Buddhist Sacred Texts

In Buddhism, there are a vast number of Buddhist scriptures and religious texts, which are commonly divided into the categories of canonical and non-canonical.

The former, also called the Sutras (Sanskrit) or Suttas (Pali) are believed to be, either literally or metaphorically, the actual words of the Buddha. The latter are commentaries on canonical texts, other treatises on the Dharma, and collections of quotes, histories, grammars, etc.

This categorization is not universal, however: there will always be texts that cross boundaries, or that belong in more than one category. Moreover, Zen Buddhism rejects scriptures altogether as an ineffective path to enlightenment. The articles below provide overviews of some of the most notable Buddhist texts.

Tripitaka (Pali Canon)

The Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali) is the earliest collection of Buddhist teachings and the only text recognized as canonical by Theravada Buddhists. Many commentaries have been added over the centuries, however. Tripitaka means "three baskets," from the way in which it was originally recorded: the text was written on long, narrow leaves, which were sewn at the edges then grouped into bunches and stored in baskets.

The collection is also referred to as the Pali Canon, after the language in which it was first written. It is a vast collection of writings, comprising up to 50 volumes costing $2000 in some modern sets.

Mahayana Sutras

Mahayana Buddhism reveres the Tripitaka as a sacred text, but adds to it the Sutras, which reflect distinctively Mahayana concepts. Most of the Mahayana Sutras, which number over two thousand, were written between 200 BCE and 200 CE, the period in which Mahayana Buddhism developed.

Different divisions of Mahayana Buddhism emphasize different Sutras, but some texts, like the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra, are important to most branches of Mahayana.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Tibetan text that is most well known to the West. Written by a Tibetan monk, the Book of the Dead describes in detail the stages of death from the Tibetan point of view. It chronicles the experiences and religious opportunities a person encounters at various stages: while dying, at the moment of death, during the 49-day interval between death and rebirth, and at rebirth.