Does the Pali Canon convey the authentic teachings of the Buddha?

Hi, having been taught in different traditions, I have some reflexions and questions on the Pali Canon and on the question whether other sutras like the Lotus Sutra are important. Philological arguments suggest that the teaching of the Buddha are faithfully presented in the Pali Canon. Yet some questions arise.

  1. How do we know that the people who attended the Council which decided which sutras to include, had understood the Buddha correctly? Daisaku Ikeda in his book Buddhism: the First Millennium, (1977) suggests that the more gifted, life-affirming monks did not attend that Council so that the teachings were agreed upon by the more limited participants, who understood only Shakyamuni’s provisional teachings
  2. If the aim of Buddhism is to extinguish oneself, why didn’t the Buddha die after his Enlightenment? Of course there are explanations in terms of carrying on living and having only altruistic desires that produce no kamma, but a number of intellectuals from Hesse to Toynbee pointed out the inconsistency in this
  3. Even if one conceded that the teachings of Siddharta Gotama are those in the Pali canon, should Buddhism just be based on his teachings, or should the work of later thinkers and philosophers be included, and be given the same importance?. I have seen the argument that the Buddha Shakyamuni should have preemnince so that his teachings are superior to those of subsequent Buddhist teachers, and that he understood everything there’s is to understand. However, the claim of reaching total understanding is something that is often found in Indian thought, for example in Indian medecine (Ayurveda). So how do we know that that claim was not simply part of Indian conditioning? If this is true, the teachings of the Pali Canon (even if they were the complete word of the Buddha) could be enriched, even completed and ‘improved upon’ by later Mahayana teachings, just like Ayurveda is certainly not the definitive or most advanced cure for everything.

Check out the link below , it will answer most of the questions you present - especially the section "Canonicity of the Suttas’


What evidence is presented in support of that argument?

I think this is a grave misunderstanding of what nibbāna/arahatta (extinguishment/liberation) is.

The Buddhism of the EBT’s is not about understanding everything; it’s about release from dukkha. That is what the samaṇa Gotama “re-discovered” and taught others to be capable of realizing, nothing beyond that is important according to the Dhamma of the EBT’s.


Interesting link! But as far as I see it doesn’t address the point made by Sensei Daisaku Ikeda that those who attended the First Council were not necessarily the best suited to decide on what the word of the Buddha was. There are also pretty incredible stories about the participants, for example the story of Ananda miraculously becoming an arahant just before that Council (otherwise he would not have been able to attend) which, besides seeming too miraculous - the story as far as I’ve heard it is that he became enlightened at the last minute and off he went to the Council - is also inconsistent with what people say about it being impossible to be absolutely sure you are an arahant.

isn’t nibbana becoming extinguished (like a flame that is extinguished) and hence completely disappearing?

What is said in the texts to be extinguished are greed, hatred and confusion. Other times it is craving. Other times it is said that the asavas are destroyed. Also the defilements are eliminated or the fetters are all severed. Sometimes it is the sense of self, and the I-making and my-making processes that come to an end. There is no reason to think that when these processes or traits are extinguished the physical body would disappear.


Ikeda does not really use arguments (it’s more a question of him inspiring through his life and work and showing how Buddhism of the Lotus Sutra can help live better and happier lives), though he mentions a famous monk who did not attend the Council because he was travelling elsewhere to teach. His explanation is thus consistent. Scholars have shown convincingly that the Pali Canon did not change much since it was first written, however I find the arguments that that is the final word of the Buddha (or in any case the final ‘truth’) less convincing.

Indeed, these questions never get old, and even though a lot (probably too much) has been said about it, it’s good to update our views on it.

To your title question “does the pali canon…”, well, the Pali Canon does a lot of things, part of it is the authentic teachings of the Buddha, but also the authentic teachings of many other people - his named students, and many many anonymous teachers across several generations.

General statements like “the Palicanon does this”, or “The Buddha wanted only that” don’t hold up and are useless to argue about. It’s all about the details I find. Some suttas are nonsense and I wonder ‘how the hell did they get canonized’, and others are so good that the source was obviously a spiritual genius.

That’s both a philosophical and a gut question and everyone goes with what they prefer anyway. It’s basically asking “is it okay to be a Mahayanist, or should every Buddhist be a Theravadin?” Obviously we can decide that only for ourselves.


Once craving is extinguished, there is no more rebirth, because craving is the fuel for life and thus rebirth. However it’s not clear why the present life still goes on: since there is no more fuel for future lives, why is there still fuel for this life? In any case an argument of this type was put forward by Arnold Toynbee.

Well, I think the orthodox answer is that the “fuel” was planted in previous lives, and that even though the enlightened person has stopped adding to the fuel, the old fuel still has to be exhausted.

My own answer is not orthodox, but I will refrain from discussing it since it just irritates people.


I’d like to hear it, lol.


Interesting but I don’t really find it convincing. If there is still fuel to be exhausted, why should it be exhausted necessarily in one life only? (since it is said that if you are an arahant you will certainly not be reborn). If the fuel to be exhausted drives existence on, then I don’t seen any necessary logical reason why it couldn’t continue for many lives.
If you want to share your view I for one won’t be irritated :grinning:


Yes, good question. You will have to ask the monks!


That’s correct, and if the traditional view is correct (at least it is very consistent) then there is something special about the end of one life.


I would counsel exercising caution when taking metaphors literally. Metaphors help conceptualize an abstract concept, but they are not literal descriptions of empirical facts. See the recent article in The New York Times about the dangers of thinking of biological evolution as a metaphorical “tree:”

Metaphors can aid in discovery, but they can also lead people down metaphorical paths that misdirect inquiry.


:joy: that’s an interesting remark for a Theravada forum; I had got the impression that in Theravada people take things quite literally. What I wrote above is the teaching as I understand is interpreted precisely by Theravada (craving is the fuel of existence) and then showed how that does not appear to be consistent.

This is not a Theravada forum.


Venerable Nichiren taught a non-abiding nirvana. Sensei Ikeda follows him in this.

Non-abiding nirvana is fine, but it doesn’t really make the most sense when compared to Buddha-dispensations to the sravaka, which we know are older and more likely to be tied to a historical Buddha-figure, rather than simply “the Buddha”.

The Lotus Sutra makes the audacious claim that there is no “pari” nirvana. It does this because parinirvana doesn’t make the most sense in a non-abiding nirvana.

Essentially the teaching of nirvana-with-no-remainder is retconned in the LS.

1 Like

sorry I just joined it so I don’t know enough about it. So is this a Mahayana Forum? :astonished: or a Buddhist Forum for all schools perhaps

I hope it’s correct to say that this is an Early Buddhism forum. Which includes the Pali Suttas (and the Chinese parallels) and the Vinaya (in all its variations). Occasionally Abhidhamma and other schools are discussed. But mostly I’d say people discuss either the old teachings or the application of old teachings on contemporary issues.