Shortly after the Buddha’s death, or Parinirvana, his closest disciples gathered to recall and recite all of the master’s spoken teachings, by way of approving and codifying those sutras which they determined to be authentic. The sutras were not written down at first but were passed along in oral form for several hundred years, and so in the written form each sutra typically begins with the phrase, “Thus have I heard,” followed by a description of where and to whom the Buddha was speaking. The original transmissions were reportedly in as many as five early tongues including Sanskrit, the classical language of India, and Magadhi, which the Buddha spoke. When the texts crystallized, they were in two main bodies, the Pali Canon of the southern Theravada tradition and the Sanskrit of the northern Mahayana tradition (written c.125-150).
The original sutras were divided into five collections known as nikayas, from the Pali word for “corpus.” These five nikayas make up the pitaka or “basket” called the Sutra-pitaka. The fifth, Khuddaka nikaya, for instance, contains the famous Dhammapada (“Virtue-path”), 426 pithy verses of the Buddha’s basic teachings, especially popular today in Theravadin countries. The same nikaya also houses the Theri-gatha, or songs of the female elders, some of the earliest enlightened women in Buddhism. The Buddha’s most celebrated utterances are scattered throughout the sutras, such as his “Fire Sermon,” which T. S. Eliot used as a major source for Part III of “The Waste Land.”
The Sutra-pitaka, together with the Vinaya-pitaka (accounts of the origins of the first Buddhist community and the rules for monks and nuns) and the Abhidharma-pitaka (Buddhist psychology and philosophy), make up the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets.” This is the Pali canon of Southern Buddhist scriptures, and is paralleled by the even more extensive Northern Buddhist canon, which was probably written down later than the Pali canon but originated at about the same time.
Most of the scriptures have never been fully translated into English, which is understandable when we consider that no other tradition on earth has created a larger body of sacred texts. To take one example, the 40 sutras known collectively as the Prajnaparamita Sutra take up, in their Tibetan block print editions, 100 volumes of about 1,000 pages each. Set down in writing somewhat later than the Tripitaka, this sutra is believed by Western scholars to reflect elaborations on the words of the Buddha by Indian Buddhists beginning about 100 B.C.E., and as late as Nagarjuna. Mahayana Buddhist scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Sutra records the actual words of the Buddha, but that the texts were removed from the human realm by gods and dragons for 400 years to allow time for the renunciative, monastic life to purify and prepare people for the messianic nature of its teachings. Over the centuries, abridged versions of this great sutra have appeared, from the extremely short One Letter Sutra (its text is the letter A) to versions of 8,000, 18,000, 20,000, and 25,000 lines. In its original form, called the “Great Mother,” it purports to be a complete record of Shakyamuni’s audience on Vulture Peak Mountain, in which the Buddha states that he is only the latest of a line of avataric predecessors, and constantly asserts that Prajnaparamita — the female embodiment of the Sutra — produced all the Buddhas and is their mother and instructor. It also gives us the classic Buddhist mantra, Om mani padme hum, and predicts the coming of Maitreya (Skt. “Loving One”), the Buddha-to-be who waits to emanate at some time in the future to help any who have not yet realized enlightenment. Besides the sutras, the Mahayana canon contains many shastras, treatises that interpret and comment on the philosophical statements contained in the sutras.
Most Buddhist sects are based on one or another sutra. For example, followers of the Japanese sect of Nichiren Buddhism chant their faith in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law, or Lotus Sutra, a key sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese school of T’ien-t’ai (“School of the Celestial Platform”) also bases its doctrine on the Lotus Sutra.
One of the most often quoted scriptures is a small section of the Prajnaparamita known popularly as the Diamond Sutra, a name that implies the penetration of the most impenetrable wisdom. Translated into Chinese in the year 401, the Diamond Sutra later became the first book ever printed (in 868), more than five centuries before the Gutenberg Bible.
Of all the Buddhist texts, the most popular in Europe and America, where it has sold millions of copies, does not directly present the teachings of the Buddha. Known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a title coined by the American scholar who first translated it into English in 1927, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, the book’s Tibetan name is the Bardo Thodol Chenmo (“the Great Liberation through Hearing in the Between”). It was originally committed to writing in the time of the 8th century Buddhist master Padmasambhava, probably either written or collated by him. Subsequently hidden in caves, it was revealed in the 14th century by the Tibetan Rigzin Karma Lingpa, himself believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava. The word “bardo” means, roughly, “suspended between,” and refers to various states of consciousness experienced between death and rebirth. The Bardo Thodol, then, is nothing less than a guidebook to help dying and just-departed souls find their way through the potentially tortuous and confusing stages of the afterlife — or, more properly, between-lives. Reportedly based on the accounts of lamas who had total recall of their own between-life experiences, the text is designed to be studied during one’s life and to be read over the dying or newly dead. (Alongside Catholicism, with its last rites and funeral masses, Buddhism is the only other contemporary religion that features services explicitly designed to help the souls of the dead make the transition from the bodily state.)
The Bardo Thodol gives very specific, detailed accounts of the journey from death to rebirth, dividing it into three distinct stages: The Chikhai, Chonyid, and Sidpa Bardos. Remarkable correlations between the first stage described in the text and modern accounts of near-death experiences have been catalogued in Raymond Moody’s popular book, Life After Life.