What are the Early Buddhist Texts?

The Early Buddhist Texts are the subset of the canonical literature of the different Buddhist schools which accurately report the teachings of the historical Buddha. These texts have undergone (indeed, continue to undergo) some revision and contemporary scholarship continues to debate subtle points, but most scholars agree that the Pali Suttas and Chinese Āgamas remain historically reliable witnesses to the Buddha’s life and teachings. Whether they are spiritually reliable, however, is a matter for us to investigate.

Prerequisites

The Intro to Buddhism course is not a prerequisite for this course. Though some familiarity with Buddhism will be helpful, this course is suitable for serious beginners.

Time Commitment

This course contains about 80 hours of lectures and reading, depending on how fast you read, and can take anywhere from 2 weeks to a year to finish. For example, 3 lectures (6hr) per week would make this a 15 week course.

Course Outline

This course gives a thorough introduction to what the Buddha taught in his own words, and also explores how these words came down to us.

Introduction

Buddha: True Genius – Ajahn Brahmali (.mp3) (.mp3)
  • An introductory lecture by Ajahn Brahmali in which he shares with us his love and enthusiasm for the Buddha’s teachings.
  • To listen to the lecture, just click one of the links above!

Textbook

In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon – Bhikkhu Bodhi

The main textbook for this course is the (commercial) work In The Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi. If you cannot obtain a copy of the book, an open-source version can be read online for free at Reading Faithfully, but the real book is preferred for its helpful redactions and notes.

This book gives a systematic introduction to the Buddha’s teachings, and will be the primary text for this class.

About the Texts

As you make your way through ItBW, I encourage you to weave in the following works about the history of the texts you’re studying:

  • Gives a good overview of the oral tradition. Be sure not to skip it!
  • In what context and in what way were these teachings delivered? And to what purpose?
  • We invite Ajahn Brahmali back, along with our friend (and founder of SuttaCentral) Ajahn Sujato, for a special guest class on the early texts.
Early Buddhism: A Conversation with Kalupahana – Richard Payne and David J. Kalupahana (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • On why it’s important to study the early texts.
  • About the Buddha of the Early Texts compared with the later hagiographies… and our own materialistic assumptions.
  • Argues against an improvisational oral transmission and shows why we should think of the texts as having been passed down to us (relatively) verbatim

Lectures

  • Bhikkhu Bodhi himself will be your lecturer for this class.

Read a chapter of In the Buddha’s Words (hereafter abbreviated as ItBW), and then listen to the lecture associated with that chapter before moving on to the next. Starting with chapter six, however, the content starts to get a bit more challenging and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s lectures start to slow down. You may want to adjust your reading pace accordingly at that point.

Office Hours

If any questions come up for you that aren’t addressed in the lectures, I recommend searching the SuttaCentral Discourse Forum for something relevant to your question. If you can’t find your question answered in the archives, feel free to post it! There are many knowledgeable scholars and students of Early Buddhism on the forum (including yours truly) and we would be happy to help!

One Additional Sutra

In addition to the Pāli texts highlighted in ItBW, I recommend the following additional discourse:

  • This discourse from the Chinese Canon is included to demonstrate how extraordinarily similar the language of the northern Agamas are compared to the language of the Pāli Canon (preserved in Sri Lanka) This sutra is most directly parallel to the Pāli texts presented in ItBW chapter nine on the Five Aggregates and it could be read when you get to that part of the book, or after you’ve finished.

Conclusion

We end the course with this word of advice:

Bhante Yuttadhammo reminds us to not get too bogged down in scholarship, even though some scholarship is necessary, and encourages us to never forget to put into practice what we learn.

Further Reading

Articles

Audio/Video

A short introduction to the Dhammapada, from Gil Fronsdal’s 2008 translation, read by the author.

The text jumps inside me and helps. me. out.

So, when you’re studying Buddhism, what are you studying?
I know the answer. I’m studying me.
I’m studying me.

Booklets

A concise and readable survey of early Buddhist studies, showing the wide evidence we have in support of the authenticity of the EBTs and how we can know about ancient India at all.

the Buddha himself rarely smiles in the Canon, and when he does, the reasons for his smile are never hilarious. Still, the Canon’s reputation for being devoid of humor is undeserved. It’s there in the Canon, but it often goes unrecognized.

Canonical Works

A beautiful reading of some of the most famous verses in Buddhism.

The Buddha gives a sixteen-step guided meditation on the breath and then explains how this meditation fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness and the seven factors of enlightenment.

The canonical account of the Buddha’s first days and the story of how the religion was founded.

Essays

A good sutta is one that inspires you to stop reading it.

Monographs

A classic translation of the primary book of poetry from the Pāli Canon.

Just as the sun is valued not only for its own intrinsic radiance but also for its ability to illuminate the world, so the brilliance of the Buddha is determined not only by the clarity of his Teaching but by his ability to illuminate those who came to him for refuge

Papers

We may begin with one simple list, but the structure of early Buddhist thought and literature dictates that we end up with an intricate pattern of lists within lists

Reference Shelf

If you are looking to dive into the suttas, there are many good pointers and valuable resources to be found on this blog.

SuttaCentral hosts sources and free translations of Early Buddhist Texts, meticulously organized by parallels, books, languages and searchable with several large indexes.

Advanced Courses

The Buddha
On the Buddha himself: his life, journey, and character.
The Function of Buddhism
The theory and practice of Buddhism, in contemporary words.
Imagery in the Early Buddhist Texts
We explore the metaphors, words, and similes of the Early Buddhist Texts and begin to read the language of the suttas more closely in this highly recommended class.
The Majjhima Nikāya
If you've enjoyed studying the suttas with Bhikkhu Bodhi, this course will be a natural continuation. We'll continue our methodical study of the suttas and their historicity through a long tour of half of the Middle Length Discourses.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.