What are some of the traps people fall into when approaching the EBTs?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, how people are coming across these ancient texts all the time, and how there must be some well-worn ‘traps’ people often fall into as they read, discover and learn. By traps I guess I mean misunderstandings.

Would love to hear from those who have been studying the suttas for a long time and have seen or experienced for themselves such things.


There’s a lot of caveats hidden in small suttas across the canon, so one might have an incomplete understanding of a concept until they discover those suttas. Studying the suttas is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, so your understanding will be pretty incomplete for a long while. This is why discussing your understanding will allow others to fill in the missing details with sutta references.

Also, translations are a huge issue. A lot of words have multiple meanings that change depending on context, and so sometimes the wrong words are used in certain contexts. Ven Verado’s pali glossary has tried to fix this problem Illustrated Glossary of Pāli Terms

I would say those are the two biggest problems, not to mention the numerous interpretations of the same texts people have, but don’t let that discourage you as in the end positive change is all that really matters.


Good question!

Bhante Sujato often talks about what he calls “premature relevance” by which he means people thinking they understand a concept because they’ve read it, or can name it, or had a mild experience of it, so they think it applies to them, but they are only seeing it from the level of their (limited) understanding and in fact they haven’t understood or experienced it at all.

The Buddha’s teaching is often incredibly understated. The concepts refered to are frequently at the very top of the path, and require knowledge of a cultural context informed by qualified teachers and insights gained from long term personal practice, but we beginners often prematurely think we have transcended to these dizzy heights and lofty experiences when in fact we are still playing in the sandpit.

Underestimating the complexity of the path and overestimating where we are on it is one of the most frequent mistakes people make in their meditation and this often is linked to limited understanding and misinterpretation of early Buddhist texts.


One of the biggest is not discriminating between suttas addressed to those at the arahant level and those on the learner’s path. The reason it’s a trap is that those aspiring to arahantship are dealing with abandoning the path entirely, whereas learners are concerned with using conditioned phenomena skilfully, because it’s all they have to work with.

There is an easy way to separate these two different groups of suttas. Those appropriate to learners are addressed to or delivered by Ananda, nuns, Rahula or laypeople, or about the Buddha-to-be’s pre-enlightenment experience.

The second category to cause confusion is the difference between suttas relevant to doctrine or practical experience. Some suttas are of a philosophical nature intended for debating Brahmins and other religions. Others are purely practical such as the Anapanasati and Satipatthana suttas and these should form the hub of practical understanding. The suttas were designed as advice around practice as the core, and do not have the linear guidance of western instruction, the suttas cannot be understood without practice:

“While in a literate culture in which systematic thought is highly prized the lack of such a text with a unifying function might be viewed as a defect, in an entirely oral culture—as was the culture in which the Buddha lived and moved—the lack of a descriptive key to the Dhamma would hardly be considered significant. Within this culture neither teacher nor student aimed at conceptual completeness. The teacher did not intend to present a complete system of ideas; his pupils did not aspire to learn a complete system of ideas. The aim that united them in the process of learning—the process of transmission—was that of practical training, self-transformation, the realization of truth, and unshakable liberation of the mind.”—Bikkhu Bodhi


I think there is a potential for some people to fall into “every sutta/agama/teaching I don’t like is late” kind of mentality. This is where healthy debate is good, as is consulting the learned and wise.


To echo @Viveka’s recent point, I think people expect too much in a certain sense.

The texts read surprisingly modern and internally consistent, so people forget just how long 2,500 years is and how fallible our translations, so people can often become unforgiving and overly rigid in their hermeneutic. And then expect the texts to do the work for them. Many texts do explain themselves a bit, but it only goes so far. At a certain point, we have to think and practice for ourselves to understand them.


Thank you all for your considered replies:) Very useful!

The traps IMO are results of our inability to properly contextualize the teachings. As already pointed out the texts have been authored, collected, edited, and adapted around 2500 years ago as a consequence of the circumstances at that time. Students of religious history are aware of that, most other people not.

Devout followers need an authoritative voice that tells them what to belive and so they interpret the texts literally as the recorded words of the Buddha or cling to the monastic (and at times lay) teachers who interpret the texts for them. And then they have to defend their beliefs and their ideals in spite of reasonable doubt. In that respect believers of Buddhism are no different than in any other major religion. There is only so much we can really know from the texts.


I appreciate how you consider yourself a ‘beginner’ Bhante :slight_smile:

Sadhu X 3 :pray:


Since the EBT movement relies heavily on scholarship, one tricky thing is knowing which scholars are reputable. There are a lot of books written by people with letters after their name, or by people who are respected Buddhist teachers, but not all of them are good researchers. Truly unbiased research is hard to do. So when someone is making a claim, and is offering a lot of supposedly historical and linguistic evidence to back up that claim, you still have to be careful when accepting their assertions.

I think the overall quality of Buddhist Studies has improved a lot in the last 20-30 years. However, the EBT movement is quite new. It was considered nigh impossible to make any cogent arguments for recognizing EBTs (from an academic standpoint) until a relatively short time ago. Thanks to people like Bhikkhu Analayao, though, we finally have a way forward. Bhikkhu Analayo has really raised the bar in that respect. Now we know that we can’t simply limit ourselves to the Pali texts, for example, and expect to get an accurate picture of early Buddhism. At a bare minimum, we also need to consult the Agamas, as well as cross referencing archeological, historical, and linguistic evidence. So if you run across someone claiming that the Buddha didn’t teach the 4 Noble Truths (there is a guy claiming that), and he offers “evidence,” does that evidence include a review of the Chinese Agamas? Or any of the Sanskrit fragments?


IMO, this is something that cannot be stressed enough. The suttas did not come into being like a modern day textbook where one author/s write either the whole book or a few chapters in such a way as to ensure a logical progression of ideas and achieve complete coverage of the topic.

The suttas came into being more or less like ‘Viva notes’ - bits and pieces of interesting tidbits of information consigned to memory by eager students following the Teacher around as he interacted with different people in the course of his life. In the course of his ‘daily rounds’ the Teacher might come across many different kinds of cases and he would offer advice, which while well suited to each particular case would follow no logical sequence of progression. One teaching might be addressed to a lay disciple, the next to an Arahant. Imagine all those little tidbits of teaching collected by different students over the lifetime of the Teacher and then put together and semi-classified by the later editors according to the rough category they happen to fit. That’s the suttas.


I like all of the replies so far.

Another thing that I’d add, that I haven’t appreciated until reading each major Nikaya one-by-one (note: I’ve read the AN, SN, and MN, I’m currently in the middle of the DN), is how each Nikaya seems to be geared to a particular audience. Like, the AN strikes me as geared more towards laypeople and beginners, the MN towards monastics and really experienced practitioners, the DN towards recent converts from other traditions (or potential converts), and the SN seems the most….I dunno, that one perhaps has the most generic/diverse audience.

I do think keeping this in mind can help contextualize some individual suttas that you stumble across. For example, if one reads MN 143, about Anāthapiṇḍika’s death, one could easily get the impression that laypeople really were not adequately taught. But IMHO such a sutta is more understandable in the context of the Majjhima Nikaya as the whole, which emphasizes a much deeper, advanced, renunciant-level of practice. One should balance that with 10.93 in the more lay/beginner -friendly Anguttara Nikaya, which clarifies how much laypeople did, in fact, know.

Of course, there are exceptions to this, so I don’t want to exaggerate the differences too much. But as a rule, it’s something to bear in mind. Some time ago Bhante @sujato posted some overviews of each Nikaya, and I think reading those is helpful for getting the overall picture. Or Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introductions, for that matter.


AN references the most lay people, you may be interested in this analysis of each nikaya, it’s pretty interesting (download pdf at the bottom) https://journals.equinoxpub.com/BSR/article/view/10617

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Yes, the anthology “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bihkkhu Bodhi classifies the suttas into their relevance to mundane right view and transcendent right view as the disciple makes progress along the path:

“I will briefly supply background information about the Nikāyas later in this introduction. First, however, I want to outline the scheme that I have devised to organize the suttas. Although my particular use of this scheme may be original, it is not sheer innovation but is based upon a threefold distinction that the Pāli commentaries make among the types of benefits to which the practice of the Dhamma leads: (1) welfare and happiness visible in this present life; (2) welfare and happiness pertaining to future lives; and (3) the ultimate good, Nibbāna (Skt: nirṿ̄a).”

He also proffers an opinion on the different audiences each of the nikays were intended for:

“The suttas of the Dīgha Nikāya are largely aimed at a popular audience and seem intended to attract potential converts to the teaching by demonstrating the superiority of the Buddha and his doctrine. The suttas of the Majjhima Nikāya are largely directed inward toward the Buddhist community and seem designed to acquaint newly ordained monks with the doctrines and practices of Buddhism.”


“From its contents, we might infer that the Saṃyutta Nikāya was intended to serve the needs of two groups within the monastic order. One consisted of the doctrinal specialists, those monks and nuns who sought to explore the deep implications of the Dhamma and to elucidate them for their companions in the religious life. The other consisted of those devoted to the meditative development of insight.”

“The Aṅguttara includes a notable proportion of suttas addressed to lay followers dealing with the ethical and spiritual concerns of life within the world, including family relationships (husbands and wives, children and parents) and the proper ways to acquire, save, and utilize wealth. Other suttas deal with the practical training of monks. The numerical arrangement of this collection makes it particularly convenient for formal instruction, and thus it could easily be drawn upon by elder monks when teaching their pupils and by preachers when giving sermons to the laity.”

Another thing necessary to point out which causes confusion is that the structures in the path (The noble eightfold path, seven factors of awakening, Anapanasati sutta, Satipatthana sutta) have an establishment phase followed by development. The establishment is linear in which familiarity with the individual factors is gained. Then development where the factors work together is spiral, such as sila, samadhi and panna of the noble eightfold path. MN 117 describes factors as “running and circling” around one another. The Anapanasati tetrads are developed through Satipatthana. So the words “establishment” and “development” have specialized meaning in the suttas relating to the Buddha’s teaching system (SN 47.40, SN 46.11)


I think the main audience shown in the major part of SN are monks. The major part of SN refers to
the teaching of aggregates, sense spheres, causal condition, and the path, indicated in Khandha, Salayatana, Nidana, and Maha vaggas of SN (and also SA). It presents the essential meaning of Buddha-dhamma (Sāratthappakāsinī “Revealer of the Essential Meaning”).

Another small part of SN is mainly the early Buddhist adaptation of general Indian religious beliefs about deities, or divine beings (devas), shown in Sagatha vagga of SN (or the Eight assemblies section of SA).


It seems DN and AN have connections with the Sagatha vagga of SN collection in terms of adaptation of general Indian religious beliefs, and the promotion of Buddhist teachings for the general public.

Gabriel who else can be an authoritative voice but for our own experiential mind the Buddha has very clearly mentioned take the Dhamma as your teacher and put it to practice. When practiced in such a way it’s our minds that will see the results by way of experiences what ever confirms to the teachings accept it and drop off the others. The path and process may be very slow and gradual but the goal and result is confirmed
Pariyati, patipatthi, pativeda
(Understand, practice, realize)


A very common source of error, it seems to me, lies in an excessive and premature eagerness to toss out of the canon any book or sutta or part of a sutta, because it happens to conflict with one’s presuppositions or prejudices, or on some other such flimsy grounds.

And perhaps the simplest corrective to the same is to apply the celebrated Chestertonian “fence principle” before embarking on your Tipiṭaka attrition mission. That is, don’t go tossing out any passage at all until you’ve first ascertained how it got there, what purpose it was likely intended to serve, whether the purpose was a good one and whether or not the passage adequately serves it.

The fence principle:

IN the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.”

To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

There are some reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

(G. K. Chesterton, The Drift from Domesticity)


Excellent thoughts Bhante

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