History and Sources

What were the earliest Buddhist sacred texts?

For several centuries the Buddhist community preserved the treasure of the Buddha’s teachings orally. Monks and devout laypeople memorized increasingly formulaic versions of what the Buddha had said and the way he had behaved. As the community of monks became more stable, settling for longer periods in fixed residences, the practice of communal recitation of the sacred words became the primary mechanism for maintaining the teachings intact. Any error in recitation could be corrected immediately to ensure uniformity and, it was believed, perfect accuracy. Local communities recited the text in their own vernaculars, since no one sacred language had been decreed.

Earliest texts were organized into three major groupings or “baskets” (pitaka). One, called the Vinaya Pitaka, contained all the rules of monastic discipline. Another gathered the Buddha’s speeches (the Sutra Pitaka), and a third, much later, text included seven lengthy theoretical interpretations of the Buddha’s teaching (the Abhidharma Pitaka). At a gathering called the Third Council in 250 B.C.E., members agreed on the first official formulation of all three baskets as a single scripture called the Tripitaka in a northeastern Indian language called Pali. Monks continued to keep the texts alive almost exclusively through memory for perhaps another century or so. Finally, the sacred texts were systematically committed to writing and became the basis of what is now known as the Pali Canon.


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