What follows is a brief attempt to introduce Buddhist scriptures, the concepts covered by them, and their impact and immediacy to the different schools of Buddhism.
There has long been a lack of textual analysis in Western Buddhism. The relationship that Buddhism has to it’s own sacred texts marks a sharp contrast from the way that the Abrahamic religions orient themselves to their respective sacred texts. The scriptures of Buddhism themselves are not considered to be divinely inspired for pronounced; instead they are seen as the teachings or revelations of the Buddha1. In a Buddhist perspective this establishes the body of Buddhist texts to be ‘more truthful’ than the sacred scriptures of other religions; these texts are not divinely inspired they are instead the utterances of the World Honored one, the Tathagata - the one person in all of humanity that so clearly saw to the heart of all understanding, not compromised by adherence to a specific dogma or the presumptions of existing spiritual traditions. This is obviously conditional on one’s personal theological and philosophical perspectives.
Buddhism originated as an oral tradition- the canon of Buddhism wasn’t organized until well after the Buddha’s parinirvana. This occurred during the First and Fourth Buddhist councils. The First organized and established the teachings as oral traditions which were then entrusted to the participants that organized the council and passed down in their own sanghas and schools. The Fourth Buddhist council marks the first known occurrence we have of the teachings of the Buddha being formally commited to text. There were great famines raging in Sri Lanka at the time and they decided to commit the cannon to text so that it wasn’t so reliant upon the life and teachings of the specific individuals and lineages entrusted with those specific teachings.
Even more after the jump!
It is from these Buddhist Councils that the primary Buddhist cannon was established, The Pali Canon- so named for the language it was transcribed in, Pali itself was probably not the specific language that the Buddha spoke himself, but it was very closely related. The Pali Canon forms the principal scriptures of Theravada Buddhism - the branch of Buddhism most closely associated with what the Buddha taught, it is primarily found today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Buddhism today is organized into three ‘vehicles’ of teachings, each with it’s own canon, scriptural body, and unique teachings. The vehicles of Buddhism can be orangeade into broad categories based on chronology; Theravada is the oldest extant form of Buddhism, Mahayana developed out of a shared legacy of teachings, and Vajrayana developed much later from Mahayana schools. Each vehicle keeps the scared texts of those that follow it.
In the West, we typically use a different word to refer to the different sacred texts in Buddhism, the determinate factor being the original language that text was written in. The Pali Canon and other Theravada scriptures are referred to as ‘Suttas’, the term in Pali that means ‘thread’ and used as a word to reference scriptural works - as nearly all of these works were written in Pali. The Mahayana scriptures are typically referred to as ‘Sutras' as they were originally written in Sanskrit. Lastly, the scriptures unique to Vajrayana are often referred to as “Tantras”, however these secret teachings are rarely, if ever, actually recorded. A Tantra requires an ‘empowerment’, and is passed from teacher to student in traditional lines of lineage succession. Some uniquely Vajrayana texts are also referred to as Sutras but these texts are almost exclusively found, in their oringal form, in Sanskrit. Frequently the texts are translated into more practical languages for the place and time these teachings are popularized, however the lingual distinction of the source material [Pali or Sanskrit’] typically determines the term used for reference.
Note: There is a tendency among some Mahayana practitioners to refer to all scriptures as “Sutras”. This often done for ease of communication and reference, as the discretion between Pali and Sanskrit scriptures are of little importance to practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism. It remains inaccurate, and it is my personal preference to use the most accurate terminology for scriptures based on the language of origin.
The authorship of the majority of Buddhist scriptures is attributed to the Buddha himself, typically by way of his personal attendant Anada. This has actually established a literary formula used in Buddhist scriptures; typically they begin with the phrase (or equivalent) of “Thus have I heard” and are followed with geographical and contextual information related to that specific teaching - i.e. ‘The Tathagata was at the Deer Park with 4,000 bhikkus in attendance’. This establishes the specific speaker: in nearly every case the speaker is Ananda2. This is then followed by information regarding where the Buddha was when this instruction was given by him, and comments regarding those in attendance to hear the teaching. The Buddha often gave extremely specific instructions based entirely on the subject matter at hand and the specific personal proclivities and capabilities of those that heard it. This concept of teaching is referred to as “skillful means’ in Mahayana teachings and is accepted as the justification for sacred texts that are ‘recorded’ well after the Buddha himself died - in most cases the Buddha reserved these more ‘advanced’ teachings for his more ‘advanced’ students and conceptually they were held and committed to text at later times when it was more appropriate for them to be received by a greater population. While there is some (contentious) scriptural justification for this, from an empirical perspective there is little if any evidence of the existence of these later (Mahayana and Vajrayana) teachings in the time of the Buddha himself. These scriptures are often established hundres of years after the Buddha’s death as the schools related to these scriptures gain in membership and cultural impact, however the attribution and literary style of the original Buddhist scriptures remain in place.
The veracity of Mahayana scriptures is often reinforced by the Uttaravipatti-Sutta [AN IV.163] where the Buddha is quoted as saying ‘Whatever is well spoken is the word of the Tathagata’ when he is specifically questioned about the subject of Dharma teachings not given explicitly by him. Needless to say, the justification of this passage for the attribution of later teachings as evolutions of the Dharma is contentious - the Second Buddhist Council was specifically about the nature of precepts and the notion of evolution in the organization of the greater Sangha in the wake of the Buddha’s passing into parinirvana. However, the benefit of this concept should be readily apparent - it allows for the dynamic evolution of the Dharma through time and allows for the different cultures to manifest the Dharma as necessary for that particular time and place.
In addition, the Buddhist scriptures are ‘nested’ in a fashion. The Pali Canon remains the, relatively, sole repository of sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhists. The Mahayana scriptures (principally Sutras) simply aren’t relevant or accepted by Therevadan Buddhists. Likewise, the Pali Canon and Mahayana Sutras are accepted (the majority of them) by Vajrayana Buddhists but stand on mostly equal footing with the Vajryana scriptures as well.
In the coming weeks I will post more specific information about Buddhist scriptures and will discuss important texts from each of the three Vehicles of Buddhism. I will expound on the contents and specific information contained in the Pali Canon, identify and discuss some of the more important Mahayana Sutras, and summarize some of the works unique to Vajrayana Buddhism as it’s practiced today. In addition, I will also explain how to site Buddhist scriptures.
1 Obviously what counts as the specific speech and teachings of the Buddha is conditional on one’s views and participation in which specific school.
2 Ananda’s ‘Buddhist super-power’3 if you will was his eidedict memory, reputedly his memory was unparalleled and it is for this reason the Buddha chose him to act as his attendent. In this capacity Ananda had unprecedented access to nearly every instance of the Buddha’s teachings, either directly or from the recounting of others.
3 Many of the early students of the Buddha were reputed to have remarkable skills, and many of them had specific abilities and strengths that made them distinct from others. Sariputta is often as regarded as the primary minister in the first Sangha, his understanding of the Dharma was second only to the Buddha himself. His long time friend and confidant Maudgalyana had a variety of super-natural powers attributed to him. Subhuti had the greatest grasp on the Buddhist concept of emptiness [Sunyata]
End note: I cite Wikipedia articles in this post. For the record I do not consider Wikipedia to be the best or most accurate source of information on anything, especially Buddhism. Despite my own use as a source, I strongly caution against the ‘practice’ of “Wiki Buddhism”, I use Wikipedia as a source of convience. These citations are intended to be used as an introduction, a jumping off point. The conceptual mileage I cover in this post alone would have required an exponential increase in the amount of time it took to write this post. I am not a Buddhist scholar. this is not peer reviewed academic research. I am simply a Buddhist, this post is only intended to be used as a study guide, most likely for those new to Buddhism and the concepts covered in this post. Furthermore, this post likely contains dozens of errors. I will do my best to edit the contents in an attempt to be as accurate as possible. You are strongly encouraged to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. Please remember, I am not here to teach you, I am here to learn with you.