Differences in terminology between narrative and doctrine

One of the basic, but alas often ignored, distinctions in the EBTs is that between the doctrinal material and the narrative background. It is of course the doctrine, things things actually ascribed to the Buddha or his disciples, that is the critical part. The overwhelming evidence of comparative studies shows that the narratives were treated much more loosely than the doctrinal passages.

One sign that the narratives are, on the whole, from a different and later strata is the distinctive vocabulary they employ. Remember, most suttas have very little narrative, so there is not necessarily that much in total, but it is in fact quite a large percentage of the text. I haven’t seen a comprehensive study of this, so I thought I’d just jot down some notes as I notice things. They’re not necessarily 100% consistent, just general tendencies.

All these cases, so far at least, evidence a consistent trend. The terms found in the narrative are more formal or Sanskritic, while the language of the doctrinal passages is more colloquial, informal, and local.

  • Narrative: bhikkhavo
  • Doctrine: bhikkhave
  • Note: Bhikkhave is the eastern or Magadhan form, and is more colloquial. It’s by far the most common such form in the Pali, and is likely to be a term closely associated with the Buddha’s personal speech. Outside of narrative, bhikkhavo seems to be used exclusively in verse.
  • Narrative: bhadante
  • Doctrine: bhante
  • Note: Bhadante is the Sanskritic form, bhante is more colloquial Pali.
  • Narrative: Mahākassapa
  • Doctrine: Kassapa
  • Note: Mahākassapa is a more elevated term. The same pattern is seen for Moggallāna (and other Mahās?).

And interestingly, according to Ven. Analayo, the introductory pericope that includes bhikkhavo and bhadante is not found in the Madhyama-āgama preserved in Chinese:

Other pericopes are found only in the Majjhima-nikāya and are absent from the Madhyama-āgama. One example is the pericope employed regularly at the beginning of a Majjhima-nikāya discourse, in which the Buddha addresses his disciples with “monks”, and the monks reply “venerable sir”, after which the Buddha announces his topic and proceeds to deliver the discourse.

A closer inspection shows that this pericope stands in contrast to the remainder of the discourses in which it occurs, in as much as the vocative “monks”, bhikkhavo, used in this passage, differs from the vocative address “monks”, bhikkhave, used in all remaining instances in the respective discourse. Similarly, the first vocative “venerable sir”, bhadante, used by the monks, is not the same as the vocative “venerable sir”, bhante, found in the remainder of the discourse. … (From “A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya”, pp.21-22)


And once again, multiple indications from text-critical analysis all point in the same direction.

Anything on the “Mahā-” usage? I quickly checked a random sutta, SN 16.12 = SA 905. As usual, the Pali has Mahākassapa in the narrative and Kassapa in the main text. The Chinese, on the other hand, has Mahākassapa throughout (摩訶迦葉).

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Mahākassapa is used in MN32 in an apparently non-narrative context (although the whole sutta could perhaps be regarded as a long narrative):

Evaṃ vutte, āyasmā sāriputto āyasmantaṃ mahākassapaṃ etadavoca – ‘‘byākataṃ kho, āvuso kassapa, āyasmatā anuruddhena yathāsakaṃ paṭibhānaṃ. Tattha dāni mayaṃ āyasmantaṃ mahākassapaṃ pucchāma …

At AN 6.17 we find:

Kahaṃ nu kho, bhikkhave, sāriputto? Kahaṃ mahāmoggallāno? Kahaṃ mahākassapo? Kahaṃ mahākaccāyano? Kahaṃ mahākoṭṭhiko? Kahaṃ mahācundo? Kahaṃ mahākappino? Kahaṃ anuruddho? Kahaṃ revato? Kahaṃ ānando? Kahaṃ nu kho te, bhikkhave, therā sāvakā gatāti?

It is possible that the mahā title is used when the person is being spoken about, but dropped face to face.

In fact all these are differences in the vocative.

At SN 16.10 a nun says:

kiṃ pana ayyo mahākassapo, ayyassa ānandassa vedehamunino sammukhā dhammaṃ bhāsitabbaṃ maññati?