Scholarly Work on the Sutta Nipata and Early Buddhism

Hi Everyone. I have been interested for some time in the Sutta Nipata, especially the Atthakavagga and the Parayanavagga, and the role these texts might have played in earliest Buddhism. In attempting to work through the bibliography of Eviatar Shulman’s “Early Buddhist Imagination: The Atthakavagga as Buddhist Poetry”, I have been trying to get access to K. R. Norman’s “The Atthakavagga and Early Buddhism” and Lambert Schmithausen’s “On some aspects or theories of ‘liberating insight’ and 'enlightenment’in Early Buddhism.” But the anthologies in which these articles are contained have been hard for me to find. Does anybody know if these articles are available anywhere online?


Hello DKervick, You mention the Parayanavagga - do you kow Alexander Wynne’s The Origin of Buddhist Meditation? I was literally thrilled reading his comments on some suttas on p. 72 ff. And for the Atthakavagga have you seen Gil Fronsdale’s The Buddha before Buddhism - the Atthakavagga is the the whole subject. I did not know of Eviatar Shulman before seeing this post and have found Rethinking the Buddha: Early Buddhist Philosophy as Meditative Perception (Paperback) - would you ecommend that for this early sutta pursuit? With thanks and metta, Fred

I have also been looking for a copy of KR Norman’s paper, though I have a copy of Schmithausen’s. I think if you are going to read the latter you should also take a look at Anālayo’s paper “A Brief Criticism of the ‘Two Paths to Liberation’ Theory” in the most recent issue of the JOCBS. Although it doesn’t mention Schmithausen’s paper directly I think it is taking serious issue with his approach. (If anyone reads Anālayo differently please let me know).

I would also again recommend Paul Fuller’s Notion of Diṭṭhi book when it comes to passages from the Aṭṭhakavagga; I believe his approach was more-or-less adopted by Fronsdal in his recent translation. (Fronsdal also includes a good bibliography).

I believe Bhikkhu Bodhi is working on a translation of either the Aṭṭhakavagga or the entire Sutta Nipāta, though where this is in development I don’t know.

Hi Fred. Yes, I do have that Alexander Wynne’s book. I haven’t read Fronsdal’s book yet , but was looking at it yesterday on Amazon and will definitely order it.

I haven’t read Shulman’s book, just a couple of his articles. In addition to the one cited above, I would recommend “Orality and Creativity in Buddhist Discourses.” It’s available at Shulman’s page.

Hello Doug,

I don’t yet know Schmithausen’s version of the “two paths” reading, but I do know about the version Tillman Vetter defends in his book The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, and in some of his papers. I am also skeptical that there are indeed two distinct paths presented in the suttas. And I don’t think there is reason to think either the Buddha or his immediate followers ever, at any time, taught a path that was purely intellectual or based on the cultivation of discursive philosophical theorizing and cognitive “insight” alone.

I do have the Fuller book (and also the recent papers by you and Wynne from JOCBS, as well as the earlier Gomez paper on "proto-Madhyamaka). Roughly, my own current view on the seeming conflict between the “no view” and “right view” doctrines is this: There is a subtle shift over time in what the Buddha understood by “having a view”. The earlier formulation was that to have a view on anything is to possess that view; that is, to have made a possession or acquisition out of it. Possession implies attachment, and thus there views without attachment. Since the goal of the path is to be in a state in which one is, among other things, entirely devoid of acquisitions or possessions, then the goal of the path must include the complete non-having of views, and so the recommendation for one pursuing the path is to proceed forthwith in divesting oneself of views.

I think in the more fully evolved teachings this initial teaching has been modified in two ways: first, by a slightly different understanding of what it means to have a view, and second, by a more sophisticated set of guidance teachings about what is most appropriate form of practice at different stages along the path. On the first score, I think the Buddha came to recognize that, just as it is possible to have a raft, or a hammer, or a robe in one’s possession, and make use of those tools, without being attached to those possessions and creating a sense of mine" around them, it is for the same reason possible to possess a belief or view without incorporating that view into one’s self-conception, and without clinging to that view and making use of it for anything other than the provisional liberating purpose at hand. During the initial stages of the path it is necessary to have and make use of certain views about the mind and how it works. The stages at which one attains (at least temporarily) the complete relinquishment of views altogether comes later.

My own interest in these Sutta Nipata discourses is how they fit into the biography and teaching career of the Buddha himself. I remain strongly disposed to believe that that the Attakhavagga and Parayanavagga represent a very early, more direct and less formally structured collection of the Buddha’s teachings, geared entirely toward other spiritual seekers and renouncers. In this period we see the Buddha in contact with only a small circle of followers and seekers, before that circle had expanded into an order with complex rules of organization and discipline. These two sets of discourses contain many other fascinating and compelling teachings apart from the famous “no view” teachings - including, I would argue, some cryptic but revealing ideas about the deathless, and what it means to “cross over” birth, aging and death.

There is nothing in those earlier core teachings about how householders should live their lives, how merchants should take care of their wealth, how kings should rule or how clans should meet and conduct their assemblies. Nor is there much evidence of the very heavily moralized teachings some find in the later Buddhist teachings that portray the universe as some kind miraculously impersonal justice machine that infallibly dispenses punishments for misdeeds and rewards for right deeds. But as the Buddha’s fame and reputation grew, the Sakyan sage and his renunciant followers were brought into greater and greater contact with a larger social world, filled with people who were in search of, and had a need for, teachings suitable for their own non-renunciate or only partially renunciate ways of life. This engagement with the larger social world - a development that I think the Buddha was not entirely happy with and from which he periodically sought escape - gave rise to a much larger body of moral and practical teachings for worldly people who lack the willingness to renounce. I think we also see in the Parinibbana sutta some of the Buddha’s exasperation with some of the ways in which the Buddhist order itself had evolved, with people obsessing about their spiritual status or rank, and those of the departed, and with demands that the Buddha constantly employ his “supernormal powers” to answer these questions and classify people spiritually.


Hi Dan and thank you for your kind reply. There is too much for me to respond to, but in general I agree the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga were (for the most part) very early texts within the Buddha’s lifetime, and that they display marks of having been written before much of the dhamma had been completely formalized.

Personally, I do not however believe that there are any significant doctrinal differences between them and the later texts. (Incompleteness perhaps, but not difference). I doubt that they would have survived and been recommended (as we know they were, since they were mentioned by name) if the positions represented within them had been widely divergent from the rest of what was eventually preserved in the Canon.

As for the “no views” issue, if you read my paper you will know my take, which broadly agrees with Fuller’s. That is, there are many positions put forward in the Aṭṭhakavagga, so understanding it as expressing an essentially quietist vision cannot really make consistent sense of the entire document taken as a whole.

But that said, of course these texts are filled with subtleties and I would hardly claim to understand them completely. Doubtless they will serve as fodder for discussion for as long as they survive.

(And if you find a copy of KR Norman let me know!)

With metta.


Here’s Norman’s article. I have Schmithausen’s but only on paper. I could scan it, so let me know if you still need it. DhivanNorman-Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism.pdf (809.6 KB)


Thank you, Dhivan!

If you do have a chance to scan the Schmithausen piece when you aren’t too busy, I would certainly appreciate it.

I have a .pdf copy of Schmithausen I could upload, but not sure how to do that.

Thanks Dhivan for the Norman.

Dear all,
here an ocred and tidied up version of Norman’s important article (see Dhivan’s post above):
Norman, K. R. 2003. The Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism. In: Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honour of Padmanabh S. Jaini, 511–522. Freemont: Asian Humanities Press.

Norman_2003_The Aṭṭhakavagga and Early Buddhism.pdf (529.2 KB)

Here is Schmithausen’s article mentioned earlier in the thread:
Schmithausen_1981_On Some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of Liberating Insight and Enlightenm.pdf (2.7 MB)

Schmithausen, Lambert. 1981. On Some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of Liberating Insight and Enlightenment in Early Buddhism. Studien zum Jainismus und Buddhismus: Gedenkschrift Ludwig Alsdorf: 199–250.


Fantastic! Thank you Akincano.

Thanks Akincano. Your copy of Schmithausen is much more readable that my photocopy.