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The Buddhist Scriptures for Newbies

You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.  ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

Two Texts, Same Path

There are many different types of scripture and texts in the Buddhist world. These can be broken up into two categories:

  • Canonical Texts: Scripture in this category is widely accepted to be the actual sayings of the historical Buddha. They are called either “Sutras” (Sanskrit) or Suttas (Pali).  The most widely known, and used among all branches of Buddhism, is the Dhammapada.
  • Non-Canonical Texts: These are texts that are not the sayings of the Buddha, but observations on canonical texts, disclosures on the Dharma / Dhammapada, historical information, quotes, definitions, and other writings.  For example, books written by the Dalai Lama or your favorite Buddhism teacher would be considered “Non-Canonical”.

Each branch of Buddhism has their own scriptures which include, and may expand beyond, the original teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha.   You can find a lot of early Buddhist scripture on Sutta Central (a site by Sujato Bhikkhu):  http://suttacentral.net/.

Theravāda Buddhism

The Tripitaka (or Tipitaka) [Also Known as the Pali Canon]:  This is one of the earliest compilations of Buddhist teachings written (originally) on long, narrow leaves. The name “Tripitaka” means “three baskets” and consists of up to 50 volumes.  There actually were “three baskets” that Buddhist monks transcribed the Buddha’s teachings on  leaves and put them in these baskets to categorize them nearly 200 years after his death.   All branches of Buddhism have the Tripitaka as part of their core scriptures, and the Dhammapada is part of it.

One of the largest online websites to find the Tripitaka is Access to Insight:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org (to view a diagram of the Tripitaka, click here:  http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/s_theracanon.htm)

The Tripitaka is made up for these ‘three baskets’ of scripture:

  • Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), dealing with rules for monks and nuns
  • Sutta Pitaka (Sutra/Sayings Basket), discourses, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka, variously described as philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, etc.

Mindah-Lee Kumar provides a great video explaining the Tripitaka:

Mahāyāna Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism blossomed in China and spread elsewhere, and has grown in scripture ever since.  Before we go any further, it’s important to note that Mahayana Buddhism accepts the Pali Canon (Tripitika) just like Theravada does.  However, some schools may focus or emphasize on certain sutra(s) as part of their practice.

  • Mahayana Sutras:  The Mahayana branch of Buddhism includes the Tripitaka as a sacred text, but also includes others. Most sutras were written between 200 BCE and 200 CE when Mayahana Buddhism was developed. There are over 2,000 Mahayana sutras. You can find Mahayana Sutras on Buddhanet:  http://www.buddhanet.net/ebooks_ms.htm
  • Vajrayana (Tibetan)  Texts:  In addition to the Pali Canon and Mahayana Sutras (Vajrayana is a mixture of what is known as the “three vehicles”), Vajrayana Buddhists also study Indian “Tantric” texts and techniques (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tantra_techniques_(Vajrayana)).
  • Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol):  Although not all of the Vajrayana (Tibetan) scripture, it is perhaps the most well known.  This book explains the stages of death, specifically from the Tibetan Buddhism viewpoint. This includes 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

There are three “core texts” as they relate to Chinese Buddhism (although you will find other schools using these sutras as well):

The Diamond Sutra is perhaps the most well known, and recited, among Buddhists.  As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains it:

The Diamond Sutra relates a series of questions and answers that take place between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti, regarded as the Buddha’s foremost disciple in understanding emptiness.  Their dialog expounds on the empty nature of prajna, and asserts that “all phenomena lack an inherent self” and “all phenomena are transient.”  Once we thoroughly understand emptiness, this understanding will benefit us and allow us to be successful in whatever we do, in both worldly and spiritual pursuits.

If you want to learn more about the Diamond Sutra, I highly recommend Ven. Master Hsing Yun’s book “Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment: A practical Guide to the Buddha’s Diamond Sutra“.  Not only does it include commentary and explanation, but you also get the full sutra.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains the Diamond Sutra in this video.  The video has audio in two languages, so use some earbuds with left being for English, and right for French:

Yeah, But Did The Buddha Say That?

How can you know if a Buddhist teaching or scripture is a ‘genuine’ teaching?  You can know if a Buddhist teaching is ‘true’ by ensuring it is in accordance with the Three Dharma Seals.  If a teaching was not by the Buddha, but is in accordance with all Three Dharma Seals, it can be considered a Buddhist teaching (at least in Mahayana).

  • All Conditioned Phenomena Are Impermanent
  • All Phenomena Are Without an Independent Self
  • Nirvana is Perfect Tranquility

Often, “Dukkha” will be added to make these the Four Dharma Seals (for traditionalists, there is a reason that Dukkha is not initially included above which is explained in my other article) .  You can learn more about the Three Dharma Seals here:  http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/three-dharma-seals/

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