How Early Buddhism differs from Theravada: a checklist

Omg, I hadn’t heard about this before:


Thanks, fascinating quote.

I’m unclear of the distinction between ācariyavāda as “the commentaries made at the Councils” and “personal opinion” also being what is in the commentaries according to the “theravāda”?

Judging from the usage later, it would seem that this passage is using “theravada” in the sense of the “tradition of teachers”, as is discussed lower down under Ācariyaparamparā.

So whatever is in the commentaries from the time of the first council is the “Teacher’s doctrine” while whatever is added later is “personal opinion”? Am I understanding this correctly? If so, how do the commentaries define these things? Do they have a set list of portions of the commentaries that are held to have been there since the beginning? I wasn’t aware that the commentaries made this kind of distinction.


In Mn26, this was mentioned as his motivation.

The Search for Enlightenment

“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too, being myself subject to birth, sought what was also subject to birth; being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I sought what was also subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement. Then I considered thus: ‘Why, being myself subject to birth, do I seek what is also subject to birth? Why, being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, do I seek what is also subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement?

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The takeaways I saw, based on my understanding, go like this:

  • Any time you can employ the 4 great standards/references, drawing upon the EBT portion of the Vinaya, you always get to smack down whatever any Vinaya commentary says, period. It seems (and I employ the 4 great standards here) all commentaries therefore have less authority than what you can use the 4 great references to prove.
  • In order for any historical commentarial layer (wether commentary to the Suttas, Vinaya, or Abhidhamma) to be taken any more seriously than “Personal Opinion”, it needs to have been historically recited at the first council. And even then, it doesn’t rise above the 4 great standards.

What’s so unique and super juicy here is that these “Dhamma collators” are internal to the Pali Canon itself. Virtually all scholarly criticism of the Abhidhamma, etc (by Western academics, historians, archeologists, linguists, scientists, philosophers, logicians, people posessing common sense, etc), no matter how well logically founded it is, is not liable to gain much traction with staunch conservative Ethnic Asian Theravada monks, because they need to hear arguments couched within the Pali Canon’s own internal logic, as the Pali Canon’s contents contain the only logic which they feel they have any recourse to. Well, these Dhamma Collators are just such “internal logic”, which they will be powerless to turn aside, with a blithe, obstinate dismissal.

Good monks to offer further opinions on this are Bhante Ariyadhammika of SBS, Taiping, Malaysia, and Bhante Aggacitta, of Malaysia. Their scholarly powers of Pali study exceed mine.


In my experience so far in Thailand, monks without any logic still have an impressive supply of bluster :rofl: At the end of the day it’s about power, not logic.

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What do you mean with “completed” here?
If you mean “completed all eight factors” is the same as “perfected in all eight factor”, then such a person who has completed all eight factors must be an arahant.

A Sotapanna can be said has all eight factors up to certain achievement, but not yet perfected/completed.

It is clear in some other Suttas that a Sotapanna is perfected in morality, but only mediocre in samadhi and pañña. An Anagami is already perfected in morality and samadhi, but mediocre in pañña. Only an arahant is already perfected ini morality, samadhi and pañña, i.e. eight noble factors.

Indeed in EBT that is non indication that a Sotapanna has a capacity in Jhana (see about Mahanama, Nandya, Sarakhani… etc.)

… a series of nagations…


Yes, I should probably put that in there too. (edit: done!)

Don’t you mean, “within the Theravada tradition’s own internal logic”? There are plenty of things in the Suttas that speak to the priority of the Suttas over other opinions, including commentaries.

But I still don’t see why the Theravada tradition would see some commentaries as created at the Council, and others later?

Well yes, but one might imagine a subset of monks who are convinced by the logic that they know, i.e. the commentaries.

One of the problems is that in such matters, logic is usually employed to reconcile new facts with existing views. It takes a critical mass to precipitate a new perspective, and such things rarely happen outside of a broader existential crisis. Reason works, but only for those who are ready to hear.

Mediocre doesn’t mean “entirely lacking”. A stream-enterer cannot be “entirely lacking” in the four jhanas (samādhi) any more than they can be entirely lacking in the 4 noble truths (paññā). They must have these things to at least some degree.

Once again, I can only recommend my book A Swift Pair of Messengers where I look at all these cases and many more.


Dear Bhante, the original sutta was beings subject to birth and not rebirth:

This may seems trivial especially many Buddhist believe in rebirth. However, as a motivation to renounce, it may be better to stick to the original words.

Birth is something that the Bodhisattva can comprehend whereas rebirth would require beliefs until he gained psychic power. As the starting point of Bodhisattva’s journey, it seems to me that the real world experiences was what caused samvega to arise in him rather than beliefs. Thus, I strongly recommend birth rather than rebirth.

Jāti always means “rebirth” in the EBTs.


Bhante if jati is rebirth. How can one can achieve non returner and arahant (perfected) at this current life?

How can one know where they are going or not going if they don’t have psychic power? As we know most of the arahant, especially Panna Vimutti (free by wisdom) doesn’t have any psychic power and most non returner also don’t have psychic power to see future.

Also how can a non returner know that they won’t return to this world anymore such as Citta the householder? The EBT described on SN 41.9 and many more such as Hatthaka of Alavi etc.

If I pass away before the Buddha, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Buddha declares of me:

”The householder Citta is bound by no fetter that might return him to this world.’”

I’m unaware of any other occasion where the level of authority is this directly stated, in reference to named portions of the Pali Canon, especially stating clearly how authority doesn’t exist (and what should be considered “Personal Opinion”).

Can you please explain this more? I’m not following you here. To my knowledge, the Suttavibhanga (and we could call that a commentary to the Patimokkha) was recited at the first council, thereby still deserving of being called an EBT.

When people read Cormac McCarthy, they wonder about his writing style as well. Some people can just do whatever they want! :joy:

By not getting reborn? I’m not sure I understand the problem.

If jāti is understood as “birth”, then to say “birth is ended” is odd, or at least requires interpretation: future birth is ended. But what it means, obviously, is that one will not be reborn again.

Let me explain a little more.

In Pali, jāti is a general term for “birth”. We also find more specialized terms such as sañjāti (“conception”) and vijāti (“parturition” or just “birth” in the ordinary sense of “childbirth”).

However, in doctrinal contexts—four noble truths, dependent origination, etc.— jāti is invariably used in the context of the cycle of births and deaths that we call samsara.

When you are used to Buddhist ideas, and to reading things from that perspective, it’s easy to forget that in English the word “birth” simply does not mean this. According to Merriam-Webster, birth is:

the emergence of a new individual from the body of its parent
the act or process of bringing forth young from the womb

Thus “birth” in English is specifically vijāti, not jāti. Note too that while sañjāti is listed as a synonym for jāti in dependent origination, vijāti is not. “Birth” is really not the correct sense for jāti, we have just gotten used to it.

Take a simple phrase like:

Atho jātikkhayaṁ patto
Then they reached the end of birth.

What does that mean, exactly? In everyday English, the meaning might be, “they completed the process of emerging from the womb”. Obviously that’s not right.

If we simply translate the word in accordance with the meaning, the problem goes away.

Then they reached the end of rebirth.

Sure, fair enough.

We might look at it that way, but the commentaries don’t, do they? It says “atthakatha” and “independent of the canon”. Surely they can’t mean the Suttavibhanga?


When a person dies, his body is certainly gone. What I have learnt is, his wishes, desire or volition at that moment will push him to his next life. His current body can’t support his consciousness anymore so his consciousness simply “snaps” into the next most compatible body in certain realm. The quality of that certain realm depends on his rebirth kamma. Closest analogy is like when our consciousness enter into dream states during sleep.

So, I don’t understand how a consciousness can exist in the “in-between state”, what are the conditions that support this kind of consciousness? (assuming the realm is not form-less). Consciousness can not exist by itself alone right?

I suspect that, maybe the “in-between state” is by itself a rebirth. So, I still support the thinking that another life begins without interval.

Please kindly correct my understanding.

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Maybe this will help.

Think of what we mean when we use the word bhava, “existence”, or “life”.

Bhava is all-encompassing. It includes all the different aspects of what make up a life, whether that be a personality, one’s moral choices, memories, experiences, and, in our realm at least, a body that supports these things.

Now, what do we mean when we say that a person is in a bhava? Well, generally, it means that you’re in a “life”, for example, a life as a human. But what does that mean, exactly? Obviously it doesn’t mean a single specific thing, because every human is different, and every human life varies over time. Partly it relates to awareness and intelligence; human intelligence is different than, say, frog intelligence. Yet within the human realm, intelligence varies a lot; and it also varies for a person. If I were to do an IQ test before drinking coffee, I’d surely get a much lower score!

Nonetheless, there is something that is relatively stable and approximately defined for the human realm. We generally expect that other humans will possess certain cognitive faculties, and when that is not the case, we start to take away their “human rights”. For example, we assume we have a human right to move about freely. Yet if someone lacks the basic “human” morality to, say, not kill other humans, then we take away their right to move about.

On the other hand, through meditation we can ascend to levels that are superhuman, experiencing the realms of the gods. Yet when we emerge from that meditation, we come back to earth. There tends to be a certain center of gravity about a given bhava.

So we can think about this process of bhava as an ongoing flow of “life” in different forms, with plateaus of relative stability then periods of transition from one to the other. Again, remember that this is exactly how the Buddha talked about rebirth: a man walks out of one house (bhava) down the street and into another house: relative stability, transition, relative stability.

Something like this!

Everything’s a bit fuzzy and wobbly.

Now, different portions of this process vary considerably from one another. We see this most clearly in the animal realm. And if we accept the existence of dimensions that are not visible to ordinary sight, then there are realms that are associated with “subtle matter”, “mind-made bodies”, or even those that are completely formless.

All these are manifestations, however, of the five aggregates. In Buddhist, the aggregate of “form” is not limited to what we call “matter”. It also includes energies such as light or gravity; material properties such as space or dimension; and “subtle matter” that is not recognized by science. (Perhaps it will be one day, but that’s a separate question.)

Even the formless realms are supported by rūpa, paradoxically enough, even though there is no form there. In that (very extreme) case, they are supported by form of the past. In other words, you have to have had a body to meditate and get into those states.

More commonly, however, dimensions other than the human and animal are said to be associated with subtle matter. The process of conditioning is still ongoing, and material properties are still present.

Now, consider the personal accounts of so-called “near death experiences”. A person dies; they float up out of their body; they see a light; they move towards it; they return. All of these experiences depend on properties like position, motion, vision, and direction. All of these are physical properties and belong to the “aggregate of form”. You can argue that “they’re all in the mind”, but that’s irrelevent to Buddhism, because even form that exists only in the mind is still rūpa. If you imagine a color right now, that’s rūpa.

This is why the Buddhist account of matter is so subtle, and quite different from that of science. We see things from the inside.

So in this sense the “in-between state” or rather “in-between process” is not different from any of the “realms”, except it lacks stability. It is a movement from one plateau to another.


How can one declare before one is death without psychic power? We know they will not reborn in future.

I wonder which scholar/s or text/s first states clearly that ‘Early Buddhism’ in history is not Pali or Theravada Buddhism? Most of scholars or Theravada Buddhists will simply consider Pali/Theravada Buddhism represents Early Buddhism. See pp. v-vi, viii-ix in the following book :thinking:
Pages Forword 2 from Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 1999.pdf (227.8 KB)
Pages Forword 1 from Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 1999.pdf (462.7 KB)

I haven’t read all the comments yet, but just want to say the essay is excellent. Thanks! I find it very helpful.


I studied abhidhamma and have an official degree in abhidhamma. I agree that abhidhamma cannot be used as a basis for practice without basic information from the suttas. So the sutta remains the main foundation and the position of the Abhidhamma is explanatory to better understand the context referred to by the sutta.

Along the way, it can happen that people understand abhidhamma in a disproportionate way. But also by understanding the suttas, one can understand the message of the suttas in a biased, inaccurate, or even distorted way. But it is precisely in many cases that the proper integration of abhidhamma with the suttas will greatly assist an accurate and more penetrating understanding of the dhammas.

For example, regarding the consciousness that nears death will determine which realm a creature goes to, which is often conveyed in the abhidhamma framework, it is in accordance with reality. That according to @sujato that what determines the realm of rebirth is routine actions of various kinds of good (as well as evil) it is also true, this is also conveyed in the abhidhamma framework. When is near-death karma more decisive? This is if there is an extraordinary karmic event, a very strong karma, that occurs before death so that it dominates the state of mind before death. If things like this don’t happen, it’s the karma of daily habits that will decide; a person who regularly gives, maintains morals, meditation, has formed karma-bhava, which has shown the person’s future realm of life.

When we talk about abhidhamma, we cannot make judgments based on a certain person’s understanding of abhidhamma. We must first deepen abhidhamma, explore, and we dive into, value for ourselves. Likewise, when talking about EBT, I don’t see EBT from a person who claims to be a person of EBT. I will explore the sutta more and go deeper into it, dive into it, to get its meaning. The meaning that I get may be different from the meaning obtained by the person of EBT.