Early Buddhist Texts

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Early Buddhist texts (EBTs), early Buddhist literature or early Buddhist discourses are parallel texts shared by the early Buddhist schools. The most widely studied EBT material are the first four Pali Nikayas, as well as the corresponding Chinese Āgamas. However, some scholars have also pointed out that some Vinaya material, like the Patimokkha (monastic rules) are also early.

Besides the large collections in Pali and Chinese, there are also fragmentary collections of EBT materials in Sanskrit, Khotanese, Tibetan and Gāndhārī. The modern study of early pre-sectarian Buddhism often relies on comparative scholarship using these various early Buddhist sources.

Various scholars of Buddhist studies such as Richard Gombrich, Akira Hirakawa, Alexander Wynne and A. K. Warder hold that Early Buddhist texts contain material that could possibly be traced to the historical Buddha himself or at least to the early years of pre-sectarian Buddhism. According to the Japanese scholar Akira Hirakawa, "any attempt to ascertain the original teachings of the historical Buddha must be based on this literature."

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Dhammavuddho Thera and others have their doubts, as do modern scholars about the later texts and if they are Buddhavacana (exact words of Buddha) or not. The consensus among the scholars studying the Early Buddhist Texts is that the first 4 Nikayas and some of the Khuddaka Nikaya are the earliest Buddhist teachings. The scholar monks Bhante Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali have written the book The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts and they are in agreement that the first 4 Nikayas and some of the Khuddaka Nikaya as Buddhavacana.

List of Early Buddhist Texts

EBTs in the Pali Canon (Tipitaka)

  • Digha Nikaya
  • Majjhima Nikaya
  • Samyutta Nikaya
  • Anguttara Nikaya
  • The following books of the Khuddaka Nikaya: Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Sutta Nipata, Theragatha, and Therigatha
  • Patimokkha from the Vinaya

Plus the Mahayana pre-cursor parallels to the Pali Canon EBTs

  • Dirgha-Agama (Dharmaguptaka; Chinese)
  • Madhyama-Agama (Sarvastivada; Chinese)
  • Samyukta-Agama (Sarvastivada; Chinese)
  • Ekottara-Agama (Mahasamghika; Chinese)

Are EBT Buddhists Theravada or Mahayana?

Buddhists who prefer the Early Buddhist Texts are typically Theravadins, especially what might be called Modern Theravada, but this is not entirely correct. Bhante Sujato has demonstrated a number of differences between Early Buddhism and Theravada, see: How early Buddhism differs from Theravada. This includes overdetermination on not-self, meditation methods, devotion vs. meditation, deathbed kamma, the in-between state, and others.

Since the bulk of the texts come from the first 4 Nikayas of the Pali Canon, we could say that EBT Buddhists mostly follow a form of Theravada, but also include the pre-cursors to Mahayana sutras with the Agamas. Therefore, it could be said that they are neither Theravada nor Mahayana, but simply follow Early Buddhism, pre-sectarian Buddhism.

See also