Series of suttas with stories that are identical except for one aspect

If you read a lot of suttas, you should have seen them: Series of suttas with stories that are identical except for one aspect. Should these be considered EBT?

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Question to ask is:

How can you even accept or reject if you have no direct knowledge about them?

Are you going to rely mainly from a scholar(s) who might not know or awaken yet?

You know that Every single words/statements need to verify whether it is in harmony or conflict with N8FP and 4NT. See DN 16.

A similar question: Suttas that have the same canned expressions and phrases that look like they are lifted and pasted verbatim from other suttas - are those likely to be authentic EBT?

To be sure there is a lot of artificial material in the suttas, as in suttas have been partly or wholly constructed in this way by the Pali tradition (constructed in the style and language and content of pre-existing more-original suttas) that I dont believe the Buddha originally spoke verbatim historically.

But that leads to the question: if all of them are using the same expressions copied and pasted, surely one of them must be original and actually spoken by the historical Buddha? How do we identify which one is historical?

Also if an artificial sutta was constructed using bits and pieces from other suttas (and giving it an artificial head and tail and name), do we consider it buddhavacana at all?

There are no easy answers, but the facts are clear that such interpolations must have necessarily happened for the canon to appear how it currently looks.

We can use some principles to determine the naturalness and historicity of a sutta’s contents.

  1. Does it look like normal speech? For example are the responders in the dialogue mechanically repeating verbatim what the earlier person had just said although it adds no additional value to the discussion? If yes, likely it’s artificial buddhavacana (or buddhavacana in form only, not in historical origin)!

  2. Does it use long canned expressions verbatim as they appear in a large number of other suttas? If yes, likely it’s artificial.

  3. Is a whole sutta verbatim repeated just changing one word (or one set of words)? If yes, likely artificial.

  4. Does it have merely lists of concepts without explaining them? If yes, they are proto-Abhidharma and are artificial.

  5. Most if not all of the jātakas, and chunks of the Milindapañha (including its name) are artificial. The greek king’s given name in Hellenic Greek was Menandros (or Menandraḥ in Sanskritic form), but the name is artificially phonetically converted into Pāli by calling him Milinda - a name he would not have recognized himself.

  6. Suttas which refer to other suttas by name are likely artificial either partly or wholly.

  7. Do they contain unfamiliar words and names or appear less linguistically regular than the majority? If so, the principle of lectio difficilor potior applies - so they are most likely authentic in origin.

  8. For the same reason as point 7 above, suttas that are either entirely verses, particularly verses that that contain irregular pali forms and unfamiliar concepts are most likely preserving earlier material that is difficult to standardize linguistically, so they are likely earlier suttas. Also verse is the most preferred medium in the pre-Buddhist vedic canon, so it is likely that such an attitude was there in the earliest Buddhist tradition as well, which is why we find so many verse suttas in the earliest strata of EBTs. It is for this reason that I prefer to transliterate the Pali word sutta into Sanskrit sūkta (su-ukta = “well spoken”), rather than sūtra, for the Vedic canon also consists of sūktas (collections of verse mantras grouped into sūktas, vargas, and āgamas etc.) textual classification structures which the Pāli canon appears to adopt as well, often calling them by the same names in their Pāli transliteration forms.

As we can see the Mahayana took this idea of constructing new suttas to the hilt, and very likely they had Pali/Gandhari predecessors doing exactly that.

The difference is the Pāli redactors of the canon were constructing new buddhavacana from earlier buddhavacana. The mahayana didnt think it necessary to exclusively rely on attested texts for composing new suttas, they freely added or interpreted new concepts, categories based on whatever they thought was appropriate or close to early Buddhism (in their conception).

That also explains why the canon is so bulky.

It must have originally been an attempt at collecting existing Buddhavacana from different sources, and putting them in writing.

In the 2nd stage the language would have been normalized and the definitions and expressions standardized.

Once these two had happened, there was nothing preventing the tradition from using bits and pieces abstracted out of the standardized collected texts to build more and more “authentic-looking” suttas.

Did they get royal patronage from Ashoka etc to hunt for new sources of Buddhavacana, and did they create new suttas that appear like authentic Buddhavacana for the emperor’s ears in order to gain royal patronage?

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Yes, I have come across a number of those. I do not know if they are EBTs or not. They are what checklists are made for so you know for sure if you read them or not. I really appreciate that in suttacentral some of those suttas have a note along the line of “this sutta is exactly the same as ____, except the town and the people are named ____”.

E.g., (Mahā)Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta in DN and MN.

On this point, I like Ven Anandajoti’s remark: “I believe the Buddha spoke like a human being.”

Yes, but the elements in those expression may still be authentic.

In case some are not aware:

  • On Milindapañha, only the Burmese regard it as part of the Canon.
  • On the jātakas, the stories are not canonical. They are in the jātaka commentary. What’s in the canon are just verses.

On the point adding new suttas, it could also be that they were composition of teachings by later monks, who didn’t intend to put words into the Buddha’s mouth, but later monks ascribed those compositions to the Buddha.

Yes, but what I am talking about is if the suttas (as we have them now) sounded natural like normal dialogues, and i think they have artificial features such as verbatim repetitions that dont add to the value or sense so its likely that they are partly or wholly artificial.

Does it matter? If the whole passage was copied verbatim, the elements within them would be also copies from the earlier passage. The words themselves would be authentic (as in used by the Buddha elsewhere) but the sutta would not be faithfully reporting it as it really happened.

Yeah that’s true, and the tradition doesnt claim otherwise.

But the name Milinda is ahistorical. It looks like an artificial phonetic pali-fication from greek Μένανδρος (Menandros).
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It is extremely unlikely that Menandros or anyone in his kingdom (in North-West India) spoke any pali, so in fact the whole of the Milindapanha has been converted to Pali from another language (not just its name). Also, even the contents of the Milindapanha are (at least partly) anachronistic and ahistorical.

Regarding the Jataka, yes the verses alone are canonical, in which case were they jatakas ("jātaka = birth tales) at all to begin with if they had nothing to say about the buddha’s prior births until the commentary constructed the stories around the verses - no doubt again mostly ahistorically? It wouldn’t have made sense to call the bare verses jatakas, so it is doubtful if they would have been canonical without any clarity of their context.

Later monks who were adding new suttas couldnt have taken the Buddha’s place or authority so it is likely they were intentionally themselves putting it into the Buddha’s mouth (rather than such an attribution happening sometime after the new suttas had been created and were in circulation). There are a few suttas from the period after the Buddha’s death, and they are not attributed to the Buddha. They clearly say “the Buddha has attained parinibbāna” .

I get you.

Right. We agree here.

Well, language is not the issue here. It can still be argued that it was translated. Anyway, it does look like just a book on apologetics using fictional characters.

We needn’t assume this, as the word simply means “born; arisen”. It probably refers to the verses themselves, like Udāna. The idea of it referring to stories/tales came later.

I’m referring to suttas like many we can see in AN; no mention of who said it. Or suttas like Ratana Sutta; which seems odd in the first place. Some monks taught/composed them. Some monks liked them, and committed them to memory. Later monks continued with it.Then later, no one knew who these came from. Some say from the Buddha, and who would actively disagree?

I agree, the Ratana sutta sounds like a proto-Mahāyana sutta (to me). The Mahāvastu however repeats it (or something close to it) in Sanskrit and locates its origin to be in the city of Vaiśālī and further characterises the following sūkta as the Buddha’s utterance of svastyayanam (something benedictory/auspicious). The fact that it is in the Sutta Nipāta I think rather argues against it being inauthentic, and the fact it contains no header actually makes it more likely that none was required as it origins were presumably incapable of being doubted. The aṭṭhakavagga and the pārāyaṇavagga similarly don’t have any original headers stating where they were uttered or who uttered them.

Oral traditions used formulaic and repetitive content to make the material memorable. It’s not just the Buddhist oral tradition that did this. The same stylistic features are found in oral tradition texts in other parts of the world. An example is the Celtic tradition, of which we have some Medieval myth collections written down by Catholic priests in Wales and Ireland. The Celtic culture refused to adopt writing and had a priesthood similar to the brahmins in India (the druids). Unfortunately, very little survives of their oral tradition besides the very late transcriptions of some mythological stories.

The point, though, is that this was a feature of human culture before writing was adopted. The Buddha existed in one of those cultures. So, it stands to reason that he probably did use these oral tradition devices if he was involved in creating oral texts for disciples to memorize when they were away practicing in solitude. In fact, I would think he would have had a hand in fashioning the first sutra collections towards the end of his life when there were sanghas established in various places. This assumption doesn’t help us discern what was created later and what goes back to the beginning, but it does explain why it is what it is.

There does seem to have been a period in Buddhist history when their scriptures grew by leaps and bounds. Perhaps it happened soon after writing was adopted, and creating larger and larger collections was a novelty for a time. Some texts like the Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita and Mahavibhasa reached gargantuan proportions. A couple of the Pali Abhidhamma texts are of similar size.

The Anguttara Nikaya appears to have been part of this trend. The Chinese Ekottarika Agama shows us what an earlier AN probably looked like before it was expanded (at least, in a very general way). There’s a partial commentary to EA in Chinese that mentions that the Sarvastivada version of EA was much larger than the one that was translated to Chinese. It probably looked very similar to AN, judging by a few Indic fragments that still exist.

There’s more than a few cases of an entire vagga in AN expanding one or two sutras in EA into ten. It’s fairly harmless: a set of synonyms or equivalent examples are used to create more suttas using a template. Or a sutra that contains a set of items is divided into a set of suttas containing one or two items each in the Book of Ones and Twos. Then there are the big sets of suttas at the end of each book that are similar to what we see in the SA and SN - large lists of keywords to create a large group of individual suttas. There’s an extreme case of this in SA that expands to over 10,000 sutras by recombining several keywords to multiply the number of sutras even further. So, we can see that Sarvastivadins were very much part of this trend. Their Abhidharma became expansive, too.

The Chinese EA had been expanded before it was translated, too, but in a different way. Mainly it was the addition of material from the Vinaya Skandhaka, as well as a set of larger MA parallels. It’s a little jarring to find long avadana stories about the Buddha’s career and history of the Sangha peppering otherwise brief sutra chapters. But apparently the school to which the Chinese EA belonged considered EA the first Agama, so it was where these important stories were placed when they were removed from the Vinaya.

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Thanks for the perspectives from other cultures, but (aside from Sarvāstivādins whose canon appears to me to be bigger than the Pāli canon, and other early-Buddhist traditions who very probably were doing the same things), I don’t agree that an oral transmission tradition (i.e. a tradition that orally passed down whole nikāyas or piṭakas of texts from one generation to another entirely through oral recitation from memory) existed in any sect of early-Buddhism to begin with - nor does orality require or encourage superfluous repetition - in fact being an oral tradition would be an enormous strain on memory and what would therefore get preserved would be the most importat and/or the barest minimum.

The bhaṇakas (literally “speakers” - of which there sometimes appears one per nikāya), mentioned in the commentary, were not necessarily reciting the text from memory. Remember writing was very new in the Mauryan era (and remained the preserve of the elites down to the modern era - after about 2 centuries of British colonial rule and modern schooling, India was 12% literate in 1947), and people able to read written texts before the time of the commentaries would have been low even in the highly educated circles of the brahmins, leave alone the Buddhists where people from diverse backgrounds would not have any prior education to begin with. So that requires specialist ‘readers’ of the suttas to read aloud the suttas that had very possibly been committed to writing so other bhikkhus could learn their contents therefrom.

Going by the Vedic oral tradition the workings of which I am personally quite familiar with (which might have provided perhaps the only model of oral transmission that the first few generations of Buddhists would have been the most familiar with) - there is no repetition of prose or verse passages that happens, nor is such a repetition required or found beneficial to aid memory.

What we have in the Pali tradition is not a repetition of a whole sutta, or a templated model to repeat doctrinally significant sections, but ad-hoc repetition of specific passages that sometimes have relatively minimal doctrinal importance in the sutta. For example one only needs to read the DN1 in Pali to see how many statements are superfluous.

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But that leads to the question: if all of them are using the same expressions copied and pasted, surely one of them must be original and actually spoken by the historical Buddha? How do we identify which one is historical?

IMHO, it seems to me that at least some suttas, and (perhaps, all) stock phrases are short summary of what was said rather than being literal transcripts word by word. Of course I think that the Buddha didn’t repeat himself word-by-word to different people teaching them the same topic (ex: 5 khandhas). To memorize all the different variations would be very hard and/or nearly impossible. So the compilers of the suttas decided to put one stock phrase to cover all the major points on the subject.

Good example is the first real teaching, the SN 56:11  Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta | Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion

There in his first teaching, he has said “In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful”. Nowhere did He define what 5 aggregates are. So how did his ascetic friends know? He probably taught them, but the details didn’t make it into the sutta. Similar with explanation of Noble Eightfold Path. Buddha mentioned it, but didn’t explain it. That sutta also doesn’t explicitly mention other crucial ideas such as anatta…
Often his technical teachings are not explained in detail, yet the listeners don’t seem to mind it a bit and almost seem to telepathically understand all the details… We, however, don’t. Often the various arguments seem to be very unconvincing on the first look, yet the listeners (or those who debated Him) seem to be totally convinced and converted…

This is a reason why some say that studying commentaries & Abhidhamma is a must. I remember one scholar saying that to understand Buddhism you must study commentaries and Abhidhamma…

Agree. And to understand the Dhamma, you don’t need to.

Very likely, but then in that case, what the historical Buddha actually said, and what he is reported of as having said, may possibly have been different - and those differences have very probably been standardized by later tradition - i.e. the canon as we have it (of whichever Tripitaka tradition) is presumably less linguistically and in terms of content, diverse than it was, say in the 4th or 3rd century BCE. Without knowing (or coming across) any 4th or 3rd century BCE attestation of a sutta (of which there is probably less than a 1% chance), we can’t say if there are doctrinal implications of this linguistic & content standardization. It looks like older chunks of the Sutta Nipata (and particularly the versified content elsewhere) have escaped this and which is why some people say it looks like they sound doctrinally different from the rest of the canon.

However it is not just doctrinal content (such as lists of things) that is repeated but also non-doctrinal ordinary text-chunks. It looks like it would be unable to predict what’s going to be repeated and why as there is no theme to it. Sometimes an entire paragraph of a 100 words is repeated only with a change of say, 2 words. If those repetitions are discarded, the canon would probably be half the size or even less, than it is now.

I find it unlikely to believe that his first discourses were recorded word-perfectly (or even recorded at all) right from the beginning, or that he never changed his diction or style of teaching over decades. Most likely these are later hearsay accounts (that were paraphrased and reconstructed in the usual standardized language that we see in the rest of the suttas) so I dont think he would have called them the 5 aggregates before (or without) defining his conception of the 5 aggregates first.

But we can’t speculate from lack of evidence, we can only speculate from evidence - so perhaps there are alternative explanations to these.

We don’t even know if that was really his first teaching. To my knowledge, the idea is only found in the commentaries.

The sad thing is that we don’t know up to which point in his Teaching, the discourses were not systematically memorized. Ven. Ananda wasn’t present from day 1. Going by this logic, it seems that the suttas closer to His parinibbana, most likely, had the best chance of being memorized because less time elapsed between their first occurence and Ven. Ananda recalling them at the First Council.

Bhante,

The first talk (as far as tradition seems to say ) He gave on the way to his former friends was to Ajivika ascetic, but that didn’t succeed at that time. The ascetic didn’t believe the Buddha.

That is a feature of oral traditions. It happens in other Buddhist canons and in other oral traditions that still exist. I’m not sure how much actual evidence is required to get a point across.

@cdpatton I haven’t been able to come across any evidence of any oral transmission tradition in any sect of early-Buddhism.

When you say oral tradition, it is quite vague what you mean by it. Are you talking of an oral transmission tradition where parts or the whole of the canonical corpus gets memorized & passed down from generation to generation orally - like in the historical Vedic oral transmission tradition? Are you familiar with the Vedic oral tradition and the methods in which the texts are recited and memorized and transmitted - and the difficulties they’ve experienced and solutions they have adopted to resolve them?

If that is what you mean, I have a 0% belief that such a tradition existed in early-Buddhism at any point in its history, and I have been looking for evidence of it quite long. Also I have already said above as follows:

But perhaps you mean a chanting tradition that reads aloud from written texts. Such an oral chanting tradition reliant on written texts rather than texts memorized and transmitted over generations, could have however existed since the earliest times.

There is, on the contrary, every reason to believe that the canon has existed in writing from the earliest times. Most peculiarities of the Buddhist canonical texts, and their similarities with the early Jain texts only make sense if they were written texts originally.

Except the Vedic corpus for which an oral transmission has not only been posited in pre-history but still continues to be in practice in modern times, there is no other comparable oral transmission tradition of preserving/transmitting any other corpus of Sanskrit, Pali or Prakrit texts in India (whether in the Hindu traditions or Buddhist or Jain or any other early tradition). It is not enough to imagine that such a tradition could have existed in early-Buddhism, it requires positive evidence and explanation about how and where such a tradition originated and how it got sustained over the centuries in each sect, when and where did it die out and what historical artifacts are left behind (such as pronunciation guides etc) to substantiate it.

How many people were literate in 5th Century “India” ? 1%, 0.1%, 0.01%? Would it make sense to write suttas which almost no one, except for Brahmins (and maybe someone from another top caste), could read? That would empire the top 1% of population…

In the 5th century CE it would have been more than that. Something like 33% at the maximum, and around 5% at the minimum. In the Buddha’s time, it may have been about 1% or less. But 1% of a 50 million population is still 0.5 million, so there aren’t any doubts about sustainability. There would have been enough people to sustain a written tradition in any case, and it would have been far easier to sustain a written tradition than an oral tradition.

Oral transmission traditions are even more elite than written transmission traditions. You would agree if you knew how the Vedic Oral Tradition worked. Such a tradition could have never existed for any other major tradition because it took unbelievable amounts of effort to sustain that tradition.

At no point in Indian history are any sect of Buddhists described as having an oral transmission tradition comparable to the Vedic oral transmission, which however is widely attested in external texts and archaeological inscriptions.