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.

No Comments

  1. Jan on February 1, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Excellent work Mark! This is consistent with what we know from linguistic analysis of other world belief systems, Christianity in particular. Textual changes over time have been well documented. However, I have found when I have raised this issue to Buddhist friends in the past that the points I proffered were usually countered by an appeal to some kind of Buddhist exceptionalism based on the belief that the original teachings of the Buddha were passed down orally with little if any changes being inserted. It was further argued that the monastics of the local area adhered to strong social norms demanding absolute renditions of the teachings thru the centuries as demonstrated by an exceptional consistency between the various suttas. Your explanation builds a case that goes beyond mere linguistic drift and provides us with an understanding that ideologically determined changes were consciously made.

    • Mark Knickelbine on February 2, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Jan, thanks for your comments. One of the things I studied in grad school was the transition of European culture from orality to literacy, and as I started to read the Pali texts I began to see traces of this process. I’m not a Pali or Indian history scholar by any means, but I thought I’d throw this idea out there and see what kind of reaction it might get. It’s difficult for me not to see the stylistic transition between the texts in the Sutta Nipata and those in the Majjhima and Digha Nikayas as a development that took place over time and that involved a conscious process of composition.

  2. Linda on February 2, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Well-thought-out post, Mark, thanks for putting it up for consideration.

    You and I agree on many things: That politics will have entered in and had an influence, and that editors will have made changes in order to clarify (when they “knew what they were doing”) or just align (when they didn’t quite know what they were doing, as in your first example). (My series on upapajja vā apare vā pariyāye details an “error of clarification” — found on my blog here: http://justalittledust.com/blog/?cat=147 )

    But I note that many of the examples you gave in the first half of your post were about story details or wording that doesn’t have a significant effect on what’s being said (I am not much concerned if we stop calling them the “noble truths”). It is quite easy to imagine monks being fairly fanatical about keeping the core teachings as pure as possible (with mostly small errors creeping in), while losing and confusing the details of setting and characters, and, sure, making up those details to make a point.

    What I notice is that there are a few big whacking emendations — like poor Ananda being blamed by the Buddha himself for the Buddha not staying forever and so having to die — which stand out and shout their intrusion into the text (because the Buddha whose voice I hear in the best of dhamma lessons isn’t one to whine and blame — didn’t he let Cunda off for serving him his last supper?). Or the Kassapa tales that you mention.

    How badly they do the work of adding politically-motivated texts is amusing to me, but then I have to pull what little humor I can out of these mostly dry texts.

    If there are big glaring intrusions of politics, and lots of confusions of background stories and details, does that really matter much? It seems to me that it’s interesting fodder for historians to mine, but makes little difference to the dhamma itself.

    And as for “creeping Brahminism” I think we are seeing ghosts; we have got ourselves spooked and see it everywhere. I’m not saying that there was no creeping effect over time, I am simply saying this: most of the time when we think we see creeping Brahminism corrupting the texts, two things are going on: (1) we aren’t really understanding what’s being said and (2) we don’t have enough background, yet, to figure it out. I know this because I do it again and again — scoff at some obvious corruption and then later see how it fits.

    Take, for example, DN 11 in which the Buddha disses supranormal powers and then tells us how his arahants can fly through the air (etc etc). What gets lost in translation is that this sequence *starts* with the four jhana — increasingly higher and higher states of meditation — and then when the arahant is in that higher state (“With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it…” toward whatever he is aiming at) — he first gets clear on the fact that he has an actual physical body composed of the elements, and then he creates a mind-made body, which he pulls out of his real body, and then he splits himself into many, becomes one again, flies through the air and walks through walls, and so on. Each section that introduces an amazing super-power, in translation, starts with a separate heading (the heading is not there in the Pali), and with the same text — the heading makes us think “separate event” and the same text makes us glide right past what is being said, but each one starts out: “With his mind thus concentrated… he inclines it…”. The Buddha *started* the sutta making fun of people who believe that someone can actually do these things (with their real bodies), and then when he gets to what his arahants can do, he is quite clear that they can do all those things — in meditative states. Because he starts with a real body, and then moves to that mind-made body, it seems clear to me that this is what he’s saying, and it’s just another bit of sly humor.

    It’s not a corruption, it’s the Buddha doing what he does, making mild fun.

    The problem for us now is that he is almost constantly making references to the way people perceived things in his time and we simply don’t have those references. If we see echoes of Brahminism or other schools of thought “creeping in” I am willing to bet that nine times out of ten that’s not what’s going on at all; he is making a reference to Brahminism or that other school of thought, and we just have a really hard time getting the joke.

  3. Mark Knickelbine on February 2, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Linda, thanks as always for your comments. My goal in this piece was not to actually demonstrate “creeping Brahmanism,” but to make the case that the stylistic differences in the suttas are evidence of stylistic development over time, and that this development was driven by an institutional trend toward standards and formulas. Do you disagree with that? Because I think if you accept this, then you also have to accept that at some point, someone would have had to have authored the Majjhima and Digha texts, knowing that they were, at minimum, adding the formulaic material to whatever material they started with. In other words, the stylistic development would be evidence at least of an editorial project being carried out, or perhaps even a compositional project.

    I’m not convinced that the pericopes in DN 11 are a joke. For one thing, they are pericopes — they appear elsewhere in the suttas in more or less the same form. Secondly, I don’t see the irony here. I’d need you to work that out more fully to understand how you think that works.

    I don’t doubt that we are missing many nuances that would have been apparent to Gotama’s listeners. However, given that what we have is already a translation from whatever language or languages Gotama taught in, it’s possible many of those nuances are unavalable to us. Even though we know that the canonical Gotama often repurposes Brahmanic terms and concepts, it seems to me that it would be a tall order to demonstrate conclusively that the Brahmanic elements we find in the suttas are primarily ironic or subversive.

    • Linda on March 24, 2012 at 9:06 am

      Just found a reference to this sutta elsewhere ( http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=11852&p=180004#p180004 ):

      Sue Hamilton, Identity and Experience: The Construction of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism:

      Of all of these supernormal abilities, only one, the creation of the body, is specifically stated to be manomaya [mind-made]. But just as the mind-made body required that the bhikkhu, having achieved the stated meditative level, “apply and bend-down his mind” in order to create such a body, so in the description of every single one of the other abilities, it clearly states that first the bhikkhu has to apply and bend-down his mind. The difference seems to be that the body is created by the mind whereas the other supernormal abilities are activities of the mind: in the former case, the mind produces something; in the latter case the mind does something.

      • Mark Knickelbine on March 25, 2012 at 7:52 am

        I’m afraid this doesn’t clarify the point for me. Or is she trying to say that it’s the mind-made body that is walking through walls and mountains and diving in and out of the earth? I can see where mindreading, seeing your past lives, etc, would be mental but it’s all that weird superhero stuff that doesn’t seem to fit with your interpretation. Why would someone in a deep meditative state be walking through walls in his mind? Unless it’s the mind-made body that can do all these amazing things–some kind of astral projection thing, perhaps? At any rate, the straightforward reading would still seem to be “when you have a superconcentrated mind you can do miracles. But don’t, because they’re vulgar.” I don’t see the ironic or subversive voice of these pericopes, as we clearly can in the Great Brahma gag at the end of the sutta. At minimum, Gotama seems to be sending mixed signals here. But I can easily see a pattern that starts back in the Samyutta Nikaya — everytime we talk about X we have to insert the X-pericope, whether it fits or not. In fact it seems some of the late suttas are just excuses to recite all the major doctrinal pericopes — for instance MN 77, which also contains the super power pericopes with no jokes or expressions of disgust to balance them.

        Have you spent much time with the Udana? Udanas seem like an important transitional style between the pure verses like Dhamapada and Atthavagga and the more discursive suttas we find later on. In the Udana we have verses supplemented with stories about how and when Gotama came up with them (much like the Vinaya where we start with a story and end with the rule). It seems to me the stories were composed as mnemonic devices to help you remember the verse (the verse is often a quote from Dhammapada Sutta Nipata or a verse quoted elsewhere in the suttas). Some of the Udanas have pericopes but most of them don’t. Maybe they mark a transition from trying to preserve Gotama’s words per se to a practice of composing narrative settings for the teachings.

  4. Linda on February 2, 2012 at 10:12 am

    It certainly seems a fair likelihood that stylistic differences could be matched to different periods, yes, but also to the same period but different geographical locations, and variations in local styles of languages and story-telling. I expect (like everything) it’s not simple, not just one effect.

    I woke up thinking about pericopes and realized that I am familiar with two different types: There’s dhamma pericopes (the four noble truths, the eightfold path, dependent origination in its 12-piece formula) and then there are what I think of as “background pericopes” (describing the philosophies of others, the formalities you mention in your post, or standardized miracles and supranormal powers). Certainly the dhamma pericopes will have been developed within the Buddhist fold, but my sense of the background pericopes is that they represent a capture of phrasing that was common in the day, popular “spin” in use at the time.

    So, for example, the pericopes of the supranormal powers probably weren’t unique to the Buddhists but will have been a run-down of the sorts of abilities expected from (and bragged about by) various different schools of ascetics, and fakir-types as well. As for the humor in pointing out how easily dismissed the feats are as tricks (“charms” in the text) followed by the irony of saying “but my monks can do these things too — in their minds”, well, I am not a comedian, conveying humor is not my strength. I can only say that if you can’t see it, then we have different senses of humor. I think the Buddha is also making a point there as well — that it’s all in everyone’s minds to begin with.

    Maybe try seeing it not as humor but as a pointed commentary on super powers and what the human mind is capable of, would that make it clearer that what you see as a later insertion is really part of the lesson?

    I often get the sense that we modern Buddhists believe that because Pali was not the language the Buddha spoke, we should dismiss the whole canon as being “not the Buddha’s words” but it is my impression that Pali is very close to the language he did speak — just more standardized and with, perhaps, a smaller vocabulary — and I would expect every effort will have been made to capture the essence of was being said in that first translation.

    I also get the sense that you are saying — and others are saying — that pericopes specifically and the suttas in general probably weren’t created by the Buddha at all. The impression I have is that the theory is that nothing in the canon would have been specifically endorsed by him (perhaps that isn’t what you’re saying; I hope not), but I would find it inconceivable that the man who was smart enough to develop the sangha system to help preserve his teachings, and was aware of how teachings get passed on orally, would not have played a huge part in ensuring that the lessons he taught were constructed in a way that would pass them on as accurately as possible. Certainly material will have been added later — probably whole suttas, and a whole bunch of rules, and the legendary Jataka stories (and definitely all the commentaries) but the suttas themselves? Surely he will have overseen their development.

    Just because it’s a ridiculous idea that the suttas are direct from the Buddha’s lips into the format we have them, memorized by those present right on the spot, doesn’t mean that some other extreme would be true (that he had nothing to do with their creation). The logical middle ground is that he will have worked with the monks (who didn’t always “get” what he was saying) to compose a sutta that passed on the right message — all during the course of his teaching life.

    But you’re right, it would be a tall order, and I wish great good fortune and long life to whomsoever says that the elements are “primarily ironic or subversive” — they would need both time and luck to fulfill the tall order to demonstrate that this was so.

    I say that the references are primarily instructive, using the idioms of the day, with irony and subversion thrown in now and then for good measure. I don’t think it’s going to be very hard to show, and I would never ask any religious text to demonstrate much of anything “conclusively”.

  5. Linda on February 2, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I think I missed pointing out that my main point was not that the non-insertion was humor, but that he was not claiming his disciples could ACTUALLY fly through the air, etc. The miracles asked for in the beginning of the sutta would have been literal miracles, visible to an audience (that is what was being asked for by the outsider — “prove you’re that good by doing miracles!”) and you deemed it a clear indication of a later corruption that, after dismissing the literal miracles, the Buddha seemed to be saying, “my monks can do those miracles.”

    But my point in that first post was that that was NOT what he was saying. Do you disagree that the text is describing the disciple using meditation to do mental feats of prowress?

  6. Mark Knickelbine on February 2, 2012 at 11:15 am

    No, following the jhanas as it always does, this pericope is used to indicate that the superior concentration of the arahant’s mind is the source of his super powers. I just don’t see the “In his mind!” joke — why, while abiding in the formless Js, would you be thinking about walking through walls?

    I agree that Gotama would have been concerned about the preservation of his teachings. But he could not have been all over north India to supervise the recitation of the texts. And the development of suttas probably continued long after his death. I note that SN records discourses that present themselves as being consistent with events that the longer suttas tell us occurred about the time of Gotama’s death. If my hypothesis is valid, that would mean that the texts in MN and DN would have to have been redacted (or composed) after the Paranibbana, when Gotama would no longer have been able to control them.

  7. Linda on February 2, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    My answer, as you’ll see way below, is that you wouldn’t — the Buddha isn’t recommending it.

    Okay, let me approach this from the opposite end. In the beginning of the tale, you have the Buddha being disgusted by being asked to do (and by extension, by the people who claim they do) physical miracles. And your proposal is that the pericope-droppers who came along later added the pericope “to authenticate” it — how would adding those pericopes “authenticate it”?

    Yes, then, we agree that, as I said earlier, there would have been texts composed later. I’m pretty sure one of the most popularly cited texts — the only one in which the Buddha says “karma is intention” — is one of those texts, kluged together from bits and pieces and picking up a mistake (it’s got the only example of “upapajja vā apare vā pariyāye” I’ve found that doesn’t make sense when corrected). I am betting with a consistent effort by a variety of individuals working on the suttas, we can spot the majority of texts that were added later, because *the authors weren’t as good as the Buddha at putting suttas together*. (Like the one where things are described in fives: five of this, five of that, five of this, six of that — probably the whole sutta is not corrupted but there’s something wrong with the extra finger on one hand there.)

    But I disagree that, just because the Buddha couldn’t be everywhere, he will not have played the major rule in “editing” — or more likely composing — the suttas in his time. He had 45 years, and the most likely scenario for stories going *out* about the things he said and did would be that they would have been memorized by those who were near him at the time (fresh news from the press) and carried outward from wherever he was. Over the course of 45 years, that should have made for a steady stream of new texts being created to capture his best sermons and the best little jokes of his encounters (like the one with Dona the Brahmin). There should be a huge number, and they will have gone in different directions, with longer stories being broken up so that you have a whole sutta here making sense as a story, and pieces of the same story in others, with backgrounds getting mixed up, with changes of wording different from the edition that went east to the edition that went west.

    Or is it that, by “to supervise the recitation of the texts” you are saying that in order for them to remain consistent he’d have had to supervise every recital? Are you saying that I’m saying that he managed to keep every word precise in every rendition for the course of his life, and that’s what you’re refuting? I’d certainly side with you in refuting that. Actually, I think I did, in my first paragraph in my second post, above.

    I’m afraid I don’t see how having SN suttas talk about events that are consistent with DN and MN suttas proves that the latter are later. Perhaps they are consistent because they are talking about events that actually happened. Or maybe the DN and MN texts came first and the SN ones were made consistent with them. Or perhaps, as I’ve just suggested, long texts that were originally composed as a neat whole (which, admittedly, may have been lengthened even further later with a few extra bits thrown in) got broken up with only pieces remembered — “Quick! The old monk is dying and he hasn’t passed on his sutta! Go fetch a novice to learn it from him!” and they only manage a bit of it.

    When the editors put the Samyutta Nikaya (Connected Discourses) together, it would have made sense that if they had four versions of a text, each with one subtle difference in a piece here or there, they would not record the whole long thing four times (well okay, they often did with short suttas, as in the Numerical Discourses; doesn’t make sense for really long discourses though), but they would just isolate the differences to preserve all the possible variations they had on the Buddha’s word-choice.

    We can see it either way — the longer suttas were made up of the shorter pieces, or the shorter pieces reflect variations that came into being either of whole long suttas or of discrepant pieces of them, with a handful of snippets that lost their original stories thrown in to keep them, too, because every bit is important. (If you aren’t allowed to destroy a Buddhist book, you certainly aren’t allowed to throw out the Buddha’s words.)

    Maybe a little of both happened. Some longer stories were kluged together out of pieces, or a sutta was fattened up that way. But I still maintain that we can tell the difference if we study them hard enough. If the pieces fit together in the context — and if they are about dharma, not ego or politics: if they teach something — then they are probably authentic. But we do need to not be hasty in declaring what bits don’t fit. As with DN 11, the pericopes on meditation and supranormal powers that you see as additions, I see as making a point — that all these feats are doable with the mind, and any one with the right training can do them. But why would they bother, when someone can just come along and dismiss “as done with charms” even reputed physical feats of miraculous powers.

    Grateful, as always, to have you to bat these ideas around with, Mark, and I look forward to your reply.

  8. Mark Knickelbine on February 3, 2012 at 5:24 am

    “how would adding those pericopes “authenticate it”?

    I’m arguing that’s part of the point of pericopes in the later texts — to demonstrate that the text is authentic because it contains the familiar, memorized and often recited material. As I suggest in the post, one reason for the insertion in DN might have been to reassure listeners that Gotama’s denunciation of magic did not violate the accepted idea that arahants had such powers.

    “I’m afraid I don’t see how having SN suttas talk about events that are consistent with DN and MN suttas proves that the latter are later.”

    That fact in and of itself wouldn’t prove anything. I’m saying that if one accepts my basic premise — that stylistic differences mean MN and DN are later texts — then if SN contains texts that could only have been composed about the time of Gotama’s death, that would suggest that DN and MN were composed (or at least brought to present form) AFTER Gotama’s death.

    “I see as making a point — that all these feats are doable with the mind, and any one with the right training can do them. But why would they bother, when someone can just come along and dismiss “as done with charms” even reputed physical feats of miraculous powers.”

    Then why create and preserve the pericope, and repeat it in other texts? It seems that someone at some point took these powers seriously. I agree that with enough study we can get much farther than we seem to be today to determining what teachings are likely to be attributable to Gotama. But I think we have to start by recognizing that during the earliest period the opportunity for revising the oral texts was very significant, in fact that the occurance of revision was what drove the canonization process to begin with, and that revision and even composition took place on a significant scale up to and beyond Gotama’s death. The differences between the Pali, Gandharan and Prakrit Dharmapadas, for instance, shows that even this most canonical of texts was still evolving five or six hundred years after the Paranirvana. To me at least, this seems to explain the style and content variation in the texts more satisfactorily than the theory that a relatively limited set of authors wrote with such variation at about the same time and place.

    • Kumara on June 9, 2013 at 1:43 am

      As I understand from a Taiwanese Buddhist scholar named Vupasama (his monk name), MN or rather MĀ *was* put together during the second council.

  9. Linda on February 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

    (Sorry my comments are always so long — you are so economical and to-the-point in your answers, Mark; I admire that.)

    “… one reason for the insertion in DN might have been to reassure listeners that Gotama’s denunciation of magic did not violate the accepted idea that arahants had such powers.”

    I guess this is one of those places where interpretation of the texts is different: you are seeing the idhi-powers as being “fueled by concentration” — not still in a meditative state. Whereas it is clear to me from the setup (and from his discussions of the idhi powers elsewhere — see below) that he is being very clear that in each instance they are still in a meditative state.

    I haven’t studied all the texts that have the miracles, but the ones I recall tend to be in encounters where people are talking about super-powers, and the Buddha is finding ways to point out what’s wrong with them. If he was denying their usefulness, “why preserve the pericope” that has them in it, you ask? Because it captures what was being said — it captures actual events. People asked if the Buddha or his disciples could do miracles, and he had to answer. His answer was: -“Yes, we can do these just like everyone else can — in our minds, through meditation.”-* I have seen a couple of suttas in which he describes these idhi-powers and ends with “the power of teaching” and that is the greatest power of them all. The setup is very much like the suttas in which he talks about how a disciple can get a specific rebirth, a better and better rebirth, brahmin, warrior, this heaven, a better heaven, on and on, but the punch line is “or, he could focus his practice and just be liberated in the here and now.” The sutta you quoted above follows more or less the same pattern.

    I can imagine the Buddha finding himself saying the same things over and over and over in the course of his teachings, and even in casual encounters with people, and once he has worked out his answer, saying more-or-less the same thing to each of them — modern speakers certainly do this. A pericope is the same thing, and also has the use of making memorization easier. Rather than preserving the exact words of the Buddha on the given day he talked to the brahmins in this village or that, we just have him saying “the usual” — whatever he had previously worked out as the best rendition of the point he’s trying to make. Thenceforth, whenever he addresses X that he’s developed a bit of “boilerplate” (as they call it in the legal document world) to address, we’ll just put that in the sutta, so we don’t have to memorize something new or say it a new way. Another reason we see so many of these pericopes in texts and they get repeated from one to the next is because *they were lessons* — stand-alone lessons. Teacher is putting together a lecture to be carried by disciples off through the wilderness to distant villages and he wants the thing to be meaty and carry enough points to be worth discussing for a while.

    Do some of these pericopes find their way into places where they don’t belong? Undoubtedly. But I am simply saying that their sheer number does not mean that most pericopes are added later, or that they are wrong/used to authenticate. I’m saying that we need to very closely examine what they say and why they say it.

    My understanding of DN 11 has long been the same as yours: that the set of pericopes has to have been an intrusion. I doubt that I have looked at it since forming that as my initial theory until you brought it up here. In the interim, I’ve encountered those idhi-power pericopes elsewhere, and have found that the point is that the Buddha is describing himself/his monks as having a different sort of idhi-power. If he uses the pericopes in one place to say this, chances are good when he uses the same pericopes elsewhere, it’s for the same purpose. Having seen those uses elsewhere is what caused me to give a closer look to DN 11 when you brought it up. This time around, how they fit in the sutta is much clearer to me. My first reaction is almost always, “surely this is a corruption” and my second reaction is, “or perhaps I haven’t understood it well enough yet”, and hopefully, eventually, my third is, “oh! I see now!”.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your premise, that the large number of pericopes in DN and MN means they are later. I do not find any basis for believing that pericopes were invented late, and the longer I’ve worked on these suttas the more I’ve seen texts go from the category of my first reaction (“these are corrupted”) to the category of my second/third (“I didn’t understand the text well enough”). I am pretty sure that pattern is going to continue as I study, and I will keep discovering, to my surprise, that what seemed obviously wrong to me at first turns out to have been right; it was only my expectation of what was going on that was getting in my way of understanding what was being said. (To be fair, I am not saying that I am especially smart at figuring these things out, I simply have the advantage of having been able to dedicate a huge amount of time over many years to looking at these texts. I keep at it in part because I enjoy the “oh! I see now!” I get when the meaning finally reveals itself, and also because what is being said is so important and each new bit makes it clearer. What an amazingly skilled teacher the Buddha was.)

    “But I think we have to start by recognizing that during the earliest period the opportunity for revising the oral texts was very significant, in fact that the occurrence of revision was what drove the canonization process to begin with, and that revision and even composition took place on a significant scale up to and beyond Gotama’s death.”

    I’m right with you until you say “on a significant scale” and that is the point I made in my first comment, about spooking ourselves and seeing ghosts. I understand very well how corrupted the texts look on first glance, and second, and third. I remember very well my reaction to Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Belief” of disbelief that the Buddha could have NOT endorsed rebirth and wanting to go see for myself, and first reading the suttas and thinking “What a mess!”; they’d be impossible to sort out. And then seeing both how “he taught rebirth”-endorsers could come to that conclusion, but also seeing hints that it is not what he taught. And then starting to sort the canon into “consistent with ‘he didn’t'” and “probable corruptions” and it was a long, long time before I began to see the patterns that underlay it — and seeing patterns only came about from learning way more than I ever expected to about the philosophies current in his time, about how people spoke, and what obscure things might mean. Every now and then one of those “probable corruptions” would pop over into the “consistent with ‘he didn’t teach rebirth”++ category, and what he is saying is stated so elegantly that I am left breathless.

    We agree that there were lots of opportunities for change, we agree that the canonization process was put in place to stop them, we agree that there are a significant number of corruptions. I think the only point we disagree on, here, is the percentage of intrusions and how often the purpose of pericopes is authentication. I am not even going to venture numbers for percentages, just to say that what I perceive is probably much, much lower than your perception.

    * Note: -“this is a quasi-quote”- and it is used to put words in somebody’s mouth that approximate what I think they are saying while being clear that I am not attempting a direct quotation.

    ++ “He didn’t teach rebirth…” as necessary to believe in — not that he didn’t talk about it or use it as a structure because he sure as heck did *that* quite a lot.

  10. Mark Knickelbine on February 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    You’ll note I never use the phrase “corrupted.” To do so would be to imply an ur-text from which the Pali suttas vary, thereby starting from the conclusion that there is only one authorial source for the suttas.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree, Linda. I’ll admit I’m just working on a hunch, but I can’t get my head around the idea that such a large, heteroglossic body of material was created by a few people in a few years. Whoever composed the Dhammapada verses had such a dramatically different approach than whoever composed the DN discourses that some kind of compositional evolution seems an inevitable conclusion to me, and evolution requires time and changing institutional motivation. I get what you’re saying, but I would have to see some pretty powerful evidence to get there, myself.

    • Linda on February 3, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      “Corrupted” does not have to assume there is one authorial source for the suttas. It can assume there is one one original teaching and one or more authors; that any text that is in line with that teaching is uncorrupted, but those that are out of line with that teaching are corrupted.

  11. Linda on February 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    (I always seem to have One More Thing To Add. This should have been above your most recent post, Mark, but you are too fast!)

    On the subject of you seeing the description of the disciple’s idhi-powers as being “powered by concentration” and me seeing it as “being still in a state of concentration” — a pattern I am also seeing in the texts is this: It is *because* the text can be interpreted as supporting what you see that the text has survived. (Just as it is because MN 117 can be seen as endorsing belief in rebirth that it survives.) It is because those passing it on thought that it was saying “there are supranormal powers and we have them” that it gets to stay — exactly in the wording the Buddha wanted — in the sutta. It is because the redactors didn’t understand what it is the Buddha is actually saying, that it survives in its perfection. It is only through close examination of the whole structure of the sutta and the texts that it’s possible to recognize what’s being said. (In MN 117 it’s paying attention to the fact that he says “corrupted view” not “a person corrupted by this view”; and “a view that generates clinging” not “a person affected by clinging”. Schools of thought where he is endorsing rebirth give it the latter interpretation by ignoring the words used.)

    The Buddha’s logic and structures tend to be flawless, but the perfection of that structure tends to not be obvious. Whenever the structure or logic is broken, that’s a probable corruption. But it takes *a lot* of examination to see how the pieces fit. There’s a sort of “surface logic” that fits with the Theravadin view of what the Buddha taught, and that’s why we still have the text. But there is also a “deeper logic” that can be found in many of the texts — like this one, like MN 117 — if we really examine the whole sutta and the language used.

    Telling the difference between a corruption and a mis-reading that helped the text survive isn’t easy. A sutta that is still, for me, in the category of “probable corruption but maybe I still haven’t understood something yet” is MN 60, where the logic rests entirely on “we don’t know what happens after we die” but middle portions of each set break the logic by saying “but we *do* know what happens after we die” — with a probable use of pericopes to authenticate the possibly logic-breaking corruptions (so you see I tentatively agree that such authentication-by-pericope probably did happen sometimes). But I am keeping an open mind on that one.

  12. Linda on February 3, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    “by a few people in a few years”? How about by one person over 45 years? And not *all* of it (the Kassapa portions for example, and the many chapters of verses that begin the SN) but the ones that tell a story that focuses on the dharma? He couldn’t have achieved that in 45 years? I could write that much text in 45 years. (but then, I’m wordy.)

    • Mark Knickelbine on February 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      That any one person composed the Pali canon would be unbelievable, especially a person who would also be wandering all over north India teaching, leading a community and spending half his day collecting alms. Why would any one person compose in such radically different styles? Why would so many of the suttas refer to him in the third person? I’m not talking about someone presenting teachings that other people would remember and set in verses or discourses — I’m talking about composing the suttas themselves. One person? All five Nikayas? Not likely.

    • Linda on February 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      I’m not saying that one person *composed the Pali canon* Mark. That’s a straw man you put up and knocked down. Did you hear me say “the ones that tell a story that focuses on the dharma? He couldn’t achieve that in 45 years?

      And I, too, am talking about composing the suttas themselves. Not every single sutta, but the ones that contain dharma (not bragging, not politics).

      But could one person have composed all of them over the course of 45 years? I imagine one person could, but I’m not suggesting that he did.

      I am suggesting he oversaw the composition and memorization of a big proportion of them. 45 years is a *long* time to be doing one thing — teaching — and walking around in the company of monks. “Walk with me for alms, bhikkhu, and recite for me what you’ve got so far.” There would be plenty of time to work on it while walking from one place to another. Noble silence, or talk of the dharma, that’s all the entertainment those monks had on “road trips”. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the answer, but I don’t see why it would not be at least part of it. Teach a lesson, assign it to a group of monks to memorize, have it be their focus during the rains retreat, listen to them repeat it now and then and before they go, send them out after the rains. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

      Is it possible the Buddha authored a good portion of the prose suttas? I think he could have, easily. Isaac Asimov could have (had he had the same insight).

  13. Linda on February 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    And as for why the stories about him would be in the third person, perhaps because there was no first person. (Buddhist joke.)

    Why are there different styles? Because prior to being written down these texts traveled different courses around the area, meeting with folks who spoke different variations of different languages, and have different styles of storytelling. Because some of them were composed in the year 450 BCE, and some of them were composed in 405 BCE, and a person’s style changes over the course of 45 years. That doesn’t mean that the important structure of most of them isn’t quite accurate to the original.

    Perhaps I should take your hint back at “agree to disagree” but, Mark, you are such a fine scholar (and so much fun to work with here — that’s what I consider we’re doing) that I am trying to give you the convincing evidence and some alternative ideas for how things could have happened so that the evidence might click for you. It’s there — it’s just not obvious (it couldn’t be obvious or it would not have survived).

  14. Mark Knickelbine on February 4, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Linda, thanks so much for your kind comments. I also think we’re working here — having one strand in the overall conversation about how to relate to Buddhist texts from a secular perspective. And you know I admire your scholarship and your dedication to revealing the dhamma. I realize there are alternative possibilities, and that my hypothesis is just a conjecture that seems to me to explain what I see in the Nikayas in a way that makes sense. I also know that, unless someone finds a big urn of 2,000-year-old palm leaves buried somewhere, these questions will never be finally closed. If you want to continue this train of argument, you’re going to have to convince me that a level of stylistic change equivalent to, say, the difference between the Canterbury Tales and a James Michner novel could take place in forty years under the supervision of one person. Possible? Sure. Anything like it we know of ever occur in human history? Not that I’m aware of. Maybe write a blog post.

    I was hunting through the Mahavagga looking for the Fire Sermon last night. Ever read it? It’s downright comical. Not the Fire Sermon — the litany of how the vinaya rules supposedly developed. The story about the rule against sexually molesting cows and then drowning them was perhaps the highlight of the evening.

  15. Linda on February 4, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I think I am just not being clear enough, Mark. I am saying that the level of stylistic change you mention can and did happen over a longer time than the Buddha’s life. I am suggesting that the Buddha developed the core teachings — probably even the pericopes we have — and oversaw the structuring of the suttas. That they record actual stories he told (not saying always “actual events” because I believe he told some whoppers to lighten up his sermons) and lessons he taught, and conversations he had with people.

    What happened next is the stories got sent out and about and around, and after he was gone, a canon was created but *language changed* — how could it not? And *storytelling styles changed*. Every effort was made to preserve the Buddha’s words but I’m saying that the stylistic changes you see are result of the evolution of language, and social styles in stories, and to a small degree — in the suttas I am talking about, the ones that are clearly dharma-motivated, not politically-motivated — also reflect the evolution of understanding in what it was the Buddha taught. So we have a later editor changing the “va” in “upapajja va apare va pariyāye” from a short “a” (which made “va” an emphatic particle”) into a long “ā” (which made “vā” mean “or”) — correcting a “typo” the editor was sure he saw, and aligning the meaning with karmic theories of the day, because he couldn’t understand the Buddha saying “this way of looking at karma is not my view” when it seemed to him that it most certainly was the Buddha’s view so some stupid person had dropped a diacritical mark in the past, “I’ll just add it back in…”. Ignoring that it breaks the grammatical sense of words usually combined by “or” as all being of one type, whereas verb, adjective, noun without “ors” between makes grammatical sense — people generally do not join a verb, adjective and noun with “or” (“running or brown or dog”?) — the broken grammar gives the change away, so our editor may not have been the sharpest tool in the box.

    Lots of small changes; some significant large intrusions added; overall changes in grammar and style to keep up with the times. Whole suttas added. A zillion verses composed. Over many, many years, till the suttas were written down (in Professor Gombrich’s research, probably more like 300-400 years later, rather than the 400-500 you give — so maybe in as little as 300 years).

    I am saying that *many changes were made* and not just in the Buddha’s lifetime, but I am also saying that *every effort was made* to keep the suttas that each generation took up and passed on stay the same, at least in its core if not in its setting. (Repeating the caveat that I am talking about “in the suttas the Buddha would have composed, which are marked by containing dharma consistent with the core teachings” — I am not concerned with suttas and verses that are politically motivated, ego-thumping, or clearly there just to promote a view.) The grammar will have changed (we see this in the Gandharan scrolls), background supplied when forgotten, detail added to background that wasn’t originally there, detail lost, fresh detail added to replace it (or not), but what I see is that the original structure of the Buddha’s message has been preserved as if it were The Word of God. (You can find my examination of the detail of this kind of change in my post where I looked at the little sutta about Dona the Brahmin, comparing the Gandharan version to the one we have in the canon. http://justalittledust.com/blog/?p=768)

    I am not saying that “the only changes took place in the Buddha’s lifetime” but I am saying that a tremendous effort seems to have been made to preserve the structure of the sutta. In the case of DN 11, that would include the pericopes you see as later, authenticating drop-ins, which make more sense to me — after having seen their use in other suttas — as the Buddha making the final point of the sutta. He *had* to say what his disciples could do by way of miracles — the story would be unfinished without it. The story opens with a request for miracles, and he can’t just leave it at his brief comment at the beginning that those miracles are too easily dismissed, and then talk dharma for an hour; the structure of the story screams for the closure provided by him making — and driving home — his point about those idhi-powers.

    I have read the Fire Sermon, and lots of different bits of the Mahavagga, but don’t remember anything about cows. I would be interested in a citation or link if you have it though.

  16. […] to add ideas about rebirth to a text in which they are almost entirely absent.  As I argued in my article about stylistic evolution in the Nikayas, it appears that the primary allegiance of the authors of the later suttas was not to any original […]

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