The Samyutta Nikaya as the earliest of the EBTs

Hi Folks,

I am reading The Authenticity of of the Early Buddhist Texts (2015) by Sujato and Brahmali which argues that the Nikayas in the Pali Canon are the EBTs of the Pali Canon. But I also remember reading in the History of Mindfulness (2012) by Sujato which argues that the Samyutta Nikaya is the earliest of the Nikayas for the most part in the Pali Canon. So could one still say that the Samyutta Nikaya is the earliest layer of EBTs in the Pali Nikayas?

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It’s all just theories and guesses. And those things can either be right or wrong.

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Well Sujato argued in the History of Mindfulness that the Samyutta Nikaya and the Samyukta Agama have the most overlap by far between the Nikayas and Agamas and that therefore they are probably older. Has anyone developed that further or raised evidence to the contrary?

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Thanks for the question!

This idea was first developed by the Taiwanese monk Master Yin Shun, and is by now effectively the standard theory in Taiwanese Buddhist studies. I was just at a conference in Taipei and they showed that in journal articles, references to the Samyukta far outnumbered any other texts (including Mahayana).

The theory is not exactly that the content of the Samyutta is necessarily earlier, but the structure. The argument is that the Samyutta was the earliest framework for collecting the central teachings on important topics. In some cases, it seems that portions of other nikayas began life as sections of the Sanyutta (such as the first chapter of the Dīgha).

So the structure is one thing, and while it seems likely the earliest structure includes many of the earliest teachings, this is far from being a blanket statement; all the nikayas have been developed to some degree. If you compare with a house, for example, the fact that a house is older than the one next door doesn’t necessarily mean that any particular part of that house is older; in fact, its age make the presence of renovations more likely. So while we can argue that the teachings of the Samyutta were likely to have been considered central from an early time, we can’t really argue that any particular teaching in the Samyutta is older than one elsewhere. At least, not without supporting arguments.

However, it is, I think, reasonable to assume that if you want to research a particular teaching, look at the Samyutta as a starting point. This was really the thing that became apparent to me in writing that book. Pretty much everyone was treating the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) as the be-all and end-all of mindfulness teachings in the suttas, whereas in fact it should be seen as a somewhat later compilation.

Anyway, in the time since I did that research I haven’t seen any reason to change my views.

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That’s an amazing development.

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It really is! I’m no expert on Taiwanese Buddhism, but it really feels like a time when something new is emerging.

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Hi @Dhammabodhi ! Just to play devils advocate to @sujato for a minute, there are in fact lots of reasons to think that the SN/SA collection is later, not earlier, than DN/DA and MN/MA. A few of those reasons;

  1. DN/DA makes no mention of 12DO, mentioning only 10DO (in DN14 and DN15) and even shorter lists (in DN1 for example). SN/SA acknowledges both 10DO and 12DO, so if we think that the shorter list is likely to be the earlier one, DN is likely earlier than SN.

  2. DN has very little evidence of 5A as a doctrine and the major place it is found, it seems to be inserted (DN14). The presence of this doctrine in some nikayas and not others might be interpreted as implying that the doctrine developed after the nikayas from which it is absent had already been composed.

  3. SN names suttas from DN and qoutes from them, (SN41.3 and SN22.4) but no DN suttas ever mentions an SN sutta, this could indicate, again, that SN developed after DN.

there are plenty more reasons to think that SN is later, the fact that it has an elaborate, thematic structure is itself suggestive of development and scholastic sophistication that seems antagonistic to what we would expect from the way communal chanted literature would develop in a community, and there are plenty more arguments too.

a couple of threads may be of interest;

Anyway, good luck with your exploration!!

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Thanks @josephzizys for the quality devil’s advocate reply.

Here is my response. The core structure of the SN is the 12 links, 5 aggregates, 6 sense fields, and 8 fold path. Inside of the 8 fold path there is the 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing. This is a list of terms that can easily be memorized and they function together as a coherent interconnected system. There are standard interpretations for each set of teachings which can also be easily remembered. So to me it makes sense that this can form a basis for an oral tradition. The teachings come across as oral yogic teachings as opposed to philosophical truth claims about the nature of reality. The setting of the teachings fits within the area of Greater Magadha and the westward expansion of the later Mauryan Culture.

The nidanasamyutta starts with the Buddha listing the 12 links and defining each one. But then he zooms in to different subsections of the chain. My take is that there are two primal phenomenological rhythms in the 12 links.
Ignorance, volition, consciousness, psyche-soma, 6 sense fields.
Contact, sensation, craving, grasping, becoming.
Taken together these to primal rhythms cause birth and death.
This to me is the core theory in the SN.

The 8 fold path seems to describe wholesome becoming and liberation from becoming whereas the 12 links seem to describe becoming in general.

To me the 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing systematically work with the two primal phenomenological rhythms in the 12 links. Exercises 1-8 are about working with the body and body sensation to cultivate the four jhanas. This is related to the links of contact, sensation, craving, grasping, and becoming. Then exercises 9-12 work on the heart-mind to liberate it from being caught in conditioned phenomena. This is related to the links of ignorance, volition, consciousness, psyche-soma, and the 6 sense fields. Exercises 13-16 seem to zoom out to where one is aware of body, sensation, and the heart-mind within the overall context of the 12 links in order to attain nibbana.

So I would agree that the 5 aggregates are not as important and I would agree that one needs to focus on different subsections of the 12 links, not just the 12 links. But the teachings on the 5 aggregates and the 6 sense fields do provide an overall phenomenological map of experience that is useful.

To sum up, I think the SN holds up well as an interconnected system of core oral yogic teachings that have standard interpretations.

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Hi Bhante,

Are their particular universities or monasteries in Taiwan where this research and publication is being done?

Yes, this is all very true, and makes a good argument why we might expect that this is in fact a developed, pedagogical, scholastic systemization of the teachings rather than their original form.

If we examine the long (one of the longest) continuous prose narrative known as the sekkha patipada at DN2 beginning with

*“idha, mahārāja, tathāgato loke uppajjati arahaṁ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammas

“Consider when a Realized One arises in the world, perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed.

and ending with

‘khīṇā jāti, vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ, kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ, nāparaṁ itthattāyā’ti pajānāti.

They understand: ‘Rebirth is ended, the spiritual journey has been completed, what had to be done has been done, there is no return to any state of existence.’

I would note a few things: first, this passage is qouted or directly alluded to at

VN1 (by which I mean Bu Pj 1)
DN2 DN3 DN4 DN5 DN6 DN7 DN8 DN9 DN10 DN11 DN12 ** DN13
MN4 MN6 MN19 MN27 MN36 MN38 MN39 MN51 MN53 MN60 MN65 MN73 MN76 MN77 MN79 MN85 MN94 MN100 MN101 MN107 MN112 MN119 MN125
SN6.3 * SN12.70 SN16.9 SN16.11 SN51.11
AN3.58 AN4.198 AN5.75 AN5.76 AN10.99

note about ** this gives the formula up to the abandonment of the hinderances and then gvies the brahma-viharas instead of the rest of the formula, it is the first of many such variations giving parts otf the formula mixed with other teachings.
note about * this gives just about the most truncated version one could imagine:

Now at that time a certain brahmin lady had a son called Brahmadeva, who had gone forth from the lay life to homelessness in the presence of the Buddha.
Tena kho pana samayena aññatarissā brāhmaṇiyā brahmadevo nāma putto bhagavato santike agārasmā anagāriyaṁ pabbajito hoti.

Then Venerable Brahmadeva, living alone, withdrawn, diligent, keen, and resolute, soon realized the supreme end of the spiritual path in this very life. He lived having achieved with his own insight the goal for which gentlemen rightly go forth from the lay life to homelessness.
Atha kho āyasmā brahmadevo eko vūpakaṭṭho appamatto ātāpī pahitatto viharanto nacirasseva—yassatthāya kulaputtā sammadeva agārasmā anagāriyaṁ pabbajanti, tadanuttaraṁ—brahmacariyapariyosānaṁ diṭṭheva dhamme sayaṁ abhiññā sacchikatvā upasampajja vihāsi.

He understood: “Rebirth is ended; the spiritual journey has been completed; what had to be done has been done; there is no return to any state of existence.”
“Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ, kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ, nāparaṁ itthattāyā”ti abbhaññāsi. And Venerable Brahmadeva became one of the perfected. Aññataro ca panāyasmā brahmadevo arahataṁ ahosi.

SN6.3

So it is widely present and presupposed by all the prose sutta collections.

Next, it contains a complete description of the path, including the most detailed descriptions of the most common meditation praxis (jhana).

Finally it does not contain ANY mention of; 12 links, 5 aggregates, 6 sense fields, or an 8 fold path, or 16 exercises of breathing.

Why would a major prose expression of the whole of the path, situated at the very beginning of the canon, which includes our most detailed canonical desctiption of the 8th step of the path, jhana meditation, completely fail to mention literally every item on your list of

“The core structure of the SN is the 12 links, 5 aggregates, 6 sense fields, and 8 fold path. Inside of the 8 fold path there is the 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing. This is a list of terms that can easily be memorized and they function together as a coherent interconnected system.”

while the collection you take to be the earliest, SN, presupposes this text at

SN6.3 * SN12.70 SN16.9 SN16.11 SN51.11

and qoutes from the former collection DN by name at

SN41.3 and SN22.4 ?

Having a core set of interconnected teachings with standard interpretations does not require the infrastructure of scholasticism. The Buddha was a master of the yogic oral tradition. The teachings on the 12 links, five aggregates, six sense fields, Eightfold Path, and 16 exercises in the Samyuta Nikaya are not philosophical truth claims about the nature of reality as comes with later Buddhism. They are practical teachings about understanding the process of rebirth, keeping an ethical code, and engaging in the cultivation of wholesome states of body and mind.

Sujato’s work points to the overlap between the Pali Samyutta Nikaya and the Sanskrit Samyukta Agama surviving in Chinese as meaning they might come from a common root source.

To this we can add that the teachings on the 12 links and the 16 exercises can be found in the Ledi Saydaw lineage and the Ajhan Mun lineage as embodied traditions of meditation practice.

To this I would add that the early Buddhist yogic structure of satipatthana, namely the body (kaya), sensation (vedana), and the heart-mind (citta) within the deeper context of the Dhamma as the 12 links, is very similar to the yogic structures and deeper spiritual contexts of Hindu Yoga and early Daoist yogic practice. The yogic structure in Yoga is posture (asana), breath energy (pranayama), and the heart-mind (citta) within the deeper context of the witnessing awareness (Purusa). The yogic structure in early Daoism is nutritive essence (jing), breath energy (qi), and the heart-mind (shen), within the deeper context of the Dao as the primordial ground of being. A similar yogic structure and deeper spiritual context can be found in Chan/Zen, namely posture, breath energy, and the heart-mind within the deeper context of Buddha Nature.

The oral city-state yogic culture of Greater Magadha in northeast India out of which Buddhism and Jainism emerged was similar to the oral city-state yogic culture in China out of which early Daoism emerged. The Mauryan Civilization, which was predominantly an oral culture , saw the intermixing of Buddhism and Hinduism out of which Hindu Yoga developed. All of these traditions had an interconnected set of oral teachings that later got written down.

For all these reasons I don’t see why we don’t explore the hypothesis further that the Samyutta Nikaya represents the earliest layer, by and large, of discourses in the Suttapitaka.

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Do you think it is possible to ever verify this hypothesis? How do you envision this hypothesis should affect practice? If it can’t be verified, then is it wise to let it affect practice? If so, to what extent?

I’ve seen the hypothesis go from a mere possibility to almost a certainty in your descriptions of the hypothesis. In your thread you describe it like this:

“Based on Sujato Bhikkhu’s work which points to the Samyutta Nikaya as possibly being the oldest layer of discourses…”

But in your linked video you seem to suggest this hypothesis is now a conclusion that has not been satisfactorily refuted by anyone. Treating it as a possibility is very different from treating it as a conclusion that others need to convincingly refute.

How do hypothesis like this, which have no quantifiable estimation of probability and little to know possibility of future conclusive knowing, go from mere possibility to a conclusion of knowledge that needs to be refuted? What affects should/does this have on practice?

:pray:

How do you square this with the Buddha saying that the 4NT are “truth” or “reality” and with impermanence, dukkha and not-self being said to be the nature of conditioned things?

A hypothesis is not a verified fact. It is an educated guess based on the available evidence. The hypotheses Sujato proposed that the Samyutta Nikaya is by and large earlier than the other Nikayas in the Pali Canon has so far not been seriously discussed in academia. Bhikkhu Bodhi and Analayo Bhikkhu are still putting forward the idea that the Nikayas in general represent the early Buddhist teachings and that there is no way to distinguish between earlier and later Nikayas. They simply do not discuss Sujato’s work or the work in Taiwan comparing the Pali Samyutta Nikaya and the Samyukta Agama that survives in Chinese. Bhikkhu Bodhi has recently published an anthology of discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya and Analayo has recently published a book on the early oral teachings in the Pali Canon. We need a serious debate on this.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Noble Truths, Noble Path: The Heart Essence of the Buddha’s Original Teachings (Wisdom Publications, 2024).

Bhikkhu Analayo, Early Buddhist Oral Tradition: Textual Formation and Transmission (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2022).

Sujato’s work is based on comparing the available early canons. To that I have added a comparison of living traditions of practice, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. I would say that is a good start to debate the two hypotheses. As it stands now there is a bias in academia towards the view held by the Mahasi Vipassana, Western Vipassana Movement, and Buddhist Publication Society traditions. The views from the Ledi Sayadaw lineage and from Thanissaro and Sujato from the Thai Forest lineage have not been seriously discussed.

In the khandasamyutta the Buddha teaches that the five agregates are impermanent, suffering, and not self. He does the same in the salayatanasamyuta with regards to the six sense spheres. In the saccasamyutta he puts forward the Four Noble Truths. There is not a samyutta just for the teachings on the three marks of existence, namely that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, suffering, and not self. Thanissaro argues that the three marks as truths claims about the nature of reality is a later teaching. He argues that the teachings on impermanence, suffering, and not self in the early teachings are skillful perceptions one uses to disrupt identifying with and attaching to the body and mind and to the process of becoming.

Which discourse(s) are you referring to?

Bhikkhu Thanissaro, “First Things First,” dhammatalks.org, 2018, First Things First.

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Here

“Mendicants, these four things are real, not unreal, not otherwise. What four? ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’ … These four things are real, not unreal, not otherwise.

That’s why you should practice meditation …”

SN 56.20

It’s when a mendicant meditates observing the body as liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to originate and vanish—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of covetousness and displeasure for the world.
Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu samudayadhammānupassī kāyasmiṁ viharati, vayadhammānupassī kāyasmiṁ viharati, samudayavayadhammānupassī kāyasmiṁ viharati, ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.

Here the body has the nature (dhammā) of arising, ceasing etc.

A problem with Bhante’s “no-self strategy” would be that impermanence and dukkha are also “strategies”, yet the Buddha declares these things to be truths, realities, actualities of how things are.

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I agree with dhamma as impermanence, especially given that it is in the 16 exercises of mindfulness of breathing. To me, dhamma as suffering is described with the 12 links. I see the 12 links as the underlying theory behind the 16 exercises.

Then of course I also think of Dhamma as overall teachings of the Buddha as compared to the Dhamma of Mahavira and Jainism or the overall teachings of other yogic lineages in India during the second urbanization.

This is certainly correct. One should not just ignore the findings, particularly the relevant works by Yin Shun.

It is very unlikely that four principal Nikayas/Agamas were originally established at once at the first Buddhist council, even though one recognises the extant texts were not original in terms of structure and content.

It is very probable the four principal Nikayas/Agamas were gradually developed and expanded from Samyukta-katha.

I think that SA/SN (the initial term Samyukta-katha for the SA/SN collection) is the earliest and the foundation of Agamas/Nikayas suggested by YinShun and also supported by Sujato is likely not just a supposition, although needed further serious investigation.

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It would quite interesting if a good sci fi writer made a story about a crew traveling back in time with the equivalent of a video camera to record what various religious figures actually said. It could be a devastatingly strong commentary on human nature on how people in the future would react to receiving the straight dope.

In the meantime we have this checksum from the Buddha for deciding whether or not a teaching is worth bothering with ( versus EBT, non-EBT, etc ):

AN 8.53:

As for the qualities of which you may know, “These qualities lead
to dispassion, not to passion;
to being unfettered, not to being fettered;
to shedding, not to accumulating;
to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement;
to contentment, not to discontent;
to seclusion, not to entanglement;
to aroused persistence, not to laziness;
to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome”:
You may categorically hold, “This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.” (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

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Ah, but is that sutta itself “early” or “late”??!!

I kidd, I kidd :joy: :joy_cat: :rofl: :pray: