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The Gradual Training

Despite the traditional story of the origins of the suttas, the suttas of the Pali canon were not likely mostly composed during the Buddha's lifetime (with just a handful composed shortly after his death). In fact it's quite possible that the majority of the suttas were composed after the Buddha's death; certainly some of them were composed long after his death. This long period of sutta composition seems to span the time from when the Buddha began teaching until approximately 100 to 200 years after his death, at which point Abhidhamma composition took over as the main creative activity. Although far more modern work waits to be done in looking at the "stratification" of the suttas, it is possible to begin to tease out for some of the suttas those which are early and those which are late compositions.

Since Right Concentration relies quite a lot on the Gradual Training for both its outline and to elucidate a number of points concerning the jhānas and their relationship to the rest of the path to awakening, just how ancient is the Gradual Training? Does it go back to the earliest strata of the suttas? Can we use it to gain a clear idea of what the Buddha actually taught? The answer seems to be a qualified "yes."

The Gradual Training appears in various forms in both the Dīgha Nikāya, the Majjhima Nikāya amd the Anguttara Nikāya.1 Many of even the early suttas in these two collections appear to have been created by taking yet earlier material and expanding it by adding additional teachings and explanations. The full recension of the Gradual Training found in the Dīgha Nikāya clearly has had numerous tweaks and additions. For example, there are three sections on morality. Even though all the information presented in them seems totally in harmony with the Buddha's teachings on ethics, it does not seem so likely the Buddha would give a talk with all 38 of the items in the three sections recited one after the other. The Buddha was certainly not one to bore his audience!

But the basic outline of the Gradual Training appears to be very ancient. The three major parts of the Buddha's teaching, sīla, samādhi and paññā: ethics, concentration and wisdom, pervade the whole of the suttas from earliest to latest. The Gradual Training is an expansion of these three parts; they are each expanded by providing detailed practices that lead to the skills necessary for perfecting that part.

There are a number of individual features of the Gradual Training that suggest that this is an early teaching. The precepts given in the small section on morality are not the usual list – the fifth precept of avoiding intoxicants does not appear and is instead replaced with avoiding damaging seeds and crops. The description of contentment is quite simple and probably is unchanged from the original. The description of the jhānas in the Gradual Training matches the earliest descriptions anywhere in the four prose Nikāyas.2

A quite obvious early feature is found in the "Insight" section at DN 2.83. A person is said to be composed of "kāya" and "viññāṇa." This is a very early depiction of a person – quite far removed from the later five khandha method. Even the usage of "viññāṇa" for "mind" is a very early usage; its meaning only later expanded to become sense consciousness, one of the khandhas and one of the six elements.

The Gradual Training forms the heart of the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (DN 2). That sutta is given to King Ajātasattu, who when he was a prince, had been a follower of Devadatta after Devadatta had created a schism in the Saṅgha.3 Later Prince Ajātasattu killed his father, King Bimbisāra, but was stricken with remorse. He comes to the Buddha in DN 2 seeking "peace for our heart."4 It seems quite clear from other suttas and from the Vinaya stories that Ajātasattu indeed had a change of heart and went from following the schismatic Devadatta to being a follower of the Buddha. Something must have happened to change his mind and DN 2 certainly provides a plausible answer to what that something was. Thus it seems quite likely that some early form of the Gradual Training was what King Ajātasattu heard that moonlit night – and again this is a strong hint at the earliness of the Gradual Training.5

All of this points to the Gradual Training as being a reliable source to aid in trying to understand exactly what the Buddha taught.6 For more details on the Gradual Training see my book "The Gradual Training" (new spring 2024).

1. See the chart at for more information.
2. In the Khuddaka Nikāya, the jhānas are seldom mentioned at all and never in any detail.
3. SN 17.36
4. DN 2.1
5. Pande (1995) strongly feels DN2 is for the most part an early sutta: pp 82-87.
6. Polak (2011) p. 36 says "This scheme is a very important description of the Buddhist path to liberation, and probably a very ancient one."

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