At AN 8.8 we have a little sutta which shows a range of late features. It is perhaps the first text to hint at some very influential developments in the Buddhist community in the years after the Buddha’s demise.
It’s given by a certain venerable Uttara. Uttara is a common name, and it’s not clear if this is the same person as any of the other monks of this name.
The setting is unusual. It’s on a Saṅkheyyaka Mountain in Mahisavatthu, which presumably stands for “the Mahisa country”. This is somewhat outside the normal distribution of early texts. The town is spelled either as Dhavajālikā or Vaṭajālikā, neither of which is otherwise known. Dhava and vaṭa are both the names of trees, and the commentary situates the monastery in a grove of such trees.
The text begins with Uttara repeating a simple passage saying that a mendicant should from time to time reflect on their own successes and failings, and the success and failings of others. This is repeated verbatim from the previous text, where the Buddha teaches it with respect to Devadatta.
There’s nothing unusual about the teaching, but apparently Vessavaṇa, one of the Four Great Kings, overheard it and thought it was important enough to immediately rush to the heaven of the Thirty Three, where he informed Sakka, the Lord of Gods. Sakka immediately went to see Uttara, where he asked whether the teachings his own idea, or if it was learned from the Buddha.
Uttara gives a rather elaborate answer that appears to be intended to emphasize that all the teachings come from the Buddha. But to my ear he sounds a little evasive.
Regardless, it is here that a radically new idea is introduced. Uttara says:
yaṃ kiñci subhāsitaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ tassa bhagavato vacanaṃ arahato sammāsambuddhassa
Whatever is well spoken is the word of the Blessed One, the Perfected One, the fully awakened Buddha.
This is a crucial inversion. Rather than saying that all that Buddha says is well-spoken, now all that is well-spoken is spoken by the Buddha. Like I said, it seems to me a little evasive on Uttara’s part. Perhaps he was repeating a teaching without being clearly aware where it came from—which is not at all unusual—and when challenged responds with a bit of bluster. Maybe that’s a harsh reading, but I do find it all a little odd.
Whatever the original intent may have been, the twist of the saying says something crucial about the community at the time. Now, some time after the Buddha’s death, the grasp on what was and was not spoken by the Buddha is fading. The road is being opened to authorizing any and all late texts as the “word of the Buddha”, as long as they are deemed to be in line with the early teachings.
Sakka approves what Uttara said, and goes on to repeat the entirety of the previous sutta, AN 8.7, dealing with Devadatta’s downfall. The text is not explicit, but it seems to me that he’s hinting that Uttara was remiss in presenting only part of a sutta without the full context.
The text finishes with an unusually strong exhortation by Sakka, begging Uttara to learn the text well, and saying that it is not found anywhere in the four assemblies.
If this is taken on face value, Sakka is saying that this is a lost text, and he is re-teaching the full text to Uttara, of which he had only known a small part. If this is indeed the case, it is probably the first example of a text being preserved in the heavens and brought back to earth. This trope became, of course, famously used to authorize late texts, both the Abhidhamma and the Mahayana sutras.
Sakka must have a large degree of confidence in Uttara, if he thinks this obscure monk in an obscure place can make this teaching known, though the Buddha teaching at the height of his career in Rājagaha failed.
Given the location outside the normal region for EBTs, the fact that the Buddha is not mentioned as living at the time, the fantastic narrative framework—especially for such a prosaic teaching—the belabored repetition, the doctrinal innovations, and the incongruous last paragraph, this is clearly a late sutta.
As Ven Brahmali and I argued in The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, such late texts are readily identifiable, not from any one feature, but from the appearance of multiple features, none decisive in themselves, but each suggestive of lateness.
In this case, the text itself is somewhat meta. While itself it is inauthentic, is paving the way for the acceptance of inauthentic texts. This invites comparison with a number of other late texts, notably the Lotus Sutra, which introduce doctrinal innovations specifically to authorize themselves.
I wonder whether this Uttara should be identified with the Uttara who was Revata’s student at the Second Council. That Uttara is not connected with Mahisa, and it may well be simply a different person. Still, it would make sense to smear the opposition monks by implying a connection with Devadatta. It would certainly make sense for such new suttas with innovative doctrines to be composed around this time, as the forces leading to sectarian divisions were starting to be felt in the Saṅgha.