Thoughts on "Intro to Early Buddhism" by Bhikkhu Kakmuk

What do people here think of “Introduction to Early Buddhism” by Bhikkhu Kakmuk? Specifically, do people think it accurately reflects the approach in the early texts (as generally defined in these parts)?

Also, is anyone familiar with his Early Buddhism center in Korea? I tried looking for it, but my search results weren’t helpful.

Thank you!


I’m not familiar. Can you share some more details? We like hearing about different kinds of “early Buddhist” movements around the world!


Venerable, you can see a picture of the book here.

It’s a pretty condensed book; mainly lists and definitions with brief explanations (e.g. “I am the five aggregates,” “The perceptible world is eighteen elements,” “Practice involves the 37 requisites of enlightenment: four foundations of mindfulness, four right efforts, four bases of spiritual power, five faculties, five powers, seven factors of enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path”).

I have to admit that the approach appeals to me; I think in outlines, and I tend to get easily distracted with meandering explanations. That being said, the list approach and some of the references seem very Abhidharma-y, and I was curious if someone more knowledgeable than I could enlighten me to how much is consistent with the approach of “Early Buddhism” scholars/practitioners vs. modern Theravada.


Hmm, okay. Shame we can’t read it! But anyway it’s good to see different approaches. Like you say, different styles of learning suit different people.

Anyone who has an Amazon account can probably access a preview, allowing them to at least read the beginning of the book. I’m checking out the Preview via Canadian Amazon.
His credentials to write the book seem solid. From the Preface:

In 2002, upon returning from India after ten years of studying the Pāli2 and Sanskrit3 languages, Bhikkhuni4 Daerim and I established the Center for Early Buddhist Studies. In 2012, ten years after we started, we completed the translation of the four Nikāyas5 – all 19 volumes. While translating the Early Buddhist discourses, I started to think about writing a handbook for Early Buddhist theory and practice based on the Nikāyas. My wish was realized when the Saṁyutta Nikāya6 – all six volumes – was published, ultimately resulting in the publication of Understanding Early Buddhism in August 2010. However, Understanding Early Buddhism is a vast and complex commentary which may present challenges for first time readers. This book, Introduction to Early Buddhism, is a response to many requests for an accessible guide to Early Buddhist teachings. The contents of this book are a compilation of a series of 50 newspaper articles published in the Bulgyo newspaper in South Korea in 2010.

I don’t have the knowledge to judge the contents - and don’t have access to the full book. But there is something fascinating about the book. It is written in Korean to introduce EBTs to a Korean audience. It is easy to forget how much all the books written in the West share underlying concerns based on agreeing with (e.g., Yay Science!) or refuting (e.g., Scientism is just another worldview) Western beliefs and biases. This book is dealing with a whole different set of beliefs and biases.

modern Buddhist scholars like Dr. Mastani Fumio of Japan have emphasized the fact that Buddhism has been introduced to Japan twice. The first introduction was through the Buddhist discourses written in Chinese. The second and more recent introduction was through the Early Buddhist discourses written in the Pāli and Sanskrit languages. The Pāli discourses contained in the Tipiṭaka shocked Japanese scholars. Consequently, there are three technical terms for this important Buddhism: Primitive Buddhism, Fundamental Buddhism, or Early Buddhism. Some Japanese scholars who were convinced of the superiority of Chinese Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism insisted on calling Early Buddhism “Primitive Buddhism.” This implies that Early Buddhism lacks proper structure. On the other hand, the scholars and Buddhists who emphasize the fact that the Buddha’s authentic voice is fundamental to all Buddhism, called it “Fundamental Buddhism,” meaning that it is fundamental, basic, necessary, and of utmost importance.


Thanks so much!

Right! So good to see other perspectives emerging as well. I just wish (sighs) it was all in CC0.


Although I do admire Ven. Kakmuk’s enthusiasm and achievements on EBT, I am afraid that that book is not the exact sort of what you are looking for. The book is written in Korean originally and its English title is a literal translation. And the “Early Buddhism” in the title basically means Pali or Not-Mahayana in the contemporary Korean context. The mainstream of Korean Buddhism has been Chinese Mahayana/Zen(Seon) since its very beginning in the 4th century, and there were no complete Korean translations of any group of Pali Sutta Pitaka until this century.

That is why Ven. Kakmuk (Bhikkhu) and Ven. Daerim (Bhikkhuni) co-founded the “Early Buddhist Text Center” in 2002. And since then, they have published the complete Korean translations of DN(2006), AN(2006-2007), SN(2009), MN(2012), Itivuttaka(2020), and Udāna(2021). However, their goal is not grounded in the EBT only and aims to translate vast Theravadin Pali literature, to find Earlier Buddhist teaching compared to the mainstream Mahayana/Zen in Korea. In fact, the EBTC published a complete Korean translation of Visuddhimagga (2002) before any of Nikayas, and they did translate some of Abhidhamma Piṭaka (Dhammasaṅganī and Vibhaṅga), and Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha as well. Thus, although the main purpose of the EBTC lies in the EBT as we classify here, what it has pursued is broader and more Theravadin than you might expect.

When Ven. Kakmuk was asked questions about the authenticity of Abhidhamma, he answered that Abhidhamma is clearly not what the Buddha taught. However, he continued that whether certain ways of specific practices were taught by the Buddha himself does not matter that much, and that is why various ways of meditation in the later literature (esp. Visuddhimagga) and the Abhidhammic system beneath them are quite important for us now. This was followed by his opinion that in the whole history of Buddhism, nowhere can one find a more systematic attempt of organizing the Buddha’s teaching with actual practice at its heart than the “Southern” Abhidhamma.


Excellent context, thanks! Goes to show, “early” is a relative and contextual idea.

I believe that it’s probably fair to say that, within those East Asian contexts that are aware of the Suttas (i.e. educated practitioners), there is probably a better understanding of the historical situation regarding things like the growth of the Abhidhamma or the existence of the Chinese parallels than we find in mainstream Theravada. There have been a number of the most prominent teachers who have taught these things, most notably master Yin Shun, of course, but many others as well.

It’s really been implicit since the publication of the Taisho canon in the 1920s, which placed the Agamas at the start, and whose editors were historically aware. I’m not aware of any Pali Tipitaka editions published in Theravada that explicitly acknowledge the Chinese texts at all. Of course you find it in translations and studies, but as far as the root texts go, it’s still only SuttaCentral that does this, I believe.

Both of these things are true!


Okay, I just finished reading the book in the original Korean edition. I haven’t read the English edition, but it seems that the translation was rendered rather strictly. As @JimInBC quoted above, the book is basically a compilation of short articles published serially in a Korean Buddhist Journal. Thus, it has some inherent structural features. First of all, Every chapter has been set to be quite short and streamlined for the journal format. This links to the extensive quotations of Commentaries and Visuddhimagga since there is not enough space for various interpretations other than the so-called “orthodox” one. Second, the readers of the journal suppose to be Korean Buddhists who are interested in Early Buddhism. Thus, one can easily find brief comparisons of phrases in the Pali canon between Mahayana/Zen literature. There also exist some specific pointers to help East Asian Buddhists, like the Chinese translated terms of choice by Kumarajiva, An Shi Gao, and Xuanzang.

After a brief introduction to the EBT, the chapters are presented in the order of 5 Khandha, 12 Ayatana, 18 dhātu, 22 Indriya, the 4 Noble Truths, the dependent arising, 37 Bodhipakkhiyā dhammā, Samatha and Vipassana, Tisso sikkha, 4 ariya and 10 fetters, samsara and rebirth, and an appendix containing Theravadin Abhidhamma tables like 82 possible dhammas.

It seems that the order is, of course, carefully selected by the Ven. himself. In the introduction, Ven. Kakmuk explicitly states that the key feature of Early Buddhism is “view by dissolution”, or vibhajja, which gives it novelty esp. compared to the Mahayana teaching. It is clear that his extensive quotation and affirmation of Abhidhamma is an extension of the key feature. Cleary there exist a few discords, where he stresses the importance of contemplating khana, insists the translation of “sankhara” in the 5 Khandha must be mental formations (cetasika dhamma) not volition as in DO, the bombardment of Abhidhamma in Samatha-Vipassana section, and so on. Nonetheless, he renders quite strict references, so for the most part, it is easy to find out whether a certain part is from EBT or not. It is a nice introductory 101 material to the EBT guided primarily by the orthodox Theravadin view, especially if you are one of the modern East Asian Mahayana readers. However, if you are not one of them, you might find some inadequacy nonetheless.


Thanks, that’s a really nice summary!

It’s interesting how translations affect sense. Normally we’d translate that as “doctrine of analysis”; the word literally means to “break up”.

That was rather my poor translation of the Korean term, Bhante! :sweat_smile:

I just could not recall the simple “break up”. Ven. Kakmuk does not choose the classic term for vibhajja in East Asia, “分別”, since there is a nuance of scorn in the mainstream Mahayana/Zen context. Rather, he sticks to the term, “解體”.

There is another Korean word that is another nearly 1-to-1 translation of English “analysis”. However, AFAIK, Ven. Kakmuk stated elsewhere that he does not prefer the translation, “analysis” for vibhajja, since he thinks that it is needed to choose a more shocking and contrasting term for the Mahayana-centric Korean Buddhist World.

Again, I do not know how she translated exactly in the English edition, but the translator Nancy Accord and Ven. Kakmuk have listed English terms for vibhajja as: deconstructing, dissecting, dividing, analyzing, and detailing, which are quite plain.