The Buddhist Scriptures for Beginners

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The teachings of the Buddha are not a philosophy.  They are a path, a raft to help us get across the river of suffering.  ~  Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh

As a new Buddhist, you may be wondering what the Buddhist scripture contains, if there is a “Buddhist Bible”, how to “start” learning about Buddhism through the scriptures, and “what” it all means to you.  This article on the scriptural canons of Buddhism (and graphics) is here to help!

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The Three Scriptural Canons of Buddhism

Zoom in to view the graphic, hover over image to find social media share buttons, and click the image if you wish to donate and get a printable PDF version.  To view/share on Pinterest, click hereNote:  There are also graphics for the Pali Canon and Chinese Canon in this article!

Unlike most religions, there is not a single book (like a bible) that exists for Buddhism.  Nor is there a single ‘authority’ or ‘church’ for Buddhism (like how there is a Pope for the Catholic Church) where the teachings are centrally created, and disseminated.  Instead, each branch (school) of Buddhism has their own ‘canon’ of scripture they developed, and use.

What is a Scriptural Canon?

While we use the word “canon” in this article and graphics for ease of communication and reference, the term ‘canon’ deserves some clarification upfront in its relation to Buddhism.

  • Generally, the word “canon” implies a closed or fixed set of texts which are immutable (unchanging), and are included in a collection by a governing authority.  An example of this might be the Biblical texts that are said to have first use that term, and do not include any new additions or changes.
  • In Buddhism, we have three main collections of texts (which you will learn about in this article) which may be called a Canon, Tipiṭaka, or Tripitaka. 
  • Historically, there was never such a thing as a ‘closed’ canon.  The Pāli canon may now be considered ‘closed’, however it was being added to until centuries later after much dispute, and shifts in development and influence.  More on this will be included in the last chapter of this article.
  • In contrast, the Chinese Canon may not even be considered a ‘canon’ at all in the traditional sense.  While it does have the texts you would see in the Pāli canon (including essentially the same sermons of the Buddha), it allowed other items to be included throughout history.  This included additional commentaries, and even non-Buddhist texts.  The standard edition of the Chinese Canon is the Taishō edition which has many volumes or sections, which are similar to a library or collection.  Additionally, the Chinese Canon was a state sponsored project to collect and codify the information (often for various reasons such as political power, to establish the texts in order to ensure standardization, etc.).  
  • Finally, the authoritative bodies of any of these canons must also be taken into context.  For example, the Kings that favored the Mahāvihāra monks in the Theravāda school promoted the development of the Pāli canon in that way over that of the Abhayagiri monks.  While the religious authoritative bodies may have had different degrees of influence in the canon, the authoritative bodies that created a canon may not be the same ones that speak on behalf of that Buddhist school (especially when state sponsored).  This is most notable with the Chinese Canon as it was a state sponsored project.  When the Chinese Canon spread to other east-Asian countries, those countries would also would have had state sponsors for the eventual translation and structure (for instance, the Korean Tripitaka Koreana was ordered re-created by King Gojong).   

Buddhist Schools and Their Canons

The Nikaya’s of the Pāli Canon.Photo by Mixtribe Photo on Flickr

While there have been many canons of Buddhism in the ancient past, there are only three (3) primary branches of Buddhism today, each with its own traditional canon of texts. 

  • Theravāda traditions rely on texts collected in the Pāli canon.
  • Similarly, Mahāyāna traditions rely on iterations of the Chinese canon. 
  • Tibetan Buddhism traditions rely on iterations of the Tibetan canon.
  • The Chinese and Tibetan canons incorporate early teachings from Pāli and Sanskrit, often as translated into their primary language. In some cases early Indic teachings from the early schools of Buddhism now exist only as translations in the Chinese and Tibetan canons, as the originals have been lost over time.

The three canons relate to the three major branches of Buddhism that exist today which are Theravāda (mainly practiced in South/Southeast Asian countries), Mahāyāna (mainly practiced in East Asian countries), and Tibetan (mainly practiced in Central Asian countries.  Tibetan Buddhism is generally part of Mahāyāna Buddhism because it has Mahāyāna sūtras, however it has its own canon and practices which make it distinct):

  1. South/Southeast Asian Buddhism:  The Pāli Canon (click to jump to this section of the article) is the scriptural canon of Theravāda [Buddhism] Buddhists mainly in the south and southeast Asian countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos. and Myanmar.  When you think of Buddhism in Thailand, for instance, that is Theravāda Buddhism which uses the Pāli Canon.
  2. East-Asian Buddhism:  The Chinese Canon (click to jump to this section of the article) is the scriptural canon of Mahāyāna [Buddhism] Buddhists mainly in the east-Asian countries of China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.  There are different versions of the Chinese Canon, with the modern standard edition being the Taishō , which was completed in Japan.  When you think of Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism (chanting), or Buddhism practiced in Japan or China, for instance, that is Mahāyāna Buddhism which uses the Chinese Canon.  While we do refer to the Chinese Canon as a “canon”, it is actually made up of various sources such as scripture and works from various Indic Buddhist schools, Chinese works, and also non-Buddhist works.  We will cover this more in that section of the article.
  3. Central-Asian Buddhism:  The Tibetan Canon (click to jump to this section of the article) is the scriptural canon of Tibetan [Buddhism] Buddhists (which is a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism) mainly in the central-Asian countries of Tibet, Bhutan, the Himalayas, and Mongolia.  When you think of the Dalai Lama, or the religion of Tibet, that is Tibetan Buddhism.  While part of Mahāyāna Buddhism, it has its own unique differences and traditions which is why it is simply referred to as Tibetan Buddhism which uses their own canon known as the Tibetan Canon.  The Tibetan Canon also features some similar thoughts we just had with the Chinese Canon.  While it is called a canon, it is made up of various works, to include Theravāda and Mahāyāna, from varous Indic Buddhist schools, and even some of the Chinese Canon!

While this is a simplified summary of the three canons currently in existence today, they all evolved from a long and rich history from many schools of early Buddhism, some of which we still don’t fully understand or even know about (such as fragments of a Gandhāran canon which we currently identify as Mahāyāna may have been in existence as early as the Pāli canon even if it is not represented in that canon).

A Short History of the Buddhist Canons

Young monk reading.  (CC 2.0 Photo by Abhishek Sundaram on Flickr)

While this may seem strange that each branch/school of Buddhism has their own canons, it is similar to how each city or town may have their own library or school.  That city or town, for instance, decided on what books makes it into their library or school.  And like most libraries or schools, you are likely to find a lot of the same things in a country.

For instance, they may all have a standardized history books (which we can correlate to the “sūtras” in the Buddhist canons), a copy of the laws or rules of a country so they can live in peace and prosper (which we can correlate to the “vinaya” in the Buddhist canons), and books that present a scholarly analysis of certain topics and offer explanations (which we can correlate to the “abhidharma” in the Buddhist canons).  That is important to understand, because all the Buddhist canons generally share a lot of the same things!  The core teachings of the Buddha can be found throughout these canons.

So as a new Buddhist, you should not be overly concerned about which canon is ‘best’, but instead should start practicing and learning from your teacher/temple.

Early Efforts to Create a Scriptural Canon

According to Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, the first attempt to develop a standardized scripture of the Buddha’s teachings actually began when the Buddha was alive.  One day in Jetavana Monastery, Monks Yamelu and Tekula asked the Buddha if they could translate his teachings into the classical Vedic language (which would have meant it would have been really only meant for monastics and scholars).  The Buddha, however, wanted his teachings to be for everyone and did not approve using that language. 

Note:  The Buddha’s original language (Magadhi Prakrit) is now a ‘dead language’ and is no longer used by any culture.  Although the canons of early Buddhist schools were written in either Pāli or Sansrkit, the Buddha did not speak either of those languages.  Sanskrit was the classical language used in India at that time, and was the language of many of the canons.    The Theravāda school used Pāli, as a new language to be used for their canon.  While both were similar in some ways to the Buddha’s original language, they are not exact, but became liturgical languages in Buddhism.

After the Buddha’s Death:  The Councils

After the Buddha’s death (and Parinirvana), the monastics started a series of “Councils” in order to remember, and organize, the Buddha’s teachings and rules.  These councils are believed to have helped formed the early understanding, and structure, of Buddhist scripture.  Originally this was done in the oral tradition, then in the written tradition.  Yet, new understanding (and debate) about the scripture and its relation to the councils is showing that it had a much more dynamic evolution than just coming from one single “root”.

Third Buddhist Council. By Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia – 014 King Asoka at the Third Council, CC BY 2.0, Link

The Split in the Monastic Community

According to Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, in 375 BCE, after the Second Council, and before the Third Council, the community of bhikkhus (monastics) divided itself into two schools:  Sthaviravāda (Sthavira / conservative), and the Mahasanghika (promoted development and reform) which were more numerous (learn more here).

From these two schools branched off many other schools.  It is believed that up to (according to André Bareau) 33 different schools (called Nikāyas) developed due to the monastics differing on philosophical topics. 

Of those many schools, only one early Buddhist school remains today in its current form which is Theravāda.  However, the Chinese Canon included some texts from some of the Tripitakas that were developed by these early schools (and thus preserved different teachings from these early Buddhist schools that may have not made it into the Pāli Canon, and possibly from the Mahasanghika school).

The early Buddhist schools in India. By Avantiputra7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33202412

Spread of the Teachings

Monastics from these early schools of Buddhism in India had made their way into China and Tibet (and vice versa) bringing the teachings, and the scriptural canons, with them which helped form the Buddhism found in central and eastern-Asia.

A major contributor that helped to spread early Buddhism was due to King Ashoka (c. 271-231 BCE) during the Mauryan period (324-187 BCE).  He commissioned many structures, missionaries, [stone] edicts, and other acts that helped spread Buddhist teachings to many regions (with some saying they even made it as far as Greece).

The spread of Buddhism to east-Asian countries will be covered in the Chinese Canon section of this article.

Spread of the Buddhist Teachings. CC work by Gunawan Kartapranata on Wikimedia

Why Are There Three Buddhist Canons?

So why do we have three different canons of Buddhist scripture?  The short answer is that after the Buddha’s death, there has been different interpretations and discussions about his teachings, and rules.  The three canons we have today relate to the three main schools/branches of Buddhism that currently exist, and their understanding and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. 

Each schools has different interpretations, understanding, and practices of the Buddha’s teachings While the essential ‘core’ of the Buddha’s teachings remain, there was dynamic and evolving understanding of the Buddha’s teachings which resulted in many scriptural canons in the past.

  1. The period where the Buddha was alive and teaching can best be described as “original Buddhism” (although this term is often used with ‘early Buddhism’ as well).  After the Buddha passed, and the monastic community took over, we tend to call this period “early Buddhism” (“EBT” – “Early Buddhist Teachings”) or “Pre-Sectarian Buddhism“.   This form of Buddhism still remained true to the Buddha’s original teachings and practice, however there was (even immediately after the Buddha’s death) debate, confusion, and interpretation about the Buddha’s teachings.  Since he was no longer around to clear things up, it was up to the monastic community’s intellectual and elder monastics to figure things out and move forward.
  2. Early Buddhism continued for centuries after the Buddha’s death, and eventually encompassed many different schools.  Each school maintained their own scripture, however they all generally stemmed from the original Buddha’s teachings albeit with different understanding, interpretation, translations, and practices.  However, due to the lack of written scripture to the time of the Buddha, and there being no ‘holy grail’ of an original canon, there is no way to establish that any of the scripture are exactly what the Buddha said.  However, it is generally believed that the core meaning and the teachings themselves remain preserved and transmitted exists in the canons we have today, even if they may not be literally what the Buddha said.
  3. Before there was the written Buddhist Canons (Scripture) that we have today, it was recited orally by monastics and was not always organized in a structured or standardized way among all the schools.  Eventually, the oral tradition was largely abandoned and a desire to commit the teachings to writings was started by the monastic community.  This was due to famine, external conflict, and other issues which threatened the monastic community and the continued existence of the teachings.
  4. The early Buddhist schools that existed in ancient India, and other countries (such as where the modern day countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., exist), no longer exist due to war/conflict, destruction, economics, politics, and changing belief structures of those areas.  Theravāda’s Pāli Canon is the only canon of an early Buddhist school which remains with that same school.  However, some of the scriptures of several of the canons of the other early Buddhism schools had already found their way to Chinese Canon, and Tibetan Canon, and thus preserved (while not being a complete edition of those school’s separate canons).
  5. So, we have three (3) canons of Buddhism because these are the three major schools of Buddhism in existence today.  Like the early schools of Buddhism which had their own separate canons, so do the Buddhist schools of our modern time.  

Which Canon Do I Read?

Young monk reading Buddhist scripture (Image purchased for this website / Photo by vectorx2263 / shutterstock.com)

I am often asked whether the teachings and techniques of Buddhism continue to be relevant in the present day and age.  Like all religions, Buddhism addresses basic human problems. So long as we continue to experience the basic human sufferings of birth, disease, old age, and death, there is no question of whether it is relevant or not.  ~  His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

So what does this mean to you, the Buddhist layperson?  What canon does your practice fall under?  What do you read?  The answer is both simple, and complicated:

  1. For those who live in Asian countries, whatever is the main branch/school of Buddhism is practiced, they will use the canon of that form of Buddhism.  Generally, “case closed”, with few exceptions.  When you attend services and listen to a monk, read or chant, you are using the canon from your school of Buddhism which (typically) is the primary school in your country.
  2. For those in the Western countries, where Buddhism is not the main religion, the answer is more complex. There are often numerous temples and organizations that exist for each school of Buddhism, and from the country which they originated in. Even with Theravāda Buddhism (which does not have the diversity of Mahāyāna), each country that follows “Theravāda” may have different traditions, culture, and even decisions on which parts of the monastic rules (Vinaya) they follow, or how they partake in Buddhist holidays/celebrations/events.
    • You will likely attend services at a temple or organization that originates from an Asian country, and the Buddhism practiced there.  In that case, whatever teachings you are presented will be from that specific canon/school of Buddhism.
    • However many western Buddhists are either starting off on their own, or are more willing to explore the breadth of Buddhist scripture that exists.  And in that case, sectarian Buddhism becomes blurred.  You may have already read the Dhammapada, which is part of the Pāli Canon of Theravāda Buddhism.  But did you know there is also a version in the Chinese Canon of Mahāyāna Buddhism?  In this instance, most western Mahāyāna Buddhists would read the Pāli Canon’s Dhammapada since it is more widely translated into English (and that’s OK!).
  3. As a non-monastic (a layperson), you are unlikely to read an entire Buddhist canon (and especially not one as enormous as the Chinese Canon).  Instead, you will often be reading, or reciting, parts of the Sutta/Sūtra (sermons of the Buddha), learning from your teacher (who understands the teachings through the Abhidhamma/Abhidharma), and applying ethical conduct and practice in a form laypersons use which has their roots in the Vinaya (such as the Five Precepts, or when attending a short term retreat for laypersons at a temple where you follow monastic code).  To give you an example, you are unlikely to find a Buddhist layperson in the Asian countries who have read an entire Buddhist canon.  Instead, they focus on certain scriptures which are recited, chanted, or focused on within their school.
  4. You will learn in this article that the Buddhist scripture between the canons are similar in doctrine, because early Buddhist teachings (EBT) helped to form the many canons of the different schools of early Buddhism that existed in ancient India (33 schools, according to André Bareau).  There may be different translations, interpretations, and commentaries, however the ‘core’ of Buddhism remains central to all of them.  The path each one takes for its practitioners is the main difference.

Pāli Canon (Theravāda Buddhism)

The Pāḷi Canon is the canon of Buddhism used primarily in the South and Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

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Find the Pāli Canon Online:   accesstoinsight.com, dhammatalks.org, and suttacentral.net

The Pāli Canon (Tipiṭaka) contains early Buddhist teachings which were originally written down from the verbal tradition on long, narrow palm leaves in Sri Lanka. The name “Tipiṭaka” means “three baskets” and consists of up to 50 volumes.  There actually were originally “three baskets” that Buddhist monks used to collect and categorize the transcribed scripture that were put on leaves hundreds of years after his death. 

This canon is the product of just one of the schools of early Buddhism (Theravāda), with some of the others finding their way into the Chinese and Tibetan canons.  Interestingly, Steven Collins stated that there was an older versions of the Theravāda school which does not directly connect to the Theravāda we know of today (such as the pre-Aśoka[Ashoka] period, Aśoka period, and modern period.  Therefore, what we know of the Pāli Canon may relate more to the modern version of Theravāda.

Today, the Pāli Canon is generally considered a ‘closed canon’, meaning no new works are added to it (unlike the Chinese canon, for instance).  However, historically the Pāli Canon was not a ‘written down once and done’ thing.  According to Ven. Walpola Rāhula:

“Although there is evidence to prove the growth of the Pali Scriptures during the early centuries of Buddhism in India and Celyon, there is no reason to doubt that their growth was arrested and the text was finally fixed in the 5th century A.C. when the Sinhalese Commentaries on the Tipitaka were translated into Pali by Buddhaghosa.”

Structure of the Canon

The Pāli Tipiṭaka is made up of these ‘three baskets’ of scripture (this same structure can also be largely found in the Chinese Canon):

  1. Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket).  The Vinaya contains the regulatory framework (precepts, rules, discipline, ordination, rituals, etiquette and manners, training, etc.) followed by monks and nuns in a monastic community (saṅgha).
  2. Sutta Pitaka (Nikāyas/Sayings Basket). The Nikāyas are the historical discourses of the Buddha.  The most well known part of this collection is the Dhammapada, which is located in the Khuddaka Nikāya.
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka.  The analysis, commentary, and summaries of the Suttas (teachings of the Buddha) are contained in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.   This commentary is important to help monastics, and laypersons, in understanding and applying the Suttas in their practice.  Numerous commentaries and sub-commentaries were written by Pāli scholars.  For example, according to Professor T H Barret the works of 5th-century scholar Buddhaghoṣa have been essential for the understanding of Theravāda Buddhist scriptures.
Abhidhamma-commentary-or_16079_f001r
An Abhidhamma commentary commissioned in 1916. (Source: British Library)

The Nikāyas (Sutta)

The Nikāyas, which is also used to describe the Sutta Pitaka, contains the following:

  1. Dīgha Nikāya (dīghanikāya): There are 34 “long” discourses in this Nikāya, to include the Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta), The Fruits of the Contemplative Life, and the Buddha’s Last Days.
  2. Majjhima Nikāya: There are 152 “middle-length” discourses in this Nikāya to include the Shorter Exposition of Kamma, Mindfulness of Breathing, and the Mindfulness of the Body.
  3. Saṃyutta Nikāya: There are between 2,889 to 7,762 shorter Suttas in this Nikāya, known as the “connected” discourses.
  4. Aṅguttara Nikāya: The teachings in this Nikāya are arranged numerically, which gives its title as the “numerical” discourses.  There are 9,565 short Suttas grouped by the number “ones” to “elevens”.
  5. Khuddaka Nikāya: This Nikāya contains a mixture of Suttas, known as the “minor collection”, by the Buddha or his disciplies.  There are between 15 to 18 sections between the different editions.  It contains the Dhammapada, which is perhaps the most well known of the entire Pāli Canon by laypersons.  The sections include:  Khuddakapatha, Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Suttanipata, Vimanavatthu, Petavatthu, Theragatha, Therigatha, Jataka tales [birth stories], Niddesa, Patisambhidamagga, Apadana, Buddhavamsa, Cariyapitaka, Nettipakarana or Netti, Petakopadesa, and Milinda Panha.
Mahabuddhaguna-and-other-Buddhist-texts-1_14_Or-14068-05
An example of the Jātaka tales (this one of the Suvannasāma) in illustrated format. (Source: British Library)

Theravāda Suttas for Beginners

For the individual who is new to Theravāda Buddhism, it can be difficult to know where to begin with the scripture.

Study Guides:  There are many study guides online (here is one from Bhikkhu Bodhi, and another from Thanissaro Bhikkhu).  For books, Bhikku Bodhi’s “The Teachings of the Buddha” series of books is a good choice.  The following list are some Suttas that you may want to start off with, and the reasons why.

These three Suttas are considered essential reading by most Theravāda Buddhists. They cover fundamental teachings of the Buddha which are the core of Buddhist practice (clicking these links will take you to the great Theravāda scripture website known as Access to Insight):

  1. Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)
  2. The Discourse of the Not-Self Characteristic” (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta)
  3. The Fire Sermon” (Ādittapariyāya Sutta)

Additional Suttas that will help the new Buddhist with core teachings and concepts:

  1. Sigalovada Sutta: The Buddha provides instructions for laypersons.
  2. Anapānasati Sutta: This Sutta covers the basics on breath meditation.
  3. Maha-Satipatthana Sutta: This Sutta covers the basics on mindfulness.
  4. Sabbasava Sutta Overcoming external influences that pollute the mind.
  5. Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Teaching on Virtue.
  6. Samadhanga Sutta: Teaching on Concentration.
  7. Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: Teaching on Wisdom.
  8. Karaniya Metta Suta: The practice of loving kindness.

The History of the Pāli Canon

A portion of the Burmese-Pali Tripitaka (cc0 Wikimedia)
  1. During the First Council that occurred three to four months after the Buddha’s death, 500 senior monks (who were Arhats) met.  Ānanda (the attendant of the Buddha) was the one who was tasked with specifying the correct teachings/sermons of the Buddha (Sūtra/Sutta).  Another monk, Upali, took on the other task of setting the rules of discipline for the monastics (Sangha), which is the Vinaya.  He was also the one, along with his pupils, who began the process of remembering and reciting the teachings. This began the long oral recitation tradition of the Buddha’s teachings. While we are dependent on the written word today, oral recitation of teachings was an art in the ancient world and an important role. Practices such as chanting also helped monastics to remember scripture (and also for modern day monastics and laypersons).
  2. The Second Council occurred 100 years later with 700 monastic Arhats attending, and was primarily focused on the Vinaya (rules of the monastics).
  3. Around 244 BCE the Third Council occurred with about a thousand Buddhist monks met for several months to debate the Dharma and the precepts and clarify these things.  This work resulted in a new collection of teachings.  As a note, this is the time when the monastic community split.
  4. It was not until the Fourth Council, which was believed to be in 29 BCE (during the rein of King Vattagamani) that around 500 monks started to write down the teachings for the first time in Sri Lanka and was the first Pāli Canon.   This was due to several reasons, but primarily due to war and famine which would, if only the verbal recitation existed, have a precarious situation to the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings.  The Pāli Canon is the only Canon that remains intact thanks to the stability of Sri Lanka throughout history.  However, the other Tripitakas (written in Sanskrit) were in India where they were eventually all destroyed (along with the Buddhist schools) due to invasions, war, and other actions which removed Buddhism as a major religion there.  However, some of the Tripitakas/scripture were brought to China by Monks and helped to form the Chinese Canon used by Mahāyāna Buddhism.
    • The original Pāli Canon that was was written on palm leaves, is lost to history (likely due to the fragile nature of the leaves themselves).  It spawned translations including into the Sanskrit language (which is the classical language of India) used by the early schools of Buddhism which formed their scripture (which included their own Tripitakas, or other collections).
    • But this wasn’t the “only” Fourth Council.  There was another held in India around the first century, CE.  This council was led by the ruler known as Kanishka (he ruled in the region which is modern day Pakistan and Northern India) who loved the Dharma and wanted scripture which was not different.  This council had about 500 monks as well, and created their Canon (which may have been the first Sanskrit Canon).  However, this council, and Canon, is not recognized by Theravāda.
  5. There was also a Fifth Council, taking place in Burma in 1871, where thousands of monks inscribed the [Pāli] Tipiṭaka onto marble.  Finally, there was a Sixth Council taking place in Rangoon in 1954 with thousands of Theravāda monks.

While we may like to think of the Pāli canon as being complete, we can never really know.  The original has long been lost to history (due to its fragile nature of being written on leaves), and it is always possible that some undiscovered artifacts may be found (similar to what occurred with the Gandhārī  texts).

Chinese Canon (Mahāyāna Buddhism)

The Chinese Canon is the canon of Buddhism used primarily in the east-Asian countries of China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

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Find the Chinese Canon Online:  The entire Chinese Canon (and the different versions of it) has not been completely translated to English.  However, there are several translation projects related to this.  BDK’s Tripitaka Project has the most complete English translation of the Taishō edition with free PDF downloads / Index, and you can also refer to Lapis Luzuli Texts, SuttaCentral, and FGS’s NTI Reader

While Theravāda Buddhism’s Pāli Canon is the scriptural canon from one of the early schools of Buddhism, this does not mean it is the only Canon that contains early Buddhist scripture and teachings.  The Chinese Canon, which is used in Mahāyāna Buddhism of eastern-Asia (in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), derived much of it’s early scripture from some of the many schools of early Buddhism that existed in India (33 schools according to André Bareau).  The early schools of Buddhism in India also had their own scriptural canons which were written in Sanskrit and called Tripitakas.

  1. While there are fundamental differences between Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism’s understanding of the teachings and subsequent practices, much of the sermons (sayings) of the Buddha (Sūtra) are virtually identical in doctrine or story telling despite translation differences and organization in the Canons.  Core concepts, such as the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, are part of the Chinese Canon just like they are found in Theravāda’s Pāli Canon.
  2. The Chinese Canon is often called the Dazangjing (which means the ‘Great Scripture Store’).  The Canon may also be referred to in various ways such as the [Great] Chinese Tripitaka or East Asian Buddhist Canon.  Beyond China, there are several editions (that are ultimately derived from the Chinese Canon) such as the Taishō Tripitaka (Japan) or Tripitaka Koreana (Korea).  There are also other versions/editions of the Chinese Canon (beyond the Taishō edition and Tripitaka Koreana) such as the Yongle Northern Tripiṭaka (most important version in the Ming dynasty), Jiaxing Tripiṭaka (a Qing dynasty version that contained over 500 works not found in another collection), and the Qianlong Tripiṭaka (last version of the Chinese canons printed in the classical style)
  3. Compared to the Pāli Canon, this Canon is loosely canonical with the various schools in Mahāyāna Buddhism.  While most schools in Mahāyāna Buddhism generally agree and acknowledge the Canon, they typically only work with parts of it.  This includes selective emphasizing and/or using specific Sūtras and/or commentaries/analysis.
    1. As part of daily practice or religious services, typically Mahāyāna scriptures (Sūtra) are chanted or recited. 
    2. A good way to imagine the Chinese Canon  being used in Mahāyāna Buddhism is to visualize a public (or private) library in your hometown.  The reader (in this case, a particular school of Mahāyāna Buddhism) selects the books they want to use on the path towards enlightenment.  While the reader (once again, we are referencing a particular school of Mahāyāna Buddhism) acknowledges the “Library” and its contents as authentic, they are only checking out certain “books” to use.  The “Library” is always there should the reader (such as a layperson or monastic) want to explore and learn more.
    3. While we generally use the term “Mahāyāna Buddhism” and “East-Asian Buddhism” here because all use Mahāyāna scripture in some way, it is actually more country specific.  For example:  Chinese Buddhism (also practiced in Taiwan), Japanese Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, and Vietnamese Buddhism.  To give an example of this:  Zen in Japan originated from the original Ch’an in China.  Despite being similar, they are also different.  Chinese Buddhism also incorporates two schools (Pure Land and Ch’an) as part of the practice, whereas in Japan they are distinct schools, and several are available.  
  4. The Chinese Canon is made up of the traditional ‘three collections’ (Tripitaka) of scripture (this same general structure can also be found in the Pāli Canon, known as a Tipiṭaka), but also contains various other texts which are included in this large canon such as Tantras (Tantric school of Buddhism), translations and commentaries on the Āgamas and Mahāyāna scriptures (the Mahāyāna scriptures are what make the Chinese Canon a “Mahāyāna” Canon), translations of commentaries on Yogacara and Madhyamaka, Chinese commentaries on the various parts of the canon, Chinese sectarian writings, and histories and biographies.  Additionally, there are encyclopedias, dictionaries, non-Buddhist doctrines, and catalogs of various Chinese Canons to round out the entire canon.  However for most laypersons, they will unlikely be looking at anything other than the Sūtra (Āgamas)/Mahāyāna Sūtras as part of their practice.

Structure of the Canon

Just like the Pāli Canon, the Chinese Canon also contains a “Tripitaka“:

  1. Vinaya contains the regulatory framework (precepts, rules, discipline, ordination, rituals, etiquette and manners, training, etc.) followed by monks and nuns in a monastic community (saṅgha).
  2. Sūtra (Sermons of the Buddha), contain the Buddha’s discourses (Āgamas), the Jātaka tales (birth stories) of the Buddha, and Mahāyāna scriptures (Sūtras).  Note that the Mahāyāna Sūtras are not the same as the Āgamas.  The Āgamas (historical discourses and sermons of the Buddha) are similar (but not identical) to Theravāda’s Sutta Pitaka (Nikāyas) in the Pāli Canon.  The Mahāyāna scriptures are what make the Chinese Canon a “Mahāyāna” Canon, and are considered the most important part of the Canon to many schools/Buddhists.
  3. Abhidharma, provides analysis of the Dharma (teachings) known as the “Collection of Treatises”.  Although there are some similarities, the analysis of time and matter is different than what is found in the Pāli Canon’s Abhidhamma.

However, the Chinese Canon eventually included texts that went beyond the typical Tripitaka structure.  You can read more about that below in the Taishō section of this article.  The Taishō is the standard edition of the Chinese Canon that is currently being used, and contains numerous additional items (similar to a library).  

The Āgamas (Sūtra)

The Āgamas, which is also used to describe the portion of the Sūtra related to the discourses and sermons of the Buddha, contains the following:

Note:  While the Pāli Canon has five groupings of Suttas, the Chinese Canon contains four groupings of Sūtras (while maintaining the same general composition).  The word/term “Agama” refers to the scripture of any of the religions coming from India and is not specific to Buddhism, or Mahāyāna.  As described previously, Theravāda’s Pāli Canon used the term “Nikaya” when creating their Canon.  Additionally, the Chinese Canon contains Mahāyāna Sūtras (which are separate from the Agamas).

  1. Dīrgha ĀgamaThere are 30 “long” discourses in this Āgama including the Sūtra of Preaching Travels which describes the Buddha’s travels and discourses the year before his death, and the World Sūtra which explains Buddhist cosmology. (Corresponds to the Dīgha Nikāya of the Pāli Canon).  Some translations can be found here.
  2. Madhyama Āgama:  There are 222 “middle-length” discourses in this Āgama which explain the basic doctrines of Buddhism such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. (Corresponds to the Majjhima Nikāya of the Pāli Canon).  Translations of the first 71 Sutras can be found here and others here.
  3. Samyukta Āgama:  There are 1,300 “short” sūtras in this Āgama, known as the “connected” or “miscellaneous” discourses.  The sūtras discuss a variety of doctrines such as Dukkha, emptiness, impermanence, non-self, and the Noble Eightfold Path. (Corresponds to the Samyutta Nikāya of the Pāli Canon).  Some translations can be found here.
  4. Ekottara Āgama:  The numbered discourses in this Āgama are organized numerically and incrementally, which gives it the title “Increasing by One”.  There are 471 short sūtras in 52 sections.  The sūtras are grouped by the number “ones” to “elevens”.  (Corresponds to the Anguttara Nikāya of the Pāli Canon, although there are differences).  Some translations can be found here.
  5. Unlike the Pāli Canon’s Khuddaka Nikāya, there is not a fifth Āgama for miscellaneous texts. However, texts such as the Jātaka Tales (prior lives/birth stories of the Buddha), and other texts, may be found in other sections of the canon.
  6. What About the Dhammapada?  One of my personal top questions used to be “Is the Dhammapada, which is found in the Pāli Canon, in the Chinese Canon as well?”  The short answer is “yes”.   The most well known and translated piece of Theravāda Buddhist scripture containing the sayings of the Buddha is the Dhammapada which is found in the Khuddaka Nikāya (note:  in the Āgamas there is not a corresponding section as the scripture was grouped differently during the creation of the Canon).  While other sermons of the Buddha may be lengthy in their traditional structure, the Dhammapada presents bite sized (or what I like to call “Twitter-sized”) sayings, which were likely due for the need to remember and recite them by monastics throughout the centuries.  Within the Chinese Canon, Taishō edition, we can also find a version of the Dhammapada (a translated version is available from BDK by clicking here, and as part of their Buddha-Dharma book by clicking here).  However, there are plenty of translated versions of the Dhammapada from Theravāda’s Pāli Canon in books that include commentary and are easily available.

Mahāyāna Sūtras

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The Lotus Sūtra, known in Sanskrit as Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra or ‘Sūtra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law,’ is one of the most influential scriptures of Mahāyāna Buddhism in East Asia. (Source: The British Library)

There are several Mahāyāna Sūtras that are important, and widely read and chanted, in Mahāyāna Buddhism.  The Mahāyāna Sūtras are what make the Chinese Canon a Mahāyāna Canon.  You will likely be using some, or all, of these Sūtras more than you would anything else in your practice.  This is because in the Mahāyāna tradition, these Sūtras can be said to contain the essence of all the Buddha’s teachings.  They can also help a practitioner to use them almost as a meditative tool through study and insight in order to gain awakening.

Click the titles in the following lists to read the Sūtras.

  1. Some of the popular Sūtras in Mahāyāna are the Heart, Diamond, and Lotus Sūtras.
  2. Some sutras that influential with Chán/Zen include the  Decent into Lanka (Lankavatara), LotusDiamond, and Flower Garland (Avatamsaka) Sūtras.
  3. Pure Land Buddhism: Some of the sūtras used are the Amitabha (Shorter and Longer) and Meditation sūtras.

The following are just a few of the many Mahāyāna Sūtras:

  1. Amitabha [Shorter] (Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra):  The blessings and virtues of Amitabha Buddha, his Pure Land (Sukhāvatī), and rebirth.
  2. Amitabha [Longer] (Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra):  Explains cause and effect (Karma), and describes the Western Pure Land (Sukhāvatī).
  3. Brahma Net (Brahmajāla Sūtra): The Ten Major Precepts of Mahayana followers and 48 Minor Precepts for Bodhisattvas to follow on the path.
  4. Diamond (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra): The Buddha teaches how to cut through afflictions, ignorance, delusion, or illusion through the perfection of insight and wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā). This Sūtra is about the emptiness of all phenomena, wisdom, perception, and non-attachment. It is considered an extremely important Sūtra by Chan Buddhists.  The Diamond Sūtra is perhaps the most well known, and recited, among Buddhists, and is part of the Prajnaparamita group of sutras (the Heat sutra is the other one).  
  5. Flower Garland (Avataṃsaka Sūtra): Explains how reality appears to an enlightened being (such as a Bodhisattva).  A compilation of teachings on topics such as:  the ten stages on the Bodhisattva path, phenomena (dharmas), meditation/mind only (Vijñaptimatra), and emptiness (sunyata).  It is the second longest sutra in the Mahayana (40 chapters).  It is said to record the higher teaching of the Buddha to Bodhisattvas and other high spiritual beings.  Also referred to as the Flower Ornament Sutra, Flower Adornment Sutra, or Gandavyuha Sutra.
  6. Heart (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra):  Through the perfection of insight and wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā), the Bodhisattva is able to see the emptiness (sunyata) of all phenomena (dharmas) known through (and as) the Five Aggregates.   This is a Sūtra about wisdom (prajna).  A great introduction to this Sūtra is by Barbara O’Brien, and commentary can be found on Tricycle magazine’s website.
  7. Jewel Heap (Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra): Collection of 49 texts of various lengths and topics such as: wisdom (prajñā), illusion (māyā), skillful means (upāya), and the Western Pure Land (Sukhāvatī).  This is one of the oldest sutras in the Vaipulya group of 49 independent sutras.  
  8. Decent into Lanka (Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra):   Scriptural basis of the Yogacara and Chán/Zen schools on the doctrines of the illusionary and empty nature of all phenomena as manifestations of the mind, that consciousness is our only true reality, culminating in the Tathāgatagarbha (i.e., Buddha-nature).
  9. Lotus (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra):   Considered the sūtra of skillful means (upāya) providing a way for persons to readily achieve enlightenment, and stresses that every living being can achieve Buddhahood.   As one of the smallest and most popular Mahāyāna Sūtras, it has become almost a central text in some schools such as Nichiren.  Essentially, many Buddhist (schools and practitioners) consider the Lotus Sūtra the final teaching of the Buddha that contains all that is needed for enlightenment (“salvation”) where all beings can become Buddhas.  It is also considered the Sūtra of “upāya” or ‘skillful / expedient means’ meaning it provides a way for persons to achieve enlightenment more readily.  This is also one of the oldest Mahāyāna Sūtras (believed to have been completed around 200 BCE).  Theravāda monastic Bhikkhu Sujato believes it may even predate Mahāyāna as it was likely worked on over a period of time and the earliest form of it was before Mahāyāna).
  10. Meditation (Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra):  Meditations and visualization of Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land (Sukhāvatī).  This is the third of the three sutras that make up the doctrinal basis of the Pure Land school (the other two are the shorter and longer Amitabha sutras).
  11. Ten Stages (Daśabhūmika Sūtra):  The Buddha describes the Ten Stages of Cultivation for Bodhisattva’s on their path to full enlightenment and Buddhahood.
  12. Vimalakīrti (Vimalakīrti Sūtra): Teachings on the doctrines of non-duality and emptiness.  It explains the illusionary nature of the world, equality of women, and the enlightenment of laypersons.
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This copy of the Diamond Sutra is one of the world’s earliest, dated, books. (Source: British Museum)

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The Taishō Edition of the Chinese Canon

While there are different editions of the Chinese Canon, the most used standardized version is the Taishō .  It is an enormous collection of information, with a numbering structure and organization that does not fit into a typical “Tripitaka” structure.

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism, the structure of the Taishō is more than just the traditional three sections that typically make up a Tripitaka.  When the Taishō was being created, the different parts were made into separate ‘volumes’ / ‘sections’ / ‘divisions’.  The numbering structure of the Taishō may be of more importance to scholars than to everyday laypersons (who will typically only work with parts of this edition anyways).

In the following simplified structure of the Taishō (this is not the actual numbering structure, but a way I organized to help me understand it), the items/texts that can be considered part of a “Tripitaka” appear in bold in the following list (I will also add which Tripitaka category in brackets before each one).  Note that I am including various different sections/volumes under “Abhidharma”, however there is an actual Abhidharma (#6 below).  The early Chinese canons were in the Tripitaka structure, however as it grew (such as with the Taishō), various commentaries and analysis were included over the centuries.

  1. [Sutra] Āgamas
  2. [Sutra] Mahāyāna sutras
  3. [Sutra] Tantras
  4. [Vinaya] Vinaya texts
  5. [Abhidharma] Translations of commentaries on the Agamas and Mahāyāna scriptures
  6. [Abhidharma] Abhidharma texts (translations of various early Abhidharmas including the Sarvastivada Abhidharma from the Sarvastivadins (an early school of Buddhism), and various other parts of different Abdhidharmas from India).  For comparison, the Pāḷi canon contains seven Shastras (Indian commentaries), while the Chinese Canon has a large collection from the Sarvastivada school.
  7. [Abhidharma] Translations of commentaries on Yogacara and Madhyamaka
  8. [Abhidharma] Chinese commentaries on the sutras, vinaya, and shastras (Indian commentaries)
  9. Chinese sectarian writings
  10. Histories and biographies
  11. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, non-Buddhist doctrines (Hindu, Manichean, and Nestorian Christian) and catalogs of various Chinese Canons

Short History of the Chinese Canon

I have intentionally left off information about the early Buddhist councils, which you can read in the Pāḷi Canon section of this article.  Chinese Buddhism developed, of course, within China.  So it was not one of the early Buddhist schools of India.  However, it developed as a result of monastics from those early Buddhist schools in India, as well as their scriptural canons.

  1. The area that now is part of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan was called Gandhāra, and was a base of Buddhist culture according to Professor T H Barrett.
    1. This is important because of Gandhāra’s proximity to China.  Beginning in the 2nd century CE, these texts began to come into China (and likely other areas) and have a profound impact. 
    2. These texts were in what modern linguistics call “Gandhāri”, which was a local Indian language. 
    3. Over 1,000 years and well over 500 Buddhist works were translated from other languages (such as Gandhāri and Sanskrit) into Chinese which Barrett called “one of the most extensive and protracted translation enterprises in world history”.  
      The twenty-nine birch bark scrolls from the ancient region of Gandhāra (extending in present day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan) are among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. They are in Gāndhārī in the Kharoṣṭhī script. Gāndhārī is a language related to Sanskrit and Pāli which was used in the area from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE. Written in black ink with a reed pen, the scrolls are made of sections of bark glued together to form long strips. (Source: British Library)
  2. Buddhism originally come into China originally thanks to two missionary Buddhist monks (named Dharmaratna and Kaśyapa Mātaṅga during the Han Dynasty), and subsequently by other monks such as Kumārajīva (344-413) who was regarded as a great translator of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese.  He was a Kuchean who understood Chinese so well, that his accuracy and readability of translating the scripture was invaluable.  
  3. During the Tang Dynasty, the monk Xuanzang (602-664) left for India on a journey that ended up lasting 17 years.   While in India, he was able to learn from Buddhist monks there, and collect over 600 sutras/Tripitakas written in Sanskrit which he brought back with him to China.  The emperor (During the Tang Dynasty) was fully supportive and commissioned him and his team to translating the Buddhist teachings into Chinese.  He continued to communicate with monastics in India throughout his life, and while mostly unknown to Westerners, his letters contains insightful and important history of how this canon came to be.
    Xuanzang (Public Domain)
  4. In the 10th century, the Chinese government created a translation bureau, but eventually did not have enough Chinese monks with a good knowledge of Sanskirt.  Eventually, bilingual glossaries and other references were used to help with transalation and study.  Regular travel between China/East Asia and India resumed in the 19th century.
  5. According to Richard H. Robinson and Willard L Johnson, The first printed edition of the Chinese Canon was in 972-983 CE was the Shu-pen or Szechuan edition, and consisted of 1,076 texts in 480 cases.  There have been several editions of the Canon since, including geographic based editions such as the Tripitaka Koreana (Korea). However the current standard edition is known as the Taishō edition (sometimes referred to as the Taishō Tripitaka).  The project for the Taishō started in 1924 in Japan, and was completed in 1934.  It consists of 55 volumes, containing 2,184 texts, along with a supplement of 45 volumes.  Most online versions and translated versions of the Chinese Canon are of the Taishō.
  6. As the Chinese Canon moved outside of China (and untranslated), “literacy” was defined as understanding Chinese writing.  Therefore, many laypersons were “illiterate” and could not read Buddhist teachings (due to it being written in Chinese, and transmitted that way).  For a long time, this was how the teachings were transmitted, and likely were accessible only by monastics and educated individuals who understood Chinese writing.  This is what eventually formed the translation of the Chinese Canon in these countries (as described above) into canons such as the Tripitaka Koreana, Taishō, and others.  You can see a picture of scripture using images at the bottom of this section that helped laypersons recite sutras.
  7. Copying the canonical texts by hand was the norm in East Asian Buddhism.  According to Professor T H Barrett, in medieval Japan they found that portioning out this task to ten thousand people (or more) could complete the task in a single day!  This was also one of the origins of practicing hand copying the scriptures in order to gain karmic merit.
  8. Eventually, printing helped the spread of Buddhism.  In the 10th century the first canon was carved on woodblocks in Szechuan, China, and eventually moved to the capital to create new sets when needed.  Woodblock printing also was springing up in other countries as a way to make copies of the canon without having to resort to the laborious practice of hand copying.
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This small, folding book contains the text of the Heart Sūtra (in Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya) represented in pictures and was intended to allow illiterate people to recite this popular Buddhist sūtra. The repeated chanting of texts is an important part of Buddhist devotion and is believed to be a way of acquiring religious merit. However, to be able to read a Buddhist text written in Chinese script, which was also used in Japan and Korea, requires a knowledge of many thousands of individual characters. In earlier times, when rates of literacy were much lower, this type of illustrated sūtra – known popularly as Mekura-kyō or Monmō-kyō (literally ‘Sūtras for the Illiterate’) – was a way to provide people who were unable to read with a way to gain the merit derived from chanting the texts. Mekura-kyō work on a rebus principle, whereby the sounds of the Chinese characters are represented by pictures of everyday objects that have the same pronunciation. By reading out the sounds of the images, the worshipper is able to repeat the text of the sūtra. An English example would be to represent the word ‘belief’ with a picture of a bee and a leaf. (Source: British Library)

The Tibetan Canon (Tibetan Buddhism)

The Tibetan Canon is the canon of Buddhism used in the central-Asian countries of Tibet, Bhutan, the Himalayas, and Mongolia.

Photo by Ailiajameel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

This section is still under development.  Send me a message if you have any feedback!

In addition to the Pāli Canon and Chinese Canon, Tibetan Buddhism as their own scriptural canon.  Although Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahāyāna, their Canon is not an edition of the Chinese Canon (although some of the Chinese Canon found its way into their canon).  It was written in Tibet mostly from translations of various scripture that originated in India, to include Mahāyāna texts (although the Chinese Canon and Tibetan Canon do not always include the same Mahāyāna texts).

  • There are two parts to this Canon (which may also be used to refer to the Tibetan Canon itself) which are the Kangyur (“Translation of the Words of the Buddha”) and Tengyur (“Translations of the Teachings”)
    1. Bka’-‘gyur (Kangyur/Kanjur) contains different volumes and sections based on the edition.  The Narthang version contains a Vinaya (13 volumes), Sutra (30 volumes), and 55 other volumes.  There are several different versions of the Kangyr.
    2. Bstan-‘gyur (Tengyur/Tenjur) contains (in the Peking edition) 224 volumes, and 3,626 texts.  Among them are the commentaries on the Sutras and the Abhidharma.
  • Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol):  Although not part of the Tibetan Canon, it is perhaps the most well known (or at least the title is known by everyday people).  This book explains the stages of death, specifically from the Tibetan Buddhism viewpoint, and was a very popular work that was created during the medieval period (which is why it is not in the Tibetan Canon). The Bardo Thodol explains the experiences of a person as they are dying, the moment of death, and for 49 days afterwards. Also included are practices that are to be taken after the person has died. It was originally written by Yeshe Tsogyak, the primary student of Padmasambhava, in the 8th century.  Interestingly enough, the title “book of the dead” is not an accurate title, and was named this due to a Western misunderstanding.  You can find more information here:  http://www.buddhanet.net/deathtib.htm

The Tibetan Canon also contains Vajrayana texts.  Professor TH Barrett explains:

Vajrayana texts draw on the ideas of Māhāyana but present them through meditation practices and visually startling art that often seems to negate basic Buddhist values, though in fact they depend on trust in a teacher (the term guru is used) to give the true meaning of their scripture (the term used is tantra) to those who are initiated into their practices. Vajrayana is said to provide a more direct route to enlightenment, but since it is open to misunderstanding by the uninitiated it is sometimes called ‘esoteric’.

Volume-of-the-Shelkar-Kanjur-or_6724_mod_1_f001av
The volume displayed here is the result of such a project which was completed in 1712 at the south-western Tibetan monastery of Shelkar. A text accompanying the Kanjur lists the names of eighteen sponsors, ten monks from the monastery who acted as editors, six people who provided the paper, and eight calligraphers who came from Nyemo, a monastery in central Tibet whose monks were famous for their calligraphic skills. This volume contains the Fortunate Aeon Sūtra, a text which is traditionally always the first in the sūtra section of the Kanjur. (Source: British Library)
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Inner text of the Kanjur. (Source: British Library)

Which One is the Best (or Real) Buddhist Canon?

To mold a new, critical and comprehensive system, based on the Chinese Tripitaka, the Theravada teaching of Ceylon, and selected components of the Tibetan canon, should be the objective of the writing of a history of Indian Buddhism.  ~ Venerable Tai Hsu

I hoped you enjoyed learning more about the amazing, and extensive, world of Buddhist scripture.  One of the main things I wanted to leave you with is a greater understanding of the scriptural canons of the three main schools, and how they were developed and came from the same home.  Also, that we should find common ground and understanding between the schools of Buddhism, and their scriptural canons.  We should not be thinking of which one is “better”, but how they can help us in our path towards awakening.

We must also understand that the scripture is not a perfect historical record of what the Buddha said.  We can’t go back and ask the Buddha if he really said any of this.  We instead put our faith in the monastic community who, for centuries, orally recited the scripture until the effort to write it down began.  Yet, as much as Buddhist scripture is important and revered, it was the result of human efforts and we must take that into consideration.

Bodhipaksa, author of the book “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” and the website Fake Buddha Quotes (which helps dispel fake Buddha quotes spread on the internet), talked about the accuracy of Buddhist scripture in general which will relate to both canons:

There’s no guarantee that any given verse in the Buddhist scriptures was actually spoken by the Buddha. There was inevitably some editing of the teachings as they were passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation, and there’s also evidence of tampering by monks who were pushing particular agendas. But we can safely assume that most of the early scriptures that have been passed down do reflect the kinds of things the Buddha said, if not in his exactly words. And some — possibly a lot — may consist of pretty much exact quotes.

When it comes to the (seemingly) never ending debate about the Pāli and Chinese Canons, we need to understand how they have the same common doctrine, and are both Buddhist.

According to Bhikkhu Sujato  (A Theravāda Thai Forrest monk), both Canons are very similar (Nikayas refer to the Suttas in the Pāli Canon, and Agamas refer to the Sturas in the Chinese Canon):

It is easy to forget that, in our times, the reason why the Nikāyas carry such prestige is largely due to the discovery that they are very similar to corresponding collections of sutras found in Chinese translation. The logic is powerful: the Southern (Theravāda) school and the Northern (Chinese) schools have been separated by vast distances, with only occasional contacts over the past 2000 years. Even before that, within India herself, the schools had separated and passed down distinct versions of their canonical scriptures. Yet despite this separation, their root canonical scriptures are doctrinally almost identical.

These conclusions were arrived at by the early generations of cross-cultural Buddhist scholars, both Western and Eastern. Their findings gave strong impetus to the authority of the Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Āgamas and the importance of studying these collections on comparative basis. These findings have been taken to heart in modern Buddhist studies especially in Taiwan and Japan. However in the English speaking world, the Chinese Āgamas have been comparatively neglected. This seems to be due to a number of factors, not least the practical difficulty of learning to read Chinese.

In his article, he referenced some of the analysis of both Canons that have been done showing they are almost identical:

These studies have largely confirmed Beal’s initial hypothesis – the Chinese Ᾱgamas and the Pali Nikāyas are virtually identical in doctrine. They are two varying recensions of the same set of texts. These texts – popularly referred to simply as ‘the Suttas’ – were assembled by the first generations of the Buddha’s followers, before the period of sectarian divisions. They are pre-sectarian Buddhism.

Near the end of his article, he wrote this which I think really summarizes why this is all so important (remember, the Buddha’s sermons/teachings are called the Agamas in the Chinese Canon, and Nikayas in the Pāli Canon):

Perhaps another reason for the relative neglect of the Āgamas is their very closeness to the Nikāyas. We have to go to a lot of effort to discover what we think we know already: the core Buddhist teachings really are the four noble truths, the eightfold path, dependent origination, and so on. Although there are occasional instructive variations, the main fruit of this study is not in the content of the teaching, but in the method. Rather than assuming that the scriptures of just one school are the first and last word on what the Buddha taught, we are searching in the root teachings shared in common between the schools. Such an approach will not only help us to get ‘back to the Buddha’, but it will provide the best platform for an improved understanding between the Buddhist schools we find alive today.

Additionally, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh stated that we can benefit from these two Canons because the Southern (Theravāda) and Northern (Mahāyāna) canons were able to capture different (or additional) teachings better than the other.  In this way, we have the unique benefit of being able to learn and compare both!

By comparing the two extant sutra recensions, we can see which teachings must have preceded Buddhism’s dividing into schools.  When the sutras of both transmissions are the same, we can conclude that what they say must have been there before the division.  When the recensions are different, we can surmise that one or both might be incorrect.  The Northern transmission preserved some discourses better, and the Southern transmission preserved others better.  That is the advantage of having two transmissions to compare.

To go a little further on, and to reinforce that point, Bhikshu Kongmu said:

I bring this up here mostly to make the point that, if one truly wants to understand so-called “Early Buddhism”, comparative studies between the Pali and Chinese sources (along with whatever Sanskrit fragments and Tibetan parallels) is really the most complete method for doing so. Otherwise, by solely relying upon, say, the Pali Canon, we indadvertedly get only one Early Buddhist School’s inheritance and neglect the rich sources found presently in translation or in fragments of Indian languages.

One of the most common statements is that the Pāli Canon of Theravāda Buddhism is the only true scripture of Buddhism, because it is the closest to that of early Buddhism, and of the Buddha’s teachings.  While the Pāli Canon is the only existing canon of an early Buddhist school that contains its own works (although it is difficult to call it complete, as new Pāli may be discovered in the future), it was not the only canon.  While not all of the canons of the many schools survived in any form, some did make their way into the Chinese Canon, and the Tibetan Canon.  While not the ‘complete’ canons of those other early Buddhist schools, the doctrine between all canons generally is the same.

Steven Collins wrote at the end of his article “On the very idea of the Pali canon” in the Journal of the Pali Text Society:

“…suggests that the actual importance of what we know as the Pali Canon has not lain in the specific texts collected in that list, but rather the idea of such a collection, the idea that one lineage has the definite list of buddha-vacana.  So the Pali Canon should be seen as just a ‘canon’ (in one sense of that word) in Pali, one amongst others.”

That’s important to note.  We should not take one canon as ‘authoritative’ for all of Buddhism.  The canons are reflective of the schools of Buddhism.  Additionally, we are finding that, especially in the scholarly world, the Buddhist scripture is seen as historically not complete as new things are being discovered. 

Mr. Collins included in that article that there was no such thing as a ‘closed’ canon in the Buddha’s lifetime, but that eventually did come to have the ‘sense of a closed and fixed Canon’.  However he noted that “Originally, then, neither pāli nor tipitaka referred to a closed canon.”.  I bring this up because we have seen the Chinese canon be a living canon that was open, rather than closed, which causes criticism that by doing so it makes it less legitimate.  Again, each canon is reflective of that school of Buddhism and should be understood as such.

Collins also stated that there were at least three different periods of Theravāda, so it is unclear if the canon as we know it now was what was used during that time:

…we cannot know the relation between ‘the canon’ as we now have it and the canon as it was being transmitted at this time; still less can we know that this canon was thought of in the closed, exclusivist sense.

According to Linda Heuman (referring to Professor Solomon, and the discovery of new Buddhist scripture from Gandhārī ) our view that certain scripture, such as the Pāli Canon being the only true form of Buddhist scripture (or even the only earliest), is being uprooted the more we uncover about early Buddhism:

As scholars scrutinized the Gandhari texts, however, they saw that history didn’t work that way at all, Salomon said. It was a mistake to assume that the foundation of Buddhist textual tradition was singular, that if you followed the genealogical branches back far enough into the past they would eventually converge. Traced back in time, the genealogical branches diverged and intertwined in such complex relationships that the model of a tree broke down completely. The picture looked more like a tangled bush, he reported.

Here is where I clicked Rewind: these newly found manuscripts, he declared, strike the coup de grâce to a traditional conception of Buddhism’s past that has been disintegrating for decades. It is now clear that none of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures—not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, nor even the Gandhari—“can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”

She also added this quote:

“Nobody holds the view of an original canon anymore,” Oskar von Hinüber, one of the world’s leading scholars of Pali, told me.

This is not negating the Pāli Canon, or any canon for that matter.  Instead it helps to shed light on the history of Buddhist scripture is ‘gray’, to say the least.  We have an unclear, and unsubstantiated, view of the history with no way to truly validate anything.  However, in the conclusion part of this article I provide some explanations of others who show that the value we put in the Pāli Canon today was actually reinforced due to the Chinese Canon.  Because these two groups didn’t really talk to each other, they gave scholars and historians a unique and rare way to validate the most essential core of the scripture…the Buddhas teachings (Sutra/Sutta), and the monastic rules (Vinaya).

“Mahāyāna” Buddhists never felt they were separate from the long line of monastics that came from the Buddha’s time.  They followed the Vinaya, and preserved and practiced the teachings.  Even during early Buddhism, none of the many different schools felt they were a ‘separate’ Buddhism.  They had different understandings, practice, and even regional translations/language, but that was understood to be part of the dynamic nature of Buddhism itself even during this early period.

A good article to read on this is “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” on Tricycle.  While it is centered around the discovery of new Buddhist scripture found in a region once called Gandhāra, it explains the now (more) muddied nature of what we believe to be the original origins of Buddhism.  There may never have been a “single” source of scripture which has been widely believed.

For the Buddhist layperson, like you and me, you will not get a black and white answer you are looking for (as explained, we will never be able to find this holy grail of an original canon that everyone agreed upon in the ancient past).   And this is OK!  “Faith” in Buddhism and Buddhist practice flows from this understanding that we can’t put our hands on some document signed by the Buddha, but we can put our faith in the scripture we have now (regardless of the school of Buddhism) as containing (at least) the essence of the Buddha’s teachings that leads us to liberation.  This faith is supported by the monastic community who did their best to retain, recite, write down, and understand the teachings, as well as the enlightenment of monastics throughout the centuries since the Buddha left us.  Further, our faith is not ‘blind’ faith, but is also reinforced through the fact we can actually prove the truth of these teachings ourselves.

Now that we talked about the Canons, let’s go back to the Mahāyāna scriptures such as the Diamond, Heart, Amitabha, etc.  According to David Kalupahana (a Buddhist scholar from Sri Lanka), (2006, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass: p. 5.) those Mahāyāna scriptures can connected to early Buddhism:

Scholars have noted that many key Mahāyāna ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism.

The Mahāyāna scriptures (sutras) exist nowhere else in the Pāli Canon, so what are we to make of those?  Once again commentary by Bhikkhu Sujato:

So there is no doubt that the Lotus Suta and other Mahayana sutras are historically late, dating from many centuries after the Buddha. When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in. They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations. Of course the same is true of many Theravadin texts, although in the case of the early Suttas and Vinaya there is still a core that probably stems from the Buddha himself.

We have to understand, when it comes to the Mahāyāna specific Sūtra, the spiritual and transformative value of them.  The Dharma is vast, and in Mahāyāna there is said to be 84,000 Dharma Doors in which people can be taught in a way that speaks to them.  For Theravādins looking at the Mahāyāna Sūtras, there can be found early Buddhism and Buddhist thought that may not have been fully explored by Theravāda when the Pāli Canon was being formed (as well as similarities). 

But should the Mahāyāna sūtras be canonical if there is doubt regarding their lineage back to the Buddha?  According to Professor T H Barrett explains:

There are also texts like the Lotus Sūtra, whose special status is not just proclaimed by the work itself, but also acknowledged in the art and material culture of East Asia in a way that makes the use of the word ‘canonical’ far from inappropriate. The Buddha’s word was for many, in effect, a form of the Buddha’s very presence, still with us in later ages, and still to be treated with every form of respect. In looking at Buddhist books this is certainly something to bear in mind.

It is also interesting that at one point certain Theravāda Buddhists read what we would now refer to as Mahāyāna texts from at least the 3rd century A.D. and possibly before.  The Abhayagiri monks were, at times, more numerous in the Theravāda  school than the Mahāvihāra monks.  However, none of their scripture remain.  Steven Collins remarked:

It seems that at least from the 3rd century A.D., and perhaps before, the Abhayagiri monks used what we would now call Mahayana texts; it is revealing that this is standardly referred to by their Mahaviharin opponents as their embracing the vetulla-vada.  The term vetulla, Sanskrit vaitulya or vaipulya, meaning ‘extended’ or ‘enlarged’, refers to the great extent of certain Mahayana scriptures.  Later triumphalist chronicles condemn with increasing vehemence the heresy of these unacceptable texts, and tell of repeated book-burnings by pro-Mahaviharin kings.

Collins also stated that the Mahāvihārin monks eventually won out and focused on a strategy to making it a closed canon as part of “self-definition and self-legitimation”.  

For Mahāyānists, the Pāli Canon takes us back to one of the schools of early Buddhism and it also has a similar or identical teachings as shown in the Agamas, and may have additional teachings we can learn from.  Mahāyāna teachers and schools may refer to the Pāli Canon without concern, as it flows from the same early school of Buddhism.  For example, the Dhammapada, with its short verses, is easy for laypersons to read and recite, and is also why the Chinese Canon’s Agamas are not often translated into English because the Dhammapada essentially contains the same sermons/teachings, and there are plenty of translations.

An important thing I would like to impart is that we can learn a lot from each school, and each other, to deepen our understanding of the teachings.  While a beginner should follow the guidance of their teacher and school with the specified texts, as you grow you can explore both branches of Buddhism to deepen understanding and views.

Awakening of the HeartI will leave you with a book I recommend that contains both Theravāda Suttas and Mahāyāna Sūtras is Awakening the Heart” by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.  Although he is a famous monastic of the Mahāyāna school, he covers many Pāli Canon Suttas in this book and provides the scripture in this book as a “foundation” for an individuals practice.  What I especially love is that he was excited to find some of these Theravāda Suttas, which demonstrates that even those in Mahāyāna can benefit.  The commentaries are especially beneficial, and can help you understand the sutta/sūtra you just read, and how to apply it to your practice.  It goes to show that you can learn from both branches of Buddhism (and thus both Canons) to aid you in your practice!

 

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