Majjhima Nikaya Pieced Together? Analyzing MN 1-6

Readers of EBTs won’t be surprised to hear that lots of MN content can be found in other nikayas as well. After all we got used to identical pericopes of jhanas, dependent origination, etc. in all the nikayas. But here I’m following a stronger hypothesis namely that the whole MN is not an original collection but the result of an early edition process – maybe an attempt to create a ‘best-of-dhamma’ that would be much more handy for monastic communities or for distribution than the monstrous SN or AN which each contain thousands of suttas of various importance.

Succeeding in this attempt we would have a tool for a stratification of EBT material and finding early material within the suttas. It would also give us glimpses into the work processes of the early canon editors.

In order to do that I would have to show that the MN suttas can be found in pieces more or less verbatim in SN and AN suttas. As you will see sometimes this can be easily done, and sometimes not at all. In the end I think it’s still an hypothesis fruitful enough to be investigated further.

MN 1

The Chinese parallel of this sutta is in the EA, not the MA (EA 44.6) and there are similarities with MN 49. Indeed both MN 1 and MN 49 take place ‘in Ukkattha in the Subhaga Grove at the root of a royal sala tree.’ Bhikkhu Bodhi thinks that MN 49 is the dramatic version of MN 1. I would argue that MN 49 has a more compelling narrative, and that MN 1 rather reads like an abstract development of MN 49 material.

Outside of the MN I found SN 22.81 and SN 22.82 to be closely related to MN 1. SN 22.81 contains the same logical permutations of MN 1 but only for the uninstructed worldling.

Here, bhikkhus, the uninstructed worldling… regards form as self.
He may not regard form as self, but he regards self as possessing form…
He may not regard form as self or self as possessing form, but he regards form as in self…
He may not regard form as self or self as possessing form or form as in self, but he regards self as in form…

SN 22.82 describes the working of the uninstructed worldling and the instructed disciple, and with him an outlook on liberation:

the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form.
the instructed noble disciple … does not regard form as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form…
Any kind of form whatsoever, bhikkhu, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near—one sees all form as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.

If we include MN 49 as a parallel to MN 1 in our observation we see a second theme there, namely that Brahma sees itself as eternal and stable – another topic that is touched in SN 22.81 and further elaborated in SN 22.96 and SN 22.97.

In summary we can find important elements of MN 1 in SN 22.81 and SN 22.82, but not all of them. What we don’t find is the peculiar list of objects (earth, water, fire, air, beings, gods, …). But these lists are not even unusual for pre-Buddhist texts – we find a similar list for example in the BU (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.7.3-23) and don’t have to assume that it’s original MN material. The second element we don’t find is the permutation for the arahant and the tathagata. Both stem in the basic premise of the sutta though (regards form as self, as in self…), so it’s not difficult to imagine how editors just augmented the sutta in this way. I see MN 49 as a more diverse variation on this topic and find its themes rooted in SN 22.81/82 and SN 22.96/97.

In a best-of scenario MN 1 would represent a core message of the entire Buddha-dhamma from the Theravada perspective which differentiates it from other ascetic traditions, i.e. the outstanding importance of anatta.

MN 2

We find a possible direct source in AN 6.58. From the ‘taints that should be abandoned by’ different methods the AN sutta features all but ‘by seeing’.

MN 2 continues the theme of MN 1 by providing a manual of how to end the asavas (the outflows from the heart) that constitute the unenlightened being.

MN 3

MN 3 has three parts, 1. the Buddha speaking about being heirs of the dhamma, not of material things. 2. Sariputta speaks about training in seclusion. 3. Sariputta briefly speaks about greed and hate.

Several AN suttas speak of ‘bhikkhus who are learned, heirs to the heritage, experts on the Dhamma’ (AN 3.20, AN 4.160, AN 4.180, AN 5.156, AN 6.51, AN 10.11, AN 11.17) but without the further elaboration of MN 3.
In summary I couldn’t find a possible source for MN 3 in AN or SN. While it has Chinese parallels in MA 88 and EA 18.3 we have no pali AN parallel to the EA sutta.

Thematically MN 3 doesn’t have the gravitas of MN 1 and MN 2. Instead it introduces some real life challenges for the aspiring bhikkhu of renunciation and seclusion – a topic that is continued in MN 4.

MN 4

To abandon fear and dread is sometimes mentioned as a result of the highest fruit, e.g. in Snp 552, Snp 578, Thag 367, Thag 840, Thag 864 (with the forest theme), and Thag 1059.

SN 4.17 has Mara making a terrible sound that is supposed to create fear and dread, albeit with the Buddha, not the Bodhisatta.

There are no pali parallels in SN or AN with the same content or stock phrases, just again the Chinese has a parallel (EA 31.1) in the EA without an AN equivalent. It is unclear if it means that MN 4 originally was an AN sutta that was completely relocated into the MN.

Like MN 3 it doesn’t have major doctrinal relevance and rather functions as an inspiration for bhikkhus who live in seclusion.

MN 5

MN 5 is a peculiar sutta as it is a conversation between Mogallana and Sariputta about reproaching blameworthy monks. Thus it continues the more practical thread of the previous suttas. Readers of nikaya suttas (and the vinaya) know that blameworthy behavior of monks is a recurring theme and it is easy to imagine that the high bar the Buddha set for proper monastic behavior was a problem back then as it is today. The roots of MN 5 show this in an interesting way.

There are two motives in MN 5: Sariputta expanding on reproachable behavior and Mogallana congratulating him for his successful talk that every blameworthy bhikkhu should be grateful for.

These blameworthy bhikkhus are obviously the audience for this talk – hinting inversely that there were many monks who were not grateful for such a well-meant reproach.

We find a more realistic treatment of this subject in AN 5.167, a sutta where the Buddha supports a Sariputta who seems, for lack of a better word regarding an arahant, frustrated:

Sariputta: “There are, Bhante, persons devoid of faith who have gone forth from the household life into homelessness, not out of faith but intent on earning a living; they are crafty, hypocritical, deceptive, restless, puffed up, vain, talkative…, unwise, stupid. When I speak to them in such a way, they do not respectfully accept what I say.”

Buddha: “Sāriputta, leave alone those people who are devoid of faith … you should speak to those clansmen who have gone forth from the household life into homelessness out of faith… Exhort your fellow monks, Sāriputta! Instruct your fellow monks, Sāriputta.”

So it seems that MN 5 is the product of the fantasy to have an ideal sangha, full of monks who are grateful for correction when it is appropriate. Whereas AN 5.167 paints a more realistic picture. We find another sutta of this kind in SN 51.14 where the Buddha tells Mogallana in this case to admonish blameworthy monks, and Mogallana managed to shock them with his supernatural powers… Aah, isn’t that a nice fantasy for every abbot – to stir urgency in misbehaving monks if he just had some magical powers!

This ‘fantastic reproach’ is in other places projected onto devas who reprimand blameworthy bhikkhus in SN 2.25 and SN 9.13.

MN 6

We find elements of MN 6 in four parts:
MN 6.1-9 can be traced back to AN 10.71
MN 6.9-10 can be found in a more elaborated form in SN 54.8
MN 6.11-13 finds no parallel in SN or AN but is just an application of the same formula as before
MN 6.14-19 can be found in AN 3.101, AN 5.23, AN 5.28, AN 5.68, AN 9.35

In conclusion MN 6 could well be pieced together from AN and SN suttas.
Content-wise it presents a condensed noble path as for the achievement of all aspirations it advices

let him fulfil the precepts, be devoted to internal serenity of mind, not neglect meditation, be possessed of insight, and dwell in empty huts.

Tentative Conclusion

My hypothesis is maybe not new, but at least I haven’t seen similar attempts to dissect the MN. So far the results are not fully convincing but maybe at least promising. The idea of a further stratification of the sutta pitaka is interesting as it might help us separate older from later layers of text. Obviously nobody has to follow the hypothesis but at least I could exemplify complex intertextual connections of the MN on one hand and the AN and SN on the other.