Beginnings: The Four Nikāyas

Each company had its own core of favourite Suttas, which newcomers would learn at least in part. Some of these discourses would be derived from talks by the company’s own teacher or stories of local monastic history; others would be drawn from the stock common to all groups. Thus we would expect few companies — probably none — not to have within their ranks those who could recite one version or another of such standard texts as deal in full or in brief with “the gradual teaching,” “the foundations of mindfulness,” and so on. However, we would also expect that from the common pool each company would choose largely not only those discourses whose subject matter appealed to them but also the type of discourse that appealed to them. Thus some groups would learn brief and pithy sayings while others would prefer discourses which developed their subject matter in detail. Still others would gravitate towards texts in which subject matter was intertwined with character and event, resulting in a story-form. This latter sort of text would have particularly appealed to monks living near villages or towns on two grounds. First, such monks would have had the leisure to learn these generally longer Suttas, for life near the towns is easier than life in remote jungle thickets; and second, when the laity would assemble on the new- and full-moon observance days, they would find such Suttas more interesting to listen to than those with little characterization and story. Hence it is the case that the collection of discourses which are long, called the Dígha Nikāya, does, in fact, address itself to matters of concern to the laity far more frequently than any of the other collections. Indeed, nearly half the discourses in this collection are addressed to laypeople, and in most others layfolk play a significant role.

Life in the forest is not as easy as life near a town. Aside from time devoted to meditation, there are many time-consuming chores. Forest monks would have less time for the learning of long discourses and perhaps, less inclination: not only are forest monks often more given to meditation than are village monks, they are also less frequently visited by laypeople, and therefore have less need to accommodate lay interests. Many of them, however, would wish to know discourses which dealt instructively in detail with a subject. Thus, one who is practising perception of emptiness would likely find it worthwhile to learn at least one of the discourses which develops this theme.[20] Many forest monks would wish to have at hand, for reference in their practice as well as for the joy of associating with the Good Teaching (saddhamma), discourses that consisted of something more than a pithy saying, but which yet were more concerned with instruction than with story and characterization. They would learn Suttas of a moderate length, and they would choose subject matter in accordance with the interests they were pursuing. Hence there is a collection of discourses which are of middle length (Majjhima Nikāya), rich in variety of subject matter, but of less immediate relevance to the concerns of the laity than the longer discourses, and in which the laity play a much smaller role, less than a quarter of these talks are addressed to laypeople.

Naturally many teachers taught by way of a particular subject, such as the practice of reflection in regard to the sense faculties, or the holding aggregates, or feelings, etc. As today, then, too, the followers of each teacher would of course take particular interest in learning discourses that pertained to the subject that concerned them or to some other point of interest: nuns would learn discourses involving nuns; the monks living in the forest of Kosala would remember events and talks which took place there, and so on. Hence there tended to coalesce, with no planning necessary, collections of discourses grouped according to subject matter, and today these exist as the Samyutta Nikāya.

We see, as we inquire into the Buddha’s Teaching, that it is much given to enumeration: three kinds of feeling, four right efforts, five powers, six senses, seven factors of enlightenment, the eightfold path, and so on. This may be regarded as a device to serve both mnemonic and pedagogical purposes. Thus, the meditation levels known as jhānas are almost always enumerated as four and almost always described in accordance with a set pattern. That they need not be so enumerated and described is suggested by the Upakkilesa Sutta, M. 188 (iii,162) (among others), wherein the same range of concentrative attainments is described in six stages. Again, the usual description of those who have seen truth but not yet achieved full purification (i.e. the sekha, trainee, or ariyasāvaka, noble disciple) is three-fold (viz, Stream-enterer, Once-returner, Non-returner); but at A. IX,12 (iv,380-1) we are given a nine-fold division. That these categories are in fact not invariably described according to their usual formulations is strong evidence that they need not be. (Again, higher than actuality stands possibility.) Since the purpose of the Buddha’s Teaching is neither to classify nor to analyze but to lead one to see something about oneself, classification is used only for its mnemonic and pedagogical value, though herein its value is great. There are discourses which teach non-attachment to feeling and other aspects of experience without making any enumerations: S. XII,12 (ii,13); XXXVI,4 (iv,206-7); 21 (iv,230-1), etc. The stock descriptions are commonly given because it was found to be generally easier, to use them both as an aid to memory and in the service of one’s own practice. It would be expected, then, that some monks would avail themselves of this numerical device, which is an Indian literary style also found in non-Buddhist texts: Jaina Thānānga is an example, and so would learn discourses according to the number of items discussed. Hence today there exists a collection of discourses arranged numerically, up to eleven: the Anguttara Nikāya.[21]

We can see, then, that even during the life of the Buddha these discourses were not distributed randomly: already they must have been organized, in an embryonic form, along the lines in which we now have them. Indeed, the texts themselves refer — A. III,20 (i,117) etc. — to dhammadharā, vinayadharā, mātikadharā, or those who keep (= learn) the Teaching, those who keep the Discipline, and those who keep the Summaries, i.e. the Pātimokkha. Their formal organization would not have been a radical and innovative leap, but the logical next step in a process that had already developed to some extent.

However, the Suttas were probably not formally organized into Nikāyas during the Buddha’s lifetime. During that time the Canon was still decidedly open and growing. When they became unwieldy in volume, then no doubt some loose organization was evolved — “Let this company learn these discourses; let that company learn those discourses” — but any formal structure would have been continuously interrupted, requiring recomposition in order to accommodate popular and important new discourses. Thus the Suttas never refer to themselves in terms of the Nikāyas that we now have. Rather, we find fairly often a nine-fold division of the texts: discourses, mixed prose and verse, expositions, verses, solemn utterances, sayings, birth stories, marvels, catechisms (sutta, geyya, veyyākarana, gāthā, udāna, itivuttaka, jātaka, abbhutadhamma, vedalla — M. 22 (i,133), etc. This is not to suggest that the texts were ever organized along this nine-fold division The classification is probably taken from the broad tradition of monasticism existent at that time.[22] This tradition no doubt included criteria according to which teachings could be judged, and the texts sometimes demonstrate (often to non-Buddhist ascetics, e.g. the wanderer, later the Venerable Vacchagotta at M. 73 (i,489-97)) that the Teaching was complete in all its parts as judged by these standards (see also A. VII,55 (iv,82-84)). But the use of this nine-fold classification shows that the texts do, in fact, describe themselves. Therefore their failure to do so in terms of Nikāyas demonstrates that such a division did not come into existence until after the Canon was no longer fully open, i.e. after the Buddha’s decease.


20. “… Because, Ānanda, it is empty of self or of what pertains to self, therefore it is said, ‘The world is empty.’ …” — S. XXXV,85 (iv,54) [Back to text]

21. In addition to the four Nikāyas described above, there is a fifth collection, the Khuddaka Nikāya. However, it will be convenient to discuss its growth later, inasmuch as it is of later growth. For now we will consider only the four great Nikāyas. [Back to text]

22. As are certain other Canonical technical terms: jhāna, for instance, which was certainly known to the Jains — see S. XLI,8 (iv,298) — and to such outside teachers as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta — M. 26 (i,164-5). Convincing evidence could be cited for a number of other terms as well. [Back to text]

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