Early Buddhism critique

I am a bit surprised at some critique of EBT. I made it clear to them that EBT is not secular Buddhism, but there’s several replies that I am at my wit’s end to reply to. Can anyone help? Please don’t just dismiss them because of the Mahayana background of the people commenting. Although it could be an factor of understanding.

  1. By bodhiquest

But it requires a fundamental belief in

  1. That the words in question really are the “Buddha’s own words” that haven’t been “[overwritten] with later doctrines” and, more generally, with erroneous or problematic information.
  2. That EBTs are identified correctly and in foolproof manner.
  3. That “later doctrines”, by virtue of being later, cannot actually contain what the Buddha himself really did teach and which, for various reasons, might have been left out of extant canons (in other words, belief in the flawlessness of the editorial process).

These are all problematic beliefs.

  1. Objectively, we literally cannot tell whether and to what extent what is recorded in the early sources are the Buddha’s own exact words. The language of the “early” sutras is not natural and reflects a process of editing, and the tone and manner of speech in the Chinese and Pāli texts are often different. It’s also not possible to tell whether very early on in the standardization process, extraneous etc. information was added or not. To say that the EBTs reflect the Buddha’s very own speech is a declaration of faith, it’s not an objective fact.
  2. It goes without saying that this is essentially guesswork and relies on incomplete information (we haven’t discovered all the earliest extant written Buddhist texts).
  3. The first release of a video game, film, or even book is not necessarily the definitive and “as the creator intended” version. Just because something is “late” doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wrong or not reflective of original intent. In addition, because the process of retaining and transmitting the Buddha’s words are done by groups of human beings and ancient accounts reflect the idea that a consensus which not everyone agreed on took place, we can’t be certain that whatever was officialized early by a majority was flawless and left nothing out. We certainly can say for many ideas as they are expressed in the texts that they are late relative to other ideas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea itself (its meaning) is also late.

The problem with EBTism is mainly that it pretends that there’s nothing problematic about it and that it’s a very natural, logical and skeptical approach, but that’s not the case. When we pry away the veil of prestige, it’s no different from any other approach to scripture in Buddhism: it’s about choosing to uphold a certain collection as the texts which represent the Buddha’s intention the most accurately and completely.

  1. by LonelyStruggle

The reason people compare it to secular Buddhism is that it imports modern textual analysis as an essential tool for discerning what is and isn’t a valid teaching even though the Buddha never suggested such a thing. That’s why you get pushback from traditional Buddhists when you suggest that EBTs are the true form of Buddhism, as that Ajahn (Brahmali) did in the secular Buddhism is baloney podcast

You have an entire textual tradition that uses modern methods to discern between sutras based on one squinting interpretation of AN 4.180

Of course it is natural to draw parallels to the secular Buddhists who have their own interpretational style based on a squinting interpretation of the Kalama sutta

Neither are traditional, and neither are Buddhism

I already said, because it uses modern academic methods to determine what is and isn’t Dharma, which is not what the Buddha said to do. That’s why it isn’t Buddhism

Your comments clearly demonstrate that you don’t understand what I’m saying, but that’s not a surprise, since EBT followers lack the insight to identify this modern influence

At least now you personally can empathise directly with secular Buddhists, sharing in a very similar delusion, and inability to probe it

And of course I’m not saying you should accept the Mahayana, I’m saying that you are purposefully interpreting one sutra in a strange and specific way in order to justify an approach to Buddhist understanding that does not align with what the Buddha actually taught. That’s why it isn’t Buddhism

Feel free to reply to them in reddit directly if you wish to.

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r/Buddhism is a bit of an echo chamber in my experience. And the very nature of reddit makes meaningful discussion on there difficult. The addictive nature of the upvote/downvote system combined with short thread lifecycle is a toxic mix. I really doubt you can open many minds on there. I think much more can be achieved on other forums. Any forums really. Personally, I think a knitting forum would be a better place for Dhamma discussion than r/Buddhism.

The arguments themselves show a lack of willingness to think deeper about these issues. No self-respecting EBT enthusiast would argue that simply being earlier makes a text more authentic, for example. It’s a strawman argument.

I find “The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts” an eye-opening starting point. Definitely recommend.


These arguments are the same as those used to “debunk” anthropogenic global warming, or evolution, or whatever. “There is a degree of doubt, therefore reason and evidence is no different than guessing”. It’s a fundamental lack of understanding about what rationality is and how it works.

I mean, if the creator dies and hundreds of years later someone makes a new one claiming that it better represents the author’s intention, they’re not really going to convince a lot of people; unless of course it’s a religion.

This is fundamentalism, and is not worth responding to.


I have given a brief response to the first guy. I am on a plane and not sure what else to do! I may leave it at that.


I don’t understand this debate. If the teaching leads to the end of suffering - to complete satisfaction - the end of passion this is the true Dhamma. It doesn’t matter where, who or when someone proposes these teachings. If something leads to complete samadhi that lets go completely of the mind’s obstacles it is true Buddhist meditation. That is my compass. If someone is imparting the teachings of passion creating discontentment and meditation that leads to mind obstacles then even if he wrote that the Buddha himself gave it to him - it is not Dhamma.


Some Buddhists are having difficulty seeing EBT in a good light given the scandal of secular Buddhism. In r/Buddhism, there is regular denouncing of secular Buddhism is not Buddhism (which I also contributed some). And not much exposure to early Buddhism there. A lot of Mahayana folks are there and the Theravada folks generally hang out in r/Theravada.

The denouncing of secular Buddhism goes to the extend to involve race, western colonialism thing (which I don’t think is necessary to bring in), which some people think this applies to EBT as well. Note that this is minority view by some people only, not the general mood of r/Buddhism.

Thanks Ajahn @Brahmali! Good response. Admit true things and still insist on the principle of not overwriting the teachings of the Buddha. Welcome to r/Buddhism.


I don’t have a reddit account, but thought I’d post my thoughts here just because :slight_smile:


There must be some basis one can use to judge authenticity. Whether a text is early or late is not the only criterion, but a valid one nonetheless. A significant feature of EBTs is that they are internally consistent (i.e. if one is adequately skilled at translating the texts, they don’t generally contradict each other). This is another criterion for judging authenticity. Together, these form a pretty powerful combo.

Many texts that are later than the EBTs, however, tend to be:

  • Inconsistent with other texts, with a higher likelihood of being inconsistent with the EBTs
  • Vague with respect to definition / meaning

Guesswork implies that the probabilities at play are all random, however this is not the case. Each criterion, considered on its own provides some support for various conclusions. When multiple criteria coalesce towards the same conclusion, the probability that this conclusion is correct increases. To dismiss findings that have a less than 100% probability of being right is to dismiss the entire field of statistics and all other fields such as history, archaeology, medicine (clinical trials, epidemiology studies) and many more.

One use the above rule of looking for internal consistency, coupled with the dating of the texts to determine the likelihood of authenticity. Just because something is late doesn’t automatically mean that it is wrong. However, if it is both late and inconsistent, as many late Buddhist texts are, there is a much higher likelihood that it is wrong. This is especially so given the conservative nature of the Therevada monks who were reticent to change the suttas.

On the contrary, the problem with critics of the EBTs is that they are:

  • Unfamiliar with the tools and techniques used to determine authenticity
  • Generally have little in the way of personal practice to confirm the suttas using their own experience
  • Are generally unfamiliar with the EBTs that they have decided to criticise


This is just one of many tools at the disposal of someone analysing the EBTs. Ideally, they should also look for internal consistency and have the ability to compare the texts to the results of their practice.

It is also contradictory to rely on the EBTs to suggest that the Buddha did not suggest analysis of texts, when the aim of the argument is to undermine the EBTs.

Same answer as above.

Then what might be the way to determine what real Dhamma is? You have to start somewhere. Textual analysis is one way, practicing according to the texts and comparing it with the results promised by the texts is another way.

If it can be shown that Mahayana has the following features, perhaps the argument would stand. Is the Mahayana body of suttas:

  • Internally consistent
  • Logically coherent
  • In accordance with reality that is readily observable
  • Providing a clear description of the path of practice
  • Providing a clear description of the benefits of the path of practice

The above is a tall order for Mahayana texts. For example, the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal says that one should aspire to liberate all beings from samsara. This is one of their central teachings. Based on this teaching, the Buddha himself fell short of the Bodhisattva ideal because he didn’t stay in samsara after his death. Logical fallacies such as this are pretty glaring. This particular one is absent in the EBTs.

This is not to say that there aren’t Mahayana practitioners who have made progress towards Nibbana. Just that the map they are using may be more scrambled than the EBTs.


I think I may be seeing you at Empty Cloud, Bhante! :pray: I heard you would be visiting in February and I’m staying from Jan. 30 - Feb. 10. Hope you have or had a safe flight!



You don’t need to reply. If this is a hobby or vocation then your conviction meets theirs, and different convictions don’t gel well. A first step could be to sympathize with where they are coming from.

… suttacentral is an echo chamber too. The we/they logic leads to convictions, identifications and the according emotions and actions. Great for discoursive self-perpetuation of society and history, but has little to do with dhamma.


The second best way to not waste your time on /r/Buddhism is to teach. Such threads are usually respected ( posting suttas, essays, etc ). Anything that can be stretched into slightly implying anyone’s beliefs may be wrong is vigorously attacked. It is not an intellectually tolerant group. Intellectual intolerance is often comorbid with being religious. That is just human nature.

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Okay, so this thing about “echo chambers”. Let me posit this: in order to have a sensible discussion about things that matter, it is 100% necessary to create a community of people who have a reasonable degree of similarity in their values and thinking.

How was human society until the internet? When I grew up, the only people I ever talked to were people from my suburb, or nearby suburbs, about my age group, who went to the same school. And relatives and whatever, but mostly that was it. All my adult life, in fact, before going to Thailand and becoming a monk, I pretty much only knew and spoke to a small group of people around me.

Now we talk to people literally anywhere in the world all the time. It’s a completely different mode of communication. And it simply does not happen that you can talk sensibly about important things with just randoms. Exhibit A: literally any social media. You have to curate a circle of people who are going to be able to sustain a meaningful exchange of ideas and perspectives.

The idea of an “echo chamber” is like the ideas of “virtue signalling” or “cancel culture”. It disguises itself as a term that describes a poor form of communication, but its insidious effect is to undermine the possibility of meaningful conversation.


“echo chamber” translates to “You didn’t like something I said and I am offended by that”.

I was kind of interested in Nyingmaguy’s response, because in the past, I used reader response theory quite heavily as a translation tool (I used to read books with titles like “Reception Aesthetics”). I actually agree with the basic premise that better textual interpretation comes from us being more nuanced readers. Reception history is a kind of developing field, I would actually like to see more of it.

But as a movement, EBT could have equally arisen in a traditional Buddhist culture. We know this because of the presence of Sautrantika in um, the 3rd century BC in India. It isn’t possible to have a thorough-going knowledge of say, historical Chinese Buddhism, without knowing of the existence of the Tattvasiddhi, for example. Sutta only movements are just part of Buddhism. We are all international now, it’s not particularly surprising that these groups are also present in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

I don’t think the fact that textual interpreters may have biases is an issue, unless they aren’t conscious of how those biases affect their work. Actually, the best way to live with one’s own biases is often to read more widely and to become a “super reader”, not to retreat more heavily into received tradition (not discounting the depth that comes from immersion ina school either). The presence of reader bias, Western or otherwise, is incidental to the key point of sutta based movements, i.e. that the suttas on the whole form a reliable body for us to derive knowledge about what the Buddha taught.

If you prefer an Asian sutta teacher, just go find an Asian sutta teacher? It doesn’t make any difference to the concept of EBT as a whole.

Actually, some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had as a monastic have been with students of Mahayana programs about the textual origins of their traditions: it doesn’t have to be either/or.

Not really understanding why this reply was so popular. Maybe Nyingmaguy has never met EBT people or is not aware of the existence of Abhidamma and later text criticism in Buddhist history.

But then again, I have never really understood r/Buddhism.


I’m going to do an “I agree and…” response.

I agree. We need a community of people who share a reasonable degree ofsimilarity, as Bhante says.

And within this community, I actually find Sutta Central has pretty robust disagreement. Look at some of the threads on translation of Pali - which is at the heart of this forum - and you find a number of ideas represented. Look at Pali Canon interpretation and again you find a range of ideas of how various passages should be understood.

And at some points I find the forum veers more towards “too argumentative” than an “echo chamber”. There are some topics that seem, no matter how many times they have been discussed, to lead to 100+ reply threads re-hashing old arguments.


I agree. Most people are right thinking, and if they encounter a group that is determined to think a particular way that is not suitable to them they just leave.

The important thing is the quality of conversation. Is it logical? Is it grounded in evidence? Is it conducted kindly? Does it have a positive purpose? These are the things that matter, not whether other people agree with it or not.


Yes. Interesting. I would not have chosen the word “robust” for unhelpful debate. But that might just be my association with the word.

In this case, I mean I find Sutta Central debate on Pali and EBT quite healthy and productive overall.

The further the conversation gets from the EBTs the more mileage may vary. :wink:

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I think this is a bit of a motte and bailey … It seems mostly to be coming from very committed Mahayanists who find it very difficult to swallow that their favorite Sūtras are in fact apocryphal.

To which, I’ll quote Rita Gross:

A period of disorientation or [even] depression is a small price to pay for more accurate knowledge.

Isn’t the Mahayana itself always saying that its texts are merely skillful means not to be clung to as ultimately true? That would be my preferred approach in situations like this.


Yeah. The Lotus Sutra spends a long time on that concept. Then, it says everyone who thinks they are an arhat is really a bodhisattva, and there isn’t actually a Nirvana. That was the Buddha using skillful means.

It just depends on which Mahayanist we’re talking about. Asanga and Nagarjuna were probably fans of the EBTs. Kumarajiva says that a bodhisattva practices all the Buddha’s teachings, including the EBTs. Basic Mahayana sutras (like the Diamond Sutra) say that a bodhisattva doesn’t actually liberate all sentient beings because it’s impossible to liberate an infinite number of beings. And, anyway, if someone really thinks they are a bodhisattva, then they aren’t. My take is that a lot of the trouble in modern Buddhism was the early popularity of certain sutras in East Asia that advocated throwing the EBTs out and starting over. They were probably marginal texts outside of China, but then took off in a foreign culture that didn’t understand their context. So, there’s this unthinking prejudice in place. And then we get the oversimplifying reactions from the other side that don’t really help.

The result is a playground for trolls to gather great heaps of lolz. Posts like this are designed to flush out reasonable people for a good flame session or two, I would say.


And that’s the important part: The mind has a protective layer that avoids and prevents disorientation and depression - it’s all-too-human. If I don’t deactivate it before I interact then the consequential “But I am right!” guides my actions.

For a discussion to “be” (or better: to be perceived as) healthy, I need to
a) remove the self-protective coating of convictions and of “I am right”
b) be able to communicate or let transpire this openness successfully

I would add that for perceived kindness the use of formally correct kindness is necessary but not sufficient. Communications about spirituality are prone to passive aggressiveness, and this repels people for whom participation is not that important. Even if they continue to engage the discussion easily deteriorates to a show of ego and, again, “I am right”.

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