Some people say that historians have ‘proved’ how untrustworthy Nikayas are because some ‘pollutants’ from other religions got mixed in while being orally transmitted. Some also say that there was a power game among the Buddha’s disciples after his death, and the opinions of the disciples with a bigger following were over-represented in Nikayas. I think it is a reasonable suspicion, but we still don’t have a better source than Nikayas if we want to study the Buddha’s teachings.
So my question is, what is your way to tell whether a certain passage in a Nikaya is to be taken literally or to be looked over? I used to think that, if a certain teaching appears in many places and consistent and systematic, then we can be assured that it is most likely the original teaching of the Buddha.
Anyway, just curious what you think on this issue.
Always grateful that we have a platform like this.
It depends what the practitioners aims are. If the interest is practical implementation of the teaching then the Anapanasati and Satipatthana suttas will form the centre, and other suttas connected to them will gradually be added radiating out. This is the method recommended by the Buddha.
“Agreement” means comparison with suttas already understood:
“Lending ear, he hears the Dhamma. Hearing the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, he becomes willing. Willing, he contemplates (lit: “weighs,” “compares”). Contemplating, he makes an exertion. Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.”
—Majjhima Nikaya 95
In this kind of approach superfluous material such as DO would not be included. In the Satipatthana sutta conclusion the Buddha states it is the direct way to practice, indicating there is in fact an essential body of suttas for practical purposes. This method focusses on the positive causal sequence based on sila.
"“And are the three aggregates [of virtue, concentration, & discernment] included under the noble eightfold path, lady, or is the noble eightfold path included under the three aggregates?”
“The three aggregates are not included under the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha, but the noble eightfold path is included under the three aggregates. Right speech, right action, & right livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue. Right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration come under the aggregate of concentration. Right view & right resolve come under the aggregate of discernment.”
As for the qualities of which you may know, “These qualities lead
to dispassion, not to passion;
to being unfettered, not to being fettered;
to shedding, not to accumulating;
to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement;
to contentment, not to discontent;
to seclusion, not to entanglement;
to aroused persistence, not to laziness;
to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome”:
You may categorically hold, “This is the Dhamma,
this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.”