True Dhamma

“When you know for yourselves…”

The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas

Buddha Facial ImageThe Theravada tradition, dominant in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, regards the Pali suttas as the authentic and authoritative record of the Buddha’s own words. When Western scholars — piqued by issues of authority and authenticity — first learned of these claims in the 19th century, they began employing the historical method to test them. And although every conceivable scrap of literary or archeological evidence seems to have been examined, no air-tight historical proof or disproof of these claims has surfaced.

What has surfaced is a mass of minor facts and probabilities — showing that the Pali canon is probably the closest detailed record we have of the Buddha’s teachings — but nothing more certain than that. Archeological evidence shows that Pali was probably not the Buddha’s native language, but is this proof that he didn’t use Pali when talking to native speakers of that language? The canon contains grammatical irregularities, but are these signs of an early stage in the language, before it was standardized, or a later stage of degeneration? And in which stage of the language’s development did the Buddha’s life fall?

Fragments of other early Buddhist canons have been found, with slight deviations from the Pali canon in their wording, but not in their basic doctrines. Is their unanimity in doctrine a sign that they all come from the Buddha himself, or was it the product of a later conspiracy to remake and standardize the doctrine in line with changed beliefs and tastes? Scholars have proven eager to take sides on these issues, but the inevitable use of inference, conjecture, and probabilities in their arguments lends an air of uncertainty to the whole process.

Many have seen this uncertainty as sign of the inadequacy of the Theravadin claims to authenticity. But simply to dismiss the teachings of the suttas for this reason would be to deprive ourselves of the opportunity to test their most remarkable assertion: that human effort, properly directed, can put an end to all suffering and stress. Perhaps we should instead question the methods of the historians, and view the uncertainty of their conclusions as a sign of the inadequacy of the historical method as a tool for ascertaining the Dhamma. The suttas themselves make this point in their own recommendations for how the authenticity and authority of the Dhamma is best ascertained. In a famous passage, they quote the Buddha as saying:

“Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are unskillful; these dhammas are blameworthy; these dhammas are criticized by the wise; these dhammas, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them… When you know for yourselves that, ‘These dhammas are skillful; these dhammas are blameless; these dhammas are praised by the wise; these dhammas, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.” (AN 3.65)

Because this passage is contained in a religious scripture, the statements attracting the most attention have been those rejecting the authority of religious teachers, legends, traditions, and scripture; along with those insisting on the importance of knowing for oneself. These remarkably anti-dogmatic statements — sometimes termed the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry — have tended to divert attention from the severe strictures that the passage places on what “knowing for oneself” entails.

In questioning the authority of reports, it dismisses the basic material on which the historical method is based. In questioning the authority of inference and probability, it dismisses some of the method’s basic techniques. In questioning the authority of logical conjecture, analogies, and agreement through pondering views, it dismisses the methods of free-thinking rationalism in general.

This leaves only two methods for ascertaining the Dhamma, both of them related to the question raised in this passage and central to other teachings in the canon: What is skillful, what is unskillful? In developing any skill, you must (1) pay attention to the results of your own actions; and (2) listen to those who have already mastered the skill. Similarly, in ascertaining the Dhamma, you must (1) examine the results that come from putting a particular teaching in practice; and (2) check those results against the opinions of the wise.

Two aspects of the Dhamma, however, make it a skill apart. The first is reflected in the fact that the word Dhamma means not only teaching, but also quality of the mind. Thus the above passage could also be translated:

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them… When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

In fact, this is more likely the correct translation, as the discussion following this passage focuses on the results of acting on qualities of the mind: greed, aversion, and delusion in the unskillful set; and lack of greed, lack of aversion, and lack of delusion in the skillful one. This points to the fact that Dhamma practice is primarily a skill of the mind.

The second aspect that sets the Dhamma apart as a skill is its goal: nothing less than the total ending of suffering.

While this second aspect of the Dhamma makes it an attractive skill to master, the first aspect makes it hard to determine who has mastered the skill and is thus qualified to speak about it with authority. After all, we can’t look into the minds of others to see what qualities are there and what the internal results of the practice are. At best, we can detect hints of these things in their actions, but nothing more. Thus, if we look to others for the last word on the Dhamma, we will always be in a position of uncertainty. The only way to overcome uncertainty is to practice the Dhamma to see if it brings about an end to suffering within our own minds.

Traditionally, the texts state that uncertainty about the Dhamma ends only with the attainment of stream-entry, the first of the four levels of Awakening. Even though a person who has reached this level of Awakening isn’t totally immersed in the ending of suffering, he or she has seen enough of the end of suffering to know without a doubt that that’s where the practice of the Dhamma leads. So it’s not surprising that the four factors the suttas identify as bringing about stream-entry are also the four methods they recommend for ascertaining whether they themselves are a truly authoritative and authentic guide to the end of suffering.

Those factors, listed in SN 55.5, are:

  • Association with people of integrity
  • Listening to the true Dhamma
  • Appropriate attention
  • Practice in accordance with the Dhamma.

Passages from the suttas dealing with each of these factors help show how the two sources of skill — the counsel of the wise and the lessons learned by observing the results of your own actions — can be properly balanced and integrated so as to ascertain what the true Dhamma is. And because listening to the true Dhamma now includes reading the true Dhamma, a knowledge of these factors and their interrelationships gives guidance in how to read the suttas. In particular, these factors show how the suttas themselves say they should be read, and what other actions provide the skillful context for getting the most benefit from reading them.

As you explore the explanations of these factors, you find that their presentation as a short list is deceptively simple, inasmuch as each factor contains elements of the other factors as well. For instance, associating with people of integrity is of great help in practicing the Dhamma, but for a person to recognize people of genuine integrity requires that he or she have some prior experience in practicing the Dhamma. Thus, although the form of the list suggests a simple linear progression, the individual factors of the list are interrelated in complex ways. What this means in practice is that the process of ascertaining the Dhamma is a complex one, requiring sensitivity and discernment in balancing and integrating the factors in an appropriate way. . . .

Source: “‘When you know for yourselves…’: The Authenticity of the Pali Suttas”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 23 April 2012, .

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