Research Topics in Early Buddhism

Dear all,

It has been mentioned already on this forum that the study of the first 500 years of Buddhism is greatly absent in academia, when contrasted with the many research topics in other areas of buddhology.

In the light of this, I am wondering which research topics on early buddhism would advance the field or have not yet been studied?

Looking forward hearing your thoughts about it!

Kindest regards,

Looking forward


Bhante @Sujato has been doing work recently searching non-Buddhist texts (the Upanishads, etc) for references that help explain some of the Buddha’s teachings and their cultural context. There’s still a lot of work to be done there.

And SC’s @cdpatton has been busy translating the Agamas and thinking about their evolution.

I’m sure both of them have a whole list of desiderata! :pray:


Thank you @Khemarato.bhikkhu !

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One research topic I would be interested in is the Early Buddhist description of ‘Sunnya’ or ‘Sunnyata’ in the suttas. Does this word or concept appear in Upanishad or vedas? Is it original to EBT?

Also interested in points of divergence in Theravada and Mahayana from Early Buddhadharma (i prefer this term than Early Buddhism)

Was the EBT emphasis more on streamentry (sotapanna) than arahat?

Why paccekabuddha path was forgotten?

What is exactly meant by the Middleway?

How are the words for mind ‘citta’, ‘mano’, ‘manas’, ‘vijnana’ etc are described and how they relate to each other?

Dhammapada would be a good start. It is very helpful to give the actual pali word in parenthesis when translating pali texts to english or other languages.

This lecture I watched today may be of interest to some.
Vedantic Self and Buddhist Non-Self | Swami Sarvapriyananda

I am hoping with AI it will be easier to search all suttas for key words and ideas.

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The following book by Choong Mun-keat may be relevant to your research interest in Early Buddhism:

The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism (1995; second revised edition, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1999). (PDF) The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism | Mun Keat Choong -

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Thank you @thomaslaw. Found an online free version of the book you mention. :pray:

I would like to see more literary analysis of the early texts, analyzing the symbols, mythology, narratives and motifs less so from the lens of historical authenticity which prevails so much today. This will, in fact, shed more light on history, as myth and symbol can end up indirectly saying a lot more about time and place than many other more direct mediums. It would also be nice to see more analysis of the similarities, differences, and potential motivating forces behind the differences that are found in the narratives and symbols across Buddhist schools and textual recensions. E.g. why does one text say this, and another text say that? Situating these symbols in the larger Indian context would be very helpful.

We could really use people who study the Chinese Āgama material on its own terms. That is, rather than using it as a sound board for the authenticity of Pāli material, we need people assessing the doctrines and ideas found in the Chinese translations themselves.

Ideally this would be informed also by studying the early Abhidharma material of the Sarvāstivādins, Dharmaguptakas, etc. That is, getting an idea of how the different schools and texts understood Buddhist concepts. This will help understand some of the translation choices, school affiliation, etc. and provide a more complete picture of the early corpus, rather than trying to decipher it without understanding the other Buddhist material that surrounded and informed the texts themselves and the translations.

And on the topic of Abhidharma and early schools, it seems it would be helpful to have more research on the development of common sectarian Buddhist material post-Ashoka but still within the first ~500 years. For example, looking closer at the origins, evolution, and relationship to the Abhidharma analyses and how it fits into the sutta corpus of the schools. Apadānas, jātakas, and commentarial stories being compared and traced down. Later vinaya narratives and their evolution. Things like this that give an idea of what the later ‘middle Buddhists’ were thinking, how they related to their texts, what ideas mattered to them, etc. And ideally all of this in a way that does not favor the Pāli corpus automatically but rather uses it as one of many equal tools.

Some of this will run into inter-religious territory, and here I think we need to get a better understanding of Jain influence on Buddhism. There is clear and obvious influence both early on in the suttas and continuing into many centuries later. We need more study of the Jain ideas in earlier periods (incl. after Mahāvīra; rather, the broad timespan when they were interacting with early-middle Buddhism). We need study of Buddhist responses to Jainism and other sramana movements like the Ājīvikas. It would also be good to get a better understanding of Brahmanical-influenced philosophical systems and mythology, like early parts of the Epics and emerging later Upanisads or Sankhya texts that interacted with Buddhism. These had a clear impact on Buddhist terminology and later development, so understanding how and where some of this began earlier on will give a better understanding of the evolution.

There is also the impact of non-Indian ideas, especially say the Greek influence. As far as I know there is a gap in understanding specifics of how Greek ideas influenced the Abhidharma material, and how trade and technology played into the development of Buddhism. This includes things like the influence writing, politics, geography and financing. As an aside, and another big topic: how did Buddhists organize themselves? How were monastic communities organized and how were buildings designed and run from the mentions in the suttas and vinaya into later periods?

Just some ideas.


Bhante Sujato’s “White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes: A Buddhist mythology of the feminine” is a great place to start. He also takes quite a bit of time to explain the wider context, the link between nature and the earliest myths ever told, two-way influence with other aspects of Indic culture (also reflected in Jatakas), how the process continued post-parinibbana and through today, Joseph Campbell, etc etc.

What is the link between primordial baby-eating earth goddesses and modern child novices? You will have to read the book to find out. :laughing:

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