I have been asked by some to defend and explain my assessment that the Digha Nikaya is the “oldest” of the 5 collections as opposed to the currently fashionable view that the Samyutta may be the oldest. I have put off attempting this because I have felt that to do this thesis justice would require research to present the previous scholarship on the matter, cross referencing to show where and how the EBT material bears out or contradicts my thesis and analysis and comparison to other current arguments for the primacy or priority of other collections. This task in these terms is something that I am simply not able to complete as I do not have the time or resources necessary to complete it. Therefore after much hesitation I have decided to simply attempt to explain my arguments in a straightforward way in the hope that others find it useful and beneficial, the footnotes will just have to wait for another time.
So first off I want to state some of the background assumptions I make: 1. It seems clear to me that the suttas as we have them now are the product of many years of evolution and development, and where composed by and large after the death of the Buddha. So I take it to be the case that while there may have been a speech by the Buddha “At the royal rest-house at Ambalaṭṭhikā, between Rājagaha and Nāḷanda” about Brahma’s Net, what we have in the Suttas is a literary description of that event and the contents of that speech, not a transcript of that speech. It seems to me that there is a fairly important and unequivocal line in the sand at this point; if you disagree with the previous statement, that is if you think that the suttas are transcripts of the actual speeches of the historical buddha then this essay is simply not for you, and I advise you to pass over the whole thing in noble silence. For those that can see that the suttas are literature, and that they are manifestly not transcripts or reportage, then by all means read on. 2.It seems clear that there was a diverse and “living” oral literature of buddhist doctrine and experience that the Nikayas drew from. Much of this literature would now be lost. If we take it that the more archaic form of Pali that we see in the Atthaka Vagga and other early poems is prior to the Pali of the first 4 Nikayas then is seems clear that the language of these collections is from some time later than the milieu of the Buddhas death. So it seems clear to me at least that there was a period, lengthy enough for noticable evolution in the language, prior to the formation of the first 4 nikayas. Which brings me to 3. All of the first 4 Nikayas almost certainly drew from equally old or even “original” material, and as Rhys Davids has pointed out, the material that is almost certainly the oldest strata is precisely “The simple statements of Buddhist doctrine now found, in identical words, in paragraphs or verses recurring in all the books.” We now have, thanks in part to SuttaCentral itself, a very good idea of what these are now not just in terms of formulae occuring in all the Nikayas, but also their parallels in the Agamas as well. To summarize; Before the first 4 Nikayas where collated and collected there was a prior literature that constituted the buddhas teachings, described in the Nikayas themselves as the nine anga, starting with sutta, geyya, vyākaraṇa and so on, from this material the canon was formed.
So I have outlined the background to my thinking, and take it to be the case that Rhys Davids is quite right when he points to the formulae we see in all 4 collections are probably the earliest material yet I still claim that DN is probably the “earliest” of the 4, why? Well, here are my arguments:
The Sekha Paṭipadā predates the Pātimokkha.
The Sekha Paṭipadā predates the Noble eightfold path.
DN has the earliest version of DO.
DN does not know the aggregates formula except as a late addition.
DN focuses on Jhana as an improvement on BrahmaVihara rather than Sati.
DN exhibits a tripartate structure recapitulating the later canon.
DN is mentioned in the Cullavagga.
DN is short.
DN is “complete”
Other Nikayas exhibit “abhidharmic” tendencies.
I will now take each of these arguments in turn and elaborate on them.
- The Sekha Paṭipadā predates the Pātimokkha.
The first third of the Digha Nikaya takes as it’s fundamental formula something called the Sekha Paṭipadā or “Gradual Training”. It is stated in full in DN2, then repeated in every sutta to DN13. A fundamental part of this formula is a sub-formula called the Ariya Sīlakkhandha, which is given in DN1 by itself, then repeated in the more complete Sekha Paṭipadā subsequently. This Ariya Sīlakkhandha gives the first division of the Digha its name.
The Ariya Sīlakkhandha is given in three parts, the short, middle and long parts, each one longer than the other. I take it to be fairly likely that the short section was the earliest and that the middle and long parts developed somewhat later, here is the short section in Sujato’s translation:
“‘The ascetic Gotama has given up killing living creatures. He has renounced the rod and the sword. He’s scrupulous and kind, living full of compassion for all living beings.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up stealing. He takes only what’s given, and expects only what’s given. He keeps himself clean by not thieving.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up unchastity. He is celibate, set apart, avoiding the common practice of sex.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up lying. He speaks the truth and sticks to the truth. He’s honest and trustworthy, and doesn’t trick the world with his words.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up divisive speech. He doesn’t repeat in one place what he heard in another so as to divide people against each other. Instead, he reconciles those who are divided, supporting unity, delighting in harmony, loving harmony, speaking words that promote harmony.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up harsh speech. He speaks in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, lovely, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to the people.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up talking nonsense. His words are timely, true, and meaningful, in line with the teaching and training. He says things at the right time which are valuable, reasonable, succinct, and beneficial.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.
‘The ascetic Gotama refrains from injuring plants and seeds.’
‘He eats in one part of the day, abstaining from eating at night and food at the wrong time.’
‘He refrains from dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows.’
‘He refrains from beautifying and adorning himself with garlands, perfumes, and makeup.’
‘He refrains from high and luxurious beds.’
‘He refrains from receiving gold and money, raw grains, raw meat, women and girls, male and female bondservants, goats and sheep, chickens and pigs, elephants, cows, horses, and mares, and fields and land.’
‘He refrains from running errands and messages; buying and selling; falsifying weights, metals, or measures; bribery, fraud, cheating, and duplicity; mutilation, murder, abduction, banditry, plunder, and violence.’ Such is an ordinary person’s praise of the Realized One.”
Later in DN and also in MN and AN this formula is replaced with another, called Sīlasampatti, that instead of listing the rather long list of rules, simply refers the reader to the patimokkha. FOr example at MN107:
“‘Come, mendicant, be ethical and restrained in the monastic code, conducting yourself well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, keep the rules you’ve undertaken.’”
This evolution from a short section on ethics to a short plus middle length to a short plus middle length plus long to a please refer to this other document shows a clear development and indicates the Sekha Paṭipadā and consequently DN to be very “early”.
- The Sekha Paṭipadā predates the Noble eightfold path.
The Sekha Paṭipadā gives a lengthy description of a person hearing the dhamma, shaving their head, following rules of conduct, restraining their senses, practicing jhana, developing psychic powers, and realizing the destruction of suffering and the ending of the asavas and knowing “it is freed” At no point in this formula is a “Noble eightfold path” or “Four noble truths” mentioned. Once again, this seems to be a more archaic, less technical formulation and to represent a very early strata of material.
- DN has the earliest version of DO.
The dependant origination formula most often given in DN is only 10 links long - it describes the body and consciousness as mutually dependant like the two sides of an A frame. This formulation is almost certainly earlier than the 12 link version as it is open to criticism along annihilationist grounds and so seems very unlikely to have been “developed” from the 12 link version.
- DN does not know the aggregates formula except as a late addition.
The 5 aggregates are barely mentioned in DN, found only in 4 places to my knowledge, the Mahasatipathanna, the chanting together, the increasing by ones and the harvest of deeds, all these seem to be clearly composite or late and all merely mention the term without discussing it. It seems likely that the bulk of DN was finalized at a point before the 5 aggregates rose to prominence as a teaching.
- DN focuses on Jhana as an improvement on BrahmaVihara rather than Sati.
It also appears that DN was mostly fixed before satipathanna rose to prominence, there is a clear sense in the Sekha Paṭipadā that mindfulness is simply paying attention to what your doing when you move about or go on almsround, and meditation is clearly described using the jhana formula. Structurally Jhana is most often contrasted to the brahmaviharas which are also repeatedly described especially in the context of brahminical interlocutors of the Buddha and satipathanna is mostly found in the mahasatipathanna which is more or less imported wholesale from MN.
- DN exhibits a tripartite structure recapitulating the later canon.
DN is divided into three sections, the first focusing on the Sekha Paṭipadā and it’s Ariya Sīlakkhandha subformlua, the second focusing on the Devas and the Parinibanna and the third section includes a variety of poetic material as well as suttas that collect doctrinal terms into sequences as in the “chanting together” and the “one by one”. Some of the material in this last section has verse forms that are amongst the latest in the canon. One would think that this is an argument against the “earliness” of DN, but I think it is suggestive of quite the opposite, the late material at the end of the DN is indicative that the collection was considered a “complete” work by it’s reciters, and the late material being at the end of the work makes sense if it was considered to be complete in itself. The final two suttas containing lists of doctrines by number, many not mentioned in DN itself recapitulate a kind of proto-abbhidharma that shows an anxiousness to preserve the teachings not found in DN itself.
- DN is mentioned in the Cullavagga.
The Cullavagga, in the Vinaya refers to the first two suttas in the DN as being the first 2 suttas in the canon:
“Venerable Mahākassapa informed the Sangha:
“Please, I ask the Sangha to listen. If it seems appropriate to the Sangha, I will ask Ānanda about the Teaching.”
Venerable Ānanda informed the Sangha:
“Please, Venerables, I ask the Sangha to listen. If it seems appropriate to the Sangha, I will reply when asked by Venerable Mahākassapa about the Teaching.”
And Mahākassapa asked Ānanda, “Where was the Prime Net spoken?”
“At the royal rest-house at Ambalaṭṭhikā, between Rājagaha and Nāḷanda.”
“Who is it about?”
“The wanderer Suppiya and the young brahmin Brahmadatta.”
And Mahākassapa asked Ānanda about the origin story of the Prime Net and about the person.
“Where was the Fruits of the Monastic Life spoken?”
“In Jīvaka’s mango grove at Rājagaha.”
“Who is it with?”
“Ajātasattu of Videha.”
And Mahākassapa asked Ānanda about the origin story of the Fruits of the Monastic Life and about the person.
In this way he asked about the five collections. And Ānanda was able to reply to every question.”
While this is in no way decisive, it is nevertheless indicative that at least the first division of DN was recalled as the first part of the canon as early as the formation of the Vinaya.
- DN is short.
Again this may seem somewhat facetious, but I think that it is plausible to think that the shortest of the 4N is the earliest and that the longer the nikaya, generally speaking, the later it is likely to be.
- DN is “complete”
This is more or less the same argument as 6. The threefold structure more or less divides along the lines of 1. morality 2. concentration 3. wisdom with and advice to the laity and indexes of doctrine at the end is suggestive of a complete tradition, coupled with the archaic features of the initial and middle portions of the text it seems plausible that it started independently of the other nikayas and saw itself as a complete canon unto itself.
- Other Nikayas exhibit “abhidharmic” tendencies.
It seems to me that MN preserves features that are also “early” in that there is a variety of narrative styles and content and a richness of storytelling and motif that is strikingly absent from the non verse parts of the Samyutta and Anguttra, my reasons for thinking that MN is probably later than DN is the move form jhana to sati, from the 10 link DO to the 12, and the prevalence of the aggregates. The reason I think that SN and AN are later is because they relentlessly take formulas from elsewhere in the canon and combine them in seemingly mechanical and sometimes somewhat nonsensical ways, endlessly. This mechanical production of suttas by the application of a formula to a term, as exemplified in SN 53 the Jhānasaṁyutta, is not to be found in DN, except perhaps in the harvest of deeds, which as i said above i take to be late.
So there without too much by way of references or even drafting are my main reasons for thinking that DN is th “earliest of the Nikayas.
I will now make some concluding remarks:
DN and MN take formulas and verses that existed at the time of the buddhas death and embed them in rich narratives that present an amazing window into the time of the buddha, DN appears to preserve perhaps an earlier basic picture of the buddhist path than MN or the other Nikayas. SN and AN show a drift towards a kind of systematic recombination of formula that eventually gives rise to the abbhdamma. While all 4 of the first 4 Nikayas preserve early formulas I think that for the reasons given above it is plausible to think that DN, at least the core of it, represents the earliest “Canonical” buddhism, that is that it is plausible that DN is the first collection made from the prior literature of the sutta, geyya, vyākaraṇa that existed at the time of the buddhas death.
So there you have it, my argument for te priority of DN.
I hope that at some later time I can return to this and provide a literature review, some discussion of other theories, some links to examples of my ideas in the canon and so forth, also I suppose to correct all the spelling errors etc
In the meantime I would love to hear from others their thoughts, perhaps counterexamples, but even better, more arguments for the earliness of DN.