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Thread: On the Primacy of the Samyutta Nikaya

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    Forums Member manoPG's Avatar
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    On the Primacy of the Samyutta Nikaya

    A Review of: The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A Comparative Study Based on the Sutranga Portion of the Pali Samyutta-nikaya and the Chinese Samyuktagama.

    This book is a comparative study of the Chinese and Sanskrit recensions of the Pali Canon and shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the Samyutta Nikaya is the most universally transcribed collection of Suttanta across all originals, with the least amount of doctrinal disagreement, that is, in Sanskrit, Pali and Chinese.

    This suggests that it belongs to a time of early presectarian Buddhism.

    The Angutarra, on the other hand, varies widely across its various linguistic counterparts, much more widely than the other Nikayas.

    The origin of this theory goes back to Chinese scholar-monk Yin Shun who first formulated the idea after comparing Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese recensions of the Samyutta, and has since been confirmed independently by several scholars who have written on the topic.

    Briefly put, Yin Shun's claim is that the distribution of the sutras into four nikayas/agamas did not take place at the First Council; initially the sutras were grouped in a single collection, whose structure is largely preserved in the extant SN and SA. The other three principal nikayas/agamas were developed subsequently, probably at the Second Council, in response to a substantial increase in the number and size of the remembered sutras that had taken place during the intervening century. These conclusions are based in large part on a demonstration that the contents of SN/SA fit the first, second, and third categories in the traditional ailga classification (sutra, geya, vyakara1}a), i.e. that SN/SA is structurally archaic. It follows that SN and SA are of special significance both historically and doctrinally.
    In other words, it appears that of the Nikayas, the Samyutta was the most widely doctrinely accepted of the entire presectarian Sangha.

    This may help explain why certain suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya contain the presence of Greek communities, despite the fact that these communities were not existent during the time of the Buddha.

    If the theory is correct, it makes the Samyutta the greatest tool to reach out to all schools of Buddhism (with certainty) and to follow the most agreed upon records from the most early times. If it is correct, the suttas are not a universe of interwoven constellations but the Samyutta is the sun of which the other suttas would have to revolve around for doctrinal confirmation of accuracy and consistency, i.e. the Samyutta could potentially be the source of pericopes as well as Abhidhammic formulas, as well as the final say of doctrinal discussion.

    By the time of the 3d Council, in an Ashokan presence, the Sangha was already irreconcilably split, and it is from this point on that a proliferation of schools, not least of all, the Mahayana come into existence with written records of doctrine that fill libraries.


    SN is preserved intact in Pali, whereas SA was translated into Chinese from a now lost Sanskrit text by a monk named Gunabhadra between 435-445 AD.20 These two texts belong to two major schools, the Tamrasatya (SN) and the Sarvastivada (SA), that developed within the Sthavira branch in the period before the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism. Structurally, they are characterized by a grouping of their contents according to topics, such as "The Five Aggregates", "Causal Condition", "The Noble Eightfold Path" - a feature that enhances their value as a source of information on matters of doctrine.

    The humbling fact remains, however, that there is a possibility that the Mahayana could indeed retain aspects of presectrarian Buddhism that the Theravada may potentially lack.

    The puzzle has been sorted and resorted so many times its hard to get the original colors back from the current brown of understanding.

    Keep in mind that this school of scholarship went from Japanese hands to Chinese to Korean and now finally to a German (in English) audience, which means that this theory has been around since the early 60's and very few contrarians have been found in academia. Efforts began as early as 1908 when Japan had already established itself as a leader in Buddhist studies.



    There are still plenty of questions and what appear as flagrant contradictions: in the Pali Samyutta recension craving is the first step is attaining to the mechanism of cessation, whereas in Chinese it is contact.

    When these big question-marks arise, a useful hermeneutic is to cross examine the pericopes across the entire available early material and see if there is a consensus. While difficult to accomplish, with the current state of technology and scholarship, this is becoming easier and easier.

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