An 11th-century Buddhist Pancaraksa manuscript.

Buddhist texts – The words of the Buddha

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The categorization of Buddhist texts

Buddhist texts can be categorized in a number of ways.

The Western terms “scripture” and “canonical” are applied to Buddhism in inconsistent ways by Western scholars: for example, one authority refers to “scriptures and other canonical texts”, while another says that scriptures can be categorized into canonical, commentarial, and pseudo-canonical.

Buddhist traditions have generally divided these texts with their own categories and divisions, such as that between buddhavacana “word of the Buddha,” many of which are known as “sutras”, and other texts, such as “shastras” (treatises) or “Abhidharma”.

These religious texts were written in different languages, methods and writing systems.

Memorizing, reciting and copying the texts was seen as spiritually valuable.

The preservation of Buddhist texts

In an effort to preserve these scriptures, Asian Buddhist institutions were at the forefront of the adoption of Chinese technologies related to bookmaking, including paper, and block printing which were often deployed on a large scale.

Because of this, the first surviving example of a printed text is a Buddhist charm, the first full printed book is the Buddhist Diamond Sutra (c. 868) and the first hand colored print is an illustration of Guanyin dated to 947.

Even after the development and adoption of printing by Buddhist institutions, Buddhists continued to copy them by hand as a spiritual practice.

The commentarial literature

The Theravāda tradition has an extensive commentarial , much of which is still untranslated.

These are attributed to scholars working in Sri Lanka such as Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) and Dhammapala.

Mahāyāna sūtras are also generally regarded by the Mahāyāna tradition as being more profound than the śrāvaka texts as well as generating more spiritual merit and benefit.

The Mahāyāna commentarial and exegetical literature is vast. Many of these exegetical and scholastic works are called Śāstras, which can refer to a scholastic treatise, exposition or commentary.

Later Tantric texts from the eighth century onward (termed variously Yogatantra, Mahayoga, and Yogini Tantras) advocated union with a deity (deity yoga), sacred sounds (mantras), techniques for manipulation of the subtle body and other secret methods with which to achieve swift Buddhahood.

List of Buddhist texts & collections

This is a non-exhaustive list of Buddhist texts and collections from diverse Buddhist schools and currents.


Pre-modern copies of the Tipiṭaka were preserved in Palm-leaf manuscripts

The 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.

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).

Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Heart Dharani Sutra

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara with Eleven Heads, gilt bronze with copper, gold, silver inlay and pigment, Tibet, 16th century

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 by Professor Ryuichi Abe.


The Mahāvastu is a text of the Lokottaravāda school of Early Buddhism. It describes itself as being a historical preface to the Buddhist monastic codes (vinaya). Over half of the text is composed of Jātaka and Avadāna tales, accounts of the earlier lives of the Buddha and other bodhisattvas.

Topra Kalan

1800 years separate these two inscriptions: Brahmi script of the 3rd century BCE (Edict of Ashoka),

Topra, combined name for the larger Topra Kalan and adjacent smaller Topra Khurd, is a Mauryan Empire-era village in Yamunanagar district of Harayana state in India.

It is the original home of Delhi-Topra pillar one of many pillars of Ashoka, that was moved from Topra to Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in 1356 CE.

The original inscription on the Delhi-Topra Ashokan obelisk is primarily in Brahmi script, but the language was Prakrit, with some Pali and Sanskrit added later.

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.

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.


The Udānavarga is an early Buddhist collection of topically organized chapters of aphoristic verses or “utterances” attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. While not part of the Pali Canon, the Udānavarga has many chapter titles, verses and an overall format similar to those found in the Pali Canon’s Dhammapada and Udāna. At this time, there exist one Sanskrit recension, two Chinese recensions and two or three Tibetan recensions of the Udānavarga.


The 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.

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


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 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.

Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra

The Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra is an ancient Buddhist text. It is thought to have been authored around 150 CE. It is an encyclopedic work on Abhidharma, scholastic Buddhist philosophy. Its composition led to the founding of a new school of thought, called Vaibhāṣika, which was very influential in the history of Buddhist thought and practice.

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”.


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.

Gandhāran Buddhist texts

The Gandhāran Buddhist texts are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts yet discovered, dating from about the 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE, and are also the oldest Indian manuscripts. They represent the literature of Gandharan Buddhism from present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, and are written in Gāndhārī.


The Divyāvadāna or Divine narratives is a Sanskrit anthology of Buddhist avadana tales, many originating in Mūlasarvāstivādin vinaya texts. It may be dated to 2nd century CE. The stories themselves are therefore quite ancient and may be among the first Buddhist texts ever committed to writing, but this particular collection of them is not attested prior to the seventeenth century. Typically, the stories involve the Buddha explaining to a group of disciples how a particular individual, through actions in a previous life, came to have a particular karmic result in the present. A predominant theme is the vast merit accrued from making offerings to enlightened beings or at stupas and other holy sites related to the Buddha.

Dirgha Agama

The Dirgha Agama is one of the Buddhist Agamas. It corresponds to the Digha Nikaya of the Pāli Canon.

Dhyāna sutras

The Dhyāna sutras or “meditation summaries” or also known as The Zen Sutras are a group of early Buddhist meditation texts which are mostly based on the Yogacara meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE. Most of the texts only survive in Chinese and were key works in the development of the Buddhist meditation practices of Chinese Buddhism.

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.

Birch bark manuscript

Birch bark manuscripts are documents written on pieces of the inner layer of birch bark, which was commonly used for writing before the advent of mass production of paper. Evidence of birch bark for writing goes back many centuries and in various cultures.


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.


The Ashokavadana is an Indian Sanskrit-language text that describes the birth and reign of the Maurya Emperor Ashoka. It contains legends as well as historical narratives, and glorifies Ashoka as a Buddhist emperor whose only ambition was to spread Buddhism far and wide.

Visualization sutras

The Visualization Sutras are a group of Buddhist meditation texts which contain fantastic visual images and which mostly survive in Chinese translations dating from about the sixth century CE.

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