Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Beyond the Main Buddhist Collections (guide)

The Buddha and royal Indo-Scythian disciples, Gandhara (

This FIELD GUIDE is a quick glance through the pages of the Pali Text Society's publications catalog. It is enough to convince anyone that there is much more to classical Pali literature than the Tipitaka.

Intermingled with the familiar Sections (Nikayas), Monastic Disciplinary Code (Vinaya texts), and the "Higher Doctrine" or "Ultimate Teachings" (Abhidharma) are scores of titles with long, scarcely-pronounceable Pali names.

Although many Western students of Buddhism are likely to be unacquainted with these works (indeed, most have never been translated into English), these books have for centuries played a crucial role in the development of Buddhist thought and practice across Asia and, ultimately, the West. In fact, in some countries they are as deeply treasured as the sutras themselves.

But what are these ancient books, and what relevance do they have to the western student of Buddhism in the 21st century? Although complete answers to these questions lie well beyond the range of my abilities, I hope that this short document will provide enough of a road map to help orient the interested student as he or she sets out to explore this vast corpus of important Buddhist literature.

The origins of the post-canonical texts
Ven. Hotei, also known as Budai, sitting in a therapist's chair (Muffett68/
The Ti-pitaka (Pali canon) assumed its final form at the Third Buddhist Council (circa 250 BCE) and was first committed to writing sometime in the 1st cent. BCE. Shortly thereafter Buddhist scholar-monastics in Sri Lanka and southern India began to amass a body of secondary literature:
  • commentaries on the Tipitaka itself
  • historical chronicles
  • textbooks
  • Pali grammars
  • articles by learned scholars of the past
  • and more.
Most of these texts were written in Sinhala (Sinhalese), the language of Sri Lanka, a large island off the southern tip of India. But because Pali -- not Sinhala -- was the common language (lingua franca) of Theravada Buddhism, the "Teaching of the Enlightened Elders," the direct disciples of the Buddha, few Buddhist scholars outside of Sri Lanka could study them.

It was not until the 5th cent. CE, when the Indian monastic commentator Ven. Buddhaghosa began the laborious task of collating the ancient Sinhala commentaries and translating them into Pali, that these books first became accessible to non-Sinhala speakers around the Buddhist world.

These commentaries (Atthakatha) offer meticulously detailed explanations and analyzes -- phrase-by-phrase and word-by-word -- of the corresponding passages in the Tipitaka.
After Buddhaghosa the catalog of post-canonical Pali literature continued to grow with the addition of commentaries by both Buddhadatta (5th cent.) and Dhammapala (6th cent.), and sub-commentaries (Tika) by Dhammapala on several of Buddhaghosa's commentaries. During this time, and in the centuries that followed, other writers prepared Pali translations of additional early Sinhala texts.
These ranged from poetic hymns in celebration of the Buddha, to chronicles tracing the first millennium of Buddhist history, to detailed Abhidhamma textbooks. Most of the major post-canonical works, including the sub-commentaries, were completed by the 12th century.

Why these texts matter
The most famous Buddhist commentary of all
Post-canonical Pali literature supplements the Tipitaka in several important ways. First, the chronicles and commentaries provide a vital thread of temporal continuity that links us, via the persons and historical events of the intervening centuries, to the Tipitaka's world of ancient India.

A Tipitaka without this accompanying historical thread would forever be an isolated anachronism to us, its message lost in clouds of myth and fable, its pages left to gather dust in museum display cases alongside ancient Egyptian mummies. These texts remind us that the Dharma (Pali, Dhamma) is not an artifact but a practice, and that we belong to a long line of seekers who have endeavored, through patient practice, to keep these teachings alive and producing enlightened beings on this earth.
Second, almost everything we know today about the early years of Buddhism comes to us from these post-canonical books. Though the archeological evidence from that era is scant and the Tipitaka itself contains only a handful of passages describing events that followed the Buddha's  final nirvana (e.g., DN 16, MN 108, and Vinaya Cula-vagga XI and XII) the commentaries and chronicles contain a wealth of historical information with which we are able to partially reconstruct the early history of Buddhism. More

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