The Play of Formulas in the Early Buddhist Discourses

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The play of formulas is a new theory designed to explain the manner in which discourses (Suttas, Sūtras) were composed in the early Buddhist tradition, focusing at present mainly on the Dīgha- and Majjhima- Nikāyas (the collections of the Buddha’s Long and Middle-length discourses). This theory combats the commonly accepted views that texts are mainly an attempt to record and preserve the Buddha’s teachings and life events, and that the best way to understand their history is to compare parallel versions of them. By identifying the creative, mainly the literary, vectors alive in the shaping of the texts, the theory explains how discourses are the products of formulas, which themselves are the primary texts of early Buddhism. Formulas combine in order to produce meaningful textual patterns, with little account of historical context and with much interest in aesthetic appeal and emotive potency. Formulas connect according to set narrative designs, in which different types of audiences are represented not only through unique formulas, but also with their specific narrative trajectories and complementing doctrinal emphases. It is not that the early authors were not at all interested in safeguarding the tradition. It is only that there was much more going on, and that thinking about the texts in this way misses their entertaining faces and ignores their beauty. These probably tell us more about what the early discourses actually were for the people that first produced and studied them than dry philosophical doctrine.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)557-580
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Indian Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Sep 2022


  • Buddhist literature
  • Dīgha Nikāya
  • Early Buddhist discourses
  • Majjhima Nikāya
  • Oral literature
  • Pāli Canon

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Philosophy


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