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

Skillful means is not always interpreted the same way. Some people interpret expedient means as an excuse for the Buddha lying. The idea being that the Buddha tells you something not-completely-accurate or misleading that then leads you to some higher private breakthrough.

Expedient means is sometimes rendered as “appropriate methodology”. The Buddha always employs appropriate methodologies.

If Buddhadharma is the truth, would it be an appropriate methodology for the Buddha to lie when teaching a teaching, regardless of the lie or what it accomplished?

Lots of Mahāyāna schools wrestle with the moral problems of the Buddha’s lying in the Parable of the Burning House. The Buddha never intended to give anyone a deer-cart. Why offer it at all? “Because samsara is just that bad.”

Venerable Zhiyi sets it up so that the Buddha speaks about one ox-cart to the children, but the three children mishear in the chaos of the burning and construe the Buddha to be talking about three different carts, each dependent on who perceived the Buddha speaking, and all of them in their way wrong. But this actually contradicts the text itself.

Similarly, I recall Malcolm on DharmaWheel discussing a Tibetan gloss of the sūtra wherein the children exit the house to be greeted by a great cart pulled by a white elephant. I’ll find the citation in a second.

How to navigate? Who can say.


I personally use this as a criterion for trustworthy information in the suttas, even though it’s not solid rock scientific and somewhat subjective: When a sutta says “The Buddha was at a place x with a thousand bhikkhus” do I think that the Buddha actually had the experience, then retold the story to Ananda, and because he wanted to say “many many bhikkhus” just made up a number? you know, just a little bit of a white lie here and there?

I can’t prove it, but I say a priori, “no, this piece of information is not authentic Buddha word”

a bit more complex: a few suttas mention a purohita a high priest elected by the king to be the highest brahmin authority of the country. We can quite surely infer that at the time of the Buddha Kosala was not ‘brahminized’ enough to have a purohita (even though further in the West they were common for several hundred years already). At the same time the ritual details in the sutta-purohita-segments are authentic as they represent a real ritual with insider-knowledge. My conclusion: These suttas are authentic, but not from the Buddha. It’s either later, and/or from a converted brahmin from the West. So, details, details…


You may find this answer useful :slight_smile:


Due to the limitations of human language in explaining the Ultimate Truth of enlightenment, is it lying if the Buddha utilizes a provisional truth for rafting us to the other shore?

In the Pali canon, the distinction is not made between a lower truth and a higher truth, but rather between two kinds of expressions of the same truth, which must be interpreted differently. Thus a phrase or passage, or a whole sutta, might be classed as neyyattha or samuti or vohāra, but it is not regarded at this stage as expressing or conveying a different level of truth.

Nītattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: nītārtha), “of plain or clear meaning”[9] and neyyattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: neyartha), “[a word or sentence] having a sense that can only be guessed”.[9] These terms were used to identify texts or statements that either did or did not require additional interpretation. A nītattha text required no explanation, while a neyyattha one might mislead some people unless properly explained:[10]

There are these two who misrepresent the Tathagata. Which two? He who represents a Sutta of indirect meaning as a Sutta of direct meaning and he who represents a Sutta of direct meaning as a Sutta of indirect meaning.[11]

Saṃmuti or samuti (Pāli; Sanskrit: saṃvṛti, meaning “common consent, general opinion, convention”,[12] and paramattha (Pāli; Sanskrit: paramārtha), meaning “ultimate”, are used to distinguish conventional or common-sense language, as used in metaphors or for the sake of convenience, from language used to express higher truths directly. The term vohāra (Pāli; Sanskrit: vyavahāra, “common practice, convention, custom” is also used in more or less the same sense as samuti.
Two truths doctrine - Wikipedia


I think to make a point with such a fundamental topic you need much more than a wikipedia article


That’s a matter of personal opinion of the person in question.
Before accepting and pushing for specific opinions from others, especially contrarian ones, I usually take some time assessing the sort of skin they have in the game.
The mentioned individual was heavily involved in setting up a lay corporation around what he saw as the genuine Dharma.
He had recently broken alliance with traditional groups framed around the same version of the Dharma, to the point of getting animosity to separate them.
Over the course of the years he managed millions of dollars for that cause , hopefully to the benefit of some beyond his circle of choosen ones.
If I were in his position, I would probably fall in the same slot of doubting any traditional view of the Dhamma, independent of historical evidence or solid analysis as well - for that puts in question the validity of the surreally mythical scripture the whole scheme is framed around!
All in all, business should always come first place!
Namyororenguekyo to you mate!


Hi Irene,

Welcome and I hope you enjoy your stay here. Many people have replied already, but I feel that some of your questions have still gone unanswered, so allow me to attempt an answer as best I can.

Well, there are a number of considerations. The Buddha had many followers over a long time, and he frequently praised them and said they understand him perfectly.

There is nothing implausible about this—the Buddha was a skilled teacher who had many students. Why wouldn’t they understand him? The texts themselves bear this out: they are highly intelligent and complex, displaying at every level a mastery of textual structure.

Moreover, the evidence of the Buddhist tradition as a whole is that we have been pretty good at conveying texts in a fairly stable way for 2500 years, so it would seem a little odd if the first generation were the only ones who were incompetent.

Indeed. There were many monks and nuns who were not at the Council. But this does not, and cannot, mean that they had anything to do with the teachings that emerged half a millenium later, which we today call “Mahayana”. This is akin to saying that not all physicists of his time were convinced by Newton, therefore they must have been quantum physicists.

The canonical accounts of the monk who did not attend the council—whose name varies—say that he said the recitation at the Council was well done. Thus he did not contest the mainstream texts. One of the canonical Vinayas discusses what it says the points of which he differs are. One of them was whether it is allowable for monks to pick up fallen fruit from beneath a tree and bring it back to the monastery and have it offered by a lay person there. Well, I will leave that one for the experts!

The early texts are structured in a way that features massive redundancy. You can lose or distort a text; heck, you can lose or distort hundreds of texts, and still the main teachings would be clear.

If you are interested in such matters, check out The Authenticity of the Early Buddhst Texts by myself and Ven Brahmali. The basic thrust of the argument is that authenticity is not established by a magic bullet; there is no one decisive piece of evidence that proves anything. That’s not how history works. On the contrary, our picture of a period of ancient time is built up slowly and painstakingly, one bit of evidence, one suggestion, one hint at a time. The conclusion is broadly based on countless pieces of evidence. These are simply and reasonably explained by the obvious thesis: that the texts as we have them were the teachings of the Buddha as memorized and organized by his students.

This is why the conclusion is so robust for those who know; but it is also why it is easy to present one or other bit of evidence out of context and make it seem as if the whole thing is flimsy.

If you are interested to learn about the history of Buddhism from an informed Mahayana perspective, I would recommend the works of Master Yin Shun, one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of all time.

This is derived from late sectarian legends and has no basis in history. We have multiple early accounts of the First Council from many different traditions and none of them say anything like this.

Out of compassion to help sentient beings. There is no inconsistency; and Hesse and Toynbee are hardly experts on Buddhism!

The way karma works is that it produces, first and foremost, a state of existence, aka a life, which in this realm depends on a body. Cause and effect is not instantaneous and one-dimensional; on the contrary, it is deeply networked and ramified and it takes time to work out. The body has been produced and lives on, and an arahant looks after it just like anyone else would. Arahants aren’t monsters! It is just that one is not attached to it, so does not produce a new body in the future.

Perhaps it would clarify things to remember that the second noble truth refers to “craving for a new life”: that is what an arahant has extinguished.

This is subjective: it’s up to you. The teachings in the early texts themselves do, however, emphasize the importance of the Buddha’s own words as compared to those of disciples.

Later teachings, which include the very words I am writing now, are there to give perspective and enrich our understanding of the Dhamma. Personally I believe that every genuine Buddhist tradition retains the essential Dhamma teaching and includes many things that can enrich and support one’s own practice of the Dhamma. However, I also believe that the traditions have a lot of nonsense and silliness, not to mention outright corruption, and a measure of discernment and critical thought is essential.


I’ve read plenty about the two-truths doctrine outside Wikipedia, including about its existence in the Pali scriptures. Have you?

I’m trying to follow better my own recommended practice of avoiding entering into disputes about the dhamma.


The Buddha while he was alive had a original system of classification for suttas: jataka (rebirth stories), exclamations, question and answer, etc - can’t recall the full list. Then there are times when a disciple would ask him what to call a certain sutta (and this is mentioned in the sutta). Some suttas (or similies, like the similie of the saw) are referenced in other suttas, by name. These suttas would have been taught by the Buddha over 45 years, and his disciples would have thoroughly used them for their practice. It would be clear which suttas were important and recommended to be memorised by the Buddha.

They maybe seen as less life affirming. This is because IMO they are an instructional writing (a prescription if you like, and not the moon itself).

With metta

Another important point to make is that Pāli suttāni directly preserve certain signs of orality at places that are rather frequent.

There is a construction involving “iti” that essentially serves as “quotation marks” for non-literate cultures.

Dr. Mark Allon gives a wonderful lecture on the orality of the Pāli texts as related to diction here: YouTube


Jataka was added later wasn’t really under original classification in the first council .

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.

In the traditional account, Ananda came to the council by means of supernatural power - flying through the air and then taking a seat.
That is, he is making a point, that he is now enlightened.

He hasn’t done this before in the suttas.

The work that Bhikkhu Sujato referenced can be found here: BuddhaNet eBooks: Mahayana Text & Teachings
Teachings in Chinese Buddhism , by Venerable Yin Shun. The topic is in First Part, Chapter 8


Super powers are not sign of enlightenment. Demons and lower gods (yakkhas) of kama loka (mara’s world) have them. And men initiated by them, can have them also.
Buddha despised super powers, and said they were not necessary to attain enlightenment.
Being stupefied by super powers is moha (delusion).


Here is how I look at this issue and obviously enough people have already commented on it. Get what you can (or want) out of the Pali Canon and take it for what it’s worth. If it works for you or you get something out of it, that’s the point. If it doesn’t, you move on to something else if you choose to do so. The Canon isn’t even 100% there yet as translations are still ongoing, bear that in mind as well. The final one could very well be a “all of the characters and events portrayed in this story were fictitious and any resemblance to real people…” disclaimer.

I don’t think you have to become a Buddhist scholar with regards to the Pali Canon, just see if the core teachings work for you (i.e. Noble Eightfold Path, Four Noble Truths, etc.). At the end of the day, Buddhism isn’t about being able to impress people with how good you can recite a particular sutta/sutra or be able to find it in a book, it’s about being a decent human being (I’d argue the same thing for any religion frankly). For that, you don’t even need to read the Canon as far as I am concerned - most of the suttas are simply stories that detail how the various teachings were put into practice or advice the Buddha gave someone (or the rules for monks, etc.). I’m not saying that there isn’t some good stuff in them, because there is, but I think people get too hung up on trying to dig through them - keep it simple.

As for how accurate it is, I personally feel that it is not 100% accurate for a number of reasons. First off, the teachings were handed down via oral tradition for what? Something like 450 years or so after Gotama’s death before they were written down for the first time? It’s also known that the Buddha gave many teachings to many people that are not represented in writing (that we know of), so there is that to consider. I am sure that over a 400 plus year time span, things were ultimately written down differently or with with embellishments. However, something as simple and basic as the core teachings (i.e. Four Noble Truths) could have very easily been handed out accurately over thousands of years. In that regard, I think those are very much authentic due to their simplicity.

Second, regarding accuracy, most of the Pali Canon also starts off with “Thus I heard…” or something similar depending on the translation. This implies that “this is the teaching as I recollect it” and that means things could have been differently. So what you are reading in the Canon may not be 100% accurate, but it was the best thing available at the time and hence the “as best as I can recollect” line(s).

Third, Buddhist research is still ongoing today and there are always new archaeological finds being uncovered (goes for other religions as well obviously). This means that at any time, something new may show up on the scene that may completely re-write what we know of Buddhism today. Do we know for a fact that Bhikkhu/Bhikkhuni so and so was at a particular meeting for 100% absolute fact? No, because none of us was around back then. All we have is what was written down by some human being at one point and as I said above, that may very well be incorrect or inaccurate (I’m being realistic here). Again, you get what you want out of it and you take the good with the bad I suppose.

Question #2 seems to have been done to death already.

As for question #3, the teachings as they are represented in the Pali Canon are, supposedly, those directly offered by Siddharta Gotama. As such, I would say they stand alone as they are and what some other thinker made of them hundreds or thousands of years later is moot. This isn’t to say that other scholars or religious thinkers do not (did not) have valid things to add, but those authors are not the Buddha as he is understood in the Pali Canon. What’s more accurate? What I’m writing now as myself in the present or what someone 1000 years from now says I wrote or says I meant?

As for improving them, what needs to be improved? You have to realize (and I know this is a hot button topic for many traditions) that Buddhism, as it is represented in the Pali Canon, came from the historical Buddha as we know him and he lived in India. After his death, his teachings were picked up by others and transmitted around the world. In most cases, the Buddha’s teachings were incorporated into existing religions or cultural belief systems and you see the end result of that today in some of the traditions outside of Theravada. This isn’t to belittle or make light of other traditions, but you have to look at this historically and I would argue that it is all documented rather thoroughly if you do the research. However, the core teachings (i.e. Four Noble Truths, etc.) are the same across the traditions for the most part. The major differences are in ritualistic practice, different sutta/sutras, etc. Yes, I’m overly simplifying this again.

As for other Buddhas, if you go by what has been written, there have been countless Buddhas throughout history. Not all of them sought to teach others or have their teachings conveyed in writing or passed on, so who is to say which Buddha’s teachings are better than another? I’d argue that regardless of the incarnation of Buddha, the core teachings would be the same across the millennia. This is because the teachings are (supposedly) perfect and result in enlightenment, regardless of who is teaching it. I’d also go a step further and say that much of what Gotama taught was very much inspired by his Indian upbringing (i.e. Hinduism) and if you ever read something like the Mahabarata, you will see how similar Hindu teachings are to Buddhism (since the issue of Indian thought came up).

For me personally, I opt to follow the Theravada tradition because, as we understand it, it is the closest thing to the “original” teachings of the Buddha as taught in India. I do quite a bit of work for a monk in Thailand and have done my fair share of reading various Buddhist texts, including the Canon and other books written by scholars. I do not spend my days in front of my computer reading suttas or books about Buddhism (unless it’s work related), I go about my day trying to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice. The core teachings take about five minutes to read and you can find them on pretty much any site about Buddhism. Google “four noble truths” and “noble eightfold path” and they pop right up - you don’t need to go far to find them and those are the root of the Buddha’s teachings in my opinion, regardless of tradition. I do not think that immersing yourself in thousands of pages of material accomplishes anything other than providing you with being well read on the subject (not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong). If anything, I know it can confuse people due to the sheer amount available.

At the end of the day, if you don’t put any of it into practice, knowing suttas backwards and forwards or reading books by contemporary authors (nothing wrong with that either, don’t get me wrong) about it is moot if you do not put the core teachings into practice. I see too many people getting hung up on reading this book or that book by this PhD or that well known monk, all who proffer to know it better than someone else. The core teachings is where it’s at and they’re free. Buddhism is actually rather simple to follow and I honestly think people over complicate it rather badly.


thank you for your detailed answer, concerning this point could you give a reference? I know people talk of desire and usually mean every desire, not to mention the fact that people like S Batchelor don’t believe there’s a new life anyway, so they must interpret craving differently. Also, what about people who say we should take rebirth metaphorically? Even Thai monks sometimes say that.

I can sense some contempt in your message, perhaps you think I am stupid to believe in Ikeda (a wealthy and powerful man - tough unlike say the Tibetans monks, who enjoy and have enjoyed immense power and prestige (think of the previous Dalai Lamas) just because they were born in that situation, Ikeda became who he is thanks to his accomplishments) or to chant Nammyohorengekyo (based on your lase sentence).
I was taught that contempt is not a very good thing.
Be as it may, let me just point out a few things.
First your arguments against Ikeda are what is called ad hominem, and as such their validity is questionable.
One could equally say that monastics have a personal interest in people believing in EBT teachings suche as reincarnation and the idea that you make the highest merit by donating to the;, because in this way lay people bring them excellent food and gifts believing that that’s the best ‘investment’ for their future lives (though I was told at a monastery in the UK that many do it instead in the hope of getting winning lottery tickets numbers from monks…).
This state of affairs allows monks to get all necessary things for life without working (unlike Soka Gakkai Members, including Ikeda, who do work), an immense respect for just being there doing nothing (I have seen people prostating themselves at the feet of monks in Amaravati - after bringing them presents and food), and a reason for being there and proclaiming that their superior insight has revealed to them that everything is suffering in this life, but at the same time they continue to live with nice food, great medical care, and lots of veneration because the way out of this suffering they denounce is not euthanasia or suicide, it is to stay there doing nothing and practice whilst receiving the offerings and veneration of lay people.
So if I wanted to use arguments ad hominem in the case of the teaching of Theravada monks I certainly could , but like I said, this type or argument is questionable.
Concerning the millions you mention in the context of Soka Gakkai, I must tell you my friend that that’s totally inaccurate. They have more like billions, not millions, also thanks to Sensei’s ability in fund raising. Many people have benefited from this, including thousand of people in Brazilian favelas that I know directly of. But since you are interested in scrutinising Soka Gakkai’s wealth, I suggest that you do the same for theravada organisations, like those in the UK or in Western Australia. THEIR wealth is more like of the order of millions, and in that case it’s probably only the monastics that benefit from it.
Another thing that I learnt on the subject of wealth is that if a thief offers money to a monk, the monk will accept it because in this way he ‘will allow’ the thief to make good karma (that’a another weird teaching, the monks are actually doing you a favour by allowing you to bring them nice food and gifts)…Whatever you think of this idea (according to the law accepting money from a thief is an act of complicity) Soka Gakkai has instead consistently refused donations which came from questionable sources.
Anyway I had come to this website to learn about the early teaching, but I must say that I didn’t appreciate the tone of your message so I have replied pointing out how similar arguments to yours can be used to criticise those who practice the early teachings, if one were inclined to do so.
I hope I have not offended anyone with these reflections and I if anything I have said is inaccurate, I will be grateful if you can correct it.

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Fair enough.

Just note that a fully ordained bhikkhu is not supposed to deal with money.

If you are interested in understanding the boundaries of what should some one in robes give up doing and how the monastic community is to deal with it, feel free the read the Bhikkhu Vibhanga:

Enjoy it.


ok I’ll read it thank you but just a few further reflections:

  • I had started reading the monastic rules, then I was put off by the insistence on sex and by rules such as monks not being allowed to introduce their penis in their own anus - suggesting those rules refer to people who have a different morphology from today’s human beings.
  • I also heard once some remarks about having to make sure someone is not a dragon during the ceremony when you ordain. That also was very weird.
  • Going back to the subject of the rules on money, I went to a monastery last week end (I am doing my research :wink: ) It is in the Thai forest tradition and people there told me that it’s very rare for monks not to touch money, the vast majority of monks in cities in Thailand apparently do. It’s only a minority like the Forest monks who dont.
    -Finally, this symbolic rule of not touching money doesn’t mean that much to me. Money is there to purchase goods and services. If a monastery has a lay Buddhsit society with many millions in the bank that are to be spent on things like monks accommodation and on their health care needs etc, it doesn’t really mean anything that they cant touch money. That 's just a symbolic thing. The money is still spent on them. :wink:

With the advent of electronic monetary transfers, plastic and electronic forms of payment, etc. it is possible for many people nowadays to go for days or longer without ever touching physical currency. Most of my financial transactions are carried out either electronically or through payment systems that do not involve physical currency (unless one counts paper checks which I do routinely write). So what counts as not touching money has taken on new meanings in contemporary times. Would authorizing an electronic payment online count as touching money? In the strict sense, no. But in terms of the spirit of the precept, some monastics might refrain from such actions and leave all accounting of monastery financial affairs up to laypeople.

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