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Buddhist Literature

Buddhist texts come in numerous variety, however not all of them command the same kind of respect from the Buddhist community. There are texts which are respected to an extent of being worshipped.

At the same time, there are other texts that have comparatively less or even miniscule significance for Buddhists.

Major Classification

The most important categorisation that is accepted of Buddhist literature, is between canonical and non canonical texts.

  1. Canonical Texts

Canonical texts are those that are linked to Gautama Buddha in one way or another. Differences however exist among different Buddhist schools as to which texts are canonical. Also, there are a number of revised versions of Buddhist canons as well. Consensus as to which one of them is canonical is also not there.

Canonical texts comprise three different kind of texts – the sutras (discourses), vinaya (discipline) and abhidharma (analytical texts).

Together they are called the The ‘Three Baskets’ or Tipitaka (in Pali language) and Tripitaka (in Sanskrit).

  1. Non Canonical Texts

Non Canonical texts or semi canonical texts have held a significant place for themselves since a long time now. These include commentaries in Pali, Tibetan, Chinese and other East Asian languages on the canonical texts. Apart from this, non canonical texts also include treatise on the dharma, collection of quotations, histories and grammars.

Vinaya: Vinaya texts mostly comprise literatures that deal with monastic discipline. These texts also deal with origin of these rules and their further deveolpment. Apart from monastic rules, the Vinaya texts also include doctrinal expositions, ritual and liturgical texts, biographical stories, and some elements of the “Jatakas”, or birth stories. Other vinaya texts exist in various languages but only in parts.

Sutta/Sutra: These texts are those that include discourses given by the Buddha himself or anyone of his close disciple. These texts are known as Buddhavacana or the word of the Buddha. These discourse were arranged on the basis of the manner in which they were delivered. Originally they were nine, later on became twelve.

A new scheme categorization of Suttas as follows:

  1. Long discourses : The length of these discourses can go upto 95 pages
  2. Medium length Discourses : The contain the rest of the suttas of any length.
  3. Connected Discourses: Comprises short texts connected by theme, setting or intercolour.
  4. Numbered Discourses: Suttas which have the equivalent count of doctrinal items.
  5. Miscellanous text: This section is not found in all Buddhist schools. It is there in the sutta pitaka of the Pali Cannon under Khuddaka Nikaya (collection of little texts)

Abhidharma: Known as Abhidhamma in Pali language, Abhidharma implies ‘further dharma’ and deals with the analysis of phenomena and relationship between them. It originally emerged out of the list of teachings such as the Bodhipaksika-dharmas or the 37 Factors leading to Awakening.
Abhidharma is not taken as canonical by many Buddhist schools.

Some Important Non Canonical Texts

  1. Milinda Panha(The Questions of Milinda) : It is a text that records the dialogue between sage Nagasena and the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Milinda in Pali). Here, in this text, Milinda asks questions regarding Buddhism to the sage. The text is added in some editions of Pali cannon.
  2. The Visuddhimagga(The path to purity) : This is a commentary written in 430 CE by Buddhaghosa in Sri Lanka. It is Theravada Buddhist commentary and rated the most significant Theravada text which is not a part of the Tipitaka canon of scriptures. The text deals with development, from purity of discipline to nibanna.
  3. The treatise Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana: It is a text of Mahayana Buddhism which seeks to harmonise two soteriological philosophies of the tathgatagarbha (or Buddha nature) and layavijñana (or yogacara) into a synthetic vision based on the One Mind in Two Aspects.
  4. The Platform Sutra: A semi canonical text written by Huineng, it is one of those texts the content of which have not been spoken by the Buddha but are still called sutras. Also forming parts of the text are the teachings about the Zen theory and practice.
  5. Bardo Thodol : This is a text that relates the experiences of the consciousness after death and before rebirth. These intermediate period is known as bardo. Terma texts are unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Their uniquness lie in the fact that they were hidden after composition to be discovered at a later period of time.

Mahayana Texts

  1. Perfection of Wisdom Texts:These text deal with prajna or wisdom. Here, wisdom implies an ability to see reality as it is. Without using any long philosophical arguments, these texts try to highlight the true nature of reality, specially through the use of paradox.
  2. Saddharma-pundarika:This texts are also known by the names of Lotus sutras, White Lotus Sutras, Sutras of White Lotus and Sutras on the White Lotus on the Sublime Dharma. According to this text, the three yanas – sh1ravakanya, Pratyekabuddhayana and Bodhisattvayana – are not three different paths leading to three different goals. Rather, they are a single path leading to one goal.
  3. Pure Land Sutras:Three major sutras are important here – the Infinite Life Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra. These Sutras are also known as the Larger Pure Land Sutras, Smaller Pure land Sutras and Visualisation Sutras respectively. These texts detail about the origins and nature of the western Pure Land in which Amitabha Buddha stays. Listed in these sutras are the forty-eight vows taken by Amitabha as a bodhisattva. By the help of these vows, he took upon himself to build a Pure Land where beings can practise dhamma without any disturbance.
  4. The Vimalakriti Nirdesha Sutra: These sutras were composed prior to 150 CE. In it, bodhisattva Vimalakriti teaches dharma in the guise of a common man.
  5. Samadhi Sutras: These sutras are counted amongst the early Mahayana texts and concentrate on the attainment of profound states of consciousness reached in meditation.
  6. Confession Sutras: These sutras foucus on the practice of confession of faults.
  7. The Avatamsaka: It is a large text with a number of parts, most prominent being the Gandhavyuha sutra and the Dasabhunika Sutra.
  8. The Third Turning Sutras: These sutras mostly teach the doctrine of vijnapti-mantra or representation only and are associated with Yogcara School.
  9. Tathhagatagarbha Class Sutra: These texts preach that every human being has a Tathagatagarbha – Buddha nature, Buddha Essence or Buddha principle – which is itself enlightened and further assists them to gain liberation.
  10. Collected Sutras: These are two large sutras composed of other sutras. The two sutras – the Maharatnakuta and Mahasamnipata – are believed to have been finalised by 5th century.
  11. Transmigration: Sutras here expound the doctrine of twelve links of pratiya-samutpada or dependent origin.
  12. Discipline Sutras: These sutras contain principles that guide the behavious of bodhisattvas.
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