Antiquity of the Suttas

There is a wide range of opinion about the authenticity and antiquity of the suttas. Most traditional Theravada Buddhists maintain that the suttas, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma are the perfectly preserved words of the Buddha himself. His is pretty clearly not the case. The Abhidhamma and most of the Khuddaka Nikaya are pretty clearly late (meaning coming hundreds of years after the Buddha). Even the oldest strata of suttas underwent evolution and transformation in the 25 or so centuries of their transmission.

On the other hand, some scholars demand such a high degree of evidence for the antiquity of the suttas that they refuse to date the suttas as we have them as any younger than 1000 years after the Buddha. This, to my way of thinking, is incredibly excessive.  Here is a nice summary of some of the evidence from Alexander Wynne’s fascinating The Origin of Buddhist Meditation:

Scholars such as Schopen would have us believe that the Pali canon is evidence for Buddhism up to the time of the commentators, a view that implies that texts commented upon by fifth-century authors are not necessarily older than the commentaries themselves. But this is absurd. The very existence of the commentaries presupposes a textual tradition of some antiquity…The internal evidence of the texts themselves, as well as archaeological and epigraphical evidence, suggest that ancient texts have been preserved in the early literature, in spite of the corrosive effects of time…

…the texts seem to belong to a period of Indian history before the third century BC: they do no mention Asoka, which is hardly likely if they were still open in his time. [Open means still actively changing.]…

Moreover, Pali is a North Indian language that appears to show no traces of a Sinhalese dialect. [Sinhalese is the language of Sri Lanka, where the Pali canon was preserved for most of its history.] If the language of the canon was not changed in spite of its Sinhalese surroundings, it is reasonable to assume that is contents were not changed either. This suggestion is supported by the fact that texts received by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka from other Buddhist sects in India were not placed in the Pali canon, even when there were good reasons for doing so. This suggests that the early Sri Lankan Buddhists regarded some of the Pali literature as canonical and transmitted it conservatively.


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