An Overview of Buddhist Scriptures

Understanding the Perplexing Variety of Buddhist Scriptures

India, Ladakh, Phyang Gompa monastery, young monks (8-9, 10-11, 12-13) sitting cross-legged studying scriptures, side view
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Is there a Buddhist Bible? Not exactly. Buddhism has a vast number of scriptures, but few texts are accepted as authentic and authoritative by every school of Buddhism.

There is one other reason that there is no Buddhist Bible. Many religions consider their scriptures to be the revealed word of God or gods. In Buddhism, however, it is understood that the scriptures are teachings of the historical Buddha - who was not a god - or other enlightened masters.

The teachings in Buddhist scriptures are directions for practice, or how to realize enlightenment for oneself. What's important is to understand and practice what the texts are teaching, not just "believe in" them.

Types of Buddhist Scripture

Many scriptures are called "sutras" in Sanskrit or "sutta" in Pali. The word sutra or sutta means "thread." The word "sutra" in the title of a text indicates the work is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his major disciples. However, as I will explain later, many sutras probably have other origins.

Sutras come in many sizes. Some are book length, some are only a few lines. No one seems willing to guess how many sutras there might be if you piled every individual one from every canon and collection into a pile. A lot.

Not all scriptures are sutras. Beyond the sutras, there are also commentaries, rules for monks and nuns, fables about the lives of the Buddha, and many other kinds of texts also considered to be "scripture."

Theravada and Mahayana Canons

About two millennia ago, Buddhism split into two major schools, called today Theravada and Mahayana. Buddhist scriptures are associated with one or the other, divided into Theravada and Mahayana canons.

Theravadins do not consider the Mahayana scriptures to be authentic. Mahayana Buddhists, on the whole, consider the Theravada canon to be authentic, but in some cases, Mahayana Buddhists think some of their scriptures have superseded the Theravada canon in authority.

Or, they are going by different versions than the version Theravada goes by.

Theravada Buddhist Scriptures

The scriptures of the Theravada school are collected in a work called the Pali Tipitaka or Pali Canon. The Pali word Tipitaka means "three baskets," which indicates the Tipitaka is divided into three parts, and each part is a collection of works. The three sections are the basket of sutras (Sutta-pitaka), the basket of discipline (Vinaya-pitaka), and the basket of special teachings (Abhidhamma-pitaka).

The Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka are the recorded sermons of the historical Buddha and the rules he established for the monastic orders. The Abhidhamma-pitaka is a work of analysis and philosophy that is attributed to the Buddha but probably was written a couple of centuries after his Parinirvana.

The Theravadin Pali Tipitika are all in the Pali language. There are versions of these same texts that were recorded in Sanskrit, also, although most of what we have of these are Chinese translations of lost Sanskrit originals. These Sanskrit/Chinese texts are part of the Chinese and Tibetan Canons of Mahayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhist Scriptures

Yes, to add to the confusion, there are two canons of Mahayana scripture, called the Tibetan Canon and Chinese Canon.

There are many texts that appear in both canons, and many that don't. The Tibetan Canon obviously is associated with Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese Canon is more authoritative in east Asia -- China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam.

There is a Sanskrit/Chinese version of the Sutta-pitaka called the Agamas. These are found in the Chinese Canon. There are also a large number of Mahayana sutras that have no counterparts in Theravada. There are myths and stories that associate these Mahayana sutras to the historical Buddha, but historians tell us the works were mostly written between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, and a few even later than that. For the most part, the provenance and authorship of these texts are unknown.

The mysterious origins of these works give rise to questions about their authority.

As I've said Theravada Buddhists disregard the Mahayana scriptures entirely. Among Mahayana Buddhist schools, some continue to associate the Mahayana sutras with the historical Buddha. Others acknowledge that these scriptures were written by unknown authors. But because the deep wisdom and spiritual value of these texts have been apparent to so many generations, they are preserved and revered as sutras anyway.

The Mahayana sutras are thought to have been originally written in Sanskrit, but most of the time the oldest extant versions are Chinese translations, and the original Sanskrit is lost. Some scholars, however, argue that the first Chinese translations are, in fact, the original versions, and their authors claimed to have translated them from Sanskrit to give them more authority.

This list of major Mahayana Sutras is not comprehensive but provides brief explanations of the most important Mahayana sutras. 

Mahayana Buddhists generally accept a different version of the Abhidhamma/Abhidharma called the Sarvastivada Abhidharma. Rather than the Pali Vinaya, Tibetan Buddhism generally follows another version called the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya and the rest of Mahayana generally follows the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. And then there are commentaries, stories, and treatises beyond counting.

The many schools of Mahayana decide for themselves which parts of this treasury are most important, and most schools emphasize only a small handful of sutras and commentaries. But it's not always the same handful. So no, there is no "Buddhist Bible."