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Buddhist texts
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Buddhist texts

Buddhist texts come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Buddhists place varying value on texts: attitudes range from worship of the text itself, to dismissal of texts as falsification of the ineffable truth.

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Texts can be divided up in a number of ways, but the most fundamental division is between canonical and non-canonical texts. The former are believed to be, either literally or metaphorically, the actual words of the Buddha. The latter are the various commentaries on canonical texts, other treatises on the Dharma as well as collections of quotes, histories, grammars, etc. However it should be remembered that any divisions are arbitrary, and that there will always be texts that cross boundaries, or that belong in more than one category.

Table of contents
1 Canonical texts
2 Non-canonical texts
3 Texts of the Nikaya Schools
4 Mahayana texts
5 Vajrayana Texts
6 See also
7 External links

Canonical texts

These are, in some way or other, associated with Gautama Buddha. Different schools, however, are not always in agreement on which texts are canonical, and the various recensions of the Buddhist Canon contain widely varying numbers and types of texts. Broadly speaking, the texts come in three types: sutras (i.e. discourses), vinaya (relating to the rules of monastic discipline), and abhidharma (analytical texts). Together these three make up what is known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka and in Pali as Tipitaka. Both the sutras and the vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a huge variety of documents including: discourses on the Dharma; commentary on other teachings; cosmological, and cosmogonical texts; stories of the Buddha's former and births; lists.

The Theravada and other Nikaya schools believe, more or less literally, that these texts contain the actual words of the Buddha. The Theravada canon, also known as the Pali Canon after the language it was written in, contains some four million words.

Later texts, such as the Mahayana Sutras, are also considered to be the words of the Buddha, but were transmitted either in secret, via lineages of mythical beings (such as the Nagas), or came directly from other Buddhas or bodhisattvas. Some 600 Mahayana Sutras have survived in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and/or Tibetan translation. The only complete Mahayana Canon surviving is in Chinese translation, though it was originally in Sanskrit. It contains texts from many strands of earlier tradition.

The earliest Mahayana texts were composed in a 'Middle Indo-Āryan' language which was Sanskritised during the Gupta era when Sanskrit became the official language of the Indian court. Most of the Mahayana sutra texts are composed in what is called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, a Middle Indo-Āryan; Prakrit with ornaments and flourishes designed to imitate Sanskrit. Some later Buddhist texts, particularly those originating at the university at Nalanda, where composed in true Sanskrit.

The Tibetan canon which belongs to the various schools of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, in addition to containing the earlier three classes of texts, also contain tantric texts, and commentaries on them.

The division of texts into the traditional three yanas may obscure the process of development that went on. For instance there are so-called proto-Mahayana texts, such as the Ajitasena Sutra which are missing key features which are associated with Mahayana texts. Some Pali texts also contain ideas that later became synonymous with the Mahayana. Some Mahayana texts are also thought to display a distinctly tantric character - particularly some of the shorter Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. An early tantric, the Mahavairocana Adhisambodhi Tantra, is also known as the Mahavairocana Sutra.

Some Buddhist texts evolved to become a virtual canon in themselves, and are referred to as vaipulya or extensive sutras. Scholars think for instance that the Golden Light Sutra constellated around the celebrated third chapter. The Avatamsaka Sutra is another example of a single Sutra made up of many other sutras, many of which, particularly the Gandhavyuha Sutra still circulate as separate texts. The Avatamsaka Sutra and the White Lotus Sutra are associated with the idea of the Ekayana or One Vehicle. The texts claim to unify all the teachings that have come before into a greater whole.

Shingon Buddhism developed a system which assigned authorship of the early sutras to Gautama Buddha in his physical manifestation; of the Ekayana sutras to the Buddhas as Sambhoghakaya; and the Vajrayana texts to the Buddha as Dharmakaya.

Non-canonical texts

Non or semi-canonical texts have been important from very early in Buddhism. Extensive commentaries exist in Pali for the Pali Canon and in Tibetan, Chinese and other East Asian Languages.

Important examples of non-canonical texts are the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, by Buddhaghosa, which is a compendium of Theravada teachings that include quotes from the Pali Canon. The Milinda Pa˝ha, or Questions of Milinda, is a popular condensation of the Dharma in the form of a dialogue between the Buddhist sage Nāgasena; and the Indo-Greek King Menander (Pali: Milinda).

Ashvaghosa's treatise The Arising of Faith in the Mahayana has been an influential text in the Mahayana. Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara has been influential in both Mahayana and Vajrayana, and his Shikshasamucaya contains references to texts which are no longer extant in any other form.

The Platform Sutra of Huineng might be considered a semi-canonical text, it is one of a very few texts not thought to be spoken by the Buddha that has the label "sutra". One should note, however, that this distinction may be an artifact of translation: in the original Chinese, the Platform Sutra is a jīng (經), a term that may be translated as "sutra", but is also applied to a variety of other classic texts, such as the Daodejing and the Shi Jing. In the Platform Sutra, Hui Neng gives an autobiographical account of his succession as Zen Patriarch, as well as teachings about Zen theory and practice. The Zen and Ch'an school in particular rely on non-canonical accounts of Zen masters lives and teachings, for example the Blue Cliff Records.

Tibetan Buddhism has a unique and special class of texts called terma (Tibetan gTer-ma). These are texts which were composed but hidden to be rediscovered at some later date. Termas are discovered by a tert÷n (Tibetan gTer-stons) whose special function it is to discover these texts. Some termas are hidden in caves or similar places, but a few are said to be 'mind termas' which are 'discovered' in the mind of the tert÷n. The Nyingma school has a large terma literature. Many of the terma texts are said to have been written by Padmasambhava who is particularly important to the Nyingmas. Probably the best known terma text is the so-called "Tibetan book of the dead", the Bardo thodol.

Other types of non-canonical texts which have been important are the histories of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa.

Texts of the Nikaya Schools

There is some dispute over what to call the more conservative stratum of Buddhist schools and the texts associated with them. The most widely used term is Hinayana, but this is often seen as unsatisfactory for several reasons (see Hinayana). This article will use the phrase "Nikaya schools", which refers to the class of sutras they consider to be canonical. These sutras are sometimes referred to by members of other schools as nikayas or agamas.

Although many versions of the Nikaya school texts were written in Sanskrit, the only complete canon to survive is that of the Theravadin school, which preserved the texts in the Pali language. The Pali literature divides into roughly three periods. The early, or classical period begins with the Tipitika and ends with the Milindha-pa˝ha about 1BCE. After a period of decline Pali underwent a renaissance in the 4th century with the help of Buddhaghosa, which lasted until the 12th Century. The third period coincides with major political changes in Burma and lasted for several centuries in Sri Lanka, and much longer in Burma.


The vinaya literature is primarily concerned with aspects of the monastic discipline. However vinaya as a term is also contrasted with Dharma where the pair mean something like doctrine and method. The vinaya literature in fact contains a considerable range of texts. There are of course those which discuss the monastic rules, how they came about, how they developed, and how they were applied. But the vinaya also contains doctrinal expositions, ritual and liturgical texts, biographical stories, and the "Jatakas" or birth stories.

Paradoxically the text most closely associated with the vinaya, and the most frequently used portion of it, the Pratimoksha, is not in fact a canonical text at all.

Seven vinayas survive:

The Mahāsanghika Mahāvastu is said to be a vinaya text, but rather than dealing with rules it is an extended biography of the Buddha which it describes in terms of his progression through ten bhumis, or stages. This doctrine was later taken up by the Mahayana in a modified form as Vasubandu's Ten Stages Sutra.


The Suttas (in Sanskrit, Sutra) are mostly discourses delivered by the Buddha or one of his close disciples. They are all, even those not actually spoken by him, to be 'Buddhavacana' or the word of the Buddha. The Buddha's discourses were originally organised according to the style in which they were delivered: there were twelve of these:

This scheme was adopted by all the non-Mahayana schools, although the Theravadins leave off the last three. The scheme is also found in Mahayana canons. However sometime later a new scheme of organisation was imposed on the canon, and it this scheme which most people are familiar with. The scheme organises the suttas into:

Long discourses

These range in length up to 95 pages. The Pali Digha-Nikaya contains 34 texts including the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and the Brahmajāla Sutta. The Dīrghāgama of the Dharmagupta also survives in Chinese translation and contains 30 sutras.

Middle length discourses

This contains the rest of the suttas of any length, and the Pali Majjhima Nikaya has 152 suttas. The Madhyamāgama of the Sarvāstivada containing 222 sutras survives in Chinese translation.

Connected discourses

Many short texts connected by theme, setting, or interlocutor. The Pali Samyutta Nikaya contains more than 2,800 suttas. The Samyuktāgama of the Sarvāstivada containing only 1300 sutras survives in Chinese translation.

Numbered discourses

Suttas which have the same number of doctrinal items containing over 2,300 suttas in the Pali Anguttara Nikaya. The Chinese canon contains a Ekottarāgana which is thought to belong to the Mahāsanghika school originally.

Miscellaneous texts

Not all schools had this category, but the Pali Canon has several well known, and loved, texts in this category including:

Many of these texts are available in translation as well as the original language. The Dhammapada for instance has a Pali version, three Chinese versions, a Tibetan version, and a Khotanese version.


Abhidharma (in Pali, Abhidhamma) means further Dharma and is concerned with the analysis of phenomena. It grew initially out of various lists of teachings such as the 37 Bodhipaksika-dharmas or the 37 Factors leading to Awakening. Although canonical, and regarded as the word of the Buddha, modern scholarship has shown that it developed much later, and most of the literature is the product of the two centuries after Ashoka (1st Century CE).

The Theravada Abhidhamma survives in the Pali Canon. A Sarvastivada Abhidharma composed in Sanskrit, survives in Chinese and Tibetan traditions.

The Abhidharma literature is chiefly concerned with the analysis of phenomena and the relationships between them. Outside of the Theravada monasteries the Pali Abhidharma texts are not well known.

Not all schools accepted the Abhidharma as canonical. The Sautrāntika, for instance, held that the canon stopped with the vinaya and sutras. The rejection of some schools that dharmas (i.e. phenomena) are ultimately real, which the Theravada Abhidhamma, for instance, insists, is thought to be an important factor in the origin of the Mahayana.

Non-canonical texts

The first important, non-canonical text is probably the Milinda pa˝ha (literally The Questions of Milinda). This text is in the form of a dialogue between the Buddha's disciple Nagasena, and the Indo-Greek King Menander (Pali: Milinda). It is a compendium of doctrine, and covers a range of subjects.

The Pali texts have an extensive commentarial literature which remains largely untranslated. These are largely attributed to Buddhaghosa. There are also sub-commentaries or commentaries on the commentaries.

Buddhagosa was also the author of the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, which is a manual of doctrine and practice according to the Theravada school.

Mahayana texts

See Mahayana Sutras for a list of sutras categorised by source, without discussion.

Perfection of Wisdom Texts

Deal with j˝ana or wisdom. Wisdom in this context means the ability to see Reality as it truly is. Do not contain an elaborate philosophical argument, but simply try to point to the true nature of reality, especially through the use of paradox. The basic premise is a radical non-dualism, in which every, and any dichotomist way of seeing things are denied: so phenomena are neither existent, nor non-existent, but are marked by sunyata, emptiness, an absence of any essential unchanging nature. The Perfection of Wisdom in One letter illustrates this approach by choosing to represent the perfection of wisdom with the Sanskrit short 'a' vowel, which when appended to a word, gives it the opposite meaning.

Many sutras are known by the number of lines or slokas that they contained.

Edward Conze, who translated all of the Perfection of Wisdom into English, identified four periods of development in this literature.

  1. 100BCE-100CE: Ratnagunasamcayagatha and the Asstasaharika (8000 lines)
  2. 100-300CE: a period of elaboration in which versions in 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines are produced. Possibly also the Diamond Sutra
  3. 300-500CE : a period of condensation, producing the well known Heart Sutra, and the Perfection of Wisdom in one letter
  4. 500-1000CE : texts from this period begin to show a tantric influence.

The Perfection of Wisdom texts have influenced every Mahayana school of Buddhism.

Saddharma-pundarika or White Lotus Sutra

Probably composed in the period 100BCE-100CE, the White Lotus proposes that the three yanas (Shravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana, and Bodhisattvayana) are not in fact three different paths leading to three goals, but one path, with one goal. The earlier teachings are said to be 'skilful means' in order to help beings of limited capacities. Notable for the (re)appearance of the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who had died several aeons earlier, because it suggests that a Buddha is not inaccessible after his parinirvana, and also that his life-span is said to be inconceivably long die to the accumulation of merit in past lives. This idea, though not necessarily from this source, forms the basis of the later Trikaya doctrine. Later associated particularly with the Tien Tai (Jp. Tendai) school, and with the Nichiren Shoshu school.

Pure Land Sutras

There are three major sutras which fall into this category: the Infinite Life Sutra, also known as the Larger Pure Land Sutra; the Amitabha Sutra, also known as the Smaller Pure Land Sutra; and the Contemplation Sutra or Visualization Sutra. These texts describe the origins and nature of the Western Pure Land in which the Buddha Amitabha resides. They list the forty-six vows made by Amitabha as a bodhisattva by which he undertook to build a Pure Land where beings are able to practise the Dharma without difficulty or distraction. The sutras state that beings can be reborn there by pure conduct and by practices such as thinking continuously of Amitabha, praising him, recounting his virtues, and chanting his name. These Pure Land sutras and the practices they recommend became the foundations of Pure Land Buddhism, which focus on the salvific power of faith in the vows of Amitabha.

The Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra

Composed some time before 150CE. The Bodhisattva Vimalakirti appears in the guise of a layman in order to teach the Dharma. Seen by some as a strong assertion of the value of lay practice. Doctrinally similar to the Perfection of Wisdom texts, another major theme is the Buddhafield (Buddha-kshetra) which was influential on Pure Land schools. Very popular in China and Japan where it was seen as being compatible with Confucian values.

Samadhi Sutras

Amongst the very earliest Mahayana texts, the Samadhi Sutras are a collection of sutras which focus on the attainment of profound states of consciousness reached in meditation, perhaps suggesting that meditation played an important role in early Mahayana. Includes the Pratyutpanna Sutra and the Shurangama-samadhi Sutra

Confession Sutras

The Triskandha Sutra, and the Suvarnaprabhasa Sutra (or Golden Light Sutra) which focus on the practice of confession of faults. The Golden Light Sutra became especially influential in Japan where one of its chapters, on the Universal Sovereign, was used by the Japan Emperors in legitimise their rule, and it provided a model for the well run state.

The Avatamsaka Sutra

A large composite text of which several parts, notably the Dasabhumika Sutra, and the Gandhavyuha Sutra. Probably reached its current form by about the 4th Century CE, although parts of it such as those mentioned above, are thought to date from the 1st or 2nd century CE. The Gandhavyuha sutra is thought to be the source of a cult of Vairocana that later gave rise to the Mahavairocana-adhisambodhi tantra which became one of two central texts in Shingon Buddhism, and is included in the Tibetan canon as a carya class tantra. The Avatamsaka Sutra became the central text for the Hua-yen (Jp. Kegon) school of Buddhism, the most important doctrine of which is the interpenetration of all phenomena.

Idealist Sutras

Sutras which teach the doctrine of 'cittaamattra' or mind only, which is associated with the Yogacara school. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra (c 2nd Century CE) is the earliest sutra in this class. The well known Lankavatara Sutra was composed sometime around the 4th Century CE. These sutras, especially the Lankavatara were influential on the Ch'an or Zen schools.

Tathagatagarbha class sutras

Especially the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Shriimaalaadeviisimhanaada Sutra and the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (which is very different in character from the Pali Mahaparinirvana Sutta). These texts teach that every being has a Tathagatagarbha: variously translated as Buddha nature, Buddha seed, Buddha matrix. It is this Buddha nature, this aspect of every being which is itself already enlightened which enables beings to be liberated. One of the most important responses of Buddhism to the problem of immanence and transcendence. The Tathagatagarbha doctrine was very influential in East Asian Buddhism, and the idea in one form or another can be found in most of it's schools.

Collected Sutras

Two very large sutras which are again actually collections of other sutras. The Maharatnakuta Sutra contains 49 individual works, and the Mahaasamnipaata Sutra is a collection of 17 shorter works. Both seem to have been finalised about the 5th century, although some parts of them are considerably older.

Transmigration Sutras

A number of sutras which focus on the actions which lead to existence in the various spheres of existence, or which expound the doctrine of the twelve links of pratitya-samutpada or dependent-origination.

Discipline Sutras

Sutras which focus on the principles which guide the behaviour of Bodhisattvas. Including the Kaashyapa-parivata Sutra, the Bodhisattva-praatimoksa Sutra, and the Brahmajaala Sutra.

Sutras Devoted to Individual Figures

A large number of sutras which describe the nature and virtues of a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva and/or their Pure Land, including Ma˝jusri, Ksitigarbha, the Buddha Akshobhya, and Bhaishajyaguru also known as the Medicine Buddha.

Proto-Mahayana Sutras

Early in the 20th Century a cache of texts was found in a mound near Gilgit, Afghanistan. Amongst them was the Ajitasenavyaakarananirdesha Sutra. The Ajitasena Sutra appears to be a mixture of Mahayana and pre-Mahayana ideas. It occurs in a world where monasticism is the norm, which is typical of the Pali Suttas; there is none of the usual antagonism towards the Shravakas (also called the Hinayana) or the notion of Arahantship which is typical of Mahayana Sutras such as the White Lotus, or Vimalakirti Nirdesha. However the sutra also has an Arahant seeing all the Buddha fields, it is said that reciting the name of the sutra will save beings from suffering, and the hell realms, and a meditative practice is described which allows the practitioner to see with the eyes of a Buddha, and to receive teachings from them: which are very much typical of Mahayana Sutras.

Non-canonical texts

The Mahayana commentarial and exegetical literature is vast, and in many cases the texts have an importance which outweighs canonical texts.

The Mūlamadhyamika-karikā;, or Root Verses on the Middle Way, by Nagarjuna is a seminal text on the Madhyamika philosophy, shares much of the same subject matter as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, although it is not strict a commentary on them.

The 9th Century Indian Buddhist Shantideva produced two texts: the Bodhicaryāvatāra has been a strong influence in many schools of the Mahayana. It is notably a favourite text of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The text begins with an elaborate ritual worship section, but goes on to expound the six perfections. The 9th chapter is a critique of various views on perfect wisdom from the madhyamika point of view. Shantideva also produced the Shikshasamuccaya which is a compendium of doctrines from a huge range of Mahayana Sutras - some of which are no longer extant and therefore known only through Shantideva's quotes.

Asanga, associated with the Yogacara school of Mahayana thought, is said to have received many texts directly from the Bodhisattva Maitreya in the Tushita god realm including Madhyāntavibhāga, the Mahāyānasūtrālamāra, and the Abhisamayālamkara. He is also said to have personally written the Mahāynasamgraha, the Abhidharmasamucaya (a compendium of Abhidharma thought which became the standard text for many Mahayana schools especially in Tibet), and the Yogācābhūmi (although the latter text appears to have had several authors).

Asanga's brother Vasubandhu wrote a large number of texts associated with the Yogacara including: Trivabhāva-nirdesha, Vimshatika, Trimshika. Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya; although this work predates his conversion to the Mahayana and some scholars speculate that there may have been two Vasubandhus. Most influential in the East Asian Buddhist tradition was probably his Thirty Verses on Consciousness-only.

Dignāga; is associated with a school of Buddhist logic which tried to establish what were valid sources of knowledge (see also Epistemology. He produced the Pram&#nasamuccaya, and later Dharmakirti wrote the Pramānavārttikā which was a commentary and reworking of Dignaga text.

The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana by Ashvaghosha was influential in East Asian Buddhism, especially the Hua-yen school of China, and its Japanese equivalent, Kegon. Ashvaghosha is also celebrated for his plays.


Vajrayana Texts

Buddhist tantras

The canon of the Vajrayana schools includes a number of Nikaya-related texts from a number of the schools, as well as Mahayana sutras. However it is the specifically Vajrayana texts that most strongly characterise it. They are considered to be the word of the Buddha, and the Tibetan Canon contains translations of almost 500 tantras and over 2000 commentaries to them. The texts are typically concerned with elaborate rituals and meditations.

A late Tibetan tradition has imposed a four-fold classification on what was probably a more complex reality. The four classes are:

Kriyā tantras. These form a large subgroup which appeared between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE. The Kriya tantras are concerned with secular goals, such as rain making. Each centres around a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva, and many are based around dharanis. Examples include the Mahāmegha Sutra, the āryama˝jushrīmūlakalpa, the Subhāpariprcchā Sutra, and the Aparimitāyurj˝ānahrdayadhāranī.

Carya tantras. This is a small class of texts that probably emerged after the 6th century. Entirely centred on the worship of the Buddha Vairocana. The best known example is the Mahāvairocanābhisambodhi Tantra (aka Mahavairocana Sutra) which became a foundational text for the Shingon School of Japan.

Yoga tantras likewise focus on Vairocana, and include the Srvatathāgatatattvasamgraha Tantra, the Sarvadurgatiparishodhana Tantra, and the Ma˝jusrināmasamgīti

Anuttara tantras. These seem to include at least two categories of tantras that were distinct, and which saw themselves as superseding previous tantras.

Textual evidence suggests that some of these texts are in fact Shaivite Tantras adopted and adapted to Buddhist purposes, and many similarities in iconography and ritual can be seen in them.

Other products of the Vajrayana literature

The Sādhanamālā is a collection of Sādhanas or spiritual practices

Vajrayana adepts, known as siddhas, often expounded their teachings in the form of songs. Collections of these songs such as the Caryāgīti which is a collection of songs by various 'siddhas' are popular; the Dohakosha is a collection of songs by the siddha Saraha from the 9th century. A collection known in English as The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa is also popular.

Terma texts are hidden to be rediscovered at a later date. Padmasambhava wrote, and hid, many termas. The best known terma text is probably the Bardo thodol, Awakening in the Bardo State, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The person who finds a terma text is known as a terton.

Kukai wrote a number of treatises on Vajrayana Buddhism which are distinctive to his Shingon Buddhism.

See also

External links