The Noble Eightfold Blog

What the Buddha Taught

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents


Before we discuss the wisdom teachings of the Buddha, it is worth examining how we know what he taught.

We have several sources for the Buddha's teachings that date to his time. There are two different versions of the Buddhist canon in Chinese called "the Āgamas". There is a partial version of the canon in Tibetan, and there are a few discourses preserved in Sanskrit. However, the version of the canon that is the most complete and the only one that is translated into English is the Pāli canon. Pāli is a language that is similar to Sanskrit. Sanskrit was the language of the educated and the elite in ancient India, and Pāli is its simplified version, something akin to the relationship between Latin and Italian.

This is not to denigrate the Āgamas. The Chinese were wonderful scholars, and wonderful translators. Some of those translations are sure to prove superior to the Pāli. However, at present we do not have translations of the Āgamas in English, so only those who know both Chinese and Pāli can make those comparisons.

The Pāli Canon is usually associated with the "Theravada" ("doctrine of the elders") tradition, also commonly called the "southern tradition" of Buddhism. The southern tradition stands in contrast to the "eastern (Chinese) tradition" – the Mahāyāna – which includes Zen Buddhism, and the "northern (mainly Tibetan) tradition", the Vajrayāna, also called "Tantric Buddhism". However, associating the Pāli Canon with the Theravada would be a misunderstanding of how the different schools of Buddhism evolved, and the role of the earliest canonical literature in later Buddhist developments.

Modern scholarship puts the death of the Buddha at about 400 B.C.E. Until about 150-100 B.C.E there was only one canonical literature. Tradition holds that about 6 months after the Buddha died, the existing Arahants (fully Awakened beings) met and held the first Buddhist council. This was to codify the discourses that had been given by the Buddha and his most senior disciples.

At around 150-100 B.C.E new discourses started to be composed. This continued for the next 400-500 years. These would eventually make up the Mahāyāna tradition of Buddhism. Monks and nuns who believed that only the original discourses were the word of the Buddha would later become the Theravada tradition. Those who believed that both sets of discourses were the word of the Buddha would later form the Mahāyāna tradition. However, in India in the first millennium, monks and nuns of both schools would have studied and lived together in the same monasteries. Thus the distinction between the two was not sharply divided.

Nalanda University Figure: Entrance to Nalanda University, where 10,000 monks of both the Theravada and Mahāyāna schools once studied

Tantric Buddhism – what is here being called northern Buddhism – grew out of the Mahāyāna tradition. It started about 1,000 years after the Buddha. Thus it, too, brought with it the original discourses – along with the newer Mahāyāna discourses - although by the time Tantric Buddhism made it to Tibet, they only had a portion of the canon. These discourses exist today as the Kanjur (Translated Word of the Buddha) and the Tenjur (Translated Treatises). [Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism].

The important point here is that all traditions and schools of Buddhism accepted the early canonical literature as part of the teachings. They saw the later developments as a further refinement of the Buddha’s teachings, not a way to replace them.

The Pāli canon was first translated into English in the 19th century by the Pāli Text Society (PTS) in editions that are still available, although they often contain quaint Victorian language that is a little hard to follow. (They also, rather amusingly, leave out racier sections that would have offended Victorian sensibilities.) More recently we have the translations of Bhikkhu Bodhi (the Majjhima Nikāya jointly with his mentor Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Anguttara Nikāya) and Maurice Walsh (the Digha Nikāya). We also have a partial translation of the canon by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. The latter are available for free on the Internet, as eBooks and as printed copies that are available by request from Metta Forest Monastery. It is very useful to compare different translations.

The German monk Ajahn Anālayo is currently working on translating the Āgamas into English. The Āgamas are translations of Sanskrit originals. As Buddhism became more widespread in India, the discourses were translated into Sanskrit (from Pāli, or perhaps the local dialect, "old Magadhi"), and as Buddhism moved into China it was these that were translated into Chinese. While Sanskrit and Pāli are very closely related, it is still remarkable how similar the Chinese versions are to the Pāli ones. Very few Sanskrit originals exist. As the Muslims moved into India at the end of the first millennium, they were particularly harsh on the Buddhists, destroying the great Buddhist universities, temples and libraries, including Nalanda.

The Oral Tradition

Considering the time that has passed since the life of the Buddha and the great distances that the Buddhist canon has traveled, it is remarkable how coherent it is, and how similar these different collections – the Pāli, Chinese and Tibetan – are. While there are variations - particularly in the sequence of events described in different versions of a discourse – the meaning remains fundamentally the same.

Ajahn Anālayo notes that this is consistent with how human memory works. Buddhism is an oral tradition. These works were memorized, starting with when they were given by the Buddha and his disciples. Human memory tends to remember the sense of a thing, but doesn’t always get the details right. Getting things out of order is very common, and that is consistent with the types of discrepancies you see in the Pāli version of a discourse compared to its Chinese equivalent.

(Note: For an example of comparing different versions of a discourse, see Ajahn Anālayo’s book Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna.)

It is also useful to understand that in Buddhism, it was the meaning of a discourse that was the most important thing, not its literal transmission. In Hinduism, they were more concerned with the literal translation. Thus, in Hinduism, priests begin to memorize the literature at an age no greater than 12, while in Buddhism, memorization did not begin until a monk or nun could understand its meaning.

One thing that is hard for Westerners to grasp is how efficient the system of memorization is in India, a tradition that exists to this day. I experienced this first hand when I was there. I was walking around Bodh Gaya with a 12-year-old boy who adopted me. He was from the village of Uruvela, where a girl named "Sujātā" is credited with nursing the Buddha back to health prior to his enlightenment. Her stupa still looms over this tiny village. I asked the boy if he knew the story of Sujātā, whereupon he recited the entire story verbatim. In typically Indian fashion, to know something is to have memorized it.

In the West there is not much emphasis on the ability to memorize. However this skill can quickly be developed. In his book Jewish Meditation, Aryeh Kaplan tells a story about being in rabbinical school when he and some friends decided to memorize portions of the Talmud:

…when I was in yeshivah, a few friends and I decided to have a contest to see who could memorize the most pages of the Talmud. For me, it was an interesting experience. The first page took considerable effort and time, perhaps several hours. As I continued, each page became progressively easier. Eventually, after ten pages or so, I found that I could memorize a page after three or four readings. By the time I had gone through some twenty pages, I could memorize a page with a single reading. What had originally been extremely difficult had become relatively easy. My friends reported the same experience.

- [Kaplan, Jewish Meditation]

Further, in cultures with oral traditions, certain linguistic mechanisms are used to make it easier to memorize. The technical term for this is "oral-formulaic composition". Stock phrases and meters express the same ideas in different contexts. Anyone who has read the Pāli canon quickly gets used to this. This is not unique to India. Medieval Irish, Celts and Anglo-Saxons spontaneously composed poetry in this way. In more modern times Allen Ginsberg also composed poetry in this way. Thus, in cultures with oral traditions, there is a “language technology” that facilitates both composition and memorization.

In Buddhism there was a further development, and that was the role of the bhanaka (“reciters”). The Pāli canon is quite large. The PTS edition is 55 volumes. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s English translation of the Majjhima Nikāya is over 1100 pages. The Saṃyutta Nikāya is twice as long. So to make the preservation of the texts easier, some monks (mainly it was monks) specialized in preserving one collection. These were called "bhanakas". A monk who specialized in the Digha Nikāya is a "Dighabhanaka", a monk who specialized in the Majjhima Nikāya is a "Majjhimabhanaka", and so forth. Some monks were able to memorize the entire canon. Reputedly there are 4 or 5 monks in the world today who have done so. However this is very rare, and usually the collections were divided up for preservation.

In the West we tend to not trust oral transmission, but in India it is just the opposite. Because they memorize the texts in rigorous settings - in a group - and the testing standards are quite strict, they believe that this is the most accurate way to transmit texts. They believe that written transmission is too subject to transcription errors. So we have two cultures that in this way have developed very differently.

Another test of the Buddhist canon is its consistency. There are some scholars who argue that there is little to suggest that these are the teachings of the Buddha himself. But most scholars say that the teachings are so coherent and cogent that they can only be the work of a single, genius mind. There are many, many thousands of pages in the Pāli canon. I have read the four most notable volumes - the Majjhima Nikāya more than once - as well as some of the lesser volumes. The teachings are so consistent that the discrepancies stand out, and there are not very many of them.

But more importantly is that when you turn the discourses of the Buddha into an ardent and diligent way of life, the truth of the Buddha's teachings shines through. It is a system of great breadth and great depth. One of the problems with the Buddha's teaching is that many people have tried to simplify them, or perhaps more properly, to over-simplify it. The Buddha himself, after attaining Awakening, was dubious that anyone else would understand what he had discovered:

I considered: ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in worldliness, takes delight in worldliness, rejoices in worldliness. It is hard for such a generation to see this truth, namely, specific conditionality, dependent origination. And it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna. If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome for me.’ - [MN 26.19]

This path requires understanding - which is what we are about to study - ethical and moral conduct - which we are also about to study - and skill in meditation, in developing the mind.

Fortunately for us, the Buddha did decide to teach what he discovered, and a way of training that we can realize it for ourselves:

Then the Blessed One, having understood Brahma's invitation, out of compassion for beings, surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As he did so, he saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good attributes and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard, some of them seeing disgrace and danger in the other world. Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses - born and growing in the water - might flourish while immersed in the water, without rising up from the water; some might stand at an even level with the water; while some might rise up from the water and stand without being smeared by the water - so too, surveying the world with the eye of an Awakened One, the Blessed One saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good attributes and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard, some of them seeing disgrace and danger in the other world.

Having seen this, he [said to] Brahma Sahampati in verse:

Open are the doors to the Deathless

to those with ears.

Let them show their conviction.

Perceiving trouble, O Brahma,

I did not tell people the refined,

sublime Dhamma.

Then Brahma Sahampati, thinking, "The Blessed One has given his consent to teach the Dhamma", bowed down to the Blessed One and, circling him on the right, disappeared right there. - [SN 6.1]

The Organizaton of the Pāli Canon

In the original version of the canon, there were two sets of texts. These were the Vinaya Piṭaka (piṭaka = "basket") and the Sutta Piṭaka. The Vinaya Piṭaka is the monastic code, the rules of conduct for the monks and nuns. The Sutta Piṭaka is the collection of discourses.

(Note: The word "sutta" is a Pāli word that means "discourse". In Sanskrit the word is "sutra". Sanskrit and Pāli are Indo-European languages, so many words in Sanskrit and Pāli have similar sounding words in English. The word "sutra" is related to the English word "suture", meaning "to stitch together".)

In the Pāli canon, the suttas are divided into five "nikāyas" (collections). The fifth book, the Khuddaka Nikāya, has either 15 or 18 smaller texts depending on the version of the canon:

  1. Digha Nikāya - the long discourses
  2. Majjhima Nikāya - the middle length discourses
  3. Saṃyutta Nikāya - the connected discourses
  4. Aṅguttara Nikāya - the numerical discourses
  5. Khuddaka Nikāya - the collection of little texts
    1. Khuddakapatha - "short passages"
    2. Dhammapada - collection of sayings of the Buddha
    3. Udana - "inspired utterances"
    4. Itivuttaka - "the Buddha's sayings"
    5. Sutta Nipata - literally "suttas falling down", a collection of 71 short suttas
    6. Vimanavatthu - stories about the life and deeds of people who attained residence in a heavenly mansion, the "Vimana", due to meritorious deeds.
    7. Petavatthu - narratives describing how the effects of bad acts can lead to an unhappy rebirth
    8. Therāgathā - verses of the elder monks
    9. Therigathā - verses of the elder nuns
    10. Jataka - stories of previous lives of the Buddha
    11. Niddesa - commentary on the Sutta Nipata, ascribed to the Buddha's chief disciple Sariputta
    12. Patisambhidamagga - "the path of discrimination", also ascribed to Sariputta
    13. Apadāna - "biographical stories" of monks and nuns
    14. Buddhavamsa -  a hagiographical text which describes the life of the Buddha and of the twenty-four previous Buddhas
    15. Cariyāpiṭaka - "proper conduct", accounts of the Buddha's former lives when he as a bodhisattva exhibited behaviors known as "perfections", prerequisites to buddhahood
    16. Nettippakarana - "the guide", practice methods taught by the Buddha's disciple Kaccana, included only in the Burmese canon
    17. Petakopadesa - "pitaka disclosure", also attributed to Kaccana and also only in the Burmese canon
    18. Milindapañha - "Questions of Milinda", a dialogue in which the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Pāli: Milinda) of Bactria, and the Buddhist sage Nāgasena, Burmese only

(Note: The Āgamas are organized differently.)


In this section we examined the source material for the Buddha's teachings. In particular we noted:

  1. That the Pāli canon is currently the best source that we have in English.
  2. That while the Pāli canon is generally associated with the Theravada tradition, it is common to all of them.
  3. That the oral tradition comes from a culture that was rigorous in the way this was done. Because they developed techniques to make oral transmission reliable, they considered it superior to written transmission.
  4. That the discourses of the Buddha not only stand the test of coherence and cogency, they pass the test of actual practice.