The Buddhist Scriptures

Nearly all religions have some kind of holy writings or Bible. What is the Buddhist holy book?

The sacred book of Buddhism is called the Tipitaka. It is written in an ancient Indian language called Pali which is very close to the language that the Buddha himself spoke. The Tripitaka is a very large book. The English translation of it takes up nearly forty volumes.

What does the name Tipitaka mean?

It is made up of two words, ti means ‘three’ and pitaka means ‘baskets’. The first part of the name refers to the fact that the Buddhist scriptures consist of three sections. The first section, called the Sutta Pitaka, contains all the Buddha’s discourses as well as some by his enlightened disciples. The type of material in the Sutta Pitaka is very diverse which allows it to communicate the truths that the Buddha taught to all different types of people. Many of the Buddha’s discourses are in the form of sermons while others are in the form of dialogues. Other parts like the Dhammapada present the Buddha’s teachings through the medium of poetry. The Jatakas, to take another example, consist of delightful stories in which the main characters are often animals. The second section of the Tipitaka is called the Vinaya Pitaka. This contains the rules for monks and nuns, advice on monastic administration and procedure and the early history of the monastic order. The last section is called the Abhidhamma Pitaka. This is a complex and sophisticated attempt to analyse and classify all the constituents that make up the individual. Although the Abhidhamma is somewhat later than the first two sections of the Tipitaka it contains nothing that contradicts them.

Now for the word pitaka. In ancient India construction workers used to move building materials from one place to another by means of a relay of baskets. They would put the baskets on their heads, walk some distance to the next worker, pass it to him, and he would repeat the process. Writing was known in the Buddha’s time but as a medium it was considered less reliable than human memory. A book could rot in the monsoon damp or be eaten by white ants but a person’s memory could last as long as they lived. Consequently, monks and nuns committed all the Buddha’s teachings to memory and passed it on to each other just as construction workers passed earth and bricks to each other in baskets. This is why the three sections of the Buddhist scriptures are called baskets. After being preserved in this manner for several hundred years the Tipitaka was finally written down in about 100 B.C. in Sri Lanka.

If the scriptures were preserved in memory for so long they must be very unreliable. Much of the Buddha’s teachings could have been lost or changed?

The preservation of the scriptures was a joint effort by the community of monks and nuns. They would meet together at regular intervals and chant parts or all of the Tipitaka. This made it virtually impossible for anything to be added or changed. Think of it like this. If a group of a hundred people know a song by heart and while they are all singing it one gets a verse wrong or tries to insert a new verse, what will happen? The sheer number of those who know the song correctly will prevent the odd one making any changes. It is also important to remember that in those days there were no T.V.’s, newspapers or advertising to distract and clutter the mind which together with the fact that monks and nuns meditated, meant that they had extremely good memories. Even today, long after books have come into use, there are still monks who can recite the whole Tipitaka by heart. Mengong Sayadaw of Burma is able to do this and he is mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as having the world’s best memory.

How important are the scriptures to Buddhists?

Buddhists do not consider the Tipitaka to be a divine, infallible revelation from a god, every word of which we must believe. Rather, it is a record of the teachings of a great man that offers explanations, advice, guidance and encouragement and which we should read thoughtfully and respectfully. Our aim should be to understand what the Tipitaka teaches, not just believe it and thus what the Buddha says should always be checked against our experience.

Someone told me that you should never put a book of the scriptures on the floor or under your arm, but that it should always be placed in a high place. Is this true?

Until recently in Buddhist countries as in medieval Europe, books were rare and valuable objects. Therefore the scriptures were always treated with great respect and some of the customs you have mentioned are examples of this. However, while customs and traditional practices are alright, most people today would agree that the best way to respect the Buddhist scriptures would be to practice the teachings they contain.

I find it difficult to read the Buddhist scriptures. They seem to be long, repetitious and boring.

When we pick up a religious scripture we expect to read words of exaltations, joy or praise that will uplift and inspire us. Consequently, someone reading the Buddhist scriptures is likely to be a bit disappointed. While some of the Buddha’s discourses contain considerable charm and beauty most resemble philosophical thesis with definitions of terms, carefully reasoned arguments, detailed advice on conduct or meditation and precisely stated truths. They are meant to appeal to the intellect, not the emotions. When we stop comparing the Buddhist scriptures to those of other religions we will see that they have their own kind of beauty – the beauty of clarity, of depth and of wisdom.