Question about the State of Western Buddhism and Textual Scholarship


:clap: Well put!


It would be good to have more accurate knowledge than we do currently about which portions of the text actually are based on enlightened experience, and which are the interspersed commentaries or additions of later redactors, expositors or interpreters.


Well what I meant by ‘enlightened experience’ is it represented the Buddha stance and not a million miles off. But as is clear, it’s possible to see a metaphorical saying as a concrete statement. The purpose of community is so that these things can be made sense of so that you perhaps personally don’t have to become a Pali expert or be advanced in your practice.


They might be. But it would be helpful to know more about what is what. Also, not all of the oldest material reflects enlightened experience. For example, there are some teachings by Amanda, and the Buddhist tradition seems to agree that during the Buddha’s lifetime, Ananda was not enlightened.




I believe, though, that all of Ananda’s suttas were approved by the Buddha (“yeah that’s right”) before being included in the Canon. Please correct me if I’m missing a counter-example.


I’m not sure what that means. The suttas weren’t compiled until the council after the Buddha’s death, and it seems there were some disagreements there about whether some of the monks were remembering things correctly. It’s not a matter of looking for individual counter-examples, since our evidence that any of the discourses attributed to either the Buddha or any other follower is indirect and mediated by many years of a now invisible oral tradition. Scholars can offer hypotheses that have greater or lesser degrees of probability, but nothing is certain.


Oh nevermind. I found a counter example to my theory: SuttaCentral

Carry on!


Hmm, just a minor remark. I remember that at MN12 it was explicitely said, that the then active attendend of the Buddha should that discourse remember with that and that name - filling up the (oral) canon well long before the Parinibbana.

“It’s incredible, sir, it’s amazing! While I was listening to this exposition of the teaching my hair stood up! What is the name of this exposition of the teaching?”
“Well, Nāgasamāla, you may remember this exposition of the teaching as ‘The Hair-raising Discourse’.”
(link to MN12:Sujato)

I think I also remember in essays on the EBT (here?) that such behave, to cultivate a canon for the daily (?) recitation/memorization, has been in practical use. (But I admit I never thought critically and with taking reference of it because I found such behave immediately credible/normal.)


I believe they reflect multiple complementary practices so that not only is there much interplay between different meditation methods but you were actually encouraged to develop missed wholesome qualities by visiting different experts as shown below.

"As for the individual who has attained insight into phenomena through heightened discernment, but not internal tranquillity of awareness, he should approach an individual who has attained internal tranquillity of awareness… and ask him, ‘How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated?’ The other will answer in line with what he has seen & experienced… SuttaCentral


I am much newer to Buddhism than the OP. My problem is that there is a vast amount of information out there, I don’t know where to begin. It can be a bit overwhelming.


We all have our own bundle of idiosyncratic questions and doubts. In my own practice, I simply “free-associate” through the suttas using This works because all the suttas supported by Voice use exactly the same terminology (i.e., they are all Bhante Sujato’s translations). Bhante Sujato has spent extraordinary time and effort hammering out a self-consistent referential framework. Because of this, we can dive deep through the suttas on any particularly train of thought or inquiry.

Begin with your own curiosity, and let that neutral feeling guide you through the suttas! For example here is looking for peace.


I began with Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s The Wings to Awakening:

It gave me enough context that reading from the canon became a lot easier and more accessible.

But if you want to practice yourself, don’t read without also meditating and interrogating your ethical behavior.


Do you have access to an academic library, JSTOR, or other sources for journal articles? Things that get published in books are typically the result of earlier publishing, most of which happens at the level of individual papers or journal articles.

Early text studies is a fairly small subset of Buddhist Studies/Sanskrit and Indian history. You’ve essentially been working your way through a backlog of material that started to be developed in the 19th Century, and you’ve consumed the products of what I would say are essentially two golden ages in Pali studies (the first in the 19th Century, and the second in the late 20th/early 21st).

The accuracy/authenticity of the early texts is a field where there are a lot of ground for opinions, but a shortage of hard data for drawing conclusions. Archaeological results, like texts from Gandhari and Dunhuang but also excavations of monastic and pilgrimage sites, are very important in this respect, and I think that’s probably the ‘growth area’ in terms of early studies. It’s a much more complex undertaking, and the need for multi-language/script proficiency and access to fragile finds is probably a significant limiting factor in how quickly things are being published. Political instability and funding limitations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia/Northwest China also limit how much new material comes out of these regions.

I would also say that compared to the Pali Canon, there is still a lot more fundamental work of translation, cataloguing, and understanding relationships between texts to be done in the Tibetan and Chinese Canons, and we are continuing to see results from those studies that reflect on Pali and early text studies. For a scholar trying to build a career, there’s much less incentive to dig into Pali where things have been covered in detail by several generations of scholars vs. parts of the Tibetan canon that are essentially available for the first time ever in the West. Things like the rediscovery of the Vimmutimagga, better understanding of non-Pali Vinayas, and parallel texts in Tibetan and Chinese are revealing a lot about the historical development of doctrines and practices, but without being explicitly focused on the Pali texts themselves.

The Tibetan diaspora and East Asian communities also have some major funding sources that are actively raising money for English-language work in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism, whereas the Theravada world has a much lower profile. There isn’t a China or Taiwan or Tibetan Government in Exile that sees growing interest in Theravada Buddhism as a strategic cultural priority. That has a direct impact on the work that gets done, because there are foundations funding work in archiving and translating Tibetan and Chinese works that don’t have comparable parallels in the Pali world. If you look at Buddhist Studies programs in the US, programs in SE Asian or Theravada Buddhism are much less common than Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it’s also much easier to do vernacular studies and field/anthropological work rather than just text and classics work, and that also has an impact on the field.


Which journals would you recommend for learning more about early text studies?


Yes, I have access to the main scholarly journals, and try to keep up with what is going on it them. And I also follow some people on, although that site has become quite annoying with it frequent email notification and reminders. I know early text studies is a small, specialist field. But it seems to me that when I first got seriously interested in Buddhism there was much more interest among the various practice communities in what the scholars were saying. But I don’t find that so much any more. I sense stagnation - a lack of intellectual vitality.

Perhaps one problem is that external studies of early Indian history seems to have been chilled a bit by the nationalists.


I’ve seen articles across a lot of journals, so the best option for most people is probably to get access to something like JSTOR that indexes a lot of publications. There’s obviously the Journal of the Pali Text Society for Pali-specific scholarship, but I’ve noticed quite a few early Buddhism-related articles turning up in the Indo-Iranian Journal and articles on Gandhari texts in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Philosophy East and West has a lot of material discussing influences on early Buddhism in their archive available via JSTOR.

There’s a big list here of journals that deal in Buddhist-related topics- some are more specific and won’t have stuff related to the early tradition per se, but I find that a lot of journals publish a wider breadth of material than their titles would suggest.