Buddhist Hermeneutics and the Problem of Tradition

Dedicated to Bhikku Sujato

Zen monkBuddhist hermeneutics – from the Greek hermeneutikos, “of or for interpreting,” commonly but erroneously associated with the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods  – is still in its infancy in the West, as the Dharma Transmission to the West, now in its 108th year, continues to take hold and proliferate. The most common Buddhist hermeneutic, especially amongst both traditional and modern Theravadins, is historicism, i.e., the belief that the meaning of the Buddhist message is identical with the words uttered by Siddattha Gotama (c. 445 – c. 400 BCE), the historical Buddha. Although this hermeneutic may seem to many to be straightforward and self-evident, critical evaluation reveals it to involve numerous problems, including:

  1. Objective identification of the actual historical words of the Buddha (the Buddhavacana);
  2. Determination of the correct meanings of the words and the doctrines that they imply;
  3. Resolution of apparent contradictions;
  4. Resolution of apparent nonsense, including the problem of what nonsense actually is in the context of cultural relativism (i.e., what may be nonsense to you may not be nonsense to me and vice versa, and what may be nonsense to us may not have been nonsense 2,500 years ago); and
  5. The question of whether the Buddhavacana is comprehensive, complete, and exclusive, even if it is accurate and true.

These problems occur against a religious backdrop that tends to hold, influenced by the Buddhist doctrine of the “degenerate age,” that “later = bad,” thus disparaging later texts as inherently non-historical and dubious, even within the canonical tradition of the Pali Canon itself. This kind of analytical necrotizing fasciitis threatens to devolve into nihilism. The latter also represents a decisive break with orthodox Theravada, even though many people who criticize the Pali Canon in this way hold themselves out to be Theravadin.

The orthodox Theravada, which still has numerous adherents, both in Asia and in the West, holds that the Pali texts of the Pali Canon, including the Vinaya, Suttas, and Abhidhamma, all incorporate the exact words used by Siddattha Gotama, in the language spoken by the Buddha, remembered pre-eminently by Ananda, who was graced with the gift of photographic memory, and verified by the arhants of the First Buddhist Council and their successors who were perfect and infallible in their understanding of the dharma. Thus, the collective text of the Pali Canon is the literal Buddhavacana, handed down without error for 2,500 years. We in the West are of course familiar with such thinking amongst Jews and Christians (the Bible is the literal inspired Word of Yahweh or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) and Muslims (the Qur’an is the literal Word of Allah, dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel and preserved through an impeccable process of collation, after which all deviant texts were destroyed).

However, even if we accept the orthodox premise, the problem of hermeneutics is not yet solved. There is still the problem of interpreting the meaning of the language of the infallibly revealed scriptures and doctrines and the questions of whether these meanings are complete and comprehensive, and whether the texts themselves exhaust all possible meanings, therefore illegitimizing any subsequent interpretation.

A lot of academic and scholarly effort has been put into the Pali Canon in the past hundred years, thanks to the pioneering efforts of F. Max Muller, Rhys Davids, and others. Although there are extremists who deny any legitimacy to the Pali Canon, the general consensus today is that the Pali Canon, especially the Four Great Nikayas, so-called (the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara), represent the historically oldest strata of Buddhist scriptures, and are probably substantially similar to the books that were compiled in the first century BCE, three hundred years after the death of the Buddha, even though we have few texts actually dating from that period due to the perishable nature of the writing materials that were used. This has led some denialists to reject the Pali Canon tradition entirely as the invention of “Western Orientalists.” It might even be true that these texts are substantially similar to the texts as they appeared in the mid-third century BCE, about 150 years after the Buddha’s death. (For comparison, this corresponds to the Christian literature between 180 and 380 CE, none of which is canonical.)

On the other hand, the Pali Canon has the virtues of repetition and size, so that it is possible to identify recurrent themes in the texts that were presumably emphasized in the original teachings. However, even here there is controversy. The important Polish Buddhologist, Stanislaw Schayer, undeservedly little known in the West, opined that the exceptional, contrary, and idiosyncratic material that was left in the Pali Canon may be even more significant than the stock doctrines precisely because they were left in the Canon by its conservative redactors. By emphasizing these teachings, Schayer arrives at a proto-Mahayanist view that contradicts the mainstream view that still regards the Theravada as the most historically authentic school. Based on the current consensus of the dates of the Buddha, called the “median chronology,” which places his “passing on” (parinibbana) about 400 BCE, these texts were passed down orally for about three hundred years before being committed to writing, although some parts of some texts may have been written down as early as the third century BCE. The Four Nikayas consist of several thousand suttas, or “discourses,” mostly attributed to the Buddha, purportedly delivered over the course of forty-five years after his Enlightenment experience. These include the places, names of the interlocutors, and sometimes evidential information concerning the relative dates of the discourses. However this information is highly dubious given two passages in the Vinaya that describe a process of arbitrarily assigning places to suttas for which places were not known, and discrepancies of places and people involved in discourses that are very similar or even identical (of course, it is also possible that the Buddha gave the same or similar discourses in different places, especially during the last years of his teaching career). On the other hand, the doctrinal significance of such differences is negligible.

In English translation, the Four Nikayas constitute about 6,000 pages, or two million words. This corresponds to roughly 250 hours of speech, about five hours for each year that the Buddha reportedly taught. The suttas represent the Buddha as engaged in a virtually continuous process of communication with monastics, lay followers, and interested visitors based on a dialogic question-and-answer process. Clearly, if this is true, five hours per year does not come close to what the Buddha must actually have said, even allowing for repetitions, which also occur in the Pali suttas themselves, so these cancel out. Even if we cautiously assume that the Buddha spoke for two hours per day, two days per week, his actual speech must have been nearly fifty times this. Thus, it seems that the view of the Dharmaguptaka, a sect of the Hinayana (c. 232 BCE), that the “original teachings of the Buddha had been lost,” is justified, at least in part. It has also been pointed out that many of the passages in the Pali Canon pertaining to the major doctrines are merely lists of headings; the doctrines themselves are not explained in any detail. Thus, a great range of interpretations is still possible.

Most scholars today do not believe that the Pali language in which the Pali Canon is preserved is the actual language of the historical Buddha. Rather, Pali appears to have been an artificial language hybridizing several prakrit dialects constructed post facto in order to address the increasing linguistic and geographic diversity of the Buddhist community (sangha) that originated in Western India during the third century BCE. On the other hand, it seems likely that Pali was similar to the language or languages that the Buddha actually spoke. Thanks to the herculean efforts of the Pali Text Society, especially the Pali-English Dictionary (1921-1925), Pali is fairly well understood, though more comparative and historical studies of the vocabulary as used throughout the Canon need to be done and are now possible using computer analysis. Pali and Sanskrit also draw on a common set of etymological roots in Vedic proto-Sanskrit, the study of which greatly facilitates interpretation and translation. Peter Masefield has complained, however, that Pali translators are insufficiently attentive to the technical philosophical meanings of the words.

The state of knowledge in this area has been nicely summarized by Bhikkus Sujato and Brahmali in their monograph on this topic entitled “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts,” published by Chroniker Press. Rhys Davids and Pande (Studies in the Origins of Buddhism, 4th ed., 1995) have also made significant contributions. Sujato and Brahmali appear to adhere to the revisionist Theravada school sometimes called “Modern Theravada,” a.k.a Progressive Theravada, Early Buddhism, or Original Buddhism. The main conclusion of this study that is relevant to the present discussion is that the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs), which they identify generally with the Four Great Nikayas and some other texts including the Vinaya disciplinary code (patimokkha), parts of the Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, Theragatha, and Therigatha, are “authentic.”  Their general argument is that the description of the political geography, social conditions, economic conditions and trade, and religious context accurately correspond to the period during which the Buddha lived and taught; that the oral textual transmission is both reliable and dateable; that the remarkable vision and consistency of the Canon, including peculiarities that can only be explained historically, is evidence of a unitary founder who was a real historical person; that archaeological research supports the antiquity and accuracy of the Pali Canon and the reality of the Buddha; and that a comparison of later and earlier strata of the Canon shows an ideological development typical of other religions.

The whole tenor of Sujato and Brahmali’s argument consists of general assertions of this kind, such specific passages as they adduce having little or no doctrinal significance. However, even if we grant the veracity of this argument, it comes nowhere near proving their main thesis, their “theory of authenticity” (TOA), i.e., “that texts that purport of be the words of the historical Buddha and his immediate disciples were in fact spoken by them” (p. 9). Although their language largely finesses this point, if their argument is that the words contained in these texts accurately preserve the actual words of the historical Buddha, and not merely the general situation,[1] this conclusion is far too specific to be supported by the evidence that they adduce.  Perhaps it would be fair to say, then, that the Pali Canon preserves an overview or outline of the major doctrines of the historical Buddha as interpreted by his successors and preserved as they were perceived and understood roughly 150 to 300 years after the Buddha’s death. I believe Bhikku Bodhi has made the point more correctly when he states that the Pali Canon may include passages that resemble certain statements originally made by the Buddha. The problem then becomes how to identify and extract the utterances of the Buddha, such as they are, from the mass of material in which they are embedded, or if this is even possible.

Some Pali linguists would like to suggest that the strict application of a scientific methodology of Pali linguistics to the Pali Canon in combination with other critical methods could identify such passages. However, in practice one finds that such academics tend to find what they want to find, merely constructing an explanatory framework that justifies post facto their own particular ideological and cultural view. A prominent example of this that comes to mind is the work of University of Toronto professor (now retired) Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri. One can of course “connect the dots” to justify any particular theory in retrospect, simply rejecting passages as “late” or using other criteria (e.g., “Indian” or “Hindu” – Sugunasiri) that do not conform to one’s preferred interpretation, based on the fallacy already alluded to that “late = bad.” (Academics frequently fall into this hole.) Let us look at this hermeneutical doctrine in detail.

The assertion that “late = bad” is based on two premises: (1) that everything that is true about the Buddha’s teachings was said by the Buddha himself, and perhaps his immediate disciples, and (2) that no doctrinal development is possible or permissible. That is to say, that the Buddha’s teachings are comprehensive, complete, and exclusive. Therefore, all that is necessary is to identify the “original teachings.” However, I have already shown that it is extremely improbable that the Pali Canon preserves all of the original teachings of the Buddha or that it is even possible to identify the actual words of the Buddha. What we have is a composite of what the Buddha said, what his immediate disciples understood him to mean, and what their successors understood them all to mean, all inextricably interwoven together into an aggregate of texts, some earlier, some later, some a mixture of earlier and later, and some of indeterminate earliness or lateness, and all embedded in a particular cultural system or systems. Moreover, it is clear that the Pali tradition moved gradually over time after the Buddha’s death, first from northeast to western India, and then south to Sri Lanka, thus exposing it to a variety of cultural influences. If one’s objective were to identify actually and objectively the precise technical language used by the historical Buddha, on which alone precise hermeneutical interpretations could be based, I would submit that this state of affairs is so complex and so ineffable that it is, practically speaking, impossible to sort out in an analytical or reductionist way, leaving us with a non-exclusive “general outline” theory at best.

Moreover, even if we accept that we can identify in broad outline perhaps even most of the original teachings of the historical Buddha, does this mean (1) that we have actually understood what the Buddha meant by those teachings, or (2) that those meanings are incapable of further understanding through a process of progressive examination, refinement, elucidation, and realization?  With respect to the first point, the whole tenor of this discussion so far has been focused on the person of the historical Buddha. This bias corresponds to the use of the English word, “Buddhism,” literally “the doctrine of the one who understands.” However, if we accept the Pali text, the actual word used by the Buddha to refer to his philosophy is Dharma-Vinaya, literally “truth and training,” which might be interpreted as training in the truth, i.e., more or less what we might mean by “education” or “praxis of being.” Elsewhere he also refers to his followers as “sons of the Shakyan,” referring to Shakya, the Buddha’s home country. It is quite clear, however, that the Buddha’s object of concern was not himself, but rather the dharma or truth itself, in its most general and universal meaning, i.e., the truth of being or reality, which he discussed and debated with his contemporaries, not merely as personal opinions, but rather as an objective reality that can be discussed, known, understood, and realized both by individuals and collectively through a critical process.

The Buddha did not merely discuss the dharma with his disciples. If we accept the Buddha as the Buddha, then we accept him as the supreme expositor of this truth, at least when and where he lived, but there is no suggestion in the Pali texts themselves that the Buddha’s realization was personal, exclusive, or arbitrary in any sense. He also discussed it with other samanas, with whom he shared the desire to comprehend and realize this truth, even though they were not Buddhists. Therefore, this truth is objective. His doing so implies that he believed that it was possible for him and them to come to a shared understanding of the dharma. His primary purpose was not merely conversion or persuasion, but shared understanding, although of course by declaring himself Buddha he was also implying that his realization was superlative. Here we depart decisively from mere academic scholarship, which is only concerned with establishing “the facts of the matter,” generally in historicist and social contexts. As Buddhists, our primary focus is (or should be) not merely to understand the Buddha, but also, through understanding the Buddha, to understand the dharma. Thus, we have dharmic and non-dharmic (or profane) scholarship. While the latter may have utility to us, as Buddhists, only the former is of fundamental or ultimate concern. This raises many additional and subtle questions and concerns that go far beyond mere academic or profane scholarship.

Can we understand the dharma entirely and exclusively by understanding the person of the Buddha? Even the Buddha is ultimately merely an historically and culturally contingent phenomenon. Is the dharma something that is fixed or frozen in time, identical with the original words of the Buddha that we seek to discover in the Pali Canon? Is the dharma even “historical”? Is the Buddha the sole authority for understanding the dharma? If the dharma can be understood by his successors, and the Buddha’s teaching career makes no sense otherwise, then there must be successors who are also authorities, perhaps even buddhas themselves, whose utterances are therefore also relevant to understanding Buddhism, perhaps even more relevant than the Pali Canon, given its obscurity. If the Buddha has successors, then he may have had predecessors. There is no suggestion in the Pali Canon that the Buddha claimed to be unique. Rather, again, if we accept the relevant texts, the Buddha stated that he was merely rediscovering an ancient truth, known to but long forgotten by the Brahmans and perhaps others too. This provides additional contexts for understanding the dharma that go beyond the place, time, and historical and cultural circumstances of the Buddha. Ultimately, dharma is the truth of reality itself. Therefore, it cannot be separated from any other form of knowing. As the truth of reality, it must be universal and implicit in all. Since reality is boundless and indeterminate, it seems extremely improbable that the Pali Canon encodes or could encode the totality of dharma. Therefore, how can we restrict ourselves to it as anything other than a provisional foundation for further elaborations and exegeses, potentially even limitless in extent?


[1] In fact three forms of the TOA are identifiable: (1) the strong form: where the Pali Canon quotes the historical Buddha, it does so accurately, with little or no variation from his actual diction and syntax (the orthodox Theravadin view); (2) the semi-strong form: where the Pali Canon quotes the Buddha, it does so using diction and syntax that broadly resembles the actual diction and syntax of the historical Buddha; (3) the weak form: the general situations described in the Pali Canon accurately portray the life and times of the Buddha, including his general ideas; some actual sayings of the Buddha probably survive in the Canon, and it is possible to trace a kind of chronological development in the Canon. The weak form of the TOA necessarily allows for a broad range of alternative doctrinal formulations. At best, the evidence for the TOA supports the weak form.


Bennett, Tom. Philosophical Hermeneutics. http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/Studies%20in%20the%20Origins%20of%20Buddhism_Pande.pdf. Nov. 6, 2013.

Fry, Paul. Three Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWnA7nZO4EY. Sept. 1, 2009.

Levman, Bryan. “Sakaya Niruttiya Revisited.” http://www.sareligionuoft.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Levman-sakāya-niruttiyā.pdf.

Pande, Govind Chandra. Studies in the Origins of Buddhism.  4th ed. 1995. http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/Studies%20in%20the%20Origins%20of%20Buddhism_Pande.pdf.

Sujato and Brahmali. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Toronto: Chroniker Press, [2015.]

Cosmic Buddha