Many religious groups existing today have a sacred book containing the words on which the religion was founded. For example, the Christian sacred book is the Holy Bible. Now, you may wonder if Buddhists make use of any sacred text. Thus, the question “Is There a Buddhist Bible?”. Of course, we know that asking for a Buddhist Bible is a connotation of a Buddhist text. Hence, it does not imply if Buddhists use the Holy Bible as a sacred text.
Certainly, Buddhists make use of a sacred text known as the Tipitaka (in Pali) or Tripitaka (in Sanskrit). This means “the Three Baskets”. And, generally, it is a collection of three sets of writings. These include the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka. However, there are exceptions since all the sects of Buddhism do not strictly use of the Tipitaka. In fact, different Buddhist sects make use of varying texts.
In general, this article contains the history of Buddhist texts, the development of the texts, and other existing texts apart from the Tripitaka.
The Introduction of the Buddhist Text
Before the writing down of the teachings of the Buddha, Buddhists pass down these teachings through oral means. Of course, the Buddha himself shared his findings and teachings orally. However, many centuries after the Buddha died, these oral teachings finally got into writings.
As such, there is the Pali Canon and the Sanskrit canon. The Pali Canon first came into writing in the Fourth Council held in Sri Lanka at about 25 B.C.E. On the other hand, the Sanskrit Canon first came into writing in the Fourth Council held in India at about 1st Century BC.
Note that these texts used by Buddhists serve as a guide to the practice of Buddhism. Hence, while they appear sacred, they are unlike the holy book of other religions that represent the revealed teachings of a supernatural being meant to be worshipped. As a result, following the Buddha’s way of inquiry, one is not under obligation to believe in the teachings written down in their sacred texts. Except of course, if one finds the teachings to be true himself. Hence, you do not accept the teachings because it is from the Buddha nor because it is in a sacred text. But, you accept because it works for you and does not contradict your view of the truth.
In Which Language was the Buddhist Text Originally Written?
Some early schools of Buddhism made use of Sanskrit as the language for their scriptures. However, there is no complete Buddhist canon existing today in Sanskrit. Instead, we have individual texts existing in Sanskrit. On the other hand, the complete existing Buddhist canon is written in the language Pali known as the Pali Canon or Tipitaka. Pali is a language that came out of Sanskrit and subsequently gained popularity.
If the Tipitaka is not the Only Buddhist Text With Authority, Why is it Popular?
The Tipitaka is the text strictly adopted by the Theravada Buddhists. As such, they believe that it contains the remembered words of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). Thus, it contains in writing the actual teachings of the Buddha agreed upon during the first Buddhist council held after the death of the Buddha. So traditionally, the Tipitaka is the text common to the Buddhist sects.
However, the major split in Buddhism brought about the Mahayana Buddhists who do not restrict themselves to the teachings of the Tipitaka. Instead, they chose not to be bound by any closed canon of a sacred text. Consequently, the many branches of Mahayana Buddhism use at various points in history different scriptures with authority.
Inside the Tipitaka (Pali Canon)
The three sets of writings contained in the Tipitaka (Three Baskets) includes:
The Sutta Pitaka
The Sutta Pitaka is the set of writings the make up the main teachings of the Buddha (Dhamma). It is the teachings he shared with various people grouped into five discourses or Nikayas. These discourses include:
- Digha Nikaya (the Lengthy Teachings)
- Majjhima Nikaya (the Average Length Teachings)
- Samyutta Nikaya (Common topics grouped into shorter teachings)
- Angutta Nikaya (Group of discourses numbered)
- Khuddaka Nikaya (Collection of various texts). The texts contained here ranges from the stories about the Buddha’s former lives, the Jatakas, and the Dhammapada or religious scripts. Also, it contains the more popular teachings of the Buddha on morality discipline.
The Vinaya Pitaka
In the Vinaya Pitaka, we have the 227 code of conduct and discipline which applies to the monastics (monks and nuns). These set out rules comes in parts of three which includes:
- The Rule itself,
- Reason for originally putting the rule to effect, and
- Exceptions to the rule.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka
The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a collection of seven separate works known as further teachings. Collectively, these works involve a kind of philosophical analysis and systematic assessment of the teachings. This has more to with Buddhist scholars and monks than a lay Buddhist.
Inside the Sanskrit Canon or Tripitaka
The Sanskrit Canon or Tripitaka contains as much the same teachings as the Pali Canon (Tipitaka). Thus, they both trace back to the original teachings of the Buddha.
The Sanskrit Canon also comes in a three-part division just as the Pali Canon. Thus, the parts include:
- The Sutra Vaibasha containing the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) divided into five Agamas corresponding to the five Nikayas of the Pali Canon.
- The Vinaya Vaibasha containing the code of conduct and discipline of the monastics (monks and nuns).
- The Abhidharma Vaibasha containing the philosophical analysis of the teachings. Though, there are differences in the corresponding part of the Pali version.
The Sanskrit Canon does not exist in full version in India. Instead, it comes in individual extant texts. However, it does exist in translated versions in Tibet, Japanese, and Chinese.
Are There Other Authoritative Texts of the Theravada Buddhists?
There exist two texts that exhibit authority also apart from the Tipitaka within the Tibetan Buddhist sect. Although, these texts are actually non-canonical. They include the Milindapanha (the King Milinda questions) and the Vissudhimagga (the purification path).
The Milindapanha historically dates back to the 2nd Century AD. Generally, it represents a kind of dialogue in which various basic problems in the Buddhist thoughts are taken care of.
The Vissudhimagga is the masterwork of a known Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa who made his mark around the 5th Century AD. Collectively, this work contains a vast short and complete summary of Buddhist meditative practices and thoughts.
The Mahayana Buddhists Texts
The growth of Mahayana Buddhism leads to the writing of new sutras. This is because they believe in improving the already existing teachings. Thus, they termed themselves the “Greater Vehicle”. Therefore, the Mahayana Buddhists adopted the Sanskrit Canon with newly added sutras to include the Mahayana ideas in the texts.
There are many newly introduced Mahayana sutras. But, the ones considered specifically essential include:
Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (The Lotus Sutra) – this is the “Lotus of Good Law Sutra”. It is a popular sutra, especially in China and Japan. The teachings contained here explains that there is unity in the teachings. And, it commends the Bodhisattva. Mahayana Buddhists see this Sutra as the main teaching.
Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra (Vimalakirti Sutra) – this sutra teaches the possibility of a lay individual to become a Bodhisattva.
Prajnaparamita Sutras (Perfection of Wisdom Sutras) – this Sutra talks on Sunyata (Emptiness).
Sukhavati Sutra – in this Sutra we learn that the land of Buddha Amida is available to all who believe.
There also other important Sutras which include the Lankavatara Sutra (the descent of the Buddha to Sri Lanka Sutra) and the Avatamsaka Sutra (Garland Sutra) amongst many others.
Buddhist Text in China, Korea, and Japan
After the first coming of Buddhism to China around the 1st Century CE., Buddhism took time to develop in the country. At the time of development, various Buddhist texts of Sanskrit origin arrived in China and subsequently translated into Chinese. These translations were done by individual monks and groups of monks. Initially, it was foreign monks doing the translation. However, with time monks of Chinese origin joined the process. Later on, the translation project of the state began. This led to the inclusion of the Sutras of Chinese Origin.
The Chinese Canon (Tripitaka) came into existence after the translation and compilation of the Sutras. This canon collectively follows the same arrangement pattern of three groups of writings. Thus, it contains the Sutra Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and Abhidharma Pitaka. Also, added is the original Chinese Sutras.
The Chinese soon developed woodblock printing which helped them to make copies of the Sutras. This made the Diamond Sutra the oldest existing printed book. And, This method of printing came into existence at about the 8th Century CE.
The Chinese Canon is the text that traveled to Korea and translated to Korean around the 10th Century CE. Afterward, the Korean canon (Korean Tripitaka) emerged in printing.
Japan copied the Chinese Canon that was brought into the country during the growth of Buddhism. Afterward, both the Chinese and Pali Canon became translated into Japanese.
Texts of Tantric Buddhism
Tantrism is a form of Buddhism that incorporated Mahayana and popular folk beliefs and magic. This first appeared in Northern India in the 7th Century CE. Tantric Buddhism or otherwise known as Vajrayana sect became popular in Tibet and later traveled to China.
Sacramental actions are the stronghold practice in Buddhist Tantrism. Therefore, as the practice becomes popular, the Tantric texts came into existence. It explains the new ideas incorporated in the practice. For example, the major aspects include:
- Kriya Tantra (the rites and ceremonies)
- Carya Tantra (rites involving action or practical rites)
- Yoga Tantra (yoga practice)
- Anuttarayoga (advanced mysticism)
The Tantric texts explaining these ideas are not that easy to read. As such, there is a need for an oral complement to understand the teachings. However, Tantrism encourages personal teaching. The Tantric texts existing includes:
- GuhyaSamaja Tantra (the Buddha’s triple body union)
- Hevajra Tantra
- Kalacakra Tantra (the Wheel of Time
Note that there was also a Hindu Tantrism that arose at the time. Both practices appeared similar. However, with notable differences.
The Tripitaka of Tibet and Mongolia
The growth of Buddhism in Tibet led to the adoption and translation of Sanskrit text into Tibetan. Afterward, they edited the text at about the 14th Century. They included new ideas into the Sanskrit text to form the Tibetan canon. Collectively, the Tibetan text is in 333 volumes and divided into two parts, they include:
- KANJUR – this is the part that contains the original teachings of the Buddha (translated into Tibetan). As a result, the content includes the Sutra Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka, and Abhidharma Pitaka. Also, included was the Tantric Buddhist text. All these made up the first part of the Tibetan Canon.
- TANJUR – this part contains the commentaries made on the main texts (translated commentaries). In addition, it contains a list of vocabularies, hymns, and words on medicine.
It was this Canon of the Tibetan Buddhist that the Mongolian Buddhists adopted and translated into their language. This was around the 18th Century CE.
There are many existing Buddhist works of literature in the form of commentaries today. These came as a result of work done by Asian scholars.
More so, we saw how the Buddhist Literature evolves over various traditions and countries. There is no canon strictly adopted by all Buddhists. Although, they have basic teachings, but include also additions to mark cultural differences. Thus, one can say the texts are not rigid and are subject to modification.
Summarily, there is no Buddhist Bible. However, there exists much Buddhist text or literature which exists for scholarly purposes.