On the historical stratification of buddhist doctrine on the evidence of the early buddhist texts

Let us recall the thesis of the excellent Bh. Brahmali’s & Bh. Sujato’s ‘The Authenticity of the early Buddhist Texts’ a text which also gives us a good orientation for the arguments to follow.


  1. That most of the EBTs are authentic.

  2. That the EBTSs were edited and arranged over a few centuries follow-
    ing the Buddha’s demise. The texts as we have them now are not a
    verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in
    almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not of doctrine
    or substance.

  3. That the inauthentic portions of these texts are generally identifi-

  4. That the above points are supported by a substantial and varied body
    of empirical evidence.

  5. That the denial of authenticity is a product of excessive and unrea-
    sonable scepticism, not evidence.

We shall agree with all 5 of these assertions, however we will make a simple observation about “2(b)”:

2.(b) “the changes are in almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not of doctrine or substance.”

which we will shall amend with:

  1. (c) within the 4 princple collections of the prose teachings, S and E (the Samyutta/Samyukta and the Anguttra/Ekottra) depend in large part on an identifiable more archaic presentation of the substantive doctrinal content in D (and to some extent M).

  2. (d) these archaic parts present a buddhism that does not feature the five aggregates trope, nor the 12 link conditionality trope, nor many other tropes which are identifiable especially in the S collection.

These clauses c and d have a great deal of evidence that I will present below. I wish to stress fro the outset that I have no problem with S as an exposition of buddhism, except in as much as people misinterpret it by wrongly thinking that the substantive material in D is posterior to it rather than the correct understanding that it is anterior.

To bracket our conversation the other way in terms oh doctirnal development there is also the excellent

which should be consulted to clarify what we are talking about here.

FIrst off what we are talking about is clear and persuasive evidence that pushes our knowlege of the teachings of the historical buddha forward, that is we can better understand the meaning of the 12 links when we understand that the buddha did not use 12 links in the examples he gave, but almost certainly various shorter formulations to illustrate the same argument.

knowing that there is nothing particularly special about “12” links, helps us follow the path.

similarly openly acknowleding that the “8” fold path and the “5” aggregates and the “12” links are not much evidenced in the earliest prose ebts (essentially D, but more on establishing that later) in no way invalidates them as genuine and legitimate practices, just that we have evidence of what buddhism means from before those where things! isnt that great?

So I guess what I am saying is that swallowing the bitter pill of realizing that S probably originates after the death of the buddha is more than compensated by the realisation that in D we have “pre-historic” evidence of very detailed doctrinal and philosphical content that it really seems we should agree that the buddha and his contemporary generation of buddhists all agreed he actually said!

So. where to start?

  1. That most of the EBTs are authentic.

How do we identify an inauthentic text in the EBT?
This is very difficult, but in some limited cases we may be nearly certain that a given piece of text is not original, for example where there is a sutta preserved in multiple languages with different additions or deletions we may again while not being certain of which edits where the original doctrine, we may be certain that the doctrine left unedited by the different examples was original in most cases.

We can fruitfully apply this principle to the subsection of the material I am primarily concerned with, the prose suttas.

assuming that while we don’t know for certain if any given piece of prose is original to buddhism we may be most confident of those parts where the examples in different languages like pali, chinese, sanskrit, etc, match.

Applying this principle again to the collections of the prose, D, M, S and E, we may again say (echoing Rhys Davids) that while we cannot know for certain that any given piece of prose occurring in a given collection is original or not, the words most likely to be authentic are those that are repeated in all 4 collections, rather than occurring in just one.

In what follows I will confine myself to what I can examine with a high degree of confidence as the original doctrine by defining an idealised “canon” of high confidence material by the following procedure:

I take the chinese and the pali collections of the 4 major prose collections.

I take as “authentic” (i.e more likely to be original) any sutta that occurs in both collections.
I take as “inauthentic” (i.e more likely to be scholastic/sectarian) any portion of that sutta where the pali and the chinese disagree.

with this idealised version of a canon, where every sutta has a chinese and a pali exemplar, and only “authentic” material (i.e in both exemplars) in any sutta we require a way to determine if the sutta is in D, M, S or E, to do this we will repeat our methadology, taking it to be the case that the authentic suttas most likely to be in thier authentic collection are those suttas whos chinese exemplar occurs in the equivilent collection to the occurance of the pali example.

We now have by induction an idealized canon of prose suttas about which we can say a great deal with high confidence:

  1. we can claim pretty convincingly that everything we are reading in this idealized canon is pre-secatrian at the very least.

  2. we can interrogate the differences between for example, the pali by iteslf, or the pali by way of comparison with the idealised pre sectarian version. this is almost always immensely fruitful.

SO perhaps we will reformulate @sujato and @Brahmali 's thesis;



  1. That all of the prose suttas of D M S E where the pali agrees with the chinese in chapter and verse are authentic.

  2. That the DMSE was edited and arranged over a few centuries follow-
    ing the Buddha’s demise. The texts as we have them now are not a
    verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in
    almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not of doctrine
    or substance.

  3. That the inauthentic portions of these texts are generally identifi-

  4. That there is a clearly identifiable origin of shcolastic as opposed to original buddhism that is exemplified in S and gives good grounds to accept DMSE as the order of composition with materials in D more likely to be closer tto the Buddhas lifeltime than material in S.

  5. That this makes D, and the sekka within it, the ur-text of DMSE and therefore the ur-text of Buddhist prose.

  6. There is every reason to believe that the sekkha was the Buddhas “stump speach” and that we have in it as good a candidate for “composed in the lifetime of the buddha” as any piece of substantive prose wed have.

  7. That the above points are supported by a substantial and varied body
    of empirical evidence.

  8. That the denial of authenticity is a product of excessive and unrea-
    sonable scepticism, not evidence.

  9. That the denial of the identifiable strata in the DMSE is a product of excessive and unrea-
    sonable scepticism, not evidence.

So what can we say about the buddhism revealed by our “ideal authentic canon”?

in another thread I compiled an example of how we can say with great confidence that the meditation instruction on the 4 jhana was a part of the presectarian canon, by showing that it was present in the idealized canon DMSE as in here where we take all the examples of the trope in the pali and find those suttas that occur in both canons in the same volumes and have the trope:

So to start our comparison; paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ in the pali occurs at:


(cattāro satipaṭṭhānā)

VN: 46 (3)
DN: 24 (10)
MN: 52 (11)
SN: 24 (48)
AN: 61 (18)
KN: 61 (44)
AB: 313 (7)
VM: 26 (7)


DN: DN1 DN2 DN3 DN4 DN5 DN6 DN7 DN8 DN9 DN10 DN11 DN12 DN16 DN17 DN22 DN26 DN29 DN33 DN34

MN: MN4 MN8 MN10 MN13 MN19 MN25 MN26 MN27 MN30 MN31 MN36 MN38 MN39 MN43 MN44 MN45 MN51 MN52 MN53 MN59 MN60 MN64 MN65 MN66 MN76 MN77 MN78 MN79 MN85 MN94 MN99 MN100 MN101 MN107 MN108 MN111 MN112 MN113 MN119 MN122 MN138 MN139 MN141

SN: SN6.15 SN16.9 SN16.10 SN16.11 SN28.1 SN36.11 SN36.15 SN36.17 SN36.19 SN36.31 SN40.1 SN41.8 SN41.9 SN45.8 SN48.10 SN53.1 SN54.8

AN: AN1.382 AN2.11 AN3.59 AN3.64 AN3.75 AN3.95 AN4.123 AN4.124 AN4.163 AN4.169 AN4.190 AN4.200 AN5.14 AN5.28 AN5.94 AN5.256 AN5.264 AN6.60 AN6.73 AN6.74 AN7.53 AN7.67 AN7.69 AN8.11 AN8.30 AN9.31 AN9.32 AN 9.33 AN9.34 AN9.35 AN9.36 AN9.38 AN9.39 AN9.40 AN9.41 AN9.42 AN9.43 AN9.44 AN9.45 AN9.46 AN9.47 AN9.51 AN9.52 AN9.61 AN9.93 AN10.85 AN10.99 AN11.16 AN11.502


DN1 DA21 (both contain the jhana sequence)
DN2 DA27 (the parallel elides the jhanas but has the sekkha passage)
DN3 DA20 (both contain the jhana sequence)
DN4 DA22 (parallel employs the elison " attains the rapture of the four dhyānas in the present life)
DN5 DA23 (parallel contains the sekkha passage, elides the jhana part)
DN8 DA25 (parallel refers to the four jhanas)
DN9 DA28 (parallel contains the full sequence)
DN11 DA24 (contains the sekkha with elison)
DN12 DA29 (omits the sequence)
DN16 DA2 (contains the full sequnce and adds jhana to the wings)
DN26 DA6 (contains the full sequence)
DN29 DA17 (contains the full sequence and adds jhana to the wings)
DN33 DA9 DA10 (sariputta)
DN34 DA10 DA11 (sariputta)

So our idealised canon is where there is the jhana teaching in both the Pali and the Chinese:

DN1 DA21
DN2 DA27
DN3 DA20
DN4 DA22
DN5 DA23
DN8 DA25
DN9 DA28
DN11 DA24
DN16 DA2
DN26 DA6
DN29 DA17

powering on to MN;

MN8 MA91 (the parallel mentions the jhanas in elided form)
MN13 MA99 (the parallel mentions the jhanas in elided form)
MN19 MA102 (parallel has the full jhana sequence)
MN25 MA178 (jhanas in elided form)
MN26 MA204 (jhanas in elided form)
MN27 MA146 (full jhana sequence, omits past lives etc)
MN31 MA185 (mentions jhana)
MN38 MA201 (omits the jhana)
MN39 MA182 (mentions jhana)
MN43 MA211 (sariputta)
MN44 MA210 (dhammadina)
MN45 MA174 (parallel omits jahnas)
MN52 MA217 (ananda)
MN64 MA205 (parallel has full jhana sequence)
MN65 MA194 (parallel contains full jhana sequence)
MN66 MA192 (parallel contains the full jhana formula)
MN77 MA207
MN78 MA179
MN79 MA208
MN85 MA204
MN99 MA152 MA170
MN101 MA19
MN107 MA144
MN108 MA145
MN112 MA187
MN113 MA85
MN119 MA81 MA98
MN122 MA191
MN138 MA164
MN139 MA169
MN141 MA31 MA98

so a core for (partial) M is

MN8 MA91 (the parallel mentions the jhanas in elided form)
MN13 MA99 (the parallel mentions the jhanas in elided form)
MN19 MA102 (parallel has the full jhana sequence)
MN25 MA178 (jhanas in elided form)
MN26 MA204 (jhanas in elided form)
MN27 MA146 (full jhana sequence, omits past lives etc)
MN31 MA185 (mentions jhana)
MN38 MA201 (omits the jhana)
MN39 MA182 (mentions jhana)
MN64 MA205 (parallel has full jhana sequence)
MN65 MA194 (parallel contains full jhana sequence)
MN66 MA192 (parallel contains the full jhana formula)

and for S we take:

SN6.15 SA1197 (omits jhana)
SN16.9 SA1142 (both contain the jhana sequence)
SN16.10 SA1143 (Mahākāśyapa)
SN16.11 SA1144 (Mahākāśyapa)
SN36.11 SA473 (both contain jhana)
SN36.17 SA474 (both contain jhana)
SN36.19 SA485 (both contain the jhana sequence)
SN36.31 SA483 (both contain the jhana sequence)
SN41.8 SA574 (Citta, tho both parallels mention jhana)
SN41.9 SA573 (Citta)
SN45.8 SA784 (omits jhana, is actually very interesting)
SN48.10 SA658 (parallel contains 謂四禪。, the four jhanas)
SN54.8 SA814 (both contain jhana)

So our “common core” for SN is:

SN16.9 SA1142
SN36.11 SA473
SN36.17 SA473
SN36.19 SA485
SN36.31 SA483
SN41.9 SA573
SN48.10 SA658
SN54.8 SA814

So we can take our idealised canon of:

DN1 DA21
DN2 DA27
DN3 DA20
DN4 DA22
DN5 DA23
DN8 DA25
DN9 DA28
DN11 DA24
DN16 DA2
DN26 DA6
DN29 DA17

MN8 MA91
MN13 MA99
MN19 MA102
MN25 MA178
MN26 MA204
MN27 MA146
MN31 MA185
MN38 MA201
MN39 MA182
MN64 MA205
MN65 MA194
MN66 MA192

SN16.9 SA1142
SN36.11 SA473
SN36.17 SA473
SN36.19 SA485
SN36.31 SA483
SN41.9 SA573
SN48.10 SA658
SN54.8 SA814

Theorem 1. Jhana is clearly presectarian and represented in our canon by ALL of DMS.

Because we can demonstrate with high confidence that the prose about this subject is preserved in at least 2 canonical languages, and because they both agree on what “type” of sutta (DMSE) they are we can also say with high confidence that all of the reciters agreed that jhana was part of the original teaching.

This standard, that we should accept as authentic what is in both the chinese and the pali, as well as what is in all of the 4 volumes as more authentic than anything occuring only in 1 or 2, implies not just that we should accept the jhana teaching as the most likey to be authentic, it also tells us we should think that aggregates are less likely to be authentic than jhana because, as explored in this thread:

this thread very long thread, from which the above jhana example is taken; Is actually about the aggregates and asking the questions above. we find that once the “idealised canon” methadology is applied to the aggregates we must admit that they do not appear to meet the standard of being universally acknowledged by the volumes.

Let us start by constructing our “idealised” canon fr the aggregates:

where we had the 2 pali words “paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ” for our idealised jhana caonon, we will use the 2 words “rūpaṁ attato” for idealised aggregates canon.

10 times in MN, at MN44, MN109, MN131, MN132 and MN138

MN44 MA210
MN109 parallel in SA not MA
MN131 no direct parallel
MN132 MA167
MN138 MA164

so our common core so far is;




MN44 MA210
MN132 MA167
MN138 MA164


SN22.1 (parallel in E not S) so

SN22.7 SA43 SA66
SN22.43 SA36
SN22.44 SA69
SN41.3 SA570
SN44.8 SA9599

AN4.200 (paralell in S not in E)



in summary there is no teaching about “regarding form as self” in D, or E, however it is attested in M,and S.

I would also point out that if we are talking about teachings by the Buddha, we must remove MN44 MA210 on the grounds that both sources identiy Dhammadina as the teacher, not the Buddha, so even the canon does not claim that the Buddha taught “rūpaṁ attato” in MN44.

just on this basis alone we can say that we should be less confident of the aggregates trope than the jhana trope because the jhana trope is presentin all of DSME while the aggregates trope is not.


In a sense it does claim that, for both the Pali and the Chinese conclude with the Buddha giving his endorsement to Dhammadinnā’s teaching:

“The nun Dhammadinnā is astute, Visākha, she has great wisdom. If you came to me and asked this question, I would answer it in exactly the same way as the nun Dhammadinnā. That is what it means, and that’s how you should remember it.”


Thank you for the thought provoking post. I will need some more time to digest the thesis you have presented. I am not as well versed with these issues as others, but I do have a simple question for now: don’t the discourses in DN often depict the Buddha giving a “stump speech” to someone not in his order? If so, wouldn’t we expect those to be relatively stable, giving-a-broad-overview, and less technical than the other talks given elsewhere in the Nikayas?

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Where do you place the Atthakavagga and the Parayanavagga in your theory?

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Oops! This is supposed to still be in draft!

@Dhammanando you are quite right, this is a secondary argument that I should place later, but essentially my argument is that we can tell that all the collections of the prose unambigiuosly recognise at least the jhana sequence, the undeclared points, and some example of dependance/conditionality that acknowledges “arising” “ceasing” and a “path” (from one to the other).

however the more elaborate formal “dhammas” of the specifically 12 linked example of dependence, the specifically 5 membered collections of “aggregates” and even, dare i say, the specifically 8 fold path, oh and while I am kicking sacred horses, the specificity of “dhukka” as the example in the “4 noble truths”… plus please dont get me started on breath meditation, thats a whole other story… but, unlike jhana/kamma/abayakata/samudayanirodhamagga, if you look carefully at the pali and the chinese side by side and simply remove what isnt really there in the pre-sectarian sense then outside of the shared S there is minimal evidence for any of these ideas in the narrative corpus.

It appears fairly sensible to therefore think that;

the original collection of the buddhists was the long collection.
this grew as more legitimate teachings where added.

the middle collection is the “second volume” of this work, and what evidence we have of the newer, scholastic 4truth 8path 5heaps 12links buddhism begins to appear here in works like MN44 and MN148 that show the first stirrings of what we now call “abhidhamma”

this then leads us to the third volume S, which as we have shown relies on DM not the other way round, is the continuation ofthe late M style of combining simpler and earlier elements of the teaching to other simpler earlier teachings producing cominatorial suttas of the style (totally unlike the preceding prose which it relentlessly qoutes) we see in S and then again in all the various abhidhammatic works.

All of this has the following fairly profound meaning for buddhist hermenuetics;

That the orthodox reading of the aggregates must be congruent with the earlier abayakatasamudayanirodhamagga buddhism.

It is therefore normative over readings of anatta and aggregates with regards to readings of “all”

My central claim is simply that those who mistakenly read into the aggregates arguments an argument such as;

“all that there are is the aggregates”
“i am not an aggregates”
“therefore I do not exist qed”

are simply wrong from the orthodox, traditional, clearly original and profound teaching that a proper understanding doew not hold the view that:

“i do not exist”
“i do exist”

rather the “view” that

“for any X having come to be
there is an arising of X is True.
there is a cessation of X is True.
there is a path from A (arising) to C (ceasing) is True.”

Which of course IS the “4 noble truths” which of course is perfectly orthodox.

@Soren With regard to DN, it has a lot of prose that is demonstrably very “late” and “ornate”, my claims are really about the portions of text inside DN, specifically the so called “sekkha patipada”, if you want to see an example of the specific text I am referring to it can be read here;


VN1 (by which I mean Bu Pj 1 )
DN2 DN3 DN4 DN5 DN6 DN7 DN8 DN9 DN10 DN11 DN12 ** DN13
MN4 MN6 MN19 MN27 MN36 MN38 MN39 MN51 MN53 MN60 MN65 MN73 MN76 MN77 MN79 MN85 MN94 MN100 MN101 MN107 MN112 MN119 MN125
SN6.3 * SN12.70 SN16.9 SN16.11 SN51.11
AN3.58 AN4.198 AN5.75 AN5.76 AN10.99

note about ** this gives the formula up to the abandonment of the hinderances and then gvies the brahma-viharas instead of the rest of the formula, it is the first of many such variations giving parts otf the formula mixed with other teachings.
note about * this gives just about the most truncated version one could imagine.

this piece of text is immensly technical, dense, and reflects practices (such as the mind made body) that are recorded as being lost in the EBT themselves! (for eg in the fake monk and wisdom liberated monks in S which I will hunt down the link to if I get time).

@Raftafarian I think they are poetry :slight_smile: and I am trying to make an argument about the prose :slight_smile:

But I think they are very probably earlier than the prose as we have it now.

So I would want to say that the sekkha patipada would have taken those 2 poems at least as “orthodox”, and maybe parts of the rhinosaurus sutta as well, but the problem on that side of the stratafication project IMO is we hit the “shared literature” stage.

A LOT of the early material is shared between braminical, buddhist and jain literature at least, and it is very hard to get a clear picture.

But thankfully I don’t have to worry because I have chosen to study the prose!!! :slight_smile:

Anyway, I will go back to the OP and try and whip it into a bit more shape eventually, but basically I think it is clearly the case that the prose can be more or less readily stratified doctrinally and in the prose it was



and basically everything else



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There’s a basic problem with this method, which we can’t really get around. Which is that we are missing large portions of the EBT canons that once existed. If we discovered them tomorrow, they would provided us with many more parallels than we have.

We don’t have:

  • Any Agama collection of the Mahasamghika or Mahisasaka schools
  • MA, SA, and EA of the Dharmaguptakas
  • EA and half of DA of the Sarvastivadins

To make it more complicated, there were apparently at least two canonical traditions among the Sarvastivadins. So, we actually only have MA from one of those traditions and SA for the other one. And portions of a DA from one of the two (or a third!) that academics haven’t published entirely yet.

If a Pali sutta doesn’t have a parallel, that doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic. It means we don’t have a parallel for it. As they like to say in archeology, “The absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”


I still have not fully read in detail the entirety of the OP. I think I am on the same page as you “in general,” but I am not sure if I asked my question clearly enough, so I will try again. With regards to DN1-DN13

  1. DN1 is a talk from the Buddha to the wanderer Suppiya, together with his pupil, the brahmin student Brahmadatta.

  2. DN2 is a talk from the Buddha to the King Ajātasattu of Magadha, son of the princess of Videha.

  3. DN3 is a talk from the Buddha to the brahmin Pokkharasādi, together with his student, Ambaṭṭha.

  4. DN4 is a talk from the Buddha to the brahmin Soṇadaṇḍa

  5. DN5 is a talk from the Buddha to the brahmin Kūṭadanta.

  6. DN6 is a talk from the Buddha to “Oṭṭhaddha the Licchavi together with a large assembly of Licchavis,” and “several brahmin emissaries from Kosala and Magadha.” Here Oṭṭhaddha seems to be asking about someone in training?

  7. DN7 is a talk from the Buddha to " two renunciates the wanderer Muṇḍiya and Jāliya, the pupil of the wood-bowl ascetic"

  8. DN8 is a talk from the Buddha to the naked ascetic Kassapa

  9. DN9 is a talk from the Buddha to the Wanderer Poṭṭhapāda

  10. DN10 is a talk from Ānanda to the brahmin student Subha

  11. DN11 is a talk from the Buddha to the householder Kevaḍḍha

  12. DN12 is a talk from the Buddha to the brahmin Lohicca

  13. DN13 is a talk from the Buddha to the the students Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja (it is ambiguous whether or not they have already gone for refuge)

So, given that almost all of these talks are to folks with no prior background knowledge who are interested in “the path” in general, the talks would tend to be less technical and omit things like the 5aggregates, 4 truths, 8paths, 12links.

On the other hand, some of those are arguably not that technical and they “should” be essential, so why weren’t they mentioned?

yes this is very true, but, if there is a parallel, and one has the five aggregates and the other has the five hinderences, for example, we can say that it is the shared portion of the text that is more certain than either of the differences.

applying this principle has both positive and negative consequences, first it abundantly confirms that the jhana and the abayakata and samudayanirodhamagga was common to all of D M S E in BOTH Pali and Chinese and negatively, it implies that aggregates style teachings where not clearly common in the same way, specifically outside of S, where the S style examples are most often not the same between D M E in pali vs chinese.

this is a good reason to accept the notion that the S collection was the last pre-sectarian collection (and the first “sholastic” collection) and that the archaic features in D are the original presentation of the teaching.

This is true too, and might defeat my thesis, but sans groundbreaking new discoveries the sort of which I struggle to imagine, my substantive point remains:

1.jhana/abayakata etc are in good evidence throughout the prose.
2. anatta/aggregates is in good evidence in S but has much poorer evidence by the standards applied.

This does not categorically or neccesarily mean that S is in general later than and dependant on D, but it is a good reason to think so, and of course there are many other arguments, scattered across my last year of posting, to this effect.


I think that most likely the interlocutors are famous converts in the early rise of buddhism used to frame the essential teachings and to show that it was acceptable to high status individuals.

There is nothing in particular omitted by omitting the aggregates, D already has the vedana example which aggregates are just a formulaic expansion and repetition of.


[quote=“josephzizys, post:1, topic:30948”]
S probably originates after the death of the buddha[/quote]

I find it strange when people insist “later” means this.

Bh. Brahmali & Bh. Sujato are still alive, and yet you were able to make a numerical list re-formulating their teachings and even inserting your own original thought.

When we’re talking about events from ~2.5kya, I think the error bars on our time estimates are often going to overlap with the ~ 0.045kya teaching career of the historical buddha, unless there’s a really compelling reason to believe something couldn’t have happened while he was alive (e.g. elaborate descriptions of his death).

Especially when, as you highlight, the suttas themselves attest to individuals other than the buddha reformulating & re-expressing his teachings during his lifetime.

I think this is really nice evidence to indicate the possibility that the 5 aggregate formulation may have originated with (attribution to) Dhammadina and only later been inserted into other text’s with the Buddha as the speaker. I’m just a little skeptical we can be so confident things like this only began to happen after the buddha’s 45 year teaching career ended.

As was mentioned above, what we do know for sure is that today we only have a very partial amount of texts that used to exist.
So drawing broad conclusions about which doctrinal ideas may be early and later based on their distribution across surviving texts is not really possible.

The Theravadin Tipitaka is one version of the Dhamma, presumedly arranged and classified by the early Sangha in a way they thought best. Various ideas were placed and stressed in a particular way. But other schools of Buddhism did it differently. For reasons not fully understood, the Pali Theravadin canon is the most extensive version, and therefore it is often considered the most authentic. But its status may be due as much to quirks of history as to authenticity.

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Yes, I’m not saying there’s no value in comparing what we have today. Though, again, I would say that when there are only two versions of a sutra, the comparison is lacking alot of context. If we had the other three or four versions that may have existed, it would be more informative. Some sutras do have that many parallels that exist, and it’s pretty eye-opening sometimes how a couple versions are very close, but another is quite different. The Sangiti Sutra comes to mind. If we only had the DN and Sarvastivada versions of it, we’d conclude that it was originally a big sutra. But there’s are two versions that are much smaller and lack the material that’s in the Sarvastivada version (which the DN version appears to copy).

Anyway, I don’t want to discourage you, just pointing out there’s more to it than counting keywords.

Yeah. I don’t really get your argument about this. Just because a particular topic is rarer in the whole corpus of sutras doesn’t mean that it’s older or newer material. It’s just less common. The thing that actually makes the argument about the aggregates seem plausible is the existence of Abhidharma texts that place the aggregates front and center with the sense fields and elements. These three sets of ideas were used as the basis of more complex analysis by Abhidharma authors. If we assume Abhidharma texts were later than the sutra collections, then the aggregates become more suspect. That they don’t occur very often doesn’t mean anything to me other than they weren’t as popular whenever the sutras were composed.

But that does bring up the fact that the aggregates were part of a larger set of ideas, the sense fields and elements. The three ought to be studied together, I would think, given how closely related they seem to be in Abhidharma.

On the other hand, it’s not surprising at all to me that jhana is a common topic. Meditation is the central occupation of a sramana, Buddhist or otherwise. So, yes, it’s a common topic found throughout the sutra collections and the rest of the Tripitaka. That, again, doesn’t mean much to me regarding when one collection was created vs. another. It does make it more likely to me that jhana passages are old since they would have been a foundational teaching, whereas more philosophical ideas may have developed later on.

Personally, I think it’s as likely that all four collections were created at the same time, or very nearly the same time, given that every account of the first council agrees that they were compiled at that time. The real issue is which sutras in those collections are older or newer.

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Let me start of by saying that, from what I can gather of your understanding/presentation, I agree with what you believe is the core of Early Buddhist dhammavinaya, that is:

  1. The Gradual Training (incl. the jhānas)
  2. The Middle Way (between eternalism and nihilism, etc. + the dependent nature of views and epistemology)
  3. Dependent Arising (incl. a path for cessation)

I actually spent quite some time before my ordination analyzing the Dīgha Nikāya and Dīrgha Āgamas to understand their structure, organization, content, and context as a response to some of your ideas. Then life happened — so maybe sometime in the future I’ll salvage that and share it.

The main thing I noticed and drew out was what @Soren has already pointed out: all of the discourses in the Sīlakkhandhavagga are presented as teachings for non-Buddhists on the basics. This is, of course, the common core of D. But it’s not just that they present the gradual training, etc. to non-Buddhists. It’s that all of the teachings therein are time and again meant to refute foreign doctrine in favor of the better Buddhist one — be it the approach to training, views, meditation, what have you.

BUT: This is not unique just to the Sīlakkhandhavagga. If you compare the collections as a whole, looking at the details of the content and narrative of each discourse, nearly every single sutta in the common core of D contains propaganda and refutation of outside doctrine, supremacy of the Buddhist one, and establishes the significance of Buddhism within its religio-cultural context amidst a sea of samanas and brāhmanas. This is the purpose, the overarching intention and principle, of the common D collection so far as we can tell.

Excuse the poor analogy, but take the flood myth. The flood myth occurs in various cultures around the same region with similar tropes. Say we ignored the fact that the flood myth was embedded in a religious myth, singled out the text on the flood itself, and argued that the core of all early Middle Eastern religions is actually a flood that took place that they interpreted as theologically significant.

While it’s true that the flood motif is a common core established across traditions and that the external details vary, the flood motif cannot be separated from its mythological context, despite what we may perceive as ‘embroidery’ or later flowering context.

In the same way, we cannot isolate the undeclared points, etc. in D from the context that they arise in over and over: refuting or ridiculing (or both) outside doctrines to establish the essential position of Buddhism.

Maybe that example seems faulty and unsatisfactory. Okay. Either way, assuming the context in which these doctrines are grounded:

Are the gradual training and principles of conditionality applied to soteriology fundamentals of Early Buddhism? Yes! And do other more “advanced” materials for practitioners already on the path and cultivating assume one is familiar with them? Of course! That doesn’t mean that the other material post dates the death of the Buddha as you (surprisingly) claim with firm assurance.

Is misinterpreting more ‘advanced’ material because one doesn’t understand the basics problematic? Of course! Does that mean that the material some misunderstand is by default later and scholastic? I think the line of reasoning here is clear.

Note that the early sects of Buddhism also admitted to this. I can’t recall the reference, but IIRC the Sarvāstivādins claimed that the function of the DA is for outsiders (continuing with the function of each of the other collections).

Moreover, as you yourself have said, the material in e.g. DN 1 is extremely dense. You know a more straightforward, less scholastic way of discussing theories of self or annihilation on different grounds? Five basic categories: form, feeling, perception, ideation, consciousness. If we look at other Indic texts, this is also rather familiar to theories of buckets, layers, etc. of the self that begin arising in the Upanisads and so forth. The aggregates are more attested to in the pre-sectarian canon than the various permutations and formulations at DN 1.

I would add, briefly, that it is circular reasoning (in mild disguise) to say that DN 1 is recognized as significant (therefore attesting to its primacy) because the Vinaya says so. This is not an independent source: the Vinaya narrative is literally about justifying the sectarian arrangement of its particular canon. This is like arguing that the three characteristics are clearly the fundamental doctrine of Early Buddhism because the Theravādins say so; it’s self-serving.

Okay, okay. That’s my point; not unfamiliar.
But wait. There’s more. (Lol)

I talked about looking at the context and nature of collections in which material is consistently presented. Let’s explore a bit deeper (and this is an argument I’ve raised to you before):

What is the nature of the SN/SA? What are its characteristics? What guiding principles surround its organization, structure, and content?

Relatively short, concise, yet practical contemplative analyses and instructions. When we start comparing much of the material in the various sects’ canons, we see that there is an underground rail-road between S and M: longer discourses that are copied and or moved and often expanded upon (but not always!) are moved from S into M.

Then, we look at D again. Comparing the nature of this collection with the Sanskrit and Chinese, something interesting arises: there was a clear “underground rail-road” again, this time between M and D, with different schools sometimes moving different discourses along this highway.

So it looks like we have a basic principle of length influencing the collections that we can see independently and consistently in S, M, D in all parallels available. This is, admittedly, unsurprising. Longer discourses tend to go to D. Middle-length to M. Less elaborate to S. And we see a kind of road from S to M to D.

Why isn’t the lengthy, elaborate, detailed gradual training present all over S? Maybe because of its length! It simply does not fit with the discourses of S, and so it is simply unreasonable to demand it to as evidence for its authenticity — like taking someone captive and forcing them to reveal information they don’t have lest they be deemed a liar.

Let’s talk about what the early schools themselves have to say, as you did before, again. They claim that the collections are organized around length and around overarching function/principle. No surprise, we find this to clearly be the case for the common core of D in both regards independently of the school who claimed it, and likewise this principle holds true from the negative perspective: we don’t see what we expect not to.

Then let’s think about the independent evidence of various scholars (Yin Shun, Mun Keat, Sujato, etc.) on the early structure of the pre-sectarian canon before the four-fold Āgama distribution. Because let’s keep in mind that the actual discourses never mention the four āgamas/nikāyas, nor do they hint at any evidence they know of their existence. What they do hint at is memorized discourses according to ‘angas,’ just as the earlier Jain canon distributes material and in line with the Vedic angas we see the suttas reference.

There we see that the categories especially of sutta, geyya, and veyyākarana stand out — not only as meta-references in the early texts, but also as somewhat recognizable and logical categories that we can observe for ourselves within the S collection and then outward in the M and E/A. So there is actual independent indication—that holds up across canons, was attested to by ancient Buddhist scholars, and holds to modern scrutiny—leading us to believe that material originating in something closer to S is old, and moved out to other collections based on the above mentioned principles of length, theme, function, etc. This was subsequently influenced more over time as the reciter tradition evolved to even out even more the collections and so forth, though we still have traces of common movements that are likely older.

We can also think about what this independent evidence relating to the three angas identifies as the core of Early Buddhism:

  1. Conditionality / Dependent Arising
  2. The Middle Way (both incl. abyākata)
  3. Removing 5 hindrances (incl. jhāna)

What you call the ‘samudayanirodhamagga’ and identify as essential is of course, as you mentioned, the format of the four noble truths and forms the core layout of much of the pre-S organization. Moreover, this is assumed and referenced in D without sufficient explanation: in the paññā section it references these four without definition or explanation. Of course, for establishing a basic outline and presenting the essentials of Buddhist training to outsiders, this makes sense. But as the reference for Buddhists, less so

So there is no disagreement with what you identify as essential based on the lengthy collection. I’ll repeat that misinterpretation by later interpreters does not mean the collection is more suspicious; in fact, we would only assume and that the texts meant for the actual disciples of the Buddha were more subtle and easier to misunderstand than the ones meant to present to people completely unfamiliar with Buddhism.

We simply cannot look at one particular, contextual assortment of selected texts and then interrogate other texts why they do not fit in to those same particulars. It’s rather arbitrary, to be honest, to look at one set of teachings for a particular group and say it’s first, and that therefore other teachings (which do not present different core messages) are later. You do it with D; others do it with S; some with E/A; some maybe with M. If we start by assuming some ground, we can claim the whole world; if we start without, we see that the reality is much more complicated.

There’s a lot to go into and say here, and this was just what came to mind on a whim for now. There are various good, valid points and others not so solid. I’d close by repeating that I think there’s a lot of value in approaching Buddhadhamma from the perspective you have gained based on careful reading of the gradual training and undeclared points. I just don’t agree with some of the assumptions here.



My feeling is that aggregates are heavily associated with Sariputta and it is that “lineage” that becomes the first “scholatic” school, of which Dhammadinna was a representative.

The broader reason i think the scholastic material, like what is found in SN, is most likely later than the Buddha is because it is different to the material in D in a really noticable way, and a way that is easier to misinterpret nihilsticly than the other material (plus its dryer, it admits that monks have lost the mind made body, it uses terms much more common to abbhidharma, it qoutes the earlier material, and many, many other reasons I havent yet added to this post).

My argument is basically about confidence.
I agree that we cant know the contents of the shared pre-sectarian teaching, of know the development of that corpus temporally with any certainty. However!

We can say that if one piece of doctrine is unambiguoisly shared between many specific suttas in all 4 collections of both the pali and the chinese then we can be MORE confident that specific doctrine is early, and by implication we should admit that we must be LESS sure of those elements of doctrine that show more diaagreement between pali amd chinese and between individual collections amongst the 4 principle collections.

That is my principle methadological argument.

But of course I have many other arguments in defense of my thesis, and it is my intention to collect them in the OP.

Thank you for your lengthy reply, I will read it carefully, however before i do i just wanted to point out that the above is yet another good reason to think that D was early! In the context of establishing a religious movement we would expect a lot of polemic and conversion stories, in contrast we aught to expect that an established movement with many student converts would develop more instructional, scholastic literature.

Anyway, I will now try and read the rest of your post! Thanks again for your engagement!!

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This is categotrically untrue.
It is even categorically untrue of the pali canon, let alone my imaginary “ideal” canon of overlapping pali and chinese.

For a mostly Pali centric analysis of exactly how often and in which books aggregates material actually occurs, see:

This is not the whole story of course, for that a genuine and robust analysis of jhana/sekkha and anatta/aggregates would need to be placed side by side, which is what I intend to do in the OP

This is true of the Pali, and the evidence from the Chinese is yet another example of why its probable that the original M lacked many of the S style discourses originally.

To clarify, I’m referring to the various lists of what people identify as ‘the self’ or the various annihilationist views and so forth. There are many elaborate views presented in DN 1 in detail, but the aggregates are repeated more consistently and frequently (obviously in S, but also in being referenced elsewhere too) as opposed to naming particular views like “the self is formless and percipient after death” etc.

the above is yet another good reason to think that D was early! In the context of establishing a religious movement we would expect a lot of polemic and conversion stories, in contrast we aught to expect that an established movement with many student converts would develop more instructional, scholastic literature.

While I agree partially, this is not necessarily the case. If we look at the propaganda in the D collection, much of it is embedded in seemingly late contexts. Take, for example, the narratives in DN 3, DN 4, and DN 5 which feature the 32 marks, elaborate narratives, or heavy mythological content that as I pointed out we cannot simply ignore: these are essential components of the text, not side embellishments, and they are consistent as being essential to the presentation of other material we may find more “sober.”

DN 10 is said to be after the Buddha’s death explicitly. DN 2 is about the conversion of a powerful king figure, something more likely to be propaganda after the time of that reign rather than during it.

It’s not that I’m discrediting the material, just that the context in which Buddhism is presented against or in relation to other ideas tends to be inherently embedded in material suggestive of development post-Buddha. Especially when seen in light of the D as a whole. Either way, there is definitely significance to some of the material here that I also believe is likely very early and essential. Just not in a way that justifies claiming the other collections post-date the life of the Buddha with much certainty at all.

The simplest way to put it is that it just seems to be a different genre within the larger genre of EBTs — arguing that genre X and genre Y do not agree, while assuming X takes primacy to Y, to then conclude that Y is later, is not a convincing argument. Especially if they are presented to different audiences with different ‘needs.’ Even if there is early, core material there.


Good to read your explanations about the formation of the four principal Āgamas/Nikāyas.

The first three angas (sutta, geyya, and veyyākarana) or saṃyukta-kathā (i.e. the synthesis of the three angas) came first, and then the four-fold Āgama/Nikāya distribution in the formation of EBTs in Early Buddhism.

Maybe I’m just reading into it all something you don’t really mean, but I see a little contradiction between tying these ideas to Sariputta’s lineage and saying all the material is definitely from after the end of the Buddha’s teaching career.

It’s both attested to in the sources, and fits in with what we know of similar historical and modern events, that while the Buddha was still alive, homophilic sorting occurred in the sangha. There were little groups here and there of likeminded monks, nuns, and laypeople.

I see your case that the material in the SN is in a sense on average later than the DN. But I just don’t see an argument for how you overlay that relative timeline onto the relative timeline of the Buddha’s life.

In this example, I don’t see what contradicts the possibility that Dhammadina originated the 5 aggregates formulation in year 3, it caught on with people who were similar to her in some way that made it resonate, they thought of it as “the buddha’s teaching” by year 20, they inserted it without attribution to Dhammadina in year 40, etc. It seems about as plausible as shifting all those dates forward by 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 decades.

The only reason I can think of (and I’ve spent less time thinking about this than you, so please let me know what I don’t!) to draw a hard line at the parinibbana is the 1st Buddhist council, which can be interpreted in a way to imagine it establishing a narrow orthodoxy. But that way of imagining it also imagines the canon as being perfectly formed and transmitted from then to now.

So, why does “later” need to mean, specifically, “after PN”?

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