Early Buddhist texts – Retracing the historical Buddhist discourses
Early Buddhist texts (EBTs), early Buddhist literature or early Buddhist discourses are parallel texts shared by the early Buddhist schools.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The first four Pali Nikayas
- 2 - The early pre-sectarian Buddhism
- 3 - List of Early Buddhist texts
The first four Pali Nikayas
The most widely studied EBT material are the first four Pali Nikayas, as well as the corresponding Chinese Āgamas.
However, some scholars have also pointed out that some Vinaya material, like the Patimokkhas of the different Buddhist schools, as well as some material from the earliest Abhidharma texts could also be quite early.
Besides the large collections in Pali and Chinese, there are also fragmentary collections of EBT materials in Sanskrit, Khotanese, Tibetan and Gāndhārī.
The early pre-sectarian Buddhism
The modern study of early pre-sectarian Buddhism often relies on comparative scholarship using these various early Buddhist sources.
Various scholars of Buddhist studies such as Richard Gombrich, Akira Hirakawa, Alexander Wynne and A. K. Warder hold that Early Buddhist texts contain material that could possibly be traced to the historical Buddha himself or at least to the early years of pre-sectarian Buddhism.
In Mahayana Buddhism, these texts are sometimes referred to as “Hinayana” or “Śrāvakayāna” texts and are not considered Mahayana works.
List of Early Buddhist texts
This is a list of texts used to trace the original teachings of the historical Buddha.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Dirgha Agama is one of the Buddhist Agamas. It corresponds to the Digha Nikaya of the Pāli Canon.
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.
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 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 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.