Teaching Buddha Teaching Buddha

The Authenticity of the Suttas
of the Pali Canon


The Suttas of the Pali Canon number over 10,000 and contain a huge variety of material. They vary in numerous ways: length, topics, style, tone, and even plausibility. So how should someone approach the huge body of literature, especially from the viewpoint of one engaged in critical thinking?

The first thing to notice is that the collection in the Pali Canon is not the only collection of early suttas existent - the Chinese Agamas contain much the same material, although it is organized differently. And we have fragments of the sutta collections from other early Indian Buddhist schools besides the Theravadan - and again there is a consistency here. So it would seem that indeed we have an authentic record of the early teachings of Buddhism.

But how early? One hint can be gleaned from the dating of the Abhidhamma - set by scholars at about 200 years after the Buddha's death. From that time on, the suttas seem to have not really changed - the effort of creating new material seems to have gone into the creation of the Abhidhammas of the various schools that were emerging.

Given the huge variety in these suttas, how literally should we take this material? Is it all really the words of the Buddha and his close disciples? Well, unless you are willing to believe, for example as found in MN 123, that the newly born baby Buddha-to-be took seven steps to the north and exclaimed in a loud voice "I'm the chief in this world, the most accepted and the most senior. This is my last birth, I will not be born again”, you are going to have to let go of literalism. You will need to use your critical thinking ability to decide what is authentic, what is mythology, and even what was a later creation to serve some sectarian purpose.

Scholars have done various studies on the language used in the suttas and from this have begun to identify various strata - just like we can distinguish 19th century English from 21st century English. Clearly not all of the suttas reached the form in which we know them at the same time.

Scholars have also studied the doctrines & practices given and once again can identify various strata. Here, however, dating is a bit more difficult - are these from widely divergent time periods or was the Buddha simply refining his teaching techniques over his lifetime? If you are interested in looking deeper into the scholarly stratification of the suttas, a useful starting place is G. C. Pande, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, Delhi 1957 & 1983. It contains interesting and controversial information in a somewhat disorganized, but nonetheless useful presentation.

Now by "authentic" I don't mean to imply that we necessarily have the Buddha's exact words - on anything. I do mean that the suttas present stratified layers of material, some of which is certainly NOT from the era of the historical Buddha. It is possible to distinguish what is "authentic" in the sense of being from the early layers and possibly represent teaching of the historical Buddha, from what is clearly a later layer that clearly cannot make any claim of being the teachings of the historical Buddha.


Below I include discussions of some suttas to begin to give you hints as to how to proceed on your own to decide what is authentic and what is a later fabrication. But the long and the short of sutta study is simply this:

DN 16 - The Mahaparinibbana Sutta - The Buddha's Last Days
This suttas is clearly a composite - material from many sources has been gathered together here. Some of this material is quite dubious (e.g. Ananda failing to ask the Buddha to live for an eon) and some has the ring of authenticity (e.g. the Buddha's last words). G. C. Pande (above) has quite a bit on the stratification in this composite sutta.

DN 24, MN 12 & MN105
DN 24 is possibly the worst composed sutta in the whole Pali canon. It is internally self contradictory and just plain badly crafted. It seems to have been composed to show Sunakkhatta, a former monk, in a very bad light. Why? It seems that after he disrobed, Sunakkhatta went around denouncing the Buddha and his teachings, saying he taught an invalid spiritual path. This denouncement is found at the beginning of MN 12 which then goes on at great length listing all the Buddha's amazing qualities in a way that is clearly composed of material from other sources. However MN 105, which was given to Sunakkhatta before he bacme a monk, has much more of a ring of authenticity.

DN 14, DN 17, DN 18, DN 19, DN 20, DN 21, MN 37, MN 49, MN 50, MN 81, MN 83, MN 123
All of these are clearly mythological.

DN 27, MN 84, MN 93, MN 96
All of these are busy refuting the brahmins' claim to be the highest caste.

DN 30 - The Lakkhana Sutta - The Marks of a Great Man
This discusses the 32 marks of a great man - which supposedly the Buddha had. But anyone with these physical characteristics would be simply bizarre looking, not handsome as the Buddha is often purported to be. For example, two of the marks are that a great man's arm span is equal to his height and that a great man can scratch his knees without having to bend over. That's going to result in someone with really short legs! The 32 marks seem to be a bramaminical teaching that was subsumed by the Buddhist to prove the Buddha was a "great man."

DN 32 & DN 33, MN 43 & MN 44
These suttas are lists of items with very much an abhidhamma flavor. MN 43 & MN 44 seem to be a catechism for training newly ordained monks - something the Sangha would definitely find useful once the Master was no longer around. Clearly this is later material.

MN 74 & MN 111
How many times can someone become fully enlightened? Well, there are two Very different stories of Sariputta's full enlightenment! MN 111 certainly has a much more abhidhammic flavor and is one of only 3 suttas where the first jhana is said to have one-pointedness as a factor - actually MN 111 indicates that the first jhana has 4 factors, then shortly thereafter indicates it has many more factors, including one-pointedness.

Samyutta Nikaya
You can find an incredible amount of diversity in the Samyutta Nikaya - including a wealth of very useful teachings. There are also conversations with devas and Mara. These could be taken literally, but perhaps a better way to look at them is thoughts from the unconscious/subconscious.

Anguttara Nikaya
Although there are some very useful teachings in this numerical collection, on the whole it is less interesting than the DN, MN or SN. A large number of suttas seem to be aimed at organizing and controlling the monastic sangha. There are 11 chapters and the higher the number, the less reliable the suttas seem. From chapter 6 onward, the lists are frequently a combination of two shorter lists. Chapter 11 seems very suspect since it is far shorter than any of the other chapters as well as having lists that present almost nothing original. AN 8.51 - the story of the founding of the nuns order - is especially suspect -- more info on this sutta here.

Khuddaka Nikaya
The diversity in this collection is mind boggling - it contains some of the earliest strata and some of the latest strata found in the suttas. The verses of the Udana seem to mostly be quite early; the corresponding stories at times seem to have almost no connection to the verses. The Sutta Nipata is generally regarded as mostly a very early collection. The Patisambhidamagga is an obviously late analysis of Abhidhamma concepts. You find a number of collections of past lives of the Buddha and of previous Buddhas. Quite a mixed bag here.


In general, underlying this mass of literary works, there are consistent themes that start in the earliest layers and probably do go back to the historical Buddha - tho not necessarily in the currently preserved words, of course. Among the themes that do seem to go far back are This-That Conditionality (more elaborately formulated as Dependent Origination), The Graduated Training (as found in DN 2 and Many other suttas), Anapanasati (tho MN 118 may a later composition from earlier materials) and the practice of the Brahma Viharas (as found in DN 13 and other suttas).

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Leigh Brasington / / Revised 18 May 14