It's Time

Bhikkhu Sujato

It’s time. We need a new paradigm. Buddhism is suffering from schizophrenia; there is a split in consciousness between the historical and the mythic conceptions of the origin of the Dhamma. For 2500 years Buddhism has been constantly changing, adapting, evolving; yet the myths of the schools insist that the Dhamma remains the same. All existing schools of Buddhism justify their idiosyncratic doctrines mythologically; this is what all religions do. Thus the Theravada insists that the Abhidhamma was taught by the Buddha in Tavatimsa heaven during his seventh rains retreat. The Mahayana claims that the Mahayana sutras were written down in the time of the Buddha, preserved in the dragon world under the sea, then retreived by Nagarjuna 500 years later. Zen claims authority from an esoteric oral transmission outside the scriptures descended from Maha Kassapa, symbolized by the smile of Maha Kassapa when the Buddha held up a lotus. All of these are myths, and do not deserve serious consideration as explanations of historical truth. Their purpose, as myths, is not to elucidate facts, but to authorize religious convictions.

What is myth? In my opinion, all the old myths – and here I’m speaking primarily of those originating before the 1st millenium BCE – were originally inspired by true events. They were the news, the gossip, the family sagas of the day. They came to life in the hands of the storytellers and bards. The stories that survived were those that struck a chord in consciousness. Each time they were retold, the tellers would embellish or alter a little; and when the changes resonated with the audience they would be passed on, and so the myths evolved by a sort of natural selection of thought, a little bird of story soaring in the sky of the mind. There was no question of any individual deliberately creating their own stories. The myths were communal creations. This is why they offer such wonderfully direct insight into the consciousness of the times. There seems to not yet have been the idea of an objective standard of truth; no distiction between how things could be, or should be, and how they really are. There was, therefore, no question of the myths being taken as literal, objective truth – the tellers of the stories would not have understood what that meant. The myths were projections of the people’s fears, desires, hopes, joys, and anguishes into the world outside.

But in the ‘axial age’ around the middle of the 1st millenium BCE a new idea began to be born. Knowledge became something that was not just inherited, but reflected upon and consciously revised. A new rational consciousness emerged, supplanting the old mythic consciousness. The most brilliant of the rational cultures were the Greeks, specializing in external science, and the Indians, specializing in inner science. Both realized that truth is an elusive thing and so they devised special techniques for its apprehension; in Greece, reason and logic; and in India the science of meditative insight. Either way, myth would never be the same again.

The fields of cultural endeavour in the West became split in two. One branch, loosely called ‘science’, dealt with the objective investigation into the external, material world. The second branch, loosely called ‘the arts’, dealt with the expression of inner feelings and perspectives. ‘Fiction’ was born, the deliberate creation of stories that both the author and the reader realize are not true. Fiction is a private undertaking. It can never be free from irony, self-consciousness, and personal quirks; thus its usefulness as a psychological record is of a different order than myth.

But now that the original domain of myth became split in two, it became possible to investigate myth with science, to inquire as to what extent myths were literal, objective history. Again, the field split in two. For those commited to the search for the real, it soon became obvious that the myths are highly unreliable quides to history, and that new, non-literal, symbolic methods of interpretation must be developed in order to tease out the truth. This process started early; by the 5th century BCE in both Greece and India the old myths were being questioned, denied, or even ridiculed. In fact, the history of humanity is almost by definition the history of the ending of the myths, the slow and agonizing death of God.

Inevitably the reaction set in. Threatened and fearful, some insisted that the myths were literal objective reality – a claim that I believe would have been incomprehensible in the age the myths were born. So came the great reversal. After the axial age witnessed the flowering of the spirit of reason in humanity’s most brilliant cultural inflourescence, we fell into the Dark Ages. Across both Europe and Asia the medieval period saw the transformation of democratic experiments into absolute autocracies; the spirit of inquiry into dogmatic orthodoxies; freedom of speech and thought into creedal conformity; the experience of liberation into the rote learning of scholastic curricula; spiritual life as a ‘calling out’ to transcend petty boundaries of self, of tribe, of nation into religion as bureaucratic, patriachal, hierachical institutions for the buttressing of national identity and state power.

As time goes on, and the events portrayed in the myths recede further into the conveniently mysterious past, the myths become more and more incongruous. They must be maintained by an ever shriller incantation. Exclusivity gives way to intolerance; intolerance leads to alienation and tribal prejudice; then comes hostility, blind hatred, and ultimately murderous fury. The mythic consciousness becomes so out of touch with reality that it is not merely dysfunctional, but actually insane. A well documented case of this in Buddhism is Japanese Zen. The hierachy evolved a myth that identified the Emperor, the Sun-god, as an emanation of the primordial Buddha. The bulk of the Zen establishment for a hundred years encouraged the notion that to kill or die for the Emperor was a sacred act. This was a key support for the warrior culture that erupted in the barbarism of the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, leaving tens of millions dead, probably more than the crusades or jihad, amid some of the worst atrocities imaginable.

Yet we see that while Europe, in revulsion at the acts performed by an ostensibly Christian nation, reacted by abandoning Christianity in droves, Buddhists are still largely in denial of the role that Buddhism, especialy the male Sangha, has played in promoting holy war. They still romanticize about Tibetan ‘dharma warriors’, or Chinese martial arts monks. ‘Martial arts’ means ‘arts of war’ – how to kill people! Even today in Sri Lanka much of the Sangha actively supports holy war against the Tamils while the government suppresses questioning of the issue. Interestingly enough, I have learnt of this deplorable state of affairs entirely through secular sources.

So while the Buddha established the Sangha as a democratic collective in the midst of mainly autocratic nations, now the Sangha is an autocracy in the midst of democratic nations. While the Buddha established an egalitarian community in a caste-based society, now in an increasingly egalitarian world the Sangha still clings to its pompous titles, its hierachies, and in Sri Lanka – incredibly – admission to some of the monastic traditions is open only to those of high caste. While the Buddha, though in a sexist society, acknowledged the spiritual equality of men and women, now the Sangha is one of the last bastions of patriachal prejudice in a world that increasingly celebrates the unique qualities of women. And while the Buddha established Buddhism as an international, non-sectarian movement reaching out to all, now in a globalizing world the Sangha still insists on its divisive national sectarianism.

It is one of the great lessons of history that reason displaces myth. There is something about the human mind that cannot continue to believe in a mythic explanation for something that can be understood though reason. Mythic explanations fulfill a purpose; they create a sense of understanding that is very gratifying and self-affirming. But reason too is a positive force, since it assumes that the human mind is capable of arriving at something like truth. And the understanding gained through reason is much more flexible and powerful; reason opens windows, myth closes them. As rational explanations for religious claims are progressively advanced, it becomes more and more trying to sustain two belief structures side by side. The myths fall into disuse. Being no longer inherently convincing, they become redundant and eventually pass away. This is the inexorable tide of time.

When the serious historical study of Buddhism began in the mid-19th Century there was, as a result of these competing mythologies (not to mention the even more misleading Hindu myths), considerable confusion as to the true historical picture. Did the Buddha really exist? Was he just a mythological sun-god? What did he teach? Can we know? Which traditions are most reliable (or least unreliable)? Since the traditions had been largely separated due to the forces of history – especially the destruction of Buddhism in India – they had little information about each other, and each asserted its own primacy. Each school preserved its traditions in vast collections of abstruse volumes of hard-to-read manuscripts in wildly different languages (Pali, some Sanskrit, ancient Chinese, and medieval Tibetan). But gradually the evidence was assembled. The traditions were compared; archeological findings confirmed key facts. By the beginning of the 20th Century, in works by such scholars as TW Rhys Davies, whose writings retain their value today, accurate outlines were drawn. There was still controversy in the early half of the 20th Century, though, as evidence was still being accumulated, new texts were edited, and new studies done.

However, as early as 1929 the Japanese scholar Chizen Akanuma published his findings regarding the concordance between the Pali Nikayas and the Chinese Agamas. These findings became the basis of full-scale historical studies such as Etienne Lamotte’s History of Indian Buddhism and AK Warder’s Indian Buddhism. The basic conclusion is that the Chinese Agamas and the Pali Nikayas are identical in doctrine. They are two slightly varying recensions of the same set of texts. These texts – popularly referred to simply as ‘the suttas’ – were assembled by the first generations of the Buddha’s followers, before the period of sectarian divisions. They are pre-sectarian Buddhism. Although they are usually considered by all schools to be ‘Theravada’ teachings, this is not so. Eminent scholar David Kaluhapana went so far as to declare that there is not one word of Theravada in the Pali Nikayas (Although I think this is a slight exaggeration.) The contributions of the schools are mostly limited to fixing the final arrangement of the texts and standardizing the dialect.

All other texts, including the later works of the Pali Khuddaka Nikaya, the Jatakas, the Abhidhammas of the various schools, the Mahayana sutras, and so on, were written later. Virtually none of these teachings are held in common between the schools; that is, they are sectarian Buddhism. Using the scientific application of historical criticism, the emergence and development of these teachings can be traced quite clearly, both in the internal dynamics of doctrinal evolution and in Buddhism’s response to the changing cultural, social, and religious environment. There is no scientific evidence that any of the special doctrines of these texts – that is, the doctrines not also found in the early suttas – derives from the Buddha. Rather, these texts should be regarded as the answers given by teachers of old to the question: ‘What does Buddhism mean for us?’ Each succeeding generation must undertake the delicate task of hermeneutics, the reacculturation of the Dhamma in time and place. And we, in our own tumultuous times, must find our own answers. Looked at from this perspective, we can see that the teachings of the schools offer us invaluable lessons, a wealth of precedent bequeathed us by our ancestors in faith.

Below I list some of the reasons supporting the claim that the Nikayas/Agamas are pre-sectarian Buddhism, while other texts belong to the sectarian period.


1.       The doctrinal content of the Nikayas and Agamas is nearly identical, and the actual texts are very close. The simplest explanation for this is that they both derive from the same stock of pre-sectarian teachings.

2.       There is archeological evidence dating perhaps 200 years after the Buddha that mentions some suttas by name; refers to such collections as the ‘Pitakas’; and depicts scenes, titles, and a fragment of verse from the Jatakas.

3.        All schools of Buddhism accepted the Nikayas/Agamas and the Vinaya as authentic.

4.       The suttas and vinaya refer to themselves and to each other, but not to the abhidhamma or to any other literature.


1.       The language, style, and doctrine of the abhidhamma clearly presuppose the suttas.

2.       The abhidhammas of the schools are almost totally different. Not only did other schools reject the Theravada abhidhamma, but some schools rejected the whole abhidhamma movement.

3.       The early sources, both textual and archeological, know nothing of the texts, the special doctrines, or the mythic origins of the abhidhamma.

4.       The sutta passages that have been invoked by abhidhammikas past and present to authorize the abhidhamma are either late or irrelevant.

5.       The Abhidhamma Pitaka itself does not claim to be the words of the Buddha. This claim originated in the chronicles and commentaries.

Mahayana Sutras

1.       The Mahayana sutras were composed in Sanskrit, which was not invented until about 500 years after the Buddha. Note that, while the Mahayana sutras were composed in Sanskrit, the early suttas of some schools (including those preserved as the Chinese Agamas) were translated around the same period from a sort of Pali into Sanskrit.

2.       The literary style, geographical knowledge, social conditions, technology, etc. portrayed in the Mahayana sutras also attest a similar date.

3.       The teachings of the Mahayana sutras can be shown to emerge from a historical process of doctrinal evolution among the early schools.

4.       The myth of the Mahayana asserts that the sutras were preserved for 500 years in the dragon realm, which assumes the existence of written texts in the Buddha’s time. There are also references to written texts within the Mahayana sutras themselves. Unfortunately, scholars are agreed that no suttas were written down until about 400 years later.

5.       The Mahayana sutras were rejected by the early schools as later inventions.

These conclusions are now firmly established. But it is still normal in traditional Buddhist circles to regard all the Buddhist scriptures as having sprung full-blown from the Master’s lips. Recently a bright, learned young monk told me that it is ‘evil’ to even question whether the Abhidhamma was spoken by the Buddha. This is fundamentalism. Behind this defensiveness lies fear: fear disguised as faith, fear that our cherished religious convictions will be undermined. And if our Buddhism is identified with the teachings and institutions of modern dogmatic schools, the end products of 2500 years of evolution whose claim to represent the original teachings is buttressed only by flimsy fables, our fears may well be justified. But if we seek the truth, we need fear no inquiry. The sincere application of critical methodology can only take us closer to the Buddha’s message, clarify the process of textual formulation, and reveal how that message was adapted by the schools.

In the application of historico-critical methodology Buddhism lags way behind Christianity. Although the history of Christianity has been often marred by severe, violent repression of heresy and a refusal to subject its dogmas to scrutiny, in modern times the scientific study of the Bible has made great strides. My own historical study of Buddhist teachings has been substantially informed by my interest in contemporary Bible studies. The fundamentalists and some of the mainline churches are still suspicious of such methods; yet their sceptical findings have reached a wide general audience and acceptance. It is past time for Buddhism to do the same. We need less courage than they. We have never relied so heavily on our myths, and so we have less to lose as the myths crumble away, like ancient forgotten monuments to a past that is no more.

Historical criticism is always uncertain, its findings ranging between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. But we have no choice. The only alternative is blind adherence to tradition. I regard this as a refusal to accept our responsibility as custodians of the Dhamma, the stifling of the living spirit of inquiry by the dead hand of orthodoxy. I believe it would be wrong to urge a ‘moderate’ application of these criteria. After 2500 years of myth-making, moderation would be immoderate. Traditional Buddhist institutions are increasingly irrelevant even in their own countries, and have never been relevant outside. Authenticity to the core of the Buddha’s revelation will surely prove a more solid foundation for a new, global Buddhism than adherence to nationalistic traditions. The other extreme is where ‘Buddhism’ becomes so vacuous as to lose all meaning. A bit of hard-headed rational criticism is a good antidote to both these extremes. When the dust settles we should have a clearer view of what ‘Buddhism’ means in the new millenium. And when we make mistakes along the way, as we must, we can consider them as offerings to the traditionalists, who will surely derive much joy from pointing them out!

Below I list a number of criteria that I have found useful. Obviously each criterion taken individually is a highly imperfect tool. But they are synergistic: where several criteria agree, the concurrence multiplies our confidence in our conclusions – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So in these studies it is imperative to use as wide a variety of criteria as possible, sensitively appraise the reliability of each criterion in the relevent context, remain alive to any contrary indications, and make our conclusions no more certain than the evidence warrants.

Simplicity: Shorter, more basic teachings are likely to have appeared earlier than complex, scholastic elaborations. This is one of the fundamentals of historical criticism.

Multiple Attestation: Teachings appearing more often are likely to be more authentic than those less frequent. This of course only applies to independent attestation, not mere repetition.

Similarity: Teachings congruent in style, form, or content with known early teachings are more likely to be authentic than heterodox passages.

Dissimilarity: Teachings dissimilar to other traditions, whether pre-Buddhist or later Buddhism, are unlikely to have appeared through assimilation or revision and thus are likely to be authentic. Notice that this principle does not say that teachings held in common with other traditions are inauthentic; it simply can’t tell.

Concordance between Nikayas and Agamas: The essential congruence of the Nikayas and the Agamas is probably the most important finding of modern Buddhist studies, and should become a standard criterion in all matters concerning early Buddhism. Although the basic findings are in, there remains much work to be done in sorting out the finer details.

Unfavourability: some passages reflect badly on the Sangha (eg. the quarrel at Kosambi), individual monks (eg. when they are admonished by the Buddha), or even on the Buddha himself (notably the bizarre story of the murdered monks, which raises serious doubts as to the Buddha’s omniscience even in a limited sense). These are unlikely to be later inventions.

Reading out, not in: We should not assume that we already understand the Dhamma when reading the suttas, and feel that the suttas need ‘readjusting’ to accord with our ideas (or the ideas of our school). We should approach the suttas as humble students, as empty vessels open for the Dhamma to pour in. It is of course one of the basics of Dhamma to realize that our preconceptions distort our view of reality; yet this is what commentators do time and again. The ideas of commentators dating centuries later become buried almost invisibly in the dictionaries, translations, footnotes, explanations, and from there into our Dhamma consciousness. In this predicament, the reasonable course is to adopt, as a temporary corrective, a negative criterion. When the commentaries offer an explanation that is not clearly supported by the text, we should assume as a working hypothesis that it is probably wrong.

Internal Attestation: This is the most basic reason for even raising the possibility that the suttas are the Buddha’s words – they say so. Obviously not everything that claims to come from the Buddha is genuine. But it is safe enough to assume the reverse: if a text does not claim to be the Buddha’s words it is probably not.  

Extracting meaning from variation: Typically the traditions ascribe variations in the Buddha’s teaching to the Buddha’s undoubted skill in suiting his teaching to the proclivities of individuals. But often this is not so much an explaining as an explaining away. Most of the suttas seem to have been delivered to large, general audiences, so unless the text specifically indicates that it is targeted for a particular individual or group we can assume they were meant to be generally applicable. Variation, therefore, should be analysed in terms of textual or doctrinal development. We should not assume that the suttas are internally consistent; this is another hypothesis to be tested. After 2500 years of interpreters who assumed consistency without question, we may well arrive at more interesting results by adopting a very literal hypothesis that surface variations do indeed imply deep level contradictions. If such analysis produces meaningful results the argument from the ‘proclivities of individuals’ becomes redundant.

Form over content: Although formal analysis of textual matters often appears pedantic and irrelevant, it is actually very useful. We have less deeply ingrained bias and emotional investment in formal matters than in Dhamma issues, so for the sake of objectivity it is useful to rely primarily on formal criteria, and then infer to doctrinal matters.

Doctrines of the schools: Each of the schools evolved its own doctrinal peculiarities. Where these trends are discernable in the suttas it can indicate lateness.

Sources: The suttas (that is, the literary texts known by that title today) were assembled from the mass of oral teachings floating about in the early Sangha. The process of systematically organizing them only really got going after the Buddha’s passing away. The source material would have included: basic doctrinal statements (eg. the four noble truths); frameworks organizing such statements (eg. the gradual training); miscellaneous verses and sayings; dialogues and discourses uttered on specific occasions; analytical elaborations of basic teachings; background, anecdotal, and historical data. Obviously there is a hierachy of authenticity here. Since the develeloped literary forms commencing with the words ‘thus have I heard’ post-date the Buddha, it is legitmate to enquire how they came to their present form. In some cases, following the pecedent of Biblical criticism, we may reconstruct ‘source’ texts no longer extant. It is useful to consider these sources as manifesting in the final ‘suttas’ in three main levels. I give examples from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Level 1 –  Pericopes: Basic doctrinal statements (eg ‘It is just this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi.’)

Level 2 – Discourses: The assemblage of doctrinal statements in a particular form as a teaching attributed to the Buddha. (eg from ‘There are these two extremes…’ to ‘My deliverance is unshakeble. This is my last birth. Now there is no repeated existence.’)

Level 3 – Final text: The completed literary entity. (eg from ‘Thus have I heard’ to ‘And that is how Aññā Koṇḍañña received his name.’)

Although I reluctantly follow contemporary usage and refer to level 3 as ‘suttas’, this is very misleading, as the Buddha had obviously never heard of the level 3 texts. The term ‘sutta’, when used self-referently in the suttas, can refer only to level 1 or 2. The methods of historical criticism generally will penetrate to levels 2 and 3 only, leaving the key doctrines untouched.

Language: Vocabulary and style are key criteria. There is a move from the more natural language of the early suttas to the repetitive and artificial forms of the Abhdhamma period. Later Pali was characterized by long compounds. The evolution of metrical forms provides some basis for dating verses, and might possibly be carried over into prose, too. As an example of vocabulary changing from level 2 to level 3 we can note that bhikkhave (monks!) and bhante (venerable sir) of level 2 often become formalized into bhikkhavo and the slightly pompous bhadante in level 3. Bhikkhave is not standard Pali, so it is likely that it was a colloquial word so closely associated with the Buddha himself that it resisted standardization into bhikkhavo.

Formation of the Nikayas: It seems that usually monks would specialize in studying one or the other of the four Nikayas, so the Nikayas are arranged so that key teachings are found in each Nikaya. Teachings found in only one or two Nikayas, therefore, should not be regarded as central. Each of the four Nikayas, however, has its own flavour. It seems that each was designed to fulfill a certain function within the emerging religion, and this should be seen to reflect the personalities of those who chose to specialize in a particular field. The Digha emphasizes legendary and anti-brahmanical material, and was likely used for propoganda and conversion. The Majjhima contains a deep and broad doctrinal range, and probably served as the main monastic syllabus. The Samyutta is more technical and would have been the domain of the intellectuals and doctrinal specialists. The Anguttara is simpler and more lay-orientated, and would have been used for preaching. Each Nikaya also includes much material contrasting with its overall flavour.

Contexts: Any religious, spiritual, or philosophical movement must inevitably emerge in a certain historical/cultural/ideological/linguistic context. Early Buddhism maintained a close, conscious interchange with the many other religious schools in the vibrant intellectual culture of the time. The teachings can best be appreciated as a response to these conditions. The Buddha knew the Vedic and Jain traditions, but he had never heard of the Abhidhamma, the Visuddhimagga, or the Mahayana sutras.