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What the Buddha Really Taught

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 However, with the exception of the Mahāyānist interpolations in the Ekottara, which are easily discernible, the variations in question [between the Nikāyas and Āgamas] affect hardly anything save the method of expression or the arrangement of the subjects. The doctrinal basis common to the Nikāyas and Āgamas is remarkably uniform.
    –Étienne Lamotte

by how many books there are. Shelves crammed full of people’s opin­ions about ‘what the Buddha taught’. But try to find some­thing that actu­ally con­tains the Buddha’s teach­ing and you’re in for a much harder time. It seems to be okay to be a Buddhist, attend talks, read books, med­it­ate, chant, and go on retreat, without ever both­er­ing to ask one­self the ques­tion: what did the Buddha really teach?

For the rare and brave seeker who dares to inquire bey­ond what their teach­ers tell them, it will not take long before they hear of the Pali Nikāyas. Here, we are told, is the ori­ginal unadul­ter­ated Teach­ing. The Buddha’s words in their pristine pur­ity. We are in the envi­able pos­i­tion of hav­ing many excel­lent trans­la­tions of these texts avail­able in Eng­lish, both in books and on the web. Any­one with suf­fi­cient time and interest can, with a little per­sever­ance, gain a reas­on­able under­stand­ing of these teach­ings. The Pali Nikāyas have been one of my form­at­ive influ­ences, right from my first days as a Buddhist. The Dhamma they embody is clear, rational, bal­anced, gentle, and pro­found – everything one could hope for.

But it is easy to fall into a kind of ‘Pali fun­da­ment­al­ism’. The texts and lan­guage are so pure and pre­cise that many of us who fall in love with the Nikāyas end up believ­ing that they con­sti­tute the be-all and end-all of Buddhism. We reli­giously adhere to the finest dis­tinc­tion, the most subtle inter­pret­a­tion, based on a single word or phrase. We take for gran­ted that here we have the ori­ginal teach­ing, without con­sid­er­ing the pro­cess by which these teach­ings have passed down to us. In our fer­vour, we neg­lect to won­der whether there might be another per­spect­ive on these Dhammas.

Per­haps most import­ant of all, we for­get – if we ever knew – the reas­ons why we are jus­ti­fied in con­sid­er­ing the Nikāyas authen­tic in the first place. While it is good enough for most faith-based Buddhists to believe that their own scrip­tures are the only real ones, this will not suf­fice for a dis­in­ter­ested seeker. Any reli­gious tra­di­tion will try to val­id­ate itself by such claims, and they can’t all be right. These con­flict­ing claims led the early research­ers in the mod­ern era to exam­ine the evid­ence more objectively.

When the mod­ern his­tor­ical study of Buddhism began in the mid-19th Cen­tury there was con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion. In a burst of ration­al­ist enthu­si­asm, schol­ars were pre­pared to ques­tion whether the myth of the Buddha had any fac­tual basis at all. Was there any his­tor­ical con­nec­tion between the dif­fer­ent reli­gions prac­ticed in far-separated places like Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Japan? Did the Buddha really exist? Was he just a sun-god? Was he an Ethiopian prophet? What did he teach? Can we know? Which tra­di­tions are most reli­able (or least unre­li­able)? Since the tra­di­tions had been largely sep­ar­ated due to the forces of his­tory – espe­cially the destruc­tion of Buddhism in India – they had little inform­a­tion about each other, and each asser­ted its own primacy. Each school pre­served its tra­di­tions in vast col­lec­tions of abstruse volumes of hard-to-read manu­scripts in wildly dif­fer­ent lan­guages (Chinese, Tibetan, Pali, and other Indian lan­guages such as Sanskrit).

But gradu­ally the evid­ence was assembled. The tra­di­tions were com­pared; archae­olo­gical find­ings con­firmed key facts. 1500 year-old Sri Lankan chron­icles men­tion the names of the monks Kas­sapa, Majjhima, and Dur­ab­his­ara sent in the Asokan period as mis­sion­ar­ies from Vid­isa to the Him­alayan region; a stupa is excav­ated in Vid­isa and the names of these monks are found there, inscribed in let­ters dat­ing to the Aśokan era. By the begin­ning of the 20th Cen­tury, in works by such schol­ars as T.W. Rhys Dav­ies, whose writ­ings retain their value today, accur­ate out­lines were drawn. There was still con­tro­versy in the early half of the 20th Cen­tury, though, as evid­ence was still being accu­mu­lated, new texts were edited, and new stud­ies done.

How­ever, as early as 1882 a scholar called Samuel Beal pub­lished a series of lec­tures under the title of Buddhist Lit­er­at­ure in China. This included inform­a­tion on the pro­cess of trans­lat­ing into Chinese, as well as sample trans­la­tions from some of the main strata of Buddhist lit­er­at­ure – the early Sut­tas, the Jāta­kas, and a Mahāyāna text. He stated the following:

    The Par­in­ib­bāna, the Brah­ma­jāla, the Sigalovada, the Dham­ma­cakka, the Kas­iB­hārad­vadja, the Mahā­mangala; all these I have found and com­pared with trans­la­tions from the Pali, and find that in the main they are identical. I do not say lit­er­ally the same; they dif­fer in minor points, but are identical in plot and all import­ant details. And when the Vinaya and Āgama col­lec­tions are thor­oughly examined, I can have little doubt we shall find most if not all the Pali sut­tas in a Chinese form.

Over a cen­tury later, the thor­ough com­par­at­ive study urged by Beal is still want­ing. How­ever, some pro­gress has been made. In 1908 the Japan­ese scholar M. Ane­saki pub­lished his ‘The Four Buddhist Āga­mas in Chinese: A con­cord­ance of their parts and of the cor­res­pond­ing coun­ter­parts in the Pali Nikāyas’. This was fol­lowed in 1929 by Chizen Akanuma’s The Com­par­at­ive Cata­logue of Chinese Āga­mas and Pali Nikāyas, a com­pre­hens­ive cata­logue of all known exist­ing early dis­courses in Pali and Chinese, as well as the few early texts avail­able in Tibetan and Sanskrit. These find­ings were incor­por­ated in full-scale his­tor­ical stud­ies such as Étienne Lamotte’s His­tory of Indian Buddhism and A.K. Warder’s Indian Buddhism.

These stud­ies have largely con­firmed Beal’s ini­tial hypo­thesis – the Chinese Āga­mas and the Pali Nikāyas are vir­tu­ally identical in doc­trine. They are two vary­ing recen­sions of the same set of texts. These texts – pop­ularly referred to simply as ‘the Sut­tas’ – were assembled by the first gen­er­a­tions of the Buddha’s fol­low­ers, before the period of sec­tarian divi­sions. They are pre-sectarian Buddhism.

Although in the pop­u­lar mind these texts are thought of as ‘Theravāda’ teach­ings, this is not so. Emin­ent scholar David Kalupa­hana went so far as to declare that there is not one word in the Pali Nikāyas that rep­res­ents ideas pecu­liar to the Theravāda school (although I think this is a slight exag­ger­a­tion.) Lamotte comments:

    How­ever, with the excep­tion of the Mahāyān­ist inter­pol­a­tions in the Ekot­tara, which are eas­ily dis­cern­ible, the vari­ations in ques­tion [between the Nikāyas and Āga­mas affect hardly any­thing save the method of expres­sion or the arrange­ment of the sub­jects. The doc­trinal basis com­mon to the Nikāyas and Āga­mas is remark­ably uni­form. Pre­served and trans­mit­ted by the schools, the sut­ras do not, how­ever, con­sti­tute schol­astic doc­u­ments, but are the com­mon her­it­age of all the sects.

The con­tri­bu­tions of the schools are mostly lim­ited to fix­ing the final arrange­ment of the texts and stand­ard­iz­ing the dia­lect. Inter­pol­a­tions of sec­tarian ideas are few and usu­ally read­ily recog­niz­able. To pick one ran­dom example of an appar­ent sec­tarian state­ment, let’s con­sider what the Saṁy­utta of the Theravād­ins and the Saṁy­ukta of the Sar­vāstivād­ins tell us about how the four noble truths are real­ized in time. The Theravāda says that one who sees any one of the four noble truths also sees the oth­ers (SN 56.30). This sutta, which has no coun­ter­part in the Sar­vāstivāda, implies that the four truths are real­ized all at once. In con­trast, a num­ber of Sar­vāstivāda sut­tas, which have no Theravāda coun­ter­parts, say that one will come to know each of the four noble truths in sequence, one after the other (SA 435–437). This relates to the dis­puted ques­tion of sud­den (ekāb­his­amaya) versus gradual (anupub­bāb­his­amaya) attain­ment. Appro­pri­ately, the Theravāda was a clas­sic ekāb­his­amaya school, and in their Abhid­hamma they developed the the­ory that all the four noble truths were real­ized in one mind moment. The Sar­vāstivādin Abhid­harma argued the con­trary pos­i­tion, that the truths were real­ized gradu­ally. This dis­pute became one of the major sec­tarian battle­grounds in later Chinese Buddhism, but its roots appear already in the Saṁy­ut­tas. Notice that, while the two schools do dif­fer on this point, the very fact that they share the doc­trine of the four noble truths is what makes this dia­logue mean­ing­ful. If they didn’t share the basic teach­ings in com­mon, they couldn’t argue about the details of interpretation.

We must, how­ever, remain cau­tious when draw­ing con­clu­sions from appar­ent dif­fer­ences. Even the best schol­ars can make mis­takes, espe­cially as new mater­ial is con­stantly com­ing to light. For example, Thich Minh Chau, one of the great pion­eers of Āgama/Nikāya stud­ies, noticed that the Jīvaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (MN 55) was absent from the cor­res­pond­ing Sar­vāstivādin Mad­hyama Āgama, and indeed was not found any­where in the Chinese Āga­mas. This sutta deals with the ques­tion of meat eat­ing. As is well known, Theravāda mon­ast­ics usu­ally allow meat eat­ing, while Mahāy­an­ists gen­er­ally do not. The Theravāda sutta, con­sist­ent with the prac­tice in Theravāda cul­tures, per­mits meat eat­ing. Thich Minh Chau sug­ges­ted that its absence from the Sar­vāstivāda indic­ated that, even from such an early time, the prac­tice of veget­ari­an­ism was favoured by the Sar­vāstivāḍa. This con­clu­sion was a reas­on­able one at the time. But since then, the Sar­vāstivāda Dīrgha Āgama has been dis­covered and partly explored. That col­lec­tion has a ver­sion of the Jīvaka Sutta (along with sev­eral other import­ant Majjhima sut­tas miss­ing from the Sar­vāstivāda Mad­hyama Āgama). So its absence from the Mad­hyama is not because of a sec­tarian dif­fer­ence, but simply because the Theravād­ins chose to place it in their Majjhima, while the Sar­vāstivād­ins chose to place it in their Dīrgha.

It is easy to for­get that, in our times, the reason why the Nikāyas carry such prestige is largely due to the dis­cov­ery that they are very sim­ilar to cor­res­pond­ing col­lec­tions of sut­ras found in Chinese trans­la­tion. The logic is power­ful: the South­ern (Theravāda) school and the North­ern Chinese schools have been sep­ar­ated by vast dis­tances, with only occa­sional con­tacts over the past 2000 years. Even before that, within India her­self, the schools had sep­ar­ated and passed down dis­tinct ver­sions of their canon­ical scrip­tures. Yet des­pite this sep­ar­a­tion, their root canon­ical scrip­tures are doc­trin­ally almost identical.

These con­clu­sions were arrived at by the early gen­er­a­tions of cross-cultural Buddhist schol­ars, both West­ern and East­ern. Their find­ings gave strong impetus to the author­ity of the Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Āga­mas and the import­ance of study­ing these col­lec­tions on com­par­at­ive basis. These find­ings have been taken to heart in mod­ern Buddhist stud­ies espe­cially in Taiwan and Japan. How­ever in the Eng­lish speak­ing world, the Chinese Āga­mas have been com­par­at­ively neg­lected. This seems to be due to a num­ber of factors, not least the prac­tical dif­fi­culty of learn­ing to read Chinese.

There is also the assump­tion that the Chinese trans­la­tions will be more ‘fuzzy’ and hence less reli­able than the Indic texts. In many psy­cho­lo­gical and philo­soph­ical con­texts, the pre­ci­sion of the Pali is obscured in Chinese trans­la­tion; and some­times the vague­ness of Chinese gram­mar makes the prob­lem worse. But while this is true in cer­tain cases, it really depends what one is look­ing for. Often we can tell with a fair degree of cer­tainty what Indic term the Chinese trans­lator had before him. And the ‘fuzzi­ness’ of trans­la­tion is only rel­ev­ant at a close focus, when con­sid­er­ing the mean­ing of a par­tic­u­lar word. At a greater dis­tance, for example con­sid­er­ing the mean­ing of a whole sen­tence, there is often little dif­fer­ence. And when we look at lar­ger tex­tual blocks, for example a whole para­graph, the dif­fer­ence dis­ap­pears altogether.

As an example of this, con­sider the term (jue2). This can carry a vari­ety of mean­ings, usu­ally con­nec­ted with bodhi, awaken­ing or enlight­en­ment. But what are we to make of this term when it appears in the for­mula for the first jhana: 有覺有觀 ‘with , with invest­ig­a­tion’? Here can­not stand for bodhi or any­thing sim­ilar. Now, the jhana for­mula is very com­mon and stand­ard through­out the Nikāyās/Āgamas. We can be fairly cer­tain that must stand for the cor­res­pond­ing Pali term vitakka (‘thought’, or ‘ini­tial applic­a­tion of mind’). This is con­firmed when we see that in Sanskrit texts that closely relate to the ori­gin­als from which the Chinese was trans­lated, the term used is indeed vitarka. Hav­ing estab­lished this, whenever we see the term appear­ing in the jhana for­mula, we know that it means vitakka, and we know this with as much cer­tainty as if we had read the Indic ori­ginal. So in such cases, the Chinese trans­la­tions are just as accur­ate and author­it­at­ive as the Pali, and some­times may even be more reliable.

Another pos­sible reason for the rel­at­ive neg­lect of the Āga­mas in the English-speaking world is the per­cep­tion that they are later than the Nikāyas. This impres­sion has been rein­forced by no less an emin­ence than Étienne Lamotte, whose opin­ion has been often repeated. But his main reason for this con­clu­sion was that the Chinese Saṁy­ukta Āgama included a long pas­sage from a late ‘Life of King Aśoka’. How­ever, Japan­ese and Taiwanese schol­ars have long recog­nized that this is an alien inter­pol­a­tion into the Saṁy­ukta, prob­ably noth­ing more than a fil­ing error by a care­less lib­rar­ian some­time in China. A closer exam­in­a­tion of the con­tent of the Āga­mas sug­gests that they are gen­er­ally speak­ing neither earlier nor later than the Nikāyas, but rather both sets col­lec­ted mater­i­als over roughly the same period of time.

It is bey­ond the scope of this little essay to exam­ine the vari­ous col­lec­tions in detail, but we can review the basics. Here is a table of the main exist­ing col­lec­tions. The ‘T’ num­bers refer to the sutra num­bers in the stand­ard Taishō edi­tion of the Chinese canon.

Āga­mas & Nikāyas Theravāda Nikāyas Sar­vāstivāda Āgamas Other Āga­mas (in Chinese)

Dīgha (Pali) Dīrgha (Sanskrit) T1 Dīrgha (Dharmagup­taka, trans. Buddhayaśas)

Majjhima (Pali) T26 Mad­hyama (Chinese trans. Got­ama Saṅghadeva)

Saṁy­utta (Pali) T99 Saṁy­ukta (Chinese trans. Guṇabhadra) Two ‘other’ Saṁy­uk­tas (T100, T101, unknown schools)

Aṅgut­tara (Pali) T125 Ekot­tara (Mahāsaṅghika? trans. Got­ama Saṅghadeva)

The Sar­vāstivāda Dīrgha is an excit­ing find: an ancient Sanskrit manu­script, two-thirds of which have mys­ter­i­ously appeared from Afgh­anistan in recent years. It has not yet been edited and pub­lished. When this is avail­able, it will be seen that we have a nearly com­plete col­lec­tion of sut­ras from the Sar­vāstivāda school. In addi­tion there is the Dīrgha from the Dharmagup­taka school. The school of the Ekot­tara is really unknown, though some schol­ars tent­at­ively assign it to the Mahāsaṅghi­kas. These are all early schools of Buddhism that thrived in ancient India. The fifth Pali Nikāya, the Khud­daka, is a mis­cel­laneous col­lec­tion, con­tain­ing a mix of early and late mater­ial. While there is occa­sional ref­er­ence in the Chinese and Tibetan can­ons to a Kśudraka Āgama there is no exist­ing coun­ter­part of the col­lec­tion as a whole. Nev­er­the­less, there are many exist­ing coun­ter­parts to sec­tions of the Khud­daka, includ­ing the Dhammapada, Jata­kas, Aṭṭhakavagga, and so on.

The Tibetan canon does not con­tain any major Āga­mas of early sut­ras. This seems to be because by the time Buddhism went to Tibet, from around 700CE, there was not much interest in study­ing the Āgama sut­ras. Nev­er­the­less, there are fair amounts of early sut­ras scattered through the vast Tibetan col­lec­tion, indi­vidu­ally or in small groups. In addi­tion, there are a fair num­ber of quotes and ref­er­ences to Āgama sut­ras found embed­ded in later treat­ises. So although the Āga­mas them­selves are sadly absent in Tibetan, they are acknow­ledged and accep­ted as canonical.

By examin­ing the col­lec­tions of texts side by side, we can determ­ine to what extent the schools may have intro­duced their own ideas into the can­ons. This pro­cess, hap­pily enough, reveals that sec­tarian ideas are almost com­pletely absent. Only here and there, search­ing with a crit­ical eye, can one tent­at­ively dis­cern minor sec­tarian influ­ences. The most reas­on­able explan­a­tion for this situ­ation is that these texts were already accep­ted across the Buddhist com­munity as canon­ical well before the period of schisms.

This does not mean that everything found in these texts is lit­er­ally the ‘Word of the Buddha’. The first schism was over 100 years after the Buddha’s par­in­ib­bana, which allows plenty of time for edit­or­ial funny busi­ness. The texts them­selves remind us that what is essen­tial are ‘those sut­tas spoken by the Tath­agata’. Much of the mater­ial in the early Nikāyas/Āgamas is not ‘spoken by the Tath­agata’, for example, back­ground stor­ies and nar­rat­ive. This should not be regarded as author­it­at­ive in the deep sense. And indeed, com­par­ison between cor­res­pond­ing sut­ras in the Nikāyas and Āga­mas fre­quently reveals that, while the doc­trinal mat­ter is very sim­ilar, the set­ting and other incid­ental details may be dif­fer­ent. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but shows a tend­ency in the com­pil­a­tion of the canon to regard doc­trinal mat­ter as the heart, and treat incid­ental mat­ter more freely. There are even instruc­tions in two Vinayas on what to do if one for­gets the set­ting of a sutra. These more-or-less instruct the monks to just say it was at Sāvatthī!

Per­haps another reason for the rel­at­ive neg­lect of the Āga­mas is their very close­ness to the Nikāyas. We have to go to a lot of effort to dis­cover what we think we know already: the core Buddhist teach­ings really are the four noble truths, the eight­fold path, depend­ent ori­gin­a­tion, and so on. Although there are occa­sional instruct­ive vari­ations, the main fruit of this study is not in the con­tent of the teach­ing, but in the method. Rather than assum­ing that the scrip­tures of just one school are the first and last word on what the Buddha taught, we are search­ing in the root teach­ings shared in com­mon between the schools. Such an approach will not only help us to get ‘back to the Buddha’, but it will provide the best plat­form for an improved under­stand­ing between the Buddhist schools we find alive today.

I star­ted out this essay by cri­ti­ciz­ing ‘Pali fun­da­ment­al­ism’; but we must also beware of becom­ing ‘pre-sectarian’ fun­da­ment­al­ists! The teach­ings of the vari­ous schools are not just a sheer mass of error and mean­ing­less cor­rup­tion, any more than they are iron-clad for­mu­la­tions of ‘ulti­mate truth’. They are the answers given by teach­ers of old to the ques­tion: ‘What does Buddhism mean for us?’ Each suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tion must under­take the del­ic­ate task of her­men­eut­ics, the re-acculturation of the Dhamma in time and place. And in our times, so dif­fer­ent from those of any Buddhist era or cul­ture of the past, we must find our own answers. Looked at from this per­spect­ive, the teach­ings of the schools offer us invalu­able les­sons, a wealth of pre­ced­ent bequeathed us by our ancest­ors in faith. Just as the great Theravādin com­ment­ator Buddhaghosa employed an encyc­lo­paedic know­ledge of the Nikāyas, many of the greatest ‘Mahāyāna’ schol­ars, such as Nāgār­juna, Vas­ub­andhu, and Asaṅga, based them­selves securely on the Āga­mas. By fol­low­ing their example and mak­ing the effort to thor­oughly learn these Teach­ings we can under­stand, prac­tice, and propag­ate the liv­ing Dhamma for the sake of all sen­tient beings.