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Religion Library: Buddhism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Julia Hardy

The Buddha taught for forty-five years over a wide geographical area to a variety of different audiences, thus his teachings were quite extensive, yet at the time of his death none of his words had been recorded. Oral transmission of spiritual texts was not unusual in a land where memorization and recitation of religious texts was the standard. Even the classic texts of the oldest religious traditions had not been recorded in writing at that time.

The early Buddhist texts describe a legendary gathering of five hundred arhats (followers) for the purpose of standardizing the Buddha's teachings after his death. According to the texts, Ananda — the disciple who had most often accompanied the Buddha on his travels and was said to have a prodigious memory — recited the sermons of the Buddha. Another disciple, Upali, recited the rules for monks and lay followers. These recitations were memorized by others and passed on.

The Buddhist texts were not recorded in writing until centuries after the Buddha's death. The earliest Buddhist texts have preserved the Buddha's teachings in a form that reflects their oral transmission, with many repetitions, standardized phrases, and poetic rhythms. This structure and the lack of philosophical cohesiveness within these early texts suggest that they were intended not simply to convey the Buddha's teachings, but also to serve as religious recitations.

Even after the texts were recorded in writing, recitation of texts has continued to be an essential element of Buddhist practice. Monks and priests recite from the texts during rituals, and they also recite the texts as a form of meditation and training. Passages from the texts known as dharani and shorter phrases called mantra are believed to carry magical powers when repeated. Amulets with passages from the texts are distributed by temples as talismans. Copying popular texts such as the Lotus Sutra has been for many centuries a means of gaining religious merit. Even the texts themselves are considered sacred, and ancient copies of the Buddhist canon are often kept in special storehouses on temple grounds.

The texts are divided into three different collections, known as the Tripitaka, or "three baskets," perhaps because the texts were originally stored in baskets. One "basket," the Sutra Pitaka, consisted of the Buddha's discourses: stories, anecdotes, and examples that reflected his understanding of the path to enlightenment. The second "basket," the Vinaya Pitaka, contained guidelines for the monks that pertained to morality and social behavior, as well as institutional guidelines for the sangha.