Proto-Mahayana Features in the Agama Sutras?

Rather than neutral of sectarian influence, the Pali suttas present one Buddhist school’s account of the Buddha’s teachings.

In non-Pali versions of the agamas/nikayas, can one find features which agree more with Mahayana Buddhism than with Theravada?

For example, if the Pali suttas teach that there can only be one Buddha per world system at any given time, are there non-Pali agamas which teach otherwise?

Are there non-Pali agamas which teach the possibility of more than one Buddha per world system or some other doctrine which might agree more with Mahayana than Theravada Buddhism?


I don’t know about anything which might

and I don’t know if that’s even asking the right question. (“No kallo pañho”ti.) But one thing I always liked in the Ekottarikāgama was the inclusion of 空 along with 無常, 苦, and 無我; or even 我, 人, 衆生, and 壽者, like the Diamond Sutra, in some of the sutras–but as a bridge between early anattā and later śūnyatā, rather than “either-or.”
Also, in the Saṃyuktāgama there’s 第一義空經 (SA 335) where they talk about 俗數法 (prajñapti): I know that becomes a big Mahāyāna topic. (I don’t know how big a Theravāda topic it was. Was it?)

Are there no sectarian differences between the Pali suttas and the agamas of other Buddhist schools? If there are such differences, can any of them be seen as proto-Mahayana? I’ve heard that the Chinese agamas in particular contain proto-Mahayana elements that contradict Pali Buddhism.

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Well they could have just been added later. Aren’t you missing the point that the Chinese agamas were later than the EBT and therefore might contain proto-Mahayana, anyway?


The whole point of one Buddha at a time, is that a Buddha rediscovers the path when it has been lost. By this definition, any student who attains perfect and complete enlightenment by studying under a Buddha will not be a Buddha, even if their enlightenment in every way is equal to that of their teacher. Mahayana simply uses the word differently, and there is a reason for that:

All of the so-called hinayana schools except for the Theravada, compromised their definition of an arahant. So an arahant still had some flaws left. Much like what certain modern dharma teachers are doing today, by claiming to be arahants and still being subject to various mental afflictions.

The Mahayana schools simply accepted what had become the common understanding of the word arahant, and began referring to perfectly enlightened people as something greater, a Buddha.


There is a discourse in Ekottarika Agama (EA) that expanded with Mahayana material, i.e EA 37.2, which is according to Bhikkhu Analayo:

… an early discourse has been expanded with later material can be found among the Sixes [of Ekottarika Agama]. In this case, the first part of the discourse appears to be a product of later times. The discourse begins with the Buddha seated on a golden lotus flower with a stalk made of the seven jewels. After some narrative episodes, Mahāmaudgalyāyana eventually visits another Buddha in a different Buddha field. He then leads five hundred monks from that other realm to Śākyamuni Buddha, who gives them a teaching. This teaching is a basic exposition of the six elements and the six sense-spheres that culminates in the eradication of the fetters and underlying tendencies and the attainment of Nirvāṇa. The Buddha then asks Mahāmaudgalyāyana to lead the five hundred monks back to their realm and the discourse concludes with the Buddha praising Mahāmaudgalyāyana for being foremost among his disciples in supernatural power.

Source: “Mahāyāna in the Ekottarika-āgama”, Singaporean Journal of Buddhist Studies , 2013 vol. 1 pp. 5–43.


There is a very subtle distinction I’ve noticed between AN 7.67 and the Chinese parallel MA3.

In the former, attaining the jhanas is something that some monks–the noble ones–can do “without trouble or difficulty”:

And what are the four absorptions—blissful meditations in the present life that belong to the higher mind—that they get when they want, without trouble or difficulty? Just as a king’s frontier citadel has much hay, wood, and water stored up for the enjoyment, relief, and comfort of those within and to repel those outside, in the same way a noble disciple, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. This is for their own enjoyment, relief, and comfort, and for alighting upon extinguishment.

In the latter, the states themselves are easily attainable:

“Thus, suppose a noble disciple also attains seven good qualities and acquires four progressive mental states that are easy and not difficult to attain. Because of this, King Māra doesn’t get an advantage over him, and the noble disciple doesn’t follow evil and unwholesome Dharmas. Not being stained by defilements, he’s no longer subject to birth.

This may help explain the relative de-emphasis and eventual disappearance of the jhanas from Mahayana Buddhism.

(Note that I’m relying on translations in both cases, and I will be happy to retract this observation if it turns out that it’s not supportable.)

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I’m under the impression that there is evidence for some proto-Mahayana features in the Ekottarikāgama. The other agamas, not so much, as far as I know.

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The term “Hinayana” doesn’t apply to any Buddhist school existing today, including Theravada. Also, Buddhahood is an acceptable goal in Theravada Buddhism, though not required:

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How would we know for certain? Do the Chinese agamas contradict other non-Pali agamas?

Well if the Pali partial parallels don’t contain those Mahayana elements

How do we know that it has been expanded with later material? How much do the author’s personal views influence his conclusions?

How do we know that material in the Pali suttas represents an earlier version of the Buddha’s teachings whenever they contradict the Chinese agamas? On what basis would one prefer one over the other?

It seems just as likely that, in the absence of controvertible evidence, the Pali suttas redacted passages that agreed more with Mahayana Buddhism.

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There are references to an arahant being a Buddha in the Pali suttas as well, but it is a minority voice. Since he following sutta deals heavily with the 32 marks of of a great man, I suspect it is fairly late:

MN 91 (Bodhi):

He who knows about his former lives,
Sees heaven and states of deprivation,
And has arrived at birth’s destruction -
A sage who knows by direct knowledge,
Who knows his mind is purified,
Entirely freed from every lust,
Who has abandoned birth and death,
Who is complete in the holy life,
Who has transcended everything -
One such as this is called a Buddha.

I know. That is why I said so-called. Let’s call them non-mahayana. The point is that their understading of the term arahant became dominant, and their arahants were considered to be significantly inferior to buddhas, but that is not the case in the EBTs.


Well, this seems to reflect YOUR view, rather than the scholars from either -yana, but I am at this point unable to point you in the direction of the relevant publication.

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In the absence of evidence, how could I form an opinion one way or another?

Since the agamas aren’t widely available in English translation, Mahayana Buddhists often must rely on English translations of the Pali suttas. There’s nothing wrong with this, provided one is aware of the sectarian influence involved in the texts.

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The term “Tathagata” seems to be used ambiguously in the Suttas. Usually it seems to be the term the Buddha uses to refer to himself, though SN 22.85 seems to suggest that any “mendicant who has ended the defilements” is a Tathagata.

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There are many scholarly works on this topic, but you can read Bhikkhu Sujato and Brahmali’s Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts.