/insight/wisdom with regards to quenching and liberation. Because up to this point, the previous 3 objectives can be understood entirely in non-Buddhist terms and Gotama seems to indicate the existence of Sages/Brahmins who, despite not being followers of his, have crossed the Flood, pulled out the barb, etc (Snp 4.5, 5.8).

I think Gotama disagreed with contemporaries who believed a Yogic/Jhana approach was sufficient for reaching or equal to nibbana, awakening, far shore, liberation. Like others, I also believe that the yogic/jhana approach became neglected in later buddhist history, leading to odd suttas where the jhanas are completely disregarded or seem as unnecessary for liberation. At the same time, it would appear that Gotama disagreed with the approach that was overly fixating on truth and knowledge, if Snp 5.8 is to be trusted because we have the gatha

“The experts do not say that one is a sage in this world because of view, or learning, or knowledge, Nanda”.

So it appears, at minimum, a balanced and synthesized mix of wisdom/insight and mindfulness practices and yogic/concentration techniques were a part of the liberation schema.

Now we arrive at knowledge. A close reading of the sutta nipata seems to offer a very different perspective on views/knowledge that seem to contradict suttas that stress/emphasize Abhijñā/ abhiññā. This contradiction led me to the view the latter may be a later development where the goal posts had been moved and people/sramanas expected the awakened sage to have access to specific knowledge. The absence of Abhijñā in the description of the awakened sage in what many expect to be part of the oldest stratum, namely the Atthakavagga and Paranyavagga, seems to support the notion that the initial focus was about not having/forming/clinging to views about the various realms of existence and not depending on or being associated with knowledge even, let alone anything seen/heard/thought (which could collectively mean experienced). Yet in many Nikayan suttas, we do find sagehood to be equated with possessing knowledge or views of these other realms of existence, alongside other powers. That is to say, we encounter a contradiction.

Of course, one may counter argue against my point simply by saying that the reason Abhijñā in the A & P is absent is because it wasn’t the topic being discussed. Fair enough, but there are enough passages in the sutta nipata that indicate knowledge isn’t very important for sagehood and that certain Abhijñā are not necessary for awakening and are not requisite factors of awakening; instead what is important is the complete abandonment of craving, especially cravings for future states. So, just my two cents, but I do think there was an evolution in the concept of the awakened sage that led to the moving of the goal posts, one that became increasingly focused on the importance of knowing and reaching higher, supramundane knowledge. Did this evolution occur within Gotama’s life or after, I guess that is the question I hope to understand in my practice.


Ofcourse, the experts say that one is not a sage because of view, learning or knowledge…but because of a fruit, detachment, Nibbana, dispassion. That is the real thing. One cannot be an expert in Dhamma and attached. That is conceit.

This is consistent everywhere in the Canon.

The texts does not say, again, that views, knowledge, learning is worthless. But it must not been confused with realisation. Experts are the one with fruits.

Views, knowledge, learning can be useful yes, but can also prove useless and an impediment. I guess it really depends on to what extent views, knowledge, and learning impact craving and grasping.

Venerable, Is MN117 such a text?