How Early Buddhism differs from Theravada: a checklist



saṅkhāra: choices

In the EBTs we find the word saṅkhāra used in many senses, among which the following are the most doctrinally significant:

  • volition or intention (i.e. kamma)
  • conditioned phenomena (i.e. everything except for Nibbana)

Theravada acknowledges these two senses; for example, in the phrase “all saṅkhāras are impermanent” it means “conditioned phenomena”, while in dependent origination it means volition.

However, in the important context of the five aggregates, Theravada gives saṅkhāra a rather odd scope. There, it is said to mean “all conditioned phenomena apart from the things covered in the other aggregates”. Once more, this stems from an attempt to retro-fit the aggregates to suit the systematic needs of the Abhidhamma.

The aggregates were never intended to be a comprehensive classification of all phenomena; notably, the word “all” is used of the six senses, not the aggregates. Rather, the aggregates were a handy scheme for classifying theories of self. Some people took the self to be material, others to be a feeling, and so on, while others took it as a combination of these things.

Contemplation of the aggregates reveals that the various candidates for a self do not live up to the expectations we have for a self, as they inevitably change and fail to provide the satisfaction we crave.

Thus saṅkhāra in the five aggregates has the same meaning it does in dependent origination and elsewhere: volition. It is the identification of the self with the will: “I am the decider”. Nowhere do the EBTs suggest that the sense is broader than this.

In modern English, a morally relevant act of will is usually described as a “choice”. One can make good choices and bad choices, but not good volitions or bad volitions; and “good intentions” while idiomatic, has a rather different connotation."


The Goenka tradition, as communicated in his 10-day instructions and discourses, conveys sankhara as a stockpile of accumulated kamma of the past based on mental reactions of craving and aversion over lifetimes, manifesting at present in the meditator as different types of vedana, translated by Goenka as physical sensations. Annually, hundreds of thousands of meditators at his nearly 200 worldwide centers are taught that by observing the impermanence of physical sensations with equanimity, they will be eradicating progressively deep-rooted, at first gross, then more subtle, “layers” of accumulated sankhara, resulting ultimately in liberation. How accurate is Goenka’s interpretation of sankhara?

Seems like a pretty accurate representation of the Jain view to me, to which the Buddha is reported to have responded:

Kiṁ pana tumhe, āvuso nigaṇṭhā, jānātha ettakaṁ vā dukkhaṁ nijjiṇṇaṁ, ettakaṁ vā dukkhaṁ nijjīretabbaṁ, ettakamhi vā dukkhe nijjiṇṇe sabbaṁ dukkhaṁ nijjiṇṇaṁ bhavissatī’ti?

But reverends, do you know that so much suffering has already been worn away? Or that so much suffering still remains to be worn away? Or that when so much suffering is worn away all suffering will have been worn away?
~ MN 14

He went on to contrast this view with his own by further asking:

But reverends, do you know about giving up unskillful qualities in the present life and embracing skillful qualities?

Kiṁ pana tumhe, āvuso nigaṇṭhā, jānātha diṭṭheva dhamme akusalānaṁ dhammānaṁ pahānaṁ, kusalānaṁ dhammānaṁ upasampadan’ti?


Not very accurate at all, and in fact I think this type of interpretation can have harmful consequences. The exclusive focus on equanimity is also misguided - meditation is not just about equanimity. Unfortunately, a lot of people attend these courses with no prior knowledge and so they have no idea that what they are being taught is not very Buddhist. Another example: it is forbidden by the monastic code of discipline for monks to take a vow of silence. What Goenka centers call “Noble Silence” is something the Buddha specifically laid down a rule against. (Noble Silence in Buddhism refers to the second jhana).

You can maybe tell that I had a bad personal experience at a Goenka retreat center :laughing:. And I understand why this criticism would be difficult to hear for those who have had positive experiences with the organization. Some noise has been made about the bad things, but I do not think it has been enough. To reiterate, I think some apects of the organization can be harmful, and so should be spoken out against.


@Jayarava has a hood article about this:

@sujato Bhante,

A number of the points you refer to are in contradiction to the teaching of the Thai forest tradition. I don’t wish to itemise such points as I am sure you are well aware of them.

Teachers in that tradition, such as Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Tate, Ajahn Maha Boowa , Ajahn Char, Ajahn Lee and Ajahn Sim, generally express their teachings as descriptions of real experiences. All the teachers that I have listened to, read and spoken to also like to link/reference their experiences to the text.

Are you, through the medium of this book, discounting the collective teaching of these Ajahns? What is your view of the Thai Forest Tradition? Do you consider these teachers to be misguided on these points of difference?

PS. It is not my intention to start an argument about this. I am genuinely interested in understanding where you see the Thai Forest Tradition fitting into what you refer to as the teachings of the EBT. If these teachers are genuinely Arahants, then surely their interpretation of the text must be correct? Thanks.

Ven. Sujato is not Theravadin. We must respect his Buddhist identity:

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Isn’t volition a conditined phenomenon?
Appreciate your thoughts since I think volition too is a condtioned phenomenon.
With Metta

Good question but I really wouldn’t know enough to make an informed response.

Just to be clear, the exerpt you’ve quoted is not mine, it is an exerpt from Ven. Sujato that I also quoted above.
Appreciatively, Jonathan

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I also wonder about how early Buddhism differs, if at all, from Theravada regarding the notion of the Buddha sasana (dispensation or teaching).

There seems to be a belief in Myanmar (maybe elsewhere?) that the sasana occurs in cycles, that in 500 year periods from the time of the Buddha, the dispensation will decline starting first with fewer arahants and the availability of wisdom practices; then the occurance of beings who have attained the 8 jhana concentration practices and can teach them; then the preponderance of people keeping their sila precepts; then the decline of Dana culture; then the availability of the scriptures and pariyatti until the 2,500 year mark, when the sasana will experience a resurgence and the teachings will spread around the world, growing until the arising of Mateyya Buddha. In some circles in Myanmar, the 2500th year is considered around the time of 1954-1956, when the Sixth Synod Council convened.

For 30 years I was involved with a tradition whose lay teacher leader insinuated that he was the harbinger of the second cycle of this resurgent cycle of the Buddha sasana by virtue of the fact that he started meditating under his Dhamma teacher at that time and then in the late sixties, early seventies was responsible for popularizing Dhamma teachings in India and, via international students, subsequently around the world.

My first question is, how widespread is this notion of resurgent cycles of the sasana in Myanmar among other traditions in that country and is it shared by other Theravada countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia etc.?

I’ve heard, since leaving this tradition, that at least one other Myanmar tradition believes that the sasana is in decline and is continuing that decline by virtue of how few fully attained arahants, anagamis, sakadagamis and sotapannas there are present now in the world.

That the commercialization, secularization and even popularization of the teachings as well as proliferation of 10-day retreats compromised for modern life is a demonstration of this decline.

How does this notion of sasana cycles square with early Buddhism? Would this be a useful topic/clarification to include in the checklist? :pray:t2:


Having read your questions, I think one may consider about the notion of Samyutta/Samyukta Buddhism. It is based on Early Buddhism but differs from Theravada Buddhism. Cf.:

It’s based on the commentaries. The underlying ideas can be found in the suttas, especially the DN and AN, but the commentaries give a greatly expanded and graphic elaboration of them. For example, where the suttas warn of a time in the future when bhikkhus will prefer to recite the words of poets and will neglect the Buddha’s discourses connected with emptiness, the commentaries expand this into a detailed account of how the scriptural dispensation (pariyatti-sāsanā) will gradually disappear from the world, with the contents of the Tipitaka mysteriously (and implausibly) vanishing, one sutta at a time. The commentators even stipulate the precise order in which the books will disappear.

As to how widely such ideas are accepted, I expect they’ll be found among any Theravādins:

  1. who are familiar with them, and…
  2. who hold the commentaries to be an unimpeachable source of authority, and…
  3. who are committed to taking them literally.

But it’s difficult to say how many Theravādins would meet all three criteria. For example, one meets with many who are committed in principle to #2 and #3 but who are not actually very well read in the commentaries and may not yet have encountered the Manorathapūraṇī’s account of the Sāsanā’s disappearance.


Good point, this should probably be added.

I don’t have much to add to Ven Dhammanando’s answer, except that it seems that the folks in the Buddha’s lifetime were generally not really thinking about establishing a sasana that would last thousands of years. This is not really anything definitive, and clearly they were interested to establish something that would last. But there’s no hint that anyone expected there would be anything even on the scale of, say, the trans-Indian Buddhist empire of Ashoka, let along the kind of Buddhism we experience today.

Note that I said “generally”, of course there are a few contexts that suggest otherwise, but I think these are exceptions.


More like, get away from. “Handful of leaves” can be read to this end, and a contemporary (notable :smirk:) Burmese scholar refered to the avoidance of the lower realms (intense suffering) as motivation for seekers to ‘at a minimum’ lock-in at stream entry and consequences follow.

I see it as a symptom of fear rather than sloth.

You rhetorically ask the important question that needs a good answer. (Not saying I have given one)

Thank you for such great attention to detail in your posts. I am having trouble, due to my partial knowledge I’m sure, about your comment above (expressed twice in this thread). What do sitting down and having a meal have to do, or not, with “mind-moments”? :pray:

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I’m not 100% sure, but I believe the standard refutation of the path moment idea is MN 142 Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅga where the different types of individual recipients are listed…

One gives a gift to a perfected one. This is the third religious donation to an individual. One gives a gift to someone practicing to realize the fruit of perfection. This is the fourth religious donation to an individual. One gives a gift to a non-returner. This is the fifth religious donation to an individual. One gives a gift to someone practicing to realize the fruit of non-return. This is the sixth religious donation to an individual. One gives a gift to a once-returner. This is the seventh religious donation to an individual. One gives a gift to someone practicing to realize the fruit of once-return. This is the eighth religious donation to an individual.

According to the Abhidhamma, the “Path” (of “Path and Fruit”) lasts only a fraction of a second. In the suttas, it seems Path (but not yet Fruit) attainers can walk around and do stuff (implying that that stage may last longer than one mind-moment)

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Say no more. :joy: :pray:


Accordingly, there were two phases in Early Buddhism: 1. ‘Samyutta/Samyukta Buddhism’ based on saṃyukta-kathā 相應教, and 2. ‘Nikaya/Agama Buddhism’ based on the four principal Nikayas/Agamas (according to Ven. YinShun’s The Formation of Early Buddhist Texts ).

However, the extant Nikayas/Agamas are sectarian texts. One can seek an understanding of early Buddhist teachings by studying them comparatively.

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