Suttas & Agamas, aren't strictly historical?

This is a great contribution to this discussion, and I think it reflects not just your opinion but the opinion of the early texts themselves.

Believing and being convinced of something because of sacred scripture, recitation/hearsay, or tradition are explicitly stated not to be valid means in and of themselves for knowing truth within these traditional recensions of recited scripture.

The point is made many times not to grasp and cling to the raft — a beaten-up, homemade raft scrambled together with twigs and paddled by hand — that one uses to cross to the other shore. This includes the messy, ancient texts passed down. They are tools for investigation and practice, as well as base guidelines for determining certain essential principles. But they are not, and cannot be, the end goal itself.

The reality is that the utlimate authenticity of the ideas presented in the texts can only be found via personal, direct experience of the truths they point to. And this is something academic scholarship cannot, at this time at least, prove or even discuss. The message here is to take these and use them to come and see for oneself. If someone finds that truth in themself, they will not need academia or any religious figure to say so.

This is not to devalue the benefit, purpose, and other reasons why scholars investigate these texts. It certainly is valuable in many regards. But expectations need to be realistic and brought in line with what the texts themselves are actually claiming, which is not that they are infallible documents. If we misconstrue the claims, we cannot accurately investigate the authenticity of said claims.



I have not read that book, but it sounds interesting and I’ll add it to my list. As a philosophical pragmatist, I think Bayesian approaches generally are very useful, especially when we have incomplete knowledge.

I have read parts of Meier, John P. (1991). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus . I wrote a blog post about his hermeneutic principles: Jayarava's Raves: Meier's Historicity Criteria.

It would certainly be helpful to spell out some commonly agreed hermeneutic principles before we get to interpreting such facts as we have, to help weed out bias and presupposition. It would be good to have such principles included in all Buddhist Studies programs so that we could all talk the same language.

Hmm. From my personal list of relevant academic papers, I would cite, for example:

There are dozens of papers like this now. They not only record the phenomenology of meditation in detail, but discuss ideas about those phenomena, and attempt to explain them in ways that make testable predictions. There are now so many such articles appearing that I can’t keep up with them all.

I file them under “secular emptiness”. Because this area of Buddhist thought and practice is very likely to go the way of “mindfulness”: i.e. it will be stripped down to essentials and promoted without any religious content. And, like secular mindfulness, this approach will reach and appeal to a much wider audience than all the religious presentations combined.

1 Like

To my understanding, this is absolutely true - I think it’s outmoded to say this without reservation, but I’ve heard an Indian anthropologist of India say, “India has no history - only legend.” There are three surviving major religious traditions from the time and place of the Buddha, describing events with a primarily religious motive. There are, so far as I am aware, no surviving accounts with a primarily historical purpose of describing in detail what happened, even from a biased perspective (e.g. glorifying a dynasty).

However, this isn’t a unique challenge. Much later and much more further to the west, we have the Icelandic Sagas, which tell us verifiably true general facts like the Norse settlement of North America, give names and details of events, and describe major figures as being troll-blooded werewolves. A secondary or tertiary source will ingest these primary sources with a grain of salt, synthesizing evidence to arrive at a plausible series of events. These secondary and tertiary sources may present a clean, non-contradictory, secularly-plausible account, but that’s almost always derived from not found directly in the sources.

How do you go about that synthesis? Well, first you get a history PhD, and then…

But for someone with a personal, not professional, interest, I’d say:

  • Have your ordinary world-view, and reject the impossible
  • Look at the primary source you’re interested in
  • When something comes up you’re curious about, turn to recent secondary or tertiary sources that have done the job of synthesizing evidence
  • If something really troubles you, do the comparative work yourself with primary sources
  • Understand all historical content as carrying some uncertainty

But do so with confidence that the historical content of the Suttas is far from uniquely problematic. We don’t have irrefutable evidence for exactly where & when the founder of the Vinaya legal tradition was born & died, but the same is true for the Western tradition of written law (Draco).

I’ve heard an Indian anthropologist of India say, “India has no history - only legend.”

I’ve read something similar:

It has been remarked that Indian History as a field of study did not even exist until the British conquered the country and invented it for their own purposes. There was no standardized era for dating anything in India, except for terminology like, “in the 14th year of the Great King Chandragupta,” and there may have been more than one Great King named Chandragupta.
-What Did Buddha Really Teach by Pannobhasa Bhikkhu (former)

I can’t help but smile sadly when I see Buddhists clinging to the past and portraying change as apocalyptic. When it comes down to it, we want things to stay the same forever. The irony of it is almost unbearable.

The world is changing. Buddhists who cling to the old ways, are rapidly becoming irrelevant. This is a choice they make. Buddhists in traditional countries are choosing not to adapt and choosing not to change. And this means that they are choosing extinction.

I choose to explore change. My explorations are often unpopular, but at least I’m not laying down and dying.

1 Like

Blockquote I see Buddhists clinging to the past and portraying change as apocalyptic .

I am not clinging to the past. Just stating a fact. Considering the law of entropy, change is not always for the better… It applies to Buddhism as well.

Buddha is the peak of Dhamma. No one can equal him. From the peak, one can only go down…

I think the point might be that this is glass half empty thinking… every day that passes we get farther and farther yes, but we also get closer and closer to the next Buddha and the next Sassana and for followers of faith this option and viewpoint is open to us if we choose to make that choice to see it half full?

Or maybe we shouldn’t cling to lamenting the past or cling to hope for the future and if we didn’t cling for either we wouldn’t suffer? All just guesses. I know nothing.


Yes. This is the basic problem of “modern” Buddhism and the reason I’ve never really joined it. It seems to me that the collapse of Buddhism in India led Buddhists elsewhere to close their scriptural collections to further change. Which then encouraged the fetishization of texts and the insistence that truth lies in the exact wording of frozen scriptural canons. When I think idly about it, it seems to me that we could revitalize Buddhism by creating a new canon drawn from the remains of the old ones. Perhaps form a new sect of Buddhism using a new canon. Maybe even attempt to remove the ancient context in some respects to make the texts more relatable to people today, but keep the basic teachings preserved as well as possible. It would of course be controversial to do such a thing because traditionalists cling to the old ways until they disappear, and then people are left to make something new from the debris left over. Still, it’s something I think someone ought to try. It’s a free world, after all, and Buddhism has always been a big tent religion. But … we probably need to have the other canons properly translated to modern languages to do that, and that’s proving to be quite an obstacle since we have few readers and even fewer translators.

Yes. At the end of the day, it’s about our lives and how we live them not what someone wrote down yesterday or 2,000 years ago. Academia is a professional field, and what an academic does at their job is done for professional or economic reasons laid out by their employer, publishers, and colleagues. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their own lives, beliefs, and practices, but that isn’t the subject of their professional jobs. Or, at least, it isn’t supposed to be. I suppose some of them are being a bit subversive and trying to insert their direct experiences into their professional work, but they would naturally have to be rather indirect about it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be very professional, would it? I’m personally quite glad I didn’t go down the academic route. I would be today trapped in money-making machine somewhere churning out endless diplomas. Instead, I spent 20 years in front of actual machines churning out endless widgets. Ah, well, we live and learn one way or the other. Which brings us back to where we started.

“If you don’t agree with my reformation, it’s because you are clinging” isn’t the best argument. Protestant Buddhism leaves a lot to be desired.

How much time has elapsed since Buddha Gotama vs how much time left till the next Buddha?

That would be fantastic. We need more (real) Arahants in the modern times who could explain the Dhamma using information-age lingo rather than agrarian based lingo.

Maybe even attempt to remove the ancient context in some respects to make the texts more relatable to people today, but keep the basic teachings preserved as well as possible.

There is Patisambhidamagga, Abhidhamma and Vimuttimagga.

I will chime in here with my 2 cents worth, firstly to commend @Jayarava on their excellent contributions to this thread, and secondly to cast my vote heavily in favor of both.

The main reason for this is that there is often much to be gained by comparing the agama versions of a sutta with the pali. A simple and direct example is DN14 where there is an oddity in the pali where the previous buddha Vipassi is described as achieving awakening by contemplation of the five aggregates but in responding to Brahma states that they achieved awakening by contemplating dependent origination.

This problem can be resolved by comparing the sutta with it’s agama parallel, which omits the aggregates pericope and therby restores the sense of the text.

There are plenty of other examples.

The main thing that results is that people who read all the parallels before deciding on the meaning of the text are much less attached to one particular schools interpretation, and this is of course very healthy.

To nail my flag to the mast, it appears to me that the narrative suttas where composed and compiled over several centuries, in roughly the order of their presentation, that is the first vagga of DN, followed by the second, followed by the third, followed by the middle length discourses, followed by the connected discourses, with the numerical discourses a sort of free floating index probably having the indexical suttas in DN as their starting point and remaining open for the longest period.

In general it seems to me that the pali is often the most coherent and well organized, but also often has the most pious emendations and additions, hence my stratagem would be to use the pali as my “base” and the agama and other parallels as a “corrective” to over-reading Therevadan sectarian positions into the original material.


I think the sticking point would be what gets included and what exactly is meant by it. In other words, what are the basic teachings. To me the core of Buddhism is liberation in this life. The rest is commentary at best and a distraction at worst.

If everyone here were to limit themselves to 500 words to capture the core of the Buddha dharma, everyone here would pick very different points and interpret what is in common differently. I put the following together for my daughter who was interested in what exactly it was in Buddhism that drew me to it. This is what I selected and how I interpret it. The point being to illustrate how divergent opinions are on what the core of Buddhism is.

I have thought about including something about basic ethics, but I think those come along for the ride to a great extent. That and I wanted it to fit on one page printed.

1 Like

We now clearly know that this view is not correct historically in the formation of EBTs.

Strawman arguments never go out of fashion here.


This is a political view, not a religious view. In many ways it’s the very definition of political conservatism: an idealisation of the past combined with a view that change is largely degenerate. Yours is perhaps the most extreme example of conservative politics that I’ve recently encountered recently outside of encounters with neo-fascists (who seem to be everywhere at the moment).

The proposition that “Buddha is the peak of Dhamma” is a very clear example of clinging to the past.

There are probably more awakened people walking around today than at any time in history. Which means that buddhadhamma is thriving. It’s just not dressed up as and pretending to be a prehistoric Indian anymore. Buddhadhamma is a living thing. Many of us are living it, to the best of our ability, and the best of us are realising it every bit as deeply as people in the past did.

On the contrary–and Buddhist mythology notwithstanding–the “glass” is always full because it is constantly being refilled by awakened Buddhists.

Say what now?

There are just two formal collections of Buddhist texts outside of India: Chinese and Tibetan. They both attained their current structure before the collapse of Buddhism in India. For example, the present day Chinese Tripṭaka is based on the Kāiyuán shìjiào lù «開元釋教錄» (T 2154), a catalogue of Buddhist texts in translation first published in 730 CE. I think most scholars equate the end of Indian Buddhism with the fall of the Pala Dynasty in the 12th century.

That said, every new edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka adds a load of new texts. The Taishō shinshū daizōkyō «大正新修大藏經» (aka “Taishō Edition”) produced in Japan (1912-1926), included a vast number of new texts, for example, many of which were composed after Buddhism collapsed in India. The CBETA electronic version includes even more new texts. The Chinese “canon” has never been formally “closed”.

Nor do East Asian Buddhists “fetishise texts”. Indeed, it was East Asia Buddhists who were the first to abandon the Vinaya in favour of “Bodhisatva precepts” (Saichō in 9th century Japan). It was also East Asian Buddhists who first began to deny the authority of texts per se and insist on person to person transmission (e.g. Dogen, in the 13th century).

Your characterisation of East Asian Buddhism and their collections of texts is simply false. Any inferences you draw from this false proposition are, ipso facto, also false.

1 Like

That wasn’t a straw man.

Umm. Yes, yes it was.

1 Like

The paraphrase wasn’t a misrepresentation, and I made no argument myself.