Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)

Daniel Veidlinger

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)

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The sutta literature forms the backbone of the dhamma, or teachings of the buddha, according to the Theravada tradition and is the second section of the tripartite collection of Pali canonical texts known as the Tipiṭaka (along with the discipline for the monks called the Vinaya and the psychological-philosophy called the abhidhamma). The sutta collection primarily consists of narratives about or discourses by the buddha, but it also includes stories about or ostensibly by other important figures from early Buddhism, such as the wise monk Sāriputta. The Pali Sutta Piṭaka is divided into five main collections called nikāyas, but it should be noted that there is a lot of repetition across the different nikāyas. The five Nikāyas are the Dīgha Nikāya (a collection of longer narratives and discourses), Majjhima Nikāya (a collection of middle-length narratives and discourses), Saṃyutta Nikāya (shorter texts arranged thematically), Aṅguttara Nikāya (shorter texts arranged by the number of items mentioned within them), and Khuddaka Nikāya (miscellaneous, often shorter, texts). Other early Buddhist schools had the same divisions, generally called āgamas, in their versions of this piṭaka, and some examples survive in Sanskrit and Prākrit manuscripts that have been found in Central Asia as well as in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The only complete Sutta Piṭaka currently known, however, is in Pali, and the texts that became part of this collection were committed to writing in the 1st century bce in Sri Lanka. The suttas were originally transmitted orally, and a vestige of that orality is the fact that they usually commence with the phrase “evaṃ me sutaṃ,” meaning “thus have I heard.” The etymology of the Pali term sutta is unclear; it was later Sanskritized as sutra, but as this refers to a concise, technical piece of prose very different from the suttas. In fact, it is more likely that the word is derived from the Vedic sūkta, which means “that which is well-spoken.” The texts as we have them today were redacted at the Mahāvihāra Monastery in Sri Lanka and took their current form, at the latest, when their great commentaries were written in the 5th century. It is unclear exactly how similar the extant versions are to the very earliest Buddhist texts, but they likely share a lot of elements. There are many metrical verses interspersed throughout the majority prose passages, and it has become clear that there are different strata in the suttas, with shorter metrical texts such as the Sutta-nipāta and the Dhammapada being among the oldest.

Article.  8293 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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