A Historical Look at the Pali Canon

Recently, I started reading a collection of essays on early Indian Buddhist history and archeology called Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India by Professors Gregory Schopen and Donald S. Lopez Jr.  The book’s stated intention is to show how studies of early Buddhist history have a kind of Western-Protestant bias1 that relies mostly on textual evidence, even archeological evidence proves otherwise.  It’s been a surprisingly interesting read.

One of the topics addressed is the question of how Buddhist texts are evaluated by age and authenticity.

The Pali Canon, for example, is assumed to be the oldest source of Buddhist textual information, and the authors concede that point, but notice the dating (emphasis added):

We know, and have known for some time, that the Pāli canon as we have it—and it is generally conceded to be our oldest source—cannot be taken back further than the last quarter of the first century B.C.E., the date of the Alu-vihāra redaction, the earliest redaction that we can have some knowledge of… (pg. 23)

But immediately after, they warn readers that:

…and that—for a critical history—it can serve, at the very most, only as a source for the Buddhism of this period. (pg. 23)

Later on page 27, they further clarify that the most reliable date is from 29-17 B.C.E.  This is 400-500+ years after the historical Buddha lived.

The book later shows texts did exist in earlier times, but in a scattered form and not in a single canon.  For example during the time of King Aśoka (3rd century B.C.E.):

Although Aśoka in his Bhābrā Edict specifically enjoined both monks and laymen to recite certain texts, which he named, he nowhere in his records gives any indication that he know of a canon, or the classification of texts into nikāyas [divisions of texts used in the Pali canon]. (pg. 24)

Additionally, although the Pali Canon is the oldest known compilation, it that existed centuries after the historical Buddha, not every text or story in the Canon is necessarily the oldest.

The book illustrates a good example of this.  There is a particular story, found in the textual collections of the Mahāsāṇghika, Mahīśāsaka, Dharmaguptaka and in the Pali Canon which concerns the Buddha’s discovery of a stupa for his deceased disciple Kāśyapa. The book explains that all four versions are fairly consistent, though each one embellishes with literary cliches and such. However, seeing these four texts, one would assume that the fact they are pretty consistent would mean “the essential elements of this account must go back to a very old or presectarian stage of the tradition” (pg 28).

However, it turns out there is an obscure fifth source in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya textual collection at Gilgit. In this version, which has much less literary “padding”, there is no mention of a stupa at all, just the relics of Kāśyapa. The authors postulate that this version is older than the ones found in other collections.

The four versions above are consistent, presumably, because they draw upon a later, more polished version of the story.

This applies to a lot of other things related to early Buddhist historical studies, but the point of this post is focused on the Pali Canon. There’s a general Western assumption that because it is the oldest, it is therefore more accurate than other Buddhist sources at understanding what the early Buddhist community was like, how they lived, etc.

But there’s a few problems with this:

  • The Pali Canon is centuries after the Buddha, so no living person who compiled the canon lived during the time of the Buddha, and cannot attest to whether the texts they draw upon are true or not. They rely on tradition just as much as other early Buddhist schools did.
  • The Pali Canon uses a lot of literary padding, similar to other compilations by other schools.  For example many sutras often end with the same stock ending (translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

    “Magnificent, lord! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. We go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May the Blessed One remember us as lay followers who have gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.”

    Or just look at the repetitive nature of lists enumerated in the Pali Canon sutras. No natural human would talk this way, and so it’s obvious that the information was edited for easier recitation, compilation and memorization.

  • The book also shows in greater detail than can be explained here, that archeological evidence doesn’t always agree with what textual sources imply.  One big example cited by the book is the many examples of stupas that are erected at places like Bhāhut and Sāñci, using donations not by lay-people but mostly by monks, which implied monks did own at least some property despite textual sources implying they didn’t.

Essentially, what the book argues is that information from early Buddhist history and culture should be not exclusively drawn from textual sources, but must be weighed against other evidence, even when it bears some uncomfortable truths (such as monks/nuns owning property).  This rubs against the Western-Protestant cultural tendency toward sola scriptura (by text alone),² but it gives us a more rich and human-centric understanding of how people lived and practiced Buddhism in that era.

1 Another example here.

² In other words, just because a sutra says so doesn’t always mean it’s the final word.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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