Stanislaw Schayer?

He’s an early 20th century Polish Buddhist scholar. Here’s what wikipedia says about him (at length:

A separate stance has been taken by Polish scholar Stanislaw Schayer, who argued in the 1930s that the Nikayas preserve elements of an archaic form of Buddhism which is close to Brahmanical beliefs,[8][20][85][86] and survived in the Mahayana tradition.[87][88] As noted by Alexander Wynne, Schayer drew on passages “in which “consciousness” (viññana) seems to be the ultimate reality or substratum (e.g. A I.10), as well as the Saddhatu Sutra, which is not found in any canonical source but is cited in other Buddhist texts.”[89] According to Schayer, contrary to popular opinion, the Theravada and Mahayana traditions may be “divergent, but equally reliable records of a pre-canonical Buddhism which is now lost forever.”[87] The Mahayana tradition may have preserved a very old, “pre-Canonical” tradition, which was largely, but not completely, left out of the Theravada-canon.[88] Schayer searched in the early texts for ideas that contradict the dominant doctrinal positions of the early canon. According to Schayer, these ideas have

… been transmitted by a tradition old enough and considered to be authoritative by the compilers of the Canon. The last conclusion follows of itself: these texts representing ideas and doctrines contradictory to the generally admitted canonical viewpoint are survivals of older, precanonical Buddhism.[90][note 14]

Regamy has identified four points which are central to Schayer’s reconstruction of precanonical Buddhism:[91]

  1. The Buddha was considered as an extraordinary being, in whom ultimate reality was embodied, and who was an incarnation of the mythical figure of the tathagata;
  2. The Buddha’s disciples were attracted to his spiritual charisma and supernatural authority;
  3. Nirvana was conceived as the attainment of immortality, and the gaining of a deathless sphere from which there would be no falling back. This nirvana, as a transmundane reality or state, is incarnated in the person of the Buddha;
  4. Nirvana can be reached because it already dwells as the inmost “consciousness” of the human being. It is a consciousness which is not subject to birth and death.

According to Ray, Schayer has shown a second doctrinal position alongside that of the more dominant tradition, one likely to be of at least equivalent, if not of greater, antiquity.[92]

According to Edward Conze, Schayer’s views are “merely a tentative hypothesis” and that it is also possible that these ideas later entered Buddhism, as a concession to “popular demand, just as the lower goal of birth in heaven ( svarga ) was admitted side by side with Nirvana.” Conze thought that both were equally possible.[93]

Anyone know of him? have anything by him? anything on him? He seems rather interesting, and I’d like to learn more.

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I’m moving this the Watercooler section, as it invites discussion rather than poses an ‘answerable’ question.

It is an interesting moment in history. Sorry I don’t know much about him. But just to note, in the early 20th century there was a strong emergence of an overland transmission of Dhamma to the west, i.e. via Russia rather than from the sea routes of Asia. Fyodor Shcherbatskoy was the leading figure; he was also born in Poland. This transmission was geographically influenced by the Tibetan traditions via Mongolia, in contrast with the Theravadin emphasis of the British and Germans, and the Zen of the US. Sadly, this tradition was ended with the Soviets.

As to his theory, there are of course innumerable attempts to argue this point; perhaps it was innovative in his day, but not from our perspective. His points are not entirely wrong, of course; obviously, for example, the personal charisma of the Buddha was a major part of early Buddhism. But invoking the “radiant mind” passage in support of the idea that the Buddha taught a form of “pure consciousness” eternalism is so common these days as to be virtually mainstream. The difference is, I guess, that as a historical scholar and philosopher, he understands the context well enough to be able to call it what it is, a brahmanical idea lifted from the Upanishads.


Thank you @sujato for the response. Thanks for the backstory regarding the overland transmission.

I’ve been searching for articles, but it’s amazing how this man has completely disappeared from radar. He was apparently very, very exceptional and very highly regarded in his day.

From what I am finding out, more than the wikipedia excerpt lets on, it’s not so much about the points he brought up, but more about his method of reconstruction: sort of an “all roads lead to Rome” approach, if I’m understanding him correctly. I’m still reading, but it seems he was doing cross-tradition comparative, somewhat text-critical, deducing the various evolutionary strata, and so on.

One thing I am finding intriguing is that, rather than go with the “majority rule” approach that I find so many scholars using (i.e., the jhanas are everywhere, therefore they must be the most authentic), he appears to focus more on anomalous passages, basically asking, “Why, if this runs counter to established doctrine, is it in the canon in the first place?” His conclusion is, “Because it was too old and associated with too authoritative a tradition to be stricken from the corpus.” He’s not really far from, for example, those scholars who see the so-called “Two Path Thesis” with respect to samatha-vipassana, except he’s not limiting his appraisals to meditation.

Also, rather than seeing in the texts of various traditions a vulgarization of originally pristine doctrine of an elite group of monastics to a colloquial lay population, he sees an original pluralistic, probably somewhat eclectic tradition which was, from the outset, doctrinally attuned to renunciate and lay concerns becoming more and more abstract and exclusive to a small scholastically- or “philosophically-” (I use that word with caution [as does he]) inclined group of monastics. This is refreshing because so often the former is the default view in Theravada scholarship.

I think, rather than arguing as to whether or not it was borrowed from the Upanishads, Schayer would ask, “Was it nevertheless an accepted and established part of the precanonical Buddhist tradition?”


Unfortunately, I was unaware of this scholar, as well. What he says rings a little true to me when I look at the Ekottarika Agama. It seems to clearly be a different, possibly earlier, version of many EBTs, yet it’s chalk full of early Mahayana concepts, and doesn’t try to obscure them in the way that the Madhyama Agama does. It may well be that the same canonical tradition that was an early adopter of Mahayana ideas was also the maintainer of an earlier version of the EBTs. It sounds contradictory, but at the time maybe it wasn’t. I also get the distinct feeling (I’m not asserting this based on careful research yet!) that the Theravada texts have been “scrubbed” of certain phrases and terms that later became important to Mahayana literature.


Please give this a look…
Prmitive Buddhism in the Closing Works of Stanislaw Schayer.pdf (375.1 KB)
It was written by one of his students after his death.

There were things you said to me about why Chinese scholars were reacting with such defensive hostility to Western scholars. Particularly, the “rationalist, philosophical Theravada”-bias many went into buddhology with: seeing any deviation from that as later aberration. As Bhante alluded to above, that was not the only school of thought in early buddhology–although it seems to carry the day now, though! I mean, I know I for one had no idea how much I had been trained to view Buddhism, Buddhist history, the evolution of Buddhist thought, etc. in that way.

Just shy of wholesale adoption of Mahayanism, this scholar is… well, I’m just really intrigued by his methodology, having just discovered him.

I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts, if you have the time.

Such a tantalizing “yet”! I look forward to this eventual “careful research” :smile:


Someday. It’s not on my priority list given that 1) it may only be a collection of anecdotes that turns out too muddled for a conclusion, 2) that’s alot of time spent sifting for anecdotes that can be spent doing more productive things, and 3) it’s not really important to people’s understanding of the Dharma.


Well, you can’t drop that bomb and not give more details! :smile: Like which phrases and terms do you have in mind?


One that comes to mind is “Mahayana” itself. It happens in a couple places in Agamas but not in the Pali versions. There’s also the three turnings of the Dharma wheel. Ekayana is a notable exception: It’s there in the Pali as well. It’d be interesting to study it in detail, but it’s not something there’s much time to do.


I fully agree with number one: there’s probably not enough there to argue persuasively. But, I think, in this case, it’s like the Chinese saying, “The benevolent sees benevolence, the wise sees wisdom.” (仁 者 見 仁 , 智 者 見 智。) If you’re inclined to see homogeneity in the texts, you will only see homogeneity in the texts; but if you’re inclined to believe in plurality in the early sangha, those anomalous suttas or sutta sections will scream out to you. I mean, look at Wynne and Analayo (and they are only the most current examples) and the “two-path thesis” debate. It’s going on 100 years already!

However, I don’t know so much about point three: I think it is particularly important–just as important as the EBT research we do here. And for the same reasons: we want to know, to the greatest extent we can, what we are practicing, what our teacher taught!

This man’s work shamed me, to be honest, because it revealed to me how deep my bias was. The “us vs. them” mentality–even if you dress it up for the 21st century as “EBT studies” is still very much the same old “Mahayana-Hinayana” paradigm. Not in theory, maybe, but in practice, if the people still have that anusaya. And I did (do?).

I don’t want to open that can of worms on this thread. But I just find this man’s way of viewing Buddhist developmental history refreshing, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. Unfortunately, he died very young, before his scholarship could really mature and solidify into a proper legacy.

My thesis is on the eight liberations (attha vimokkha). I disagree quite vehemently with what seems to be the consensus that the formless attainments and cessation are later, foreign introductions and real Buddhism is the jhanas. Wynne (who, I just realized, also cites Schayer’s work in Origins of Buddhist Meditation) concludes that the Ariyapariyesana is accurate, that the Buddha learned nothingness and so on from his teachers; yet he still seems to feel that these things are not “truly” Buddhist but Brahminical. (This encounter with Schayer is causing me to re-visit Wynne’s work; please forgive me, though, if I misrepresent him: it’s been a while since I read it.)

All of these “Brahminical” teachings like the formlessnesses, cessation (and even the appamanas and all samatha, generally) are relegated to the backseat by the tradition as being not necessary for, not conducive to, or, perhaps, even an obstacle to liberation. In fact–and we all hear this often enough–they’re not even Buddhist! Like Schayer, I think the concept of the Buddhist-Brahminical line of demarcation being clear-cut needs to be re-examined.

If I may be bold, and at the risk of being a benevolent one seeing benevolence, let me categorically state that I personally feel there was a section of the early community who had as their path goal the attainment of cessation. And I further feel that such a concept is impeccably Buddhist–doctrinally, historically. And, yes, @cdpatton , I see evidence in the texts of the obfuscation of such being a viable and accepted goal.

I can feel this way because, like Schayer, and in spite of the general trend of Pali Buddhist research, I see great diversity in the texts and in the early community. I do see coherence and compatibility in the texts (usually), but I do not see uniformity in thought, doctrine, or practice. I don’t ask anyone to adopt my views. I just brought Schayer to the attention of the group because, having certain members in mind (such as @sujato, @cdpatton, @Javier, among others) in whom I recognize a particular scholarship and erudition when it comes to evaluation, I wanted from them an appraisal, an evaluation of Schayer’s methodology: whether it stands up or not. I mean, I can’t go on my opinion alone, right? I might be benevolent!


It’s certainly something I would encourage others to pursue. Now that my translation project is hitting a greater stride, I’m thinking bigger than Pali vs. Chinese comparisons. I’m thinking more along the lines of reconstructing the doctrines contained in the Agamas and presenting them as their own teaching without all the hand-wringing about what the Nikayas say.

Much of what is in the Agamas is overlooked because many scholars study them in order to glean insights or bolster arguments for their Theravada studies. So, the differences are generally overlooked, and the Pali parallels are considered more authoritative than the Chinese reading. They want to Agamas to back-up the Nikayas, not contradict them.

An example I ran into today: In Pali studies the term pañcôpādāna-skandha 五受陰 means the “five aggregates of clinging” or “five aggregates of grasping,” but in the Samyukta Agama, it’s clearly glossed as acquired or appropriated. SA 38, which Analayo didn’t translate to English, is where the term first is glossed, and it says:
[Correction: This is actually SA 32, which Analayo did translate. He reads 攝受 as grasping.]

[0007b10] 「輸屢那!聖弟子於此五受陰正觀非我、非我所。如是正觀,於諸世間無所攝受;無攝受者,則無所著;無所著者,自得涅槃:『我生已盡,梵行已立,所作已作,自知不受後有。』」

" Soṇa, the noble disciple correctly observes of these five acquired aggregates as not self and not belonging to self. Correctly observing them thus, he collects nothing from all the world. When nothing is collected, then he isn’t attached to anything. When he isn’t attached to anything, he attains Nirvana for himself, ‘My births have ended, the religious life has been established, and the task has been accomplished. I know for myself that I’m not subject to a later existence.’"

Of course, the upshot is that the aggregates are what we attach to after we’ve acquired them through life experience, but that isn’t the meaning of the word 受. That doesn’t stop Analayo and others from translating it as clinging because that’s the way it’s read in Pali.

That’s just one little example. These types of issues have been piling up as I translate and compare notes with previous translations. Just the other week I noticed the BDK translation forces MA 17 to have a human interlocutor rather than a god even though the stock description in Chinese is always applied to gods.

I’m going to read over the paper you posted @knotty36 and get back to you.


An interesting one nonetheless! My understanding is that the Abhidhamma (theravada, not sure about others) read upādāna in this context as upadinnupādāniya, i.e. “grasped (acquired) and provocative of grasping”. Hence my rendering as simply “grasping aggregates” to avoid defining the relation between terms so far as possible. I do think that the active sense is present, however.

Without getting into too much detail, but IMHO researchers spend too much time on exalted things that research probably can’t figure out, and end up casting those matters in the inevitably rather sterile frame of “brahmanical” influence. This avoids looking at the more important point of “why were these things interesting?” I mean, there’s obviously plenty in the brahmanical tradition that was not picked up by the Buddhists: why these things and not others?

If you look at the series of essays that Vens Brahmali and myself have been writing on our translations, we have both been deliberately trying to re-focus attention on small, often inconsequential matters. I believe that scholarship is useful and effective in clarifying such details, and that useful scholarly work proceeds by sorting out the small stuff.

The big picture is so personal, so dependent on conditioning and experience—not to mention an understanding of philosophy, spiritual evolution, the purpose of morality, and bunches of other high-faluting stuff—that it lies well beyond what current scholarship can meaningfully address. Hence academic discussion of such matters keeps going round in circles.

In Christian theology, they have this concept of coming from below and from above. Text-critical method approaches the bible from below, dealing with particulars of language, history, and text. But text-critical scholars are well aware that this does not displace the approach “from above”. It is, for example, quite possible for both atheist and devout scholars to discuss a text critically.

Text-critical method is not a cure-all or a replacement for spiritual evolution. It helps to hone your thinking, question assumptions, and clarify facts. That’s all! I mean, that’s a lot already!


Right. I’m not criticizing the Pali reading, just the way the Chinese term gets rendered as though it were a bad translation of Pali. I think there were divergences in how terms were understood, and the Abhidharma we have in Chinese might well dovetail with this Theravada Abhidhamma reading. It’s not as though these are very divergent readings in what they actually mean for a practitioner. The aggregates are the “stuff” that contaminates and become the object of attachment.


And there is most definitely room for translations that bring such differences to light. If you see that the translation is different from the Pali, you might ask “why?” Whereas if it’s the same, you’ll just pass over it.


Wow! That sounds really great.

Right! My point exactly! And not just in Nikaya-Agama studies, but what Schayer is pointing out (or, at least, what it brought home to me) is how this attitude pervades so much of Buddhist Studies–perceiving everything in terms of how it relates to the Pali recension.

Schayer constantly emphasizes being aware of the limits of textual criticism in ascertaining truth. According to him, EBT does not necessarily translate to earliest Buddhist doctrine; neither does a later Buddhist text necessarily imply later doctrine–and that’s not to say, “Well, of course. There are, after all, portions of these later compositions which jibe quite well with the Pali texts.” That’s missing the point. It’s not about seeing what aligns with what the Pali says. It’s not a one-way street. Because there are a lot of teachings, anomalous in the Pali context, which are quite clear when juxtaposed with later texts. Why? Are these perhaps instances of @cdpatton’s “scrubbings”?

I have ignored most of these types of arguments in the past because they came from Mahayanists who, at least in my estimation, were just pulling for their team. Schayer doesn’t seem to be picking a side.

I cannot overemphasize the influence @sujato’s study of samatha and vipassana has had on my thinking. (In fact, I just did a report on samatha and vipassana in satipatthana which was very much based on Bhante’s work. I expanded it a bit to encompass anapanasati, kayagatasati, jhana, bojjhanga, and some more stuff. I don’t know how much my classmates really got from it, though.) My thesis is really just an expansion of it: turning the same to a different meditation practice. I mean, we wouldn’t expect redactors who sought to minimize samatha and emphasize vipassana in one set of texts to not do the same with others. The samatha-vipassana “battle” in the sutta-pitaka is both obvious and ubiquitous, if you are inclined to see it. Schayer’s work just seems to me to be an extension of the same line of thinking. Are all his conclusion viable? That remains to be seen. But the reasoning is sound, in my estimation. If for no other reason than because the conservatism of so much of Pali Buddhist studies paints the scholarship into a corner.

Anyhow, I just met up with a rather obscure scholar I really, really like, and I wanted to share him with everyone and see what people thought, if anything. Thanks for the platform and the feedback.


That was an interesting article. My own thoughts, which really are just imaginings about what seems likely to me, is that Buddhism probably went through a philosophically chaotic period in the generations immediately after the death of the Buddha’s immediate disciples. Without a living link to the arbiter of what is true or not in the world, people’s natural tendency to misinterpret and think creatively would have proliferated.

If Buddhism did suffer from a period various philosophically creative heterodoxies that went beyond even the traditional accounts, then it would make sense that we’d see fragments of cross pollination between Buddhist ideas and ideas from other Indian philosophies preserved in the textual “fossil record,” so to speak. There would have been an ideological conflict that erupted at some point, and the canons we have today would represent the settled aftermath, which were like a communal consensus reached after an extended period of debate.

If some of those creative ideas that were particularly pithy, mystic, or poetic still remained embedded in those settled canons for the reasons Schayer pointed out, then they may have inspired later thinkers like Asanga, Nagarjuna, and the writers of Jatakas and various Buddha and Bodhisattva myths. It may have been that classical Mahayana as we have it today was a rediscovery of some of those ideas preserved from that early “dark age” of Buddhism.


Prmitive Buddhism in the Closing Works of Stanislaw Schayer.pdf (375.1 KB)

Here’s that paper by Regamy that discusses the works and thesis of Schayer.

C. Lindtner discusses this as well in his “The Problem of Precanonical Buddhism”

M. Falk also followed a similar line of thought in Nāma-rūpa and Dharma-rūpa: Origin and Aspects of an Ancient Indian Conception


Thanks for reading the article. It seems, according to your “imaginings”, that Schayer’s ideas sit well with you, on the whole, without necessarily endorsing any of his specific conclusions. If I am reading you correctly, then it seems you and I are in agreeance. And, if I may be honest, this is pretty much how I thought you would react, based on what I know of your attitudes toward the EBTs.

It seems to me that what Schayer is doing is the very same thing we do in terms of text-critical comparisons of the EBTs while expanding the range of texts he compares and simply not ascribing primacy to the Pali pitakas (at least not absolute primacy).

@Javier Thank you for the uploads. I have those, too; but I wasn’t sure people on the list were eager to do all the extra reading, and I didn’t want to overload them.

But, since one good turn deserves another…

Precanonical Buddhism.pdf (8.7 MB)

I did some digging and found this other article by Schayer on the same subject. And also this…

Pre-Canonical Buddhism A.B. Keith.pdf (1.3 MB)

Apparently, A.B. Keith was the other person who sort of stood with Schayer in positing the idea of Pre-canonical Buddhism. Neither of them, unfortunately, survived the war, and the debate over Pre-Canonical Buddhism died along with them.

There are two more English-language articles by Schayer as well (he wrote more often in German and/or Polish), appearing in the Polski Biuletyn Orientalistyczny and Rocznik Orjentalistyczny. I am not uploading the PDFs because the format is weird and doesn’t translate well. However, you can find them in a Polish on-line archive which has both journals–here and here.

I actually read the Falk book years ago, looking for information on nama-rupa, but have never understood it without the proper context. Now, I plan to revisit it with renewed vigor.

@Javier Any thoughts to share?

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Well, there’s a lot of different ideas in these articles. But I definitely think that early Buddhism was a complex phenomenon with many different groups and ideas. While I think we can safely say they shared certain key doctrines, there were probably many different interpretations of these throughout the early sangha. These different interpretations may go back to the time of the Buddha himself and may have arisen due to the different philosophical temperaments of the different people he taught. They may even have come from the Buddha himself, who may not have cared so much for establishing a particular philosophical view, so much as a particular way of practice and community with some shared basic spiritual principles.

So while I think there is a core of teachings that we may trace to the Buddha or to the earliest Buddhism, it was probably interpreted in different ways early on by different people, and that was generally accepted as ok or at least tolerated. Later we get canonization and a hardening of the views of the schools.