Legends and transcendence: sectarian affiliations of the ekottarika agama in chinese translation.


Of the four complete Agama collections, the Ekonarika Agama (EA) has generated the most controversy about whether it can be attributed to any early Buddhist school and, if so, which school it could belong to. This paper examines the various hypotheses about the sectarian affiliation(s) of the EA. It shows that a considerable part of this corpus is likely to be of Mahasamghika derivation, and that the EA contains numerous salient features of Mahusarrighika doctrine, particularly the transcendence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This study also argues that the seeming affinity between several legends in the EA and those in the Millasarviistiviida Vinaya is likely to have resulted from Mahasiimghika influence on the Malasarvastiviidins. The Mahasamghika hypothesis for the school affiliation of the EA is substantially strengthened in this inquiry while the others are shown to be probably untenable.


Various early Buddhist schools or sects were once thriving in India and its neighborhood. Among them, only the Theravada (1) school survives until today whereas all the others have died out. The Pali texts are well preserved by the Theravadins still prevalent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. By contrast, the scriptures of the other early schools are largely lost. Many of the extant early texts remain unclear in terms of their sectarian identities. It usually takes much effort for scholars to identify the school affiliation of these surviving texts, especially sutras. The four Agamas preserved in Chinese translation are counterparts to the four main Nikayas in the Pali canon. General agreement has been reached about the sectarian affiliations of the three Agamas other than the Ekottarika Agama (Zengyi ahanjing T 125), which corresponds roughly to the Anguttara Nikaya in the Pali tradition.

The Ekottarika Agama (T 125) is associated by a number of scholars with the Dharma-guptakas, a connection that will be discussed near the end of this paper. It is ascribed to the Mahasarpghikas by Bareau (1955: 55-56,57), Ui (1965: 137-38), Akanuma (1981: 38-39), Bronkhorst (1985: 312-14), Schmithausen (1987: 318-21), Yinshun (1994: 755-56), and PasAdika (2008: 147-48 and 2010: 88-90). I have also identified a sutra of the Ekottarika Agama as affiliated with the Mahasamghikas (Kuan 2013: 52-58). The Mahasarnghika

This paper has greatly benefitted from the immense knowledge and kindness of Ven. Analayo, Mr. L. S. Cousins, and Dr. Roderick S. Bucknell, who provided me with lots of invaluable advice, for which I am very grateful. Dr. Bucknell also helped me improve the English. My thanks are due to Professor Charles Willemen, Professor Peter Skilling, Professor Paul Harrison, Dr. Yun-kai Chang, Dr. Elsa Legittimo, Dr. Giuliana Martini, and Professor Peter Harvey for references or suggestions, and to Ms. Natalie Koehle for translating part of a German article into English. I am also indebted to the two anonymous readers and Professor Stephanie Jamison for helpful suggestions and the National Science Council of Taiwan for the funding (NSC 98-2410-H-155-0604 hypothesis seems to prevail, but the arguments for this attribution, many of which are mentioned only en passant, are by no means conclusive and are based only on fragmentary evidence or insufficient conjecture. This paper aims to conduct a more extensive investigation founded on more substantial evidence. Some peculiarities and anomalies in the Ekot-tarika Agama (hereafter EA) will be picked out for discussion. These are mostly legends of Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas and passages relating to the transcendence of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This research of a voluminous corpus of sutras is not intended to be exhaustive, an impossibility in a journal article. Considering the complex problems regarding how this corpus was translated and redacted (see below), it is almost impossible to ascertain the school affiliation of the entire EA.

This extant complete version of the EA presents considerable historical problems, (2) but a plausible reconstruction of its history has been made by Lin (2009) as follows: During 384 and 385 CE (twentieth and twenty-first years of Jianyuan) Zhu Foniank completed a Chinese translation of the EA recited by Dharmanandin, a monk from Tukhara. This first translation, in forty-one fascicles, was later revised and expanded by Zhu Fonian into the EA in fifty-one fascicles that has come down to us. Zhu Fonian probably added new material to his first translation and even replaced some passages of his first translation with new material. The now-lost first translation still existed in 516 CE (3) when the Jing 1u yi xiang (T 2121) was composed and quoted over twenty passages from it. (4) These quotations are recognized as belonging to the first translation on the grounds that none of the EA passages quoted by the Jing lu yi xian has the same fascicle number as the fascicle in which its parallel in the EA (T 125) appears, (5) and that more than half of the quotations are inconsistent with their parallels in T 125 or have no parallels there at al1. (6)

Nattier (2010) demonstrates that the Shizhu duanjie jing (T 309), purportedly a sutra translated by Zhu Fonian, contains substantial material that Fonian drew from existing Chinese scriptures, including texts translated by Moksala, Zhi Yao, Dharmaraksa, and Zhi Qian. She calls attention to the possibility of "apocryphal interpolations" in Fonian's earlier translations, including the EA (2010: 257). Accordingly, I will be cautious about quoting passages from the EA when examining its school affiliation.


By convention, Buddhist tradition counts eighteen early schools (excluding the Mahayana schools), while many more school names have come down to us and some of these schools were recognized to have arisen later. (7) The whole picture of the extant early Buddhist texts in relation to those early schools is not yet clear. As Lamotte (1988: 518) says, in Indian Buddhist history the term nikaya 'group' is usually translated as "sect" and designates a "school" that professes particular opinions on certain points of the doctrine and discipline (vinaya). (8) Slcilton (1997: 59-63) sketches three types of Buddhist schools: (1) the nikayas, based on variations in Vinaya; (2) the different -vadas, based on variations in doctrine; (3) the four "philosophical schools," which are essentially a development of the doctrinal schools. i.e., the second type. Basically, therefore, school affiliation is a concept that refers to the adherence to a certain Vinaya tradition; apart from that it is also used to refer to the adherence to certain doctrinal ideas within Buddhist scholastic literature.

In view of the material available to us, it seems that the redactors of Agama texts and collections never found it necessary to add school names to their texts, and in this regard they notably differed from those who dealt with Vinaya texts.(9) A possible explanation is that the Agamas were presented purely as the Buddha's teaching, unaffected by any sectarian dogma. By contrast, the Buddhists were aware that they belonged to different nikayas because they disagreed on the monastic code (Vinaya), which prescribed rules about behavior, etiquette, routine, and discipline. Therefore, in order to distinguish between nikaya lineages and maintain one's own identity, some Buddhists found it necessary to label the various schools' Vinayas with nikaya names. Here arises a question: apart from the Vinaya, did the various schools also disagree on satras or Agama collections?

Scholars suggest that the formation of the sects or schools was due mainly to the geographical extension of the Safigha (Buddhist Order) over the vast Indian territory, (10) and that the geographical spread also led to different recensions of the Buddha's discourses (i.e., sutras) and Vinaya. (11) With regard to this issue, Salomon (2008: 14) makes a point:

We do not know with any confidence that the distribution of recensions of Buddhist texts in early times strictly followed sectarian, as opposed to, for example, geographical, patterns. ... The assumption that one school had one and only one version of a given text, and conversely that no two schools shared the same or very similar versions of it, is a dubious one. Although such situations do seem to have developed in later times, after formal closed canons were developed by (at least some of) the schools, there is no good reason to read this situation back into earlier periods, in which this process seems not yet to have taken place or at least not to have been fully elaborated. This is a plausible view on the situations concerning different recensions of Buddhist texts in relation to schools and geography. In early times regional diversity might have been a key factor in causing the divergences. (12) Two schools in a region could have shared the same or very similar versions of a text. In a similar vein, I once suggested two mutually compatible possibilities--that the EA (T 125) could be affiliated to the Mahasamghikas in Magadha and that it could belong to the Mulasarvastivadins also in Magadha (Kuan 2012). Although none of the surviving Agamas bears a school name, there is evidence that at some point in history a certain Agama collection was attributed to a certain school. As will be discussed below, in the fourth century CE (13) the Mahayana-samgralia by Asanga explicitly refers to the "Mahasarpghika" EA. This period may be considered the "later times, after formal closed canons were developed by (at least some of) the schools." Skilling (2010: 19) points out:

In the fourth century CE, Vasubandhu assessed the condition of the literature of the schools and found it problematic. The "original recitation" (malasamiti) was no longer intact; different schools arranged their canons differently and included or excluded sutras differently. In the Vyalchytiyukti and the...

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