The Pali Suttas & Literary Embelishment


How do we know anything about early Buddhism?


It doesn’t, but it might explain extra mental faculties…


We don’t. Not really. IMO.


We may need to agree to disagree.


The purpose of this thread is to illustrate that the Pali suttas, like the Mahayana sutras, aren’t meant to be taken 100% literally. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Buddhist scriptures are a provisional raft for carrying us to the other shore or a finger pointing at the moon, rather than the Ultimate Truth itself.


No we don’t! I can disagree to our disagreement by agreeing!

Anarchy! :japanese_ogre:


I tend to agree with the Tendai school’s Five Periods classification of Buddhist scriptures.

Since the Buddha taught for 45 years, I see no reason why he couldn’t have taught both the Agamas/Nikayas and the Mahayana sutras, at least in their embryonic form.

Even in the Pali suttas, the Buddha taught in different ways to different people in different circumstances.


Buddhist scriptures should be processed sometimes with a little pinch of salt regarding supernatural elements. Probably the best advice to give anyone.

Though, there are some practitioners, even today, whom have what we would consider supernatural experiences, often regularly, that if they shared them with the wrong people might get themselves involuntarily hospitalized. Lol. Not all people experience entirely mundane reality 100% of the time.

Some people like more fanciful narratives in discourses, some like more down to Earth presentations. Mahayana and Theravada have both, just not in equal amounts. It is more a matter of taste now(it used to be purely geographic), so long as there are the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path and the other core critical constituents(there are of course some divergences here) in the collections.

Different people resonate with different scriptures from different branches, schools and traditions. I think that’s sorta cool. Speaks to individual temperaments, which the Buddha was a master of. The discourses often seem to have different flavors depending on the school.

Fanciful supernatural stuff in the Pali cannon(DN-AN) I find mostly palatable. What I find more disturbing, for instance, is that the Lotus Sutra doesn’t even present the Four Noble Truths once. Chapter 3 just mentions them as a sorta minor teaching and doesn’t even bother spelling them out. 4NT are casually cast aside. My copy hasn’t been opened in many years… The Gene Reeves translation just gathers dust… I casted it alway just as it downcast the 4NT as an elementary teaching. :dizzy_face:


Here are mentions of the Four Noble Truths in the Lotus Sutra:

“To those seeking for the śrāvaka vehicle he taught the Dharma with
respect to the Four Noble Truths, causing them to overcome birth, old age,
illness, and death and to attain nirvana. He taught the Dharma with respect
to dependent origination to the pratyekabuddhas; and to the bodhisattvas he
taught the Dharma with respect to the six perfections (pāramitās), causing
them to attain highest, complete enlightenment and perfect all-knowledge

“And then the Tathāgata Mahābhijñājñānābhibhū acceded to the request
made by all the great Brahmas from the ten directions and the sixteen princes.
He then immediately turned three times the Dharma wheel of twelve spokes that no śrāmaṇas, brahmans, devamāras, Brahmas, or any other being in the
world could turn. He taught:
This is suffering. This is the origination of suffering. This is the cessation
of suffering, and this is the path that leads to the cessation of
suffering. (i.e., the Four Noble Truths)…

“To those who sought the śrāvaka vehicle he expounded the Dharma in
accordance with the Four Noble Truths, ferried them from birth, old age, illness,
and death, and ultimately led them to nirvana. To those who sought the
pratyekabuddha vehicle, he expounded the Dharma in accordance with the
twelve-linked chain of dependent origination. To the bodhisattvas he expounded
the Dharma in accordance with the six perfections, with reference to highest,
complete enlightenment, and led them to the Buddha’s wisdom…

This is perhaps the most important mention:

In the past you turned the wheel of the Dharma
Of the Four [Noble] Truths in Vārāṇasī;
And you illuminated and explained the Dharma
Of the origination and extinction of the five aggregates.
You have now again turned the wheel
Of the subtlest, utmost, and greatest Dharma.

This Dharma is extremely profound;
Only a few will be able to believe it.
Since long ago we have frequently heard
The teaching of the Bhagavat,
Yet we have never before heard
Such a profound and supreme teaching.
When the Bhagavat taught this Dharma
We were all delighted.

While the Four Noble Truths teach the origin of suffering, the Lotus Sutra teaches that all beings will ultimately attain Buddhahood, the ultimate liberation from suffering.


Yeah. It has been many, many years since I’ve touched that text. Thanks for the references. :innocent: Still the 4NT aren’t spelled out(as in explained, which doesn’t take much effort), because the whole text is supposed to be univeristy-level Buddhism whereas the Agamas are high school/secondary-level Buddhism. You don’t find it a bit highfalutin?
I do. At least that is my personal opinion.


This is a nice thought and I am not arguing with its beauty, but I am pretty sure that the difference between the awakening of a sammasambuddha and the awaking of a sāvakabuddha is almost entirely contextual, to the point of not really mattering much. Buddha is just the ultimate of teachers. :grin:

Why take the long-route(bodhisatva) if someone else already took the long-route himself so you could have the privilege of taking the shortest route possible to liberation? That’s been my hang-up with the Lotus Sutra. I don’t think getting into a compassion contest proves much besides ego-clinging. Sorta like saying: “Gotama’s sacrifice FOR ME wasn’t good enough. I have to do it myself. Till the end of time if possible. I must be the most compassionate.” Sure there needs to be bodhisatvas, but really there is only a very small number required from each dispensation of each Buddha.

I was always taught to accept the gifts I was given and this includes Buddha Gotama’s dhamma gift, awaking in this very life. I find it unsettling if every being were to aspire to be a bodhisatva and ultimately become a sammasambuddha, because that actually diminishes the special nature of such a magnificent designation down to the mundane.

In this sutta and the Chinese verson Buddha Gotama compares himself to Mahakassapa.
SN 16.9 Absoptions and Insights


Gotama would have wanted you to become an arahanth in this life!


In the Lotus Sutra, acceptance of the Four Noble truths is assumed of the reader from beginning to end.

Not at all. The Lotus Sutra promises that all those who’ve attained Nirvana through the path of an arahant will eventually attain full Buddhahood, whether they realize it yet or not.


One of the Lotus Sutra’s most important themes is that one can attain Buddhahood in this very lifetime, as illustrated by the naga king’s daughter. This has influenced many Mahayana sects.

The Ch’an/Zen doctrine of sudden enlightenment, for example, was influenced by the Lotus Sutra.

Zen master Hakuin experienced enlightenment while reading the Lotus Sutra.


I am curious to this, since an Arahant has ended all future rebirth. Nirvana is the ultimate and final end to all future rebirth. This concept in the Lotus Sutra lacks basic understanding, to me, of the most fundamental tenets of the doctrine.

Are you saying the Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Agamas are lying or willfully omitting and a sutra, of easily arguable late composition, without earlier parallels somehow has it all right where they got it all wrong? Sounds suspiciously like the corruptions warned of in the suttas and Chinese Amagmas.

Bodhisatva isn’t a path at all nor a goal. It is a commitment. A commitment taken only in the presence of a living sammasambuddha, because whom else would have the power to grant such a grand multi-birth vow validity past death. Really. Who else would have such unparalleled potential to embed a memory so powerfully into a being it could pursue such a grandiose endeavor unconsciously, past death? Those whom take this vow before ordinary individuals (non-sammasambuddhas) are just making sounds out their mouths without any cosmic implications or consequences. A bodhisatva vow taken outside the presence of a living sammasambuddha has the sticking power of a New Years resolution, in the scale of things. There is no order to this process of the “perfections.” If there isn’t a firmly laid out way, it isn’t a path, but a praise-worthy commitment for the very, very few.

There is only one Exiguisment Without Remainder and there was nothing held back by Buddha Gotama’s teaching to be suddenly revealed centuries after his death. How compassionate would that move be? If your teaching is exclusionary you aren’t compassionate.

This seems to have veered a little of topic :grimacing:


In all politeness, you don’t seem to know what you are talking about. You are consistently saying things about the Lotus Sutra that aren’t true.

Are you familiar with the Mahayana doctrine of non-abiding Nirvana? You won’t understand the ultimate goal of Mahayana Buddhism or the Lotus Sutra if you don’t know what non-abiding Nirvana is.

I would recommend reading a book like Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, because you don’t seem to understand the teachings of the Lotus Sutra nor the most fundamental concepts of Mahayana Buddhism.

If you think that a bodhisattva is someone who postpones enlightenment until all other beings are enlightened, you are mistaken. The most common goal in Mahayana Buddhism is to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, in order to then aid all beings more perfectly.

The main difference between static and non-abiding nirvana is that those who attain the latter actually speaking reside neither in samsara or nirvana. For them the distinction between samsara and nirvana breaks down completely. The arhats believe that there is such a distinction and they forever remain on the side of the static nirvana.

The Buddhas and highly realized Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, do not remain in this static condition, for they are always motivated by their bodhicitta vows to help ferry sentient beings across to the other shore. So they cannot remain completely still and static. They have to move and act. So on the one hand we can say that they are in nirvana (or they have attained nirvana) because they, being Buddhas, have completely destroyed all causes of being compelled by the force of karma, but on the other they do not have to remain in that blissful, static state. As a result they can take up many forms in order to realize their vow. These forms are known as ‘nirmanakaya’ or emanation bodies. One who completely embodies the qualities of a Bodhisattva is an emanation body of that Bodhisattva.

However, being neither in samsara or nirvana, Buddhas and highly realized Bodhisattvas (such as Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjushri and others), are free to travel anywhere. They can take up emanation bodies and stay in samsara. They are even there in pure forms within samsara which only highly attained practitioners can directly perceive…

The arhat does not make the bodhicitta vow, so once he (or she) attains nirvana, then everything is over for him (or her). The Buddha, on the other hand, is moved by the sufferings of all the sentient beings so he (or she) cannot remain still. Realizing that both samsara and nirvana are all empty, the Buddha transcends that distinction and can remain wherever he or she is needed. Hence his state is called “non-abiding.”
Non-abiding Nirvana – Soraj's Weblog

Instead of remaining in a static Nirvana, Shakyamuni chose to help others. In the Pali suttas, he does so because Brahma beseeched him to.


There is actually a fairly large body of Mahāyānika literature that argues that the 4NT are strictly a śrāvaka teaching. In the end, it depends on which Mahāyāna you take.

Are we sure that the LS presumes the 4NT as realizations of the bodhisattva specifically rather than the śrāvaka?


I think it depends. Some early schools believed in retrogradeable, fallible, and/or imperfect arhantaḥ, so they must have been drawing lines between differing degrees of Buddhahood, essentially, much like late Mahāyāna loves to do: pratyekabuddhāḥ get their slot in the hierarchy, śrāvakabuddhāḥ (i.e. arhantaḥ) get their slot, and the samyaksaṁbuddha gets the highest slot, being the “most perfect” of the classes of Buddhas.

Once you have these multiple refined grades of Buddhas it opens up the problem of “why does X path only reach Y station of Buddhahood?” and solutions are required, such as the belief that coarser Buddhas perfect themselves in a distant Pure Land.


I am aware.

Area you saying that a sāvakabuddha doesn’t teach other people while they are living??? This is also a total misunderstanding of what a paccekabuddha actually is. A private Buddha doesn’t actively teach, but they aren’t in some static nirvana state that is somehow diminished. Yet another late misunderstanding/corruption, in my opinion.

This is obviously another conceptual misunderstanding by beings not able to accept what is outside of the ordinarily conceivable, because the chain of rebirth isn’t broken if awakened beings continue “taking up emanation bodies and stay in samsara.” They must then be in a location to emanate from and rebirth hasn’t ceased. The goal of the entire teaching is upended and repackaged with something somehow more palettable, to the authors. Buddha Gotama railed against eternalism and annihilationism as both wrong view and against the middle-way. And this is 100% eternalism. To me this screams corruption, but it is perfectly fine if others disagree. :grin:


Rather than the above, which I refer to as “backhanded salvation” to those who believe Buddhahood to be singular and unitary in nature, rather than pluralistic and diverse like many early Buddhist schools and also the Mahāyāna, one of the most respectful of the Mahāyānika solutions to this quandary is the notions that each vehicular yānāni, pratyayasaṁbodhiyāna, śrāvakayāna, bodhisattvayāna, carries within it equivalent and parallel stages, realizations, and refinements.

This schema is found in, of all places, a tantric text, the Abhisamayalaṁkara, wherein the six perfections (ṣaṭ pāramitāḥ) and the ten stages (daśabhūmyaḥ) are mapped onto the people of the path of the listeners (śrāvakapudgalamargaḥ) forming a correspondence, these people of the path (pudgalamargaḥ) being namely the 4 stages of sagehood of the śrāvaka path: stream-entrant, once-returner, non-returner, worthy one.

The five eras and the four modalities are one of the wonders of the venerable ascetic Zhìyǐ, but when one point of clarification, if you will forgive me some geeky indulgence.

When we speak of a Tendai school, we are speaking of Venerable Saicho’s tradition, not necessarily Ven Zhìyǐ’s. Ven Saicho’s tradition, and I am thinking particularly of it’s Korean branch, has produced readings of the 5 eras and the 4 modalities like the beneath, from the principle catechism text of the Cheontae school, 天台四教儀/Tiāntāi sìjiāo yí, or “The Heaven’s Peak Three Teachings Exegesis”:

次、鹿苑、但麤無妙 [藏教]次方等三麤、 [藏通別]一妙。 [圓教]次般若二麤、 [通別]一妙。 [圓教]來至法華會上。

In the next, the Deer Park period, there is only crudity and no refinement [the Tripiṭaka Teaching]. In the ensuing Vaipulya period, there are three cases of crudity [the Tripiṭaka, Shared, and Distinct Teachings] and one case of refinement [the Perfect Teaching]. In the ensuing Prajñā period there are two cases of crudity [the Shared and the Distinct teachings] and one case of refinement [the Perfect Teaching.]. Coming up to the outset of the Lotus sermon, [the Buddha] discloses them, merges them, and discards the prior four crude flavors, completing them in the refinement of the One Vehicle. The various flavors of the Perfect Teaching need not be disclosed again, since they are originally an amalgam, their disclosure is not necessary. These are merely the “combined,” “single,” “contrastive,” and “inclusive” within the phases and therefore do not come up to the level of the Lotus’ unadulterated coherence. The exclusive use of the word “refined” for the teachings of the Lotus is well-deserved here.

無二亦無三 [教一]正直捨方便。但說無上道 [行一]但爲菩薩。
不爲小乘 [人一]。世間相常住 [理一] 時人未得法華妙旨。

As the text [of the Lotus Sūtra] says: “In all the buddha-lands of the ten directions there is only the dharma of the One Vehicle—there are neither two, nor three” (8a17–18) . [The teaching is one.]“He teaches the truth directly, eschewing expedients; he only teaches the peerless way” (10a19) . [The practice is one.]“This teaching is only for bodhisattvas; it is not for adherents of the Hīnayāna” (18b20) . [The person is one.]. “The marks of the world are eternally abiding” (9b10) . [the principle is one.] People of this period have not grasped the subtle message of the Lotus. They only see the metaphors for the various phases of this teaching, such as the three carts, the prodigal son, the conjured city, and so forth, and say that it does not come up to the level of other scriptures. Now, not knowing enough to hold in awe the provisional teaching of the prior four periods, they exclusively exalt the great white [bullock] cart. After being entrusted with the family business, one merely proceeds to the treasure-land (nirvāṇa). Therefore one ends up committing the error of denigrating those provisional teachings.

(Venerable Chegwan 天台四教儀 translation A.C. Muller T1931.774c13)

So we need to distinguish the medieval Chinese Venerable ascetic Zhìyǐ from the medieval Japanese upāsaka Saicho and dispensations related thereto, IMO.