Aganna Sutta


This is an old reply to an academic

Dear Dighanaka,
I reply to your post about why you think we should look to academics, rather than the Theravada tradition, to find the truth about aspects of what the Buddha taught.

I should prefer to limit it to modern academic scholars with expertise in some field relating to indology or Buddhist studies. I would also limit it to their peer-reviewed publications on subjects that lie within their field of expertise, ….. there are good reasons for preferring modern academic scholars to Indian Buddhist sectarian writers, *if* it is the truth that one wants. But if one is not at heart really interested in the truth, but only in finding faith-building material, then probably it would be best to avoid modern scholars like the plague.


Your position is accepted in academic circles but it has its own problems. Consider your comments about the Aganna sutta:
Richard Gombrich has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the Sutta is a lively and ingenious parody , Buddhaghosa, unfortunately, saw neither the joke nor the allegory of the Aganna Sutta, took the whole thing literally, and left the Theravada tradition saddled with a creation story so laughable it makes the creationism of Christian fundamentalists seem like sound science.

Certainly an Oxford don like Richard Gombrich has impeccable academic credentials with numerous peer-reviewed publications in his field of pali studies. Nevertheless, there are other academics, well-versed in pali, and published in peer-reviewed journals who reach different conclusions from the esteemed professor.

Dr. Rupert Gethin wrote an article in the prestigious ‘History of Religion’ journal (Vol.36, No.3,1997),…ud/ebdha190.htm

“”According to Gombrich the first half of the discourse introduces the problem of the relative status of brahmanas and suddas; this question is then dealt with in a tongue-in-cheek satirical manner by the Aganna myth. Gombrich regards the overall form of the Agganna- sutta as we have it as attributable to the Buddha himself and thus original. But for Gombrich the text is “primarily satirical and parodistic in intent,” although in time the jokes were lost on its readers and the myth came to be misunderstood by Buddhist tradition “as being a more or less straight-faced account of how the universe, and in particular society, originated.”

…Gombrich’s arguments for the essential unity of the Agganna text as we have it are extremely persuasive, yet I would DISAGREE with the implication that we should regard the mythic portions of the Agganna-sutta as solely satirical. It….seems to me UNLIKELY that, for the original compiler (s) of and listeners to the discourse, the mythic portion of the sutta could have been intended to be understood or actually understood in its entirety as a joke at the expense of the poor old brahanas. . The question I would therefore ask is, Do we have any particular historical reasons for supposing that it is unlikely that the Buddha should have recounted a more or less straight-faced cosmogonic myth?

My answer is that we do not. Indeed, I want to ARGUE THE OPPOSITE: what we can know of the cultural milieu in which the Buddha operated and in which the first Buddhist texts were composed suggests that someone such as the Buddha might very well have presented the kind of myth contained in the Agganna-sutta as something more than merely a piece of satire. Far from being out of key with what we can understand of early Buddhist thought from the rest of the Nikayas, the cosmogonic views offered by the Agganna-sutta in fact harmonize extremely well with it. I would go further and say that something along the lines of what is contained in the Agganna myth is actually REQUIRED by the logic of what is generally accepted as Nikaya Buddhism.

Note that Dr. Gethin is no strong believer in the sutta (in fact, he considers it a myth); he is not labouring under the weight of piety towards the Theravada like some members of Dsg. Yet, despite Gombrich showing ‘beyond any reasonable doubt'(according to you) that the sutta is a parody Gethin reaches an opposite conclusion.

Who is right? Well, another leading academic, Steve Collins, has said he agrees with Gombrich, so I guess the ‘Aganna sutta is a hilarious joke’ theory is now winning the academic battle.. Then again there is the thesis put forward by Schneider and Meisig that the Aganna sutta had some input from the Buddha but that later monks added on the bulk of the cosmological pieces; so is that the actual truth? Or will another scholar weigh in and support Gethin, or will a completely different theory emerge oneday?

You also wrote:

“And it is only from the commentators that we get the idea that the Buddha’s Dhamma has to do with paramattha dhammas and citta-khanas. These terms are not found in the Tipitaka — not even in the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The shadow of doubt cast by the commentators’ judgments on women should reasonably be taken to cover what they say about other things””

I work from an opposite perspective to you. I believe that paramattha dhammas and citta-khanas gradually (very, very incrementally) become evident, and that, unlike Buddhist history, we can see that these are really true. It is in fact because the teaching of paramttha dhammas(which are taught in the suttas, where they are classfied as khandhas, ayatanas or dhatus and nibbana) is so real and true that generally I am accepting of other sections of the suttas and commentaries which cannot be proven .


Dear Robert,

I wonder at the academics sometimes. No amount of sophistry can replace experience. I personally take the cosmological teachings at face value as being literal. This would be against my nature were it not for experience. An intellectual excersise which asserts post hoc a satiric intent to the Buddha’s teaching is, to me, merely cynicicism.


Dear Scott,
You have saddha, it is a rare quality and yet a necessary accesory of wisdom, for all further devleopment.
Without wisdom and saddha then any viriya(energy, effort) is likely to be miccha (wrong), thus many Buddhist of these days have lost their way IMO. It is like trying to cook a meal but without the main ingredients it doomed to fail.

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