Recently, there has been some scholarly debate around the role of formulas in the formation of the early suttas and their development. Eviatar Shulman, a proponent of this hypothesis, has written about it in Visions of the Buddha: Creative Dimensions of Early Buddhist Scripture (2021) and in an article The Play of Formulas in the Early Buddhist Discourses (2021). Bhikkhu Anālayo has written a response: ‘Visions of the Buddha’: A Critical Reply. I would also like to shout out @knotty36 for having brought these questions to the front of my mind
Here is a summary from Anālayo’s article:
The central theory proposed by Shulman (2021b: 227), referred to with
the phrase “play of formulas,” involves the following proposition:
The point here is that the formula, rather than the full discourse, is the main level of textual utterance … this theory suggests that the main texts of early Buddhism were the formulaic encapsulations of both narrative and doctrinal materials, and that full suttas are primarily legitimate combinations of such formulas. This notion allows us to understand how discourses were created from formulas bottom-up.
The term formula here refers to “fixed textual elements that are reproduced mainly across texts, often across many texts” (p. 171)
Now, obviously there is a “play of formulas” in the suttas. Prime examples of this which are well known are the two Mahā- and regular Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas. @sujato has done a comparative study of what are essentially the formulaic building blocks of these suttas and their parallels in A History of Mindfulness. What is even more interesting—and perhaps telling—though is that in this work, Bhante Sujato reconstructs a theoretical “Proto Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta” using formulaic building-blocks. That is, we still have modern examples of Buddhist monks making suttas out of formulas to access buddhavacana. Historically, many early schools of Buddhism understood ‘buddhavacana’ as not necessarily spoken by the historical Buddha, but in line with what he did say or re-arrangements of his statements. That is to say, composing new suttas out of older formulas to say the same types of things was not inauthentic buddhavacana for many, if not all, early communities.
The ‘debate’ surrounding the play of formulas has much more to do with the formative years. We know there is a consistent play of formulas in later parallels and already existing suttas. This was a mix of memory lapse and intentional addition, rearranging, swapping, etc. to make suttas more holistic or what have you. But what about the earliest forms of the suttas? What about what the Buddha and his disciples were memorizing and spreading? Etc.
In A History of Mindfulness, Bhante Sujato also spilt a lot of ink over the organization of the suttas and their early structure. This was building on scholarship from people such as Yinshun who also understood the Proto Saṁyutta Nikāya/Saṁyukta Āgama as the earliest base collection of doctrinal information. That is to say, originally there would have been sutas—short doctrinal statements and what have you—which were organized together in these saṁyutta-like bodies. These could be used for teaching, expanding on suttas, standardizing material in other narrative suttas, creating new ones, etc. Indeed, the formulas are the oldest prose in the canon that we have by their nature: If several suttas all contain the same formula, those formulas predate the full composition of those suttas or the full texts as a whole. The SN/SA collections are the most formulaic collections we have in that they have minimal narrative in comparison with the MN/DN and repeat formulas up the whazoo. Lots of suttas in the MN / DN also have shorter counterpart chunks in the SN (think DN 16, MN 49, etc.).
I think that there is a tiny speck of evidence for the early use of SN/SA-like formulas in the EBTs. I do not know if this has been discussed by Shulman or Anālayo, and so I apologize if it has. Either way, it’s good for it to be out there.
At SN 12.45 and SN 35.113—parallel suttas in the canon—we read of the Buddha reciting a SN-like formula to himself on paṭiccasamuppāda. A monk overhears it, and the Buddha instructs the monk to follow the Buddha’s example and memorize/recite this formulaic passage. There are a couple of things to note:
- It seems that the formulaic nature of what the Buddha was reciting is original; that is, in the proto-form of this sutta (if we can say there ever was one), the Buddha was reciting some kind of formulaic chunk of doctrinal content — a parallel to the current formula in the Pāḷi canon. I say this because he was reciting a “dhammapariyāya” — or a passage/exposition of theory/the teaching — to himself. This term seems to be a sutta-term for “discourse” or a specific, memorized teaching, rather than a theme of discourse or general discussion. “Sutta” originally meant some kind of short, doctrinal statement or discourse which Bhante Sujato and others have also discussed.
- This passage is formulaic and it is doctrinal/technical, very much like the SN/SA formulas (in fact, it is an SN formula). This would support the idea that (a) the Proto-SN/SA likely existed in some form, and (b) the Buddha knew some of these and may have structured his teachings around or with them to aid people in memorizing them.
I’m not sure if there are any Chinese suttas which have this kind of narrative in them, i.e. one in which the Buddha recites a sutta to himself that is formulaic. If anybody knows of some, please comment them here! It seems that the Buddha knew the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga, or some form of them/their discourses. He knew people memorized teachings, and seemingly he even knew formulaic ‘suttas’ that are the building blocks of so much of the canon.
I think this all adds support for the play of formulas, specifically Proto-SN/SA discourses which existed among the early community, along with early verse discourses and chunks of verse. Once there is this standard, it would be very easy to expand it into more narrative like suttas of the MN and DN in all kinds of different ways. From there, with established proto-narrative suttas, the formulas can continue to be played with or rearranged (intentionally and unintentionally).