Do people (monks and/or scholars) have a sense of how old (or relatively old) each sutta is in the Pali canon: i.e. which suttas are considered "earlier" or "later"?

If not for individual suttas, how about for whole Nikayas: are some Nikayas viewed as being probably earlier and/or later?

If the answer is "yes", is there a reference on this subject suitable for a non-expert ("suitable" meaning "readable" and "not controversial, generally accepted by other experts" and preferably "identifies the evidence on which it bases its conclusions" ... and preferably also translated into English)?

How does this (notion of some progressive history of earlier and of later suttas) fit with the Buddhist councils? Were different suttas adopted at different councils? The Wikipedia article about the councils gives me the (perhaps wrong) impression that all suttas were recorded in the first council. Do differences arise from when the suttas were transcribed as translated rather than from when they were accepted into the remembered/oral canon?

Piya Tan's analysis of DN 30 includes text like the following:

Historically, the Buddha has none of these superhuman marks, but his authenticity and spirituality are in no way diminished or affected. They are at best mythical marks of the fruits of his past good karma, as detailed in the Lakkhaa Sutta (D 30).12 We will now examine how and why these marks arose.

The earliest sources of a full list of the thirty-two marks are the following suttas: ...

Earliest allusions: ...

Should I take that as implying that he has a reference that tells him which are the "earliest" suttas? Or is he saying there that all suttas are the earliest source?

Taking this paper as an example, should I infer that the current state-of-the-art is that some scholars try to decide what's early and late by comparing different versions (e.g. Pali and Chinese) of a sutta: but that though with a lot of work they try that for one sutta, such hasn't been done for most suttas and there's no reference of dates (of specific suttas) nor even generalization (e.g. about Nikayas).

I think I've read various people mention other examples too, of topics evolving: for example that earliest suttas talks about fewer than five lay precepts.


7 Answers 7


I can't translate the whole of question, however I tried to answer as I can do.

Layers of pali literature already being in buddha-living-period.

There are many pali literature in buddha's time, such as buddha's literature, sāriputta's literature, mahākaccāna's literature, upāli's literature, etc. Because every mahāsāvaka have there own students.

But the most influential literature are buddha's literature and sāriputta's literature.

4 nikaya are buddha's literature, most of the others cannon are sāriputta's literature, because he is the one who buddha said "sāriputta is the best teacher who can teach like me". So everyone always go to meet sāriputta to listen his teaching, in his literature. But if someone need buddha's literature, they will go to meet buddha or ānanda, who is the best in sutta memorizing.

So, abhidhamma is difference from sutta, because commentary said "abhidhamma is memorized by sāriputta". And the other buddha's sāvaka book also have literature look like sāriputta's literature because everyone in buddha-living-period often go to learn dhamma with sāriputta (see:mahāgosiṅgasālasuttaṃ).

7 Vinaya-pitaka, is memorized by Upāli and his students. He also author some path of parivāra because buddha said in tipitaka (a.n.) "Upāli is the best vinaya-memorizer" (vinayadharānaṃ yadidaṃ upāliฯ).

Suttanta-pitaka is memorized by Ānanda. But in 1st saṅgayanā, 500 arahanta decide to separate whole sutta to 4 nikya.Then they gave each nikya to a group of 4 etadagga and his student to especially memorize it.

Who are the members, of group of 4 etadagga? Ānanda and his students (tn), Sāriputta's students (mn), Kassapa and his students (sn), Anuruddha and his students (an). (The others have learned and memorized dhamma, too, but buddha said "ānanda is the best", so everyone need him in 1st saṅgayanā).

Abhidhamma-pitaka, paṭisambhidāmagga, niddesa, buddhavaṃsa, cariyā-pitaka, except kathāvatthu of moggalliputta, is learned by Sāriputta, But then they are memorized by every arahanta, because everyone in buddha-living-period often go to listen Sāriputta (see:mahāgosiṅgasālasuttaṃ).

Origin: http://www.tipitaka.org/romn/cscd/s0101a.att0.xml

  • 1
    What does "literalness" mean? Can you suggest any alternate translation[s] of that word (because I'm not sure "literalness" makes sense)?
    – ChrisW
    Jun 23, 2017 at 23:27
  • literalness=structure of pali. Literal is adjective, so I think I can't use it as noun. My english is terrible. I'm sorry.
    – Bonn
    Jun 24, 2017 at 2:02
  • 1
    I think you say, for example, "buddha's literality", I think you mean "text in which the Buddha's words are quoted ... text which is attributed to the Buddha".
    – ChrisW
    Jun 27, 2017 at 11:58
  • What is the word mean pali structure ,pali context, pali syntext?
    – Bonn
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:31
  • 1
    Those (structure, context, syntax) are all good words. Did you mean "literature" (which means, "text which people read and study")?
    – ChrisW
    Jun 27, 2017 at 13:35

I would hold the view that all Theravada Suttas were recorded in the 1st council. There was a split that happened in the 2nd council which resulted in schism which lead to Theravada and Mahayana. The Mahayana school did develop new Suttas but also preserved the old in the Agamas.

Many scholars referring to figure out if a Sutta is early or later compares these Theravada and Agama source this are very similar but having disimilarities also. If they tally they rationalize this is an early source. If there is any addition they consider this perhaps a later composition. I would personally believe if something is missing in the Agamas this would have been transmission error as the Mahayana school was not as metriculers as to preserving wording as the Theravada tradition. (Since there are many later additions in the Mahayana school.) Also Mahayana texts were translations whereas Pali language was close to or same as Magahi which was spoken by the Buddha himself. So here also discrepancies could have arose.

After the 3rd council the likelihood of changes to the Theravada Tripitaka would have been very small as Buddhism spread to to multiple location which survived in countries like Burma. If there would have been discrepancies then the version in the countries would diverge.

In the 4th council the Tripitaka was put in writing. This would have eliminated any room to discrepancies as this was also not confined to one country. Any changes would lead to discrepancies.

The Theravada councils were more heard to collect compare all the sources and redistribute the aggregate source than new compositions.

Also in the case of the Bahudhātuka-sutta certain parts were missing in the chinese version which prompted to ascertain than this is a later composition by the Theravada school which would resonate well with modern through with equal rights to women. I feel this seams like biases in the research there the research was bent to fit modern thought and outlook. Sometimes it might be personal perceptions backed by evidence and logic to rationalize.

Also taking the intersection than the union may not be the way to go in my opinion as Satipatthana Mula by Piya Tan this would leave out some aspects of the Sutta which does make practical sense. Also note certain areas in this analysis does have common areas from more than one independent school which indicate certain parts may have been lost than composed.

At least in the Theravada school miss attributing anything to the Buddha or changing the words would have been very much feared hence would have been preserved well.

Among the current editions the discrepancies are very rare, but there are some discrepancies. One example is Pacalā Sutta.

Ultimately what is the Dhamma and what is not should be settled not at intellectual speculation but at experiential level and practice wherever possible, though some insights may not arise in every one. Any discrepancies regarding the practice should be verified by the practice.


I imagine the 1st three suttas of the Buddha (SN 56.11, SN 22.59 & SN 35.28) are universally held to be as such. These 1st three suttas are exclusively focused on individual practise for renunciates (those that had left the household life) & here-&-now realisation. As time passed, it appears likely the scope of the Buddha's audience increased and eventually the scope of the audience of the Buddhist religion increased. Thus the transition from very precise & supramundane suttas using very precise language to more broad & worldly suttas using less precise language would logically be indicative of earlier versus later discourses.

For example, the Digha Nikaya would likely include many later suttas because DN 15 departs from the usual description of Dependent Origination and because the DN contains suttas about past lives, past Buddhas and the origin of the physical world, which are obviously alien to the subject matter of the 1st three suttas & alien to the core message.

Even the topic of the Three Knowledges, while probably spoken by the Buddha himself, indicates a description of enligthenment given at a later period for a broader audience (since the language contained within is multi-interpretable). That the Three Knowledges are often spoken to Brahmans & laypeople support this view.

  • I think I don't understand what's meant by "supramundane" in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Aren't the first three suttas practical, "real" in some sense, and therefore precise and "wordly"; and isn't "supramundane" more or less a synonym for "supernatural": which might include topics such as other realms (e.g. of devas), other lives, perhaps iddhis, etc.?
    – ChrisW
    Jan 15, 2017 at 4:33
  • "Supramundane" refers to "lokuttara" or "transcendent". "Lokuttara" means "beyond or above the world". All teachings of absolute verifiable liberating truth are supramundane. Where as any teaching that cannot be verified or is a general (but not absolute) moral principle (eg. kamma & result) is "lokiya" or "worldly". Refer to the two sorts of right view in MN 117. Therefore, the 1st three sermons are supramundane or lokuttara. Regards Jan 15, 2017 at 6:12

Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali are of the following opinion (in The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts):

  1. Early Buddhist Texts [EBTs]: Texts spoken by the historical Buddha and his contemporary disciples. These are the bulk of the Suttas in the main four Pali Nikāyas and parallel Āgama literature in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other Indian dialects; the pātimokkhas and some Vinaya material from the khandhakas; a small portion of the Khuddaka Nikāya, consisting of significant parts of the Sutta Nipāta, Udāna, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, and Thera- and Therī Gāthā. The “Suttas” in a narrow sense are those passages that are directly attributed to the Buddha himself (and to a lesser extent his direct disciples).

  2. Non-EBTs: Abhidhamma, Mahāyāna Sūtras, Buddha biographies, historical chronicles, as well as the majority of the Khuddaka Nikāya and the Vinaya Piṭaka. The Jātakas are non-EBT, but derive from stories that in some cases may even be earlier than the Buddha. Commentaries and other late texts may contain some genuine historical information alongside much later invention.

If I recall correctly, Bhikkhu Analayo has a similar view as well, though he considers only the verses of the suttas in the Khuddaka EBT set to be EBT, and not the contextual text that precede them.

Back to Sujato & Brahmali, they also write (references elided):

Even in the stylistically oldest part of the Khuddaka Nikāya, such as the Sutta Nipāta, the Udāna, and the Dhammapada, there is substantial divergence between the schools. This is despite the fact that these texts do have a common core, which is found across the different traditions. With texts such as the Abhidhamma, despite a small common core, the divergence is even greater. But the vast majority of Buddhist texts are exclusive to the individual schools and do not have any parallels at all.


Finally, it has also been proposed that the first three of the 9 aṅgas [of the Saṁyutta nikaya] should be identified with the proto-Saṁyutta, based on a statement by Asanga and on the pattern of distribution of texts within these collections.

"should I infer that the current state-of-the-art is that some scholars try to decide what's early and late by comparing different versions"

The comparative studies are also used to shed light on the age of discourses. But the texts themselves may give some clues as to their age by analysis of style, metre of verses or vocabulary. For example, a text may use terms that are reminiscent of a certain period, or use terms that are not found in a larger body of text that is presumed to be old.


  • I think quotes found in commentaries are too used to estimate how old is a passage.
  • errors, which are usually copied along the chain might be used to place a text in a timeframe.
  • geopolitical descriptions contained in the text may be used, together with archeology, to position it in time, as well as inscriptions found in ancient artifacts.

Anyway, this book is probably the best starting point to explore these questions. It's full of references, and also presents the view of researchers who disagree with the authors (thus, the reader gets to know the "who is who" list in the [western?] scholastic community).

"How does this (notion of some progressive history of earlier and of later suttas) fit with the Buddhist councils? Were different suttas adopted at different councils?"

As I understand, the traditional position is that the nikayas were fixed at the 1st council. Scholars, however, often talk about a later moment where a canon is "closed to addition". Certainly the existing parallel nikayas do not agree verbatim, so the historical question of the original nikayas spoken at the 1st council remains.

"Do differences arise from when the suttas were transcribed as translated rather than from when they were accepted into the remembered/oral canon?"

I think there are differences of script in manuscripts, but I don't know much more than that.

Finally, the presentation "The ur-text of the Pali Tipiṭaka" by Alex Wynne, might be of interest.


Wikipedia's Atthakavagga and Parayanavagga says,


Some scholars regard the Aṭṭhakavagga and the Pārāyanavagga as being considerably earlier in composition than the bulk of the canon, and as revealing an earlier form of Buddhism.[1] They are regarded as earlier because of elements of language and composition, their inclusion in very early commentaries, and also because some have seen them as expressing versions of certain Buddhist beliefs that are different from, and perhaps prior to, their later codified versions.[2] In this thinking, the Pārāyanavagga is somewhat closer to the later tradition than the Aṭṭhakavagga.[3] The Khaggavisānasutta (Rhinoceros Sutra), also in the Sutta Nipāta, similarly seems to reveal an earlier mode of Buddhist monasticism, which emphasized individual wandering monastics, more in keeping with the Indian sannyāsin tradition.

In 1994, a group of texts which are the earliest Indian manuscripts discovered were found in Gandhara.[note 2] These texts include a relatively complete version of the Rhinoceros Sutra and textual material from the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga.

Translations of these suttas are listed here on Access to insight (Chapters 4 and 5 of the Sutta Nipata within the Khuddaka Nikaya).

Each chapter has an introduction by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (here and here). The former says that evidence for its being earlier than the rest of the canon is weak; the latter says (without explanation),

There is evidence that these sixteen dialogues were highly regarded right from the very early centuries of the Buddhist tradition.

Wikipedia also says of the Rhinoceros Sutra,

The Rhinoceros Sutra has long been identified, along with the Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga, as one of the earliest texts found in the Pāli Canon.[1] This identification has been reinforced by the discovery of a version in the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, the oldest Buddhist (and, indeed, Indian) manuscripts extant. It also exists in a Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit version. The early date for the text along with its rather unusual (within community-oriented Buddhism) approach to monastic life have led some scholars to suggest that it represents a holdover from a very early stage of Buddhism.

The Rhinoceros Sutra is in the first chapter of the Sutta Nipata within the Khuddaka Nikaya, i.e. here on Access to insight.


In his book, "A History of Mindfulness", Bhikkhu Sujato claims that the Samyutta Nikaya is the earliest Nikaya collection. The major tool of his argument is the comparison of the congruences of each Theravada Nikaya with the corresponding Agama of the Sarvastivada tradition. The Madhyama Agama and the Samyukta Agama of Sarvastivada are preserved in the Chinese Tripitaka while a substantial part of the Sanskrit Dirgha has been recently discovered in Afghanistan. Sujato notices that among these three pairs, the Samyutta Nikaya and Samyukta Agama pair shows the greatest structural congruence while the other two pairs are structurally very dissimilar. From this he concludes that the Samyukta had been largely closed before the separation of Vibhajyavada (Theravada) and Sarvastivada. Since the Sarvastivada counterpart of the Anguttara Nikaya is lost to us, this comparison method cannot say anything about its relative dating. But Sujato thinks that the Anguttara is anyway later than Samyutta since it was composed using the small-sized suttas that could not be included in the thematic system of the Samyutta.

Sujato's conclusion about the Samyutta's antiquity was anticipated by the Taiwanese scholar Yin Shun who argued that the contents of the Samyutta fit neatly with the first three angas (namely, sutra, geya and vyakarana) of the nine-anga classification system of the canon. According to him, the authenticity of the Samyutta in ancient times is also supported by the fact that the author of Yogacarabhumisastra, the definitive text of the Yogacara school, included an extensive commentary on the sutra-anga portion of the Samyukta in it.

So, considering the research of Bhikkhu Sujato and Yin Shun, one can say that the sutra-anga portion of the Samyutta is the oldest part of the Sutta Pitaka, apart from probably the Atthakavagga and the Parayanavagga of Sutta Nipata.

N.B. - Yin Shun has not written in English but a summary of his research can be found in Choong Mun-keat, "The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism".


As much as I am frequently impressed by Theravada Buddhists analytical and research skills, I can't help but be dismayed at how literal they seems to be taking the Pali Suttas in terms of accuracy in a manner similar to Christian biblical literalists. Resulting in often very fatalistic views when it comes to issues regarding prophesies.

There are plenty of evidence to show that the Abhidhamma was a later compilation and systematic synthesis of the Buddha's teachings. (In some early Buddhist schools, the Abhidhamma was not accepted as canon, and in fact the Mahayana and Theravada Abhidhamma differ markedly). And in fact many further schism were the result of disagreements on the doctrines presented by each schools. The fact that Abhidhamma was according to the narrative given by the Buddha to his mother in heaven should be an indication that the masters who compiled them meant them in a metaphorical manner. (In similar veins the Prajnaparamita Sutras are said to be stored in a realm of nagas, which are symbols of enlightenment).

In fact even the historical narrative differs across tradition. The Theravada claims that the Mahāsāṃghika broke away from the teachings of the elders by changing the Vinaya, when historical evidence indicates the opposite, that an elderly group 'Sthavira' (elders) wanted to add more monastic rules to the Vinaya, (presumably due to some misbehavior by monks) but was rejected by the majority and hence split away. In fact scholarly research indicates that the Mahāsāṃghika vinaya is most likely the oldest. This isn't biased in favor of Mahayana either as the vinaya of Chinese Buddhism is Dharmaguptaka, which like the Theravada also descended from Sthavira. In fact Chinese pilgrims like Faxian went to India to find the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya which was recognized as the earliest in extant.

In fact, the varieties of similar but ultimately slightly different sutras of Early Buddhism found indicate that while most of the message of Buddhism is the same, the details isn't necessarily fixed and could have been represented differently to push a particular doctrinal view.

So the narrative that the Theravada is the purest Buddhist teaching is not supported by evidence. It is indeed the most conservative, but by no means is it 'pure'. And in fact purity is not helpful if the message is not in line with the truth.

Mahayana arose exactly to counter many ontological and metaphysical claims by many early Buddhist schools, many of which are still presented in Theravada. For example, Theravada doctrine holds that Nibbana is eternal and unconditioned, the Ariyas are in special metaphysical states, such as the claims that the Arahants are perfect, Stream Enterers have no doubt. This is explicitly denied in Mahayana Prajnaparamitas Sutras teachings on Emptiness, that is because all things are dependently originated and hence all things including wisdom, enlightenment and Nirvana are ultimately as impermanent as the mental afflictions of doubt. This of course result in a very different outlook regarding the purpose of Buddhist practice, resulting in the Bodhisattva ideals rather than aiming for Final Nirvana. If anything this is far more in line with what the Buddha taught about impermanence and selflessness.

In fact if you look at Mahayana Mahapitaka (Great Basket of Scriptures), the Agamas are arranged separately early in the scriptural collection. Which indicates that Mahayana Buddhists were keenly aware that it represent an earlier set of teachings separated from say teachings on emptiness in the Prajnaparamitas Sutras and many other later Buddhist teachings such as Pure Land Buddhism. To me, this is more honest than Theravada claim of being pure Buddhism and much more reasonable than a position based on appeal to authority.

  • Thank you, but this doesn't seem to answer the question: which of the Pali suttas might be earlier (or later) than other Pali suttas?
    – ChrisW
    Jan 13, 2017 at 17:36
  • It is an interesting introduction to Mahayana though, and is close to the topic (though not on-topic) by identifying doctrines which Mahayana finds dubious; so thank you again.
    – ChrisW
    Jan 14, 2017 at 10:59
  • Forgive me for adding this elementary comment: I just read (in Wikipedia again) that the "Prajñāpāramitā sūtras" are thought to be among the earliest "Mahāyāna sūtras".
    – ChrisW
    Jun 23, 2017 at 13:26
  • @Yinxu To preserve a scene as evident I pass on upvote. Maybe you are interested to know that how Theosophical Society built up Buddhism during and after the colonial era in Southeast Asia. I was pointed to it by a random visitor of this forum who was editing my answer of a completely unrelated question - a kind of providential revelation :D? Then everything becomes clear and all the dots joint... These people don't know what they are doing, they don't know they are editing a Buddhist Bible... Jun 27, 2017 at 23:16
  • @Yinxu But I dispute your last paragraph statement "...the Agamas are arranged separately early in the scriptural collection..." thus represented as if it's the early teaching. Instead, Agamas are the basic teaching (that's why these listed at the starting of the Mahayana Sutras section-numbering) learnt by all schools, as evident evacuated fragments of Agamas are kept in different schools' sites. Jun 28, 2017 at 8:19

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