What exactly did the Buddha say? What did he really mean?

I was wondering what some may have to say about this article?

                     Theravadins often proudly claim a direct lineage from the time of the Buddha and that the Pali Canon is a direct and complete record of the Buddha’s teachings . However, it must be noted that they are, in reality, descendents of the Vibhajyavada sect (which is in turn a derivatives of Sthaviravada). At the time of collation of the Pali Canon at the time of King Asoka, it was only one of the many sects present in India at the time. The fact that only this “triple baskets” of Canon got to be dispersed widely was solely because of the king’s favour. In fact,the Sarvastivada school, another sub-sect of Sthaviravada, moved to North India and subsequently had immense influence in the subsequent development of Buddhism there for the next few hundred years. It must also be noted that the monks in Sri Lanka were probably known as the Vibhijyavada followers until the 11th century when their name was changed to Theravada ( the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit name of Sthaviravada) to stress their direct lineage from the Buddha. In reality, therefore, the Pali Canon only represented the teachings of the Buddha according to one school that appeared more than 200 hundred years after the passing away of the Buddha. And then, it was another 200 years before they were written down. This is not to mention the fact that the earliest physical evidence for any Pali canonical texts is a set of twenty gold leaves found in the Khin Ba Gon trove near Sri Ksetra ( Burma) which has been dated to the second half of the 5th century A.D. ( Note 5) As to the great Buddhist King, Asoka, although he left a large number of inscriptions on rocks and pillars which archeologists can study to this date. He, curiously enough, never mentioned any key Buddhist soteriological concepts like nibbana.  


                    (By the way, I am familiar with Ajahn Brahmali and Sujato's criteria as presented in the Early Buddhism course. So please don't refer to that as if that is the end all of this discussion. I studied Catholic theology and am aware of the historical, social and archaeological methods of authentification. Though there is much value to this approach, it also has its limits).

To take this further, knowing what the Buddha really said is one thing. Knowing what he really meant is quite another. Just consider emailing or writing someone in a far away country for a year or so. Your words can be as clear as they could possibly be. Same goes for your corresponding writer. But tell me if anyone has NOT experienced confusing moments of communication simply because written words can never take in all the other aspects of face to face communication (non verbal communication and cues, intonation, etc.).


Dhamma is to be known by practice not reading text, so what really preserves the Dhamma is the practice of its followers.


I’m sorry but you are evading the topic of this discussion altogether. As Bhante Sujato and others have pointed out many times, experience cannot be the only criterion for the validity of Buddhism (or other spiritual perspective, for that matter). The diversity of experience is simply too subjective to every practitioner. One may think one is having a jhana as she/he enters realms never before seen and think he/she has encountered nagas. Another will see nimittas. Regardless of what one thinks of these things, each practitioner will take his/her experience to be both real and valid. But this tells us nothing of what the Buddha originally attempted to communicate.


From what I have seen, analyzing the texts has also produce a lot of differing views.


Exactly. Which is at least partly why I started this thread. To see if anyone has found a way around this. To restate, see the title of this thread.

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Dear Jacques,
an important question which vexed me for a conmsiderable time too, but lesser to not at all any more now – how can we really know? Are things maybe lost beyond hope? If I got you right …

The methods mentioned by you for facilitating authentication of texts in combination with your own experience are, I am afraid, the only means you can ever attempt coming close to know what the Buddha really wanted to communicate but may suffice, in my opinion, to progress on the path to the eradication of dukkha.

As to the authentication: There are much similarities between the early Buddhist schools, especially regarding salient teachings, of core value, i.e. the three marks of existence (tilakkhaṇa in Pāli). To my knowledge there are differences only regarding rather finer nuances of the teaching. You may find helpful, if you have not read yet, works of ven. Analayo on comparative analyses.

You perhaps heard it before but to practice these similarities to see for yourself is now in addition of course necessary, this is what the Buddha invited us to do – to see for ourselves. Hope that had some bearing on what you have asked. After all words can be quite precise too.



And those differing opinions doesn’t really matter in practice, I mean, the instruction on how to practice sila, samadhi, panna is really isn’t that much compared to the volume of tipitaka.

On can take a single sutta and add the instructions given by current meditation teachers and practice Buddhism without learning any of the controversial topics.

In fact topics that are controversial because they can only be verified at later stage in practice. Since they haven’t seen it themselves, people build an opinion over it.

At the end it is all subjective matter unless verified by oneself in practice.


Thanks for your responses. I sort of guessed this discussion might be a fruitless endeavor to begin with, but since the question has been on my mind for many years, the quoted article inspired me to give it a go.

I’ll put this in another context. Let’s say I believe that Jesus is the son of God and therefore take the Bible to be true. I am a former alcoholic and murderer but have been born again through Christ. I not only see Jesus in my meditations (like many professed Christians affirm), following his teachings has literally transformed my life, even if I am still in prison.
Years later I find out that my version of the Bible is mayb not the best. I also go on to discover that there are literally thousands of Christian sects…all proclaiming to herald the true version of Christ’s original words/teachings. My meditations start to be less fruitful. I wonder why? Doesn’t it really come down to what I consider to be true…to believe? Yet it begs the question of what any such teacher really meant to begin with.

You speak of minor details. I have to kindly disagree. There are great divergences in the outcome of practice and the orientation thereof. The monks at Amaravati believe there will remain some sort of unconditioned (Mahayana or Advaitic style) awareness/realm after death. Thanissaro and many others seem to point in the same direction…and defend their positions with vigor. Do you think the monks at Dhammaloka share this position? They couldn’t be more opposed because the results of both their theory and practice end up with completely different outcomes. (Note that the above ‘congregations’ all have one teacher in common: Ajahn Chah).

I could give countless other examples. It’s like saying ‘‘samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara’’ is a minor if not trivial dispute between different Buddhist factions that is really of no importance. Go tell that to Bhikkhu Bodhi:

The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: “All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature.”


If you fail to see this point —that can be found all over the place in even such a great site as Sutta Central – then I guess there is little point in continuing the discussion.

No harm done, I gave it a go.

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I don’t really understand what you are going after here…

Sure there are a lot of Buddhist sects, but they also have their own sutta or sutras, so we can’t argue even on the theoretical aspect across sects.

Normally people just pick one and practice according to what they believe.

Which one is the true teaching? No one can tell you that (or more exactly everyone will tell you that their teaching is the right one). It is just something that you have to prove by yourself, in practice.

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Yes, I think this is right. But then, what is the point of trying to settle the matter theoretically before reaching this outcome for oneself?

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That is precisely why I ask if there is a way of knowing what the Buddha originally taught. Though there is probably no definite answer to this question, I simply wondered if anyone had something new to offer as an explanation or interpretation.

I guess I’m not too interested in finding out an outcome for myself… before I know what the original teachings are. That is tantamount to setting myself up for confirmation bias. Seems I’d be putting the horse before the cart. I’d like to know if there are original teachings to begin with…before all the endless sectarian arguments and disagreements came to be mainstream.

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Hi! :sunny:

I think this is a good topic :blush:

I’ll suggest a possible solution for this, which works for me. It’s learning Pali and read the suttas. This is the best way to learn, as best as possible, what the Buddha may have said.

No, it’s not literal, not all of it. But major parts of it must come pretty close. The parts that are continually repeated, for example.

If you can read Pali, you will be able to recognize them, and read them, in a language that is a dialect of the Buddha’s. You can’t get closer than that.

You’ll see how things fit together that are difficult or impossible to see in English. You can go beyond translations, go to the source, get the feel.

As your understanding grows, you’ll also find that unique views are often supported by unique passages. Hard to interpret verses, and such, you’ll recognize them for what they are. Mistranslations, you’ll spot them. You’ll learn which texts are more reliable, and which are not.

Either this, or you rely upon others. :slight_smile:

I’ve seen too many books which just quote Pali words, but that seemingly have no sense of the real grammar; I’ve seen too many bad translations and too many arguments based upon difficult passages; seen too many discussions just based on English translations, to think there is another way.

(well, get the real insights, as others have said, but that is not the point of this topic, I get that.)

KR Norman has written that if you can’t read the source texts of a religion, you can’t claim to know it’s teachings. I think you’ll like the book, it’s called A Philological Approach to Buddhism (don’t get scared by the name)

I hope this helps. Sorry if I sound blunt, I am on a tablet device with no keyboard. And I type really slow!

Much metta ! :sunny:


Not blunt at all. I agree that what you suggest is probably the best way to go. Unfortunately, I guess my query is one of epistemology and this can’t be addressed 2,500 years later.

Maybe I didn’t understand the question very well. :blush:

I don’t get it. How exactly will knowing for sure the original teachings about the goal be any great help?

Even if you could verify with 100% accuracy that the Buddha uttered some sentence S about the nature of nibbana, unless you have achieved nibbana yourself, any intellectual conception you form of the meaning of that sentence is only an additional mental construction to cling to. It isn’t nibbana itself.

Also, if you are in doubt about the truth value of some statement Ajahn Amaro, for example, makes about the nature of nibbana, will it really help a lot if you know what the Buddha - another meditation teacher - said about the nature of nibbana? Maybe you won’t be so sure about the truth value of that statement either.

Isn’t this just a case of wanting an explanation of the full nature of the arrow before pulling it out?

It’s possible that even the person who has achieved nibbana cannot fully understand its whole nature, which is possibly why there are so many conflicting accounts, even by apparently very accomplished masters. Experiencing a suffering-free state, and fully grasping all aspects of human nature and metaphysics that make that suffering-free-state possible, are not necessarily the same thing. Perhaps the human intellect simply cannot intellectually cognize or grasp nibbana, and represent it in language. Maybe even the intellects of those people who have realized nibbana cannot cognize the nature of that which they have realized. All they know is that it is good.


Epistemology addresses such questions as “What makes justified beliefs justified?”,[4] “What does it mean to say that we know something?”[5] and fundamentally “How do we know that we know?”[6]

IMO this is pretty simple to answer in Buddhism, we know because we have seen it by ourselves. When we have developed meditation, then direct our attention to our body and mind, we will be able to see them as impermanent, unsatisfying, and not a permanent entity. The whole Buddhist teaching is targeted to this one experience. That is why regardless on how it is written, if it can bring us to this experinece, then it is the real teaching of the Buddha.

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Well, historically the EBTs are considered by most scholars to be the earliest and hence the most authentic recordings we have of the Buddha’s teaching- so that’s a start. Not only Buddha nature, but you will need a box called ‘unconfirmed’ to put in things like devas and rebirth, karma etc. when practicing this anyway. Obtain good/new translations -most a good enough for 98% of the practice. Note that unlike faith based religions, what is believed in doesn’t determine, or should not determine, one’s reasons for letting go- it is about reducing suffering- not believing in another fantasy outcome.

Buddhism is seen to be true now (akalika). It doesn’t require heaven or experience of a god to be seen to work. The correct view of Buddhism is only acquired incrementally, and not all at once. Otherwise people would start off with enlightenment. It is not possible but just as a hour hand of a clock would start pointing to 1pm and slowly make its way around the face of the clock and find itself at 12 (Right view), a clear idea of what the Dhamma is, is developed with patience and time.

Also, I might add, a cake cannot be rushed in its baking.

with metta


Really? Seems like you are saying: 'How can I know what nibbana is when I don’t know what it is?'
Is what I am asking another mental construction? You bet. But that’s all we’ve got to go on…unless you fill the void with preconceived beliefs. And you suppose these aren’t constructions?

Sorry, but I think you are probably just wrong. I was an academic philosopher for many years and am still an active philosophical researcher, but as far as the path goes, I think most of that stuff is just a distraction. You can’t discursively think your way to nibbana. The intellect is a human function and drive that we exercise in response to worldly needs and dissatisfactions, just like we exercise our drives to ingest and chew food, touch pretty and pleasant objects, make ourselves warm, copulate, etc. in response to other worldly needs and dissatisfactions. To move in the direction of liberation from suffering, it all has to be released.

Philosophers like to think all of those glorious ideas and concepts and theories are much more important and holy than munching Cheetos and screwing, but that’s because we’re masters of manufacturing vainglorious and egotistical delusion, and great at building mighty fortresses of seemingly unassailable intellectual power and “profundity”. But these concept edifices all fall apart eventually, and it won’t matter much whether you once had the world’s greatest theory of nibbana once you reach the stage when you can’t even remember how your TV remote works.

Basically, all of these doctrinal disputations and philosophical wranglings we do here and on other Buddhist discussion sites are mostly just so much intellectual wanking we do to fill some hole of mental dissatisfaction, a hole that can never actually be filled. It would be better just to shut up and meditate.

In my limited experience, the scholar monastics who write and argue the most about Buddhist doctrine and philosophy are the least enlightened ones. The most enlightened ones tend to sit smiling and are people of few words.


Don’t fill the void with anything. Abandon conceptual thinking and beliefs.

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