Texts (or ‘scriptures’)

One of the earliest accounts of the (historical) Buddha’s life tells that the newly enlightened Buddha did not immediately set out to share his discovery with others because of the great difficulty of explaining what he experienced, but then out of compassion and with the pleading of the gods Brahma and Indra, decided to try, as there might be some who would get it, or some of it. Part of the problem is that the truth or Dharma/Dhamma, enlightenment, nirvana or central ideas such as no-self or emptiness cannot be adequately expressed in words designed only to describe samsaric existence and can only be fully understood by an experiential intuitive grasp, beyond words. If Buddhist teaching seems difficult, it is because only the enlightened can fully comprehend it, and the rest of us do our best to understand as much as we can and teach it to the best of our ability in the hope that it helps someone to some extent.

There is no one Buddhist text that plays the same role in the tradition as the Qur’an or the Bible, so scholars often reject the term ‘scripture’ as misleading and prefer to talk more vaguely of ‘texts’. These are not ‘revelation from God’ or the ‘word of God’, though many are claimed to be the word of Buddha, so have the authority of his enlightenment. Buddhist texts are many. The teaching of the historical Buddha was not written down at the time but memorised by his close disciples, who met after his death to recite all that they remembered (see under Diversity, Change and Continuity). The earliest written versions appear a few centuries later. There are three main collections. The Theravada Pali Canon, written down in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE, is in three sections (Tripitaka/Tipitaka), Sutta (talks given mostly by the Buddha, but a few by leading disciples), Vinaya (monastic discipline, rules and regulations) and Abhidhamma (Buddhist teaching expressed more systematically and philosophically). In book form, it would fill a small bookcase. Most Mahayana texts were originally written in Sanskrit, some of these still exist, others are only found in translation in the Chinese Canon (put together in its current printed form of 2,184 texts around 10th century CE) and Tibetan Canon (current form 14th century CE). These are extensive collections include versions of material found in the Pali Canon, specifically Mahayana sutras (i.e. talks given by the Buddha), the vinayas of now defunct non-Mahayana traditions other than Theravada, commentaries and all sorts of material, including tantras or esoteric texts describing rituals created to speed up the journey to enlightenment. Although the collections in their current form are later, some Mahayana sutras are considered by scholars to be as old as the date at which the Pali Canon was written. Mahayana Buddhists consider that they are ‘the word of the Buddha’, taught when he was alive and kept until the time they were needed. Among the most well known are the Prajnaparamita ‘Perfect Wisdom’ sutras, the Pure Land sutras, and the Lotus Sutra.

One idea is that they were not taught when the Buddha was alive on earth, but seen and heard in meditation visions of Shakyamuni.

Given such a mass of texts, few Buddhists will have read many of them, but rely on interpretations by classical scholars or contemporary teachers. Some Mahayana groups focus on one text only as the most important, others rank the various texts in order of texts for beginners to advanced teaching. In Nichiren Buddhism, chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra is sufficiently powerful. Although words cannot fully capture the truth, and Buddhist texts are not quite like the Bible or Qur’an, they are nevertheless so precious to Buddhists that they have endured great hardships to obtain copies (one historical account of a 7th century Chinese monk who travelled to India to bring back texts was the basis of the well-known 16th century novel Journey to the West, otherwise known as Monkey which has been made into films, TV series, and stage performance). A custom in forms of Tibetan Buddhism is to keep Dharma texts on the highest shelf, even above statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, to express their central importance. As well as canonical texts, Buddhists may read classical and contemporary commentaries and books by the founders of particular Buddhist groups old and new, and the many books written by contemporary Buddhist leaders and scholars.

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