Assertion and Restraint in Dhamma Transmission in Early Pali Sources


  • Graham Dixon European Broadcasting Union



Buddhism, missions, teaching, Vinaya, conversion


The study seeks to elucidate the nature of early Dhamma-transmission. While Buddhism has achieved broad geographical dissemination, sometimes earning the epithet ‘missionary’, Pali sources are ambivalent regarding approaches to potential followers. The Buddha’s final words do not instruct the sangha to spread the message; the exhortation, ‘walk, monks … for the blessing of the manyfolk’, rather appears to be an early, isolated episode. The Buddha’s own hesitation to teach provides the paradigm for the renunciant sangha, whose members rarely initiate teaching episodes, preferring to wait for specific questions, an approach still formalised in modern practice. Following brahmanical norms, excessive eagerness to communicate would have devalued the message. Capacity to understand varied between individuals, and intelligent questions indicated preparedness. Given the dependence upon lay-followers, the alms-round ensured regular sangha visibility. Embodied serenity, closely regulated by the Vinaya, both excited curiosity and proved beneficial to onlookers – an affecting darsana. Frequently dana, meal offerings, provided the locus for communicating Dhamma in a graduated, step-by-step manner, according to the capacity of the listeners. Kindness and generosity thus provided the point of departure, while miraculous displays were generally eschewed. In the proposed model, the alms-round is viewed as being undertaken to occasion generosity, making available a merit-field to generate benefits for the givers, rather than promotionally. The infrequent hints of greater assertion are confined to lay-followers, who, building on friendships, may occasionally draw attention to Dhamma. Arguably, this complements the role of the renunciant sangha, the guardian of the tradition, for whom teaching was not in fact obligatory. Though some lay-followers instructed others, their practice focussed on generosity and devotion. Some commentators have suggested that the original zeal waned over the centuries. However, the broadly reticent approach emerges as authentic in underlining the importance of the teachings, valuing goodness in other traditions, and accepting progression across multiple lifetimes. Most significantly, it underlines that coercion sits uneasily within a tradition which insists on exploration and personal transformation.

Author Biography

Graham Dixon, European Broadcasting Union

Head of Radio, European Broadcasting Union


Amaro, Ajahn. 25 September 2014. Interview at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, Great Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, UK.

Analayo Bhikkhu. 2007. ‘Oral Dimensions of Pali Discourses: Pericopes, other Mnemonic Techniques and the Oral Performance Context’. Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies 3: 5–33.

———. 2012. ‘The Case of Sudinna: On the Function of Vinaya Narrative, Based on a Comparative Study of the Background Narration to the First Parajika Rule’. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 19: 396–438.

Anderson, C. S. 1999. Pain and its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon. Richmond: Curzon Press.

Ariyesako Bhikkhu. 1998. The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A Guide for Laypeople: The Theravadin Buddhist Monk’s Rules. Kallista, VA, Australia: Sanghaloka Forest Hermitage.

Assavavirulhakarn, P. 2010. The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Bailey, G. 1998. ‘Problems of the Interpretation of the Data pertaining to Religious Interaction in Ancient India: The Conversion Stories in the Sutta-nipata’. In Religious traditions in South Asia: Interaction and Change, edited by G. A. Oddie, 9–28. Richmond: Curzon Press.

Bailey, G. and I.W. Mabbett. 2003. The Sociology of Early Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Balch, R.W. 1980. ‘Looking behind the Scenes in a Religious Cult: Implications for the Study of Conversion’. Sociological Analysis 41(2): 137–143.

Black, B. 2007. The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priest, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Brekke, T. 1999. ‘The Religious Motivation of the Early Buddhists’. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 67(4): 849–866.

———. 2002. Religious Motivation and the Origins of Buddhism: A Social-Psychological Exploration of the Origins of a World Religion. London: Routledge Curzon.

Bronkhorst, J. 2011. Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Leiden: Brill.

Bunnag, J. 1973. Buddhist Monk, Buddhist Layman: A Study of Urban Monastic Organization in Central Thailand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ChakravatI, U. 1987. The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clasquin, M. 1999. Transplanting Buddhism: An Investigation into the Spread of Buddhism, with Reference to Buddhism in South Africa. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of South Africa.

Corless, R. 2000. ‘Hermeneutics and Dharmology: Finding an American Buddhist Voice’. In Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, edited by R. R. Jackson and J. J. Makransky, 95–107. Richmond: Curzon Press.

Darian, J. C. 1977. ‘Social and Economic Factors in the Rise of Buddhism’. Sociological Analysis 38(3): 226–238.

Dawson, L. L. 1998. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deegalle, M. 2006. Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dhammasami, Ven. 27 August 2014. Interview at Oxford Buddhist Vihara.

Dheerasekara, J. 1982. Buddhist Monastic Discipline. [online book]. Colombo, Sri Lanka: M.D. Gunasena. (23 February 2014)

Dickson, J. F. 1889. Ceylon. The Illustrated English Magazine 7: 15–25.

Dutt, N. 1930. Early History of the Spread of Buddhism and the Buddhist Schools. New Delhi/Allahabad: Rajesh Publications.

Dutt, S. 1924. Early Buddhist Monachism 600 B.C.–100 B.C. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Eck, D. 1996. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press.

Egge, J. R. 1998. Sacrifice and Purification: The Meaning of Religious Giving in Theravada Buddhism. Unpublished PhD thesis. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Fenn, M. L. 1994. The Concept of Poverty in the Pali Canon. Unpublished PhD thesis, McMaster University.

Findly, E. B. 2003. Dana: Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Fiordalis, D. V. 2008. Miracles and Superhuman Powers in South Asian Buddhist Literature. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Michigan.

———. 2011. Miracles in Indian Buddhist narratives and doctrine. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33(1–2): 381–408.

French, J. and Raven, B. 1999. ‘The Bases of Social Power’. In Leaders and the Leadership Process: Readings, Self-Assessments, and Applications. 2nd Edition, edited by J. L. Pierce and J. W. Newstrom, 86–91. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Germano, D. and K. Trainor. eds. 2004. Embodying the Dharma: Buddhist Relic Veneration in Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gokhale, B. G. 1972. Theravada Buddhism in Western India. Journal of the American Oriental Society 92(2): 230–236.

———. 1982. ‘Early Buddhism and the Urban Revolution’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5(2): 7–22.

Gombrich, R. F. 1988. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

———. 1990. ‘Recovering the Buddha’s Message’. In The Buddhist Forum, Volume I: Seminar Papers 1987–1988, 1, edited by T. Skorupski, 5–20. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

———. 1998. Kindness and Compassion as Means to Nirvana. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

———. 2006. How Buddhism Began: the Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Gombrich, R. F. and G. Obeyesekere. 1988. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gómez, L. O. 2010. ‘On Buddhist Wonders and Wonder-working’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33(1–2): 513–554.

Harris, E. J. 2006. Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience In Nineteenth-Century Sri Lanka. London: Routledge.

Harris, I. 2004. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Harvey, P. 1995. The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Richmond: Curzon Press.

Hayes, R. P. 1991. ‘Gotama Buddha and Religious Pluralism’. [online paper:] (accessed 31 May 2014).

Heirman, A. and S. P. Bumbacher. 2007. The spread of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill.

Humphreys, C. 1951. Buddhism. London: Pelican.

Hvalvik, R. 1996. The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant: The Purpose of the Epistle of Barnabas and Jewish-Christian Competition in the Second Century. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Jones, D. T. 2009. ‘Why did Brahma ask the Buddha to Teach’. Buddhist Studies Review, 26(1): 85–102.

Kelly, J. 2011. ‘The Buddha’s Teachings to Lay People’. Buddhist Studies Review, 28(1): 3–78.

Kemper, S. 2005. ‘Dharmapala’s Dharmaduta and the Buddhist Ethnoscape’. In Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization, ed. L. Learman, pp. 22–50. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

Kiblinger, K. B. 2005. Buddhist Inclusivism: Attitudes towards Religious Others. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Kloppenborg, R. 2006. The Paccekabuddha: A Buddhist Ascetic. A Study of the Concept of the Paccekabuddha in Pali Canonical and Commentarial Literature. [online book]. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. (Accessed 31 May 2014).

Langenberg, A. P. 2012. ‘Scarecrows, Upasakas, Fetuses, and Other Child Monastics in Middle Period Indian Buddhism’. In Children and Childhoods in Buddhist Texts and Traditions, ed. V.R. Sasson, pp. 43–74. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Learman, L. 2005. Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Lofland, J. and N. Skonovd. 1981. ‘Conversion Motifs’. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(4): 373–85.

Lothe, E. 1987. Dhammaduteyyam: A Study of the Concept of Mission in Theravada Buddhism. Unpublished MA thesis, Oslo: University of Oslo.

Malalasekera, G. P. 2003. Dictionary of Pali Proper Names. 2 vols. Reprint. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Manné, J. 1990. ‘Categories of Sutta in the Pali Nikayas and Their Implications for Our Appreciation of the Buddhist Teaching and Literature’. Journal of the Pali Text Society 15: 29–87.

———. 1996. ‘Sihanada — the Lion’s Roar or what the Buddha was supposed to be willing to defend in debate’. Buddhist Studies Review 13(1): 7–36.

Masefield, P. 1986. Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. London: Unwin and Allen.

McDermott, J. P. 1984. ‘Scripture as the Word of the Buddha’. Numen 31(1): 22–39.

McTighe, L. C. 1988. Mentoring in the Majjhima Nikaya a Study of the canonical Buddha’s Instruction to the Laity. Unpublished PhD thesis, Northwestern University.

Meister, C., ed. 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mookerji, R. K. 1998. Ancient Indian Education: Brahminical and Buddhist. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Müller, M. 1874. On missions: A Lecture delivered in Westminster Abbey on Dec. 3, 1873. With an introductory sermon by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley. New York: Scribner, Armstrong.

Narada. 1988. The Buddha and His Teachings. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society.

Neelis, J. 2011. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks: Mobility and Exchange within and beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia. Leiden: Brill.

Norman, K. R. 1997. A Philological Approach to Buddhism: the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Lectures 1994. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.

Olendzki, A. 1997. ‘Mission and Dialogue: A Paradox?’ Buddhist-Christian Studies 17: 97–106.

Pande, G. C. 1974. Studies in the Origins of Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Powers, J. 2009. ‘Why Practicing Virtue is Better than Working Out: Bodies and Ethics in Indian Buddhism’. Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal 22: 125–152.

Prebish, C. S. 1996. Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimoksa Sutras of the Mahasamghikas and Mulasarvastivadins. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Rambo, L. R. 1993. Understanding Religious Conversion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Raven, B. H. 1993. ‘The Bases of Power: Origins and Recent Developments.’ Journal of Social Issues 49(4): 227–251.

———. 2008. ‘The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence’. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 8(1): 1–22.

Ray, R. A. 1994. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rhys Davids, C. A. F. 1934. Outlines of Buddhism: a Historical Sketch. London: Methuen.

———. 1938. What was the Original Gospel in ‘Buddhism’? London: Epworth Press.

Richardson, J. T. 1985. ‘The Active vs. Passive Convert: Paradigm Conflict in Conversion/ Recruitment Research’. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24(2): 163–179.

Riesner, R. 2000. ‘A Pre-Christian Jewish Mission?’ In The Mission of the Early Church to Jews and Gentiles, edited by J. Ådna and H. Kvalbein, 211–250. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Samuels, J. 1999. ‘Views of Householders and Lay Disciples in the Sutta Pitaka: A Reconsideration of the Lay/Monastic Opposition’. Religion 29: 231–241.

Scheible, K. 2011. ‘Priming the Lamp of Dhamma: the Buddha’s Miracles in the Pali Mahavamsa’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 33(1–2): 429–445.

Schopen, G. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Seneviratna, A. 1994. King Asoka and Buddhism. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Sharma, A. 1986. ‘Buddhism and Christianity as Missionary Religions in the Context of the Church-State Dualism’. Journal of Church and State 28(1): 61–78.

———. 2011. Problematizing Religious Freedom. Dordrecht: Springer.

Shaw, S. 2014. The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Skilling, P. 2002. ‘Aradhana Tham: “Invitation to Teach the Dharma”’. Manusya Journal of Humanities 4: 84–92.

Skreslet, S. H. 2012. Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Perspectives of Missiology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Stoesz, W. 1978. ‘The Buddha as Teacher’. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46(2): 139–158.

Sujato Bhikkhu. n.d. Catusparisat Sutra, Sarvastivada Dirgha agama (The Discourse on the Fourfold Assembly): Accessed 31 May 2014.

Sujato and Brahmali Bhikkhus. 2014. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. [online journal]. Supplement to Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 5. . Accessed 10 May 2014.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu. 1994. The Buddhist Monastic Code Volume I: The Patimokkha Training Rules. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery.

———. 2001. The Buddhist Monastic Code Volume II: The Khandhaka Rules. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery.

———. 2010. Skill in Questions. Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery.

Timm, J. R. 1991. Texts in Context: Traditional Hermeneutics in South Asia. New York: State University of New York Press.

Trainor, K. 2004. ‘Introduction: Beyond Superstition’. In Embodying the Dharma: Buddhist Relic Veneration in Asia, edited by D. Germano, and K. Trainor, 1–26. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Velez De Cea, J. A. 2013. The Buddha and Religious Diversity. London: Routledge.

Wadia, A. R. 1948. ‘Buddha as a Revolutionary Force in Indian Culture’. Philosophy 23(85): 116–139.

Wallace, A. F. C. 1956. ‘Revitalization Movements’. American Anthropologist, 58(2): 264–281.

Walters, J. S. 1992. Rethinking Buddhist Missions. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago.

———. 1999. ‘Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the “Sermon on the Noble Quest” (Ariyapariyesanasutta)’. History of Religions 38(3): 247–284.

Warder, A. K. 1956. ‘On the Relationships between Early Buddhism and Other Contemporary Systems’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 18(1): 43–63.

Watanabe, F. 1983. Philosophy and its Development in the Nikayas and Abhidhamma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Webster, D. 2005. ‘The Weary Buddha or Why the Buddha Nearly Couldn’t be Bothered’. Buddhist Studies Review 22(1): 15–25.

Whaling, F. 1981. ‘A Comparative Religious Study of Missionary Transplantation in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam’. International Review of Mission 70: 314–333.

Wijayaratna, M. 1990. Buddhist Monastic Life: According to the Texts of the Theravada Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, B. 1970. Religious Sects: A Sociological Study. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Wynne, A. 2004. ‘The Oral Transmission of the Early Buddhist Literature’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27(1): 97–127.

———. 2007. The Origin of Buddhist Meditation. London and New York: Routledge.

Young, D. N. de L. 1970. The Sangha in Buddhist History. Religious Studies 6(3): 243–252.

Zürcher, E. 1990. Bouddhisme, Christianisme et Société Chinoise. Paris: Julliard.




How to Cite

Dixon, G. (2015). Assertion and Restraint in Dhamma Transmission in Early Pali Sources. Buddhist Studies Review, 32(1), 99–141.