Beginnings: The Fifth Nikāya

The material which was admitted to the Four Nikāyas during the first century after the Buddha was but a fraction of what was remembered. Much of this material, which included a great deal of verse,[38] must have been in common circulation, the preserve of no single lineage or group of companies; for within the four Nikāyas and also within the Vinaya we find not only one Sutta referring to another[39] but also, here and there, Suttas referring to material which lies outside the first four Nikāyas.[40] There was also new material being generated to fulfil new needs as with the Pāyāsi Sutta on rebirth, or to describe new events as with Ven. Nārada’s talk to King Munda. What was to be done with all of this? To add substantially to the Nikāyas would have established an unfortunate precedent leading to the inevitable dissipation of their integrity; yet to leave the material disorganized would be to abandon much that was worthy to an early destruction. The solution chosen was the creation of the fifth collection, the Khuddaka Nikāya.

Khuddaka means “small” and at first the Khuddaka Nikāya was indeed small. Today, with fifteen separate sections, it is the most voluminous of the Nikāyas, but originally it consisted of probably six or seven separate short texts, each of which had been compiled and preserved, prior to inclusion in the Nikāya, individually on its own merits.

The Theragāthā and Therīgāthā, for instance, consist of the verses of various monks and nuns, respectively. Here there can be no doubt that some of the verses are by second generation disciples (e.g. Venerable Pārāpariya’s verses, 920-948), and that the texts grew substantially after the First Council. This is only to be expected: the two collections do not pretend otherwise. The Dhammapada is a collection of popular verses. Quite a few are to be found elsewhere among the Suttas, but as many or more are unique to this compilation. Most of the verses stand alone, unconnected to the others. We have no direct evidence as to the date of its closure, but the arrangement and distribution of the verses suggest that it could well have grown during the first century. The Sutta Nipāta is, like the Dhammapada, a collection of popular verse, but it differs in that its verses form longer poems, each of which is regarded as a discourse. Indeed, some of them have prose attached, as a sort of introductory bunting. A few of the poems appear within the four Nikāyas; the remainder are the most popular of those longer poems that are not included therein. As such, a number of its passages are quoted within the four Nikāyas (as noted above), which has given rise to the mistaken view that the Sutta Nipāta contains the “oldest layer” of texts. Certainly some of the Sutta Nipāta texts are contemporaneous with the first four Nikāyas, but they do not pre-date them.[41]

The Udāna is a collection of eighty solemn utterances spoken by the Buddha on special occasions. The Itivuttaka contains 112 short Suttas, each accompanied by verses, the relevance of which is not always apparent. This fact together with some seeming textual corruptions suggest that it may have had an older and independent life before being incorporated into the Khuddaka Nikāya. If this is so, it indicates what happened to those texts that did not receive the formal protection of organization.

“The Jātaka contains only the verses connected with the 547 tales of previous existences of the Buddha. The (prose) tales are in a commentary of the fifth century A.D., which claims to be translated from Sinhalese (to Pali)….
Professor T. W. Rhys Davids has stated that these tales are ‘old stories, fairy tales, and fables, the most important collection of ancient folklore extant,’ which we are not able to deny.”[42]

Since the Jātaka verses are often incomprehensible without the prose commentary, it is difficult to see how they could predate the prose. The prose, however, would predate the fifth century commentary into which it was translated and collected. The origin of these verses, then, remains indeterminate. It is sometimes thought that since these three texts — Udāna, Itivuttaka, Jātaka — are mentioned as part of the ninefold description of texts (see above) that they must be, like the Sutta Nipāta, part of “the oldest layer” of texts that we now have; but it is more reasonable to suggest that they were so named because the ninefold description was already in existence.

The other eight texts that are today included within the Khuddaka Nikāya are generally regarded as late additions, and need not be discussed.

The formation of this collection probably arose during the century between the two Councils rather than with the Second Council itself: such developments need time to generate strength and achieve general acceptance. By the time the Council assembled, the force of opinion would have already been in favour of including this new collection in the Canon: the Council’s function herein would have been to ratify and reinforce this consensus and, no doubt, to decide upon its organizational details. They would also have had a hand in deciding final organisational details for the other Nikāyas and for the Vinaya. It was possibly at this time, for example, that D. 16 — see Preface, paragraph six — was expanded to its present form, or at least a previous expansion was at this time ratified, by including passages taken from the other parts of the Nikāyas. And, too, those few texts, the “six percent” which had been added to their collections by the various bhānakas, would have been cast now into their final forms.[43]

It needed to be done, for the monks of the Vesālī company, along with their supporters, seem (according to a non-Canonical text, the Dīpavamsa, vv. 32ff.) to have refused to accept the ruling of the Council, breaking away and forming their own council, wherein they re-arranged and, it seems, added to the texts to suit their own purposes. During the next 250 years this company split up and resplintered into numerous factions, each having evolved its own set of doctrines and disciplinary codes.[44] None of these texts have survived: again, as with Venerable Purāna, we learn the survival-value of organization.[45] The fact that the Suttas and Vinaya[46] have survived as coherent entities can now be seen to be itself strong evidence that they have survived unchanged.


38. Surprise is sometimes expressed at the quantity of verse in the five Nikāyas. But verse not only has obvious mnemonic value whereby the compilers would give it priority over prose passages, but less obviously but more importantly it has great inspirational value. It is sometimes suggested that not only was verse seldom spoken spontaneously as the texts often report, but also that much of it “must have been” created in a later, more literate time. Such is the prejudice of a prosaic era; but a more poetic age — Elizabethan England, for example — would not have shared this misconception. [Back to text]

39. Although we are unable to cite an example of such a referring Sutta which does not seem to be a later addition, at least one such text — S. XLVI,3 (iv,286-7) — was evidently not a later creation, but was spoken during the Buddha’s lifetime. [Back to text]

40. As at, e.g., Mahāvagga V,13,9 (i,195-6) = Ud. V,6 (59), at S. XII,31 (ii,47-50), at A. III,32 (i,133-4), etc. The above examples all refer to or quote from passages found today in the Sutta Nipāta of the Khuddaka Nikāya. [Back to text]

41. This notion of older and younger layers of text assumes, contrary to the evidence, that the first four Nikāyas grew over a period of centuries by a process of heterogeneous accretion until they reached their present form. As such, it is part of the syncretistic approach which we have already rejected. Certainly some discourses are older than others inasmuch as they did not all appear simultaneously. Other than the few exceptions already discussed, it took about forty-five years for them to evolve; and it should be no great surprise that various individuals, including the Buddha, might, on occasion, refer to or even quote from what had already been said. [Back to text]

42. Venerable Aggamahāpandita A. P. Buddhadatta Mahāthera, on p. 260 of his collection of monographs, Corrections of Geiger’s Mahāvamsa Etc. (Ambalangoda, Ceylon, 1957). [Back to text]

43. That the Twelfth Khandhaka account of this Council makes no mention whatsoever of a recitation of the Suttas, nor any decisions as to the fifth Nikāya, nor the placement of later additions within the four Nikāyas, does not mean that they were not done then. First, the report as given omits a number of other important details as well, such as the refusal of the Vesālī company to accept the Council’s decisions and to abandon their practices. Second, it would be expected by all monks as a matter of course that whenever a body of monks met, they would review their texts in order to prevent or discover variances. Third, the purpose of the account was to condemn the Vesālī monks. The full list of ten points is censured, item by item, three times in the space of fifteen pages and denounced as a whole many times more. To have reported on other matters would have diluted the force of the anathematization. Finally, in the Bakkula Sutta (discussed above) a phrase is inserted — “inasmuch as for eighty years Venerable Bakkula has…” — after each statement of Venerable Bakkula’s achievements. This phrase (according to the Commentary: MA. iv,193) was inserted by the elders who made the recension of the Teaching. We are not told which elders, but from our own examination we can see clearly that it would have had to have been the elders of this Second Council. [Back to text]

44. Some scholars might question the identification of the Vesālī company with the progenitors of the splinter groups or suggest, more modestly, that only some of these sects evolved from the Vesālī monks, the remainder breaking away from the Councils’ lineage at later dates. These are scholarly issues which it would be out of place to discuss here. Perhaps the fullest discussion, together with informative charts, is to be found in the Prefatory Notes to the Aung/Rhys Davids translation of the Kathā Vatthu (Points of Controversy, Pali Text Society, London, 1915). [Back to text]

45. Though these texts have not survived as collections, yet scattered fragments have been rediscovered in Sanskrit, and more coherent units have been preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations. [Back to text]

46. The evolution of the Vinaya is parallel to that of the Suttas. A description of its evolution would be more complex, partly due to the need to consider what is nowadays known as the “old commentary”; but it would follow the same lines of reasoning used herein; and it would arrive at the same conclusions: like the four Nikāyas, the Vinaya achieved essentially its final form during the first century following the Buddha. The question of when the “old commentary” came to be embedded in the text, and of how the Parivāra became semi-attached to the Vinaya proper need not concern us. For a short note on this subject, see the Appendix. [Back to text]

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