What Is the Main Sacred Writing for Buddhism?

by Chris Deziel
Monks wrote early Buddhist scriptures on leaves and stored them in baskets.

Monks wrote early Buddhist scriptures on leaves and stored them in baskets.

Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

Siddhartha Gautama, or the historical Buddha, taught for 45 years, but none of what he said was transcribed as he spoke it. Instead, it was preserved in the memories of his disciples, who passed it on orally. By the third century B.C., some 200 years after the Buddha died, monks had compiled a collection of writings on leaves and stored them in three separate baskets. They are the earliest and most important collections of Buddhist texts.

The Tripitaka

In Sanskrit, a basket is a pitaka, so tripitaka (tipitaka in Pali, the probable language of the Buddha) means "three baskets." In the first basket, the Vinaya Pitaka, are writings concerning the conduct and everyday lives of the monks of the Buddhist sangha, or community. The second basket, the Sutra Pitaka, contains sermons and teachings of the Buddha, which are divided into five collections, or nikayas. The Dhammapada, a well-known collection of teachings expressed in verse, is part of this pitaka. The third basket, the Abhidharma Pitaka, contains special teachings, songs, poetry, stories about the Buddha and rearrangements of the material in the Sutta Pitaka to present a more organized inquiry into the nature of mind and matter.

The Pali Canon

The Tipitaka is also known as the Pali Canon, and Theravada Buddhists study it along with a collection of paracanonical texts that include commentaries, explanations, historical recollections and amplifications of the material in the scriptures. The fifth-century Indian scholar Buddhaghosa complied these texts, which were originally part of an oral tradition, and translated them into Pali. The Pali Canon forms the doctrinal foundation for Theravada Buddhism, which is the branch of Buddhism that predominates in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries.

Mahayana Sutras

About four centuries after the Buddha died, as monks were transcribing the Pali Canon, a new wave of thought spread through Buddhism, called Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle. With it came a number of sutras that previously hadn't existed, including the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra and The Diamond Sutra. Mahayana departed from Theravada Buddhism in ascribing to Buddha a transcendent, god-like nature, and the Mahayana sutras are presented as a conversation between some divine aspect of the Buddha and a disciple. Together with the Tipitaka, they form part of a Chinese Buddhist canon, which the Japanese also follow.

Vajrayana and Tantra

Vajrayana Buddhists follow a combination of the Pali Canon and the Mahayana Sutras, but they include a study of Tantric texts. These include a vast number of Shaktist Hindu esoteric texts that emphasize the power of the goddess and describe techniques and practices for accelerated spiritual advancement. Some "left-hand" practices can involve magic and ritual sexual exercises. The purpose of Tantra is to conquer desire and thereby escape more quickly from the wheel of life and death. Adherents refer to Vajrayana as the Diamond Vehicle and sometimes simply Tibetan Buddhism. It emerged around the seventh century in India and spread throughout Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia.

About the Author

Chris Deziel specializes in writing about home improvement and the arts and sciences. Deziel is a carpenter with more than 20 years of professional experience, a teacher, musician and online handyman expert. He has a Bachelor of Science in physics and earned a Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills while teaching in Japan.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images