Why don't we have perfect verbatim records of the buddha-dhamma?

This is a point to reflect and approach rather than to find answers. Here is what I mean…
We got used to dealing with imperfect texts and trying to do our best to get close to the original. And we think that of course there was no tape recorder at that time otherwise the Buddha would have surely used it because I think he proved in many ways that he wanted his teachings to endure in order to help future generations.

But in fact there was at that time a pretty well working tape recorder - brahmin reciters. They have preserved the vedas and especially the rigveda for hundreds of years with high accuracy and several techniques, pathas, for example reciting in alternating sequences, forward, backward and other crazy ways - you can still witness rituals in India where brahmins recite the rigveda in 250 hours in this way.

My question is this: If the Buddha has many brahmin followers (we find them in the suttas, and also it makes sense that in the 50 years of teaching he should have had many formerly brahmin bhikkhus), why didn’t he in his older age organize a two-weeks retreat with the most gifted already professional reciters, give them a collection of fundamental teachings and practice with them the recitation until it was fixed? It could have resulted in a verbatim tradition as we have with the vedas.

Ok, Ananda was supposed to be the ‘tape recorder’. But even if he was a savant, others were not. So the account that at the first congregation he recited all the suttas makes no sense. How often did he recite every single sutta - until 80% of the bhikkhus got it? And after he recited the 1000th sutta, didn’t he have to check if the 1st was still remembered? Right, so the first council should have lasted 5 years or how much it takes to learn all the suttas, or just the 1000 pages length of the majjhima nikaya.
Doesn’t it make sense that the Buddha would have used all possibilities to preserve the teaching - so why not the professional brahmin recorders?


we don’t know how much had been lost and changed in the Vedic oral tradition until it was committed to writing, this still could have happened with preservation of the Dhamma by brahmins

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In SN 46.55 and AN 5.193 we have the brahmin Saṅgarava asking the Buddha:

And the Buddha basically tells him that it depends on whether or not the five hindrances are present. So I think a bunch of Arahants should be able to remember the suttas word for word even if they only heard them once.


I actually think most of the texts are perfect (although I also think many texts are both imperfect & not the words of the Buddha, eg. most of the DN, including DN 15, MN 10, MN 135, MN 123, MN 49, MN 50, etc). I think there are many imperfect translations (such as every one of the many translations of SN 56.11 on the internet). However, the core texts for me are not only perfect but the must valuable gift in the whole world. I think it is essential to understand that ‘wise reflection’ (’_yoniso manasikar_a’) must be practised about the teachings before the teachings are accepted. :deciduous_tree:


Just to note, I don’t think this is true. The Vedas were preserved letter-perfect for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years before being written down. In the Indian sphere, since we lack very old manuscripts, there is precisely zero difference between oral tradition and writing in terms of fidelity of transmission. Manuscripts must be copied, and anyone can change a manuscript when copying it. The reason we know these texts are old has nothing to do with the medium of transmission, and everything to do with the linguistic properties of the texts.

The same principle, of course, applies to the Buddhist texts.

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This is an interesting question, and I don’t think it has a simple answer.

My thought would be that, rather than inventing what appears to us to be a perfect scenario, and asking why the texts don’t live up to that, we look at what the actual scenario was, and see how the texts emerged from that.

Consider two approaches to preserving information. One method is to lock everything down, and ensure everything is perfect within that limited sphere (like the Brahmins did with their secret transmission of the Vedas). The other is to open it up and spread it everywhere (as the Buddha did with the suttas). Call it Apple vs. Linux. Or Britannica vs Wikipedia. (When was the last time Britannica got in the news? Probably when they criticized Wikipedia for inaccuracy. Apart from that, they have become culturally irrelevant. The next time they get in the news will be when they announce that they’re closing down.)

In the closed garden approach, you can guarantee a greater fidelity with more constrained content. But you also lose something: and we don’t know what is lost, because it doesn’t exist. Yes, the Vedas are preserved, but what is not preserved? The more intensive the process of preservation is, the more resources it takes, and the less can be done. More quality, less quantity.

With the open garden approach, we scatter the seeds to the four winds, and they take root in multiple soils. Your control over each element is less, but it’s far more resilient (Buddhist texts are available in multiple languages across Asia, the Vedas in Sanskrit in India only).

Is the quality of user-facing apps better on Apple than Linux? Probably. But which wins? Linux is installed on orders of magnitude more computers (1.5 billion on smartphones alone), and will outlast any other OS in existence.

So much for the philosophy. But consider also the social context. The Buddha taught in multiple places over 45 years years. Everywhere he went, different people were remembering, learning, reciting, and re-telling his teachings (remember, the difference between “giving a dhamma talk” and “reciting a sutta” was far less then than it is now.) Much of what he said was the same, some of it was different. People were also travelling about, taking “suttas” with them, sharing them and learning them from each other.

The key to this apparent chaos is repetition. The Buddha must have used repetition widely in his teachings (as any good orator does). That means there is a partial overlap between different teachings. Patterns match up. In that way, the important themes stand out, while the individual details recede.

After the Buddha died, there was a twofold tendency. We know that through the Councils there was a centralizing tendency; large groups gathered together and attempted to standardize things. We know how that works out.

At the same time, there is is a decentralizing tendency: mendicants are wandering, mixing freely, moving into foreign countries, forming monasteries with their own dialects and teaching lineages.

The freedom to adapt, translate, and improvise lends a flexibility and a dynamic to the community. As another metaphor, consider DNA. DNA is able to preserve information with astonishing fidelity for millions of years. At the same time, though, mutation is essential. Imperfection is what allows the adaptation to new and changing environments.

What happens when two different organisms with slightly different DNA co-exist in the same environment? They compete. And may the best organism win!

The same thing happens when there are two different versions of the same text in the same cultural environment. There is comparison and competition; it creates a dynamic, an interest. It gets people talking. (In the sphere of social activism, I have heard this as a piece of advice. When submitting information to governments or other organizations, give everyone a slightly different version. Then they start talking about why it’s different!)


So does this mean that cross referencing and comparison should be an integral part of sutta study to avoid making potentially incorrect conclusions based on a single version of a teaching? (I mean perhaps this is obvious, sorry, I just don’t see it being done so much around the place) To what extent can we ever take a single sutta as ‘sufficient evidence’?

My biology is a bit rusty, but I believe DNA also does this, by putting in repetitions and copies for redundancies, etc. But of course there’s always room for error. Anyway I’m not going to excessively extrapolate this analogy! :laughing:
Is dhamma dhamma, whether we know it came from the Buddha’s mouth or not…


I think the comparison to wikipedia and linux doesn’t work in one respect, as these are systems that are open to and dependent on updates. A dynamic text also has the disadvantage that it can be bent or emphasized in the direction of a sect, ruler or zeitgeist/current discourse.

Judaism had an interesting development. Even though we know that the Torah / Bible is the word of men, tradition has it that it’s the word of God, transmitted to Mose. So there is the tradition that not one letter can be changed. The system doesn’t work as well as with the veda-brahmins, but we know that it very accurately preserved the contents of the five books until they were written down. Next to this fixed part there is a flexible/open part which is the Talmud which preserves in more contemporary language the ‘official’ commentary to the ancient not easily understood text. Point is, it’s a combination of fixed-dynamic that at first sight seems even more resilient, if we take into account the turbulent history of the jewish people.

So I wonder if there are maybe also other factors at place. Maybe there weren’t as many brahmins as we think - that would follow Bronkhorst’s assumption that brahmin mainland was to the west of Magadha. Or there were in fact other transmission methods than communal sangha recitation and that system got at some point deactivated. Cousins in his late paper “The Early Development of Buddhist Literature and Language in India” for example plays with the eventualities of bhānakas - professional reciters of the old times.


I’m not qualified to give a sufficient answer, but to give some comment I think that anyone interested in the details of the buddha-dhamma can benefit from comparative studies, e.g. Bh. Analayo’s studies of Pali and Chinese texts. Also there is certainly a risk of misunderstanding the dhamma when you rely on very unusual single suttas.
On the other hand you can surely meditate successfully without all this scholarly contribution and sticking to the meditation object, sense restraint, anicca-dukkha-anatta, and letting go. So it just depends on where your interests are and if detailed analysis is beneficial to you.


This is a great discussion. The core ideas from the discussion resonate with me as to why SuttaCentral is so important. If we accept having the Dhamma disseminated as an “open source” through the ages, we accept that this treatment leaves it vulnerable to dilution, or being distorted. I’m not being critical of Mahayana texts, but the late Prof. Rita Gross (a Vajrayana disciple) once used to write about how her students had “Heart Sutra” attacks when they learned that prominent Mahayana Sutras were not the words of the Buddha. Aspects of Mahayana in the west have arguably distorted what the Buddha thought and taught, but it seems that overall, it has been a significant net plus to have Buddhism in the West, versus having a closed source that never left India.

Once we accept that the drift from the Dhamma in the West has become so great, we can also be glad that “Buddhism,” in whatever variant it is practiced, has preserved the core tenets of, for example, the Four Noble Truths. The open source quality of the spread of the Dhamma, has, though, resulted in fairly serious distortion, to the point where, at least in the west, as Bhante has said (paraphrase) , “there is plenty of Buddhism, and not much Dhamma.” Thus, the importance of Sutta Central, to make and keep the record of the Dhamma in so many languages, with the hope of seeing this Dhamma disseminate correctly in the modern age, to those willing to embrace it. Rereading what I wrote, I know I’m stating the obvious, but with open source, we create certain risks, and there becomes a need for the scholarship to correct and restate the record, and be a global, credible, easily locatable source for authentic Dhamma.

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No metaphor is perfect (if it was, it would be the thing, not a metaphor for the thing!)

But in this case, I don’t think this is true. Surely the problem we need to address is that the canon, including the EBTs, was clearly open to updates for a considerable period of time. In fact, the latest substantial update—the addition of the extended 4 noble truths analysis to MN 10—probably dates from the 19th century. But leaving such outliers aside, the main body of texts was undergoing revision for a couple of centuries before settling down in pretty much the form we have it today. Most of this was, of course, merely editorial. But plenty of substantive materials were added, even within the 4 nikayas.

It’s really beside the point to speculate too much about other open source projects, but I think it’s interesting, so here goes.

We don’t have the same kind of historical perspective on contemporary open source projects. However, as far as Wikipedia goes, my guess would be that the rate of revisions will continue to decline, and it will be effectively frozen in something not very different from its current form within the next decade or so. It won’t be replaced by a new encyclopedia. Rather, AI will draw information from the internet as a whole and construct articles on the fly; this is already the case for many kinds of information provided on Google’s search results.

Linux will, I think, be around longer; no-one is really even working on anything that might replace it. Modern OSs work so well, and have so much evolved and embodied complexity, that fundamental research into OS design is rare. My guess is that no human will ever design a better OS to replace it, it will simply keep on evolving. But perhaps a computer will. Linux will, I think, last until the singularity.


First, it is not that far-fetched to imagine that he possibly did so. So what? To preserve the texts perfectly after the first generation of followers, the Sangha would have had to develop a mnemonic tradition akin to that of Brahmins (remember that by most texts were not widely know to the lay followers or even intended for them). Mastering the newly developed mnemonic devices would take years and prevent the monastics from doing what the become monks for in the frist place: meditation. So even if there was a certain group of first-generation followers with a Brahminical background, it is not certain that they had students to pass down the texts to.

Second, the Buddhist view of the language is substantially different from the Brahminical one. The Brahmins regarded the language of the Vedas as the sacred Ur-language, directly expressing the essence of things it described, the pristine, primordial Word infused with magical power. Obviously, this is a very archaic way of seeing things, just compare it to the practics of using ‘true names’ and nicknames in many traditional tribal societies. However, this idea of the language having special power is evident even in highly developed religious traditions such as Christianity (‘In the beginning the was the word’, ‘God said: let there be light’), Islam (belief into the uncreatedness of the Quran, God tells the world ‘Be!’ when He creates it), or even Buddhism (some verions of the belief into the efficacy of paritta chanting, preferential use of Pali in chanting, etc.). The Buddha’s way of treating the language seems much more akin to the modern philosophy of languages. The EBTs constantly remind us of ‘ways of designation, conventions.’ etc. This is why there is no firm insistence on memorizing and reciting the Buddha’s sermons, destined to become Suttas later, verbatim. It was not necessary due to the nature of the linguistic medium that is not able to adequately convey the immensity of the Four Noble Truths or Dependent Origination. It was the message that counted, not the medium. Certainly, since the medium is - to an extent - the message, the oral tradition play an important role in understanding the Dhamma, but is not equal to it. The idea that the verbatim transmission possibly played but a relatively small role in the Early Buddhist community is evidenced by the fact that the Pali Canon is in, well, Pali and not the language of the Buddha Himself. In other words, it is a translation. Yes, it is a translation from a closely related language, but a translation nonetheless, with everything that a translation process entails. To sum up my point, we don’t have any verbatim records of the Buddha-Vacana just because nobody really cared for the Suttas to be verbatim.

Third, we should really understand what a sutta is. A sutta is nothing but a record of a sermon, historical account of certain events in the Buddha’s life, or mythological tale. It is not the Central Element of the Cosmic Order, Revelation from God the Almighty, or even Constitution. It is possible that back in the day people didn’t regard them as especially holy, just like you didn’t tremble with awe when you hear a sermon by, say, Ajahn Brahm. What they possibly considered to be sacred or, at least, highly important, were doctrinal statements, that later bceame stock phrases in the Suttas we know: the Four Noble Truths, the Dependent Origination, the Jhanas, etc. It is somewhat similar to my oral exam in Theoretical Linguistics, where I explained de Saussure’s theory of langue and parole in my own words and then trumped with the stock formula that every single of my fellow students can recite up to this day even if woken up in the middle of the night: ‘Every person sees the world through the prism of their language’. That’s what I think the Suttas could be: outlines, summaries, compendia of the Buddha’s sermons, compiled this way because nobody cared about them being verbatim: it was the message that counted.

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Ven Anālyo has written several interesting articles on oral transmission of the EBTs. Here’s one

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Unfortunately I think that transmission-wise Brahmanism and Judaism are more successful with their models. Followers don’t discuss what the rishis said or Moses wrote down, they just discuss on a commentarial level. The state of Buddhism today is - forgive my I-think correct but harsh assessment - a mess. Most ‘buddhists’ in the world consider it as their ‘practice’ to give dana, pray to Amitabha in order to get reborn in Sukhavati, look for magic amulets, recite tibetian sutras 10.000 times without knowing what they mean, or visit zen centers where they are told ‘to just sit’ without any further original teaching. If out of lucky historical developments Ajahn Mun hadn’t revived the forest movement or a few Burmese Sayadaws hadn’t shared their vipassana practice with laity we would hardly have these discussions. With our practice we maybe represent 0,01% of Buddhist practitioners, and this is hardly what the Buddha had envisioned when he set in motion the wheel of his dhamma. I wonder if I’m wrong with the above?
So in my imagination - and please, it’s a thought experiment, don’t grill me for not having evidence - the Buddha did actually install a more sustainable model. Throughout his mission and at the end of it there would have been specialized monks who systematically learned the exposition of dhamma well in order to represent the teaching to the sangha and in remote areas. Let’s say for simplicity’s sake they were initiates of Sariputta. They would be the ones travelling and staying for extended times with the communities until they learned parts of the dhamma by heart. Then they would continue travelling - professional reciters. They would have had a great reputation as they represented the word of the Buddha which (and here I disagree with @Vstakan ) would have been holy words. With the spread of writing communities visited by the reciters would have started to write down single suttas or group of suttas, and those barks or leaves would surely mention the name of the venerated reciter as the community must have been proud and honored to be visited by such a rare master.
At some point - I’m still in my fantasy land, I’m aware of that - there would have been a radical change. A chief monastery or institution would have felt the responsibility to harmonize the different versions of dhamma floating around the communities, would have invited all available reciters, fixed the teaching and removed the references of single reciters since they agreed what the original word of the Buddha was - that would have been the first fixed canon. And possibly different centers would have come to different conclusions.
As much as this is a thought-piece I was surprised to find today some of it confirmed in Drewes’ 2011 article “Dharmabhanakas in Early Mahayana”, which I recommend reading about this topic. In the beginning he gives textual evidence for early Buddhism and later on focuses on Mahayana-sutras, where the reciters would be the revered bhanakas. Apologies for the lengthy comment…

Thanks, that looks very interesting!

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Well, virtually no one among the Hinduists cares about what can be found in the Vedas. Like, literally, not a single person. The texts themselves are well-preserved but utterly useless.

As for the Judaists, given the sheer number of different sects, movements and denominations withing this religion, I can’t really say they are hugely successful.

The absence of any central set of texts of the supreme importance is one of the things that I really love about Buddhism. There is the Pali Canon, there are Suttas in other languages, but they still are considered far less important - at least in theory - than the personal religious experience and experience of the Reality Beyond. I totally agree that this may be a bad marketing strategy in the modern world, but oh well :slight_smile:

I was going to make the same point! Every religion has its own issues with scripture, whether they be interpretation or different readings or whatever.

Christian studies are full of radically different readings of the gospels, for the simple reason that there is no real coherent philosophy in the Bible. Even Jesus’ direct disciples had no idea what he was talking about.

As for the Koran, it’s read through the lens of commentary, so much so that radical scholars say the basic text is essentially unintelligible with commentary.

Confucianism split into two schools over 2000 years ago, when they accidentally found writings in Confucious’ house that contradicted the teachings of the school. Oops!

Jainism similarly split in two, and both traditions have lost all their early scriptures.

Taoism is based on the teachings of Lao Tzu, who has an existential problem in the sense that he never existed.

The teachings of the Torah are, it is true, well preserved in the letter, but they also have their complex redaction history (two contradictory creation myths, for a start), they were written much later than most Jews think (circa 500 BCE, a little earlier than the suttas), and much of what they contain is pretty horrifying. And rather embarrassingly, it turns out that much Hebrew scripture is not actually monotheistic. And that minor detail of the whole “exile in Egypt” thing? It never happened.

In Hinduism, as I understand it, the Vedas are ignored for practical purposes. The stories of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and so on are well known, but mainly as comic books. Which is why excellent works of modern scholarship on Hinduism provoke riots and bannings in modern India for pointing out plainly obvious facts such as that the Hindu myths are pretty damn sexy. Heck, lots of modern Hindus worship the Shivalingam without any idea what it actually represents.

Anyway, the point is that every religion has its issues in different ways. The only really toxic heresy, so far as I’m concerned, is fundamentalism.

Here’s some sacred Hindu texts!



Hmpf, I was hoping to discuss something totally different, which is the possible scenarios of transmission at the time of the Buddha and immediately afterwards. And you jump on a claim I didn’t make (I wrote transmission-wise other religions are better-off), oh well…

Here’s another of Analayo’s papers related to the Pali oral tradition:

Also there is some information on oral transmission in a letter/article he wrote and at the end he cites a few of his articles (with links to the pdfs) on the oral transmission of the Pali texts:


Thanks Linda, I looked through the articles and am interested in your take on it. Bh. Analayo sees his articles as first steps to possibly frame the question… What are for you realistic versions of the process of transmission?

Why not professional Buddhist recorders, instead of brahmin ones? It seems simple & obvious - is this somehow far-fetched?

Let’s keep in mind that the proto-NikAgamas were put together a few hundred years after the Buddha, and updated into a current vernacular, and smoothed over a bit, and a lot of text got added, some Suttas updated with contemporary information, and so on.

Verbatim records of Shakespeare are very, very hard to read, while modern versions are suitable, even if they miss a few subtleties of speech (such as certain rhymes, etc.).