Regarding the information in the Commentaries

We often see the commentaries provide a whole lot of information, for e.g in the Dhammapada commentary, the stories seem quite informative and provide a lot of information regarding the context. The commentaries seem to be much latter than the actual suttas, so my question is how do the commentaries provide so much information?


I don’t follow the question.

Why and how being late would be incompatible with a good amount of information?

What is the logic relationship between the two behind your question?

Isn’t it the case that those writing the commentaries made an effort to register as much as possible of the background stories scattered around in verbal traditions and/or non-standardised texts?



My point is the events mentioned happened long before the commentaries were written, and the commentaries mention a lot of information , even though they are not mentioned in the suttas.


It seems like a logical question to me - where did the information in the commentaries come from? Too much time had passed for it to be from eye witness accounts.


answer your question? They compiled oral traditions and texts that are no longer in existence.


The commentaries draw on old sources from India, presumably brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda and the Sangha, as well as adding much new material in Sri Lanka.

In some cases we can see the difference between these easily, for example, if a story is actually set in Sri Lanka.

If a story is set in India, sometimes we can assess whether it is genuine by its agreement with stories found in other collections, or by cultural, geographic, or other details.

However such easily identified material is a small percentage, and in the majority of cases it’s difficult to identify the provenance of a specific commentarial passage. Much text critical work would be required to sort out the different strata of the commentaries, and alas, almost no such work has been done.


Are you thinking of the previous life stores? Because often it is the Buddha who gives the information and he can see it using his divine eye ability.

Perhaps you could give a specific example, since there is a lot of diversity in the commentaries.

The way I have personally always understood it is that the information such as the background stories may have been known at the time of the first council but the participants decided not to include it for whatever reason. Then much later the information was compiled into official commentaries. But that’s just my personal way of understanding the situation.


Yeah, to plus one this, my understanding is that surrounding the memorized texts there was a looser oral tradition of stories that weren’t (originally) recited verbatim as obsessively as the words of the Buddha himself. Over time, these stories started to drift (telephone game style) and so they had to get set in stone too, just at later dates.

An early example of this is the origin stories for the vinaya rules, which seem to have been passed down loosely at first but then had to be reconstructed and added to the vinaya proper to prevent any further drift.

My understanding is that the traditional Sri Lankan commentaries preserved a similar (though much later) set of anecdotes and stories which had been passed down by the sangha informally.


When Buddhaghosa wrote the Path of Purification in Sri Lanka the earlier Mahavansa commentaries were destroyed. Is it not possible that there were other earlier commentaries before that, dating to say the First Council or shortly thereafter.

This is not true, it is a fable derived from a text written half a millennium later.

If you read Ven Nyanamoli’s introduction to the Path of Purification, you will see details of how the commentaries evolved. But in brief, see my previous comment.


Dear Ajahn Sujato,
Thank you for contacting me. My apologies for getting it wrong, my understanding was that some copies of the Mahavamsa had survived though most were destroyed. I thought it quite possible that history was repeating with possible earlier versions compiled in India. I have no problem if you remove my post.
With metta,