How Do I Know the Nikāyas are Authentic?

by | Jun 9, 2024 | Buddhism for All

“Yes, there is a lot of Buddhist texts to read, but don’t worry, I’ve downloaded all of it for you.”

(Context: The Early Buddhist Canon.)

As a skeptic, the very first question I’d ask is: how do I know if the Nikāyas are an authentic representation of what the Buddha taught, especially since they were written down so long after the First Buddhist Council?

First, I think we really need to eat humble pie and admit that knowing anything with certainty from more than two thousand years ago is very hard.  In fact, we don’t even have sufficient data to gain certainty on a fundamental question: In which year was the Buddha born?  Tradition holds that he was born in 623 BCE, but Buddhist scholars generally put it around 500-480 BCE.  That is why I never know how many candles to buy for the Buddha’s birthday.

Fortunately, however, we are blessed with a stroke of uncanny good luck: the early Buddhist teachings turn out to have a second, independent preservation that survived to this day!  Separately from the Nikāyas which were transmitted to Sri Lanka and preserved in Pali, those teachings were also transmitted to China and preserved in Chinese. The key difference is while the collections in the Pali corpus all came from a single school, the Theravada school, the Chinese corpus apparently derived from different schools of Buddhism, which means that the Chinese corpus represents multiple lines of transmission. This Chinese edition is commonly known as the Āgamas (literally: “that which has come [to us]” or tradition)[1].  Since both corpuses were separately and independently preserved, we can compare them, and if they compare well, we can gain a high level of confidence in them.  So, how do they compare?

First, the Āgamas only have four collections, corresponding to the four main Nikāyas (minus the “minor” collection of miscellaneous books).  Each Āgama has Sanskrit and Chinese names that correspond closely to its Pali counterpart.  Here are their corresponding Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese names (with my translation of the Chinese in parenthesis):

  1. Dīgha Nikāya, Dīrgha Āgama, 长阿含经 (“Long Āgama”)
  2. Majjhima Nikāya, Madhyama Āgama, 中阿含经 (“Middle Āgama”)
  3. Saṃyutta Nikāya, Saṃyukta Āgama, 杂阿含经 (“Varied Āgama”)
  4. Aṅguttara Nikāya, Ekottara Āgama, 增一阿含经 (“Increase-by-one Āgama”)

The books in the Pali Khuddaka Nikāya (minor collection) are represented in the Chinese canon, except that they exist as separate books rather than as gathered in a single collection.

In terms of content, there appears to be no difference at all in all the major doctrinal points such as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the five aggregates, the five hindrances, the four establishments of mindfulness, the seven factors of enlightenment, the four jhānas, and all.  Yay!  That makes me so happy!

Even though the Nikāyas and Āgamas are essentially identical on all major doctrinal points, things are not entirely free from real-life messiness.  For example, there are discourses that appear to be added later.  Fortunately, the late additions are very easy to spot according to Buddhist scholar monks Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali, partly because the style is distinctly different from the older texts and whoever inserted those discourses did not even try to disguise it.[2]  There are also some differences in detail, though many appear to be fairly minor.  For example, in the discourse where Moggallāna was nodding off in meditation and the Buddha was giving him advice, the Āgama version[3] includes the advice to wash his face and body with cold water, while the Nikāya version[4] does not. 

In any case, I think the most important point is that despite all the messiness and thousands of miles of separation and over more than two thousand years of separate transmission, there is an uncanny agreement between the Nikāyas and Āgamas on all major doctrinal points and the vast majority of the text, and that is great news.  In addition, there are two other reasons to have confidence in the early Buddhist texts. 

First, the agreement on all major doctrinal points is not just between the two separately preserved corpuses of the early Buddhist texts, but also among all major schools of Buddhism.  There is, for example, no fifth noble truth in any school of Buddhism.  At minimum, we can say that the early Buddhist texts are congruent with the common doctrine shared by all major schools of Buddhism, but I’d even go further and claim that the most likely reason all major schools share that same common doctrine was because of the early Buddhist texts.  The teachings represented in early Buddhist texts were the underlying foundation upon which every major school of Buddhism was built, and their high-fidelity transmission ensured the common core among all major schools of Buddhism even to this day. Soryu adds that the agreement may be due to the actual realization of the Dharma by masters throughout the centuries. They had direct access to the truth, and then could check their realization with the suttas, creating a positive feedback loop of correcting errors.

The second additional reason to have confidence in the early Buddhist texts is because there is a lot of evidence supporting their fidelity.  There is so much evidence that Buddhist scholar monks Sujato and Brahmali wrote an entire book on it titled The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts.[5]  They conclude that:

“Most academic scholars of Early Buddhism cautiously affirm that it is possible that the EBTs [(Early Buddhist Texts)] contain some authentic sayings of the Buddha.  We contend that this drastically understates the evidence. A sympathetic assessment of relevant evidence shows that it is very likely that the bulk of the sayings in the EBTs that are attributed to the Buddha were actually spoken by him. It is very unlikely that most of these sayings are inauthentic.”[6]  [Emphasis by original author.]

I’m not going to be able to summarize an entire book here, but I can share some points that stood out for me.  EBTs here stands for Early Buddhist Texts, and they refer to the Nikāyas, Āgamas and the core part of the Vinaya called the Pāṭimokkha, known to be its oldest part.  Some points are:

  • The keepers of the EBTs left the parts that contradict their own positions untouched.  For example, the Theravada school is the keeper of the Nikāyas, and according to their own text, the Kathāvatthu (“Points of Contention”), there are passages in the EBTs that contradict their own teachings.  Yet, the Theravadin school left those passages intact.
  • Oddities are not normalized.  The EBTs narrate awkward episodes that reflect the messiness of real life that could easily have been edited out if it was meant to be propaganda material for glorifying the Buddha and his teachings.  The fact that they were not edited out indicates that the attitude towards preserving the EBTs was very conservative.  For example:
    • The Buddha’s attendant at that time, Meghiya, rudely refused to obey his instructions.[7]
    • The Buddha went to visit a group of monks, the groundskeeper did not recognize him and asked him to leave.[8]
    • The Buddha gave a talk, but the monks were not happy with it.[9]
    • The Buddha was disparaged, called names, verbally abused.[10]
    • Monk Bhaddāli told the Buddha he was unable to keep the monastic rule about not eating after midday.[11]
    • The Buddha complained of a bad back and had to lie down in the middle of giving a talk.[12]
    • The Buddha was more comfortable being alone when responding to the calls of nature.[13]
    • King Pasenadi became fat and the Buddha got him to lose weight.[14]
    • Monk Purāṇa (who was not at the First Council, presumably not invited) declined to recite the Dharma as it was recited at the First Council, instead reciting it according to what he himself had remembered; this was recorded despite its implications for the diminished authority of the Council.[15]
  • There are early manuscripts.  For example, ancient Buddhist manuscripts dating back to the 1st century CE were found preserved in modern-day Afghanistan that contain both EBTs and texts from later Buddhism, and the EBTs found correspond closely to the Pali EBTs.
  • There is evidence from comparative textual analysis.  For example, the Pali Abhidhamma refers frequently to the suttas, but the suttas never refer to the Abhidhamma, which indicates that the suttas predate the Abhidhamma.  There is also evidence coming from analysis of comparative styles, phrasing, and vocabulary.
  • With respect to Brahmānism (a religion that predates the Buddha and continues today as a major aspect of Hinduism), the EBTs refer only to three Vedas, not the four that became standard in later years, and they are unaware of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana.  This and other such data points relating to other religions help us date the EBTs.
  • The political geography of Northern India changed drastically and rapidly after the period described in the EBTs.  Within a few decades, the diverse kingdoms had been unified under the Nanda dynasty.  Yet there is no trace of this later situation anywhere in the EBTs, not even as a prophecy or anecdote.  That means the EBTs must belong to a period of history at least several decades prior to the reign of the Nandas.  This locates them at or very near the historical Buddha.

Given the sheer weight of the evidence, I have to agree that Sujato and Brahmali are correct, that “it is very likely that the bulk of the sayings in the EBTs that are attributed to the Buddha were actually spoken by him.”


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • It is wonderful that with today’s modern technology, we can cross-reference ancient texts and have meaningful and deep discussions on them. We also rejoice that there are translation projects to translate texts from the original language to another language. How wonderful!
    • What stood out to you from this article? Why?


[1] The Pali collections were also called Āgamas, so the word is not really distinctive to the Chinese collections, but colloquially, people find it convenient to shorthand the Pali collections as the Nikāyas and the Chinese ones as the Āgamas.

[2] Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali.  The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, p. 90.

[3] Madhyama Āgama 81.

[4] Aṅguttara Nikāya 7.61.

[5] Sujato and Brahmali.  The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.3.

[8] Majjhima Nikāya 128.

[9] Majjhima Nikāya 1.

[10] Dīgha Nikāya 3, Saṃyutta Nikāya 7.3, Saṃyutta Nikāya 7.9.

[11] Majjhima Nikāya 65.

[12] Majjhima Nikāya 53.

[13] Aṅguttara Nikāya 8.86.

[14] Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.13.

[15] Theravada Vinaya ii 289-290.

Artwork by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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