This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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9.3. Buddhist Scripture

Liturgical languages and literacy

Buddhism provides an interesting illustration of what has been said elsewhere about the role of Scripture in the traditional religions. The canon is in fact multiple and these ‘canons’ are crystalized around the predominant schools of Buddhist thought. Although they are, all of them, derived in some way from the same sources, they do not cling too tightly to the idea of an irrevocable and unchanging collections of texts that in turn become the ‘authoritative’ source for all doctrinal questions.

To understand what we mean by this, a few remarks on primitive religions and the drawbacks of writing are in order.

First, there is the general problem that unless all adherents speak the original language of the teacher, there will be the problem of translation. Gautama’s native dialect would have been Magadhi, and in this tongue he would have delivered his famous sermons. We have no existing texts in this language. What we do have are Pali texts, which were compiled almost four hundred years after the death of the Buddha, and Sanskrit texts (alongside some early Chinese translations) derived from the same sources. The former are the basis of the Theraveda / Hinayana canon, while the latter form the basis of the Mahayana canon.

The languages in question (Sanskrit and Pali) are ‘sacred languages’ and perform a role analogous to Latin in the Roman Catholic tradition. They are not identical to the language in which the original teachings were given, but were adopted as the most adequate means of enunciating the doctrine once committed into written form, usually at a much later date.

Why would it take four centuries for a canon to be assembled? Does this show a disregard for ensuring orthodoxy in teachings? Does this imply that the texts written at such a late stage are unreliable?

These questions betray a misunderstanding about the reservations most traditional peoples display when it comes to writing down those things that are of greatest importance to their way of life, and this goes double for religious doctrine. This can be seen in the fact that on the list of personal items the members of primitive Buddhist orders were allowed to possess, books do not appear.

Buddhism was born in the context of Hinduism. Indians had and still have a carefully developed mnemonic system and are still renowned for their ability to retain and recite volumes of literary data that in the West we would consider unbelievable. The ‘lack’ of written text was therefore not felt and would not have been a hindrance to the maintenance of orthodoxy.

On the contrary, it is generally believed that a reliance on book-learning is not only damaging to the memory of the individual and the intelligence of the collective but that, memory set aside, reading is inferior to oral instruction, since the latter can actively adapt itself to time and place and person, carefully nurturing the potential of the student. The primary role of the master (in the context of Zen especially) could be seen as denying the validity of most of what the student thinks they have learned. It is this on-going relationship of correction and modification that no written scripture could ever hope to achieve. There is no such mechanism in ‘Bible Christianity’, where everyone is an autodidact with his own lexicon and commentary, and it has wisely been observed that the self-taught man has a poor teacher and an even worse student.

The modern reader will, despite these reservations, suggest that literacy and the written form are what permits everyone to have access to such a valuable treasury of ideas. The truth, however, is that the ability to read a text does nothing to guarantee that the text is accessible. That is to say, the deeper the truths, the more likely it is that it will be misunderstood, since access and understanding are of two entirely different orders. By preferring the traditional oral mode of transmission, we can see that the teaching of doctrine, the spiritual progress of the student, the transmission of the Gospel, and its protection from error in interpretation, were all part of one and the same living process.

As a side-note, this is why we observe in the Buddha’s era and in the canon itself, the principle form is that of the Sutra (Sutta in Pali), which is verse that runs in lines meant to be learned by heart and recited to oneself and for others.

The Pali canon was first written down in Ceylon in about 80 BC and, taking into account what was said above about the hesitation to write these things down, we can see that it was a kind of compromise in view of a general falling away from orthodoxy:

“The text of the Three Pitakas and the commentary thereon did the most wise Bhikkhus hand down in former times orally, but since they saw that theh people were falling away, the bhikkhus met together, and in order that the true doctrines might endure, they wrote them down in books.”[1]

In other words, if the situation is dire and it becomes clear that there may not be anyone to faithfully retain the transmission at some point, the scriptures are written down, not for the sake of popular access, but so that they are saved from being lost entirely, for in oral transmission, if the line is broken the canon ceases to exist.

As for authorship of the canon, all that has been said elsewhere regarding the supra-individual authorship of many ancient texts is here in force. We should see certain terms as referring to collectivities responsible for transmitting a text, and not as specific authors. Tradition does not usually concern itself with identifying individual personalities for authors and is concerned first and foremost with the orthodoxy of the content.

The citation above mentions ‘Three Pitakas’. This refers to the basic groupings of texts within each canon. We will explain this below after discussing the multiplicity of canons.

[1] Mahavamsa, ch. xxxiii.

Three canons

Typically the term ‘canon’ refers to a collection of texts that are definitively ‘closed’ and for this reason immutable and proclaimed as such by an official religious authority. This is the case with the Christian Bible, for example, but it is not the same in Buddhism. The Pali canon could be called ‘closed’ but it only became so after centuries of modification and dispute. It is ‘settled’ but more as a result of time than official intervention.

Another distinct feature here is the multiplicity of canons. We find three canons at the present time and these correspond to the three main branches of Buddhism: Theraveda, Mahayana, and Tibet.

Three Pitakas

Regardless of the canon (Tibet/Theravada/Mahayana), they all share a threefold division of their scriptures, and this provides the structure of the overall organization. This is called the ‘Tripitaka’ which organizes the three ‘baskets’ or Pitakas. These are:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka. This basket contains texts that regulate the discipline of the order. Etiquette, training, etc., to be followed by thesangha or ‘monastic community’.
  2. Sutta Pitaka. This basket contains all of the Nikayas or ‘sayings’ and discourses of the Buddha. For example, the Dhammapada is contained in the Pali Sutta Pitaka, and is the most well-known and frequently translated of Buddhist scriptures in the Western world.
  3. Adhidhamma Pitaka. This basket contains additional analysis, commentary, and explanation of teachings.

Rather than go further into these divisions, we will discuss the canons individually and remark on the differences in the Pitakas as they apply to each.

The Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism

The Pali canon corresponds to the Theravada school. This canon us used in South and Southeast Asia, namely Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

This canon possesses the Tripitaka structure of the Vinaya/Sutta/Adhidhamma. Of most interest for us doctrinally is the second basket, the Sutta, which collects together all of the Nikayas. These are:

  1. Digha Nikaya.
  2. Majjhima Nikaya.
  3. Samyutta Nikaya.
  4. Anguttara Nikaya.
  5. Khuddaka Nikaya.

The fifth Nikaya (Khuddaka) is perhaps most well known due to the fact that, in the Pali canon, it contains both the Dhammapada (already mentioned) and the Jataka tales or ‘birth stories’ of the Buddha.

The Mahayana canon

It might be more appropriate to call this canon the Chinese Canon, since as it exists today it is composed of Chinese translations or historically came into being as the work of Chinese translators. However, we can also say that the Mahayana texts are also distinguished from their Theravada counterparts by being derived from early Indian texts written in Sanskrit. This means that although the sermons and sayings are almost identical in many cases, they do have a different history and neither is ‘the original’ in a strict sense, but are both derived from different sets of early texts, whether Pali or Sanskrit.

This canon is used throughout China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

As for general structure, the Mahayana canon has the Tripitaka but the second section is called Sutra as opposed to Sutta. The canon also includes many additional texts such as the Tantras, Agamas (similar but not identical to the Theravada Nikayas) and of course the Mahayana sutras which are what make this canon the Mahayana Canon.

The second basket, the Sutra, was divided into five sections in the Pali canon, but is in four sections in the Mahayana canon, and again we will point out that what were the Nikayas in Pali are here called Agamas:

  1. Dirgha Agama.
  2. Madhyama Agama.
  3. Samyukta Agama.
  4. Ekottara Agama.

The Dhammapada and the Jakata stories were notable texts contained in the fifth Nikaya of the Pali canon. Here the Jakata stories are present but incorporated within different sections. The Dhammapada is not present, or at least the sayings it contains are not found gathered into a single work, as in the Pali canon.

We also cannot leave out the most significant feature of the Mahayana canon, which is the inclusion of the Mahayana Sutras. Of the various Mahayana sutras, each receives attention based on the school to which one belongs. For example, in Pure Land Buddhism (or Amidism) the Amitabha sutra (Sukhavativyuha sutra) is prominent. In Zen, there are the Lotus (Saddharmapundarika), Diamond (Vajracchedika), and Flower Garland (Avatamsaka) sutras.

The Tibetan canon

As the name suggests, this collection of scriptures is utilized by the Buddhism of Tibet, throughout the Himalayas, and in Mongolia.

We could perhaps classify Tibetan Buddhism as a part of the Mahayana, but their canon is not derivative of the Chineses. It was rather put down in Tibet from translations originating in India. There are two parts to this canon (as opposed to the tripartite division in the Mahayana and Theraveda canons).

First, the Kangyur, which is a translation of the words of the Buddha, containing a Sutra and a Vanaya section; and then the Tengyur, which contains the teachings of the Buddha not considered to be direct quotes, for example commentaries on the sutras. With the two-part Kangyur and the Tengyur, we approach something analogous to the Tripitaka.

Here we will mention the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol), which is not part of the canon, so to speak, but is very well-known in the West. It describes the experiences of the dying person on throughout the first 49 days after death, and describes funerary practices, etc.

We must also include mention of the Vajrayana texts used in Tibetan Buddhism, although we will explain their nature and relevance in a section dedicated to the doctrine and method of that branch. For now, we will say that these texts are related to Tantric Buddhism and it is from this word that the term ‘diamond way’ is derived. Vajrayana will be found to contain the more uniquely Tibetan practices of spiritual alchemy that have no equal.