The Quest for the Buddhavacana

This talk was presented to the Buddha Center on Saturday, September 6, 2014.

Establishing an Intellectual-Hermeneutic Framework for Interpreting the Pali Canon

The orthodox fundamentalist view of the Pali Canon by those who look to it for the foundation of their system of spirituality, religion, and culture is that the Pali Canon is the Buddhavacana, the literal word of the historical Buddha, and that therefore the Pali language in which it is written is the literal language of Magadhi, where the Buddha lived and taught. In this scenario, the Pali words simply transcribe the dialogue of the living Buddha, preserved perfectly in the photographic memory of Ananda. Unfortunately, the texts themselves refute this view by virtue of the fact that they show signs of editing and include contradictory views and statements. The Pali Canon is the result of a process of development that did not end till the time of Yeshua at the earliest, about 400 years after the Buddha’s death or parinibbana. For one thing, it seems unlikely that the Buddha taught in numbered lists or stock paragraphs. What we have in the Pali Canon is rather a snapshot of a collective memory, taken in Sri Lanka, far away from the Buddha’s homeland in northeast India, 400 years after the Buddha’s death. To adapt a metaphor used by the Buddha himself, it’s a long and winding path through an ancient and forgotten forest, including many interconnecting paths and many circuitous routes, all faint and overgrown, leading to an abandoned city.

Some scholars contest the historicity of the First Buddhist Council, but it seems reasonable that the Buddha’s senior disciples would have met to discuss the Buddha’s teachings and decide together how to hand them down as remembered objects, like the Vedas. The problem of accurate preservation also arose during the Buddha’s life. There also seems no reason to disbelieve that a conflict developed with respect to which is primary, the Vinaya or the suttas, represented by the followers of Mahakassapa on the one hand and Ananda on the other, and that the Vinaya was the popular choice based on the majority following of Mahakassapa. This led to problems in later councils, as the Vinaya followers sought to expand the number of rules despite the Buddha’s injunction not to do so, and the sutta followers continued to discuss and to debate the Buddhavacana, leading to a continuous succession of edits, clarifications, and codifications in response to the pressures of oral transmission. The original “arhats” were also deeply misogynistic, and attacked Ananda for “persuading” the Buddha to allow the ordination of women – a story that many scholars believe is a forgery, since the Pali Canon itself presents evidence that nuns had been ordained from early days.

Most linguists no longer accept the simplistic identification of Magadhi and Pali, thinking instead that Pali developed as an artificial hybrid language based on a number of prakrit dialects all closely related to the original language of the Buddha but not identical with it.

Conservative Pali scholars, especially those with a religious bent, would have it that we can identify the linguistic skeins of the traces of the actual words of the historical Buddha in the approximately 40 volumes of the Pali Canon by distinguishing between older and more recent patterns of linguistic expression. Richard Gombrich has declared, however, that the linguistic approach to the Pali Canon interpretation has gone as far as it can. Pande’s Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (1957; rpt. 1974) is perhaps the most ambitious work in this direction, but it yields far less than a comprehensive critical philosophy of the Buddha. The distinction between earlier and later meanings of Pali terms is perhaps its most valuable contribution.

Another popular approach to Pali Canon interpretation is based on the selection of individual passages that present a certain perspective, and then arbitrarily declaring that any conflicting passages are simply perversions. These passages are recycled endlessly in the literature of popular Buddhism and somehow they have become Buddhism in the minds of many. However, when considered as a whole and in its entirety, the worldview of the Pali Canon is far more interesting and complex.

If we regard “Buddhism” as including the implications and not limiting ourselves to the axioms of the historical Buddha, we can broaden our definition of Buddhavacana to include the totality of the Pali Canon, considered as a whole, and look for large patterns and strands of meaning that cut across the texts and are themselves meaningful. The analytical approach is incapable of interpretation on this level, and so ignores it, but the synthetic approach corresponds to the level of discourse in which the Buddha himself would have engaged in the living situation. For this reason, we may theorize that the large patterns of meaning, some of which may only be discerned from a holistic, synthetic perspective, may encode the original meanings of the Buddha precisely because they are not reducible to any particular detail, just as the meaning of a work of art or a philosophy arises out of its totality. The biography of the historical Buddha was arrived at in very much this way, but Pali scholars are not necessarily philosophers, so it is less common for this method to be applied to Buddhist ideas, especially by academicians, who are steeped in the analytical approach, and religionists, who are steeped in sectarian historical traditions. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and the works of Richard Gombrich and Peter Masefield demonstrate just how far the synthetic approach can go. It does, however, require that one read the Pali Canon thoroughly, discarding nothing, rejecting any tendency to sectarianism from the outset.

Just as in an archaeological excavation, we know that there are strata in the development of the Pali Canon.

  1. The linguistic-cultural inheritance of the Buddha; on the linguistic level, this refers to the Sanskrit-Pali etymologies.
  2. The actual historical discourse of the Buddha, especially the similes and conversational speech.
  3. Creation – collective memory of the First Buddhist Councils; who participated? Who was excluded?
  4. Preservation – structure of the Pali suttas established as the generations organize their lives around the task of preserving the Canon; numbered lists, stereotypical phrases and stock paragraphs to standardize the content; versification.
  5. Clarification – refining or clarifying language to eliminate ambiguities; therefore, idiosyncratic references may be more archaic than their simplifications. This is a general principle of hermeneutics. Traces of alternative systems of views (e.g., the path of wisdom versus the path of renunciation, based on ignorance and desire in the chain of cause and effect) in the Pali Canon are of special interest since they represent skeins of interpretation that arose contemporaneously with the development of the Pali Canon itself.
  6. Codification – eliminating dissident views; tendency to orthodoxy, homogeneity. The final stage of Codification is conservatism. This level continues to the present day.

Levels 3 through 6 refer to critical stages in the development of the Pali Canon that potentially resulted in distortions of the original meaning. We also have to consider the influence of Sri Lankan culture on the editing of the Pali Canon, including the possibility of monastic distortion; the Buddha was not Sri Lankan. By being aware of these distortions, we can adjust our perceptions as we process the text. It is a testament to the enterprise of those ancient anonymous monastics that the Pali Canon, especially the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka, are as self-consistent as they are. The Abhidhamma is a later work of interpretation and exegesis and should be regarded as a sectarian production, since every Hinayana school had its own Abhidhamma.

It follows from the foregoing that Pali linguistics is a valuable tool to further the prime task of establishing a standard edition of the Pali Canon with a standard reference system and then begin the process of synthetic analysis and self-comparison to establish a systematic Buddhist theology. This is beginning to occur but is still in its infancy.[1]

The Early Buddhist Councils

As we discussed in my talk on the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha set out some final teachings and in particular laid down some advice for how the sangha should operate after his death. These included that the monastics should follow the Dharma-Vinaya as their Teacher in the absence of the Buddha, that the sangha should have no leader, that the minor rules of the Vinaya may be abrogated, and that decisions should be arrived at based on consensus or, failing consensus, based on majority opinion. The Buddha himself warned his followers against attachment to dogmas, and appears to have been broad-minded. He always sought consensus and was prepared to frame his discourse in terms of his audience. It appears that the Buddha died in late winter (March) around 400 BCE, plus or minus 20 years. According to tradition, the First Buddhist Council was held about three months later, at the beginning of the rainy season retreat (June/July).

First Buddhist Council (circa 400 BCE)


According to the Cullavagga, Mahakassapa called upon the monastics to convene the First Buddhist Council near Saptaparni Cave in Rajgir. The Buddha said that every past and future Buddha has two chief disciples and one attendant during his ministry. In the case of Shakyamuni, the pair of disciples were Sariputta and Mahamoggallana and the attendant Ānanda. Ananda was also the subject of a special panegyric by the Buddha prior to his death. It is perhaps noteworthy that Ananda was present at the death of the Buddha; Mahakassapa was not. Mahakassapa’s role was said to have been prophesied when he exchanged robes with the Buddha.

Sariputta, the monk foremost in wisdom, and Mahamoggallana, the monk foremost in psychic powers (iddhis or siddhis), had already predeceased the Buddha. Mahakassapa was known as the monk foremost in asceticism. As I have discussed in a previous talk, it is quite clear from the Cullavagga that Mahakassapa called the council together with the intention of ensuring the preservation of a strict interpretation of the Vinaya, in response to what he perceived as the moral laxity of an elderly monk named Subhadda and presumably others as well.[2] Thus, the Vinaya has first place in the Pali Canon, despite the fact that the Buddha refers to the Dharma-Vinaya, not the Vinaya-Dharma. There appears to have been a rivalry between the followers of Mahakassapa, who seem to have dominated the meeting, and the followers of Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant for the final 25 years of his life, who was known as the Guardian of the Dharma. Ananda did not fare very well during this meeting. First, there was opposition to his participation due to his not having attained the level of an arhat until – somewhat suspiciously – the night before the council was due to convene. He was then attacked by the monastics, first, for encouraging the Buddha to ordain women, and, second, for neglecting to ask the Buddha to specify which rules of the Vinaya were major and which were minor. Finally, however, he recited the suttas based on his photographic memory and these became the basis of the Suttapitaka. Upali, the Buddha’s barber, who subsequently founded the Vinaya School, recited the Vinaya and codified the patimokkha rules for male and female monastics, including eight special rules for the nuns, which were designed to ensure that the nuns remained subordinate to the monks and made it more difficult to become a nun and easier to be disrobed. The latter led to the disappearance of the bhikkhunisangha in many Buddhist lands or even their non-establishment in countries like Tibet and Thailand. Thailand, which prides itself on its conservatism, prohibits female ordination to this day. I’ve discussed this at some length in my talk on “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.”

Saptaparni Cave
Saptaparni Cave

The First Buddhist Council, which we might refer to as Mahakassapa’s Council, violated every one of the strictures of the Buddha as given in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Mahakassapa acted very much as the leader of the sangha, and in fact is still referred to as the Father of the Sangha. It seems that this council was very much a council of Mahakassapa and his group, although they finally allowed Ananda to participate. Rather than simplify the Vinaya as the Buddha instructed, Mahakassapa established the rules as indelible moral absolutes, an attitude that persists in Buddhism to this day. Finally, the council was frankly misogynistic in its attitude to women, and only admitted nuns to the sangha based on their second-class status, and only after intense reluctance, despite evidence that the Buddha ordained women on an equal basis with men. These facts present a grave theological problem for Hinayana Buddhists in particular, since all the participants in this council consisted of no less than 500 full-fledged arhats. We know, of course, that the Pali Canon routinely inflates numbers and descriptions to make them grander than they actually could have been. Interestingly, the theological status of arhats becomes a sticking point in subsequent councils, leading to the Great Schism between the Hinayana and the Mahayana, as we shall see. According to tradition, the First Buddhist Council met for seven months.

Second Buddhist Council (4th cent. BCE)

The evidence for the Second Buddhist Council is based on the Vinaya and is attested to by the Theravāda, Sarvāstivāda, Mūlasarvāstivāda, Mahāsanghika, Dharmaguptaka, and Mahīśāsaka schools. According to this tradition, the Second Buddhist Council was convened about 100 or 110 years after the parinibbana, which according to our chronology would be about 300 BCE. Once again, the accusation of moral laxity lay at the heart of the meeting, based on observations by a monk called Yasa Kakandakaputta who observed monastics in the city of Vesali accepting money. These monks were known as Vajjiputtakas, meaning “the descendents of the Vajjians.” You will recall that the Buddha modelled the sangha after the democratic constitution of the Vajji Sangha, which he greatly admired. Vesali was the capital city of the Licchavis, the dominant clan of the Vajjians. Thus, we see the first signs of sectarian division as early as a hundred years after the death of the Buddha.

The Vajjiputtakas put forth a declaration consisting of Ten Points that, they opined, were permissible for members of the Order. One might speculate that this was the first attempt to identify the minor rules that the Buddha said might be abolished. These included:

(1) Storing salt in a horn;

(2) Eating food when the shadow of the sun had passed two fingers’ breadth beyond noon;

(3) Eating once and then going again to the village for alms;

(4) Holding uposatha separately by monks dwelling in the same district;

(5) Carrying out an official act when the assembly is incomplete;

(6) Following a practice because it is so done by one’s tutor or teacher;

(7) Eating sour milk by one who has already had his midday meal;

(8) Using strong drink before it has fermented;

(9) Using a rug which is not of the proper size;

(10) Using gold and silver.

The problem with conservatism of course is that it is unresponsive to changing circumstances, different interpretations, different personalities, and different levels of spiritual development, and the conservative monastics, following the example of Mahakasspa, rejected these practices, leading to Yasa convening a council of monastics from the west and the south under the authority of the arhat Sambhuta Thera. Sambhuta Thera ordained under Ananda after the Buddha’s death. According to tradition, Ananda survived the Buddha by 40 years, becoming the second leader of the sangha, so Sambhuta Thera would have been between 60 and 100 years old. The Second Buddhist Council was held at Vesali, where purportedly 700 monastics attended. A committee was established to investigate the matter, and the Vajjiputtakas were declared heretics.

This council led to the schism between the Sthaviras (“Sect of the Elders”) and the Mahasamghikas (“The Great Sangha”), the precursors of the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Mahasamghika account of the Second Buddhist Council, based on the earliest surviving account of the schism, the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, differs slightly from the Sthavira account. According to the Mahasamghikas, the council was convened in Pataliputra and resulted from the minority (the Sthaviras) attempting to add new rules to the Vinaya, contrary to the final instructions of the Buddha. The majority (the Mahasamghikas) rejected this. A decisive fact in favour of the Mahasamghika account is that the Mahasamghika Vinaya has fewer rules than the Sthavira Vinaya and is older. The Sthaviras subsequently broke away from the majority and continued to splinter into the Sarvastivada, Vatsiputriya, and Vibhajyavada schools. The latter broke up into Mahisasaka, Dharmaguptaka, Kasyapiya, and the Tamraparniya schools. The Tamraparniya school become the Theravada school, founded in Sri Lanka by Mahinda, and is the only surviving school of the Hinayana.

According to the Theravadin account, the Pataliputra meeting occurred about 35 years later to discuss the Five Points of Mahadeva. These revolved around the status of arhats, and included: (1) Arhats can still be led astray by others; (2) Arhats are still subject to ignorance; (3) Arhats are still subject to doubt, and (4) can be instructed and informed by others; (5) entry into the Noble Path by an Arhat can be accompanied by a vocal utterance (vacībheda), an artifice meant to generate the appearance of the Path.[3] However, many scholars doubt the association of Mahadeva with the Second Buddhist Council or with the Great Schism, rather identifying him as the founder of the Caitika sect, a subsect of the Mahasamghika school, about 200 years later. Nonetheless, the Five Points of Mahadeva are extremely interesting in light of our discussion of the First Buddhist Council, supra.

Third Buddhist Council (circa 251 BCE)


A Third Buddhist Council was convened about 250 BCE in Pataliputra, purportedly by Ashoka, the great Buddhist king, himself, though this is widely doubted as Ashoka never mentions it in his edicts. It was presided over by Moggaliputta-Tissa, along with 1,000 monks. Moggaliputta-Tissa was the teacher of Ashoka and the father of Mahinda. According to the Mahavamsa, a non-canonical historical work on the history of Sri Lanka, Moggaliputta-Tissa had intentionally reincarnated in order to preside over the Third Buddhist Council, thus showing that the concept of intentional rebirth is not exclusively Tibetan.

According to the account, the sangha had become infiltrated by opportunists and heretics, paradoxically because of the royal patronage of the sangha by King Ashoka. The purpose of the council was to rid the sangha of bogus monks and heretics. As a result, some monks were refusing to participate in the uposatha. 60,000 monks were questioned, and those who could not give acceptable answers were expelled. The Kathavatthu (“Points of Controversy”) is attributed to Mogaliputta-Tissa himself, who is claimed to have written it and added it to the Abhidhamma to codify the dhamma. It is, incidentally, significant that this book, traditionally ascribed to Mogaliputta-Tissa, is regarded as canonical, because this shows that the Buddhavacana is not limited to the words of the historical Buddha – an argument that is frequently levelled against the Mahayana sutras. I have discussed this in another talk. There are other examples too of works by third parties, indicated as such, being included in the Pali Canon.  Mogaliputta-Tissa referred to the essential doctrine of the Buddha as the Vibhajjavada, the Doctrine of Analysis, i.e., of phenomena, which became a school in its own right. Because of this council, Ashoka sent Buddhist emissaries to spread the dhamma in five regions of present day India, Egypt, Greece, the Himalayas, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Ashoka’s expeditions to Egypt and Greece succeeded in establishing a Buddhist community in Alexandria and they may have influenced the pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae. Speculations abound as to whether Buddhist influence penetrated Galilee by the first century CE and may have influenced the historical Jesus. I believe there is evidence of a Roman mission early in the first century.

Fourth Buddhist Council (Hinayana: 1st cent. BCE; Mahayana: circa 78 CE)

There are actually two “Fourth” Buddhist Councils. The first was held in the first century BCE in Sri Lanka, the second was held in Kashmir in the first century CE.

Aloka lena
Aloka lena

The Theravadin Sri Lankan council was that during which the text of the Pali Canon was first written down on palm leaves during a time of famine, when many monks starved to death and the fear was that the canonical tradition would be lost. It is said to have taken three years, and was held in the cleft of an ancient landslip, near Matale, called Aloka lena. These palm leaf books were exported to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

The second Fourth Buddhist Council was in the Sarvastivada tradition. The word ‘sarvastivada’ means the ‘theory that everything exists,’ including past, present, and future. They split off from the Sthavira sect, already discussed in connection with the Second Buddhist Council, and became very influential in Northern India and Central Asia including Tibet. The Vaibhasika Sarvastivadins upheld the doctrine of three vehicles: those of the sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Thus they appear to have been a sort of proto-Mahayana, albeit still technically Hinayana. They considered arhats imperfect and fallible. They also held that women could become Buddhas. We can see here how the polarization between Hinayana and Mahayana is largely a product of later polemics, and that the boundaries blur as one comes closer to the original, historical, non-sectarian Buddhism of Siddatha Gotama. This polarization is perpetuated today largely by Theravadins, who wish identify themselves with the Hinayana and the Hinayana with the original, historical, pre-sectarian Buddhism of the Founder. Mahayana, however, has never rejected the Hinayana. It is actually a downfall for a bodhisattva to reject or disparage the Hinayana in any way. It’s very exciting therefore, to discover that a complete or nearly complete set of the Sarvastivada sutras has recently been discovered in Afghanistan. The Sarvastivada Vinaya also survives in translation.

Fifth and Sixth Councils

In addition to the foregoing, a fifth and sixth Theravada Buddhist council were held in 1871 and 1954 respectively, the latter based on the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha, the midpoint of the Buddhist 5,000 year cycle, based on Theravadin chronology. Based on the view of a majority of scholars, however, the 2,500th anniversary of the parinibbana would better be placed within twenty years or so of 2100 CE. Of course, any Buddhist council that is explicitly sectarian violates the Buddha’s dictum on consensus, so in fact these later councils cannot really be regarded in the same way as the early councils. These councils resulted in the publication of two authoritative editions of the Tipitaka.

Finding the Buddhavacana

As we have seen, historical Buddhism became deeply contentious and divided very soon after the death of the Buddha. We can see the seeds of schism even in the First Buddhist Council, and by the Second Buddhist Council a hundred years later the tendency was already well established. Yet all of these schools had the same intention: the desire to preserve and perpetuate the original and authentic Buddhavacana. After more than a hundred years of critical scholarship the question arises: Where shall we in the West look for the Buddhavacana, or is such a thing even findable? Perhaps we should simply choose an historical school based on our personal predilections and leave it at that? Yet Western scholars are coming to a consensus, based on decades of comparative study, that a core Buddhavacana is identifiable. Comparative study of the Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka in different canons, now that we can compare the Theravadin and the Sarvastivadin canons, and in Tibetan and Chinese translations, has demonstrated remarkable similarity of essentials within which one can discern the outlines of a coherent and noble spiritual philosophy. Many scholars now agree that it appears that the redactors and editors of these texts chose to limit, to a significant degree, their sectarian disputes to their respective Abhidhammas and non-canonical works, each school having its own Abhidhamma, most differences between the suttas being mainly matters of dramatis personae, location, and other minor details. This is not to say, however, that one can naively identify the suttas with the original words of the Buddha, as I have discussed at some length at the beginning of this talk, but they do provide a basis for further elucidation and study. The fact that the canon includes works written by other authors also shows that the Budhavacana is not to be narrowly identified with the words of the historical Buddha, who was preceded and will be followed by Buddhas other than Siddattha Gotama. The Buddha himself indicated that there are many things he did not reveal, probably due to the shortness of the lifespan of human beings in this age. This age is fortunate in that it will have seen five Buddhas, but also degenerate in that the lifespan of human beings is barely 120 years. We should not focus on the axioms of historical Buddhism to the exclusion of implications, or imagine that a literal historical reconstruction of the original words of the historical Buddha is possible or even desirable. Having narrowed our focus to the suttas we must immediately expand it to include them all in their totality, and then allow the work of rational criticism to proceed, employing all intellectual and hermeneutical tools at our disposal, including Pali linguistics, without reference to any sectarian considerations. There is no indication whatsoever of any sectarian tendency in the Buddha. For this reason, no sect of Buddhism can claim to possess absolute and exclusive truth and neither can we. This perspective is actually adumbrated in the scriptural tradition of Buddhism, where it is called the ekayana – the single or universal vehicle.[4]


1. E.g., Bryan Levman’s use of a computer to identify every incidence of the Pali word ‘nirutti’ in his paper, “Sakaya nirutiya revisited” (accessed Aug. 31, 2014),

2. The accusation of moral laxity was nothing new. It dogged Gotama throughout his life as well. First, the Group of Five accused him of moral laxity and abandoned him prior to his Enlightenment. Second, the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, accused him of moral laxity and attempted to organize a schism. When that failed, he tried to murder the Buddha.

3. A variation of these points associated with the Northern Schools gives them as follows:

“(1) An arhant may commit a sin under unconscious temptation;

(2) one may be an arhant and unconscious of the fact;

(3) an arhant may have doubts on matters of doctrine;

(4) one cannot attain arhantship without the help of a teacher;

(5) the ‘Noble Way’ may begin with some such exclamation as ‘How sad!’ uttered during meditation.”

Another variation states:

  1. an arhant is liable to seduction (paropahṛta);
  2. subject to ignorance (ajnāna);
  3. subject to doubt (kanksā);
  4. is helped across to salvation by another (paravitīrna); and
  5. emits certain words (vacībheda) while on the path.

This theological hair-splitting is reminiscent of similar disputes in the history of the Christian tradition.

4. The main ekayana sutras include the Lankavatara Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Lotus Sutra, and Shurangama Sutra, as well as the Śrīmālādevī Simhanada Sūtra, Sraddhotpanna Sutra, and Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.


Hecker, Hellmuth . Similes of the Buddha: An Introduction. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2009.

Horner, I.B., trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka). Vol. V (Cullavagga). Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Vol. XX. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1952. (Originally published 2001)

Mahavamsa: die große Chronik Sri Lankas (accessed 2014, Sept. 26).

Pande, Govind Chandra. Studies in the Origins of Buddhism.  Delhi: Motila, 1974.  (Originally published 1957)

Nattier, Janice S., and Charles Prebish (accessed 2014, Sept. 7). “Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism.”