Buddhist Scriptures

The sacred book of Buddhism is called the Tripitaka (called Tipitaka in Pali). It is also called the Pali Canon, after the language in which it was first written.

The ancient Indian language, Pali, is very close to the language that the Buddha himself spoke.

Buddhism is based on Buddha’s teachings. At first, these were passed down by word of mouth and later were compiled into two sets of scripture.

  • One set by Council of Monks of the Theravada school (the Tripitaka)
  • The other by the Mahayana school ( the Sutras).

Both are similar in essence

The Tripitaka (three baskets of Wisdom) are split into three sections:

Three Baskets of Wisdom

  1. Vinaya Pitaka (the Discipline Basket) – A rulebook for monks and nuns. There are 227 rules for monks and more for nuns.
  2. Sutta Pitaka (the Teaching Basket)- The actual experiences of Buddha
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka (the Higher Doctrine Basket)- An explanation on the teaching of Buddha. Most of these are called Sutras

Both Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism share very similar texts for first two baskets – Vinaya and Sutta.

One Division

Buddhavacana (the Word of the Buddha) and commentaries by people other than the Buddha

Three types of Scriptures

  1. Sutras (i.e. discourses)
  2. Vinaya (relating to the rules of monastic discipline)
  3. Abhidharma (analytical texts)

Theravada Buddhism claims Pali sutras are closest to actual words of Buddha. Mayahana Buddhist texts are closer to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. (written long after the Buddha’s passing).

Mahayana Sutras

Some 600 Mahayana Sutras have survived in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and/or Tibetan translation. Mahayana Sutras were often said to be secret texts not written down straight away. Some are said to have been written by Boddhisattvas or other Buddhas.

Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism

Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism in addition to containing sutras and vinaya, also contains tantras.

Other Texts

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 Zen and Ch’an school, in particular, rely on non-canonical accounts of Zen masters lives and teachings, for example, the Blue Cliff Record.

Tibetan Buddhist Texts

“Tibetan book of the dead”, is an example of Tibetan scripture written by another Tibetan Master. It is a special class of texts known as the terma.

Pure Land Sutras

They list the forty-eight vows made by Amitabha as a bodhisattva.

Mahayana Shastras

In Buddhism, a shastra is often a commentary written at a later date to explain an earlier scripture or sutra. It is not the words of Buddha, but play a key role in Mahayana Buddhism

Related pages

buddhaBuddhists – Famous Buddhists, including Lord Buddha, Milarepa, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.