Mark Allon - Early Buddhist Texts: Their Composition and Transmission

This is a recently published article of Mark Allon: Early Buddhist Texts: Their Composition and Transmission.

Apparently, it’s presenting in short the research from his latest book The Composition and Transmission of Early Buddhist Texts with Specific Reference to Sutras

For those familiar with his work, and transmission research in general, there is maybe not much new here. But it’s surely a good contemporary introduction into the field.


Thank you for posting this, it looks to be a very interesting and important work.

I found these sentences from the article interesting, in regard to translation strategy:

" The importance of repetition to the authors of these texts is evident in this brahmavihāra formula. Had textual economy been important, they could have just as effectively listed all four brahmavihāras together in a single passage and dispensed with mentioning each direction individually…"

"The highly structured, carefully crafted nature of the text as illustrated by this example, as with all canonical prose, is further evident at the most granular level, that is, in the choice of words and the building up of text. For example, a characteristic feature of canonical prose are strings of grammatically parallel units, such as nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, that express the same or similar general idea, with each subsequent unit nuancing or expanding the meaning of the preceding ones, presenting further qualities of the thing described, or presenting a similar category of item. "


An obvious counterpoint to Allon’s theories is Shulman’s “play of formulas.” They seem to have somewhat of a congenial, scholarly back-and-forth going on. I personally find it difficult to read (and understand) the one without counterbalancing it with the other.

It’s not a two-sided, “either-or” argument, however; there are others chiming in as well. Most notable among the most recent contributions may be Nathan McGovern’s “Protestant Presuppositions and the Study of the Early Buddhist Oral Tradition” (found here). He’s arguing for a re-evaluation of themes broached in Lance Cousins’ 1983 “Pali Oral Literature” (found here). In fact, McGovern “calls out” Allon’s approach in the very first paragraph.

Is there anyone else out there also following this debate of sorts who may have some insights to share?


Thanks @Gabriel and @knotty36 for these articles, they are all fascinating! I find it interesting that as far as I can tell Rhys Davids took it for granted that the formulas that recur in the 4 Nikayas predate the Suttas that occur in the 4 Nikayas and both the suttas and the formulas predate the Nikayas as collections.

On that stratification there must have been some process of combining the pre-existing formulas to create the suttas and some process of collecting the suttas into canonical collections, so some sort of composition and some sort of collection is surely implied, so elements from the play-of-formulas thesis must have been operative. The “conservatives” seem to be arguing that the texts as we have them must have evolved not as snap shots of extemporaneous performances but as communal monastic documents without much room for “creativity”

However no one on the “play of formulas/oral literature” side is implying that individual monks where just making up new suttas out of whole cloth extemporaneously ala a bardic performance of an epic in a village square, just that the texts may have developed using the same mechanisms - combination of stock formulas in pre-determined ways. The impression I get from the Allon “side” is that he wants to emphasis the communal and doctrinal elements that would have informed the composition of texts and therefore leans towards the “conservative” features of production while Evetiar et all want to point out the creative dimension, this tension leads to a fair bit of straw-manning back and forth but both elements must have been present unless one rejects the entire debate on the basis that all the texts where just spoken by the Buddha and recalled by Ananda at the council.

As is usual for me, a middle path between the two extremes seems the most helpful :slight_smile:

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One slight correction I would make to the the debate is Wynne saying in 2004 that the patimokkha forbids teaching a layperson dhamma “word for word” - the passage appears to me at least to forbid enabling or encouraging a lay person to recite the dhamma word for word;

If any bhikkhu should make someone who is not ordained (anupasampan-naμ) recite (vaceyya) the Dhamma word by word (padaso), there is an offense entailing expiation

This seems to me to be an important distinction, with the Wynnes interpretation appearing to endorse a kind of esotericcism and secrecy while my interpretation merely suggests that monks shouldn’t encourage lay people to pretend to be monks.

It seems EBTs are not entirely based on oral transmissions, but also artificial compilations.

I agree. But I think this is such a HUGE question with next to no historical record of how it was done that it would take decades (at least) of seriously meticulous study (Have you seen Allon’s doctoral thesis?) to get anywhere near a clear picture of the twists and turns which characterized that process–if even then.

As brilliant as some of this research is, it’s all still at the most rudimentary stages, in my opinion. I doubt I’ll live to see an answer. It is fascinating, though.


Allon’s work sets a benchmark for what serious analysis of early Buddhist texts looks like.