The "Play of Formulas" theory of the development of the EBT's

I don’t think anyone is making that argument here, the suggestion is rather that the suttas are a product of recombination of formulas but that the formulas might go back to the Buddha.

As for the idea that the suttas as we have them are simple reportage of what the Buddha actually said I am not aware of any academic scholar who defends that view.

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@josephzizys, my understanding of schulman’s contention was that authors subsequent to the buddha built up the suttas from formulae left by the buddha. i haven’t read the book, so i can’t be sure, but from an abstract of his talks on the subject, this seems to be the contention of his work. if that’s incorrect, please ignore this and my previous post.

one of the arguments against a formula approach would be the consistency of the voice and character of the buddha across the suttas of the tripitaka. for a body of authors to have this level of consistency (presumably across decades or centuries) would be surprising to say the least. anyone who’s worked on writing in conjunction with others will be aware of the extreme difficulties associated with developing a consistent voice across a single piece of work - how much more difficulty across thousands of suttas, let alone developing a single doctrine.

we do see such differences between the character of the buddha and the arahants in the nikayas and the mahayana sutras. the narratives are different, the personalities are different, the settings are different, the textual quality of the writings are different, with differences between the mahayana sutras themselves leading to doctrinal variations in that body of literature (i don’t think i’m stating anything here that hasn’t been said by academics in the field). we largely don’t see any such differences or emerging variations within the nikayas (i can only think of one). if the formula approach was true for the EBT nikayas, we would expect to see this level of variation within them.

in addition, if the play of formulas approach was correct, there would be no meaning to the repetitive nature of the suttas - if it’s built up from smaller formulae, why repeat these formulae? we know that the reason for this was to aid memorisation of the suttas as a whole following an oral history. a formula approach has no need of memorisation, as the suttas themselves would be made from mini building blocks. those building blocks would be the only components requiring memorisation in a formula approach, so why develop the suttas themselves to be memorised.

i’m sure there are counter arguments against each of these, but at the end of the day, the faith in the suttas comes from practice. the suttas themselves are going to be imperfect - imperfect recollection, imperfect translations, additions over centuries, etc. the best evidence we have for the suttas being authentic teachings from the buddha (and discerning the wheat from the chaff) is that they work. that’s something that we can never get from reading them or books about them.

best wishes to all.


Reading an abstract of a talk gives you the barest sketch of an academic work. The book is 273 pages. If you want to have a better understanding check out the preface to the book available on amazon that I linked before. I appreciate your acknowledgment of how little you’ve looked into his ideas. I think it reflects well on your character :slightly_smiling_face:.

This is a non-sequitur. I can just as easily say “the formulas are the exact reason a body of authors are able to create such a consistent body of suttas”. Shulman also argues in his book that the creative ‘play of formulas’ have certain clearly defined rules. These rules of how formulas are allowed to combine could produce the consistency we observe. It’s not ‘anything goes’ like the lego metaphor may seem to suggest.

This is very important point in his work. The reason he calls it the ‘play of formulas’, and not ‘a large list of formulas’ is because by combining formulas in a creative way the meaning of the teachings is evoked. More than that he also argues in the last chapter of his book that the play of formulas can act almost as a type of guided meditation.

When I read this I get the feeling that either you feel like your faith is under attack, or that you are trying to protect the faith of others. I don’t know if that’s correct, but I promise you Shulman’s ideas are completely compatible with a profound personal connection to the texts, and the words of the Buddha himself. If you read the book you’ll see what I mean :slightly_smiling_face:. After reading his work, I feel that my connection to the texts and my faith has deepened instead of cheapened. His analysis also focuses on the literary elements of the text. Learning to appreciate these literary elements really opens the heart to the profound meaning of the dhamma and is a way of drawing closer to the Buddha, not further away. But that’s just my personal experience of course.

And to be clear I also don’t have a very deep understanding of his ideas despite having now read the majority of the book. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to really understand such works.


I think faith-followers will per default have a defensive reaction against an agnostic scholarly approach. There are degrees of course: some followers will be offended by even the suggestion that suttas are not verbatim records of Ananda’s reports. Other followers are scholars themselves, like Analayo and Sujato. In that sense, the formula perspective triggers a common reflex, not much different than other academic analyses. So let’s better focus on the actual arguments…

It’s hard to refute that the formulas exist throughout the suttas. Not all suttas consist of formulas, but they are a common structural element of enough suttas to ask: what do they tell us about the composition practice? For that, we need to get into the details, because the function of the formulas are very different.

Let’s take for example the formula “X rose from his seat, arranged his upper robe over one shoulder, knelt down with his right knee on the ground, raised his joined hands in reverential salutation towards the Blessed One…”

This might very well be a culturally common reflection of politeness at that time. In that sense this could be a ‘true’ description of what happened. But does it reflect everything that happened? Certainly one person was more clumsy than another, took more time, or after arranging the robe it fell down again and had to be arranged again. So while not un-true, the formula is certainly not a precise decription of what happened every time. So if the main purpose is not precision, then what is?


Well the issue of faith is important for actual practice. Focusing solely on the ‘actual arguments’ involves ignoring a very large and important part of the person you’re responding to. Personally I’d rather conversation be head-to-head and heart-to-heart. My intent wasn’t to ‘accuse’ but instead to share my personal experience with the book to show that it’s possible to investigate these types of arguments without it negatively affecting one’s faith or close relationship with the texts. Just the opposite for me actually.

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I agree IndyJ! I think those differences are there because Ananda was very different from Kassapa etc, that is to say I don’t think that the contention of the theory is that the suttas are “made up” by “authors” rather that there where complex purposes to recitation: doctrinal, devotional, meditative, folkloric, as well as historical. Communities would have chanted together as a way of remembering the dhamma, and part of that would have been remembering things about the buddha and his first disciples, but they where not attempting to record historical data, they where attempting to preserve dhamma, which is a different thing.

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The thing is, it is clearly the case that there are formulas, and that they are used to construct Suttas. I doubt if anyone would seriously argue that every single variation in the repetition series was literally spoken by the Buddha. Heck, the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya gives instructions on how to apply formulas for constructing suttas.

The real question is, what is the extent and nature of the formulaic construction of Suttas? Is it merely filling in background details and repetitive structures? Does it reflect, consciously or not, the ideas and intentions of the redactors?

In A History of Mindfulness I argued that the assembling of formulas to create what we now know as the Satipatthanasutta gave the Pali text a particular doctrinal slant and emphasis that differs from other versions, and presumably from the original: namely emphasizing vipassanā over samatha. And it is that slant which has been focused on in modern times as the “essence” of satipatthana. In this case, formulaic construction has had a major impact on modern meditation.

I think this is an exceptional case, and that most changes of formula have little doctrinal or historical impact. But it’s certainly worth investigating.


There was a recent article in the New York Times that reported new analysis on the Q Anon conspiracy and authorship.

“Computer scientists use machine learning to compare subtle patterns in texts that a casual reader could not detect.”

So maybe one day this could be directed at the Pali Canon to determine how many authors were involved, older and later strata of texts, etc.

But I wonder if this would really help a practitioner understand the dhamma better, or get closer to the Buddha’s message?

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I find the “building block” approach intriguing, and it makes sense to me, that different communities would pass in the sane remembered tradition in an ever mutating way, as DNA mutates but (usually) passes on the same fundamental code.

The question I still have, however, is why there is so much similarity between large portions of the nikaya and agama literature. If the culture really was “use these tropes to re-tell the Dhamma based on what needs to be conveyed,” it seems like there would be multiple, valid but different ways of doing that. Why would they all follow the same basic script?

Or am I missing something?

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Well, one reason might be that groups in different locations had the same teachings which they chanted - explaining why you get the same sutta with the only difference being “at jetas grove” or “at savathhi”

Another reason maybe that the Buddha taught very consistently for a long time to many groups

Another reason might be that what we have is precisely a “curriculum” and that what monks learned to memorise and recite was more like a skeleton key which was then elaborated and explained and expanded by senior monks and the Buddha.

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It’s important to keep asking these questions and to discuss scenarios that make sense. An aspect that has not been raised enough, I find, is who was considered as authorised to a) create sutta content b) alter content c) create canonical commentaries.

The building blocks and formulas imply the degress of freedom one would have had to create material. But there must have been forces that were conservative and reduced these freedoms. Among the surely many possibilities I think a plausible one is that great authority was needed to create sutta content.

Take for example AN 8.8 where Sakka asks the monk Uttara if the teaching he gave is his own or the Buddha’s: “But, Bhante, was this your own discernment, or was it the word of the Blessed One, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One?” To which Uttara replies: “Whatever is well spoken is all the word of the Blessed One, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One”.

If we assume for the moment that this literally took place, then Uttara was one of relatively few monastics who could converse with Sakka. Such supernatural ability and his standing as a teacher were surely necessary to allow him to basically declare that true Dhamma can automatically be regarded as the Buddha’s word.

If we further assume that such authority figures headed selected institutions in which early redactions of sutta collections were collected, then it would make sense that bhanakas were basically obliged to largely stick to the “authoritative edition”, which would then form the basis for the relatively similar suttas/sutras we have today.

I’m not saying that this is the most likely scenario, but wanted to show that when we examine the conditions that could be responsible for similarities and differences in the suttas, we might come to other hypotheses, some of which can be tested, some just adding plausibility.

Check out Buddhanexus, they’re doing amazing stuff with quantifiable ML analysis of texts:

In theory, the kind of analysis you speak of may be possible. It’d get really interesting is the ML modfels are sophisticated enough to work cross-languages.

As so often, the answer is “it depends”. It’s interesting, and that alone draws attention.


Fascinating. Firstly one of the meanings of Uttara is “late” or “furthest north”, secondly in the sutta itself a king is concerned about the teachings authenticity (the king can also visit the gods apparently) and third the teaching is then put into the mouth of the Buddha by Sakka, again, interestingly, after the time of Devadatta leaving the sangha.

So what’s fascinating to me is that this sutta records a teaching and then also records that people thought it was late.

This is amazing and I am totally lost, any advice on how one might, for example, find all instances of the Sekha Paṭipadā for example?

Oh wow, I just managed to do a search… this is the most amazing thing i have seen since suttacentral itself!!

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This thread reminds me of something Prof. Gombrich once remarked about, that being that the Suttas represented the unique teachings of an exceptional individual, and were not primarily the work of a “committee.” I am paraphrasing, but this reminder hints at the idea that there will always be scholars in Buddhism attempting to put a variable branded spin on the Suttas. To me, this is all interesting academic work, but it bears little on the idea that these teachings truly are unique, with the bulk or primary body of these teachings being so unique to the 400-500 BCE Vedic era that they are akin to what Einstein did in the 20th century; the cultivation of, and development of insight into, and the teaching of, a radically different way of experiencing and understanding our life and world.

And, like a DNA test, if we submit the Pali Canon and Agamas to a DNA test, the testing might come back and state that the sample provided is 87 percent Buddha Gautama, and 10 percent later contributors/monastics, and 3 percent errors in transcription. We have a Path and practice that does not demand purity of DNA, nor do we need to engage in academic squabbles like the “Jesus Project,” though these exercises have their proper place in academic studies, and among all of us that find the etiology of the EBTs a fascinating issue.

What still amazes me is that so many centuries later, be it on subjects like mindfulness, meditation, ethics, or rebirth, we find modern science only strengthening the earliest EBT approaches to the development and operation of the human mind and consciousness, all of these unique and contrarian insights going back to one very unique man.


My impression of the talk, and the preface to the book, and a few other bits and pieces I have seen of Eviatar’s current work is that he does in fact endorse the view that Buddhism goes back to the Buddha and not to a committee, and even further that perhaps even some of the phrases and certainly the core ideas go back, again to an individual.

The argument is more about the suttas as whole pieces of writing, and finding some way of explaining the formulaic aspects of those in a way that makes sense of them in the context of their textual production.

The picture that is sometimes defended, that more or less immediately after the death of the Buddha, Ananda stood up before several hundred enlightened monks and recited, pretty much word for word, all the several millions of words that make up the 5 nikayas, and that these words where basically identical with the very words that the buddha spoke on the occasions and at the locations mentioned is patently absurd.

I doubt very much that anyone who engaged with them deeply over the last few thousand years seriously held that view, it being more likely a rhetorical form, designed to indicate to the reader/reciter not the literal, realistic facts, but symbolically, synoptically, indicating that the tradition went back to the earliest followers, that these followers had heard the teachings directly from the buddha, and that there was widespread consensus about them.

I also imagine, as I said above, that many of the repetitions may be explainable by their being recitation traditions in different locations that insisted that their versions of the same teaching also make it into the canon.

For me it is precisely the conviction that there was a Buddha and that he taught something very deep and interesting and liberating that makes me interested in this type of scholarship, because in the EBT’s we have something that is nothing at all like transcriptions of speeches given by an inspired mind, what we have is something that sounds very much like it was chanted by groups over and over to preserve what could be preserved of the tradition.

The Suttas themselves constantly describe groups of students studying various topics from say the 37 wings, and being encouraged, exhorted, taught and trained, by senior monks, that is we have many times when the suttas state that senior monks where going into great detail, answering endless questions, giving inspiring metaphors and similes and analysis, again, what we have in the suttas isn’t that, it is the barest outline of that, a series of gestures towards that, as when in MN9 we get to hear Sariputta analyze right view - we don’t get much more than what we ourselves could have built up by simply copying and pasting various examples from the rest of the canon.

The examples are really pretty much endless as to why the suttas cannot be simply the speeches of the buddha as recalled by ananda and recited after buddhas death - the number of events that occur between various monks “plunged into the deep forest” when Ananda was not there for a start, unless we picture the buddha patiently recounting his day to ananda in the evening to make sure he “got everything”

The EBT’s are a literature. That literature was created after the time of the Buddha. It was not intended as reportage or history or journalism in the sense we mean those terms today. It contains plenty of evidence on purely philological grounds that many parts of it are much more recent than many other parts. It shows evidence of evolution and elaboration. None of this is to say that Buddhism was invented by a committee. It is simply to say that the earliest extant teachings we have, the EBT’s are not the same thing as say, the transcribed speeches of Martin Luther King, and that we therefore cannot read them naively as if they where.

Somewhere between the straw-man of “Ananda remembered” and the straw-man of “made up by committee” is a realistic picture of what we have and what it might mean.


Joseph, well said, and apologies that I cannot reflect and write more as I am traveling and working off a laptop while trying to eat…of course, I am to be faulted for commenting here having not read Shulman’s book, and being part of something of a peanut gallery at this point. I agree that the Suttas are a body of work that were produced through the precision of the early monastic reciters, and those that came later and interpolated/embellished the texts to some smaller degree. That margin, that gap, as you well point out, exists, and I have no idea how broad that gap may be, but my sense is that we are fortunate that the early reciters likely captured and preserved the bulk of the Buddhavacana, even if the way that that body of work was captured is in a formulaic or repetitive process to allow for recollection and consistency. Again, what I feel is so beautiful about Buddhist practice, and you resonate this point as well, is that most of us can rest easy in these teachings, have a level of saddha in the authenticity of these teachings, and put them into practice for ourselves.

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Yes! I agree with this very much, I have quite a strong feeling of confidence in the EBT’s and a strong feeling of their unity, and they support my practice greatly, but I do sometimes wish that a miracle might occur and some manuscript is one day unearthed of say a greek who happened to hear the Buddha speak on a journey to visit the gymnosophists and wrote down some eyewitness account of things, from a different perspective to that of the EBTs, wouldn’t that be something? But certainty for practice, at least for me, the texts we have provide plenty to chew on, and it is more out of a more worldly love of and interest in Buddhism as a tradition that I wish for such things, when i suppose i should be contenting myself with what i have :slight_smile:

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hi @Preston thanks for your comment.

i think it’s undeniable that there are formulae in the suttas. the buddha clearly re-uses stanzas across suttas, and this is what gives the dhamma its flavour of utmost consistency.

the question is, who was the author of those formulae, and who put them together into the more complex suttas.

you’re correct in that i do believe the stories about the traditional origin of the suttas. according to this, the buddha’s chief attendant, ananda, had an eidetic memory, whereby he could recall everything he had ever heard (and by implication from this origin story, so did the buddha). i don’t find that impossible to believe - this is not unknown even in our modern age (see luria’s ‘mind of a mnemonist’). part of his agreement with the buddha for becoming his attendant was that the buddha would teach him all the suttas he had previously given, and any that he did not have a chance to hear. thus, the ‘i’ in the ‘thus have i heard’ refrain in the suttas is the voice of ananda as he recited the suttas at the council of arahants after the buddha’s death. you’re probably well familiar with this story.

on the basis of that reported history, the buddha would most likely be the originator of the formulae of the suttas - to me, they were most likely the reflection of a mind that knows its material so well that it repeats it word for word every time. anyone who’s every completed a body of research they’ve had to present repeatedly likely knows his feeling well. i think this is consistent with ajahn sujato note above that “no hypothesis of early Buddhism is less plausible than that the Buddha spent his whole life merely repeating the same few doctrinal formulas without variation”.

if shulman’s thesis is that the buddha had formalae that he reconstituted into the suttas as he gave them, then this makes entire sense.

if his thesis is that the buddha didn’t actually speak the suttas, then this would be a case for comparative textual analysis (possibly by AI). however, in the absence of that, i don’t see why the buddha isn’t the originator of his own words.

you are right that i do have faith that this is the case, but, that faith is also based on simple logic and reason. the consistency of the EBTs compared with the inconsistency of the mahayana sutras indicates to me the difference between suttas spoken by a single mind, versus texts created by a variety of individuals using some common building blocks. it’s like the difference between an architected community of homes versus housing in an area with no building codes. the differences are visible.

if shulman’s thesis is that there was another single person who came along after the buddha and put together some basic formulae left by the buddha into a consistent body of suttas, i could accept that - except that this would be a breach of the fourth precept in spirit, if not in letter. what you’d have then is that buddhism was created by a person who didn’t follow buddhism. possible, but if you accept that the teachings are complex and true (i.e., for example, morality conditions mindfulness and clarity of thought), then a person without a moral base wouldn’t be likely to see the full complexity of the buddha’s teachings.

you’re also right in that i don’t have a clear understanding of schulman’s thesis - i tried to read the amazon preface but it doesn’t work for me (perhaps country specific?) so i was left to discern his thesis from abstracts. if any of my assumptions about his thesis are incorrect, please let me know.

please don’t feel that you did accuse or offend in any way - you, @Gabriel, and @josephzizys and all others on this thread are very considered in your responses. thank you to all for your comments. my apologies for any errors or misconceptions i may have about schulman’s work, or the arguments of any on this thread.

best wishes to all.

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