Essay on Canonical Literature Practiced in Buddhism

With the exception of the Pali Canon, the actual writing down of which took place in Ceylon, and certain Mahayana sutras that may have been composed in Central Asia or even in China, the canonical literature of Buddhism is of exclusively Indian provenance. Where, when, and in what circumstances the thousands of individual texts of which it consists were first committed to writ­ing is in most cases unknown.

All that can be affirmed with certainty is that the canonical literature came into existence over a period of roughly a thousand years, from the first to the tenth century of the Christian era, as a series of deposits from the oral tradition, the tendency apparently being for the more exoteric teachings to be committed to writing before the more esoteric ones.

Even during the period of oral tradition the complete words of the Buddha were referred to as the Tripitaka, the three ‘baskets’ or collections of the Buddha’s words. These three are the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutra Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka. Together with the Tantras they make up the four chief divisions of the canonical writings.

The word vinaya, meaning ‘that which leads away from (evil)’, stands for the practical or disciplinary aspect of Buddhism, and the Vinaya Pitaka com­prises the Collection of (Monastic) Discipline. In the form in which it is now extant it consists essentially of two parts, the Vinaya-vibhanga and the Vinaya-vastu, together with historical and catechetical supplements.


The Vinaya-vibhanga or ‘Exposition of the Vinaya’ contains the Pratimoksha- sutra in 150 articles and its commentary the Sutra-vibhanga, one work being embedded in the other. While the former embodies the various categories of rules binding upon members of the eremitical Sangha, the latter gives a word- for-word explanation of each rule and narrates the circumstances in which it came to be promulgated.

The Vinaya-vastu contains the Skandhakas or ‘The Chapters’, of which there are seventeen or more according to the individual recension. These comprise the complete institutes of coenobitical monastic- ism, and deal with such topics as ordination, the Poshadha or fortnightly meeting, the rains residence, medicine and food, robes, dwellings, and schism. Inter alia the Vinaya Pitaka records not only the regular of the monastic life but also, in the words of the pioneer scholar Csoma de Koros, ‘the manners, customs, opinions, knowledge, ignorance, superstition, hopes, and fears of a great part of Asia especially of India in former ages’.’

Buddhism, a Quick Intro

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Together with the Sutra Pitaka it is one of our richest sources of information on the civilization and culture, the history, geography, sociology, and religion of India at about the time of the Buddha. In the Buddhist world there are now extant seven complete recensions of this collection, one in Pali and six from Sanskrit.


These are essentially alternative arrangements of the same basic material and differ mainly in the extent to which non-monastic matter has been incorpor­ated. The existence, however, of the Mahavastu Avadana, a bulky Vinaya work of the Lokottaravadins (a sub-sect of the Mahasanghikas) which is not a dis­ciplinary work at all but a life of the Buddha in which numerous legends have been inserted, suggests that the original nucleus of the Vinaya was a primitive biography of the Buddha in which the monastic elements themselves were a later, though still very early, interpolation.

The sutra, literally a thread, and hence by extension of meaning the ‘thread’ of discourse connecting a number of topics, is perhaps the most important and characteristic of all Buddhist literary genres. It is essentially a religious discourse delivered by the Buddha as it were ex cathedra to one or more dis­ciples, whether members of the Sangha, Bodhisattvas, lay devotees, ordinary people, or gods. The Sutra Pitaka is thus the Collection of Discourses, and constitutes the principal source of our knowledge of the Dharma. Some dis­courses are either partly or wholly in dialogue form.

Others are delivered not by the Buddha but by disciples speaking either with his approval or under his inspiration. Broadly speaking the sutras belong to two groups, Hinayana and Mahayana, the latter being those discourses which were not recognized as authentic by the followers of the Hinayana schools, though the converse was not the case. The Hinayana sutras comprise four great collections known as Agamas in Sanskrit and Nikayas in Pali.

The Dirghagama (Digha Nikaya) or ‘Long’ collection contains, as its name suggests, the lengthy discourses, thirty in number, while the Madhyamagama (Majjhima Nikaya) or ‘Middle’ collec­tion contains those of medium length, of which there are about five times as many. These collections are the most important.


The Samyuktagama (Samyut- ta Nikaya) or ‘Grouped’ collection contains some thousands of very short sutras arranged according to subject, and the Ekottaragama (Anguttara Nikaya) or ‘Numerical’ collection a similar number of texts arranged according to the progressive numerical value of the terms and topics dealt with. Both collec­tions draw partly on the first two Agamas and partly from original, sometimes extremely ancient, sources.

The Pali Canon also contains a Khuddaka Nikaya Quoted A. C. Banerjee, (Sarvastivada Literature, Calcutta, I957) P- 79 or ‘Minor’ collection, consisting of works such as the Dhammapada, the Thera- and Theri-gatha, and the Jatakas, which are found in Sanskrit, either elsewhere in the Canon, mostly in the Vinaya Pitaka, or outside it as inde­pendent quasi-canonical works.

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