How much of Buddhism is Uniquely Buddhist?

About the Four Noble Truths, we can see in SN 56.5:

Bhikkhus, whatever ascetics or brahmins in the past fully awakened to things as they really are, all fully awakened to the Four Noble Truths as they really are. Whatever ascetics or brahmins in the future will fully awaken to things as they really are, all will fully awaken to the Four Noble Truths as they really are. Whatever ascetics or brahmins at present have fully awakened to things as they really are, all have fully awakened to the Four Noble Truths as they really are.

And here it is again in SN 56.22:

There are ascetics and brahmins who do truly understand about suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. I regard them as true ascetics and brahmins. Those venerables realize the goal of life as an ascetic or brahmin, and live having realized it with their own insight.

There are many more examples like this, covering the aggregates, faculties, elements, psychic powers, etc.

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But a self-proclamation of Buddhist texts which say: “This is unique” is surely not sufficient? A statement about uniqueness requires external sources as well.


Yes, or what ideas did early Buddhism introduce that were not in common circulation at the time? Dependent origination seems like an original teaching, as you observed. I’m not sure about khandhas and ayatana, were there not equivalent models around back then?
I still think anatta was the radical departure.

Here we have to distinguish between individual elements (like rupa) and the cluster concept as a whole (upadana-khandhas). The khandha elements were probably already known, but I don’t see an indication that the cluster-concepts mentioned were already in spiritual use.

Jain ascetics surely must have dis-identified from certain experiences - we can safely assume possessions and feelings based on their monastic practice. The Jain texts don’t use the same language, so a devout Buddhist will easily dismiss similarities - but there is nonetheless a lot of disidentification going on.

“I am that which is realizable by me, in me, as it is, I am not ‘ it,’ not ‘ she,’ nor he, not one, nor two, not many.”
"Having maintained myself as another, and another as myself, and being deluded, I have wandered in this Ocean of Worldly existence; I am not the other, I am the I, another is another, another is not I.”
(from the 1st BC Jain work Samayasāra)

This is of course not the Buddhist anatta, but it is a certain anatta, refusing anything that is not the real Atman. I wouldn’t want to go into an anatta debate, just want to make the note that formally the suttas don’t say that there is no atman - so at least formally both Buddhism and Jainism exclude a lot of normal experience and demand to disidentify from them.

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Not trying to start a debate about rebirth, but I think the only way Buddhist anatta is unique is that despite claiming there is no self, the Buddha still said there is a being (conventionally speaking) that experiences the results of earlier actions (kamma) and experiences rebirth. Anatta without either of those things is nihilism, which was taught during the time of the Buddha and was a view he rejected.

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I just started reading Greater Magadha. So far it’s very interesting. I didn’t realize that I’ve already read a book written by the same author (

Agreed, which is why I recommend Jayatilleke’s book. Greater Magadha seems like a good one to look into next.

One of the uniquely Buddhist features, in my opinion, is its rejection of the metaphysical. I.e. it’s rejection of things that one couldn’t possibly experience for themselves.

The Buddha does not—or perhaps I will say, in academic-ese, is not recorded as saying—anything which he did not truly and know and see for himself. Bhante @sujato has spoken about this in a number of places, but it becomes clear when you read both the early discourses and books that discuss other philosophies at the time.

Much of other philosophies involved mere speculation, skepticism, or knowledge based on incomplete insight and faulty extrapolation. When pressed, teachers would admit they actually don’t know or that they’re purely operating out of logic.

Buddhism is present as verifiable. Whether this is a case of exceptionalism is up for each practitioner to decide, but I’ve noticed that the primary texts and secondary sources support this claim more and more.

And yes, that does include psychic powers, absorption, rebirth, and extinguishment. The Buddha says these can all be known, and actually tells people not to declare they have cracked the puzzle for certain until they’ve achieved the insight for themselves (MN27).

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Maybe DO is better described as dynamic rather than original. It can be said to be original in the sense that it departs from a common way of perceiving, but it defines itself through it nonetheless (hence nothing original about it). Same thing can be said about anatta.

‘Everything exists’: That is one extreme. ‘Everything doesn’t exist’: That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle

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I like to think that the historical Buddha was indeed not-metaphysical and didn’t talk about what he didn’t know for himself. But the suttas sometimes deviate from this principle - for example when the ‘creator-Brahma’ is ridiculed. Sure, we can say that the Bodhisattva was in some superior heaven at that time, but then we’re in fairytale land again.

So yes, the pragmatic non-metaphysical character of the teachings could be unique. Then again, would Mahavira have said that he taught by hear-say and speculation?

I don’t understand the seeming difference you introduce. Einstein also mostly juggled around with already available formulas. Same with Gödel. So special relativity was not original but dynamic?


Following from @paul1 quoting from MN26, the Ariyapariyesana Sutta suggests mindfulness and immersion, the 5 indriyas are included in those things the bodhisatta learned from his earlier teachers.

Bhante @Sujato talks a little about this at after Bhante @Adhisila1 asked a good question on this, especially from 1h42m.

Ajahn Brahmali on a few occasions has suggested that anatta is the main uniquely Buddhist contribution to philosophy, another thread to follow, especially the 12 nidanas as a unique criticism of the idea of a soul and what causes rebirth.

There’s also many times the Buddha states something a long the lines of ‘this is the first time this has been stated’ in for instance, from memory, the 2 kinds of Thought Sutta.

I once perused a university library’s Jaina section and so many texts were full of words like Nibbana, stages of renunciation, non-harming, dhamma, so many things we can thank the Jaina tradition for contributing to the dhamma too, including the whole way we use the word dhamma probably, hah!

Which concepts might be redefined by the Buddha as an attempt to change people’s understanding of practices/ideas, is probably hard to work out.

Exactly which concepts came from others who spoke Prakrits but we have no written texts, and concepts whose meaning outside the Pali corpus might have been different seems a difficult question to ask. Whether some concepts outside the early Pali texts in spoken Prakrits were always around, just chosen as important and put in different contexts or given importance, put in a certain order, re-examined and realised in a certain way.


Interesting quote from the section on karma and rebirth in Greater Magadha. The author is contrasting Buddhism with Jainism, Ajivikism, and ideas from the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

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It is obvious, is it not, that sequence becomes relevant when we examine notions that have to do with “originality” or “uniqueness”. Usually, such examinations uses comparisons and contrasts under historical themes: i.e comparing the teachings of the Buddha with Brahmanism or Jainism, or Einstein juggling around with available forumlas as you mentioned. The same issue arises within the more modern context of intellectual property and plagiarism. To meaningfully answer the OP, unpacking what we mean by “original” or “unique” seem relevant.

In general, the construction of meaning involves both the acts of analysis and synthesis, of which its been a debatable issue whether the sum of the parts is equal to the whole, or the whole is more than the mere sum of the parts (Aristotle). It seems to be more conducive to dispassion to deconstruct the whole into its components hence usually used by the Buddha in his teachings.

The above problem is relevant to SN 35.23. In the context of this thread, The All is presented here as “Buddhism”, but the underlying assumptions appear to be the same hence i doubt a conclusion will be reached.

“Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. [1] Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.

Due to idealization of the new, it’s not often recognized in the west how much marketing figures in the Buddha’s teachings intended for the general public. For example the threefold higher knowledge which is included in many of the awakening accounts builds on the Brahmin terminology of the three vedas and has no connection with them. The final of these three is the extinction of all cankers, which distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism (Iti 3.99). These borrowings are not direct continuations, but only use the title for dissemination purposes, utilizing a pre-existing familiar public term, but changing its application .

"The Śramaṇa movement gave rise to diverse range of heterodox beliefs, ranging from accepting or denying the concept of soul, atomism, antinomian ethics, materialism, atheism, agnosticism, fatalism to free will, idealization of extreme asceticism to that of family life, strict ahimsa (non-violence) and vegetarianism to permissibility of violence and meat-eating.[10] Magadha kingdom was the nerve centre of this revolution."
“The Buddhologist Alexander Wynne writes that there is an “overwhelming amount of evidence” to suggest that this rival culture to the Vedic Aryans dominated the eastern Gangetic plain during the early Buddhist period. Orthodox Vedic Brahmins were, therefore, a minority in Magadha during this early period.[15]”—Wikipedia

Yeah, that’s how Johannes Bronkhorst opens his book Greater Magadha, by showing how even Brahmins didn’t consider the eastern Gangetic plain part of “their” territory. Within a few hundred years they did claim that area, though. Makes you wonder what modern India would be like if Buddhism had never died out, or even supplanted the various strains of Brahmanical thought that would later come to be known as Hinduism.

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Isn’t “sabbe dhamma anatta” a formal statement of no Atman in the suttas?

And of course there is no mention of Atman in “The All” (Sabba Sutta).

A being (satta) is just a view or convention - see SN 5.10.
It’s not something which is “reborn” from lifetime to lifetime.

It depends on how you interpret ‘sabbe dhamma’ here obviously. We’ve had inconclusive debates about this in previous anatta-posts. Suffice to say that it doesn’t convince everyone to be a general statement of ‘no atman’.

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Fair enough. Though it seems odd that the Buddha went to so much trouble to make Atman redundant, for example introducing DO to avoid the usual existence/non-existence duality. Atman does exist in these terms, so the duality isn’t a problem.

And with an Atman, the complexity of DO is unnecessary - you can just say “subject to ignorance, the causal body seeks new existence”, or whatever. You don’t need all those nidanas.

So IMO you could say the essential uniqueness of Buddha’s teaching is the anatta/DO “package”, since these are intimately connected.

Yup, that’s why I qualified what I said with “conventionally speaking.”