Buddhist Texts

The early Buddhist canon is traditionally referred to as the "Three Baskets" (tripitaka; Pali: tipitaka), consisting of: (1) vinaya: rules of conduct, which are mainly concerned with the regulation of the monastic order; (2) sutras: discourses purportedly spoken by the Buddha, and sometimes by his immediate disciples; and (3) abhidharma, which includes scholastic treatises that codify and interpret the teachings attributed to the Buddha. According to Buddhist tradition, this division was instituted at the first council. This canon was written in a language called Pali, which is believed to have been derived from a dialect used in the region of Magadha. A second council introduced some modifications to the rules of monastic discipline, and later councils added other texts to the canon.

At first the canon was transmitted orally, but after a time of political and social turmoil King Vattagamani of Sri Lanka ordered that it be committed to writing. This was accomplished between 35 and 32 B.C.E. The sutras and vinaya were written in Pali, but some of the commentaries were in Sinhala. The Sinhala texts were translated into Pali in the fifth century C.E.

The Vinaya section of the Pali canon consists of rules of conduct, most of which are aimed at monks and nuns. Many of these are derived from specific cases in which the Buddha was asked for a ruling on the conduct of particular members of the order, and the general rules he promulgated still serve as the basis for monastic conduct.

The Sutra (Pali: Sutta) section of the Pali canon is traditionally divided into five "groupings" (nikaya): (1) the "long" (digha) discourses; (2) the "medium length" (majjhima) discourses; (3) the "grouped" (samyutta) discourses; (4) the "enumerated" (anguttara) discourses, which are arranged according to the enumerations of their topics; and (5) the "minor" (khuddaka) discourses, which comprise the largest section of the canon and the one that contains the widest variety of materials. It includes stories of the Buddha's former births (Jataka), which report how he gradually perfected the exalted qualities of a buddha; accounts of the lives of the great disciples (apadana); didactic verses (gatha); an influential work entitled the Path of Truth (Dhammapada); and a number of other important texts.

The Abhidharma (Pali: abhidhamma) section includes seven treatises, which organize the doctrines of particular classes of Buddha's discourses. The Abhidharma writers attempted to systematize the profusion of teachings attributed to Buddha into a coherent philosophy. Their texts classify experience in terms of impermanent groupings of factors referred to as dharma (Pali: dhamma), which in aggregations are the focus of the doctrine (dharma) taught by Buddha. They are simple real things, indivisible into something more basic. Collections of dharmas are the phenomena of experience. Everything in the world--people, animals, plants, inanimate objects--consists of impermanent groupings of dharmas. Thus nothing possesses an underlying soul or essence. The collections of dharmas are changing in every moment, and so all of reality is viewed as a vast interconnected network of change and interlinking causes and conditions.

Other early schools developed their own distinctive canons, many of which have very different collections of texts, although the doctrines and practices they contain are similar. Some schools, such as the Sarvastivadins, used Sanskrit for their canons, but today only fragments of these collections exist, mostly in Chinese translations. Although Mahayana schools developed an impressive literature, there does not seem to have been an attempt to create a Mahayana canon in India. The surviving Mahayana canons were all compiled in other countries.

Canons compiled in Mahayana countries contain much of the material of the Pali canon, but they also include Mahayana sutras and other texts not found in the Pali canon. The Tibetan canon, for example, contains a wealth of Mahayana sutras translated from Sanskrit, treatises (shastra) by important Indian Buddhist thinkers, tantras and tantric commentaries, and miscellaneous writings that were deemed important enough to include in the canon. The Chinese canon also contains Mahayana sutras, Indian philosophical treatises, and a variety of other texts, but its compilation was much less systematic than that of the Tibetan canon. The Tibetan translators had access to a much wider range of literature, due to the fact that the canon was collected in Tibet many centuries after the Chinese one. In addition, Buddhist literature came to China in a rather haphazard way. The transmission of Buddhist texts to China occurred over the course of several centuries, and during this time the tradition in India was developing and creating new schools and doctrines.

The Chinese canon was transmitted to Korea and Japan. Tibet and Mongolia both follow the Tibetan canon, which according to tradition was redacted and codified by Pudön (1290-1364). The Theravada countries of Southeast Asia follow the Pali canon and generally consider the texts of Mahayana to be heterodox.

In addition to this canonical literature, each school of Buddhism has created literature that it considers to be authoritative. In the selections below we provide examples of such texts from a wide range of schools and periods of Buddhist literature, but the vast scope of canonical and extra-canonical literature prevents us from including many important works. The selections are intended to present a representative sampling of early texts that contain central doctrines or that recount important events in the history of Buddhism, along with statements by Buddhist thinkers of later times that represent influential developments in Buddhist thought and practice.


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