The sacred text in Theravada Buddhism is the Pali Canon. Preserved in the language of Pali, it was written down from oral tradition onto palm leaves at the Fourth Buddhist Council, 1st century BCE, in Sri Lanka. It was not printed until the 19th century. The Pali Canon contains three categories or pitakas (baskets): the Vinaya Pitaka (dealing with rules for monks and nuns); the Sutta Pitaka (discourse, mostly ascribed to the Buddha, but some to disciples); and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (detailed expansion of the philosophy and psychology found in the suttas). Because of these three baskets the Pali Canon is also known as the Tipitaka – Three baskets. The Vinaya Pitaka deals with rules for the sangha. These rules are preceded by stories explaining how and why the rules were devised as the Buddha encountered behavioural problems and disputes among his followers. The Sutta Pitaka is a collection of tales and discourses of the Buddha. It is divided into five collections or Nikayas: the Digha Nikaya (34 long discourses); the Majjhima Nikaya (152 medium length discourse); the Samyutta Nikaya (thousands of short discourses); the Anguttara Nikaya (thousands of short discourses); Khuddaka Nikaya (a miscellaneous collection of prose and verse). The Abhidhamma Pitaka, literally meaning higher dhamma, is a collection of texts which give a systematic philosophical description of the nature of mind, matter and time. This is generally seen as a systemization of the teaching found in the Suttas.
In Mahayana, there is a different collection of sacred texts. Broadly speaking most of the texts were originally written in Sanskrit, although very old Tibetan and Chinese translations exist. Followers of Mahayana have a large number of additional Sutras to Theravada. Mahayana Buddhists claim that these Sutras were heard by monks through meditation after the Parinirvana of the Buddha. The Mahayana Sutras caused some controversy when they began to appear (around the 1st century BCE) as they claim to be the word of the Buddha. However adherents of Mahayana believe that the Sutras are authentic accounts. While there is no Mahayana Canon, some Sutras, like those contained in the Perfection of Wisdom literature (e.g. the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra) are considered fundamental to most Mahayana traditions. They advocate the Mahayana goal of Buddhahood, the path of the bodhisattva that leads to it, compassion and ideas on emptiness.
As Buddhist texts contain the teachings of the Buddha they are usually studied academically. In the past this tended to be the reserve of the Sangha who would then pass the teachings on to lay Buddhists. However, in the last 200 years the texts have become much more widely available in many more languages. This means that lay Buddhists also now have the opportunity to study these texts. In the context of worship, the texts are often chanted. This not only keeps up the oral tradition, but can aid understanding of the texts through repetition. Listening to the sound of chanting, as well as participating in it, is also an excellent way to still the mind and should therefore be viewed as a form of meditation. Many Mahayana texts are self-glorifying and so are highly revered by Mahayana Buddhists. They are often chanted as ways of generating merit or as ways of warding off evil.
The Pali Canon is preserved in the Pali language while the Mahayana Sutras are preserved in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan. In all of the texts specialist Buddhist language is used: e.g. kamma / karma, anatta / anitya, bodhisattva etc. However, language in the abhidhamma / abhidharma particularly is sometimes very specialist. Buddhism teaches that there are two levels of truth – conventional and ultimate. For example, when one speaks in terms of “I”, “self” etc, one is speaking conventionally. The abhidhamma / abhidharma attempts to speak ultimately by breaking things down into their constituent parts. Thus instead of speaking of e.g. Jane Smith, the abhidhamma / abhidharma tries to describe the interacting things that make the “continuum” that appears as Jane Smith.
After the emergence of the Mahayana Sutras, Buddhists texts have remained fairly static. However, an important addition to the Pali Canon is the commentaries. These commentaries give the traditional interpretations of the scriptures. The major commentaries were based on earlier ones, now lost, in Old Sinhalese, which were written down at the same time as the Canon, in the last century BCE. Two of the most important commentaries are Buddhagosa’s Visudimagga (5th century CE) and Dharmapala’s commentary (sometime before the 10th century CE).