Rejecting the commentaries is a fringe sect?

So, I received this in my email:

Rejecting the commentaries is called suatantrika. It is a different Buddhist sect.

It is a fringe sect that many westernes subscribe to without knowing the full details of Theravada. It is sort of a cancer…

In any case, ask any knowledgeable monk about true Theravada, including the Abhidhamma and commentary, and the Suatantrika sect which died out. They will confirm that rejectors of the commentaries are followers of a fringe Buddhist sect that died out long ago and it is not the mainstream Theravāda that survived the test of time dating back to the 4th Buddhist council when the texts were written down.

I am clearly in the EBT camp and I don’t hide that fact, which is partly why I received this email; but, I am curious what others make of this? Clearly this monastic is drawing a clear distinction between the Theravada versus Buddhism as a whole — or more accurately in this particular case — versus Early Buddhism.

Nevertheless, what do you think about these comments?


The use of the term “cancer” to refer to a group of people, other Buddhists even, smacks of fundamentalism. A very dark kind of fundamentalism too, calling people a cancer is pretty dehumanizing language.

Pretty sad to see a Buddhist attacking other Buddhists like this.


This was kind of my reaction, too. It’s one thing to cling to your own ideas about Theravada, etc., but quite another to consider other approaches a “cancer” on one’s “club” or fundamentalist views. This kind of approach might explain why some of our monastic teachers identify with Early Buddhism as a practice, academic pursuit and discipline vs. considering themselves members of the “Theravada Club.”


Theravada was never one thing anyways. There were three Theravada sects, two of which studied Mahayana sutras and even Vajrayana in Sri Lanka. Until the modern era, Theravada had unique esoteric practices associated with it (there’s a book about this that came out recently) which included mantras and so on. Theravada is not one thing, it is many. Just like all religions…

So this post is equivalent to a evangelical saying that liberal protestants are not real Christians. Pretty silly.


The use of the term “cancer” to refer to a group of people, other Buddhists even, smacks of fundamentalism. A very dark kind of fundamentalism too, calling people a cancer is pretty dehumanizing language.

I thought so too.

Sadly, the author of that email is a monastic. :frowning: But I suppose monastic or not, people are only human and many continue to remain under the influence of their afflictive mind-states and the sway of their strong views. Gosh know I am too, from time to time. :slight_smile:

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I think I can guess who this is, but I won’t be saying it in public or discussing the person further.


I know that you know this, too, but wow, spend some time as a longer term guest in a monastery and you’ll meet some people in robes that you wouldn’t want as neighbors. :grimacing: Of course, many monasteries and wats are where you’ll find some of the best people on the planet, as well.

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This is what is known as “fundamentalism”. In this case, it manifests as the inability to think of Buddhism outside of a rigid, narrowly-defined set of doctrinal assumptions.

The Sautrāntikas were a specific school among the 18 schools of Indian Buddhism. Yes, they emphasized the Suttas. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who emphasizes the Suttas is a Sautrāntika. If Sautrāntika means “follower of the Suttas”, then sure, count me in. But if it means “adherent of the ancient Buddhist sect called Sautrāntika”, then no. For example, the Sautrāntikas believed that each mind-moment could be divided into two parts, arising and ceasing. I for one don’t believe there is such a thing as mind-moments, and they are certainly not taught in the Suttas. So there is some nuance here.

Early Buddhism is a perspective on Buddhism that informs understanding and supports practice. It isn’t a “sect” of any sort. A “sect” is a defined religious body or organization; compare, for example, the Thai Dhammakaya, which is indeed a schismatic sect. Early Buddhism is a loose affiliation of folks with an interest in the Suttas, that’s all.

Within this movement there is a lot of variation. But most “early Buddhists”, and certainly serious early Buddhist scholars, do not “reject” the commentaries. Rather we reject the uncritical assumption that the commentaries are always right. An authentic intellectual and spiritual life is not defined by black and white absolutes.

The Buddha never taught his followers to think in terms of attachment to group identity. He taught us to use our intelligence and understanding with compassion, to clearly distinguish what is Dhamma from what is not Dhamma, what the Buddha taught from what the Buddha didn’t teach.

To say that early Buddhism is a sect of “westerners” is racist. It excludes and silences the very many Asians who helped formulate the linguistic, historical, and practical basis on which the understanding of Early Buddhism is formed. To pick just one example, more academic work has been done in this field by Japanese scholars than the rest of the world combined. It was partly to counteract this racist ideology that in recent years I have taught courses on the Visuddhimagga, and on Jayatilleke’s Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, the latter of which remains probably the single most influential book on early Buddhist philosophy.

To this day, there are movements promoting early Buddhism in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and so on. Many of these remain inside local languages and cultures, so on a superficial level it is easy to overlook them and see the international movement of early Buddhism as dominated by those who speak English.

But the reality is that human beings are human beings. And there are people all over the world who are lit with the spirit of inquiry, who urgently seek the Dhamma, and who are searching for a way to get closer to who the Buddha was and what he taught.



Thank you, I’d love to mark your reply as a “Solution.” :man_student: That was most excellent.

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The above seems to say Theravāda itself is a sect (rather than the Triple Refuge of the Suttas).

I would encourage you Michael to read to the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga, here: SuttaCentral

The most interesting feature of the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga to me is how it explains the Dhamma in two ways, which at times are different, namely:

  1. Analysis According to the Discourses (Suttas)
  2. Analysis According to Abhidhamma

The Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga in particular is very interesting :slightly_smiling_face: SuttaCentral

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Published by “George Allen & Unwin” - the good old days … I recalled some Radhakrishnan books I read were published by this firm.

I think the usage of the word “cancer” when referring to other Buddhists is not wise and potentially hurtful, but I can understand his sentiment (I think I also know who this is). The problem traditional Theravādins see, at least parts of them, with people who profess that only a small section of the Tipiṭaka is actual Buddha-word (buddhavacana) is that this also takes on sectarian forms at times, oftentimes fundamentalist in nature as well (incl. name calling; I am speaking from experience).

Look, I myself see much reason, after honest investigation and still remaining open, that the commentaries were taught, in the main, at the Buddha’s time as well as during the first three councils and that, for example, the whole of the suttapiṭaka can be traced either to the Buddha or one or the other of his great disciples, such as Sāriputta’s Paṭisambhidāmagga; similarly it goes for the Abhidhamma. I know the scholarly landscape a bit and find it sometimes amazing how certain information is just filtered out. Happened with every field I investigated so far, such as the language of the Buddha or his date of birth. A few influential scholars profess an idea and everybody repeats it, more or less, preferences start to arise for one’s favorite idea. It happens on both sides. It is human. The fair scholar is a rare occurrence.

I would say it is sectarian in the sense that it takes certain parts of the Tipiṭaka to be authentic and defends that view, that quite vehemently sometimes, despite not particularly strong evidence in a number of cases (also given the fact that most people actually don’t do the research themselves but just repeat what others say who have done so). For example, I rarely hear any arguments for the commentaries or the Abhidhamma stemming from the Buddha’s time here. You may not like it and argue against them (which is fine), but these arguments in favor of that positions exist, and one must bring all these arguments to the table as well, something, bhante, I saw you sometimes don’t do.

Of course, Theravādins are not free from this tendency either (which results in blind faith oftentimes), but to assume that everyone who is practicing “early Buddhism” according Western scholars’ interpretation (which is extremely close to the Suttantika viewpoint, by the way) is free from that sectarian tendency is not fair. The thing is simply that there are different views about what early Buddhism really constitutes. Anyway, everybody needs to come to his or her own conclusions. But, as the Buddha advised, in a way to uphold truth and not preferences, something I have seen too many times: on both sides, unfortunately.

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