Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Textual analysis and comparative discussion on early Buddhist sects and texts.
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Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bankei » Tue Jan 19, 2010 2:20 am

Hi

I was just reading some of Gregory Schopen which has got me thinking.

How do we know that the Pali Sutta that we have today is the same as the Sutta back in Buddhaghosa's time, or at the time they were committed to writing back in the 1st century?

The oldest surviving Pali manuscript is from around the 14th century (a fragment of the Vinaya found in Nepal). There are few inscriptions earlier, but generally only a few lines long. Asoka is said to have mentioned 7 Sutta worth reading in one of his inscriptions, but only a few have been identified and even these are not sure. There is also a lack of Pali inscriptions found in India or early Sri Lanka, which is surprising as some consider Pali to be the language of the Buddha and Theravada as being exactly what the Buddha preached.

The commentaries are said to have been composed from the 5th century onwards and these contain quotes etc from the Suttas - but apparently they do not always match up and some quotes are unable to be found in todays Tipitaka. How do we know what the Tipitaka was like before this? was it added to, changed, or subtracted from? Even after Buddhagosha how do we know what editing occurred?

Then there are the constant councils held throughout history, the last one being in Burma in 1956. These were held partially to fix errors in the canon and commentaries.

There are also variations in existing old manuscripts, considerable variations I believe. eg a Sutta in manuscript form in Thailand may not be exactly the same as one found in Sri Lanka. Often these are minor, but they are still discrepancies.


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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Jan 19, 2010 2:53 am

Greetings Bankei,

Bankei wrote:The commentaries are said to have been composed from the 5th century onwards and these contain quotes etc from the Suttas - but apparently they do not always match up and some quotes are unable to be found in todays Tipitaka.


Do you have any examples of this?

I've heard of commentaries referring to commentaries which are no longer extant, but I've not heard of it before in relation to suttas.

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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bankei » Tue Jan 19, 2010 4:04 am

Hi Retro

From Professor Norman, former president of the Pali Text Society:

"There are, in fact, indications that the Pali canon is not complete. References in the canon itself speak of nine angas, and some texts included in that classification do not seem to be in the canon as it has been handed down."


and

"Furthermore, in the non-canonical texts and Commentaries there are quotations given from canonical texts which are lacking in the texts as we have them and the same texts include a number of verses ascribed to the Buddha or to prominent elders, which do not appear in the canon, although they might have been epxected to find a place in the Dhammapada, Udana or Theragatha."


in "The Value of the Pali Tradition", in Jagajjyoti, Buddha Jayanti Annual, 1984, p.5. Reproduced in K.R. Norman, Collected Papers Volume III, Pali Text Society, 1992, p. 39-40.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue Jan 19, 2010 4:47 am

Greetings Bankei,

Interesting - thanks for that.

Of course, it would be interesting also to know whether any of these missing fragments correspond with the Chinese Agamas and other canons... but that's a level of detail I doubt we'll be able to pursue.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Kim OHara » Tue Jan 19, 2010 7:56 am

I recall several long threads on this topic on e-sangha, now of course lost. Ven. Huifeng was a regular and knowledgeable contributor to them. Is he a member of Dharma Wheel? I don't hang around there but I think I saw his name when I took a quick look a while ago.
From what I can remember of those discussions, I believe the accuracy of transmission, as assessed by comparison of Sanskrit and Pali texts, is very high.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Mawkish1983 » Tue Jan 19, 2010 7:59 am

What we've got works, and my time machine plans are not developing as quickly as I'd hoped. So, all I can do to this question is shrug and say 'so what?'.

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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby tiltbillings » Tue Jan 19, 2010 8:02 am

Kim O'Hara wrote:I recall several long threads on this topic on e-sangha, now of course lost. Ven. Huifeng was a regular and knowledgeable contributor to them. Is he a member of Dharma Wheel? I don't hang around there but I think I saw his name when I took a quick look a while ago.
From what I can remember of those discussions, I believe the accuracy of transmission, as assessed by comparison of Sanskrit and Pali texts, is very high.
:namaste:
Kim

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This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Tue Jan 19, 2010 8:28 am

A common misconception is that writing is more reliable than the oral tradition. It is not true. The oral tradition survived for several centuries, but when there were some texts memorized by only one or two monks, it was decided to commit the texts to writing before they disappeared. If writing was more reliable than the oral tradition, you can be sure that the elders at the First Buddhist Council would have had the texts inscribed. They did not because they knew that the oral tradition was far superior.

The oral tradition does not work like "Chinese Whispers." When students memorise a Pāli text from a teacher they have to recite it in front of the entire class. If the class consists of a hundred students that is like having 99 proof-readers checking a text simultaneously. As soon as the reciter makes the slightest error, if the teacher misses it, you can be sure that at least some of the pupils will be eager to point out the mistake.

When the CSCD Tipitaka was computerised, two copies of the texts were typed independently then compared electronically for differences. Still, it might be possible that both typists made the same error. If there were a hundred typists, the likelihood of an error slipping through becomes negligible.

All of us know how easy is it is to misremember something that we read some time ago, or to misread something that we are reading right now. However, if you spend several months committing a text to memory so that you can repeat it verbatim, and recite it regularly for years, even after twenty or thirty years you can recall it quite easily, or at least learn it again in a short time.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby PeterB » Tue Jan 19, 2010 8:38 am

There is a fascinating book by Martin Lings called " Ancient Beliefs And Modern Superstitions " where, by the use of art and language and culture, he demonstrates very convincingly that the ancients , in part because of their lack of dependence on the dead hand of written records, had a much more lively and authentic connection to their own past and to universal values than do we.

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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby poto » Tue Jan 19, 2010 9:08 am

I do think that some parts of the Buddha's teachings may have been lost to the sands of times. However, I feel that the bulk of his teachings have remained intact. Just by reading the suttas, I don't think it's possible that they were fabricated by later people.

Even if we have only part of the Buddha's original teachings, IMHO having a fragment of an Awakened One's words is better than nothing at all. I believe the collection of teachings that we have left today is still more than enough to help one achieve liberation. If I didn't believe that I wouldn't be a Buddhist.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Paññāsikhara » Tue Jan 19, 2010 9:10 am

tiltbillings wrote:
Kim O'Hara wrote:I recall several long threads on this topic on e-sangha, now of course lost. Ven. Huifeng was a regular and knowledgeable contributor to them. Is he a member of Dharma Wheel? I don't hang around there but I think I saw his name when I took a quick look a while ago.
From what I can remember of those discussions, I believe the accuracy of transmission, as assessed by comparison of Sanskrit and Pali texts, is very high.
:namaste:
Kim

Don't tell anyone but Ven Huifeng is known here as Paññāsikhara.


:tongue:

Question: How do we have texts from traditions in the far SE and far NW, which apparently actually didn't know each other very well, if at all, after this separation, which are often (in some Agamas more than others) remarkably consistent?

These two groups, and others too, split at approximately the time of Asoka. There is little or no evidence that they got back together again to "sync" their canons, and given the way that they argued (about a relatively tiny portion of their content), it seems incredibly unlikely that they would have ever deliberately tried to do such a thing.

Still, on brief comparison, both parties have a few chunks in their respective canons which are not evidenced in their contemporaries. Both admit portions lost. It's seems to be definitely a minority, though. And it varies between Agamas, too, indicating that they were sequentially compiled - some were more completed than others at the point in which they went their separate (geographical and doctrinal) ways.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bankei » Sat Jan 23, 2010 3:32 am

I agree that the teachings must be ancient, but there can be no doubt that a lot of editing occured with things added and taken out or changed either deliberately or mistakenly.

Incidently Schopen has argued that having suttas that agree with each other doesn't necessarily mean they are ancient, but could mean they have borrowed from each other and could be late. He gives an example in one of his articles.

Don't forget there was a great deal of exchange between monks in the pre-modern era. Theravada monks in Tibet, Tibetan monks in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankans in India and Indonesia and the Chinese travelling monks, Faxian etc. They are the ones we know about, how many more where there? This is another facinating topic.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby jcsuperstar » Sat Jan 23, 2010 4:45 am

but there can be no doubt that a lot of editing occured with things added and taken out or changed either deliberately or mistakenly.



why can there be no doubt that this happened a lot?
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bankei » Sat Jan 23, 2010 10:24 am

Hi JC

Because of a number of reasons:
- many variations between sutta preserved in the various traditions
- The Pali canon was translated into Pali from another language(s), and errors have occured and misunderstandings or misinterpretations
- Various councils occured throughout history to 'fix' errors.
- There are variations in the wording of differernt manuscripts available in different countries. which one would count as correct?

I think it is naive to consider Thervada the pure unaltered teaching as the Buddha taught it. ie The exact word of the Buddha.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Cittasanto » Sat Jan 23, 2010 10:51 am

Bankei wrote:Hi JC

Because of a number of reasons:
- many variations between sutta preserved in the various traditions
- The Pali canon was translated into Pali from another language(s), and errors have occured and misunderstandings or misinterpretations
- Various councils occured throughout history to 'fix' errors.
- There are variations in the wording of differernt manuscripts available in different countries. which one would count as correct?

I think it is naive to consider Thervada the pure unaltered teaching as the Buddha taught it. ie The exact word of the Buddha.

Where is your proof for these?
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Sat Jan 23, 2010 11:04 am

Bankei wrote:- The Pali canon was translated into Pali from another language(s), and errors have occured and misunderstandings or misinterpretations
- Various councils occured throughout history to 'fix' errors.
- There are variations in the wording of different manuscripts available in different countries. which one would count as correct?

Pali was not "translated" from the spoken language of Magadha.
T.W. Rhys Davids in his book Buddhist India, and Wilhelm Geiger in his book Pali Literature and Language suggested that Pali may have originated as a form of lingua franca or common language of culture among people who used differing dialects in North India, used at the time of the Buddha and employed by him.

Here is a screen shot of a typical variant reading between different editions of the Pāli text of the Vinaya Piṭaka, Pārājikakaṇḍa. The tooltip shows the variant readings in the Singhalese (si) and Thai (sya) editions of the Pāli texts. The text being the Chatthasangayana Burmese edition.

In all variant readings that I have come across, the differences are trivial, different spellings, or a word or phrase missing here and there. Certainly nothing to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Pāli texts.
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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Jan 23, 2010 11:05 am

Bankei wrote:
Don't forget there was a great deal of exchange between monks in the pre-modern era. Theravada monks in Tibet, Tibetan monks in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankans in India and Indonesia and the Chinese travelling monks, Faxian etc. They are the ones we know about, how many more where there? This is another facinating topic.
As for the Tibetan monks; certainly unlikely that they hasd any influence on the Pali suttas, given that the canon was settled long before Buddhism went to Tibet, and Tibetan monks did not - do not - have a complete set of the Agamas.

As for the travelling Chinese monks, there is no evidence that they had any influence on the Pali texts.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

dheamhan a fhios agam

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson

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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Jan 23, 2010 11:06 am

Manapa wrote:
Bankei wrote:Hi JC

Because of a number of reasons:
- many variations between sutta preserved in the various traditions
- The Pali canon was translated into Pali from another language(s), and errors have occured and misunderstandings or misinterpretations
- Various councils occured throughout history to 'fix' errors.
- There are variations in the wording of differernt manuscripts available in different countries. which one would count as correct?

I think it is naive to consider Thervada the pure unaltered teaching as the Buddha taught it. ie The exact word of the Buddha.

Where is your proof for these?

Translated is too strong a word, given that we are likely talking about very closely related prakrits.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

dheamhan a fhios agam

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson

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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Cittasanto » Sat Jan 23, 2010 11:25 am

tiltbillings wrote:
Manapa wrote:
Bankei wrote:Hi JC

Because of a number of reasons:
- many variations between sutta preserved in the various traditions
- The Pali canon was translated into Pali from another language(s), and errors have occured and misunderstandings or misinterpretations
- Various councils occured throughout history to 'fix' errors.
- There are variations in the wording of differernt manuscripts available in different countries. which one would count as correct?

I think it is naive to consider Thervada the pure unaltered teaching as the Buddha taught it. ie The exact word of the Buddha.

Where is your proof for these?

Translated is too strong a word, given that we are likely talking about very closely related prakrits.


Hi Tilt,
I am not sure why he used translate, but he specified 'another language, errors, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations,' which is the area which was more interesting to me, in that part at least.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
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"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."

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Re: Are the Sutta's really ancient?

Postby Bankei » Sat Jan 23, 2010 12:25 pm

Hi

Thanks Bhikkhu Pesala. That is interesting. But, there has been a lot of modern swapping of manuscripts between the various Theravada countries, especially with the re-introduction of the Upasampada from one country to another. I wonder what the more ancient texts were like.

As for the The Pali canon being a translation from other languages, this comes up frequently in the writings of Prof K. R. Norman, former president of the Pali Tex Society. I don't have the linguistic knowledge to understand what he talks about, but he frequently brings up the issues of sanskritisation of Pali words in various sutta and has identified more than a few errors with the meaning of the oriignal word being lost and translators being mistaken in their conversion of the word to Pali. He has also clearly stated that Pali was not likely to have been used by the Buddha and the Pali canon being a translation. This is located in volumes of his collected works published by the PTS - I am not home at the moment but can give references in a few weeks when I return.

Having said this, if it was a translation, then it must be based on earlier works.

As for the foreign interchange between monks, I don't think there was much influence on the Pali, but how do we really know? There are Pali inscriptions from 1100s or 1200s in Bodhgaya india showling Sinhalise monks were there then. fa Xian went to Sri lanka around the 700s etc. The Pali commentary on the vinaya was translated into Chinese too. This is all interesting stuff, and I may start another thread to collect this information - I have some notes which i will put up in a few weeks.

Regards

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