What are the salient differences between the Pāḷi Nikāyas & Chinese Āgamas?

I'm looking specifically for a comprehensive list of discourses that are unique in the Āgama collection and differences between parallel discourses.

  • I found this catalog but, if available, something more intelligible would be appreciated. Maybe the only thing available that comes close to the answer is obtained by skimming through this huge bibliography. A list of the main doctrinal differences would be really handy but I guess I have to wait. – Unrul3r Jul 3 '14 at 16:54
  • I guess you know, that the Chinese Agamas are translations of mostly (or only?) Sanskrit canons of schools or sects, that perished at some point. So the content is very much dependent on the specific canon, that was translated. So doctrinal differences can possibly be inferred by the doctrines of the schools in question (Dharmaguptaka, Sarvastivada etc.). On point of importance here is quite surely, that they are rather late texts (as translations). – zwiebel Jul 4 '14 at 16:16
  • Indeed, but I've found some differences from the available translations that make some pāḷi texts more coherent. That's why I'm curious to know what further differences exist. – Unrul3r Jul 4 '14 at 17:22
  • You your self is the best person I met here who can answer this!!! – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 5 '14 at 16:27
  • @SumindaSirinathSalpitikorala That's kind of you. I also thank you for the questions! Without them, it's harder to consolidate knowledge. – Unrul3r Sep 5 '14 at 17:16

Venerable Analayo through the University of Hamburg has given online courses in 2012 and 2013 comparing MN suttas and MA sutras. So far not the whole collection has been covered but in the material covered in those courses, as I can recall, there are some minor differences here and there but nothing that would put in question the central teachings as we know better from the Pali Canon. In 2014 there was a course about bhikkhunis, and maybe next year there will be another course about MN/MA.

You may also want to check http://suttacentral.net/.


I'm not sure if this helps, but since you asked for a list of discourses:

There is an appendix at the end of "Buddhist Religions" (5th Ed.) by Robinson, Johnson, and Thanissaro, entitled "An Overview of the Three Major Canons", which lists the Pail Tipitaka, the Chinese canon, and the (or a) Tibetan canon. It's just lists though -- no commentary or comparison.


From my very limited exposure to Agamas, mostly Samyukta Agama (equivalent of Samyutta Nikaya):

  • Because Chinese is a much more ambiguous language than Pali, Agama translations to English are necessarily more "lossy" than translations from Pali, which preserves many subtleties inherent in Pali grammar. This makes Pali sutras more expressive at micro level.
  • Agama sutras (at least those in Samyukta Agama) that have direct Pali counterparts, seem to be less stereotyped than their Pali versions. Meaning, a section that in Pali would often look like a stereotyped rendition of a matrika that repeats verbatim in many suttas, in Agama sutras seems to be in its pithy form. This makes Agamas more expressive at macro level.

For example, consider the following passage of Kaccayanagotta Sutta / Katyayana Gotra Sutra:


But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one.

'Everything exists': That is one extreme. 'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle:

From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering. Now from the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications. From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness. From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form. From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media. From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling. From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress & suffering.


One who sees arising in the world, is not one who holds to its non-existence. One who sees extinction in the world, is not one who holds to its existence.

This is spoken of as ‘freedom from the Two Extremes,’ which is called the Middle Way:

That is, that "this existence" is the cause of "that existence", and "this arising" is the cause of "that arising". These are caused by ignorance, including even the entire arising of the pure mass of suffering. When ignorance ends, then from this comes the end of such actions, including even the end of the pure mass of suffering.”

To me it looks like (Samyukta) Agama sutras are closer to what the original sutras must have been (minus the lossy nature of Chinese language) - while Pali Nikaya suttas have evidently underwent editing and elaboration/formalization which often caused a loss of context-specific subtleties.

The bottom line is, if one wants to get a deep understanding of a topic, it would be a good idea to study the both sources. But if I can boil down the salient differences to a single point, Agamas seem to better convey the overall meaning of each discourse, while Nikayas are better at details.

According to scientists (can't find the reference now), the Sarvastivada Canon that later got translated to Chinese as Agamas, has been put in writing several centuries before the Pali Canon, which would make it that much closer to what was said in that First Buddhist Council. I wish we had Samyukta Agama survive in Sanskrit - it would be the best of both worlds.

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