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The Search for Authority: Understanding Buddhist Scriptures

August 7, 2023

Is there a Buddhist Bible? Not precisely. Buddhism contains many scriptures, but few are considered authentic and authoritative by all schools.

Another reason there is no Buddhist Bible. Many religions believe their scriptures are God’s word. In Buddhism, the scriptures are the teachings of the historical Buddha (not a god) or other enlightened teachers.

Buddhist scriptures reveal how to practice and achieve enlightenment. Understand and apply the texts, not just “believe in” them.

Buddhist Scripture Types

Sanskrit “sutras” and Pali “sutta” are several scriptures. The term sutra means “thread.” A text with “sutra” in the title is a Buddha sermon or one of his prominent pupils. However, as we will see, many sutras may have different roots.

Sutras vary in size. Some are books, others a few lines. Everyone seems unwilling to predict how many sutras there might be if you piled them from every canon and collection. A lot.

Not all scriptures are sutras. Beyond sutras, there are commentaries, monk and nun norms, Buddha stories, and other “scripture.”

Mahayana and Theravada Canons

Two millennia ago, Buddhism separated into Theravada and Mahayana schools. Theravada and Mahayana canons divide Buddhist scriptures.

Mahayana scriptures are unauthentic to Theravadins. Mahayana Buddhists generally accept the Theravada canon, but others believe their scriptures are more authoritative. Or, they use different versions than Theravada.

Theravada Buddhist Texts

The Pali Tipitaka or Pali Canon contains Theravada scriptures. Tipitaka means “three baskets,” hence it has three portions, each with a collection of works. The Sutta-pitaka, Vinaya-pitaka, and Abhidhamma-pitaka contain sutras, discipline, and specific teachings.

The Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka include the historical Buddha’s teachings and monastery rules. Abhidhamma-pitaka is a philosophical and analytical book credited to the Buddha but likely authored centuries after his Parinirvana.

Pali is used for all Theravadin Pali Tipitika. Sanskrit copies of these works exist, but most of them are Chinese translations of lost originals. The Chinese and Tibetan Canons of Mahayana Buddhism include these Sanskrit/Chinese scriptures.

Mahayana Buddhist Texts

To further matters, Mahayana scripture has two canons: the Tibetan Canon and the Chinese Canon. Many texts are in both canons and some aren’t. The Tibetan Canon is linked to Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese Canon is more authoritative in East Asia—China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam.

The Agamas is a Sanskrit/Chinese Sutta-pitaka. The Chinese Canon contains these. There are several Mahayana sutras without Theravada counterparts. There are myths and stories linking these Mahayana sutras to the historical Buddha, although historians say they were largely written between the 1st and 5th centuries CE, and a few later. Most of these texts’ provenance and authorship are uncertain.

The obscure origins of these works raise authority problems. As mentioned, Theravada Buddhists ignore Mahayana scriptures. Some Mahayana Buddhist schools link the sutras to the Buddha. Others agree these scriptures were penned by unknown authors. These books are kept and respected as sutras because of their deep wisdom and spiritual worth to so many generations.

The Mahayana sutras were originally written in Sanskrit, but most of the oldest versions are Chinese translations, and the original is lost. However, some academics believe that the initial Chinese translations are the originals and were translated from Sanskrit for authority.

This list of prominent Mahayana Sutras gives concise descriptions of the most essential ones. 

The Sarvastivada Abhidharma is accepted by Mahayana Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism follows the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, while Mahayana follows the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. Beyond counting, there are commentary, stories, and treatises.

The different Mahayana schools choose which sutras and commentaries to highlight, and most prioritize a few. Not always the same handful. There is no “Buddhist Bible.

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