Close this search box.


What Exactly Did the Buddha Say ?


The short answer to this question is very simple: we do not really know. That, however, is not really an acceptable answer to most people because in the past 2500 years or more, many had produced what they claimed were teachings they received from the Buddha directly. However, the Buddha taught for 45 years and he must have talked to a lot of people who might have received his teachings and interpreted it differently. In fact, such misunderstanding did occur even in the Buddha’s life-time. It is recorded in the Pali Canon that the Buddha castigated two monks for misrepresenting his teachings: one for saying that sexual intercourse was no bar to a holy life, and another for saying that in the process of rebirth the same consciousness was reborn without change. Faced with a bewildering variety of Buddhist sutras ( Pali: suttas), all claiming to be the original teachings of the Buddha, it is perfectly legitimate for students of Buddhism to ask : who wrote them ? How can you tell which ones are authentic or accurate? To understand this issue, one needs to look at the history of the development of the Buddhist religion before examining the major schools of Buddhist literature. 

A Brief History of the development of Buddhism

The historical Buddha lived about 2500 years ago. After his enlightenment under the bodhi tree at the age of 35, he continued to preach his message to a variety of people for the next 45 years until his passing away at the age of 80. It is doubtful whether there is any writing at all of any scriptures of any religion (including Brahmanism) in any form at the time of the Buddha. Just like any other religious teachers of his days (including the Brahmins ), the Buddha’s teachings were passed on orally by his closest disciples. As time went by, it is no wonder that his teachings might be interpreted and re-interpreted in different ways by his followers,giving rise to a perplexing varieties of schools of thoughts and numerous traditions, each insisting that they upheld the true teachings of the Buddha.

A historical fact acknowledged by all Buddhists traditions is that 3 months after the Buddha’s passing away, 500 monks gathered together, in what would be known as the First Council, to collate the Buddha’s teachings. In this meeting, held in the SattapanniCave in Rajagaha sponsored by the King Ajatasattu, the Suttas( Sanskrit: sutras) were rehearsed and various monks were assigned to commit these discourses by the Buddha to memory . The same treatment was given to the Vinayas , the disciplinary codes for the monks. This Council was reported to have lasted 3 months. It should be noted that at that time, there was only one Sangha( community of monks) and one code of behaviour. There was only one complete record of suttas ( not in a written form but oral form) which would be the teachings of the Buddha. The Venerable Ananda Thera, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha with the best memory, was said to have recited each sutta beginning with the sentence: “Thus have I heard ( Pali: Evam me sutam)” . It is interested to note that these words were invariably followed by Ikam samayan (“at one time”) and it has been interpreted as “ I have heard at one time” , implying that the following content of the sutta is what the writer has heard from the Buddha directly . However, Maurice Walshe had argued convincing,citing evidence from various suttas, that this sentence should be broken into two, and the “at one time” did not refer to “ what I have heard” but rather than “ one day (the Lord Buddha……)” , and thus the content of the sutta was more of a “hearsay” of the writer rather than he had directly heard it from the Buddha.( Note 1).

The Second Council (a historical event also accepted by all Buddhist traditions with some variation in details) was held some 150 years after the passing away of the Buddha. The reason for this Council was the appearance of the so-called “wicked monks” whose behaviour started to deviate from the accepted norm, such as soliciting money in the market place, eating food at inappropriate times etc. There was no schism in the fundamental Buddhist doctrines at this Council, just a re-confirmation of the vinayas, viz proper conduct for monks.

It was during, or——–depending on the source of information——- after the Second Council that the first split in the Buddhist Sangha occurred. The more conservative group would be called the Sthivaravada(?W?y??), with an opposing, more liberal and larger group called the Mahasanghika (?j???). For the next three hundred years, many other schools branched off from these two schools because of the differences among the monks as to how to interpret the Buddha’s teachings. Subsequently, in addition to the two original “baskets” of Sutras and Vinayas, each school had their own version of the three baskets of teachings: the Sutra, Vinaya and Abidharma( which analysized the Buddha’s teaching in a manner in accord with the particular school of Buddhism)(Note2). By the time of the great Indian King Asoka (more than 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha), there were 18 schools in all (20 according to Mahayana sources) .It would be quite naturally that each school consider that are the keeper of the real teachings of the Buddha. Thus, the Sarvastivada ( one branch of the Sthivaravada )Canon complains that : “after the Nirvana of the Buddha, false sutras were placed” and that “many sects have formed which debase the meaning and the letter as they fancy “( Note 3).

Different Buddhist schools continued to develop and evolve and spread outside India over the next millennium. Broadly speaking, there were two main routes of transmission. The Southern Transmission went to Sri Lanka and subsequently spread to Southeast Asian countries like Burma, Thailand, Cambodia. The Northern Transmission spread via the Silk Road to China and then to Korea, Japan and Tibet. With the disappearance of Buddhism in India itself in the 13th century due to foreign Muslim invasion, most of the original Sanskrit scriptures of the Northern Transmission were lost. However, a lot of them have survived in Chinese and Tibetian texts. On the other hand, the scriptures of the Southern Transmission have remained intact due to the relative stable environment in Sri Lanka where the Southern Transmission has a strong hold. 

The Pali Canon in the Southern Transmission

The Pali Canon is probably the most complete set of Buddha’s teachings that we have today and most of its content is now available in English. According to it and the Sinhalese chronicles, during the reign of King Asoka in India, there was chaos among the Buddhists in India at the time as far as the doctrines were concerned. A lot of heretics(?~?D) had infiltrated the Sangha and many of the teachings changed. In order to “purify” the Buddha’s teaching , King Asoka chose 1000 teachers ( or so it was said) to collate the final teachings. At that time, the king’s favourite sect was the so called Vibhajyavada sect ( Note 4). Thus the teaching authenticated was basically doctrines according to this sect. King Asoka subsequently sent his son Mahinda, with a entourage of monks, to spread the message of the Buddha. They took with them( in they minds, of course), a complete set of the Canon. Several hundred years later (from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE), the monks in Sri Lanka decided to commit what they knew of the sutras, vinayas and abidharma to writing. The language of the Canon was an Indo-Aryan Prakrit dialect (an oral dialect with no written form) related to Sanskrit. The monks decided to use Sinhalese (which was the local language of Sri Lanka, itself an offshoot of Sanskrit, the dominant language in India at the time) phonetics to write down the text. The word Pali, in fact, means “text” . Thus the Canon was subsequently known as the Pali Canon and the language therein referred to, rather inappropriately, as the “Pali language”.   

Theravadins often proudly claim a direct lineage from the time of the Buddha and that the Pali Canon is a direct and complete record of the Buddha’s teachings . However, it must be noted that they are, in reality, descendents of the Vibhajyavada sect (which is in turn a derivatives of Sthaviravada). At the time of collation of the Pali Canon at the time of King Asoka, it was only one of the many sects present in India at the time. The fact that only this “triple baskets” of Canon got to be dispersed widely was solely because of the king’s favour. In fact,the Sarvastivada school, another sub-sect of Sthaviravada, moved to North India and subsequently had immense influence in the subsequent development of Buddhism there for the next few hundred years. It must also be noted that the monks in Sri Lanka were probably known as the Vibhijyavada followers until the 11th century when their name was changed to Theravada ( the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit name of Sthaviravada) to stress their direct lineage from the Buddha. In reality, therefore, the Pali Canon only represented the teachings of the Buddha according to one school that appeared more than 200 hundred years after the passing away of the Buddha. And then, it was another 200 years before they were written down. This is not to mention the fact that the earliest physical evidence for any Pali canonical texts is a set of twenty gold leaves found in the Khin Ba Gon trove near Sri Ksetra ( Burma) which has been dated to the second half of the 5th century A.D. ( Note 5) As to the great Buddhist King, Asoka, although he left a large number of inscriptions on rocks and pillars which archeologists can study to this date. He, curiously enough, never mentioned any key Buddhist soteriological concepts like nibbana.

While one may question the accuracy of oral transmission of sutra over such a long period of time. It has been pointed out that, long before the Buddha, the Brahmins had devised a system to ensure accurate transmission of sacred texts over centuries with very little variation (Note 6). But on the other hand, faced with social changes and varying demands of society, the monks might have to make suitable changes to the sutra to meet their objective of propagating the Dharma. This might have happened before or after the teachings were written down (Note 7). Thus, while there are ample text in some suttas to indicate that the Buddha loathed the performance of miracles, in another place in the Pali Canon, there is description of the Buddha performing a whole series of miracles in order to convert people to his faith ( Note 8).

The Agamas

The term Agama really means “that which has come down” (i.e. from the past to the present). The term refers to set of scriptures in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, with a distinct meaning in each case.

Four collections of Buddhist agamas (???t?g)appear in the East Asia Mahayana Canon :. Cháng Ahánj?ng?????t?g), the Zh?ng Ahánj?ng (?????t?g), the Zá Ahánj?ng (?????t?g), and the Ekottara Agama or Z?ngy? Ahánj?ng (?W?@???t?g). These correspond to the Digha Nikaya (????), the Majjhima Nikaya(????), the Samyutta Nikaya(??????), and the Anguttara Nikaya (?W?䳡)of the Pali Canon(Note 9), respectively. While there are similarities in the text, there are also a lot of differences ( Note 10) with the Chinese collection being less complete . Thus, the Chinese Zá Ahánj?ng (?????t?g) has only 1362 sutras compared to 2875 sutras in the Pali Samyutta Nikaya(??????), among which only one-third are similar while 120 of them are in fact similar to the ones in the Pali Majjhima Nikaya(????). Similarly, the Pali Anguttara Nikaya(?W?䳡) has 2198 sutras while theChinese Z?ngy? Ahánj?ng (?W?@???t?g) has only 472 sutras, among them only 135 are similar ( Note 11).

All scholars agree that the Pali Nikayas and the Chinese Agamas can be traced back to the earliest record of the Buddha’s teachings, although they would disagree on which part of the scriptures are the earliest. In fact, if one is able to compare the sutras in the Pali Canon and the sutras in the Chinese Agamas, one should have a better grasp of what the earliest record (thus less susceptible to later corruption and mis-translation) of the Buddha’s teaching is. Unfortunately, it would require scholars to be knowlegeable in both Pali and ancient Chinese and these people must be very few in number. It is noteworthy that some work is now being done to translate parts of the Pali Canon into modern Chinese (Note 12) .

The Mahayana sutras

Historically, the many Mahayana Sutras( like the well known Lotus sutra, Heart sutra, and Amitabha sutra) were approved at the so-called Fourth Buddhist Council held by the Kushana Emperor (the Kushan Empire being in Northern Indian in what is now mainly Pakistan) around 100 CE. This council was not recognized by the Theravada tradition and they considered that these sutras did not represent the true words of the Buddha. However, according to the Mahayana tradition, these sutras are indeed the words of the Buddha. It was because people of earlier times had not yet acquired the capacity to understand these teachings that they were hidden in the naga(or dragon) realm before surfacing 500 years later when there were people capable of receiving these teachings. Looking at the issue from another angle, scholars like D .T. Suzuki believes that Mahayana doctrines were in fact found in germinal form in the words of the Buddha and that it took a few centuries for them to unfold, and that the so-called Hinayana schools failed to understand the full implications of the Buddha’s teaching ( Note 13).

One of the ways for new sutras to be composed was for the monks to engage in deep meditation and received new teachings from the Buddha( and other buddhas). Thus in the Pratyutpanna Sutra ( one of the many Mahayana texts translated into Chinese by the Kushan monk Lokakesma in living in the Chinese capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 C E) , meditators may have a vision of Amitayus and receive new teachings not before heard  ( Note 14). This sort of practices may have been the source of many Mahayana sutras.

In any case, the Mahayanists consider their sutras to be the final and highest teaching of the Buddha and that they surpass all other previous teachings. Anyone who spread the words of these sutras will be rewarded with merits and those who speak ill of them will be punished by receiving de-merits. These Mahayana sutras were written in Sanskrit (or closely related variants of it) as the monks who composed them were from Northern India where this was the dominant language at the time. Many of these sutras were translated into Chinese and Tibetan and the original Sanskrit version mostly lost. Scholars are also in general agreement that many of the Mahayana sutras have evolved over a long period of time before emerging in its final forms. In other words, they were continuously being modified by monks for religious and/or social purposes over a long period of time.  

There are certainly many major differences between the Mahayana and non-Mahayana teachings. Thus while the highest goal in Therevada Buddhism is arahantship , the Mahayanist looks further to attaining Buddhahood. Another example is the is the principle of the so- called “ Skill-in-means” which is certainly a Mahayana innovation to enable different forms of teachings to evolve to suit the social environment where the monks found themselves in at different times and in different places. Thus, while “thou shalt not lie” is an accepted precept for practising Buddhist , one famous passage from Chapter three of the Lotus Sutra condone lying in case of need like the case of a father lying to his three children to lure them out of a house which was on fire. The children are ignorant of the danger and continue to play in the house. The father promises them three different types of toy-carts and then, when the children are safely out of the house, gives them only one vehicle. The sutra justifies the action of the father by saying that only one of the vehicles is the most superior and that the children should not be given inferior vehicles. The meaning of this parable is obvious: the end justifies the mean so long as the intention is good.

So which are really the words of the Buddha? What are we to believe?


It is impossible really to know what exactly the Buddha has said, especially in areas where there seems to be conflict between the teachings of the various schools of Buddhism. However for students of Buddhism, perhaps the Kalama Suttain the Pali Canon would be the most enlightening in this respect. In this sutta, the people Kalama ask Buddha how to chose between the teachings of various teachers who have passed through their village. The Buddha’s answer is that everyone is to make up his own mind abut religious doctrines ; and one is not to take a teaching on trust but to test it on the touchstone of one’s own experience ( Note 15). These are certainly words of someone who is confident of his teachings that people who follow his advice will eventually convert.


Notes and Reference

1.     Thus Have I Heard—–Maurice Walshe, Middle Way published by The Buddhist Society , U . K. ( Volume 69:3 Nov.,1994 p. 167) .

2.     Buddhist Thought—A complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Willians with Anthony Tribe, published by Routledge (2000), page 31

3.     Mahayana Buddhism—The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams , published by Routledge , 1989, page 7.

4.     The Vibhajyav?dins (???O????) ( Pali: Vibhajjavada) . A school the origin of which is obscure. The meaning of the term, not necessarily limited to this school, is the method of particularization in dealing with questions in debate. It is suggested that this school was established to harmonize the differences between the Sthavir?s and Mah?s??ghikas. The Abhidharma Pi?aka ‘as we have it in the Pali Canon, is the definite work of this school’ ( From the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism—– C Muller.

5.     How Buddhism Began—the Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings  byRichard F Gombrich , 1996, Munshiram Manoharlal Pulbishers Pvt.Ltd ( India), page 9.

6.     Theravada Buddhism—- a Social History from ancient Benares to Modern Colombo by Richard F Gombrich , Routledge, 2nd edition, 2006, page 20.

7.     ibid, page121

8.     How Buddhism Began—the Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings  byRichard F Gombrich , 1996, munshiram Manoharlal Pulbishers Pvt.Ltd ( India), page 70.

9.     The Pali Canon, in fact, contain 5 Nikayas , the above four plus Khuddaka Nikaya(?p??) much of which some scholars think is a later addition in Sri Lanka from the fact that no Chinese translation is available ( The Chinese translation of sutras started around 1st century CE).

10.The reason for the differences is that, apart from the possible corruption of text during transmission and translation, the Chinese agamas had also come from different sects , e.g. those from the Sarvastivada , Dharmaguptaka and Mahasanghika and thus the variation in content of the text.

11.?Ԩ????{?ȥ??p?ʬ?—?C???z?s?? ,?????L???ƥX??,2004 ?~??,59??

12.The Pali Translation Group(?ڧQ??½Ķ??) from Chi Lin Monastery(?ӽ??b?b) in Hong Kong has since 2005 published two books of selected extracts of the Pali Canon in modern Chinese.

13.As quoted in Buddhist Philosophy—A historical analysis by David J Kalupahana, University of Hawaii Press, 1976, page 164.

14.Buddhist Thought—A complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Willians with Anthony Tribe, published by Routledge (2000), page 109.

15.Theravada Buddhism—- a Social History from ancient Benares to Modern
Colombo by Richard F Gombrich , Routledge, 2nd edition, 2006, page 73.

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments