"The Buddha before Buddhism"

“The Buddha Before Buddhism”, is a book written by Gil Fronsdal. Has anyone read this, and what are your thoughts on it ? I like Gil, but probably buy too many books on Buddhism.
Maybe I don’t need to buy this one? :slight_smile:




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FWIW I wrote a review of it HERE, and @Dhivan has an excellent review HERE.


Thank-you dougsmith, those reviews were very interesting and helpful. I’m not at all learned, and therefore unable to make any informed judgement on the merits of the translation, or upon any claim that the teaching is “getting back to basics”, in some sense.
I’m glad that the book exists, and that people find merit in it.

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It’s a great book - translation. Highly recommended.

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Yes, thanks for that, both reviews are excellent.

When I started reading, I admit to feeling apprehensive, fully expecting to find yet another repetition of the uncritical assertions about the Atthakavagga being the earliest scripture. I was delighted to see that, both in the reviews and the text, such claims have been replaced by a more nuanced and realistic assessment. :pray: :sparkles: :pancakes:

May I raise a minor issue in the review with you? You discuss the translation of saññā, in the context of verses 778–9 (Found on SC here).

First, I note that in a couple of details Fronsdale’s translation is less accurate than Norman’s. Norman has “Having dispelled longing”, which is correct; it is an absolutive, rather than the ongoing tense of Fronsdale’s, “Subduing desire”. While in principle this form may also be an optative (one would remove desire …), the context supports reading as absolutive, and this is confirmed in the commentary (chandarāgaṃ vinetvā). In any case, pariññāya in the next line is not ambiguous in form, and yet is translated similarly.

Now, of course it’s a given that translation does not require a literal transposition of every verb form. There are plenty of cases where such absolutive constructions can be rendered in present tense. But the point is, what does the verb structure imply? In the Pali it is clear that these lines refer to a completed action, someone who has let go of desire and has fully understood contact. In Fronsdale’s rendering this is much less clear, and I don’t see how “Subduing desire for both sides” can be read as anything but an ongoing process.

It’s hard to see such unforced mistakes apart from the secular project to depict the Buddha’s awakening as incomplete and ongoing.

A more minor issue; in the final line, for lippati Norman has “cling” while Fronsdale has “attach”. This isn’t a mistake, but the underlying metaphor is that of a drop of water clinging to a lotus leaf, which is surely captured better by Norman. Also, √lip (nopalitto) is rendered by Fronsdale as “cling” in the next verse, so consistency is lost as well.

But to turn to saññā, you connect this to sense perception, and then back to the “seen and heard” in the previous line.

I’m not sure that this is justified. Normally saññā means perception in the sense of “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression”, rather than in the sense “the state of being or process of becoming aware of something through the senses.” (To borrow Google’s definitions.) Of course it’s connected to sense experience, but no more so than anything else. It’s not at all clear to me that saññā in this context specifically harks back to the idea of sense experience.

In this sense, Fronsdale’s translation might be felt to be better, as it avoids this ambiguity. But I have always felt that “concept” and like translations of saññā are unsupportable; they refer to more advanced cognitive functions. Saññā is more basic, the way we make sense of the world.

But as to what it means exactly in this context, it’s hard to say. It could refer to meditation attainments; to sensual perceptions; to perceptions of the beautiful as ugly, etc.; or simply to the generic sense of saññā in the aggregates. The Niddesa takes it in the latter generic sense:

Saññaṃ pariññā vitareyya oghanti. Saññāti kāmasaññā byāpādasaññā vihiṃsāsaññā nekkhammasaññā abyāpādasaññā avihiṃsāsaññā rūpasaññā saddasaññā gandhasaññā rasasaññā ­phoṭṭhab­ba­saññā dhammasaññā—yā evarūpā saññā sañjananā sañjānitattaṃ—ayaṃ vuccati saññā

Lacking context to further clarify, I’d be inclined to accept this and simply translate as “perception”, but without meaning to imply any specially close connection with sense perception per se.


I really love his translation of the Dhammapada. It captures the beauty and simplicity of the poetry. I can’t say I thought as highly of this one. Perhaps the difficulty of the text just defies this style. The title is also a complete bait and switch. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was an editor’s decision somewhere along the line. I dutifully read the whole thing since I had paid or it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.


Thank you Bhante for your kind words and further thoughts. I am nowhere near the Pāli scholar that you or @Dhivan are, but also felt quite generally that Norman’s translation of the Atthakavagga was superior, much as I like Fronsdal as a person and as a dhamma teacher generally.

Along with @Namarupa I liked Fronsdal’s Dhammapada translation much better.


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1: Those reviews are most interesting to read, for all the careful stepping around dogmatic interpretations of historical theory, and for the comparisons among translations and issues of context. A collage of review of views framed in the authors’ own views.

In that tone, most impressive I found the high-lighting, in Dhivan Thomas Jones’s piece, of what he considers a major focus among the themes Gil selected, namely: “However, it must be said that the most strikingly original theme in the Chapter is the first theme, letting go of views.

And the three quotations rather vividly demonstrating the point:

One who is attached argues over doctrines –
How and with what does one argue with someone unattached?
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view.

Wishing for an opponent, you roar
Like a hero nourished on royal food.
Run off, O Hero, to where the fight is;
As before, there is no fight here.

Pasūra, what opponent would you get
From those who live without opponents
Who don’t counter views with views,
Who don’t grasp anything here as ultimate?

(It occurs to me these verses should perhaps be engraved over the entrances to on-line Buddhist forums.:face_with_raised_eyebrow: )

2: Why the poetry? If this material (Aṭṭhakavagga) is supposedly “early” expression of the Buddha’s teachings, do we suppose he himself composed in poetry? (Perhaps I should re-read “A History of Mindfulness”, where I recall the significance of various literary styles is outlined.) Is the use of poetic forms because of ease of memorizing? – Like the earliest Greek literature which was poetic (the epic poems, dramas), with prosaic forms emerging only in the 5th century (roughly same time as the Buddha’s lifetime)?

And what’s ‘archaic’ Pali (which both reviewers mention)? Is there somewhere one can learn about this, with examples so one can get a sense of how to discern it?

3: Apropos Dhivan’s mention (“Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the Sutta-nipāta and its commentary will be published very soon.”)… People might be aware that B. Bodhi gave a series of 40 lectures (2004) on the 1st 3 books of the Sutta-Nipata, still available (mp3 files) on the Bodhi Monastery website. In an earlier version (downloaded April 2009) the website mentioned “Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi will continue the lecture series in the latter half of 2008“, but nothing more heard of that. (The website currently doesn’t mention it.)

When I first met B. Bodhi, early 2009 under the auspices of Shaila Catherine’s meditation and study group, I asked about learning Pali, and he sent (email attachments) a grammar and some tables, and files with Mahathera Nyanatiloka’s “The Word of the Buddha”, one with the Pali, and one an English translation that “attempts to mimic the syntax and idiom of the Pali.” Curiously there’s another English translation, likewise from BPS, with all the same prefatory information and lists of literature (but also with an additional Index of Pali Terms), which appears to use more fluid English for the text itself.

This interested me as well.

A cursory internet search found only one (among very scant results) paper that references “archaic Pāli”.

Without any context, here is an excerpt. I should warn you though, I do not know what to think of these papers. I feel like the author of the first one should pay me for copy-editing for spelling & grammar:

That’s from Research Methodology of Pāli Texts Editing.

That was actually the first article concerning Pāli textual criticism that I have ever read, and I am not entirely sure what it going on in it, not being familiar enough with the subject matter, but it seems that “archaic Pāli” might just be a term for “older Pāli vocab. in general”, rather than a distinct stage of the language.

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I don’t think it’s justified to speak of “archaic Pali” as a distinct language. We’re not talking about anything comparable to modern English vs. Old or even Middle English.

The main kind of archaic feature is probably the occasional use of Vedic forms that have mostly been lost in the prose. By way of background, typically languages follow Grimm’s laws and similar principles, losing unnecessary features in a somewhat predictable manner as they evolve. Modern English has, for example, lost gender in almost all cases.

There are various kinds of grammatical features that are present in older forms of Sanskrit, especially the Vedas, which have mostly worn away from standard Pali; for example, the so-called “middle voice” for verbs. Such features, however, are found on occasion; and when they are found, they are more likely to be in verse than in prose. This may be for a number of reasons:

  1. Verse demands a greater variety of forms so as to fit the metre.
  2. Verse may deliberately evoke an archaic style.
  3. Echoes or fragments of Vedic phrases may be used.
  4. Verses may be older.

So as you can see, such archaic linguistic features are, by themselves, unreliable guides to the age of a text. Moreover, it is not a matter of absolutes, but of frequency.

To illustrate this, consider one “middle” verb form, -emase, chosen merely because it’s easy to search for. This is a rare optative first plural ending, equivalent to the more familiar -eyyāma. A quick search shows that the archaic “middle” form occurs in DN 32 Āṭānāṭiya, Theragāthā, a couple of Jātakas, and a couple times in Vimānavatthu. None of these are early texts. So clearly the “archaic” form serves a poetic purpose rather than indicating the age of the text.

Linguistically, canonical Pali is relatively uniform. Sure, there are differences in style and subject and so on, but purely in terms of the language itself, variations are no more than hints. Not to say they aren’t useful, but they are just one kind of criteria we can use.


In light of Doug’s new video on the book, I’m expecting rekindled interest on this topic.

@sujato Bhante, from your research and experience, does the Aṭṭhakavagga stand as one of the oldest suttas around? Also, does it change anything regarding the existing view of relying on the 8FP/4NT in contrast to the methods of the “awareness-based schools/you-are-originally-enlightened schools”? I am seeing a rising trend of people subscribing to the teachings of reliance solely on the view of emptiness and taking it as their path, aka Dzogchen, Mahamudra, New-age Awakening teachings (Daniel Ingram and the like).

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Welcome to the community @Ndawg Enjoy exploring all the wonderful resources available here.

If you have any questions or need any help, please feel free to ask; just tag @moderators in a topic or send a PM.

with Metta :sunflower::pray::sunflower:


Such a trend is not a new thing. For example, the idea of the Original or Primitive Buddhism via verse texts has been popular in Japan for more than 40 years. Nakamura Hajime(1912-1999), the intellectual giant in the modern Indic studies of Japan, preached the idea with enthusiasm; he translated Sutta Nipāta into Japanese, and in his reading of Sutta Nipāta, he even explicitly declared that the original teaching of the Buddha might be quite similar to Zen or… Vedanta! (No wonder such a claim has been so popular among some Zen practitioners in East Asia.)

Of course, there has been a significant series of criticism on that idea. For example, Nakamura inferred that some verses in the fifth chapter of Sutta Nipāta, Pārāyanavagga, form a newer layer and show a later tendency of deification of the Gotama Buddha. Philological studies of the text do not support that hypothesis. Among many criticisms, what I found most quenching is a radical one made by Matsumoto Shiro, a founder of the Critical Buddhism. Matsumoto argued that, with a slight sense of reductio ad absurdum, the idea is wrong because the ‘older’ verses beloved by Nakamura might not be Buddhist! He claimed that Sutta Nipāta contains a vast amount of archaic “ascetic literature” which is not Buddhist, thus such an attempt to find the original teaching in the text is doomed to failure.

If one finds the criticism made by Matsumoto too radical and flimsy, then the criticism sums up made by the late J. W. de Jong(1921-2000) might help:

Long story short, the point is that the trend and criticisms on it are nothing new, thus one might stop worrying and love the decades-long debates.


I’ve taught the Atthakavagga based on my translation a number of times in the last year, so see if you can find one of them, it’ll have a lot more detail than I can give here.

No more so than the bulk of the prose suttas.


Handy, no sila!


Sri Lanka series:

Unfortunately only part one of the Singapore series seems to have been posted, but the first part is where most of the discussion relevant to this topic is.


I strongly object to placing Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings side by side with New Age ideas and so on.

These are very traditional and orthodox Buddhist teachings, and they include teachings on ethics. Not only that, they are always practiced within the classic Mahayana framework of the three trainings: sila, samadhi and prajña. They are certainly not teachings which solely rely on the view of emptiness, ignoring everything else.


What is the basis for saying this? How do you determine what is in the same stratum?

I imagine that @sujato would be arguing from the above and similar positions.

I am no scholar of Pali metre but my impression is that most defenders of the thesis that the Atthakavagga is early base their arguments for the most part on the appeal to archaic metre.

Anyway it is hardly surprising to find that an ordained monastic in the Theravada tradition will defend a conservative and wholistic reading of the canon in which as much as is plausible is taken to be of the same period and as much as is plausible is taken to be in some sense attributable to the Buddha in at least doctrinal if not in literal terms.

To my way of thinking the Venerables Bodhi, Analayo and Sujato have done more to promote, defend and disseminate the EBT’s than anyone in recent history, however if you are looking for radical and critical scholarship that seeks to break apart the orthodox Theravada and carve out an “Original Buddhism” that is separate and distinct from the bulk of the prose material in the 4 Nikayas then you are looking to the wrong people, again for what I would take to be fairly obvious reasons when you are talking about monastic scholars.

I think that one of the issues here is that a lot of the people who do seek to uncover “strata” in the texts, are doing so because they are interested in defending versions of Buddhism that are quite different to what we have in the prose sections of the 4 Nikayas, often with quite idiosyncratic and seemingly personal biases that only find justification in appeal to very obscure and minimal poetic passages, often in sharp contrast to the main lines of Buddhist tradition in both Theravada and Mahayana literature.

Monastic scholars must feel endlessly called to defend and correct this record and I can only imagine it is tiring and trying at times.

I personally do see plenty of evidence for “stratification”, just nothing to suggest any radical change in the basic philosophy and praxis of Buddhism (beyond the evolution towards sedentary monasticism and material sophistican in the means of production and dissemination).

This makes it somewhat depressing to research in this field as more or less 99.9 percent of the published articles are either rushing from scant evidence to promote heterodoxies or rushing from equally scant evidences to defend orthodoxies.

I am not even sure I have actually seen a review article of what exactly the evidence (beyond the bare meter) of the Atthakavagga “earliness” actually is, again, about 9 out of 10 articles say something like “it is widely regarded” or “most scholars hold that” the Atthakavagga is early and then move on to making whatever claims they want to make on that basis.



Dzogchen/Mahamudra were the new-age teachings of the ancient buddhist world. Coming from 20 years in the mahayana vajrayana traditions, as much as I am attached to my past and mates still in those sects, I’ll have to say these are radically different teachings, with different influences, methods, goals from the EBTs. But this discussion is best saved for another time.

The issue at hand is identifying a stratum of “oldest teachings”, whether or not these actually exist; and even if they do, would they cause enough of a groundbreaking-heart-stopping shock to EBT followers. And hearing from @sujato and the rest, I for one am very glad nothing of this sort is found.

You’re not wrong, but this is what KR Norman—the actual expert in the area—had to say:

Dating by metre is not particularly helpful. Warder speaks of “the elaborate techniques of the Suttanipāta” (1967, § 91), with the implication that elaborate things are late, but I have pointed out elsewhere that, with reference to the Sabhiya-s at least, there is reason to doubt this (Norman, 1980B). Two suttas in Sn are in the very old Old Āryā metre, one in the “younger” part of Sn and one in the Aṭṭhaka-v. Warder speaks of accent and ictus in early ganacchandas (with reference to the Upāli-s and the Metta-s). Nevertheless, the fact that what we can, on other grounds, consider to be the original core of verses in the Aṭṭhaka-v, is in the Triṣṭubh metre, which is generally a sign of an early composition in Pali, supports the argument that the Aṭṭhaka-v is old.

It’s really no more than a vague indication; and of course, study of metre tells us nothing about the historical relation of verse to prose.