Hinayana, Google and The Buddha

I cannot read Chinese, but I found this Yin Shun’s work regarding the formation of Buddhist canon. Using Google translate, it seems contain Yin Shun hypothesis of SA/SN as ancestor of other Agamas/Nikayas:



It’s ironic that arguably the most comprehensive, insightful, and interesting takes on the Suttas from mid-period Indian Buddhism come from Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Nagarjuna. The Sravakayana schools seem to have gone completely over to Abhidhamma by then. If we look to the inspiration behind Buddhaghosa’s work on Sutta commentaries, apart from native Sinhalese sources, the closest seems to be Asanga.

Of course there is much material lost, and much that I am not familiar with, but that’s how it seems to me.


That’s the way seems to me, too. I’ve looked at some of the Abhidharma texts in Chinese like the Satyasiddha and Abhidharma-sara, and those authors complain in their introductions about everyone reading “treatises” by teachers who are not, well, up to snuff. It does sound like the sutras had been largely passed over in favor Abhidharma texts that tried to summarize and systematize them.


I think cdpatton responded to the issue very insightful and useful: Are Chinese Agamas less reliable than Pali Nikayas? - #112 by cdpatton

See also other following discussions: Are Chinese Agamas less reliable than Pali Nikayas? - #113 by thomaslaw

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I read a little earlier another post from you that showed great awareness of the effect that a reader/listener’s conditioning has on how a message can be received. It’s often pointed out how the Buddha skilfully adapted his teaching to the needs of the people he was talking to.

We we speak with people we know, we also adjust our message to some extent, and this is what makes online communications so hard. We write something with a particular person or group in mind, and then heaps of other people read it and misunderstand the intention unintentionally.

Is this list (as is or slightly amended) firm enough to place somewhere more prominent? It’s very useful for reference. (Will catch up on this Monks in CS soon.)


Is it not the case that at this point schools were not thoroughly divided by -yana? Even in the Nara period in Japan (710 to 794CE) there were still multiple -yanas in the Dharmaguptaka tradition. Especially in the case of Nagarjuna, he was a luminary and a Mahayanist, but most people in his school, or even his home monastery, likely were not Mahayanist.

And of course until the 12th century there were Sri Lankan maha- and vajra- yanists in the Abhayagiri Vihara, which was Theravada.

To me, taking the historical stance that the Mahayana Sutras were original compositions authored by human beings centuries after the Buddha’s death, it makes sense that their authors would be persons who had extensive experience with the historical suttas. This comparison sometimes gets used derisively, but really, it seems similar to the authorship of fan fiction - if you see someone has authored a work using pre-existing characters and similar style, you wouldn’t be surprised to discover they had read the originals extensively and written about them.


Well, its an age old problem. The Nikayas are pretty large texts, its hard to introduce people to the Dharma through them alone (especially true in pre-modern times where they had to be massive manuscripts). They’re also quite repetitive - ideal for memorization and maintaining the teachings - but not for basic instruction. They are also not organized in a step by step basis like religious catechism or textbook which would introduce someone to a faith’s basic doctrine step by step.

The southern tradition ultimately resolved this by switching over fully to Abhidharma. The north did this too actually, but it seems there was a concerted effort by Sautrantikas and Yogacaras to return the Agamas in certain ways, particularly by quoting them extensively (this can be seen in the Abhidharmakosha commentary by Samathadeva) or by writing extensive summaries (in the Sūtravastusaṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra. But these eventually fell out of favor in the Northern tradition and now they just have different things like Lamrim which introduce basic concepts in a step by step manner.

The problem remains in non-Abhidhamma based southern Buddhism. Even today, we have things like Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “In the Buddha’s Words” and the sutta compilations by Thanissaro as probably the most read EBTs, I doubt a lot of new Buddhists are rushing to buy the massive Bhikkhu Bodhi tomes of the Nikayas.

I’ve always thought it would be good to have something similar, like a paced step by step online reading guide or compilation, that introduces someone to the basic concepts and ideas found in the suttas on this site.


I bought one of these tomes as a gift. And as I leafed through the pages of my favorite MN1, it dawned on me just how well SuttaCentral does in presenting the Dhamma in the internet way, allowing us all to click here and there learning as we go. Ven. Bodhi’s tomes do, however, require no batteries.


Yes, when I’m not busy translating texts, I often daydream about what can be done with hypertext. With HTML and a dataset, the sutras can be put into multiple orders, sorted, cross-referenced, linked to in summaries, etc. The information can be made much more accessible than a giant, flat document. But that’s a major project by itself. In ancient times, writing was the revolutionary information technology, which allowed them to create documents that pulled information together into a rational order.

I do also wonder if this switch to Abhidharma was pushed along by a disordering of the oral tradition canon at some point, though it seems more likely that it happened with written copies. It’s easy to scramble the order of a bunch of pages, leaves, or fascicles if they aren’t clearly marked. How would that happen in an oral tradition? I’m not sure. So, perhaps both things happened when writing reached the Buddhist tradition.


Yes! This was happening in the first centuries after Christ. Early Christians like the Gnostics were doing the same thing as Mahayanists, writing alternative versions of traditional Christian mythology, like the stories in Genesis. And like the Mahayanists, they often turned the stories on their head to argue that the god of the Old Testament was actually the villain, and there was a higher god who sent Christ. It’s quite fascinating when taken in the larger context like that. Clearly, there was a period when mythological stories were treated like fiction, and also used to propaganda-like effect.


I was reading a bit about the life of Kumarajiva, and it was interesting to see that his education started with learning the Mahavibhasa and other Sarvastivada abhidharma at age seven. Then a few years later he went to Kashmir and learned some agamas. Then later he learned Mahayana texts. Much later he promoted teachings from abhidharma and Mahayana texts, but I’m not aware of him promoting the agamas.

Just the Mahavibhasa is about as large as all the agamas combined. And then there were seven older books of abhidharma that were considered canonical as well. That’s a massive system for presenting Buddhism.

The agamas are great, but they don’t lend themselves to being a single logical system that is easily defensible in a competitive religious environment. They also make new findings and insights difficult to preserve without resorting to some external system. Abhidharma was able to define the Dharma as a system, and also incorporate new insights.

I think in the middle period, the agamas were considered rather old and antiquated even among many conservative Buddhists. We tend to think of ancient religions as mostly static, but India had a hugely vibrant religious culture that was constantly developing new texts and competing. Consider all the different philosophies and texts that developed from 500 BCE to 1000 CE. We shouldn’t be surprised that they kept writing new texts.

In any case, if you were in India during the middle period and wanted to “destroy the heretics” in debate, and win glory and royal patronage, you would need to be able to draw upon a system of orthodox views and practiced refutations.


Analayo has talked about this as one of his major research conundrums - how oral texts get scrambled, not just externally (which sutta comes first) but internally as well (what’s the second item in this list?). To the best of my knowledge, the evidence indicates that both sorts of scrambling are totally normal and not necessarily a sign of corruption or mistakes.

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I think the extant EBTs are not entirely based on oral tradition. They are in fact not oral texts. Not only they are sectarian texts, but also artificial compilations and creations. To consider the extant texts are entirely based on oral tradition is just a religious faith and speculation. EBTs, such as Agamas/Nikayas, are not established at once in a complete form based on oral tradition; they are gradually expanded, some being edited early, some later.


Emphasis mine.

That is an interesting stance and perhaps you should start a new thread about it. I believe that the scholarly consensus does not align with your view, with both religious scholars (e.g. Analayo) and secular historians generally agreeing with the traditional timeline that ~500 years passed between the Buddha’s lifetime and the writing of the Pali Canon, and that similarly a smaller but still substantial period of time passing before they were written. Even some of the likely later additions (e.g. the prophecy that a great city would be built) were likely oral insertions. However, I am not an expert in the methods used to demonstrate this. If you made a post dedicated to the subject, you might be more likely to elicit a response that could more comprehensively address the question.


This is mainly based on the tradition of Sri Lanka, not a historical fact. Cf:
Page 6 note 17 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (107.4 KB)

That is, according to the tradition, both the text of the three-baskets and its commentary, are oral texts. So, to consider all these extant texts are entirely based on oral tradition is just a religious faith and speculation based entirely on the religious tradition.

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One thing I’ve been wondering about (and if I’ve thought of it, there’s probably already a research paper or PhD thesis about it) is that if the Abhidhamma itself was one of the major catalysts for causing the Agamas/Nikayas to be written down. I haven’t studied any Abhidhamma, but if I’m not mistaken, those texts all lack the characteristics unique to the suttas that indicate they were preserved and passed down orally (like the massive amount of repetition), right? So without the repetition, how were they memorized and transmitted orally? Moreover, the complex nature of the texts might not lend themselves to being memorized. In fact, the complex nature of those texts might be the result of beginning to use the technology of writing. I can imagine that being able to write things down allowed monastics to organize their thoughts or arguments and also free up other parts of their minds in a way not possible when relying solely on memorization. So, maybe we should be studying the Abhidhamma for more clues about when the various canons were committed to writing. By the way, I know that there are layers of Abhidhamma that have been detected, with some being older than others. As I understand it, the earliest Abhidhamma texts were much simpler than later texts. So this idea I’m proposing is mostly about later Abhidhamma texts.

Another related idea I have is if the emergence of the Mahayana had a similar influence on the writing down of suttas. I can imagine (with no evidence to back any of this up, ha-ha) several scenarios where this might have been true. For example, with the ever-increasing number of suttas (Agamas + Mahayana), along with the ever-growing acceptance and use of writing, monks and nuns turned to writing to help keep track of it all. Do we have any evidence of monastics who were committed to memorizing only Mahayana sutras?

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Abhidhamma was memorized too, ven ledi sayadaw was famous because of his memorizing entire 6000 pages of abhidhamma

But we need to venerate ven mingun sayadaw who was a Guinness book holder of most strongest memory by his memorizing millions pages of tipitaka

In fact I didn’t believe it at first, only when I see the Guinness proof then I believe such a badass, I didn’t even think he is human

Pointing out a source for an idea is not an argument against it being true. The Mahavamsa has in several respects been verified as historical by archaeological evidence. It is a primary historical source, which historians weigh and compare with other sources of evidence to reach consensus. Some aspects, such as the account of the Buddha visiting Sri Lanka, are rejected by historians because of the lack of corresponding accounts in other sources, the lack of supporting evidence from other fields, the incentive for it to be fabricated, and the face-likelihood of the event described. Others, like the sending of missionaries by Ashoka, are synthesized with other evidence - we have other sources, including Archaeological evidence, indicating that this happened, but the sources don’t agree on the date, so we have a hypothesized range of likely dates. Still others, like the names of certain kings and their relationships, are more or less fully accepted. This is the same process historians have to use for every historical source, including ones dealing with topics we do not consider religious (e.g. Roman Emperors).

Again however, I am not a scholar who knows the ins-and-outs of the evidence for oral transmission of the Tripitaka. If you want to discuss that, I’d highly suggest starting a new thread, where actual experts on that topic would be likely to see it and chime in.

However, one simple question I can ask and hope you will think about when you post a new thread is this - What evidence do you have of the Tripitaka & Agamas being transmitted through writing prior to the generally accepted dates (~1st century BCE for the Pali). Providing evidence in favor of your alternative hypothesis is a good way to start the discussion.


This rather jarringly contradicts the effectiveness of the EBT’s I’ve directly known from listening to them. I wrote Voice exactly because of the pedagogical effectiveness of an oral tradition.

AN5.26:4.2: That mendicant feels inspired by the meaning and the teaching in that Dhamma, no matter how they recite it in detail as they learned and memorized it.

I’m an engineer–that’s my tradition. Listening and reciting works. The above quote is also in DN34, which I’ve been listening to and reciting silently for months. That’s how I knew to post it.

We don’t all have to have Ananda’s eidetic memory. My memory is as leaky as a sieve, and I regularly rely on my wife’s memory to find things. Yet, even so, this listening and reciting of the EBTs is quite effective … and memorable.


There are direct historical accounts in China that date back to the late 4th c. CE that describe monks coming to China and reciting whole Agama collections for oral translation. So, even after writing was introduced and written copies were used to preserve the canon, the oral tradition of memorizing collections of sutras continued.

There’s a subtler problem with Pali tradition that makes it difficult to assess whether or how it has evolved over time, which is that it lacks early witnesses to compare the modern version against. Other Buddhist traditions did change over time, which we can see by comparing early versions of a given text to later ones, so it’s hard to think the Pali tradition didn’t. Without actual witnesses of the early canon, though, it’s difficult to make any solid arguments about this or that passage unless there’s clear historical context (like the mention of historical persons or events that are known).

An example is a translation problem I encountered recently with a Chinese version of the Cakkavatti sutta that I wrote about in a previous essay: On Lamps and Islands: The Ambiguity of Dīpa in Indic Languages.