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Buddha’s Words: In Search of a Buddhist ‘Bible’

June 6, 2012

The Samyutta Nikaya

The Majjhima Nikaya

The Digha Nikaya

The Anguttara Nikaya

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When I first began to study Buddhism, I looked for a Buddhist “bible.”  That is, what are the Buddhist scriptures and what do they say?  I was dismayed to realize that the Buddhist scriptures are far more massive than their monotheistic counterparts.  I have variously heard the Pali canon described as 57 volumes (from the Pali Text Society), taking up 5-linear feet of shelf space, or 11 times the size of the Christian Bible (~775,000 words).

Gah…

Moreover, not all of it has been translated.  There are also almost as many versions as their are countries that practice Buddhism.  However, it seemed the most accessible one was the Pali Canon, or Tripitaka, preserved by the Theravada school in Sri Lanka.  The Pali Canon has been not only largely translated, but also digitized and made available online via sites such as Buddhanet, Access to Insight, and others.  On Access to Insight, many of the suttas (scriptures) are searchable by topic and multiple translations are offered for comparison.  That being said, it’s contents are still bewildering, with little discernible order for the newly initiated.

I started with a pocket version the Dhammapada, which is a collection of short verses on various topics, translated by Thomas Byrom and published by Shambhala Publications.  It is not, perhaps, the best translation, but it got the message across and encouraged me to continue studying.  But…study what?  Where do I even begin?

In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Bhikkhu Bodhi has published In the Buddha’s Words precisely to address this question.  This 487-page monster actually condenses the essential teachings of the Buddha and arranges them in an manner conducive to gradual study.  It begins by explaining it’s purpose and then provides a short overview of the Tripitaka and the contents of this book.  I shall summarize them here as a kind of Buddhist Scripture 101, which may be helpful for anyone who, like me, was looking for the Buddhist “bible.”

First, what is the Tripitaka?  Loosely translated it means “three baskets” or three collections of works.  These are:

  1. The Vinaya Pitaka or Compilation of Discipline containing the rules of the monastic sangha (community).
  2. The Sutta Pitaka or Compilation of Discourses containing the collected words of Buddha in five Nikayas or collections.
  3. The Abhidhamma Pitaka or Compilation of Philosophy containing commentary on the suttas in seven treatises.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has dedicated a large portion of his life to the Sutta Pitaka and has either translated or edited the English translations of his teachers into forms suitable for publication.  The Sutta Pitaka is made up of five Nikayas, though the last is often left out of the list and is the least translated.  They are:

  1. The Digha Nikaya or Collection of Long Discourse, which contains many teachings suitable for lay audiences and the propagation of Buddhism (though not exclusively).
  2. The Majjhima Nikaya or Collection of Middle Length Discourses, which contains many teachings suitable for serious practitioners and monastics (though not exclusively).
  3. The Samyutta Nikaya or Collection of Connected Discourses, which are presented in verse and prose and often cover specific topics (though not exclusively).
  4. The Anguttara Nikaya or Collection of Numerical Discourses, which were arranged by the number of components of each concept for easy reference (Chapter of Ones, Chapter of Twos, etc.).
  5. The Khuddaka Nikaya or the Minor Collection which is, ironically, now the largest of the Nikayas, contains various miscellaneous teachings (some of which may be later additions) including many in verse or poem form such as the Dhammapada, Theragatha, Therigatha, and Itivuttaka.

For this book, In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi has pulled from all of these sources and arranged them according to his own organizing scheme:

  1. Welfare and happiness in the present life.
  2. Welfare and happiness in future lives.
  3. The Ultimate Good: Nibbana (Nirvana).

This tripartite scheme is presented in ten chapters, each with an introduction.  Chapters 1 to 3 set the stage by describing the nature “of the human condition,” “the Buddha’s descent into this world,” and “the special features” of his teachings.  Chapter 4 deals with the first of the three themes listed above and contains a wealth of advice for daily living.  The contemporary applicability of this advice remains to be seen.  Chapter 5 covers the second theme and discusses the nature of karma and the “bases of merit:” generosity, morality, and meditation.  Chapter 6, however, attempts to lay bare that no matter how good we have it in this life, suffering is still inevitable unless we cultivate true enlightenment – the subject of the remaining chapters.  The last Chapters 7-10 provide “a general overview of the path to liberation,” “taming the mind,” “the content of insight,” and finally, stages of realization: stream-entry, non-returner, and arahantship.

Despite the thoroughness of the content, it must be understood that the Sutta Pitaka is not the whole of the Pali Canon and the Pali Canon is not the whole of Buddhist scripture.   “Complete” canons have also been preserved in China, Tibet, and other Asian nations.  They often include scriptures or sutras (suttas) not recognized by the Theravandan tradition as the legitimate teaching of the Buddha – these being the Mahayana and Vajrayana Sutras.  (Naturally, the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools object tot his characterization.)  Various translation projects are underway.  While these Tibetan and Chinese texts can often be traced back to Indian ancestors (some of which survive), much of the original work was lost during the Muslim invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  In addition, language is contextual, and I know of instances in the Chinese sutras where words were simply changed because no suitable Chinese analog existed.  This affects meaning.  Despite these difficulties, we find great compatibility between the various canons, especially on points of doctrine.  The Tibetan and Chinese canons, after all, include the Pali Canon (in their own translation) and then add the Mahayana and Vajrayana sutras on top.  Most east Asian canons (Japan, Korea, etc.) are based on the Chinese, while central Asian scriptures (Tibet, Mongolia, etc.) are based on the Tibetan, and south Asian works adhere closely (if not identically) to the Pali Canon.  One must also understand that all these canons are written in either dead or ancient languages.  A modern-day Chinese speaker could no better read the original Chinese canon than a modern-day English speaker could read the original Beowulf.   This problem is not unique to Buddhist scripture by any means.

If you’re looking for a place to start with Buddhist scripture, In the Buddha’s Words seems to be a good one.  (It was published three years after my own search began.)  The Dhammapada is also a handy little introduction and will lead to an understanding of the basic content and flavor of the teaching without too many lists, technical jargon, or complex concepts to remember (undoubtedly its purpose).  I will publish more on the basic content of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book as the summer wears on.  I hope you will join me.

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