The Sutta-pitaka

Earliest Record of the Buddha's Teaching

The Sutta-pitaka, or "basket of suttas [sutras]," contains grouped collections of sermons and sayings of the historical Buddha and his chief disciples.There are more than 10,000 suttas in the Sutta-pitaka. It is the second of three sections of the Tipitaka, the earliest Buddhist scripture.

These talks were not written down during the life of the Buddha (ca. 5th century BCE), but were preserved by being memorized and chanted by generations of monks and nuns.

Buddhist legend says that after the Buddha's death and parinirvana, the Buddha's disciple Ananada was able to recite all of the Buddha's sermons from memory. Other monks who heard Ananda's recitation at the First Buddhist Council confirmed that Ananda's recitation was accurate, and thus the canon of suttas that became the Sutta-pitaka was born.

Most of the time, when we're talking about the Sutta-pitaka we're talking about the Pali version, found in the Pali Tipitika or Pali Canon. Pali is a language closely related to Sanskrit. But Pali was only one of the languages in which the Buddha's teachings were memorized and chanted. Elsewhere in Asia versions of the same suttas were also being preserved in Sanskrit and other languages, and some were eventually written. (Historians are not sure what language the Buddha himself spoke, but it may have been a dialect closely related to Sanskrit and Pali.) We'll talk about these other versions, called the agamas, later in this article.

The Pali Tipitika is said to have been first written on palm leaves in Sri Lanka, late in the 1st century BCE. However, the existing physical copies of the Pali Tipitika are not that old. Scholars believe some parts of today's Pali Tipitka were added long after the 1st century BCE, although exactly what and when is a matter of some dispute.

By comparing texts from different language traditions, and also by examining early Chinese translations, scholars are painstakingly attempting to date the texts in the Pali Tipitika. The ages of the various texts are much disputed, however.

It's probably the case that we'll never be absolutely certain how much of the Sutta-pitaka originated with the historical Buddha. But it's the best record we have of what he taught during his life. The foundational teachings of Buddhism, including the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, were first presented in the Sutta-pitaka.

Today, the Sutta-pitaka is revered and studied primarily by Theravada Buddhists. For the most part, Mahayana Buddhists regard the Sutta-pitaka as historically important, but incomplete. See "Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel" for more explanation of this point.

The Organization of the Sutta-pitaka

One complication with studying the Sutta-pitaka is that the sermons are not organized chronologically, and for the most part they are not organized by topic. Instead, most are grouped by length in one of five nikayas (collections). The list of nikayas below includes the standard abbreviation used in citing texts:

  • Digha Nikaya (DN)-- the "collection of long discourses"
  • Majjhima Nikaya (MN) -- the "collection of middle-length discourses"
  • Samyutta Nikaya (SN)-- the "collection of connected discourses"
  • Anguttara Nikaya (AN)-- the "collection of further-factored discourses"
  • Khuddaka Nikaya -- the "collection of little texts." (These separate texts have their own abbreviations. For example, the abbreviation for the Dhammapada is Dhp.)

See "A Reader's Guide to the Sutta-pitaka" for further explanation of how the nikayas are organized.

The Agamas

Early Sanskrit texts that correspond to the nikayas are called the agamas ("sacred works"). Scholars tell us there was never a single "Sanskrit Canon" corresponding to the Pali Canon. Instead, several separate groups of early Buddhists preserved the sermons in Sanskrit. Most of the time the corresponding Sanskrit and Pali texts are very similar but not exactly the same.

The corresponding nikayas are --

  • The Sanskrit Dirgha Agama corresponds to the Pali Digha Nikaya.
  • The Sanskrit Madhyama Agama corresponds to the Pali Majjhima Nikaya.
  • The Sanskrit Samyukta Agama corresponds to the Pali Samyutta Nikaya.
  • The Sanskrit Ekottara Agama corresponds to the Pali Anguttara Nikaya.

There is no surviving Sanskrit version of the Khuddaka Nikaya. Sections of the other Sanskrit agamas have been lost also, but most of this material has been reconstituted from early Chinese and Tibetan translations.

The Quest for Original Buddhism

The elusive provenance of the Sutta-pitaka can be frustrating to western newcomers to Buddhism. Many of us come out of other religious traditions in which a sacred text, given to mankind by God, has absolute authority. It may be hard to relate to a scripture that may or may not be the accurate words of the Buddha (who, anyway, was not a god).

The first westerners to take an interest in Buddhism were Romanticists and Transcendentalists and followers of various 19th century metaphysical and spiritual movements. They were enthralled with an idea that there once was a pure, perfect, original religion that was lost in the mists of time, and all the religions that survive today are but residue of that religion, buried under centuries of dogma and superstition. Some thought that the Buddha's original teachings might be that pure religion, if only his real teachings could be sifted out from centuries of corruption.

That idea hasn't completely died out even now. However, there is no scholarly support for it. I don't believe anyone can say that the earliest versions of the Sutta-pitaka (and the Buddha's own words) were any less riddled with miracles and myths and supernatural creatures than the later ones.

But Buddhist scriptures, including the Sutta-pitaka, were never intended to be revealed, absolute wisdom. Instead, they are guides to truth, not truth itself. As Zen Buddhists say, the hand pointing to the moon is not the moon.

See also "Buddhist Scriptures: An Overview -- Understanding the Perplexing Variety of Buddhist Scriptures."