The Samyutta Nikaya as the earliest of the EBTs

Bad translation.

This is better translation:

to fewer desires, not more;
appicchatāya saṁvattanti, no mahicchatāya;

So what aspect of practice or Dhamma would change were the SN established as earliest layer of EBT?

That’s a good question! The answer I suspect would depend upon the individual proclivities or views of the person(s) so establishing. I suspect it would be used as a reason to disregard suttas that one does not like or that seemingly clash as “inauthentic” or not proper dhamma. In all of this there seems to me a conceit trying to establish what are the earliest motivated by a wish to establish priority or authenticity. Quite a different criterion than what is given in AN 8.53 isn’t it? Seems a very dangerous enterprise to me fraught with motivated reasoning catering to bias.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard Feynman

No amount of textual analysis or speculation will reveal the truth. All that it will reveal are guesses loaded with assumptions that are not actually known to be true. Over time those guesses will turn into confidences and the knowledge of the precarious and tenuous nature of the guesses based on assumptions will be lost. False knowing will be asserted and errors will prosper. I would hope that upon realizing this people would give up all these strategies as untrustworthy to guide practice, but it isn’t so.



Since “early” in this context still means hundreds of years of distance and oral transmission, I don’t see how establishing SN as first would improve anybody’s situation.

It seems to me that with all the possible errors and uncertainties of textual criticism, one might as well hold on to the established tradition - especially since it makes sense. Theravada orrhodox doctrine as taught by the Ven. Bodhi pretty much harmonizes all the teachings in the Nikayas.

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While you can’t see how I can almost guarantee others will see how and so it will be used by others to argue/quarrel/dispute over which sutta is more “authentic” and which should be regarded as the more authoritative. Other suttas deemed late will be labeled as “inauthentic” and therefore safe to disregard. I’m pretty sure this has already taken place. Castles have and will be created out of sand. :joy: :pray:

As always, scholarship will move on, regardless of how much some conservative religious people don’t want their texts to be dated or analyzed.

People who are against analyzing texts, shouldn’t pretend that they actually care about those texts. In that case, they just care about what they want the texts to be. Actual respect for texts involves caring about how they were developed, the context in which they were developed, and what changes may have been made over time.

Look at christianity and the literally hundreds of different theories than exist about the composition of the gospels, one at odds with the other, every one of them claiming proper scholarship. Google “synoptic problem” for a taste.

Is that the kind of treatment you wish to expose the texts you respect so much to?

If it is impossible to reconstruct the development of a tradition and it’s sacres texts with certainty, should one better let it be or let everybody doctor with its tenets?


Analyze the texts! Subject them to textual analysis and radio carbon dating and whatever methods you deem appropriate. I have no problem with scholarship and analysis. What I think is dangerous is pretending to come to conclusions that are not warranted. At most you can come to educated guesses and hunches, but human frailty is such that those educated guesses and hunches tend to become fixated into certainties and “known facts” when they are anything but. Scholars passionately debating - often with venom - which of the educated guesses are true in fact and which are not. Don’t pretend that your conclusions are facts when the analysis you perform is not capable of producing such. :pray:


I have been following this for decades (literally, since the late 80s), beginning with the Jesus Seminar and John Crossan. I still review the latest theories & cycles of discussion led by Bart Ehrman and others. I’ve observed that the people in academia who conduct the research are across the spectrum of religiosity and faith (for lack of better phrasing).

I’ve noted a preponderance for one side to occasionally caution their audience that, given the implausibility of an entire corpus of texts to have been curated simultaneously, they should re-assess their religiosity because they’ve effectively been deluded. I’ll call them The Cautioners.

However, I speculate that The Cautioners presuppose that a religiously dedicated person does not have the intelligence or emotional capacity to evolve in their relationship to their spirituality relative to the emerging historical and textual evidence.

I haven’t found this to be the case that much – at least, not within this particular religious tradition (Christianity). The delusion that may have been exposed is a “nothing burger” or causes some mild distress. Those who become heavily distressed tend toward a complete de-construction and, usually, re-construction of their relationship to a spirituality motivated life.

:pray:t2: :elephant:

Trying to understand, it sounds like you’re saying that a certain group of scholars of Christian texts have concluded upon the basis of textual evidence that another group’s faith is not warranted and should therefore be abandoned or altered based on the strength of this textual evidence?

Neither educated guesses nor faith are forms of knowing. Educated guesses, faith, and knowing are different things. When the holders of educated guesses err by viewing guesses as facts and holders of faith err by viewing beliefs as facts and those two sides differ on what the “facts” are, then tension and dispute will tend to arise.

There is danger in not knowing the difference between educated guesses, faith and knowing. Textual analysis is based on and can only produce educated guesses. Faith is a product of trust and belief. Neither can produce known facts.

Holders of educated guesses and holders of faith are both employing strategies or heuristics to try and produce favorable outcomes. They might not agree on what is favorable or what is not favorable, but clarifying that is better than fallaciously arguing over what the “facts” are. Perhaps clarification can lead to synthesis of skillful strategies and abandonment of unskillful strategies, but I educatedly guess :joy: that arguing over so-called “facts” won’t clarify much of anything at all.

My hope is that holders of educated guesses and holders of faith based beliefs will know them for what they are and what they are not and be mindful of this; and that based upon this knowledge and mindfulness disputes will not arise.


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The reason we understand more about the history of Buddhism, or the history of Buddhist texts as they exist today, is due to scholarship. The difference in understanding that we have of the development of Buddhist texts, between the 19th century and today, is huge. We should not forget that our understanding of the development of Buddhism as we know it today comes from that.

Just because there are some difficult problems that cannot be completely resolved due to lack of evidence, does not mean that research on texts should stop, or that it is pointless. In the case of the synoptic gospels, while scholars haven’t solved exactly how they developed, the majority of scholars agree that Mark is likely earlier than the others (this has been the case for a long time).

I would argue, though, that cherry-picking one particular problem and complaining that it has not been completely resolved, is really missing the point. The point is to learn more about the texts, their development, themes, ideas, and the contexts in which they formed. Even knowing more about what we can know with some certainty, versus what we are unlikely to be able to know, requires research.

Religious fundamentalists tend to oppose scholarship on these texts because the findings may contradict their own traditional narratives. This is a common phenomenon across religions.

I’d say it is a common phenomenon that secular Buddhists want those texts stripped of anything that does not fit in with their own materialist bias …


Then you agree that it is an educated guess and not a fact that Mark is earlier?

Can you provide a scenario under which with more textual analysis the problem can be completely resolved? Is the tool - textual analysis - capable of achieving the outcome you desire - complete resolution whether Mark is earliest?

What can you know with some certainty? Is this not a statement of educated guesses as a form of knowing? Is knowing the same as a generalized communal agreement with some outliers whether a given educated guess is “likely” right?


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I think a lot of academic scholars have studied Buddhism as outsiders of the tradition. This has advantages and disadvantages. In general I have found a few biases that need to be dealt with. One is a bias towards later scholastic philosophical teachings from Buddhism over early yogic spiritual teachings. Another bias is towards Buddhist scholastic teachings that can fit within the worldview of scientific materialism. This results in seeing the Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence as well as the teachings on emptiness as existential philosophy. The flipside is a relative ignoring of the teachings on the 12 links because they explicitly deal with rebirth. Another bias is towards written scholasticism over the oral tradition so there is no serious attempt to distinguish canonical texts that could have started out as oral teachings versus later texts that started out as written teachings. Another issue is a lack of understanding when it comes to more yogic lineages of practice.

I don’t see why we should accept the statement that there is no way to determine which teachings in the Pali Canon are earlier and which ones are later. That statement is often made by people who have a vested interest in not trying to find that out. The work of Yin Shun and Sujato is very straightforward. They just compared the available canons and found overlap between the Samyutta Nikaya and the Samyukta Agama. That kind of discovery could have been made a long time ago but the people doing the research lacked the vision and will to do so.

Hal Roth from Brown University has discovered that there is an early oral yogic layer of teachings in Daoism that got written down and a later layer of more philosophical Daoism . I think we are probably finding the same thing in the Pali Canon in that there is an earlier yogic layer of teachings and a later more philosophical layer of teachings. If we combine study of the texts with study of history of the region and study of current traditions of yogic practice using the yogic teachings, I think we can safely continue to do this exploration without causing harm to the tradition.

I think Christianity has lots of problems because the Bible was compiled by the Roman Empire which had a vested interest in presenting Christianity as the one and only way controlled by a hierarchy of priests. I don’t see how distinguishing between early Buddhist yogic teachings and later Buddhist philosophical teachings would be a bad thing. It is good to have both. They serve different but complementary purposes.

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No, I don’t think that it is simply an “educated guess.” I also wouldn’t characterize it as a fact. I think that term makes it seem as though there is no evidence, when convincing arguments have been made for that position for over a century now.

Do we know for certain that the EBT’s are earlier than Vajrayana tantras? Philosophically, maybe we cannot say that we have some absolute knowledge about that. But can we tentatively make conclusions based on the available evidence? Sure. That’s how we understand our world. Scholars and practicing Buddhists all do that.

You seem to wish to claim certainty where there is no certainty and so are reluctant to characterize it as an educated guess? But isn’t that an apt characterization? Your evidence is not of a fact, but of a ‘convincing argument.’ It remains the case that not all educated people are convinced. Your’s seems a statement of belief, not of fact, no matter how you might wish to disguise it.

We simply do not know that Mark is the earliest gospel, no matter how much we might like to pretend that we do, do we? The existence of arguments that convince many to hold this belief does not make that belief into a fact of knowledge. It is still just a belief.

What Vajrayana tantras? We can certainly do radio carbon dating on extent surviving fragments of texts. Which specific texts and physical fragments are you proposing?

What evidence? You mean the educated guesses?

Employing strategies and heuristics based on conjecture and guesses to inform action is a widely held practice indeed. Some are more skillful than others. However, neither faith based strategies and heuristics nor scholarship based on clever educated guesses should be mistaken for actual knowledge. Both are based on assumptions and beliefs that are not the same as actual knowledge. :pray:

Again, you’ve described this in other places as a “possibility” but here you are suggesting that it can and should be taken as now settled conclusion. This seems like you are trying to upgrade an educated guess to a fact.

Who are you referring to here? I can’t speak for others, but I can say in good faith and wholeheartedly that if you could offer me a method whereby I could know the actual words of the Buddha I would take it in a heart beat. If you could offer me a method or way to know which teachings in the Pali canon were the oldest written down or which were venerated by whom or the complete record of who taught what and who passed along what and so on, I would take it with immense appreciation. This would be wonderful knowledge to gain and I would not pass it up.

However, you can’t offer me this method to actual knowledge because textual analysis can only offer educated guesses. It can’t produce what you want it to produce. The fact of overlap between Samyutta Nikaya and the Samyukta Agama is a wonderful fact of knowledge. However, the inference that this says anything about which teachings of the Pali canon are earlier is an educated guess; it isn’t actual knowledge. I do not see how the tool of textual analysis can produce what it is you want it to produce.


The nature of studying the past is such that there are often things that we do not know with 100% certainty. However, that does not mean that there are not methods of studying texts themselves, and using internal evidence, or references between texts, or taking multidisciplinary approaches, that will not result in a better understanding of what is likely to have happened. Additionally, studying texts can tell us a lot about the texts themselves, and the values and ideas contained in them.

Taking a hard philosophical position that nothing can be known, so everything is just a wild guess, is not really a viable approach for gaining a better understanding of the texts, or of the past. If you were in here talking about actual research into Buddhist texts, then that might be interesting. But just expressing extreme skepticism, repeatedly, saying that something that cannot be known with absolute certainty is merely a wild guess, is not really contributing much to the conversation.

In defence of @yeshe.tenley, they didn’t say these things are merely a “wild guess.” They said an “educated guess.” And it seems to me — as a third person reader — that the previous parts of your reply describing textual analysis merely summarized their point. Namely, that we have valuable systems for collecting information and making informed inferences within reason. But the point they made stands that this is not direct, complete knowledge. It is not extreme skepticism without reason; it is a counter to people asserting that scholastic inference, or any other tool that isn’t doubtless, complete knowledge, is anything other than what it is.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of historical text criticism, source criticism, and what have you. And it should go without saying that these studies have both greatly informed my own and our broader Buddhist understanding of the tradition, and should be developed and carried out much more so that we can continue making informed inferences and weighing conclusions.

I’d like to point out that these inferences are and can be drawn differently. Relevant here is that we could argue that similarities between the SN and SA are 1) signs of early material, or 2) signs of late material. If they are so similar, maybe it is because they were organized and decided upon last before the traditions split. Moreover, one characteristic of early Buddhist texts is that they often are made of dialogues and genuine discussions with other philosophers, laity, renunciants, or religious leaders and institutions. This is something almost entirely absent from later Buddhist literature, especially in the same way as in the early texts. And, the formulaic core of the SN/SA is mostly Buddhist-only and internal Buddhist-specific listing and technical discussion. Personally I don’t see reason at all to say it is earlier or later; it seems it is simply a different sub-genre of EBTs. But again, this is merely one reasoned argument. Arguments it is late or early could be fairly made.

Keep in mind our friend @josephzizys has made reasoned arguments precisely that SN/SA is later scholasticism by saying that the core of DN/DA is yogic. So not only does he propose a conflicting idea, but he uses the same argument that a kind of forest-yogic system with conditionality is at the core of DN/DA and that SN/SA departs from this with scholasticism. Personally, I’m not entirely sure what is meant by ‘yogic’ here, especially given the broad depth of meaning the word ‘yoga’ can, does, and has had. But just mentioning further argumentation to consider.


Why? Because there isn’t. It’s always just going to be guesses. And guesses can be wrong, no matter how many actual facts they are based on. Of course some guesses will surely be better than others.

And someone can certainly hope that one day some actual fact about the texts’ age appears. But until then it’s still just guesses. It’s not about “truth is unknowable.” It’s about lacking any information that even tangentially proves some kind of dating, other than texts referencing other texts or mentioning events that take place chronologically.

As long as you preserve the truth by recognizing these are guesses then it’s all good.

I think why this is so important to be aware of is that we aren’t just talking about organizing our bookshelf. Like, we want to put the books farthest to the left that contain the oldest text and then the newer texts to the right. If that’s all this was about, then sure, do whatever you like. But it’s not. These theories aim to say what is more authentic Buddhavacana and what is less. And people will naturally tend to ignore teachings that someone has come along and theorized is later.