Schayer – Precanonical Buddhism

A separate stance has been taken by Stanislaw Schayer, a Polish scholar, who argued in the 1930s that the Nikayas preserve elements of an archaic form of Buddhism which is close to Brahmanical beliefs,[8][18][85][86] and survived in the Mahayana tradition.[87][88] Contrary to popular opinion, the Theravada and Mahayana traditions may be “divergent, but equally reliable records of a pre-canonical Buddhism which is now lost forever.”[87] The Mahayana tradition may have preserved a very old, “pre-Canonical” tradition, which was largely, but not completely, left out of the Theravada-canon.[88]


Schayer searched in the early texts for ideas that contradict the dominant doctrinal positions of the early canon. According to Schayer, these ideas have

… been transmitted by a tradition old enough and considered to be authoritative by the compilers of the Canon. The last conclusion follows of itself: these texts representing ideas and doctrines contradictory to the generally admitted canonical viewpoint are survivals of older, precanonical Buddhism.[89][note 30]

Edward Conze notes further:

They assume that wherever the Canon contains ideas which conflict with the orthodox theories of the Theravadins and Sarvastivadins, and wherever these ideas are taken up and developed by the Mahayana, we have to deal with a very old, “pre-Canonical” tradition, which was too venerable to be discarded by the compilers of the Canon.[88]

Ideas and practices

Regamy has identified four points which are central to Schayer’s reconstruction of precanonical Buddhism:[90]

  1. The Buddha was considered as an extraordinary being, in whom ultimate reality was embodied, and who was an incarnation of the mythical figure of the tathagata;
  2. The Buddha’s disciples were attracted to his spiritual charisma and supernatural authority;
  3. Nirvana was conceived as the attainment of immortality, and the gaining of a deathless sphere from which there would be no falling back. This nirvana, as a transmundane reality or state, is incarnated in the person of the Buddha;
  4. Nirvana can be reached because it already dwells as the inmost “consciousness” of the human being. It is a consciousness which is not subject to birth and death.

Accordin to Ray, Schayer has shown a second doctrinal position alongside that of the more dominant tradition, one likely to be of at least equivalent, if not of greater, antiquity.[91]

Schayer’s methodology has been used by M. Falk.[91][note 31] Falk details the precanonical Buddhist conceptions of the cosmos, nirvana, the Buddha, the path, and the saint. According to Falk, in the precanonical tradition, there is a threefold division of reality:[91]

  1. The rupadhatu, the samsaric sphere of name and form (namarupa), in which ordinary beings live, die, and are reborn.
  2. The arupadhatu, the sphere of “sheer nama,” produced by samadhi, an ethereal realm frequented by yogins who are not completely liberated;
  3. “Above” or “outside” these two realms is the realm of nirvana, the “amrta sphere,” characterized by prajna. This nirvana is is an “abode” or “place” which is gained by the enlightened holy man.[note 32]

According to Falk, this scheme is reflected in the precanonical conception of the path to liberation.[92] The nirvanic element, as an “essence” or pure consciousness, is immanent within samsara. The three bodies are concentric realities, which are stripped away or abandoned, leaving only the nirodhakaya of the liberated person.[92] Wynne notes that this pure consciousness was the central element in precanonical Buddhism:

Schayer referred to passages in which “consciousness” (vinnana) seems to be the ultimate reality or substratum (e.g. A I.10) 14 as well as the Saddhatu Sutra, which is not found in any canonical source but is cited in other Buddhist texts — it states that the personality (pudgala) consists of the six elements (dhatu) of earth, water, fire, wind, space and consciousness; Schayer noted that it related to other ancient Indian ideas. Keith’s argument is also based on the Saddhatu Sutra as well as “passages where we have explanations of Nirvana which echo the ideas of the Upanishads regarding the ultimate reality.” He also refers to the doctrine of “a consciousness, originally pure, defiled by adventitious impurities.”[93]

Conze mentions ideas like the “person” (pudgala), the assumption of an eternal “consciousness” in the saddhatusutra, the identification of the Absolute, of Nirvana, with an “invisible infinite consciousness, which shines everywhere” in Dighanikdya XI 85, and “traces of a belief in consciousness as the nonimpermanent centre of the personality which constitutes an absolute element in this contingent world.”[88]

According to Lindtner, in precanonical Buddhism Nirvana is

… a place one can actually go to. It is called nirvanadhatu, has no border-signs (animitta), is localized somewhere beyond the other six dhatus (beginning with earth and ending with vijñana) but is closest to akasa and vijñana. One cannot visualize it, it is anidarsana, but it provides one with firm ground under one’s feet, it is dhruva; once there one will not slip back, it is acyutapada. As opposed to this world, it is a pleasant place to be in, it is sukha, things work well.[8][note 33]

According to Lindtner, Canonical Buddhism was a reaction to this view, but also against the absolutist tendencies in Jainism and the Upanisads. Nirvana came to be seen as a state of mind, instead of a concrete place.[8]

Elements of this precanonical Buddhism may have survived the canonisation, and its subsequent filtering out of ideas, and re-appeared in Mahayana Buddhism.[8][85] According to Lindtner, the existence of multiple, and contradicting ideas, is also reflected in the works of Nagarjuna, who tried to harmonize these different ideas. According to Lindtner, this lead him to taking a “paradoxical” stance, for instance regarding nirvana, rejecting any positive description.[8]


According to Conze, Schayer’s approach and results are “merely a tentative hypothesis”.[94] Conze notes that it is also possible that these ideas later entered Buddhism, as a concession to “popular demand, just as the lower goal of birth in heaven (svarga) was admitted side by side with Nirvana.”[94] According to Conze, the real issue is:

Did Buddhism originate among an elite of intellectuals, of philosophical ascetics, and then become a popular religion only at the time of Asoka? Or was it, even from the earliest times onwards, a popular religion based on the cult of the Bhagavan, of the Lord Buddha? And if so, was this religious side a part of its very essence, or just as propagandistic concession to laymen?[94]