Pali Primacy in Western Scholarship

I’m wondering if this accurately reflects the history of Western scholarship on Buddhist texts:

The Lotus Sutra was the first Buddhist text to be translated from its original Sanskrit into a European language. What is the significance of that? In 1836, Brian Hodgson, then British Resident at the court of Nepal in Kathmandu, sent 24 Sanskrit manuscripts to Paris. Among them was the Lotus Sutra. A young French scholar, Eugène Burnouf, chose the Lotus almost at random and started translating it, probably because he liked the parables. He had no idea of its importance in the history of Buddhism.

He ended up translating the entire text, but did not publish it because he thought he needed to write an introduction to it first. That huge work, published in 1844 as Introduction à l’ histoire du Buddhisme indien, is today considered the founding text of the academic study of Buddhism in the West. In fact, as Burnouf continued to read Buddhist texts, he grew to dislike the baroque style and fantastic imagery of the Mahayana sutras, including the Lotus.

He preferred what he called the “simple sutras,” which he felt more accurately reflected the Buddha’s life and original teachings. In some ways, the prejudice in favor of the Pali canon as more authentic comes from this time. Meanwhile, Burnouf kept putting off the publication of his translation of the Lotus: it was issued only after his death, under the title Le Lotus de la bonne loi (1852)…

However, the fact that scholars of Buddhism do not regard the Mahayana as having been taught by the Buddha does not mean that they necessarily see the Pali canon as more authentic. Burnouf’s prejudice in favor of the “simple sutras” has also been called into question.

Although it is possible now to establish a chronology of texts using historical linguistics and other methods, it does not follow that such a chronology can be confidently traced back to the Buddha himself. For many scholars of Buddhism, a definitive answer to the question, “What did the Buddha teach?” cannot be answered. Or at least it has not yet been answered convincingly.

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There has been so much research and so much written on this subject by those associated with Sutta Central, that I hardly know where to begin to give links to the relevant material. I’d suggest have a good look through the topics using the search function.

I also found this on-line course really useful to help start providing a context and framing the issues.

Otherwise I’m afraid that without a bit of a systematic look at the work already done, one cannot hope to get a useful or reliable perspective

The course linked below, does not take long to listen to and is great for providing a framework to address the issues.

Early Buddhism



I regard the Suttas as prose, and the Sutras as poetry.

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@Kensho, I see that you are already familiar with this material given this previous topic that you initiated.

So that we’re not just covering old ground, perhaps you can be more specific about what it is that you wish to discuss in this topic?

Also please note that the framework for discussions in this forum are EBT’s


:dharmawheel: :anjal:


Is that a personal opinion or something that’s been proven historically?

Have I ever discussed before, on this forum, the history of Western scholarship on Buddhist texts?

If Theravadins, as a religious preference, don’t accept the validity of Mahayana sutras, that’s perfectly fine.

Western scholarship’s preference for the Pali suttas over the Mahayana sutras, however, may or may not be warranted.

Without going in detail, I do have a few thoughts about this. :grin:

  1. Editions of the Pāli Canon played an important role in the history of Buddhology. If I remember correctly, Chatalian (1983) (Early Indian Buddhism and the nature of philosophy: A philosophical investigation | SpringerLink) mentions some early Buddhological scholarship.
  2. Scholars are just people. Some are interested in early Mahāyāna, others in the archaeology of Chinese Buddhism, etc. etc.
  3. That being said, the majority of Buddhist scholarship does not pertain to early Buddhism.
  4. The Pāli Canon has relevance outside Theravāda & early Buddhism. For example, many later doctrines build on the early teachings.
  5. As you might know, at least two members on this forum has written a book on the authenticity of the early texts. . .

And I’d just like to second @Viveka here: the EBT/non-EBT dichotomy has nothing to do with validity. Ajahn Brahm’s talks on YouTube are certainly not EBT, but they’re valid for me! :slightly_smiling_face:


I believe that not identifying the majority of Mahayana sutras as being EBTs is not the same thing as not seeing them as valid. :slightly_smiling_face:
In other words, Just because they are not EBT’s does not invalidate them…


How is it more than a religious belief that the Pali suttas were taught by the historical Buddha, while the Mahayana sutras were not? Both the Pali suttas and Mahayana sutras contain legendary embellishments, and were first written down hundreds of years after the events described.


I’ll gladly refer you to The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts for the relevant secular arguments. :slightly_smiling_face:


What if it’s ultimately a personal preference, from an honest historical perspective, as to which scriptures are truer to what the Buddha taught? Wouldn’t a paper written by Buddhist monks reflect their personal investment in the texts described? How is it different from a traditional Catholic clergyman who rejects the Gnostic Gospels as a source on what Jesus taught?

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It’s really not about the authors. It’s about the arguments.

By way of comparison, for modern physics it doesn’t matter if Albert Einstein was a credible scientist or not (even though he was). What matters is that his contributions to physics have enough merit to stand by themselves. Their credibility is not contingent upon that of Einstein.


What if, in choosing one scripture as truer to the Buddha’s teachings than another, we are like the blind men and the elephant? What if it’s a matter that will never be definitively resolved historically?

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As it happens, my favourite Buddhist text is still The Heart Sutra.


Can anyone please directly address the OP, and its claims made regarding the Pali suttas? It would be much appreciated.

Have you read this book? :slightly_smiling_face:


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