Is MN 123 a Late Sutta?

The contents of MN 123 seem to condense and neatly present the mythological story of the Buddha’s birth in one place. it is surprising Ven. Ananda is quoted in the text saying that ‘I have heard these words from the Blessed One himself’. Even more surprising is the praise for Buddha’s unsurpassed mindfulness tucked at the end of the sutta, counterbalancing the more ‘worldly’ miracles mentioned before. Anyway, it is one of the suttas that are pretty hard to digest for a modern person.

How is it different from MA 32, an Agama counterpart to this sutta, or is there any linguistical evidence it may be a latter addition? What is its possible origination history?



The most important finding so far is the close resemblance of the parallel versions as far as essential aspects of the teachings are concerned. This makes core teachings found in the Pali discourses the common heritage of all Buddhist traditions and an important reference point for the follower of any Buddhist school.

Another important finding for me is to see the continuity of certain developments. One example is the bodhisattva ideal. Clearly in early Buddhism the idea to become a Buddha was unknown. Yet, in a book dedicated to the ‘Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal‘ I have been able to trace the very beginnings of what eventually became the bodhisattva ideal in the early discourses. Here particularly significant is the Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta (MN 123), as well as its Chinese parallels, but I guess to see what I have in mind you would have to read my book, which is fortunately available for free download.


Thanks for the link! Sometimes, I wonder whether there is any significant Nikaya topic Ven. Analayo hasn’t researched yet.

So, as far as I understand, the teaching that the Buddha’s next-to-last rebirth was in the Tusita heaven was universal and can in fact be quite old. Way more acceptable for me than all the mumbo-jumbo about the seven steps and solemn proclamations (sorry if I hurt someone’s feelings) but still pretty hard to digest :slight_smile:


Instead of finding all the “late stuff” in an ad hoc way, perhaps try taking the four truths & the gradual training and see what you need to add in order to make a cohesive, consistent practice. In this way, you may be able to simply ignore aspects that don’t contribute to your practice, whether early or late.


For me, there are two aspects of the problem. First, as a practitioner I really think your advice makes much sense, and I try to follow it in my personal practice as much as I can. There is still a small caveat, though: if somethig does not contribute to my practice it is possible that my practice is deficient, not the aspect itself. Second, as a person with pseudo-scholarly interests I am deeply interested in the history of the Buddhist ideas as much as I am interested in the history of Islamic and Chrstian thought, practice and beliefs. The doctrine of Logos found in the Gospel of John doesn’t make much difference to the Christian ethical practice based among other things on the Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, it is obviously a later addition, even though on the overall Chrstian timescale it is extremely early (just as the ideas in MN 123 are pretty early in the overall Buddhist context). Perhaps, my mistake was that i kind of mixed up the two perspectives in my question.


I tend to mostly ignore the historical side, despite also having read up on it in a similar way. It seems to me to be a place where disagreements and argumentation rule the day, instead of clear-headedness. Also, I seem to misspeak a lot; let us blame the epilepsy medicine, instead of my lack of skill, eh? :wink:

And anyway, lack of belief in these more worshipful aspects, despite not being active disbelief, still tends to sharply reduce the size of one’s circle of good practice friends, in my experience. These historical approaches are still a minority. So, I had to set it aside in order to have community.



Well, this is the norm for scholarly discussions, and this situation can be used as an exercise in the Right Speech :slight_smile: Despite the negative repercussions of the historical approach to the Buddhist teaching, I would say that we as Buddhists are overall lucky. In the Islamic context some purely scholarly suggestions concerning the historicity of some Muslim beliefs and practices may literally get you beheaded. In the Early Modern Christianity, the attitude was hardly any different.

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I just want to add here that as far as I can tell, the presentation of the Buddha in this sūtra is basically the Mahāsāṃghika view of the Buddha. I don’t mean that the sūtra originated with them, but rather that their views of the Buddha seem totally consistent with what is in this text.

Also, these sort of biographical myths tend to appear in the MN / MA, but not so much in the SN / SA. From the SN / SA, it’s hard to tell much about the Buddha himself.


I would like to look at this from a different angle.
I think it is more important to see whether it is possible for such things as mentioned in MN123 to happen. If we accept the Buddha as the unsurpassed trainer of those who wish to be trained & the Teacher of Devas & Humans (see DN 21 Sakka¬panha ¬Sutta for an account of the visit of Sakka, the Ruler of Gods, to pay his homage to Buddha & listen to the Dhamma), then one would be happy to accept the Buddha as the greatest Being ever to walk on this earth during the past 35 billion or so years.
We know that there are proven accounts of babies making meaningful utterances soon after coming out of mothers’ wombs. If an ordinary human baby could speak just after coming out of mother’s womb, why is it not possible for the Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, to take a few steps soon after his birth?
I don’t think it matters very much whether MN123 is a later addition or not. What matters is whether we could accept the contents as true or not. On balance of probabilities, I would say they are more probable to be true than not!

Imagine there is a baby at whose birth the 10,000-fold world system shook and an unsurpassed light filled the Universe. His conception was miraculous, he was born clean, made several steps and proclaimed itself to be the highest being in the universe and destined to become fully enlightened. His mother was widely known for her good ethics during her pregnancy, and I am not even mentioning the gods and the fountains and what not. Now, I really think that news about such a miraculous baby would spread far and wide even in the Ancient India, and if it grew up and started preaching some new Dhamma, I would definitely lend him my ear. In fact, given the amount of miracles the Buddha is reported to have worked in the Pali Canon, I cannot see who anyone would still be not a Buddhist in the Ancient Indic states. This, however, did not happen.

It is said in the Gospel Jesus is transfigured and rises from the dead after his crucifixion. Mohammed’s heart is cleansed by an angel, he later splits the moon in two halves. Are these stories true? I think you will agree at least some of them aren’t. So why should we think a Buddhist text does not lie about them just because it is Buddhist?

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The teaching is about “moral”…“concentration”… which leads to…“wisdom”.
Not about how we “think”!..based on delusion / ignorance.

After all, “buddhist” is just a label…not something one should cling to.

It is “wisdom” that sets you free and not our thinking.

From my knowledge, early Buddhism is not the same as the truest Buddhism. Rather, it is a textual approach to Buddhism based on historical study. Early Buddhist texts are not to be the truest texts of Buddhism, but it come from the early period of Buddhism and the teaching there maybe closest to the Buddha himself. So the late texts are not always wrong too. Because no one knows the exact truth of historical approach, the sense of true or wrong teaching can not be evaluated from historical perspective alone.

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True words, but still don’t let’s forget Kalama Sutta, the Four Great Standards and other occasions where the Lord Buddha praised the use of reason so much. A miraculous baby does not fit well with the old Buddha of Mahaparinibbana Sutta complaining about his bad back or having diarrhea. Without critical examination of texts with their own reason, people start believing in the Buddha preaching obstruse teachings in the Tavatimsa heaven, translating esoteric teachings to Mahakassapa with a single smile or being an emanation of the eternal Adi Buddha. It is up to you to choose which Buddha is closer to the historical one - the one with disenteria and bad back or the one making seven steps out of his mother’s womb - but you can hardly deny they don’t fit each other very well.

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Well yeah, my personal opinion is that the Buddhism of Ajahn Chah was as true as that of the earlier parts of the Pali Canon, even though his sermons are among the latest Buddhist texts available. However, there is a huge difference between the teachings on meditation or khandhas and teachings on the Buddha’s birth. Meditation is a highly subjective practice whose description is largely dependent on your cultural context, level of education and other personal idiosyncracies. Whether the Buddha made his seven steps or the 10,000-fold world system shook at his birth is an entirely objective teaching, it either happened or it didn’t. Whilst it is very difficult to say that a later text on meditation is less correct than an earlier one because it may describe the same thing with different words or describe a modified method of meditation that proved to be more efficient for the author than the earlier ones, if you find out some objective event is described in a relatively late text and is not mentioned in earlier scriptures, there is a good chance it never happened in reality. Is it relevant for the truth of the Dhamma? Hardly. Is it relevant for the Buddhology, Indology or any other scholarly discipline connected with the Early Buddhism? By all means.

Buddha arose in the world at a time when the hard core Brahmanism was at its peak. They were conditioned by their own views over a millions or billions of life times. Beings were then roaming the samsara as hindered by Ignorance & fettered by Craving: Beings are now roaming the Samsara as hindered by Ignorance & fettered by Craving. No difference! Only difference was that Buddha made a difference! That difference is being felt in the world even today. Those who could see the Dhamma escaped/are escaping the suffering. Some gained their fruit of the Dhamma then & there: some gained after a few years during the Buddha’s life time. Some have gained the fruit much later. Even the famous debater at that time, Saccaka, the Nigantha’s son, who has debated Buddha, has reported to have been reborn in Sri Lanka & attained arahantship as the Great Arahant Kala Buddharakkhita Thero (Commentary to MN36 Mahasaccaka Sutta).

Yet, millions of people in traditional Buddhist countries, who were born Buddhists, have no idea of what the true Dhamma is. They are treating the Nonessential as the Essential & the Essential as the Nonessential. Millions of people have seen the true Dhamma during the Buddha’s life time yet, a lot more people could not gain that fruit. No amount of amazing events would have helped those who did not want to see: their own conditioning, their own craving, their own ram-shackling would not have helped those who did not want to be trained. Buddha discoursed that he is the unsurpassed trainer of those who wish to be trained. My assumption is that NOT for those who did not wish to be trained.

I like what Devarupa said:
Instead of finding all the “late stuff” in an ad hoc way, perhaps try taking the four truths & the gradual training and see what you need to add in order to make a cohesive, consistent practice. In this way, you may be able to simply ignore aspects that don’t contribute to your practice, whether early or late.

In my view, we should leave what we cannot accept & take what is clear. As Buddha has discoursed in AN5:73, what has to be done is not to neglect seclusion & to commit to internal tranquility of awareness.

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I think it was only the later generations of layfolk & monastics who wanted more of this sort of content; Gotama wasn’t even his name, for example (though I can’t remember the argument in detail), but this sort of thing grew in popularity, probably right alongside growing reverence within Buddhist communities in competition with other groups, brahmins, etc.

Agreed; the shaking of the world system, and other mythic phrasings, are just that - mythical, not historical. For example:

This is a world-system having been shaken, we could say… though, there are sure a lot of shaking bits that call themselves Buddhist, but which have only a tenuous connection to His Dhamma… so, this ‘difference’, it’s both helpful & not… some call their “buddhas” by the same name as the historical Buddha, but it’s altogether a different person or persons, and so forth.

Agreed; we all learn from such texts, necessarily, but the historical method is very valuable in parsing out what is certainly off-target. The historical method is otherwise under no substantive critique, in and of itself.

It is often an affront to personal preferences, however.

There is also an issue here of how we treat texts. In general, modern western discourse tends to treat anything that is not historically authentic as lying and falsehood. A better approach might be to approach those texts which are not historically authentic as meaningful and sacred myths. They are not lies, but rather speak about what people believed and held as truth.

There are all sorts of religious texts that do not describe anything historical, or have any clear authorship, but which are still incredibly meaningful for millions of people. The Vedas, for example, or the Bhagavad Gita. For Buddhism as well, most texts are anonymous, or were otherwise heard, codified, and passed down anonymously.

There is also a strange issue related to how much importance people put on a historical Buddha. Since early texts contain so little convincing biographical material, it probably follows that they considered the Dharma much more precious than any details about the Buddha himself.


In using the word ‘lie’ I certainly do not imply strongly negative connotations of malice and deliberate manipulation to acquire other people’s resources (even though in the final analysis we can never rule out this explanation). My understanding of the word ‘lie’ means ‘saying things that you know are not factual or have no exterior data to classify as factual’. The very first person who told any given myth other knew that it didn’t happen in reality or didn’t know whether the story is factual but rather thought it fitted the majesty of the Buddha, wanted to inspire the listeners or had any other reason why people keep telling pious lies up to this very day. By saying that this story is ultimately a lie, I don’t want to condemn the first disseminator, my purpose amounts to saying that this data is unfactual and thus can be discarded when talking about objectively describable events. If you for cultural reasons find the word ‘lie’ too harsh (e.g. the Russians are more okay with lies than people with the Anglo-Saxon background), fine, call it counter-factual :slight_smile:

When I first started reading the suttas as a scientifically minded atheist, Devas and Brahmas and even the whole concept of rebirth sounded like mumbo-jumbo to me…but there was also something that made me keep reading and I also started to practice it. As time went on, I could see more and more ways for these things to exist and they started to make more sense to me than my previous materialistic world view.

At first, Dr Ian Stevenson’s work and watching hundreds of accounts from NDE-rs on YouTube helped a lot (not to mention some experimentation with psychotropic substances), and somewhere along the road I both stopped taking everything so literally and realized that most of what we think of as impossible is only impossible because we have been conditioned into believing that it’s impossible. What’s fact today, can be mumbo-jumbo tomorrow and vice versa…it’s all just brainwashing :stuck_out_tongue:

Like Ajahn Brahm says: “Never allow your knowledge to stand in the way of truth.”

I certainly agree that the Suttas, just as any good religious text, challenge our idea of reality and let us look at the world from a new perspective. Surely, the idea of ‘supernatural’ beings like gods or petas is very unfamliar for the scientific community and worldview - yet.

But do you really believe that everything said in MN 123 is the literal truth?