The Earliest Recorded
Discourses of the Buddha
(from Lalitavistara, Mahākhandhaka & Mahāvastu)

Anandajoti Bhikkhu
(revised January, 2010)

 

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The First Discourse

The Second Discourse

The Third Discourse

The Fourth Discourse

 

published April 2010 by Sukhi Hotu in Malaysia

Introduction

The earliest recorded discourses of the Buddha are found in narratives detailing his early career, not long after the Awakening. We have three main sources for a record of this period, they are the Lalitavistara, which originally seems to have belonged to the Sarvāstivāda sect; See The Lalitavistara and Sarvastivada by E. J. Thomas in the Indian Historical Quarterly, 16:2 1940.06 p. 239-245.01 the Mahākhandaka, which is part of the Theravāda Vinayapiṭaka, and the Mahāvastu, which apparently formed the substance of the Vinaya of the Lokottaravāda sect. See Senart, Vol I, p. 2. 02

The three works cover somewhat different time spans, the first of them, the Lalitavistara (An Elaboration of the Play [of the Buddha]), ends after the first discourse has been delivered. The Mahākhandaka (The Great Chapter) continues up and till the conversion of Sāriputta and Moggallāna. The Mahāvastu (The Great Story), on the other hand, ends somewhat earlier, with the donation of the Bamboo Wood by King Bimbisāra.

Embedded into these narratives there are certain teachings, which now form the earliest recorded discourses of the Buddha, and it is those that are presented here. That there were many other teachings is beyond doubt as we are told so in the narratives, See the section entitled Further Attainments below for clear examples. It is for this reason the book is entitled The Earliest Recorded Discourses of the Buddha. 03 but their contents have not been preserved.

Not all of the teachings exist in all three records: the Lalitavistara, for instance, breaks off after the first discourse and so there is no record of any teachings after that. Except for a set of 44 verses, which do not form so much a discourse as a summary of some of the main points in the teaching. They are included in this collection because of their intrinsic interest. 04 The Mahāvastu does not know of The Instruction About Burning (Ādittapariyāya), which is recorded in the Pāḷi text, and on the other hand where the latter has only a summary of the discourse given to King Bimbisāra, the Mahāvastu records the full discourse.

There are other variations, and though on the whole the Mahāvastu, which is much longer, has more detail than the Mahākhandaka, it records the second discourse as though it followed straight on after the first. However, we can see from the Pāḷi text that this is not so, but must have come about a week later; and what is recorded as the first miracle performed before Uruvelakassapa by the Pāḷi text is said to have been the last one by the Mahāvastu.

I have not made a detailed comparison of the texts, though such an examination would be well worthwhile and needs to be undertaken. Here however I have only occasionally pointed out some major differences and have been more concerned with providing a clear and readable rescension of the teachings, which were so important to the establishment of the new doctrine, and in spite of the variations there remains a core of teachings at the heart of these discourses which is common to all the Buddhist traditions.

The first discourse deals with the Four Noble Truths; the second with the constituent parts and the doctrine of non-self; the third with the sense-spheres and the three main pollutants; and the fourth with insight into the phenomena of rising and ceasing and conditional origination. As can be seen in this short collection are found some of the most foundational and distinctive teachings of the Buddha.

I have retained the narrative framework, albeit in a somewhat abbreviated form, When passages have been omitted from the original texts they have been clearly marked in the text. 05 because it seems to me important that these teachings were not given in abstraction, but were taught to meet and convince real individuals who were questing for the Truth. It is not an accident that the middle way was taught to the group-of-five former ascetics, as that answered their most important doubt, which they expressed when they first met the Buddha at Ṛṣipatana.

Similarly that the third discourse was addressed to fire-worshippers and showed what a real fire was is not coincidental, but was meeting them on common ground, and was intended to show how their fire-imagery can still lead them to the truth if correctly applied. The discourse on Causation to the self-made men of Rājagṛha is also right on target, appealing to their sense of dynamism.

Texts

In compiling this collection I have made use of all three records and the table below summarises the source for the sections and their parallels where they exist:

Section Title

Source

Parallel

The Meeting at Ṛṣipatana

Lalitavistara

Mahākhandhaka, Mahāvastu

The Discourse that Set the Dharma-Wheel Rolling

Lalitavistara

Mahākhandhaka, Mahāvastu

Verses on Setting Rolling the Dharma-Wheel

Lalitavistara

-

Further Attainments

Mahākhandhaka

-

The Discourse on the Characteristic of Non-Self

Mahākhandhaka

Mahāvastu

The First Miracle (The Dragon-king)

Mahākhandhaka

Mahāvastu (last miracle)

The Ordination of Kassapa and his Followers

Mahākhandhaka

Mahāvastu (shorter)

The Instruction About Burning

Mahākhandhaka

-

King Bimbisāra goes to meet the Buddha

Mahāvastu

Mahākhandhaka

The Discourse on Arising and Ceasing

Mahāvastu

-

All three texts are written in forms of more or less Sankritised Prākṛt. The Pāḷi text is the one which is least influenced by Sanskrit, the Mahāvastu is more heavily Sanskritised, especially in the prose passages, and the Lalitavistara, which in its present form probably dates from the 1st century A.D. shows the influence of the then dominant language even more clearly. All three, however, have a kind of Prākṛt as their basis.

The proper names in the Lalitavistara and Mahāvastu are nearly always given in their Sanskrit form. In order to remain true to the source texts when making the translations I have retained the forms that are found in each of them. This leads to some slight discrepency which the table below should help rectify, it gives the more familiar Pāḷi form of the name first and then the Sanskrit, and as can be seen the differences are minimal and readily identifiable:

Pāḷi - Sanskrit

Isipatana - Ṛṣipatana
Bārāṇasī - Vārāṇasī
Gotama - Gautama
Siddhattha - Siddhārtha
Āññā Koṇḍañña - Ājñāna Kauṇḍinya
Vappa - Vāṣpa
Bhaddiya - Bhadraka
Assaji - Aśvakī
Uruvelakassapa - Uruvilvākāśyapa
Nadīkassapa - Nadīkāśyapa
Gayākassapa - Gayākāśyapa
Rājagaha - Rājagṛha
Seṇiya Bimbisāra - Śreṇya Bimbisāra

These translations were originally published in full on my website www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net, and longer versions of the same material, together with the original text, can be found there.

I am very grateful indeed to Rod Bucknell who selflessly went through all of the texts and translations for me and made many corrections and suggestions for improvement that has greatly improved both accuracy and presentation. He has been a true kalyāṇamitra.

 

this compilation has been abstracted
from the following longer documents
published elsewhere on this website:

FIRST DISCOURSE

SECOND & THIRD DISCOURSES

FOURTH DISCOURSE