Is practice ultimately external to scriptures?

The apocryphal tale of the Flower Plucked and the Faint Smile:

The Lord dwelt at the Vulture Peak with the assembly and plucked a flower as a teaching. The myriad totality were silent, save for Kāśyapa, whose face cracked in a faint smile. The Lord spoke.

I have the treasure of the true dharma eye, I have nirvāṇa as wondrous citta, I have signless dharmatā as the subtle dharma-gate, which is not standing on written word, which is external to scriptures, which is a special dispensation, which is entrusted to Mahākāśyapa.

Let’s put aside the “entrusted to Mahākāśyapa” bit, an ahistorical line designed to add extra legitimacy to one later sect over another. Similarly, if others will humour me, we might forget for a moment in general that this is a Zen text at all, and we might forget any doctrines or perspectives it might be designed to argue from or suggest, and we might treat it as a strange little isolated story, even if it might perhaps merely be a rather strange and ambiguous set of statements about something that the Buddha is said to think Mahākāśyapa really “gets” in the moment.

I want to focus on the phrase “which is external to scriptures”. When the Buddha passes his teaching to us, by proxy today, certainly, we receive it through words, but is Buddhadharma and realization thereof ultimately external to scriptures, or are scriptures and/or “transmissions” (between two points) in general bound up in it intrinsically? By “scriptures” here, I think we can also mean that to refer to the contents of scriptures, rather than simply the precise wordings and languages preserved by them.

A stance I would like to put up for support or critique: “Without Buddhavacana, we don’t get Buddhadharma.”


I explain the importance of the suttas in a few ways :slight_smile:

1 - Provide an Ideal to Strive For
2 - Development of Confidence and Zeal
3 - Provides a framework for explaining meditative experiences.

It’s been my own experience , as someone who meditated for years before really being able to truly sit and read the suttas page by page, is that the Buddha of the EBTs just keeps being totally on point with my own experience. When I saw how the suttas provided a framework for my experience, my confidence in the Buddha grew, and my desire to read the suttas did as well.

The framework part is important, because you can see in various places in the Suttas, most predominantly in DN1, where the Buddha explains that a lot of the views people had in the suttas that were wrong view, came about from meditative experiences they had without any framework to examine them by (like the person who is able to see one persons destination after death, knowing they are a bad person but they end up in heaven, and coming to the conclusion that there is no result from actions).

When I give talks or do retreats , even if I delve deep into real world examples, I always try to keep the suttas as my basis , and every time I do a retreat I give a list of sutta references backing up my points for those who wish to do further study.

In short I’m attempting to master merging ancient wisdom with modern experience, something I know that can be done because it worked for me, and I know those suttas contain real insight visible by anyone who practices to see.

and of course you have some suttas where the Buddha talks about “four kinds of persons”. like An 4.110, where he describes one who knows the teachings AND sees with insight to be the superior person who both “rains and thunders”. There is a similar sutta where he says again the best of the four is one who knows the suttas and practices( as opposed to one who knows the sutta and doesn’t practice, practices but doesn’t know the suttas, or neither practices nor knows the suttas).

So I don’t think I would say that practice is external to scriptures, I would say the scriptures are the framework for right practice.


Buddhavacana & Buddhadhamma is for me a source to what we tell ourselves. And what we tell ourselves, on that our practice is based on.

The path to stream entry (including the Dharma eye) consists of:

  1. association with kalyanamittas (in this case, sufficiently enlightened beings who teach…)
  2. listening to the true dhamma (that inclines one towards nibbana- this would include reading the word of the Buddha, nowadays)
  3. Contemplation of the dhamma (yonisomanasikara- wise reflection). Again this is reflecting on what was heard in step 2).
  4. Practice according to the dhamma, is possible after Right view is developed in steps 2) and 3) to augment flagging wisdom, to recognise the patterns of truth, without being overwhelmed by delusion (avijja).

So, there is a causal connection between theory (pariyatti) and practice (patipatti). The Great Forty (MN117) also talks of how Right view leads to Right insight (Samma nana). Great beings like the Buddha might be able to realise those patterns without need of prior preparation for insight, as might the Maha-arahanths or those with acute faculties of wisdom. However I think a large number of us, need that extra push, to get our ‘brains in gear’, to See what we are observing!

with metta


Well if this was the case then the Buddha would not have been able to become awakened by himself, since he didn’t have Buddhadharma to guide him.

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He did, in previous lives he probably met past Buddhas or Sanghas and that was the very seed for his supreme awakening later on when Dhamma disappeared.

That’s a later legend, there’s nothing about that in the earliest texts afaik.

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Sure. That could be said as well.

Now, from the perspective of dependent origination and rebirth, the natural “contamination” of cessation-facilitating Dhamma (i.e. 4 NTs and 8-fold path) across time and space is very possible and likely.
This is what the Buddhabrot analogy points to.
Your question only holds ground if you assume no rebirth in the model!

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Not necessarily.

There can be rebirth and yet this doesn’t mean that every Buddha has to have encountered the Dharma sometime in the past.

In fact the historical facts point to that, if the buddha had some past life knowledge about Dharma, he would have known that Jain asceticism was not the way and would not have starved himself, for example. Likewise he wouldn’t have needed to practice with Alara Kalama etc since those practices don’t lead to awakening directly either. Finally, he wouldn’t have been hesitant about teaching the Dharma after his enlightenment.

All these facts point to a human figure who before his enlightenment was a seeker like others at the time who was insightful and diligent enough to penetrate the truth on his own. And even after he did, he wasn’t sure exactly what he should do with that knowlege in regards to others but decided to teach anyways.

To get around those facts you need to invent some weirder theory, like the docetism present in some Mahayana texts.

This is how I see it anyways.


It is not about carrying knowledge of the path around from one lifetime to another, but just getting the right sort of momentum and direction from a random encounter with the Dhamma from a previous encounter.

The very story (or legend you may say) of how the Buddha re-encountered the path to liberating insight (via jhana) shows that somehow even before he made the conscious mistake of giving the jain penances a try he had encountered the blameless pleasure of the stillness and immersion that eventually lead him to awakening and the reflective ‘eureka’ of which noble truths and ennobling tasks were key for that realization to come about.

In our very lives it happens all the time. I can recall many instances in which at work or at home I find a practical use for a piece of knowledge or information learned elsewhere, sometimes untraceable, which allows me to perform a task, fix something, cook something to the right taste, etc.

The idea that his insight was solely based on Buddha’s own effort and isolated struggle is not compatible with the dependent origination of liberation he himself taught as per EBTs like AN10.2, SN12.23, etc.

@Javier The Buddha didn’t actually hesitate to teach the teachings. The passage about how the (re)discovered truth is difficult to understand and the intervention of Brahma is very likely to be a later addition. One of MN 26’s Chinese Agamas parallels, MA 204, doesn’t have that episode. After the Buddha’s awakening, it immediately continues with the Buddha’s thought about who he should teach first at T 0777a18.

The same pattern also occurs with Vipassi Buddha. In one of DN 14’s Chinese Agamas parallels, T 3, the episode about the hesitation to teach and the begging of a Brahma is also absent. Like MA 204, after Vipassi Buddha’s awakening, T 3 also continues immediately with Vipassi Buddha’s contemplation about who should be taught first at T 0156c14.

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Is mn81 not considered early?

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To me MN81 has all features of an EBT! :grin:

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Greetings ,

How does one define “early text” ? As early as after Buddha Parinibbana until BC ? Or 100 years after Buddha Parinibbana ?

There is a general definition in the early part of the book (link given below) which I believe is probably good enough for the purpose of contributing on this forum. Although the finer points of each individual text are scrutinised by scholars.

Very good question!
If you take the modernist approach (which I subscribe to) anything with parallels across Pali, Chinese and Tibetan canons could be considered an EBT, or at least rooted in what once was an EBT. This is the case of MN81 which not only has parallels but as well is mentioned in a paracanonincal work called Millinda Panha, found in the Pali canon’s KN.

Now, if you take the post modernist approach then you need to choose which post modernist approach exactly.

To some post modernists nothing of the Vinaya, MN or DN is legit, and possibly part of a massive plot to create a religion out of thin air by people who wanted to shave their heads, establish a clergy and claim the right to live out of others’ generosity… In their pursuit of a rational and more a philosopher than a sramana Buddha, they tend to cherry pick sutras which don’t clearly propose rebirth and support their version of pay per view Buddhism …

All in all some of the post modernist Buddhists see no harm in making a living out of the Dhamma as cash remunerated sophists - despite their apparent issues with the traditional monastic lineages framed around and based on the model of spiritual tradition consistently found in the scriptures…

In Theravada we have dependent origination , so does the Mahayana and Vajrayana . How would you think then since they are not much different in explaining the paticasamuppada ? The only difference can be said is in explaining the end result of practice ie Nibbana .

They actually seem to explain it rather differently, in some ways. The way that a Mahāyānika explains it involves a non-abiding parinirvāṇa. The way that a Śrāvakayānika explains it involves an abiding parinirvāṇa.

Re-reading this, I think I might have just re-worded what you said.


I don’t get what your question is about. Could you rephrase?

@Gene Earliest (oral) Buddhist Texts are as early as after the passing of the Buddha. Anything that is 100 years after the passing of the Buddha may be considered “early” in the sense it is collected in the Agamas/Pali Nikayas, but it isn’t authentic in the sense that it’s not taught by the Buddha or his direct disciples. One of many examples is the Discourse of Bakkula (MA 34/MN 124). This discourse is clearly later than other early discourses since the notion of an ideal perfected one in this discourse is in contrast with what is generally taught about perfected ones in other early discourses. Moreover, the Pali version’s commentary says that this particular discourse was added at the Second Council, which was around 100 years after the passing of the Buddha. This discourse is among some examples where the criteria of having parallel texts transmitted by other schools alone is not enough to guarantee its authenticity. On the other hand, some early discourses that have no known parallels may actually be authentic; it’s possible that their parallels are either lost or not found yet.

Another example is the Foundation of the Nuns’ story. All extant versions that are transmitted by many different ancient Buddhist schools contain a particular passage which says that admitting women in the monastic order will cause the Buddha’s teachings not to last long. Yet, this belief goes against other early discourses where on one occasion, the Buddha refuses to pass away until he can establish his monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen in his teachings; another early discourse and its two Chinese Agamas parallels agree that there are a lot of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who have realised noblehood according to their dispositions.

It is crucial to examine any text’s teachings or doctrines if they go against the majority of other early discourses.

Judging a text’s authenticity can be complicated. It is necessary to examine each discourse case by case since some texts may be entirely late, some may contain both early and late materials. In any case, there is certainly more than one criteria when it comes to deciding if a text is authentic.

@Coemgenu I personally believe that practice is not external to the scriptures. If there were no early discourses, I would have no idea how to practise according to the teachings of the Buddha and his noble disciples. For me, practice is not possible without the scriptures. They inform me of what should be done and what shouldn’t. All Buddhas are a different story though since they can realise awakening by themselves. Do I understand your question correctly?

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