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Agama Nikaya

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The terms Agama and Nikaya denote the subdivisions of the Sutrapitaka (Pali, Suttapitaka; Basket of Discourses) within the CANON.

Agama has the basic meaning of (received) tradition, canonical text, and (scriptural) authority, while Nikaya means both collection and group.

Nikaya also denotes an ordination lineage that allows the joint performance of legal acts of the Buddhist order (SANGHA), a meaning that will not be explored in this entry.


It is not known when monks started to gather individual discourses of the Buddha into structured collections.

According to tradition, the Buddha’s discourses were already collected by the time of the first council, held shortly after the Buddha’s death in order to establish and confirm the discourses as “authenticwords of the Buddha (buddhavacana).

Scholars, however, see the texts as continuously growing in number and size from an unknown nucleus, thereby undergoing various changes in language and content.

For at least the first century, and probably for two or three centuries, after the Buddha’s death, the texts were passed down solely by word of mouth, and the preservation and intact transmission of steadily growing collections necessitated the introduction of ordering principles.

The preserved collections reveal traces of an earlier structure that classified the texts into three, four, nine, or even twelve sections (anga), but this organizing structure was superseded by the Tripitaka scheme of arranging texts into the three tri) baskets (pitaka) of discipline (VINAYA), discourses (sutras), and systematized teachings (ABHIDHARMA).

All Buddhist schools whose literature has been preserved divided the Sutrapitaka further into sections called Agama or Nikaya.

Neither term is school-specific; the notion that the THERAVADA school used the term Nikaya while other schools used Agama is justified neither by Pali nor by Sanskrit sources.


There are either four or five Agamas and Nikayas considered canonical by the various MAINSTREAM BUDDHIST SCHOOLS:


the Digha Agama (Pali, Digha Nikaya; Collection of Long Discourses);

the Madhyamagama (Pali, Majjhima Nikaya; Collection of Discourses of Middle Length);

the Samyuktagama (Pali, Samyutta Nikaya; Connected Discourses);

the Ekottarikagama (Pali, Anguttara Nikaya; Discourses Increasing by One);

and the Ksudrakagama (Pali, Khuddhakanikaya; Collection of Small Texts).


Some schools do not accept a Ksudraka section as part of the Sutrapitaka; others classify it as a separate pitaka. The sequence of the five (or four) sections varies, but if included, the Ksudraka always comes last.

The names refer to the ordering principle of each section: the Digha (long) contains the longest discourses; the Madhyama (middle) contains those of medium-length; and the Samyukta (connected) contains shorter sutras connected by their themes.


The Ekottarika (Growing by one) or Anguttara (Increasing number of items) comprise discourses arranged in ascending order according to numbered sets of terms, from sutras treating one term up to those dealing with groups of ten or more.

The contents of the Ksudraka (small texts) vary significantly from version to version:

Most of the works that seem to form its nucleus are composed in verse and apparently belong to the oldest strata of the canon.

Some of them, such as the DHAMMAPADA, rank among the best known Buddhist texts.

It is not known how many versions of the Sutrapitaka were once transmitted by the various schools in India.

Equally unknown is the number of languages and dialects used for this purpose. At present, only the Pali Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada school is completely preserved.


Four Agamas are available in Chinese translation: the Digha, the Madhyama, the Samyukta, with three translations, two of them incomplete, and the Ekottarika.


These were translated from the collections of different schools:


The Dighagama probably belongs to the DHARMAGUPTAKA, the Madhyamagama and Samyuktagama to the (Mula)Sarvastivadins, and the Ekottarikagama to the MAHASAMGHIKA SCHOOL.

In the early twentieth century, numerous fragments of Sanskrit sutra manuscripts were found in Central Asia, enabling scholars to recover at least a small part of the Sutrapitaka of the (Mula)Sarvastivadins.

Later, fragments of the Ekottarikagama of the same school came to light among the Gilgit finds.

Recent manuscript finds from Afghanistan and Pakistan also contain many sutra fragments from the scriptures of at least two schools, the (Mula) Sarvastivadins and probably the Mahasamghikas.

Most notable among them is a manuscript of the Dighagama of the (MulaSarvastivadins. Unlike colophons of vinaya texts, those of single sutras or sutra collections never mention schools, and this often renders a definite school ascription difficult.

School affiliation of Agama texts may have been less important than modern scholars tend to believe.

The different versions of the Sutrapitaka are by no means unanimous with regard to the number and type of sutras included in each section.

To give one example: The Digha Nikaya of the Theravada school contains thirty-four texts, while the Dighagama in Chinese translation contains only thirty. In the incompletely preserved Dirghagama of the (MulaSarvastivadins, however, forty-seven texts are so far attested.

Only twenty of them have a corresponding text in the Chinese Digha Agama, and only twenty-four correspond to texts in the Pali version. For eight of them, a parallel text is found in the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali; at least four have no parallel at all.

The agreement between the different versions of a sutra varies significantly. Versions may be close in some passages and loose in others.

Often a considerable part of a sutra consists of formulaic passages, and the wording of these formulas is version specific. Further differences may be found in the sequence of passages, in the names of places and persons, and also in doctrine.

All this indicates a com- mon origin, followed by a long period of separate transmissions with independent redactional changes.

There are many examples of text duplicates in two sections of the same Sutta Pitaka. For example, the Satipatthana-sutta (Foundation of Mindfulness) of the Pali canon is contained in both the Dgha- and the Maj- jhimanikaya.

This may be an indication of a separate transmission for each Agama/Nikaya in earlier times, another indication being terms like Digha Banaka (reciter of the Dgha section) to refer to the respective specialist during the phase of oral transmission in the Pali tradition.

At least in the case of the Mulasarvastivadins, many sutras are also duplicated in their Vinaya.


When growth and redactional changes of the various collections came to an end, they began to form what can best be described as part of a canon of the respective schools.

However, very little is known about the use or ritual and educational functions of the collections during early times. Because of their status as scriptural authority, quotations from the sutras are numerous in the COMMENTARIAL LITERATURE of the various schools.

Certain sutras also continued to be transmitted individually or in fixed selections designed for specific religious purposes, and it appears that such texts played a much more important role in the life of Buddhists than the complete collections.

Not all the sutras were collected as Agamas/Nikayas; the Mahayana sutras, for instance, never came to be included in such a classification scheme.



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