Different types of Buddhist texts & literature
Buddhist texts are those religious texts which belong to the Buddhist tradition.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The origin of Buddhist literature
- 2 - The Tantras
- 3 - Jātaka tales & the Avadānas
- 4 - Biographies of the Buddha
- 5 - Glossary of Buddhist texts & literature
- 5.1 - Sutra
- 5.2 - Abhidharma
- 5.3 - Dhammapada
- 5.4 - Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Heart Dharani Sutra
- 5.5 - Longchen Nyingthig
- 5.6 - Maṇi Kambum
- 5.7 - Monogatari
- 5.8 - Vaṃsa
- 5.9 - Thus have I heard
- 5.10 - Tattvasamgraha
- 5.11 - Akuma (folklore)
- 5.12 - Seri-Vanija Jathaka Katha
- 5.13 - Sāstrā lbaeng
- 5.14 - Sanskrit Buddhist literature
- 5.15 - Pramanavarttika
- 5.16 - Pañcarakṣā
- 5.17 - Nagarakretagama
- 5.18 - Blind men and an elephant
- 5.19 - Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit
- 5.20 - Maitreyasamitināṭaka
- 5.21 - Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize
- 5.22 - Abhisamayalankara
- 5.23 - Lipi (script)
- 5.24 - Khmer sastra
- 5.25 - Jinakalamali
- 5.26 - Jataka tales
- 5.27 - Avadana
- 5.28 - Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
- 5.29 - Avadanasataka
- 5.30 - Chu sanzan jiji
- 5.31 - Viśeṣastava
The origin of Buddhist literature
The earliest Buddhist texts were not committed to writing until some centuries after the death of Gautama Buddha.
The oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts are the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, found in Afghanistan and written in Gāndhārī, they date from the first century BCE to the third century CE.
The first Buddhist texts were initially passed on orally by Buddhist monastics, but were later written down and composed as manuscripts in various Indo-Aryan languages and collected into various Buddhist Canons.
These were then translated into other languages such as Buddhist Chinese and Classical Tibetan as Buddhism spread outside of India.
The Mahāyāna sūtras are a very broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition holds are original teachings of the Buddha.
Modern historians generally hold that the first of these texts were composed probably around the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE.
Mahāyāna also has a very large literature of philosophical and exegetical texts. These are often called śāstra (treatises) or vrittis (commentaries).
Some of this literature was also written in verse form (karikās), the most famous of which is the Mūlamadhyamika-karikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way) by Nagarjuna, the foundational text of the Madhyamika school.
During the Gupta Empire, a new class of Buddhist sacred literature began to develop, which are called the Tantras.
By the 8th century, the tantric tradition was very influential in India and beyond.
Besides drawing on a Mahāyāna Buddhist framework, these texts also borrowed deities and material from other Indian religious traditions, such as the Śaiva and Pancharatra traditions, local god/goddess cults, and local spirit worship (such as yaksha or nāga spirits).
Some features of these texts include the widespread use of mantras, meditation on the subtle body and worship of fierce deities.
Jātaka tales & the Avadānas
The early Buddhist schools also preserved other types of texts which developed in later periods, which were variously seen as canonical or not, depending on the tradition.
These are moral fables and legends dealing with the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form.
The different Buddhist schools had their own collections of these tales and often disagreed on which stories were canonical.
Biographies of the Buddha
Another genre that developed over time in the various early schools were biographies of the Buddha.
Buddha biographies include the Mahāvastu of the Lokottaravadin school, the northern tradition’s Lalitavistara Sūtra, the Theravada Nidānakathā and the Dharmaguptaka Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra.
One of the most famous of biographies is the Buddhacarita, an epic poem in Classical Sanskrit by Aśvaghoṣa.
Glossary of Buddhist texts & literature
This is a list of different types of Buddhist texts and literature together with some well-known translation projects and other historical works.
Indian Buddhist texts, often written in Pali or Sanskrit language, the iconographic source for images of Shakyamuni Buddha, the bodhisattvas and Arhats.
Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali) are ancient Buddhist texts which contain detailed scholastic reworkings of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist sutras, according to schematic classifications. The Abhidhamma works do not contain systematic philosophical treatises, but summaries or abstract and systematic lists.
The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings of the Buddha in verse form and one of the most widely read and best known Buddhist scriptures. The original version of the Dhammapada is in the Khuddaka Nikaya, a division of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism.
Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Heart Dharani Sutra
The Heart-dhāraṇī of Avalokiteśvara-ekadaśamukha Sūtra is a Buddhist text first translated from Sanskrit into Chinese on the 28th day of the third lunar month of 656 CE, by Xuanzang.
The title in Tibetan language is Spyan-ras-gzigs-dbang-phyug-shal bcu-gcig-pa, while the Sanskrit title recovered from the Tibetan translation is Avalokiteśvara ikadaśamukha dhāraṇī.
Alternatively, the sutra’s title has been translated as the Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Heart Dharani Sutra by Professor Ryuichi Abe.
Longchen Nyingthig is a terma, revealed scripture, of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, which gives a systematic explanation of Dzogchen. It was revealed by Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798).
The Maṇi Kambum is a Tibetan Buddhist terma text which contains teachings connected with the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The Maṇi Kambum was composed over time by different hands. It was likely composed from the 12th century to the 13th century.
Monogatari is a literary form in traditional Japanese literature – an extended prose narrative tale comparable to the epic novel. Monogatari is closely tied to aspects of the oral tradition, and almost always relates a fictional or fictionalized story, even when retelling a historical event. Many of the great works of Japanese fiction, such as the Genji Monogatari and the Heike Monogatari, are in the monogatari form.
Vamsa (Sanskrit: वंशम्, IAST: Vaṃśam, is a Sanskrit word that means ‘family, lineage’. It also refers to a genre of ancient and medieval literature in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. This genre focuses on genealogies. They resemble the conventional histories found in the European literature, but differ as they predominantly chronicle myths and may integrate spiritual doctrines such as rebirths. A vaṃśam can be focussed on a dynasty, family, individual such as a saint, line of teachers of a particular tradition, or a place particularly of pilgrimage. Some of these texts are titled with vaṃśam as a suffix.
Thus have I heard
Thus have I heard is the common translation of the first line of the standard introduction of Buddhist discourses. This phrase serves to confirm that the discourse is coming from the Buddha himself, as a “seal of authenticity”. Buddhist tradition maintains that the disciple Ānanda used the formula for the first time, as a form of personal testimony, but this is disputed by some scholars. It is also disputed how the phrase relates to the words that follow, and several theories have been developed with regard to how the text was originally intended to be read. The formula has also been used in later Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna discourses.
The Tattvasamgraha is a text written by the 8th century Indian Buddhist pandit Śāntarakṣita.
The text belongs to the ‘tenets’ (Tib. sgrub-mtha) genre and is an encyclopedic survey of Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical systems.
Śāntarakṣita’s student Kamalashila wrote a commentary on it, entitled Tattvasamgrahapanjika.
The akuma (悪魔) is a malevolent fire spirit in Japanese folklore. It is also described as a category of undefined beings who brought afflictions on humans.
Seri-Vanija Jathaka Katha
Seri-Vanija Jathaka is one of the five hundred and fifty jatakas of the Buddha. A Jataka is any of the stories of former lives of the Buddha, which are preserved in Buddhism. Some Jataka tales are scattered in different parts of the Pali: Pali canon of Buddhist writings, including a group of 35 that were collected for didactic purposes. This Seri jataka has included as the third story in the first volume of the Jataka Tales Compendium
Sāstrā lbaeng or lpaen is a genre of medieval Khmer literature often made of fantastic adventure romances. They were written in verse with a rich and elaborate vocabulary and used to entertain the audience via a public reader or chanter.
Sanskrit Buddhist literature
Sanskrit Buddhist literature refers to Buddhist texts composed either in classical Sanskrit, in a register that has been called “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit”, or a mixture of these two. Several non-Mahāyāna Nikāyas appear to have kept their canons in Sanskrit, the most prominent being the Sarvāstivāda school. Many Mahāyāna Sūtras and śāstras also survive in Buddhistic Sanskrit or in standard Sanskrit.
The Pramāṇavārttika is an influential Buddhist text on pramana, a form of Indian epistemology. The Pramāṇavārttika is the magnum opus of the Indian Buddhist Dharmakirti.
Pañcarakṣā means “Five Protectors”, and it is the title of a Buddhist text in Sanskrit. It is an early work in the dhāraṇī genre of Buddhist literature, with Tibetan records mentioning it by about 800 CE. The Pañcarakṣā manuscripts survive in Tibet, Nepal and India in many divergent versions. The text includes spells, a list of benefits by its recitation, and the ritual instructions on how and when to use it. In the Buddhist tradition, each of the “Five” protections that are mentioned in the Pañcarakṣā are Buddhist deities (goddesses).
The Nagarakretagama or Nagarakṛtāgama, also known as Desawarnana or Deśavarṇana, is an Old Javanese eulogy to Hayam Wuruk, a Javanese king of the Majapahit Empire. It was written on lontar as a kakawin by Mpu Prapanca in 1365. The Nagarakretagama contains detailed descriptions of the Majapahit Empire during its greatest extent. The poem affirms the importance of Hindu–Buddhism in the Majapahit empire by describing temples and palaces and several ceremonial observances.
Blind men and an elephant
The parable of the blind men and an elephant is a story that illustrates ontologic reasoning. It is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and imagine what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows. The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true. The parable originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent, from where it has been widely diffused.
Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit
Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit (BHS) is a modern linguistic category applied to the language used in a class of Indian Buddhist texts, such as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. BHS is classified as a Middle Indo-Aryan language. It is sometimes called “Buddhist Sanskrit” or “Mixed Sanskrit”.
Maitreyasamitināṭaka is a Buddhist drama in the language known as Tocharian A. It dates to the eighth century and survives only in fragments. Maitrisimit nom bitig is an Old Uyghur translation of the Tocharian text. It is a much more complete text and dates to the tenth century. The drama revolves around the Buddha Maitreya, the future saviour of the world. This story was popular among Buddhists and parallel versions can be found in Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese, Sogdian, Pali and Sanskrit. According to Friedrich W. K. Müller and Emil Sieg, the apparent meaning of the title is “Encounter with Maitreya”.
Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize
The Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize is a prize that recognizes the best translation into English of book-length texts of Asian poetry or Zen Buddhism. It was established by an anonymous donor in 2010, and is named for Lucien Stryk, the American Zen poet and translator.
The Abhisamayālaṅkāra “Ornament of/for Realization[s]”, abbreviated AA, is one of five Sanskrit-language Mahayana sutras which, according to Tibetan tradition, Maitreya revealed to Asaṅga in northwest India circa the 4th century AD. Those who doubt the claim of supernatural revelation disagree whether the text was composed by Asaṅga himself, or by someone else, perhaps a human teacher of his.
Lipi means ‘writing, letters, alphabet’, and contextually refers to scripts, the art or manner of writing, or in modified form such as lipī (लिपी) to painting, decorating or anointing a surface to express something.
Khmer sastra is a sastra, or manuscript, written during and after the Khmer Empire, from at least the 12th century, in Southeast Asia.
Jinakālamālī is a Chiang Mai chronicle that covers mostly about religious history, and contains a section on early Lan Na kings to 1516/1517. Similar period Pali chronicles include the Chamadevivamsa and the Mulasasana. Originally written in Pali by a Buddhist monk, it is said to have been completed in 1527 but the oldest extant manuscript dates only to 1788. The chronicle was one of the Chiang Mai-based chronicles maintained during the Burmese rule of Lan Na (1558–1775) and it was referenced by later Burmese chronicles, most notably Maha Yazawin, the standard chronicle of Toungoo Dynasty.
The Jātakas are a voluminous body of literature native to South Asia which mainly concern the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form. According to Peter Skilling, this genre is “one of the oldest classes of Buddhist literature.” Some of these works are also considered great works of literature in their own right.
Avadāna is the name given to a type of Buddhist literature correlating past lives’ virtuous deeds to subsequent lives’ events.
Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
The project of the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism was initiated by Charles Muller, a specialist in East Asian Buddhism, during his first year of graduate school when he realized the dearth of lexicographical works available for both East Asian Buddhism and classical Chinese. Since that time, he has continued to compile the terminology from the texts that he has studied and translated, extending for almost twenty years.
The Avadānaśataka or “Century of Noble Deeds (Avadāna)” is an anthology in Sanskrit of one hundred Buddhist legends, approximately dating to the same time as the Ashokavadana. Ratnamālāvadāna. The work may be from the Mulasarvastivada school.
Chu sanzan jiji
The Chu sanzang jiji (出三藏记集) is the earliest extant catalog of Chinese Buddhist texts. It was compiled by Sengyou of the Liang Dynasty and finished c. 515 CE.
The Viśeṣa-stava is a Buddhist stotra by the author Udbhaṭa-sidhi-svāmin and has pride of place as the text that opens the TIbetan bstan ‘gyur. Originally written in Sanskrit, the hymns was extensively propagated and most people of the country recited these as songs. It was written to demonstrate the superiority of Buddhism over tirthikas. It is now only known from its Tibetan translation. At the time of its translation into Tibetan Prajñāvarman wrote a commentary on it which immediately follows it in the Bstan ‘gyur.