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

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.

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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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This is a good point and reflects the weakest and most speculative component of my thesis.

I will update the OP to reflect

Absolutely, and I take this as evidence that Dhammadina is undoubtedly pre-sectarian, I just think she is probably scholatic.

My basic picture is that S is “matika” Buddhism and substantially pre-sectarian, but that it is definitely later than for example the silakhandhavagga of D on which it relies (by qoutation, by name, by having a superset of the named speakers, etc.

My futhur picture based on the chinese in comparison with the pali is that the “proto-sectarian” passages, especially the hardening of anatta rethoric in place of the earlier abayakata rethoric are readily identifiable in S.

So I think in terms of doctrinal interpretation we have good reason to, for example, interpret the aggregates in lightnof the more general and deeper principle of dependence and not the other way round, and similarly with our interpretation of anatta which should be in terms of abayakata and not the other way round.

This brings me joy because I have long felt that many of the (especially Therevadan influenced) presentation of the doctrine focuses almost exclusively on the posterior, derived concepts in S like anatta and aggregates without understanding the fundementality of abayakata and conditionality in any possible explination of those terms.

Perversly, the “younger” version of buddhism has a luminously comprehensive introduction to abayakata and conditionallity in Nagarjunas MMK, but seemingly almost none of them (as far as I have heard) have any idea that MMK is practically nothing more than an epitome of the examples given in DN1 and DN2, texts which, again perversly, the Therevadans themselves in thier Vinaya claim are the first 2 suttas spoken by Ananda after the parinibanna while at the same time, as I say, focusing on formulations of S (and worse, thier own abhidhamma :wink: ) do the detriment of the abayakata/samudayanirodhamagga idea, which is the topic of thier 2 holiest sermons as well as being in complete agreement with the foundational document of the mahayana in Nagarjunas MMK.

Buddhism, its a wild ride :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Yeah, as a general principle, I agree, but I don’t see the distribution between the four collections as being very significant. There needs to be some sort of corroboration besides there being more references to the aggregates in SN than DN. Otherwise, we are just following our assumptions to form an opinion about it.

The basic problem, though, is the Chinese side of the equation. It still needs to translated and understood better before it can be analyzed alongside the Pali parallels holistically. And then there’s all the Vinaya and Abhidharma material sitting in Chinese that’s important to analyzing the Sutta Pitaka. Which is just a massive amount of material not even counting the Agamas. We really need more people to learn middle Chinese, not Sanskrit or Pali.


Yes, the range of texts needs to be much broader in order to draw meaningful statistical conclusions.

This is very true. But you and this site are making it better step by step and I appreciate it!!

Accordingly, there were two phases in Early Buddhism: 1. Samyutta/Samyukta Buddhism based on saṃyukta-kathā 相應教, and 2. Nikaya/Agama Buddhism based on the principal four Nikayas/Agamas.

However, the extant Nikayas/Agamas are sectarian texts. One can seek an understanding of early Buddhist teachings by studying them comparatively. We also do not have the Mahāsāṅghika Saṃyukta-āgama; it is not likely to find out accurately what the original version of the Saṃyukta/Saṃyutta text would have been.

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If that argument is that the Poetry of S is the first collection and D then M then prose S is the second leading to the third, protosectarian abbhidhamma then I have no opinion to offer as i am woefully ignorant of the poetry.

My argument is about prose S and prose D.

(I would also say that “matika S” is prior to the rest of prose S btw)

Do Yin Sun or Chong Mun Keat have anything to say on this?

You may read:
Choong Mun-keat, “Ācāriya Buddhaghosa and Master Yinshun 印順 on the Three-aṅga Structure of Early Buddhist Texts ”, Research on the Saṃyukta-āgama (Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, Research Series 8; edited by Dhammadinnā), Taiwan: Dharma Drum Corporation, August 2020, pp. 883-932.
https://www.academia.edu/44055729/%C4%8 … hist_Texts

E.g. regarding “the Poetry of S is the first collection”:
Pages 894-6 from SA Three Angas Choong MK.pdf (319.8 KB)