Sacred Texts

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.

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?

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