SuttaCentral

Were the nikayas compiled independently of each other?

The suttas were undoubtedly compiled by enlightened minds, and are unparalleled in their brilliance, but I can’t help but have lingering questions about their origins and assembly. For one, it doesn’t appear that the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara, and the collections in the Khuddaka were compiled in cooperation with each other. With the exception of a few parallel texts, it feels like separate committees with different aims assembled each nikaya, possibly drawing from agreed upon doctrinal templates.

What are your thoughts?

Where is the research currently regarding the compilation of the nikayas?

2 Likes

There’s not just a few parallel texts: there’s thousands and thousands of passages, phrases, paragraphs, at every level of the texts. The incredible thing is to think about how it was possible to coordinate this material over such a huge scale.

Clearly there was coordination among the nikaya compilers. But there are also differences. In scope and aim, as you mention, but also in details of phrasing, how abbreviations are handled, and similar matters.

An outstanding example of this is the curious way that the six senses are abbreviated in the Salayatana Samyutta. In the first few suttas, we have the six senses presented, and it is abbreviated as expected. But from SN 35.7, we see that the jīvhā is treated in full, while other items are not. The same thing then happens repeatedly throughout this collection; but not, so far as I know, anywhere else. Why? I have no idea!

When thinking about these things, we should bear in mind two opposing dynamics, both working all the time. There is a tendency to dispersal, to diversity, with individual monastics, monasteries, and later, schools, all diverging in their own way. Then there is the centering tendency, most obvious in the traditions of the Councils. The traditions want us to believe that the centering tendency is the most important one; but it is more complex than that. The strength of Buddhism is in the tension between these two trends, each balancing the other.

13 Likes

You’re right. For some reason I was just thinking of parallel suttas. There are also countless parallel passages, phrases, and paragraphs. There had to have been some coordination, or at minimum a lot of cross-referencing.

Thank you for the reply.

3 Likes

Probably translators are among those who have the best insight into the structure of the texts. But I somehow hope that with fancy data processing tools we might get a more detailed understanding of specific texts - it’s just a hope, I’m not an IT guy.

We don’t just have the Nikayas but also compiled long suttas, mostly in DN and MN, but some SN suttas are long as well, and the AN of the higher numbers also freely uses material of its own Nikaya for compilation.

So my hope would be for the future to easily get a glimpse of which MN suttas for example can be reduced to SN/AN material and which present completely original content. Or also if we have different ‘circles of reference’, e.g. if suttas that mention the 4NT are connected to specific texts etc.

3 Likes