By Thich nu Minh Tam








                                                Buddhist Scriptures

                 I.                   Brief introduction to Buddhism

a)      the founder of Buddhism

b)      the true meaning of the title ‘Buddha’

c)      Buddhist concept about life and world

d)      Buddhist path and final goal

                   II.                Buddhist monastic order

                    a)      Theravada school

b)      Mahayana school

c)      Tantric school


III.             Buddhist scriptures or Buddha’s Teachings

                    a)      definition of scriptures

b)      Buddhist’ concept towards scriptures and its function in Buddhism

c)      Theravada scriptures (Pali canon)

d)      Mahayanist scriptures (Sanskrit& various common languages)

e)      Tibetan scriptures


IV.      Conclusion





  • Conze, Edward: Buddhism: Its Essence and Development

    Penguin Books Ltd. 1969


  • Cabezon, Jose Ignacio: Buddhism and Language: A study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism , Sunny Press 1994


  • Crim, Keith: World Religious Dictionary, Abingdon Press, 1989


  • Dhammananda, K. Sri:  What Buddhist Believe, The Corporate Body of The Buddha Educational Foundation, 1993


  • Harvey, Peter: An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge University Press, 1990


  • Nakamura, Hajime: Indian Buddhism, Motilah Banarsidas Publishers, 1989


  • Plamintr, Phra Sunthorn: Basic Buddhism Course, The Corporate Body of The Buddha Educational Foundation, 1999


  • Thomas, E.J.: Buddhist Scriptures, a selection translated from the Pali, Courier Dover Publications, 2002


  • Wyatt, Thomas: Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics, 1959




I. Brief introduction to Buddhism

A.     The founder of Buddhism

           Buddhism was founded by an Indian prince, Siddhartha, also known as Sakyamuni, the son of a ruler of a small state in what is now Nepal.  He is said to have lived during the years 560-480 B.C.  Tradition has it that at the age of twenty-nine he left the royal life to seek a solution to the human’s suffering.  Five years practicing under the guidance of some spiritual teachers and ascetics, He soon founded their knowledge to be either imperfect or wrong.  He knew that such knowledge could not lead him to the Ultimate Truth.  He therefore began to make experiments on his own.  Later on, after six years practicing alone, He finally developed the supernormal knowledge that ultimately destroyed all kinds of passion and mental defilements in him and gave him penetrative insight into all phenomena in their true state.  He had become the Supreme Lord Buddha at the age of thirty-five.’[1]

After this momentous event the Buddha spent the next forty-five years of his life wandering up and down the Ganges Valley, preaching his message to ascetics and lay persons alike.  For this long period of his life no connected account exists, with the only indication of his travels being the names of cities and towns mentioned in the scriptural discourses.  The cities most often mentioned were the capitals of the important states of the period.’[2] At age eighty He passed away into great Nirvana, the state of extinguishing all attachments and suffering.

B) The true meaning of the word ‘Buddha’

The term ‘Buddha’ is participle of the Sanskrit verbal root ‘budh,’ which means ‘to awaken,’ and is employed as a title, ‘The Awakened One’ or ‘The Enlightened One.’ It is applied to Siddhartha Gautama, a human being who attained enlightenment, founded an order and spent his life teaching the Dharma.

Never had the Buddha claimed that He was the son or a messenger of God and none of the Buddhist followers regarded Him as an incarnation of God.  The Buddhist disciples believe that anyone can become a Buddha if he develops his qualities to perfection and is able to remove his ignorance completely through his own efforts.  In the Buddhist view each of us is a potential Buddha obscured in karmic ignorance but with the possibility for enlightenment in us.’[3]

C) Buddhist basic concept about life and world

‘Buddhism has been described as a very pragmatic religion.  It does not indulge in metaphysical speculation about first causes; there is no theology, no worship of a deity or deification of the Buddha.  Buddhism takes a very straightforward look at our human condition; nothing is based on wishful thinking, at all.  Everything that the Buddha taught was based on his own observation of the way things are.  Everything that He taught can be verified by our own observation of the way things are.’[4]

Looking at life, we realize that how it changes and how it continually moves between extremes and contrasts: young and old, healthy and sick, success and failure, rise and fall, etc.  The Buddha described the world as an unending flux of becoming.  Nothing lasts long, everything is changing and transforming.  Everything exists from moment to moment.  Everything in this universe as well as human life is changing from birth to death.  The law of Impermanence of everything is one of the main pivots of Buddhism.  Whatever is subject to origination is subject also to destruction.  Change is the very constituent of reality.

Another mark in Buddhism is the Anatta (No self) doctrine which has been unbeatable over 2, 550 years old. Anatta is translated under various names: No Soul, No Self, egonessless, soullessness.  The Buddha taught that man is merely a combination of physical and mental aggregates or forces made up of body or matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.  These forces are working together in a flux of momentary change; they are never the same for two consecutive moments.  When the Buddha analyzed these forces, He did not find any eternal soul.  Today the scientists find that man is merely a bundle of ever-changing sensations and the apparently solid universe is actually a flux of energy.’[5]

All conditioned things are impermanent,

All conditioned things are Dukkha – Suffering,

All conditioned or unconditioned things are soulless or selfless.

                                                Dhammapada 277, 278, 279

The Buddha was the first to realize that.

D) Buddhist path and final goal

Understanding and realizing with wisdom the reality of life which is impermanent, selfless and full of suffering, Buddhist followers hope to set free from repeated rebirths (Samsara) and achieve emancipation, freedom (Moksa) or Nirvana, the final goal by practicing the Buddha’s Teachings which is based on The Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth is Dukkha that means suffering, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, disharmony, pain, etc.

The Second Noble Truth is the Cause of Dukkha which is craving linked to ignorance.

The Third Noble Truth is the Cessation of Dukkha or the state of Nirvana where craving ceases and

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of suffering concluding of the Noble Eightfold Path: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right understanding, and right thoughts.

II. Buddhist monastic schools

After the Buddha’s passing away, there arose eighteen different schools due to various interpretations of the Buddha’s Teachings but over a period of time, these schools gradually merged into three main schools:

 1. Theravada School           


Theravada Buddhists follow orthodox religious traditions that had prevailed in India more than 2, 550 years ago.  They perform their religious services in the Pali language and also expect to attain Nirvana by becoming a supreme Enlightened Buddha, Pacceka Buddha or an Arhant.  The majority of them prefer to attain Arhanthood.  Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, etc. belong to this school.


2. Mahayana School



Mahayanists are the radical ones and they have changed the old religious customs to be in accordance with the customs and traditions of the countries where they arrive to propagate efficiently Buddhism.  Moreover, they perform their religious practices along with the mother tongue of the countries in order to help native speakers understand much more such profound and subtle doctrine as Buddhism.  Mahayanists expect to attain the final goal ‘Nirvana’ by becoming Buddhas and the ideal image of a Bodhisattva becomes a standard practice of Mahayana Buddhism to reach enlightenment and help others to set free from suffering also.  Mahayana Buddhism spreads largely in China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, Viet Nam, and nowadays some Western countries as America, United Kingdom, Australia and France.

3. Tantric School


The Tantric School sometimes called ‘Lamaism’ has been the dominant religion of Tibet from the 18th century A.D. until now.  It is founded on the Four Noble Truths and seeks the ultimate release of all sentient beings from the suffering of the endless cycle of reincarnation.  Enlightenment is found through bodhisattvas and they are not only found in great saints from the past but have contemporary expression in lamas who are themselves incarnations of the power of enlightenment.  Besides it, Tantric school focuses also on the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle), way of salvation.  The Vajrayana introduced male and female deities, whose union was the triumph over the duality characteristic of Samsara.  It also taught the efficacy of magic formula to give initiates sudden enlightenment along ‘the direct path to Nirvana.’[6]

III. Buddhist Scriptures or Buddha’s Teachings

A). Definition of scriptures

Sacred scriptures are oral or written traditions which tend to be concerned with 1) the expression and transmission of spoken and written sounds and words as holy or sacred power; 2) the meaning, value, ideals, cohesiveness, and self-identity of a people in their environment together with the standards of normal and ideal behavior for individuals; 3) orienting and relating the people toward reality, the transcendent or the divine; 4) diagnosing and resolving human concerns, hopes, and anxieties by transforming human existence into desired practical and ideal forms, and 5) depicting and exhorting a holy way or path authenticated, revealed, or discovered through a holy person or religious community.’[7]

b) Buddhist concept towards scriptures and its function in Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the few world religions to reject the notion of ‘revealed scriptures,’ the foregoing quotation makes clear that the Buddhist life is lived from within the Buddhist texts.  Perhaps Buddhists have more scriptures than other religions but to them, words, even most scriptural words, are not divine but merely conventional – created by humans for the purpose of solving practical problems in everyday life.’[8]

‘The emphasis in Buddhism is on the teachings of the Buddha and the awakening of human personality that these are seen to lead to.  Nevertheless, Buddhists do show great reverence to the Buddha as a supreme teacher and an example of the ultimate goal that all strive for, so that maybe more images of Him exists of any other historical figure.  In its long history, Buddhism has used a variety of teachings and means to help people first develop a calmer, more integrated and compassionate personality and then wake up from restricting delusions.  The guide for this process of transformation consists of understanding, practicing and realizing Dharmas (teachings).’[9]

However Buddhist followers never worship blindly those scriptures as a supernatural power that can take them to Nirvana but they show respect and study scriptures with the understanding that they will be able to release suffering if they follow and practice correctly what the Buddha taught. 

In Buddhist’ definition, scriptures consist of four meanings: 1) contemplation, 2) penetrating through, going through, 3) collecting, gathering together and 4) maintaining, practicing, keeping or following.

·        Contemplation can be used to dispel distractions and defilements.  There are two kinds of contemplation: a) contemplation or meditation on the external forms of the phenomenon, b) contemplation or meditation on the real or underlying nature.

·        Penetrating into the profound meaning of scriptures not relying on words

·        Collecting, gathering together the mind, the attention, controlling the mind

·        Maintaining, practicing morality, keeping the rules or commandments.  There are two kinds of maintaining: 1) prohibitive or restraining from evils; 2) constructive or constraining to goodness.

In short, the Buddhists see scriptures merely as a thread on which jewels are strung together, a means to reach salvation and perfect wisdom.  The worth of scriptural words is instrumental not intrinsic; if not words can easily get in the way and be more of a hindrance or an obstruction than a help.’[10]

            c). Theravada scriptures (Pali canon)

‘Buddhism is divided into numerous traditional schools, each with its own set of scriptures.[11] ‘Our knowledge of Buddha’s teachings is based on several canons of scriptures which derive from the early Sangha’s oral transmission of bodies of teachings agreed on at several councils.  The Theravada canon is preserved in the Pali language which is known as the Tripitaka.’[12]

‘The Tripitaka consists of three sections of the Buddha’s Teachings.  They are the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka) mainly deals with the rules and regulations of the Order of monks and nuns; the Discourse (Sutta Pitaka) consists chiefly of discourses delivered by the Buddha Himself on various occasions or by some of His famous disciples as Venerable Sariputta, Venerable Ananda or Venerable Moggallana, etc; and Ultimate Doctrine (Abhidamma Pitaka) is the most important and interesting Pitaka because it contains the profound philosophy of the Buddha’s Teachings.[13] 

·        The Vinaya Pitaka consists of the five books:

1.      ‘Parajika Pali (Major offenses)

2.      Pacittiya Pali (Minor offenses)

3.      Mahavagga Pali (Greater section)

4.      Cullavagga Pali (Smaller section)

5.      Parivara Pali (Epitome of the Vinaya)

·        The Sutta Pitaka is divided into five Nikayas or collections:

1.      Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses)

2.      Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of Middle Length Discourses)

3.      Samyutta Nikaya (Collection of Kindred Sayings)

4.      Anguttara Nikaya (Collection od Discourses arranged in accordance with number)

5.      Khuddaka Nikaya (Smaller Collection)

The Abhidamma Pitaka is composed of the following works:

1.      Dhamma Sangani (Enumeration of Phenomena)

2.      Vibhanga (The Book of the Treatises)

3.      Katha Vatthu (Point of Controversy)

4.      Puggala Pannatti (Descrition of Individuals)

5.      Dhatu Katha (Discussion with reference to elements)

6.      Yamaka (The Book of Pairs)

7.      Patthana (The Book of Relations)’[14]

d) Mahayanist Scriptures:

‘When Mahayana Buddhism arose in the first century C.E., it had a new concern for liberation through the Bodhisattva, one who postpones his own full enlightenment in order to help others.’ [15] The other ideal image required a new concept of scriptures and that is the birth of Mahayana canon.

‘There is really no Mahayana canon, only a collection of separate texts written in Sanskrit.  Many of these Sanskrit original texts are no longer extant, but before they were lost, they were translated into Chinese and Tibetan and are now preserved in those languages.  The Tibetan scriptures are most faithful to the Sanskrit original than the Chinese ones which are not really translations but free renditions of the meaning of the original texts.’[16]

‘Although the Pali and Mahayana canons share such important works as the Jatakas, the Maha-Parinibbana, Vinaya texts on monastic discipline, Abhidamma texts, etc,’ [17]Mahayana literature is characterized by diversity, extravagant imagination, colorful personalities and inordinate repetitions.  One of the most influential texts, the Heart Sutra (Prajna Paramita) discussed philosophically the denial of the reality of existence and nonexistence, consists of only about seven hundred Chinese characters while the Garland Sutra consists of eighty chapters.  The other text is Lotus Sutra elaborates on the eternal Buddha, universal salvation, and the Bodhisattva.’[18]

e) Tibetan Scriptures

After the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet in the 7th century C.E., the Tibetans followers focus mainly on two collections known as the Kanjur (Translation of the Ordinances) and the Tanjur (Translation of the Doctrine).

The Kanjur contains 689 books of various lengths in 100 or 108 volumes.  The first main division is the Discipline for monks; the second is the Prajnaparamita; the third deals with the Buddha community; the fourth is the Heap of Jewels; the fifth is the Teaching lectures; the sixth is Nirvana; and the last is the Tantra.  The Tanjur contains 225 volumes in two main sections: Sutra and Tantra.[19] Unlike other Mahayanists in East Asia, the Tibetans worship these sutras and preserved them in the monasteries with great care.

IV.            Conclusion

As the Buddha taught:

Rely on the teaching, not on the person,

Rely on the meaning, not just on the words,

Rely on the definitive meaning, not on the provisional,

Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary mind.’

He also said: ‘My teaching is not a philosophy.  It is the result of a direct experience.  My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold onto or worship.  My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river.  Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of salvation.’[20]

In sum, the aim of Buddhist scriptures is to help the followers develop radically, practically, and wisely the Buddha’s Teachings in order to live rightly and happily, be free from all sufferings and release from samsara.


[1] Basic Buddhism Course by Phara Sunthorn Plamintr, page 19.

[2] Dictionary of World religions by Keith Crim, page 120.

[3] Scripture in Buddism by Harold Coward, page 140.

[4] An introduction to Buddhism by Mike Butler :

[5] What the Buddhist believe by K. Sri Dhammananda, page 119.

[6] Dictionary of world religions by Keith Crim, page 149.

[7] Ibid. page 665.

[8] Scriptures in Buddhism (selection) by Harold Coward, page 139.

[9] An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and practices by Peter Harvey, page 1-3.

[10] Scripture in Buddhism (selection) by Harold Coward, page 139.

[11] Buddhist Scriptures by Thomas Wyatt page 11.

[12] An Introduction to Buddhism by Peter Harvey, page 3.

[13] What the Buddhists believe by K. Sri Dhammananda, page 65.

[14] Ibid page 66-67.


[15] Scriptures in world’s religions by Van Voorst, page 72.

[16] World’s Religions dictionary by Keith Crim, page 134.

[17] Scriptures in world’s religions by Van Voorst, page 72.

[18] World’s religions dictionary by Keith Crim, page 134.

[19] Scriptures in world’s religions by Van Voorst, page 74.