Ekottara Āgama and the Mahāsāṃghikas

Is there any strong evidence to indicate which tradition the Ekottara Āgama belongs to? I have read there are conflicting arguments between a Mahāsāṃghika origin or a Dharmaguptaka one. Also, slightly related, but do any secondary texts discuss the contents of the Mahāsāṃghika canon or quote any of its sutras?

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You may read Yin Shun 1971, pp. 755-787, in The Formation of Early Buddhist Texts 原始佛教聖典之集成 .

According to Yin Shun, EA belongs to the later sect of Mahāsāṃghika (i.e. not the early Mahāsāṃghika).


Thanks. It would be great to have at least one set of sutras from that tradition. I’ve also started going through the Kathavatthu again. It is surprising what you can piece together of their teachings from what is in there.

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There’s this article that delves into the various evidences and theories that have been advanced.

There are also issues with the Chinese translation itself. It’s preface says that it had 41 fascicles, but the version that has come down to us has 51 fascicles. There are also Chinese writings from the classical era quoting sutras in the Ekottarika and citing the fascicles the quotes are from. Except they aren’t found in those fascicles today. This has left us scratching our heads.

It seems that ten fascicles have been added somewhere along the way. Given that the Mahayanistic passages are somewhat rare and the rest of it looks like typical Agama sutras, it may be that the bodhisattva sutras were added to it later. My suspicion, which I haven’t pursued at all yet, is that it may combine material with two different Agamas, or even have non-Agama texts added to it. That happened with the Samyukta Agama as well, which had a couple fascicles of Avadana texts inserted into the middle of it somehow.

Also, there’s precedent for Chinese translators creating amalgamations from multiple versions of early texts. The first Chinese Dharmapada is a combination of a short Dharmapada that matches the Theravada Dhammapada and a large Dharmapada that probably matched the Skt. Udana-varga. They added the material missing in the smaller one to make a Dharmapada that covered them both.


Thanks! What is your opinion? Which tradition do you think the bulk comes from, as an educated guess?

It’s definitely not Sarvastivada or from that canonical lineage (so, I doubt its Dharmaguptaka either), so I lean towards a canon associated with the Mahasamghika. It’s just that the Mahayana stuff may not actually belong in it and has given the Mahasamghika a bad rap, as it were.


That’s wonderful to hear. I always thought it a shame that we don’t have more of their material, since they are more divergent from Theravada than Sarvastivada. Makes for better comparison.

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That is a good point. We know that not even all of the Mahasamghikas accepted the Mahayana.

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If you are interested in the Mahasamghikas, I would recommend the book, Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra. The Mahasamghikas were the most prominent group in the Andhra region.

The Ekottarika Agama has sometimes been considered to be a challenging text. Some of that challenge is that it (1) contains sporadic Mahayana insertions or influences, and (2) it is not even consistent with itself in some formulations. For example, there are several accounts of the steps for anapana, such as in EA 17.1. But the steps are not the 16 steps commonly seen. And if you find other accounts of that formula within the EA, they also differ from EA 17.1.

There may have been some difficulty in the transmission / memorization, or it may have been due to a heavy-handed editor coming in after the fact.


Funnily enough I bought it last night :slight_smile:

The Mahasanghika attributtion of Chinese EA is not conclusive because it based on fragmentary evidence. In this paper, Tse-fu Kuang shows that a considerable part of EA is likely to be of Mahāsāṃghika derivation, and that the EĀ contains numerous salient features of Mahāsāṃghika doctrine, particularly the transcendence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas:



If you are not yet aware of, this is a recent work (2013) by Antonello Palumbo that investigates into the history of Ekottara Āgama and attributes the origin to the bahirdeśaka (unnamed foreign masters) with reference to 分別功德論 (Fenbie gongde lun/ Zengyi ahan jing shu). There is no easy answer and I quote the following for a glimpse of the general direction:

I will consider the Zengyi ahan jing chiefly as the product of historical actors, three-dimensional human beings engaging their own world, rather than the putative witness to some ill-defined sectarian tradition that it is usually taken to be or not to be (8).

From the above, we may probably conclude that Dharmananda was sharing the general scholastic orientation of the foreign monastic community at Chang’an in the 380s, and rubbing shoulders with Kashmiri masters such as Saṃghabhadra and Saṃghadeva, whose Sarvāstivāda affiliation seems more clearly established. Yet, this does not make him a Sarvāstivādin by default, however close he may have been to that scholastic environment. Instead, it is particularly significant that in the Zengyi ahan jing shu, Dharmananda refers to the Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika tradition on the transmission of an Ekottarika-āgama in ten series, whilst going his own way with a collection in eleven series, a ruse already displayed in the interpolated stanzas and coda to the ‘Narrative’. It is in the space of this incoherence that the Indo-Bactrian master’s allegiances are probably ensconced. We should then perhaps pause to consider Mori Sodō’s suggestion, made on the basis of an admittedly hasty investigation, that the ‘foreign masters’ (waiguo shi 外國師) mentioned in the Zengyi ahan jing shu (Fenbie gongde lun) should be seen as identical with the group mentioned repeatedly under the same or similar labels in the Mahā-Vibhāṣā, the bahirdeśaka or pāścāttya (314).

These aspects warrant some caution in assessing the ‘Mahāyānist’ traits in the Chinese Ekottarika-āgama, which so far have been seen mostly as indications of a Mahāsāṃghika origin, if not as local accretions. There is a Mahāyānist undertide in the *Mahā-Vibhāṣā, which so far has largely eluded scholarly attention, also due to the persistent misunderstanding on the age of the Vibhāṣā treatises. Recently, however, Michael Radich has convincingly argued that the Vaibhāṣika formulations of the doctrine of the bodies of the Buddha imply an awareness of parallel discourses on the Mahāyāna side. On her part, Giuliana Martini has drawn attention to the presence of discourses on the Three Vehicles in the *Mahā-Vibhāṣā, notably expressed in a distinctive parable that would find its way into the Khotanese Book of Zambasta, a probably 5th-c. large Mahāyānist compendium of a rather fundamentalist ‘Bodhisattva’ movement in Central Asia. These traits, which further research would probably find in greater number, can be interpreted in different ways. A conservative assessment should see them at least as evidence of a special interest, within clusters inside the vast Sarvāstivāda galaxy, for the Buddha as a model rather than as a teacher, and thence for his course as a Bodhisattva (in the story of Kṣānti bhikṣu, for example) across the three asaṃkhyeyakalpas and prior to the achievement of supreme awakening. Looking beyond the short-lived ministry of Śākyamuni, the career of the Bodhisattva and the jātaka stories linking his achievements through the ages would also offer a convenient template for the creation of paragons and lineages that could extend their salvific agency to the saṃgha in the world after the Buddha. The story of the Bodhisattva Vasumitra, which Dao’an sketches in a preface written right when the second translation of the Ekottarikāgama was ongoing (late summer of A.D. 384), and linked to the authorship of a probably bahirdeśaka treatise of dogmatics, was a first important intimation of this trend (317-18).


Doesn’t this statement only make sense if placed in a specific time? I mean, initially, none of them did, because they existed before Mahayana was created! Later on, some of them did, some of them didn’t, like the other nikāyas. But are you saying that some branches were still rejecting Mahayana by the time of the fall of Buddhism in India? Or…?

Yes, the sixth century Indian monk Paramartha reports that the Kukkutika branch was known for rejecting Mahayana sutras as Buddhavacana, while the others accepted it. This caused a split in the Mahasamghika sangha.

Paramartha says:

In this school, there were some who believed these sutras and some who did not. Those who did not believe them . . . said that such sutras are made by man and are not proclaimed by the Buddha, . . . that the disciples of the Lesser Vehicle only believe in the Tripitaka, because they did not personally hear the Buddha proclaim the Greater Vehicle. Among those who believed these sutras, there were some who did so because they had personally heard the Buddha proclaim the Greater Vehicle and therefore believed these sutras; others believed them, because it can be known through logical analysis that there is this principle [of the Greater Vehicle]; and some believed them because they believed their masters. Those who did not believe [them] did so because these sutras were self-made and because they were not included in the five Agamas.

Isn’t this exactly the same story we hear with all the other nikāyas? That seems to be what the Chinese pilgrims report, no? Also this source, albeit from Wikipedia’s Kukkuṭika page, implies a Mahayana Kukkuṭikas monastery:

In the early fifth century, the Chinese monk Faxian procured a copy of the Mahāsāṃghika vinaya from a monastery in Pāṭaliputra that he describes as “Mahāyāna”.[13] The Kukkuṭikas were a Mahāsāṃghika sect known to exist in Pāṭaliputra, even having alternate names linking them to the Kukkuṭrārāma monastery there.[14]

No surprise, these things change

Hence my point, the original statement needs to be placed in time context to make sense :wink:

What it perhaps tells us is that even in 6th century India, when Mahayana was quite popular, there was still some cultural memory of it being contentious within the Mahasamghika.

We can take a look at an early major Mahayana sutra associated with the Mahasamghika. The Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, translated by Conze, in chapter 10, says that the text itself will appear in the South, then go to the East, and then finally go to the North, where it will be popular, and many people will practice the Bodhisattva Vehicle. Keep in mind that is from Conze’s late Sanskrit manuscript.

But the earliest translation of the text (T 224), the one done in the 2nd century by the Kushan monk Lokaksema, says something different. It instead gives southern India (南天竺), western India (西天竺), and northern India (北天竺).

Kumarajiva’s 5th century translation of the same text (T 227) gives the same distribution route as well: South (南方), West (西方), North (北方).

We can surmise that here, “South” probably means the southern Mahasamghika. And “North” probably means something like Kashmir, maybe to other nikayas such as the Dharmaguptaka and Mahisasaka.

If we interpret “East” as Pataliputra, then it is entirely possible that the text was only distributed through Pataliputra at a later date. There is no need for them to have supported the distribution of Mahayana texts early on. The earlier distribution routes we know of did not include eastern India.


A text from the Mahasamghika tradition:

When I was looking at Buddha’s biography - I came across a text called Mahavastu, which has been completed translated into English into 3 big volume by J.J. Jones in mid-20th century. That is a text that is self-identified to be of the sect, the last sentence reads (without diacritical marks):

“Here ends the Mahavastu Avadana in the version of the Lokottaravadins of the noble Mahasanghikas.”

The text is full of Jataka stories. It can be downloaded for free from archive.org.