The Pali Suttas & Literary Embelishment

I’m not half-way finished reading the Udana, and I’ve already encountered such fanciful elements as a reptilian humanoid that shields the Buddha from rain, nymphs that inhabit a heavenly realm, devatas that offer alms to monks, a woman pregnant with the same child for seven years, etc.

It’s hard for me to take these elements literally, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they crept into the texts over time during their oral stage. This doesn’t mean the texts are without value or truth.

An argument sometimes made for the historicity of the Pali suttas, to the exclusion of the Mahayana sutras, is their purported realism. Is that really a fair dichotomy?

1 Like

Well, I think it’s largely a matter of degree, to be quite honest, when it comes to matters like which supernatural miracles attributed to the Buddha are most plausible and which are not. In the Pāli suttāni, does an ancient Buddha ever spontaneously burst from the ground in a giant jewelled reliquary, acclaim the ascetic Gautama, and this is joined by the Buddha in the jewelled reliquary, which then levitates into the air with the saṁgha around it so that they can witness the Buddha reveal a purified sahāloka as a pure land?


I think it is a fair dichotomy overall. The verse sections of the suttas, and their framing narratives are filled with literary fancy and embellishment. But most of the suttas are as dry as bone, and are framed by spare naturalistic narratives.

But that doesn’t mean the Mahayana sutras don’t contain a lot of great stuff. Their historicity isn’t I mportant.


What if you take the Lotus Sutra, for example, and removed all the fanciful elements? You’d have a collection of teachings that may have gone back to the historical Buddha.

Anything is possible. But the sutras themselves don’t even seem to be trying to be historical. The Pali Canon probably gets all sorts of things wrong, but it gives the general impression of a nearly obsessive attempt to preserve the memory of words and some historical events. And when it narrates an event, more often than not the circumstances are ordinary and believable. Somebody visits a house, or asks a question, or walks to a place in the woods, etc. No rainbow moon beams shooting out of fingers etc. Although there are some devas here and there.


Also keep in mind the time, place and milieu of reception. What to us seems supernatural is/was for different people, times, and places necessarily included in a complete depiction of the ‘known’ universe.


We know that the senses given the right circumstances develop beyond what they are usually able to do and the mind might be just similar in this regard.

1 Like

Why do they begin with “Thus have I heard”?

Like in the Vimalakirti Sutra?

How many Mahayana sutras start out this way?

How many Mahayana sutras take place in the woods, on Vulture Peak, or some other known geographic location?

No, but fire and water instead.

I agree. Ancient India was an oral culture, and important religious texts were passed down for hundreds of years before taking a written form.

The Pali suttas and Mahayana sutras could have both been the products of oral tradition, though it’s worth noting the oldest Buddhist manuscripts are of Mahayana sutras.

I agree. If consistently applied, how do the Pali suttas have a better claim to historicity than the Mahayana sutras?

Bhante @sujato, would you care to comment on the veracity this claim?

One of my friends is an engineer who keeps a statue of Ganesh in his car. It literally is there in his car. I completely trust my friend’s sane and rational judgement as well as his faith in Ganesh.

And what might be the purported realism of such things as the Fair-Seeing Gods in the EBT? At first I thought the dimension of infinite space was fanciful until I really took a hard look at it. Now I’m not so sure and a bit more open to pragmatic, verifiable interpretations.

Regarding historicity, my understanding from research such as Bhante Sujato’s, is that fidelity of transmission is assessed from commonality across broadly different sources (e.g., Chinese and Pali sources). The EBT transmission is both early and consistent even in geographical diversity and dispersion through time. So the filter is not so much on non-fanciful. It is on commonality found in diversity.

This is actually not fully correct to my knowledge. The oldest manuscripts found are gandhari birch bark material containing both ‘theravada’ and proto-mahayana texts, often stored together. What it shows is that - at that time and place - they were not practiced separately. It also shows that at some point monastics started transmitting in writing, and that at that time (from around 100 BCE on) both traditions already existed, in the case of mahayana in a proto-form though, meaning that many core mahayana sutras appeared only later in manuscripts.

For details one can look up the writings of Salomon, Allon, and Glass.

1 Like

How would this explain, for example, a woman pregnant with the same child for seven years?

If it’s in a language other than Pali, then it’s not Pali suttas. The Agamas are part of Mahayana scripture as well.

While the Gandharan manuscripts provide early textual evidence for Mahayana sutras, the Gilgit manuscripts, which contain the oldest copy of the Lotus Sutra, do as well.

All of these written texts, as far as I know, are hundreds of years older than the oldest available manuscripts of Pali suttas.

1 Like

I am not Ven Sujāto, but I can say that while this claim is true, it has more to do with manuscript history than the history of Buddhist teachings, a history which predates manuscripts altogether.


A text containing purely mythical elements can be more or less faithfully transmitted in different languages. When the Buddha originally spoke, however, were there nagas, nymphs, and devatas around?

1 Like

Yeah, you’re right. Mahayana is the oldest, the most original and the best.


It’s not unusual for deities to come to me and announce: ‘Householder, the Buddha’s teaching is well explained!’ When they say this I say to them: ‘The Buddha’s teaching is well explained, regardless of whether or not you deities say so!’ But I don’t recall getting too excited by the fact that the deities come to me, and I have a conversation with them.

It’s not unusual for me to pick up my phone and have conversations with Siri. She can even tell me about the Buddha. Imagine a computer with Siri in a fancy marble box in Athens, Greece. Would there be a line for Siri’s wisdom? I think yes. One could have conversations with her. Hey Siri! What is seven time six?

42 spoke the deva.

  1. It is hard to tell if some people are pregnant. Witness the sad recent surprise birth given by a woman on life support for 14 years.
  2. People’s shapes may be the same for a long time, even years.
  3. One may have tried to become pregnant for seven years and not been able to

Taken together, these would all match the quote given that the there were no pregnancy tests available from Amazon at the time.


Separate schools or sects of Buddhism didn’t exist until the split of the Second Buddhist Council. The Mahasamghikas were ancestral to Mahayana, while the Sthaviras were ancestral to Theravada.

We don’t really know any of this, though, do we? How do we “know” these lineages?