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Religion Library: Buddhism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Julia Hardy

The third "basket," called the Abhidharma Pitika, was created centuries later than the others, and emerged during the process of creating Buddhist philosophy. The sutras had been organized, not on the basis of their subject, but on the basis of length and other stylistic attributes. As a part of the process of developing cohesive systems of Buddhist thought, philosophers rearranged the sutras on the basis of topics, categories, and relationships between passages. The Abhidharma, or "higher teachings," was the result.

There are hundreds of texts in each of the three "baskets," and virtually all of them include at least one commentary explaining and expanding on the texts, with interpretations, definitions of words, and philosophical speculation.

Around four centuries after the Buddha's death, a new perspective on Buddhist thought began to develop called the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle. New sutras proliferated that were said to have been hidden away until the time was right for them to be made known to the world, since these texts were said to contain insights and powerful practices that the Buddha had taught secretly to those few who were ready to hear them. In each new country that adopted Buddhism, new sutras appeared. Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra became so popular in East Asia that in some cases, Buddhist sects emerged that were devoted to only one particular sutra.

The Buddhist canon today is not a uniform collection, as many different sects and schools have emerged over the centuries since the first canonical collection of the Buddha's teachings was formed. There is a Pali canon, the earliest of the canons, which consists of the Tripitaka. (Pali is a literary dialect related to Sanskrit, believed by some to have been common during the Buddha's lifetime, although it is most likely a later creation.) There is a Chinese Buddhist canon, also accepted in Japan, which contains the Tripitaka, the Mahayana sutras, and other texts. There is also a Tibetan Buddhist canon, consisting of the Tripitaka, the Mahayana sutras, and Tantric texts. Each of these different canons exists in different versions, depending on the sect of Buddhism to which a particular collection belongs and the time period in which it was created.

Study Questions:
1.     How were the Buddha's teachings recorded?
2.     What are the Buddhist Tripitaka, and what is the purpose of each?
3.     Why did various Buddhist canons emerge?