What are the Early Buddhist Texts?

The Early Buddhist Texts are the subset of the canonical literature of the different Buddhist schools which modern scholarship suggests accurately report the teachings of the historical Buddha. These texts have undergone (indeed, continue to undergo) some revision and redaction, and contemporary scholarship continues to debate many points, however a broad consensus has emerged that most of the Pali Suttas and Chinese Āgamas are historically reliable. Whether they are spiritually reliable, however, is a matter for us to investigate.

Prerequisites

The Intro to Buddhism course is not a prerequisite for this course. Though some familiarity with Buddhism will be helpful, this course is suitable for serious beginners.

Time Commitment

This course takes about 80 hours to complete, depending on how long it takes you to read and contemplate the suttas. As such, the course can take anywhere from 2 weeks to a year to finish. For example, 3 lectures (6hr) per week would make this a 15 week course.

Course Outline

This course gives a thorough introduction to what the Buddha taught in his own words, and also explores how these words came down to us.

Introduction

Buddha: True Genius – Ajahn Brahmali (mp3)
  • An introductory lecture by Ajahn Brahmali in which he shares with us his love and enthusiasm for the Buddha’s teachings.

Textbook

In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon – Bhikkhu Bodhi

The main textbook for this course is the (commercial) work In The Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi. If you cannot obtain a copy of the book, an open-source version can be read online for free at Reading Faithfully, but the real book is preferred for its helpful redactions and notes.

This book gives a systematic introduction to the Buddha’s teachings, and will be the primary text for this class.

Lectures

  • Bhikkhu Bodhi himself will be your lecturer for this class.

Read a chapter of In the Buddha’s Words (hereafter abbreviated as ItBW), and then listen to the lecture associated with that chapter before moving on to the next. Starting with chapter six, however, the content starts to get a bit more challenging and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lectures start to slow down. You may want to adjust your reading pace accordingly at that point.

Office Hours

If any questions come up for you that aren’t addressed in the lectures, I recommend searching the SuttaCentral Discourse Forum for something relevant to your question. If you can’t find your question answered in the archives, feel free to post it! There are many knowledgeable scholars and students of Early Buddhism on the forum (including yours truly) and we would be happy to help!

About the Texts

As you make your way through ItBW, I encourage you to weave in the following works about the history of the texts you’re studying:

  • Gives a good overview of the oral tradition. Don’t skip it!
Early Buddhism: A Conversation with Kalupahana – Richard Payne (pdf)
  • On why it’s important to study the early texts.
  • Read alongside chapter one of ItBW
  • About the Buddha of the Early Texts compared with the later hagiographies… and our own materialistic assumptions.
  • This should be read alongside chapter two of ItBW which is about the Buddha
Introduction to From Birch Bark to Digital Data – Paul Harrison and Jens-Uwe Hartmann (pdf)
  • Gives an overview of the archeology and methodology employed by modern scholars.
  • Don’t read this to memorize the details. It won’t be on the test! Mostly it’s presented here to give a “behind the scenes” peek at the scholarship that’s gone into discovering early Buddhism.
  • Read alongside chapter three of ItBW: Approaching the Dhamma
  • We invite Ajahn Brahmali back, along with our friend (and founder of SuttaCentral) Ajahn Sujato, for a special guest class on the early texts.
  • Should be done alongside chapter five of ItBW
  • Gives a short overview of how we know these texts are in fact authentic
  • Alongside chapter seven of ItBW
  • Argues against an improvisational oral transmission and shows why we should think of the texts as having been recited verbatim
  • Read alongside chapter nine of ItBW (where the “verbatim” character of some of the suttas should become readily apparent!)

One Additional Sutra

In addition to the Pāli texts highlighted in ItBW, I recommend the following additional discourse:

  • This discourse from the Chinese Canon is included to demonstrate how extraordinarily similar the language of the northern Agamas are compared to the language of the Pāli Canon (preserved in Sri Lanka) This sutra is most directly parallel to the Pāli texts presented in ItBW chapter nine on the Five Aggregates and it could be read when you get to that part of the book, or after you’ve finished.

Conclusion

We end the course with this word of advice:

Bhante Yuttadhammo reminds us to not get too bogged down in scholarship, even though some scholarship is necessary, and encourages us to never forget to put into practice what we learn.

Further Reading

Courses

The Function of Buddhism
A deeper dive into the theory and practice of Buddhism.

Monographs

A classic translation of this classic book of poetry from the Pāli Canon.

Just as the sun is valued not only for its own intrinsic radiance but also for its ability to illuminate the world, so the brilliance of the Buddha is determined not only by the clarity of his Teaching but by his ability to illuminate those who came to him for refuge

The best translation in English of the most important collection of the Buddha’s discourses, with a lengthy introduction, sutta summaries, and helpful endnotes summarizing important commentarial points, this book is a must have for any student of Buddhism.

Booklets

A concise and readable survey of early Buddhist studies, showing the wide evidence we have in support of the authenticity of the EBTs and how we can know about ancient India at all.

the Buddha himself rarely smiles in the Canon, and when he does, the reasons for his smile are never hilarious. Still, the Canon’s reputation for being devoid of humor is undeserved. It’s there in the Canon, but it often goes unrecognized.

Canonical Works

It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief

A beautiful reading of some of the most famous verses in Buddhism.

The Buddha gives a sixteen-step guided meditation on the breath and then explains how this meditation fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness and the seven factors of enlightenment.

Who was the Buddha in his own words? In this story, he calls himself the “Tathagata” or “Truth-Arriver”, and he responds to a question on what will become of him after his death. The Buddha explains that he doesn’t talk in such terms, as he has overcome all such notions as “I am the body” or “I am the mind” so how could such a question ever be answered? He ends the discourse by famously saying that all he teaches is suffering and the end of suffering, thus redirecting our attention from empty philosophical musings to the things that matter most.

Articles

To approach what, for the want of a better term, we call the mythic portions of the Nikayas with the attitude that such categories as “mythic symbol” and “literally true” are absolutely opposed is to adopt an attitude that is out of time and place. It seems to me that in some measure we must allow both a literal and a psychological interpretation. Both are there in the texts.

Essays

I would say that the Nikāyas and Āgamas give us a “historical-realistic perspective” on the Buddha, while the Mahāyāna sūtras give us a “cosmic-metaphysical perspective.”

A good sutta is one that inspires you to stop reading it.

Audio/Video

A short introduction to the Dhammapada, from Gil Fronsdal’s 2008 translation, read by the author.

The text jumps inside me and helps. me. out.

So, when you’re studying Buddhism, what are you studying?
I know the answer. I’m studying me.
I’m studying me.

Reference Shelf

If you are looking to dive into the suttas, there are many good pointers and valuable resources to be found on this blog.

SuttaCentral hosts sources and free translations of Early Buddhist Texts, meticulously organized by parallels, books, languages and searchable with several large indexes. It’s your one-stop-shop for researching the EBTs.

or check out our other courses to continue your studies!