How Early Buddhism differs from Theravada: a checklist

Isn’t tai-po a mind body martial art?

Quite appropriate for a Buddhist monk. :slight_smile:


Learning new things every day! Thanks!! :laughing:


Thank you so much , Banthe, for this beautiful analysis of the difference between some aspects of the Theravada tradition and the suttas.

Just one comment:

Please points to the suttas that affirm this. My understanding is that it is the destruction of the 1st three fetters that makes one experiences stream-entry.

I would like to suggest that you add a paragraph on the fundamental aim of practicing the dhamma which is to abandon the causes of dukkha. It seems to me that Theravada as well as Mahayana traditions are focusing on meditation and not on the task of the 2nd truth: abandoning tanha.



Sāriputta, they speak of ‘the stream’. What is the stream?”

“Sir, the stream is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion.”

“Good, good, Sāriputta! For the stream is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion.

Sāriputta, they speak of ‘a stream-enterer’. What is a stream-enterer?”

“Sir, anyone who possesses this noble eightfold path is called a stream-enterer, the venerable of such and such name and clan.”

“Good, good, Sāriputta! For anyone who possesses this noble eightfold path is called a stream-enterer, the venerable of such and such name and clan.”


Interesting quips from Iain McGilchrist’s “Master and his Emmisary”:

from pg. 46:


…The [predominantly-used] right [brain] hemisphere sees the whole, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to “know” it. Its holistic processing of visual form is not based on summation of parts. On the other hand, the [predominantly-used] left [brain] hemisphere sees part-objects. … The right hemisphere, with its greater integrative power, is constantly searching for patterns in things. In fact its understanding is based on complex pattern-recognition.

pg. 50:

The right hemisphere deals preferentially with actually existing things, as they are encountered in the real world.

pg. 58:

The right hemisphere has by far the preponderance of emotional understanding. It is the mediator of social behaviour. In the absence of the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere is unconcerned about others and their feelings…

pg. 124:

Deprived of an explanation in terms of a final cause - the reason that makes sense of a behaviour in terms of its outcome - scientists sometimes think they have accounted for a phenomenon by re-describing it at another level.

So maybe the Abhidhammikas simply just got way too left-brained in their thinking and couldn’t stop themselves from bringing another wheelbarrow full of left-brain-inspired leaves of their own Dhamma, to add to the Buddha’s moreso right-brained handful of leaves we find in the EBTs.


As an aside, the OP is excellent!

Replying to your post, an argument based on SN55.5 assumes that right immersion is defined as the 4 jhanas.

That definition is clear at least in the Pali Canon. Therefore, it would not be a specifically Theravadan line of thought. However, Analayo in his article Definitions of Right Concentration in Comparative Perspective points out that the three places in the Pali Canon where this definition occurs do not have Agama parallels with this definition. For a fourth passage that more indirectly supports the definition, he argues that its parallels again do not support this 4 jhana definition. He does identify a single other instance in the Agamas where this 4 jhana definition occurs (in the MA), but another corresponding parallel does not contain this mention of the 4 jhanas and neither does the corresponding Pali sutta.

Analayo’s article is IMO well worth reading. Its implication is that this definition may well not be early. He makes a strong argument to this effect. The article also explores the various ways right concentration is defined in the Pali Canon and Agamas, e.g., in terms of path factors and enlightenment factors etc. and has other interesting discussions.


Thanks for looking this up for me!

I found this article to be unpersuasive at best. It begins by choosing to discuss “right samadhi” in the full knowledge that that specific phrasing is explained only a few times. But, as has been pointed out many times, when the Buddha taught the path, any form of samādhi must be “right”, it’s just that in teaching the eightfold path that this particular phrasing is used.

He sets up the argument by asking whether there are parallels to the Pali definitions of right samādhi. But what matters is not what is found in these specific passages, but what do the Agamas actually say about absorption? And of course, like the Pali, they talk about jhānas all the time, and invariably include them in comprehensive teachings of the path. Indeed, they are if anything even more jhāna-friendly than the Pali.

Looking at the specific passages he cites, the MA 31 passage explicitly states that the mind is “established in absorption”, while the SA 784 passage gives a list of terms including “mentally unified” which are obviously synonyms for absorption. Clearly they are talking about jhānas. The fact that they don’t talk about jhānas using the exact same phrases as the Pali is meaningless. The Suttas are constantly talking about samādhi in all kinds of different ways.

An argument that would be affected by his analysis would be one to the effect that:

  • The only reason we know jhāna is necessary for stream-entry is because of the specific passages in the Pali canon that define “right samādhi” as the four jhānas.

But this is a bad argument and I don’t know any serious scholar who actually makes it. It’s a straw man. There are many, many reasons, broadly based and pervasive throughout the EBTs, to support the idea that the kind of meditation that results in the realization of the 4 NTs is the kind of meditation that the Buddha constantly taught for that purpose, i.e. the four jhānas.

Analayo says that his argument shows that jhāna is not necessary for stream-entry according to the EBTs. But this is a logical fallacy. To disprove a certain specific evidence for a conclusion tells us nothing about whether that conclusion is true or not. Formally it is the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

  • if A then B
  • not A then not B

  • If I’m Australian, I must like cricket.
  • Therefore if I’m not Australian, I don’t like cricket.

This is even weaker when the denied antecedent is a straw man. Analayo cites no examples of people making the argument he aims to refute, nor does he consider any other arguments for the same conclusion.

What Analayo has shown is that an argument for the necessity of jhāna based solely on the Pali definition of right samādhi is weaker than we thought. And this is useful! It just doesn’t support the conclusions he draws from it.

As I learned from Ven Nyanaponika via Ajahn Brahm, we should never base conclusions about major doctrinal points on occasional, disputed, or minor passages, but should instead look to the vast mass of clear teachings found throughout the Suttas. Jhānas are taught as part of the path in literally hundreds of passages.

Analayo makes much of another occasional teaching, the fifth of the five kinds of “right samadhi” in AN 5.28. But obviously, as presented there, and as confirmed in the Vibhanga (one of the earliest Abhidhamma books), this is a stage of reflection based on “reviewing” the states of jhana that one has emerged from. It is beyond jhāna, not a way of avoiding it.

Further, consider how he presents the nature of the contemplation in MA 31, which is parallel to the Saccavibhangasutta. It starts out:

What is right concentration? It is reckoned to be when a noble disciple is mindful of dukkha as ‘this is dukkha’, of its arising as ‘this is its arising’, of its cessation as ‘this is its cessation’, or when being mindful of the path as ‘this is the path’;

Clearly this talking about the realization of the noble path. This is normally the case in the EBTs when realization of the 4 NTs is mentioned, and it is made explicit by mentioning the “noble” disciple here. This makes contextual sense, as the overall purpose of this sutta is to define the 4 NTs following the example of the Dhammacakka, which of course resulted in stream-entry.

Yet Analayo says these contemplations refer to:

collectedness of the mind that is present during specific times of meditative contemplation

I mean, it’s not technically wrong, but those “specific times” are the realization of the four noble truths by a noble disciple. It seems like an important detail!

If we were to frame this difference in terms used by the later tradition, reading Analayo one would think this refers to vipassanā samādhi (the state of mind of one doing vipassanā meditation), whereas in fact it refers to lokuttara samādhi (the state of mind of one who attains the Dhamma). These phrases are, once more, talking about a level of absorption that is not before jhāna but beyond jhāna.

I talked about these issues in my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers. All these years, I am still waiting for someone to come up with an argument that I had not anticipated then.

Analayo shows, quite properly, that the “rightness” of right samādhi refers to the development of samādhi within the context of the noble eightfold path as a whole, especially right view. This, it seems to me, shows that the definitions of “samādhi” as the four jhānas in other contexts—like the gradual training, the threefold training, the five faculties, the five powers, etc.—are equally applicable to the “right samādhi” of the eightfold path. How could they not be? Are these not different descriptions of the same path?

Yet Analayo draws the opposite conclusion:

any concentration, no matter what level of absorptive strength it may have, can turn into right concentration.

Which is quite remarkable really.


Note, added section on ti for tu.


How about pattidana? While Theravadins agree with EBTs that there is no merit transference, they say that the mudita citta generated by petas give them opportunity to create good karmas to be reborn in better realm, but EBTs don’t have this idea of good karmas generated by mudita citta. The source of the pattidana concept is AN 10.177 Janussonin Sutta, but the sutta speak about giving of food to ancestors in a Brahmanical ritual called sraddha.

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Yes, that’s a good point. When I’ve asked Sri Lankans what “anumodana” means, they usually say it means “transferring of merit”, which is really not the case.

Do you know what the oldest source for this would be?

Having been given in proper season,
with hearts inspired by the Noble Ones
— straightened, Such —
their offering bears an abundance.
Those who rejoice in that gift
or give assistance,
they, too, have a share of the merit, an 5.36


How about 31 realms of existence? Until now, I can’t find this classification in Suttas.

And about 32 Mahapurisa lakkhana too… It’s too obvious they’re not EB.

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31 realms: most of them are in MN41, combine with AN9.24 can cover the higher realms. Asuras are given in SN11 suttas.

32 marks of great men DN 30.

Maybe can say that the lifespan of the 2nd and 3rd Jhana Brahma realms given in AN 4.125 is in conflict with the 31 realms classification of their lifespan. Sutta gives lower lifespan.

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One who possess the 8FP does not mean they have fully developed it. It simply means that they are totally convinced that the 8FP is the set of tools to be used for abandoning tanha.
The leper Suppabuddha became a stream-enterer after listening to a teaching from the Buddha. Ud 5.3. Obviously he had not fully developed the 8FP when he became a stream-enterer.


Sadhu sadhu sadhu.

I am curious if these two further points would qualify:

  • The existence of, and attitude towards, a fixed canon.

  • Inter-religious relations. The Buddha frequently implores the laity to give to those who inspire them, and those who practice well, and even simply those to whom you have habitually given, explicitly including sectarian wanderers. He also directly authorizes a Brahmin Youth to continue openly practicing Brahminism while secretly practicing Buddhism. Of course over time bright lines between religions, and inter-religious rivalry have grown, so that Theravada’s origin story is about a King’s quest to make sure his religious donations only go to Orthodox Theravada monasteries, and of course there’s thousands of years of history of not just not supporting other religious groups, but actively oppressing them, with various levels of monastic support.

Good morning Bhante,

I forgot to reply this before but to play the devil’s advocate for a while:

  • Isn’t a possible argument in favor of Abhidharma in general that more than one early buddhist school were developing them some centuries after the Buddha passed away? Like for example the Vibhajyavādas developed the Pali Abhidhamma and other schools like Sarvastivada, Dharmaguptaka, Pudgalavada also developed either their own Abhidharma systems or at least Abhidharma texts.

I know the claim that at least the Theravadins use is that the Suttas are condensed texts for memorization and they were given within a specific context to specific people thanks to the Buddha’s wisdom.
The Commentaries are there to explain that context and fill in the details that connect it to the rest of the teachings in order to “universalize” it.
The Systematization of the Abhidhamma and later commentarial works like the Visudhimagga were natural progressions of this idea no? Like for example the counting method for Anapanasati apparently wasn’t a complete new idea: Abhidharma Vibhāṣā of Kātyāyaniputra dates back as far as to 200BCE and contained these six components: 1) Counting 2) Following 3) Stabilization 4) Contemplation 5) Turning 6) Purification. Here’s a translation of it: Six Dharma gates to the sublime

Or at the end of the day, like you pointed out, do you believe that the discrepancies between EBTs and later works are very relevant therefore which should approach such texts with a lot of caution?

I think it’s from Tirokudda Sutta (Pv 5 & Khp 7) commentary. While the sutta itself talks about giving food to petas, the commentary says about giving food to Sangha which is dedicated to the departed relatives reborn as petas by King Bimbisara.

Thank you, Bhante, for your reference. In case of Theravadin concept of pattidana, it’s just the departed relatives reborn as petas can be addressed to, not all who rejoice in the act of giving, as in the story of King Bimbisara’s dedication of merit in Tirokudda Sutta commentary.

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AN10.177 that’s in the EBT too.

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Yes, but it’s about giving to departed relatives reborn as petas in Brahmanical sraddha ritual, not pattidana ritual, like I said in the post before.

While the term mudita citta may not be in the early texts, how is mudita as a brahmavihara not exactly this?

I think this may just be a way of speaking. I think that people are aware that what is happening is about rejoicing. And that it is through the anumodana that relatives in the peta realm can get relief from their suffering.

People obviously have theories about this. But the fact is that they appear in texts that are considered EBTs, so it’s not like the points that Bhante is making about “Theravada”.

I believe you are correct in that they don’t appear as a single list in one place in the EBTs. But I’m fairly sure that in various places each of the 31 have been mentioned.