Lateness of the Anguttara Nikaya

Recently this has come to my attention


The Anguttara Nikaya quotes the Parayana, which is evidence of its late compilation. (i.133 and 134; ii.45. For other quotations in and from the Anguttara Nikaya see A.v., introd. p.ix., nn. 3 and 4.) -

and this snipped I found from page 44 of ‘The Mind In Early Buddhism’ by Minh Thành (Thích.) in Google books

“scholars still consent the lateness of the Anguttaranikaya in comparison with the remaining ones ‘but not much later’.”

So I guess my question is, how careful should one be in reading the Anguttara? Are there any obviously late ideas or terms in this Nikaya one should be on the lookout for? Should we instead speak of the “first three Nikayas” when referring to EBTs instead “the first four”?


Keown is a scholar primarily of bioethics and Buddhism, who has contributed a number of general publications on Buddhism, but is not an expert on the early texts. You can see his list of publications here.

I mention this because when people see something by someone from “Oxford” they immediately assume they’re an expert.

The fact that AN quotes from a couple of verses elsewhere means that the texts that quote are later than the ones that are quoted. It doesn’t tell us much about the collections as a whole. If we saw, for example, a quote from a late text, then that would be more significant. But the texts quoted are early, so there is no reason it couldn’t have been in the Buddha’s lifetime.

Texts throughout the canon are constantly quoting or referring or building up on one another in all kinds of ways. This is a very normal thing that happens in any community; someone says something, and someone else repeats it and expands on it.

The disparity between AN and EA is almost certainly explained by the lateness and unusual nature of EA. There is another partial EA in Chinese, which though very incomplete, is much closer to the Pali. This does mean, unfortunately, that we cannot confirm the pre-sectarian nature of many AN texts, as they lack parallels. But lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

Note the language that Keown uses: “evidence for”, “suggests that”. These are just tiny snippets of facts that, interpreted all on their own, out of any context, and ignoring the thousands of other relevant facts, can be taken to point in a certain direction. But they don’t prove anything.

The method we use in The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts is to look for patterns of multiple independent forms of evidence, all pointing the same way. If we want to securely establish evidence for something as large and complex as the date of a whole Nikaya, we would need a large body of evidence, carefully tested, and based on multiple independent grounds. This is a principle already established over a century ago by TW Rhys Davids, who cautioned against reaching quick conclusions based on little evidence. However it is unusual to find this good advice followed, and much more normal to see huge conclusions blithely drawn from tiny evidence. Once these ideas get in the mainstream, almost no-one critically examines them, so they just get repeated as the opinion of “scholars”.

In my view, on average, I would tend to put MN and SN the earliest, then AN, then DN, which definitely has the largest proportion of late content (as opposed to mere repetition, which makes up a large amount of the late material in SN.)

However, all the nikayas (and agamas) were compiled over a period of time, and all contain early and late content. Any tendency for one or the other to be earlier or later is so vague, and contra-indicated by so many other features, that it is of almost no use. The only practical thing is to look at each specific instance and assess it on its merits.



I see, thanks for thorough response Bhante.

I am curious now though, about the lateness of the DN! I was not aware that it contained material that was considered late in comparison to the MN and SN. Can you comment a bit on that? What’s in it that proves this?

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We started a list of inauthentic suttas, but didn’t get very far. I made a list of late DN suttas:

They’re late on multiple grounds;

  1. Often they’re compilations of earlier material (much of it from AN)
  2. Verse styles in several texts are late.
  3. Notes from commentaries on some sections say they were added late
  4. Comparison with other canons, eg DN 30 Lakkhana has no counterparts.
  5. Literary style is often fanciful and elaborate
  6. Many texts are set in the last years of the Buddha’s life, and often relate to or derive from DN 16 Mahaparinibbana, which of course must have been composed after the Buddha’s death.
  7. Terminology or doctrine is sometimes a little late.
  8. DN 22 is clearly a compilation based after MN 10.

And so on.


Many thanks!


bhante ,

Why didn’t include DN 15 , not only late but considering of it inauthentic also ?!

The Maha-Nidana Sutta defines consciousness & nama-rupa differently to other suttas. In the Maha-Nidana Sutta, consciousness (which is only mental cognition in other suttas) is said to descend into the womb of a mother. Nama-rupa has a Brahmanistic meaning of ‘naming-forms’.

consciousness entering into the womb as reincarnation is unverifiable superstition and not in accord with the many teaching about consciousness by the Buddha.

Also, ‘birth’ refers to the birth of different animals & creatures rather than the birth of “beings” or “satta”. SN 23.2 refers to a “being” as a mind that is attached to the five aggregates as “self”. It is doubtful birds & snakes conceive the five aggregates as “self” or generate “self-views” of “beings” (as described in SN 5.10).

There are, I agree, some possibly late aspects to DN 15. However it’s not as clear-cut as the above examples.

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