Early Buddhist Writings

A few years ago I read some of the earliest Buddhist texts that we currently know of and was shocked at how different they are to what is generally taught as being Buddhism today. Even Theravada Buddhism, which has the claim of being the oldest surviving school of Buddhism, often presents its teachings in very different ways. These early teachings were direct, forceful and devoid of complexities and lengthy philosophising. They reminded me much more of the pithy statements of Zen and Dzogchen Buddhism, which is surprising as these Buddhist schools are chronologically much later developments that occurred roughly 1000 years after the Buddha’s time.

The notion that most of what is currently taught as Buddhism is not very much like the original teachings of the Buddha is not necessarily a problem. Just because Buddhist teachings today are not the same as the original teachings does not mean they are not valid, but personally I like to understand the teachings in context and I wanted to understand more about what Siddhartha Gautama (the original Buddha) actually said that was so revolutionary and inspiring to those around him.

Of course we do not know for sure what Siddhartha Gautama taught as (as far as we know) he didn’t write down any of his teachings. Thanks Gautama. However the early Buddhist suttas (verses or scriptures) are consistent and fairly reliable and the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that the early suttas do represent the Buddha’s teachings in content, but not necessarily in form.

The earliest suttas we have are written in the Pali language. Unlike later Pali suttas, the earlier ones tend to be less structured with very few numbered lists of teachings. It is likely that the first teachings were written down like this then expanded in form and style into the repetitive numbered verses we typically see forming the bulk of the Pali canon.

Many people interested in Buddhism think of the Theravada school of Buddhism as being the original teachings of the Buddha, but this is not necessarily the case. The Theravada school (lit. school of the elders) is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, but was itself a breakaway group from other earlier Buddhist schools that no longer survive today. Many of the Theravada teachings centre around a groups of texts called the Abhidhamma which were actually written two hundred years or so after the original teachings (the earlier teachings are contained in the Sutta Pitaka portion of the Pali Canon). The Abhidhamma contains commentaries and re-working of the earlier teachings combined with highly structured metaphysical and philosophical teachings that are absent from the original teachings and often much more complex than them too. Most scholars agree that much of this was not part of the original teachings of the Buddha.

Again, I would like to stress that just because a teaching is not the original one or the oldest, does not mean that is any less valid or useful.

So that said, I would like to present some of what is thought to be the oldest Buddhist writings that capture what Siddhartha Gautama probably taught. Things that strike out for me are the simplicity and directness of the teachings and how resolute and iconoclastic the teachings are – they are relentless in insisting on not having any fixed point of view or attachments. They warn against lengthy philosophical discourse and debate, and against complex forms of practice. In many ways they remind me of advaitic texts such as the Ashtavakra Gita as well as Taoist texts such as Tao Te Ching. There are also parallels with Zen texts such as  Faith in Mind Sutra and the Diamond Sutra.

Here is an excerpt from the Atthakavagga (lit. Octet Chapter), perhaps the earliest surviving Buddhist sutta we have. Many of the insights in this text were later downplayed in the more formalised Theravada teaching. Here is Chapter 1 in its entirety. It firstly describes someone trapped in their desires for material goods and the suffering this brings and contrasts this with the enlightened person, one who has ‘gone to the other shore’:


1. If it prospers for one desiring objects of desire, the fellow of course becomes exhilarated in mind, having got what he wants.

2. If for a person, desiring, with strong preference aroused, those objects of desire dwindle away, he is distressed as though pierced with a spike.

3. Whoever avoids objects of desire, as with one’s foot the head of a snake, He, being mindful, transcends this attachment in the world.

4. Whatever man is greedy for fields, property, or gold, Cows and horses, slaves and servants, women, relations, various objects of desire,

5. The powerless overpower him; troubles press him down; Thus unease comes to him like water into a broken boat.

6. So a person, always mindful, should avoid objects of desire; Having abandoned them he would cross the flood, like one who has gone to the other shore having bailed out his boat.

This following excerpt is the entirety of Chapter 10 and starts with someone asking Gotama (Gautama, Buddha) to describe an enlightened being (the one who is “at peace”, “the supreme man”). Gautama answers starting in verse 2:

1. Having what vision, having what morality, is one said to be “at peace”? Tell me this, O Gotama. You are asked about the supreme man.

2. With craving gone before the breaking up of life, (said the Blessed One,) Not dependent upon former times, Not to be determined in the present, He has not anything set before him.

3. Not angry, not intimidated, Not boastful, not beset with worry, A speaker of discretion, not pompous, He truly is a sage whose speech is restrained.

4. With no attachment to the future He does not sorrow over the past. A viewer of detachment among stimulations, He is not led into views.

5. He is withdrawn, not a schemer, Not covetous, not afraid of loss, Not audacious, not beset with aversion, And not given to denigration.

6. Not attracted to what is pleasant, And not given to contemptuousness, Mild, and possessed of ready wit, He is not devout, he is not impassive.

7. He does not train himself through desire of gain, And he is not upset at lack of gain. He is not opposed to craving, Nor is he greedy for savory stimulations.

8. An indifferent onlooker, always mindful, He imagines nothing in the world to be equal, Nor superior, nor lower. For him there are no distinguished positions.

9. With whom there is no sense of dependence, Having understood the Way, independent; With whom there is not to be found craving For existence or for nonexistence;

10. Him I call “at peace”— One not hoping for the objects of desire. With him there are no ties to be found; He has crossed over attachment.

11. For him there are no sons or livestock, Nor field nor property to be found. Regarding him there is not to be detected Anything acquired or discarded.

12. That for which common people would criticize him, Or also philosophers and holy men, He has not set that before him; Therefore he is not disturbed amid criticisms.

13. Without greed for gain, not afraid of loss, A sage does not put forth a claim as among superiors, Nor as among equals, nor as among inferiors. He does not come to conception; he is without conception.

14. He for whom there is nothing his own in the world, And who does not sorrow over what is not there, And who does not go by philosophies— He truly is said to be “at peace.”

These excerpts were taken from a wonderful translation of the Atthakavagga by Bhikkhu Paññobhasa. The entire translation can be found here, in which the English translation is beautifully presented alongside the Pali original.


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