History of the Buddhist Canon

Daniel Veidlinger

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
History of the Buddhist Canon

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There are a number of canonical collections in Buddhism rather than a single fixed corpus of texts that all Buddhists regard as “the canon.” The term Tripiṭaka (Sanskrit)/Tipiṭaka (Pāli) refers to the Three Baskets or groups of texts that ideally constitute a canon, which are the Vinaya, Sutta (Pāli)/Sūtra (Sanskrit), and Abhidhamma (Pāli)/Abhidharma (Sanskrit). These are, respectively, the monastic code, the discourses of the Buddha or his disciples, and the psychologically oriented approaches to ontology. Canonical texts are in theory traceable to the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) or his immediate disciples. Mahayana Buddhist groups were able to add later texts to their canons by allowing for a variety of inspired (pratibhāna) utterances to be viewed as authoritative if they taught the true dharma. The earliest extant complete canon is the Pāli Tipiṭaka of the Theravada school, which tradition holds was compiled during a series of councils held by learned monks after the death of the Buddha. This canon was originally transmitted orally and probably written down in the mid-1st century bce in Sri Lanka, achieving its current state by the time Buddhaghosa wrote his commentaries in the 5th-century. There were a number of other early Buddhist groups that maintained canons in various dialects of Middle Indo-Aryan and Sanskrit. The Vinaya texts diverged among the various groups, and the Abhidharma texts, when they were included at all, were quite different as well. Some of these texts are preserved in the Chinese or Tibetan canonical collections, and others have been found in fragmentary manuscript form in caches from the Gandhāran region. Sanskrit and Prakrit texts were brought from India to China starting in the 2nd century and to Tibet in the 7th century, and both regions engendered comprehensive translation projects. In 374 ce the Chinese scholar-monk Daoan compiled the first comprehensive catalog of the several hundred Buddhist texts that had been brought to China. The catalog that set the standard on which Tang-era manuscript editions of the canon were made was the Kaiyuan Shijiao Lu compiled by Zhisheng in 730 ce, listing 1,076 works, including Āgamas (that are similar to the Pāli Nikāyas), Vinaya texts, Abhidharma texts, and Mahayana Sutras. Texts continued to be brought from India and translated even after this period, but the canon was effectively closed once it began to be printed in the 10th century. In Tibet, scholars were faced with a similarly bewildering plethora of texts and perhaps under the inspiration of the Chinese approach, monks at the Narthang (sNar Thaṅ) Monastery organized the texts into two divisions: the Kanjur (Bka’ ’gyur), regarded as the word of the Buddha, and the Tanjur (Bstan ’gyur) that includes commentaries, associated treatises, and ancillary literature. These were printed on woodblocks and therefore essentially fixed in the 14th century.

Article.  7191 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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