I read somewhere that the Middle Length and Long Discourses in the Pali Canon were intended for different audiences. I think it was that the Long Discourses were intended to convert people to Buddhism and the Middle Length discourses were targeted at experienced practitioners. I could have got that the wrong way around or just generally wrong but I do remember that someone said they were intended for different groups of people.

Does that ring true with anyone? Can anyone give any further details of whether these parts where for different people and if any of the other parts of the Pali Canon would also be intended for different people. I'm more thinking about the Sutta Pitaka. Clearly the Vinaya Pitaka was for monks and the Abhidhamma Pitaka would have been more advance.

5 Answers 5


Each Sutta was intended for a specific audience to address a specific issue. This is one of the reasons why there was a need for an Abhidhamma that consolidated the messages from all of the Suttas into a overarching framework.

You are absolutely correct that each Nikāya has a different "character". The Dīgha Nikāya tends to include a lot of mythological material and complex arguments. The Majjhima Nikāya tends to include clear explanations of fundamental doctrines. Because of these differences, the different Nikāya appeal to different people for different reasons.

I think that it is important to view the Sutta Piṭaka as collections that evolved over hundreds of years. There was no "master compiler" who said, "Okay, let's put that here for this reason...".

Recent scholarship has compared the Pāḷi Suttas with the Sutras from other schools. Schools started to diverge about 100 years after the Buddha's parinibbāna. In general, the core messages contained in the Suttas and the core messages contained in the Sutras are almost the same, suggesting that the core messages predate the split. Some of the details contained in the Suttas and the details contained in the Sutras are different, suggesting that some of the details were added / deleted / changed after the split. In many cases, the organization of the Suttas is different from the organization of the Sutras, suggesting that the final compilation into Nikāya / Āgama was not determined until after the split.

BTW, the Abhidhamma and the Abhidharma are quite different, suggesting that these were not "fully baked" at the time of the split.

So getting back to your main question... I do not believe that the different "character" of each Nikāya was by grand design, it was more "evolution" rather than "creationism" :-)

Actually, the Suttas (MN 22) mention nine ways of presenting the Dhamma:

dialogues (sutta), narratives of mixed prose and verse (geyya), explanations (veyyakaraṇa), verses (gāthā), spontaneous exclamations (udāna), quotations (itivuttaka), birth stories (jātaka), amazing events (abbhutadhamma), question & answer sessions (vedalla)

Looking at this list, it appears to be grouped according to style of presentation rather than by intended audience. Some of these (udāna, itivuttaka and jātaka) ended up being separate texts in the Khuddaka Nikāya.

  • Yep. I think this covers it. The differences between DN and MN may have given rise to the conjecture that they were intended for different audiences, but I have not come across this before and I don't see how one could test it.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 7:05
  • I have come across this observation before (can't remember where). It may well be that DN is better for recruiting while MN is better for training, but I don't think that is the reason for allocating content.
    – RobM
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 7:11
  • "SuttaNipatha" the most early sutta collection, is also in the Khuddaka Nikaya as a separate book.
    – Shrawaka
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 3:27

Purely subjectively, to me, it looks like DN suttas are rather artificial compilations, followed closely by MN suttas.

Of these two DN suttas seem the most contrived - none of them look like Buddha's direct words to me but rather like nice and clear summaries assembled from Buddha's quotes with some glue added for smoothness.

Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas are very different from the above, esp. Anguttara feels like an anthology of raw quotes as close as it gets to Buddha's own words.

My speculation is that Nikayas were created not with specific audiences in mind, but rather by following four very different methodologies. Perhaps DN were created as all-encompassing summaries of the entire teaching across wide range of Buddhist topics, by people who believed that the raw unedited teaching was too fragmented and incomprehensible to most people. MN was seemingly made by picking the points that were most often debated by the non-Buddhist sects and creating nice clear arguments against them. SN feels like a result of an enormous effort to organize the quotes by topics, by people who must have believed in the power of reason. AN seems like a simple collection of all kinds of quotes by rather practical people who believed in K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid). KN is various useful and not-so-useful Buddhist folklore that is not made of Buddha's quotes.

Naturally, the methods and attitudes of the compilers reflected in the suitability of this or that collection for certain audience. But I don't think they were specifically intended for different audiences, no.


In addition to what @RobM has mentioned.

There are 4 types of learners1:

  1. The intuitive or quick learner (ugghatitañña)
  2. The intellectual (vipañcitañña)
  3. The one who needs guidance (neyya)
  4. The rote learner (pada,parama)

There is a view that the Abhidhamma is for the type 3 & 4. Type 1 & 2 have realised a lot due to their past pratice and a Sutta would clear the dust in their eyes. The ones who need more learning are 3 and 4 hence have to lean the doctrine. The Suttas are like a collection of prescriptions given to cure a particular person. The Abhidhamma contains the complete doctrine or the body of knowledge medicine. You become a doctor or knowledgeable in medicine by studying the body of knowledge of medicine and not my reading prescriptions. Also if you are a medical intern you might sometimes need guidance from a doctor. (Guidance coming from the Suttas). Your current knowledge base from past pratice and study to become an intern. (Comparable to the Abhidhamma) Moreover, type 1 & 2 just listening to the Sutta realised the Dhamma from their past pratice type 3 & 4 need to learn the full doctrine hence rely on the Abhidhamma.

This is just a view held by some.

1 To read more on them see: Levels of Learning by Piya Tan


Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his introduction to the Saṃyutta Nikāya:

Prevalent scholarly opinion, fostered by the texts themselves, holds that the principal basis for distinguishing the four Nikāyas is the length of their suttas. Thus the largest suttas are collected into the Dıgha Nikāya, the middle length suttas into the Majjhima Nikāya, and the shorter suttas are distributed between the Saṃyutta and the Aṅguttara Nikāyas, the former classifying its suttas thematically, the latter by way of the number of items in terms of which the exposition is framed.

However, in an important groundbreaking study, Pāli scholar Joy Manné has challenged the assumption that length alone explains the differences between the Nikāyas. By carefully comparing the suttas of DN with those of MN, Manné concludes that the two collections are intended to serve two different purposes within the Buddha’s dispensation. In her view, DN was primarily intended for the purpose of propaganda, to attract converts to the new religion, and thus is aimed mainly at non-Buddhists favourably disposed to Buddhism; MN, in contrast, was directed inwards towards the Buddhist community and its purpose was to extol the Master (both as a real person and as an archetype) and to integrate monks into the community and the practice. Manné also proposes that “each of the first four Nikāyas came about in order to serve a distinct need and purpose in the growing and developing Buddhist community”.


In the first council collect Dhamma(suttas) from those who have listened from the teacher and check for correctness. After that group them as DN - Long, MN-Middle and (KN) Shorter ( Books) collections. Also some suttas group according to topics base in SN. In AN group in numerical base of topics for easy reference.

  • Thanks - but were they targeted at different audiences? Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 7:26
  • SN is good for meditate guide.. 'Sutta Nipatha' in KN is physiologically advance topics. . Dammapada for general use. Jathaka etc for religious.
    – Shrawaka
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 7:32

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