Since my entire project is based on the general reliability of texts I am calling the “Early Buddhist Texts,” I think you should what I mean, what they are, and why I think they are reliable.
Meaning of Early Buddhist Texts
First, what are “Early Buddhist Texts”? I follow Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali’s definition, Early Buddhist Texts (EBT) are “Texts spoken by the historical Buddha and his contemporary disciples” (11). These are “clearly distinguishable from all other Buddhist scripture,” notes Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, in that “these texts originated from a single historical personality, the Buddha” (7).
I find it both important and helpful to describe my sources as “Early Buddhist Texts” so as distinguish them from later works that did not originate from the Buddha. All Mahayana Sutras are later inventions and can not be traced back to the historical Buddha. They were composed 400 to 600 years after the Buddha passed away.
But the use of “Early Buddhist Texts” is also helpful to distinguished these texts from other parts of the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the oldest and only complete canon of the original mainstream Buddhist schools (of which there were reportedly 18). But not everything in the Pali Canon qualifies as “Early Buddhist Texts.”
Here it might be good to get a quick overview of the Pali Canon.
The Pali Canon
The Pali Canon is the scriptures of the Theravada school of Buddhism. This is the only school of original mainstream Buddhism to survive into the modern era. Pali is a Middle Indo-Aryan language native to India. It is the language in which Theravada Buddhism preserve their scriptures. And it is the primary source for our “Early Buddhist Texts.”
The Pali Canon is also known as the Tipitaka (Skt, Tripitaka), meaning the three baskets. The three parts or baskets of teachings are the Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline), the Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Basket of Higher Teaching).
The most important part of these three is the Sutta Pitaka because this basket contains the actual teachings of the Buddha. This “Basket” is divided into five groups of texts called the Nikayas. They are the Digha Nikaya (the long discourses of the Buddha), the Majjhima Nikaya (the middle-length discourses of the Buddha), the Samyutta Nikaya (the connected discourses of the Buddha), the Anguttara Nikaya (the numerical discourses of the Buddha), and the Khuddaka Nikaya (the minor collection).
Which Books Count
Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali enumerate these as being Early Buddhist Texts:
They are the bulk of the Suttas in the main four Pali Nikayas and parallel Agama literature in Chinese, Tibetan Sanskrit, and other Indian dialects; the patimokkhas and some Vinaya material from the khandhakas; a small portion of the Khuddaka Nikaya, consisting of the significant parts of the Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, and Thera- and Theri Gatha (11-12).
I would also include the Khuddakapatha.
The entire Abhidhamma Pitaka is eliminated from the Early Buddhist Texts because it was a later addition. This is clear from comparing the existent Abhidhammas from other schools of mainstream Buddhism. It is also known that only the Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline) and the Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses) were recited at the First Buddhist Council.
Notice also the “the patimokkhas and some Vinaya material from the khandhakas” qualify as Early Buddhist texts.” In a footnote, they clarify, “In particular some of the monastic procedures, such as the upasampada and uposatha ceremonies, that are found across all Vinaya traditions” (12). This means that a significant portion of the Vinaya does not quality as Early Buddhist Texts.
It should also be remembered that even within the books included in the Early Buddhist Texts list, not everything within them go back to the historical Buddha. Textual criticism within Buddhism is very immature and requires much more development before we can say anything definitively. But just beware that there are parts of these books that may not qualify as “spoken by the historical Buddha and his contemporary disciples.”
Early Buddhist Texts List
A. DISCIPLINE (Vinaya Pitaka)
- The Great Division (Mahāvagga of the khandhaka)
- The Lesser Division (Cullavagga of the khandhaka)
- Male Monastic Code (Bhikkhu Pātimokkha)
- Female Monastic Code (Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha)
B. DISCOURSES (Sutta Pitaka)
- Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya)
- Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya)
- Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Samyutta Nikaya)
- Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya)
- The Short Passages (Khuddakapatha)
- The Teaching of the Path (Dhammapada)
- Buddha’s Inspired Utterances (Udana)
- Book of the Sayings (Itivuttaka)
- The Discourse Collection (Sutta Nipata)
- Male Elder Verses (Theragatha)
- Female Elder Verses (Therigatha)
Reliability of the Early Buddhist Texts
It is important to note, in the words of Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, “The texts as we have them now are not a verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not doctrine or substance” (12). There can be no doubt that they were customized for memorization. Anybody reading the texts will be struct by the repetition.
Glenn Wallis write:
“The Pali Canon is the only extant complete Indian collection of the Buddhist texts…. The canon has been preserved with great care down to the present day by the lone surviving sect of ancient Indian Buddhism, namely the Theravada. This is not to say that the texts have not undergone alterations over time….. So, if your aim is to get as close to ‘the Buddha’s idiom’ as possible, the Pali suttas are the logical starting point” (xxv).
So the Early Buddhist Texts are the only surviving source of the Buddha’s teachings. But are these reliable? Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali point out that, “There is a loose consensus among specialists in early Buddhism that the EBTs are in the main authentic” (67). I believe that the Early Buddhist Texts can be trusted as an authentic and reliable guide to the historical Buddha’s teaching and life.
Richard F. Gombrich writes:
I share with the Theravada Buddhists (and most scholars) the view that their form of Buddhism is extremely conservative. Doctrinally, Theravada seems to have undergone very little change or development since its origin in ancient India. While there have naturally been slight shifts in emphasis, the system of ideas we are dealing with throughout our history [of Theravada Buddhism] remains that expounded by the Buddha – at least, according to the Theravadin interpretation (22).
Richard F. Gombrich notes:
In the precise form in which we have them, the Pali texts are undoubtedly much later than the Buddha…, they were not written down til the first century BCE; moreover, the language was probably slightly modified even long after that. On the other hand, I have the greatest difficulty in accepting that the main edifice is not the work of one genius. By ‘the main edifice’ I mean the content of the main body of sermons, the four Nikayas, and of the main body of monastic rules (20-21).
The Theravada claim, writes Huston Smith and Philip Novak, “to represent original Buddhism, the Buddhism taught by Gautama himself. The claim is justified if we confine ourselves to the explicit teachings of the Buddha as they are recorded in the earliest texts, the Pali Canon, for on the whole those texts do support the Theravada position” (66).
One of the pieces of evidence of the reliability of the Early Buddhist Texts is the consistency between the canons of the different early Buddhist schools. We know that around the time of the Second Buddhist Council Buddhism split into 18 groups. We have the parts of canons of some of these schools and can compare them. What we find is a remarkable consistency between them. This means that the Early Buddhist Texts we have in the Pali Canon go back to at least 100 years after Buddha’s passing.
Samuel Beal compared the Chinese canon with the Pali and had this to say: I “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” (xii). Etienne Lamotte agrees, “The doctrinal basis common to the Nikayas and the Agamas is remarkably uniform” (156). And, writes A.K. Warder, “whatever textual discrepancies are found hardly affect the doctrine” (5).
The important takeaway from this study is that the Buddha’s original teachings do in fact exist. And that these teachings can be found only in the Early Buddhist Texts. And further, all other teachings and so-called sutras should be judged by the teachings contained in the Early Buddhist Texts.
For those who claim to be Buddhist, I think this leads to an obvious conclusion: We should study and apply the teachings of the Early Buddhist Texts to our lives. And it also means that we should treat other texts claiming to be the word of the Buddha as commentaries at best.
- Beal, Samuel. Buddhist Literature in China, 2nd ed. Sri Satguru Publications, 1988.
- Gombrich, Richard F. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
- Lamotte, Etienne. History of Indian Buddhism. Peeters Press, 1976.
- Smith, Huston and Philip Novak. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003. Print.
- Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2014. Print.
- Wallis, Glenn. Basic Teachings of the Buddha: A New Translation and Compilation with a Guide to Reading the Texts. New York: The Modern Library, 2007.
- Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2000.