Buddhist Literature

Buddhist Text
Burmese-Pali manuscript copy of the Buddhist text Mahaniddesa
There is a great variety of text in Buddhist literature. However, not all of the text holds the same kind of respect and command from the Buddhist community. There are text which are revered to the status of a holy book, and there is a plethora of the text which finds no mention.

Oral literature

The Gautama Buddha himself does not write any text and there was no effort made by any of his disciples to record his teachings in written form. If there was any writing, it was unable to survive the test of time. His teachigs were oral. He taught for forty five years. The language used by him is said to be Magadhi Prakrit. The Sangha memorized his teachings, and these teachings were recited at special occassions. The teachings were rehearsed and authenticated at the First Buddhist Council, Rajgir, under the patronage of Magadha King Ajatshatru with Mahakasypa as the Chief around 400 BCE after the death of the Buddha. The main objective of council was to preserve teachings of Buddha (suttas) and monastic rules (vinaya), presumably set by him. Ananda recited the Suttas and Upali recited the Vinaya.

Pali Canon

The first serious effort to record the teachings of Buddha in written form was made at the Fourth Buddhist Council in Tambapanni, Sri Lanka. It was a collective effort by monks of Theravada traditions. The writing was in three sections: Vinaya Pitaka (discipline), Sutta Pitaka (discourses) and Abidhamma Pitaka (philosophical doctrines). Collectively, these three texts came to be known as the Tipitaka, or the three baskets of knowledge.

Vinaya Pitaka
The Vinaya Pitaka contains monastic rules for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. There are 227 rules for bhikkhus and 331 rules for bhikkhunis. The Vinaya Pitaka is divided in three parts: 1. Suttavibhanga, 2. Khandhaka and 3. Parivāra.

Suttavibhanga contains the rules for monastic life. In addition to these rules, it also contains the commentary, stories and exceptions associated with these rules.

Khandhaka, again, divided into two parts: Mahāvagga and Cullavaga. Mahavagga contains the accounts of Buddhas and his ten principle disciples awakening. On the other hand, Cullavagga contains the accounts of first and second councils and the establishment of bhikkhuni community. It also contains the rules to address the offences.

Parivāra includes the summary and analyses of the various rules identified in the Vinaya Pitaka's first two books.

Sutta Pitaka
The Sutta Pitaka consists of main teachings of Buddha and his principle disciples. There are more than 10000 suttas attributed to them. These suttas are divided into five nikayas: 1. Digha Nikāya 2. Majjhima Nikāya, 3. Samyutta Nikaya, 4. Anguttara Nikāya and 5. Khuddaka Nikāya.

Digha Nikāya: There are 34 long suttas in this collection. These long suttas deals with topics of mindfulness, life, and the last day of the Gautama Buddha.

Majjhima Nikāya: There are 152 majjhima (medium length) suttas in this nikāya. These suttas deals with topics of one's body, mind, and kamma (sexual desires).

Samyutta Nikāya: There are 2889 suttas with commentaries give the number 7762. The suttas are grouped under five vaggas, and each vagga then further divided into samyuttas.

Anguttara Nikāya: Anguttara, literally, means "increased by one collection" or "numerical collection". The nikaya again contains shorts suttas attributed to the Gautama Buddha and his disciples.

Khuddaka Nikāya
: It is heterogenous mix of sermons, doctrines, and poetry attributed to the Gautama Buddha and his disciples. It consists of fifteen to eighteen books in different editions on various topics attributed to the Gautama Buddha and his disciples.

The eighteen books are 1. Khuddakapatha, 2. Dhammapada, 3. Udana, 4. Itivuttaka, 5. Suttanipata, 6. Vimanavatthu, 7. Petavatthu, 8. Theragatha, 9. Therigatha, 10. Jataka, 11. Niddesa, 12. Patisambhidamagga, 13. Apadana, 14. Buddhavamsa, 15. Cariyapitaka, 16. Nettipakarana, 17. Petakopadesa, and 18. Milindapanha.

The first fifteen books are included in Thai editions. The Nettipakarana and Petakopadesa along with first fiteen books are included in Sinhelese editions, and all of them are included in Burmese edition.

Abhidamma Pitaka
Abhidamma Pitaka is the last of three Pitakas. It is known as the basket of higher doctrines. It contains detailed analyses and summary of the Gautama Buddha's teachings. It consists seven books: 1. Dhammasangani, 2. Vibhanga, 3. Dhātukathā, 4. Puggalapannatti, 5. Kathāvatthu, 6. Yamaka, and 7. Patthana.

Sanskrit Canon

There were also some efforts to record teachings of Buddha in Sanskrit were made by the Buddhist bhikkhus of Sarvastivada tradition. In the Fourth Buddhist Council, separate from Sinhelese Buddhist Council, under the patronage of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, in 78 AD at Kundalban in Kashmir, more than five hundreds bikkhus to systematize the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma texts, which was translated from earlier Prakrit (Gandhari) text.

The Sanskrit Canon displayed the same three divisions as the Pali Canon: 1. Vinaya Vaibasha, 2. Sutra Vaibasha, and 3. Abhidharma Vaibasha.

The Sanskrit cannon does not exist in complete form in India. However, it exists in translation in Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan.

Mahayana Texts

With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, new sutras came into the light. The teachings written in the Sanskrit canon were incoporated in Mahayana tradition and new sutras were based on the existing text. Currently, there are one hundred Mahayana sutras survived either in Sanskrit, Chinese, or Tibetan.

Four of the most popular Mahayana sutras are: 1. Prajnaparamita Sutras (Perfection Sutra) which teaches about concept of Sunya (nothingness); 2. Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) which emphasizes all the different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one Dharma; 3. Vimalakirti Sutra which explains (or instructs) how a commoner can become a boddhisattva; and 4. Sukhavati Sutra which explains Buddha's amida is open to all.

Other important Mahayana sutras are Pure Land Sutras, Samadhi Sutras, Confession Sutras, Avatamsaka Sutra, Sandhinirmocana Sutra, Tathagatagarbha Sutra, Mahāsamnipāta Sūtra, Mahāratnakūta Sūtra, and Brahmajala Sutra.

Mahayana tradition also has a vast source of commentarial and exegetical texts. Some commentarial texts are even called Shastra. Some examples are  Mahāyāna-samgraha, Abhidharma-samuccaya, Pramāna-samuccaya, and the Pramāna-vārttikā.

Buddhist Tantric Texts

With the rise of Tantric tradition in Buddhism, the first texts of the new tradtion appeared during the age of Gupta dynasty around late 4th century.

The tantric text came to Tibet in two waves. First in 8th century and then in 11th century. The text under first wave is known Nyingma Gyubum and second wave as Sarma.

The text is categorized under: 1. Kriyayoga, 2. Charyayoga, 3. Yogatantra, 4. Mahayoga, 5. Anuyoga, and 6. Atiyoga. First three are known as the Outer tantras and last three are known as Inner tantras.

Chinese, Korean and Japanese Texts

The Buddhism first entered China around 1st century BC. The development of the Buddhism in China is one of the greatest achievements of the human history. The Chinese Canon is the translated work of Sanskrit Canon. It again divided into Vinaya, Sutra and Abhidharma Pitakas with some original Chinese Sutras. The oldest printed book in existence is the Diamond Sutra dated 868 C.E. The Chinese Tipataka was translated in Korean around 10th century, and in Japanese around 17th century.

Tibetan and Mongolian Canon

The Sanskrit text were translated into Tibetan around 14th century. The Tibetan Buddhist literature can be divided into two parts: Kanjur and Tanjur, and it spread over extensive 333 volumes.

Kanjur includes the Vinaya, Sutra and Abhidharma and also the Tantric texts whereas Tanjur consists of commentaries on the main texts, hymns and also writings on medicine, grammar and so on.

The Tibetan text was later translated by the Mongolian followers around 18th century.