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

I’ve spent a couple years looking at Agama vs. Pali parallels, although not as much as I would like since most of my time is spent translating Agamas.

One thing that’s clear to me is that it’s a complex situation that exists in the extant canons. It’s not really a matter of whether we should be studying whole suttas or the repetitive bits that are scattered throughout. Both methods have their place. Clearly, there were distinct suttas that arose that existed in multiple canons in different versions. The different versions seem to have naturally diverged more or less from each other, and occasionally there appears to be conscious sectarian editing on some of the sticking points of doctrine. So, there’s a place for selecting a given sutta and attempting to trace its development using the various parallels that exist.

On the other hand, there are these formulaic tracts that exist in Agamas and Nikayas that span many different texts. It is important to study them as well. There are a couple different things this can reveal. The first thing I think most scholars of Pali have already realized, which is that they can reveal the historical strata inside a canon since the formulaic material is evidence of consistency editing. Plus, sometimes the formulas grew in size and appeared in other genres of Buddhist literature. An example I can think of is the formula describing arhats that includes “laid down the heavy burden, won their own reward” etc. This formula became standard in the introductions of Mahayana sutras, and it can also be found in some Pali suttas and Agamas, too.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is that the equivalent formulas in one canon and another can vary quite a bit sometimes, which also tells us the exact formulas sometimes were “carved in stone” within individual traditions. An example of this is the long, standardized tract that lays out the training that culminates in liberation found in DN, MN, DA, and MA. There are three versions of it that I’ve seen so far. The variations aren’t earthshaking, such as the number of precepts listed out, but it does show that it’s a semi-sectarian formula. Another example of this are those controversial metaphors for pleasure filling the body associated with the jhanas/dhyanas in some traditions (Theravada and Dharmaguptaka) and not in others (Sarvastivada). So, again, one wonders what happened there, historically speaking, when we look closely at the parallels.

All in all, I agree with @sujato that we have a large amount of basic work to do still. The Agamas need to be translated and studied more systematically, and not all the parallels have been documented and studied in English, either. It’s good that we’ve made a solid start in the past couple decades, hopefully the momentum will sustain itself. The real heavy lifting is to study the different parallel canons more systematically because of the sheer amount of material involved. But we need solid translations to help facilitate that. Scholars shouldn’t need to be ancient language polyglots to access the parallels they want to read.


Hear hear! This is the trouble with Buddhism:
First you need to read a lot of discourses, then you feel you aren’t quite understanding them in English so you need to learn Pali, then it’s Chinese to compare parallels, then it’s Tibetan, in the meantime you’ve picked up a bit of Sanskrit - and in every one of these languages there’s more written material than you could read in a lifetime - then there’s the Western Philosophy you need to be conversant in to explain or understand things in western terms, then there’s psychology and cognitive science… honestly seems like no one could possibly understand Buddhism at all! That’s what has led me to the EBT’s tbh, having a corpus that might actually be manageable enough that I don’t have to spend several rebirths reading :slight_smile:


i think it’s important to keep in mind that the buddha’s essentially saying the same thing all over again:

all conditioned things are impermanent. because they are impermanent, they have no lasting essence, no essential nature, and so are unreliable. as a result, we suffer.

stream entry is possible from just the continual contemplation of the impermanence of all things that come to body and mind: the aggregates; the elements; the sense objects and sense bases and contact between them; and craving itself.

SuttaCentral (and following pages)

it’s that our minds get caught up in the pleasure of concepts and thinking (the sixth sense base) that we stop looking at this impermanence. but actually this sort of continued contemplation is all that’s required for stream entry.

we don’t need to read everything under the sun to attain a measure of progress in the dhamma - we just need to look at what we experience in the way the buddha tells us to look. without that contemplation, all our learning about the dhamma is just what we have been told by others - it’s not our own realisation.

best wishes.

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This highlights something I, a double layman (academically and religiously) keep thinking when I see these discussions: it seems like people skip over the ~45 years of religious development during the Buddha’s life.

Obviously, we can’t take the numbers for granted, but I find it highly credible that the suttas are roughly accurate in portraying the Buddha as a successful religious leader of several large communities for an extended period in his own lifetime, more analogous to Mohammad than to Jesus or most other religious founders. And we see, both in that analogy with Mohammad and the accounts in the Suttas, an extended process where, during the teacher’s life, his followers try to faithfully remember and transmit his teachings in the context of having the living teacher as backup, and then after the death of the teacher and prominent followers (Mahamogallana, Sariputta; the 360 Hafiz at the Battle of Yamama) there was a reaction to try and crystalize things in the absence of a living teacher.

Speculation like what you presented seems very appropriate to me. Of course, to a degree it will always be limited to informed speculation, but I think that is more appropriate than a silence which can be misinterpreted as speculation that none of this process, beyond people simply passively listening to talks, took place in the context of the Buddha’s life.

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Hi @IndyJ ,

What about seeing the deathless, the unborn, the unconditioned?

Do you think this is the same as … seeing an idea, the idea that one after death not takes birth again and die, or do you think there is a kind of dimension that is unborn, unconditioned, deathless, and can be seen or discovered? Is that also part of stream-entrence? Must one not see a refuge too? Something which is reliable?

Isn’t there a sutta in which it is said that Satiputta saw the Deathless and appeared to be at ease and glowing like light. What did he see?

i struggle to see any dimension that would not be conditional. if there was an ‘i’ that remained in it, it couldn’t be unconditioned.

my understanding of stream entry is that it is a glimpse of the end of suffering - it’s seeing the path to the end of suffering.

seeing the deathless is seeing the unconditioned state - that is, a state where conditions cease. if craving is the fuel, and is ended, then the engine stops - there are no more causes, and no more effects, hence, no more suffering.

you seem to be suggesting a permanent, reliable state - a permanent refuge and home. by their very nature, all conditioned things are unreliable. but i imagine the unconditioned, without suffering, would be reliable …

Also a podcast was released yesterday in which Eviatar Shulman discusses his new book. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it may be of interest to those who liked the video: Eviatar Shulman, "Visions of the Buddha: Creative Dimensi…


He gave a wonderful talk recently, which was even moving at some points - unusually for a scholarly presentation! I found it very engaging and it’s now on youtube.

I find his criticism of the comparative method valid, especially taken as a corrective or a ‘nuancing’ element rather than dismissing the whole thing and going to the other extreme. His thesis, shortly, is to look at the suttas as religious-literary creations that besides (or even ‘more than’) recording facts, try to express people’s understanding, devotion to the Buddha, meditative visions, as well as constituting meditation exercises themselves.

He criticises an implicit essentialism of the comparative method and considers that by comparing we won’t get to any ‘core’ text - at least most of the times. He treats texts more as versions of each other.

And yes, he speaks Pali very quickly but also makes a few mistakes, which I found weird…


For those interested, Venerable Analayo wrote a critical evaluation of Eviatar Shulman’s book.

This article presents a critical evaluation of the approach to earlyBuddhist oral tradition proposed by Eviatar Shulman in Visions of the Buddha: Creative Dimensions of Early Buddhist Scripture (2021b),extracts of which appeared soon afterwards in an article titled “The Playof Formulas in the Early Buddhist Discourses” (2021a).


I think Anālayo VS Shulman is the new Anālayo VS Wynne.
(The order of the elements is not intended to convey anything.)

I sense some amusement at an academic feud. Seems unwholesome… :confused:

It seems to me ‘the play of formulas theory’ is relevant to the textual studies regarding the connection, gradual formation, and subsequent expansion between nine angas (categories/classifications, or genres) and Nikayas/Agamas in the development of EBTs.

This question of the play of formulas has had a new and, in my opinion, rather important development: Bhikkhu Anālayo has joined the fracas. In fact, he’s sort of thrown down the gauntlet with his “Visions of the Buddha: a Critical Reply.” Critical replies to any and every one are not at all uncommon with Anālayo, but this one feels rather impassioned, reminiscent, in fact, of his very heated back-and-forth with Wynne a few years ago.

Besides just criticizing Shulman’s theory generally, he feels the need to defend his comparative work from perceived attacks from Shulman. I have spoken to Shulman, and he vigorously denies having any issue with comparative work per se; he simply feels the stated goals of most comparative work–i.e., getting back to some imagined “original” buddhavacana ur-text–is a bit myopic. (That’s my word. He says "reductionist.)

He just spoke at the IABS congress in Seoul, where he mentioned it briefly at re-iterated his great respect for much of Anālayo and the whole Dharma Drum team’s work. (He says he will be responding soon; he maintains that Anālayo has misconstrued the purpose of his book.) I think, though, as per his play of formula theory and its emphasis on spontaneity and performance, he’s wary of the cutting away of idiosyncrasies of any particular recension in pursuit of this idea that what texts hold in common is older–a theory which prima facie seems plausible, but which is far from absolute.

In my dissertation, I’m looking at versions of DN 15, and I can say personally that, if I looked at the variations with an eye to reductionism, I’d have to cut away nearly half the content of each text. Not only that, but the variations don’t seem to be simply products of sectarian affiliations at all. The correspondences between the content of the texts defy what we might predict based what we know of the relationships between the schools. And this is all doctrinal, not literary, which was more of his emphasis in the book, though I think he’s now looking more now in a doctrinal direction.

Like Shulman, I’m seeing value in dealing with each text (and, in this case, the entire DN 15 text family as well) on it’s own terms. Now, like both Shulman and Anālayo, the very basis of this site is to enable comparative work. What do we think here about the two, very different goals of these two scholars? I think this will be an important question going forward in Buddhist studies.


I think there are obviously cases (especially in the DN/DA) where material was brought in from elsewhere to compile longer teachings. Venerable Analayo himself has written on this at length. But the entire Indian religious culture (from the Vedas on through to the Buddhists and beyond to Panini and Patañjali, etc) was a culture of memorizing texts (and then commenting on them).

Shulman has a great name for his little idea. I’ll grant him that. But evidence? Not so much.

I think the “idea” is actually Mark Allon’s, but Mark is a great deal more circumspect in his description of the idea and it’s implications whereas Shulman is a bit more fun and aggressive with it.