What if the Pali sequencing of the Samyutta Nikaya is older than the Sanskrit sequencing of the Samyukta Agama?

Hi Folks,

My understanding is that Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Bodhi hypothesize that the order of discourses in the Samyukta Agama translated into Chinese fits with the order of the Four Noble Truths while the order of discourses in the Pali Samyutta Nikaya do not. If I am not mistaken, Sujato and Bodhi speculate that the Samyukta Agama order is older because it is more in line with the Four Noble Truths structure.

I have an alternative hypothesis. Since the teachings on the Four Noble Truths comes at the end of the Samyutta Nikaya as a way to summarize what has been taught in the Samyutta Nikaya and since the teachings on the 12 links comes close to the beginning of the Samyutta Nikaya right after the section on discourses with verses, what if the Four Noble Truths is not the core organizing principle of the Samyutta Nikaya? Therefore what if the Samyutta Nikaya represents the older order?

The order of the Samyutta Nikaya has the 12 links as the core theory not the Four Noble Truths. In addition, Because the Eightfold Path is at the beginning of the Mahavagga and the Four Noble Truths are at the end of the Mahavagga, the Eightfold Path has more prominence than the Four Noble Truths.

To me the 12 links gives the core theory, then the five aggregates and six sense bases gives more detail on the cause of rebirth, then the Eightfold Path gives the core teachings on practice.

It’s a complex question!

The first thing to sort out is whether the text collections show internal signs of editing, and if so what this indicates.

I’m on a train rn, and I haven’t studied this area for years, so I’ll have to just give one example from memory.

The first sermon is SN 56.11. It seems like an obscure position. Now at least one Vinaya says this was the first text recited at the first council, which seems reasonable, and then organised the subsequent teachings in line with the samyutta.

This would suggest that the current position of the first sermon is a result of later displacement. Now in Buddhist texts the first and last are often related. And it’s also common, as I showed in HOM, based on work by rod Bucknell, that texts are moved around in units of a vagga. So it makes sense that the first collection on the truths becomes last, and that a vagga of ten is added at the beginning, resulting in the first sermon being the eleventh sutta of the last collection instead of the first sutta of the first collection.

That’s just an example of the kinds of processes involved. But it shows that serious research in this area must involve consideration of all extant texts as well as Vinayas and later treatises too (especially Asanga).

One of the triumphs of this area is that yin shun saw that the Chinese samyutta is disordered and he did a detailed reconstruction. Independently, a manuscript team was working on a Sanskrit samyutta. They determined the structure of their text and it was the same as hypothesized by yin shun . So this shows that there is a genuine explanatory power in this idea.

I would suggest checking the Taiwanese research in this area, but I don’t know what you’ll find on English.

Thanks Bhante.

Can you share what people and or organizations are involved in the research?

I personally would be interested in: a) comparing the key terms themselves in Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese, b) comparing the discourses in these three languages that have the most overlap, c) and looking for past and present traditions of meditation practice that make use of these teachings.

For example what is the Pali, Sankskrit, and Chinese for each of the 12 links and each of the 16 exercises? What traditions make use of these teachings in meditation? For example U Ba Khin and Goenka Vipassana focus on the five links of contact, sensation, craving, grasping, and becoming. Thanissaro focuses on the 16 exercises.

It’s a big topic of research, and I’m afraid I’ll be of limited help, sorry.

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For comparing the contents of the SA/SN, in particular with regard for core doctrines, the best single source in English is probably the book, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism, by Choong Mun-keat. It is the main book that has been published on this topic that covers Ven. Yin Shun’s research into the SA/SN, explains the details of his theories, and compares the core principles found in those collections. That is probably the source you would want to start with.


Regarding the structure and content of SA/SN, read also:

Choong Mun-keat, “Ācāriya Buddhaghosa and Master Yinshun 印順 on the Three-aṅga Structure of Early Buddhist Texts”, Research on the Saṃyukta-āgama (Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, Research Series 8; edited by Dhammadinnā), Taiwan: Dharma Drum Corporation, August 2020, pp. 883-932.