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Buddhist Scriptures: An Overview

Understanding the Perplexing Variety of Buddhist Scriptures

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India, Ladakh, Phyang Gompa monastery, young monks (8-9, 10-11, 12-13) sitting cross-legged studying scriptures, side view
Keren Su/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Is there a Buddhist Bible? Not exactly. Buddhism has a vast number of scriptures, but no one text is accepted as authentic and authoritative by every school of Buddhism. Instead, each school of Buddhism has its own ideas about which scriptures are important.

There is one other reason that there is no Buddhist Bible. Many religions consider their scriptures to be the revealed word of God or gods. In Buddhism, however, it is understood that the scriptures are teachings of the historical Buddha -- a human being -- or other enlightened masters.

The teachings in Buddhist scriptures are directions for practice, or how to realize enlightenment for oneself. What's important is to understand and practice what the texts are teaching, not just "believe in" them.

Types of Buddhist Scripture

Many scriptures are called "sutras" in Sanskrit or "sutta" in Pali. The word sutra or sutta means "thread." The word "sutra" in the title of a text indicates the work is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his major disciples. However, as I will explain later, many sutras probably have other origins.

Sutras come in many sizes. Some are book length, some are only a few lines. No one seems willing to guess how many sutras there might be if you piled every individual one from every canon and collection into a pile. A lot.

Not all scriptures are sutras. For example, the rules of the monastic orders are recorded in a text called the Vinaya-pitaka. There is also a text called the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), of which there is more than one version. The Abhidharma is a work of analysis or philosophy rather than a sermon, so it isn't called a "sutra."

Theravada and Mahayana Canons

About two millennia ago, Buddhism split into two major schools, called today Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhist scriptures are associated with one or the other, divided into Theravada and Mahayana canons.

Theravadins do not consider the Mahayana scriptures to be authentic. Mahayana Buddhists on the whole consider the Theravada canon to be authentic, but in some cases Mahayana Buddhists think some of their scriptures have superseded the Theravada canon in authority.

To add to the confusion, schools of Mahayana Buddhism have different views about which Mahayana scriptures are authentic and authoritative. Some Mahayana scriptures are important to some schools and ignored by others. For example, the Lotus Sutra is the only scripture accepted by the Nichiren school, but it plays no part in Tibetan Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhist Scriptures

The scriptures of the Theravada school are collected in a work called the Tipitaka (or Tripitaka in Sanskrit). The Pali word Tipitaka means "three baskets," which indicates the Tipitaka is divided into three parts, and each part is a collection of works. The three sections are the basket of sutras (Sutta-pitaka), the basket of discipline (Vinaya-pitaka), and the basket of special teachings (Abhidhamma-pitaka).

As I mentioned earlier in this article, the Vinaya gives the rules for the orders of nuns and monks, and the Abdhidharma provides analysis of the sutras but is not a sutra (sermon) itself.

The most complete and most common version of the Tipitaka is in the Pali language. This Pali Tipitaka, also called the Pali Canon, contains the scriptures followed by Theravada Buddhism. The Pali Canon is thought to be the words of the historical Buddha and some of his disciples, preserved for a time by oral tradition and then written down in the 1st century BCE. For a more complete explanation of the origins of the Tipitaka, please see "The Pali Canon: The First Buddhist Scriptures."

There are ancient versions of parts of the Tipitaka in other languages. For example, there are sutras in Sanskrit that correspond to some of the sutras in the Pali Sutra-pitaka, and the collection of these early discourses is called the Agamas.

There also have been versions of the Abhidharma that are considerably different from the one in the Pali Canon. Some of these exist today only in fragments. But one, called the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, is still intact. Saravastivada was an early sect of Buddhism that emerged in the 3rd century BCE.

Mahayana Buddhist Scriptures

Although there are myths and stories that associate each of the Mahayana sutras to the historical Buddha, historians tell us the works were mostly written between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, and a few even later than that. For the most part, the provenance and authorship of these texts are unknown.

The mysterious origins of these works give rise to questions about their authority. As I've said Theravada Buddhists disregard the Mahayana scriptures entirely. Among Mahayana Buddhist schools, some continue to associate the Mahayana sutras with the historical Buddha. Others acknowledge that these scriptures were written by unknown authors. But because the deep wisdom and spiritual value of these texts have been apparent to so many generations, they are preserved and revered as sutras anyway.

Many of the Mahyana sutras are thought to have been originally written in Sanskrit, but the oldest extant versions are Chinese translations, and the original Sanskrit is lost. Some scholars, however, argue that the first Chinese translations are, in fact, the original versions, and their authors claimed to have translated them from Sanskrit to give them more authority.

Within the Mahayana canon are many sub-canons. For example, the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) Sutra is a collection of about forty sutras, some very long, other very brief. The Heart Sutra is one of these. Because their central theme is prajna, wisdom, scholars sometimes call them the "wisdom literature."

Some Mahayana Sutras are unique to a particular school. For example, there are three "Pure Land" sutras that are the main scriptures of Pure Land Buddhism but which are not much used by other schools. Others, like the Lotus, are revered by several schools of Mahayana Buddhism but not all of them.

This list of major Mahayana Sutras is not comprehensive but provides brief explanations of the most important Mahayana sutras.

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