Earliest use of the English phrase "early Buddhism"?

The first use I can find is

  • Lillie, Arthur. (1881) Buddha and Early Buddhism. London: Trübner & Co.

[the same year that the Pali Text Society was founded]

Lillie’s ideas about what constitute “early Buddhism” are quite different to the views being expressed in this forum however. He believes, amongst other things, that Buddhist missionaries proselytised America in the 5th century.

Is there an earlier use?


If I am not wrong, earliest use of the English phrase “early Buddhism” to refer to both Pali and Chinese early Buddhist texts is:

Choong Mun-keat. The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism (1995; second revised edition, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1999).

“Within Buddhist studies it is widely assumed that only the Pāli texts represent “early Buddhism”. Naturally, the Pāli texts are important sources for the study of early Buddhism; however, the Pāli canon, as the scripture of the southern Buddhist tradition (the self-styled “Theravāda”, Teaching of the Elders), belonging to the school Tāmraśāṭīya (or Tāmraparṇīya, the Buddhist sect or monks of Tāmraparṇī), represents only one of the various “early Buddhist schools” (so-called “Hīnayāna Buddhism”). If one only considers and emphasises Pāli sources, without comparing them with the Chinese versions, then one is studying Pāli Buddhism, not early Buddhism. For the study of early Buddhism it is essential to pay attention to both the Pāli and the Chinese versions of the early canon . Therefore, in this book, the references to emptiness in early Buddhism cover not only the Pāli texts, but also the Chinese versions representing other early Buddhist schools.” (pp. viii-ix)

Pages viii-ix from Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat.pdf (928.3 KB)

I too know of no use earlier than Lillie’s.

But if we’re speaking of the referent of “early Buddhism”, then for most of the 19th century the term of choice for it was “primitive Buddhism”. This is first deployed around the turn of the century and by the 1830’s comes into fairly frequent use in scholarly journals and Christian missionary reports.


This only goes to show how dated Choong Mun-Keat’s work is now. This statement is now simply false. This assumption is no longer current in Buddhist Studies. Since then it has become routine to include Chinese Āgama texts in our thinking about so-called “early Buddhism”. The whole area of Gāndhārī studies has taken off in the meantime.

Though, of course, since they were written down in the 4th or 5th century the Āgama texts are not primary sources for early Buddhism in India (some 700 or 800 years earlier). According to the common standards of historical enquiry they can only be seen as reflecting views of Indian Buddhism current in China at the time. In fact, historians tell us that even Pāli texts do not reflect “early Buddhism”.

This is because “Early Buddhism” is a 19th century European imperialist idea. The imaginative reconstruction of “early Buddhism”—through introspective mining of the Pāli canon—has been an imperialist project from the start, despite now being taken up by Buddhists themselves. It was part of the project to depict buddhism as generally in decline away from its pristine origins; which itself was part of the project to shoehorn the history of Buddhism into a mould made by 19th century European Protestant scholars of religion (this was, for example, part of the thesis of the book by Jonathan Walters: Finding Buddhists in Global History)

Anālayo’s recent books on śūnyatā and nirvāṇa go more deeply into the idea of “emptiness” and add the fruits of his practice of the relevant techniques. My work parallels his to some extent in that I have argued that we should think about Prajñāpāramitā texts as being more closely related to Pāli texts than to Madhyamala texts. Anālayo and I see “emptiness” as the absence of sensory experience, for example, rather than as some kind of transcendental reality. Mādhyamikas tacitly take the absence of sensory experience to be Ultimate Reality. And philosophical chaos ensues.

Although hard to get, Matthew Orsborn’s (Huifeng) Old School Emptiness also goes a lot deeper. And in fact, Orsborn points out that Choong seems to have drawn heavily on works in Chinese by Yinshun without acknowledgement (he’s not quite accusing Choong of plagiarism, more like lazy scholarship). Orsborn has published translations of Yinshun’s two works on emptiness as one volume An Investigation into Emptiness. Anyway, as insightful and useful as it was, back in its day, the Choong (1999) should now be cited with caution and contextualised with more recent information/research on this topic.

And we should think more critically about the imperialist idea of “early Buddhism”. Although, of course, that proposition won’t get much traction in this forum.

I am curious why you assume the worst of motives here? At least consider a charitable reading of it. No message gets passed along without additions and corruptions. Sincere people can at least attempt to find out what was added and corrupted. If nothing else people will read the text more deeply. Perhaps some tried to undermine Buddhism with this, but I think it is out of love of it that people pursue it today.

Yes, indeed.

His second book (2000) published in Germany was also using the English phrase “Early Buddhism” to include Chinese Āgama texts (cf. pp. 2-7):

The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A Comparative Study Based on the Sūtrāṅga portion of the Pāli Saṃyutta-Nikāya and the Chinese Saṃyuktāgama (Series: Beitrage zur Indologie Band 32; Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2000).
Pages 2-7 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (440.2 KB)

I’m not assuming anything at all about the “motives” of those involved. Though, of course, the motives of European imperialists were far from opaque or difficult to comprehend.

Re “Charity”. You still seem to be approaching Buddhist history in the historicist-positivist paradigm originally put in place by European imperialists. I just cannot operate in that paradigm anymore. As I understand the situation, destroying the old paradigm would be by far the most charitable thing (even the most Buddhist thing) I could do. That old paradigm is a wrong view. The more I can do to raise doubts about it the better.

I’ve been continuing to explore the theories and methods used by historians when writing histories. Notably, I recently read and made notes on Jonathan Walters book Finding Buddhists in Global History. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in history. Those concerned with religious mythology will find it less interesting and may even be affronted.

Your questions go well beyond the premise of the original post. And my next next blog post (hopefully next Friday) will say a lot more about why “early Buddhism” is so very problematic. Can we leave it at that? Thanks.

Also, Early Buddhism (pp. 3, 5: the first and second councils) refers to the two phases: