To what extent were early Buddhist suttas replaced in India?

Among surviving Indic manuscripts, I’m struck by how few intact texts are left from the Agamas.

By comparison, though, in Sanskrit we have many Mahayana sutras remaining, and tantras, and also legendary biographies like the Mahavastu and Lalitavistara. The Lalitavistara has been especially well-preserved. Buddhists in Nepal consider it one of the most important texts, and full translations of it also exist in Tibetan and Chinese.

Does anyone know if the Agamas were slowly replaced in India with the legendary biographies? For example, in the 7th century, were monks still reciting texts from the Agamas, or were they using other methods and other materials?

More generally, do we know exactly how the early Buddhist sutras died out in India, and what they were replaced by? Were they just crowded out by the combination of other types of literature that were more in keeping with the times?

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It’s a good question. I don’t have all the details to hand, but it’s my understanding that this is indeed what happened. As usual, we don’t have any clear historical sources, but there are many indications.

For example, the Theravadins said that the commentaries on the suttas had been lost in India in the 4th century, which is why Buddhaghosa went to Sri Lanka.

Another example is the text known as the Abhidharmakosopayikanamatika, or Upayika for short, which we have in Tibetan translation (with some English translations on SC). It gives in full the sutta passages referred to in the Abhidharmakosa. Such a text would be useful if, in the time of Vasubandhu, it was expected that advanced students were familar with the suttas, but a few hundred years later this was not the case. Of course, the fact that no Agamas were translated into Tibetan also supports this.

Overall the evidence paints a picture of a slow decline in study of the Agamas. Around 2nd to 4th centuries, during the period of the classic Mahayana philosophers and the Pali commentaries, it seems they were still widely studied, and probably remained part of a core curriculum for serious students. But gradually the later texts gained popularity, and study of the Agamas decline and disappeared.

I think it would be a mistake to attribute this to the influence of Mahayana. It seems to me that there was a similar decline among the Theravadins, although perhaps not to the same extent. One of the major driving factors would have been the growing spread of writing as a medium of transmission, which favored texts composed in that medium.


That’s interesting that even at that time, maybe study of the Agamas was already in bad condition.

One exception to all this is the Yogacarabhumi Sastra, which has quite a lot of commentary on the “Sutra anga” of the Samyukta Agama (Sutra / Geya / Vyakarana), which apparently they considered to be the original core of the Buddhist sutras. That implies that at least some had access to the Samyukta Agama, were familiar with its contents, and had some intriguing familiarity with the history of its contents and structure. This text was a very large project that probably could have drawn upon textual specialists from different fields, though.

I was just looking for some mention of the Agamas in Yijing’s book (7th century). He does mention them briefly, but it appears that they are just one particular class of texts that one might study. He gives some different fields as Yogacara, Buddhist Logic, Abhidharma, and Agama. On pp. 186-187:

After having learnt the Yogakarya-sastra (No. 1170), he ought to study thoroughly Asanga’s eight Sastras. [Followed by the entire list, all of which are extant in Chinese.]

Although there are some works by Vasubandhu among the above-mentioned Sastras, yet the success (in the Yoga system) is assigned to Asanga (and thus the books of Vasubandhu are included among Asanga’s).

When a priest wishes to distinguish himself in the study of Logic he should thoroughly understand Gina’s eight Sastras. [Followed by the entire list, about half of which are extant in Chinese.]

While studying Abhidharma (metaphysics) he must read through the six Padas, and while learning the Agamas, he must entirely investigate the principles of the four Classes (Nikaya). When these have all been mastered, the priest will be able to successfully to combat heretics and disputants, and by expounding the truths of the religion to save all. He teaches others with such zeal that he is unconscious of fatigue. He exercises his mind in contemplating the ‘Twofold Nothingness.’ He calms his heart by means of the ‘eight Noble Paths,’ attentively engages himself in the ‘four Meditations,’ and strictly observes the rules of the ‘seven groups’ (Skandhas).

The wording is extremely vague, though, and I doubt it would be much better in the original Chinese. Apparently these are all just different fields of study, for monastics who wish to become “distinguished” in them.

Studying the “principles” of four groups or divisions are mentioned. This wording is problematic, though, because it may mean the principles of the Four Agamas (=Four Nikayas), or the principles of the Agamas of the four big monastic groups of that era (=Four Nikayas).

It does seem that way…

4th century: Asanga studies Agamas, prefers Samyukta Agama
4th century: Kumarajiva studies Agamas in Kashmir
4th century: Dharmanandi translates Ekottarika Agama into Chinese
4th century: Gautama Samghadeva translates Madhyama Agama into Chinese
5th century: Faxian obtains Dirgha Agama, Samyukta Agama, Ksudraka in Sri Lanka
5th century: Buddhayasas translates Dirgha Agama into Chinese
5th century: Gunabhadra translates Samyukta Agama into Chinese
7th century: Xuanzang does not say much about Agamas
7th century: Yijing describes Agama as a field of study for monastics


Thanks for the fascinating info.

I was including Asanga, along with Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna, under “classical mahayana”, at which time knowledge of the suttas was assumed.

In fact, I suspect Asanga may have inadvertently contributed to decline in Agama study. In Thailand today, for example, almost no-one studies suttas. Even doing Phds, they almost always refer solely to Payutto’s Buddhadhamma, which has effectively replaced the suttas. I wonder whether Asanga had the same effect in ancient India. The very comprehensiveness of his approach rendered study of the actual suttas irrelevant in their eyes.


That’s interesting and I hadn’t considered that about Asaṅga before.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to get a grasp of how deeply influential some of these things were. For example, a number of people have written that the huge Mahāvibhāṣa tradition basically died after Vasubandhu killed it off with his Abhidharmakośa. That sort of influence from one monk’s writing seems mind-boggling to me.

I didn’t realize that sutta study was so… unpopular there?

Maybe the whole history of Buddhism is filled with people trying to avoid studying early Buddhist suttas, because they were made for a very large oral tradition?

I think it’s a zeitgeist thing. The right person making the right statement at the right time.

This is more true than you might imagine. Most of the different groups and movements in Buddhism today have strong vested interests in not having people read the suttas, and it’s no coincidence that sutta study is so rarely encouraged.

Why is it that some Buddhists want to discourage others from reading the suttas?

Do you want a list? Here’s a start.

  1. Traditional ritual monks lose income, because the suttas says rituals are a waste of time and monks shouldn’t do them.
  2. Abhidhammists don’t like it because the suttas show the Buddha didn’t teach Abhidhamma.
  3. Administration monks don’t like it because they want to centralize control of the Sangha, but the real Sangha is decentralized and not under any administrative control.
  4. Vipassana people don’t like it because the suttas teach jhana, and do not have an insight only path.
  5. Forest tradition doesn’t like it because the suttas say to rely on yourself and the Buddha, and not blindly accept what the teacher says.
  6. And also because there’s no such thing as the Original Mind in the suttas.
  7. Tantrists don’t like it because the suttas have nothing even vaguely like tantra.
  8. Academics don’t like it because learning ancient languages is hard and you get very few students; and most students are challenged by the various other points, too.
  9. Mahayanists don’t like it because the suttas show the Mahayana sutras are late and were not taught by the Buddha.
  10. Someone who follows a bodhisattva path won’t like it because there’s no such thing in the suttas.
  11. Ditto worship of Amitabha.
  12. Nationalists don’t like it because the Buddha never visited their country, and because the teachings undermine any nationalist agenda.
  13. Rich monks don’t like it because it praises renunciation.
  14. Monks with titles and fancy robes and high positions don’t like it because none of that silliness is found in the suttas.
  15. Someone who believes in the Jataka stories doesn’t like the fact that the suttas show they’re just folk tales.
  16. Anyone committed to a tradition doesn’t like it because it challenges all kinds of ideas they’d rather not have to think about.

I’m sure you can think of some more. Needless to say, there are always exceptions.

On the other hand, this is why I really like the suttas. They challenge everything. Leave all that in the dust, and all that’s left is the Dhamma.


Right, well that’s pretty comprehensive. Thanks.
Here’s one I thought of: people regard them as boring.

I have to confess I fall into this camp sometimes. To my own eyes, some early suttas may seem very long-winded, repetitive, and slow-moving. Most other forms of Buddhist literature I have seen are not like this. My solution has been to simply read through these sort of texts more quickly, but slow down for the important points.

If someone gets into the early Buddhist texts, just the four nikāyas alone are probably more than 5000 pages, divided into thousands of suttas (which may be duplicated elsewhere), and with no unifying organizational principle. If they instead choose just one of the nikāyas, would they be missing important suttas? I think a lot of people are discouraged by this sort of problem, especially those who are not heavily invested in these texts already.

If the “aṅga theory” is correct, then about half of the Saṁyutta Nikāya would more or less correspond to the earliest collection of Buddhist suttas. In that case, it would be about 1000 pages of printed material. If the suttas that simply repeated others were removed, maybe fewer yet. In any case, definitely smaller than the Bible. I think many people would accept a book of that size if they knew it contained the core teachings of early Buddhism.

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Dear @stuindhamma,

I fell into this also during when I first began the practice (which was more than over five years ago). It wasn’t really boredom, it was more of not understanding what they were pointing to. What I couldn’t gauge with my own experience, I can’t understand, so I tend to dismiss them and leave them for now because they don’t apply yet. My mind can’t take them in yet. That’s only natural. What I noticed as I go along the practice, it takes time to really take in what the sutta’s are saying. The practice and the suttas must go together.

The repetitive sections in the suttas, was “long winded” at first but in the bigger picture I noticed they actually help the mind retain them in memory because they reinforce the meaning . It’s no longer long winded to me.

Also, what I do now is before I read the suttas, I tell and remind myself that I am hearing the Buddha himself and that it is a gain for me to have found the path. Some of the more profound stuff (relating to deep bhavanas and such) still eludes me because I still have to experience them. Other’s like how to contemplate, what is wholesome and unwholesome, and how to maintain sīla, I can comprehend and practice to the best of my capacity.

After each reading, I wish for myself may I be able to understand the meaning and retain this teaching in memory, and that may I be able to share it’s meaning or teach it to another one day. I rejoice in hearing the Buddha’s words and make it a support for the mind’s release.

From when I started to the present, I can honestly say that I have developed a more deeper appreciation and love for the suttas. Bhavana and sutta reading are the things I look forward to engaging every day. They come foremost before anything.

in mettā,



I think this is the sort of thing that must show that someone is well-adapted to the literature: the learning and cultivation are going hand-in-hand. This is an interesting topic as well.

For what it’s worth, I often notice people saying some of these things about reading early Mahāyāna sūtras. They just consider the text in terms of philosophical ideas, doctrinal points, or narrative events. Many, or even most scholars take this sort of approach. They don’t bother to put the principles into practice, or check their practice against the principles. Despite learning interesting things about the text, they do not attempt to actually enter into the text, nor do they consult with practicing Buddhists to determine the role of these texts and how they ought to be used.

This reminds me of a blog post by by Ajahn Sujato from a few years ago.

I suggest that the abhidhamma is most profitably considered, not as a psychology or as a philosophy, but as a mystical cult.

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Sure. But more boring than the Bible or the Koran? That’s some pretty stiff competition right there!

One more I thought of:

  1. Sexists don’t like the suttas because there are bhikkhunis. And the suttas don’t support the idea that rebirth as a woman is a result of bad kamma.

Ba ha! Well this has gone from being a little contentious to a lot!

So here’s another: conceit. I’ve got a good friend who is Buddhist and with whom I often debate about the value of the EBT’s. I’m pretty sure if his internationally renowned teacher came to town the same day the Buddha did, he would think long and hard as to who would be of more value to visit. Although he probably would not openly admit it, I’m sure he regards the teachings of his master to be superior to those of our Lord Buddha, as contained in those humble little suttas.

Well, maybe he’s right, who are we to say? All I know is, the suttas haven’t let me down so far.


I just cannot compute! Who are these people? Have they read the one where the Yakkha chases the Buddha in and out of his place? I literally dribbled with laughter when I first read it, and was then duly silenced by the beauty of the Buddha’s teaching.

I can think of all sorts of adjectives that would work, but even accepting that some folk may be turned off by the repetition, I still struggle to understand how ‘boring’ can be applied.


And of course this is just about everyone, even if they are a tradition of one…

I would expand this to say that anyone in a “one true method/interpretation” mindset is challenged by the suttas (unless they manage to cleverly reinterpret/deprecate some of them…), as the Buddha taught a variety of approaches to a variety of people.

This raises some interesting questions about the best approach to transmission and learning. No one learns physics, for example, by studying Newton’s or Einstein’s writing, , because there are much clearer explanations in modern text books. And, having learnt it, only someone interested in history of science would bother.

What is the difference with Dhamma? As I see it, it is that in the final analysis Science does not give any weight to the reputation of the writer. (Of course, reputation has an influence on how ideas develop, but doesn’t trump a proof of error…).

So, if one considers the suttas an accurate representation of the words of an awakened being, it is always going to be important to return to them at some point, rather than completely relying on modern expositions.


that’s one i particularly appreciated

but they do kind of support the idea that birth as a man is more conducive to practice

Right. The disciple whose very existence depends on the Buddha, whose every word would be incomprehensible without the Buddha’s teachings, whose ideas are no more than a commentary on the entire history of Buddhist ideas, all ultimately referring back to the Buddha: he might have it right while the Buddha did not?


I seems to me that this “variety” business is often overstated. The Buddha teaches one noble eightfold path, and if you deviate from that you are not likely to get the full results of Buddhist practice.

One sort of variety that definitely matters is the one in defilements, and one’s approach to the practice will depend on this. The path is a path of purification, and unless one tackles one’s defilements in the appropriate way one is unlikely to make good progress. One’s use of the various tools of mental development recommended by the Buddha should be tailored to this. In other words, there needs to be some system in how one applies these teachings. Otherwise it is too easy to think that one needs to practice in a certain way, without this being properly based on Dhamma.