Authenticity, Anxiety, and the Revision of the Pali Canon

In section 56.29 of the Four Noble Truths collection in the Samyutta Nikaya, we read this rather confusing presentation:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the noble truth that is to be fully understood?  The noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood;  the noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized; the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed.”

“. . . [T]he noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned”?  This is not, apparently, a mistranslation, but it certainly seems to be a mistake.  As we know from countless other presentations in the Pali texts, it is not the “noble truth” of  the origin of suffering that is to be abandoned, but the origin of suffering itself — namely, craving.  What seems to have happened here is that, to preserve the parallelism with the other sentences, someone at some point inserted the phrase ariya sacca in a place where it doesn’t appear to make sense.

R.K Norman analyzes a number of such anomalies in his paper on “The Four Noble Truths”, which you can read in the second volume of his Collected Papers.  As he indicates, there are a number of stock presentations of the Noble Truths in the canon, including a presentation version that we find in such suttas as Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma; and what he calls a mnemonic version, a shorthand rendering to remind us of what the Noble Truths are. In the beginning of the sutta quoted above, we see an example of a mnemonic version presentation:

“Bhikkhus, there are these Four Noble Truths.  What four?  The noble truth of suffering, the noble truth of the origin of suffering, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”

Norman theorizes that what is happening in instances like our first quote is that the redactor is trying to hypercorrect what he sees as a discrepancy between the version he has heard and the language of the mnemonic version.  The result is something that the redactor probably thought sounded more correct, but which reads to us as a mistake.  Norman traces a number of such uses of the phrase ariya sacca in the texts, and comes to the somewhat astonishing deduction that the earliest presentations of the Four Noble Truths probably didn’t use the phrase at all!

This is a pointed reminder that the traditional legend of the suttas, that they were memorized as heard from the Buddha’s lips and carefully transmitted orally for centuries until they were written down on palm leaves in Sri Lanka some four or five hundred years later, is not an accurate reflection of the history of these texts.  Even in translation, we can see changes in both style and substance, from the simple verse forms of the Sutta Nipatta and Dhammapada, to the related verse collections of the Samyutta Nikaya, to the more discursive, pericope-driven suttas of the Majjhima and Digha Nikayas.  What I would argue is going on here is an evolutionary process driven by the same anxiety that caused our redactor to make his mistake: the anxiety over authenticity, the drive to ensure that the teachings would be transmitted exactly, even if that meant revising the material the redactor had to work with.

I think the Samyutta Nikaya can tell us much about this process.  It collects many suttas by topic, and often the individual suttas in each samyutta vary from one another in only a detail or two.  There’s the Bhikkhunisamyutta, for example, a collection of stories that all recount encounters of nuns in the forest with Mara, who tries to tempt them out of their practice.  The nuns always recognize Mara, and his attempts always fail.   Or the Anamataggasamyutta,  a collection of metaphors Gotama gives  to communicate just how long we’ve been on the wheel of samsara.  One sutta says that we’ve shed more tears than the water in the ocean; another says we’ve shed more blood than the water in the ocean.   The similarities between many of the suttas in each samyutta are so striking that it seems difficult to believe they were independently authored; rather, they seem like the product of original stories or teachings that picked up variations as they traveled in time and space.  My sense of the Samyutta Nikaya is that the intent of the collection may have been to stop that mutation, to preserve versions of material that may have become important to various groups but to close off the creation of new ones by canonizing them.

The Samyutta Nikaya not only presents us with the product of an anxiety for preservation, it also indicates some potential causes for that anxiety.  The Labhasakkarasamyutta is a long series of admonitions on the dangers of gain, honor and praise.  The fourth subchapter of this samyutta is dedicated to condemnations of Devadatta, whom, we are told, allowed his love of gain and praise to lead him to his downfall and destruction.  Devadatta was, of course, Gotama’s cousin, famous for leading a schism of the sangha that succeeded in splitting the community for a time.

Just prior to this collection is the Kassapasamyutta, about half of which depict Gotama extolling the awakening of Mahakassapa as equal to his own, and the rest recounting Kassapa’s various humiliations of Ananda on his way to wresting control of the bhikkhu sangha after Gotama’s death.  In short, significant portions of the Samyutta Nikaya appear to be propaganda, designed either to denigrate the leader of one faction or reinforce the authority of another.  It is inconceivable that the transmission of the teachings would not be an element in such conflicts; my guess is that it was the anxiety over the integrity of the texts in the wake of factionalization that occasioned the collection of these texts in the Samyutta Nikaya.

The fragments of story in the earlier texts become full-blown narratives in the Mahjjhima and Digha Nikayas, by which time they are fully buttressed in the rote, repetitive pericopes we are familiar with in the later texts.   It is no longer enough just to have standard presentations of core doctrines like the Noble Truths or the chain of Dependent Origination, such as we find in the Samyutta Nikaya.  Now nearly everything is standardized: the description of Gotama’s alms round, the way visitors greet and leave him,  the exclamation of delight at the Tathagata’s words. That many of these texts are devoted to refutations of competing doctrines, either from within the sangha or from rival sects, is probably not coincidental.  What seems self-evident, to me at least, is that by the time these texts came to their final form, they had been through a process of conscious emendation, in which, ironically, the suttas were extensively revised in order to preserve them.*

We can spot examples of this emendation process in which it appears that adherence to the proper pericope trumps the actual sense of the teaching.  My favorite example is Digha Nikaya 11, in which a householder begs Gotama to have one of the bhikkhus put on a display of supernatural power to convince people of the superiority of his dhamma.  Gotama replies that such demonstrations are disgusting and worthless for teaching purposes, and goes on to detail the kinds of hocus-pocus that bhikkhus are prohibited from engaging in.

And yet before long the percopes kick in that describe the attributes of the arahants–first the jhanas, then a series of supernormal powers (walking through walls and on water, flying ), producing the mind-made body, mind reading and clairaudience.  A sutta that begins by describing Gotama’s disgust at wonder-working goes on to extol the miraculous powers one gains through practice.  Again, the insertion of the pericopes appears to be an obvious emendation, made by a redactor to try to ensure the authenticity of the passage, even though the insertion ends up contradicting the sense of the teaching.  Perhaps one reason for the insertion may have been to assure listeners that, despite the denigration of magic that comes from the Buddha’s mouth, one should know that arahants do have magical powers, which they can exercise at will.

The speculation I’m making here is that the anxiety over preservation of the teachings, and the formulaic compositional style it led to, resulted in a process in which emendations of texts were made in an attempt to make them sound more authentic.  The use of the formulas and pericopes appeared to ensure the authenticity of the texts by repeating agreed-upon,  memorized and recited standardizations, even while the redactors were consciously recomposing the material they were working with.

It’s clear that this process came to a close at some point; Norman suggests that the canon closed at some point in the two or three hundred years between the death of Gotama and the conversion of King Ashoka in about 250 BCE.  Viirtually the same texts found in the Pali canon appear again in the Chinese Agamas some 600 years later.  Some of the same canonical texts are part of the Gandharan texts, which have been dated to the first or second century CE.

To sum up my guesswork:

1.  The earliest Buddhist period was marked, for at least some significant period, by doctrinal contention, both with the Brahmans, Jains and other sects and with schismatic forces from within the sangha.  This contention would have contributed to an anxiety about the correct transmission of the teachings.

2. This anxiety resulted in attempts to ensure correct transmission, both through the canonization process itself, and through a style of composition that became increasingly standardized and marked by the use of pericopes.

3. In the latest suttas, this process becomes hypercorrective, so that emendations are being made to bring the material into line with the accepted formulas, even if the result seems inconsistent with the message of the text.

Gombrich, Wynne, Peacock, Batchelor, and others have speculated that a process of what Peacock calls “creeping Brahmanism” took place sometime before the closure of the canon, during which Brahmanic concepts such as karma and rebirth took on a more central role than they may have in Gotama’s initial teaching.   There is a tension between this concept and the concern, evidenced in the mnemonic repetition of the suttas, for preserving the teachings.  If my hypothesis holds any water, it may indicate a process by which that creep took place.  If the tales and teachings in Majjhima and Digha did originate with Gotama’s activities, the formal elements in the canonical versions  were introduced  in a later process of conscious emendation.  The apparent errors that arise from this process demonstrate that the allegiance of the redactors was not to the material they were working with, but to the formalities themselves, i.e., what they thought the texts should say.  If this did happen, the redactors may have thought they were preserving the teachings even as they were significantly revising them; to them, the goal of preservation may not have appeared antithetical to revision, and the very forms intended to preserve the teachings would have been the instruments that enabled them to be revised.

* It might be noted, as it often is, that the pericopes and other formulaic elements in the Pali texts were aids to memorization and communal recitation.  This may be true; still, it is notable that these elements play a much less central role in texts like the Dhammapada, the Sutta Nipatta, and even the Samyutta Nikaya, which were nevertheless orally preserved.  The predominance of these elements in later texts is evidence, I think, not only of stylistic evolution but also of an increasing  institutional insistence on uniformity. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that this growing insistence could have been occasioned by anxiety over the preservation of texts in the context of doctrinal contention.