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THE PALI SUTTAS
In the entire Vana Samyutta (IX (i,197-205)) we find no mention of the Buddha. And all but one of these fourteen discourses take place in Kosala. The monks living in the woods (vana) of Kosala apparently managed to get their own local tradition, much involved with deities, included in the Canon. So apparently did the followers of Venerable Sariputta, for although elsewhere in the Nikayas he is found frequently in discussion with the Buddha, in the Sariputta Samyutta (XXVIII (iii,235-40)) none of the ten discourses make mention of the Teacher; nine of them take place in Savatthi. Similarly the four consecutive Samyuttas (XXXVIII-XLI) named after, respectively, the wanderers Jambukhadaka and Samandaka, each containing sixteen conversations with Venerable Sariputta, the first set entirely in Magadha, the second among the Vajjians; Venerable Maha Moggallana, eleven discourses, all set in Savatthi, and the lay disciple Citta, ten discourses, all set at Macchikasanda, are apparently later additions to the Samyutta Nikaya of discourses already in existence when the First Council met, but not compiled by them. It should be noted that the Suttas concerned with Citta clearly reveal attitudes of lay devotees rather than of monks.
And there are further examples in both the Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas; but we need not investigate them, for we can see by now that the method whereby any new material could be inserted into the collections had to involve a consensus as to its suitability and also to include in each case a "warning label" -- "Venerable So-and-so was dwelling at..." -- that the discourse is not part of the original compilation. There are about 200 such discourses, filling roughly 350 pages of print, which is about six per cent of the total.
And by the same evidence we can know that neither was any material lost nor were any of the Suttas arbitrarily altered. For exactly the same mechanism that required consensus in order to add to the Canon would have come into force had any attempt been made to alter a text. And we can well imagine the difficulty, the virtual impossibility from the very outset, of such a consensus being achieved in order to alter what had been laid down by those very monks who were venerated as the founders of the various lineages (see S. XIV,15 (ii,155-7)).
In order for any Sutta or part of a Sutta to have been lost, we should have to suppose either a collective amnesia among all the monks of all the companies who were reciters of that Sutta -- hundreds, or more probably thousands of ambulatory amnesiacs! -- or else the breaking up and disappearance of every single company responsible for a certain portion of the Suttas -- and this in a time when all the evidence indicates that the Order was thriving and growing -- together with the refusal or inability of any single monk (or ex-monk) from any of those lost companies to come forward to teach the texts to the surviving groups. A most improbable combination of events! No, the evidence shows clearly that there were additions to the texts, but to suppose either substantial changes or losses is contrary to reason.
It must be emphasized primarily for the benefit of scholarly readers that we did not begin by assuming that Suttas which do not refer to the Buddha in their introductory material are therefore later additions to the Canon. Rather, we first discovered a few Suttas that certainly describe events that had taken place after the Buddha's decease. Examining them, we noticed that they possessed one feature in common and in distinction to the great majority of discourses. We then looked at other texts which also displayed this feature and found therein further grounds to accept that those texts, too, were probably later additions to the Canon. We described in detail the evidence found in several of these texts and indicated in brief other Suttas providing additional evidence; but we do not propose to present the data to be found in a number of other texts, for to do so would require a very long and technical and uninteresting digression. We will note only that this evidence consists of a large number of small, and a few not-so-small, points, all tending in the same direction, with no cases of an opposite tendency.
For how long did this process of slow accretion continue? We can be quite certain that by the time of the Second Council which met a century after the Buddha's decease, the process had already ended, the four Nikayas being regarded as closed, and that this view was ratified and finalized by that Council. The evidence:
All additional Suttas involve "first generation" monks, i.e. contemporaries of the Buddha but who, in some cases, outlived the Teacher. The only instance which can reasonably be considered an exception is that of Venerable Narada, whose talk with King Munda -- Ajatasattu's great-grandson, according to later accounts -- is recorded at A. V,50 (iii,57-62). However, even in this case we have a discourse at S. XII,68 (ii,115-8) -- clearly earlier than the Anguttara Sutta, for there he is said to be already a worthy one (arahat), i.e. fully liberated, whereas here he is self-described as not yet arahat, still a sekha -- where Venerable Ananda also has a part. So if Venerable Narada was not contemporaneous with the Buddha, he was at least not far from it. Venerable Narada's discourse to King Munda is, as we have it, identical to a discourse to the monks spoken by the Buddha: A. V,48 (iii,54-56).
Later sources tell us that it was during the time of Kalasoka, the third Magadhese king after Munda, that the Second Council convened. The Vinaya's description of this Council is much more detailed than, and about twice the length of, its report on the First Council. The impetus for the meeting was the exposure and condemnation of certain relaxations of monastic discipline which had arisen among a company of monks centred in Vesali, the famous "ten points", the most important of which concerned a relaxation of the prohibition against "accepting, using, or consenting to the deposit of money". We are told of the politicking that went on before the Council met, and we are introduced to the main players in that drama, the leading monks of the day. Not one of these eight monks nor any of the lesser monks mentioned is known to the four Nikayas. If the four Nikayas had been then regarded as open to additional material, surely we would expect to find these monks represented.
What happened is clear: however highly these monks might have been regarded individually, for of course some of them would have achieved full purification, those monks who were not contemporaries of the Buddha could never achieve the distinction of those who had known him personally. Later monks belonged, inevitably, to a particular lineage which (like caste) could not be transcended. Only the founding elders, those who had established the lineages, could be regarded as beyond those lines. If the doings and sayings of these second generation monks were admitted to the Nikayas, where would it end? The decision that needed to be reached if the Nikayas were to survive at all was that with the passing of the first generation the collections had to be closed. Had they been left open they would have become amorphous and protean -- not to be confused with "rich and varied"! -- and would have lost their very purpose. Therefore whatever pressures may have developed to incorporate this or that "second generation" discourse needed to be opposed and obviously were.
The material which was admitted to the Four Nikayas during the first century after the Buddha was but a fraction of what was remembered. Much of this material, which included a great deal of verse, must have been in common circulation, the preserve of no single lineage or group of companies; for within the four Nikayas and also within the Vinaya we find not only one Sutta referring to another but also, here and there, Suttas referring to material which lies outside the first four Nikayas. There was also new material being generated to fulfil new needs as with the Payasi Sutta on rebirth, or to describe new events as with Ven. Narada's talk to King Munda. What was to be done with all of this? To add substantially to the Nikayas would have established an unfortunate precedent leading to the inevitable dissipation of their integrity; yet to leave the material disorganized would be to abandon much that was worthy to an early destruction. The solution chosen was the creation of the fifth collection, the Khuddaka Nikaya.
Khuddaka means "small" and at first the Khuddaka Nikaya was indeed small. Today, with fifteen separate sections, it is the most voluminous of the Nikayas, but originally it consisted of probably six or seven separate short texts, each of which had been compiled and preserved, prior to inclusion in the Nikaya, individually on its own merits.
The Theragatha and Therigatha, for instance, consist of the verses of various monks and nuns, respectively. Here there can be no doubt that some of the verses are by second generation disciples (e.g. Venerable Parapariya's verses, 920-948), and that the texts grew substantially after the First Council. This is only to be expected: the two collections do not pretend otherwise. The Dhammapada is a collection of popular verses. Quite a few are to be found elsewhere among the Suttas, but as many or more are unique to this compilation. Most of the verses stand alone, unconnected to the others. We have no direct evidence as to the date of its closure, but the arrangement and distribution of the verses suggest that it could well have grown during the first century. The Sutta Nipata is, like the Dhammapada, a collection of popular verse, but it differs in that its verses form longer poems, each of which is regarded as a discourse. Indeed, some of them have prose attached, as a sort of introductory bunting. A few of the poems appear within the four Nikayas; the remainder are the most popular of those longer poems that are not included therein. As such, a number of its passages are quoted within the four Nikayas (as noted above), which has given rise to the mistaken view that the Sutta Nipata contains the "oldest layer" of texts. Certainly some of the Sutta Nipata texts are contemporaneous with the first four Nikayas, but they do not pre-date them.
The Udana is a collection of eighty solemn utterances spoken by the Buddha on special occasions. The Itivuttaka contains 112 short Suttas, each accompanied by verses, the relevance of which is not always apparent. This fact together with some seeming textual corruptions suggest that it may have had an older and independent life before being incorporated into the Khuddaka Nikaya. If this is so, it indicates what happened to those texts that did not receive the formal protection of organization.
Since the Jataka verses are often incomprehensible without the prose commentary, it is difficult to see how they could predate the prose. The prose, however, would predate the fifth century commentary into which it was translated and collected. The origin of these verses, then, remains indeterminate. It is sometimes thought that since these three texts -- Udana, Itivuttaka, Jataka -- are mentioned as part of the ninefold description of texts (see above) that they must be, like the Sutta Nipata, part of "the oldest layer" of texts that we now have; but it is more reasonable to suggest that they were so named because the ninefold description was already in existence.
The formation of this collection probably arose during the century between the two Councils rather than with the Second Council itself: such developments need time to generate strength and achieve general acceptance. By the time the Council assembled, the force of opinion would have already been in favour of including this new collection in the Canon: the Council's function herein would have been to ratify and reinforce this consensus and, no doubt, to decide upon its organizational details. They would also have had a hand in deciding final organisational details for the other Nikayas and for the Vinaya. It was possibly at this time, for example, that D. 16 -- see Preface, paragraph six -- was expanded to its present form, or at least a previous expansion was at this time ratified, by including passages taken from the other parts of the Nikayas. And, too, those few texts, the "six percent" which had been added to their collections by the various bhanakas, would have been cast now into their final forms.
It needed to be done, for the monks of the Vesali company, along with their supporters, seem (according to a non-Canonical text, the Dipavamsa, vv. 32ff.) to have refused to accept the ruling of the Council, breaking away and forming their own council, wherein they re-arranged and, it seems, added to the texts to suit their own purposes. During the next 250 years this company split up and resplintered into numerous factions, each having evolved its own set of doctrines and disciplinary codes. None of these texts have survived: again, as with Venerable Purana, we learn the survival-value of organization. The fact that the Suttas and Vinaya have survived as coherent entities can now be seen to be itself strong evidence that they have survived unchanged.
With the closing of the Second Council we have no further Canonical information regarding the history of the Suttas. Gleanings from later texts inform us that a Third Council was held in the time of King Asoka, at which meeting the rift which had opened up more than a century earlier, with the Second Council, now widened and variant forms of doctrine began to emerge which eventually formed what is now known as Mahayana. The four Nikayas were left unchanged while the Khuddaka Nikaya was cast essentially into the form in which we now have it. (A few of the very late additions to this collection -- notably the Buddhavamsa -- appear to have undergone slight further editing, perhaps at the Fourth Council. On this, see Adikaram's lucid, though technical, Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon (Gunasena, Colombo, 1946), p. 35.). Also, missions were sent to many countries and the Teaching was successfully transplanted in all directions. Of particular note, the Order was established in Ceylon from whence came many of the later reports and which became the center for study, preservation and practice of the Pali Suttas for many centuries.
About 450 years after the Buddha a famine struck Ceylon. For twelve years food was so scarce that the Order of monks was almost decimated partly, we are told, due to some of the laity turning to cannibalism. Some of the Suttas were in danger of being lost. Monks who were too weak to stand rehearsed the texts where they lay. When at last the famine ended, it was realized that the texts needed to be put into writing for their greater protection. Not only the famine but -- according to Adikeram (op. cit., p. 79) -- the danger of frequent invasions from South India, the entry into the Order of irresponsible and irreligious people (on which point see Mahavamsa 33,101), and the fickle favour of kings also played a part in this decision. Accordingly, a Fourth Council was convened, wherein this was accomplished.
In the centuries after this Council the texts continued to be preserved as much by recital as by manuscript, for making even one handwritten copy of the five Nikayas, of the Vinaya, and of all the material that had evolved and survived alongside them, the Abhidhamma, the Commentaries, the Chronicles, and so forth, would have been a labour of many years and then the manuscript had to be preserved against the manifold dangers of destruction. But by this time the Suttas were firmly embedded in the minds of those who learned them as being sacred and unalterable by as much as a single syllable.
The dangers we have seen to be inherent in an open Canon were long since past. It was no longer possible for additional material to be added to the texts. There still remained the dangers of accidental alteration (copyists' errors, etc: see previous footnote) and of loss due to the disappearance of companies and sometimes the decline of the Order. We need not discuss these in any detail. We know what variations exist in manuscripts that were separated from each other by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, and we are confident that these differences are not significant. Although we cannot assert definitely that no material was lost, at most only a small amount could have disappeared without our knowing of it through the various records that were made relating to the texts, some of which, such as the Asokan edicts were engraved in stone. We can accept that the texts survived, at least for the most part, and with no more than insignificant changes, to the present, weathering various worldly vicissitudes which we need not trace; for we have now explored the origin of the Suttas and discovered how it is that these Suttas which we have today can be reliably regarded as being the actual Teaching of Gotama Buddha.
35. Since this evidence -- "One time Venerable so-and-so dwelt at..." -- once noted seems obvious, it may be wondered why it has been unreported until now. That the Commentaries should not remark upon it is not remarkable, not only because they lacked in the Fifth Century A.D. the scholarly apparatus available today -- word- and name-dictionaries, concordances, indexes, etc. and of course printed editions of the texts, annotated and convenient to use -- but also because India has been historically unhistorical-minded (see footnote 15): a concern with dates has traditionally been regarded as secondary to the act of placing one's faith in a teaching. Historical questions are a particularly Western concern. As to why, therefore, modern scholars have failed to note this evidence, it may be kindest to allow each reader to form his own judgement. [Back to text]
36. A half dozen or so of these later discourses speak only of "a certain (unnamed) monk," or "a group of monks." Naturally in these cases we cannot know definitely that the monks were contemporaries of the Buddha. However, there is no reason to suppose otherwise: we find other texts wherein unnamed monks converse with the Buddha. There are another half-dozen or so Suttas involving monks who are mentioned nowhere else in the Canon and whose generation therefore cannot be established except by reference to post-Canonical works. Again, this is a feature found in some Suttas that are not later additions. At any rate, we would expect that were there any Suttas involving second generation monks, at least some of those monks would have been well-known leaders of companies, not the obscure or unnamed. No discourses involving nuns, it seems, are later additions. [Back to text]
37. One of these monks, Venerable Sabbakami, has some verses (453-58) in the Theragatha of the Khuddaka Nikaya (see below) -- appropriately enough, on the subject of sensuality (kama). He is specifically identified in the report of the Second Council as being the oldest monk in the world, 120 years of age, and as having been a pupil of Venerable Ananda.
Westerners sometimes express surprise, or more than surprise, at the number of monks reported to have lived to extreme old age. However, it is recognized that the qualities that are co-adjuncts of mental calmness such as lack of bodily stress, etc. contribute to longevity; and since it is the business of monks to cultivate calmness, though not for the sake of long life, it is to be expected that monks would outlive the general populace. The Suttas tell us -- Dh. 109, etc. -- that longevity is also linked to respect for one's elders. However, since this would not seem to be statistically quantifiable it is unlikely that Western medical science will ever be in a position either to confirm or disprove this thesis. [Back to text]
38. Surprise is sometimes expressed at the quantity of verse in the five Nikayas. But verse not only has obvious mnemonic value whereby the compilers would give it priority over prose passages, but less obviously but more importantly it has great inspirational value. It is sometimes suggested that not only was verse seldom spoken spontaneously as the texts often report, but also that much of it "must have been" created in a later, more literate time. Such is the prejudice of a prosaic era; but a more poetic age -- Elizabethan England, for example -- would not have shared this misconception. [Back to text]
39. Although we are unable to cite an example of such a referring Sutta which does not seem to be a later addition, at least one such text -- S. XLVI,3 (iv,286-7) -- was evidently not a later creation, but was spoken during the Buddha's lifetime. [Back to text]
40. As at, e.g., Mahavagga V,13,9 (i,195-6) = Ud. V,6 (59), at S. XII,31 (ii,47-50), at A. III,32 (i,133-4), etc. The above examples all refer to or quote from passages found today in the Sutta Nipata of the Khuddaka Nikaya. [Back to text]
41. This notion of older and younger layers of text assumes, contrary to the evidence, that the first four Nikayas grew over a period of centuries by a process of heterogeneous accretion until they reached their present form. As such, it is part of the syncretistic approach which we have already rejected. Certainly some discourses are older than others inasmuch as they did not all appear simultaneously. Other than the few exceptions already discussed, it took about forty-five years for them to evolve; and it should be no great surprise that various individuals, including the Buddha, might, on occasion, refer to or even quote from what had already been said. [Back to text]
42. Venerable Aggamahapandita A. P. Buddhadatta Mahathera, on p. 260 of his collection of monographs, Corrections of Geiger's Mahavamsa Etc. (Ambalangoda, Ceylon, 1957). [Back to text]
43. That the Twelfth Khandhaka account of this Council makes no mention whatsoever of a recitation of the Suttas, nor any decisions as to the fifth Nikaya, nor the placement of later additions within the four Nikayas, does not mean that they were not done then. First, the report as given omits a number of other important details as well, such as the refusal of the Vesali company to accept the Council's decisions and to abandon their practices. Second, it would be expected by all monks as a matter of course that whenever a body of monks met, they would review their texts in order to prevent or discover variances. Third, the purpose of the account was to condemn the Vesali monks. The full list of ten points is censured, item by item, three times in the space of fifteen pages and denounced as a whole many times more. To have reported on other matters would have diluted the force of the anathematization. Finally, in the Bakkula Sutta (discussed above) a phrase is inserted -- "inasmuch as for eighty years Venerable Bakkula has..." -- after each statement of Venerable Bakkula's achievements. This phrase (according to the Commentary: MA. iv,193) was inserted by the elders who made the recension of the Teaching. We are not told which elders, but from our own examination we can see clearly that it would have had to have been the elders of this Second Council. [Back to text]
44. Some scholars might question the identification of the Vesali company with the progenitors of the splinter groups or suggest, more modestly, that only some of these sects evolved from the Vesali monks, the remainder breaking away from the Councils' lineage at later dates. These are scholarly issues which it would be out of place to discuss here. Perhaps the fullest discussion, together with informative charts, is to be found in the Prefatory Notes to the Aung/Rhys Davids translation of the Katha Vatthu (Points of Controversy, Pali Text Society, London, 1915). [Back to text]
45. Though these texts have not survived as collections, yet scattered fragments have been rediscovered in Sanskrit, and more coherent units have been preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations. [Back to text]
46. The evolution of the Vinaya is parallel to that of the Suttas. A description of its evolution would be more complex, partly due to the need to consider what is nowadays known as the "old commentary"; but it would follow the same lines of reasoning used herein; and it would arrive at the same conclusions: like the four Nikayas, the Vinaya achieved essentially its final form during the first century following the Buddha. The question of when the "old commentary" came to be embedded in the text, and of how the Parivara became semi-attached to the Vinaya proper need not concern us. For a short note on this subject, see the Appendix. [Back to text]
47. Although writing had been known in India for perhaps two centuries before the time of the Buddha, apparently the technology of paper and ink was as yet undeveloped. Messages, letters and the like might have been scratched onto the smooth underside of bark, then rubbed with black oil to "ink" the writing, but no way had then been found to preserve for long what was thus marked. No clay tablets have been found from this era, although two brick inscriptions of a Sanskrit Sutra, dating some centuries after the Buddha, have been found at Nalanda: Epigraphia Indica XXI, pp. 177-99.
Well before the time of the famine in Ceylon it had been
discovered that when young ola leaves, scraped and boiled, were marked with treated carbon
black, the writing produced could be legibly preserved for many years. Only then did
recording become worth the effort involved. The results, however, are not entirely in
favour of the written record. The critical editions of the texts strongly suggest that
almost all the variant readings that are noted therein are the result of copyists' errors.
Very rarely do these variant readings make a difference in meaning; usually it is a matter
of a word being added or dropped, or differences as regards abridgement, spelling, and the
like. [Back to text]
Source: Nanavira Thera Dhamma Page, by Jakub Bartovsky
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